3 Questions to find your “value added”

Value-added describes the enhancement a company gives its product or service before offering the product to customers. Value-added applies to instances where a firm takes a product that may be considered a homogeneous product, with few differences (if any) from that of a competitor, and provides potential customers with a feature or add-on that gives it a greater sense of value….Investopedia.com

There you have it, folks – a clear definition of “value added,” a key concept in today’s marketing strategies. If you’re a hotel, your “value added” may be a free breakfast, or bonus loyalty points. If you’re a tire dealership, your “value added” may be a discounted  fourth tire after the purchase of three. If you’re a writer…..ah….if you’re a writer….what if you’re a writer?

I’ve been grappling for years with the idea of my “added value,” and I’ve finally come up with a few guidelines that might help you work on your own. As the definition above points out, we writers offer a fairly homogeneous product – writing – so our challenge is to distinguish ourselves from other writers by offering readers something in our work that makes it stand out as having more ‘value’ than other similar products of writing. To identify your “added value”, consider these questions:

  1. What do my readers want from me that they won’t get from someone else? In the case of my murder mysteries, I relied on detailed accurate information about birds to appeal to my readers, so that reading my novels was like a virtual birding trip. Readers often told me they knew the restaurants where my characters ate, or that they had actually visited the real locations named in my books. That familiarity made the books personal for readers, and even inspired a few vacations for readers who wanted to add bird sightings to their life lists. That’s added value.
  2. Do I provide unique extras along with my book? A common extra is a Reader’s Guide at the end of your book for book club discussion. If you are tech-savvy, you can even offer to “attend” book clubs via Skype or other online meeting platforms. That’s a valuable benefit for many readers! Other extras include links to online journaling or videos that supplement your text. Even questions for personal reflection (and the space to answer them) is a nice extra used by many nonfiction writers in their books.
  3. What does my reader need? Ultimately, “value added” is about giving your readers more of what they value. To do that, you have to know your audience and consider what they would regard as additional benefit from reading your work. When I wrote my memoir about overcoming anxiety thanks to our adopted rescue dog, I included endnotes to refer readers to research into depression and anxiety; I’d found those resources helpful in my own recovery and wanted to share that with readers. I also invited readers to email me about their own healing experiences with adopted pets to broaden the conversation about the therapeutic effects of animals (and three years after the book’s publication, I still get wonderful emails from readers about it).

Have you identified your “value added” yet?

 

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How to write a GREAT book

What makes a book a great read?

If someone asked me to name the best books I read in 2017, four immediately come to mind: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, Be Strong in the Lord: Praying for the Armor of God for Your Children by Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers, and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.

But if you asked me why they were the best books of the year for me, I would have specific reasons for each. I choose Walker’s book because it literally changed my behavior in two ways: I now try to get more sleep to improve my health, and I refuse to drive a car if I’m in the least bit tired (yes, he scared the heck out of me with statistics!). Moore’s book impressed me deeply with its story of women who suffered terribly, yet fought industry to make it responsible for employees’ health on the job. Be Strong in the Lord deepened my faith for both my children and myself, and Picoult’s novel gave me new eyes and a new heart to confront racism in America.

These books changed my behavior and attitudes in specific, concrete ways. I am a different person because I read them.

And that is ultimately what makes a book a great read: it meets the reader where she lives, and changes her.

Book design, reviews, buzz, brilliant writing, thorough research, perfect plotting – authors dream that all those things will come together in their books to make it a bestseller, but the key to every book’s success, I believe, is in how the author connects to the reader about something important to that same reader. This means, naturally, that there exists a myriad of topics a writer can address (and they do!), which also means many – actually, probably MOST – books will never appeal to every reader, and because of that, every author needs to be mindful of the particular audience for whom they write. To best serve that audience, however, the successful author has to dig deep into his own wants and desires, unearth the most compelling, most universal, needs he can share with his readers, and then translate that into the written word.

The words “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone” are attributed to Ronald Reagan. Likewise, every book can’t be a great read for every reader, but for some reader, some book can be a great read. As you set forth on your writing journey in 2018, I hope you write that great book for some reader.

Who knows? You might even change my life.

New Year’s resolutions…or not

Well, this is embarrassing. I thought I’d write a post about writing resolutions for a new year by reviewing my resolutions for 2017 and noting how I did.

But I can’t find my list of resolutions.

Anywhere.

So I either 1) put it somewhere I wouldn’t forget, and I’ll find it in another six months or so, or 2) the dog ate it, along with several grocery lists and the instructions for assembling my husband’s new bike, or 3) I never made a list in the first place.

I have a suspicion it’s door #3: I never made resolutions for 2017.

And here’s why:

  1. Years ago, I realized I didn’t have to wait for a new year to begin new habits or improve on old ones. Making resolutions is really procrastination, waiting for the right moment to begin a new project or make a change. Every writer I know has learned the truth – there is no ‘right’ moment to start writing. A new year is not going to magically make it happen. You just have to sit down and write. Now.
  2. Resolutions sugarcoat tough realities. Of course, a writer resolves to write a book every year. Some years, that actually happens. Yippee! Other years, that ambitious resolution gets buried by the nuts-and-bolts of marketing the last book you wrote, preventing you from even picking a topic or plot for the new book you wanted to write this year. Or you have a family crisis that demands all your attention and energy. Experienced writers know that life happens…and when it does, writing resolutions go out the window…until those same writers are ready to process what they’ve experienced and incorporate it into their next book, which may not be the next book they thought they’d be writing.
  3. Resolutions are limiting. Again, life is full of surprises, and when a writer feels tugged in a new direction, an old resolution can be inhibiting. Why keep hammering away on that novel you’ve worked over for years, when an unexpected opportunity to write (or co-write) a self-improvement book presents itself and you find yourself drawn to it? Good writers know they need to welcome growth opportunities, sometimes even before they finish old projects.

So you won’t find me writing resolutions for 2018 in the next week. Instead, I’m going to rejoice in all the satisfying things my writing life brought me in 2017: learning how to build my own website, hearing from a growing number of readers how much they enjoy my books, an unexpected nomination for a Christy Award from my publisher, invitations to speak to groups, returning to writing a blog, sharing my faith with published devotionals, and mentoring new writers.

Wait a minute. I am going to write one resolution after all. And here it is: Thank God every day for the gift of writing.

I know I can remember that. And I’ll never have to worry about the dog eating it, either…

Happy New Year, writers!

How about you? Do you make resolutions?

4 Strategies to Examine Your Life and Work Priorities

At times, I get exhausted chasing all of my writing ideas and plans.

I’m tempted to give up when I look at my “to do” list. But after examining the lessons I learned about rearranging furniture, I realized I needed to reposition a few things in my writing life, too.

This process included examining my priorities, resolving some internal and external conflicts, developing a strategy, and asking for help.

1.  Examine your priorities. Right now, I’m overwhelmed with many of the projects I face. So, I decided to visit my priorities again in all of my writing, blogging, and speaking commitments.

I also know that I need to be willing to make changes. Last week’s priority may not even be in the top ten on my “to do” list today. But often it takes a conflict or a stumble to get my attention.

2. Resolve internal and external conflicts. I often take on more commitments than I can handle. Do you? And this causes me humiliation and embarrassment as I’m faced with making choices that others won’t understand.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I traveled out of town to speak at two separate events, leaving only one day to prepare for my next event. Although I had prepared most of my materials, I became overwhelmed as I sorted through the last minute details.

Then, the day after I returned home, I drove a couple of hours to spend a few days at my daughter’s home. She needed a little moral support, preparing to send her four young children back to school and tackling some household projects.

When I returned home again, not only did I need some rest, I needed to sort a few things in my own house, including my writing life.

3.  Develop a strategy. I asked myself, What should I do to meet my writing needs right now? 

I knew I needed to develop a new strategy. Writing down all of my commitments helped me examine them, so I could get a more objective view of my writing decisions.

So, as I reviewed my calendar and my “to do” list, I also asked myself some hard questions. Why did I commit to this endeavor? Am I passionate about this?

Often, I can’t see my own life objectively until I examine it on paper. And sometimes, that process doesn’t even work. So, that’s when I call in the troops.

4.  Recruit a friend for help. I’m grateful for a few family members and writing friends who will be honest with me when I ask for their input about my schedule.

Sometimes the looks on their faces say it all, “What were you thinking?”

At other times, they encourage me, “Don’t give up! You can do this thing!”

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Eccl. 4:12 NIV)

If you’re overwhelmed in your life—whether you’re a writer or not—don’t give up!

I encourage you to examine your priorities, resolve those internal and external conflicts, develop a strategy, and maybe even call in the troops for some help.

What strategies have helped you as you examine your life and work priorities?

Six Hurdles to Becoming an Author

When I attended my first writer’s conference in 2006, I thought I’d pitch an agent or editor and sell my book on the spot. After all, my college professor used my papers as good examples for her class, so these writing professionals were sure to read my work and sing the Hallelujah Chorus, right? Interviews on Good Morning America, Oprah’s Book Club, and a Pulitzer Prize would be sure to follow. Money would rain from the heavens. I was 28.

I’ll be 40 this year. I’m older, wiser, more experienced, and yet I’ve never met Oprah.

So let me step in as your coach and tell you how this really works.

  1. You have to write a book. I started many books before I finished one. And I probably only finished because I’d paid for a conference and needed something to sell to all those editors who I thought would come knocking. Editors or not, this is probably the hardest hurdle to clear. You don’t know you can leap over it until you do. So set that deadline for yourself, make the time, and feel free to write crap. Because this manuscript will likely be considered a false start anyway.I Got Nothin'
  2. Find a critique partner. Now because I’m the kind of person who takes off before the pistol is fired, I did have an editor request my manuscript after this conference and an agent sign me on the basis that I had an editor interested. This story didn’t get published though (thank goodness), and the most valuable thing that came out of my first conference was my critique partner. She got me back on track and trained with me. We moved at about the same pace and agreed to read each other’s manuscript. I not only learned a lot from her, but she ended up starting a publishing company which eventually published my Fun4Hire series. This is one of the coolest things about the writing community. Meeting all those famous authors is exciting, but it’s even more exciting to help your friends succeed.

    20170824_154228

    I named characters Christina and Dave after my first critique partner and her husband.

  3. Enter contests. Christina and I both finaled in contests. This is great encouragement to keep going when it feels like your words will never see the ink of a printing press. It also looks good in a cover letter and can include great feedback. Often these contests are judged by your dream editor. You’ll be scored on exactly what they like or don’t like about your work. And sometimes, if they like your work enough, as in the case of the Harlequin contest I entered, they’ll give you a contract and publish it.

    Book Signing

    Almost all of Team Love on the Run sold manuscripts through a Harlequin contest!

  4. Submit. Now I didn’t include “reading” as one of the six hurdles because normally if you want to be a writer, reading is no hurdle. It’s more like cheering from the stands. That being said, READ and research your favorite books to find out who sold and edited them. That’s probably who you should to submit your work to. Agents and editors know what they want, and you are wasting time if you send them something outside their interests.

    Angela and Editor

    My editor Miralee Ferrell is hard to keep up with.

  5. Get rejected. This is like shin splints. You don’t feel the pain unless you push yourself. Now you can commiserate with the rest of us. Feel free to keep count of your rejection letters or recycle them so your next rejection letter can possibly be written on the same fibers. Whatever you do, be proud. You’re writing isn’t perfect, but that’s okay. It’ll never be perfect. What matters is you’re working hard to beat your last time. Get up and keep going.

    Me and Mark Twain

    Even Mark Twain’s WAR PRAYER was rejected. He said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”

  6. Network. To some of you, this hurdle might be even harder than getting rejected. It’s like being interviewed after you lost a race on television. But you have to get in front of an audience to build what editors like to call a platform. It can be through social media, blogs, websites, radio, magazines, or newspaper. You are your own front man. You exude the the passion that pours into each of your stories. People want to read what you have to say because you inspire them.

    Why Christian romance- (2)

    People who know me know I’m passionate about healthy relationships and that I believe love can change lives. Also, it’s fun.

If you continue to improve your performance and don’t give up, you increase your chance of crossing the finish line into publication. All I’m going to say here is that selling your first manuscript won’t be anything like you imagine it to be. It will be better.

There you have it. Though you should also know that on average it takes seven years to win a book contract. And then you face a whole new set of hurdles.

Is it worth it? Only if you can relate to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire when he says, “I feel God’s pleasure when I run.”

He never met Oprah either.

Oprah

Photoshop is probably the closest I’ll ever get.

Behind every writer…

I used to think that successful novelists and writers did all their own work; from conception to final manuscript, the individual author did it all, including research, editing, writing coach, spiritual director, personal trainer (writing a book is like a marathon in many ways!) and project manager. Then I started reading author acknowledgments at the ends of books and realized that it took almost a whole village of assistants for an author to be successful!

And so, since I am committed to transparency in my career, I confess that I, too, rely on a staff to help me produce books. Let me introduce you to Team Jan:

Eddy is my editor. His sharp eyes don’t miss much. In fact, he may be the most demanding editor I’ve ever had. After I’ve slogged and wrestled with a heartfelt devotional or a chapter of plot twists, he often wipes out what I have done with one (paw)stroke on the keyboard, requiring me to attack the material again. And without fail, I have to admit, the second version is always better. He teaches me that patience, diligence, and revision make a better writer out of a good one. I just wish he’d stop shedding so much on the keyboard.

Michael is my personal trainer. He knows that too much sitting stagnates the body and mind, so he insists on frequent breaks from writing to both tone my muscles and clear my thoughts. There’s nothing like a competitive game of tug-of-war with a 75-pound dog to take your mind off character development, and Michael makes sure I sweat through several rounds every day. Afterwards, I’m more than ready to bring a focused mind to my writing project. Or else I take a nap.

Gracie is my spiritual director. We start every day with a walking meditation and prayer that helps set my priorities for the day. Many of my best pieces of writing result from the inspiration I find while in her company; her ability to live intensely in the moment motivates me to pay attention to details in the world around me. Sometimes, she points me to hidden pathways, inviting me to stretch my horizons of experience, which then influence my writing. I try to be open to those new directions, although the one that unexpectedly dumped me into a muddy gully was not one of her better ideas.

And finally, there’s Otis, the perfect project manager. When I’m stressing about a deadline, he calms me down by modeling relaxed behavior, reminding me that too often, I’m the one putting pressure on myself to perform. His easy-going nature encourages me to take my career with a proverbial grain of salt – or in his case, with a couple of Purina Kitty Treats – because in the big scheme of things, writing is just one facet of my life. Like every good project manager, Otis knows the value of balance…and the value of a good belly rub every now and then.

Who’s on your team?

Sifting and Winnowing

Photo/KatenJordanMy heart pounded as I braved my re-entry into my writing space. I simply did not want to work on another uninspired blog post. Why, I didn’t know. But I knew I needed to identify the source of my resistance to what I’m passionate about—writing.

From my office chair, I scribbled a few forced phrases—those anticipated first and necessary words. The ones I demanded myself to write. It was a painful hour.

Even though they were interesting, they weren’t satisfying. And I grieved once again for inspiration that would give me life—meaningful thoughts flowing from a grateful heart. But the words I produced were stale and stodgy. Would anyone be blessed by reading them? I thought not.

The next morning, I awoke to another day of blank pages. So I confessed to my husband, Dan, “I’m really struggling with the blog posts I should have already written.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“I routinely commit to writing about things others have requested, and I never get to work on things that really matter to me.”

“Like what? Give me an example,” he asked.

Dan listened carefully as I voiced a litany of excuses. Then, he responded, “Maybe you need to do some ‘winnowing.’”

“Tell me what you mean.” I knew what the word “winnowing” meant, but I wanted to hear his thoughts.

“Have you ever seen an illustration of someone threshing wheat?” He shared several photos after searching the Internet.

“You mean, like sifting?” I knew Dan was right, but I hadn’t figured out how to climb out of my writing rut.

He said, “All words are not equal. And like grain, where the husks have to be separated and discarded. To produce the best dialogue and story, the worthless ideas must be winnowed out.”

Sifting. I listened to the Daily Audio Bible during my morning walk. From the book of Judges, I listened how God gave Gideon instructions for choosing warriors to fight with him.

You have too many warriors for Me to allow you to defeat the Midianites. As it is now, the people of Israel would just deny Me the credit and claim they had won the victory on their own. So go out and tell your army, “Any of you who are afraid and trembling are free to leave Mount Gilead.” (Judges 7:2-3 VOICE)

The scripture reminded me of my earlier conversation with Dan.

After Gideon reduced his army, the Lord told him. “You still have too many warriors. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you. When I say, ‘This one will fight for you,’ he will go with you; but when I say, ‘This one will not fight for you,’ then he will not go’” (Judges 7:4 VOICE).

As I listened to the passage being read, the word “sift” took on new meaning for me. I knew the Lord was teaching me about “winnowing” and “sifting.” I also recognized I could take my notebook “down to the water” and ask the Lord to help me “sift” through all of my writing and speaking commitments. The neighborhood lake was the perfect place for solitude.

Winnowing. After lunch, I took a brisk walk to Lake Cortez with my pen and paper, with my heart prepared for “winnowing” my writing options, sifting and discarding those that didn’t seem right for me.

One-by-one, I reviewed my current writing commitments, praying what was most important would emerge as my next writing effort.

Recently, I read this encouraging word from the book of James:

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.

The key is that your request be anchored by your single-minded commitment to God. Those who depend only on their own judgment are like those lost on the seas, carried away by any wave or picked up by any wind. (James 1:5-6 VOICE)

I’m so grateful when God gives me his guidance and help. Some days I make decisions and commitments without even considering Him. But as I listed all of my plans that day, it became clear which projects and events I needed to abandon and pursue.

I instinctively knew which stories mattered most. And I also understood what genre of writing I wanted to pursue. So, I had the courage to resign from writing about things and issues that undermine my creativity and leave out elements of my faith.

I’m not sure what I will write next. But for now, I will continue to ask the Lord to help me sift through all of my projects and plans and allow him to impress my soul about what choices to make.

How do you “winnow” through your life and work? What sifters do you use when choosing what matters most to you and is worthy of your time and energy?

Scripture taken from The Voice™. Copyright © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.