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Quick & Easy Travel Sketching

You can take this class on Udemy with this link.

This class is also available on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style subscription platform where you can take all the classes you want for one low monthly fee. On Skillshare this one is divided into two classes:

Quick & Easy Travel Sketching

Paint Lively & Colorful Doors

Join me on a sketching trip in beautiful, lively Guanajuato, Mexico! A travel sketchbook is a great way to capture a vacation, and it’s a wonderful excuse to explore and observe when you’re traveling. Whether you’re an experienced artist or a beginner, this class will show you how to travel with art supplies and create quick sketches on the go.

We’re going to start with a simple building façade, and learn how to recognize familiar shapes and fit them together. Building facades are a great place to start, because you don’t have to think about the rules of perspective just yet. With a little simple measuring, you can get all the elements in place and have some fun with ink and watercolor.

Then we’ll zoom in and paint a charming, colorful old door, complete with peeling paint, ancient stones, and the other details that are so fun to capture in a sketchbook.

Finally, we’ll take a similar approach to a very basic landscape.

All three of these subjects have something in common: Once you’ve learned the basics of how to identify the big shapes, measure, and arrange them on the page, the rest comes pretty easily. That’s why this is the best way to begin travel sketching.

And Guanajuato, Mexico is a beautiful place to start!

Create a Garden and Nature Journal

A few years ago, I started a new garden journal on the day after the winter solstice–the first day of the new year, according to the sun, anyway. My intent with this particular journal was to document everything that was blooming or changing in Washington Park, the beautiful park just a couple blocks away from my house in Portland.

Of course I didn’t document everything–it’s a 458-acre park–but I did fill that sketchbook over the course of a year. And that process led to this class.

You can take the class on Skillshare, which is a membership-style platform like Netflix. Use this link to get a free trial and check out everything Skillshare has to offer.

On Skillshare, this class is actually two classes: Painting Lively & Vivid Greens, and Loose & Expressive Flowers & Leaves.

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you pay per class rather than a monthly membership. Here’s the link to take the class on Udemy.

Here’s a bit more about the class:

When it comes to creating a garden or nature journal, there’s so much that you can explore with paint and ink.

In this class, we’re going to focus on creating a complete garden scene, with a variety of plants and even a little structure peeking out from behind the foliage.

And in order to do that, we’re going to tackle one of the most challenging aspects of sketching the natural world: quickly mixing a variety of greens.

I’ve taken a lot of art classes over the years, and I think that sometimes painters can get a little too technical when it comes to greens. So in this class I’m going to simplify and demystify greens, so we can get on with our painting!

But that’s not all! Garden and nature journals come to life when you use watercolors to capture the intense, luminous colors you see in flowers, leaves, and other details. So we’re also going to work on ways to really push the paints towards bold, vibrant colors.

We’ll work on loose and expressive pen and ink lines, too. I’m going to show you my approach to creating lines and marks and shapes that look entirely original– like something that could only be made by you, at that particular place and that particular moment in time.

What we’re not going to do is get caught up in perfection or rigid accuracy. The great joy of a garden and nature journal is that it is a record of the time you spent in close observation. It’s a place for you to be yourself on the page.

With a little ink and watercolor, and some time to enjoy the outdoors, you can create a lively, personal record of your connection to nature.

Having you been putting off going paperless?

You can take this class on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style membership platform where you pay a monthly fee to watch all the classes you want. This link gets you a free trial.

Or if you’d rather only sign up for the classes you want to take, this class is also available on Udemy.

It’s the chore on everyone’s to-do list, but somehow we never get around to it: Going paperless.

Whether you’ve been meaning to start moving your household documents to the cloud, or you want to start scanning an automating the paperwork related to your very small business or home office, now is the time!

Every January, I hear so many of my self-employed friends complain about having to dig through receipts and get their records in order before tax time.

So let’s get this done.

Over the years, I’ve figured out ways to make going paperless easier and less intimidating.

We’ll talk about how to tackle a little at a time so you don’t get completely overwhelmed at this big task in front of you.

We’ll figure out what systems will work best for you, and how to put them in place.

I’ll show you how to handle ordinary household documents, like:

House and car records
Tax records
Banking records
Health and medical records
Rental properties
Boats, RVs and other toys
Kids and school records
Family records like old family photos

And we’ll work on small business records. For this, we’ll dive into:

Scanning business documents and forms that you use over and over
Tracking receipts and expenses
Tracking income
Deciding when to upgrade to a full accounting system like Quickbooks

Whether you’re going paperless for your home, office, or both, we’ll pay special attention to:

Password and internet security
Storing back-ups
Organizing documents so they’re easy to find
Keeping systems in place that will change how you work going forward.

So I made this class for all of you who are still struggling with how to go paperless without losing control of all your important records. Let’s go!

How do you find the time to do all the things you do?

Pictured above: What I’d like to be doing right now.

I get asked this question a lot, and I think it’s worth exploring, because we all struggle to manage the demands on our time.

First, here’s what “all the things” has consisted of over the years. I did have a day job while I wrote my first three books, or for roughly the first seven years of my writing career. Because I had a salary coming in, I didn’t spend a penny that I earned as a writer. I put it all in a separate bank account that was not very easy to get to, and I saved it up with the idea that I’d quit my job when I had a year’s living expenses in the bank. That took seven years.

After that, my income was a mix of paid speaking gigs, a little freelance writing, a stint doing freelance copyrighting for a local company, and book advances and royalties. That went on for another ten years or so.

I should say that in all these early years, we lived in a small, rural town where the cost of living was low so we could buy a house.  This is a real trade-off. I missed out on networking opportunities, was not considered for regional prizes, etc, because I didn’t live near a city. Also, flying in and out for all the speaking gigs was more expensive and required more days away than it would have if I’d spent more on housing and lived in a city.

Today, “all the things I do” includes writing books, making art, teaching online, and doing some  Zoom events to take the place of in-person speaking gigs. That’s pretty much all I do, apart from getting myself fed, exercised, showered, dressed, etc. every day.

So the simple way to answer this is to say that I truly don’t have any other obligations or responsibilities. I no longer have a day job, and–this is important– I also don’t have any family responsibilities: I don’t have kids, and my husband is very self-sufficient. No one depends on me for their day-to-day existence. If you are responsible for earning a paycheck or keeping other human beings alive, that does make a difference in how much time you have to pursue creative endeavors. No getting around it.

But the other answer is that I am sort of deliberate about how I structure my day. And I’ve figured out what kinds of things I can do and when I can do them throughout the day.

For instance, I don’t like to write in the mornings. Never have. So I write in the afternoons, after lunch. I paint in the mornings.

I know how to break a project down into bite-sized pieces and just do a little every day, knowing it will all add up. Writing a page a day gives me a book in a year. Spending an hour or two on a painting every morning gives me a new painting every few days.

And now that I’ve started to teach classes online, I’ve learned how to break that process down into smaller chunks and just do a little every day. (And by the way, I teach a class on developing good writing habits, which you can take on Skillshare or on Udemy , where I have made it part of a longer class on starting a book.)

I save up all that nonsensical admin work–answering emails, paying bills, etc–for late afternoon or evenings, when I’m too brain-dead to do anything interesting.

So how do I do what I do? A little at a time, and with the luxury of very few distractions.

At Some Point, You Just Have to Deal with the Painting in Front of You


Several years ago, I took a class with Qiang Huang, an amazing oil painter from Austin. We were all painting from still lifes set up next to our easels. His work is both beautifully precise and also loose and imaginative. That balance of accuracy and abstraction was what we were all after.

At one point he said, “Your still life setup is just a reference for the design you want to create. You’re not here to copy it.”

In other words, a still life setup or a reference photo or the landscape in front of you should just be a jumping-off point for the painting that you’re going to make. If you find yourself struggling to make an exact copy, you’ve lost the thread of the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think there comes a point in a painting or a drawing where you almost have to set the reference aside. At some point, you just have to deal with the painting that’s in front of you. What it needs next may not be found in the reference you’ve been using. It becomes a matter of stepping back, squinting, maybe taking a black-and-white photograph to check the values, and making a decision about what the painting itself needs, not whether it matches the thing you’re trying to paint or not.

This is true of writing as well. You might start off with a very fixed idea of what sort of book you’re writing and what you want it to be like when it’s finished. But at some point, the book becomes its own thing. At some point, you have to deal with the book that’s in front of you, not the one you had in your head when you started out.

Ann Patchett said something like this when she wrote about book ideas being like beautiful butterflies drifting around in the air. “I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.”

She’s talking about learning to live with the disappointment that inevitably comes when you compare the book you’ve written to the way it looked in your imagination before you started. And that disappointment is real.

In the case of a painting, though, I’d say that I never have a fixed idea, when I start, of how the painting’s going to look. I have my reference (a photo, maybe), and I know I’m going to make something out of it that somehow speaks to whatever drew me to the image in the first place. But I’m just as surprised as anyone else to see what it looks like when I’m done.

Here’s the painting that’s on my easel right now, along with the image I started with. It’s a tricky photo to copy as a painting, because of the way the headlights are blown out and the halos around them. I’ve made a lot of changes and I’m still tinkering. But there’s no point, at this stage, in looking at the photo anymore. The painting’s become its own thing.

I’m An Aspiring Author. Do I Need a Website?

Every month in my newsletter, I offer readers a chance to win the book of their choice if they ask me a question. I pick a question to answer in the next newsletter, then I send them their book.  This month, an aspiring author asked me, “I have 2 novels being shopped by my lit agent, at the moment I’m trying to decide whether a website is worth my time, energy or financial investment. Do you think an author’s website is worth having before they have anything published?”

The answer is YES, YES, YES, a thousand times YES! Here’s why.

It shows agents and publishers that you are a professional and that you are capable of doing simple tasks on the Internet. This sounds silly to say in 2019, but some publishing professionals are still suffering PTSD from the days, not too long ago, when authors refused to even get an email address. You have to show them that you can handle some business basics.

A website allows those agents and publishers to get a glimpse of you from another perspective. Yes, they have your manuscript/proposal, your cover letter, and whatever else you’ve put together. But if they Google you, they can just see you in a slightly different light. Even if your website gives them the same information they already have in front of them, it just helps to see it out there, in the world.

Your website is your calling card. It’s your doorstep. If you’re an aspiring author (or artist of any kind), you have ambitions to put yourself out there in the world. This is the first step. It doesn’t matter how new, inexperienced, or aspiring you are. Grab that domain name and build yourself a home online, even if it’s a rudimentary, temporary home.

A few years ago, I taught creative writing in an MFA program. I asked how many students had a website, or had even registered a domain name. Only one or two had. I was astonished. They were spending a fortune to earn a degree in writing, with the hopes of making it their career, but they hadn’t taken the simple step of a single-page website?

So. Put on some nice music, pour yourself a drink, and get this done in an hour. Here’s what you do.

First, register your name as your website domain if it’s available. If you can’t get your name, try for YourNameAuthor.com or YourNameBooks.com or YourNameWriter.com or something like that. (Don’t bother with .org, .biz, etc. Just get a good .com site) Do this today.  At GoDaddy, you can register your domain for about $10/year.  You can set up this domain anywhere, not just at GoDaddy. GoDaddy simply handles the registration and ownership. (and lots of other companies do this, too.)

Second, build a website. This does not have to be a massive, awful project. Pick a template. Do not spend hours looking at templates. Pick the first clean, simple one you see. Upload your photo, your bio, a contact form, and your social media links. You can quickly set up a page like this on GoDaddy, Squarespace, Wix, and many other sites. This is going to cost about $10/month no matter where you do it. Don’t agonize over which service to use. You might change your mind later once you have some books to sell. That’s OK. Just get something up there.

Third:  Once you’ve recovered from that phase of the project, dive back in for another hour. Add a second page or section called Projects (or something like that. Writing. Painting. Articles. Stories. Whatever your work is called). On that page or section, at the very least, make a list of links to whatever it is that you’ve already done.  Even better, add little thumbnail photos so there’s something nice and visual to go along with this list. It can include articles or stories you’ve published, interviews you’ve given, YouTube videos, a pie-eating contest you won…whatever you’ve got.

Ultimately, yes, you will need a more robust website kind of like mine. You might have to build it on a different platform, like WordPress. You might want to pay someone to do the basic construction so that you just go in and add text and pictures and updates. That’s what I do.  (and by the way, my website is a straight-up copy of three famous authors’ websites. I took ideas from each, sent screen shots to my designer, and told her to adapt those ideas to my site. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.)

If you haven’t found her yet, Jane Friedman is a great resource for website questions and everything an author might want to know about the business side of things.

Just get it done! Good luck!


The DIY MFA: How I Got an Arts Education Without Massive Debt

When I was on book tour recently, someone in the audience asked me what I thought about MFAs. I didn’t have much time to answer, but I told her that I have mixed feelings about a university arts education, and that I like the idea of a DIY MFA. That’s what I did. I’ve spent some money on my arts education, but I’ve done it over a thirty-year period and I’ve been selective and intentional about what I studied and why.  I promised to post a longer answer about what I did (and what anyone can do) – so here it is.

I’m not categorically opposed to MFAs. I’ve taught in an MFA program, and found my students to be hard-working, diligent, curious, and committed. A few have gone on to publish books or find work in their creative field. But an MFA isn’t for everyone. Here’s why:

Who Has the Money?

Have you been offered a scholarship or grant? Great! Go for it.

But nobody, in my opinion, should go into massive debt to get a fine arts education, unless they already have a career (or a spouse) with a steady paycheck and can comfortably afford the loan payments on their regular income. (Even then, think twice. Anyone’s career can take a hit. Anyone’s health can take a hit. Anyone’s marriage, for that matter, can take a hit. Don’t put your future self in an untenable position.) An MFA at a prestigious school, including room and board, can run to six figures.  Attending a local public university or taking a low-residency program could set you back twenty or thirty grand.

Even if you can pay cash for an MFA—think twice about that. Maybe you’re better off putting half in your retirement account and using the other half to fund your DIY MFA. (More on that in a minute)

Who Has the Time?

The burden on your time is another consideration. Most people working toward an MFA are juggling schoolwork with other obligations, namely jobs and families. If the only way to get through your MFA program is to put in fourteen hour days and marathon, late-night homework sessions, you’re probably not getting the full benefit of the program.

Learning a new skill takes time and attention—and by time, I mean chronological time. You need silence, empty moments, and opportunities to ruminate, tinker, and practice. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years for a new skill or concept to really sink in. That can’t be rushed. If you’re going too fast, and worried about a hundred different responsibilities, it’s possible that a good deal of your expensive arts education simply isn’t sinking in.

What Are You Actually Going to Learn?

There’s no guarantee that an MFA program will teach you what you want to learn. Every painter I know complains that they weren’t taught to draw and paint in art school. Writers are rarely given more than a perfunctory overview of the publishing process.

You might be taught how to teach in an MFA program—but is an adjunct faculty position really the best way to make a living while you pursue your art? Would you be better off working as an electrician, a pharmacist, or a dog walker—any kind of gig that doesn’t make a demand on your creative energy?

Why not do it yourself?

For all these reasons, I propose the DIY MFA. Take half the money you would’ve spent on an MFA—and by “take” the money, I mean either set it aside, if you (miraculously) already have the cash sitting around, or set up a separate bank account and transfer in HALF of what you would’ve spent on student loan payments. (Or less! You’d be amazed at what you can do with $100 a month.)

With that money, do the following:

Workshops. Find the artists you love and follow them on social media. Sign up for their newsletters. They’ll let you know when they’re teaching. Be prepared to enroll the minute their course registration goes live. Be prepared to travel. Putting yourself on a plane, and renting a place to stay, are worthwhile education expenses.

And if the artist you love doesn’t teach? Email and ask. Offer to host a workshop, if you think you can round up a dozen friends and locate a teaching space. I only teach writing when I’m invited to. If someone emailed me with an offer like this, I’d consider it.

Find the ateliers and art academies that offer courses that interest you, and follow them. Here in Portland, I can take art workshops at the Oregon Society of Artists, just a few blocks from my house. Writing workshops are always on offer at Literary Arts. Consider the cities to which you can easily travel. Do you have friends with a guest room in Santa Fe? Look for workshops there.

And don’t forget that free and low-cost workshops might pop up at the library, the parks and recreation department, the senior center, and your local college’s adult ed program.

And when you get into those workshops:  Ask the instructor to teach you what you want to learn. Most artists who teach are happy to modify their lesson plan, within reason. Just ask politely, and be specific. I’ve said things in art workshops like, “I love the way you show light hitting a surface. Can you demonstrate that?”

Ask if you can take process photos for your personal use. Keep every handout. Remember every exercise.  Trust me, you can get an entire semester’s education out of a three-day workshop if you keep doing the work after the workshop ends.

And here’s a bonus: After your workshop, invite some artist friends over and share a bit of what you learned. It’ll help you to make sense of it, and it’s a great way to extend a little arts education into your circle.

Finally…after the workshop ends, keep in touch with those instructors! Follow them on social media. Buy their work and recommend it to others. Send them a thank-you note. These are your professors. It’s OK to stay in touch with them.

Online tutorials. There’s a lifetime’s worth of free and low-cost art education available online.  I love these lively, funny basic drawing videos on YouTube. I learned everything I know about urban sketching from BluPrint. Peter Martin teaches jazz piano online. Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass on screenwriting looks amazing.

(Pro tip: Take these classes with a friend. Invite somebody over ever Tuesday night and do an online class, or a chapter out of an instruction book.)

Practice with a group. I’m not a fan of critique groups, but I LOVE practice groups. My dad played jazz in his living room with three other musicians for years. They weren’t looking to perform: they were just after a good practice session together. I know writers who make a date to write together, and writers who get together to spitball ideas for stories without ever showing each other a page of what they’ve written. I go out sketching with my local Urban Sketchers chapter. Weekly life drawing groups are available just about anywhere.

Find a walking buddy for your art. It’ll get you out of your rut, keep you accountable, and expose you to fresh ideas.

Create your own retreat. Renting a studio space is part of your arts education.  Escaping to a cabin in the woods is part of your arts education. Hiring a babysitter is part of your arts education. Taking unpaid leave from work is part of your arts education.  All of these things take money, but remember, this is the money that you saved by not getting an MFA. If it allows you the time and space to practice, explore, and make work—do it.

Buy subscriptions, memberships, and season tickets. Get a membership at your art museum, at the tier that offers you invitations to lectures and admission to partner museums around the country. Buy season tickets to a literary lecture series, symphony, or theater company. Subscribe to lavishly printed photography journals. Pay extra for online access to all of PBS’s arts programming. Support the groups that support artists, and go see great work.  (Hey, maybe you can persuade family & friends to give something like this as a gift instead of that sweater you won’t wear!)

Buy experimental materials. One of the great benefits of a university education is that you’re required to take courses outside your area of expertise. A painter might have to take a printmaking or sculpture class. A novelist might take a poetry class. A violinist might learn a little percussion. In art school, you are forced to experiment. So do that!

Recently, I saw a Richard Dibenkorn exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. I fell in love with his big, loose works on paper, and longed to go out and buy an enormous pad of paper and a bottle of ink. I just wanted to make big, loose, swirly, inky marks all over everything. If I was in art school, I could just run over to the studio and mess around with a bottle of ink or a lump of clay. But I wasn’t–so I ran over to the art supply store, bought some ink, and made a big glorious mess at home.

Turn yourself loose at the art supply store. If you have a sudden hankering to turn your novel into a screenplay, download Scrivner and give it a go. If you’re a classically-trained actor and you find yourself longing to make silly video shorts, go get a tripod and give it a try. Students approach their work with a spirit of experimentation, because the curriculum demands it, and because nothing’s set in concrete yet. You can do the same!

And even this can be done on the cheap. Don’t forget that musical instruments, easels, and unopened tubes of paint turn up regularly on Craigslist and eBay. Some artists hold swap meets to trade lightly-used gear and tools. Libraries are now making everything from 3-D printers to welding equipment available to their patrons.

In conclusion…None of this is free. It’s just cheaper than an MFA.

It’s also not over in two years. This is a blueprint for a lifelong education in the arts, paid on the installment plan. I’m three decades away from college and I’m still taking classes.

It still takes commitment, curiosity, community, and a lesson plan. It just happens to be a lesson plan of your own making.

The Rebecca Diaries

In December I started an art project based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel REBECCA.  I don’t know when I’ll finish it. It’s more like a book than an art project in that way: I can finish a painting in a day or two, but a book takes years, and it’s always an open question whether I’ll be able to finish a book at all. These paintings are like that.

Unlike a book manuscript, there’s no way to save earlier drafts. Most of the art I’ve made for this series is gone already; these photos are all I have to remember what I’ve done so far. I decided I ought to document it before I forget where I’ve been and what my intentions were.

Last fall I discovered cold wax medium, a soft, waxy paste that mixes with oil paint to change the texture and make it spreadable, like cake icing. Cold wax painters build up layers and scrape them back, as the paint hardens gradually to the consistency of a wax candle but remains pliable. I thought that was interesting, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it.

Then I went to a cold wax painting demonstration where the artist mentioned that she layers collage papers into her abstract cold wax paintings. I knew immediately what I wanted to do: I wanted to paint on book pages.

I wanted to paint on my book pages.

But the prospect of layering oil paint over the words I’d written seemed too…fraught. What was I saying, exactly? What would it mean to look back over twenty years of work, rip pages out of books, obliterate them with paint, and scrape them back to reveal what was left? What would be left? What would I be trying to say about my own life’s work?

Better to start with someone else’s book, I thought.

I had a galley of Courtney Maum’s wonderful novel COSTALEGRE floating around my office. Surely Courtney wouldn’t mind if I used her book as an art experiment. Her book IS an art experiment: it’s an absolutely gorgeous, vividly imagined telling of  the time Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, spent in Mexico. It was a novel about painting.

So I painted on it.


Book Marketing for Authors: What’s Behind Door Number One?

painting of a door opening onto a landscapeI hold a monthly online chat with writers about the craft and business of marketing. (To score an invitation, join my newsletter.) Each month, the group votes on a topic to discuss. Last month, it was marketing.  What should authors do to market their books? What works? What doesn’t?

Usually I have a few talking points prepared for these chats. Some strategies, tips, ideas, based on what’s worked for me over the years.

But when it came time to talk about marketing, I was at a loss. Why? Because what has worked for me has nothing to do with the standard list of marketing tips authors are generally confronted with.

What’s worked for me is what’s behind Door Number One. More about Door Number One in a minute.

First: there’s kind of a standard list of things that authors are asked to do to market their books. The list might look something like this:

  • Engage with readers on Facebook. Maybe start a Facebook group or a page devoted to your book’s topic
  • Be clever on Twitter
  • Document your life, your process, your passion, on Instagram
  • Make zany videos on TikTok
  • Send out a newsletter
  • Write book-adjacent essays for relevant publications
  • Network! Go to conferences, trade shows, gatherings connected to your book topic
  • Get active on Goodreads. Hold giveaways, start a book club, chat with readers
  • Recommend books and build a following on Bookbub
  • Offer a free bit of swag to everyone who pre-orders your book

I could go on. If you’re a writer, this sort of list is probably familiar to you.

What I told the writers in my group was this: Just because this list of tasks exists doesn’t mean that any of it works. There’s not a great deal of data-gathering that goes on in the publishing world. It’s easy to come up with a list of vaguely helpful-sounding tasks that writers could do to promote their work. It’s hard to say definitively whether any of it will make a difference.

Sometimes I will question my publicist about whether a particular task is really worthwhile.

“Well, it couldn’t hurt,” is the answer I usually get. “Every little bit helps.”

And that’s true! But the problem with “every little bit helps” is that it doesn’t give us a way to choose one task over another. It assumes that All the Things are equally worthwhile. But surely they’re not. How could they be? And how do we pick the best way to make use of our limited time?

Also–is it really the case that it can’t hurt? What if it leaves you, the author, feeling anxious and ineffective and miserable? What if it interferes with your ability to write your next book?

No publicist will ever say, “You know what? I think TikTok is bad for your creative spirit. Go walk in the woods for a month. Connect with your innermost self. Speak your truth. Don’t waste your time on this nonsense. You have another great book in you, and what’s important is that we preserve your psyche so you can continue your creative journey.”

Just because there is a long list of tasks authors could do to market their books does not mean that these tasks reliably result in sales. And we can end up hurt and confused when we do All the Things, and do them very well, to no real effect. We end up wondering, “But where are the results?” But in fact, no results were ever promised. It was always just a list of tasks.

So what does work? Honestly, what has worked for me in my career, with a handful of New York Times bestsellers and twenty years as a full-time, self-supporting writer under my belt, is What’s Behind Door Number One.

Door Number One is my shorthand for the treatment that a lead title gets. When a medium to large-sized publisher is really excited about a book, and/or has paid a lot of money for it, an entirely different marketing plan rolls out–one that has very little to do with the list above.

This plan is chock-full of things that actually do work, and can reliably propel a book onto a bestseller list. But authors don’t hear about Door Number One until — unless– that door opens for them.

What’s behind Door Number One?

  • Media luncheons with major news outlets, in which the author is flown out to New York, gets all dressed up, and pitches her book to reporters, reviewers, and editors.
  • Bookseller dinners, in which the author is flown around the country and wines and dines with key booksellers and buyers in a position to place big orders. (I’ve had breakfast with Amazon buyers! Lunch with the Ingram team!)
  • A big to-do at launch and sales conference, which are in-house affairs in which your editor (or you, if you’re flown in to do this, and/or if your publisher hires a videographer to film you presenting your book, I’ve had both happen) pitches your book to a huge room of salespeople.
  • Meetings with producers of radio and television shows in which your publicist pitches your book for a prized segment on a national show
  • Full-page ads in major magazines and newspapers
  • Massive pre-publication mailings to media outlets and influencers (a publisher once handed out 1000 copies of my book to media outlets and booksellers.)
  • Special author events at regional bookseller trade shows in the months leading up to publication (the publisher sometimes has to pay for an author to get one of these slots, in addition to travel expenses)
  • Major bookstore and library campaigns to get your book selected for their staff pick lists (again involving mailing out hundreds of advance copies, although lately these are going digital)
  • Payment for prime physical placement in bookstores and high visibility on online retailer websites
  • A 20-30 city book tour that can include ticketed events at large community groups with audiences of 1000 or more
  • A fully-loaded schedule of author interviews for TV, radio, top podcasts, magazines, top websites, etc.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some of it, but you get the idea. This is the menu most of us don’t even see. And authors don’t reliably get this treatment every time. I’ve had this treatment for exactly four of the thirteen books I’ve written.

And guess what? It WORKS. This is what reliably sells books.

It’ll work better for some books than others, and I’m sure every publisher has a story about a book that got the full lead title treatment and went nowhere. Also, some books don’t get this treatment and go on to do astonishingly well. But in general, THIS is what publishers do when they want a book to succeed.

But here’s the catch: they can’t do it for every book! They have to pick and choose. Of course they do. No publisher has unlimited funds and unlimited time to give every book this treatment.

As I told the writers in my group, my intention is not to make everyone feel bad because they’re missing out on Door Number One. My intention is simply to fill in the gap between “nobody really knows what works when it comes to book marketing, it’s such a mystery” and “this book sold a million copies last year.” It’s hard to reconcile those two statements! If nobody knows what works, then how does any book sell at all?

So this is the answer. Broadly speaking (with some exceptions, of course), the books that succeed wildly do so because they got the package behind Door Number One.

But your publisher won’t tell you this, because it would be a super-awkward conversation to have. If they were being entirely honest, the conversation would be something like, “Well, we have a lovely package of highly effective book publicity that we will be rolling out this fall for the book or books we feel are most likely to succeed. Your book is not one of those. Have you considered holding a contest on Facebook?”

(I wish I could remember the comedian who had a bit about pitching TV shows to networks. “When they say ‘we don’t have the budget’,” he said, “what they mean is, ‘we don’t have the budget for YOU. We don’t have the money for THAT.’ Of course they have the money. But the money’s for someone else.”)

Please don’t go beat yourself up because your book didn’t win the lovely package behind Door Number One! It might well be a fantastic book. But maybe your publisher is also releasing Michelle Obama’s biography in the same month. Maybe another title just landed a big film deal ahead of publication, and that propelled it to the top of the list. Who knows why your book didn’t land in the top slot? Who knows why so many of my books haven’t landed the top slot?

I would suggest: Don’t even set this as your ambition. It’s a thing that is totally out of your control, so don’t go pinning your hopes and happiness to it.

It’s enough to write the best book you possibly can, and then to go on and write the next book. That is enough.

But if you’re an author, and you’re wondering if you really have to do All the Things, or if you’re feeling like a failure because you did All the Things and it didn’t really help, here is my advice:

  1. Write your next book.
  2. Do those marketing tasks that you genuinely enjoy (I genuinely enjoy sending out my newsletter, for instance.)
  3. Write your next book.
  4. Do those marketing tasks that seem genuinely important to your publisher, and chalk it up as a relationship-building activity with your publisher. (They want to know that you are open to their ideas and that you are a cheerful and capable person to work with. They are regular people like you, doing their best in a job in which they are probably underpaid and overworked. Just do some of the things they ask you to do, and be nice about it.)
  5. Write your next book.
  6. Write your next book.
  7. Write your next book.

(Updated to add: Here’s a terrific Twitter thread on this topic.)




In 1918, We Collected Peach Pits for Gas Masks


I’ve been talking to a lot of book clubs lately (y’all are figuring out Zoom! Yay!), and something that keeps coming up are all those weird bits of research that either don’t make it into the books at all, or that end up in the book as one tossed-off line, when really there’s a whole crazy story to tell.

So here’s one of those crazy stories, in collage form: during WWI, we collected peach pits to use as charcoal filters in gas masks for our soldiers fighting overseas. The government paid farmers $7.50 a ton for any peach pits they could load on a train. “It is urged as a patriotic duty that all farmers turn in every available peach pit,” this article reads.

But it wasn’t just farmers–we were all expected to save our peach pits, apricot pits, and walnut shells to be made into gas mask filters. It was a service activity that kids could do–they’d go door-to-door with wagons and collect from neighbors, or set up outside a market with buckets to collect whatever fruit pits people could donate.

“The Army Wants Your Peach Pits,” read headlines nationwide in August 1918. This was precisely when the fighting in France was at its worst. The pits went to a factory in San Francisco, where they were made into carbon filters. It took 200 pits to make a single carbon filter for a soldier to survive one gas attack.