Sometimes we end up in a state of creative emptiness. This is how to replenish your inspiration.

Sometimes we end up in a state of creative emptiness. This is how to replenish your inspiration.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve watched the starlings practice their annual murmurations. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, murmurations are the intricate swooping sky dances some birds do when they fly in unison.

On my early morning walks, I’d hear their squawks swell and then fall into a collective hush as the flock took off. During their air ballet, they’d chirp at each other in what I would imagine was a lot of, listen, listen, listen, fly left, now right, now back to the nest.

I’d just grown accustomed to their daily routine when the birds left Charlottesville. I felt the ensuing silence in my bones.

On Sunday, I was still sitting with this absence, when I attended a monthly meeting with a few of my writing peeps. 

When asked how my writing life was going, I said terrible. It feels like my creativity has flown south, right along with those birds. I show up to my writing desk, but there’s no sense of flow. I struggle to form sentences, then go back and cross them out.

The source of my creative emptiness is easy to pinpoint. I’m preparing for a big presentation. My calendar is overbooked with work tasks, home projects, and visits with friends. I love everything on my calendar, and yet I’m also aware that busyness has taken my creative energy. Plus, it’s taken two months to settle my house. If I’m honest, I’ve been craving a sense of order and maybe a little rest.

And I hate resting more than a toddler.

Creative emptiness and fatigue trigger my “get cracking” tendencies, that part of me that believes worthiness is about getting things done. Right now it’s convinced that warring with my current reality and yelling things at me like get going, pushpushpush and get this shit done! will help me complete my project. So far, working harder hasn’t worked.

Have you ever felt like this?

I’ve learned my “get cracking” isn’t an ally when it comes to creative emptiness. Instead, I need to pause and wait for further instructions from my place of deepest knowing. 

Truly listening requires a sense of inner stillness and an openness to what is. My messages and insights come from a variety of different sources, including meditation, journaling, cards from my Osho Zen Tarot deck, or signs from nature like murmurations.

Yesterday, as I worked to listen, I drew the following card from my Osho Zen deck.  

Here’s part of this card’s message: “The truth of your own deepest being is trying to show you where to go right now, and when this card appears it means you can trust the inner guidance you’re being given.”

After drawing this card, I did a short breath meditation then wrote what do you want me to know?  in my journal.  My inner knowing responded with relax, be patient, things will be different after next week. Your flow will return.

Meditation can prepare you to listen whether you’re in a slump or sailing through your NaNoWriMo goals. Periods of stillness can help you discover what your characters want or where your story needs to go.

But paying attention isn’t enough. How we listen matters.

Many of us only stop to listen when we’re uncomfortable. Operating from a place of fear or melancholy, we clench our fists and beg for someone or something to ease our misery. But creativity arises from openness. As Taisen Deshimaru says, “Keep your hands open, and all the sands of the desert can pass through them. Close them, and all you can feel is a bit of grit.

There are many ways to open clenched fists. 

This past weekend I also attended an outdoor dinner hosted by a local writer. Fifteen of us watched the sun set behind her house, then ate chili as the stars twinkled overhead. Later, we gathered around her bonfire to talk about our writing lives. Someone who’d also been experiencing creative emptiness mentioned Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, a collection of short essays on life’s ordinary happy moments.

Here’s a brief excerpt from one of his essays. 

“A cup of coffee from a well-shaped cup. A fly, its wings hauling all the light in the room, landing on the porcelain handle as if to say, “Notice the precise flare of this handle, as though designed for the romance between the thumb and index finger that holding a cup can be.”

The creatively empty writer shared that reading Rose’s book helped her pay attention to the thousands of small romances happening in her own life. Anticipating a daily delight is filling her creative tank and making her fallow time more pleasant. 

My friend’s story made the drawing of this card feel inevitable. 

My Osho Zen guidebook has this to say about the Sharing card. “When you draw this card, it suggests you too are in a situation where you have an opportunity to share your love, your joy, and your laughter.”

In other words, focus on your abundance and delight. This is great advice whether you’re feeling stuck or making your word count. 

Last night’s delight was the crescent moon slung below the north star. Today, it was the feeling of the warm air after several chilly days. 

Showing up to your writing desk is yet another way to listen. Five minutes is enough. Write one sentence, or even a word. Open yourself to your muse and her epiphanies. Then say thank you for what you’re able to complete. Don’t worry about outcomes. 

When you’re done, return to the rest of your life. Share your love, your joy, and your laughter with the world.

When starlings begin their murmuration practice, they establish a home base, fly practice runs, and then return to the safety of a designated tree. There are pauses between each and every flight. As I think of their aerial ballets, I think their beauty stems from the pauses, between each flight. They’re in the air, and then they’re gone. Sometimes creativity behaves the same way. And yet, like the starlings it always returns to us. 

Whether you’re happily churning out pages, or feeling stuck like me, know that our writing lives are filled with ebbs and flows. This is how creativity works. That means there’s no failure and no wrong place to be. If you’re feeling productive, ride that wave. If you’re running on empty, it just means your deepest knowing is calling to you. 

Writing strategies are great, but if you want to make real progress, you need this.

Writing strategies are great, but if you want to make real progress, you need this.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be the coolest sister-in-law in the world.

My first husband was sixteen when his baby brother was born. We took him for overnights, attended baseball and soccer games, and offered homework help. In the beginning, all it took to be the coolest was a little candy, a forbidden-yet-not-too-age-inappropriate movie, and some fort-building skills. But as my brother-in-law got older, remaining the coolest was a challenge.

In the early aughts, we attended a summer outing at Kings Island amusement park along with several male relatives. After a morning with roller coaster rides, we headed for the water park.

After a few waterslides, we encountered something called The Retro Flow Rider. Imagine a concrete basin lined with a dozen fire hoses that simulate surfable ocean waves.

Everyone wanted to try this exciting new ride, and as the coolest sister-in-law in the world, I couldn’t refuse. That day, it seemed like the entire park waited along The Retro Flow Rider fence, ready to watch us catch some tasty waves or laugh when we fell.

With each step forward I imagined and reimagined my impending wipeout, from the feel of the board giving way to the disappointing “Awe, dude!” the crowd yelled as I slid into the exit bay.

When it was my turn, a tanned eighteen-year-old surfer dude thrust a boogie board at me, then fired off instructions I barely heard above the roaring hoses. My fifteen-year-old brother-in-law and all my male relatives cheered from the slide lines. I timidly stepped into the rushing water, placed the board under me, popped up for the briefest of seconds then slammed into the surprisingly rough concrete and skidded to a halt. As I exited the ride, I tried to ignore the angry scrape blossoming up my right side.

The Retro Flow Rider taught me two important lessons: coolness is overrated, and watch what you imagine.

Compared to the skydiving and rope-free rock climbs I’d completed in my twenties, The Retro Flow Rider should’ve been easy.

There was one key difference between those experiences. When skydiving and rock climbing, I always believed in and imagined my unwavering success. That unwavering belief has also helped me complete countless manuscript drafts.

Yesterday was the first day of NaNoWriMo. While there are a ton of strategies you can employ, they’ll be useless if you don’t believe in yourself.

Belief has three components.

First, you must envision your success. Mentally rehearse yourself writing the words the end. Imagine your smile when you reach your fifty thousandth word. Write a congratulations letter to yourself on Future Me then schedule its early December delivery. Every day, multiple times per day, say fifty thousand words.

After you’ve envisioned your success, attend to your fears.

During my skydiving days, I asked a guy with over three thousand jumps if he still got nervous before he skydived. He tugged on the macrame cross he always wore, then said, “The day I’m not afraid is the day I don’t jump.”

Fear made him respect the activity—and himself—enough to show the utmost care and preparation.

Fear is the body’s way of readying itself for action, whether that’s running from a tiger or acing an exam. Instead of seeing fear as the harbinger of failure, thank your body for seeing this work as important enough to prepare for action.

Consider a mantra like this: Thank you for reminding me that my writing life is important and that my goal is asking for my attention. 

That leads to the final aspect of belief—having the confidence to act as if. Show up to your writing desk. Write some words. If you begin to judge them, remember NaNoWriMo, like all goals, is about progress, not perfection. It’s about being 20,000, 30,000, or even 50,000 words closer to writing the end. That’s it.

If you’re not participating in NaNoWriMo, think about the goal you’re currently working on. Are you imagining success or rehearsing a wipeout?

 

Considering NaNoWriMo? Here’s what you need to know before making a commitment.

Considering NaNoWriMo? Here’s what you need to know before making a commitment.

On Sunday fall finally arrived.

Goodbye sixty-degree mornings and balmy afternoons.  
 
Hello dark, cold mornings, colorful leaves, and a return of my ugly sweaters. 

My favorite ugly sweater is almost fifteen years old. The worn, faded fabric is nubbly with pills. The elbows are worn through. Wearing it makes me look like a bag lady, but I don’t care. In this sweater, I’ve written published essays and book drafts.
 
Ugly sweaters are probably my favorite part of fall. 

They’re a sign of productivity and perseverance—something many writers are preparing to channel as they take on one of the year’s biggest writing challenge: NaNoWriMo.
 
For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (or memoir) draft during the month of November. 
 
That’s 7,142 words per week or 1,666 words per day. 
 
In 2006, NaNoWriMo became an official nonprofit. If you sign up for the challenge on their site they’ll share their writing resources with you. They can even help you join an official NaNoWriMo writing group. 
 
Three years ago, I NaNoWriMo’d my way to the first draft of my memoir, How Not to Die. It was thrilling to discover I could indeed write 50,000 words over the course of a month, and that some of those words weren’t half bad. 
 
So how do you decide whether to NaNoWriMo? 
 
NaNoWriMo is great for completing first drafts of new projects. While you can NaNoWriMo your way through revisions, this can be more challenging because revision is an unpredictable beast that can leave you staring at a single sentence for hours. That musing time is an essential part of the revision process, but it can quickly eat into your word count. 
 
Throughout November, I’ll use this newsletter to share tips that can help you churn out your weekly goals.  
 
For now, I’d like to take you through my NaNoWriMo decision-making process. 
 
Signs you’re ready to NaNoWriMo: 

  • You’re prepared to start a new project.
  • You can dedicate at least one to two hours per day toward this goal, or you can schedule a few all-day writing sessions.
  • You have a solid outline (if you’re a plotter) or you’re ready to writewritewrite your way to a quick and dirty draft.
  • You value progress over perfection.

If this is you, recruit a few pals and prepare to NaNoWriMo. 

If you’re on the fence, focusing on revision, or not yet working on a project, you can still create a modified NaNoWriMo goal that deepens your writing practice.

Here’s what that might look like: 
 

  • New Writer goal: Part of claiming or reclaiming a writing practice is developing your creative discipline and stamina. If you’re a new writer, or you’re interested in reclaiming your writing habit, setting a daily goal of even one hundred words, or writing for five minutes per day, can help you develop a consistent practice.
  • Busy Person Goal: Maybe you are working on a project, but don’t have oodles of time to devote to your writing life. Could you devote 10 or 20 minutes per day, five days per week? Or could you set a more modest goal, like drafting 10,000 words? 
  • Revision Goal: If you’re working through revisions, establish a November goal that allows for some musing time. This could include revising an act of your book or selecting a 10,000-word excerpt to focus on. You could even follow Allison Williams’s advice from Seven Drafts and retype your manuscript. 


Participating in a full or modified NaNoWriMo can build camaraderie with other writers working in the deadline trenches. Commiserating, celebrating, and swapping ideas with your fellow NaNoWriMo participants can increase your accountability, and for some people, your productivity. 

But now is not always the best time to set a formidable goal. 

Here are a few reasons to avoid NaNoWriMo: 

  • Perfection is your kryptonite: If failure to come up with the perfect word causes paralysis, NaNoWriMo will amplify these feelings. This could stifle your overall progress and tank your motivation. A stifled perfectionist is likely to feel devastated if that 50,000-word goal isn’t achieved. 
  • Spending a month in a competitive win/lose environment isn’t your jam: Some people thrive in competitive environments, others wilt. If losing or getting behind crushes your motivation or causes you to fall into toxic comparison, steer clear of this event—or at least participate in a smaller, unofficial version.  
  • You’re hunting for a rainbow unicorn: Some writers mistakenly believe they’ll blast out a 50,000-word novel, query in January, and sign a six-figure book deal by Groundhog Day. Let me burst that unicorn bubble. Drafts created during NaNoWriMo are largely terrible, first takes on a story. Many of these drafts are abandoned soon after the event ends. The best ones serve as an outline for a future, well-written draft that will take months to perfect. Bottom line: agents don’t want to see your NaNoWriMo draft. If you send it anyway, they’ll likely ghost you. 
  • Your stories take longer to bake: Completing a 50,000-word story in thirty days is a daunting task for some and completely unrealistic for others. I know writers, like Bret Anthony Johnston, who can’t write a single word until they’ve completely figured out the story in their heads. It once took Bret ten years to understand a story, but the end result was an award winner. If you’re a slow baker, NanNoWriMo probably isn’t for you.
  • Your November is already booked: If you already have extensive holiday plans or intense work deadlines signing up for NaNoWriMo could easily become one more thing on your to-do list. This can lead to resentments that turn you into an asshole. Life is short. Be kind to others and yourself. If the month is already booked, skip NaNoWriMo
  • Your body calls for rest: Some people see fall as a time of heightened productivity after a restful summer. But other bodies are called to more seasonal patterns. The latter months of fall are a time of darkness, stillness, and reflection. If your body wants to fall into this rhythm, let it. You can NaNoWriMo during your more productive season. 


So,
 are you ready to NaNoWriMo? 
 
If you’re ready commit, are you all in, or would a modified goal better suit your style? 
 
Or should you sit this one out?
 
Send me an email with your decision. I’d love to hear from you. 
 
And, I’d also love to hear about your favorite ugly clothing item. Send me a description, or better yet, a picture. If I hear from enough of you, my ugly sweater might make an appearance in next week’s newsletter. 

Want a vibrant writing life? Find out how Athena Dixon has used personal definitions of success and a dynamic author platform to achieve her publishing goals.

Want a vibrant writing life? Find out how Athena Dixon has used personal definitions of success and a dynamic author platform to achieve her publishing goals.

When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut president writer.

 

Leading the free world from space had a certain appeal.

 

I mean, who doesn’t want to ride on a rocket ship, sign bills into law from a floating desk, or use the sun rising over the earth as story inspiration?

 

While my love affair with space continues, time, motion sickness, and an aversion to politics led me to scrap my president/astronaut ambitions so I could follow my true calling.

 

The beginning of my writing career was a bit like that early dream. I wanted to write all the things in all the genres. First, I studied poetry, then fiction. After a while, I added courses in creative nonfiction.  

 

Like most writers, finding time for my passion projects is my biggest struggle—especially when a significant portion of my day goes towards activities that pay the bills.

Last weekend I attended the James River Writers Conference with other writers who face similar challenges. Some were working on novels and essays while taking courses in poetry. Others were editing current works in progress while conducting research for the next manuscript on their agenda. We commiserated over our time constraints and traded tips on managing multiple projects and staying organized and inspired.

 

These people are truly my tribe. The same is true for my next interviewee, Athena Dixon.

 

I met Athena in late 2018 through a mutual friend who was starting a memoir collective. When we met, Athena was the editor-in-chief for Linden Avenue Literary Journal and author of the poetry chapbook No God in This Room (Argus House Press, 2017) as well as a regular presenter at writing conferences like HippoCamp and Muse and the Marketplace.

 

A Pushcart nominee and fellow for several prestigious organizations including Callaloo, and V.O.N.A., Athena is a modern-day renaissance woman who is multi-talented, curious, and prolific. Within six months of our meeting, her essay The Incredible Shrinking Woman was published by Gay Mag, the literary magazine Roxane Gay runs through Medium. This essay became the title for the essay collection Athena published with Split/Lip Press in 2020.

 

She accomplished all of this in the spare hours between her demanding government job and sleep. Part of her mission is helping writers establish a work and writing-life balance that includes realistic expectations and individual definitions for success.

 

I’d deeply grateful Athena made time for this interview.  

 

In addition to being active on social media, your platform includes publications in literary journals, speaking engagements at writing conferences like AWP, HippoCamp, and The Muse and the Marketplace, being the founder of the Linden Literary journal, and co-host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast via the New Books Network. What parts of your platform do you find to be most meaningful?

 

I’m a bit split. For quite a long time, the center of my platform was Linden Avenue. The literary journal was my passion project for nearly nine years. It opened so many doors and created so many opportunities that I don’t think I’d have a good segment of my current platform had it not existed.

 

The offshoot of that, however, is the panel and conference platform I continue to build. It’s actually a surprise I’ve done so many. Public speaking frightens me, but being willing to step out of my comfort zone and accept these opportunities has had twofold benefits. First, presenting gives me a confidence I can carry into other areas of my life. Second, speaking at conferences helps me continue to build that platform by introducing me to creatives whose skill sets complement mine.

 

This is an excellent point, Athena. Presenting is a great networking tool. You never know what collaborations it might lead to or how someone else’s work might inspire or grow your own. 

 

You began your career as a poet and published your chapbook No God in This Room through Argus House in 2017. Some of my readers are poets. They wonder if an author platform is something they should work to build. What advice do you have for them?

 

I’m a very big believer in building an organic creative community. However, the development of this community shouldn’t occur just for the sake of your proposal or queries or to demonstrate something to agents and publishing houses. It should be something you cultivate because you care about the craft and are enthusiastic about the writers in your community.

 

That being said, there is no doubt you need to build an audience and a platform of some measure to give your book the best chance at success, but how you go about that and how you maintain that platform are most important. Personally, I would rather connect with 1,000 engaged people versus having 10,000 followers. If you put out the same kind of support to other creatives that you expect back, the ripple effect of those people and their extended communities can be amazing.

 

I highly suggest finding a platform in which you are most comfortable because that will shine through in how you engage with not only the medium but also the community you build there.

 

This is excellent advice, Athena. Allison K. Williams is also a proponent of engagement over numbers when it comes to social media. In fact, I’ve heard this is what publishers now value.

 

We’ve talked about how platform is important for creative nonfiction writers. What role did your platform play when promoting The Incredible Shrinking Woman?

 

My platform was invaluable when the book debuted. We were about six months into the pandemic, and at that point, there was zero possibility of doing any face-to-face promotion of the book. However, those same creatives I’d admired and supported over the years returned that support and love. That community inserted my name into conversations with people I’d never met and helped me set up a virtual book tour, readings, panels, and interviews.

 

Outside of those very practical promotional opportunities, the platform I built also championed my book because they’ve seen me as a person. I am wholly against being a brand or presenting a polished front. I can’t expect to write personal essays, but only open up about struggles, fears, and doubts when I want to promote something.

 

I think people are willing to read and engage with my work because I am a person who writes and not just a writer. I think that ties back to building an organic community. I may not have an intimate connection with all the people I encounter on social media, but I’m fairly certain most of them support me because there is something kindred and human between us.

 

You were a 2017 Callaloo fellow, a V.O.N.A. fellow, and a Tin House Workshop attendee on more than one occasion. What role do fellowships, workshops, and writing conferences play in your platform? Should writers make these events part of their platform strategy? Have you found they’re more helpful for some genres than others?

 

Recognizing that being able to attend these events is a privilege, I encourage writers to at least try attending workshops and conferences or applying for residencies and fellowships. While there are obstacles to attending, and at times they can be an echo chamber, there is such potential to meet and network with other creatives. Several people I met at these events were readers of my manuscript before I submitted it for publication. Others I join in writing sprints. Some have referred me for opportunities and clients, and I’ve done the same for them.

 

The intimate connections you make are not only important for your own platform building, but they can become invaluable to you as an individual.  Networking and engagement aren’t always effective on a large scale. Sometimes, it comes down to a couple of people helping guide each other and using their platforms to open doors for each other.

 

I’ve attended conferences, fellowships, and residencies as both a poet and an essayist, and I can’t really say one is more valuable than the other, but I will say you have to go into them with realistic expectations. Not all conversations and connections you make are going to be long lasting. Nurture those creatives who return the same energy after you’ve returned home.

 

Networking is such a crucial part of platform building. Conferences, residencies, and fellowships create concentrated opportunities for writers to get to know one another and that can lead to powerful synergistic relationships and collaborations. But yes, it’s vital to stay realistic. While I know writers who’ve met agents who went on to represent them while attending writing conferences, I’ve also known writers who met with one invested beta reader. I consider both experiences success stories.

 

Online, the advice about platform is always moremoremore—as in be in more places, strive for more impressive statistics, and clamor for more audience engagement. At the 2021 HippoCamp Conference, you spoke of the importance of finding a balance between writing, work, and life, and encourage writers to get clear about their individual visions for success. That’s important because not every writer dreams of being a New York Times Bestseller, nor does every writer have unlimited time to work on their platform. What does success look like for you? How will you know when your projects have achieved their goals?

 

Defining success on your own terms is something I recommend for anyone sending their work out into the world. It’s easy to get caught up in the success of others and then to compare your accomplishments to what you see on social media or what’s deemed as a successful writing career.

 

Success for me is being able to have my work read by a group of actively engaged readers and supporters. Instead of worrying about the numbers, I’m interested in how people listen and connect with what I’ve shared. When The Incredible Shrinking Woman debuted, I had very reasonable sales numbers in mind. As long as I hit that number, I was happy. The book surpassed that goal, so now every additional sale is icing on the cake.

 

For me, success is also being able to supplement my income through not only writing but also editing and speaking so I can one day transition out of my day job. When I was younger, I’d been convinced I wanted to be a full-time writer, but as I gained experience in editing and speaking, I found that I was happier doing a combination of all three. Once I determined my most desirable creative life, I set a very specific set of financial goals I needed to make between the three creative lanes in order to be comfortable and happy when transitioning into that life full-time.  

 

The final part of my success is becoming more confident in my writing voice and also understanding I have advice and experiences to share.

  

We can find you on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Do you have a favorite social media platform? Are there any you’ll never join or that don’t feel natural to you?

 

I genuinely enjoy Instagram. It’s the one social media app where I am most comfortable. I’ve found a way of balancing building a community, promoting my literary pursuits, and documenting my personal life in one account. For me, Instagram is the best of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr all rolled into one. On Instagram, I’m able to network as I would on Twitter, promote as I would on Facebook, and use the account as a bit of escapism by engaging with fandom, interior design, and entertainment users as I would on Tumblr.

 

What are you reading?

 

I’m currently reading Before the Earth Devours Us by Esteban Rodríguez. It’s a beautiful essay collection that debuted from Split/Lip Press at the end of September. I’m also working through my foundational books for the year. I decided to re-read 12 of my favorites in preparation for continuing work on my current manuscript. Some of those include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtson, and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

 

Wow! The description for Before the Earth Devours Us is amazing. I’ve been so impressed with the Split/Lip titles I’ve read. I’m adding this one to my reading list. And, I can’t wait to see how the influence of your foundational books shows up in your next book.

 

What’s next for you?

 

I’m really focused on finishing my new collection of essays. I’ll be taking part in the second book residency through Tin House this October to continue work on the book. I’m excited to see where the manuscript leads me. The new collection includes more research and looking outward in comparison to The Incredible Shrinking Woman. I’ve enjoyed writing it so far because it’s really forcing me to make connections to the larger world, which pushes past my writing comfort zone.

 

You can follow Athena online by clicking on the following links: 

 
Athena, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I absolutely love your wise counsel on how to manage our writing lives. I can’t wait to read your next book!  

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Ashleigh Renard rehabbed not just a shabby marriage but our views of what indie authors can do. Learn the secrets of her success.

Ashleigh Renard rehabbed not just a shabby marriage but our views of what indie authors can do. Learn the secrets of her success.

I first heard of Ashleigh Renard through a Facebook writing group I belong to. Every few days writers said things like “OMG I can’t wait to read Ashleigh’s new book,” or “Thank you Ashleigh for that great advice,” or “Because of Ashleigh I had this success.”

I soon discovered this figure-skating-coach-turned-writer is an Instagram maverick and author platform coach who had partnered with Allison K. Williams to run the Writer’s Bridge, a biweekly free-to-all platform chat. Coaching writers was one way she prepared to launch her memoir Swing.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ashleigh at the 2021 HippoCamp conference and soon discovered she’s as delightful as the posts written about her.

If you haven’t read her memoir, Swing is equal parts steamy look at swingers who attend sex clubs and story of a hard-working mom searching for the love and life she always wanted yet never believed she deserved. It’s led to several conversations between the hubby and me about the growth edges in our own marriage, which like most relationships, is a continual work in progress.

While readers rave about Swing, writers are enamored with her publishing story. In 2020, Ashleigh landed an agent and a book deal. But a lack of momentum led her to scrap that plan and forge ahead on her own. She started her own imprint, checked off all the indie-publisher boxes, then planned and executed a stellar book launch. To date, Swing has sold over 10,000 copies. Ashleigh is a regular on the podcast circuit who has over 48,000 Instagram followers. She’s successfully sold her book on TikTok, but more importantly, she’s achieved the self-publishing impossible: her book is sold in a brick-and-mortar independent bookstore.

It’s a great honor to interview Ashleigh as a part of my author-platform series.

During the first week of your book launch you sold an impressive 5000 books, with over 2000 of those being print copies in the US reported to BookScan. That’s enough to qualify for the New York Times bestsellers list. Those numbers also exceed the total sales most books see across their lifetime. What unique strategies did you use to create such a successful launch?

 Hitting those first-week numbers was exciting. Choosing to publish independently as a debut author, I didn’t have publisher clout or many industry reviews behind me. Sales and reader reactions were my metrics for how the book was being received. I outsold five titles on the NYT paperback nonfiction list that week, which encouraged me that yes, people want to read this book.

I had been educating my audience on the importance of preorders and supporting independent bookstores for a couple of years. I basically documented my literary citizenship. Anytime I preordered a book from my local indie bookstore I posted about it in my Instagram stories and tagged the author, the bookstore, and often the editor and imprint. At this point, most people I know are eager to make conscious purchasing decisions. By the time my preorders opened, many of my audience members had already started preordering books from their favorite authors.

My local indie was the exclusive retailer for signed copies. When I announced on my Instagram stories that preorders were open, the bookstore’s website was immediately overwhelmed. Many people messaged me saying they were trying to get a signed book but couldn’t. I reminded them that the book was available at Amazon. They all responded with, “Nope you taught me why I should order from an independent bookstore so I’m going to do it.”

These are the talking points I repeat over and over for my audience.

Preorders:

  1. Help publishers determine the investments they’ll make for marketing and publicity of a title.
  2. Strong presales increase the chances bookstores will stock the book.
  3. All preorders count for first-week sales, giving most authors their best chance at hitting a bestseller list.

Purchases from bookstores don’t just support small business––they benefit authors, too:

  1. Sales from independent bookstores are more heavily weighted on curated bestseller lists (like the NYT and the WSJ) because those customers are thought to be more serious readers. (Snobbish? Maybe. A fact that played into my strategy? Absolutely.)
  2. If many copies of a book move through a brick and mortar store it’s likely one of the employees will like it and give it favorable placement in the store, for example, “cover out” rather than “spine out.”
  3. Or they may choose it as a staff pick. When that happens, the book gets a special display, most likely with a handwritten note from the staff member letting readers know why they should buy this book.
  4. Booksellers and authors share a beautiful reciprocity. Even though publishers bring the book into the world, booksellers see the joy of readers picking it up and experience the special cha-ching of customers opening their wallets to buy a book they’re excited about. They are our feet on the ground who recommend our titles to people in their stores. I asked my local indie if they would be willing to serve as the exclusive retailer for signed copies. They don’t usually stock self-published books because they’ve had poor results with local authors. Luckily, my Instagram stories about their store helped me develop a relationship with one of their managers. She advocated for my book and my ability to promote sales. My discount was set at the industry standard of 55% and my book was returnable, so they agreed. They were a joy to work with and I aimed to be professional and gracious. They dedicated the space and employee hours to help me sign 600 copies in one afternoon, then had staff come in early the next day to package and transport them to the post office so customers would receive them by pub day. A few weeks later, Candace Bushnell’s people contacted the store to see if they would host a live, in-person event, and asked if the owner, by chance, had any ideas for a local author who would be a good conversation partner. Apparently, the bookstore owner couldn’t get my name out of her mouth fast enough. So, my first in-person event as a debut author was interviewing Candace Bushnell. I even bought a pair of Jimmy Choos to celebrate.

 

What helpful tips! I’ve been telling people to support their indie bookstore for years. Your success demonstrates why this is so important. Thank you for helping me make my point. What part did your platform play in your book launch?

My social media platform has two parts, the writers I engage with and support through Facebook groups and The Writers’ Bridge biweekly platform Q&A, and my readers, who I’ve attracted through Instagram and TikTok.

 Writers bought my book because they appreciated the support and encouragement I gave to the writing community (and likely because I preordered their book recently). My audience bought the book because they love the advice and perspective I offer on social media.

This is a great example of how giving back to the communities you care about can give you so much in return. You’ve created several successful video series for your Instagram including How to Keep Monogamy Hot, How to Get Your Kids to Clean the House, and Before You Get a Divorce to name a few. Couples have written to you about how they’re reading Swing together and then having honest conversations about how to build better relationships. Does your author platform enhance or frame the conversation happening within your book?  If not, is there another way your book and platform work together?

Couples reading my book together is the biggest (and most welcome!) surprise of this whole process. Seeing how my audience responds to my content always informs the next piece I write or the next video I create. The book is an extension of this. When questions come up after couples read the book, I’ll answer via DM (direct message) and often share about the question in my Instagram stories. I then ask my audience to answer questions for me on that topic or vote on what I should focus on next in my advice.

This sounds like a great way to keep your audience engaged. It seems like you’re an Instagram and TikTok maven. What’s your secret?

 After growing at a rate of 500 followers a year on Instagram, over the past 11 months I’ve averaged 1000 new audience members a week on Instagram and 1000 new followers a day on TikTok.

 I was a figure skating coach and choreographer for over 20 years, so I know better than to take an audience member’s attention for granted. Whether I was trying to impress a judge with my team’s choreography or trying to get 20 teenagers to give me their attention, cooperation, and execution, I needed to get to the point––and quick.

 Now, if you give me 30 seconds, I can make you feel comfortable, give you the feeling we’re on the same team, make you laugh, share information with an original slant, and leave you motivated to take action.

 My years of disarming skeptical adolescents have given me the ability to create content you can share with your spouse without blowback. For this reason, many people share my videos with their partners.

Getting to the point is such a vital skill for writers to master. Are there any social media platforms you struggle to use?  

I cannot figure out Snapchat, at all. I don’t get it. But I did figure out how to make ads there, which did very well. Women aged 25-55 who scroll Snapchat are incredibly interested when a video offers insight on rehabbing a shabby marriage. Imagine that.

What advice do you have for those of us who might be intimidated by the sheer number of posts you create or the sophistication of your videos?

When I was pushing preorders, I posted three times a day on Instagram. Those posts didn’t do well, so I cut back to about three posts a week and the performance went way up. Sometimes now I only post once a week. I’ve learned that frequency isn’t actually the golden ticket.

For me, what’s most effective is checking in (posting) on my Instagram stories several times a day. It’s a casual, fun place to workshop ideas or questions for my audience. All replies go to my DMs (direct messages). This makes people more comfortable asking questions or speaking honestly. I also ask my audience for help and advice (Is this thing on my eye a stye? What secret ingredient do you put in your chili? And just today: tell me your favorite cover songs of all time.), which they love to give.

My videos are usually 30 seconds long and take me about five minutes to film and ten minutes to caption. They may look sophisticated, but I avoid adding audio, transitions, or any effects. I only make videos when an idea pops into my head that’s crystal clear. Doing that three times per week is a snap and then it takes me two minutes to post to IG and TikTok.

 If you want to see how I do it, I’m teaching a class on it for Lounge Writers on September 22.

 When someone is overwhelmed by the idea of making a face-to-camera video I always tell them to start by watching a few Instagram stories and then experimenting with their own.

 

I love how you authentically engage with your audience. It seems like one of your not-so-secret strategies for success. Personally, it takes me a while to post something to social media. There’s the initial think time, then the drafting time, followed by the technical work of putting things together for platforms like Instagram. How much time do you spend per day on social media? How does that time work for or against your writing time? Do you have any time management secrets we can benefit from?

I actively work on my social media about four days a week. On those days I spend about four hours on my socials (2 hours on IG, 1.5 hours on TikTok, and 30 minutes on FB).

Here is the breakdown:

  • Instagram: 1 hour posting and captioning face-to-camera videos for my stories (15 minutes, 4 times a day), 1 hour responding to comments and direct messages (5 minutes, 12 times a day).
  • TikTok: 1 hour on TikTok live (while I am on live the app pushes out my previous videos in a big way. I often have 1k notifications by the time I jump off. Then I spend 30 minutes responding to comments and direct messages.
  • Facebook: 30 minutes responding to comment threads in FB groups.

 You may notice that none of this time above mentions making content or posting (outside of Instagram stories). Posting is quick––I can film and caption a video in 15 minutes or less.

I save screenshots of my Amazon reviews and have them in a photos album I share with my assistant (super easy since we are both Mac users). She uses the same background each time, picks out the best line(s) from each review, and makes a batch of quote cards with my custom GIFs. She can make a dozen quote cards in about half an hour. She uploads them to a shared album called “Quote Cards – Ready to Post.”

 

Having an assistant makes you sound so official. Have you had one the entire time, or is she a more recent addition to your team?

Until recently, I ran all aspects of my business. To encourage preorders, I offered my audiobook for free if readers preordered the print version. Two months before my book launch, I hired my 21-year-old niece, Geena, as an assistant. She manages all those preorder emails and sends out audiobook links to my readers.

When I’m invited for podcast interviews or brand collaborations, all those inquiries go to Geena. She confirms they’re a good fit and puts them on my calendar. If I’m behind on my inbox, she’ll go through my emails and make me a to do list. She preps my newsletters by customizing the templates in Flodesk (my new email service) by adding my photos and links. I coach writers one-on-one, developing a social media strategy based on their book or WIP. After videos are scripted, practiced, and filmed, Geena does the final edits and (closed) captioning.

She’s a tremendous help. Working with her forces me to develop some systems and protocols. I’m a bit spontaneous and knowing she is expecting A and B from me before she can complete C helps me prioritize. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months working out systems that are easy and efficient (and fun). We meet on Zoom Mondays and Fridays, but most of our communication is through shared notes, albums, and reminder lists (all on iPhone/Mac). Having an employee I appreciate has also pushed me to expand my business––I want more income so I can continue to give her raises and bonuses. Currently, I rely on book sales, one-on-one coaching, and one brand partnership for income, but in the next few months I’ll open three new revenue streams.

 

I can’t wait to see what those revenue streams look like. You’re the co-host of the Writer’s Bridge. Two weeks ago, your partner-in-crime, Allison K. Williams, shared some details about upcoming Writer’s Bridge events. Is there anything you’d like to add?

 Partnering with Allison has been one of the greatest gifts of pandemic––if not my life. I’ve never had a professional partnership where so much is accomplished with so much ease. This photo from HippoCamp by Kerri Tollinger captures it beautifully. I mean, who doesn’t want a partner who’s brilliant, funny, and trusts you completely? I think our Writers’ Bridge participants feel that and it’s contagious. We don’t sugar-coat the amount of work necessary, but we do help people believe they can do it and might even enjoy themselves in the process.

 What’s next for you?

 Three new things in the works:

  1. All my video content will soon be self-hosted on my website. I’m opening a subscription option for singles and couples, with members-only video content and reflection questions.
  2. I am expanding my social media strategy coaching with webinars.
  3. Coming soon: my own podcast/YouTube show

 What are you currently reading?

 A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar! If you liked The Celestine Prophecy or The Alchemist, you’ll love this book. Don’t miss our event together at Powell’s Books on September 24.

 I’m a huge fan of both The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist, so you’ve sold me on Ari’s book.

You can follow Ashleigh online by clicking on the following links: 

 Ashleigh, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I’m so impressed by all you’ve accomplished. I can’t wait to hear more about your podcast and to see what you write next.

Don’t want to miss the next interview?  Sign up for my newsletter.  

And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents.

Laura Cathcart Robbins went from rejections to award-winning podcaster, speaker, and writer. With her advice, you can do it too.

Laura Cathcart Robbins went from rejections to award-winning podcaster, speaker, and writer. With her advice, you can do it too.

I met Laura Cathcart Robbins in 2019 through a mutual friend. Her essay “I Was The Only Black Person At Elizabeth Gilbert And Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Brave Magic’ Retreat” had recently gone viral. The outpouring of responses from readers led her to create a podcast she was calling The Only One in the Room. The first episodes were being recorded and she was curious to see what might happen with her new venture. 

Two and a half years later, Laura is a regular contributor to HuffPo where she writes about addiction, recovery, and her experience as a black woman living in America. She’s an accomplished speaker whose essays have been published in The TemperIt’s Over Easy, and Tempest Sobriety, among others. 

And that podcast she started? Bustle has twice named The Only One in the Room as a top podcast alongside This American Life. Guests have included actors, activists, and authors including Dani Shapiro, Reema Zaman, Kiese Laymon, Amy Bond, and Athena Dixon. You should definitely check out her recent episode with Allison Hong Merrill, whose award-winning memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, comes out next week. 

I’m deeply grateful Laura took the time away from her busy schedule to speak with me.

 

Laura, your platform exploded after writing your “Brave Magic” essay. It’s been such a joy to watch it grow. What role have bylines played in your author’s platform?

I wanted (very badly) to see my byline in The Sun or McSweeney’s, but no matter what I submitted, I still received rejection notifications. I worried that as someone who never graduated from high school and never went to college, (and obviously) never got an MFA, that my style might not be sophisticated enough for all those lovely literary publications I was stalking.  But after submitting one article to Emily McCombs at Huffpo, she told me that she liked my voice and my style and asked me for more.  

Just before publishing my first article she said, “Make sure you’re ready, because this is a huge platform with millions of readers. Once this goes live your life is going to change.”

In 2020, my Huffpo article on “Zoom bombings” caught the attention of a PBS producer in Portugal, which resulted in a lovely ten-minute piece on my sobriety during the pandemic.  And in February of this year, another article I wrote for Huffpo caught the attention of a Channel 5 news producer, which resulted in a live interview with me on the subject of interracial relationships.  Some folks at UBS Wealth Management happened to catch that Channel 5 interview and then offered me a contract to speak at their 12,000-person women’s summit this past May. Last week I was interviewed on The Dr. Phil Show after they read my Huffpo article on Critical Race Theory

Can I just stop say, “You are on fire, my friend! I love seeing how your bright you’re shining right now.”

Thank you!

You now have a very successful podcast. How do your podcast and bylines inform your writing?  

One hundred percent, the platform feeds my writing and vice versa.  My partner, Scott Slaughter, and I try to be very intentional about choosing writing topics and podcast guests who are on-brand for me.  People find the podcast through my published pieces and then submit their stories to me. Many of our guests have opened journalistic doors for me and provided me with writing opportunities.

At a recent writing conference, I spoke with several writers who are interested in starting a podcast. Do you have advice for them?

Yes, I think writers have a huge advantage in podcasting because we’re storytellers.  When I’m trying to come up with a story idea for an article or essay, I look for that spark, that magical, inspirational thing that I can build an entire story around. It’s the same when I’m selecting guests for The Only One in The Room.  In the pre-interview, I listen to my guests talk and talk until I hear that one thing, and that’s when I start taking notes. That’s the good stuff. That’s my episode.

If you’re looking for more specific advice, my friend and fellow writer/author/podcaster Stefanie Wilder Taylor and I are teaching a virtual podcasting class on Saturday, September 18.

(Readers, if you’re interested in this class, send an email to StefanieWilderTaylor@gmail.com to get all the details.)
 
Last year you signed with Rebecca Gradinger at Fletcher and Co.  What parts of your platform helped with that process?

Interestingly enough, Anjali Singh at Ayesha Pande Literature rejected my book proposal in 2016.  But instead of a form letter, she wrote few a paragraphs that changed everything for me.  “You’re a beautiful writer,” she said. 

“But memoir is the hardest thing to sell, and I can’t sell you because no one knows who you are.  Start a blog, perhaps try some storytelling, start a podcast. Get yourself an elegant, easy-to-navigate website, and make sure everything you do is on there.  Put yourself out there on social media, book speaking gigs, interviews too, if possible.  And most importantly, publish as MANY articles as you can.”

After Rebecca read my query and the thirty pages I submitted to her in November 2020, she was impressed with my platform. “Keep all this up,” she said.  “The podcast, the articles, the interviews.  This is all very good.”

Very good indeed!

Writers are always looking for ways to build their platforms both on and offline. In 2018, you won the L.A. Moth Story Slam. Do you have any advice for writers who’d like to participate in a Moth event? 

Yes, practice.  For weeks before each Moth event, I practiced the entire story five to six times per day.  I practiced in the mirror. I practiced by myself on Zoom. I practiced in front of my boyfriend and my kids. I recorded my practice sessions on my phone audio recorder and then played those recordings while I was driving.  Also, I chose a story I knew extremely well. That way, if my brain stalled in the middle of my story, I could just pick up and hope no one would be the wiser.

That sounds like the right amount of practice. And I love the Zoom suggestion! It’s a great way to see how you’re presenting your story visually through facial expressions and body language. 

You have Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. I love seeing how you’re push-ups are progressing on Insta. Which platform do you feel most comfortable with? Are there any social media platforms you’ll never join? 

 Ayeee.  I’m not comfortable with any social media platforms and if I didn’t HAVE TO scroll or post my platform, I don’t think I would.  But of them all, I am most comfortable with Instagram.  For the podcast, we have someone who handles TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter for us (thank god).

What one thing would you like writers to know about author platforms?

I’m still hustling to build my platform, to add published articles, to secure impressive podcast guests.  I know that not every author needs a platform to get published, but I also know that having one helps a lot.

I would say you’re doing a lot more than hustling. You’re modeling how to successfully grow a platform.  

What are you currently reading?

Volunteer Slavery by Jill Nelson – it’s incredible.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully a contract with a publisher and then a book to promote! 

I can’t wait to hear that your book has been sold. 

 
You can follow Laura online by clicking on the following links: 

Don’t want to miss the next interview?  Sign up for my newsletter.  

And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents 

 

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