Writing Authentic Settings And Keeping A Series Fresh With Toby Neal

The best way to earn money as an indie fiction author is with a series, but how do you keep that series fresh over the long term? Joanna Penn, of The Creative Penn, discusses this topic and the importance of setting with Hawaii-based author, Toby Neal in today’s show.

Listen to the podcast of the September 26, 2016 show:

Watch the video of the show:

Transcript of the Interview:

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I’m here with Toby Neal. Welcome, Toby.

Toby: Hi, I’m so happy to be speaking with you and seeing you sort of in person.

Joanna: Yes, very cool. Just a little introduction.

Toby is an award winning USA Today Bestselling Author of mysteries, contemporary romance, YA, and nonfiction. She is also a mental health therapist, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories which is supercool.

Tell us a little bit about you and your writing background.

Toby: Well, I’m one of those writers who always wanted to be a writer, but then was told that I needed to sort of have a real job.

Joanna: Oh, that one.

Toby: Yes. So I did go ahead and get a real job, which was I’m a clinical social worker, which in the United States is a master’s level therapist, but it’s a third-year master so it’s one step down from a psychologist. And I am currently in private practice doing mental health therapy one day a week, but I never expected my writing to take over my career and replace it.

I began writing more seriously when I was 40 and my children were in high school. And I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel and that it was time to fulfill my dreams before they sort of expired. So I actually got started about 10, 11 years ago fully diving in.

Joanna: Wow.

So you still love your day job as such even though your day job is more writing, but the one day a week you do, you still love what you do.

Toby: Absolutely. It took so much to get all of that education. I was a mom going to college so it took me 12 years to get all my degrees and then another two years for a licensure. And it was a lot too because I don’t have to anymore that that was not enough.

What’s great about therapy is that it’s working closely with people in their deepest need and it informs my writing. It inspires me and it keeps me in touch with the real world where real people live. And so I felt like even though I don’t have to do it anymore, it enriches my writing.

And it’s a good chance to actually put on clothes and leave the house with makeup on. Oops, I made it sound like I write in the nude but that’s not what I’m saying.

Joanna: In your pajamas. But that’s really interesting.

Because you’re in a clinical field, do you have two separate names, two separate brands? Do you keep your writing very separate to your therapist life?

Toby: You know, that’s something I really struggled with early on and I almost did a pen name. And then I went with my integrity, which is one of my personal core values which is that if I can’t stand behind my name and my writing and my professional life, then I just I don’t want to be inauthentic in that way.

I’m going to go ahead and keep both, and I do have both. And I do have clients who Google me and then go, “Oh you’re a writer.” And then I’m like, “Yeah, are you okay with that? I’m not going to write about you.” That has come up but not as often as you’d think.

Joanna: That’s what I was thinking. Maybe people would be like, “Oh well, I recognize myself” even though it clearly wasn’t them. They might come up with an issue.

Toby: That’s always a risk. That’s always a risk, but I’m in a good position right now. Even if that were to happen, I feel like I could weather it so.

Joanna: Yes. Well, I think that’s really interesting. I’ve got loads of questions for you, but I’m now really interested in your therapist side because I did psychology so it’s fascinating. One of the things I obsess about with my fiction and Joanna Penn is happy, happy and then JF Penn I have my shadow side.

Toby: Yes.

Joanna: You’re living in happy Hawaii. We’ll come back to that.

How do you integrate your shadow side into your writing and is that something you that you deal with clients and then you tackle yourself?

Toby: That is such a wonderful question, and I feel like there is no clear answer. Writing is a way that we all try to understand ourselves better through the characters.

My first book was definitely inspired by my work. Blood Orchids is the story and basically my bestselling series. The overarching character arc of it is a woman who experiences childhood sexual abuse and then she is a cop and then she has these different cases come up bringing up her issues. And what I wanted to show through the course of the books, not just one story but the series, is what it takes for a woman to recover from that kind of trauma and abuse.

This absolutely relates to my background, not that I’m a survivor but that I worked with clients who were. And that’s where people have come to expect a level of authenticity and real experience in my books and that’s the gritty side, that gritty side of Hawaii.

I’m a third generation resident here, and yes, I look like I’m straight from Ireland, but I actually am the third generation of my family that to live in and grow up in Hawaii. That duality of paradise and darkness is just a theme in my work, and it’s something that I’m fascinated with. I think we don’t always get to choose our themes. They choose us.

Joanna: And that’s really interesting. Have you seen Top of the Lake?”

Toby: No.

Joanna: Top of the Lake is set in New Zealand. It’s set in a place called paradise in New Zealand, and it’s exactly what you’re saying. Because New Zealand is amazing. It’s really it’s a very dark series. So that’s another example and I think this is always true.

You think somewhere is always just going to be a paradise and then we’re human. Humans never all happy, happy and it’s all great.

Let’s talk about Hawaii. So you live on Maui, which I’ve been there so I’m totally going to come over at some point.

How does the location impact your writing? You’ve talked a bit about that, but what are your tips for owning a location?

Toby: That’s such an interesting thing because when I was trying to get started, I had a proposal for the series in the first book and I was seeking representation. This was in 2010 when things were just sort of starting to really melt down with the publishing world.

A lot of my rejections were based on it’s too niche. I was so frustrated with that because that wasn’t my experience. I felt like there was a giant backlog of readers interested in this market in this particular place and in these kinds of themes.

At the time, there was only two kind of writers that I found writing Hawaii mysteries. One was Jill Marie Landis and then another guy named Chip Hughes. They’re both still around both still writing.

And I thought you know what? When my agent couldn’t sell the series in part because of that but the other part was she retired. And I was like, “Oh no, what am I going to do?” And at that point, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to self-publish.”

That was the best decision I ever made, honestly. And what you see now if you type Hawaii mystery, your mind will be blown away by the huge numbers. I feel I was actually a part of breaking open that market into a subgenre where it’s an actual subgenre of its own with hundreds and hundreds of books and different authors.

What I encourage people to do is write about a place that they’re passionate about. Take readers there. I mean, look at Louise Penny and Three Pines. We want to know everything about Three Pines. And we love it and we’re never going to go there.

You can milk that vein of gold a long, long way. A couple of things I do that is unique is that I find local experts. This also saves me time as an indie. As you know, book production and speed is critical to success, but I also want to write well researched authentic books, which is what is associated with my name and brand now.

How I do that is I find an expert who knows all about the subject. Bone Hook, number 10, for instance, is all about reef conservation. So I came up with a plot that has to do with the delicate Hawaiian reefs and what’s happening with overfishing and runoff pollution and things like that.

I found this incredible young woman who is a former Department of Land and Natural Resources Agent. She investigated fish poaching and things like that and then she was also an environmental biologist, and she became my consultant. We went out went out kayaking on the reef together. She talked to me about all the fishing. She read the manuscript. I interviewed her in depth.

I pounded out the manuscript. I gave it to her. It didn’t slow down my process at all but it gave it that unique flavor and touch. If you’re going to write anything regional, you can really save time and then also do great PR.

Then I took photos of our outings into those protected areas. I wrote a blog post about her. She, of course, blasted all her friends and family and now I’ve got this wonderful connection with all these new people that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I repeat that process with each of the Lei Crime Series that requires it.

Joanna: Yes, that’s fantastic. I do a lot of research too. And yeah, kayaking on the reef, I’ve got to write a reef book, I think. That must be something I should do rather than like gritty London.

One of the questions that people often have about writing where you’re setting the book in a real place is can you use the name of a shop that’s really real or have a body found in a certain wharf that might offend the fishermen?

How do you deal with using real places in your books?

Toby: I actually use the body discovery and the crime scene as a way to highlight my personal take on the story. For instance, I mentioned Bone Hook. There is a little tiny atoll off the coast of Maui called Molokini, and it’s a little sunken half-moon shaped very famous island. People go snorkeling there all the time.

I made that my body dump, and I started the book in 90 feet of water off of that little atoll. And then what I was able to do is draw attention to the battle over resources in that area because exactly half of the atoll is protected and the other half isn’t. And fishermen come and fish.

Joanna: The fish don’t know where the boundary is.

Toby: Yeah, they don’t. And I also am careful not to take a side in my books, only to present the issues and use the scenario of the books to talk about the issues.

So for instance, I’m very sympathetic to the situation with fishing and the demand for local fish and then our fishermen trying to make a living. And I present that, I feel, very sympathetically as well as the concern about protecting our populations.

I did the same thing with Shattered Palms, which is set on top of Haleakalā in a protected cloud forest with our native birds which are also going extinct and many people don’t know that. And I grew up here and hardly knew about it.

An avian malaria at lower elevations has decimated the native birds and they can only live above 5,000 feet in the island. So that puts them on the very tops of the mountains and continued deforestation. So anyway, what do I have? I have poachers. I have a dead body in the preserve. And now I can create a scenario that then I can discuss the issues as the investigation unfolds.

That’s my suggestion is don’t take a side. Use your central plot to tease out the issues of the area. And there are many easy ways to do that, all those team meetings where they discuss, “Well, who would have a motive here?” Mystery does lend itself to that a little more than some other genres I would say.

Joanna: Yeah, I would agree with you. I love using real places. I think, actually, it makes it more believable, and it’s easier to create effective scenes. I’m always very proud when I can get it right in a place I haven’t been, although, I like doing all my travel research obviously.

Let’s talk about your main series, the Lei Crime Series because you’ve written 12 books now, but you might have written more since the last time I looked your profile. But 12 books and I’m just writing book nine in my Arkane Series. And I know that it can feel a little bit tired and then you get an e-mail from a reader going, “When’s the next book out in the series? I love the series.” And then it’s like, “I really have to carry on this series.”

What are your tips for creating a series that can go on for a long time and also about keeping your own interests? I guess you’ve mentioned a bit about theme, but what are some other things?

Toby: I wrote a pretty detailed blog post about that, and I submitted a link to you for your readers to share who want to go into it deeper.

or me, I absolutely have to be engaged with the subplot of the main series, which is my character’s development. I absolutely adored the Libbie Hawker interview you did because that brought that book, Take Off Your Pants, into my life which crystallized things that I was already doing but sort of by accident. I happened upon this and now, oh my gosh there is a process that I can follow step by step and it’s absolutely on target. So that actually pertains to a long series.

And like I explained, I was trying to show this process of recovery and for my heroine, her process of recovery was her work, number one. Therapy is actually showed quite a bit in the books. And I have a very well-rounded psychologist character who brings in that more formal treatment aspect. And then the love of a good man.

I have a romantic subplot that’s super powerful. And I would say that’s actually what the readers keep coming back for is like what’s going to happen next with that romantic subplot. Once I reached the end of that arc, which is into Book Number 12, I’m not going to say I’m not going to do anymore, but it’s completed. And it’s how to keep it fresh?

In my blog post, I talk about ways that I did that for me, which was I had to change up the subplot. I brought in a new stalker that went on for three books. Then I brought in the love interest. Her love interest, Stevens, developed an alcohol problem and that went on for three books. Like how are we going to resolve that? And then are they ever going to get to the wedding?

As we complete each of these subplot milestones, we needed to find more momentum for the next book or I couldn’t keep doing it. I won’t mention names, but certain mystery series, I’ve just stopped reading because the characters don’t evolve and the stories are static circles in a row. And just, for me, that’s not something I want to do as a writer. It bores me, and I can’t keep writing if I’m bored.

For me, the key is in the subplots and getting the subplots to extend and complete. And then the other thing is playing with points of view so people are continually surprised when they pick up my next book, “Who is going to tell this tale? Am I gonna see it in first person, third person?” And in my final book, I actually told the story from nine points of view.

Joanna: George RR Martin.

Toby: I don’t recommend that. I was blowing my own head with that because I was trying, again, in mystery, you can’t repeat the information. You have to keep moving the plot forward in every character’s mind. And that is a tremendous task when you’re doing that many points of view. So kudos to anybody who else who tries that and it’s intense.

Joanna: No, that’s great. Well, it sounds like you keep challenging yourself and that point of view is great and I did a book in my series from Jake’s point of view and now I know that he will also be the next one because I’m coming to New Orleans, and I want to write a book there. And so I’m going to have him do that one. It’s quite cool when you think about the different characters so that’s interesting.

One thing I did want to ask you is how many books does it take? Because the myth used to be that you write a book and then you make a million dollars and then you can resign and live happily ever after. And then when I was writing the ARKANE books, I really noticed three I was making, back in the day, it was more than $100 a month. I actually ticked out into something that was worth mentioning.

How long did it take for you and how patient should authors be?

Toby: Oh, that’s, again, your questions are so good. For my series, it started getting off the ground at three, but I was utilizing the tools that so many people have talked about, a free special on the first one and things like that. So there is nothing original I really have to say about that. But now, I believe it’s five.

My next series is a romance series and even with my established platform, the romances are very different from what I’ve done there. They’re set in other places. They’re kind of a sweet, hot new adult.

Joanna: Sweet and hot.

Toby: Yeah, they’re sweet and hot. Well, you can figure out what that is. And they’re just so not like my other books. I mean, they have this sort of emotion-driven intensity which is what people associated with my work, but they’re completely not like the Lei Series in that way.

I have struggled and struggled with them. I’ve changed the covers three different times. And then I’m like, “What? It’s just a numbers game.” I have to have at least five of these books, and I’ve only got three right now. And three doesn’t cut it anymore.

And I believe, particularly with romance and this is sort of my instinct both as a reader of romance and a psychology background person, is that romance readers basically fall in love not with the characters but with the author’s writing. And they’re not willing to commit until you’ve committed to their genre. And that’s my theory is that you prove your commitment by doing at least five books, and then you can maybe earn their trust and they’re buy-in to your series.

Maybe that flies in the face of, “Oh, there are so many millions of romance books free.” I know I won’t pick up even a free one if there isn’t going to be more in case I fall in love with this author. So that’s my theory about that. I hope there is something useful in there. It might be different for other genres, but I think in the current saturated market, you’ve got to commit to doing five books before you’re going to see much happen.

Joanna: I think it must be true of any voracious reader. I’m a voracious thriller reader, and I hate picking up a book and loving it and finding there’s only one book. And it’s like, “What?” It doesn’t even have to be a series. They can be standalone, but if they’re not in the same kind of genre or feel, I’ll be really, really annoyed. And also the International Thriller Writers did a survey that said, I think a reader has to read 3.7 books by an author approximately, so that’s four before they remember the author’s name.

Toby: Oh, wow.

Joanna: Yes.

Toby: Oh, that’s really good information.

Joanna: Exactly. Because who remembers the title of books? Like most of the time, you’re like, “Oh, I’ve just read the latest Lee Child.” You don’t remember the book titles, you remember the name of the author mainly. So I think that’s true in any in any genre, so I think that’s really valuable.

You mentioned PR earlier and, of course, you mentioned the perma-free.

What are your other recommendations on marketing a series in particular, especially when you put out a Book 12? Are you advertising the first book in the series? How are you getting people through that series?

Toby: I am doing the perma-free and that has been terrific to periodically blast that and draw in new readers, but then keeping it going.

But when I do a new book, this is my trick. I put the previous one, the one right before it, on sale for 99 cents and then I have the new book either available for preorder or on the market. And ideally, if I’m getting say number 11 for 99 cents, then I’m going to basically be able to sell number 12. And then they’re going to be like, “Oh and where’s more? Oh, the first one is free!” And then they go get that and the next thing you know, they’re thoroughly hooked into the whole series.

That’s my tip in the launching later books in the series is when you have a new one, put the previous one on sale and try and get good visibility on that 99 cents. And I don’t do it for a long time. I do it for like five days.

I am a believer in pricing for quality, so my price point is $4.99. And I’m not really going to put out books that are super cheap and leave them that way except for my entry books. That takes some holding the line and people feel differently about it.

Joanna: Yes. I do $4.99 for full length and $2.99 for novellas. And in the UK, that translates as £2.99. But actually, what’s so funny, Britain is now after America, as in it’s now all the traditional publishers are doing 0.99 pay deals like the Indies did a few years ago. It’s really quite funny.

Let’s talk about Kindle Worlds because you have a Kindle Worlds for your Lei Crime Series, which is cool because it definitely makes me think that they’re taking you seriously. Like Amazon’s going, “We want more books in the series.”

For anyone who doesn’t know, what is Kindle Worlds and why is it a good thing and maybe not such a good thing?

Toby: I just want to mention that I did a pretty detailed survey related piece for our ALLi podcast and there is a link there which I interviewed many different people who wrote for Kindle Worlds. I want to put that link out and you can take a really good balanced look at the pros and cons if people want to know more.

In a nutshell, Amazon decided to capture some cash off of fan fiction. And being the innovative company they were, they came up with a way of licensing that. And if you type in Kindle Worlds and go to the main site, you’ll see there are TV shows, there are comic books, and there are bestselling series.

The series parts came about partly because of my sales but also because I had an opportunity.This quality that you have to have for success is if you see an opportunity, you jump on it.

I was approached by one of the Amazon editors in charge of the Kindle Worlds to write for someone else’s Kindle World. He asked me, and I was so excited to be approached by Amazon and I was like, “So you’re offering me a Kindle World?” And he was like, “Let me get back to you on that. Let me take a look at your numbers, and let me find out who you are.” And basically, he was looking for high-selling indie writers and so I ended up selling him on me.

It’s turned out to be is a blast. I work really closely with my authors. And in the bigger, longer piece, you can read is that one of the downsides is maybe you think you’re going to get to know Hugh Howey really well by writing for his world and lo and behold, he is sailing the world right now and not gonna hold your hand through the process. So you may or may not have much help or support from the main author. I choose to do a lot of support and help and a really organized PR campaign every six months for the Kindle World books.

So what it is: Amazon has licensed with me to use these characters in this world in other works, and I make a small percentage on that and the writers make a small percentage.

I have two kinds of writers writing in Kindle Worlds and this is what I see in general. First-time newbies who are true fan fiction people who just want to write about the characters they love and maybe have a first book out. And maybe they’re starting to build their platform and get a feel for what self-publishing is and all of that, and they love it and it’s a good experience because their books sell. They will sell.

And then the other kind is an author with a backlist. And maybe the backlist is compatible with my work or my readers. I believe in this so much. I’ve done two Kindle World books for other worlds. One is for Russell Blake’s action adventure world and one is for Emily Kimelman’s also action adventure female protagonist. And both of those have served to bring those readers over to my books. So that’s a really powerful motivator to write for Kindle Worlds is to bring these eyes of these dedicated readers to your work and your backlist.

Joanna: Yeah, and it’s funny because I had a look at some of the books in your Kindle Worlds and what the biggest thing strikes me as a downside but perhaps you don’t see it as such is that you don’t have any control over the covers. You don’t have any control over the quality of the writing and yet it’s associated with your brand.

Given that you can’t say no to people either, you literally have no control, how do you deal with that?

Toby: How I deal with that is by making it worth the author’s while to associate with me personally. And that’s really why I do a lot more involvement with my authors than other writers because I don’t want really low-quality works being associated with my world or my name.

I offer a basically, “Hey, come on in. Be a part of our Facebook group.” I offer them beta readers who love the Lei Crime and will correct them and give them input.

The cover is a little tricky because I actually have branded covers that are done and this is a tricky thing. They’re done by a high-end designer who owns the copyrighted look. So I actually cannot have my covers look like my Kindle World covers because she owns that look. And so that’s how mine ended up sort of hodgepodgey. But if you look at Russell Blake’s, he owns his covers and so he was able to have all his Kindle World Books all kind of look like his.

For me, it has been a matter of, “Hey, I’m going to help promote your book and in return, you’re going to have some accountability with me about the quality of the of the aforementioned book.” I can’t obviously read them all. I’ve got 40 or 50 books in my world. I try to read them all once they’re out, and then I try to get them all into the Facebook group and associating with each other and cross promoting and reading each other’s manuscripts so that the quality will come up. And it has worked. It has worked.

For a relatively smaller Kindle World author compared to Melissa Foster and some of these other really big names, we have consistently really high reviews and solid strong sales that paid back my advance. We’re all making money. We’re all really stoked. So that’s extra work but it has really, I feel, paid off. That’s how I’ve handled that issue.

Joanna: One of the things that’s annoying is that it’s still not open to authors outside the U.S. I mean, this is annoying. Well, it makes me wonder how successful Amazon are thinking it is because why haven’t they opened it? I mean because why shouldn’t it just be part of KDP? I know there are some programs that they try and then if they’re not massive successes, they just don’t roll them out.

What’s your feeling on that and also how can non-U.S. authors get into it if they want to?

Toby: That’s a really interesting theory. I do know that some of the staff turned over in the Kindle World in terms of who’s running the program.

From our end, we have asked that multiple times. Why isn’t this international? This is a really big problem. And then the other thing we’ve asked is, why aren’t these Kindle World novellas eligible for KDP selects? It seems like a no-brainer. Yeah, and yet they aren’t.

The original editor that I worked with basically told me, “Yes, I believe in those things. Yes, I want to see those things happen. Yes, I’m trying to get that to happen.” And it never happened. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that my Kindle World is profitable.

I know that it’s also a lot of extra work and a lot of the main authors may not be willing or able to make that kind of commitment.

Then the other thing is what do you do if you’re a foreign author? I have several from Canada writing in my world and there are these third party distributors that are available. I thought about including links, but I would prefer for you to find your own.

My authors have been very, very happy. For a small percentage, these third party distributors will upload your book and handle all that and send you your payouts and all of that. So that is certainly available to foreign authors through a third party distributor. And hopefully, Amazon will roll that out soon. I don’t know. They don’t tell us.

Joanna: We’ve all got to remember that what’s profitable for us as an individual author, is not what Amazon might consider profitable on a bigger scale. But this is why I’ve held back because I would love to write in Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines. I really want to do that, and I would probably write in Jack’s as well. And my friend David Wood, I think, is going to be in there as well with one of his series. And then because it’s not available, I’ve made the mistake before – I jumped into a third party distributor with ACX before they rolled down to the UK and then a year later they rolled out to the UK. And of course, now I don’t get that income because that goes to someone else.

Toby: Oh my. You couldn’t pull it back?

Joanna: No, you can’t pull it back because it’s signed for eight years or whatever. And I was just like, “You know what? I always jump too soon.”

With Kindle World, it was like, “No, I’m going to wait because they’re bound to roll out,” and then it’s just still not happened. But that’s definitely something I think many people are interested in.

You can take it to your rep and say, “There are more authors who want to write in this.”

Toby: Definitely, definitely. That was what by joining ALLi, and I really love that organization, I know you talk about them a lot. I got to really get a flavor of that and the bigger picture of what foreign authors are looking for and struggling with. So yeah, I don’t know the answer to that. Amazon hasn’t told us, but they did keep reassuring us, “Yes, we’re going to do that. Yes, we’re going to do that.”

Joanna: We’re running out of time swiftly, but I did want to ask you just coming full circle back on the therapist thing because you’re writing all these different books. You’ve talked about how speed is important in getting books out, and we’ve heard stories of some indie authors giving up altogether. I mean not just indie, traditionally published authors too. Having to learn about marketing, there is so much that we have to do.

What are your tips for mentally staying the distance and doing this for a long term career? How can author sustain this for the long term?

Toby: I never thought I would have any writer’s block, but I guess it was partly exhaustion. In 4 years, I had written 20 books and I sort of hit a wall in November. And I also had just finished a book that I actually thought was my best book. It’s Red Rain, and it was number 11 in my series.

I just didn’t know that this trap was out there. And again, you grow and evolve, that’s my challenge to other writers is don’t ever get in a rut. Keep evolving, keep pushing yourself, keep trying new things. Try other genres. Try other perspectives. That’s what’s going to keep you writing and loving it. Not everything is going to make money, not everything is going to be a hit and maybe a lot of it won’t, but it’s the joy of the creative thing.

I was talking to my husband recently about the balancing act between the creativity of being a writer and then the sheer business of marketing and selling books. And it turns out, I have a knack. My grandfather was a tremendously successful self-made man, and I was like, “I think I just inherited that and I didn’t know it.” It turns out I have a knack, and I kind of love the challenge. Like, “Oh, I can’t figure out how to get this to go.”

For my romances, I try this, I try that, I try this, I try that. And I keep coming at it as long as I feel like the writing is strong and it’s something that I love and it’s something I can stand behind. For me, that’s really critical that aspect of integrity and of the creative risk-taking. I feel like risk-taking is important.

Back to my writer’s block, I wrote a blog post about that too. But what I ended up having to do was what I call going analog. So we’re all so digital and I had to go analog. I had to turn everything off. I had to turn my computer off. I had to turn my radio off in my car. I had to turn off music in my headphones, audiobooks, anything. And I had to just sit with the silence of my own head and my own thoughts and wait there.

I felt like a miner in front of the blank wall at the end of your mining shaft and it’s hot and sweaty and dark, and you don’t know where you are, and you’re just sitting there with your little tiny chisel going, “Am I ever going to find the gold again? Am I ever going to get out of here?”

I was there for four months writing by hand, everything turned off. And then it was actually Kindle World that got me loose. I had told Emily Kimelman, who’s now become my coauthoring partner, that I would do a novella for her Kindle world. I had a deadline. And I was like, “I’m blocked and I’ve gotta do this and it’s got to be done by X time for her launch” because it was a launch book.

And then I had this little tiny idea, two girls on a road trip that goes badly wrong. Kind of a Thelma & Louise with guns and bad Mexican police. And it was such an awful little idea, it was so embarrassing. After Red Rain, I wanted it to be like, “Oh, this writers’ got chops.” And how do I top myself? And it was actually like, “You know what? I have an idea.”

It’s like a balloon on a string. I’m just gonna grab it and tie it down, and I’m going to tie it down, and I’m going to and I’m going to go with it, and I’m going to be humble. And I’m going to say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. I’m at least writing again.”

And then that has led to the co-authoring. I’m coauthoring with Emily. We’re actually doing a six book romance thriller series, Apocalyptic: Love in the Time of Pandemic. It is awesome. I have to say. We’re both just on fire, it’s fabulous.

If you’re blocked to stuck, if you run out of gas, take the time to sit in that for a while and let that inform you about whatever it’s about in your life.

And then when you can get an idea, don’t kill it even if it’s a humble, little, sad little idea. My novella ended up being super fun and, I felt, came out very well. And it was just such a pleasure to be writing again that then now I am well on my way and producing again.

But I’m not counting myself out to run into that again because there’s these secret hidden mines, and they’re all in our mind. This is the therapist part of me that says it’s all about your cognitions and your beliefs.

There was a part of me that didn’t believe that once I had done my best work, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. It’s a cognition. It’s a belief. And I didn’t even know I had that until I ran into it. And so that’s why I say I know you’ve had several people talk about, “Never have writer’s block again.” I just honestly don’t think that. I feel like I have every possible tool to never get writer’s block again. But writer’s block comes from the mind, and we don’t always know what’s in our mind. And it can stumble us. Be prepared to just let it be what it is for a while.

Joanna: I think the emptiness that comes after you’ve given everything to a book like I wouldn’t personally call that block. I just call that “I’m now empty. I now need some time to fill myself up again in order that I can empty myself into the next book.”

Because if you do give everything that you’ve got to your book, then it’s the best thing you could have written at that point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write another best thing you’ve ever written like another time.

I know what you mean it’s all in your head, but I also think the so many people who are blocked are empty and they literally haven’t filled their creative well or they’ve just given it all away so then they need to start that process again. I think that’s a really good take.

Where can people find you and your books online?

Toby: Well, thanks to this podcast, I am out of KDP Select and available on all platforms. And I definitely give you the credit for that. I did very well in KDP Select. I was, I think, a five-time top author with the bonuses and everything. And I just couldn’t imagine that I could make more money and it could be better. But since I finally took the chance and I busted out of there, and if you’re going to do it, wait till you have a good batch of books. Like don’t just…bust out with a whole bunch of books and then you got clout and then do your special and re-launch yourself on all of the other platforms.

So you can find me on any of the stores right now. You could get the first three books in my series free by getting Blood Orchids because it’s perma-free. The second one, you sign up for my newsletter and you get that one. It’s an award-winning book. And the third one happens to be on sale right now so Lei Crime you could get the first three free if you were interested. But I totally feel like all platforms is the way to go for me now. But if I were starting out, I might still try KDP Select for the first three books and sort of build some momentum before I went that way, so that’s another thought.

Joanna: Yeah, brilliant. And then what’s your website so people know.

Toby: Tobyneal.net.

Joanna: Fantastic. And I will link to all those blog posts in the show notes. So thanks again for your time, Toby, that was great.

Toby: It was wonderful to see you. Thanks so much for having me.