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?

 

What I Really Want To Say

I’m sure these things never happen to any of you other authors, so forgive me while I vent for a bit among you, my friends and colleagues.

(Not that you have any choice. I mean, we all voluntarily signed up for this crazy business of writing books, so it’s part of the unwritten code that we have to put up with each other’s rants now and then. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” as Bette Davis famously says in All About Eve.)

Scene #1

Filled with good intentions, I agree to mentor a local high schooler who wants to become a writer. I attend the mentor orientation program and lay out goals for the semester, based on the profile and paperwork the student has submitted. At our first meeting, the student informs me that she already has her novel’s first three chapters completed and that she wants to know what publisher she should contact. She explains why her book will eclipseTwilight and expects me to help her become the next Stephenie Meyer.

What I want to say: “Believe me, if I knew how to be the next Stephenie Meyer, I wouldn’t be here helping you. I’d already be the next Stephenie Meyer.”

What I really say: “It would be a good first step to check your spelling since I can see five mistakes right here in the first paragraph.”

Scene #2

I agree to speak at a local aspiring writers’ workshop about my decades-long writing career, the need to understand the business of publishing, and how I finally landed my first book deal with a traditional publisher. After my presentation, I invite questions. The first one I get is, “Have you considered self-publishing? It’s really fast, and I’ve already published several books.”

What I want to say: “Good for you. How many copies have you actually sold and why are you here, then? Did you not hear anything I just said? ”

What I really say: “Good for you. Traditional publishing isn’t for everyone, that’s true.”

Scene #3

I’m standing in line to order my favorite hot tea at the local coffee shop when I see an acquaintance who waves me over to her table. I get my tea and go to say hello. My friend introduces me as a writer to the woman seated next to her, at which point the woman launches into a lengthy description of the book she’s thinking about writing. My eyes glaze over, my smile freezes on my face, and I feel the heat from my tea seeping through the extra layer of the cardboard holder and into my fingers.

What I want to say: “I really don’t give a rip about the book you want to write. I don’t even know you. I just wanted a cup of my favorite tea.”

What I really say: “Nice to meet you. Gotta run.” And I promise myself to make my own tea at home for the rest of my life.

Okay, I’m done ranting. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better. I’m going to go make my tea now.

Your turn. Any rants you want to share?

The Beauty of Lying Fallow

harvested fieldLying fallow isn’t just for fields. If you want to find kernels of ideas to jumpstart your next writing project, you might be surprised to see how much you can glean from the already harvested fields of your finished projects.

Just as farmers routinely allow sections of their fields to remain unplanted for a season in order to replenish the land’s fertility, writers need to leave past projects alone for a time in order to get a fresh perspective on their work – a perspective that often reveals the kernels of ideas that somehow got hidden beneath the framework of that finished work. Every writer knows many ideas that pop into the head during the research and composing process end up getting tossed out in the pursuit of a tightly woven story or narrative. That’s part of the discipline of self-editing: you mercilessly cut out your own words that you might have lovingly slaved over because you realize that, in the end, they don’t make your work stronger.

Ouch. The truth hurts.

The good news, though, is that those same words, those kernels of ideas, might be able to take on their own life in another season of your career–as long as you can find them again. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your notes from a writing project after its completion. Yes, it means you’ve got bulky files sitting unused on a shelf, or on your computer, but it doesn’t mean you’re a hoarder who just can’t let go.

sproutIt means you know that as soon as you get rid of those notes, you’ll find yourself looking for that funky little idea that didn’t quite fit the last manuscript, but would be an amazing starting place for a new project…now that you’ve had some fallow time to let that kernel of an idea begin to sprout all on its own in your subconscious.

I used to think that if I wasn’t working on a new project, I was losing time. Now I realize that my imagination needs as much of a rest as any physical landscape that is cultivated for production. What’s even more delightful is to browse through my bulky files of old projects and find new inspiration just waiting to be gleaned from the rubble of a field I thought I had fully harvested. I shouldn’t be surprised – the Biblical injunction to leave the field fallow in the seventh year was not only to improve its productivity for later, but to provide sustenance for the poor who were free to eat of what was left. In other words, the field might have been harvested, but even in its fallow season, it could give nourishment.

For writers who feel depleted after the long haul to publication and market, it’s reassuring to know that imagination is already replenishing itself.

What kernels have you gleaned from harvested fields?

Honesty is the Best Policy

SavedbyGracieReaders often thank me for sharing my personal story of battling an anxiety disorder in my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God.

“You’re so brave to have written this,” they say. “I’d be embarrassed to share something so personal.”

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was being brave in recounting my experience with anxiety. I lost all my privacy boundaries when I gave birth to my third child in a room crowded with medical personnel. Once you’ve had an audience of strangers watch you push a child down the birth canal, there’s not much left that can embarrass you.

Another reason it surprises me to be described as “brave” is that all I’ve done is tell a true story about the ways my head, body, and spirit responded to taking a shelter dog into our home. It’s also true that I didn’t want the dog, but when I realized how the dog was helping me change my life for the better, I immediately wanted to tell that good news to other women who might be suffering with anxiety as I had.

First and foremost, I wanted to share my story to help others. I’d learned something new and valuable, and even though the therapeutic value of animals has been a popular research topic in recent years, I wanted to frame that information in a fresh way that would encourage readers to make that information work for them, too. Basically, I used myself as the proof in the research pudding.

And here’s where a true story encounters craft: it is the writer’s challenge to make the story simultaneously personal AND universal .

We all have experiences that are common to the human condition, yet people relate most deeply to the universal when it becomes intensely personal. Over the years of my writing career, I’ve learned that it’s the writer’s intimate voice and transparency (I’m talking about total honesty here!) that are key to combining the universal and personal. For example, if you tell me you’ve had a traumatic experience, I can nod and say “so have I,” but unless you give me the details of how it personally impacted you, I won’t be looking for similarities in our stories. That means you, as a writer, have to seek out and name the personal aspects of the universal that will engage your readers. You have to dig up the reality – expose the heart and soul – of the experience you want to share.

Make no mistake – digging in your life can be painful for you and those around you. With luck, though, it will be ultimately illuminating and healing, too.

And when you do that with your own story, you give your readers the permission, and hopefully, the courage, they might need to be honest with themselves in their lives. Honesty really is the best policy for a writer, because it’s the key to connecting compellingly with your audience as you make the universal very personal.

How do you approach the universal in your writing?

I’m a Glutton for Information!

French bulldogSelling books and signing them is a happy experience for any author, but if I had to name my favorite part of the writing process that leads to publication, it would be doing the research that goes into my books.

I love doing research. In high school and college, I was the student who jumped for joy when the instructor assigned a research paper. I couldn’t wait to dig through the library for books, or hunt down obscure magazine articles. These days, research is even more expansive (unending, even!) thanks to the internet, but I love it, along with the hands-on research I encounter in the course of writing manuscripts. I’m just a glutton for information, I guess.

In celebration of that nerdy writerly trait, here are a few of my favorite research moments.

  1. I got a personal, private tour of a donut shop. Need I say more?
  2. I spent hours in the dark one night with some good friends checking nets for owls to band. We never got one, but I did get to wear a really cool headlamp while we strung up nets in the woods and told funny stories to pass the time.
  3. I took a firearms safety course and learned how to shoot a gun. I put 19 of 20 shots into the center of the target, so you can call me Eagle Eye from now on!
  4. I puckered up for a kiss from a French bulldog at a Pet Expo and posed with rabbits running an obstacle course. (Yup, that’s me and the bulldog above.)
  5. I spent a week in January at one of the world’s premier birdwatching areas in southern Texas. It was sub-zero and snowing back home in Minnesota at the time, which taught me the critical importance of timing when it comes to planning research trips.
  6. I took my husband on a very special summer date night to watch 300+ Chimney Swifts go to roost in an old chimney stack at dusk. It was a breathtaking aerial display and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event as the populations of these birds dramatically decline.
  7. I met a World War II veteran who worked as an ordnance officer, which led to learning about camouflaging British air bases to hide them from Nazi bombing raids.
  8. I got to sit in the mixing booth of Prince’s Paisley Park Studio while interviewing a pre-eminent Christian composer as he completed mixing his musical tracks for a new CD.

Do you count your research as one of the best parts of your writing pursuit? What is your favorite research moment?

Leave the Luggage Behind

luggage“Where are your bags?” is the most frequent question I’ve been getting lately from the friends I stay with when I travel for author events. I show up at their doors with a small tote in my hands, and they look around me for the rest.

“This is it,” I say, and they marvel at how little my bag is.

For some reason, I guess everyone expects me to be loaded down with luggage, dragging along a carry-on case, a tote on my shoulder and more bags to come. While that may have been the norm for me years ago on the rare occasions I flew somewhere with my five kids, it’s no longer my style.

These days, I fly with minimal baggage, and I love it. Instead of packing car seats, food snacks, toys, games, and multiple outfits for all, I get a kick out of taking as little as possible. I actually look forward to living out of one small bag for three or four days, since it requires me to trim my wardrobe to only the essentials I need. Once on the road, I don’t have to make any clothing choices since I already made them when I packed; I save time and effort with less to manage. Limiting myself forces me to evaluate priorities and pack accordingly. There’s no room (literally!) for changing my mind, or my clothing options.

The result is perfect for traveling: I have what I need and no more. It makes me feel mentally and emotionally light and free, and I don’t have to physically exhaust myself lugging extra bags. To fly unfettered by baggage is a wonderful thing in a world of extra luggage fees, delays, and lost bags.

If only I could do the same with my journey through life!

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep,” Jesus tells his disciples when he sends them out to preach and minister in Matthew 10. Clearly, our Lord knew the value of traveling light! Without all that extra baggage to keep track of, his disciples were free to devote themselves to the work to which they had been called. Unencumbered with material concerns, they could focus on the priorities, the essentials of Christian mission.

I’ve found that is also true of traveling through life as a Christian author: when I keep my eyes on the Kingdom, everything else loses its urgency. Sure, I’d like to make more money (who wouldn’t? travel expenses do mount up no matter how many free beds you can find!) and it would be nice to have readers flocking to me in droves. Yet when I’m focused on the essential task of sharing God with others, it only takes one heart-felt ‘thank-you’ from a reader to know that I am ‘worth my keep.’

How do you pack for your journey?

I’m Hooked on LinkedIn

hooked onAfter three years of experimenting with social media networking, I’m finally closing in on what works best for my marketing needs at this time.

But before I share with you what I’ve discovered, I need to make some qualifications of phrases in that first sentence.

  1. ‘Experimenting’ – I’ve had no formal training in using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or Pinterest. Instead, I’ve read countless books and blog posts about using them, taken online webinars and asked others what they do. I’ve tried some ideas (mostly the ones I understood how to do) and rejected others (the ones I had no idea how to do). My experimenting has truly been all over the net, kind of like sampling all the flavors in an ice cream shop – a small bite at a time.
  2. ‘Works best’ – I define this as ‘what I can successfully manage, given limited time and ability because I am not a social media guru, nor do I aspire to become one.
  3. ‘Marketing needs’ – For me, this is publicity and audience building. I don’t sell books myself; I focus on branding myself to create the desire in my audience to go to vendors. Ultimately, I want my audience to become my sales team to sell my books to others, since there are a lot more of them than there is of me!
  4. ‘At this time’ – Marketing needs change over time, as do the ways different media platforms function. I dread every announcement that a social site has made ‘changes,’ because it means I have to learn/relearn how to use it.

All that said, I have found MY most successful audience builder to be LinkedIn. That’s because I focus there on connecting with others who work professionally in the fields in which I write: dogs, birds, health and wellness.

Yes, you read that right – my Birder Murder Mysteries and girl-meets-dog memoir appeal to three audiences, yet they overlap because my overarching brand is about getting outside to get healthier and happier. My contacts are working professionals at state parks, dog or bird-related businesses, wellness advocates, animal rescue groups, and ecotourism, to name a few. My strategy is to strengthen my social relationships with those contacts by engaging in conversations with them individually and collectively, which is what LinkedIn shines at. I see my contacts as distribution points – when I engage them meaningfully, they share my brand/message/content with their own networks. And LinkedIn makes it easy for me to find people who already care about my topic(s) with their group listings and recommendations.

My marketing strategy will continue to evolve, as healthy marketing strategies do, and I know that my experimentation with other networks is far from over. For now, though, LinkedIn is the backbone of my social networking strategy since it yields me the most new contacts, opportunities to market, and book sales numbers of all the platforms.

Which social media platform is working hardest for you? How do you measure that?