Category Archives: Writing

Interview with author Nicole Baart

This week for Writing Wednesday I’m so excited to bring you an interview with one of my favourite people, and a super-talented writer to boot, the fabulous Nicole Baart.

Nicole and I met via email in 2007 – the year both our first books came out. Since then she’s published four more books and had another beautiful baby.

(And I am not going to point out that she has done all of this during the time it took me to write my second book because I am more secure than that. Note to self: I am more secure than that.)

I first emailed Nicole because I noticed that she was donating a portion of her book royalties to a charity in Liberia. We connected straight away, and hanging out and talking with her until all hours of the night at several writing conferences during the last five years has been a real joy. She is one of those people I wish lived just down the street.

Nicole’s latest book, Far from Here, just released last month. I bought it on kindle and loved it. Publishers Weekly agreed with me, giving it a starred review and saying, “This gorgeously composed novel is a candid and uncompromising meditation on the marriage of a young pilot and his flight-fearing wife, their personal failings, and finding the grace to move beyond unthinkable tragedy.”

Without further ado, here is Nicole to answer a few of my questions.  Enjoy.

1.   Tell us about Far from Here. When did you first start thinking about writing this story?

Far from Here is a book I’ve wanted to write ever since I was a little girl. Over thirty years ago my dad’s best friend went missing in a bush plane off the coast of Alaska. He–and his plane–were never found. This unsolvable mystery is a part of our family story, and though I’ve spent years wondering exactly what happened to him, the real drama for me is in the lives of the people left behind. How do you go on when someone you love vanishes? What do you hope for? In some ways this book was agonizing to write, and in other ways it was very freeing.

2.   What did you find most challenging about writing this story? Why?

Finding time to write! My days are so sundry and varied… I have an eight year old son who is in second grade, a five year old son who’s in kindergarten, and an eighteen month old son at home. My big boys play hockey, so between school, practice, games, and everything else that comes with having little boys in the house, I practically have a full time job. Of course, the baby is into everything, and I like to keep my house neat and my family well fed, so I spend a lot of time cleaning, shopping, cooking, and doing mountains of laundry. But I do manage to find time to write, mostly because I have to. I carve out two mornings a week, plus some nights after the kids are in bed. My favorite thing to do at the end of a busy, noisy, often dirty day is to sit down in the peace and quiet of my living room with a glass of wine and a pad of paper.

3.   I love your book trailer – particularly what you said about hope at the end of it. What are some things you feel hopeful about right now? How have some of your own hopes changed during the past decade?

My hopes are really very simple things. I hope for healthy, well-adjusted children who love God and love life. I hope my husband and still love each other passionately after raising children, focusing on our careers, and growing up. I hope I get to keep writing for an audience. I know that all sounds pretty trite, but it’s true.

I think a lot of my hopes stem from the foundation of my youth. I had a really fabulous childhood. It was carefree and full of love… When I think about my early years it seems to be perpetually summer, my fingers sticky with blue popsicle juice (my favorite) and the warm evening air flickering with lightning bugs. I probably romanticize it, but the truth is my childhood feels like it would perfectly fit in a series of Norman Rockwell paintings. I think lots of people believe that the best artists are tortured artists, and that might be true. (I certainly had to learn to damn my characters–it didn’t come naturally to me.) But I also think that there’s a certain optimism that becomes apparent when an author has lived a beautiful life. I believe readers are hungry for that–for overtones of hope and expectation.

4.   You spent some time in January in Liberia. What were you doing there? And how is your passion for writing related to your passion for the work that you are involved with in Africa?

I was in Liberia on a vision-casting trip with our non-profit organization One Body One Hope. OBOH was founded in 2007 after my husband and I travelled to Africa to bring home our adopted son. While we were there, we became close friends with a Liberian man who shared with us some of the atrocities that happened in his country during the devastating civil war. We left Africa promising to help him in any way we could… And that friendship spiralled into a steadily growing non-profit organization.

Right now we support 54 kids at an orphanage in Monrovia, but after we recently returned from Liberia, we feel that our ministry needs to be multiplied five-fold. We are passionate about working alongside our Liberian friends, and focus on relationship building and redevelopment opportunities instead of relief aid. To that end we are exploring business and agricultural opportunities, outlets for higher education, and micro-loans for people who are interested in growing their small business. We are also partnering with a bio-fuel company on a community distribution project for enviro-safe stoves and exploring the possibilities of church partnerships.

My passion for writing is intimately tied to the work I’m involved with in Africa because my job allows me to put a lot of time and effort into making OBOH run smoothly. There are some weeks I dedicate myself full-time to OBOH, and the only way I could do that is if I had the sort of flexibility that comes along with writing for a living. I also get to donate a portion of my earnings to something that I am very passionate about. And, in fact, with FAR FROM HERE I get to do something I’ve never done before: give away 100% of the royalties. I feel kind of weird admitting that, but I think you’ve admitted to the same thing, Lis, and I figure, when in Rome… Or, Laos, as it were. 😉

Thanks for having me, Lisa!

Thank you, Nicole. That was such a fun and inspiring interview to read. And, uh, actually, I’m not sure I have ever before publicly admitted the same thing, but we’re five years down the track now and in the spirit of when in Rome … yes. I do give away 100% of the royalties from My Hands Came Away Red to charities in Indonesia.

If you have a question or comment for Nicole you can leave it below, or hop on over to Nicole’s blog to learn more about her writing and to One Body One Hope to learn more about her passion for Liberia. And, of course, pick up a copy of Far from Here.

Six tips for marketing self-published books

Last Wednesday I wrote about the challenge that marketing can be for self-publishing authors. I asked what you would do if you were in charge of marketing my memoir, Love At The Speed Of Email, and was flooded with responses.

Well, not exactly.

But that’s not surprising. It’s a hard question for me to answer, and I know the book better than anyone. It’s also hard to think of ways to get the word out there without being overly and annoyingly self-promoting.

The one person who tackled the question I asked last week suggested leaning toward authenticity whenever possible. I think that is excellent advice (not just for marketing, but for life). I also think that it applies not just to what you’re communicating, but how.

I know agents and editors who would argue with me over this one, but this is what I think it means … That if you hate blogging, don’t set yourself the goal of putting out three posts a week. If you hate twitter, don’t use it. If you don’t want to be on facebook, don’t. If you loathe public speaking, don’t try to break into the speaker circuit.

Life’s too short to spend too much time forcing yourself to try to connect with others in ways that don’t (mostly) come naturally to you. Plus, if you are using these forums for the sole purpose of flogging your books it’s unlikely to work anyway.

However … all this doesn’t excuse you from breaking out of your comfort zone now and again and trying something new, because if we never did that we’d never grow and learn. But on the whole you’re going to find it easier to connect with people if you feel you’re being yourself in the way that you’re communicating.

So all that said, what are some other basic marketing tips that make sense to me? Here are five more:

  1. Know your audience: What do they need and want?
  2. Know where they hang out: What do they read, watch and talk about, and where?
  3. Figure out how to go and stand in front of them: Where your audience is will help determine how best to do stand in front of them (public speaking, radio, guest post on personal blogs, magazines or newspapers, twitter, your own blog, discussion forums, etc).
  4. Offer them something that will help them
  5. Give something away

So how have I been applying these tips?

In terms of Love At The Speed Of Email, one group (audience) I think may be very interested in the story are people in long distance relationships.

I have a lot of experience (both good and bad) with long distance relationships, so I have some things I can usefully say on this topic. Given that, I asked myself what was something I’d wished I had when I was doing all that long distance dating? What was something that might have been helpful?

After some thinking, something came to me …

So one thing I’ve been doing this last couple of months alongside preparing the memoir for publication is writing 201 Great Discussion Questions For Couples in Long-Distance Relationships.

This free e-guide will be released in PDF form around the same time as the memoir. My hope is that some people who get their hands on the e-guide will be intrigued enough to visit my website and check out the story of Mike’s and my long distance relationship.

But even if this e-guide doesn’t help me sell a single book I won’t be sorry I’ve written it and given it away. I really won’t. Because I also very much hope that these questions find their way into the hands of people all over the world who are building love one long-distance conversation at a time. And I hope hope hope that these questions make them laugh and learn new things and bring them closer emotionally even while they are far apart geographically.

I still have some work to do figuring out how to get the e-guide into the hands of those who might find it useful, but this is one marketing puzzle – how to best give away a useful product – that I’m enjoying working on. It feels fun. It feels authentic.

Now, some questions for you:

Got any questions you think I should include in the e-book? And if you have any ideas for websites, people, or relationship forums that might be interested in the discussion questions e-book, let me know.

Also, if you know of other interesting case studies related to marketing self-published books leave the stories (or a link) below.

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Writing Wednesday: Marketing yourself and your work

When I signed the contract five years ago for My Hands Came Away Red I had ridiculously little idea about what went into getting a book out there. As far as I was concerned, I’d done my part by writing the thing and whatever happened next was up to the publishers – I was just along for the “fun and games” ride.

Against all odds, this actually worked out quite well for me. Moody Publishers got me reviewed, printed marketing materials, organized radio interviews, hosted me at trade shows and even got me on the cover of a magazine. I got into the spirit of things and organized a couple of readings, a lecture at my alma mater Notre Dame, and an appearance on a nationally-syndicated Canadian television program. Perhaps best of all, this all felt like fun and games rather than work or something that I was trying too hard at and taking too seriously.

I hate feeling like I’m trying too hard or jumping up and down saying: “Look at me! Look at me!” I do this sometimes, of course. I think most people do. But I do it a lot less than I used to and whenever I catch myself attention-seeking now – looking for others to reassure me that I’m cool, or admirable, or interesting or worthwhile – I cringe. And I try to stop.

Which is why I’ve struggled to think deeply about marketing in relation to my next book, Love At The Speed Of Email.

Because this time I am self-publishing, which means that there is no publishing company to organize interviews for me and tell everyone that the book is worth their time and money. And it’s a memoir. So, basically, I need to get out there and tell people some version of the following: “I wrote this book about myself and you should buy it and read it because it’s really good.”

I also, however, need to find ways to not let this book (or myself) become too big a deal in my own mind, because therein lies the road to desperate, self-promoting narcissism. And no one wants that, least of all me. (Well, actually, probably least of all Mike.)

This all seems like a bit of a Catch-22 to me. Even thinking about marketing the memoir makes my teeth feel furry. Yet I suspect the minute it starts to feel completely comfortable – the minute I stop second-guessing myself, and examining my motivations and methods  – I’ll have crossed the line and become overly self-absorbed.

Le sigh.

And while I hate the idea of getting out there and selling this book, I also do want people to read it. I’ve worked hard on it, I’m really proud of it, and I do think it’s good.

Le sigh, deux.

I’ll be back next Wednesday to write more about this topic and share a marketing strategy I’ve come up with that I am really excited about – one that I think will help word get out there without feeling like I’m jumping up and down saying “Look at me! Look at me!”

In the meantime, I have some links and a question for you.

First, the links: For those of you also thinking through this thorny tangle of marketing your art and yourself, you might find the following posts useful.

  1. Should I be investing in my own publicity? (Chip MacGregor): “YOU are in charge of marketing your book. You. Not the publisher, who will help you but may not do all that much unless you’re a proven bestseller. You. Nobody else knows your message as well; nobody else is as committed to your story as you are.”
  2. Know your audience (Chip MacGregor): “Don’t assume your book is for everyone, at all times. It’s not — no book is… If you know your audience, you can determine where they’ll be, so you can go stand in front of them. You’ll also be able to best determine how to approach them and what to say.”
  3. Monthly marketing to-do list for authors (Rob Eagar): “There are thousands of ways to promote your books. But, trying to do everything won’t necessarily make you successful. Usually, you’re better off sticking with a consistent plan that keeps you focused on a few main priorities.”
  4. A spreadsheet for the self-published (Jenny Blake): Jenny has provided a great resource – a multi-pages excel spreadsheet for those thinking strategically about marketing. Set aside some time, it’s not a quick read.

Now, the question: Here’s the current draft of the back cover text of my memoir. If you were in charge of my publicity, what might you recommend that I do?

Lisa looks as if she has it made. She has turned her nomadic childhood and forensic psychology training into a successful career as a stress management trainer for humanitarian aid workers. She lives in Los Angeles, travels the world, and her first novel has just been published to some acclaim. But as she turns 31, Lisa realizes that she is still single, constantly on airplanes, and increasingly wondering where home is and what it really means to commit to a person, place, or career. When an intriguing stranger living on the other side of the world emails her out of the blue, she must decide whether she will risk trying to answer those questions. Her decision will change her life.

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What sells a blog post and drives traffic on your blog?

If you’ve clicked on over looking for a how-to post about styling yourself as a mega-blogger … sorry. This is not that. Too much talk about branding yourself and building a platform tends to make my eyes glaze over and my brain yawn, but for those of you looking for that sort of information I’ve included some relevant links at the end of this post.

No, this isn’t going to be a blog on the importance of compelling titles and posting consistently on topics closely linked to your niche and brand. Instead, I just wanted to share something I’ve been thinking about during the last month:

So here’s a screen shot of my recent blog traffic. The spikes on the far right shrink everything else down a bit, but there have actually been three unusual “spikey areas” in recent weeks.

The first came around the 14th of January, the day I put up this post in memory of my friend, Patrick, who passed away last month.

The second big jump began on January 24th, the day of Dominic’s accident, and continued all week as people tracked our stay in hospital and return to Laos.

The third, an unprecedented leap, came out of nowhere on February 7th when a whole bunch of people suddenly took it into their heads to share a post I’d written weeks earlier called 24 things that have surprised me about motherhood: I never thought I would… on facebook.

What to make of all of this?

I wanted to write a thoughtful commentary relating these blog stats to the flavor of what we consume as “news”, but the last three weeks has seen our little family blessed with two sets of parents in town, one broken leg, three days in hospital, two international flights, three head colds, two courses of antibiotics, and not nearly enough sleep. Also, we have given notice on our house and are starting to prepare to move in six weeks to another house in town that will hopefully be devoid of constant woodworking noise, dangerous spiral staircases, and unfenced pools.

Ergo, no bandwidth for thoughtful commentary.

Ergo, a list.

1. People pay attention to bad news and sad news.

Anyone who has driven past a car accident or watches the evening news shouldn’t be surprised by this – what we call news is a litany of all that’s going most wrong in the world (punctuated by the occasional celebrity death or sweet animal story).

It is still a little weird, however, to see the power of the bad&sad to draw attention play out on your own blog. And for the record, I am not advocating anyone adopt the bad&sad model to grow their blog audience. It’s so not worth it.

2. People pay attention to things that make them laugh

After all the stress of the last couple of weeks, it was actually really nice to see something get more attention than our medical dramas. It reminded me that in addition to being hardwired to pay attention to the bad&sad we also hunger to encounter things that make us laugh and warm our hearts, and that when we find those things we like to share them.

3. The power of social networks like facebook or twitter to promote something is awe-inspiring. It is also impossible to really predict or control.

Strangers sharing a single post on facebook were responsible for a banner day of blog traffic, but it was also not something I had much to do with. It wasn’t the post I would have predicted to go viral or the time (nearly three weeks after I first posted it) that I would have thought it might get picked up.

I probably helped the process along by putting the “share on facebook” button at the bottom of the post and participating in Sarah Bessey’s blog carnival last week (I suspect it was one of the visitors from her site that picked up the post that first time) but the whole experience simply reminded me that if I want to maximize the likelihood that people will share my posts on facebook, twitter, or their own blogs, I should just:

  1. Write good posts
  2. Make it easy for people to share them
  3. Engage with people on facebook, twitter and their own blogs (and when I say “engage” I mean “interact because I want to, with sincerity, not because I’m trying to build a brand or lure people into following my blog.”)

(“Congratulations,” Mike said when he read that third point. “You’ve managed to outline a strategy for making friends.” To which I said, “Perfect.”)

4.     Sex sells, too

No, I didn’t manage to extract this lesson from those blog stats – you can thank my father for that piece of unrelated wisdom. I was discussing this blog post with my parents and Mike over lunch. We were talking about how people are drawn to pay attention to the extremes – the sad, the bad, the funny, the touching.

“And sex,” my father said. “People pay attention to sex.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot all about that,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said mournfully. “Yeah.”

And on that awkward note, I promised links to posts that will actually furnish you with useful information on strategies to increase your blog traffic. Here are six of them:

  1. 7 Ways To Grow Your Blog Readership (Amanda Ludeke)
  2. 5 Audacious Goals Every Blogger Should Have For 2012 (Alexis Grant)
  3. What social media can do for your blog (Alexis Grant)
  4. 21 ways to increase blog traffic (over on SEOMOZ)
  5. What Not To Blog About (Rachelle Gardener)
  6. Platform and Social Media Must Not Be Your Center (Jane Friedman)

Bloggers, what lessons have you learned about what influences traffic on your own site? What resources have you found helpful in thinking about marketing and platform?

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Heading back toward normal

This is my first Writing Wednesday post in quite a while. Sorry. It’s been a tough couple of weeks over here. Normal routine went right out the window with Dominic’s fall down the stairs and it hasn’t returned yet.

It’s not just that, though, my ability to focus and my desire to write seem to have been just as abruptly displaced and they haven’t really returned yet either. In particular, I have no desire to write in detail about the day of the accident – even thinking about that day still makes me feel sick.

But.

Many of you have written wanting to know how Dominic is, and a couple have even inquired after book baby. So as I’m inching back toward trying to write something more demanding, here is an update on both of the babies.

Baby in cast: Dominic seems to be doing better. He veers between ferociously grumpy and ferociously cheerful on a minute-by-minute basis, but he’s off pain medication and he’s moving that leg more – trying to hoist it up in the air, and sometimes succeeding. Of course, then it comes crashing down again and hits the floor. I’ve seen him do this more than once (it makes me wince every time) so either cause-and-effect hasn’t really kicked in yet or his leg is feeling much better.

Only twelve more days until we travel back to Bangkok to (hopefully) have the cast removed. My parents also arrive here for a visit on Thursday so I’ll have more grandparent hands on deck to help with baby entertainment soon.

Oh, and if you’re new to this blog and you’re wondering why on earth Dominic’s cast is decorated the way that it is, read this. T’is the month of patience.

Baby in press: Plans for Love At The Speed Of Email are moving forward. The manuscript is finished and I should even have a cover within a month, which is a very fun prospect!! I’ve received some overwhelmingly lovely endorsements about the book from other authors that I’m excited to share with you in time, my website and blog will be getting a total facelift, and I’m tentatively starting to plan for a release about mid-April.

And speaking of books: A great friend of mine, Nicole Baart, has her next book releasing today: Far From Here. She’s running a neat launch-day challenge (A Celebrate Books Party) and will be donating books to an orphanage in Liberia based on how high the Amazon ranking gets today. I bought my copy on kindle this morning (and here, please pause for a melodious ode to kindle and nook and all other e-readers that jump oceans and cross borders in the blink of an eye). I love Nicole’s writing. She’s a natural poet and a graceful novelist and I can’t wait to read Far From Here. Happy book launch day, Nicole!

And speaking of writing: A weird thing happened last night: I had a post go viral on facebook for the first time. Not viral as-in the Influenza pandemic of 1914-1918, more like viral as in the cold that swept through this house last week, but it was still a bizarre thing to come home from dinner and find that while I’d been out this post about things that had surprised me about motherhood had been shared dozens of times by complete strangers and scores of people were flooding to my blog. More on that topic soon.

So, I’m curious.

Do you all have any thoughts on reigniting that creative spark and getting back on track with your work after hitting a major speed-bump in life?

And how has writing (or other creative pursuits) helped you during times of great stress?

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Sweet sleep and ice cream machines: What do you need to create?

It’s almost 4:30 in the morning. I’ve been up since 3:15 when I first heard a little someone who sleeps right beside me in a mosquito-netted travel cot tossing his head from side to side and smacking his lips. Then I heard questing chirps and fingernails clawing at nylon (I’m pretty sure he lives in hope that if he just scrabbles around frantically enough he’s going to find a boob in bed with him one of these days, either that or he’ll manage to dig his way to one). After a couple of minutes of this I got up and gave him what he wanted.

He went right back to sleep afterwards – it’s the only time of day he will reliably go down without a fuss at the moment. I, however, didn’t find it so easy.

Some of the roosters are also awake, neighborhood dogs are having brief and vocal tussles and I can hear rain falling – such an odd sound at this dry time of year. My bad foot aches. I’m hungry for banana bread or brownies or something. (Not fruit, though, or anything else we actually have in the house. No, not that). My mind is busy hopscotching around between blog posts and book tasks and what exactly I might say to Mike when I wake him up with my restlessness and he rolls over and tells me that I should be asleep. I’m cooking up a line perfectly calibrated to convey that I don’t lie here awake just for fun – a line that’s a bit sharp without straying into unreasonably bitchy territory.

They are such useful conversations to have, these imaginary ones.

I don’t often get up in the wee dark hours and write but I knew how this would play out if I didn’t – the same way it has played out half a dozen times during the last two weeks.

I would put Dominic back to bed at 4 and lie there awake until 5. Then, right as I was tumbling off the exhausted cliff and falling into sleepy, Dominic would start to doze more lightly. He would lose his dummy and want it back again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Then he would wake properly around 6 looking for his own version of banana bread and brownies.

And I would be shot for the entire day as far as any good writing goes.

Decent sleep is such a creative basic for me, something I just can’t do without. I don’t have many other real needs. Relative quiet is on that list. A decent chair and a cup of coffee first thing in the morning come close, but I’m not sure even they qualify as needs. Maybe my laptop does. I can barely remember how to write longhand anymore – I think in type.

Wants are another story; I have plenty of writing wants. I want blank notebooks, and pens that spill just enough ink smooth and clean onto the page when you use them, and something to find me the perfect quotation at a moment’s notice. I want beautiful bookshelves and music that articulates the emotional tone of what I’m writing. I want a soft-serve ice cream machine in my own office.

I’ve always wanted my own office. Well, to be honest what I really want is an entire cabin in the woods (or one set in a lush and well-manicured garden – I can never decide which). I want to fill this cabin with books and buy a huge wooden desk made of gorgeous timber – timber that earned its beauty during decades of struggling up toward sunshine in a rainforest – the sort of timber that I should be too responsible and too ashamed to own. And when I grew tired of sitting at this magical desk, I imagine that I would relax on a beautiful Turkish carpet in front of a fireplace.

Somehow my imagination never has me cleaning the ashes out of this fireplace in the cold hard light of day; I only ever sit there during twilight and watch the mystic dance of flames.

Isn’t that the way with wants?

I might want an office, but I certainly don’t need one. As long as it’s quiet enough I can write anywhere. Sometimes I can even write when it’s not at all quiet (does anyone else get some of their best ideas in church?). I can make do without the ice cream machine. Sleep, however, is a different story.

Trying to write without enough sleep in the bank is like trying to drive through fog or swim wearing shoes or bang your head against the wall without putting your bike helmet on first.

See what happens? You come up with sentences like the one above. And then you’re too dopey to edit them out. When I write tired I feel easily overwhelmed. I second-guess myself constantly and nothing I come up with seems good enough (possibly because nothing I come up with is good enough). It’s no fun at all.

Nope, if I had to choose between my cabin in the woods and getting enough sleep it’s not even a close call. Sleep I need. Cabins I just want.

Over to you: What are your creative wants and needs?

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And The Title Is…

I find book titles hard.

I spent a decade working on my first novel and I still didn’t have a title I liked when I submitted it to publishers. This turned out not to be a problem. In fact, when I was offered a contract I was surprised to learn that publishers generally retain the right to title (or re-title) your book and design its cover any way they see fit. It’s not completely unheard of for authors to hate the title or cover that clothes their work.

Luckily that didn’t happen to me. I loved both the title and the cover that Moody Publishers came up with for my hands came away red (on sale on Amazon for $5.20 at the moment, on kindle for $7.49, or for the Nook at $7.99).

Sometime during the year and a half between when I signed the contract and “Hands” came out, I asked my editor about how they come up with titles.

“The editorial and marketing staff generally have a big meeting,” he said. “Everyone’s read a copy of the book and we brainstorm on flip chart sheets about concepts and images and words that might suit. We also go through the book looking for phrases that might work. We hope that sometime during several hours of collective brainpower something perfect will just jump out at us.”

Apparently that’s what happened with my novel. Someone in that meeting had underlined the phrase “my hands came away red” – words spoken by the narrator in a pivotal scene about one third of the way through the story – and that phrase became my book’s title.

This time around I started thinking about titles right from the beginning, and for three years all the titles I came up with lacked something. Some were too cute and kitschy, others were too bland, too confusing, or too unrelated to the main storyline. I was Goldilocks with the bear’s porridge, except there were a hundred different bears.

A couple of months ago I decided to mimic the process a publishing house might undertake. I went through the book with a red pen looking for phrases that might make good titles. I also set up an excel spreadsheet and brainstormed words related to the theme of the book. Then I started to play with the different images in my list. I listed a bunch of three word titles, five word titles, and six word titles.

And, finally, something just right jumped out at me.

LOVE AT THE SPEED OF EMAIL

Title, check. Phew. Next on my list? To go over the text for the back cover with a fine tooth-comb. And then to go over it again.

“My advice is not to wait to be struck by an idea. If you’re a writer, you sit down and damn well decide to have an idea. That’s the way to get an idea.”
(Andy Rooney)

What are some of your all-time favorite book titles?

And, if you write, how do you come up with your titles?
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Writing Wednesday: Killing Your Darlings

Last week, after a string of awful nights, I decided to write a children’s story. The fun I had writing this little story did not make up for the exhaustion and aggravations of the previous week, but it helped. As I rhymed my way through verses about dogs, roosters, mosquitoes and various other midnight misadventures I even found myself laughing.

My 2nd favorite line was the one about wishing all the roosters would die, but my absolute favorite line of the whole piece came at the end of the stanza about mosquitoes.

It’s 4, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
She hears a buzz, the mosquito trademark
Little legs brush her cheek like lace
She swipes, misses, and hits her own face
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, eight hundred… [beep beep beep beep]

As I wrote this last line I was thinking about the sorts of things that I feel tempted to say every time I’m woken up by one of those little winged demons in the middle of the night.

I intended the “beep beep beep beep” to be a stand-in for language that is, uh, slightly salty. I found the image of Mama Bear unable to get back to sleep and lying there swearing at the mosquitoes was enormously, therapeutically, funny.

Except… no one else got it (at least, not that I know of). Everyone I’ve asked said they thought those beeps were an alarm clock.

Don’t you hate it when your favorite line just doesn’t work outside your head???

Samuel Johnson is reputed to have said, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I know I have been guilty (and probably will be again) of working entirely too hard to keep lines and scenes that I like even when they do not serve the overall story well. I have also been known to be petulant and resistant when told that lines and phrases I particularly like are not communicating what I want them to say.

I often need a lot of time and distance (more than I generally like to allow) to work up the dispassionate editorial eye that tells me when I need to “kill a darling”. I’m slowly getting better at this, but I’m not sure it’ll ever come easily.

As for my children’s story… I don’t quite know what to do. I could change the last line of that mosquito stanza to [beep &*$ @(*! beep] or the more elegant [bleep bleep bleep bleep] which may better convey my original intent. Or I could leave it alone and accept the fact that my genie has purposed for good (or, at least, clean) what I purposed for evil (or, at least, naughty).

What do you think I should do about the kids story? And how do you figure out when you need to “kill a darling”. How difficult do you find that?

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Surprise endings and a fish foot massage (A Writing Wednesday post)

Yes, that is a picture of Mike in Cambodia, reading my manuscript while fish nibble at his feet. That was more than a year ago, and if you’d told me then I’d still be fine tuning this book 13 months later I may just have jumped into the pond and let the fish have me.

Sometimes it’s a good thing that we don’t fully realize in advance just how much work is in store for us when we follow our passions.

On Sunday Mike hung with Baby Bear while I wrestled with the ending of my memoir. This has to be at least the tenth time I’ve gone through this manuscript in the last two years. I thought that this final read-through before I sent it off for copy-editing would take me about half the time that it actually did – surprise!

And that’s not the only surprise I’ve had in the last two weeks.

I had thought that the draft was very tight, but I trimmed more than a thousand words from it in this final go around. Surprise!

I had thought I was 100% happy with flow, but I ended up having to do more intensive editing on two chapters – one struck me as too long, the other as too dense. Surprise!

I had thought my ending was excellent, but when I got to the end of this final edit I was plagued with the nagging feeling that I hadn’t quite nailed it. Surprise!

This last one perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, when I hired an editor nine months ago to give me some unbiased feedback on the book, this was one of the things she mentioned.

“I felt a little let down by the ending,” she told me. “Just those last few lines… they’re not as strong as they could be.”

At the time this was one of the few pieces of feedback she gave me that I discounted. I did think it through carefully, but decided she was wrong. Now, nine months later, I’ve decided that she was right after all. It seems that I am not the world’s fastest processor. (This is another thing that shouldn’t surprise me, but still regularly does).

I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with the previous ending for a couple of days, not until I was trying to explain it to Mike one evening.

“It’s just… it’s just… it’s just that it’s cute, I finally finished. “And a bit glib.”

So on Sunday I sat down with a cup of tea and my iPod and the laptop and stayed there for the several hours it took to eke out the 183 words that make for a different and better ending, a much better ending. The last chapter of the book is set on the day before my wedding, and two of the sentences in that ending state:

I want Mike to be beside me whatever form home might take for me in the future. I am convinced that a white picket fence with him would be better than bumping down a dirt road without him, and that traveling a dirt road together would beat out a white picket fence that’s mine alone.

After Mike read the new ending he came into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around me.

“Aw,” he said into the top of my head. “Do you really mean that? That a dirt road with me is better than a more comfortable, stable home without me?”

I thought briefly of the special little (frustrating) adventures that this particular dirt road has held during the last few weeks, and then I laughed.

“I meant it the day before our wedding,” I said.

Mickey Spillane once said: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” Do you agree? And do you struggle more with endings or beginnings in your writing?

Landmines, literal and metaphorical (Writing Wednesday)

On Monday I took Baby Bear on an outing to the UXO museum (unexploded ordinance), because it’s never too early in life to learn about cluster bombs. (Or because I was desperate to get out of the house and the UXO museum is just a five-minute walk away).

Dominic wasn’t all that impacted by the cluster bombs, he was far more concerned with the fact that I handed him over to the woman who was standing guard over the empty, one-room exhibit, and looking at him longingly. I figured that anyone who had to talk about landmines all day deserved a baby snuggle. Dominic wasn’t sure that he agreed.

More about the UXO museum later, but today’s Wednesday. Wednesday is for writing. Except… I’ve spent much of the last ten days poring over Book Baby with a fine-tooth-comb (for what is at least the tenth time) before I send it off for copy-editing. There’s not much you can do to make that process interesting to read about.

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
Oscar Wilde

Writing is a fairly lonely business unless you invite people in to watch you do it, which is often distracting and then have to ask them to leave.
Marc Lawrence

So for this week’s writing Wednesday I’m sending you over to GlimmerTrain’s website to check out Janis Hubschman’s list of ten craft techniques that have been most helpful to her on her own writing journey. The post is called Steal This List and I think it’s worth stealing (or at least saving so that you can refer to it when you hit a landmine in your own story).

To close, a conversation Mike and I had over the dinner table after my outing to the UXO museum.

Mike: “What did you think?”

Me: “I was surprised to learn that the number of landmine accidents in Laos is on the decline – from about one a day, to one every two or three days.”

Mike: “Yeah, but, still…”

Me: “I know. Can you imagine? I mean, how much would it impact our lives to lose a limb, or worse, in a landmine accident? And we’re not even technically dependent on our limbs to make money for our families.”

Mike: “If you lost an arm in a landmine accident it would slow down your writing … (pause) … which would impact our family income not at all.”

Luckily for Mike, I thought this was not only true but also funny.

Come back later this week to read about the UXO museum, or maybe joy. I haven’t decided yet. Thanks for dropping by.