Ava. How has reaching that milestone changed you as a writer?#1: You've just released your first novel,
Thanks for having me here today, Carl!
Publishing my first novel, living the creative process all the way through one complete cycle, has increased the speed of my writing. A first novel has so much attached to it—hopes, emotions, learning curves—which drop out of the picture as soon as that novel is published.
Writing the second novel, ‘Bonner,’ is coming along smoothly, and is happening about eight times faster than it took me to write ‘Ava.’ I am able to focus on the work in a way that allows for clarity and speed. The self-doubt, the “Can I really accomplish this?” fear is gone.
The fact that my second novel is a sequel is helpful, too.
The plot structure and key features for ‘Bonner’ were decided as I wrote ‘Ava.’ I would understand how a piece fit, would stop to write a chapter of ‘Bonner’ or another Priya novel, while I was writing ‘Ava.’ I decided it was best to capture as much of the mood, language, and feel of each Priya character as I could at the very moment she presented herself to me.
Interestingly enough, I’m finding that my blog posts are coming out faster, too. Something I do that has helped me keep my blog moving along at a steady pace is to capture an idea right when I have it, even if it’s only one line. I store each idea in its own file and, by now, have dozens of threads to choose from when I sit down to blog.
But, most of all, publishing a first novel brought the readers into focus in a way I hadn’t expected before ‘Ava’ landed on the e-shelves.
I know every word, every minute, every emotion that went into the pages of ‘Ava.’ Which of those words, minutes, and emotions were the strongest for the reader? I know precisely which part brought me to tears, or put hope in my heart, or made me roll my eyes in annoyance with my own character.
Did the readers experience those same reactions? What were their favorite parts? Did they read any chapters more than once? What surprised them? Were the characters clearly defined? What about the settings? How was the dialogue?
I want that knowledge from the readers. I crave that knowledge. It’s powerful. Life-changing.
#2: Ava is set in Washington, D.C., as opposed to a fictional location. How difficult was that to pull off?
Washington, D.C., is a great setting for a fictional novel. I’m partial, obviously. There are so many beautiful buildings and parks, so many different languages and cultures, so many layers of history, both discovered and undiscovered, that make this the ideal setting for a series about love, politics, and murder.
I wasn’t certain about the proper protocol for using the name of a real business in a fictional novel, but I did want to give a nod to some of my favorite places. For example, growing up, our family could often be found at a restaurant called Pines of Rome. In the book, I renamed it The Pine. I don’t think the owner, Marco, would have minded if I used the real name, but I wasn’t certain of the legalities.
Come to think of it—right at this moment, ironically—I do mention Starbucks by name on several different occasions. Hmm. What was I saying earlier about a first novel’s learning curve?
Down the road, I plan to put a Priya “map” on my website. I need to think more about its structure, but it could be something fun for readers to download if they’re traveling to Washington, D.C. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about ways to integrate technology and social media with the Priyas, and have plans to create a Priya app sometime in the next year.
#3: Ava is the first novel in your Priya series. How detailed are your plans for the remaining novels in this series?
I have planned twenty-six novels for the Priya series, A-Z. I was in the process of writing the first draft of my first novel, the one I hadn’t yet named Ava, when I realized I was writing a series. It felt natural. It was right for these characters, this story.
I put writing ‘Ava’ on hold and invested a year into planning characters, plots, and story arcs for all twenty-six Priyas.
At first, I was a little overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a series, especially such a long one. I didn’t know where to start. For a few days, I sat there facing a blank page, one I could fill in any way I desired, no-holds-barred. It didn’t take long for them to emerge, the Priyas, and I began to document who they were, what they did, their pasts, their futures. It was really intense. By the end of that year, they were as real to me as any of my closest friends.
‘Ava’ is the cornerstone of the series, and that’s a big job. In order to prepare readers for future Priya novels, this first novel had to accomplish the introduction of a wide range of characters and situations without losing the main focus, which is, of course, Ava Arden’s story.
After my year of planning had finished, and I returned to writing ‘Ava,’ I went back and forth on some of the early decisions I’d made about the pasts, futures, and/or fates of some of the characters. I’d come to love them, you see, and didn’t want them to go through what would be coming in future novels.
But life is imperfect. We each carry both beauty and pain inside us. And, like us, each Priya has her own truth, her own story. I realized it was important to step aside, figuratively speaking, and let each one tell it her way.
#4: Let's switch gears. In addition to being an author, you are a prolific blogger with a strong Twitter presence. You've achieved success in a very short time. How much was the past year planned and how much of it caught you off guard?
While I have plenty of business experience, I didn’t know anything about social media a year ago. Last spring, I heavily researched the internet to try and discern how important things like blogging and Twitter were to writers planning on self-publishing novels.
Guess what? They are both critically important.
I started my blog on June 19, 2011. A month later, I joined Twitter. It was love at first tweet. The concept of Twitter is remarkable, and it is stunningly effective as a business tool. For a self-published author, the two competing priorities become writing time and social media time.
My feeling is that they need to be pursued in equal measure for the first year. I don’t yet know about the second year, about how the time should be split between writing and social media, but you can bet I’ll blog on the topic in the future.
Anyone considering a blog should write out a marketing plan. Don’t get caught up in the mechanics or format. Keep it simple. Focus on putting your ideas on paper. Get some goals inked on the page. Each and every week, go back to that plan and add your new knowledge. Remember to update your goals, too.
Keep your posts contained to, say, three categories. Mine are self-publishing a novel, small business, and Washington, D.C. Readers want a certain level of consistency. Give it to them. You want them to come to your blog, to read your words, to get to know you and your writing just a little bit better.
The next key is to plan ahead for success. At some point, if your blog takes off, you’ll feel a little overwhelmed by the pressure of delivering quality material to all those readers. It’s just growing pains. Stick to your marketing plan, try to keep a few posts in reserve, always, and you will achieve your goals.
We’re all online, so there are no meet-and-greet barbeques or happy hours. Instead, we meet new people on Twitter, Facebook, Triberr, Goodreads, and other social media, usually by following a hashtag, topic, or mutual online friend.
When you meet someone you enjoy or admire, remember that your blog is a networking tool. Use it. Invite your new friends to your blog. Promote the accomplishments of fellow writers. Host excerpts and guest interviews. Become a stop on the blog tour circuit in your genre. Put good energy onto the pages of your blog. Be as consistent as possible. Offer people reasons to come back, and they will.
For me, I think the biggest surprise about blogging was when the surge hit, we’re talking tidal wave, and the volume of incoming communications shot to the sky. Up until that point, my entire focus had been on outgoing communications, the planning and sending of blog posts and tweets. Suddenly, overnight, the communications were flowing in from all directions.
When I realized what was happening, it was a heart-pounding hour of joyful panic.
They changed my world, those incoming communications. Responding to people who’ve reached out to me is critically important. I have to budget real time for it. I try to respond to everyone within the three days. It is difficult to manage with hundreds of incoming communications each day, and I am usually behind.
At some point, I’ll get my arms around it and come up with a more organized manner of making sure I don’t miss responding to anyone. It’s essential to me, professionally and personally.
What’s more, I both respect and appreciate a person who takes the time to reach out and say hello, or ask a question, or offer an invitation. It is vital to me to return that respect in equal measure. Finding the time to do it properly is the challenge.
#5: You are a strong advocate for self-publishing. Did you consider going the traditional route with Ava and would you consider it for future works?
About a year-and-a-half ago, I queried nine literary agents, all of whom declined, before deciding to self-publish my first novel. Amazon’s KDP was just beginning to rock the publishing world at the time, and the small business aspect of self-publishing proved far too tempting for me to pass it up in pursuit of an agent.
It was a great decision, and I’m relieved I had the guts to make it. I had too much to learn, and I don’t think an agent would have been excited at the realization that I didn’t know anything about publishing, blogging, social media, or book marketing.
My queries were the stuff of newbie legend. I look back at my submissions and laugh my own eager and painfully naïve letters and summaries. ‘Ava’ has been completely rewritten since then, happily, and the story of the Priyas has begun.
Now, if I do connect with an agent, I have much more in the way of knowledge, writing ability, and readership to bring to the partnership. Not to mention enthusiasm for social media. My first novel has been published. All the angst that goes along with completing a first manuscript has already been worked through and would not need to be addressed, answered, or managed by an agent.
Plus, two minds are better than one. There are many places to take a book, a series, and a brand these days. Having a collaborative and creative partner, a person who is vested in the success of his or her authors, and in pursuing those goals, would be very exciting.
#6: What software do you use to manage Twitter, and how much time do you put into it?
I’ve personally experienced the marketing power of Twitter, and I use it as the primary tool for promoting my blog. My management software of choice is HootSuite. I’m outgrowing it, though, and will need to add another layer of management software. It’s simply a question of which one, and when.
Part of my marketing plan involves the order in which I check my social media, and the amount of time I spend in each account. If I don’t cap the time, I’ll never get to the other items on my list. I have a kitchen timer, a digital one that sits on my writing desk. When the allotted time is up, I close that social media account and move on to the next.
When I’ve touched all of my social media accounts, I move onto the rest of my goals, all of which involve writing. I don’t use the kitchen timer to limit my writing time—life does that for me. Once I come up for air, however long or short that is, I go back to my social media list and repeat the same process.
The only exception to this routine is when a writing fever invades my mind and body. Everything else on the list gets put on hold until the fever has abated. Sometimes, I will be off social media for three or more days. Hard to believe, but true. It really underscores the importance of scheduled tweets.
On weekends, I’ll spend the bulk of one day just responding to communications on social media. It’s too important. But one problem is, when I do carve out a solid block of time for one social media, it creates a long stream of posts or tweets from me that show up in the main queue. I’m not trying to clog the queue, just to communicate with friends and colleagues.
#7: The use of hashtags on Twitter has been one of your consistent themes. Suppose you could only use one hashtag for the next year. What would it be?
Carl, this is a brutal question! Just one? You know I am the world’s biggest fan of that amazingly effective resource, the hashtag.
But if I had to pick only one, it would be #books. Books are the center point between writers, readers, agents, publishers, retailers, reviewers, printers, designers, and all the rest of the people in the industry who have a Twitter presence.
#Books. They’re the beginning and the end for us, aren’t they?
#8: In addition to undeniable talent, you have a tremendous work ethic. Where did that come from?
Thank you for the huge compliment, Carl. I love what doing I’m doing, which makes all this much more about learning than working. I am excited by the undiscovered possibilities in each new day. The enthusiasm and irresistible charm of the writers, and the real sense of collaboration inside the self-publishing community, come together to create a wonderful workplace. Environment always factors into success.
I learned the importance of creating both a business plan and a marketing plan through the lifecycle of my first business. If you don’t know how best to spend a bonus half-hour, if you haven’t already established your priorities and written them down, you will waste your time. Don’t do that—make a plan. Write it out. Study what others are doing. Reach out to them, connect, and ask questions.
If you’re not sure how to set goals going forward, then start by writing down the end goal and working your way backwards. Becoming a successful author, whether self, indie or traditionally published, has a path. There are certain core elements that must be in place.
Yes, I know, there are exceptions to every rule. So what? You can’t control whether or not you are the exception, and you won’t know until after it happens, anyway, so focus on the areas you can take charge of right now.
Be realistic. It might take a few tries to find out what works and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to take a risk and end up doing something wrong. It’s how we learn best. Your focus should be on figuring out your business plan (how many books, in which genres, you will write in the next five years) and your marketing plan (how, when, and to which readers you are going to sell those same books).
Make yourself a “15-minute list” and tape it to your wall or door. Keep it somewhere in sight. Fill it with those smaller tasks that always seem to get pushed to the side. When you are ready for a mental break from writing, turn to your list and pick something. It is amazing how fast you can clean up those lingering details when you simplify your work process.
Which brings me to the final point: efficiency. Self-published authors wear all hats, and the workload can be daunting at times. We can each only do so much in a day. Focus on improving your efficiency. Look for your weak areas—we all have them—and decide which ones might be helped by practice or a class, and which would be best to outsource, whenever possible.
Play time is really important, too, and my balance is currently out of alignment. It’s something I’m working on. Right now, it’s hard to find a break in the work action, and I need to keep reminding myself that all my hard work will not be lost if I venture out to dinner and a movie, or head to the Eastern Shore in search of crabs.
#9: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
All I know is there will be a book in my hand.
#10: Let's do something different. There has to be a question you were hoping I would or wouldn't ask. Ask yourself that question, then answer it.
Carl: Please name five songs on your iPod, and tell us why you chose to share them.
Ashley: I’m happy to!
‘Unwritten’ by Natasha Beddingfield. As a writer, I find this song so motivating. Those lyrics ease away frustration built up by a page that won’t fill with words, and guide my hands back to the keyboard.
‘Beast of Burden’ by The Rolling Stones. When I’m out at a party, and I hear the first few notes of this song begin to play, I know it’s going to be a good night. What is it about Mick Jagger?
‘Overture’ from Much Ado About Nothing, composed by Patrick Doyle. I believe he is the finest composer of our times. Listening to his music brings my dreams bubbling to the surface, lets me feel the possibilities of the road not yet traveled.
‘It’s My Life’ by Bon Jovi. Fear of failure holds us all back, now and again. This song comes blasting through and reminds me that sometimes you just have to go for it. And I do.
‘L’envie d’aimer’ from Les Dix Commandements, sung by Daniel Levi. The first time I heard this song, it stopped me in my tracks. The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful. They’re about love, about giving ourselves, our hearts to another.