What I Learned from a Summer of Not Blogging

What I Learned from a Summer of Not Blogging

IMG_0149I haven’t posted a new blog entry in months and I’m trying not to feel guilty about that. The summer was filled with writing two books which, frankly, took priority over blogging.

One book was a co-writing project with Bill Blacquiere, soon-to-be-retiring director of Bethany Christian Services. The Call to Care helps focus readers on how each one of us is called to care for vulnerable children and families. How we work out that call day to day is different for everyone.

The other project was my own book, Christian Publishing 101, releasing in January 2018. I interviewed many experts in the publishing field—editors, agents, authors, publicists—to help create this writer’s-conference-in-a-book.

Throw in a family vacation, writers retreat, helping plan and pull off the Breathe Christian Writers Conference, and being a good family/church member and mom/wife, and suddenly it’s early November.  There are a couple of lessons I learned during this blogging hiatus. Hopefully you can take some of them to heart.

1. Social media is fluid. I didn’t blog, but discovered the joys of Instagram. Who knew that #writingwithchickens would be so much fun for me and for readers? It started because every time I wrote outside on the deck or swing, our three chickens would rush over to get in my business. They walked across the keyboard, pecked at the keys, studied the screen, did other crazy chicken stuff.

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Once I started posting goofy pictures on Instagram, #writingwithchickens became a thing. People started liking and following the girls. We don’t have a ton of followers, yet I’m always surprised when people talk to me about those chickens. And they buy me chicken stuff! I now am proud owner of a tiny chicken notebook and a stack of chicken plates, plus a chicken item or two that I purchased.

I may not have blogged, but I now have an Instagram following and friends on Facebook who comment on the crazy fowl. Plus I’ve taken the girls on the road thanks to a traveling flock of three tiny chickens that fit in my pocket. (See if you can find them in the photo.)

2. Interns are fun and make me work. I had my first intern over the summer: the lovely Sarah Traill. Her guest blog posts will appear here soon. She was a true gift, helping me research, writing a bit, and generally making my writing life easier. This fall Hannah VanKampen, a senior at Cornerstone University, interns for two afternoons a week. She took the photo of my cool chicken stuff. Hannah is eager to work and learn, too, and a real gift.

Sarah and Hannah help me focus my writing life—because I have to give them something to do! Being accountable is always a good thing, and these two have helped me tremendously.

3. Guilt is a choice. I knew this already, but it’s good to reinforce that I don’t have to feel guilty about not doing everything all the time. As many in the publishing industry say, focus on what social media platforms you enjoy and let some of the others go for the time being. I was good at Instagram this summer; I’m adding blogging, which I enjoy, back into the mix now. It’s all good!

(Photos by Hannah VanKampen)

I would love to hear how you have balanced writing and social media, how others have helped you along the way, and how you’ve dealt with guilt as it has assailed you in your writing life.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about Christian Publishing 101 and entering for a chance to win a free copy in January, email me at annbyle@gmail.com.

 

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The Power of Small Changes

The Power of Small Changes

pencil-1692530__340December and January are lost causes when it comes to social media. Between holiday preparations, birthdays, and high school wrestling, the last month of one year and first month of the next are post-less in my world.

I have a hard time getting back to it until I remember the importance of small things. Doing one small thing or making one small change can open the door to progress and all manner of good things including Facebook, blogging, Instagram and Twitter.

Just one Instagram post about my haunted office nudged me enough to think about others. One blog post after weeks of absence has me sitting here writing another. One trip to the gym makes it easier to head out a few more times a week.

If I get restless writing in my office, I take my laptop to the couch, or to the nearby Panera, or to Icons Coffee Bar, where my daughter is manager.  A little change makes the creative juices flow.

Small changes can prompt big changes, small wins can make way for big wins. Small place changes made me open to a really big place change. I’m writing this on a retreat to Florida, made possible by a plane ticket that I couldn’t refund. Instead of letting it go to waste, I booked a rental car and a 1950s-era motel right on the Atlantic and headed out.

It’s costing a fair bit, but I sure needed it. And the place change is opening my mind to oceans and crashing waves and soaring pelicans and writing. It’s also preparing me for a mighty glut of writing between now and June.

What small changes might you need to make? Adding weight-lifting to your walking regimen at the gym? Yup, did that. Taking up a new genre in your reading life? Doing it. Decorating on the cheap with unique finds? Why, yes.

These are my changes. What are yours? And how will they effect your writing life and your living life? Make a list, stop the inner voices saying no, and take that first small step.

PS: There’s a gap between this and my last post. I’m putting my advice into action today, letting myself forget preparations for the Mount Hermon CWC and big writing projects. Instead, posting a blog about small changes even as I make one.

The Benefits of Retreat

The Benefits of Retreat

Last summer my writing group visited my parents’ cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We scattered around inside and out in the mornings to work on our writing projects; in the afternoon we went on an adventure. In the evenings we talked and laughed.

What a wonderful time away in a place that demands relaxation and retooling thanks to no television and limited cell service. And how fun to spend that time with dear friends.

img_1262Last week I was on a retreat in Florida, far from Michigan’s gloomy skies. Far from the obligations of house and pets and family.

Here’s what I’m discovering about retreat.

  1. Day 1: It takes time to unwind. My first day here I’m still thinking about answering emails and texts and sending pictures and deadlines. A story I covered several years ago for a major magazine is breaking news at home and around the publishing world, but I’m not writing the first stories. It’s OK. I’ll do stories when I get home, but now I’m on retreat and beginning to wind down.
  2. Day 2: Take some down time. Today was a slow start and that’s OK. It’s OK to read and stare at the ocean. I worked—this is a writing retreat after all—but I also went out to dinner at a lovely seafood restaurant.
  3. Day 3: Face the future. I could live like this for another two weeks, but it’s my last day and I’m starting to miss my family a little. I need to address the huge writing project that looms. Remember that line in “The Devil Wears Prada” when Miranda is on her way up to her office and Stanley Tucci’s character yells, “Gird your loins!” That’s how I feel about the next three months.
  4. Home: Reenter slowly. I was gone Wednesday to Sunday. I don’t count Wednesday and Sunday as part of the retreat because of travel. Taking time to rest, relax and prepare for the days ahead is necessary. No need to rush back in immediately! Take it slow and easy for a day or two, then get back into the crazy, hectic days of deadlines, writing and caring for those around you.

I’m posting this from home and remembering the warm and sunny days, the ocean breeze, the little community I entered for three days at my 1950s-era motel. What a wonderful time away and what a fine collection of memories.

Please consider a retreat of your own. The time away is relaxing, the unstructured time is remarkable, the mind space is revealing. Enjoy!

Lessons from Moving Office

Lessons from Moving Office

img_1135I recently inherited a bedroom left vacant by Kid 3, who took Kid 1’s bedroom when she moved into an apartment. This empty bedroom has become my new office. It was no easy task to move a decade’s worth of stuff from my small office on the main floor to this vast expanse on the second floor.

I learned a few lessons while on this month-long journey.

  1. Take it step by step. Anne Lamott’s lesson from “Bird by Bird” applies to paint and decor. Her advice to move through your writing one step at a time, step after step, makes the same sense as I removed cowboy decorations, spackled, primed, taped and painted the walls. The process couldn’t move ahead without accomplishing the previous steps. Same in your writing life. Take the next step, then the next.
  2. Know your plan and work that plan. I wanted gray walls so found accessories with that in mind. Gray lamp from Ikea, off-white chair with gray writing from Wayfair, gray and white curtains from Home Goods all worked with my plan. That lesson works for writing too. Know the plan for your novel, so you stay within it with research. Outlining your nonfiction book keeps you from rabbit trails. In writing and decorating, a plan is a wonderful thing.
  3. Move outside the box. While having a plan is good, experimenting can be good too. My office isn’t all gray. There are coral-framed bulletin boards, a coral shelf, a light red wagon bed holding miscellany. I also hung a huge vintage painting of downtown Grand Rapids (after painting the hideous frame the dark gray of one wall.). Your writing, too, can use a little outside-the-box thinking. Plot twists, new genres, new markets, new styles. Never hurts to try something different and a little crazy.
  4. Throw stuff away. You’ll not believe the pounds of paper I tossed. Papers, notebooks, old files, brochures, business cards, notes: into the trash it all went. I didn’t need 25 reporter notebooks with notes from stories I wrote 15 years ago. It’s a great feeling to get rid of stuff you can’t possible use ever again. Same with your writing life. Toss the stuff that doesn’t work, physically and psychologically. This could be a characters, others’ expectations, a genre you’re just not good at, bad advice, or a critique partner whose passive-aggressiveness is diabolical. Lighten your life, space and mind.
  5. Recycle. I have boxes of books to bring to my two favorite used bookstores to sell. Boxes of stuff headed to Goodwill. I’ve given away a few things, too. Some things deserve a new home and I’m happy to give it to them. Same with writing. I recently interviewed a local author and will use that interview in two publications. Sometimes I’ve sold one interview three times. Use extra research for your novel in another novel, a short story, or a novella. Don’t waste anything good. Find a home for it if you can.
  6. Get help. Moving my file cabinets up the stairs took four of us: two kids pulling on the rope wrapped around it, and one kid and me pushing from the bottom. It took effort to move those things—and they were empty! I also paid a kid to paint the walls for me; it helped that he needed cash. Good help is a good thing in decorating and writing. Find a good critique partner; hire an editor; find a tutor for social media. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  7. Enjoy the results. I love my office. I sit in my chair and stare at the walls and decorations and  curtains a lot. I smile, too. It was worth all the work. So is that first clip, first box of your books, byline, or media interview. Enjoy every minute of the good stuff that comes from being a writer, no matter how small or large. It’s the life we chose and the life we’ll keep.
2016: Books I’m Glad I Read

2016: Books I’m Glad I Read

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I keep track of the books I read each year. There’s no particular reason except that I like to look back and see what I read. I read 37 books in 2003, the year I had 3- and 5-year old boys and 11- and 13-year-old girls. In 2013 I read 57. In 2016, 60. About half are books I read for review, and a small percentage of those I wish I hadn’t spent time on.

A few of the books this past year—both work and pleasure—I’m glad I had the privilege of reading. Maybe you’ll enjoy them too.

Miriam by Mesu Andrews. What an imaginative, sensory retelling of the Old Testament story of Miriam. I learned much about the Israelite culture, loved Andrews’ details and fictional license, and was enchanted by her writing.

Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens. Michigan author Smolens offers a piece of Upper Peninsula history and the part this far-flung locale played in World War II. This is a fascinating story of what identity and home look like.

The Wedding Chapel by Rachel Hauck. Hauck is the consummate storyteller. I was riveted (and pleasantly surprised) by her tale of lost love, home place and new love.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. Every woman should read this book by businesswoman Sandberg, who juggled her top job at Facebook with family. Her real message is that women too often lean back, opt for less-than, defer to others. A strong message I needed to hear.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Bolz-Weber was the final speaker at the 2016 Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing. Plenary speakers aren’t always spot on at the FFW, but Nadia was. She challenged us, made us laugh and cry, and urged me to rethink what it means to be a Jesus follower. And made me want to get another tattoo.

The Lost Heiress, The Reluctant Duchess and A Lady Unrivaled by Roseanna M. White. I’m usually ambivalent about Christian historical fiction, but the Ladies of the Manor series had a little twisty bite to it: excellent writing, unique twists, and strong women who did unusual things.

The Undoing of Saint Silvanus by Beth Moore. I’ve done Moore’s Bible studies before and watched her on DVD. Her first novel sounds just like her and, despite some flaws, kept me interested and involved in the cast of characters.

Waves of Mercy by Lynn Austin. Austin’s historical fiction set in nearby Holland, Michigan, taught me much about my husband’s Dutch heritage and the way to tell a great story.

The Mental Game of Writing: How to Overcome Obstacles, Stay Creative and Productive, and Free Your Mind for Success by James Scott Bell. Every writer should read Bell’s no-nonsense guide to becoming the best writer possible. He was the keynote at Breathe Christian Writers Conference, so what’s not to love?

You’re the Cream in My Coffee by Jennifer Lamont Leo. Jenny’s my client, and this book reminds me why I became a literary agent. It’s well-written, well-told, and a fun read. And who doesn’t love stories about the old Marshall Field’s in Chicago?

The Whistler by John Grisham. Another of Grisham’s grand tales of legal misconduct, this time focusing on a judge in bed with the casinos in Florida’s Panhandle. Love his sarcasm and storytelling.

The Mark of the King by Jocelyn Green. A brand new book out this month that I read in December. Jocelyn is a great storyteller and this is a great book about the early settlement of Louisiana by the French. Fascinating history and wonderful story.

Would love to hear your favorite books from 2016!

A Writer’s Give-Thanks List

A Writer’s Give-Thanks List

cwmg-front-no-apThis Thanksgiving weekend is a fine time to give thanks for the good things in a writer’s life. You may not have a published book or even a byline yet, but there are still a fair number of writerly things for which to be thankful.

  1. Reference Materials. Maybe a good thesaurus isn’t at the top of your list—until you need to find that exactly perfect word to liven up your sentence. We have great reference materials available that make our writing lives easier and more accurate.
  • The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 4th Edition.
  • The Christian Writer’s Market Guide. See the new edition pictured here.
  • The Writers’ Market Guide.
  • Dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, etc.
  • Bible dictionaries, atlases, feast guides, etc.
  1. Learning Tools. From books to audio and video classes; from magazines to online courses—there is absolutely no reason to let your writing education lag. A couple of websites to visit and books to read:
  1. Top-Level Conferences. Christian writers conferences abound, leaving you no excuse not to attend at least one conference a year. A range of price points, lengths, and locations mean you’ll find one perfect for you. Check these out:
  1. Fellow Travelers. Every writer needs writer friends, whether online buddies or in-person BFFs, so you’ll have at least one person who:
  • Doesn’t look at you strangely when you talk about your characters as real people.
  • Understands that writing is your calling, not something you fit in when you can.
  • Knows that your house isn’t clean but your sentences are sound.chaos-627218__340
  • Understands that you aren’t at your family’s beck and call every minute of the day just because you’re writing at home.
  • Gets your need for strong coffee/dark chocolate/gold fish crackers/mint tea/etc.
  • Will happily go with you to literary movies or shows such as “Jane Eyre: The Musical.”
  • Won’t harangue you for buying one more writing book.
  • Will room with you at conferences and weekend writing retreats.
  1.  Editors. On the whole, editors make your work better. Those of you saying, “But my work is already great,” clearly need an editor. Whether a magazine or book editor, let pencil-1692530__340 them do their work and trust them to make your work smoother, less wordy, less confusing and more interesting. That said, if an editor makes a mistake mention it nicely and ask he or she, respectfully, to fix it. Side notes on editors:
  • Once you are done with your novel and your self-editing, hire a professional editor to look it over and make suggestions.
  • Editing isn’t the same as proofreading, though they overlap. Proofreaders (or copyeditors) look at your post-edited manuscript for typos and other small mistakes.
  • A good editor is worth every penny. Listen to what they say!
  1. A good and fast computer is the best thing ever. The Internet is a great way to research anything from a Civil War battle to who stars in the movie you want to see. A smart phone can hold your schedule, all your email, surf the Internet in the line at the bank, text your kids and friends, monitor your heartbeat, and actually call people too. Love technology; use it wisely.

What are you writers thankful for this holiday weekend? We all want to know!

 

 

The Q&A: Karen Kingsbury

The Q&A: Karen Kingsbury

Karen Kingsbury / Key Author PhotoBestseller author Karen Kingsbury is known and loved for her Baxter family books. She’s written 24 in the collection, the most recent “The Baxter Family Christmas.” Another title, “Love Story,” comes out in June 2017 and a third next fall.

Kingsbury knows how to wring the emotions out of every character and scene. She’s been known to shed a tear while writing, and her readers certainly do too.

Q: How do you write fiction that touches readers so deeply?

A: I try to write people who are real and who readers can relate to. They see themselves or family members in the characters. I would be so disappointed if someone read my books and didn’t cry.

Q: Describe the point-of-view (POV) in your books.

A: I write from an alternating, deep POV. When I write that way I can go very deep and readers become emotionally engaged early on.

Q: How can fiction be a teaching tool?

A: A story can go through the back door of the heart like a teaching book cannot. When Jesus wanted to touch a heart, he told a story. Readers don’t just get caught up in a good read; their hearts become involved too. They realize that maybe they should make that phone call or that apology.

Q: How do you connect with your readers?

A: I connect vial an email newsletter and Facebook. I also have a live book club after each book launches. For four to six weeks, we meet for an hour. Readers post questions and I answer them. It’s a virtual living room with 60,000 people attending.

Q: What is the book club like?

A: We look at a number of chapters each week, and I have a video presentation at the beginning. This is prerecorded so I can concentrate on the readers. At the end of the hour we all say goodbye. People have become friends.

Q: Why do you think the Baxter family books are so popular?

A: The characters have faith and flaws. Through all of life’s ups and downs, they have stayed strong together. I think people see themselves, either the family they had or the family they wish they had.

Q: Do your books reach general market readers as well?

A: Thanks to our partnership with Simon & Schuster, which owns my publisher Howard Books, there are possibilities that wouldn’t have been there before. Half my readers probably don’t realize my books are Christian fiction. They are drawn by the story and it touches them, which they maybe haven’t experienced before. Christian readers expect to feel hopefulness; other readers are surprised by it.

Q: Any other news for the Baxter family?

A: Yes! Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are making a television series based on the Baxter family with MGM Studios. The screenwriter is just finishing up the pilot, and it will be on air at the end of 2017 or early 2018. No network yet, though.