About Becky Johnson

Becky Johnson is an author and humor/food blogger along with her daughter Rachel at www.laughcrycook.com. Their newest project will be a humorous food memoir called We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook, debuting in 2013 with Zondervan.

Stranglers or Wranglers? The Super Power of Encouragement

One of my all time favorite books, one that influenced both my writing style and my outlook on life, is A Touch of Wonder by Arthur Gordon. Gordon’s stellar writing peppered “Guidepost Magazine” with inspiration for decades. I remember happening upon the book in a seaside store, then finding a perfect spot on the beach to relax where, over the next two days, I read it from cover to cover. As the ocean waves rolled in the distance, I felt uplifted by true story after story filled with humor, struggle, love, and courage.

In one memorable chapter, Mr. Gordon told a story that created such an “Ah-ha of the Heart” for me that it helped form my basic writing philosophy. He wrote of a friend who belonged to a club at the University of Wisconsin many years ago. It was composed of several talented writers, all brilliant young men. They would each read their prose aloud, then take turns dissecting and criticizing each others’ writing so fiercely, they dubbed their writing group “The Stranglers.”

On the same campus, a group of women formed a writing group, calling themselves “The Wranglers.” But instead of dousing one another with criticism, they spent most of their time encouraging one another. They all left the meetings feeling inspired in their writing journey.

Twenty years after these two groups met, some interesting results were found. For all the brilliance of the writers who made up “The Stranglers,” not one member achieved any kind of literary reputation. “The Wranglers,” on the other hand, produced a half-dozen successful writers, including the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Yearling, Marjorie K. Rawlings.

From this story I drew two convictions:

1. When choosing a writers’ group (or any support group for that matter), make sure that they lead with a positive spirit. Sure, you want honest feedback, but this can be done with grace in an atmosphere of encouragement. If the group has spiraled into nit-picking negativity, get thee to another group. That is, if you value your future as a writer.

2. Secondly, when you edit someone else’s writing, it is often automatic to skip the good writing and correct what is wrong, like the proverbial teacher with a red pen.  Because I accept this is how my editing brain works, I usually go through a writer’s chapter or manuscript or a proposal twice. The first time I highlight what needs to be changed to make it better. And then, I go back through and put smiley faces on the parts I like the best. You would not believe how writers love those smiley faces and how they make any critique go down easier.

In a little post-script to this story, I searched and found an address for Arthur Gordon, who was at the time quite up in years (he died in 2002 at 89), then wrote him a fan letter. He wrote me back on an old manual typewriter, saying how much he appreciated the bucket of encouragement, that this sort of reader feedback was fuel for his writing soul. I realized in that moment that no matter how old or accomplished a writer is, inside we’re all a little insecure and in need of positive feedback. A part of us is forever the child, giddy over a star or a sticker from the teacher.

So it behooves us to be positive and kind to each other in our critique. Not only does it make the writing life more fun, but in the long run, it also makes it more prolific and profitable.

What sorts of critique groups have you experienced? How did they make you feel? What kind of critique encourages you to excellence without throwing you into a depressing writer’s block?

Profits from Back-of-the-Room Sales

Let’s be honest, most work-horse writers cannot make a living by advances alone. However, if you combine writing with speaking and profitable back-of-the-room sales, look out! Writing, speaking and book/product sales is a true triple whammy, each avenue supporting the other. Each leg of this career stool brought in roughly one-third of my income.  Here are some ideas for a money-making book table.

Bundle or Bag ‘Em

Bundle items into gift bags. For example, I would put my humor books for moms in clear gift bags with a pretty sheet of tissue paper and call it “Laughter Rx for Moms.” I created another bag I called “Smiles for the Stressed-Out Soul” that included my books on slowing down and thriving. People want to give their friends some tangible love, so selling your books in gift bag form makes them instantly ready to share.

Something for the Kids

I wrote four books for young kids (Gabe & Critters)  and five “first chapter” books for ages 7-11 (Camp Wanna Banana). Moms and grandmas love to buy something for children. I found darling finger puppets, cute plastic “bookworms,” and small plush spider monkeys that tied in with the books’ themes. The eye appeal of colorful items surrounding the books proved irresistible. It took time to find items that were lightweight, small, fun, sturdy, and profitable. But when I did, books flew off the children’s section of my table.

Offer a Bargain

In what I now view as a great business opportunity, two of my books went out of print. I negotiated to buy a literal truckload of them for 72 cents each. I bought 10,000 books and filled up an empty guest room, wondering what in the world I had done. However, I sold every book by offering them “2 for $5.00” to retreat attendees. A profit for me, and a great deal for them. The event planner put a coupon in the retreat bags for this “special bargain,” ensuring a rush to the book table.

High Profit Items

I quickly discovered that women wanted to take my “retreat talks” home or share  with a friend. So I had audio CDs made of my talks and called them “Girlfriend Getaway.” I sold four talks for $15.00. My investment in the CDs (including case) was only $3.00 each. Many speakers create their own workbooks or study guides to go with their books and make a nice profit.

Mention in Your Talk

I am turned off by speakers who hawk their books like an infomercial. I’ve found it much more natural to say, “In my book, Worms in My Tea, I told a story about a time when …”, then simply tell the story.  People would always show up at the table asking for the book that contained the story I told.

The More Books, Higher Profit

The greater the variety of books you have on your table, the higher the profit; however, you don’t have to author all the books you sell. If you refer to books by other authors in your speeches, negotiate with a publisher to buy them in bulk at a good discount and sell them on your table. Or sell other product-tie-ins. If you wrote a cookbook, you might sell adorable aprons. If you teach writing classes, you might offer pens and blank journals that have fun literary themes.

Information Sheet for Event Planner

In a packet of information that I would mail ahead or email to the event planner, I included a Book Description Sheet. It had the picture and title of each book with a one or two sentence description below it. This would help volunteers get quickly familiar with the products. Always ask for at least two volunteers to help with the book table, giving them free books as a thank you. After you speak, women will want to chat and have you sign books, so having others take care of the money exchange is essential.

Bookmarks

Create a cute bookmark to be tucked into the books you sell on your table with information leading to your website, other books, etc.

Signs & Set Ups

I typically only put about ten copies of each book on the book table at a time, re-filling it from a box under the table as they sold. Make clear concise signs to prop up on your table that clearly show the price of your books. Go for visual clarity rather than cuteness. And be sure to take credit cards; it greatly increases sales.

I hope these tips prove helpful to you and increase your profits as you speak and write. Feel free to ask me any questions.

What advice do you have for other authors to help sell their books?

 

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The Awesome Power of Humor in Writing

“Lord, please don’t let me die in a CVS bathroom,” a young friend of mine, Kelli, posted on her Facebook status during the Texas Tornadoes of Tuesday, the day when semi-trucks flew like box kites.

I thought, What a great way to handle a crisis: with a prayer on your lips, your sense of humor intact.  Not only that, but I knew that keeping a sense of humor in spite of the stress and danger, would be calming both to Kelli and the frightened folks with her — because it is hard to think of something funny and be terrified at the same time.

Just moments before Kelly’s post, I had been talking to my daughter Rachel, who lives in small town Forney, Texas, and with whom I’m writing a humor food blog and book by the same name (We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook). Tornadoes are so commonplace in Texas that when Rachel answered the phone with, “Hi, Mom. I’m in the bathtub with the baby and a mattress pulled over our heads,”   I almost asked, “Again?”

This would be our third cell phone conversation this year with my daughter scrunched in the tub with her baby, her phone, her lap top, a mattress overhead. This is simply “Life in Texas” during tornado season; but  in my fifty-three years of doing the Bathtub Tornado Preparedness routine, I’ve never seen one funnel cloud.  Hard to take those TV tornado warnings seriously when they seem to happen every little whip-stitch in the Springtime.

But then Rach said, “Mom, the weatherman just shouted that a tornado has hit a Forney school.” Rachel lives only a half-mile from a Forney high school and elementary school.

All the blood drained from my face.

“Honey, stay on the phone with me…” I said, and then heard nothing from her end of the cell phone but snap, crackle, pop, followed by  … silence.  I called back, but cell phone service had ceased in her area.

I grabbed the remote, flipped on the TV only to see the words “Forney,Texas” flashing, with scenes of the menacing tornado playing across the screen.

Sick with fear, it was ten, long, excruciating minutes before Rachel called back to report she was fine, not even a drop of rain. She sounded calm, but then she’d not yet seen what had just miraculously missed her home.

I cried, my husband Greg (who is not only CEO of WordServe, but a stellar comforter) hugged me. My legs now Jell-o, I sat down, glanced at my computer and my eyes landed on Kelly’s brave/funny status post (from somewhere near Greenville, Texas) and somehow… I managed a laugh.  And with that first laugh, calm began to flow through my veins, and my traumatized brain began the process of soothing itself.

I fell in love with President Reagan the day he calmed an entire country with the words, “Who’s minding the store?” soon after he and several others had been shot.  If Reagan could still joke, and we could still laugh, everything would be okay. America breathed a collective sigh of relief, thanks to the President’s cool head and sharp wit.

I’ve written three books with brain specialists, and I’m proud that I could gather enough middle-aged brain cells to write something serious and science-based.   But what flows from my soul and my pen most naturally is humor.  I used to feel that writing humor was somehow less important, not terribly “literary.”  I know many serious writers who still believe that writing humor takes less intelligence, less skill, and not much depth of thought.  To those writers, I say, “Try it. Then, let’s talk.”  I once heard an interview in which Barbara Mandrell’s little sister (“the blond ditzy one”) said, with a wise wink, “It takes a lot of smarts to play dumb.”  It also takes a tremendous amount of skill to be self-deprecatingly funny on paper, without being corny, or forced, or silly.

Over my writing career, I’ve received hundreds of letters or emails that read something like,  “Someone gave me a copy of your book while I sat with my dying mother in the hospital, and we both laughed until we cried. Thank you for giving us that happy memory together.”  Or, “I lost my husband last year and could not read anything serious or heavy.  But your stories, and the laughter… oh, how healing it was to laugh again!”  And on and on.

My time with the brain doctors taught me that laughter is a gift to every cell in our body. If you can write stories that bring a grin or a chuckle, you share a priceless gift with your readers. You give them a short mental vacation from their worries and those common looping, overly-serious thoughts.  Laughter helps re-set the brain from negativity to lightheartedness in a short amount of time.

Whether you write books of humor, or just sprinkle some well-placed wit into your prose, there is no genre that cannot be improved, or heart that cannot be lifted, or worried brow that cannot be soothed by a touch of the clown, now and then, from your pen.

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”  Steel Magnolias

Question:  As a reader or a writer, can you recall a time when humor helped you through a dark time, a frightening experience or even a season of grief?  What authors do you admire who consistently help you laugh and perhaps gain some fresh perspective?