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

I never aspired to be a writer. Truly. In fact, Mr. Johsen, my high school senior English teacher, once said to me, “Cofer, you will never graduate from college because you can’t write!”

grunge image of a fieldI also never really aspired to write a book. Seems most everyone who survives trying times hears from well-wishers the old adage, “You ought to write a book.” And many of us believe that we could… but never do.

Writing didn’t become a consideration in my life until, uh, well, God and Oprah suggested it. This happened during the height of the recession when my physician recruitment business of twenty years was struggling to pay the bills. Exasperated, I turned the computer off early one business day and shifted my attention to the Oprah show. A discussion was underway about women who had founded new businesses, many starting in a basement or garage. Mrs. Fields was among those featured, as was the creator of Spanx.

I was surprisingly inspired and then on my knees. “Lord, please show me a new way to be in the world. I’m likely too old to start a new business, and the garage is already full, but please weigh in if you have any ideas. What can I possibly do at this age to augment the business I already have?”

I was unprepared for the answer I received about ten days later. It was mid-morning on a Friday and I was alone in the house. The stillness was unnerving. I leaned on the door jam of my office and faced the darkened expanse of the room. I dreaded entering. The only thought in my head was the ever-present drone, get to work. And then it happened. I heard The Voice. It was that commanding “voice within my own” that William P. Young so beautifully describes in his book, The Shack. I’d heard it before.

“Write a book about the gifts you were given.”

Huh? God, is that you? Write a book… really?

I’d never written anything more than a decent consumer complaint letter, and yet I just heard God tell me to write a book. Like I knew how to do that.

But the nudge was unmistakable.

I knew too what He meant by “gifts.” I often thought of as gifts the lessons learned through my daughter’s addiction and recovery. Even at the moment when Annie broke into our house and literally stole the family jewels, the opportunity that event provided for intervention seemed a gift. Maybe the judicial system would stop her from killing herself with drugs.

If I was indeed to write a book, I first needed my daughter’s permission to share our story. Then in sustained recovery from drug addiction, Annie would be both antagonist and heroine in my memoir. Telling an authentic story would require vulnerability on both our parts, as well as a willingness to reveal some very private details from our lives. Were we ready for that kind of exposure?

Annie’s response was wholehearted. “Go for it, Mom!” I didn’t know at the time she was secretly musing, isn’t that precious? Mom thinks she’s going to write a book.

So the new entry on my daily To Do list became “write a book.” I mean, how hard could it be, right? I already knew the story, so I figured I could crank something out in a couple of months. Uh-huh. I really was that clueless.

My writing began one night at 10:00. I’d promised my husband not to take valuable time away from our business day in order to pursue my newest folly, plus late night hours also provided a peaceful quiet. The time was guilt free. Settled in with a cup of tea, I faced the blank Word document on the computer screen before me…and silently prayed.

Okay, God. Now what?

(Stay tuned for Part II about finding a voice, and the will to keep going.)

Was there something that happened to you that got you on the writing path?

The Unfastened Safety Harness

Working on my most recent book, Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program (University of Nebraska Press 2013), changed my life forever.

The date was June 22, 2010, and research for Wheels Stop had led me to Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronaut Doug Hurley was kind enough to invite me to do a run on the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, an ultra-high-tech contraption that tilted upward to simulate the launch position, and then shook and rattled to prepare astronauts for the ride uphill.

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Although I was smiling alongside astronaut Doug Hurley (left) in the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, my heart was broken. A major life change was already beginning to take place.

I couldn’t wait to take him up on it. I have dreamed of being an astronaut my entire life — my last name is Houston for crying out loud — and this was as close as I would ever get. Slowly, I fastened four of the five safety harnesses as we prepared for the run. The fifth belt refused to buckle due to the size of my belly. It still hurts to think about that fifth seat belt even four years later.

This wasn’t happening. I’d been embarrassed many, many times by my size, but never with an honest-to-goodness astronaut standing over me, trying to figure out a way to help. Doug never said anything ugly, but he didn’t need to. I was devastated, and becoming more and more so as I desperately tried to force the issue. My ribs hurt so badly, I could barely breathe.

SLIDE THREE

My before …

Fortunately, we proceeded with the simulation of two launches and five landings. It should have been one of the most memorable moments of my career, and it was, but inside my heart was absolutely broken. I had to change something, and I had to do it quickly. My wife needs a husband, and my sons need a daddy. Heading the way I was headed, I wasn’t going to survive.

Rather than going on some crazy diet when I got back from Houston, I simply started eating like I had some sense. Chinese buffets were my absolute favorite, but they had to go.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were were like my crack cocaine. No more. Not even half of one. Oreo cookies … country fried steak … it was once nothing to eat nearly two pounds worth of bacon and tomato sandwiches. I’ve never been drunk or high, but I know full well what it means to be addicted.

I could do one lap of a half-mile track near our local YMCA without feeling like I was going to break. Then, I could do two … and then four. I signed up to walk in my first 5k, and then I signed up for another. I took a class at the Y on how to actually train for a 5k, and ever since then, I’ve been running. More than four years later I’ve run seventeen 5ks, four 10ks, and three half-marathons. I’ve lost approximately 110 pounds.

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… and after photos.

Today, I’m satisfied with my weight. I’m not skinny by any means, but I’m happy with where I am. There’s nothing all that special about my story. Yes, I’ve been able to drop a significant amount of weight, but it wasn’t some super-secret diet or workout routine that did the trick. I was a writer who was almost completely sedentary behind a keyboard and computer monitor, and once I started moving, I haven’t stopped.

Trust me. If I can do it, anybody can. Working on your latest project is important, yes, but not at the expense of your quality of life. Hang in there. You can do it. I promise!

What Matters Most During the Holidays?

During the holidays, my writing projects, ideas, and dreams don’t always fit into my everyday life. So, I’m forced to decide what matters most.

Photo/KarenJordan

As I prepared to lead a session on holiday traditions for a “Countdown to Christmas” workshop a few weeks ago, I asked myself, What holiday traditions mean the most to me?

I found myself resisting the idea to plan for Christmas before Thanksgiving. I knew I didn’t have the time and energy to accomplish everything that I wanted to do, much less the things that others expected of me. And the burden of planning holiday events and activities overwhelmed me. I knew I had to be honest with myself about my expectations.

Traditions. As I listed my family’s holiday traditions, I decided to find a new way to prioritize them. I chose three basic categories to help me sort through the chaos. I posed three questions.

  1. Which traditions are treasured most by my family? I brainstormed about our holiday activities, noting some old and new favorites—recipes, gifts, parties, and other family activities.
  2. Which traditions are the most practical for my family? I listed the most difficult traditions to maintain, since our children live in different cities with children of their own now—and since climbing on the roof and hanging Christmas lights are no longer options for me.
  3. Which traditions help me to communicate the “real” meaning of the holidays to those who matter most to me? As I examined my traditions, I wanted to be sure to include those that best expressed my faith. As a writer, I know the importance of showing, not just telling. So I scratched off some things that might distract us from the main “reason for the season.”

Realization. This process helped me to begin planning for my holiday celebration and relieved a bit of my holiday stress. How?

  1. Expectations. It helped me release my expectations of myself and of others. I won’t be avoiding certain family members who might not have the same values and beliefs.
  2. Stress. It enabled me to avoid unneeded expenses and the exhaustion of time-wasting commitments.
  3. Focus. I refocused on what matters most and the “real” meaning of the holiday and not on the frustrating and unnecessary aspects of the season.
  4. Pattern. It established a new pattern for approaching my life and work. Instead of thinking that I have to do everything that might be expected of me, I can choose a different response.

Questions. Now, I ask myself three questions before accepting any new challenge.

  1. Passion. Am I really passionate about this?
  2. Practical. Do I have the skills, talent, or knowledge to do this? If not, do I have the time or resources to pursue it?
  3. Purpose. Does it meet an important need?

If not, I’m saying, “NO!”

Celebration. I’m granting myself permission to let go, enjoy life, and celebrate. And I believe this holiday season and the upcoming year will be the best ever.

How do you determine what matters most to you and your family?

Miles to Go and Promises to Keep

Photo/KarenJordan

“But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep …” (Robert Frost).

Many years ago, I sensed the Lord’s direction to begin writing a very personal story from my family’s life. So I began to record my thoughts even while we were still embroiled in the middle of the crisis.

Roadblocks. Yet every time I would attempt to complete a book proposal for this particular project, something thwarted my efforts.

I don’t just mean a little bump in the road. I’m referring to situations that seemed impossible to get through—like my mother’s fatal illness, my daughter’s three orthopedic surgeries and difficult pregnancies, my daughter-in-law’s seven miscarriages and two miraculous births, and my father-in-law’s lengthy terminal illness.

And that’s not counting all the roadblocks in my journey to publication. Oh, my! Where do I begin with that one?

Red flags. So as I approached this long-drawn-out project again—this time working on it with my daughter Tara—red flags waved all around me. Again, it looked hopeless. And to be honest, when I returned home from our last brainstorming session, discouragement covered me like a heavy cloak. And my emotions tempted me to return this story to my “What was I thinking?” pile once again.

Reminders. Then, I remembered my “40-day Challenge: Telling the Stories That Matter Most.”

I also began a study the life of Moses. And I thought my mission looked impossible!

Moses faced the unimaginable tasks of his calling with great fear. He knew he didn’t have the strength or the abilities that he would need to complete the undertakings God had asked of him. He was aware of his weaknesses and limitations; yet, he wanted to embrace God’s promises. But at each step, he faced his own inabilities in light of God’s plans.

As I study more about Moses, I’m reminded once again of God’s steadfast commitment to keep His promises. Even my unbelief, fear, and doubt will not divert God’s plans. I may get sidetracked and distracted, but God remains faithful to His Word.

God also promises to provide all I need to complete the work that He began in me.

“There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in (me) would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish …” (Phil. 1:6 MSG).

Reflection. I’m grateful that God continues to invite me to join Him in His work. And I don’t sense that He has given up on me like I’ve often done with Him. He will forgive my complaining about my circumstances and blaming others for my failures.

So I’m holding on to God’s promises now, even as I write this confession of faith. And I pray if you are struggling with a similar issue, you will revisit His promises to you, too.

Are you facing an impossible project now? What lessons are you learning in the process?

What’s YOUR Holiday Plan?

balloons-25737_150Do you know what today is?

It’s National Black Dog Day! Roll out the carpet, crank up the tunes, and open the bags of doggy treats!

In celebration, I’m doing a radio interview, guest posting on several blogs, making a couple of store appearances, and managing a schedule of entertaining tweets, updates, and posts on my own social networks. It’s not only a nationally-named observance, but it’s the perfect opportunity for promoting my very own black dog who stars in my humorous girl-meets-dog memoir, Saved by Gracie. Never mind that the book was released last April – today is the day to hit the spotlight again.cropped Jan and Gracie

In other words, I found a holiday tailor-made for my book, but without all the noise other holidays involve. I don’t have to compete with Halloween costumes or décor, Black Friday shopping madness, Santa, New Year’s Eve bashes, romantic getaways, or fireworks displays. As a black dog owner, I have the stage all to myself!

How about you? Have you found your tailor-made holiday for book promotion yet?

As every author knows, timing is one of the best assets you can find in publicity. Sure, we all wish for something of national importance or interest to pique everyone’s interest in our books when they launch, but few of us have any control over those larger scenarios. The key to keeping your book release momentum, then, is to continue to find reasons that your book is timely. Here are a few suggestions for doing just that:

  1. Re-examine your book content for additional audience appeal you may have missed during the initial book launch. For instance, when my memoir came out, my publisher focused on Christian readers, since it’s a tail (I mean tale) of spiritual healing. After that first wave of publicity, I began to expand my reach into dog-lover territory by hooking up with animal rescue groups, veterinarians, and dog boutiques. I’m now moving into a third wave of audience strategy by networking with health and wellness groups. Handling all three markets would have been too overwhelming for me to manage at first, but by adding audiences incrementally, I’m better able to market and direct what I need to do next to continue sales.
  2. Pay attention to national news and trends, and see if you can’t jump on those trains. Whenever environmental topics (like wind power vrs. natural habitat) are hot, I try to build on those conversations with my own links and commenting, because my Birder Murder Mystery series deals with the same topics. The more I engage in the conversations, the better my visibility to my readers, which translates into continued sales, even for older books in my series.
  3. seafood fettuciniFind your perfect holiday. Does your hero cook Italian food? National Fettucini Alfredo Day is Feb. 7. Does your book discuss holding onto memories? National Scrapbooking Day is the first Saturday in May. If you write about it, I bet you can find a ‘holiday’ to connect with it.

What ‘holiday’ is in your future promotional plan?

 

To Write a Book Someday, Share Your Writing Now

8139708904_9a1d1783d4_bSome people will tell you the defining characteristic of a writer is that he or she is someone who writes. There is truth to that perspective, but it fails to offer a complete picture. It also gives many “aspiring writers” an excuse to be nothing more than journal keepers: diligently plucking away at Moleskine memoirs or first-novel manuscripts that have zero chance of getting published, ever.

The point here is not a matter of quality. It’s about privacy.

The reason why many written works-in-progress will never see the light of publishing day is that they are stowed, always and forever, in a drawer or on a hard drive where they have no risk of being evaluated by a second person. The writers of these works will never be writers because they will never have readers. They exist completely outside the writing market, and the only critical eye they allow to view their work is their own.

If you think that one day you’d like for people to read your writing, then you should begin by inviting people to read your writing now. Here are five ways readers can strengthen your writing and make it even more worth reading:

Readers help you get over yourself. It’s not uncommon for writers to feel uncertain or insecure about what they’ve written. Will this technique work here? Am I being clear? Am I using a marketable concept? Does anybody else care about the subject? Without readers to help confirm where and how a piece of writing is hitting its target (and where and how it’s missing its mark), these uncertainties and insecurities often grow and fester. But when you prioritize feedback, typically you get it. As a result you might find that your sinking suspicions will be confirmed. Some of your assumptions might be challenged. Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by rave reviews. Whatever the case, you won’t be stuck wondering anymore, and that will help light a clear way forward.

Readers identify strengths in your work. Encouragement and affirmation give extra fuel when you’re trying to produce a manuscript. So ask your readers to note the places where they laugh out loud, hold their breath with anticipation, get caught by surprise, can’t stop turning pages, or are struck speechless. That paragraph you’re thinking about deleting? It might be your readers’ favorite part. Give them a chance to tell you so.

Readers identify weaknesses in your work. That poetic metaphor you’ve taken days and months to craft? It might be so complex that it’s confusing your readers. The story you’ve built a whole chapter around? Your readers might be bored out of their minds.

As the writer of a work, you will undoubtedly feel more attached to it than your readers will. Because of your heightened emotional attachment, you’ll probably miss seeing some of your writing’s flaws. You might even be blind to enormous holes in the work. Let your readers open your eyes to the problems you don’t see, so you can take the opportunity to fix them.

Readers expand your perspective. You are only one person, so your outlook on the world is limited and skewed. You have strange views about certain things, and some of your views simply haven’t been challenged in a way that forces you to clarify them well or charitably. Readers can help you identify the odd little points in a draft, the ones that either are or seem arrogant, stingy, dismissive, hyper-emotional, you name it. Points like these will jut out in unseemly ways, always subtracting and distracting from good work, unless someone will be so kind as to call your attention to them, so you can know to improve them.

Readers make the process realistic. If your writing aspirations are real, then you’re going to have to accept the reality of readers at some point. Get used to feedback now, and critiques won’t make you crazy later. Write with readers in mind now, and it won’t feel strange when they’re a part of the process later. Start learning what readers are interested in now, and then when your defining moments as a writer come, you’ll be prepared to deliver for your readers.


YOUR TURN: Respond in the comments: How have readers helped your writing? What kind of readers give the best feedback? What keeps you from pursuing readers?


Photo credit: cogdogblog cc

Staying on Course

Photo/KarenJordan

I failed to consider the length of the trail when I started walking it.

Temptations and expectations. I had hoped that a two-mile, brisk walk along a wooded path overlooking a beautiful golf course near my home would clear the cobweb of worry from my mind. 

Instead, my impulsive, adventuresome nature ignored the signpost, describing this four-mile loop through the challenging hills and valleys in Central Arkansas.

I knew the path would eventually lead me back to the trailhead. So, when I noticed the third mile marker, I decided to press on. I assumed that going forward would be faster than turning around and returning to where I started. Plus, after investing so much energy, I wanted to finish the course.

Confusion and distractions. I tried to determine my location on my cell phone’s GPS. But I couldn’t locate the trail on my screen, and the diverging paths confused me. So, I just kept walking.

I stopped from time to time to shoot a few pictures. These gave me some short breaks  from the summertime heat and rest for my throbbing feet, as I avoided the pesky bugs, spider webs, and poison ivy sprigs at the edge of the forest.

Photo/KarenJordanElation. By the end of the trail, my worries had  abandoned me, and the strain of the long walk through the woods subsided. Refreshed, I paused by the lake and enjoyed a bottle of cold water.

I also experienced a surge of self-confidence when I reached my destination. I knew that I wouldn’t have attempted such a feat in the summer heat if I’d known the length and difficulty of the trail.

Looking back on the experience, I realize that I’ve learned this lesson in other areas of my life—marriage, parenting, academics, and writing for publication.

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made … By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back … So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. (Phil. 3:12-15 MSG)

Are you tempted to quit right now!? I challenge you to focus on God and allow Him to guide you with His promises.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly … And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:15-17 MSG).

What helps you stay on track when you’re tempted to get off course?

YouTube/YamahaBill (Disney’s Hercules – “Go the Distance”)
Photos/KarenJordan