5 Lessons Learned in 5 Years as an Indie Author

5 Lessons Learned in 5 Years as an Indie Author

It is hard to believe but I’ve been a published independent author for 5 years. In May 2012, after a tearful breakup with a publisher, I released THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY via Amazon and Createspace. Once headed down the indie author road and loving the creative freedom that came with it, I kept going in that direction.

So far, I’ve published 5 Detective Emilia Cruz novels and a collection of short stories with the same character, plus two suspense novels.

After 8 books, I’ve accumulated a few lessons learned:

In charge of the railroad

As an independent author, I’m totally in control of every aspect of writing and publishing. Not only do I set my own production schedule and quality control, but there’s branding, marketing, and outreach to consider.

I’m the only one running the railroad; stoking the engine fire, laying down track, taking tickets, and serving drinks (that I mixed myself) in the club car.

I wanted all of that creative control when I started and I still do. I revel in the complex writing life I’ve created and the skills I’ve acquired along the way. I know my characters well and love the process of creating multi-layered mystery plots. Learning Photoshop and WordPress allowed me to create the branded website and social media platforms I envisioned.

Doesn’t mean everything is easy.

But owning it all is exciting. I’m an entrepreneur.

Volume sells

We all chug along at our own pace but in today’s environment, the more you write, the easier it is to gain traction and be discoverable.

Amazon’s Author Central pages showcase an author’s books all in one place. Ebooks can lead a reader from one book to the next with links in the text.

This means that 1) the more books you have, the more likely your backlist is to sell, and 2) books in a series sell better than one-offs.

The question I get most often is “How many Emilia Cruz novels will you write?”

As many as I can.

You can always choose to fight

Now and then, the train slows and a cinder gets in my eye.

I find myself staring dully at lists full of Important Things to Do and not doing any of it. Or looking at meh sales stats because Everybody’s Books Sell Better Than Mine. I wish I made enough to hire a big-deal PR firm. I wish the LA Times and the Washington Post book reviewers had me on speeddial.

But would I trade this railroad for one led by a different conductor with competing clients and a controlling interest in my schedule and plot ideas? Who swallows up X% of my income?

Uh, no.

The author blues are best fought with action.

Stoke the engine. Write something new or query a blog for a quest post. The feeling will pass.

Everybody wants your money

There are hundreds of marketing and promotion options for increasing a book’s discoverability.

Over the past 5 years, I have been swayed by the siren call of Generic Marketing. Sucked in by great copy promising to get my book in front of Important Book People, land more reviews, be the Book of the Day, or feature my book in a list touted by a Publishing Insider Publication. None of it paid off.

At least all were legit. Sadly, there are an incredible number of scams out there preying on indie authors.

Finally, I got it. I should be laser-focused on the specific audience for the genre of my books.

The Detective Emilia Cruz novels are a police procedural series. My audience likes intense plotlines, visual settings, and authors like Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, and Louise Penny. Now my Mystery Ahead newsletter caters to those interests, I target that audience in Facebook and BookBub ads, look for guest posts on mystery-themed blogs, and so on. Much more effective and better value for my money.

I’m not alone

Being in a community of writers makes a huge difference in terms of confidence and productivity. Of particular note, the Mexico Writers Facebook group has been a inspirational source of support, fun, and creativity.

A monthly local critique group has sharpened my prose and increased my coffee consumption. A weekly memoir group brings me into contact with people from all walks of life and makes me think outside the mystery writing box.

I’m grateful to all the writers willing to share their time and attention with me, but the readers are the stars along my personal walk of fame. Now and then, a reader reaches out to tell me they enjoy the Emilia Cruz series or that they cooked the recipe and how well it turned out (there’s a recipe from a scene at the end of every book). Many email me after reading the monthly Mystery Ahead newsletter. A number of readers emailed gasps about the end of PACIFIC REAPER.

I’m not the only one on the train. A few more board every day to talk, laugh, and share stories.

Meet you in the club car.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Taxes and the Mystery Author: Winners and Losers

Taxes and the Mystery Author: Winners and Losers

In May I will celebrate my fifth year as a published author. For most of that time I was what the IRS would term a “hobbyist” but in April 2016 I embraced full-time authordom. Here were my priorities:

  • Publish AWAKENING MACBETH, the romantic thriller that I’d written years ago and serialized in 2015.
  • Polish this website, both to boost my author branding and to hone my online skills.
  • Position the Detective Emilia Cruz series as one that deserves shelf space alongside international mysteries like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole Series, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series.

The taxing reality

As I printed out receipts for the accountant, the year’s wins and losses stared me in the eye:

WINS

Signed an option contract with a major US network for a Detective Emilia Cruz television show. I don’t know if it will become reality; the operative word is “option.” The validation felt good for a couple of days but my glass remains half empty until something actually happens.

Appeared on NPR’s Alt.Latino show to talk about Latino mystery authors and the music soundtrack to the Detective Emilia Cruz series. It was an awesome experience and host Felix Contreras will forever be in my personal Hall of Fame for the opportunity.

Steadily rising newsletter readership. The Mystery Ahead newsletter gives readers solid information and entertainment, as well as letting them know about my books. Mystery readers and writers get protips, books reviews, interviews with authors and bloggers, and more.

The website, after an unwise flirtation with Genesis and a web design studio with sketchy notions of customer service, looks polished, professional, and informative. And I did it all myself. I’ve defined my signature color, created a classic logo, and add more content every week. The framework is Divi by Elegant Themes.

Rebranded the Detective Emilia Cruz series with new covers drenched in the sunny colors of Mexico. Graphic designer Matt Chase has been incredible to work with. The new covers helped refine branding across social media platforms and the new Mystery Ahead newsletter.

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Rebranded THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO with a new cover in keeping with the romantic suspense genre. It is the book’s third cover in five years and I love it.

The hidden Light of Mexico City

LOSSES

Advertising that didn’t show results. Only advertising that specifically hits targeted readers, like BookBub, is worth the money. No more generic “Book of the Day.”

Paying for a book cover for AWAKENING MACBETH through a 99Designs.com contest. The winning graphic artist either did not understand directions or for other reasons couldn’t deliver everything. I didn’t have the skill to replicate the cover design and wasn’t going to pay someone else to redo it. I ended up using a different cover consistent with the new cover of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

Awakening Macbeth romantic suspense by Carmen Amato

Big ticket literary reviews—my jury is out. Pricey literary reviews are useful for quotes and to fill that space on your Amazon sales page. But quality can be inconsistent. The Kirkus Review for KING PESO (Emilia Cruz #4) was worth it, with telling insights into character, action, and setting. On the other hand, the Kirkus Review of AWAKENING MACBETH was merely an inaccurate and dull synopsis.

As if the review wasn’t enough of a disappointment, the debut of AWAKENING MACBETH, which contains my most imaginative and inventive storyline, was a mess. The Kindle file became corrupted not once, but twice, and the launch fizzled. I lost interest and went back to work on the next Detective Emilia Cruz. I feel bad about that.

Marketing mindset

My mental transition from hobby writer to professional author is still a work in progress.

I’m fairly introverted and reaching out in marketing mode is hard. Don’t get me wrong. I love answering emails from readers, chatting on Facebook, trading pins on Pinterest, and receiving invitations. I’m an accomplished public speaker and a good guest who does her homework.

But I’m squeamish about making the first move. When it comes to asking for reviews, guest appearances, or signing up to give a talk . . . well, I’d much rather sit in Peet’s Coffee and write another scene or a blog post or something for the Mystery Ahead newsletter.

Speaking of, the next edition of Mystery Ahead comes out 19 March. Use the form at the bottom to subscribe and you’ll also get a free copy of the Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library.

Now go do your taxes.

 

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RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7, will be released on 6 June. It is undoubtedly the most complex mystery I've ever written. Emilia's whole future is on the line. Mystery writing: the big start Every Emilia Cruz novel has multiple plot lines. My...

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A lesson in personal growth

A lesson in personal growth

KING PESO, the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, was released on 18 August and the paperback will be released on 30 August. So far the reviews have been positive and sales encouraging.

But as I admitted to fellow thriller author Khaled Talib, I’m feeling very let down.

Long live the KING

Not by the quality of KING PESO or it’s reception by readers, of course. But after having been immersed in the story for months, and sprinting hard for the last three months in particular, typing “el fin” was oddly difficult.

Related: Read the first chapter of KING PESO

Suddenly, there is no more deep focus on the deliciously twisting details of the plot. No more hours at the computer with my favorite thesaurus, the one that weighs 10 lbs from the Eleftheroudakis bookstore in Athens, savoring new ways to describe Detective Emilia Cruz’s dilemmas. No more self-induced pressure to make sure all the dots connect.

King Peso novel draftNot much is left. The binder with the penultimate draft, the one I marked up with red pen. A dozen sticky notes on the wall above my desk with details I want to change or add. Scraps of paper clipped together representing inspiration while in the grocery store or nearly asleep or in the coffee shop. At least one large spiral notebook filled with scenes written longhand.

Notebook Carmen AmatoAs an aside, for years I’ve kept all of the spiral notebooks filled with story notes and at present count have 11. I taped peso coins to the front of some of them, a sort of fung shui for authors who write about Mexico. I keep thinking that when I’m astronomically famous, I’ll auction them off for charity. Dream big or go home, right?

But back to my point

Gretchen Rubin, author of THE HAPPINESS PROJECT and HAPPIER AT HOME, lists this as the first “Splendid Truths:”

To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

I read this a few years ago and wow, did it resonate. If I’m not in an atmosphere of growth, I feel let down. Stagnant.

Growth for me is writing. Stretching my mental boundaries. Juggling plot as well as descriptions and characters. Loving the “flow” when things come together and hey, where the heck did the day go?

And so . . .

While I hate endings, beginnings are great. Two more projects lie ahead: the short memoir GIRL MEETS PARIS and PACIFIC REAPER, the 5th Detective Emilia Cruz novel. My accountability buddy and I talked this out last night, and the next 90 days promise much personal growth!

I think everybody has the potential for personal growth. The trick is to recognize what triggers growth for the individual. If we can pursue that thing, our individual “atmosphere of growth” will expand and lift up other parts of our lives.

But what about you? What activity sparks YOUR personal growth?

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

The Ultimate Secret to Productivity

The Ultimate Secret to Productivity

My #1 secret to productivity isn’t an app or a clock. But it works better than either.

As a mystery author, I look for as productivity tips the way Detective Emilia Cruz looks for clues to solve the latest murder in Acapulco. Productivity becomes an even bigger issue when I’m staring down the barrel of a book publication deadline.

My social media stream is awash in advice from productivity pros like James Clear and Rory Vaden. But despite this great inspiration, I wasn’t meeting goals. Okay, to be frank, I wasn’t even very diligent about setting goals.

The problem? Shiny Object Syndrome.

Shiny objects are great. Glittery. Fun. Full of promise. There’s always another one just ahead!

Everybody’s shiny objects are different. I rush after sparkly things like graphic design, home decorating, endless lists related to marketing, and social media. Hours can go by as I troll through design sites like Behance.com or Awwwards.com or read about growth hacking or play with Photoshop.

I’m not the only one struggling to clarify goals and stay focused. Fellow scribbler Jessica Tregarth found herself with a similar case of Shiny Object Syndrome. To try and defeat it, we decided to connect once a week (we live 3 time zones apart) as each other’s “accountability buddy.”

Accountability buddy in action

Every week Jessica and I brainstorm actions that take a bite—no matter how small—out of our respective long term goals for writing, continuous learning, and a healthy lifestyle. We each come away from the session with 4 or 5 actions we want to accomplish in the week ahead. The next week we review how much of our respective lists we accomplished and trouble-shoot how to resolve what is holding us back.

How is it going so far?

Accountability is a powerful motivator. I’ve stayed on track with finishing KING PESO, the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, and been much more intentional with my time on social media. That weekly list stays in front of me, a reminder that I have to account for how I used (or wasted) my time. I also don’t want to let Jessica down.

In short, having an accountability buddy is the best thing I’ve ever done to define goals and stay focused.

Making it work

Finding the right buddy is key. It helps that Jessica and I have known each other for almost a decade and have the same approach.

  • Your accountability buddy needs to be as committed as you are and be ready to make it part of their routine. You don’t have to connect every week but create a fixed schedule. Just promising to get together “whenever” makes it too easy to put off.
  • Don’t overcommit because you want to impress your buddy. Be honest, know your limits, and help your buddy do the same. Discuss possibilities and realities. This is not a competition.
  • Keep a log so you know what both you and your buddy are working toward. Review your progress each time you connect. If something didn’t work, try to figure out together why—was it a one-off problem or a systemic issue that needs to be resolved before real progress can be made?

Yes, Shiny Object Syndrome will always be there. But an accountability buddy is a force multiplier.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Secret to productivity by Carmen Amato

Intention versus Reaction

Intention versus Reaction

“Persistence is the master virtue.”

The quote is attributed to the great thinker Anonymous. As I plug away at the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz mystery, KING PESO, it really resonates. But along with persistence, a few other key words have been useful lately.

A friend is a student of human behavior and has broadened my everyday vocabulary with words like “intentional” and “threading.” Not only have these words led me to consider how I plot mysteries but also how my characters behave.

And me, too.

Related: The Emilia Cruz series character bios

Intention

To act with intention, or be “intentional” is a positive I-will-own-this-outcome concept. In contrast, by not acting with intention, we are willing to be reactive. That means possibly ending up owning  someone else’s agenda.

That’s not to say that acting with intention means you’ll always get your way. But to risk another quote from Anonymous: “If you aim at nothing you will surely hit it.”

Threading

Threading is another great term. When I’m threading, I’m carrying my intention through a series of actions. We talk about the “thread of a conversation,” often in the context of losing it. What if we kept the thread, unspooling it via multiple intentional interactions? Wouldn’t that improve the odds of getting what we intended?

Huh. I think that’s called persistence.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

The Elusive Charms of Productivity

The Elusive Charms of Productivity

I’ve been reading the blog of James Clear, a life coach and productivity expert. While I mostly agree that productivity is all about Me, I also think it’s all about Them.

Where for art thou, Productivity?

Clear gives great advice on how to live a richer life and enjoy the ride as you journey toward your goals, which I soak up like a sponge. As a mystery author, it is easy to lose sight of why I started writing in the first place and instead focus on sales numbers, useless comparisons with other (invariably more clever and successful) authors, and what I’m doing wrong (no marketing acumen) instead of what I’m doing right (creating memorable characters and stories that resonate and entertain).

Clear’s advice on productivity is thoughtful and practical. But he’s not the only one. There are oodles of tips for authors looking to maximize their time: write 1000 words a day, use these writing prompts, set a timer to take a break every 45 minutes because you’ll work like the dickens before the break.

But progress on the next Emilia Cruz novel, KING PESO, is merely crawling along. With all this great advice out there, why isn’t my productivity through the roof?

Maybe it’s not about me at all.

The Therapy Chair

For years, I wrote in the spare bedroom. The room featured a desk, a computer, and a pull out sofa. The kids were small and my writing time was limited to weekend mornings when Dad kept them busy.

When we moved, the new guest room featured two twin beds. The bed closest to my desk was a magnet for the kids as they made their way through elementary, then middle school. They’d lay back and talk about everything; teachers and homework and dogs.  They jokingly called it “the therapy bed.”

Another move and I gained a proper writing office, albeit with only enough space for an extra chair. It was promptly dubbed “the therapy chair.”

Over the years, I spent hours at the computer, hands in my lap, mystery plots replaced by conversations about teen romances, crazed teachers, and American TV shows the kids were missing because we lived overseas. The doctor was in.

Of course I don’t begrudge that time with my kids, and think those conversations helped them both to be the college honor students they are today. Could I have written more without that therapy chair? Possibly. But I would have missed the important stuff.

The most fascinating person in the world

Sometimes it is hard to be productive because you’re just too fascinating. Everybody wants to be with you. Talk to you. Have some of your glitter rub off on them.

Fellow scribbler Deb Nam-Krane wrote a short but brilliant list of why productivity can be so elusive and gave me permission to reprint it here:

1. If you want to convert Night Owls to Morning People, just start waking up really early (like 4:30 AM early) so you can work out, wash the dishes and get some writing in. This will ensure that everyone else will start waking up early, too, no matter how quiet you are. Because you are the most fascinating person ever.
2. Take advantage of every second of Adult Alone Time you have if you’re trying to be productive in ways that require concentration; otherwise you’ll be trying to get things done while two of your children are chatting in your room. Never mind that Every. Other. Room. in the house is unoccupied. Because, again, you are the most fascinating person ever.
3. The best way to get people to stop complaining about things you do and decisions you make is to put them in your shoes. It might take a long time, but it works.
4. Laundry is always there for you, just like the dishes.
5. Don’t waste energy resenting that you have to clean up after people who technically should be able to clean up after themselves. Just do it for your own survival– and then start throwing away anything of theirs you find in a place you disapprove of.

You can read more of Deb’s clever observations on life and writing on her blog: http://writtenbydeb.blogspot.com/

Productivity goes to the dogs

The therapy chair was semi-retired when the kids went to college.

But then we got a puppy.

A killer attack voodoo puppy. Or for the layman, a Belgian Malinois from a breeder who sells to Navy Seals.

While we lived in Mexico, our big dogs thwarted more than one robbery. When it was time for another dog, we knew we wanted one that could keep our home safe no matter where we live.

Well, the home is now safer than Fort Knox. The dog is slowly becoming a good citizen, as long as you aren’t the pizza delivery guy, the mailman, or other intruder with evil intent. Training takes time. Plus there are toys to destroy, endless trips to the back yard to investigate the woodpile, walks to get used to her new urban setting, and an insatiable need for belly rubs.

Hmm. Maybe productivity is overrated.

2016 update

The killer voodoo puppy passed away and we now have a charming lab-shepherd-beagle-boxer mix. The kitchen sink could be in his bloodline, too. He has become my faithful companion, snoozing on my feet as I write. With him around, we’ll never need a therapy chair again.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Theme for 2015: Maximize!

Theme for 2015: Maximize!

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

At our family New Year’s Eve dinner, I asked if anyone had made any resolutions. My husband had some fitness goals, while our college kids talked about GPAs, Zumba classes, getting more sleep, and internships.

Later, I realized that no one had asked me if I had made any resolutions. I pouted for a minute, until Kathy Griffin striped Anderson Cooper’s head with hair dye, leaving him look like a startled British rocker, and I forgot about the whole dinner/resolution/hey-you-forgot-mom business.

The truth is, like last year, I’m not doing resolutions in 2015.

Yes, Virginia, it’s okay not to resolve

As we all know, resolutions evaporate fairly quickly unless they stick around long enough to become a habit. (I believe gym memberships are based on this business model.)

Check out The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin on habits.

So instead, I pick a theme for the year.

I can post the word above my desk and be reminded all year of my intention. I can give myself little checks as the weeks fly by, asking if what I’m doing is in keeping with the spirit of the theme.

This year’s theme is: MAXIMIZE

Related post: 2014–Does your year need a theme?

Maximize Me

I’m going to maximize my year in three ways:

  1. Maximize my time

I waste a lot of time on social media. Sad, but true. I’m going to use automation tools for marketing purposes and be more intentional with the personal time I spend on the 3 Deadly Sins: Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

book outline

I will also go back to working from an outline. I tried NaNoWriMo this year with a strong sense of the novel I wanted to write but no outline. Hey, pantsers do it all the time. The result? I wasted a ton of time slack-jawed in front of the screen, trying to figure out the right sequence of events for an extremely complicated mystery plot.notebook and handwriting

I will also spend more time writing longhand. I wrote almost all of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY in notebooks, typing up a few pages at a time. Pen and paper help marshal my thoughts and I find I have less editing work later.

  1. Maximize my creativity

Being an author these days isn’t just about having fiction for sale on Amazon. It is about creating a connection with readers and reaching them wherever they are. To that end, I’m going to do some fun and creative things on new platforms, like Slideshare and maybe even YouTube, with the goal of maintaining the connection via the Mystery Monthly emails.

I’ll also offer a few different reader gifts besides a free copy of THE BEAST. I’ve got some surprising ideas from the work I’ve been doing for bookmarketingtools.com and a lecture I gave about crafting a mystery series. Stay tuned.

  1. Maximize my reach

I have had the good luck to be offered guest post opportunities and interviews on writer blogs and would like to do more. It’s great to extend my reach and I’ve also met some terrific folks. The next step is to look at syndication opportunities for this blog.

Your theme for 2015

It’s all about attitude. In my mind’s eye, I’m drawing in deep breaths, the way an athlete does before a race to maximize lung power.

How about you? What is going to be your theme this year?

It Goes Without Saying

It wasn’t a high school for the performing arts, but it came darn close.

Every year, my Catholic high school raised the majority of its operating funds by putting on two plays and a musical. With about 360 kids in four grades, that meant that at some point, you were in a show.

By the time I arrived for freshman year, resplendent in my sister’s hand-me-down red blazer and plaid skirt, the school knew how to wow its stolid upstate New York audience and the musical was firmly established as the social event of the year. Costumes were rented from Broadway, set construction overseen by local home builders, and the Capital Theater booked for 8 shows. Opened in 1928 as the first theater in the area for “talkie” movies, the theater was still an opulent, albeit faded, reminder of the Roaring Twenties by the time I walked its boards.

capital theater

Interior of the Capital Theater. Picture courtesy romecapital.com

Treading the Boards

I auditioned and won a role in every production the school put on. Freshman year I was cast as a plucky maid in George M!, the lively musical show about the life of Broadway actor and producer George M. Cohan. He wrote classics like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Over There.” I still remember the words to half a dozen Cohan songs and will sing on request.

The show had a cast of 100, all of whom took tap lessons for months before. The guy who played George went on to become a professional dancer. The rousing final number included a Rockettes-style kick line holding sparklers.

As the music faded, a scratchy recording of a male voice started. “My father thanks you. My mother thanks you. My sister thanks you. And as for myself, it goes without saying.”

The voice was George M. Cohan himself, from a recording made when he was playing vaudeville with his parents and sister as The Four Cohans.

Statue of George M. Cohan in New York City.

Statue of George M. Cohan in New York City. Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Channeling George

I’m channeling George today. As an author, I have many people to thank for their support, friendship, and inspiration.

First, thanks to readers who bought, read, and reviewed THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and the Emilia Cruz books. In response to the number one question I receive, “When is the next Emilia Cruz coming out?” I can say KING PESO just came out.

Sign up for the Mystery Ahead webzine and you’ll never miss #booknews again.

Next, thanks is due to the generous fellow authors who helped me raise funds for water.org: Sharon Lee Johnson, Norm Hamilton, and Jerold Last. Bless you all.

To the many authors, bloggers, store owners, publishers, and pundits who contributed to the Bookstore of the Future project, especially thriller author Dale Brown, who was the first to respond. I was thrilled to get responses as well from marketing “evangelist” Guy Kawasaki, and historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. It was a fascinating project and the conclusions were surprising to many.

To the virtual friends from three special Facebook groups: Mystery Readers Corner, which does not allow any promotion but is the best place to talk about mysteries; Instant Bestseller, a group of authors connected by Tim Grahl’s online marketing course based on his book YOUR FIRST 1000 COPIES; and Mexico Writers, a vibrant community of authors whose passion for Mexico is evident every day.

To those who helped me reach new audiences by hosting me on their websites, including mamiverse.com, mexicoretold.com, omnimystery.com, bookmarketingtools.com, and mysteristas.com.

Being an author isn’t musical theater, but a journey of a thousand steps. I’ve said thanks, but know that every day, it goes without saying.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Where’s a Cheerleader When You Need One?

Where’s a Cheerleader When You Need One?

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was part of my high school’s cheer team. I was also a member of the band, playing—yes, you read it here—the cymbals. Those cymbals were red hot when we New Yorkers played the Wisconsin fight song. Alas, we could only play the song before or after a game. The trombone player was also the captain of the football team.

It was a very small school.

The school team was the Red Wings and the cheer team was called the Wingettes, although we were also called Dingettes for unknown reasons. We wore red skirts and red and white vests and had a great time dancing to Journey tunes and rocking the crowds at half time.

Where’d the cheer all go?

But lately, as adult issues crowd in, cheer can be hard to find. That shouting, dancing, it’s-okay-to-be-the-center-of-attention kind of zest can often be replaced by fatigue, overwork, and feeling  overcome by change and responsibility and stress. Too much stuff we don’t want. Not enough of what we used to have.

Without energy, goals seem unreachable or too lofty. We slog in place, consumed by the day-to-day.

I’m tired just writing this.

Related post: Sweeten Life with 4 Jars of Happiness

Note to self

For several years, I carried a Blackberry with a couple of documents on it. Letters from me to me wherein I was my own cheerleader. These little notes reminded me of my goals, pointed out that I had what it took to achieve them, and exhorted my true self not to get distracted or pay attention to naysayers (“A book where all the characters are Mexican? Naaah.”)

I read the notes over and over again, particularily when it felt like my books weren’t gaining traction or finding a readership. But as with all Blackberry products, so it would seem, mine suffered a demise. My letters to self were lost.

Virtual cheerleading

I could perpetually mourn the loss of my Wingette uniform, my Blackberry notes, and my goals. Or this can be an opportunity to rewrite my letters to self. Make them more articulate, more focused on the kind of success I’m willing to work for.

So can you! Set it out there. Write that letter to self. Cheerlead for you. After all, if you won’t, who will?

No pom-poms required.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Lighting the Path

Lighting the Path

“Surround yourself with those who light the way.”

It was just another pithy Pinterest graphic; worth a nod and a smile. Forgotten in the wake of a great chicken recipe or a cat playing the piano.

But I recently had occasion to reflect on the wisdom of “lighting the path” when a friend and I had a long conversation about career decisions. She’s got two opportunities to choose from, both with pros and cons to them. Meanwhile, I was wondering if my writing career can expand into a website devoted to time management and productivity for fellow writers, and if the Emilia Cruz series will ever get off the midlist.

Tipping points

As we talked, my friend–a social scientist–unwittingly defined for me what “lighting the path” means when faced with a decision:

1.How many people will it help? Do we want a life that is self-contained and narrowly focused? Or a life that impacts others for the better?

Will the next decison create well-being or lead to better health? Solve problems for others?

2. Just because an opportunity is available doesn’t mean it is the right one. Will a short-term gain wipe out the chance to fulfill a long-term dream?

Yes, this is why Penny quit waitressing at the Cheesecake Factory.

3. It is worth spending time defining and owning your long-term goal. My friend and I discussed our career goals. Where would each like to be 5 years from now.  Once we did that we could apply one of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly successful people: “Begin with the end in mind.”

Ongoing process

We didn’t bring peace to the Middle East but the conversation clarified things for both of us. We can both see a better–albeit highly ambitious–path.

Now the question is one of courage.

I hope you have a chance now and then to have such conversations with friends who help light your path.

No flashlight? Dead battery? Strike a match and keep going. Brainstorm, weigh options, find your heart’s desire, own a long-term goal. Don’t aim at nothing.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

The Right Fork

The Right Fork

A number of years ago, when my children were young and we were living in Mexico, my family was invited to the residence of a NATO ambassador and his family for a New Year’s Eve dinner.  Our children were all the same age and the wife and I were close friends, both of us dealing with the challenges of setting up house in a new country, helping our children adjust, and learning a new language.

I’d been told that dinner would be casual but it was in the formal dining room with a table that could easily seat 30. Placesettings were as elaborate as if this was a diplomatic affair, with enough sterling silver on the table to make a small battleship and rows of wineglasses above each fine china plate. The meal was served in courses, starting with an array of caviar and smoked fish on a tray passed around by the butler.

My son, then eight, was seated next to me and watched the butler’s progression with alarm. “What fork do I use?” he whispered urgently.

There were four forks at each place: salad fork, dinner fork, fish fork, dessert fork. I silently thanked the fact I’d been brought up near the Oneida Silver factory store where Oneida silverplate was the mandatory gift for every occasion. “Start at the outside and work your way in,” I replied out of the side of my mouth.

The next course came. “Which fork this time?” my son asked.

“The next one over,” I told him.

“There’s a fork on top,” he said worriedly. “Dessert,” I hissed.

“What if dessert is flan?” His whispering was beginning to sound like a bad off-Broadway ad lib as our host’s mouth twitched with suppressed laughter.

“Use the spoon.”

“Which one?”

And so the long night wore on.

When we got home, I realized that my children needed to learn a few more skills in order to be prepared to go anywhere and participate in the world in any way they chose. I wanted them to be able to learn from and ultimately be enriched by the culture around them no matter where they went.

In an increasingly mobile world, we can travel anywhere, talk to anyone anywhere around the world, all at the push of a button. Citizens of the world. But what does that mean?

Here’s what I came up with:

  1.  Manners:  A World Citizen is aware of the local cultural norms and social etiquette wherever they go. They know what is polite and what is regarded as rude. They actively try not to offend.
  2. Desire for Information: A World Citizen has an open mind and is ready to put in the effort to learn about other cultures, the history that has shaped them, and why that culture is what it is.
  3. Connected:  A World Citizen uses technology to seek out information and connect with others.
  4. Tolerance: A World Citizen accepts that others will have a different belief system, or none at all, and does not judge (at least not in public.)
  5. Environmental Awareness:  A World Citizen realizes that we aren’t getting any more real estate on this planet and doesn’t trash up their part of it or anyone else’s. They respect efforts to renew and reuse and understand the need for basics like water and sanitation.

I’ll be sharing more here on what it means to be a World Citizen and asking you for your own ideas and experiences. Connecting across cultures isn’t a new concept but reading the news on any given day suggests we haven’t gotten very good at it.  So let’s start a new dialogue and see where it goes.

Maybe if we know what to do with all the forks, we won’t need so many knives.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

On the Occasion of My Second Anniversary as a Published Author

On the Occasion of My Second Anniversary as a Published Author

In addition to being a famous Mexican holiday, now celebrated around the world for reasons unrelated to the Mexican victory of Puebla over the French in 1962, Cinco de Mayo is also my anniversary of being a published author. My first book, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, officially came out on 5 May 2012.

Second Year Goals

Last year, when I reflected on the momentous occasion of my first anniversary, I was really amazed at how far I’d come in terms of books sales and skills acquired. I also set out some goals for my second year:

  • 5 books listed on amazon
  • Redesigned website with free download of Emilia Cruz mini-anthology
  • Re-release of HIDDEN LIGHT with new cover, lower price, and at least 1 promotion

It was a short list but all the goals were measurable and had a timeline attached to them. But the year ended up being much more than just those three goals.

Learning as I Go

As I headed into Year 2, I was uncertain about book marketing, this blog, the whole face-to-the-world thing. So I took time out from writing to take two online classes: Blog that Converts with Derek Halpern and Instant Bestseller with Tim Grahl.

Blog That Converts was supposed to help me redesign the website. It did that but also opened my eyes to the whole issue of how people respond to online messaging and what makes them connect to a blog/product. Blog That Converts is primarily directed at those who run an online business but I really got a lot out of it.  Derek Halpern’s socialtriggers.com website is full of ideas, not just in regard to the content, but also in regard to how Derek presents information and how the site is designed.

I was one of the beta testers for the Instant Bestseller course, which is based on Tim Grahl’s book, YOUR FIRST 1000 COPIES. The book is hands down the most intelligent discussion of how authors must connect with readers in the new publishing age in order to be successful. Tim has a lite course that is free on his website. I hope Tim expands both the course and his website with more resources and case studies; I plan to regard him as the oracle for the foreseeable future.

Website Redesign

Both the classes helped me give this website a major upgrade with catchthemes.com’s Catch Everest pro theme and a monthly author newsletter via the aWeber email service.

Subscribers get a copy of THE BEAST, the first Emilia Cruz story which was previously featured on The Huffington Post’s Fiction 50 showcase, plus a guide to writing book reviews, my list of top 10 international mystery series, and monthly updates with exclusive excerpts and book release news. Making a newsletter has been another learning curve and I’ve been helped by fellow Instant Bestseller students.

I’ve probably spent too much time this year on web design, Twitter profile design, and Facebook covers. But as a book may be judged by its cover, so is an author judged by the professionalism and quality first impressions. I get a lot of positive feedback on the look of this website, my Twitter background, etc. Presentation makes a difference.

Book List

This anniversary I have 4 books listed on Amazon, not the 5 I’d planned. The 5th book was to be a short memoir based on letters I’d written while a student in France many years ago. I put it on the back burner while taking the courses above and the manuscript stares at me balefully as I type.

HAT DANCE and MADE IN ACAPULCO were released, however. HAT DANCE, the second Emilia Cruz mystery, was on the Top Rated Top 10 for Amazon’s International Mystery category for several months, and might still be in the Top 100. I think CLIFF DIVER still is. (I’ve stopped obsessively checking things like that, which is a major accomplishment on its own.) MADE IN ACAPULCO is a collection of short stories and includes the first two chapters of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

The black matches-and-smoke anniversary cover of HIDDEN LIGHT turned out great. Bold, eye-catching, yet clean. It might be my favorite cover yet. HIDDEN LIGHT sells more in paperback than any of the other books. Maybe it’s the cover or maybe political thriller readers buy more paperbacks than mystery readers who prefer Kindle?

glasses of waterWriting for Water

Long before the Emilia Cruz series hit Amazon’s algorithm I knew that if I made enough I would donate a portion of my proceeds to Water.org, the charity co-founded by Matt Damon to bring clean water to communities worldwide. So despite the fact that Emilia hasn’t knocked Jo Nesbo off the top of the mystery charts, I decided there was no time like the present.

I started in January 2014, donating $1 from every Kindle book I sold to Water.org. After a bit I wondered if some fellow authors might like to help and Sharon Lee Johnson, Norm Hamilton and Jerry Last all stepped up with donations and promotional support. As I felt the effort gaining traction, I put up the Writing for Water page and set a goal of giving 25 people clean water for life. And it is happening! @Water is retweeting our updates, I got a nice email from the home office, and our numbers are climbing!

Have you ever done something that turns out to be bigger than the sum of its parts? Seen real change because of just a small thing? That is what is happening because of all the wonderful readers and fellow authors who are sharing this journey with me. We are giving clean water and changing lives. It feels amazing.

Golden Friendships

More than anything else, be it steadily rising book sales, the growth of the Emilia Cruz series, or an improved website, this second year has been made memorable by some wonderful virtual friendships with fellow writers. Norm Hamilton, Sandra Nikolai, Khaled Talib, Andrew Chesnutt, and especially Jane Rosenthal and Jerry Last have shared time, attention, advice, and good cheer. David Bruns from the Instant Bestseller course has helped with website ideas and tips, while Sharon Lee Johnson has been an infectious cheerleader and work ethic champ. Every day, on Twitter and Goodreads, I meet a fellow author with whom it is a pleasure to trade war stories and cheer success.

I’m thrilled to be participating in a group blog with 4 talented writers: Jane Rosenthal, Christopher Irvin, Guillermo Paxton, and John Scherber. The Mexico Mystery Writers Cartel is just getting off the ground but will be a locus for mystery and Mexico fans alike.

The team at Latinas4LatinoLit.com really gave my visibility a boost last summer with a series of 10 blog posts. Likewise, the editor of Mamiverse.com, Lorraine C. Ladish was a guest on my blog and hosted my article on bilingual humor. More opportunities came my way for guest posts, reviews, syndicated posts, etc. 

Time Management

Done properly, social media is not so much of a distraction as great tools for connecting and researching. I use Twitter and Pinterest to find great web design resources, news about Mexico, etc. Facebook is for advice from fellow authors and some great free promotion. I had been using the free version of Buffer, which seems to have gotten the vapors, so HootSuite is likely in my future.

Keeping a blog updated is hard work and it is tempting to turn each post into a nonfiction article about something I find interesting.  My “Future of Bookstores” series has been a huge time investment but I’m not sure it has had any impact on book sales. DIABLO NIGHTS might have been out 2 months earlier, too.

Yet I had the opportunity to connect with some amazing folks I would have  never have encountered otherwise: thriller author Dale Brown, with whom I had a memorable online exchange; Bernard Cornwell, author of the legendary Richard Sharpe series: Guy Kawasaki, author of APE: Author Publisher, Entrepreneur, and C.M. Mayo, author of a number of literary gems set in Mexico.

Now that I have some experience behind me, however, in the coming year I will keep unrelated blog posts from stealing too much writing time. Maybe I’ll cleverly combine things with a series on time management for authors!

For Next Year

For my third year of being a published author, here are my goals:

  • Meet or surpass goal of providing 25 people with clean water for life via donations to Water.org based on book sales in 2014
  • 2 more books listed on Amazon (DIABLO NIGHTS, the third Emilia Cruz novel is slated for late June release)
  • Publication of at least 1 Emilia Cruz short story in an anthology or ezine
  • Book trailers for all the Emilia Cruz books
  • A core group of 500 readers I connect with monthly via the newsletter
  • 100 subscribers to the Mexico Mystery Writers Cartel

Watch this space to see how it all turns out. While you’re at it, let me know your goals for the coming 12 months!

All the best, Carmen

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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