Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Things That Barbara Said

This has been quite the month for saying goodbye to dear women and brilliant authors. Dee Stewart, my fellow dreamer/complainer/darer from our Faith*in*Fiction* days died suddenly in early October. Just a few days ago, Ethel Herr**, a saint who touched my life from my very first writers' conference, passed away as well.

And today I hear yet another friend, Barbara Curtis, has gone away.

Do you think they had a meeting? "I'll go if you'll go?"

I'm still reeling from the shock of Barbara's passing, so I hope you won't mind if I share a few memories.

We met the first time I attended The Mount Hermon Christian Writer's Conference, at the very moment I'd arrived at dinnertime, and walked into the dining hall, feeling lost and out of place in a room full to the brim with "real writers."

Absent a quiet corner to hide in, I found the next best thing: a table at the edge of the crowd, and near enough to the door to allow for a quick escape.

But that just happened to be the table of Barbara Curtis, the author who had read the article I'd sent ahead to the conference for evaluation. So the first thing Barbara said to me - the first thing anyone said to me at Mount Hermon was, "Oh, you're Kathleen Popa! You're a great writer." You can imagine what it meant, hearing those words at that moment.

From that time on, Barbara never failed to greet me as a friend, invite me to her table, and cheer my successes. She was dear to me, and over ten years of attendance at Mount Hermon, I sat at her table, and took her workshops, whenever I could.

At one of her workshops, she said something odd that has come to mean more to me with the passing years. She said, "A writer must stand a little outside the church." She said we have to see from an outsider's view, and we have to write what we see. I'm not sure whether she also said it was important to stand outside of the world - for the same reasons - but her life said as much. Barbara showed me how to dance in the no-man's-land between.

You know the place. So many of you have danced there yourselves.

The no-man's-land between is the place where Barbara learned that "being a Christian wasn't about following Christians - it's about following Christ."

The no-man's-land between is the place where Jo March stands in Little Women, saying, "I just know I'll never fit in anywhere!" The dance begins when a writer settles into that place,  turns to scan the horizon, feels the touch of a hand in hers...

... and twirls.

I hope you'll all stick around. You are dear to me.

And I hope you'll speak to us. Perhaps you too, have lost friends who lead you to the dance. Please feel free to share.

*Faith*in*Fiction was editor Dave Long's blog/forum once upon a time, where writers were - if not born, then nurtured to maturity, and where relationships were established. We ladies try to make Novel Matters just such a place for you. 

**That week Ethel Herr spent more time than I like to think about, listening to things I needed someone to hear. We hope to pass that gift along here, as well. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

NaNoWriMo: When to Participate in National Novel Writing Month—and when not to.

November is inextricably linked to NaNoWriMo in many people’s minds. Perhaps you’re thinking of participating this year.

I’ve never participated, but last year I turned my attention to the idea and gave it considerable consideration. Then, I decided not to participate.

This year, as I approach November, I’m thinking about it afresh, and all the reasons I didn’t participate last year don’t hold in 2012.

Are you thinking of taking up the NaNoWriMo challenge, either officially or unofficially? Here’s a handy check list to see if you should say yes to the challenge, or pass.

1) I want to join the rank of authors who had their NaNoWriMo novels published.
This list includes: Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (a massive bestseller, and was long listed for the Orange Prize), K. Bennett (nom de plume of James Scott Bell)— The Year of Eating Dangerously about a lawyer who is also a zombie, and Sara Gruen—yes, THAT Sara Gruen.          
            This is a noble goal, and in fact that list of published books that began as NaNoWriMo projects is surprising long. And before someone jumps in and says that these are all well published, expert writers, let me point out that Morgenstern is a debut, so it can happen, right? Sure it can. Is it likely? Ummm, let’s move on.

2) I have a project that I’ve been working on/thinking about for a long while (months or even years)
            Even writers who don’t use outlines put time in up front thinking about characters, situations, and other aspects of the story they hope to write before they begin writing. Planners can spend more than half the time it takes to create a first draft just plotting the novel. If you’re in the planning stage you might want to weigh the pros and cons of jumping into writing now. On the one hand, it might prove to be a creative exercise that helps you cement the direction you want the novel to take. On the other, it might prove to be a distraction. Know if you’re ready to jump into writing. For me, this is nearly a physical knowledge. My mind and body will not work together to type scenes before I’m ready to write. If I try, I only frustrate myself. It might be different for you.

3) I have already started writing and NaNoWriMo will keep me motivated.
            This might seem like a no brainer, but take a moment to think it through first. Is your project sturdy enough to withstand an onslaught of words and ideas that come from NaNoWriMo? Are you able to write without edits for a month straight? Can you plunge ahead happily? Or does the writing feel more like hairline brushstrokes on the page?

4) I don’t have a solid idea for a novel, but I really want to muck around in words for 30 days and see how it feels.
            Jump in.

5) I want to become a great writer, and one way to do that is to write every day.
            Writers write. Yes, daily. Even between projects, writers are always pecking out words, sculpting characters, and jotting down insights, ideas, and effigies. But NaNoWriMo is not a path to becoming a great writer. It’s just a path to becoming someone who can write everyday. It’s a way of opening your mind and pouring words on the page, not a substitute for all the other steps, and the time and effort it takes to be good. As long as you know the difference, you’ll be fine.

6) Competition is good for the writer’s soul. I want to see if I can beat out other writers and hit the goal.
            Some folks are born competitors, and if you’re one, then this reason might be the best one for you. Rise to the challenge, overcome the masses, and finish 50,000 words in 30 days. Huzzah! But many (most?) creative types are not only not competitive they run from the very idea. My suggestion is compete only with yourself—that way you’ll be comparing apples to apples. Set your word count goals for yourself and then try your best to beat them each day.

7) I don’t really care if the novel is good I just want to see if I can do it.
            Jump in.

8) I believe that 50,000 words is standard for a novel.
            Not so much. Romance books can be this length, as well as other genre novels, but for the most part, word counts are well above the 50,000 word mark. So why 50,000? It’s the lowest word count for a novel, and lets face it, if you can plonk down that many words, you truly do have something to say!

9) I believe I can write a terrible first draft that will require a great deal of editing, but that I can work with slowly over several months once NaNoWriMo is over.
            Jump in. Because that’s very, very, very likely what you will produce: a terrible first draft. Maybe not more than an extended novel outline. And that’s a good thing. You will have produced something. Just don’t go into it thinking you’ll be able to write anything publishable. But you will have gotten some ideas down on the page, you’ll experience the thrill, the mind-numbing dullness, the pain, and joy of writing every day. And, with luck, you will have produced something that you can continue to shape, mold, edit, and work on to create a wonderful novel.

Are you thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo? Have you done it in the past? Let us know your thoughts, your experience, and any advice you have for those thinking of jumping in for the first time.

Friday, October 26, 2012

This is the Way ...

Julie Cantrell's interview on Monday and Debbie's post on Wednesday got me thinking about what was potentially some of the worst advice I've received as a writer over the years. I'm going with Debbie, hoping the teacher's negative advice came from her own frustrating experience as a would-be author, and not that she was that mean of a teacher. Debbie said, "Perhaps she truly thought she was giving Julie practical advice. But it may have simply been wisdom distilled from her own struggles to see her work in print, culled from a dark place of disillusionment. You never know."

Well, let's hope.

I began to seriously write in the mid 80s, when I started my first novel -- one that will never be published, but that got the creative juices flowing in the (hopefully) right direction. I spent two years writing it. At the time, my husband Rick and I had our three children at home. They ranged in age from 10-13. Rick was a busy pastor, I worked almost full-time at a Christian school. So life was hectic to say the least. Writing that novel in two years was a huge accomplishment for me. Even though my time is much freer these days, it still takes me upwards of 15 months to write my books, but I'd like to get it to under a year. That's my goal for my next manuscript.

Feeling as vulnerable as I'd ever felt, I showed that first manuscript to my husband, then one or two close, close friends with fear and trepidation. I know many of you completely understand when I say it felt as if I stood before them naked, with nothing at all to boast about. Not a good feeling. My palms still get moist when I think about the level of vulnerability I experienced in the early days of writing. I still get nervous when I release a novel to anyone's eyes but my own, but not like I did back then.

During the two years I worked on my first novel, I also wrote non-fiction articles, mostly for my denomination's weekly magazine, which goes into a large number of countries besides the US. I also worked on three non-fiction books with another writer. It was exhilarating to sell those articles, and see them and the books in print. But from day one, fiction has been my passion when it comes to writing.

A very good friend -- one of the two or three I showed my first manuscript to (and she remains a very close friend to this day) -- was the leader of Women's Ministries in our church. She's an excellent Bible teacher and a woman I have long respected. She was reserved in her compliments about the novel, which made me feel even more naked and vulnerable, if such a thing is possible. Her comment was, "Why aren't you writing non-fiction? That's what you should be writing."

That comment, which she repeated numerous times over the years, as well as my inability to sell my fiction, shook me for the longest time. Why don't you stick with non-fiction? I would ask myself. After all, it's the only thing you're selling. Am I out of God's will by writing fiction? That was a question I asked myself for years, because the last thing I want is to be out of God's will. I'd have this debate with myself, over and over, with sincere tears. I'd talk to Rick about it, and I'd pray about it. And always Philippians 2:13 would come to mind: "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose," or as it says in King James, "his good pleasure."

It was God who gave me the desire and ability to write fiction. Wasn't it? Wasn't it? I was like a dog chasing its tail, going round and round in my mind, answering "Yes" one minute, then asking the question all over again the next minute. And then one day it hit me: when Jesus wanted to get an important truth across, he told a story. He told a story! He. Told. A. Story! That reality finally sunk in, and I didn't battle with that question ever again.

Finally, I had an answer for my friend, straight from the Bible. By the way, it was more than two years after Every Good & Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday were released before she read them, and only because I gave her the books. While she enjoyed them, and laughed and cried at all the right places, she could take or leave them.

I know what you're thinking: Some friend. But there's a moral to this story.

My friend is not a reader of fiction. She's a Bible teacher, mostly of Old Testament stories, always in King James version. Believe me, she makes those stories come alive when she teaches them, the way a good novelist makes a story come alive. But I reiterate, she's not a reader of fiction. So my first mistake was seeking her advice and approval. My second was nearly letting it derail me.

Not everyone is going to "get" us as writers. Not everyone will view our gifts the way we do. We alone are answerable to God for how we use the talents he gives us. So I urge you to be careful who you seek affirmation from. And I urge you to go with that still, small voice that tells you, "This is the way, walk ye therein."

What have you learned from and about the advice you've received as a writer, whether good or bad? We'd like to know.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Writing Advice - Help or Hindrance?

On Monday, we were treated to a great interview with Julie Cantrell, author of the bestseller, Into the Free.  It's always fascinating to read about an author's road to success.  I was shocked and saddened, however, by her 12th grade English teacher's advice:

 “Whatever you do, don’t waste your scholarship to study writing. You’ll be lucky if you ever publish a greeting card.” 

My first thought was, "Who says that to a young person?" My next thought was to hope that her English teacher would see Julie's name in print and realize what poor advice she'd given. But when my indignation for Julie cooled, I suspected that there was something more behind her teacher's words.  Perhaps she truly thought she was giving Julie practical advice.  But it may have simply been wisdom distilled from her own struggles to see her work in print, culled from a dark place of disillusionment You never know.  For whatever reason, it's still just bad advice.

I once heard Debbie Macomber speak about her attempts to sell her first novel.  A heavy-handed editor sliced and diced her manuscript and told her to throw it away.  Debbie screwed up that place inside of her that knew better and sent it anyway.  Now a New York Times bestselling author, she encourages writers to follow their dreams as she did.  

We can't all be Julie Cantrells or Debbie Macombers. We won’t all be bestselling authors. Some of us won’t even see our books published through traditional means. Our stories will be different. We all get bad advice during our lifetimes.  How do we know the good from the bad?

Julie said it took ten years to get her teacher’s voice out of her head and to believe that she could write, only after remembering that a different teacher had said she had talent. We need to carefully choose those whom we allow to speak into our writing lives.

There is much technical advice for writers, and not even these rules apply 100% of the time.  ‘Show don’t tell,’ and ‘don’t use adverbs’ would be two.  There are times when both telling and the use of adverbs are appropriate for the story.  But the advice about whether or not to write or what to write has to come from a place inside of us. I don’t think anyone else can give you advice for this.  I could be wrong. 

Have you received advice – good or bad – which helped or hindered you in your writing?  We’d love to hear. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Interview with NY Times Bestselling author Julie Cantrell

This year, Novel Matters has been exploring why the novel matters, and we’ve invited some of our favorite authors to share their answers with us. Today, we’ve invited July Cantrell on to the blog and we know you’re going to enjoy getting to know her. Here’s some bits you need to know.

New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author, Julie Cantrell was the editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review. She has been a freelance writer for a decade and has contributed to more than a dozen books. Julie and her family now live in Oxford, Mississippi where they operate Valley House Farm. Julie also was honored to receive the 2012 Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship and is working on a creative nonfiction book about her family’s adventures as first-generation farmers. Her second novel will be published by David C Cook and is set to continue the story of her bestselling debut, Into the Free. It is scheduled to hit shelves Fall 2013.

Novel Matters: Julie, what a year for you! Your debut novel, Into the Free is published to rave reviews, and then the KAPOW every writer dreams of: bestseller.

Julie Cantrell: You’re right, Bonnie. It really has been an incredible year. Earning a starred review by Publisher’s Weekly was an amazing experience for me as a debut author. Then, when the book spent three weeks on the New York Times and USA TODAY Bestseller Lists . . .

NM: Three weeks! Sorry. I squealed with vicarious joy. Bestseller isn’t just about numbers is it? It’s about people.

JC: Oh believe me, I was squealing too as all that was happening. I was blown away by the level of support readers offered this story. Still am. But there’s no doubt…the absolute best part of this entire journey has been hearing the dramatic reaction from readers who write to tell me how much Millie’s story has affected their lives. I’m moved to tears every time someone tells me they found hope in these pages. It’s a beautiful thing to hear.

NM: Why do writers like crying so much? But we do! Your novel has brought tears to the eyes of so many readers—in a good way.

JC: You know, I still cry when I read certain scenes, and I certainly cried when I wrote them. Millie has some hard battles to get through, and it means a lot to me when readers feel connected to her on such a deep level that they care enough to cry when she hurts. Even more so, that they learn to go through their own personal journey along with Millie, healing with her as the story progresses. I never expected this project to reach so many people in such a profound way, and I feel extraordinarily grateful to have played some small part in a reader’s journey to emotional and spiritual recovery.

NM: The most common question writers get is “where do you get your ideas?” Give us the inside scoop. What was the seed of your idea for Into the Free? What inspired you?
JC: While searching for fun family weekend trips, I discovered a tiny blurb about a Gypsy Queen who was buried in Meridian, Mississippi. That led me to a 1915 newspaper article from the Meridian Dispatch describing Kelly Mitchell’s funeral. Mitchell died in 1915 while camped with Romany Travelers in Coatopa, Alabama. Her story is a fascinating one that piqued my curiosity tremendously.
I spent a lot of time researching the Roma, particularly those who traveled the Southeastern part of our country (and continue to do so today). While the Roma ended up being a thread within a much larger work of fiction, many of the historical events in the book were based on actual events that took place in Mississippi during the early 20th century.
NM: Mississippi. Even as a Canadian girl in the frozen wilds of Alberta, I played skip rope to the tune of M-i-s. S-i-s. S-i-p-p. I. There’s something enduring and wonderful about Mississippi. What role does setting play in your story?
JC: Huge! I’m a southern literary gal. In southern literature, the setting is so important it nearly acts as a character itself. My main character, Millie, is deeply connected to her environment and reacts intensely to both the beautiful and the horrific aspects of the wild. Not only does she hunt, fish, and know her way in the woods, her best friend is a tree named Sweetie. Without Mississippi, Millie wouldn’t be Millie.
NM: Speaking of southern lit: you’re at a festival in celebration of this rich American tradition.

JC: Well, I’m actually beyond thrilled to be answering these questions from the SouthernFestival of Books in Nashville, TN and I just realized Gail Tsukiyama is here!

NM: Brilliant! She’s an inspiration for you?

JC: In recent years, I have become completely enamored by the work of Gail Tsukiyama. Her latest release A Hundred Flowers is incredible but the book that means the most to me is her petite, poetic novel The Samurai’s Garden. It’s truly one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

So, I’m hoping to get the chance to meet her in person this weekend and can’t begin to tell you how much that thrills me.

NM: Cheers and good luck, we are all hoping you have a chance to sit down with her. Every writer has that dream of sitting down with authors who have inspired them. Who else do you dream of chatting with?

JC: I’d really love to have an afternoon with Barbara Kingsolver. I admire her so much as an author and a social activist. I’d also love to meet Johnny Depp. He writes, too…you know. (Okay, maybe he doesn’t count as a novelist, but seriously…let’s call him one for the fun of it. A girl can dream.)

NM: Oh, absolutely. Inspiration comes in many forms. Which novels informed you as a writer over the years? In what ways have they influenced you?

JC: When I was younger, my parents owned a bookstore for a very short time. My mother also worked as a school teacher, so I always had access to the school library. I was one of the lucky ones in my small town who could pick any book off the shelf, and that’s exactly what I did. I read everything I could get my hands on, and I still do. While it’s very difficult for me to select favorite titles, a few novels really do stand out.

First, Judy Blume’s  Are YouThere God, It’s Me Margaret felt like the very first time I’d met an adult who was being honest. I was in maybe fifth or sixth grade when I read it, and I thought --- Wow? She’s talking real stuff!  I had never known an adult who talked about things, I mean REALLY talked about things, and even though it was told through the young narrator’s voice, I knew it was something special.

Then, I went through a phase in middle school where I read every single title by Stephen King. Although I no longer read horror stories, there’s no doubt I absorbed a love of language from this masterful storyteller. I can think of no American writer in my lifetime who has had such a profound influence on the novel as a whole. My favorite Stephen King title was Pet Sematary, because I was fascinated with the idea of bringing lost loved ones back to life. I’m still fascinated by how he can take an idea like that and create something so incredibly unique and suspenseful. He’s nothing short of genius.

In high school, we studied To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My ninth grade teacher asked us to journal as if we were one of the characters in the novel. While I had always turned to writing to process the world around me, that was the first time I felt the power of viewing the universe through another person’s lens. I became fascinated with this concept and fell in love with first-person narratives. Mrs. Linda Purcell was my teacher, and she is the one I credit today for my career as a writer. Plus, TKAM is still one of my favorite books of all time. I mean…who doesn’t love Scout? (She and Pippi Longstocking are my lifelong heroes!)

While there are countless titles in between, I’ll skip ahead to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a book that made me consider the craft in an entirely new light and led me to add “write a novel” to my bucket list. (Later, Kingsolver’s memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Ayear of food life, inspired our family to launch a sustainable farm, so this author has had a tremendous impact on our lives in more ways than one.)

NM: I’m pretty sure you just jumped to the top of our readers lists of Writers I Want to Visit. We all want to come see your farm! But this sounds busy—how does sustainable farming and other non-writing things you do help you be a better writer?

JC: I work with many animals on our family’s farm - some who don’t mind putting me in my place if I turn my back at the wrong time, and others who offer unconditional love. I’ve certainly learned lessons from both.

NM: Deeply good answer, Julie. What else?

JC: I am a mom of two amazing kiddos, and I learn more from them every single day than I could teach them in my entire lifetime. They remind me not to take this writing gig too seriously and to always count my blessings.

I also teach English as a Second Language to kindergarten and first grade students who are constantly inspiring me to see the wonder of the world and to understand cultures outside of my own.

I learned quickly, (in the home, in the classroom, and on the farm), I can’t let my attention drift for a second. Children and animals sense weakness. It didn’t take them long to train me to stop daydreaming when I’m with them…to wake up and pay attention to all the little things adults tend to tune out over time. Those details help me build better scenes and create more believable characters, no doubt.

NM: I’m talking Mom Notes, here. My kids are young, and you’ve hit my guilt button with this. Well done—I’ll do better today. Okay, let’s get crafty. Let’s talk nuts and bolts about your work. Here at Novel Matters, we have a test writers can take to find out if they are a plotter or a pantser. Are you a plotter (do you outline your novels before you write), or a pantser (feel your way through to the end)?

First of all, no guilt allowed! Moms are brilliant at multi-tasking…I’m sure your kiddos are never cheated.

Now, I have tried outlining, but honestly…I don’t have it in me to see that far ahead in the story. This probably makes for much more painful edits on the back end, but I really do try to let the story unfold organically and give the characters’ control of the plot. It worked the first time. Only time will tell if that theory holds true for the follow-up attempt. (Cross your fingers. Please.)

NM: Which comes first for you, plot, characters, themes, or something else?

JC: Characters. For me…it’s all about the characters. And I do consider the setting a character.

NM: Setting influences everything just like characters do. Totally agree with you. All this good stuff is making me wonder about the bad stuff you’ve had to shake off over the years. What is the worst piece of writing advice ever offered to you and why?
JC: “Whatever you do, don’t waste your scholarship to study writing. You’ll be lucky if you ever publish a greeting card.” –  My 12th Grade English Teacher 
NM: I feel queasy.
JC: It took me ten years to get her voice out of my head. I didn’t write a thing for an entire decade because I was foolish enough to believe what she said as truth.
NM: Oh for a thousand hands to slap the chin of your 12th Grade English Teacher.
JC: Thankfully, my ninth grade teacher had told me I was a talented writer. Her name was Mrs. Purcell (yep, the same one who introduced me to Scout), and it was her voice that came through at the right time. Here’s to all the teachers who choose to build up their students rather than break them down. You make the world a better place! 
NM: You have to wonder what might have happened if you’d heard the bad advice first (in 9th grade), and the encouragement later. Your amazing novel might not have been written, and the world would be poorer for it. Here’s the chance to make up for the lousy 12th Grade English Teacher advice: What is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?
JC: Hmmm...It’s pretty simple, actually. I guess I just suggest that you please don’t sit down to write with anything on your mind but the story. Don’t worry about landing an agent, pitching to publishers, or signing a contract. Forget about genre, writing rules, or who your audience might be. In fact, I’m begging you… write as if no one will ever read it. That’s the only way you’ll find your true, original voice and feel free enough to reach the level of honesty readers really crave.
NM: Free. That’s a true theme for you, and your writing and we appreciate it so much. What do you hope for readers who read Into the Free?

JC: Thanks, Bonnie. I love that you’ve synced me with the idea of Free. While I didn’t write the story with a specific message in mind, I do hope the story offers healing to those who have suffered abuse and loss, and I hope it restores faith in those who have no reason left to believe in the goodness of God. I also hope it encourages readers to reach out and help the Millies of the world, and to remind us all that our choices matter…every single one of them. In the end, if this book gives hope to even one single reader who no longer believed her life worthy of love and light, than I am one grateful author.
NM: Julie, the theme of our blog this year is “Why does the novel matter?” How do you answer that question?

JC: There is no better way to deliver truth than through fiction. It’s as simple as that. Even Jesus understood the power of narrative, when he chose to teach through parables. He knew the only way to really make an impact was by delivering a story that struck a chord so intensely, so personally, that listeners would go and tell the story again, and again, and again, until the truth was understood. Whether you interpret the bible literally or see a deeper level of symbolism within the pages, it’s clear the bible is a story.
Personally, I don’t think a novel needs to deliver an overt message of morality, even works of Christian fiction. I believe that’s where sermons and non-fiction books can be useful. Novels should tell a good story that encourages the reader to close the book with questions.
I’d much prefer to read a book that makes me think, than to read a book that tells me what/how to think. In the end, as a novelist, I hope Into the Free leaves readers with plenty to think about.

NM: Thank you, Julie for taking the time out of the conference to stop in and chat with us. It’s been a delight.

JC: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss the craft of writing novels. I’m honored to be a guest on Novel Matters, and I appreciate all you do to share the joy of literature with others.

UPDATE FROM JULIE: I DID get to meet Gail Tsukiyama, and I nearly cried. She was even more amazing in person than I had expected. That was one of the highlight moments of my life, no doubt. I also got to meet Junot Diaz (who has won the Pulitzer, PEN Faulkner, etc.). I’ve read all of his work and always loved it, but I absolutely adore him now that I’ve met him in person. Brilliant, hilarious, honest, (profane, but charmingly so). These were just two of the many wonderful authors I got to meet this weekend, but Gail Tsukiyama certainly tops my list.

NM: YAY! We love a happy ending!

Connect with Julie online:

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Thousand Words

Recently I learned of a movie entitled A Thousand Words. In it, a man learns that a tree containing a thousand leaves will lose one of them each time he utters (or writes) a word. When all the leaves are gone, he will die.

It’s about a literary agent, and the importance of words. What a winning combination, I first thought. But I read the professional reviews and found that it is considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made. 

Too bad – the synopsis seemed terrific. It made me think, “What would be the 1000 words I would (undoubtedly hoard but) eventually use?”

I would of course want to tell some people that I love them. But I think I’d be finding ways to show it more effectively. If they didn’t know it from previous words, I’d make sure they knew it from my actions. (Not a bad thing, now that I think about it.)

What would I say or write with my other words?

I’m starting a list of the most important things I know.

Top of the list is this: I believe that Jesus Christ lived, died, was buried – and physically came back to life.

Secondly, the essential fact that God seems to delight in and shine in impossible situations. Abraham and Sarah were too old; Pharaoh’s armies were too powerful; the walls of Jericho were too strong; Goliath was too big;  Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace was too hot;  Mary was too virgin;  Jesus was too dead. . .

Thirdly, the most helpful spiritual truth I’ve learned is that faith comes in three phases: Promise, Contradiction, and Resolution. Everybody needs to know this, and I need to be reminded of it.

Would you write in prose? Would you dole out your words in poems?

How about you? What would you regard as essential to pass on to other human beings, if you only had 1000 words left?

    Wednesday, October 17, 2012

    Exploring the Ecosystem of Kindle for Marketing

    Before I start with my topic for the day, I want to announce a new Novel Matters book club. I'm reading Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maas. I'm loving what he has to say so far about the death of genre, and I would love to chat with you, my most respected writing friends, about his ideas. The next couple of months aren't the best time to start a new project like this, so I'm thinking January. You can ask for the book for Christmas and read chapter one while munching on Christmas-tree shaped cookies. We'll talk in January.

    Last time I posted here, I highlighted James Scott Bell's marketing book for ebooks. This is the journey I'm on with my next novel, so I'm happy to share what I'm learning along the way. After all, authors do most of the marketing for their books whether they're working with a legacy publisher or going indie like me.

    Bell echoed the approach many of us have heard at writers conferences--building a platform and social media networking, plus pricing strategies and more--but with the knowledge to do a great job for our books. The book is full of wisdom I intend to use in marketing Goodness & Mercy.

    But to become a market genius before March--that's my goal--I can't stop at one book or opinion.

    Trust me, there are tons of ebooks out there to help you sell your ebooks on Amazon. And you have to be careful which ones you bet the success of your book on. Some of these how-to books are written by authors who have experienced major success with their Kindle ebooks. One book. One big success? Is their success a fluke? Do they come from a large family that owns many Swiss bank accounts?

    I chose a book by Michael Alvear because he takes a totally different approach to marketing ebooks. Also, his book has the longest, most specific title ever. I knew what I was getting! Check this out: Make a Killing on Kindle without Blogging, Facebook and Twitter: The Guerilla Marketer's Guide to Selling Ebooks on Amazon.

    Phew! Of course, we have to ask, "Just how do you sell books on Amazon without social media or full-page magazine ads?"

    Alvear believes it's all about understanding the ecosystem of Kindle with the objective of optimizing the position of your book. That way the readers who are most likely to buy the book will see it as they browse.

    This kind of thinking is so rare in book marketing that Alvear gives an example with his own book. At first, he tried to market conventionally through social media. After five years of work, he got 25,000 unique visits to his blog per month. Of those, 5,000 went to his book page. To determine the "conversion rate," meaning how many views it took to make a sale, he divided the number of sales by the number of visitors. Alvear came in right in the middle of the industry average at 1%.

    That's only 50 books per month for all those years of work.


    And so, Alvear systematically goes through every aspect of developing your book for market to make it rise to the top of pile. He promises everything can be done in 18 hours. This also appealed to me. But you have to start with a stellar book that you believe in. Otherwise, all the marketing in the world won't produce satisfactory results.

    So far, I'm listening carefully to this guy.

    Here are some of the topics he examines in his confident, been-there-more-than-once voice. I should tell you that he has 20 years of marketing experience. Ya gotta love credentials.

    Okay, let's get on to the topics:

    1. Create an attention-getting title. If the title doesn't work, you can always change it. That's one nice thing about digital publishing.

    2. Hire a professional to design you book cover. Really? In an ideal world, yes because your cover in all of its 7/8" x 1" glory in Kindle-land needs to make a punch, a promise, and a come-hither message.I hired a photographer and a graphic designer, but I'm the art director. Probably a bad idea. I'm hoping not.

    Alvear does give guidelines for hiring these professionals, depending on your budget from low to high.

    "If you have already passed that hurdle of having a customer be attracted to the cover, and then they pick up the books," said Patricia Bostelman, vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble, "an enormous battle has been won."

    3. Once you have a visual hook for your potential reader, you want to set up your book to gain top search engine results every time someone looks for a book in your category. I sure hope I understand this better by the time I'm launching my book. Alvear isn't stingy on pointing authors to places where keyword phrases can be embedded, so the chances of your book popping up in the first page of results increase. Keyword phrases, who knew?
    "You are destined to fail if you don't use keyword phrases that lead to your book."
    So, I guess I better learn.

    4. Beyond keyword phrases, Amazon lets you choose two categories for your book. "Think of [categories] as the section of the bookstore you'd like your book placed (literature, fiction, history, etc.)." From working in both a bookstore and a library, I know how important these categories are. Most reader beeline to their favorite genre and do very little browsing. There are browsers--God bless 'em!--who wander the whole store. That makes your cover and title even more important.

    Alvear's book gives me hope. There are things I can do to get my book before the reader. For instance, he explains how to put a billboard for your book on a competitors pages. And he talks about the power of great reviews, even how many you need to make your book page a powerful selling tool.

    One chapter deals with how to write ocean-front book descriptions, another highlights the importance of formatting and using the "Look Inside" feature.

    And then he tells about a feature in Kindle I'd never seen before that will definitely effect the way I format my book. It's the "Before You Go" feature. If your reader's Kindle or other reading device is set up to Facebook and Twitter, you can ask your reader to kindly rate the book and share with their friends right there and then.

    Aha, there is a place for social media!

    Alvear does recognize the value of social media once the book is successfully launched and selling. Your readers will be curious about you and will want to find you online. Then a blog makes tons of sense.

    I plan on using Alvear's ideas to optimize the chances that Goodness & Mercy will have its best chance of finding an audience.

    Michael Alvear doesn't write the kind of books (other than this one) most of us read, but he seems to have a good handle on what it takes to sell on Amazon. I appreciate that about him very much.

    Next time, I'll be talking about yet another marketing philosophy. And then I'm formulating a plan for full speed ahead marketing. My brain is getting full.

    Have you worked with a graphic professional? What's your take on Alvear's approach, knowing that I was only able to present the briefest details? I'm looking at this information as power, not an insurance police, success isn't following a formula, but it is knowing how the game is played. Can you recommend what I should read about marketing next?