What authors need to know: a view from the reviewer’s desk

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I’ve recently been reviewing books on Netgalley. To my surprise, it’s been an educational experience for me as an author; by putting myself on the reader’s/critic’s side of the equation, I’ve learned a few truths that every author should know about 1) writing books, and 2) receiving book reviews.

Truth #1: Not every book is for every person. No matter how important your message or story, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. I keep thinking of the key question every writer gets when pitching a book for publication: who will want to read this book? Many of us (myself included when I began writing) believe that EVERYONE should read our books, that there is value in our work for every reader. But the truth is that people have different interests, and not everyone will want to read your book; that’s why the precise identification of those readers most likely to read your book is so critical to publishing your work. Authors MUST know their specific audience.

As a reviewer, I can choose from a multitude of topics, which means there are many excellent books I don’t choose to review for the simple reason that I’m not interested in the topic. Don’t take it personally when reviewers don’t rave about your book – it may be that your topic just didn’t hit a home run with that individual. Remember always that reading and reviewing is subjective, so while authors want and need reviews, you’re at the mercy of individual preference.

Truth #2: Not every writing style will appeal to every reader. Part of the joy of writing is to find your own voice, and when it resonates with your readers, it’s like winning the lottery. From a reviewer’s perspective, however, some writing styles are irritating, which then often result in poor reviews. (Case in point: as a former teacher of English composition, I can’t get through a book filled with incomplete sentences. When I find that in a book I want to review, I return the book rather than penalize the writer for her own voice. I’ve made that my rule based on my experience of receiving a poor review for one of my books wherein the reviewer said he didn’t read the book because he didn’t like my style in the first chapter! Again, it’s subjective, so don’t panic when you receive a review like that; if you know your audience, you can let that bad review roll off your shoulders, because you know something your reviewer doesn’t: your audience likes your style.)

Truth #3:  Your writing will improve by reading and reviewing other books. As a writer, every learning opportunity you take – even reviewing others’ books – will contribute to your store of ideas, craft, and understanding. Besides reminding me of the importance of audience, reviewing has reassured me that there is room in the publishing and reading world for many voices and many topics. As long as you continue to polish your craft and write engaging books, there’s room for you, too!

Writing roadblocks: Fear & Funk

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In my experience, there are two roadblocks that cause a stall out when one is writing a memoir: fear and feeling stuck (or both!).

Fear:

What if I can’t do this? 

You know what? Nobody can actually write memoirs worthy of publishing right away. It takes time, work, passion, and the desire to grow in the craft. But the only way you truly can’t do it is if you don’t do it.

I don’t have a clue where to start. 

Again, few of us do. But the point is to get words down on paper (or laptop). Start at the beginning of your story. The starting place will probably change, but write something. Write a scene. An essay. Some musing. Summary. Thoughts, even if the thoughts are I don’t have a clue where to start. Once you write, you’ve started.

I’m too busy to add this to my life​. 

This is 100% true for some. It’s OK. Life will change at some point and you may be able to weave writing into your life. But a lot of times, this comment has to do with fear. If you really want to write, find time. Fifteen minutes in the morning. A half hour at night in exchange for a reality TV show (I’m obsessed with them!). Jotting down thoughts and ideas on a note pad as you wait for your kid’s soccer practice to let out. You don’t have to set aside chunks of time, but write. Find a little time. Write!

Funk:

Some authors think that writer’s block is a myth. I disagree. I think it is a real thing, but I also think that we can do a few things to attempt to loosen up our tangled creativity.

Put in the time anyway.

Set aside time for your writing. Remember Anne Lamott’s ‘butt in the chair’ admonishment from Bird by Bird? You may not actually write. You may stare off into space without one thought about your project. Just don’t give up. In order to build your writing muscles, you have to write.

Don’t let discouragement stop you cold.

​Or it will. You’re going to think your work is terrible. You’ll decide that your four-year-old can write better than you. You’ll want to give up. You might fear that someone will hear about you writing and think you are a fraud. Don’t let these things stop you. One writer said that as soon as you write, even if it is a grocery list (for the purpose of writing, not strictly to shop), you are a writer. Use your discouragement as a challenge to get better. 

Look for inspiration. 

​Read a memoir or a novel. Pick up a book on craft and read a chapter before you sit down to work. Purchase a writing course. Listen to podcasts about writing (my favorite is Between the Covers. Catchy title, right?). Look for a writing group in your town or online. Read blogs (ahem). Talk to others who write or love all things literary. ​ 

These ideas usually help me get out of my fear and funk. See what they do for you. You might just pick up your pen. 

 

How to Refill Your Writing Tank

Feeling empty after finishing a manuscript or spending weeks marketing your books? Has burn-out become your default mode?

Then it’s past time for you to indulge in some writerly self-care. Here’s how I refill my tank:

  1. Eat ice cream. Lots of ice cream. It freezes all the synapses in your brain so you can’t think about writing, even if you wanted to. The idea is to give your brain a break, and ice cream does it every time for me.
  2. Read a lousy book. In fact, read two. It will remind you that anyone can write a book, but YOU can write a GOOD book. Pat yourself on the back. (Gratuitous self-praise is one of a writer’s most potent secret weapons when it comes to longevity in the writing business.)
  3. Go cliff-diving. (No, wait. That’s too much like writing – throwing yourself into a project not knowing where you’ll land. I guess that’s why I’ve never gone cliff-diving in real life since I do it all the time with writing. True confession: I just included it in the list to catch your attention…)
  4. 4. Take up a new hobby. Not cliff-diving (see #3 above). I’ve recently started weeding the yard, lopping off dead branches and building rustic furniture. Physical activity is good for the body, soul, and brain. (Hmmm… I just realized that my new hobbies all involve aggressive behavior: I get a visceral thrill from yanking out weeds, cutting off limbs and I absolutely LOVE drilling and pounding in nails. Let’s move right along…)
  5. Make something from Pinterest. Admit it, you’ve wasted time on Pinterest along with the rest of the world, oohing and aahing over charming hand-crafted items or exotic destinations or delightful food presentations. I took the plunge and here’s my result:(Hey, I didn’t promise it’s always pretty to refill my tank. I just offered to tell you what works for me. Sometimes, the most motivating thing I can do is fail miserably at something else and tell myself “Well, I can always write…”)
  6. Be a language vigilante. I love this one. I’ll make a point of reading every sign I see in a day and point out to anyone who’s within hearing the grammar/spelling mistakes. Big favorites are the ever-present “Your” instead of “You’re” as in “Your our most valuable customer” or “Thanks for you’re support!” I have to make a conscious effort not to carry a big fat red magic marker with me everywhere and circle the errors. By the end of the day, I once again feel like I have a firm grip on the English language, and it’s my duty to enlighten others how to properly use the written word.
  7. Thank God for writing. It’s a lot more fun than standing all day with a stop/slow sign directing traffic in a one-lane construction zone. Truly, I am blessed!
  8. Laugh! After all, God made you a writer, of all things! Talk about a great (make that OMNIPOTENT) sense of humor…

How to kick the insanity habit

insanityOne of my favorite definitions is the one for insanity that goes “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I’ve felt that was an accurate description of many of my book marketing efforts in the past twelve years; sending off press releases to local newspapers and rarely getting even a little paragraph tucked somewhere in the back pages comes to mind. I’m sure every author can add to that list of marketing insanity.

Out of frustration and (I’d like to think) the wisdom that comes from experience and age, I decided at the beginning of this new year that I was going to stop the insanity. In particular, I decided I was going to radically rethink my social media strategy and try something new.

My new idea?

Stop trying to sell books by posting about them, and instead, just have fun interacting with others in the online universe.

“WHAT??” you may say. (I expect that may be exactly what my agent is thinking this moment if he’s reading this post. Bear with me, Greg, while I explain. Either that, or dose yourself with good chocolate.)

You see, I’ve concluded that online selling doesn’t happen on social networks. I’ve accepted that the social media gurus who insist that social media is SOCIAL, not sales, actually know what they’re talking about. I know I don’t go book shopping when I’m chatting online with others. Honestly, do you? I’m online to be entertained, to be inspired, to share fun or sweet posts with my friends. And so that’s become my goal: I aim to have fun online.

And the weirdest thing has begun to happen: my followers are growing on all my networks. Granted, it just may be the cumulative effect of years of posting, but I have a gut feeling that it’s because I’m having fun. And people need fun these days. So instead of promoting my books, I post beautiful photos of my husband’s orchids, I share inspirational quotes/photos that move me, I craft witty replies designed to make people laugh, I repost/retweet links to articles I found really cool or helpful. For the first time in my social media marketing strategy, I’m just being me, Jan, not The Author Jan. And I’m really enjoying it.

So this is what I’ve learned from my switch in strategy: I can stop the marketing insanity because the most important thing I can share isn’t my books. It’s myself. And that’s ultimately what God calls me to do: share myself with others.

Of course, if my new followers’ curiosity gets piqued, and they check out my profile (which seems to happen a lot more often now), they’ll see I’m an author, and maybe they’ll end up on Amazon or my website to learn more, or even buy a book or two. I won’t complain.

Goodbye insanity. Hello friends. Let’s have fun!

7 Reasons To Consider a Study Group for Your Next Book Project

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In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one. (John Steinbeck)

 

Need help writing your next book proposal? Try this.

To help me with the research of my most recent nonfiction book proposal, I recruited a group of ladies at my church to walk through each chapter as I developed it. Since it’s been surprisingly helpful, I thought I’d share a few reasons to consider it.

  1. Helps with book launch. This group started meeting during my first book launch. I had just taken them through a study of my book, Words That Change Everything, this past fall. Each week they read a chapter of the book, downloading a copy of my RESTNotes as a guide for our weekly discussions. This meant I added every member to my mailing list, an important step in the platform-building process.
  2. Offers encouragement for book projects. After we finished the book study, the ladies asked me to lead them in another. I told them that I wanted to use material for a book that I’m currently working on. They happily agreed. In fact, they were excited to be part of the writing process with me.
  3. Produces insights from primary audience. Want to understand how to meet the needs of your audience? What better way to do this than to invite them into your writing process? I’ve learned invaluable insights from these wonderful ladies as we brainstormed questions and issues pertinent to my project.
  4. Keeps you on task and organized. Not only has the weekly agenda kept me on task with my book project, this study has been one of the most productive ideas I’ve ever employed as a writer. Each week, I prepared our session using a template that I developed for each chapter. And I did my outside research for each chapter with this class in mind.
  5. Supplies ongoing research in your absence. During the weeks I’ve been out of town for a speaking event or to help my grandkids, I recruited one of the class members to facilitate a discussion of some of the questions that we may have skipped in an earlier class.
  6. Meets fellowship needs of the group. When I returned from a recent speaking event, the group shared what an engaging experience they had getting to know each other even better, as they focused specifically on the questions I had prepared for them. I’ve also created a private Facebook group for our class to help us stay in touch and share insights on our topic with each other between meetings.
  7. Provides potential help with future projects. We still have a few weeks before we complete our current study. But several of the ladies have already asked me which book project we will use next. And I have several to choose from, since I’m working on a few personal and collaborative projects.

In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser observed, “Ultimately every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable.”

Right now, while I’m researching my next book proposal, using the help of a study group works for me. So, I want to offer this idea to you, because I love to share lessons I’ve learned and the stories that matter most to me.

Have you ever recruited a study group for one of your works in progress? If so, what did you glean from that experience? Any tips?

 

Watching and Waiting

Photo/KarenJordanI’ve learned a lot about waiting and watching as a writer. So, I wanted to share this excerpt from my book, Words That Change Everything, with you.

Waiting rooms can bring out the worst in me. Long periods of waiting produce all kinds of emotional red flags—from impatience and worry to full-blown panic attacks.

Reminders of past pain, traumas, and personal losses make our current trouble seem intolerable. The dark clouds roll in, and we ignore the light of spiritual truth.

I’ve been assigned to many waiting rooms, especially this past decade. And I don’t really like to wait; I’m very impatient for good news to arrive. But waiting does not have to be hopeless. We can find hope and resist worry when we know that God is listening to our cries for help.

The psalmist speaks of “waiting” in Psalm 40, and I particularly resonate with this line from The Message Bible.

I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip. (Ps. 40:1–2 The Message)

Jumping from one waiting room to the next—crisis after crisis—and trying to help others in their time of need, well-meaning supporters encouraged me to find relief from my stress, anxiety, and exhaustion.

When I asked for advice how to obtain their suggested rest, some offered me quick fixes and temporary solutions. But nothing provided the peace that I desperately needed until I leaned on God’s Word for help.

What are you waiting for today?

jordanKaren Jordan. Words that Change Everything. Copyright © 2016 by Karen Jordan. Used by permission of Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press.

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?