Revising Aloud

Tihamér_Margitay_Exciting_story“Reading aloud,” I’m always telling my writing students, “is the best way to revise.”

I encourage them—sometimes require them—to find read-aloud partners or start writing groups in which they take turns reading their work aloud.

“Hearing your sentences spoken lets you know whether they’re clear and natural-sounding—whether someone actually could speak them,” I explain. “And it doesn’t work to read to an empty room. You need a warm body, a listener, to complete the communication. Speaking is, after all, a collaborative act.”

Finding that read-aloud partner is easy at college, where everyone’s engaged in writing all the time. Outside the college setting, though, finding someone willing to listen can be a challenge.800px-Anker_Sonntagnachmittag_1861 People are busy. Few have time to sit still for an hour while some verbose writer drones on. That’s how they’ll imagine it when you propose reading to them. We Americans have lost—or never had—the habit of listening to people read. We had only the shallowest tradition of serial novels, released chapter by chapter as Dickens’ novels were and read to the whole family at fireside. And no comfy pubs—without blaring TVs—like the one where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their writer buddies hung out, drank beer, and read their work to one another. Writers who give public readings these days will tell you it’s hard to get even close friends to attend. Our lives are too busy for read-alouds.

I often recommend to writer friends that they make use of the lonely people in their lives: shut-in relatives, kid-imprisoned friends who wish they had a grownup to talk to, recently retired colleagues with time on their hands. 1280px-Anker-_Die_Andacht_des_Grossvaters_1893It sounds terrible, this “making use” of others, taking advantage of their neediness to assuage your own, but in my experience such mutual exchanges not only helped my writing but also transformed intended acts of mercy—“I should spend more time with my mother-in-law,” I was always telling myself—into pleasurable time together, which we both looked forward to. My mother-in-law not only got longed-for company but also felt needed; I got my warm body but also genuine enjoyment, without having to chide myselfHugo_Bürkner_Lesestunde (usually in vain) to, as Paul recommends, “give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.7 NRSV). The mutual benefit, I found, guaranteed that cheerfulness, for both of us—because attentive listening and being listened to can’t help but nurture relationships.

My daughter Lulu has been on semester break from college for the past month, with a couple more weeks to go. It’s tricky having a grown daughter home that long. We’ve long since put our Christmas CDs away, but I’m still in the throes of Bing Crosby’s parental prophecy for the season: “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!”

Luckily, Lulu’s engrossed in the final revision stages of her senior project—a hundred-Amédée_Guérard_Bibelstundepage translation of and critical introduction to an East German book—and I’m busy trying to cut 30,000 words from a novel before sending it out, so we have tasks to distract us from the inevitable mother-daughter combat. Also, since we’re in about the same place in our revisions—where what we need most is to hear them aloud and find out if they work—we’ve established a read-aloud schedule: I read her a couple short chapters during her late breakfast, and she reads me one long chapter while I trim vegetables for dinner.

I can’t say it’s the perfect exchange my mother-in-law and I had. Lulu doesn’t end my readings, as my mother-in-law always did, with “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written!” And, as a writer and teacher of writing, I give more critical feedback than Lulu really wants. But our reading fills two hours of our day with mostly pleasurable, mutually beneficial work. More importantly, the listening involved gives us both practice, at this complex juncture of our parental-filial journey, in navigating our new relationship as related but separate adults. As peers, in other words. Equals. Reciprocally heard, appreciated, and loved.

Multiple Author Events – Yes or No?

Smiling Group of ProfessionalsAs a writer, the weight of book promotion falls on my own shoulders. Since that gets tiring, I’m always looking for ways to maximize the results of the events I do: my current goal is to market smarter, not just harder.

So when a writer friend told me about the great attendance and good sales she experienced at a multiple author event at a book store, I decided to give it a whirl with both of my book lines. That meant gathering other authors who’ve written about dogs (so I could promote my girl-meets-dog memoir Saved by Gracie) and collecting another crew of authors who’ve written about birds (to expand the audience for my fictional series, Birder Murder Mysteries).

This is how it played out:

National Dog Day. I broached the idea for a National Dog Day Night to a local independent bookstore, and they jumped at the concept! I offered to recruit authors to attend, and the store agreed to stock the books, set up chairs and a microphone, and do publicity. They even partnered with a local dog rescue group for more publicity and support. Luckily, three well-known writers with dog books live in my area, and they readily agreed to participate. We all thought it was a smokin’ idea…but only five people showed up. What went wrong? Personally, I attributed it to the lovely summer weather; I myself would have chosen to be outside with my own dog, rather than inside with authors.

My big score, though, came from meeting the other authors, one of whom asked for an excerpt from my book to run in her monthly newsletter that goes out to thousands of readers. I made a hot contact even if the event fizzled.

For the Birds Night. I took this idea to a local Barnes & Noble and again, the events manager thought it was a winner. This time, it was a monumental headache for me to pin down the authors – talk about a flighty bunch! Not that any of them are absent-minded – it just took me a while to catch all these bird-chasing authors between their travels and professional obligations, not to mention the multiple email addresses so many of them use. I managed to round up five of the original ten that I contacted, and even then, I had one drop out at the last minute due to health issues, and one drop in who’d forgotten to confirm with me months earlier.

The event itself, though, was a big hit! We had over 20 people attend, a lively discussion ensued, and every author was signing several books by the end of the evening. Our B&N hostess invited us back for a spring event, and said her district manager had expressed interest in us taking our event to other stores.

After organizing two group events, my conclusion is that it’s worth the effort in terms of both book promotion and author networking. Upfront sales might be disappointing, but as one more tool in your marketing toolbox, I highly recommend giving it a try.

And keep some aspirin handy.

Have you participated in multiple author events? What was your experience?

Comfort for the New Year

Photo/KarenJordan“He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Cor. 1:4 NLT).

A New Year offers new opportunities and challenges. As I sense the needs around me, I often think, “What can I do to help those in need?”

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to respond. In fact, some people may say,”the devil is in the detail,” inferring that there’s some mysterious secret hidden in the details. That term comes from the original phrase “God is in the detail,” which reminds us that the details are always important.

Discovering the mysterious details of how to help others requires wisdom. And God promises to guide us in this discovery process. But He wants us to ask for HIS help first.  “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you … ” (Jms. 1:5 NLT).

Seek God first. The Lord promises to provide the guidance we need throughout our lives. Psalm 32:8 says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you” (NLT).

God often uses my experiences—good and bad—when I seek Him for direction in helping others. At times, He prompts me to share small things—like prayers, concerns, and a listening ear.

When my friend, Kathy, struggled with vertigo following her cancer treatments, I felt helpless to help her since she lived in another state. And I knew the misery of vertigo. When Kathy mentioned that she could not even read her Bible, I was able to read scriptures to her by phone.

Later, Kathy told me, “Your calls helped me survive my cancer treatments.”

Listen. In Matthew 11:15, Jesus asks His disciples, “Are you listening to me? Really listening?” (MSG).

As we seek God and ask questions, it’s important to listen for the answers. Sometimes instead of listening to God, I’m tempted to offer unsolicited advice to friends and family.

Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t want or need? Awkward! Our unsolicited gifts might actually offend instead of blessing others. Perhaps they need godly advice, not just a hasty opinion or thoughtless response.

Ask questions. I also ask questions when I’m trying to discern how to encourage others. What matters most to them? How can I discern how to help? What helped me when I faced a similar problem? What do I wish someone else had offered me when I faced my last crisis?

John 14:26 promises, “… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (NIV).

Tell the stories that matter most. As a Christian writer, I never want to lose sight of the needs of my audience. Author Anne Lamott offers this advice: “Write the books you really wished were out there in the world.”

During a crisis, I look for resources to help me find solutions for my current needs. Encouraging words heal my soul when I’m desperate for answers. And I’m grateful for the writers who have poured their lives into helpful devotionals and books for those troubling days.

So, “… even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you” (Phil. 2:17 NIV).

As you plan your projects for the New Year, consider offering some words that could help meet the needs of others.

“… Words are powerful; take them seriously” (Matt. 12:36 MSG).

Can you think of a book that helped you through a crisis?

What Matters Most During the Holidays?

During the holidays, my writing projects, ideas, and dreams don’t always fit into my everyday life. So, I’m forced to decide what matters most.

Photo/KarenJordan

As I prepared to lead a session on holiday traditions for a “Countdown to Christmas” workshop a few weeks ago, I asked myself, What holiday traditions mean the most to me?

I found myself resisting the idea to plan for Christmas before Thanksgiving. I knew I didn’t have the time and energy to accomplish everything that I wanted to do, much less the things that others expected of me. And the burden of planning holiday events and activities overwhelmed me. I knew I had to be honest with myself about my expectations.

Traditions. As I listed my family’s holiday traditions, I decided to find a new way to prioritize them. I chose three basic categories to help me sort through the chaos. I posed three questions.

  1. Which traditions are treasured most by my family? I brainstormed about our holiday activities, noting some old and new favorites—recipes, gifts, parties, and other family activities.
  2. Which traditions are the most practical for my family? I listed the most difficult traditions to maintain, since our children live in different cities with children of their own now—and since climbing on the roof and hanging Christmas lights are no longer options for me.
  3. Which traditions help me to communicate the “real” meaning of the holidays to those who matter most to me? As I examined my traditions, I wanted to be sure to include those that best expressed my faith. As a writer, I know the importance of showing, not just telling. So I scratched off some things that might distract us from the main “reason for the season.”

Realization. This process helped me to begin planning for my holiday celebration and relieved a bit of my holiday stress. How?

  1. Expectations. It helped me release my expectations of myself and of others. I won’t be avoiding certain family members who might not have the same values and beliefs.
  2. Stress. It enabled me to avoid unneeded expenses and the exhaustion of time-wasting commitments.
  3. Focus. I refocused on what matters most and the “real” meaning of the holiday and not on the frustrating and unnecessary aspects of the season.
  4. Pattern. It established a new pattern for approaching my life and work. Instead of thinking that I have to do everything that might be expected of me, I can choose a different response.

Questions. Now, I ask myself three questions before accepting any new challenge.

  1. Passion. Am I really passionate about this?
  2. Practical. Do I have the skills, talent, or knowledge to do this? If not, do I have the time or resources to pursue it?
  3. Purpose. Does it meet an important need?

If not, I’m saying, “NO!”

Celebration. I’m granting myself permission to let go, enjoy life, and celebrate. And I believe this holiday season and the upcoming year will be the best ever.

How do you determine what matters most to you and your family?

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?

Miles to Go and Promises to Keep

Photo/KarenJordan

“But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep …” (Robert Frost).

Many years ago, I sensed the Lord’s direction to begin writing a very personal story from my family’s life. So I began to record my thoughts even while we were still embroiled in the middle of the crisis.

Roadblocks. Yet every time I would attempt to complete a book proposal for this particular project, something thwarted my efforts.

I don’t just mean a little bump in the road. I’m referring to situations that seemed impossible to get through—like my mother’s fatal illness, my daughter’s three orthopedic surgeries and difficult pregnancies, my daughter-in-law’s seven miscarriages and two miraculous births, and my father-in-law’s lengthy terminal illness.

And that’s not counting all the roadblocks in my journey to publication. Oh, my! Where do I begin with that one?

Red flags. So as I approached this long-drawn-out project again—this time working on it with my daughter Tara—red flags waved all around me. Again, it looked hopeless. And to be honest, when I returned home from our last brainstorming session, discouragement covered me like a heavy cloak. And my emotions tempted me to return this story to my “What was I thinking?” pile once again.

Reminders. Then, I remembered my “40-day Challenge: Telling the Stories That Matter Most.”

I also began a study the life of Moses. And I thought my mission looked impossible!

Moses faced the unimaginable tasks of his calling with great fear. He knew he didn’t have the strength or the abilities that he would need to complete the undertakings God had asked of him. He was aware of his weaknesses and limitations; yet, he wanted to embrace God’s promises. But at each step, he faced his own inabilities in light of God’s plans.

As I study more about Moses, I’m reminded once again of God’s steadfast commitment to keep His promises. Even my unbelief, fear, and doubt will not divert God’s plans. I may get sidetracked and distracted, but God remains faithful to His Word.

God also promises to provide all I need to complete the work that He began in me.

“There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in (me) would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish …” (Phil. 1:6 MSG).

Reflection. I’m grateful that God continues to invite me to join Him in His work. And I don’t sense that He has given up on me like I’ve often done with Him. He will forgive my complaining about my circumstances and blaming others for my failures.

So I’m holding on to God’s promises now, even as I write this confession of faith. And I pray if you are struggling with a similar issue, you will revisit His promises to you, too.

Are you facing an impossible project now? What lessons are you learning in the process?

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?