How to survive the book review blues

roses I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews.

Every time I get a good review, I’m happy. When I get a stellar review, I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve done what I hoped to do: I’ve connected with a reader and given them a journey they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. When dog-lovers tell me they laughed, cried, and were inspired by my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God, I feel blessed that my story reached and touched them. When reviewers rave that my supernatural thriller Heaven’s Gate: Archangels Book I made them want to stand up and cheer, I get goosebumps of joy.

All those multi-starred reviews on my books’ pages at amazon.com, Goodreads, or barnesandnoble.com reassure me that the hours I pour into my writing are worth it: my books entertain, educate, and illuminate, and, gosh darn, people like them.

wilted-roseAnd then there is the flip side of my love-hate relationship with book reviews.

When I get a review that says “this book wasn’t what I thought it would be about, so I stopped reading it after the first two chapters,” and therefore receives the lowest rating possible, I want to bang my head against a wall. “Then why did you bother to post a review?” I want to ask the disappointed reader, and then explain that because she mistook the book for something it wasn’t, my overall rating has plummeted, which will dissuade some readers from even reading the synopsis, let alone buying and reading the whole book.

I’ve also seen reviews that rate books poorly because the author’s basic premise contradicts what a particular reader-reviewer believes. Again, those low ratings may prevent the book from reaching the hands of readers who would appreciate and greatly benefit from it; because many people (and I’m one of them!) choose books based on others’ reviews, authors are at the mercy of those published reviews, even when they make no sense at all, or are based on the personal bias of the reviewer.

So what’s an author to do about that oh-so-necessary-but-can-be-disastrous need for reviews?

My answer can be summed up in one word: relax.

Then remind yourself of these three things:

  1. You wrote a book! So many people say they want to write a book, but you actually did it! AND it got published. Congratulations! Celebrate your accomplishment!
  2. You can’t please all the people all the time, and that’s especially true of readers. Some people just won’t ‘get’ it; others won’t like your writing style or your treatment of plot or subject. Some readers might be experiencing difficult life situations while they were reading your book and some of that negativity gets transferred to their reviewing. Bottom line: reviews are subjective, even when they intend to be objective.
  3. Your words will reach at least some of the people who need to read them, and they will bless you for it, whether or not you ever know it.

What do you do when you get the review blues?

Another Sacred Moment: Launching My First Book

Photo/KarenJordanIn my first post on the WordServe Water Cooler blog few years ago, I wrote about “Embracing Sacred Moments” in our lives. In that short piece, I mentioned a couple of writing firsts for me—my first contract to write an article for a well-respected publication and my first call from a WordServe agent, signing me as a client.

This month, I’m experiencing another first—the launch of my first book.

But as I prepared to write this book, a sudden and disturbing vivid memory emerged from a time when I stepped out of my comfort zone to serve. I still feel the embarrassment of that day when I helped prepare the noon meal after a revival service in my hometown church.

A million doubts and fears raced through my mind that morning. Was my skirt too short? Were my heels too high? Were my clothes too tight? Would someone ask me too much about my personal life? Why did I even come here in the first place?

Since I was the youngest and newest member of the ladies’ group helping that day, someone nominated me to pass out rolls to everyone.

I stacked the rolls high on a large platter, hoping to avoid a second trip to the kitchen. But as I pushed the swinging door open with my back, I tripped and fell to the floor, propelling everything across the room.

I can still recall everyone in the room gasping at the spectacle I had made of myself.

BookCover/WordsThatChangeEverythingAs I wrote my first book, Words That Change Everything, my old fears and worries resurfaced, reminding me of that humiliating experience. Do I dare expose more of my failures, worries, and vulnerabilities with an even larger audience? What if I make a total fool of myself again in front of my friends, family, and total strangers as they read some of my life stories?

Then, I remembered what I learned from my earlier failed attempt in serving others. Forty years after I humiliated myself in my home church, the pastor’s wife invited me to speak in that same fellowship hall at a women’s ministry event. And I shared my humiliating “tossed roll” story, revealing some of my own worries and vulnerability.

God gave me an opportunity to revisit and overcome a moment of failure in the same context and venue, four decades later, as I stood on this promise from God’s Word: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 NLT).

So, even though I’m a little apprehensive about revealing some of my most intimate stories in my first book, I’m excited to share my story with the world—Words That Change Everything: Speaking Truth to Your Soul.

Why? Because I also believe in the power of story—as we share the stories that matter most, lives change and hearts heal.

Did my story remind you of a story in your own life?

5 Tips for Sharing Your Faith Stories

imageThe Bible encourages Christ followers to share their life lessons of faith with others.

Men. The apostle Paul gave Titus this advice as he prepared to teach men.

.  .  .  talk to them; give them a good, healthy diet of solid teaching so they will know the right way to live  .  .  .  teach the older men (to) enjoy everything in moderation, respect yourselves and others, be sensible, and dedicate yourselves to living an unbroken faith demonstrated by your love and perseverance.” (Titus 2:1 The Message).

Women. Paul also gave Titus instructions about teaching the older women, offering him some instructions concerning issues that concern all women (Titus 2:3-5).

Today. We might be able to glean some good stories with writing prompts from these passages. But how can we share our own faith if we can’t communicate our personal stories, identifying the stories that matter most to us?

As I prepared to speak to a group of Christian women, encouraging them to share their faith stores, I recalled an important challenge in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (NIV).

Prompts. The following writing prompts helped me prepare to tell my faith story, particularly my personal “come to Jesus” experience.

  1. Before Christ. How would you characterize your life before you trusted in Jesus Christ? [Attitudes, emotions, concerns . . . ]
  2. Faith Crisis. What were the circumstances in your life that led you to trust Jesus Christ as Savior?
  3. Salvation. When and how did you respond to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?
  4. Christ follower. How would you characterize your life today since you chose to follow Christ? How is your life different now?
  5. Scripture Promises. What Bible verses have helped through a crisis of faith?

What resource or practice has helped you communicate your faith stories?

Walking Down Memory Lane: Recording Your Legacy Stories

Photo/KarenJordan

What memories do you recall of your hometown?

Christmas always brings back a lot of memories from my hometown, Silsbee, Texas.

My husband Dan and I grew up in the same town in Southeast Texas. So, even though he’s a few years older than me, we share a lot of memories of our hometown. Not only were we both born in that small Texas town, our parents grew up there, too. So, a lot of our relatives and friends still live there. And we still make trips back there when we can.

Fun times. Both of our children were born in Southeast Texas, too. But since we moved away when they were young, they only remember the holidays, summer vacations, and fun times with their relatives there.

Painful moments. Some memories are difficult to embrace–like the death of loved ones or mistakes from our past. But I’ve discovered the importance of recording some of my painful memories, especially since both of my parents are gone now.

Writing down some of those narratives brings healing to my soul. Plus, if I don’t write my family stories down, I know they will be lost forever.

Legacy stories. I should have written down the stories my mother and dad told me long ago. But at the time, I didn’t see any value of recording them.

I still hear those stories from my other relatives when I go back to Silsbee for holidays, weddings, reunions, and funerals. I’m trying to work out a plan for jotting down more of those stories as I remember them.

Certain songs also trigger memories for me. Although I moved from my childhood home several decades ago, Kenny Rogers‘ hit, “Twenty Years Ago,” always takes me back in time, reminding me of my past.

As you listen to the song below, I hope it helps you recall some of the stories from your hometown, too. But be sure to write them down. Someone you love might be blessed by your stories. I also hope you’ll share a story with our readers in the comments below.

YouTube/RareCountry2 (“Twenty Years Ago – Kenny Rogers)

Did this video remind you of a story from your hometown?

How to find your best influencers

Jan and Ron vertThe longer I’m in the writing business, the more I appreciate the importance of influencers in helping me build my audience and increase sales. What’s tricky for many writers, however, is figuring out just who and where those influencers can be found.

Unfortunately, after eight years and eight books of being a published author, I still don’t have a magic formula for identifying and recruiting those valuable assets for my marketing efforts. All I can offer you is my own experience and insights, so here goes:

  1. It’s great to have known experts or writers give you an endorsement for your book, but unless they are truly excited about your book and independently give it exposure in their own networks, the endorsement is just nice copy for your back cover, and won’t produce momentum in sales. Those experts are busy with their own marketing and projects, and the truth is, they give endorsements widely as a courtesy, rather than out of commitment to your publicity goals.
  2. The best influencers have a stake in your sales. Although my books sell around the world, my strongest sales come from a local gift shop because the store owner enjoys my books so much, she talks them up to customers and regularly features them in store promotional materials. Because of her enthusiasm, I’ve had more press coverage in local media than I could procure by my own efforts and a consistently growing word-of-mouth readership. As an influencer, she’s one of my best!
  3. You need to continually cultivate relationships with potential influencers. This means reaching out via social networking and/or physically traveling to meet people in your field of interest who might find your books of value in their own professional goals. To market my girl-meets-dog memoir, I make a point of connecting with animal rescue groups/animal humane societies online, and when possible, I attend their conferences/events as a vendor. I often give free copies to keynote speakers or other passionate animal lovers I meet, in hopes they will read and enjoy the book so much, they will mention it to others. Yes, this is basically a hit-or-miss method, but so far, I’ve always made a few excellent contacts and found one or two awesome influencers at such events. It’s well worth my time and money to break into a new group of potential reader-buyers.
  4. Connect with bloggers with big audiences in your target market and ask to send them a copy of your book in return for a review. Offer them additional copies to use as giveaways when they publish a review of your book, or whenever they might have a contest going on. Doing this gives you a reach well beyond your own social networks and local geographic area. I’ve met several significant influencers in this way, and they continue to give me promotional value with each new book.

What tips do you have for identifying and recruiting influencers for your marketing efforts?

Do You Want to Change The World?

signing declarationWriters can be agents of social change.

I was reminded of that truth after hearing a keynote address at a conference for animal humane workers. The speaker, Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, discussed the importance of social change to transform communities in order to improve our treatment of animals. But her words could also be applied to what traits writers need to cultivate to do their job well; in fact, I felt that Amy’s characteristics of social change makers accurately described many of the writers I know. Here are Amy’s six key traits; do you see yourself in any of them?

Social change makers:

  1. Collaborate across sectors. In my own writing, be it the fiction of the Birder Murder Mysteries or my best-selling memoir Saved by Gracie, I draw from many fields of expertise. My sources are birders, dog owners, psychologists, trainers, sociologists, scientific researchers, conservationists, biologists and historians, to name just a few. To be effective, writing has to draw from the world of knowledge.
  2. Are inclusive. Writers want their message to reach wide audiences. To do that, we keep an open mind about who might benefit from our work, and we rejoice when a new market presents itself as one that we might engage productively.
  3. Build empathy. For any piece of writing to succeed, it has to appeal to the heart of the reader. Having something meaningful to share is the first step of the writing process.
  4. Choose curiosity over judgment. The best writers try to see the world with fresh eyes to uncover what is true. Judgment can shut down avenues of investigation that might just lead to new revelations that will transform myself and my readers.
  5. Check assumptions. Writers make careers out of questioning assumptions. Sometimes, we even turn them upside down in the course of our creative process and/or production. The result is new perspectives and new ideas that can often improve readers’ personal or public lives.
  6. Learn from those they serve. Whether it’s hearing about new conservation efforts to protect bird habitat, or effective approaches to increasing animal adoption, or the need for more transparency about mental illness, every bit of research I’ve done for my books has not only taught me more about the world and the people and creatures in it, but how I myself can better connect with and serve my readers by passing along what I have learned. On a regular basis, I hear from readers about the ways my writing has affected them, and it guides me as I plan my next project. Without that feedback, my writing lacks focus, not to mention effectiveness.

Given these shared characteristics of writers and social change makers, I find myself considering my own work as a potential agent for change in the world; I won’t be the first author to do so, nor the last. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” may have come from the pen of English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, but it expresses a timeless truth.

What will your pen accomplish today?  

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (conclusion)

(Continued from Part I, Part II and Part III) Image, pink binder

I will never forget the feeling that day when I collated thirty chapters, punched holes, and neatly stacked all 330 pages of my first draft into a pink, soft-cover binder. I wasn’t Rocky at the stop of the stairs with pumped fists, but rather felt a peaceful satisfaction unlike any I’d ever experienced. It was a book in my hands, and I’d written it.

At the prescribed time, I emailed a digital copy to Jim Lund, the editor who had agreed to help me. His feedback arrived about three weeks later.

Jim’s comments were mostly about structural issues. The timeline was chaotic and he had trouble following what happened when. We shuffled chapters and paragraphs, and “trimmed” unnecessary copy. For example, when describing the time Annie broke into our upstairs bedroom, I’d “squirreled” a three-page tangent about the bats that flew into our house throughout that entire summer. “Kind of interesting,” Jim said, “in a creepy sort of way. I’d trim this.” “Trim” being the kind word for “chuck it.”

Over a period of months, I integrated Jim’s recommendations into a cleaner draft. I read and re-read that manuscript dozens of times, sometimes aloud, and fine-tuned the cadence and the prose into a finished product that sounded like me. It was then ready for beta readers.

I paid Office Max $110 to print eleven copies of the manuscript. I then assembled the pages into inexpensive binders and began to share my work with friends and family. Copies went to my brother, Paul; to Annie, of course; my son, Jeff; a couple of dear friends; my pastor’s wife, Kari; plus my therapist and the four women in our long-standing support group. My husband, Pete, continued to show little interest in reading, remaining insistent that it took me 330 pages to say what he likely would have said in 11.

I can’t remember a time when I ever felt so vulnerable… and I was terrified.

It’s a huge commitment to read someone’s work, especially 330 pages of it, and comments began to trickle in over a period of weeks. “This is good, Barb. This is really, really good. I read tons of books and frankly could not put this down.”

Yeah… that’s what friends are supposed to say.

I continued to edit and trim, ultimately heeding the advice of others and slashed/reworked/condensed the first few chapters. I couldn’t read a paragraph without reworking it, and wondered if I’d ever know when the book was done.

In the meantime, I bought hundreds of dollars worth of books on self-publishing. Jim taught me that only famous people received publishing deals these days, or people who had developed strong national platforms. He thought my story was powerful, but I was unknown. Completely unfamous.

Nevertheless, after two years of hard writing, I thought it would be fun to query some agents and see how the process worked. Maybe I’d get some helpful feedback. I’d already drafted a query letter in a “How to get your book published” class up at our community college. Next I needed to write a proposal, and Jim provided some templates.

Writing the proposal was miserable. While my business background proved helpful, I found this part of the process a chore. The manuscript was written first-person past tense, yet Jim instructed me to write the proposal in third-person present tense. So each of the thirty plus chapters needed to be condensed and translated into a different form of speech. It was a grind, and I shelved the book for months. This just wasn’t going to happen.

Until… until, I felt the nudge again. “It’s time,” said the voice within my own.

Two days later I sent a query letter to two agents, and both responded within a week. Requests for the proposal followed, and the manuscript followed after that. My brain could scarcely take in the enormity of what was happening.

One of the agents was the wonderful Alice Crider and she signed me with WordServe Literary. Within a few weeks, Alice had secured two publishing offers.

grunge image of a field

The rest is history, as they say. I’m not a famous author by any means, but I am an author nonetheless. It was four years after I received that first nudge from God to “write a book about the gifts you were given,” that Zondervan released A Very Fine House: A Mother’s Story of Love, Faith and Crystal Meth. They even retained my working title.

Miracles can and do happen. First was my daughter’s return from the abyss of drug addiction. Then a book followed about the gifts, the lessons learned. Whew. Both experiences have strengthened a simple faith, and changed me forever.