So Your Book Is Published – Now What? Ten Steps in The First Year

The paperback for TRAFFICKED is coming out in February, 2013 and I’m so very grateful. Nowadays, not every book makes it to the paperback stage. If your sales aren’t good enough in the hardback, your book just dies a sad little death, without even an obituary, leaving the writer bereft and alone in her grief.

Thank goodness this isn’t happening to TRAFFICKED. My baby is living on, has been given a second life, in fact, and many more people will have the opportunity to read it in paperback. I know how lucky I am. It’s not a vampire or an angel book. It’s not about an American teenager being bullied. It’s a book about an illegal immigrant who comes to America to find a better life but is forced to be a modern-day slave. It’s tough for the stories of immigrants to be heard. The fact that Penguin was willing to take a chance on Trafficked is a small miracle.

TRAFFICKED has received some attention from the publishing world, fortunately, and it did get wonderful reviews in all the major trades, but bringing it to the attention of the wider public has required a ton of work. My publisher did what it could for TRAFFICKED, especially since it was a book for which huge sales were unlikely, but mostly it has required a lot of my own sweat and tears.

What did I do? Here’s a partial list.

1. In December, I hired a publicist who worked alongside my new publicist at Penguin to get a blog tour going, and they did a wonderful job. I wrote at least twenty different guest blog posts for different blogs. This took weeks of hard work, but it got some buzz going before the pub date.

2. I contacted every bookstore in my area and along the West Coast to schedule a book tour. The owners of the bookstores were surprisingly receptive and everyone I contacted agreed to a reading and signing.

3.  I had my book launch party at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn. About fifty people showed up and the bookstore sold 37 copies of TRAFFICKED that night. I had been hoping for a bigger number, but this is apparently a good number for a debut novel at any bookstore.

4. Shortly afterward, I went on my West Coast Book Tour and did events in Seattle, WA, (Secret Garden Books and Chief Sealth High School) Edmonds, WA, (Edmonds Bookshop) Portland, OR, (A Children’s Place Bookstore) and Vancouver, BC (Blackberry Books). Along the West Coast, I have a lot of friends and family and I made sure they were coming. I told them I needed them. I emailed and Facebooked everyone a few times, so they wouldn’t forget. I have pretty amazing people in my life and they all showed up at all the events, filling the bookstores, buying books.

5. After this, I didn’t stop. I continued to arrange events, do panels, teach at writing conferences, go to festivals. Most of these opportunities came about because I did something to make it happen. I sent an email or made a phone call. Very few events came to me unsolicited. In one case, I begged Penguin to send me to ALA, arguing about how educators love Trafficked, and they agreed, even though it wasn’t a priority book for them, and gave me a badge. I paid for my own way and then, when I was there, I talked to librarian after librarian. One of those librarians read my book, loved it, and I became the Madison Reads Author of 2012, for Madison High School, in Portland, OR, where she is the librarian.

6. I used social media, tweeting frequently. As a result, I connected with one of the festival organizers of Wordfest in Calgary. I didn’t even know about Wordfest at that point, but I think she said something funny and I liked her, so we tweeted back and forth. To my surprise, she read the book and I was invited to Wordfest in Calgary. Penguin couldn’t pay for my flight, but the festival did pay per event and I used that to cover my flight. I would not have gone to Calgary otherwise, and I met with a lot of great kids there, and now I hope to go again. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been on Twitter.

7. I emailed every school in Westchester, where I currently live, and some schools in Brooklyn, where I used to live and where I will soon live again. I went to every library I passed. As a result, I’ve done two school visits in Westchester, taught at a writing retreat for one of those schools, and I’ve been invited to teach at a Westchester writing conference for teens in March. In Brooklyn, the Brooklyn library system has a teen program and they’ve interviewed me for their book club. When I move back to Brooklyn, I’ll send out emails to all the Brooklyn schools.

8. Every time I go on a vacation, I contact libraries and schools in the area. When I was skiing in Park City, Utah, last year, I contacted the high schools there. One of the schools brought me in to talk to the kids. I talked to the local bookstores and once they heard about the school visit, they said they’d order my book right away. When I was in Bellingham, WA, I did an event at the Barnes & Noble.

9. I’ve contacted every magazine, newspaper and online magazine in my area. I’ve done a radio interview for a Westchester radio station as a direct result of a Westchester newspaper article, which I solicited, by telling them about TRAFFICKED. Every time I do an event in an area, I let the newspapers know. I’ve contacted many anti-trafficking organizations to let them know about TRAFFICKED, and tell them that I’m giving twenty-percent of my royalties to anti-trafficking nonprofits. One big anti-trafficking nonprofit, called Love 146, has tweeted about the book and told people to read it. I want this book to make a difference and increase awareness about human trafficking, but people need to know about it. Next week, I’m going to Texas where a school district is doing a district-wide book club for Trafficked. I don’t know how they heard about the book, but I’m glad. Today, I’m contacting the local newspaper there. Maybe they’ll interview me when I get there, you never know.

10. Not a single week has gone by when I didn’t contact someone about the book, and I’ve had at least one event a month, sometimes two or three. When people bring me to events or do anything to help the book, I thank them. Gratitude is important. Giving back is important. This week I went to a juvenile detention center to talk to the kids about writing and about human trafficking. When one of the kids said, “Those girls want it,” I saw how much work there was still to be done. And I’m going to keep doing it. And somewhere along the way, hopefully soon, I’ll finish my next book.

(If you’d like to hear some of my lessons/mistakes from the first year, I recently did a guest blog post on my Top Ten Lessons for A Life Bound By Books.)

A Writing Retreat for Every High School?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a great writing teacher, how one inspires kids to write, and how you get the very best out of them. I believe all kids, all people, in fact, have the ability to write something true, evocative and powerful. But how do you reach that point in your writing? How do you help kids get there?

In the last several months, I’ve visited a lot of schools talking about writing and “Trafficked.” I’ve taught several writing workshops and I’ve met many writing/language arts teachers, and at every school, I’ve learned something from a great librarian or teacher. Today I want to talk to you about one very special experience I had recently, right before Hurricane Sandy, when I was brought in to teach at a teen writing retreat for Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York.

The real star of the workshop was an amazing English teacher and poet named Diane Sarna who began the writing retreat for the kids several years ago and has organized it and taught at it every year since. She doesn’t get paid extra for this, but gets paid back in the love she receives from these students. The trust she’s built up with them is what brings forth the incredible results. These kids can really write.

From the first day she brought me in, I knew I’d come into something magical. In her high school classroom, innovative writing experiments line the walls. On a clothesline, t-shirts were pinned up with poetry written on them. It was one of the most creative classrooms I’d ever seen. She asked me to come back and meet with some students because she explained the students get to pick the writer they want to teach them at the retreat. I was awed: I had found a school and a teacher that trusted its students to make important decisions. Go here to check out Diane Sarna’s website.

So, I met with four kids who asked me smart, sensitive questions about teaching and writing. Then they all left and I assumed Diane would talk with them later and let me know what they’d decided. Instead, she offered me the job on the spot. I asked her how she knew and she said they’d planned a secret gesture. If the kids liked me, they would do this gesture as they were leaving. If it wasn’t unanimous, they’d talk, but I guess they’d all touched their noses and I was good to go.

The retreat goes from Friday to Sunday and the kids stay out a rustic cabin setting about twenty minutes from their school, which was originally the country home for the vaudeville star, Major Bowes. The location was inspirational in its own right.

Any kid at the high school can apply to go and it’s first come, first served. I believe it costs the kids around 30 each to pay for food and accommodation. The writer is paid for with a grant. They accept 30 kids and it fills up on the first day. Most of the kids don’t know each other and they’re all different ages, but Diane makes it work.

They leave after school on Friday and that night is all about getting to know one another, writing together, sitting around a fire and playing music. By the time I arrived on Saturday, the kids were comfortable with each other. Right from the first writing experiment I did with them, several kids were willing to share.

We went for a walk in the woods and around the grounds to find an object to write about. I brought in scents and we wrote about the memories they evoked. The students listened to clips from This American Life and we talked about voice and wrote some pieces in the voices of people we knew. We drank copious amounts of hot chocolate with marshmallows and had amazing food. We wrote and shared some more. Diane was a solid presence in the room, always laughing with them, and being firm when she needed to be. Two other teachers volunteered their time too, cooking the meals and staying with the kids at night to supervise them. They all willingly gave up their weekend to create this experience for these kids, an experience I’m sure will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

That night, after dinner, the teachers transformed the dining room into this magical space where the lights were turned off and candles were lined up around the room and on all the tables.

The kids then went around the circle, one by one, reading poetry or creative non-fiction and singing songs they wrote, while playing the guitar. I counted four guitars. Every time someone finished reading, everyone snapped their fingers in appreciation. I’ve never experienced snapping before in this setting. It was subtle and honoring.

Finally, I said goodnight and drove home, thinking about these kids and how this school and this teacher were making a huge difference. I’m sure the kids stayed up late, playing music and sharing their work. The next morning, they ate pancakes and headed home. I don’t know how you could leave that retreat without feeling inspired and having a greater sense of confidence about who you are as a writer and as a person. And, man, if we can do that for teens, it can make all the difference in the world.

I hope reading about this might inspire some other teachers or librarians at high schools to think about starting their own writing retreat. You give up a weekend, but you change everything about your dynamic with the students and you give these kids an opportunity to believe in their writing and believe in themselves.


5 Tricks to Overcome Your Writing Fear and Start Writing Like a Maniac

Do you feel afraid when you sit down to write? Is your heart beating faster? Do you feel anxious that you won’t write beautifully or maybe you won’t even make sense? Well, good. It means you care. Now, to turn that anxiety into magic, follow these steps:

1. Set a standard time to write every day. Your brain will start to get ready before you sit down and you’ll be more creative. Also, if you allow other things to be scheduled during your writing time, you’ll reach the end of the day and you won’t have done it. Some people write in bursts and then take long breaks, but most of the successful writers I know have a schedule.

2. Get your body moving before your writing time. Either walk, run or swim, and do it alone. While you are moving, start thinking about what you’ll be writing. Get in the zone before you actually sit down.

3. Do something you would never ordinarily do. Shake things up. Push yourself out of your safety zone in life. If you’d never normally walk up to a strange guy and ask him out, do it now. Just for the sake of your writing. Jump out of a plane. Go white water rafting. Send a letter to a writer you admire. Bring a bouquet of flowers to your neighbor with the sick kid. Drive a new way to work. Get lost. Start dancing in the middle of the sidewalk. And while you’re doing those things, stay fully present. Observe your emotions. Smell, touch, feel, hear, taste. Write about it. Apply it to your work in progress.

4. When you’re not writing, research, but not online or from books. Do it in person. I discovered the magic of this when I went up to a cop one day and asked to see the backseat of his car. I felt nervous, really nervous. Cops have always been scary to me. But he was very gracious and let me check it out. Did you know the backseats of police cars aren’t backseats? They’re more like plastic benches. The floor has a drain so that if someone’s puking or bleeding, they can hose it off. Gross, right? Plus, there was a reflector vest and the cop had thrown a Jamba Juice cup back there. Perfect details. I was way more inspired than if I’d gone on the Internet.

5. Read a book on writing. Even now, I love picking up one of my favorites when I’m stuck. I love On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost, and The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.

To read more about my own journey through writing fear, check out my recent guest blog post on Teen Librarian’s Toolbox about fear and my inspiration behind TRAFFICKED.

Can You Keep a Secret? If You Can, It’ll Help Your Writing.

Last year, a friend was getting a divorce and I knew about it for quite a while before it became public. It was a hard secret to keep because our other friends wondered why her behavior was changing and why she wasn’t showing up for things. I watched how she was changing and I watched her children, who were oblivious to what was happening, but clearly acting out due to the stress that surrounded them. It was awful and fascinating, and I really wanted to tell people, and yet, I kept the secret.

In one of his books on writing, I can’t remember which, John Gardner wrote that all writers are gossips and I’ve thought of that often because since I’ve become a fiction writer, I’m usually a great secret keeper despite that urge. Why? It’s not that I don’t feel the burn. I still feel that eager desire to share a real, juicy story because I know it will create some kind of extraordinary reaction. At my core, I’m a storyteller. You get an adrenalin rush when you share something awful. I have to admit that I do feel that burn, still, after so much time of secret keeping. But I’ve come to realize that this burn is part of the creative process; in fact, it’s essential to the creative process.

When I get a new idea for a book or a character, I feel that same burn. I want to tell someone right away. Oh glorious day, I have an idea! It’s a beautiful, perfect idea. However, I hold it inside because it is exactly this burn that makes me want to write and gives me that passion and makes my fingers fly across the keyboard.

Other people’s secrets may show up in my fiction, but they are heavily disguised, and really, what shows up is the knowledge I’ve gained about the human experience by keeping that secret inside. Once you’re privy to a secret, you have a new insight into people around you and you can watch the human interactions with a whole new level of knowledge. Also, once you become known as a secret keeper, more people share their secrets with you and this both unburdens them and also makes you a more trustworthy and graceful person.

Go ahead. Try it. Hold secrets inside and use that energy in your fiction or non-fiction. You’ll be shocked how well it works. Your writing will resonate more with others and you’ll write faster than you’ve ever written before.