The Power of the Ask

I sometimes forget the strength of the simple. Social media is a brawny tool, but it’s sometimes vexing to figure out the best way to reach the masses using our profile platforms. That’s why a couple of informal posts I recently put up surprised me in their reach and response. I re-learned a lesson about the power of the ask.The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

From infancy, we quickly figure out we must communicate our desires and needs in order to have them filled. A baby cries. A toddler whines. A little child begs. A teenager says, “Mommy or Daddy, please?”

If we make our requests without manipulation or ill motives, especially when we are inspired for a greater good, we generally receive what we ask for. I remember a few years ago, when I read Randy Pausch’s book, The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, and feeling struck when he mentioned the power of simply asking as criteria for getting what we want. The world relinquished a wise and insightful man when he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2008. Randy’s book was his final gift to the world.

Randy Pausch Questions More ImportantI was reminded of The Last Lecture when two different times I asked for help on my social media platforms. My intent was to help others, but as a by-product, the information I received also helped me. I believe because my questions were genuine and sincere, my friends, fans, and followers were eager to assist.

First, as a favor to a friend who is an editor for a women’s magazine, I asked seven questions in order to find out what the hottest topics were for women today. Not only did the volume of answers surprise me, but so did the patterns they revealed. It turns out many women are struggling with similar issues–raw, real, and relevant in our 21st century culture.

My friend got the information she needed, but as a bonus, I’ve been able to share what I learned with other women with hearts to share messages that matter. The benefit I received was my own fresh insight into what sisters of today are battling, allowing me to search for answers on their behalf. All because I dared to ask.

Getting Through Amazon Best SellerThe second thing I asked for came as a result of requesting detailed and specific aid from my social media peeps. When my latest book, Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over released in late March, it enjoyed a strong opening run. The first 90 days, readers reviewed and spread the word as the message resonated with many who were hurting, or knew someone else who was. But as authors, we know the challenge of keeping our messages out there, and figuring out how to reach appropriate audiences with our words of help, healing, and hope.

So when I asked on social media for ideas and/or connections to reach chaplains for the military, hospitals, or prisons, I was again shocked at how much my friends were willing to assist. The power of the ask extended my reach, and the longevity of my book’s impact.

In a world that often feels complicated and confusing, with voices shouting, “Try this. Do that,” it’s refreshing to remember the strength of the simple. Lately, I’ve seen many ask for help in a myriad of ways on social media.Social Media Platforms

“What pediatrician do you recommend in the Denver area? Go!”

“My son got blood on my favorite yellow shirt. Can it be saved? How do you remove blood stains? Go!”

“I need a quick dish for our family reunion this weekend. What’s your fave? Go!”

These days, folks are used to being asked to help with many things. So why can’t we ask for help in sharing our messages, or to find out what messages we should share? Instead of overcomplicating it, why not enact the power of the ask?

What are your current hot topics? Do you have any insights on how/who I can spread my message of real healing and hope for the hurting? How can I help you?

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (conclusion)

(Continued from Part I, Part II and Part III) Image, pink binder

I will never forget the feeling that day when I collated thirty chapters, punched holes, and neatly stacked all 330 pages of my first draft into a pink, soft-cover binder. I wasn’t Rocky at the stop of the stairs with pumped fists, but rather felt a peaceful satisfaction unlike any I’d ever experienced. It was a book in my hands, and I’d written it.

At the prescribed time, I emailed a digital copy to Jim Lund, the editor who had agreed to help me. His feedback arrived about three weeks later.

Jim’s comments were mostly about structural issues. The timeline was chaotic and he had trouble following what happened when. We shuffled chapters and paragraphs, and “trimmed” unnecessary copy. For example, when describing the time Annie broke into our upstairs bedroom, I’d “squirreled” a three-page tangent about the bats that flew into our house throughout that entire summer. “Kind of interesting,” Jim said, “in a creepy sort of way. I’d trim this.” “Trim” being the kind word for “chuck it.”

Over a period of months, I integrated Jim’s recommendations into a cleaner draft. I read and re-read that manuscript dozens of times, sometimes aloud, and fine-tuned the cadence and the prose into a finished product that sounded like me. It was then ready for beta readers.

I paid Office Max $110 to print eleven copies of the manuscript. I then assembled the pages into inexpensive binders and began to share my work with friends and family. Copies went to my brother, Paul; to Annie, of course; my son, Jeff; a couple of dear friends; my pastor’s wife, Kari; plus my therapist and the four women in our long-standing support group. My husband, Pete, continued to show little interest in reading, remaining insistent that it took me 330 pages to say what he likely would have said in 11.

I can’t remember a time when I ever felt so vulnerable… and I was terrified.

It’s a huge commitment to read someone’s work, especially 330 pages of it, and comments began to trickle in over a period of weeks. “This is good, Barb. This is really, really good. I read tons of books and frankly could not put this down.”

Yeah… that’s what friends are supposed to say.

I continued to edit and trim, ultimately heeding the advice of others and slashed/reworked/condensed the first few chapters. I couldn’t read a paragraph without reworking it, and wondered if I’d ever know when the book was done.

In the meantime, I bought hundreds of dollars worth of books on self-publishing. Jim taught me that only famous people received publishing deals these days, or people who had developed strong national platforms. He thought my story was powerful, but I was unknown. Completely unfamous.

Nevertheless, after two years of hard writing, I thought it would be fun to query some agents and see how the process worked. Maybe I’d get some helpful feedback. I’d already drafted a query letter in a “How to get your book published” class up at our community college. Next I needed to write a proposal, and Jim provided some templates.

Writing the proposal was miserable. While my business background proved helpful, I found this part of the process a chore. The manuscript was written first-person past tense, yet Jim instructed me to write the proposal in third-person present tense. So each of the thirty plus chapters needed to be condensed and translated into a different form of speech. It was a grind, and I shelved the book for months. This just wasn’t going to happen.

Until… until, I felt the nudge again. “It’s time,” said the voice within my own.

Two days later I sent a query letter to two agents, and both responded within a week. Requests for the proposal followed, and the manuscript followed after that. My brain could scarcely take in the enormity of what was happening.

One of the agents was the wonderful Alice Crider and she signed me with WordServe Literary. Within a few weeks, Alice had secured two publishing offers.

grunge image of a field

The rest is history, as they say. I’m not a famous author by any means, but I am an author nonetheless. It was four years after I received that first nudge from God to “write a book about the gifts you were given,” that Zondervan released A Very Fine House: A Mother’s Story of Love, Faith and Crystal Meth. They even retained my working title.

Miracles can and do happen. First was my daughter’s return from the abyss of drug addiction. Then a book followed about the gifts, the lessons learned. Whew. Both experiences have strengthened a simple faith, and changed me forever.

How to Create an Enticing Book Trailer — Secrets from a Professional

Getting ThroughBecause of my passion for the message, and the drama of the subject, I really wanted a book trailer for my latest release, Getting Through What You Can’t Get OverSo I went on a quest, hunting for the most enticing book trailers, hoping to glean insights and ideas.

When I searched on YouTube, high-profile author websites, and via Google searches, I was surprised. There wasn’t much out there, and what was, frankly,  with few exceptions, didn’t entice me to read the books they represented. Especially those filmed for my genre of creative non-fiction.

For transparency sake, I’ll confess. I turned most off before I finished watching.

But quality wasn’t the only issue I had while doing my homework. When I looked at pricing models by those who offered the service, I was appalled at what some of them wanted to charge. (No wonder there are so many self-made book trailers.)

But I knew I wasn’t gifted in the creative realm of film-making. I needed the help of a professional. So what to do???

It was around this time my niece got married. A couple of weeks after the ceremony, she invited an intimate group of close family and friends for a wedding video party. The videographer was there, and he unveiled his masterpiece. I was VERY impressed. His creativity in weaving the footage into a story, really captured my attention, and held it.

When the party was over, I waited until everyone else had left, and asked my niece how much he charged. The price was right. This young creative was building his portfolio, and although he was smart enough not to give his services away, he didn’t price himself out either.

Daniel Thompson Videographer

Daniel Thompson Film & Photography

I asked the videographer, Daniel Thompson Film and Photography, if I could speak with him.

“Have you ever filmed a book trailer?”

“I’m not sure what that is.”

I explained. Then asked if he would consider working with me to create a trailer for Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over. I outlined what I wanted.

“I’ll provide you with plenty of information, much more than you’ll ever use, and I’d love for you to take it from there, use what you need and discard the rest. Don’t be afraid to get creative. You’re the expert, the professional in this field, not me. I don’t want to tell you how to do your job.”

So I emailed him a document, full of information. (If you want a copy as a sample, just email a request to anita@anitabrooks.com).

We did a couple of filming sessions, one at a book signing I had at Barnes & Noble, per his suggestion. And though I don’t like to see or hear myself, I think he did a great job of making the trailer feel warm, inviting, and allowing the flaws of imperfect hair, makeup, etc., add to the real-ness of the message.

Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Book TrailerHe also included things I wouldn’t have thought of. A few touches of dramatic flair. Flipping through the pages of my book. Looking up toward Heaven. A closeup of me autographing. Little things people respond to. You can watch it here and tell me what you think.

Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over book trailer

If you’d like to create a great book trailer, and this area of creativity is not your forte, plus like me, you need to squeeze dollars, I have some suggestions:

  • Hire Daniel, he’s amazing!
  • If you live too far from Daniel, (I’m sorry!), find your own local creative, who’s building a photo/video portfolio, and willing to experiment.
  • Check with local colleges, or even high schools, asking the administration for referrals to a young, talented person who might do a great job.

Through the process, I learned secrets from a professional about how to create an enticing book trailer.  Slapping something together isn’t enough. Make sure it draws people in, and makes them want to read your book, not turn you off. I can’t take credit for mine, but I am happy with the outcome. It isn’t perfect, but in my opinion, it is enticing.

Have you used a book trailer? If so, what was your experience?

13 “Tells” of a Novice Writer

In the poker-playing world, professional card sharks have a term for a novice player who inadvertently gives away the cards he’s holding through some sort of gesture or tick of which he is unaware. The pros call it a “tell.”

pokerIn the publishing world, professional editors and agents look for the “tells” of a novice writer whenever they scan a manuscript. With practice, we can almost always pick out the amateur from the pro from reading just a page or two. Here’s a list of 13 Common “Tells” of an Amateur Writer that may give you an inside advantage at the publishing table.

  1. Too many clichés. If you find yourself using a common cliché–try changing it up for humor or effect. Instead of saying, “He marches to a different drum,” you might say, “She rhumbas to a different drum-ba.” You want to avoid cliches but they can also be springboards to creative alternatives.
  1. Too much telling, not enough showing. Use scene-setting, dialogue, metaphors and gestures to show your reader an emotion. Instead of, “She felt deep sorrow,” try instead, “She sat down, sighed heavily, staring out the window at nothing at all.  A slow trickle of tears turned to a river as her dam of resolve gave way to reality.”
  1. Too much preaching/didactic tone. Go through any non-fiction manuscript and take out words like “must” and “should” and any other words that feel like a finger-wagging nursery teacher who is scolding the reader.
  1. Sentences don’t vary in length and style.
  1. Manuscript is is too text dense.  Just looking at the page exhausts the eye because there are too many sentences crammed into one long paragraph, followed by another just as long.
  1. Page looks boring. There are not enough “reader treats” to keep today’s reader alert.   Especially in our current hyper-speed world, you want to make liberal use of shorter paragraphs and anything that breaks up and adds interest to the page.  Pull quotes, dialogue, lists, bullet points and stand-alone sentences here and there are some ways to keep the reader engaged.
  1. Dialogue is stiff and unnatural. The writer has not learned the art of professionally written dialogue. One sign of a pro is that they know to use a gesture to indicate the next speaker rather than over-using “he said” or “she said.” For example, rather than writing, “Joy said, ‘I love that crazy squirrel,’” a pro might write, “Joy laughed as she leaned toward the screen door. ‘I love that crazy squirrel.’”
  1. Main character is too unlikable or too perfect. Readers want to root for the protagonist so be careful not to make him appear either beyond redemption or too saintly. Make them flawed, human, and lovable.
  1. Too “Christianeze.” Christians are often blind to the phrases they’ve grown up using in church. Try sharing old religious phrases in fresh ways.  Instead of, “I’ve been redeemed,”  you might say, “I knew that God had taken the mess of my life and given me, in exchange, His love.”
  1. No transitions or weak transitions. This may be the #1 “tell” of a novice. You know what you are saying and where you are going, but your reader needs a very clear bridge from your former thought to the next or they will be confused and frustrated.
  1. Old-fashioned style. We see this in some classically trained, older writers who have not stayed current on how to grab the attention of today’s internet-savvy, fast-paced reader. Read popular blogs and note the style of writing that is reaching today’s generation of readers.
  1. Doesn’t use the art of “hooking the reader.” You don’t have long to grab the reader’s attention, so you want your first two sentences to be irresistibly compelling.
  1. Doesn’t end well. Pay attention to writers who end chapters or articles especially well. There is an art to tying up a chapter or a book. In fiction and non-fiction books alike, write a sentence at the end of the chapter that propels the reader forward, making it hard for them to put your book down. I often refer to the first paragraph when summarizing an article. (See example below where I will refer back to the “poker analogy” that started this post.)

By avoiding these common novice “tells” you will soon come across as a seasoned pro, and your chances in the game of publishing will improve considerably.

What other “tells” have you noticed that indicate an inexperienced writer?

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

(Continued from Part I and Part II)

What made me think I could write a book? I mean, really. Book writing is for experts… for people who know things. Important things. My friend’s critical feedback on the early chapters of my manuscript only served to confirm what I already believed to be true: Who would care what I had to say, or if I even had the right to say it?

The wind had been knocked from my sails and I saw no point in continuing my brief writing career.

Yet in the midst of the doldrums, I couldn’t shake the memory of that moment with God many months before. “Write a book about the gifts you were given,” I heard him say in my office. If that was really God, maybe He knew something about me that I didn’t. Maybe He had a reason… a plan.

It was just about this same time another friend of mine traveled to Israel on vacation. She invited me to write a prayer on a slip of paper for her to place between the ancient stones in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I’ve always wanted to do this myself, but sending my prayer with her… a praise, really… was the next best thing to being there. In my note, I thanked God for the time he met me in my garage, and ultimately delivered my daughter, Annie, from the bondage of meth addiction. He had restored our family, and I still could scarcely wrap my mind around it.

Image, Jordan RiverMy friend also asked if there was a souvenir I might like from the Holy Land.

“So, um… yeah,” I replied. “Could you please bring me some of the Jordan River? Just a cup or so will do.”

Within a month, precious holy water and a few tiny river rocks had a new home on my
desk, right next to the computer screen. I transferred the water into a small Manzanita olive jar and labeled it “Jordan River” in black felt tip marker.

It was as if God’s presence had returned to my office, and I again found myself back in the business of writing. I needed feedback though. Professional feedback this time. I knew no writing professionals per se, and no one in publishing, yet my new neighbor, John Vawter, had self-published a book… about addiction no less. His book, Hit By a Ton of Bricks, had been in my reading arsenal when Annie was on the streets! John had a friend-of-a-friend with an editing business here in Bend, a fellow by the name of James Lund. He’d once worked for Multnomah Publishing in Sisters, Oregon, and became a freelancer when Random House acquired the company and moved it to New York City.

“Am I delusional to think I can do this?” I asked James Lund when we first spoke early that March. “I mean, is what I’ve written any good, or am I completely wasting my time?”

Jim was working on a project with a tight deadline but said he could give me a couple of hours in about two months.

Two hours in two months? He already sounded too important for a novice like me.

But I did hear from Jim two months later, at which time I sent him my story’s table of contents, two chapters, and a check for his time. A week later, his feedback stunned me. “You’re not wasting your time… keep writing. And I don’t think you’re going to need much help from me.”

Initially, my inner Woody Allen lamented that this James Lund person must not be very good at what he does. However, I secretly delighted in the apparent vindication from my friend’s critical review. I confess to skipping through the house chanting, “neener, neener, neener.”

Jim and I agreed to reconnect in five months, at which time I was to have an entire first Image, self editing bookdraft ready for his review. Jim also had a few tips for me. He suggested I read Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

It will help equip you with some fundamentals that will improve your writing,” he said. “Try inserting ‘beats’ in your dialogue to make it more interesting. You also want break up some of the narrative by creating ‘scenes.’ Have you ever heard the term ‘show don’t tell’?”

“Jim… what’s a ‘scene’?”

(Please stay tuned for the conclusion in Part IV, when I go from clueless to published.)

Sharing Insights Through Stories

I first learned the value of stories in sharing insights through public speaking. A fascinating story can captivate an audience, build rapport, illustrate an important point, and make the speaker’s message memorable. In writing, an appropriate story can keep a nonfiction book from becoming dull, and teach truths about life in a work of fiction. So, what makes a good story?

Opened magic book with magic light

1. Vivid and Sufficient Details

In reading along with my daughters several children’s books awarded the Newbery Medal, I found myself transported to a different time and place by the skillful writing of the authors. In these books, the authors provided enough details to help the reader enter into the world described in the book. In describing a food foreign to most American readers, one author provided such vivid descriptions of the taste and smell that I felt as though I, too, was sitting down for dinner next to the characters in the story. In any story, too many extraneous details can cause the impatient reader to start skimming the page to the next section. These award-winning books had the proper balance of information and brevity.

2. Relevance

For a nonfiction writer seeking to illustrate a certain point with a story, relevance is vital. To illustrate the author’s message, the characters and plot must be relevant to the theme of the book, the intended audience, and the point to be made. In writing my nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I learned to edit out parts of a story that slowed down the reading of a passage without further elucidating the concept I was illustrating. In fiction, story lines that do not further the plot may be interesting, but they may also confuse the reader and become a distraction that takes away from the flow of the book.

3. A Story Arc

All stories, even short illustrations contained within one paragraph, need to have a story arc. We need to meet the character or characters in their everyday setting. Next, we learn of an event that brings a challenge to these characters and starts off the story. Then we must see the character(s) grow, learn something new, overcome a hardship, resolve a conflict, or make a difficult decision. Finally, we need a sense of closure as the changed character(s) resume everyday life in a new set of circumstances, perhaps a bit wiser for the experience.

Knowing what elements to include within each section of the story arc is an art. Timing makes the difference between a forgettable story and one that drives home the author’s message. Sometimes I find that reading a passage aloud can help me identify which words can be deleted and what sentences should be smoothed. Feedback from beta readers also can be useful for determining if a story succeeds in illustrating your point.

As a reader, I remember the insights I glean from stories more than those presented through statistics, lists of information, and persuasive language. When writing, I include stories for my readers to make it easier for them to process the insights I hope to share with them.

What do you think makes a good story?

WHY are you Writing?

Today, the WordServe Water Cooler is pleased to host guest blogger Kim Zweygardt. Kim recently attended the Re:Write Conference and is here to give us some insight into what she found so valuable about this conference.

Welcome, Kim!

Writing2“I know I can write.”

“I am a writer.”

Writing is more than something I enjoy or can do well. (All those “A’s” in English Comp surely count for something.)

Writing is my calling.

Even so, after a blistering critique in 2014, I spent more time not writing than writing. Doubt crept in, undermining my call.

“I think I can write.”

“At least I think I’m a writer.”

I floundered, not sure how to regain the confidence to write. What would it take to jump start the flow of words onto the page?

In February, I found my answer in Austin, Texas when I attended a different kind of writer’s conference. Re:Write—The Ragged Edge “aims to tackle issues that writers face every day, offering guidance, insight, and a hefty dose of hope along the way.”

The Ragged Edge conference was filled with power hitters. Some I knew and had heard before: Ted Dekker, George Barna, Jim Rubart, Susan May Warren, Mary Demuth, Sandi Krakowski, Mark Batterson.

Others were new to me: Rusty Shelton, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Chad Allen, the delightful “tour guide” to the weekend–Julie Carr, Rachelle Dekker, Kevin Kaiser, Ruth Soukup, Derek Webb and the lovely Esther Fedorkevich who founded The Fedd Agency and hosted the conference along with author Ted Dekker.

As I listened, I had my mind bent over and over again.

You see, it wasn’t so much about the how of writing but much more about the why. It wasn’t so much about rules for success but in how we see success. It wasn’t so much about the bad news of the economy and publishing and more e-books and less “real” books and Author Chicken Little crying that the sky is falling and much more about the Good News of Who we write for in the first place!

It made such a difference to me that if I hit the lottery or better yet, had a wildly successful book that made me a bazzilionaire, I would call all my writer friends who are struggling and feel alone with their dream or feel they have been put on the shelf by the times or the particular, maybe-not-mainstream story they have been given to tell, the one that burns in their heart to get out onto the page and reserve their place for the 2016 Re:Write Conference.

Registration? On me! Travel expenses? On me! Need a little cash for BBQ at the airport? On me!

Oh, to dream!

But, just in case I don’t hit the lottery or the NY Times bestseller list, you could start saving now and I’ll see you there.

To whet your appetite, here’s a mash-up of what the speakers said in all their different ways.

Don’t be afraid!

Step out of the shadows and take the plunge!

You are not alone!

You are the Light of the World and no one can tell your story but you!

Don’t listen to the nay-sayers!

Write well! Write compellingly! Go deep! Lean on Jesus!

Write as an act of worship and as a spiritual discipline because He has called you to it. And if you are called and you don’t write, you are disobeying the One who has called you.

So now I write. Because I am a writer.

***********************************************************************************************

KimZweygardtKim Zweygardt always knew she wanted to be someone special.  Her heart’s desire when she was 7 was to be a famous ballerina but when she read their toes bled from dancing on them, it became a less desirable career choice. Then Kim decided to be a famous lawyer solving mysteries and capturing the bad guys just like Perry Mason, but as she got older she discovered sometimes it was hard to tell just who the bad guys were.

Instead Kim chose a career in medicine practicing the art and science of anesthesia as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist in rural Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska.

Kim is married to Kary, the man of her dreams, who has done a fabulous job of making all her dreams come true. They have three children but an empty nest and enjoy conversation with friends over good coffee and great food. They enjoy travel, the arts and taking a nap.

Member American Christian Fiction Writers, International Speakers Network, www.bookaspeaker.netwww.womenspeakers.net