U R Beautiful to Me (A Miracle At a Book Signing)

I met her at a book signing. Her skin was like silken milk chocolate. Her eyes darted in agony as she strained to speak.

IMG_4882 No matter how hard she tried, no discernible words came out. Her caregiver, hands on the bars of her wheelchair, spoke: “She wants to know what your book is about.”

Book signings can be humbling. So I make sure I’ve got a girlfriend with me to talk to just in case (ahem…) the line isn’t exactly wrapped around the building. And we had One Girl in front of us now. My friend leaned closer, and I began to speak. The caregiver walked away to look at other books.

The truth is, people don’t actually want to know what your book is about. If you start telling them, their eyes will glaze. People are motivated primarily by self-interest, so they really don’t care what your book is about. They just want to know what’s in it for them.

As I stood towering before her, I forgot all that. I’m six feet tall, and when someone is in a wheelchair, eye contact is like looking at a belly button. Somewhere in my blabbering, these words came out: “You are beautiful.” 

be strong and courageous journal Strickland Books Tears rushed to her wild eyes.

“You are Worthy. You matter. You are precious to God, and He loves to look upon your face.”

Her eyes gushed with tears. Weeping, then wailing, quickly turned to howling. My stunned friend stepped in closer.

“You are valuable to Him, and You have purpose. You are worthy ….” The writhing and the pain surfaced, as if all the hurt (possibly from being scorned, judged, lonely, and locked in a prison from which she could not escape?) all came to the surface at once.

For me, the sun stood still. The clock stopped. The book store disappeared, and all became the life of One Girl: body broken, couldn’t speak, wanted to; limbs lifeless; heart desperate; locked-up soul longing to be set free. In this moment, God pressed “pause” on my life and taught me that brokenness can be beautiful because it cracks open our hearts to see the one thing we need to know: that we are loved in our marred nature.

On the surface this gap of time was horrible but gorgeous–this “inside-out” kind of beauty my books are about–all in a body, all in One Girl. And she showed me that broken is acceptable. That we are worthy of love even if we are all tied up and twisted and cannot smile.

I knew I had to touch her, that she longed for touch. I knelt down beside her and brushed my fingers over her hot tears and warm skin. “Do you want me to pray for you?” I asked. “Do you want Jesus to give you peace?”

She nodded, open-mouthed, tears streaming. As I prayed, her sobbing became so loud that the walkie-talkies on the hips of Barnes and Noble employees began buzzing. Her caregiver rushed to see what was the matter.

Jesus met a girl in a bookstore that day. When she left, her once-pained face radiated with peace and joy.

beautiful girl in wheelchair

A Girl Named Mercy

 Do you need a touch of mercy today? I sure do.

Jesus can take your pain and give you peace. He did it for her. I saw it with my own eyes: a soul held captive, squirming beneath the weight. A body struck down, but not destroyed, for her story wasn’t over yet. If he can do it for demon-possessed, crazy Mary; if he can do it for wasted Lazarus; if he can do it for beautiful Mercy, then He can do it for you and me.

Somehow, writing the whole book series about beauty and woman’s worth, and finding your value in God’s eyes, culminated right there, with Mercy. Every hard-pressed moment of writing through my own tears transferred to wiping away hers. Strickland books Jesus met a girl in a bookstore that day. Yes, He met me there. 

(p.s. I was at the Texas Author Extravaganza yesterday …. you never know whose life you might touch at a book signing!)


7 Surprising Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block

file0001849487704 The words stop flowing and we can become desperate. There could be a deadline looming or just our own daily goals. Writer’s Block – fearful words. How can we overcome it and move forward? Try these tips from the pros:

1. Take a walk.  For me, a long five or six mile walk helps. . .  I find that then thoughts begin to come to me in their quiet way.  — Brenda Ueland

2. Consider a media fast.  I had a half-dozen half-finished manuscripts on my computer, but I couldn’t seem to finish a book . . .  I decided to do a forty-day media fast out of desperation. . . In the process, I found that my writing became a form of praying.  I don’t type on a keyboard; I pray on it.  And by the time I was done, I had completed my first self-published book.  –Mark Batterson

3. Lower your expectations.  I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. Malcolm Gladwell

4. Don’t wait to have it all worked out.  If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. –Margaret Atwood 

5. Pray. The first thing I do when I am stuck is pray. . .I get on my knees and remind God that this was not my idea, it was His…Then I ask God to show me if there is something He wants to say to prepare me for what He wants me to communicate to our congregation.  I surrender my ideas, my outline and my topic.  Then I just stay in that quiet place until God quiets my heart…Many times I will have a breakthrough thought or idea that brings clarity to my message. — Andy Stanley

6: Chunk it. The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. — Mark Twain

7. Change course.  If you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject. — Ray Bradbury

Great ideas from some great writers.  What do you do when you are blocked?

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers   www.WritingSisters.com

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Shepherd Song

How to Write a Nonfiction Book that Sells — Pt. 2

Good NewsIn Part One, I talked about the importance of subject, title, and content for writing nonfiction books that sell. All of these are key elements. Missing just one could mean the difference between a publisher’s bite on your bait, or their swimming away.

Equally, if you neglect the power of your marketing strategy, including future books you can write, a publisher might say no instead of yes. Short-cutting is not worth the risk of losing a book deal.

So let’s talk specifics.

  • Intriguing marketing strategies are an integral piece of your non-fiction book proposal. Every author’s heard it, “You must help promote your own book.” But most, even those of us with sales and marketing backgrounds from other industries, can feel overwhelmed at how to effectively boost book sales on paper or in application. So what’s an author to do?

Think outside the industry. How do movies and TV programs promote their wares? What are the big producers doing to move sales? Think Coke, Wal-Mart, Apple, Under Armor, Cabelas, or others you see frequenting the air and radio waves, or filling store shelves. Learn from the big boys while creatively using your small budget.

For instance:

  • Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Book CoverBuild human curiosity into the heart of your sales tactics and specify samples in your book proposal. i.e. Six Secrets to…, How to…, What ______ Want, Three Things Most People Forget that Could Cost You Sales. See the pattern?
  • List all of your speaking events, including those you volunteer for, or that may feel more like family than a professional gig. Any exposure to a potential buying public counts — and those with built-in fans increase the odds of book sales.
  • Look at conferences, organizations, businesses, that don’t immediately seem like a fit for your message. Is there a way to connect your book to their needs? For Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over, I’m promoting the impact personal issues have on the workplace and vice-versa. I’ve booked new speaking opportunities as a result.
  • Include something unique. *Talk about the psychology of color and how you can use it in your marketing materials. Note your intent to attract those looking for peace through shades of green, your strategy to pursue passionate responses with strokes of red, or your ability to stir deeper thinking by adding blue.

*After you’ve made the sale, don’t forget to work with your publisher on appropriate colors when considering cover art for your book.

  • Future books you’d like to write are like adding scent to the lure for a publisher ready to bite. After writing your proposal on a subject matter readers are interested in, brainstorming a dynamite title, writing clear content, and adding unique marketing flavors, offer a list of intriguing future titles, true to your brand. This shows the publisher you are more than a one-hit-wonder. You are an author readers will follow for a long time to come.

In conclusion, I must stress the need for a teachable attitude and patient demeanor. Two common challenges we must overcome if we want to succeed. There is no place for arrogance or impatience in any professional venue. Be a turtle, not a hare, and in time, you will write a nonfiction book that sells.

Have you sold books and if so, can you offer insights I missed?

Asking the Question, “How Do I Get Published?”

Woman_talking_on_phoneNothing dispels the misconception that I am unique more categorically than the internet.

Case in point: Every time I embark on some new project—whether it’s growing asparagus from seed or figuring out whether to read a talked-about novel or advising a student about whether she should negotiate for a better grad school fellowship offer—I always begin by asking Google. Invariably, before I get further than a word or two, Google is already offering me the rest of my question in the searchbox, word for word exactly as I was going to phrase it, from one of the millions before me who’ve already posed it. Whatever I’m asking—however stupid, embarrassing, or arcane my inquiry—the e-populace has already considered it and devoted significant effort to answering it. Wherever I go, the virtual multitudes have already been. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

That said, experience has also taught me that there are many who don’t seek answers on the internet. Or anyway, there may be plenty of mes out there asking my questions, but, whoever they are, they’re not the would-be authors who show up at my office or email or call wanting to know how to turn their great ideas into published books.

Computer Workstation Variables from WikimediaUsually, I concentrate my authorial-guru expertise on trying to turn their initial question—how to get published—into something more answerable, like how do you write a query letter? Or, how do you write a nonfiction book proposal? Or, do I really need an agent?

I explain to them things I’ve learned about the publishing process over the years—like that agents play an important role in the publishing process by vetting billions of manuscripts out there to find ones worth sending on to publishers. I tell aspiring authors that the 15% of what they may make and are already so reluctant to shell out for their as yet unpublished (and often not yet completed or even begun) books is every penny worth it for someone who not only knows how to navigate the crazily mysterious publishing world and has the connections to do so but who has a vested interest—namely, the desire to make money—in their clients’ success, since that’s where their success will come from.

“What you should be asking,” I say, “is not if you really need an agent but how to get one. And how to motivate yourself to finish a draft. Or how to get started in the first place.”

But they didn’t come to be nagged. They came hoping I’d help them keep on dreaming.

Here’s the thing. Getting published takes work, that’s all. And every answer you have about it has already been asked and answered, in billionuplicate, on the internet. And in more detail than any single author could ever offer. Figuring out how to get published is a matter of asking Google a question and then making your way, site by site, into the vast inter-universe of answers, refining and reasking as you go.

Interested in finding an agent? Here’s how.

Interested in getting a particular agent? Here’s how.

Interested in what clients that agent has had and how successful those clients have been in the past few years? Want to know how long your dream-agent takes to respond to queries? To requests for a partial manuscript? To requests for a full manuscript? It’s all there, often conveniently consolidated into a single, sortable site. Verily I say unto you, there is no mystery more fully unraveled in the webby bowels of the internet than publishing a book.

Which isn’t to say everyone’s in agreement about everything. Or about anything. Far from it. Finding some small clump of consensus, much less an answer you can trust, is as difficult as getting the educated lowdown on a loved one’s disease from the internet. It’s there, but you have to sort through a lot of obvious and sometimes not so obvious nonsense to discover it. Publishing questions are no different. You’ll have to winnow your findings.

But answers to your questions are out there. And, if you’re selective, what you learn is likely to be as trustworthy as and more informed than the answer of any single expert.

So, when you have a publishing question—especially THE publishing question—start with Google. Each question you ask and every answer you receive will take you deeper and a bit more confidently into the publishing world than any one published author can. If you’re lucky, you might even end up somewhere like here, where not just one but an entire community of agented writers are dedicated to encouraging, engaging, and enriching you along your writing journey. Without even being asked.Computer Keyboard

Being a Writer Means being Relational

I’m looking forward to one of the most intriguing reunions I’ve ever anticipated: reconnecting with a former cocaine dealer who I last saw — and interviewed for a newspaper column — when he was 15 years old.

FreedomThat was nearly 30 years ago.

Before he went to prison. Before his father joined him in the drug-dealing business and killed himself the night before father and son were to go to trial. Before the two of us began writing each other, off and on, for nearly three decades as he bounced from prison to prison.

Now, he’s a free man — and 44 years old. And I’m going to make good on a long-ago promise to buy him dinner to celebrate his freedom.

I sent him a copy of my book 52 Little Lessons from Les Miserables (Thomas Nelson, 2014) because the man is a living, breathing Jean Valjean. Remember? Victor Hugo’s protagonist is released from prison after 19  years, having originally been placed there for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family.

But nobody trusts him. Nobody will even give him a room. Except for a bishop, who welcomes him, feeds him and, most importantly, forgives him after Valjean takes off in the night with the bishop’s silverware.

“I’m glad to see you,” says the bishop as Valjean stands before him, flanked by two police officers, “but I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver like the rest and would bring two hundred francs. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?”

Grace. Second chances. Redemption. The stuff that Jesus is all about.

A rare act that necessarily begins with a relationship. Which is what we as writers of faith should never take for granted: the idea that our profession is about so much more than punching words into a computer. Or even stories.

It’s about relationships. And not just the ones we write about. But the ones we create as we write — with sources, editors, librarians, archivists, a Jewish woman in Jerusalem who wound up translating all my Yiddish for a book on the first nurse to die after the landings at Normandy, American Nightingale (Atria Press, 2004), you name it.

I was 32 when I met that young who just got out of prison. I am now 61. In the intervening years, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we are to be about more than writing. We are to be about relationships.

A Pharisee saw a chance to back Jesus into a corner. What, he asked, was the most important commandment? Jesus didn’t hesitate.

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As writers, I’ve often thought our privilege was getting to be four-wheel-drive vehicles with the ability to go where others can’t or won’t.

I would not have met this modern-day Jean Valjean had I not been a newspaper columnist at the time.

I would not be hiking nearly weekly with a new friend had I not met him when writing about his 125-foot fall from atop Oregon’s 9,184-foot Mt. Thielsen.

I would not have had the chance to hear a Belgian innkeeper tell me what it was like, as an 8-year-old boy, to watch Hitler’s army goose-stepping into town in May 1940, had I not been writing a book on that WWII nurses.

There’s this idea that, as writers, we’re to wall ourselves off from the world, light a candle, and write, write, write. And, frankly, I love that part of the job. But our words build bridges to countless people with whom we might be salt and light. And it behooves us to remember that before we were writers, we were — and are — people.

In our case, people called to relationship — with God and with other people.

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (Part II)

(Continued from Part I)

I began writing my memoir by starting near the end. That first night, while sitting in front of a blank computer screen, I tapped out the images closest to memory, and likely closest to my heart. It was the account of a remarkable day… the day I delivered my daughter, Annie, to a drug treatment center in California.

 “It wasn’t at all the institutional setting I’d expected for detox… At that late hour, the street was quiet and still. A woman emerged from the far side of the darkened house, brushing by a wall of hydrangeas that cast an eerie glow of amethyst and silver in partial moonlight. Her hushed tones made it seem a clandestine transfer as she took hold of the pull handle on Annie’s bag and turned to escort her inside… Just before both disappeared into the darkness of an open gate, Annie turned around to me and mouthed the words, ‘Thanks Mom.’ I thought I might burst. “

Within a week, I had one, full chapter completed. “Not bad,” my college-aged son reported after a quick read. He showed all the enthusiasm of dry cement. My husband refused to read it at all.Image, post-its and pens

My brother, Paul, on the other hand, provided terrific support for my intentions with the book. He had been the smart one, the accomplished student. While I was sunbathing and reading Cliff Notes during our college years, Paul studied Comparative Literature as a graduate fellow at a top university. “So Goose,” he asked (yes, he calls me Goose), “are you going to write this sequentially or thematically? You also need to pay close attention to your voice.

My what?

I struggled with how to continue. What was a “voice” and where could I get one? Was I really capable of writing a book? What initially had seemed nothing more than a quick chronicle of a story I already knew, the magnitude of the task ahead started to overwhelm me.

Image, Book binder

I decided equipment would help. A lover of bins and boxes and anything organizational, I ventured into Office Max and filled my cart with a large black binder, numbered dividers, a year’s supply of yellow sticky notes, white 3×5 cards, and multi-colored mechanical pencils. Once home, I affixed a sticker to the spine of the binder with the word “Book” written on it in blue felt tip marker.

I placed my new materials throughout the house: at my desk, on the coffee table in the great room, at my bedside table, near the bathroom sink, and in both cars. Ultimately finding it perilous to jot notes while driving, I purchased a small recording device. “Don’t forget to tell them what happened in the garage,” I recorded into the mic.

Each night before I sat to write, I filed the day’s sticky note inspirations onto the dividers throughout the binder. Then I prayed. “This was your idea, God. Help, please!”

Six months later I had an outline and about six chapters written. This feat coincided with the weekend visit of a close friend, and one of the smartest people I know. Bright, articulate, and extremely well read, my friend-who-shares-the-same-name-as-me, demanded to read what I’d written. She in fact seemed hurt that I hadn’t yet asked for her input and advice. I knew better than to share my work so early in the process, and especially with someone who tends to be critical, but I yielded to her insistence. I really hoped for some encouragement.

You see it coming, don’t you?

My friend emerged from our guest room the next morning, with the “Book” binder in hand, avoiding eye contact as she headed to the coffee pot. Oh boy, I thought.

“So Barb,” she finally said, once settled in at the breakfast bar, “I, uh, think, uh, this is an important story for, uh, people to read. It’s not, uhhhhh, gonna be a best seller or anything, but it’s, uh, good.” She then looked up at me and added enthusiastically, “You sure have a great memory!”

I laughed. Kind of. “Memory isn’t exactly what I was going for. But I guess that’s something. Thanks for reading.”

Unable to leave well enough alone, she added, “You sure didn’t use many big words, did you?”

At that point my heart went “thunk”… and I stopped writing.

(Stay tuned for Part III when I share how the Jordan River helped me start writing again… and how A Very Fine House got its name.)

Your Basic Marketing Tool Kit

tool kitYour book is published! Congratulations! Now you have to go out and sell it, which generally means you’ll be doing book signings, giving talks and attending festivals. Before you walk into your first event, assemble a marketing tool bag you can use at every venue you visit. Even when you’re being hosted by a book store who will be handling all the purchases, you still need some basic promotional tools to make the most of the marketing opportunity. Here’s what goes in a basic author marketing bag:

  1. Book stand. You want to be able to prop up a copy of your book so everyone can see the cover. A simple acrylic one works just fine, and you can find it at office supply stores. In fact, pick up two!
  2. Signage. You want to provide important information for your buyers: price, perhaps a short glowing review, method of payment. Again, acrylic sign holders are at the local office supply store, and they come in a variety of sizes. I use one 8×11 size to display buying information, and I have a 4×6 sign set up next to a small tub inviting folks to sign up for my newsletter. Depending on the event, you can easily customize the sign each time by printing a new one from your home computer. For example, when I’m donating part of my proceeds to a special charity or offering a multiple book price, I can include that on the sign.
  3. Newsletter sign-up sheet/collection box. I have a small plastic container with pens and little notepads in it for people to use to leave their email address for my newsletter subscriber list. I also have a small book-related prize sitting next to the box; every month I draw a winner from those addresses and send out the prize.
  4. Tablecloth. Your host may not have a tablecloth for your use, and you’ll wish you had one. It gives you that professional look!
  5. Handout. Depending on your budget and creativity, this can be anything that will remind the customer about you once you’re no longer in sight. Bookmarks and postcards printed with your book cover work nicely. Do you write sweet romances? Give out candy kisses!
  6. Credit card reader. I resisted getting one for my first few years as an author, and it was a mistake. Few people have the cash on hand to buy your book if you’re doing direct selling, and the last thing you want is for someone who wants to buy the book right then and there to have to walk away and buy it later…because chances are very good, it won’t happen. Research the different options available. I use Phoneswipe, and I know many authors who use Square.
  7. Cash. Some folks do use currency, so you’ll want to bring some cash to make change. I keep a small zipper case in my marketing bag with enough change for five books, and it doubles as a place to keep any cash payments secure.

Is there anything else you’d want in your marketing tool bag?