Making It Real

Hoh River Cascading Through RainforestWhen I first started writing my Birder Murder Mystery series, I wanted readers to feel like they were actually walking in the footsteps of my protagonist, so it was a logical choice for me to use real locations for book settings. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much readers enjoy books that take place in areas they know and how much those real places can shape what I write. Once I figured out that my real locations were one of the more powerful means of attracting readers, I began using real places as much as possible, not only for marketing later, but to provide me with inspiration for other pieces of my story.

As a result, I now take detailed notes of places I visit in the course of my book research. Fat Daddy's BBQ in WeslacoFor instance, last January, I was researching McAllen, Texas, for my next murder mystery. Since friends had recommended I try the barbeque at Fat Daddy’s, I made sure I had lunch there one day. As I ate, I observed that large groups of National Guardsmen sat at many of the tables, which I also noted in my daily travel journal, along with descriptions of the patriotic posters and flags adorning the walls. When I developed my plot, I found that the soldiers I’d seen could play into my story in a critical juncture, so I wrote them in – something I never would have come up with if I hadn’t personally visited Fat Daddy’s. Now, when anyone from the area reads the book, they’ll immediately be able to say, “this author really was here!” and it gives me the instant credibility which every fiction writer craves to lure readers into the story.

diner open signAnother big benefit of writing real places into your books is that some readers identify so much with a favorite place, they tend to talk about your book simply because of the setting. In one of my books, I used a small diner where one of my daughters waitressed years ago. Not only did it give the story a strong local connection, but once it was published, the diner owners prominently displayed the book, which delighted all their customers, who then told their friends that their favorite diner was in a book. By using the diner as a piece of my story, I also didn’t have to think twice about what that setting would look like, because all I had to do was describe what I saw.

Perhaps the best guideline I can provide about using real places in your fiction is the rule my publisher gave me: If you say nice things about a place, use the real name; if you want to be negative, make up a place. That should give you more readers and happier business owners (who will become your friends if they aren’t already!), and much less chance of getting sued.

Who knows? You might even get a sandwich named after you…

Taking a Tip From Big Business

blue ribbonMy husband’s company is in the midst of preparing for an industry competition that recognizes on-going improvement efforts in corporations. After hearing him talk about processes of quality control, increased productivity, and excellent resource management, all I could think was “I gotta get me some of that!”.

Unfortunately, authors can’t take advantage of this particular efficiency-enhancing program. You have to be a great big corporation or public institution. (Heavy sigh on being left out, but huge sigh of relief on the not being a big institution part! I like being my own boss.)

So here’s my plan: create my own author business improvement program. To that end, I’m currently evaluating my current strengths and weaknesses in those three areas my husband talked about, and I’m working to set goals for improvement. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Increase productivity. I’m going to rediscover the surface of my desk. This will involve a full frontal assault on my office space, as I have multiple layers of sticky notes attached to files and walls. I claim I know where everything is this way, but that’s only true in a limited sense: yes, I do know where everything is – it’s in my office – but I don’t know in which pile of notes anything specific is. I’m through with wasting time searching. Everything that has not progressed past the sticky note stage gets tossed. That should reveal to me what my current priorities are and allow me more focus on finishing what I’ve started. And if it’s a really good idea I need to save, it goes in a folder labeled “Future,” which I will not open until I finish what I’ve already started.

Quality control. For me, this is about process. I lose too much time ‘exploring’ on social media – tracking down people, ideas, potential marketing contacts. Even simple tasks can steer me off-road if I’m not mindful of my objective; just updating my calendar on my website can lead me to perusing my pictures file, which in turn reminds me to prepare some new photo posts, which leads me to searching for free photos online, which…you get the idea. I’ve found I need to schedule the different tasks of my writing career by the hour to make sure I keep focused on my immediate objective. Work smarter, not harder, is my new motto.

Resource management. My greatest resources are time and energy. My task schedule will help with managing my time, but it’s important for me to keep my energy resource balanced between my personal and professional lives. When I spend everything I have on writing, I burn out; if I let my personal life constantly squeeze out my writing, I feel frustrated with myself and those around me because I’m not using all the gifts I know I’ve been given. Scheduling regular ‘play’ time is just as important for me as reserving time to work, and the revitalization that play offers pays off in increased productivity when I’m back in my office.

Do you evaluate the business side of your writing career?

I Didn’t Sign Up For This!!!

Babies CryingSometimes I wonder if I’m a masochist, because a writing career is a mixed bag of blessings and curses.

The blessings are many. You finally get to hold in your hands your words published in a book (yes, electronic versions count!). You have the satisfaction of knowing others are reading your work. You get your name in the local paper for doing a booksigning, or you’re a guest author at a local book club. You might even get paid to speak to an audience!

And then there are the curses. A reviewer hates your book. You knock on the doors of the local media till your knuckles are sore, but no one answers. Your great idea for marketing falls flat. You check your Amazon.com sales numbers on your author central page, and it’s like getting slapped in the face with the wet towel of reality. (“What? I’ve only sold 17 copies of my book in the last six months? That CAN’T be right!”)

The fact is that for us writers, who pour our heart and soul into our writing, all those negative responses drip, drip, drip onto the rock of our confidence, until the sharp edges of our desire and motivations (those things that enabled us to set out on the road of writing in the first place) become worn down, replaced by recesses of self-doubt and exhaustion. It takes a lot more energy and perseverance to repair that accumulating damage than it does to bask in the sunshine of the blessings we experience.

This, then, is why a writer needs a talent to forget.

As Philippians 3:13-14 instructs us, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Every writer I know acknowledges that they have been called to write. The thing we don’t like to acknowledge is how hard it can be at times to do that very thing. None of us embraced our call to write with a joyful shout of “I can’t wait to experience frustration, misunderstanding, isolation, and a hundred painful book signings in almost deserted bookstores!”

At least, I know I didn’t.

And yet the promise remains for us as powerful as it did for St. Paul. We might not have to endure blindness, or imprisonment, or persecution like that famous evangelist, but we can still ‘strain toward what is ahead’ when we fix our eyes on the prize that is Christ Jesus, and not on the obstacles we have to surmount to get there. Like St. Paul, we need to consider ourselves ‘as yet to take hold of our goal,’ no matter how accomplished we might feel when our names are in the local events calendar, or someone contacts us to speak at a program.

Forget what is behind, then, and press on, because that mixed bag you’re holding is well worth the prize.

What is your favorite way to forget and then press on?

What’s YOUR Holiday Plan?

balloons-25737_150Do you know what today is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What ‘holiday’ is in your future promotional plan?

 

Honing Our Lives

knife sharpeningAs iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)

While every writer knows that in today’s marketplace, interacting with others on a regular basis is a necessity for selling books, the real heart of writing – sitting down and putting words on a paper or screen – is a lonely job.

For me, however, “lonely” is not the word I would choose to describe my experience of writing. “Lonely” carries a negative connotation, the idea of being “cut off” from others, or “without” the company of others. In contrast, when I write, I feel a freedom to explore my own ideas and the joy-filled opportunity to connect with the Spirit within me. Writing is my “alone” time, not my “lonely” time. It is a personal retreat that renews me because I get to luxuriate in the word-smithing gifts that God has given me.

And yet I can’t deny the truth of Proverbs 27:17; without the other writers, marketing experts, and loving friends in my life, I wouldn’t be able to make the most of those same God-given word-smithing gifts. That’s not to say I’ve always felt this way – when I was new to my craft, praised by my writing teachers in high school and college, I had no use for the comments or criticisms of my peers. If my teachers liked my work, why should I listen to other students who struggled to compose even simple essays? It took me decades to understand the importance of my readers as opposed to the praises of my teachers. Here’s the difference:

The praise of others encourages you (and that’s a great thing!), but it’s honest criticism that will help you improve your craft.

It wasn’t until I began writing as a freelance magazine contributor that I first received truly effective editorial direction. Editors know their audience and work to appeal to them, so they have to play to the crowd. Teachers, on the other hand (I can say this because I’ve been a writing teacher myself), are the final audience of one person, and once a student has mastered what that teacher wants, there is no room to grow. And since all of us like to be praised, it’s tough to walk away from all that positive reinforcement to seek criticism!

As with so many endeavors in life, though, we have to push the boundaries to become the best God intends us to be. In the writing life, that means giving up the comfort of praise in order to find the challenge of improvement: we have to ask many people how we can do better, listen carefully to their comments, and use them to grow our craft.

One of my favorite sayings about Christianity is that “no one is a Christian alone.” Jesus Christ came to shape us into a community of believers, so we might draw on each other’s faith and gifts to grow His kingdom. That applies to our writing careers as well.

We need to be iron for each other.

To whom do you turn to be iron for you? For whom are you iron?

The Truth About Being An Author

cookies-28423_640I know I took the secret oath to never reveal the truth about what it’s really like to be a published author, but I’ve decided I can’t, in good conscience, keep quiet any longer. If you’d rather keep your dreams of authordom intact and unsullied, stop reading NOW.

If you can handle the truth, though, here it is:

  1. You are going to eat a lot of cookies. There is a cosmic law that requires bookstores and libraries to offer this sustenance to authors and their readers. The more people who attend these events, the less you (the author) will have to consume, so be sure to invite every cookie eater you know to your book events. Otherwise, you will have to eat all the cookies yourself so your host won’t feel bad, and then your clothes won’t fit, and you’ll have to buy a new wardrobe (see #6 below). If you want to buy a new wardrobe anyway, go ahead and eat all the cookies. It will make your book hosts happy because they don’t want to eat the leftovers.
  2. Everyone on the planet will tell you about the book they want to write, and then they will ask you how to get it published. Unless you are prepared to give on-the-spot hours of instruction and editorial advice, the best answer is: “I have no idea. Have you tried the cookies?”
  3. You are going to bond with your car since you’re going to be putting on the miles as you drive from one book event to another. Tell your friends and family to give you pre-paid gas cards for birthdays and holidays. Keep books in your trunk. Tape pictures of your loved ones onto the dash so you can remember what they look like. Do NOT eat cookies in the car, even if you are starving between book events, because it’s virtually impossible to get all the crumbs out of your car.
  4. You will somehow, miraculously, find time to work everything in to promote your published book. You will not, however, find time to write your next book. You have to do that instead of sleeping at night. The good news is that the cookies you eat all day promoting your book have enough sugar in them to keep you awake while you write.
  5. You will land a short interview on the local TV station – congratulations! You will walk into the green room to wait for your turn and share a couch with a Chihuahua dressed as Marilyn Monroe (complete with blonde wig and iconic white dress) and a pug masquerading as Snow White. You will be humbled to realize that book publication rates right up there with the best Halloween costumes for small dogs. And you will learn that dog biscuits can look a lot like cookies.
  6. Your writing income will probably not pay the bills, or at least, not all of your bills. But you’ll eat all the cookies you’ve ever wanted.

Now, who wants a cookie?

 

The Only Story That Matters

july 013I was beginning to panic about my book sales. Despite my hard work and ceaseless efforts to promote my new book, I just wasn’t making a dent in the supply of books I’d bought from my publisher. Since I’d borrowed the money from our family savings, I felt guilty that I wasn’t refilling the coffer as quickly as I’d so optimistically assumed I would.

What more could I do? Post even more frequently on social networks? Write more guest blogs? Camp out on the doorsteps of radio and television stations to get their attention? Go into even more debt by hiring a publicist, in hopes he could convince people to buy my book? Beg the few bookstores still in existence to push my book at customers?

I didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, I asked God for help. I prayed for more book sales.

And He delivered.

Within days, I heard from two stores who had taken some of my copies that they needed more. Some event bookings I’d been pursuing for months finally came through, and I added them to my calendar. One night as I lay awake in bed, thinking about my book, I realized there was another market I could tap into, and the next day, I discovered solid leads for doing exactly that.

And then my daily Scripture devotional chimed in with Jeremiah 32:17.

universe“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

Yes, I was reassured and completely grateful for God’s generosity to me in the form of helping me sell more books as I had requested in prayer. I’d asked, and I’d received.

Praise God!

To be honest, though, I felt something even more compellingly: I felt chastised. I’d asked the omnipotent Lord, who created the universe itself, to help me sell books! Who did I think I was to even imagine He would care about a few hundred dollars in my life? It’s not like I needed a PLANET or anything. I wanted material success. I wanted to put some money back in the bank. I wanted God to make me feel better about a story I wrote. A story!!

Talk about putting myself at the center of the universe. I was humbled. Embarrassed. Aghast at my own egocentricity.

And, most of all, stunned by God’s patience with me, because this isn’t the first time I’ve let my selfish priorities slide in over what I know to be the single most important relationship of my life: my relationship with God.

It’s true – nothing is too hard for God, and that includes loving me…and you.

And really, that’s the only story that matters, isn’t it?