Tag Archives: memoir

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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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?

A Big Decision: Writing Wednesday

Last Wednesday, I wrote about how some editors wanted me to turn my memoir into a novel. It seems that I first wrote a novel that reads like a memoir (more than once my hands came away red has been mistaken for my personal story, which has led to some awkward encounters with lovely old ladies who have patted me on the shoulder and told me that they’ve been praying for me as I recover from all that trauma). Now, instead, I’ve written a memoir that reads like a novel.

I decided not to fictionalize the memoir, which left me with two options. I could either wait – shelve this book and hope that it would get picked up by a publisher later – or I could self-publish it.

I’ve decided (drum roll, please)… to self-publish.

Despite the strident call to self-publishing arms and tales of riches and fame that are being peddled by folks like Joe Konrath and friends, I have no illusions that I’m incredibly likely to attain either riches or fame by self-publishing this book. That’s not why I want to self-publish.

I want to self-publish because I have spent three years working on this book, it’s important to me, I think it’s good, and I want to see it out there in the big wide world and move on to other projects.

It took me months to make this decision, but now that it’s made I’m excited. Self-publishing is brand new territory for me. To do it even halfway well I’ll have to learn a lot about cover design, marketing, publicity, independently copy-editing the text, etc. I’ll also have to give my website and my blog a makeover. All of this will teach me new things, and despite the fact that the to-do list I’ve been putting together is half a mile long, many of these things are medium-sized projects that I can tackle during baby nap time. I’ve already come up with an idea I love for a free spin-off e-book, and decided that I want to use some of any profits that I do earn from self-publishing to support a charity here in Laos that’s close to my heart.

More on all of that later.

For now, I’ll close with another writing-related quote that makes me laugh. And, tell me, if you’ve self-published a book or an e-guide recently, what’s one lesson you learned along the way?

 “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”
Jules Renard

Writing Wednesday: To fictionalize or not to fictionalize, that is the question

It’s Writing Wednesday. It has been, in fact, since I woke for the first time last night at 12:30 to put a soothing hand on a stirring baby, and since I fed him at 4:30, and since our wretched dog starting whining outside the bedroom door at 5:00, and since Dominic decided morning had indeed broken at 5:45am.

I do hope no one is expecting anything too profound from me today.

I also hope one of these days soon I’ll stop expecting anything too profound from myself during this particularly fatigue-fogged season of life.

So let me tell you a little more about the story of the book baby that hasn’t found a publishing home. If I were to cast this as a children’s story (of which I’ve been reading no small number out loud recently) it would go something like this.

When the agent overseeing book baby adoptions organized for publishing families to have a look at book baby, many of them said very nice things. Indeed, they said the writing was fabulous. Just like the bear’s porridge though, book baby never seemed quite right to them. Some of the publishers wished book baby talked more about Lisa’s faith and some wished it talked less. Some wished that book baby talked more about Lisa’s work and less about Lisa’s love life, some wanted exactly the opposite. Several wished book baby were not a memoir at all but a novel. And so, eventually, book baby arrived back to the book orphanage without having found a home…

Don’t worry, I’m not going to quit my day job to take up writing children’s stories (although when you read some of the crappier ones that actually get published you have to wonder how hard it could be to kick ass in this genre).

But back to my homeless book baby…

It seemed there were several editors who were seriously interested in the prospect of this book as a novel, and I spent weeks mulling over whether I wanted to rewrite the entire thing.

It felt weird to me. I’d spent three years working hard to make sure this story conveyed emotional and factual truth and here I was being asked to turn it into a novel. Where would I even start with that? By spicing up the details of my past, or adding a serious addiction or abusive parents?

In the end, I’ve decided not to do it. There are multiple reasons for this but here are just a couple.

Rewriting it as a novel doesn’t stay true to my original vision for the book. I realize that in saying this I’m running the risk of coming off as precious. I don’t mean to be. It’s just that the book I wanted to write to tell this story was a memoir. Three years down the track, after I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to carve an actual story out of the therapeutic mind-dump of my first draft, that hasn’t changed. I don’t get all that excited at the thought of taking this story and fictionalizing it, and at this stage I don’t want to see it published by an establishing publishing house badly enough to make that effort.

There is also the other baby.

Yes, that one. And the presence of this other baby means that right now I don’t feel that I have the time or the energy I’d need to embark upon a massive creative re-write. Freelancing, I can do. Essays, blog, even some consulting, I can do (on a good day). But I’m genuinely unsure as to whether I could stretch to writing a novel at the moment. At least, not one I’d be completely proud of.

So what to do about homeless book baby?

That has, indeed, been the question of my life this last three months – right alongside: Is Dominic hungry/wet/tired? If not, why is he crying??? And, what on earth am I going to do to entertain him today?

There are only so many afternoons you can spend gyrating to ABBA’s Dancing Queen in front of the baby bouncer, you know.

Come back next week for more news about the fate of homeless book baby, and if you have good suggestions for entertaining a three-month-old baby, leave them below! I guess you could leave a comment or question related to writing, too, or let me know what you think about the topic of fictionalizing memoirs. It is after all, Writing Wednesday.

I’ll leave you with this quote by John Berryman because it made me laugh. Here’s to a happy Thursday all round the globe. Thanks for stopping by.

“The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”

How is Memoir Writing Different than Fiction Writing?

Here’s a break from all the baby talk. This is a guest post I wrote for Moody Publisher’s blog InsidePages just before Dominic was born – they asked me to reflect on the difference between writing memoir and fiction…

When I got engaged in 2008 I wasn’t writing a memoir, I was writing a novel about sex trafficking. But as my fiancée, Mike, and I began to plan our wedding I found it increasingly difficult to flip in and out of such vastly different worlds – the happiness of the one I was living in and the harshness of the one I was trying to write about. After months of trying to force myself to persevere with the trafficking novel, one day I stopped long enough to ask myself what I really wanted to be writing about.

The answer to that question wasn’t trafficking. It was the idea of home.

I’d spent my childhood in countries as diverse as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. I carried Australian and Canadian passports. I was living in Los Angeles working for a non-profit organization that provided psychological support to humanitarian workers worldwide. I was hopelessly confused as to where home was. Perhaps, I thought, I could write my way towards clarity. How hard could it be to write a memoir exploring this theme?

Of course, the answer to that question turned out to be “much harder than I had imagined.” Luckily that wasn’t the only thing I learned during the whole process.

I had expected writing a memoir to feel completely different than writing a novel, and in some ways it did. When I was writing my first novel I found myself getting surprised by what was happening, but as I figured the “what” out then understanding my characters’ actions and reactions followed fairly naturally. Writing a memoir reversed this process. I already knew what happened – I’d lived it – but I had to work much harder to figure out what it all meant to me then and now.

The plotting process was different, too. With the novel I wrote my way into the story blind, without an outline, but during the drafting process the story gained increasing momentum as events unfolded. In contrast, I had a clear vision for the start and end of the memoir but little idea of how I was going to get from one place to the other. Despite repeated outlines I continued to flounder in the middle until the very final drafts of the manuscript.

What about ways that writing memoir was similar to writing fiction? Well, unfortunately, the first draft of the memoir turned out to be just as much in need of major revisions as the first draft of my novel had been. The first draft of the memoir was basically a therapeutic mind-dump. It was the product of a lot of thinking and soul searching and I had indeed gained a lot of clarity around the issue of home. What I hadn’t done, however, was tell a story in a way that might sustain interest for an entire book.

This second draft was the point where writing the memoir began to feel a bit more like writing fiction. First, I had to figure out what a story arc was. Then I had to take this therapeutic ramble of a manuscript and think about how to “nest” my reflections about home within a related story that could better structure the book and propel the action.

The second and third drafts were painful revisions. They involved completely restructuring the book around the long-distance love story of how I met Mike and cutting out scenes, even whole chapters, that didn’t move the story forward. In the end, however, it was worth it. I discovered that wasn’t just trying to figure out what home meant; I was trying to answer this broader question:

After a nomadic life that has been largely defined by coming and (always, inevitably) going, am I even capable of the sort of commitment demanded by marriage and children and a place called home?

I’d love to hear from you! For those of you who write fiction and/or memoir, how have you found them to be different and similar processes? For those of you who read both genres, what differences and similarities do you see between fiction and non-fiction stories?

Family talk about the memoir

It started shortly after I arrived here four weeks ago. Mum was asking me where I was up to with my next book, and I told her that my agent, Chip, had it and was getting ready to send it to interested publishers next month.

“And how many of those are there?” She asked.

“I don’t exactly know,” I said. “But he said there are at least half a dozen people who’d like to see the full manuscript when we’re ready.”

Mum looked… well, “doubtful” is too strong a word. More like “slightly confused.”

“But… why?” She asked.

“What do you mean, why?” I repeated.

“Well they haven’t seen anything yet, so how do they know they want to see something?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some of them read my last book. Some of them have been browsing the blog. Maybe some of them owe Chip a big favour. I don’t completely understand how it all works, to be honest.”

“Me either,” Mum said. Then she went a step further. “Also, I just don’t see how this book is going to appeal to as wide an audience as your last book.”

“I think you’re wrong there,” I said. “If it sells, and that’s still a big if, then I think this book has the potential to appeal to a far larger audience than Hands did.”

Mum did not look at all convinced.

This was not the end of the conversation – this topic has come up several times during the last month. Just the other day we were talking about Francine Rivers’ new book and I casually mentioned that I thought her first book, A Voice In The Wind, was the best she’d ever written.

“I think that of a lot of authors,” Mum said.

“Yeah,” I said, “Like Bryce Courtney and The Power of One…

I was going to go on to list others but Mum got there first… with my name.

“Maybe like Lisa McKay,” she said.

“Mother!” I said, laughing but amazed. “What a thing to say!”

“Yes,” she said, only slightly abashed. “I guess it is.”

So, yesterday as we were driving into town, I brought it up again.

“Do you really think this book isn’t going to do well?” I asked. “I mean, for starters, you shouldn’t be comparing it to Hands because they’re totally different genres. One’s a suspense novel and the other is a reflective memoir woven around a romance story.”

“I guess that’s true,” Mum said. “And I haven’t read the whole thing yet so I don’t really know.”

“What??” This time I was honestly shocked. “You haven’t read the whole thing? Quite apart from the fact that that could deeply wound me if I were more fragile, how do you know I didn’t say something about you that you’ll hate?”

“Oh,” Mum said. “I trust your filters.”

This was getting truly bizarre given that exactly a month earlier I had been sitting across the breakfast table from my parents, having just disembarked the plane from Laos, while they asked me not to put anything on the blog about them without their prior approval while I was living at home.

“Well if you haven’t read the whole thing,” I said, “and you admit you don’t know all that much about the publishing industry, what would possess you to say things like ‘I don’t think this book will do as well as your first’?”

Mum squirmed just a little, unusual for her.

“I never meant to say that,” she said. “I guess I just meant to say that you had such an amazing experience the first time around being picked up by the first publisher you queried, and getting almost universally positive reviews, and having everyone tell you that you were wonderful… and it might not be like that this time around. I guess I just don’t want you getting your hopes up too high.”

“That is a very fair point,” I said. “But here is my point. With something that’s as deeply personal and important as this sort of project, maybe if you can’t honestly say, ‘Wow, I think this book is going to do just great’, maybe you should reconsider whether you say anything at all at this stage of the process. And, if you do, maybe you should work harder to phrase it more softly. You could, for example, say something like, ‘I’ll be interested to see if this book turns out to be as universally well-received as Hands.’

“That is also a fair point,” Mum said, as she pulled into the parking lot.

There was a brief silence.

“So, are you finished?” Mum asked, looking commendably grave given that she was clearly also battling the strong temptation to laugh.

“For now,” I said, getting out of the car.

“OK then,” Mum said, swinging into task mode. “Could you please stop and pick up the bread and then I’ll meet you at the grocery store in five or so minutes?”

“Sure,” I said.

Five minutes later I was standing just outside the grocery store having been waylaid by tempting tables full of bargain books, when Mum approached.

“I thought I’d find you here when I saw the books laid out,” Mum said. “And have I told you lately what a smashing success I think your next book is going to be?”

As I laughed she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.

Juggling different worlds

I wrote an overdue email to someone far away today. I met Lynne for the first time in Kenya in 2004 when I took advantage of an introduction by a mutual friend and showed up at her house in Nairobi, still suffering from the worst bout of food poisoning I had ever had in my life. She fed me apple juice and yogurt smoothies and two days later we went on safari in the Masai Mara together for three nights. You bond quickly when you’re sharing a tent and getting before dawn to go be wowed by scenes like these:

Since then, Lynne and I have crossed paths regularly around the world – in restaurants in New York and DC, on houseboats in Amsterdam, and at her place in Atlanta. She is a lot of fun and one of the many people I would enjoy living closer to.

But instead there is email and skype, and today I jotted her a note for the first time in months. I started by saying I’d been meaning to write for weeks and that I didn’t know where time had gone recently.

On days like today, when it’s cold and raining here and I haven’t even bothered to get out of my pajamas yet, I can reach 6pm and puzzle over what, exactly, I’ve been doing. How is it possible, I sometimes wonder, that I’ve been bouncing from project to project, working relatively well, and yet I haven’t crossed off more than half of the things on my to-do list? Why am I still perpetually behind on emails and phone calls? And why is very little connected to preparing for the baby making it into the half that’s actually getting done?

Lest I alarm the extremely maternal (or paternal) among you, I am making some progress in relation to all things baby. I’ve washed the clothes we’ve been given (though I haven’t folded them all yet). I’ve made a list of small, practical gifts people could give us at an upcoming baby shower that lovely people from Mum and Dad’s church are organizing. I’m currently reading a book called Mama Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood – a rather fascinating memoir that looks at motherhood through the lens of Zen Buddist teachings.

But the baby is still only getting a certain amount of brain space (and boy, am I ever starting to wish I could impose similar limits on the amount of body space he was getting). For there are things still to be done before he arrives – things as dissimilar from buying baby wipes and diapers as a tent in Kenya is from a houseboat in the Netherlands.

For starters, there’s the consultancy on wellbeing and humanitarian work. For a project on wellbeing there’s an awful lot of trauma material that needs to be incorporated. The other reading material I’ve dipped into today, for example, focused on psychosocial interventions in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and collective trauma following atrocities and killings during a civil conflict in Sri Lanka. First thing tomorrow I will be starting A Human Being Died That Night – a memoir plumbing South Africa’s apartheid years and wrestling with questions of transitional justice. I’m aiming to wrap up this consultancy in the next four weeks, and I doubt I’ll mind taking a couple of months away from this sort of material.

Then there’s the memoir, which my agent is planning to start sending to publishers next month. That’s great news, but it also means that I need to spend some time pulling together all the bits and pieces that traditionally go in a book proposal – a bio, an outline, and information about my author platform and strategic connections that may assist with marketing. You’d think I’d know how to summarize the book in a couple of sentences after having actually written the thing, but that’s a lot easier said than done.

And there’s talking to Mike for an hour or so every night, doing some exercise, spending time with extended family here, filing insurance claims, and so on. I am not short on things to do.

Today I haven’t minded juggling these diverse mental worlds. Some days I can feel a bit fragmented, and I’m aware some of these worlds are going to need to take a dive on the priority list in the near future, but overall it’s good to have a bunch of different, interesting things to do right now when it’s quiet, cold, raining and I can’t be bothered to get out of my PJs.

What about you? What different mental worlds are you juggling at the moment? Are you finding it stimulating or are you feeling fragmented?