How Writers Can Help Other Writers

While the writing process often requires many hours of solitude in order to turn inspiration into polished paragraphs, I have found that the writing life has a social component that I enjoy. Both before and after the publication of a book, there are numerous ways writers can help each other. Here are a few I discovered:

1. Share experience: The path from hopeful writer to published author can be mysterious to someone preparing to write a first book. Another writer who has walked the path can illuminate the way, point out potential stumbling stones and highlight the important milestones on the journey.

How do you find a good literary agent? What sections belong in a book proposal? How many months does it usually take for your proposal to be accepted by a publisher? Another writer can provide information, perspective, and hope. The mystery of what it takes to achieve the dream of publishing a book becomes a clear set of goals when a more experienced writer helps someone just starting the process.

2. Facilitate connection: Another writer may be able to do much more than simply give a novice writer advice. How much better to work with a literary agent or editor that your friend recommends than to send a stack of letters to strangers. Writers who connect to other writers grow their circle of influence. The end result offsets the isolation of the writing process and helps improve the craft of writing for everyone.

3. Provide feedback: Writers can provide a level of feedback to other writers beyond that supplied by typical readers. Writers understand plot structure, style guides and arcane grammatical rules. They know the right place for a chapter break and how to write the acknowledgment section. No writer is too experienced to benefit from the insights of another writer.

4. Expand resources: When it comes time to increase readership, writers can help each other meet people at conferences, organize author events and multiply social media reach.

If you have already written a book, be generous with new authors. Write a review of a new book, mention a new author on social media, and take a photo with him or her at a writer’s conference.

5. Offer encouragement: Do you remember what it was like to wait while publishers reviewed your manuscript? Did the time from submission of your last edit to shipment of your published books seem to drag on forever? If so, you are the perfect person to offer encouragement to a new author.

If you are a new author lost in the publication process, seek out wisdom from authors who have gone before you. Learn from their mistakes and celebrate their successes. Writing does not have to be a lonely profession.

How has another writer helped you during the publication process, and how have you helped other writers in turn?

Dreaming Isn’t Only For the Young (Why Age is Just a Number)

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What are your dreams? Have you given them up because you think you’re too old to accomplish anything of worth?

Well, here’s a little reality check for you:

  • Sarah Bernhardt was 78 when she acted in her last stage performance
  • Sophocles was 89 when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus, one of his dramatic masterpieces.
  • On the day of his death, at the age of 78, Galileo was said to be planning a new kind of clock that would tell time—in minutes and seconds, not just hours—using a pendulum swing instead of movement of water or sand.
  • Robert Frost was 88 when his last volume of poems, In the Clearing, was published.
  • Winston Churchill was 79 when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Igor Stravinski was 84 when he completed his last work, “Requiem Canticles.”
  • Charles DeGaulle was 75 when he was reelected president of France.
  • Pablo Picasso produced 347 engravings in his 87th year.

And last, but certainly not least:

  • Grandma Moses received her last commission as an artist when she was 99.

Obviously, age was just a number to such high-achieving artists and world-changers.

Closeup of message stones on white background.

Closeup of message stones on white background.

And don’t forget one of the superstars of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Dara Torres, who was the oldest female swimmer in the history of the Olympic Games (at the relatively young age of forty-one). She came away from the games with three silver medals. Not bad for a gal who was called “Grandma” by all the young swimmers in Beijing!

Torres, whose memoirs are appropriately titled Age Is Just a Number, won the first of her twelve Olympic medals in 1984, a year before Michael Phelps was even born! She broke her first of three world records in 1982, at fourteen, and has retired from swimming and has come back three times, She’s also the first American swimmer to compete in five Olympics (despite sitting out 1996 and 2004).

Torres is a role model for staying fit, aging gracefully, and pursuing your dreams. Dara’s dream of an Olympic comeback first hit her when she was months into her first, hard-won pregnancy. She returned to serious training while nursing her infant daughter and contending with her beloved father’s long battle with cancer.

Talk about an inspiration!

So what’s stopping you? Has Satan lied to you and told you that you’ll never amount to anything, because you’re “over the hill?” Do you feel worthless because you haven’t pursued something God has laid on your heart? Do you think it’s too late?

It’s not, my friend! God gives us dreams for every stage of our lives, and His grace continually makes all things new. So tell the devil to back off! Claim the truth that God is for you, and that He is the author of dreams.

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Note: This post is an excerpt from Dena’s book about aging gracefully (and with a sense of humor), Let the Crow’s Feet and Laugh Lines Come (Barbour). Used by permission of Barbour Books. 

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.

All Things Come to She Who. . .

gray coneflowerCome this September, I will have been a published author for nine years.

I’m still not a household name, and I don’t expect to ever be one.

But, I can say with complete assurance, my writing career is beginning to bloom into what I had once only imagined.

In the last two months, I received my first Kirkus review, which is, according to my agent, a “big deal.” Not only that, but it was a positive review, and it’s already generating advance word of mouth among readers thanks to shares on social media. I also finally landed a review with a major magazine in my (fiction) subject area of birdwatching, which will generate the nationwide publicity for me that I’ve yearned for since my first Birder Murder Mystery book came out. Both of these reviews are for the seventh book in my series, titled The Kiskadee of Death.

Yes, it took seven books for me to land on these reviewers’ radar.

Seven books.

Another first in the last month was receiving a request from a magazine editor to write an essay for them. In my entire writing career, I have never had an editor approach me for an article – I was always the one doing the pitching. To have an editor seek me out to author an essay was a huge boost to my career confidence; knowing that I’ve made an impact on publishing professionals is worth the months I’ve spent cultivating readers and developing my brand.

The final mark, for me, of having my feet firmly planted on my writing path is the number of guest posts and speaking engagements I’m now booking with relative ease. Whether my new-found success in that arena is due to my hard-won lack of fear of rejection, the persistence I’ve practiced, or just a matter of time, I don’t know. And at this point, I don’t care what has generated these new opportunities; I’m just very grateful to have them.

Coincidentally (or not), I recently read an interview with Kate DiCamillo, the celebrated children’s author. Before her first publication, DiCamillo recalled meeting Louise Erdrich, the award-winning author, who asked DiCamillo how long she’d been writing. When the budding children’s author said “Four years,” Erdrich advised her to hang on, that her own book career had taken six years to get off the ground.

It made me feel better that even some of the author superstars of the publishing world know what it’s like to have to wait for success.

The bright side of all that waiting is that when success does finally come, a writer can look back over the years that have gone before, and see that without that waiting, that revising, refining, re-imagining, and all those countless hours of learning a craft and business, the achievement would not taste as sweet as it does. Because the truth is not that all things come to she who waits, but that all things come to she who works while she’s waiting.

Have you begun to see some signs of success in your own writing journey?

 

Editing: Pay Now or Pay Later

IMG_0234It happens every time. OK, nearly every time.

I unwrap the book-size package and am soon holding the dream-come-true from one of our Beachside Writers workshop students: the memoir that they’ve worked on for years, finally out.

I’m so proud of them. And, a few pages into it, so wishing they had found an editor — or four. Because as I read along, I am suddenly jolted by by an extra word.     Or by four spaces after a period instead of one. Or by a writers’ negligence in putting an apostrophe in the wrong place.

You get the idea.

If you’re going to invest the time, energy and money into a book, be willing to invest in a good editor.

Even then, your book will still have errors. All of my twenty books have had errors. Anytime flawed human beings have their manuscripts edited by flawed human beings, imperfection is assured. Still, discipline yourself, humble yourself and bring in others to create the cleanest book you can.

Why doesn’t that happen?

  •  By the time you get to the final edit of a book, you’re so physically tired and mentally drained that any goals of perfection fell by the wayside three meltdowns ago.
  •  Your eyes are so focused on the finish line — I just want this thing done! — that you miss the barriers right in front of you. Editing/fact-checking a book is the literary equivalent of running track and field’s steeplechase event: in your deepest fatigue, you still have to jump barriers — and splash into a water pit — lap after lap.
  •  You can’t afford—or aren’t willing to pay for—an editor.
  •  You can’t find such an editor.
  •  You subconsciously know an editor will find lots of errors and you can’t take the humiliation.

I get it. This is not the fun part. But here are some solutions:

  •  Go into it with your eyes open, understanding that when you’re done with a second or third draft, you’re not nearly done. I remember building a kitchen add-on, my first project of this caliber. When I had the space all framed in, I famously said, “Almost done now!” A contractor friend politely pointed out that I wasn’t even half done. Trim work takes way longer than you think.
  •  Edit and fact-check along the way so there’s less to do at the end. It takes discipline, I know. But every weed you don’t pluck by hand in April is a field of weeds you need to take a gas-powered string trimmer to come August. Put another way: better to floss regularly than think you can go at it diligently the night before your cleaning appointment — and fool your dentist.
  •  When setting up long-range deadlines for the book, leave ample time for editing your manuscript yourself and bringing in others to help. Yes, that’s others, as in more than one. I’ve had up to six people read my manuscripts before I send them to the publisher. My reasoning? Pay now or pay later. I’d rather be humiliated midway through the process in front of a few people than embarrassed at the end in front of thousands.
  •  Hire a professional editor if possible. If not, seek out friends and acquaintances who you think will do a good job. They needn’t be writers themselves, though, of course, that’s a plus. But, for my needs, they need to be “detail” people who know language, play well with others and, amid their surgical incisions, put on an occasional happy face to remind me I’m not a total loser.
  •  To find an editor, start talking to people. Editors are hard to find; it’s not like ordering a pizza. But if you just start talking, texting and e-mailing people, you’ll find someone.
  •  Be willing to spend some money. I’m always amazed at the number of writers who cringe at the idea of paying someone to edit their manuscript. And yet they’d pay someone to mow their lawn, clean their gutters or change the oil in their car. I generally pay someone $100 to $500, depending on the project. I also have friends who refuse to accept money, and who wind up with gift certificates or a dinner out instead. But to not expect to pay someone is to undervalue the worth of your project — and their time.
  •  Consider going the print-on-demand route. I call it “grace personified.” You have chance after chance to be forgiven the errors of your ways, in that you can can make fix after fix once the book is initially released.

You’ll never produce a perfect book. And that’s OK. We’re imperfect people. But at least put in the effort — and perhaps money — to try.

Paying It Forward — It’s Never Too Late to Start Writing

It’s my birthday as this publishes, so I think today is a great time to tap into a subject many aspiring and experienced writers wrestle with. Am I getting too old to publish?

Colorful Birthday Cake

A Colorful Life Makes Colorful Prose

This week, I met a fabulous ninety-two-year-old woman named, Gloria. Before arriving in America, Gloria, along with many of her friends and family, falsely believed the streets in the United States were made of gold. I think they had us confused with Heaven — which America definitely is not.

Gloria’s first husband brought her to the United States when she was a young woman. The only English words the onyx-haired beauty with raven colored eyes knew were, “Hello,” “Thanks,” and “Goodbye.” Yet, with her baby son, she braved a storm-tossed sea on an ocean liner bound for her land flowing with milk and honey. However, as often happens in life, her milk curdled and her honey soured.

Shortly after their arrival, Gloria found out she was pregnant a second time. Her husband panicked and left. She and her family never saw him again, and her sons grew up not knowing their father.

For several years, the single mother raised her sons as best she could in abject poverty. But Gloria, not a woman easily beaten down, learned English, got a job in a local bank, and worked her way up the ranks. By the time she retired more than forty years later, through hard work along with savings and investments, Gloria was a wealthy and influential woman in her Iowa community.

This ninety-two-year-old powerhouse is still impacting others, and will again this December, when she goes on a mission trip to Africa. She knows it’s never too late to make a difference.

I learned most of her story by devouring Gloria’s self-published memoir. Talk about a fascinating and motivating read. I found myself speaking out loud to some of the pages.

“You poor thing.”

“Spot on, Gloria.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“How did you survive?”

“So that’s your secret.”

I laughed, I teared up, and I thought: If Gloria could make it through her situations, then I can face my fears and do the things I’m compelled to pursue.

But then another thought niggled my brain. What if Gloria hadn’t written her book? If she hadn’t shared her story, her family and the world at large would miss out on ninety-two years of revelation, inspiration, and motivation.

Getting Through What You Can't Get Over

My Way of Paying It Forward

Like a fine wine, writers get better with age — let’s face it, the more life we’ve lived, the more we have to offer. Deeper insights, decisions tempered with wisdom, balanced viewpoints, lessons learned, and the list goes on.

If we inspire or motivate one soul, if we can help someone face their pain and cry healing tears, or laugh out loud when they’re experiencing difficult moments, I think we should at least try. It’s the ultimate example of paying it forward. This is the very reason I wrote, Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over.

If we justify not putting words on the page or excuse ourselves due to age, then we hoard our gifts and steal from others. No matter how old we are, if we are writers, we should write. It’s never too late to start writing…whether for the first time, or for the first time on a new project. No matter how many birthdays we celebrate, we have something to offer.