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?

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?

How Many Words to Paint a Picture…?

Writers, editors, and agents like to talk about voice. That elusive thing that gets you published or doesn’t, that sets you apart from others. Much as people have tried, it’s a concept that’s difficult to boil down to a sentence or two.

One of the aspects of voice is how you write descriptions. This is one of the unique fingerprints of your writing that makes it possible for people to tell you apart from another writer. It’s part of your unique gift for storytelling.

Honestly? Descriptions are hard to get just right. If only we could attach pictures to our stories. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea, really, having a nice photo or rendering of what we pictured every hundred pages or so in order to assure ourselves that our readers got it, that the scene we so carefully tried to describe was fully absorbed by them, no room for communication errors. Unfortunately (or maybe not. Haha), the picture thing isn’t an option, so we have to keep practicing using our words to create a picture in our readers’ minds that bears some resemblance to what we were seeing when we wrote it.

Mucho Lake

How would you describe this picture? Are you a writer who would write long paragraphs about the blues and greens? Would you make an effort to explain the way the road curves around the lake, without so much as a guardrail? Would you try to capture the wilderness feeling of the picture? Write about the trees? Or would you just tell your reader that it’s a mountain lake straight out of a fairy-tale and leave them to fill in the blanks?

If everyone reading this post wrote about the scene above, even if we set strict limits on the number of words you could use, every single example would be different. Every. Single. One.

Here’s what I do think writers need to know…there are generalizations about readers’ preferences that are true. And while writing isn’t all about some set of imaginary “rules,” reader preferences are things to pay attention to if you ever want to have readers (or if you want more readers). If you’re a Hemingway-esque describer and you think less is more…readers of historicals might feel like you’ve robbed them of one of their favorite parts of the story. If you describe the interior of a house and take several pages to do so in a suspense novel…you’ve lost that target reader (you know, unless there’s blood on the furniture or something, but still…).

Use your words to help us feel part of the setting, to help us see it. But use them appropriately for your genre. Also use the words you enjoy reading. Do you skim long description paragraphs? Are they your favorite part? Or are you somewhere in between? How you answer those questions should have some bearing on how you write.

Know your reader.

Know yourself.

And make your setting come alive with your words in the unique way that is yours alone.

Marketing: Sharing the Treasure You Discovered

Sharing the Treasure

Sharing the Treasure

In a charming café tucked in the corner of an eclectic bookstore not far from the center of town, you stare into your latte, mesmerized by the heart-shaped swirls of steamed milk. This peaceful instance of solitude is so perfect you decide to share it on Instagram.

After venting the domed lid of your new Big Green Egg backyard cooker, you reach for tongs to lift ribs dripping in a tangy barbeque sauce onto your plate. Your friend, sensing the momentous nature of this occasion, captures the moment for Facebook with her smartphone.

You weren’t trying to market a bookstore or a cooker. You simply found a treasure and you were sharing it with friends.

Draw A Treasure Map
As I prepare for the launch of my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I am learning how to assist in the marketing process. Buried treasure helps no one. A book cannot fulfill its purpose unless readers find it. So I have begun to view marketing as the process of drawing a treasure map to help potential readers locate my book.

Everyone draws a map unique to a particular treasure, but here are some ideas:

  • Have your social media bio mention your book and link to your website.
  • On your website, include links to a variety of online retailers and bookstore websites that are selling your book. Use a pull down menu of retailers if the list is long.
  • Mention your book in bylines to articles you write.
  • Blog and guest blog, mentioning your book in your post or your bio.

Supply the Digging Tools

Once the map leads you to the buried treasure, you need tools to dig it out so you can enjoy the treasure and share it with your friends. In the same way, marketing involves not only drawing a treasure map for potential readers, but also supplying the digging tools so others can unearth the treasure and share it with others. Here is a list of a few tools I am using to help others spread the word about my book:

  • Bookmarks
  • Flyers (both paper and PDF format for sharing by email)
  • Publicity photos
  • Link to discussion guide for book
  • Social media page for each book

Prepare to Celebrate!

What are some things you’ve found helpful for marketing your books?

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

Leadership Insights for Writers

When you think of a leader, you may envision the executive of a large corporation swiveling in a luxurious leather chair behind a large mahogany desk, or a speaker delivering a keynote address behind a podium. Perhaps you think of a coach motivating a football team to persevere after a tough first half of the game or an inventor changing lives through technology. You probably won’t think of the writer quietly typing words in an unseen office early in the morning or late at night. But maybe you need to think again.

Creating art wallpaper

Writers can lead with ideas, and history provides examples. Science fiction writers have shown us the future long before engineers drew the designs and filed the patents. Nonfiction writers have changed how we do business, emphasizing the importance of trust and emotional intelligence. As a writer, even if you do not see yourself as a leader, you can benefit from applying leadership insights to your work. Consider using the following three concepts to improve your writing:

Know Your Mission

Successful leaders know why they are doing the job they do. They know their mission and communicate it effectively to their followers.

In the writing world, every book carries a theme. Whether you are writing a guide to preparing salads from locally-sourced ingredients or a historical novel describing life in rural America in the mid-nineteenth century, your book has the opportunity to fulfill a mission based on its theme. Even books written primarily to entertain teach life lessons through the way the plot unfolds.

As you work your way through the chapters of the book you are writing, keep the mission of your book foremost in mind. Ask yourself how the passage you are writing today furthers that mission. Arm yourself with a red pen so you can edit out material that detracts from the central theme of your book.

Create the Necessary Structures

Leaders who build companies from small start-ups to large, stable corporations understand the value of creating structures. They find the best ways to do something and embed those methods into the company culture. Perhaps they teach employees specific phrases to use when interacting with customers. Maybe they develop a certain philosophy that guides corporate policies, such as the importance of giving back to the local community. Without the necessary structures, the leader’s ideas will become diluted and diffuse as a company grows, with employees far from the leader on the organizational chart losing sight of the vision.

Writers who hope to influence others through their writing need certain structures as well. One way to maintain a consistent message throughout a book is to break the book into parts, with each part developing the theme in a certain way. Fiction writers might want to consider how plot development furthers or detracts from the main theme.

Writers need structures in place for marketing once the writing phase is finished. By strengthening relationships with key people who will understand and promote the message in your book, you are creating structures that will expand your influence as a writer. A column in a magazine related to your book, a web presence through a blog or social media, interactions with local bookstores, and a network of places to speak all serve as necessary structures for the writer who wants to make a difference by leading with ideas.

Paint an Image of the Future

One of the key tasks on the to-do list of all leaders is sharing their vision. People like to follow individuals who can paint an attractive image of the future. We buy products that we feel will improve our lives and make tomorrow a little easier than today. Even if you are writing a book set in the past, provide your readers with life lessons that will move them forward into a better future. Help them imagine how the world will be better if more people invested in the theme expounded in your book. Throughout my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I invite people to imagine a world where individuals take the time to build bridges to one another instead of dismissing the insights of those unlike themselves. I apply the theme to faith and reason, feeling and thinking, and theology and science. However, the overall theme works beyond the scope of the book. My hope is to persuade people to improve the way they relate to others, leading them to live more fulfilling lives. I want my words to make a practical difference for my readers, bettering their everyday lives.

In what ways do you hope to influence people through your writing?

Conferences and Friends


writingWith the beginning of the ACFW conference barely a week away, you’ll see many posts outlining the reasons you should attend a writers conference, what to expect, how to approach editors and agents, and basic conference survival guides.

I’d like to tell you about my first conference (albeit not ACFW, but RWA) in San Francisco. The day prior to the start of the conference was the Faith, Hope, and Love chapter meeting, which was RWA’s chapter for inspirational writers. There I met three special, very gifted writers, Debra Clopton, Linda Goodnight, and Janet Tronstad.

We had hooked up briefly in a pre-conference chat room and decided to take in a few of the San Francisco sights together. It was an afternoon of laughter and fun, especially when we ended up on the wrong street car and found ourselves in the Painted Ladies section of town rather than at Fisherman’s Wharf. Long story short, we finally made it to our destination, but what impressed me most was not the sights of the beautiful Oceanside city, but how these women took me in. Me–a green newbie writer. The encouragement I received from them that day has fueled my writing efforts for years.

I have since met other wonderful woman, such as the dozen who formed the group called the My Book Therapy Ponderers. A God-ordained story that I’ll save for another post, but just as impactful in my writing career.

The key to a successful conference is making connections. Surround yourself with as many writer friends as you can to encourage you, pray you through the journey, and help you along the way. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this. Get their business cards or write their names and emails down on a piece of paper. Then afterwards send them an email, or perhaps invite them to do a guest post on your blog. The key is to make new friends. It will be one of your best takeaways from a conference and an invaluable resource to the future of your writing career.

Your turn: What have you found to be the most valuable takeaway from a conference?