About jandunlap

Jan is the author of "Saved by Gracie," a humorous spiritual memoir about her experiences with her rescued dog who helped her overcome anxiety issues and rediscover faith. She also pens the Birder Murder Mystery series that follows the adventures of ace birder/high school counselor Bob White, who has a bad habit of finding bodies when he birds. When she's not playing with fictional devices, Jan is a birdwatcher, a featured speaker, and the proud mother of five children. She welcomes visitors at jandunlap.com.

Sing it, Lamb Chop!

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This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?

 

4 Steps to Defeating Distractions

distraction“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Cor 10:5

I love this passage from Scripture, because it strikes a chord in me that resonates deeply: I have a hard time managing distractions. I don’t know if my shortcoming is a result of training myself to multi-task (which demands that my attention is spread out over many areas at once – a behavior common to many entrepreneur-authors), or if I’m not mentally disciplined enough to shut out all the noise outside (and inside!) my head.

Either way, I know I need help, and this verse from 2 Corinthians offers a powerful strategy to not only strengthen my focus, but to stamp everything I do with the likeness of Christ.

Step 1: Identify the pretensions in my life.

Pretensions are claims to importance or merit. In Matthew’s gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard serves as an example of pretension: those hired early in the day believe they merit more pay than those hired last. Yet the landowner makes it clear he is acting justly by paying the agreed amount to his first employees, while still acting generously to those who came last. When I think I ‘deserve’ more, am I subscribing to pretensions or conventional notions of worth, instead of relying on the goodness of God? Does that pull my focus from what God wants and cause me to obsess on what I think I should get?

Step 2: Demolish the arguments that oppose the knowledge of God.

Wow. Demolish. I’m reminded of the Egyptian army chasing the Israelites into the sea. Only when that opposing force is utterly destroyed can the Israelites move forward with confidence. Do I demolish my distractions, or continue to look back at them, handicapping my ability to set my focus on God?

Step 3: Take captive every thought.

In our information-rich world, it’s easy to let my attention off-leash. I need to be bold and exercise my God-given power to choose what I will think about. That’s not to say that distraction can’t be positive – we all need a break at times from purposeful activity and thinking in order to recharge ourselves and give our minds space and time to rest and play. But excessive distraction denies us the chance to focus on the meaningful work God calls us to in our lives. Do I accept responsibility for what I think, or do I give my thoughts permission to rule me?

Step 4: Make every thought obedient to Christ.

The only way this happens is by knowing the Lord, which means making it a priority to spend time in prayer, reflection, and reading God’s word so He can shape you into His own image. I’ve found that even brief amounts of time dedicated to building my relationship with God have a big impact on my daily routine and help me to stay focused on His priorities. Do I ask Christ for help when I am distracted?

What Scriptures help you battle distraction?

Marketing Lessons From My Dog

bulldog wearing eyeglasses sleeping over a good novelAlthough my dog knows nothing about online social media, she is a rich inspiration for me when it comes to marketing. Here are the lessons I’m learning from her as I spend this season promoting my humorous memoir, Saved by Gracie, about my life with a four-pawed family member.

1. Persistence pays off. Gracie gets a fresh whiff of ground squirrel in one of the numerous holes in the hillside we walk every day, and for the next three days, she smashes her big nose into that same hole when we pass by. By the fourth day, she tries another approach and begins digging furiously to find the critter she knows is somewhere down there. So far, no squirrel, but she’s produced a mound of fresh dirt to play with. My take-away: keep working a lead until you get what you’re after, or until your work yields other opportunities. It worked for me last week: after a month of trying to get some events press from the alumni office of my alma mater, I tried another approach – I contacted the university’s social media manager, who offered to post and share my events. I knew there was help somewhere, and I found it! And now I have a productive contact in my resource file for future reference. Opossum22. Instead of dancing around an idea, grab it and run with it. Gracie finds an opossum on the edge of our backyard and circles, unsure what to do with it. I try to get her away from the furry ball, but we continue to dance around it until she finally snatches it up in her mouth and tears off for the front yard. She drops it along the way, I snag her collar, and take her into the house. Gracie is unharmed, and the opossum wanders back into the woods. My take-away: be bold and see what develops. I always wondered if there was value in an author book tour, so I decided to put one together myself for Saved by Gracie. It forced me to reach out to new venues and contacts in places I’d never approached, expanding my network of resources and readers. And since I traveled to places where I have family, I got free housing and a chance to visit, too. More importantly, I’ve learned the details that go into a book tour, creating a template for the next time around. (And the book tour didn’t bite me, either.) CC Cookie and Gracie 0533. Take a break. Gracie takes a nap after our morning jog, but by afternoon, she’s eager to go back outside and do it again. My take-away: recharging is just as important as working hard. Like many authors, my to-do lists are long and ever-growing. I have to make myself take breaks, but when I find myself away from my lists, my mind runs free, generating fresh ideas and perspectives. By the time I’m back at work, I’ve got new creative energy to pour into my projects. Which leads me to conclude that whoever said “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” clearly wasn’t an author. Or at least, not one who sold books…

How to Craft for Your Crowd

reading boysAudience. 

Every writer knows that keeping the audience in mind is essential to effective writing: you don’t include high tech specifications or advanced optical principles in a children’s picture book about microscopes, just like you wouldn’t fill your historical thriller fiction manuscript with footnotes citing the research behind your story.

But other than considering what your audience expects in style or format based on genre, how often do you start your writing project by putting the reader first, instead of the story you want to tell?

Over the last nine years (and eight books) as my writing career has developed, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in how I craft my writing. Whereas my first book – an exploration of Christian vocation – was the book I wanted to write covering what I’d learned from researching and reflecting on Scripture, I didn’t understand how to make it compelling reading for my audience, even though I sincerely wanted to communicate my own enthusiasm on the topic with my readers and believed they would benefit from it.

Big surprise: even with a national publisher, the book did not do well. I needed to regroup, and start over by clearly defining my audience, and putting their need – be it entertainment, information, or inspiration – first. Only then could I take the story I wanted to write and frame it meaningfully for my readers, because if it didn’t answer their need, they wouldn’t read, no matter how much I wanted to share it.

I had to put others first. I began to pay more attention to what readers liked to read and why, rather than focusing on what stories I wanted to tell.

I applied that approach when I created my Birder Murder Mystery series. As a bird-lover and mystery fan myself, I knew there were no cozy mysteries about birdwatchers; I knew if I wanted to satisfy that audience, I’d have to weave together a specialized knowledge of birds, engaging characters that reflected the eccentric personalities who enjoy the sport, related issues of conservation, and accurate depictions of place. That meant I needed to do research to fill in the gaps of my own knowledge to craft stories that met those demands. Using that formula, I’ve written six books in the series and acquired a loyal readership that enjoys “virtual birding” with my protagonist.

Likewise, with my girl-meets-dog-and-finds-healing spiritual memoir, the first task I completed was examining my experience to identify how others could relate to and benefit from it. By putting the need of others first, it helped me organize the book’s content: a blend of memoir, current research, spirituality, and humor. Otherwise, I may have written a straight narrative of how I learned to love our dog, which would be a nice story to share, but not unique enough to warrant publication.

The next time you sit down to start a writing project, ask yourself these questions first:

  1. What does my audience need from me?
  2. How can I be of service to my audience with this writing project?
  3. How do those answers help me craft my content?

I think you’ll find that putting others first is not only considerate, but a great way to write a book your audience will value.

Honor One Another

?????????????????????????I’m a member of the “Me” generation. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I heard a lot about the importance of self-realization and doing your own thing. I wore mini-skirts and flowered shirts, watched “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” When I was in college, all my girlfriends focused on finding careers, not husbands; if you yearned for less than having it all – a family and a career – you were considered a dinosaur, obsolete, and terribly naïve.

Contemporary culture was all about making yourself the most important person in your world.

It was also totally NOT what my Christian faith taught. I grew up on the Golden Rule, the Lord’s Prayer and the admonishment to always put others first. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” instructs Philippians 2:3. For me, the high school student striving to be class valedictorian, that piece of Scripture held no allure; as I recall, I was more likely to follow the advice of Thumper’s mother in the Disney movie Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.

As a result, I was a very quiet high school student when it came to discussing my classmates.

Fortunately, maturity applies not only to age, but to faith as well. Marriage and motherhood obliterated any drives I’d had to compete with others as the instinct to care for my family took precedence. I didn’t think twice about putting my children or husband first – that was just the way it was, and no matter how trying or exhausting it seemed at times, I have never regretted it. In the eyes of some of my college companions, I sacrificed a career to stay home with my kids, but I took comfort from Hebrews 13:16, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

They have pleased me, too, and God continues to let me reap the fruit of putting others first. In fact, I’m reaping that fruit in a whole new way this year – I’m finding that when I put others first in my writing career, great things happen. As a memorial to my parents, I offer author programs to senior communities, who welcome me with open arms and lively discussions. As a service to fellow authors, I’ve started to organize group booksignings, which are eagerly scheduled by harried bookstore managers. I frequently donate books or talks to charities, which raise needed funds for them and expand audiences for me. I ask myself what other writers might need from me in the way of guest posts or book reviews to accomplish their own objectives.

Honor one another above yourselves,” Paul writes in Romans 12:10. Like so many Scripture passages, these are words to live – and work – by.

(Tomorrow, Jan explores how putting others first is also a key approach to the writing craft.)

Two Writers Walk Into This Bar . . .

Celebratory drinkWhat happens when two writers unexpectedly find themselves with a free evening together?

A nice dinner and a glass of wine? Laughter and bonding? Sharing experiences from both on and off the author trail?

Yes. All that, and new marketing ideas, too.

At least that was my experience two weeks ago when my agency colleague Anita Agers-Brooks made a short-notice trip my way and we were able to spend a few hours together – hours that had no agenda other than getting to know each other. And even though we write in different genres (Anita is a leadership guru, while I write humorous mysteries and memoir), we had much to offer each other in the way of marketing and business ideas. Here are a few nuggets from our impromptu party to spark your own ideas:

  1. Writing is a business. Do you treat it that way? Anita reminded me that I needed to file paperwork to become an LLC (limited liability company) as legal protection of my assets. We live in a litigious world, and a writer must be a good steward of her assets both spiritually and financially. As Anita pointed out, if you wait to protect your business till someone sues you (yes, it can happen!), you’re already too late. (And be sure to include Errors & Omissions insurance while you’re at it.)
  2. Goodreads.com is a publicity goldmine. Are you on it? For my new book release, 658 people entered my giveaway drawing for 3 free copies. That’s a lot of eyes on my book the day it released. And giveaways are just the tip of what you can accomplish on Goodreads. (Read this marketing tutorial on using Goodreads.)
  3. Pay attention to casual comments. After a pastor told Anita her book would be a good topic for a sermon, she found a template online for sermons. She plans to fill it out using her book and then share the template with pastors. She’ll get her message presented by pastors, and she won’t even have to be present! (Does that qualify as bilocation – being in two places at the same time?) I’m going to take her idea and see if I can make it work for me.
  4. Take ownership for your promotional campaign, because ultimately, the book is your baby. Both Anita and I have been surprised by the limitations even large publishers can have when it comes to marketing; our publishers can pull some big coups for us (Anita spoke to a filled college auditorium thanks to her publisher, and I’m getting phone-in radio interviews thanks to mine), but the local press and on-going events calendar that make up the bulk of your PR efforts remain in your own lap, not to mention getting your launch team recruited and equipped to spread the word.
  5. Learn from each other’s experiences. After spending an evening with a writer in the same phase of our careers, I feel like I may still be in the same boat. But now I know there are other boats traveling along beside me, happy to share their own tips and advice. In fact, maybe a small-group marketing retreat would be a good idea. Hmmm….

(FYI – I was kidding about the walking into a bar. Anita and I did walk around a golf course, however. The air was much fresher.)

Give ‘Em What They Want, Not What You THINK They Want

shop-vac-10-gallon-industrial-wet-dry-vacuum-925-40-100After fumbling around with social networking and reading every marketing article about it that I could get my hands on for the last year or so, I’ve distilled my promotional strategy down to a simple directive: give readers what they want.

I know that sounds obvious, but the tricky part is understanding the ‘what,’ especially once you realize that ‘what’ your readers want may not be the same ‘what’ that you THINK they want.  The key is taking ‘you’ out of the picture, so you can clearly see your reader without your own perspective distorting your vision.

It’s like reflective listening – you want to reflect back what the other person is saying without putting your own spin on his words, so you hear clearly what he said, and not what you think he said. Quick example of doing it wrong: my husband said he wished he’d taken music lessons when he was a kid, so I got him music lessons for Christmas. Two weeks into the lessons, he told me he didn’t want to continue.

“But you said you wished you’d taken lessons as a kid,” I reminded him.

“As a kid, yes,” he said. “But now I have other interests that I’d rather spend my time on. You interpreted my comment as a current wish, which it isn’t.”

Ouch. I should have gotten him the shop-vac he said he needed, which I thought was boring.

Same idea applies to your readers.

Pay careful attention to what they say, or in the case of social media, what they really like to see and with what they engage.

For instance, I thought that as an author, I should be posting on Facebook about my WIP or upcoming events. Those posts, I’ve found, get little notice.

But if I post a photo of me getting kissed by a French bulldog, or a goofy homemade video of me singing (badly) about the cold weather, I get comments galore. Clearly, on Facebook, at least, my writing news is not very interesting to my readers.

Writing news is appreciated very much, however, by my newsletter subscribers, so that’s where it now goes, along with on my website. As for LinkedIn, I post both events and business-related material, such as when my books get a rave review or included in an industry-recognized blogger’s post.

For Twitter, I post quick links to interesting material in my subject areas (birds, nature, dogs, humor) or retweet entertaining posts, because I’ve found that those kinds of communications are most appreciated by my followers. Because it’s a fast and short exposure, I tend to use Twitter more than any other social media platform as more of a shotgun approach – post and hope it spreads wide and far to get my name in front of a greater number of people, because that’s the first step to finding new readers.

My experience has convinced me that connecting with readers, followers, and networks is a necessary piece of expanding my readership, but once I’ve reached new folks, it’s time to shift gears and use social media to build relationships, not solicit sales.

That’s why it’s called social media, and not the shopping channel. Remembering to give the reader what they want is easy when it’s the same thing you want to give your friends.

How do you use the various social network platforms?

All Aboard the Creative Team Train!

trainUnless you work with a co-author, the act of writing is indeed a solitary activity.

Selling your writing, however, is anything but. (Think book signings, audiences, store owners, readers, reviewers, friends, foes…)

And that’s a good thing, because if you were the only person involved in marketing your book, you might never want to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) ever again. A one-person sales force means when sales don’t meet expectations, you’re going to have to fire yourself. Then who will you talk to during writing breaks?

Yes, your publisher will be doing some of your selling, but that can range from simply listing your book in their catalog to assigning you a short-term publicist to whatever the big publishing houses do (which I understand is much less than they used to do!). If you want to drive your sales-train – instead of just being a passenger going along for the ride – you need to be the chief engineer, reaching out to all those folks and activities I listed above.

But as engineer, you also have another job besides sales manager: you need to oversee the creative effort that goes into preparing the infrastructure upon which your promoters will depend.

You need your own creative team: a group of individual contributors who shine at what they do and share your enthusiasm for your writing projects. Yes, it’s going to cost you some money, but I’m convinced it’s worth the expense when you assemble the right team to get the sales prep done.

Here are the team members I couldn’t do without:

Website designer. A professionally designed website is essential for communicating your brand and presenting yourself as a professional author and speaker. Find the designer who ‘gets’ you, because she’ll come up with other marketing ideas for you to try. I confess, I put this one off for a long time, thinking my basic (but amateur) website was sufficient. My redesigned site offers me more ways to connect with readers, and offers readers more reasons to revisit the site.

Video producer. I’ve had two book trailers done, and I plan to do more in the future as I expand the ways I use them. Working with the same experienced producer saves time and effort – he has my stock materials on hand and a clear understanding of how I want to present my work. He also has a vested interest in my success, since his business grows from referrals.

Key local media contacts. I know the local newspaper staffs well, which means they pay attention when I send press releases. Many of them have contacts in the wider media community, as well, and they are generous with sharing information and ideas.

Social networking experts. I have the best in the business, because I subscribe to (and read) their newsletters and blogs. What I have learned from these gurus has rapidly added both depth and breadth to my social networking comprehension and usage, and their desire to help writers succeed is evident. My go-to sites are: Social Media Examiner, startawildfire.com/blog, Post Planner blog, socialmouths and Michael Hyatt.

Are you riding the train of book marketing, or are you the engineer?

Scary Publicity Stories

????????????Like most authors, I have a second job title: Doer of Whatever It Takes to Get My Books in Front of the Public So They Will Sell. Much of the time, it’s a pretty cool job with a lot of variety.

Sometimes, though, it’s almost scary, like…

The bookstore signing

I spend an hour and a half at a table outside a bookstore. The place is mobbed – not with readers frantic to buy my book, but with adults and kids participating in a fun run to benefit the local children’s hospital. It is also the weekend for children to trick-or-treat in the indoor mall. Sitting at my table, I get lots of attention, though. The two most frequent questions I get asked are: “Where is a bathroom?” and “Is there some place around here where we can get something to drink?” Being the helpful person I am, I point people in the direction of the former and offer the others some of my bottled water. And people think being an author isn’t glamorous…

The best part of the gig is watching the costumed revelers go by. I see a pint-sized Dracula in tears, a little Spiderman whose foam-padded muscles are slipping off his shoulders, several princesses, and a standard-sized poodle dressed as a duck. But my day takes on cinematic proportions when two adult Star Wars storm-troopers, fully armed with plastic laser guns, walk down the hall. Oh my gosh! Man the Deathstar! Call the Jedi! Tell Spielberg to get the cameras rolling again!

A mom with her baby in her arms poses next to the storm-troopers while a friend takes a picture with her cell phone. The baby takes one look at the helmeted man and goes to sleep. I know how she feels.

Storm-troopers are so passé.

My first television interview

“You’re not allergic to dogs, are you?” a nice young intern named Kurt asks me before he opens the door to the green room, where I’ll wait for my turn on the show.

“How big are the dogs?” I ask, since I don’t do well with big dogs in open spaces, let alone big dogs in small windowless rooms where they can slobber all over you while you cringe in abject misery on a hard plastic chair.

“They’re little,” he says.

“No, I’m not allergic,” I tell him, and he ushers me into the room.

Kurt’s right, the dogs are little. Really little. They are also dressed up in costumes. One is a shark, one is a pumpkin, and one is a Chihuahua wearing a blonde wig and red dress.

“Who’s the Chihuahua?” I ask.

“Marilyn Monroe,” the handler answers.

I give myself a mental head slap. Of course it’s Marilyn Monroe. What was I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking I’m waiting to be interviewed about my novel with a bunch of dogs dressed up for Halloween. I’m thinking I’m going to fire my publicist, except that I’m my publicist.

Now that’s scary.