Reviews matter – Here’s how to get them

Have you watched the big five trade book publishers launch a book? They always have an impressive list of reviews on Amazon the day a book launches. When I launched Go Away Home, I tried to have reviews ready to go, too.

Reading takes time. Getting a review does, too.

Reading takes time. Getting a review does, too.

When a senior acquisition editor for Lake Union Publishing told me all the rave reviews led her to read my debut novel, she affirmed what I’d felt in my gut — reviews really do matter.

This post consolidates two previous posts about my approach to getting reviews and includes new learning gained since those posts were written.

How many reviews is enough? – Though I didn’t have a specific number of reviews in mind, I felt really successful to have 48 reviews averaging 4.7 Stars posted on Amazon in the first month Go Away Home was on sale. On Goodreads, I had 40 reviews averaging 4.5 Stars.

Here’s what I did and how it worked.

Overall
Give yourself time – Reviewers get hundreds of review requests, and you may find yourself in a very long queue. Most reviewers ask for 10-12 weeks. I started seeking reviews five months in advance of my launch.

To pay or not to pay – Many sites will review for a price. I make no judgement about whether paying for a review is a good idea. I leaned toward not paying because I gave reviewers time. I also hoped the novel was strong enough to attract on its own merit. I did pay for an expedited review from Readers’ Favorite only because I wanted to be sure I had it before publication.

Utilize the social network – I put the word out to my social media contacts to see if any were willing to read and review, preferably in time for my launch. Questions have been raised about the value of reviews by author friends, so I made it clear to each volunteer that I expected an honest review. That the bonds of friendship didn’t apply for this task. I meant it. A one or two-star review is no fun, but all reviews speak to credibility.


Actions & Results
Target book bloggers and organizations who review in your genre – The Indie View has a list of bloggers willing to review.  It’s a long list and you have to search for reviewers in your genre. Morgen Bailey offers reviewers by genre on her writing blog.

Personal pitches to historical fiction authors and bloggers. I made 39 direct pitches, resulting in 17 reviews, including one from the Historical Novel Society. I also pitched to local media. While I received good media coverage of launch events, these did not include reviews. Of course, not everyone reviews. Several people took review copies but have yet to post reviews. There are no guarantees they ever will.

It takes a lot of time to identify the right bloggers and to tailor pitches according to each blogger’s specifications. I created a table to keep track of my contacts, format requested, ARC distribution, and follow up. I was meticulous in giving reviewers what they wanted. No form letters. I made all e-formats available, plus paperback. Doing this again, I’d cast a broader net to include women’s fiction bloggers. With a year of promotion under my belt, I know that this genre is another good fit for my book.

Lake Union has made Go Away Home available to reviewers through NetGalley. I was not familiar with this service making advance review copies available to bloggers, media and other reviewers, but they tell me books posted here can result in dozens if not hundreds of new reviews.

Blog Tour – I also paid for a blog tour organized by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. It was well worth the investment to have a specialist with established contacts set up a tour. Go Away Home was featured on 14 blogs, resulting in 3 guest posts and 8 reviews – 4 & 5 stars, all posted on Amazon and Goodreads.

Play the numbers game – I created advance review copy giveaways specifically to garner reader reviews.  I understand from other authors that if 10-20% of the people who win copies actually post reviews, that’s a high return.

LibraryThing Giveaway. Following the advice in a blog from The Future of Ink, I made 100 e-copies available. Sixty-five readers took copies. At launch, 17 wrote reviews, a 26% review rate. Reviews were 4 & 5 stars, and readers readily placed the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. A gentle follow-up email resulted in pleasant conversations with several readers as well as immediate reviews.

Two advantages to the LibraryThing contest. 1) I gave e-copies in .pdf, mobi, and e-pub formats so there was no out-of-pocket cost. 2) LibraryThing provides reader emails, so it’s easy to contact readers directly.

Goodreads Giveaway. I made 20 paperback copies available in a three-week giveaway that attracted 1,874 entrants and caused more than 600 to mark Go Away Home “To Be Read.” At last check, 4 of the 20 had written reviews, a 20% review rate. Reviews ranged from 2 to 5 stars.

The big advantage of the Goodreads giveaway was getting my book in front of so many readers. The biggest downside of this giveaway was cost of books and mailing. Three copies were won by readers in Canada, where media mail does not apply. Yikes. Plus, since Goodreads does not provide email addresses, it’s not easy to follow up.

Reinforcing that these giveaways are good for raising visibility, Lake Union Publishing is running a 20-copy giveaway of the new edition now. Click and enter.

Bookbub Promotion. Hands down, the biggest review generator was one I hadn’t even considered for that purpose – a BookBub promotion. In addition to generating impressive sales, readers responded with 36 new reviews in the first couple of months after the promotion.

Boldly Ask. I was, and continue to be, bold in asking people to post reviews. When readers tell me they enjoyed the book, I ask them if they’ll post a review to the review links I provide. With little editing, they can usually post what they’ve written in their emails.

Was all this effort worth it? You bet.

  • People comment on all the great reviews I’m getting. Reviews create enthusiasm and buzz.
  • Amazon has promoted Go Away Home numerous times in direct-mail emails.
  • Just this past week, Go Away Home earned it’s 100th review.
  • And, of course, there’s the big bonus of attracting the attention of Lake Union Publishing. There’s no guarantee that reviews will lead to a contract, but without them it most certainly would not have happened.

I’m so grateful to every reader who reads my books. A special thank you to each of you who took the time to post a review. Reviews really matter.

Seven questions about publishing with Amazon

Ever since Lake Union Publishing acquired my novel Go Away Home (re-launch on July 7), I get questions. Lots of them. About how it works, the advantages, the disadvantages. Jane Friedman invited me to answer the top seven most frequently asked questions on her blog. If you haven’t connected with Jane yet, take time to look around her blog; she offers a deep well of information on the writing and publishing world.

If you’re curious about how it all worked, too, hop over and read my answers to such questions as:

  • How did Lake Union find my book?
  • Why did I sign with them?
  • What happens when a book is acquired?
  • And four more …

My Experience Working with Amazon Publishing

Amazon Publishing

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is from Carol Bodensteiner (@CABodensteiner), author of the self-published memoir Growing Up Country and the upcoming Go Away Home via Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing.


Unable to land a publisher after I wrote my first book, a memoir, I cast my lot with the indie world. I enjoyed the control, and good sales put money in my pocket. So when I completed my pre-WWI-era novel, Go Away Home, in July 2014, I didn’t even look for a traditional publisher.

Imagine my surprise when six months later an email arrived in my inbox from an acquisition editor at Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. I felt like the average teenage girl sitting at the soda fountain counter who is spotted by a director and cast in a major motion picture.

Click to read more.

Have more questions about publishing with Lake Union and Amazon? Leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

Dressed up in a new cover – Go Away Home

A drum roll, please … When my novel Go Away Home re-launches on July 7, it will sport this brand new cover.

Bodensteiner-GoAwayHome-CV-FT-v1

As an indie author responsible for all aspects of publishing, I have to say cover design caused me the most anxiety. Still, I felt I found great designers for both my memoir Growing Up Country and for Go Away Home. Booksellers and readers told me in both cases I’d made right decisions.

So when Lake Union Publishing picked up Go Away Home, I asked, “What about the cover? Will we keep it?”

“We think we can do more to convey the time period and sense of the story,” they said.

I put my faith in their knowledge of what would appeal to readers, and we went to work. As with editing, cover design with Lake Union Publishing is a team effort. I worked with my editor and the designer to find the right clothing, landscape, and color. The right “feel.”

In addition to the images, size of elements came into play. The larger title on a light background ensures the title will show well in digital thumbnails. Smaller elements – the scissors and sewing machine, stitching and buttons – are surprises hinting at story elements for those who look closer. We went through several rounds to come to a decision we all liked.

Getting the right cover – one that grabs a reader’s attention and makes her want to read the blurb, then open the book and keep on reading is critical. As a marketer, I know there are generally several right answers. I liked the first edition cover, and I like this one, too.

I’m excited to see how readers respond. What do you think?

Are You a Book Reviewer? – Advance review copies of Go Away Home are available. If you are a blogger or journalist who reviews books, let me know so I can get you a copy.

Jackasses & Monkeys – Inner demons of writing

I’m in Iowa City this week, sequestered at a bed & breakfast, doing a deep dive into writing my next novel. I write, I think, I walk, I write some more. All the while, I struggle with monkey brain. Monkey brain is the form my inner editor takes as it hoots and scratches and leaps around, yammering that the writing is No Good. Uninspired. Not Interesting.

I fight monkey brain all the time. Mostly by putting my head down, setting fingers on the keyboard, and reminding myself that it’s okay to just write. For today, just write one thing.

Today I received some unexpected help from author Kimberly Brock. For her, it’s not monkey brain. For her  the inner editors are jackasses. She wrote an inspired post on the topic of jackasses, posted on Writers In The Storm, and I share it for your enjoyment.

The Jackass in My Head: Barnyard Lessons From a Rustic Writer’s Retreat

by Kimberly Brock

A few weeks ago I was heading to Cashiers, North Carolina for what was heralded as the answer to my recent writer’s weariness. I’d been driving for several hours, twisting up winding roads where the earth falls away into deep gullies and the air grows thin and the mountain walls weep.

I was dizzy with anticipation, and probably the higher altitude. For months, I’d been waiting and worrying about this retreat. I’d been invited to attend as a speaker, and I’d become convinced I was secretly meant to be the comic relief. The other authors on the panel were big names with long, illustrious careers. I had no idea how I’d gotten so lucky to be included amongst them, but I was already sweating through my new jacket.

photo credit: Donkeys via photopin (license)

Upon arrival, I dumped my luggage in a pile in my room and texted the event coordinator to let her know I’d found the joint, mostly so I couldn’t back out of the whole thing and hit the road with some sort of excuse – got kidnapped, bubonic plague.

I’d been battling my inner running dialogue all day, the one that reminds me of all my shortcomings, all the bad decisions, the bad grammar, the bad breath.

Some writers call this voice the Inner Editor. I call it my Inner Jackass. In my mind’s eye, this voice looks a lot like the Hee Haw logo, sporting goofy teeth, ready to take a bite out of me any chance he gets.

Read on for the rest of Kimberly’s essay.

* * *

Now I’m going back to my novel, encouraged to know I’m not alone with my monkey brain. We all have the inner editor – whether it takes the form of a jackass or a monkey. And sometimes they’re useful.

If you battle an inner demon on your writing, please share. And then go write something to put that jackass in its place.

The scoop on editing with Amazon Publishing

“What was it like working with Amazon Publishing?” “Did it bother you to lose control?” “Is it still the same story?” 

These are some of the questions I’ve received since my novel Go Away Home was acquired by Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. Since the editing process is complete, this is a good time to report on how it went.

When I published Go Away Home last July, it was as good as I could make it. I’d hired a professional for cover design, copyediting and proof reading. I felt good about my debut effort.

Editing to make it shine.

Editing to make it shine.

Even so, when Jodi Warshaw, senior acquisition editor at Lake Union Publishing approached me, she talked about how another round of editing could make my story really shine.

I was not offended by the implication that the novel didn’t already shine. It attracted her attention, that was good enough for me. In fact, I was excited to to see what new eyes and additional professional editors would suggest. From my perspective, good can always be better. Warsaw assured me I’d be involved every step of the way and I was. Here’s how it worked.

Developmental Edit: “Trim” is such a gentle word. Much kinder, much easier to hear than “Cut,” “Slash” “Eviscerate.” My developmental editor Amara Holstein suggested “trimming” so often I found myself laughing. She suggested changes that tightened the writing in ways I’d never imagined possible. She challenged me when characters acted out of character, when I over-explained, when I didn’t give readers enough credit.

Amara and I spoke on the phone before she began her work. After she sent her comments to me, she remained available by phone and email to clarify, respond to my probes, and react to approaches I took in rewriting sections. She was encouraging, helpful, professional. I learned a ton that made this novel better and will improve my future writing.

Copyedit: While not near as intense or time-consuming as the developmental edit, the copyedit was equally valuable. Where the developmental edit looked at the big picture, my copy editor Kirsten Colton delved into details. Colloquial word use. Consistency of use. Transitions in and out of flashbacks. Use of em dashes. She discovered several words that were out of historical context – some by only a couple of years – words I never thought to question. This was a tad embarrassing since I thought I’d been so careful about being historically accurate. Again the importance of another set of eyes.

An amusing thing happened in the copyedit: where Amara trimmed with vigor, Kirsten encouraged fleshing out – more historical detail, more character description. Their suggestions were not inconsistent, simply focused on different things. Reviewers who mentioned wanting more historical detail will be happy with these additions.

Proofreading: This is the step of the process I’m most clear about since I’ve done proofreading myself as a magazine editor. A set of eyes looking at copy with a magnifying glass. Is everything absolutely perfect – spelling, grammar, punctuation, page layout.

Each of the editors had plenty to say, and I seldom disagreed with their suggestions. The editing process was not easy. At each stage, I had two weeks to make changes, write, re-write and return the manuscript for the next phase. I believe it was worth every minute of effort.

I was impressed with the team of editors that worked with me to ready Go Away Home for re-launch in July. Going in, I thought I would get push back from the developmental and copy editors on changes I made or didn’t make based on their comments. Quite the contrary. When I asked Warshaw if this was common, she said: “We want the author to be in favor of all changes and don’t want to change their vision or voice.” Errors excepted, of course.

The whole process made me think of a dedicated effort to get in shape physically. Trainers look at the big picture and what you want to accomplish. They recommend exercises to strengthen here, reduce there, tighten, trim. The person getting in shape is involved every step of the way and must do hard work to recognize the benefit. When you stick at it in the gym, you come out a better you.

Having been through the entire editing process, Go Away Home is stronger, tighter, a little shorter here, a little longer there. Is it the same story? Yes, only now it shines a little more.

A “Marriage” of Fact and Fiction – Giveaway

Many authors write a memoir first and then turn to fiction, as I did. While those first works of fiction often have some basis in real people and events, the outcome is largely fictional as the author molds the story line, characters, and events to achieve the best dramatic arc.

Susan Weidener’s new novel A Portrait of Love and Honor is a unique combination of fact and fiction because it’s based on her late-husband’s unpublished memoir. To celebrate the launch, Susan is giving away a copy of her new novel to readers of this blog. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment.

I had the pleasure of meeting Susan in Tucson this spring where she writes and leads memoir workshops. Here is her story.

A “Marriage” of Fact and Fiction

By Susan G. Weidener

A Portrait of Love and Honor, cover I first made the decision to publish my late husband John M. Cavalieri’s memoir in 2013. As I looked out the kitchen window at a dreary gray Pennsylvania morning, I thought of John’s story. While he had tried to get it published before his death in 1994, it was rejected by traditional publishers. I always felt it both compelling and beautifully written. It seemed a waste to let it gather dust in the back of my closet.

I went upstairs and took Life with Honor from a carton with John’s West Point memorabilia; his yearbook, and the black and white photographs of him and fellow cadets. . . the track team for company G-1 where John was captain . . . John in full dress uniform. I read late into the morning. John was again in the room with me.

A thought took shape. What if I created a fictionalized love story to “embrace” John’s memoir of West Point? I visualized Jay Scioli (John’s pen name) meeting a 40-something divorced editor and author, Ava Stuart. Jay admires Ava’s writing and at a book signing approaches her about editing his memoir. As they work on it, they discover that indefinable chemistry and connection of two people searching for meaning and love in a life often marred with disillusionment and adversity. Thus, A Portrait of Love and Honor emerged over a two-year period of writing and rewriting.

Although I am a journalist and memoirist, fiction was no stranger to me. Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I wrote a historical romance set in the Court of King Charles II. After college, I worked on a contemporary novel – a thinly veiled memoir about a young woman who falls in love with the wrong guy and then travels solo across England, France and Holland searching for stories in her quest to become a writer.

***

Susan & John Cavalieri

Susan & John Cavalieri

John wrote his memoir in 1991 and 1992. In 1994, three weeks after his 47th birthday, he died of colorectal cancer. Upon rereading his story, I felt important questions remained unanswered.  So I had to imagine what “Jay” might say in relation to his parents and their expectations . . . and his own desire to remain at the United States Military Academy at West Point against all odds.

I excerpted portions of the memoir, choosing those sections I felt most dramatic. I tried to intensify John’s experience at the Academy with more detailed writing and descriptions of the Hudson River Valley, the Academy during bleak winters, and more vivid character descriptions of the cadets who served as the centerpiece to his story.

Thus, a marriage of fact and fiction: a novel based on a true story.

***

My years as a journalist also taught me the importance of accuracy. I researched and double-checked what John wrote about West Point – how many graduates of the Class of 1966 died in Vietnam; the history, abuses and abolishment of the Fourth Class System – a form of hazing of plebes; who gave the commencement address for the Class of 1971. It helped, of course, that John and I had visited the Academy many times when we were married and talked often of his years there. My husband is buried in the Catholic cemetery overlooking the Hudson River at USMA. I have been back just once in 20 years to visit his gravesite. I plan another trip to the Academy this spring.

***

The setting of my novel is drawn from landscapes I most love: Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I live, and Tucson, Arizona, where I have been coming in winters to write and reflect. John and I never traveled to Tucson so the scenes between Jay and Ava that take place there are pure fiction.

Moving from memoir to fiction offered me a creative expression and vision for my husband’s story. I felt it showcased John’s memoir, making it more appealing to today’s readers. It also offered me the opportunity to craft a dramatic story . . . and while drawn from my own life with John, the story of two people destined to meet took on a life of its own.

Things I have learned:

  • Write with imagination, heart and soul
  • Do your research
  • Create dramatic characters whose lives ring true
  • Add conflict throughout the story
  • Avoid excessive back story
  • Create realistic dialogue
  • Keep the story moving
  • Be creative and have a vision for your novel

***

**Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a *free copy* of A Portrait of Love and Honor. The winner may choose either paperback or ebook. The drawing will be held on May 15, 2015.

Susan hosts the Women’s Writing Circle, a welcoming and encouraging site for writers. I encourage you to check out her blog and all of her books. You can get your copy of A Portrait of Love and Honor  NOW on Amazon in paperback or on Kindle, and at Barnes & Noble.

Susan Weidener

Susan Weidener

Author Bio: Susan G. Weidener is the author of two memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again, and the sequel to that, Morning at Wellington Square. A former reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan has interviewed a host of interesting people from all walks of life, including Guy Lombardo, Bob Hope, Leonard Nimoy and Mary Pipher. Susan earned a BA in Literature from American University and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. An editor, writing coach and teacher of writing workshops, Susan founded the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. She lives in Chester Springs, PA.

Her website is: www.susanweidener.com

Amazon Author Page

Twitter @Sweideheart

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A different kind of book review – Deeply Odd

Memoirs and historical fiction are my normal reading choices. But every so often, I enjoy trying something different. Recently I caught a Dean Koontz interview on the CBS Sunday Morning show. Though I’d seen his books on bookstore and library shelves, I’d never cracked one open. A recent road trip gave me plenty of listening time, so I chose Deeply Odd, from Koontz’s Odd Thomas series.Deeply-Odd-MM

If you haven’t read any of the books, here’s the premise: Odd Thomas is a young man who can see and talk to dead people. He uses this skill to combat evil in the living world. In the process, he helps these dead people, including such luminaries as Elvis Presley and Alfred Hitchcock, resolve whatever earthly issues they have so they can pass on.

As a reader, I found the story a real page turner – or since I was on the road – a miles burner. As a writer, I was blown away by Koontz’s skill.  So here, in a book review of a different type – are some of the techniques I noticed in Deeply Odd and Brother Odd, another book from the series.

Complex, vivid, characterization
Koontz develops fascinating characters who are revealed through physical and personality descriptions, which are reinforced throughout the book. Odd Thomas, for instance, frequently describes himself as: “only a fry cook, currently unemployed.” This self-deprecating description is reinforced by Odd’s dialogue. For instance, Odd uses polite formality when he addresses others. He addresses others as, “ma’am” and “sir.” Every time, even if someone asks him to use their first name.

Attention to details of clothing and place
Koontz pays great attention to how people look, what they’re doing, and the physical surroundings. He dribbles this information in over time so the reader isn’t tempted to skip over paragraphs bogged down in description.

Here’s how Odd describes a policeman:

  • “In the side mirror, the man who got out of the patrol car looked like Hercules’ bigger brother, a guy who at every breakfast with his dozen eggs and pound of ham drank a steaming cup of steroids.”

A few paragraphs later, Odd adds:

  • “A massive cop loomed at my window blocking the morning sun as effectively as an eclipse. He bent down and looked into the car, mouth puckered in a frown, grey eyes squinted as if the Mercedes were an aquarium and I was the strangest fish that he had ever seen. He was a handsome bull, I’ll give him that, even though his head was as big as a butcher’s block.”

The writing is fresh and unexpected. Never cliched. With each paragraph, Koontz paints people and scenes so vividly, I grinned as I listened.

Interweaving physical traits with character traits
The physical traits Koontz chooses for a character have purpose and come into play both in how the person acts and also how Odd Thomas is affected by those traits.

Here’s Sister Angela, a nun with periwinkle-colored eyes:

  • “With the power of her personality, Sister Angela can compel you to meet her eyes. Perhaps a few strong-willed people are able to look away from her stare after she has locked on to their eyes, but I’m not one of them. By the time I told her all about bodachs, I felt pickled in periwinkle.”

Vivid back story in tantalizing bits:
Koontz shares back story in tiny snippets that are woven in with powerful effect. In his first description of Sister Angela, he says:

  • “Her eyes are the same merry blue as the periwinkles on the Royal Doulton china that my mother owed, pieces of which Mom, from time to time, threw at the walls or at me.”

Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Now I know Odd had a problematic relationship with his mother, and I’m not likely to forget.

Fixing time and place
A lot happens in each Odd Thomas novel but often in a very short period of time. In the course of a chapter, only a few minutes may pass. It would be easy for readers to get disoriented, but Koontz makes sure readers stay with him.

  • “From the time I had unlocked the bronze door with my universal key until I entered this room, not even two minutes had passed.”

These are a few of the writing gems I took away from reading two of Koontz’s novels. Is Koontz writing great literary fiction? No. Is he writing novels based on great characters and solid plot lines using original language? You bet.

As a reader, it’s a delight to try out a new author and come away a fan. As a writer, it’s inspiring to find an author who models writing techniques I aspire to use as well. I now count myself a Koontz fan, both as a reader and as a writer.

What about you? What new authors have you found that surprised and delighted you?

Going deep inside – Perspective 3

Carlsbad Caverns - "Curtains"

These “drapery” formations evoke a whale’s mouth.

Recently, I’ve considered perspective from high up in a hot air balloon and up close at Cadillac Ranch. I also had a chance to go deep with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I’ve been in caves before, but always in the company of others. I toured the massive spaces of Carlsbad Caverns on my own.

I walked to the Big Room (rather than take the elevator) via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep descent of 1 1/4 mile that takes approximately an hour. I’d never been so deep under the earth’s surface. What would it smell like? Feel like? Sound like? Would I be afraid to be nearly 800 feet under the earth’s surface?

Carlsbad Caverns - Stelagtites

Stalactites connect to stalagmites and eventually form pillars.

With conscious dawdling, I let other visitors overtake and pass me on the trail, leaving me to soak in the experience alone.

The trail was dimly lit and impressive formations enjoyed greater lighting, but there were points where the space was darker. I found those places, stood still, closed my eyes and waited, exploring sensory input as it reached me.

Underground, no traffic, wind, or animal sounds penetrate. Would I be able to hear anything? I stilled the noise in my head and waited. Eventually, there it was, the sound of a water drop plinking into a pool. Not often, not regularly, but there.

Eyes closed, I soaked in total blackness. No street lights, no car lights, no sun, no moon. Impenetrable black. After a few minutes, still turned toward the darkest place in the cave, I opened my eyes. I could barely make out the black pool where the water drops fell. That was with the faintest trail light bleeding in. I wonder what else there was in the darkest places my eyes could not reach?

"Popcorn" created fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

“Popcorn” forms fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

Temperatures in the cave are a constant 56 degrees year around. At one point, I turned to look back up the trail and felt a breeze against my face. As I considered why they might be ventilating the cave, I happened upon a trail sign. As it turns out I’d come upon the one spot in the cave where a natural draft from the surface finds its way deep underground. I chuckled.

After an hour and a quarter on the trail, when I finally reached the Big Room, I had a passing thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Could there really be enough to hold my interest? Oh, my, yes. The name ‘Big Room’ understates the treasures of a cavern the size of six football fields – a cavern large enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral.

Carlsbad Caverns - Pillars

Pillars as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral reached the top of the Big Room.

Walking the trails that wound through the Big Room took another hour. Along the way, I saw formations that were whimsical, naughty, majestic. reminiscent of Broadway shows and Biblical stories.

Rather than fear, I felt awe. These caves have been forming for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the formations are still growing. Long before people existed. Long after people are gone. These caverns were, are, and will be.

Touring Carlsbad Caverns reminded me of the work memoir writers do as we dig deep in the experiences of our lives and try to make sense of it all. Memoir writers who do the hard work go into the dark places and discover unexpected treasures. The experience may make them laugh or cry. It may be irreverent or holy. But in doing so, the writer learns some of the truth of her life. With luck, she then writes a story that conveys that truth to the reader.

I Grew Up Country – New initiative encourages storytelling

On Monday, March 9, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed a Proclamation declaring March 18, 2015, “I Grew Up Country Day” – in Iowa and wherever food is produced.

Governor Branstad lent his support to "I Grew Up Country"

Governor Branstad lent his support to “I Grew Up Country”

Haven’t heard of “I Grew Up Country”? Let alone a day to celebrate it? Not surprising. The day and the concept are brand new, the brainchild of fellow author Shirley Hershey Showalter and myself.

Last fall, Shirley and I shared the podium for a reading from our memoirs at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.  Afterwards, over a latte, we discussed the fact that every time we shared our own stories about growing up on farms in the 1950s, people were eager to step up and tell us their stories.

Prairie Lights Bookstore - where "I Grew Up Country" began.

Prairie Lights Bookstore – where “I Grew Up Country” began.

Readers of my memoir Growing Up Country told me the stories made them think of their own growing up years; they also told me reading these simple stories made their own lives and their memories more important somehow. Shirley heard from people who read her memoir Blush and remembered butchering day, baling hay, milking cows, swimming in farm ponds, and downing food from tables loaded with fresh produce, meats, and homemade desserts.

We agreed we needed a place for all these people to find each other, to share their stories, to take pride in their collective appreciation for the country way of life.

The seed of an idea began to germinate. Over the weeks it took root, and this month, Shirley and I are kicking off “I Grew Up Country,” an initiative to encourage, collect, and celebrate stories of growing up country.

Here’s how we’re spreading the news:

We’d like to hear from you.

Our collaborator Millie had a great idea. She encourages any one who grew up country, to tell us how you’d complete the sentence:

“I know I Grew Up Country because …”

She even suggested a few answers, which brought smiles of recognition from Shirley and me. Here’s Millie’s contribution to start us off.

“You know you grew up country: If you bring home more stuff from the dump than you went with … Or you know you grew up country if you can sew on a button or hem a skirt … Or, You know you grew up country if you have ever stood barefoot in a garden eating a sun-ripened tomato — the juice dripping down your arm and off your elbow.”

Leave a message here and click on over to Facebook to meet other country folks and share your stories there. And, please, spread this news to anyone you know who grew up country.

From high above – Perspective

It's a whole different perspective from the ground.

It’s a whole different perspective from the ground.

Hot air balloons float over my house in Des Moines with some regularity in the summer. I’ve watched from the ground and wondered what it would be like to go up in one. What would it feel like? What would I hear? What would I see? How would it be differing than looking at the ground from an airplane seat?

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

Being up in a balloon would provide an entirely different perspective. Of that I was certain. When I visited my sister in Tucson, we agreed it was time. A first-ever opportunity for both of us.

I’ll cut to the chase. The entire experience was magnificent.

Early morning light painted a soft fringe on the saguaro cacti. Were it not for this flight, I’d never have thought to describe a saguaro as “soft.”

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Floating along at 400 feet, we spotted javelinas, coyotes, deer, and rabbits threading through the cacti, skirting around buildings, traveling close, but not too close, to each other. From this perspective, we saw them all exist in the same territory, aware of each other perhaps, but for the moment in a live-and-let-live mode.

I felt child-like delight watching the shadow of our balloon against the mountains as we drifted along.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

With blasts of heat from the burner – the only sound disturbing the morning silence – we rose to 2,000+ feet and crested Sombrero Peak in the Tucson Mountains. Our pilot who’d been flying for 30 years had never flown directly over this peak. His delight made me think how wonderful it is to discover new pleasure in something you do all the time.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

From greater heights, we enjoyed the patterns of fields, a quarry, and the mountain range – designs we could never take in with our feet on the ground.

Recently, I wrote about Cadillac Ranch and the importance of taking a closer look. There’s equal value to getting the “30,000-ft” view.

In life and in writing, it helps to step back (or in this case, ‘up’) every once in a while. To get away from the minutiae. To see how the larger pieces fit together. To gain new perspectives on what I thought I knew.

Thanks for joining me on this flight of fancy. How do you step away from the details and gain bigger picture perspective? Please share.