Finding Your Voice

find your unique voiceAbout ten years ago, I started thinking about publishing a book. After writing my way through twenty years of various marketing and development ventures, telling many wonderful stories of others along the way, every now and then I’d start to think I had something to say. My own story to tell.

The problem was, I didn’t know how to say it. I’d spent all those years adapting to the voice of others, setting aside my own ideas, submerging myself in a particular client’s mindset and style in order to honor their voice and tell their story well.

Somewhere along the way I lost my voice.

I started second guessing what I should sound like, who I should be. Eventually I shaped this ridiculous concept (based on the comparison and envy of other folks) of what I should be, what I should sound like. And that image, that false representation of me, is the one I carried to the outside world.

Now trying to share my own story, I imagined I needed to mimic somehow those popular writers who had scores of people following them. So I tried hard to fit in, to sound like I should. But my words leaked out flat and predictable with this stiff journalistic bent.

Because that’s the sort of thing that happens when you silence your authentic self.

Thankfully since those days I’ve learned a lot about finding my voice. I’ve learned to trust my uniqueness as this is the very thing that makes me me. This unique combination of my quirks and passions, my own style and feelings and beliefs, these are the very things that set my words apart from the millions being shared daily.

I don’t know that I can pin the discovery of my voice on one particular experience, and I don’t dare suggest there’s a magic formula that suits us all. But I would love to share three of the things I’m learning along the way in the hopes they may somehow encourage you.


1. Be an original.

When we lack confidence it feels easier to imitate others, but its flat hard to pretend to be something we’re not.

So wherever you are, whatever you are writing or thinking about writing, I’ll encourage you to confront any false voices that try to convince you that you have to have it together out of the gate. Because you don’t.

Take this moment and give yourself permission to no longer compare or pretend or perform.

Then, take a deep breath and commit this day to start relaxing into your unique you. Practice, practice, practice being yourself; your true voice will eventually emerge.

 2. Value your life experiences.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve walked some hard days. Maybe you’ve faced a loss, an illness, or a dysfunctional relationship? Maybe it was a crisis of faith or a dire financial situation? Whatever it was, I bet it was dark and lonely and didn’t make a bit of sense.

Here’s the thing: we can’t be afraid to say what it was like in the dark.

These life experiences often act as a catalyst, gifting us the ability to reimagine these hard days in a way others can relate to them. While we might not be able to change the way it was there in the dark, we can change the story we tell ourselves (and others) about those days.

As dark as it was, your journey to the other side holds the potential to stir a fresh hope for the person still stuck.

 3. Take risks.

I’ve never been naturally courageous, but I have learned this: if I want to make a difference in this world, there are times I’m going to have to be brave.

Sharing your heart will feel risky (because it is), but an unhealthy caution will stall your voice.

Too often we don’t realize how very close we are to finding our voices.

Give your voice the room it needs to grow. Explore, pursue, and practice until your true voice becomes your natural default.

Be an original, take risks, and don’t be afraid to dream big.

Your voice is a unique and unforgettable mixture of your own personal style, perspective, and message. Surrender to it. Shape it as needed, yes, but don’t be afraid to share it.

Going Deeper: Where are you in your journey to find and use your voice? Share your thoughts and observations in the comments below.

Want more? Click here for a free 10 Tips for Finding Your Voice printable.

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?

 

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.)

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?

Marketing With A New Mindset

 

If you’re like me, sometimes the best thing in life is a little change of perspective.

perspective

Last July I got my first taste of publication. After months of hard work, I held the finished product in my hand. Countless drafts had transformed into orderly pages and endless edits changed into final words. It was beautiful. And then came the real work—marketing.

For many of us, the idea of marketing our books makes us a little queasy. Peddling wares and pushing books is not an exciting notion. After all, we are writers. Our gift is with words not a megaphone. In fact, most writers fear the aspect of marketing their own book. Yet, in today’s publishing world self-promotion and book marketing are a must.

If you have written a book, part of your purpose is to bring something meaningful to the reader. How can that reader be reached if there is no one to share it?

Think of the passage in Matthew 25:14-30

In this parable, a rich man who was going on a journey called his three servants together. He told them to take care of his property while he was gone. The master gave five talents to one servant, two to another, and one to the third. Then the master left.

The servant who had received five talents made five more. The servant who received two made two more. But the servant who received one buried his talent in the ground. Later, the master returned to settle his accounts. The master praised the first and second servant. But the master’s response to the third was harsh. He stripped the talent from the lazy servant and gave it to the first servant.

In the parable, the master expected his servants to invest and be proactive, to use and expand their talent instead of passively preserving it. With the first servant, courage to face the unknown was rewarded, and we can see God expects us to use our talents toward productive ends, not only was the first servant allowed to keep what he earned, he was invited to rejoice with his master.

This is such a beautiful illustration of what we should do with our God given gifts.

So, is there a cure for marketing anxiety? Maybe. Maybe it’s time to take a step back and gain a new perspective. Maybe it’s time to stop looking at it as MARKETING and instead, look at it as ADVOCATING Your God Given Gifts.

gifts

You are your work’s greatest advocate. So who better to promote it than you? It’s up to you to reach your audience. Invest yourself. When we share our talents lives are changed!

With the same passion that drove you to write your project in the first place, look at your book marketing plan in a new sense. Instead of marketing, advocate. Use whatever is available to you and proudly declare yourself, your message, and your book. Move forward with certainty that you have something important to share and what you share has the power to change the world.

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?