Monday, July 25, 2016

Rediscovering Gold


So difficult to write well (as we writerly types are quite aware), but life-changing if we succeed. As precious as gold.

Such was this book for me: Christy by Catherine Marshall when I was a teenager. If you're acquainted with my personal story, you know how extremely instrumental it was in influencing me to eventually become a writer.

Christy planted a seed that blossomed 30 years later. (I even named my daughter Christy; that's how much this book meant to me!)

So recently I decided to dust it off and reread it as a student this time - to find out why this particular book reached into my heart and mind and very soul to implant its characters and message for all time. What had the writer done right?

Here are some of the incredible passages I rediscovered. Note the voice and carefully crafted descriptions used by Mrs. Marshall, subtly woven into the story line. Nothing blatant or in-your-face. But they paint sensory-rich word pictures that are completely engaging. You, the reader, are seeing the poverty-ridden Great Smokies of 1936 for the first time through the eyes of young, naive, city-bred Christy Huddleston, proper, monied, and earnestly trying to make her life count for something.

1) "For no reason at all the white fields on either side of the narrowing lane reminded me of the top of one of my mother's devil food cakes, thickly covered with white frosting ... Beyond those fields frosted with white, were the foothills, and beyond them, the mountains. A golden glow rimmed the easternmost range, and over the mountains hung a soft smoky-blue mantle."

2) "'Mr. Pentland, how many families live around the Cutter Gap section?'
The mailman thought a moment. 'Jedgmatically, I don't know. Maybe 'bout seventy.'
'Most of the people farm, don't they? What crops? What do they raise?'
'Raise young'uns mostly,' he answered drily, his face never changing expression."

3) "'What's she like [Alice Henderson]? What does she look like?'
The mountaineer ... took his time about answering. 'Miz Henderson's getting up thar - not so young now. But she's a pert 'un - dauncy.' He chortled, a soft low chuckle that seemed to come from deep within him. 'Tangy as an unripe persimmon, matter of fact. Rides a horse all over the mountains by herself. Sidesaddle, longskirt. Sits like a queen in that saddle ... She's a smiley woman. All her wrinkles are smile-wrinkles. Has a heap o-hair, light hair, leetle grey in it now. Wears her hair in braids that she folds round and round her head, like - like a crown.'"

4) "The room was very quiet. There was only the creak of the snow-laden branches outside and the gurgling of the stream under its ice coating behind the house. The words just spoken had marched proudly out of the Quaker lady's mouth and now stood straight and tall in the quiet room."

Although the current literary trend is to stay away from dialect, I believe Mrs. Marshall's expertise in using dialect and even period-piece spelling (drily) largely contributes to the charm of this classic story, transporting the reader right into the presence of Mr. Pentland and the other iconic mountain folk inhabiting a unique place and time that no longer exists.

Ahh, pure gold.

So tell me, in what books have you mined your own priceless golden nuggets?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Previously Unpublished Goodies by Harper Lee

Recognize this iconic name?

Yup. Thought you might. None other than the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Gregory Peck-starring, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

So imagine my flabbergastation (not really a word but it should be) when I saw it hand written in the inside flap of a 1945 college English textbook titled, "Poetry of the Victorian Period" sitting on my friend Julia's coffee table in Alabama.
Inside flap of Harper Lee's college English book

"Is this who I think it is?" I asked, my voice suddenly squeaking. "Did Harper Lee really write this?"

Sure enough, Nelle (pronounced Nell), as she was known to her family and friends (she later wrote under the pen name "Harper Lee" to avoid being miscalled, "Nellie," which she abhorred), had attended the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in the 1940s with Julia's mother. They became friends while living in the New Hall dorm and attending law school together.

Nelle never completed her law degree (or any other degree for that matter), but I'm guessing it's because she became a bit more enamored with writing than with law.

Lucky for us.

Apparently Nelle was a doodler after my own heart; it was a thrill for me to flip through the yellowed textbook and run my fingers respectfully over the awesome little goodies she'd likely absent-mindedly scribbled while engrossed in the word-worlds of her English professor.

I found it almost a religious experience.

One of Harper Lee's English book doodles
As you may know, it wasn't until the 1950s that Nelle began working on To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, an instant, sensational hit. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and now has over 30 million copies in print.

But what you probably don't know is how many dozens of rewrites it took for Go Set a Watchman (the eventual title of the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which contained, according to critics, amateurish themes, stunted character-development, and too much colloquial "Alabama-speak"), to morph into the American literature classic it became.

A little known fact that was confirmed by my friend Julia's statement, "I cried when I read Go Set a Watchman (unearthed and published in 2015) because it sounded exactly like my mama's voice." Which was, of course, identical to Nelle's voice.

Alabama accents are as pervasive as warm fuzzies.

Ha! My exact sentiments during school lectures too! 
In that era, it was the publishing house editor's job to nurture and guide (sometimes ruthlessly) young, talented aspiring authors like Nelle Harper Lee in order to turn a promising but crude manuscript into something marketable.

According to those in the know, Nelle's editor and Nelle developed a love-hate working relationship that - after a few fit starts - eventually blossomed into lifelong friendship.

Unpublished drawing by Harper Lee 
Don't ya wish editors would still do that today?

Although she penned several other manuscripts, which she filed away in a drawer never to be seen again, To Kill a Mockingbird became the only book Nelle ever pursued to publication (some think it was because she found the rewriting process so prolonged and painful).

We writers and rewriters sure get that, right? But what a shame it would've been for the entire world if she hadn't persevered.

Nelle Harper Lee died February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama, the same town in which she was born in 1926.

Although she shied away from the press, throughout her life she remained accessible to her old friends (did you know Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Nelle's?), even corresponding with the granddaughter of her old college pal - Julia's mother - for a time.

So I reckon this is my 15 minutes of fame: having the privilege of posting the unpublished doodles of Nelle Harper Lee. Many, many thanks to Julia Irby Thomas for allowing me to share this writerly thrill-of-a-lifetime with you.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

You Need to Know This, Writerly Bud!

Seeing your book here is every author's dream 
After reading a bursting-with-cutting-edge-info post by my agent extraordinaire, Greg Johnson, CEO of WordServe Literary Agency ("Trends in Book Discovery" on the WordServe Water Cooler, 6/16/16 post), I've decided to almost but not quite plagiarize his awesome insights to share with you, dear writerly friends.

I found these statistically-based facts pretty bodacious and plan to implement them in marketing my books. I'm sure you will too.

Greg was reporting on a survey conducted by the Penguin Random House consumer insights team, which polled 40k + readers about how they make their literary choices.

Since I'm a just-give-me-the-bottom-line girl, I'll omit most of the actual numbers and sum up the conclusions (but if you're a detail hound, you're welcome to hop over to the WordServe Water Cooler and wallow in statistics to your heart's delight).

Get a load of these facts; some may raise your eyebrows:

1. The vast majority of people polled said they were most influenced by recommendations from people they knew in choosing books to buy. (Deb: No surprise there, right?)

2. The largest percentage (70%) said they mostly discover books on Goodreads (women more likely than men) (Deb: REALLY????); about half said it was from print media reviews (men more likely than women) and/or Facebook, about a third said from author interviews/appearances/blog reviews and only a handful said from print ads and Twitter.

3. The older the reader, the less they are influenced by blogs and social media as a way to discover books; they depend more on friends, print reviews, and ads. (Deb: So it's important to know the age of your readers so you can aim at the right targets, right?)

4. In descending order, people tend to pick a book based on: subject, because of a good book review, at a friends's recommendation, reading an excerpt, an online review, at the recommendation of a sales person, the publisher's reputation, seeing an ad, referred by media/personality, and needing a book for school or work.

Interesting, huh?

No, more than that ... informing. Enlightening. Empowering.

And don't we need all of THAT we can get in marketing our books, whether we're self-published, partnership published, or traditionally published?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Revisiting Why

My fave literary image says it all
An aspiring writer asked me this week the question authors who've been around any length of time inevitably get: Why do you write?

I know I've addressed this question before, but it's been a while, so perhaps you will indulge me revisiting the issue.

It's a hard question to answer, really. It's like asking someone why they eat chocolate. You just do. Even though you know it's going to result in sleepless nights, thigh-u-lite, and humpback whales beached on your hip bones (I call that OOPS: Obstinate Orca Propagation Site).

You do it anyway. Idiocy, right?

So that's sort of why I write. I can't NOT write.

I certainly didn't become a writer for the money. I became a writer despite the money. It cracks me up when people say, "Wow, you've got 35 books out now? You must be rolling in the dough, eh?" (Yes, people actually say this; crassness knows no shelf life.)

I want to respond, "Sure. Pizza dough, bread dough, waist rolls, and muffin tops. That's about the extent of it." Mindless nibbling stokes the creative fires and there's no time for exercise. I've padded my inner size 4 with much insulation since my book Mom NEEDS Chocolate released in 2009.

Yep, writing definitely entails lots of sitting, an enormous challenge for the gal who's the step beyond ADD.

My writing creed: The mind cannot absorb more than the tushie can endure.

Nor do I write to achieve fame. One of my readers summed it up best: "I just love your book. I've read it over and over since I had my stroke and I enjoy it every time. Now if I could just remember your name."

Writing is not the best way to build self esteem either.
Mathematically,  it stacks up like this:
                 1 bad review
     +  1,000 compliments    
                 1 bad review

And the public speaking part of writing? Who'd ever thunk you couldn't write without speaking? Gone art the days when you could simply hide away in your writing cave and write; now you have to swear on a stack of suitcases that you're willing to leave home for weeks at the time (usually while you're trying to write your next book to meet your contractual deadline) in order for publishers to give your book manuscript a chance. They won't even look at it until you sign in blood that you're good to go. And go. And go.

So what that you're a diagnosed anomic (means you can't come up with the appropriate word out of thin air)? Or that you HATE airplanes? Or that stress breaks you out in hives and your hair falls out?

One of my writer buddies, Louis, said it best: "If everyone who thought they were a public speaker were laid end-to-end, it would be a fine idea to go off and leave them there."

So there you have it. I don't know why I write.

Wait. Maybe it has something to do with this letter I received last week.

"My name is Susana. I'm 21 years old, I live in Costa Rica. I read your Too Blessed to be Stressed book in Spanish, I really like it, was funny and I learned about God. It is my first Christian book and I feel how my life is changing. I'm thankful. Sorry for my English. I'm learning. God bless u!"

Yep. I'd say that's why.

So writing friend, why do you write?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Dancing Creeks

I'm a quitter by nature. I hate to admit it, but there it is.

In my pre-maternal days, if something wasn't going right or required an inordinate amount of effort, I'd just shrug and turn my attention elsewhere.

But when children came along, I could hardly ignore my daughter when she refused to eat, or let my son run out in the road because I was tired of correcting him for the thousandth time.

I had to grit my teeth and do again and again what was necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of my kids living through their childhoods.

It's tempting to pray for the elimination of the nuisances and obstacles in our lives, but we must realize that the creek would never dance if Papa God removed the rocks.

I've had to learn perseverance in my writing career. I've collected enough rejection slips to wallpaper the Ritz grand ballroom. But I figure that just as jockeys have to put up with horse poo as a vocational hazard, I must step over the piles of rejection notices, wipe the nasty off my books, and keep moving forward.

How do we find motivation to keep going when our reserves are drained?

Well, Cadbury always helps. But even more so: Focus.

That's why I've plastered my writing desk with reminders of why I do this writing thing ...

  • Photos of the three children I support with my writing income (Yvonne from Kenya, Charity from Uganda, and Felix from the Dominican Republic)
  • Inspirational quotes ("Work to become, not to acquire," ~ Elbert Hubbard).
  • Scripture ("Instead of worrying, PRAY" ~ Phil 4:6, MSG; "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might" ~ Ecc. 9:10, NASB)).
  • Personal goals ("April: create new speaking brochures!") 
  • Comics (Charlie Brown to Snoopy: I hate to tell you this, but your dinner is going to be about four minutes late ... Snoopy typing atop his doghouse: Like all great writers, I have known suffering").
  • Photos of my loved ones (row upon row of framed fun and happy memories).

So how about you? What motivates you to keep doing this writing thing?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

More Grit for Your Oyster!

Recently updated and re-released!

I'm ever so pleased to announce the makeover, update, and  re-release of Grit for the Oyster: 250 Pearls of Wisdom for Aspiring Writers.

Some of the awesome reviews:

"To those who feel called to write for the glory of God, Grit for the Oyster is like the 'Writer's Bible'"
~Ruth Carmichael Ellinger, bestselling author

"A treasure trove of encouraging words for writers..."
~Terri Blackstock, bestselling author of over 3.5 million books

"Helpful and soul strengthening ..."
~David Kopp, bestselling co-author of The Prayer of Jabez

"A must have on every writer's shelf that clearly joins the writer's path with the Christian walk."
~Christopher Havens, Educator (rating 5 out of 5 stars)

I just know you'll enjoy this delightful devo/how-to combo, chockful of real-life writing success stories, tips from bestselling authors, editors, and agents, and encouragement for your own writing journey. 

It would make a perfect gift for that aspiring writer in your life! 

Now available at Amazon and other online outlets. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Mountains and Mole Hills

Too imposing. Won't even try. 
No. No. No.

I refused to even consider it when my publisher asked me to write a 365-day devotional under the Too Blessed to be Stressed umbrella.

Seriously? You want me to come up with THREE HUNDRED and SIXTY-FIVE different readings, all about different topics, using different scriptures appropriate to each topic?

And each one 300 words or less? I can barely say my name in 300 words.

Uh uh. No way. It was a no-brainer for me. That mountain was w-a-y too big.

Scared my Fruits right off the Loom just thinking about it. Why, I can barely count up to 365.

Now this is more my speed. 
Then within the period of one week everything changed. Papa God stepped in. It was spring of 2015, shortly after I officially retired from my 36-year career as an occupational therapist to focus on writing.

I had just completed my Too Blessed to be Stressed Cookbook and was relaxing in the downtime (usually 4-6 months for most books) between submission of the completed manuscript and the month before the book's release when crazy-busy promotion begins.

I guess I got a little too relaxed. I started thinking, hey, now that I have more time, wouldn't it be nice to work on a longer-term project than the 3 months it usually takes to write a book?

And then two days later I ran across a Corrie ten Boom quote that rocked my world.

Now, this may not seem like such a big deal to you, but I'm a HUGE Corrie ten Boom fan (she's one of my all-time spiritual heroes) and thought I'd read every one of her many books. To find a quote that I'd never heard before was quite remarkable. It was about how we can grow our faith. And it seemed to be speaking directly to me:

"Attempt something so big that unless God intervenes, it is sure to fail."

Gulp. Those few words started working on me, boy.

The next day - the NEXT day - my publisher once again asked if I would consider writing a 365-devo under the Too Blessed to be Stressed brand. I positioned my fingers on my keyboard to immediately decline like I had before, but for some reason, those silly digits wouldn't move.

I wavered. Was Papa God trying to tell me something?

The next morning, my agent shot me an urgent e-mail asking why on earth he had a contract in his inbox for the 365-devo I swore I'd never, ever, in a million years tackle. I didn't know how to answer that. All I knew was that I was supposed to do it. I'd felt the holy elbow poke my side.

Then I sat down to write it.

I soon realized (after much head-banging and teeth-gnashing) that the only way to conquer this impassable mountain was to break it down into molehills. So I pulled out my calendar, circled the contracted manuscript due date, and did the math. In order to make my deadline, I'd have to spit out two readings every day, six days a week, for 6 months, allowing a week off for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the impending birth of my twin grandbabies, and leaving 4 weeks at the end to self-edit and pull it all together.

So that's where I am now. 30 readings to go. The mountain peak is in sight.

I will readily admit dealing with a few panic attacks along the way, but mostly I've been awed and utterly amazed at the manna Papa God has provided. Time after time, I would be clueless about what my two ideas for the day would be - even as I sat down at the computer - and like manna in the wilderness, He'd somehow lay out just enough nourishment for that day, no more, no less.

Corrie was right.

It takes faith and scaling a few thousand molehills to get from here up to impossible.

"Nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37, NIV).