Surviving the Valley

You hear a lot on the writing journey that it’s filled with highs and lows—probably more so in publishing because it’s rapidly changing and I personally wouldn’t consider any part of the industry stable or predictable.

valley-of-fire-1390258_1920The problem is the valley is hard. What exactly do you do? Do you give up writing? How do you readjust to keep your writing career moving forward when seemingly no one wants the words you’re putting on the page?

My writing valley (really—the deep dark hole of despair) started after my first trilogy was published. I worked really hard marketing those books, had great reviews, and two out of three of the books were each nominated for multiple awards. I was even told by my publisher that I was (at one point) their second-bestselling fiction author.

I thought there was no way my next proposal wouldn’t be picked up—by somebody. Well, it wasn’t and to be honest it put me in a psychological funk. I was pretty convinced that my envisioned bestselling author status dreams were rapidly crumbling in front of my eyes.

I’ve come through my first major valley (I’m sure one of many to come) and I thought I’d share what I did to survive it without throwing my writing career in the trash and lighting it on fire.

  1. Grieve. It’s okay to be sad about it. The writing life is unpredictable—even that’s a pretty generous understatement. Your writing life didn’t go as planned and it’s hard to readjust dreams sometime—but do readjust.
  2. Help other authors. Help them promote their books. Read books for endorsement. Review novels. Keep your name in the reader’s mind by having your name on their books.
  3. Stay active on social media. Even if you’re not publishing, keep engaging with your readers and other authors.
  4. Keep writing and learning the writing craft. Above all else—don’t stop writing. Journal. Blog. Write a new book proposal. Use this time to brush up on the areas of your writing that aren’t strong. Read those numerous writing craft books that have been piling up beside your bed (come on, I know you have them!) Learn those pesky computer things you’ve been putting off. Scrivner. Newsletter distribution sites. Take an on-line writing course. Even James Patterson has one now that’s very reasonably priced.
  5. Write outside your genre. During my valley, an editor from Guideposts reached out to me and asked me to audition for a cozy mystery series they were putting together. Hmm. Cozy mystery? I write thrillers. Straight up thrillers. I honestly didn’t think I could write gentle enough for a cozy mystery, but what else was I really doing? So I tried it. My first submission, well, you could probably predict the feedback I received. Too dark. The heroine’s not cheery enough. By the way, this surprised no one that knew me. But I resubmitted—and they loved it! And then the series didn’t move forward. I auditioned for a different Guideposts series and washed out again. Maybe cozy mystery wasn’t for me, but it did prove I could write something other than thrillers and I built bridges to editors at Guideposts even if they didn’t take me on for those projects.
  6. Fractured MemoryListen to God’s nudgings. Looking back with perfect vision, I felt that God used the Guideposts experience to get me to write outside my comfort zone. During this process, I started thinking about a contest called Blurb to Book that Love Inspired was hosting. Never did I imagine I would write for them. I didn’t think I was a good fit, but I found myself obsessing about this contest to the point where I couldn’t sleep. So I entered, and I ended up winning a contract for Fractured Memory, my novel releasing this month from Love Inspired Suspense. Suddenly, I was clawing my way out of that dark writing well.
  7. Go indie. In this writing age, there is literally no reason to not have content out for readers. Don’t quit your day job and scrap and save every penny you can to hire a good editor, proofreader, and book cover designer. I do say this with some caution—be sure you put out a good book! Don’t sabotage yourself into another pit.

Overall, take the valley as a place that can provide rest, rejuvenation, and growth. Perhaps you will need to go back to a paying job or postpone the plans that you had of quitting or reducing your hours. Just know that the valley is survivable and it doesn’t have to mean the demise of your writing career.

Tell me, how have you survived low points in your writing career?



Don’t ride . . . DRIVE the train!

trainAbout fifteen years ago, while taking a graduate course in Spirituality and Leadership, I had a professor who presented me with one of the most motivational sayings I’ve ever encountered: “Don’t just ride the train, be the engineer!”

Okay, maybe not the most theological statement I heard in the course of my graduate program, but it lit up my brain in ways I’d rarely experienced since finishing my undergrad degree decades earlier. Knowing myself to be an introvert and nonconfrontational, I’d always preferred to have someone else take the lead in projects at work; the only role in which I felt confident enough to be in charge was as a mother to my children. (Looking back, I can only say that ignorance was truly bliss, but that’s another post or two or a thousand.)

But the moment my professor uttered that directive, I had an epiphany that any writing career I wanted to pursue was going to demand that I drive the train, and not just ride along on whatever might come my way. As a result, I began to view writing as a vehicle I would steer, and, when necessary, refuel with energy and hard work. I also accepted that no one else cared as much as I did whether that train finally arrived; not even the support of spouse, family and friends (as important as that is!) would bring that train into the station if I didn’t commit myself to being the engineer.

I share this story with you because every writer needs to know that writing requires you to make that train your own: if you want to be successfully published, you have to learn the business, and these days, that means EVERY aspect of the business: writing craft, understanding your audience, marketing, platform building, travel requirements, publishing trends. Gone are the days when your publisher says, “Thanks for writing this swell book. We’ll take it from here.” Even your agent – if you’re fortunate enough to land an agent – can’t hold your hand through every stage of book development, because she or he is swamped just trying to navigate a path to publishers through all the layers of the industry – layers which can shoot down a book proposal for reasons of marketing or audience or numbers of your social followers, which may have nothing to do with the actual value of the book you’re creating.

You have to take ownership of your career. You have to drive the train to where you want it to go.

And that may be the biggest plus of being the engineer – you can CHOOSE where you want your career to go. It will take hard work and learning from the experience itself, but if you find you’re being called to write romance instead of devotionals, or humor instead of profiles, or politics instead of fiction, you can steer that train of your writing career onto different tracks, and see where it takes you. Maybe it will only be a short detour and you’ll end up at your original destination. That’s great! Then again, it may be a whole new journey on the writing rails.

Are you ready to drive the train?

Building a Platform? Finding Helpful Resources


“If you want to be a nonfiction author, you’ve GOT to work on building your platform?”

I perked up when I heard the word “platform” mentioned for the umpteenth time at my first writing conference.

Building my what? I didn’t expect this advice at a “Christian” writing conference. In fact, I didn’t even know what the workshop leader meant by “platform.”

Hands popped up all over the conference room, asking questions about “building a platform.”

“Can you give us more information?” Another frenzied writer whined.

A few seats down from me, an older lady with a wrinkled brow whispered to the person next to her, “What does she mean by ‘platform’?”

“I didn’t think ‘Christian’ writers should focus on building a platform,” someone mumbled. “Is that even scriptural?”

The murmurings continued…

I felt my blood pressure rise as I listened to all of the questions and observed the body language of the writers all around me.

I shook my head in disbelief as I considered all that I had done to prepare for this moment—particularly the last five years of academic writing. Is she saying that I need to study marketing now? Oh, great!

A few days later, I abandoned my first writing conference early due to a family crisis. So I didn’t get a chance to hear more about platform building.

Overwhelmed, my thoughts about building a platform and my mother’s untimely death left me dazed and confused. Should I even go forward with “writing for publication” now?

One workshop leader warned us against “quitting your day job.”

Great! I just quit my day job, I whispered under my breath. I had just turned down the offer to teach writing as an adjunct instructor again that semester. Why? I needed to help with our ongoing family needs, and I wanted to focus what time I did find on writing for publication.

After the conference, if someone even mentioned the word platform, I would voice my frustration with a favorite quote from Gone with the Wind, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

What’s a writer to do? Where can we go for information on building a platform? Back when I started, I had to dig deep for information. Now, you can find more resources than ever before now on that topic.

Michael Hyatt is one of the best resources I’ve found on platform building. I started following Hyatt’s blog on the advice of other writers several years ago. A few years later,  when he published his book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, I ordered my copy hoping to improve my own platform. I still recommend this book to other writers who ask me for help in that area. I’ve even led my own writing workshop on platform building based on what I’ve learned.

New Year’s plans. As I await my first book publication this spring, I’m still struggling with all the details of platform building—blogging, social networking, speaking, and writing. With all the advances in technology and social media, I’m always seeking new resources and ways to stay up-to-date with publishing info.

What are your plans for the New Year? What have been your strategies? What’s your secret? Did you quit your day job? Do you have any platform building tips that you would be willing to share with other writers?

I’m hoping this blog post will initiate a conversation about platform building. So, I hope to hear from you. Be sure to share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below.

What resources have helped you build your platform?

So You Want to Write a Book

photoHave you ever experienced that awkward “oh” followed by the nodding of the head and a slight pitying glance cast your way right after you tell someone you are writing a book? Maybe it’s just me. But it happened more often than not when I shared this little secret of mine: I wanted to be an author. But not only did I want to be, I was trying to be.

Now that my third book will soon hit shelves, those pitying looks have changed to looks of surprise and some pretty fun conversations. I continue to get contacts from friends, friends of friends, and strangers asking, “How do I write a book? Will you help me?” Originally, this overwhelmed me. A lot goes into writing a book. Where do I even begin to teach this? How do I know who will be dedicated to pursue this to the end? Major shout out to the mentors who took time to teach me. The sad truth is that not everyone who wants to write a book or says they are writing a book will ever finish it or see it published.

So how do you avoid falling into this category of a “wanna-be” or “wish-I-had?” No formula is perfect, but this worked for me and this is what I give people who ask me how to start. I had a lot of missteps. I spent a lot of money on training and books. Lost a lot of sleep. Cried a lot of tears. Wondered if I could really do this. Fell in love with characters and settings. But the bottom line is…I tried. And I’m still trying. My writing journey is still a work in progress. But I am always willing to help those who try. My guess is, if you are taking the time to read this, on some level you are serious about making your dream a reality.

  1. How bad do you want this?
    • Know that this is a long journey. How bad do you want it? Have others affirmed this gifting in you (other than your mom)?
    • Ask why this story should matter to others.
  2. Learn how to develop a story.
    • Buy books. Take classes. Do writing exercises. Join a writing group.
    • Write a couple of short stories. Study dialogue, plot, character development.
  3. Brainstorm your idea.
    • Determine what research needs to take place
    • Buy books on the topic/Check out the library
    • Write down your ideas/get something on paper
  4. Start writing.
    • Most companies won’t look at your work until you are finished. Finish the book. Write, rewrite, write again.
    • When you are finished, research publishers that print in your genre. Look into agents that represent your genre.
    • Purchase tools on writing a book proposal.
    • Pray; and be ready for rejection. If this is something you really want and others have affirmed, then keep going
  5. Connect with other writers in your stage.
    • Local writer’s groups are a great beginning, and there are also some online!
    • Develop relationships with people who love story.
    • Ask people to critique what you have, and request honest, tough feedback. Then change your work accordingly.

Prayer + Passion + Perspiration = Success

Keep writing!

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.

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?


Impossibility: Five Important Truths


Sometimes God leads us to do the impossible.

This morning as I waited for the sunrise to go on my walk, it started raining. I thought, Oh, no! If I don’t go for a walk now, it won’t happen today.

Simple problems. Sometimes the simplest challenge can seem impossible. I also know that my emotions lead me to exaggerate my problems at times.

Life and death issues. I don’t intend to compare my insignificant problems with the life and death issues that others are facing right now. I’m aware that many people face horrific, painful circumstances every day. And as I look at my circumstances in light of the needs of others, my problems often seem trivial.

Photo/KarenJordanCrises in Spain. My writing life often pushes me out of my comfort zone toward some “impossible” dreams. It led me into the academic world where I faced all kinds of uncomfortable situations. My most memorable learning experience occurred in Spain.

I wrote a previous post on the WordServe Water Cooler about my academic journey in Salamanca, Spain, “Sergio: A Memoir from My Writing Life.” During that summer in Spain, God revealed His faithful guidance and strength as I faced my limitations and weaknesses.

Photo/KarenJordanImmersed in another culture and language, I discovered I had taken on an academic endeavor far beyond my abilities, and I felt totally incompetent to complete it. My personal weaknesses became painfully obvious, as I experienced the reality of my limitations.

I’d been pacing myself as I pursued a course of study as a nontraditional student, commuting to school from home. But after a few weeks in Spain, without warning, I crashed—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Like an athlete, I hit the wall, suddenly losing all my strength after a long, difficult journey.

Spiritual Truths. I rediscovered five important spiritual truths about impossibilities during my painful summer of learning in Spain.

  • Some things are impossible to do in my own strength. “Humanly speaking, it is impossible …” (Matt. 19:26 NLT).
  • All things are possible with God. “… But with God everything is possible.” (ibid.).
  • I can do anything God calls me to do. “… I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).
  • God will complete the work that He began in me. “ And I am certain that God, who began the good work within (me), will continue his work until it is finally finished …” (Phil. 1:6).
  • God gives me His strength, when I am weak. “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Reflection. These promises from God’s Word continue to encourage me as I face the impossibilities of my writing life. And I’m thankful that God offers His powerful promises to all who choose to believe His Word.

I’ll never forget some of the painful lessons I learned in Spain—and I still bear some of the scars from that experience. Now, I try not to take on more than I can handle, since I’m more aware of my limitations. In fact, I hit the wall faster and more frequent than ever as life takes its toll on me. So, I’m trying to stay focused on the course set for me.

Remember this promise as you face your impossible dreams and goals: ”Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (Matt. 19:26 NLT)

What seems impossible for you today? Does your situation seem hopeless, difficult, or ridiculous to even consider?