Book Review: Freak, Geek, Goddess by Jessica Lincoln

I recently started reviewing books for Reedsy Discovery, and here’s my first review, for Jessica Lincoln’s Freak, Geek, Goddess; Tales of Survival From Trust Fund High.

I gave the book three stars — ⭐⭐⭐ — and summed it up as follows:

Jessica Lincoln brings a unique voice to the often-told tale of learning to be true to yourself.

Full review below!

“What if being me makes me Freak Girl?”

Riley is worried about high school. Nobody likes her new haircut, she doesn’t know how to get to class, and her best friend Kaitlyn is obsessed with the Dukes and Duchesses — high school royalty. Kaitlyn wants Riley to skip fifth period and drive around with a couple of Dukes who tell sexist jokes and keep lumps of chewing tobacco in their mouths. Riley wants… well, she wants to be herself, but she’s afraid that it’ll make her look like a freak.

While Freak Geek Goddess could be the type of coming-of-age story appropriate for fans of Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF, be aware that Lincoln’s novel goes a little darker than comparable titles. Early chapters find Riley getting pressured into a navel piercing that promptly becomes infected, and earning a poor grade on a project after skipping class. By the end of the book Riley has experienced alcohol poisoning and sexual assault.

The story, told through Riley’s voice, is engaging; a reader may correctly predict that Riley will overcome her insecurities and triumph, but the path Lincoln takes to get there is not so predictable — and, in some ways, more realistic than similar high school narratives.

The book’s biggest flaw? Riley is just as judgmental as the Dukes and Duchesses. Readers who prefer their protagonists not crack jokes about “over-eager anorexics,” “popularity whores,” or “gender confusion issues” may want to look elsewhere; readers who want their heroines to show as much compassion to others as they wish they had been shown will be disappointed by Riley’s lack of character growth. Being true to yourself doesn’t always mean being a good person.

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How Do We Know When We’re Doing Our Best Work?

My NEXT BOOK draft currently stands at 14,526 words, and I wouldn’t consider any of those words my “best work.”

Not even the 310 words I shared with you last Friday.

It’s some of my most interesting work, and I think the plot is by far my best plot, and the questions it addresses are particularly immediate and relevant to the group of people whom I envision as its ideal readers*, but it’s not my best writing.

Yet.

Which means it’s time to bring up the question that I promised I’d explore at some point: how do we know when we’re doing our best work?

I know that NEXT BOOK is not yet my best work because it doesn’t yet communicate what I want it to communicate to an audience.

That is: I know that NEXT BOOK is never going to be the story I felt inside my head, all at once, when I climbed the stairs of the Brucemore Mansion. That was kind of like… well, I’d been digging at this potential novel about Mars that wasn’t going anywhere, and my mom and I went to tour Brucemore over Christmas because they had all the decorations up, and I saw a staircase that reminded me of the staircase in this mansion that I dream about on the reg, a big old house with a bunch of secret doors and secret rooms, and I was all I want to write about a big old house with a bunch of secret doors and one of the doors leads to another world and the person who knows that has to decide whether she’s going to go.

And then I had to work out the rest of the story, because that’s really only the exposition. The decision process can’t take much more than the first third of the book, because you can’t really dangle a portal fantasy in front of your reader without eventually having your protagonist go through the portal.

So that’s what I did during the rest of the Brucemore tour, in a very general “this is what I want it to feel like” way, and I also figured out who my three main characters were and what they wanted, and then I went to the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar and started studying plot and made everything a lot more specific.

But it’s still not specific enough. With this draft, I’m putting down all the little pencil markings you do before you trace over the markings you want with ink. I’m literally writing down three different ways of describing something and telling myself I’ll pick one later.

(This probably means my actual word count, of “words that form the story and don’t just explore different ways of writing something,” is closer to 14,000.)

So… NEXT BOOK is not my best work (yet), and part of that is because I still have a lot of work left to do.

What about my freelance writing?

I still think that it all comes down to “does this communicate what it set out to communicate,” which in freelancing often includes “does this piece fulfill the client’s specs?” Did I successfully write a 1,000-word article that helps readers decide whether to sign up with Hilton Honors or Marriott Bonvoy?

When I was writing for The Billfold, I got instant feedback on whether my writing communicated what it was supposed to communicate — because if it didn’t, I got dozens of comments either asking questions about the piece or informing me of something I’d neglected to consider. I also had access to the back end analytics stuff, which meant I could see which articles were getting the most views. (This usually means you’ve got a headline that communicates what it’s supposed to communicate, i.e. “HERE’S WHY YOU SHOULD READ ME!”)

I don’t get that kind of detailed analytic information from my current freelance clients, and many sites have stopped doing comments altogether, so it’s harder to tell whether my current posts are doing what they’re supposed to do. Luckily, by this point I’ve had a lot of practice at this kind of writing. Plus, I have a new metric: am I still getting hired? Are my current clients asking me to contribute more work, and are new clients reaching out to me?

At this point, you might be asking “what about, like, beautiful prose?” I enjoy a well-turned phrase as much as the next person, but I stand by my initial assessment that it’s only beautiful if it’s understandable. Even nonliteral writing — our poets, our James Joyces, etc. — is understandable in the sense that it evokes an emotional response in the reader and by doing so communicates what it was intended to communicate.

We get Jabberwocky, even though Lewis Carroll made half the words up.

If we don’t get it, maybe it’s not for us. Maybe we’re not the ideal audience, e.g. “Pixar’s ‘Bao’ Draws Mixed Reactions From White Peeps Who Don’t Get Asian Culture.”

If nobody gets it, maybe it’s not for anybody. Maybe the writer was writing just for themselves and not for an audience. Maybe it wasn’t the writer’s best work.

One more note before I finish this up: when I teach my How to Freelance class, I ask my students to draft short posts “to spec,” and many of them use this assignment as an opportunity to show off the most beautiful and/or clever phrases they can come up with. The problem? Online writing favors clear, simple sentences. I’ve worked with clients that have required me to submit text at no higher than a seventh-grade reading level, because they want to make sure it can be understood by as many people as possible.

In this case your definition of “best work” may be different than your client’s definition — so go with theirs, and find an hour every day to write the glorious, elegant, delightful, quippy little phrases that may someday end up in your novel or memoir or poetry collection.

Make sure you write down every one that pops into your head, so you can go back and choose your favorites when you edit the draft. ❤️

*Ideal reader for NEXT BOOK: the Millennial who totally wishes they could go to a fantasy world if they had the chance, but might not actually say yes if it were offered because they’ve, like, got responsibilities. (Or, more specifically: readers between ages 23-38 who loved Narnia and Harry Potter and The Magicians and want a book where a grown adult in a time period a lot like our own gets the opportunity to travel to a magical kingdom.)

Two Articles and One Podcast on the Media We Choose to Consume

LitHub: The 25 Authors Who’ve Made the Most Money in the Past Decade

Some takeaways: 1. Franchises make money, and so do adaptations, but if you want to be a literary millionaire, you really have to write a) for children or b) a mystery (or romance) that strikes fear (or lust) in the hearts of the world. 2. It’s hard to beat James Patterson, but a true phenomenon (Harry PotterFifty Shades of Grey can do it). 3. Some years were good for writers in general, others were (relatively) lean across the board. A full accounting follows. Good luck, aspiring writers.

Maybe you really should be going after the “older woman younger man humorous romance where the younger man has a really cute dog” niche.

The Millions: Women and Small Publishers Dominate 2019 Man Booker International Prize Longlist

The prize honors the best translated fiction from around the world and splits the £50,00 prize evenly between authors and translators. This year, the longlist features authors from 12 countries and books translated from nine languages; it is dominated by women and independent publishers.

This is the first year in a while where I haven’t read any of the books on the Man Booker longlist. Do you have any recommendations?

The Indicator From Planet Money: The Economy Inside Your Head

LEIGH CALDWELL: American adults are now spending 11 hours a day consuming media. And media is the ultimate immaterial good. It’s something that really plays within your head. You might — it’s triggered by something outside, but really, all of the benefit that you get, all the enjoyment you get is inside your own mind.

What about the enjoyment you get while consuming media WITH FRIENDS? Is that inside your own mind, or outside of it?

What about when media moves you to laughter or tears? Or when you talk to the characters on the screen because they’re about to go into the abandoned house full of zombies and THEY REALLY SHOULDN’T GO INTO THE ABANDONED HOUSE FULL OF ZOMBIES? Is it “just inside your head” when your head is making sounds that come out of your head?

For that matter, why isn’t a live concert or sports game something you only enjoy “inside your mind,” since the sitting-and-watching principle is the same?

And what about actual sports? You feel the running and jumping and stuff in your body, but you enjoy it in your mind — because most of the time your body is like wow this is a lot of work you’re asking me to do right now and your brain is like wheeeeeendorphins!!!!!

Anyway I enjoyed this podcast episode but I have a LOT OF QUESTIONS about its “inside your mind” assumptions, PLEASE DISCUSS. ❤️

Saturday Open Thread

Time to discuss whatever you want — and if you want something to discuss, I’ll ask whether you’re planning any spring cleaning this weekend (or next weekend).

I’m going to put away the winter sweaters and the heavy coat and get out my favorite Breton-esque striped shirts (of which I currently own eight, because I don’t like having to decide what to wear in the morning) and then cross my fingers that the weather won’t get cold again. There are still piles of snow on the side of the road, but we’re supposed to break 60 degrees by the end of next week, so… maybe spring will arrive on time. ❤️

A Very Very Brief Excerpt of NEXT BOOK

310 of the current 13,093 words. ALL OF THESE WORDS ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

I haven’t named Ellen’s Slack friends yet. But I have begun to suss out their personalities.

ellen.everton: so hypothetically

ellen.everton: if you had the chance to go to Narnia or fairyland or whatever

ellen.everton: would you?

NAME NAME 1: HUNDO PEE

NAME NAME 1: BRING ON THE QUEST

NAME NAME 1: I WILL DRAW MY SWORD AND FIGHT

ellen.everton: what if you don’t know how to do a sword

NAME NAME 1: there’ll be a training montage

NAME NAME 2: idk do you really want to be Frodo though, or Bilbo

NAME NAME 2: it wasn’t all second breakfasts

NAME NAME 3: more like second breakfasts and PTSD

NAME NAME 3: if you examine the literature, you’ve got, like, “everyone dies and they dance around in Aslan heaven” (Narnia) “everyone learns that fantasy kingdoms are a lot harder to govern than they thought” (The Magicians, also a lot of people die) “everyone gets kicked back into their own worlds and they spend their lives struggling to adjust” (6/7 of Narnia, Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children, potentially stuff like Neverwhere and LOTR)

NAME NAME 3: (if you count the Shire as a separate world)

NAME NAME 2: but that’s how the hero’s journey goes according to Joey C: you always end up home again

NAME NAME 2: what’s that TS Eliot quote about returning and seeing the place you once knew as if for the first time

ellen.everton: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” thanks Google

NAME NAME 2: there you go

ellen.everton: so the question then becomes: is it worth it to do the exploring

NAME NAME 1: did you not read the quote you just copy-pasted

NAME NAME 1: WE SHALL NOT CEASE

NAME NAME 1: it can’t be not worth it because you can’t not do it

Also, for those of you following me on Twitter and wondering how this book can have both a mysterious old house with a bunch of secret doors and, like, Slack, let me remind you that this is 2019, we can have all of this AND MORE. ❤️

Indie Author Advice From Seth Godin’s ‘This Is Marketing’

If you’re already familiar with Seth Godin’s blog, or have already read any of his bestselling books — Linchpin, Purple Cow, etc. — you already know a lot of what he’s going to tell you in his newest book, This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.

  • Make a product that solves a real person’s problem.
  • Get really specific about what kind of person you’re targeting and what problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Don’t be a brown cow (boring, typical), be a purple cow (unique, remarkable, phenomenal).

So I wanted to focus on just one section of this book that happens to be particularly relevant to creative career types (aka “the kind of person this blog is targeting”).

In Chapter Nineteen: The Funnel, Seth writes about “life on the long tail:”

On the left are the hits. There aren’t as many of them, but they each sell a lot. In fact, number one sells ten times as many copies as number ten, and a hundred times as many as number one hundred. A hit is magical.

On the right are the rest. The long tail: good products of specialized interest. Each, by itself, doesn’t sell many copies, but taken together, the long tail sells as much as the short head.

Half of Amazon’s sales are books that are not in the top five thousand. Half!

Half of the music consumed on streaming sites isn’t available in stores. Not half the titles, half the volume.

Amazon can do great with this strategy since they sell all the available books. Each author, though, is in pain: selling one to two books a day is no way to make a living.

Seth’s advice is to become the “short head” of a specialized market, e.g. the best person selling “video courses on using a GH5 camera to make movies.”

Or, in the self-publishing world, the best person writing “steamy older woman younger man romance.”

If you’ve spent any time on Amazon recently, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of indie genre fiction authors have started using specific genre keywords in their titles. We’ve got Gloria King’s Love Thy Neighbor: Steamy Older Woman Younger Man Romance, for example, or A.R. Winters’ Cooks, Crooks and Cruises: A Humorous Cruise Ship Cozy Mystery (Cruise Ship Cozy Mysteries Book 2). They want readers to know exactly what they’re getting, so the readers who want exactly what they’re offering will be incentivized to purchase.

This is one way to get around the “can’t make a living selling two books a day” effect. (At roughly $2.50 in royalties per book, that’d be $1,825 a year before taxes.)

The other way to get around the “can’t make a living selling two books a day” thing is to find ways of earning money besides selling books.

Like keeping your day job. (As many authors do.)

Or freelancing. (Ditto.)

Or freelancing and teaching and editing and speaking and a bunch of other gigs that all support and sustain each other. (Tritto.)

If you do that, and if you are ready to build a career that, as Seth notes, is about solving someone else’s problems*, then you can do the creative work you want to do without having to try to be the best person at “older woman younger man humorous romance where the younger man has a really cute dog.”

Because you’ll be making the art that only you can make, telling the stories that only you can tell, etc.

And, in a world where other people are competing to be the best at a certain set of keywords, this kind of unique creative work can really stand out.

Of course, you still have to figure out how to market it.

Which means you’ll probably still want to read Seth’s book. ❤️

*One of my most popular freelance articles, which still gets retweeted and shared at least once a month even though it was published in 2015, is Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself With A/B Testing at Unbounce. This is a perfect example of using a freelance career to solve someone else’s problems (both Unbounce’s problem of needing a guide to A/B testing, and the readers’ problem of… also needing a guide to A/B testing). When I teach my “how to freelance” classes — and I’ll be teaching another one this summer, so check back later for dates — I get a lot of students who want to build careers as travel writers or celebrity profile writers or writers of stuff that sounds interesting to them. You can absolutely get paid to write about travel (I’ve done it) but you’ll get paid a lot more money if you’re also able to write about A/B testing.

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

I love this piece SO MUCH. (So did my editor.)

How to Schedule Your Day When You Freelance or Work From Home

I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2012, and most of my work gets done at home—that is, from my home office. I tried working from coffee shops and co-working spaces, but I tend to get the most work done when I’m in a quiet, comfortable, familiar space where I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll be able to find a seat near an electrical outlet (and won’t have to ask someone to watch my laptop every time I need to use the toilet).

I also know that I get my best work done in the morning and early afternoon; the closer it gets to 3 p.m., the more I’ll want a task that allows me to respond to information rather than generate it. Reading a book for review, for example, instead of writing a book review.

So I’ve developed a schedule that lets me do my best work at the times I work best.

If you’re also working from home and would like to develop a similar schedule, here’s what I’ve learned over the past seven years.

Why Financial Independence Is Like Self-Publishing

As of this morning’s freelance paycheck, I have $100,203.85 in assets and $825.44 on two credit cards that will both get paid off tomorrow, giving me a total net worth of $99,378.41.

I mean, I’m more excited about the “$100K in assets” figure, since I’ve been working towards that goal for a while (even though I know I probably won’t hit a for-real six-figure net worth until I get my next freelance paycheck).

After this, I guess the next big goal is a total investment portfolio value of $750,000, which — at the recommended 4% annual withdrawal rate and the level of frugality I’ve managed to maintain since college — should render me financially independent. 

In other words, I’ll be able to live exclusively off my investments if I choose.

The various online calculators suggest this will happen in the next 10-12 years. I am smart enough to understand that other things may happen in the next 10-12 years to shift that goal, but optimistic and/or dedicated enough to decide it’s a goal worth working towards regardless.

Being able to live half off my investments and half off my freelance writing and teaching and self-publishing income, for example, would also be good.

There are a lot of potential success scenarios here.

There are also a lot of potential success scenarios for a self-published book — like, it’s literally the first lesson I teach in my online Finances of Self-Publishing course (which you can take next month, sign up here).

You could write a runaway bestseller; you could write and publish a book a year and sell it to your 1,000 True Fans; you could write a book to preserve a piece of family history and use tools like Reedsy and IngramSpark to create a beautiful hardback copy that’ll last for generations.

Self-publishing can also get you many of the aspects of “the author’s life” that a lot of us dream about: a book launch party with cake and sparkling beverages, the opportunity to do readings and signings at bookstores and libraries, the professional expertise required to teach classes or speak on panels at conventions. A quiet home office with plants in it. The ability to say “I will block off X amount of time, every day, just for writing my next book.”

(Current NEXT BOOK draft: 12,253 words.)

Of course, you can get the plants and commit to a writing schedule before you finish that first draft — and if you want to learn more about how to do that, you should sign up for my online course How to Develop a Writing Practice, which runs end-of-April through end-of-May. (It’s a self-paced group course, so you’ll take it as a group but won’t have to be at your desk at any specific time for mandatory webinars or anything like that. You’ll be free to do the readings, chat in the group discussion forum, etc. whenever you have time available.)

Just like I’m already thinking about myself as having committed to financial independence — and behaving and budgeting like a financially independent person might behave* — 10–12 years before I’ll actually get there.

But I thought, during my early-morning yoga practice where I usually get my best thoughts, that the whole financial independence thing was strikingly similar to the self-publishing thing. A nearly identical mindset.

Self-publishers take on both the author role and the publisher role. They develop various “success scenarios” for their books — maybe they want to crowdfund their “advance,” the way I did for The Biographies of Ordinary People; maybe they want to sell more than 500 Kindle copies in the first three months**; maybe they want to to go on book tour or get their book reviewed by Kirkus or submit their novel for various awards.

There’s a lot that a self-published author can’t control, such as who wins those awards or how much money Amazon pours into its Kindle Unlimited Fund or whether the market for their particular genre changes, but there’s a lot they can control through research and careful budgeting.

The biggest factor under their control is whether they spend more on their self-published book than they plan to earn (THIS IS THE NUMBER ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING I WILL TEACH IN MY CLASS, BTW).

That’s also one of the biggest factors that will determine whether they’ll self-publish another book and slowly build up a career as a self-published author.

Likewise, the person going after financial independence takes on both the worker role and the employer role, even if they already have another employer. This person is setting aside money for to pay their future salary the same way an employer sets aside money for payroll, and deciding how much they might want to earn in the future the same way an employer decides how much to pay employees.

There’s a lot that this person won’t be able to control, such as whether they get laid off (or lose their biggest freelance client) and have to cut back on their savings goals (or spend money they’ve already saved) until they find another source of income. They won’t be able to control market changes or recessions.

The biggest factor under their control is — you guessed it — whether they spend more than they earn.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because several years ago I got myself into $14K of credit card debt during a period of underemployment. There are 100% for-sure times when you cannot spend less than you earn because you are simply not earning enough. I have been there. Lots of people are currently there.

If that’s where you are, and you’d like to not be there, I’d recommend reading Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. This book should be available at your local library (get the 2018 edition if possible; if not, the older editions should be just as good though slightly less relevant to today’s economy) and it absolutely changed my life when I read it while working as a part-time telemarketer.

If you like cats and glitter, I also recommend Lillian Karabaic’s Get Your Money Together: An Illustrated Purrsonal Finance Workbook to Help You Budget Your Money, Save for Retirement, and Smash Debt. This book might not be available at your local library, but it’s exceptionally useful if — well, to quote Lillian Karabaic:

I only started teaching personal finance only because I was frustrated with the lack of queer-friendly, feminist, and, most of all, fun personal finance education out there — especially stuff that deals with actual real-life money issues and doesn’t assume you have one full-time job with benefits, 2.5 kids, and a white picket fence.

I’d also suggest reading Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need, because Grant devotes the first half of the book to “how to earn more money” and the second half to “how to become financially independent,” so if you’re interested in that, go check it out. Literally.

And if you’re interested in the finances of self-publishing, well… you could always take my class. ❤️

*Contrary to popular belief, “financial independence” doesn’t mean “having more money than you could ever spend.” It’s more like you’re paying yourself an annual salary based on your investment returns. Which means you’ll still need to stick to a budget, and in some ways you’ll need to be more careful about your budgeting and spending than a person who isn’t “financially independent.” After all, you want that pool of investment money to last for the rest of your life.

**The average self-published book sells fewer than 500 Kindle copies, so hitting this benchmark is an early sign of success.