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.

The Only Story That Matters

july 013I was beginning to panic about my book sales. Despite my hard work and ceaseless efforts to promote my new book, I just wasn’t making a dent in the supply of books I’d bought from my publisher. Since I’d borrowed the money from our family savings, I felt guilty that I wasn’t refilling the coffer as quickly as I’d so optimistically assumed I would.

What more could I do? Post even more frequently on social networks? Write more guest blogs? Camp out on the doorsteps of radio and television stations to get their attention? Go into even more debt by hiring a publicist, in hopes he could convince people to buy my book? Beg the few bookstores still in existence to push my book at customers?

I didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, I asked God for help. I prayed for more book sales.

And He delivered.

Within days, I heard from two stores who had taken some of my copies that they needed more. Some event bookings I’d been pursuing for months finally came through, and I added them to my calendar. One night as I lay awake in bed, thinking about my book, I realized there was another market I could tap into, and the next day, I discovered solid leads for doing exactly that.

And then my daily Scripture devotional chimed in with Jeremiah 32:17.

universe“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

Yes, I was reassured and completely grateful for God’s generosity to me in the form of helping me sell more books as I had requested in prayer. I’d asked, and I’d received.

Praise God!

To be honest, though, I felt something even more compellingly: I felt chastised. I’d asked the omnipotent Lord, who created the universe itself, to help me sell books! Who did I think I was to even imagine He would care about a few hundred dollars in my life? It’s not like I needed a PLANET or anything. I wanted material success. I wanted to put some money back in the bank. I wanted God to make me feel better about a story I wrote. A story!!

Talk about putting myself at the center of the universe. I was humbled. Embarrassed. Aghast at my own egocentricity.

And, most of all, stunned by God’s patience with me, because this isn’t the first time I’ve let my selfish priorities slide in over what I know to be the single most important relationship of my life: my relationship with God.

It’s true – nothing is too hard for God, and that includes loving me…and you.

And really, that’s the only story that matters, isn’t it?

 

Is Multi-Genre Writing Right For You?

to do list (2)One of the ongoing debates in the writing world is about the wisdom of writing in more than one genre. The reality, I think, is that most writers want to write in several genres and, in fact, may be quite good at it. My first projects were poetry, and then I moved on to magazine articles. Think pieces followed, as did newspaper humor columns. My first published book was a small volume about practical Christian spirituality, but then I found my stride in humorous murder mysteries (#6 is out in September, with #7 currently taking shape on my laptop).

Last but not least, a few months ago, my first memoir was published.

So, for me, the big debate about writing in multiple genres is a no-brainer, because I already do.

My experience of doing so, however, has made me recast the debate from a writing perspective to a publishing perspective, and, as a writer who wants to build a career as a published author, I offer my own pluses and minuses of working in a multi-genre career.

  1. Minus: If you think it’s demanding to build one platform, try building several at once. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but in my experience, it can’t happen simultaneously (unless you have clones of yourself ready to go – and in that case, please drop me a note at my website, because I could use a couple of clones these days). To launch a book, you have to be single-minded to make the best of marketing opportunities: appearances, talks, media, book clubs, etc. Your new book/baby needs attention 24/7, and if you leave it for a day or two to nurse along another genre, you find yourself playing catch-up when you get back to the newborn. I’m guessing it’s like having twins-one person can’t really hold two babies equally well, so there’s always some juggling going on. Same thing with two genres: you end up feeling like you haven’t been as successful as you could have been with just one book. At the very least, you don’t sleep much, because you’re trying to do the work of two marketing departments in one body.
  2. Plus: Working in two genres is exhilarating! You get to double the people you meet and the interests you cultivate. Your horizons expand and life is so rich with new experiences, it takes your breath away. It’s wonderful to be a writer!
  3. Minus: Publishers are very hesitant to take a chance on you in a new genre. The more you’ve established yourself in one genre, the less a publisher wants to take the risk of launching you in a different direction. Publishing is a business, and publishers have to respect the bottom line.
  4. Plus: If your genres share something in common (mine share humor and a love of nature), your fans of one genre are more likely to follow you into new territory, giving you a base readership on which to build and a headstart on creating a new platform.

Have you had any experience in multi-genre writing? Any insights to share?

Sing it, Lamb Chop!

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projects.latimes.com

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.