The ACFW conference afterglow is still shining bright, but hey, how long can you stay on the mountaintop before getting back down to business? Today I want to touch again on the subject of author brands. I'd pretty much nailed mine prior to the conference--heartrending stories about love's impact on real-life issues. Or, as my recently adopted tagline puts it:
Where life and love collide.
And sometimes it does feel like our romantic dreams collide head on with real life. We get so wrapped up in work, household chores, family concerns, charity involvement, and/or church commitments that romance is the last thing we have time or energy for. Intimate communication with our spouse or significant other gets lost in translation. Literally.
So in keeping with my brand, I hope to offer some insight into this crazy, confusing, stepping-on-each-other's-toes dance between romance and real life. Not just through my writing but right here on this blog. I plan to enlist the aid of some noteworthy guest bloggers, and I'll also be calling on you, my faithful readers, to contribute your thoughts, suggestions, and experiences in the romance department (keeping it G-rated, of course).
Oh, and be watching next week for my first "Randomly Romantic" contest announcement. Put on your steel-toed shoes, because the dance floor gets messy when life and love collide!
I don't know about you, but I need a break from all that "deep" stuff. Thought this would be a good day to share some of the photos I snapped at the conference.
If you're still with me after yesterday's post, I'd like to tell you about another amazing conference experience. On Thursday evening after the agent and editor panels, I joined two of my dearest friends in the lobby--sister Golden Heart finalists from 2005, Julie Lessman and Janet Dean. These ladies, along with Tina Russo Novinski Radcliffe, the fourth member of our sisterhood, have formed a bond that extends light years beyond casual friendship.
So no surprise that Julie and Janet, knowing how discouraged I've been this past year, lifted me up in prayer as we sat together at that quiet table in the corner. But first, Julie described her own experience of being prayed for prior to signing with her agent and later getting her first book contract. Her prayer partner asked God to give her a divine connection with the one right agent and the one right editor to lead her to publication. Which is exactly what happened for Julie, whose book A Passion Most Pure debuts in January 2008. So Julie prayed that God would also provide a divine connection for me. I liked the sound of that, and I tucked it away in my heart.
The next morning at breakfast, I scanned the editor-hosted tables and asked God to show me if there was one in particular I should try to make a connection with. Kim Moore of Harvest House seemed like a good pick, so I sat down at her table next to Dorothy Featherling, a lovely lady I'd met very briefly at previous conferences.
I never had a chance to say much to Kim Moore, but as I visited with Dorothy and the ladies on either side of us, someone noticed my Genesis Contest "Finalist" ribbon on my nametag and said what a great opportunity that must be for getting noticed by editors. I purposely tried not to sound too depressed or needy as I said yes, I hoped it would be, but that I felt more than a little discouraged about how long this whole writing success thing was taking.
The conversation moved on to more general topics while we ate. Then the praise team took the stage, and the songs turned my thoughts inward again. I found myself asking God to send me one person, someone who didn't know me, had no reason to be aware of my inner struggles, but who would feel a calling on her spirit to pray specifically for me. I suppose this was my way of laying out a fleece.
Then, as we rose to leave for the first workshops of the day, Dorothy asked if we could find a quiet place so that she could pray for me. My heart flip-flopped. The prayer I'd just prayed had been answered! But that isn't even the most amazing part. As Dorothy held my hands and offered up her prayers, she said things she could not have known about my inner struggle.
And then she said, "Give Myra a divine appointment at this conference."
Divine appointment. Divine connection. Practically the same words Julie had used the evening before.
I got chills.
But that's still not all. Okay, "divine appointment" might be considered one of those Christian-ese phrases that has become a cliché. But I hadn't heard it spoken in quite a while before the conference, and I didn't hear anyone use those words again for the whole rest of the conference . . .
Until James Scott Bell's closing address on Sunday morning. Divine appointment. I can't even remember the context in which he said those words because the clutch in my spirit was so strong. The power of three. Three distinctly different events. My friend Julie, who knows me so well. Dorothy, only a passing acquaintance. Jim Bell, who was speaking to a crowd and didn't know me from the stranger at the next table.
I have no idea where this is all leading. I only know that it's the second time this year that God has confirmed something to me with the power of three. If I brought nothing else home from the conference, I would be content that God used such crystal-clear experiences to recharge my faith and restore my hope.
God is so good!
Monday morning after the ACFW conference and I feel like my head is going to explode! Considering I'd been dreading this conference all summer long, I am in utter awe of how God used these past few days to speak to my discouraged heart in ways I never imagined possible. There's way too much to tell in a single post, so I'll be spreading it out over several days.
There is, however, one experience that stands out. One crazy dream . . . vision . . . whatever you want to call it . . . that I'm certain was sent directly from the Lord to straighten me out once and for all on the basic question, God, do You want me to be a writer or not?
Now I am right up there with the biggest skeptics when anyone uses terms like, God told me such-and-such, or, God laid this on my heart. But He's gradually turning me into a believer in such phenomena. I believe God spoke to me clearly and specifically, not with words but with an incredible image that I hope I never forget. Here goes:
It was after the first full conference day, sometime in the wee hours of Friday night or Saturday morning, while I tossed and turned with a zillion thoughts clamoring for brain space. And as I'd prayed so often of late, I'd been telling God that if He really didn't want me to write, if there was something else He had planned for me, then He'd better amputate this dream from me once and for all and show me what He wanted to put in its place.
So there I was. Not really asleep, not fully awake, but this picture began to fill my mind. I saw my own body, with this sort of high-tech vacuum thingy (sorry, no accurate term for what I'm trying to describe) attached to the top of my head. And it was slowly dissolving my bones from the toes on up and sucking them out of my body. (Grossed out yet?)
But okay. Imagine your body without your skeleton. Without the very framework that makes you who you are, capable of life, capable of action. I knew in this vision that God was showing me what my life would be like if He took writing away from me. I knew He was showing me that He'd created me to be a writer. That writing is as basic to me and as essential as the skeleton that gives my body form and function.
And I knew above all else that if God took writing away from me, it would be by my choice, not His. I'm doing what He wants me to do. What He created me to do. Which is really all that matters. I write. He uses it as He wills. The "letting go" part--what we hear so many times about surrendering our wills to the Lord's--means learning to be exactly who God created us to be and then fully trusting Him with the results.
There's so much more I want to share, and I will. I just praise God from the bottom of my heart for getting me to the ACFW conference despite the demons skewering me with discouragement, doubt, and (forgive me, friends!) envy of those whose success has come much more quickly.
I know now why I write. It's because that's the person God created me to be. Blessed be His name!
Thanks to Tracey Bateman for her insightful comment on my previous post as I try to sort out all this branding and author tagline stuff. Here's a portion of what she wrote:
"A tag isn't a brand, though. It's just sort of what you stand for. Kind of like a short mission statement."
A short mission statement. That helps a lot. My friend and critique partner Carla has chosen the tag Hope in a Skid-Marked World. And that definitely sums up her writing mission statement, as she writes about holding onto hope when everything in life seems bent on bringing you down.
Tracey continues, "The brand is what type of work you're known for. For instance, Karen Kingsbury's brand (what she's known for) are heartwarming contemporary stories. When you think of her, that's what you think of. Stephen King is branded as a writer of thrillers."
Which explains why big-name authors don't even need a descriptor to identify their writing style. Stephen King. Nora Roberts. John Grisham. Tom Clancy. Their name is their brand.
So . . . as an unpublished novelist, I can see how a tagline--my brief writing mission statement--could definitely help define my work as I introduce myself to editors and other writers. Where life and love collide . . . In one short phrase, they can get a feel for the types of books I write. Stories about real-life characters finding and holding onto love amidst real-life problems.
The neat thing is, that theme can cover a whole lot of territory. Contemporary. Historical. Single characters. Married couples. Parents and children. Brothers and sisters. Best friends. Sworn enemies. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. . . .
I'm getting inspired. Time to go write!
My last post, which addressed the subject of branding and author tags, inspired me to go Web hopping and start a list of what other writers have chosen as their tag. Here's what I've accumulated so far:
Angela Hunt . . . Expect the unexpected
B.J. Hoff . . . Building a bridge between yesterday and tomorrow
Brandilyn Collins . . . Seatbelt suspense
Debbie Macomber . . . Wherever you are, Debbie takes you home
Diana Groe . . . Love is the most dangerous journey of all
DiAnn Mills . . . Expect an adventure
James Scott Bell . . . The suspense never rests
Julie Lessman . . . Passion with a purpose
Kim Vogel Sawyer . . . Writing gentle stories of hope
Lauraine Snelling . . . Fiction to make you laugh & cry
Lena Nelson Dooley . . . Characters who grip your heart
Lisa Gardner . . . Is the suspense killing you?
Lisa Samson . . . See things in a new light
Mae Nunn . . . Inspiration with a kick!
Robin Lee Hatcher . . . From her heart . . . to yours
Stephanie Grace Whitson . . . A patchwork life
Tracey Bateman . . . Faith. Fun. Fiction.
If you've read any of these authors or know them personally, would you agree their tags fit their personalities as well as the character of their books?
BTW, my current tag incarnation is . . . Where life and love collide.
First of all, thanks to everyone who visited my blog yesterday for the Camy Tang interview. That gal is a virtual fount of writing information, and she has plenty more to offer in her Story Sensei blog.
Yesterday's Story Sensei post touched on branding, a hot topic among my critique group members. As the ACFW conference nears, we've been tweaking our personal taglines to include on one-sheets and business cards. It's not easy pinning down your writing to a short, catchy phrase. Mine has morphed through so many incarnations over the past few weeks that I've lost count. And I'm still not completely settled on it.
Are you beginning to get the picture? My agent has told me the real challenge in selling my work has been the fact that I don't write traditional (read "formulaic") romance. As I've heard one published author describe her books, I write "love stories." Stories about love. Families. Forgiveness. Hope. There's always an element of romance, but romance isn't always the central plot issue.
The rationale behind branding, as Camy explains in her blog, is that it gives editors a handle on marketing you. They know where to fit you into their lines. They know how to promote you and sell more books. And isn't that what we all want?
Well, beyond getting that first call from my agent saying, "Honey, we have a contract!"
Bottom line: Today's writing market is more about specialization than ever. New writers are urged to pick a genre and stick with it. Hone your skills in that area and become a known producer. Convince editors you can do it again. And again. The "same" but different. Make yourself a marketable commodity.
Oooh, I hate even thinking of my writing in those terms. But sadly, it's the new publishing reality. Hmmm, time to get back to my branding brainstorming . . . And if you have any suggestions, pass them along!
Today, as promised, we welcome debut Zondervan author Camy Tang, as she talks about her book Sushi for One? (see the link in my sidebar).
Myra: Wow, when I did an internet search for Sushi for One? and "Camy Tang," I got pages and pages of results! This is your first book in print. With your name and face suddenly all over the internet, you could almost be described as an "overnight success." Does it seem that way to you, or has the road to publication been circuitous?
Camy: It totally does NOT seem like an overnight thing. I worked for years on my craft to get it to the point where an agent offered me representation. I wrote five manuscripts before I sold--yup, count 'em, FIVE. (I know other writers who wrote even more than that.) It seems like I've been working forever to get to this point where my first book is coming out. Nothing seems sudden or "overnight."
I'm extremely grateful to all that my publisher is doing for me. I know it's not typical of what publishers do for debut novelists, and I feel incredibly blessed. It also makes me want to improve my craft more, do more marketing, do all I can to live up to my publisher's faith in me.
It also doesn't feel like an overnight thing because I've been blogging for years, and I've had blog readers who knew me "pre-sale." It's been soooooo exciting and encouraging to have them along for the ride with me.
Myra: You mentioned you've been blogging awhile, and I know your Story Sensei blog is filled with advice and tips for writers. Tell me a little about how you got started as a freelance editor and dispenser of "writerly" advice.
Camy: I kind of fell into it. People started asking me writing questions, and I kept hearing the same types of writing questions. I love the blog format and thought it would be great to post my writing tips on a blog, a few tips a week, so I started the Story Sensei blog.
I also have several critique partners, and one of them--Marilyn Hilton--is herself a freelance editor. She mentioned to me that I had a good eye for large-scale structural problems in a novel, and she said I should seriously consider becoming a freelance editor.
I prayed about it and took the plunge. My freelance business has grown slowly, but I'm very glad for it--it leaves me time for my writing and my other things, like the Genesis [ACFW's annual contest for unpublished writers], my blog, oh, and my husband. :)
Myra: I'm sure your critique and editing experience has propelled your personal growth as a writer. In what areas have you seen your own writing skills develop most since you wrote that very first book manuscript?
Camy: Structure and conflict.
Story structure is the skeleton of a book. I've discovered that if I have good structure, the story flows so much better, so I've worked at improving my story structure. I've worked on classic Scene and Sequel (a la Dwight Swain) and striven to improve it in my own writing. I've also started to pay more attention to rhythm, cadence, and flow.
One of the best workshops I took was one by New York agent Donald Maass, and he impressed on everyone the importance of conflict. He said to have conflict on every single page, preferably every single sentence, because conflict and tension are what keep readers reading.
I've taken his words to heart and have tried to infuse some sort of tension or conflict--whether internal or external--in practically every sentence when I do my rewrites. The difference in the Before and After is amazing. I feel like it's made my writing stronger.
Myra: Considering everything else you do besides writing, including making time for (and with!) your husband, how do you keep a balance? What's a typical working day like for you?
Camy: I'm terrible at discipline, but I'm getting better at it, especially as I write more manuscripts. I'm a night owl, so my most productive working hours are between 10 pm and 2 am. Since I'm able to write full time (at least for now), and since I don't have children, I'm able to stay up writing and wake up in the late morning.
I TRY to have the discipline to exercise first thing, but that doesn't always happen. : I do my quiet time, and then I'll check email. That can take anywhere from one hour to three, and during the crunch time for the Genesis, that's almost all day.
Then I screw down and write the rest of the day. My productivity varies depending on what I'm doing. When I'm plotting and doing characterization, I do a lot of ruminating and stewing in my head over my story. I do this plotting for several months before I start on the actual writing. When I'm writing, I can do about 3000-5000 words a day.
My husband comes home later in the evening, and I spend time with him until he decides to watch his Mixed Martial Arts programs or ESPN SportsCenter. Then I leave him to it and do more work. He goes to bed earlier than I do, so I get a few good hours of quiet in during my prime time of 10-2.
Myra: Sounds like you're more of a plotter than a "seat of the pants" writer. Do you outline, create and shuffle scene cards, fill out detailed character charts? And how much of the story do you need to know before you begin the actual writing?
Camy: I use Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method. I also use archetypes for characterization and the heroine's journey (I use 45 MASTER CHARACTERS by Victoria Lynn Schmidt for both of them). I spend anywhere from 2-5 months doing the plotting and characterization work (although I'm trying to get that down to 2 months max).
I will plot out absolutely everything, down to what will happen in each scene, before I start writing. I like knowing the scene direction so that when I start laying words down, I can follow a path I've drawn. Sometimes it veers, and that's okay, but I need that roadmap to start off with.
Myra: A "snowflaker," huh? Randy would be proud, Camy! In addition to 45 MASTER CHARACTERS, what are the top 5 books you believe are vital for a writer's bookshelf?
1. TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight Swain (however, he's a bit hard to read, so I usually recommend...)
2. PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell
3. GETTING INTO CHARACTER by Brandilyn Collins (she has the best method for characterization out of all the writing craft books I've read. Her method is unique and it applies to all types of writers, whether plotters or pantsers.)
4. SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King
5. WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass
Myra: And while we're talking books, can you pinpoint a particular novel or author that lit your own inner fire to write fiction?
Camy: Um ... no.
I liked reading as a child, and I think that most writers are voracious readers, as well (although not all readers want to be writers, obviously). Every writer has a shelf-full of favorite books.
I loved Little House of the Prairie and A Little Princess.
Currently, I've been reading a lot of New York Times bestselling novels, especially any that happen to be debut novels. It's been interesting to read the various styles (mostly literary fiction, which is not my forte) and to try to understand what made the book a bestseller. Plus, they're mostly just great stories, which are a delight to read.
Myra: From both a reader's and a writer's perspective, are there specific factor(s) you've zeroed in on that bestsellers have in common?
Camy: Conflict and mystery.
Not all of the books I've read have a good pace--in fact, I almost didn't finish one book because it started so slowly that I was bored by the end of chapter three. But I skimmed ahead and it sounded more interesting, so I went back and kept reading. (I don't usually skim ahead--if I book doesn't hook me by the end of chapter three, I won't finish reading it.)
But all the books that I've finished have both conflict and mystery to keep me interested. Many books are more literary style novels, so the conflict is largely internal at the beginning, and then a more external conflict appears a couple chapters into the book. But the internal conflict keeps me reading until the external conflict is introduced.
The external conflict is usually extraordinary and intriguing, which is what keeps me reading to the end of the book. No cliché external goals--the bestsellers I've read recently all have very unique external goals for the characters.
The internal conflict is also usually intriguing and original. No characters always get along--there's a constant form of some type of tension. That constant tension keeps the relationships interesting. If they got along, the story would be boring and I wouldn't finish reading the book.
The complete uniqueness of the external conflict and the internal conflict of the books I've been reading have been what make the stories compelling for me.
Myra: I agree, conflict is essential to hold the reader's interest, and I assume by "mystery," you mean anything that keeps the reader guessing. I'm sure those key elements are skillfully woven into SUSHI FOR ONE? (fantastic cover, by the way!). What sparked the idea for your novel?
Camy: I played coed recreational volleyball for several years, but when I started writing, I'd torn my ACL (ligament in my knee) and had surgery. I had read several chick lit novels, both in the Christian market and the general market, and I thought it would be unique to have a chick lit heroine who was a jock. And what better way to release my angst about not being able to play volleyball because of my surgery than to have a character who was a top-notch volleyball player?
I thought up Lex's character first, and then the storyline unfolded as I made her more complex and understood her fears and spiritual struggles. Grandma Sakai's character is a conglomeration of my friends' mothers, grandmothers, and aunties, exaggerated to the tenth degree.
Myra: I understand SUSHI FOR ONE? is the first in a series. Can we expect to see more of your SFO characters in upcoming novels, and is there a tentative release date for book two?
Camy: Yup, the cousins reappear in the other books in the series. ONLY UNI is scheduled to release February 2008 (a nice romance for Valentine's Day), and Trish stars in that novel. The third novel will release around September or October 2008, tentatively titled THE LONE RICE BALL, and it's Venus's story. Jenn's story hasn't been contracted yet, but keep your fingers crossed. Her story involves a bad boy in black leather ...
Myra: Thanks for spending some time with us today, Camy. God's best on what is sure to be a longstanding career as a successful Christian novelist!
Two weeks and counting until the ACFW conference begins. I've been making lists and checking them twice (or more) and trying to get myself and my conference paraphernalia organized. It's not like I can just pack a suitcase and go. I'm supposed to be gearing up for actually talking to editors. As in . . . pitching. Right up there with my least favorite things in the universe, only a notch or two below getting a colonoscopy. In fact . . .
Never mind. Writer friends who know I have an agent ask me why I'm even concerned about pitching. At this point, it's not so much about pushing my manuscripts as it is about face time. Introducing myself to potential editors, and especially to any editors who still have one of my submissions on their desk (hopefully, and not in file 13). Letting them know I'm serious about my craft. Dedicated. Prolific. Ready to rewrite and revise to their heart's content.
In other words, ready to sell.
And that dream, I've decided, is not a thing to be ashamed of. This week I started reading Jerry Jenkins's Writing for the Soul. His words have been very encouraging as I debate this whole writing dilemma. Here are a few gems I gleaned this morning: