The Story Of Her Life

Have you ever read a book that caused you to take a risk, accept a challenge, or—as in my case—plan a parade? Donald Miller and his book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, inspired me to help my dying mother accept her story’s starring role.


“Look what I’ve got for you, Mom,” I say, not knowing if she’ll like the Happy Birthday banner, replete with pink and purple butterflies, that I hope to hang at ceiling level in her nursing home room.

I have no idea whether my siblings and I will be able to give Mom a wonderful celebration or not. So much depends on her, and the truth is that for the past few years, she often doesn’t want to be the main character in her own narrative.

But this is her life, her one true story. These are the only memories she gets to make with her family. The only memories we have a chance, at this late date, to make with her.

“I love it,” she says.

I am more than surprised. I climb onto her desk, then step even higher onto her dresser to thumbtack the banner across the top of the wall. She smiles and I think This day could turn out to be amazing.

We plan to scoot Mom in her wheelchair across the busy road to the Mexican restaurant. She’s been looking forward to the guacamole and the Margarita for weeks. What she doesn’t know is that we’re going to make a grand parade out of it. We’ll stop traffic if it’s the last thing we do, and she is going to be the center of attention, the starring attraction in her life.

When she’s dressed, make-up on and hair curled, we head to the lobby, where my siblings are meeting us. I spin Mom around the corner and there they are, bearing the rest of the party paraphernalia: cameras, cake, and huge grins.

Mary McKennaOne places a child’s dress-up pendant around Mom’s neck, a gaudy piece of bling on her finger, and a glitzy tiara on her head. Mom beams! Another ties helium balloons to Mom’s wheelchair, passes out the horns, and gives Mom a big kiss. I distribute bottles of bubbles.

“What on earth is happening?” Mom asks.

“A parade,” I say. “And it’s all about you.”

For once, she does not object. She does not tell us it’s too much for her to be the heroine, for us to make over her and act goofy and pretend together that we’re a bunch of little kids who don’t intend to grow up until far into the evening. We open the door of the facility and are greeted by the bright sunshine of a fantastic April day.

McKenna ParadeWe start waving our bubble wands and blowing our horns and shouting, “Happy Birthday, Mom!” Dozens of cars slow down, pull over, open their windows, and call out their own birthday wishes for our mother. They honk, give thumbs up, and blow kisses as they pass by, all to Mom’s delight.

By the time the party’s over, she is tired, but not so much that she doesn’t get a huge kick out of it when a young mom (followed by her husband and awe-struck children) stops, points to Mom’s tiara, and says, “We didn’t know we’d be in the presence of royalty!”

We wheel her back across the road, still blowing bubbles and tooting our horns, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than we had on the way there.

Because stories end, and this one was reaching its curtain call.

Out of nowhere, I hear my long-dead father’s voice singing, for old times’ sake, a 1950s-era Nat King Cole song. One he’d sung hundreds of times when he and Mom were young and I was younger still, one that always seemed so sad to me, because even a child knows what’s eventually coming.

The party’s over
It’s time to call it a day.
They’ve burst your pretty balloon
And taken the moon away…

“Do you want me to take your Happy Birthday banner down now, Mom?” I ask, when we arrive in her room. She never did like fanfare.

“No! I don’t want you to take it down, ever.”

The party’s over
The candles flicker and dim…
Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.

McKenna FamilyMom didn’t live to celebrate another birthday. But this my mother did: She grabbed hold of that final party, wringing every ounce of joy from it, composing the perfect ending in our hearts—and in her own.

And she gave me the courage to keep writing my story, too.

The Fine Art of Choosing A Pen Name

I’m using a pen name, a nom de plume, a pseudonym for publishing purposes.

Jillian Kent is a name I created after Rachelle asked, “Have you ever considered using a pen name?” With a smile on my face, I said, “You mean you don’t think Jill Nutter will sell as many books as Jillian Kent?” I had to smile because I’ve worked in the mental health field for years and you can’t imagine what adolescents on an in-patient psychiatric unit can do with a name like Nutter. Rachelle was very professional in providing guidance. I refer you to her blog post: Should I Use a Nom de Plume?

The following issues are ones I took into consideration:

Post Author: Jillian Kent

Jillian Kent is more than enthusiastic about the release of her first novel, Secrets of the Heart, The Ravensmoore Chronicles, Book One. She’s a full-time counselor for nursing students and holds a masters degree in social work. She’s fascinated with human behavior and thought it would be interesting to explore what might have happened in a lunatic asylum during England’s Regency era, her favorite time period. Jillian hopes you will escape into the past with her and find faith for the future.

The Work Place

I’m a Licensed Independent Social Worker employed as a counselor for nursing students within a huge hospital setting. I didn’t know if my supervisor or the president of the college would take issue with my second career. As it turned out, they fully support my efforts and allow me to talk about my writing within the college. I give books away at special events and to help raise money on occasion for things like our Student Emergency Fund. Choosing a pen name was also my safety net in case my work as an author wasn’t embraced or in the event I change jobs in the future.

Name Sensitivity and Setting

I married a great guy with the last name of Nutter. I write historical novels set during England’s Regency era. In England, the term nutter is slang for insane. Go to dictionary.com and type in the word nutter and you’ll see what I mean.  I write a darker Regency romance that includes the exploration of insane asylums and mental health issues. I didn’t want to take the risk that this might all be a bit too much for my readers.  I actually chose the name Jillian Kent for several reasons: 1) Kent is an actual city in England and frequently used as a setting in British novels, 2) Kent is short and easy to fit on the front of a novel and easy to remember, 3) Jillian is similar to Jill, my first name. So when readers call me Jillian it feels very natural.

Availability and Shelf Location 

I had to make sure the domain name was available for my website, that other authors weren’t using the same name, and that it would be placed on the bookshelves in a strategic position. Kent is in the middle of the alphabet. I’m near Karen Kingsbury on the book shelves so if someone picks up her book they just might see my book and be tempted to look at this new author named Kent.

Keep it Simple

I wanted a name that was easy to pronounce. Some folks pronounce Nutter as neuter. My maiden name was Baroudi (Ba-roo-dy). So now you can see even more clearly why Kent works for me.  I love my family and my family names and heritage, but when it comes to publishing, authors with sensitive issues must consider all the pros and cons of the nom de plume.

Have fun

If you discover you should use a pseudonym make sure you put a lot of thought into it. You might have it for a very long time and you want your name to be memorable if you are going to all the trouble of inventing a new one. As a child I was always making up new names because my maiden name was so unique. It’s kind of like starting over and beginning a whole new life.

Have you ever considered using a pen name? What are the reasons you might think about inventing a new name for publishing purposes? Are you using a pen name now?

 

Brand Basics

If you’re interested in delving into this business of publishing, then you’ve likely heard a lot of talk about branding. Simply put, branding clearly identifies you with a product. For the author, it might be their brand of fiction or their platform. Your brand is strong if someone hears either your book or your name and can identify the other. For instance, if I said “Stephen King”, certain things would pop into your mind even if you’ve never picked up one of his novels. If I said, “The Shining”, you could likely name the author. Stephen King has a strong brand.

Your brand needs to be supported by your internet presence such as your blog or web site. Think about the images you want to portray. Are you a contemporary women’s author? Then, your site should have a different “feel” compared to someone who writes suspense.

I worked with Tekeme Studios for my blog design. First hurdle to overcome was the content of the blog. How can I be different from the other thousands of blogs that are out there? What I noticed myself doing was answering a lot of medical questions for fellow writers. I couldn’t find anyone else with this type of blog. That was good because perhaps I could provide a service for other authors that was thus far unfulfilled.

Second was to think of the feelings I wanted to invoke when people first visited my site. For me, these were intrigue, medical, with a slight suspense feel.

Here was the first design:

Here comes the third part. You have to be willing to speak up if you don’t like the design. After all, this is your brand and your investment. You should have strong feelings about it. For me, the design read historical. The man was dressed in period garb and the cabin looked like one you’d find on the frontier. This image didn’t support my brand as a suspense novelist. Plus, I‘m a woman and why did it need to be a man answering those calls for help? Also, too bright and orange (not a huge fan of that color). Not an ominous feel at all.

You’ll know you’re with the right design team when they understand your concerns about the design and are not offended about making changes. After discussing my concerns, it became as follows. You can check out the full implemented design at http://jordynredwood.blogspot.com/.

My challenge to you:  Are you thinking about what your brand is? How are you evoking that brand image with your internet presence? Ask people to visit your site and give you thoughts about what they feel. If you’re a suspense writer, people should feel ominous… maybe a little worried, like they will when they read your novels.

These are some examples of authors who I think have portrayed this well. Visit their sites for a little homework. Do they have a strong brand? Do they evoke certain feelings when you see their imagery? I think what they’re doing supports their brand of novels.

  1. Brandilyn Collins
  2. Tosca Lee
  3. Robert Liparulo

What are some things you’re doing to support your brand?

Platform 101 for Regular (Not-Famous) People Like Me

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t decide to be famous when I grew up.  Because I’m starting to think that if my face was plastered across magazine covers and my name was on the marquis, I would have a lot easier time getting people to read what I have to say.

But, alas, I decided to be a plain-old, regular gal.

And, while I like my regular life with my regular kids and my regular husband and my regular job, I imagine that authors with big-time names and fancy doctoral degrees have a much easier time building their platform than I do.

You see, I write pregnancy and parenting books.  And, while I do have three fabulously adorable kids that give me lots to talk about on the pregnancy and parenting front—I’m not an OB, I’m not a nurse and (shocker) I’m not Jenny McCarthy.

Which means I’m not an “expert”.  And I’m okay with that.  But will my readers be?  And, since I’m not, how do I convince my readers (and the world) to read what I have to say?

Here’s what I’ve learned about platform building for regular folk:

1.    Stick to writing what you know.  For some reason, people generally don’t like to hear advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.  (Who knew?)  So, since I’m not a doctor, I steer clear from giving medical advice, but give everyone the nitty gritty details on what it’s like to go to the doctor—something I’ve done a lot of.   You may not have a diploma on your wall—but if your life experiences have given you expertise in something, write about it!

2.     Write what you know in lots of places.  Once you’ve written what you know, write it in a lot of places.  Spread the love and submit articles for magazines, guest post on blogs, start a blog of your own and post user generated content on websites like Yahoo! Shine.   Get your name out there—and before long, people will start regarding you as an “expert”.

3.    Keep your blog focused on your area of expertise.  For a long time, I wrote blog posts according to the whim of the day.  And I found that my readership shrunk and my posts seemed stale.  Why?  Because they weren’t focused.  Based on some advice from my agent, Rachelle, I decided to keep my blog 100% focused on pregnancy and parenting—and thus, create a level of expertise for myself through my own blog postings.

4.    Get to know the experts in your area.  I had the most amazing OB read and endorse my book.  With his endorsement came the assurance that while my book wasn’t written by an OB, the advice in it was medically sound.  Likewise, I try to stay well read on the pregnancy and parenting front, so that when I publish material, it comes with the backing of the experts in the field.

5.    Get out there.  If you want to get your name out there, you have to actually get your name out there.  That means prying yourself away from your computer (fun as it is to write the day away) and meet people.  It can be as simple as going to playgroups/school meetings/ministry events and getting to know people in your audience and as complicated as setting up speaking engagements around the country.  Regardless, if you’re not out there talking about your book, no one else is.

Question:  What are your best platform-building tips?

Surviving My First Year As A Published Author

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a published author for over a year now. My first book (A Tailor-Made Bride) debuted in June 2010, and last May my third book with Bethany House, To Win Her Heart, hit the shelves. What an exciting whirlwind adventure this has been!

For those of you who are not yet published, I thought I’d share a few of the myriad lessons I’ve learned during the transition from hopeful writer to published author. Believe it or not, signing a publishing contract is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is just the beginning of another journey, one that will take you through unfamiliar territory with a whole new set of obstacles and pitfalls to navigate.

Learning to work with an editor

Most of you have probably worked with a critique group or received feedback from contest judges on your manuscript. Some of you may have even invested in hiring a freelance editor to go over your book. All of this is wonderful for helping you perfect your craft, and I highly recommend it. I still work with my critique group on every book I write. However, making the switch from critique group to publishing house editor is like switching from working with a high school baseball coach to a major league manager. The expectations placed upon you increase and the time to make improvements decreases. Thankfully, the editor wants you to succeed just as much as you want to succeed, so it can be a marvelously rewarding partnership.

In learning to work with an editor, attitude makes all the difference. Here are some tips for making this process a blessing instead of a trial:

  • Trust your baby to the care of another. You are no longer simply a passionate writer, creating the story that best pleases you. You are now a professional writer who must please a publisher and readers. Don’t forfeit the passion, but temper it with professionalism. I often hear unpublished writers say things like, “If an editor ever suggested I change X about my manuscript, I’d find a different publisher.” I strongly caution against this attitude. Publishing is a team effort. Be a team player and remember that the publishing world is a small one. Don’t make things harder on yourself by gaining a reputation as a diva.
  • Editors are allies, not enemies. It might not feel true when you get that 12 page, single-spaced substantive edit letter, but keep your defenses in check. Remember that your editor is there to help you create the best manuscript possible.
  • Approach conversations with humility. Editors know the market better than you do. They know what their readers like. Submit to their mentoring and heed their advice, but don’t be afraid to respectfully speak your mind if you have a strong aversion to one of their suggestions.

Dealing with deadlines.

Everyone writes differently. Some pour out their stories unchecked then go back and add layers, weaving in editing as they work through multiple drafts. Some outline extensively before ever writing a word. Some spend weeks delving into research. I’m one of those odd ducks who uses both sides of my brain at the same time, editing as I go. This makes my pace slow as I constantly edit as I create, but I essentially write only one draft.

The key to dealing with deadlines is to know your writing pace and plan accordingly. Set realistic intermediary goals. (For example, instead of a daily word count, I choose to set weekly goals. I try to write one polished chapter a week.) Then be sure to budget a cushion into your schedule to allow for unforeseen circumstances. Illness, family vacations, work duties—many things can pull you away from your writing. Don’t add to your deadline stress by cutting things too close. I try to pad my deadline by 2-4 weeks to give myself some flexibility. Plus it’s cool to get brownie points by turning in a manuscript early.

Handling Reviews

Good reviews can send your spirit soaring, and bad reviews can send you plummeting into a pool of doubt and insecurity. You must learn to find balance. Some wise authors I know choose not to read reviews at all. I have to admit that I can’t seem to resist the lure. I check my reviews on Amazon every day and eagerly await news from my publisher about trade reviews. Publisher’s Weekly tends to give me great write-ups, yet the ones from Romantic Times are usually a bit lackluster. The inconsistency can be frustrating, but I constantly remind myself that reviews are subjective. That fact became very evident when my publisher decided to offer my debut novel as a free e-book download in May. I was pleasantly surprised by all the new 4 and 5 star reviews, but then there were the 1 star reviews that came with them. Ick.

  • Not everyone will love your book, so gird your loins in advance.
  • Enjoy the pleasure of positive reviews, but don’t let them puff you up with pride. When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. ~Proverbs 11:2
  • Learn what you can from a harsh review. Look for ways to improve your craft for future projects. However, don’t dwell on the sour words. They will destroy your confidence and steal your passion. Glean what you can, then walk away.

This publishing journey can be a long and arduous one, but it is rich with rewards as well.

For those of you who are still seeking publication—what makes you the most nervous about making the transition to published author?

And for you published authors—what other advice would you share with upcoming writers regarding what to expect after the contract is signed?

Learning to Let Go

This week my oldest son is preparing to return to college. Instead of rooming in the dorms, he will be sharing an apartment with three of his friends. As the piles grow in the dining room and shrink in his bedroom, I’m reminded of the day we took him to college for the first time two years ago.

I awoke that morning, smiling and vowing to stay positive. It was going to be a great day. The beginning of a new adventure for him. He was leaving the family nest to spread his wings. Hubby made a manly breakfast for a new college freshman. We joked during breakfast and pretended it was like any other day.

Hubby and our two boys loaded the trunk while I finished getting ready. As I applied mascara, it hit me—no not the mascara wand, but my little boy was a man now and heading out for a new path in his life. I teared up, sniffed a little, and reached for my lip gloss. Before I could apply the color to my lips, I had my face buried in a hand towel to muffle my sobs. I was so not ready for this. He was just a baby. He needed me.

No, not really.

I needed him to need me more than he actually needed me.

I dried my tears, reapplied makeup and rode the 90 minutes to his campus. We emptied the car and transported everything to his very generic dorm room. When it was time to leave, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “I love you, Mommy.” Suddenly he was five again and heading off to his first day of kindergarten. My chest ached from holding back the sob, but I managed to squeak out an “I love you” in return and smiled. As we pulled away from the curb, my hand clutched the door handle as my brain screamed, “I’m not ready to let him go yet.” My heart felt as though it was being shaved with a carrot peeler.

Thoughts tumbled through my head—I should have prayed more for him. I should have forced him to study more and do less gaming. The “I should haves” lasted for about five minutes until the sobs rocked my chest. It was a rough night and next morning.

But I did what every good parent needs to do—I let him go. It was his time to make his way in the world. We are always here to support and encourage him, but he has to make mistakes and learn from them.

As writers, we create stories, nurture them, and edit until the prose shines. We dream of the future, of getting the call. But none of that can happen until we press send or drop that manuscript in the mailbox.

While our manuscripts are not our babies, we have parallel feelings between parenthood and writing. Writers spend a lot of creative and emotional energy crafting their books and novels. Whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, we become a part of that topic or those characters. As a novelist, I know my characters better than I do some family members.

Once we’ve written those books to the best of our abilities, it’s time to let them go—time to send that manuscript to the destination it was intended. As the postman drives off with it or we receive that SENT window in our email, we may think, “Wait, I’m not ready yet.” But we have to learn to let go. Then we are faced with waiting and possibly rejection.

Just as sending my son off to college is a necessary part of his development, letting go of our work and submitting it for possible publication is necessary growth for a writer.

By the way, it does get easier—submitting those manuscripts and having my son return to college. Remind me of that next August when my youngest son heads off to college.

Your turn: What experience in your life has helped you let go of something, even though it may have been hard at the time? Do you struggle with letting go of your manuscripts when it’s time to submit?

Photo credit: gerbrak

How A Plot-First Writer Builds Character(s)

Don't be put off by the Jim Morrison/The Doors album cover look of this book. It's really great, I promise!

I am a plot-first writer. My story ideas emerge when considering events, real and imagined, and only after all the events are in place do I try to figure characters. While my mind races happily along forming the plot, my brain comes to a standstill when it’s time to zero in on a character to carry the story.

That is, until I found this handy-dandy little book: The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders.

There are dozens of books on character-creation out there and lots of helpful resources online to aid in creating the perfect characters. I know because I’ve tried many of them. Most of these methods involve making endless lists and exploring everything in the character’s past from shoe-size to perfume preference. For some authors this is vital to the writing process, but for me, it is tedious, boring, and keeps me from writing the story.

So I was happy to find a resource that was different. Here are a few of the things from Sixteen Master Archetypes that I found helpful:

  • With only 8 Hero types and 8 Heroine types, this book narrowed my initial character questions to only a few possible answers. Yet the types are broad enough to encompass lots of individual quirks while being distinct enough that your character will fall into a category quite easily.
  • There are multiple examples from books, tv, and movies to illustrate the different archetypes. I’m a visual person, and I love being able to pinpoint who my character is like from a pool of characters I already know. (Example, is your character a Free Spirit? Think Dharma from Dharma & Greg or Phoebe Buffay from Friends. Is your character a Professor-type? Think Sherlock Holmes or Columbo.)
  • This book gives examples of possible professions for each of the character types, as well as what in their history might’ve contributed to the people they’ve become.
  • And most valuable of all to a romance writer, this book gives examples of how the various heroes and heroines both clash and mesh, their points of conflict and their points of commonality, as well as how the characters change when forced to be together.

You might be worried that the choices are so narrow as to make all characters in that category seem the same, but consider this: Harry Potter and Mr. Spock are in the same category (Professor.) Thelma Dickenson from Thelma and Louise is in the same category as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (Waif.) Plenty of room to maneuver there.

If you’re like me, a plot-first novelist who has a rollicking story to tell but searches for just the right person to inflict all this conflict and disaster on, I encourage you to check out The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes.

You can find the book on Amazon.com by clicking the title above.

How do you feel about character worksheets? Love ’em or hate ’em?

Post Author: Erica Vetsch

Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and reading, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical fiction set in the American West. Whenever she’s not following flights of fancy in her fictional world, she’s the company bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two terrific teens, wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul-mate, and avid museum patron.

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How Opinionated Should a Novelist Be?

If you’re a novelist, there’s good reason to keep your opinions to yourself. Which can be difficult for people who are often sought for their opinions.

I recently read a Time magazine interview with John Grisham in which the author was asked, “Do you try to put Christian sentiments into your books?” He responded,

I’m a Christian, and those beliefs occasionally come out in the books. One thing you really have to watch as a writer is getting on a soapbox or pulpit about anything. You don’t want to alienate readers.

It’s a very diplomatic answer. Grisham doesn’t plead the fifth; he admits his religious persuasion. But he also admits that his Christian faith, if wrongly handled, can “alienate readers.”

This is the tightrope that novelists walk. In our age of electronic super-connectivity, there is no shortage of opinions and outlets for voicing them. But if you’re an author, that “connectivity” can have a downside. The more opinionated you are, the more chance you will alienate readers and potential readers.

Not long ago, in a post entitled To Blog or Not to Blog? Rachelle Gardner discussed the pros and cons of authors maintaining a blog site. Among the cons she offered, was this:

If you’re trying to be honest and authentic on your blog, and you spout off about religious views, politics, your views on parenting or any other controversial topic, you risk alienating potential buyers of your books simply because they disagree with one of your personal viewpoints.

There it is again — “alienating” readers. Your views about politics, religion, and controversial topics, no matter how “honest and authentic,” can negatively impact your professional influence or perception.

At the time, I hedged. “This notion that you shouldn’t express opinions,” I wrote, “bothers me.” However, at the time, I also did not have a novel published.

Call it political correctness, call it spinelessness, call it selling out, but I’m beginning to think that backing off from controversial opinions may be the smart thing for a novelist to do. Let me tell you why.

I recently perused my posts for the last year. Of my ten most commented upon posts, only two of them are NOT writing / publishing related. What should I make of this? It’s pretty simple: My visitors DO NOT visit my site for political commentary, parenting tips, sports takes, film reviews, recipes, social critique, or vacationing on a shoestring budget.

What people want from us writers is… writing-related stuff.

Please note: This does not mean we shouldn’t have opinions. Most of us have lots to say about politics, parenting, sports, film, social issues, etc. It also does not mean we should never blog about them. It means that whatever your brand is, it probably doesn’t have a lot to do with your controversial opinions.

Am I inferring that novelists should refrain from all controversial topics? Nowadays, I don’t think that’s possible. Between Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, investigative bloggers, and the 24 hour news cycle, what one believes can eventually be found out. Furthermore, the possibility remains that being opinionated may in fact win you supporters. After all, it is your OPINIONS about writing, the publishing industry, a specific genre, or the arts, that attract some readers.

The point is, whenever you voice a controversial opinion, it will have a plus / minus effect. Some people will like you more, others will like you less.

If someone asks me my position on __________ (fill in the blank), I will probably tell them. But the bottom line is this: Good stories have little to do with a storyteller’s politics or religion.

I don’t know what Cormac McCarthy’s politics are, but I loved The Road. I don’t know what Dean Koontz believes about climate change, but I like the Odd Thomas series. I’m not sure who Tosca Lee voted for, but I really enjoyed Demon: A Memoir. I’m not sure what Leif Enger believes about gay rights, but Peace Like a River is a wonderful book.

I don’t know the opinions of a lot of my favorite authors. And I’m better off if they don’t tell me.

Breaking News!!

Otherwise-Sensible Mother Sleeps with Strangers, Endangers Young Family
Columbus, OH (AP) August 4

If sources are to be believed, Columbus resident Marla Taviano and her family have accomplished a feat that, to our knowledge, has never even been attempted by another human being (for obvious reasons).

From August 1 last to August 1 three days ago, this adventurous five-some visited 52 Zoos in 52 Weeks. (No, this is not a misprint.) Over the course of a year, world-traveler-wanna-be Taviano, her husband and their three young daughters drove from New York to Florida to Texas to California and 27 states in between—a whopping 22,000 miles—to “visit animals that hail from all corners of the globe.”

But folks, that’s not the half of it. Instead of taking the conventional (read: normal, rational, reasonable, safe) hotel route, they stayed in the homes of 31 different families. And here’s the clincher: 17 of those families were complete strangers that Taviano met online.

Why in tarnation this seemingly-normal, law-abiding wife and mother compromised her family’s safety and well-being by entering the homes/eating the food/sleeping in the beds of random persons she met through her “blog,” we may never know.

When asked this very question by the Times’ own Harper Hooper, Taviano tempered her response with what can only be described as a smirk, “I didn’t fear for my family’s lives for a minute. Quite the contrary. We met some of the most incredible people, and I’m totally convinced that God himself orchestrated every last bit of it. I could write a book about the amazing, gorgeous, generous, fabulous people we’ve met in the past year. Were our tactics a bit unconventional? Sure. Would we have had the guts to attempt something like this five years ago? Heavens, no. Call us crazy, but we’re not certifiable.”

Most would beg to differ. When asked if she’s been hiding under a rock, oblivious to recent reports of internet stalkers and pedophiles, Taviano replied (with her customary smirk), “Oh, I’m not discounting all of that horror. Not for a minute. Those stories are sickening and heart-wrenching. The internet gets a bad rap for that very reason, but there’s this huge positive side to the world wide web as well. Communities of people sharing their lives with each other, offering advice and encouragement, living out their faith together, becoming a part of each other’s stories…”

But surely she can’t insist with a clear conscience that there was no risk involved in what she dragged her poor, helpless family into.

“Well, of course there’s risk,” Taviano smirked. “There’s always risk when you step out into the unknown. But what kind of life is a life without risks? And I was confident that I knew the hearts of these families and that their motives were pure, even if we’d only ever met online. I’ve found the internet to be a beautiful place. The friendships I’ve formed through this medium are ones I’ll treasure for a lifetime.”

Despite the absolute absurdity of her claims, Taviano spoke with uncanny conviction. Could there possibly be some inkling of truth to what she’s saying? The Times has its top reporters on the case even now. Is Taviano just an out-of-the-box thinker? Or, as we suspect, another nutcase off her ever-lovin’ rocker?

To be continued…

Marla here. I’m supposed to be blogging today about “something non-fiction.” So I decided to show instead of tell. The newspaper article above is made up. Except it’s not fiction. Because the whole 52 Zoos in 52 Weeks thing is true. So whatever that’s called. Creative non-fiction perhaps? Memoir-with-liberties? Anyway. The rest of the story coming soon to an e-book near you.

The Moral of the Tale? The best way to keep your non-fiction as interesting as fiction = live a story worth writing about.

I’m dying to know: what adventures have you lived that you’re hoping to put into words?

Post Author: Marla Taviano

 Marla Taviano—a lover of words, Scrabble tiles, and giraffes—dreams of traveling the globe with her web-guru husband and their three young daughters. The author of six books, Marla writes and speaks on enticing topics like sex, loving the poor, and how to visit 52 zoos in 52 weeks on a shoestring. Her heart breaks for those in poverty/slavery around the world, and she wants to use her platform to ease their suffering. Marla lives in Columbus, Ohio and met her Wonder Agent, Rachelle Gardner, at a Starbucks by the Denver Zoo in 2009.

Can You See Your Lion?

Recently I read that antelopes in captivity are not only healthier, but more reproductive when they can see and smell lions, their primary predator. I found such an observation fascinating. Does that mean a bit of stress makes an antelope’s life better?

Which of course led me to consider what a completely stress-free life would look like. Heaven? Or . . . boring? Evidently the antelopes are in the second camp. So boring, in fact, they find little reason to live a productive life without a reminder of some of life’s challenges.

As an author, I took some odd comfort in that. What writer, at any stage in their career, lives without stress? Maybe stress, at least in a manageable dose, isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Let’s face it, if getting published—or staying published—was stress-free then everyone would be doing it. But it’s neither easy nor stress-free. While the self-esteem movement wants everyone to be a winner (and undoubtedly there is something good about reminding us of our value) the bottom line is all of us do lose at one time or another. What accomplishment can we celebrate if every time we set out to do something we succeeded? Either our bar is too low or we’re fooling ourselves, because grown ups face disappointment all the time. In fact, overcoming stress and the accompanying feeling of failure make our successes all the sweeter.

All of this has me considering stress in a new light. I’m not saying all stress is good, or too much stress is good. Maybe there’s a difference between good stress and bad stress, although to an antelope I can’t figure out what’s good about having a lion in the neighborhood. Maybe if we don’t have some lions to look at in our distance—a reminder of the challenges that are out there—we might not have a reason to grow and improve. Maybe without those lions looming we might not even want to get up in the morning.

So next time you’re rushing to meet a deadline, or you receive a rejection, a disappointing contest result or a bad review, remind yourself without these lions in your life, living would be too dull to matter. At least that’s what the antelopes think.

What about you? Is there a fine line between good stress and bad? At what point do the lions in your life make you want to try harder, grow and improve before feeling there are too many lions in your life?

Note: Lion Photo compliments of Amanda Neilson, Neilson House Photography