Journey to publication began with NANOWRIMO

Writer at work

Writer at work

Writers worldwide recently passed the half-way mark of National Novel Writing Month. By today, a writer who is on the NANOWRIMO track will have logged at least 30,000 words on their work in progress. Each year when NANOWRIMO rolls around, I itch to join in. There’s something about the sweet smell of a challenge and a deadline that calls me.

In 2006, I was there. With the finish line for my memoir in sight, I joined the tens of thousands of writers worldwide who signed up for NANOWRIMO to try my hand at fiction. At the end of the month, I had 55,000 words, a few characters I liked, and some scenes I thought I could use.

Though it took a couple of years before I returned to that first draft, this year I published Go Away Home, my novel that got its start in 2006.

In celebration of novel-writing month, Webucator asked authors to answer a few questions about their writing careers. I am participating because of the good fortune that led me to NANOWRIMO eight years ago. Here are my answers:

What were your goals when you started writing?

My first goal was to write about my parents’ lives. In the course of interviewing them – about life during The Great Depression, jobs they held, military service, and life on the farm – stories of my own childhood kept coming to my mind. Eventually those stories took center stage and became my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl.

What are your goals now?

Regardless of what I write, my goal is always the same: to tell the stories as well as I am able. To that end, I regularly take classes that add to my writing tool kit. I hope the result is that each subsequent work is better than the one before. Now that I’ve written both memoir and fiction, I feel I could go in either direction for my next book. The idea that’s got the most traction at the moment is a contemporary novel. Though a sequel to Go Away Home is getting legs, too.

What pays the bills now?

Years of saving accumulated a nest egg that allows me to indulge my interest in writing. That nest egg is augmented by freelance writing and consulting projects and royalties from my books.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

I enjoy the process of writing, and when I have an idea, I’m inspired to puzzle out the story arc, the characters, the place and time, and see how well I can tell it. Writing is hard work, so I’m inspired to complete projects by deadlines and my writing group partners. Also, I buy butt glue by the gallon to keep me in my writing chair.

What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep learning. Don’t give up.

So there you have it, friends. It is with delight and gratitude that I lift a glass to NANOWRIMO, encouraging others to realize their writing dreams.

Write On!

‘You got game, white girl’ – Home Sweet Hardwood

Mo’ne Davis pitches like a girl. A thirteen-year-old girl who throws a 70 mph fastball. The star of The Little League World Series may not even realize sports wasn’t always an option for girls like her.

Preston High School didn’t offer girls basketball in the 1960s. Or baseball. Or softball. The rumored reason was that a girl had died during a basketball game. That death proved to those who decided such things that girls weren’t constitutionally suited to strenuous physical activity. As a result, basketball for girls in anything more competitive than gym class was banned at my high school.

I wanted to play basketball. I practiced dribbling, doing layups, running no more than the two steps allowed in the six-on-six-girl, half-court version of the game played at Iowa schools. Actually playing a game competitively would remain a dream for me.

What I didn’t know in the 1960s, as I dutifully took my place on the sidelines as a cheerleader, was that the nation was on the verge of changing the game for all women with Title IX legislation, requiring that schools offer equal playing opportunities to women and men. Other women were not going quietly to the sidelines. Other women were fighting for the right to play. And winning.

Home Sweet HardwoodOne of those women, Pat McKinzie, had basketball in her blood. Her grandfather was nationally recognized college coach Ralph McKinzie “Coach Mac”; her father Jim Mckinzie was a championship team-leading high school coach. As soon as Pat could walk – probably even before – they were teaching her the game that became her passion.

McKinzie’s memoir Home Sweet Hardwood details her relentless pursuit to fulfill that passion. In high school when she had to give up hardwood time to boys who couldn’t beat her when she challenged them one-on-one. In college where she was the first woman to play in Illinois with a scholarship under Title IX. After college when she continued to push to play on professional teams in the U.S. and Europe.

“Before recruiters and TV highlights, women played ball, not to impress college scouts or become media darlings, but for our own entertainment. The only glory we needed was the game itself,” McKinzie says. When she played in the zone, men who played the game could not help but appreciate her skill and passion. She recalls a night when a player slapped her hand in front of his “brothers,” and said, “Give me five, white girl! Can’t jump, but you got game.”

Home Sweet Hardwood covers McKinzie’s entire sports career as she broke ground and broke barriers for herself and the girls who came after her. Girls like Mo’ne.

The story of how McKinzie continued to push to play, in the face of discrimination, broken bones, and a nearly life-ending auto accident is a story of heart and inspiration. Raised by people who believed and practiced gender and racial equity, McKinzie lived those qualities throughout her career and no matter where in the world she lived.

McKinzie’s writing style is as fast-paced, precise and fluid as she herself was when she took the ball down court and pulled up for a jump shot. The result is perfection: nothing but net.

If you played sports or wanted to, this book is worth reading. If you have a daughter or granddaughter who is playing sports, this book would make a great gift. It’s important for all of us to remember when we’re standing on the shoulders of women like McKinzie who had the passion to clear the path for the rest of us.

Book marketing – It’s not always about sales

Photo by Larry Baker's wife, Ginger Russell, at an appearance in Cedar Falls in 2009.

Now what?

Author Larry Baker (The Flamingo Rising, A Good Man and others) posted this picture to his Facebook page this week, and I laughed. It captures a fear most authors harbor: ‘What if nobody comes?’

It’s not a groundless fear. It happened to me this week. I spend considerable time in advance of events to help ensure their success. But what I can’t do is guarantee people will come.

Over the past week I participated in six events to market my novel Go Away Home: a writing conference, two bookstores signings, a gift store signing, and two library book talks. The marketing side of the writing life.

Here’s an abbreviated look at how I promote and work events.

Bring my own audience – The event host isn’t the only one responsible for getting people to come. Authors need to work their own contacts, too. I use email marketing and social media to generate interest. A ‘save the date’ mailing three weeks in advance, and a reminder three days ahead of the event. I create Facebook events and invite. I tweet. Results of this effort reinforce the importance of using many ways of reaching people: At one book store event, all but one person came as a result of my email campaign. At one library event, none of my contacts came.

Alert media – I sent news releases to media in each town. To the best of my knowledge, none picked up the news for these events. I’ll keep doing this, though, because particularly in smaller towns, I’ve seen terrific pick up.

Stand and deliver – Even though I could sit down, I communicate enthusiasm by standing. I smile and make eye contact, then I ask anyone who meets my gaze if I can tell them about my books. Most will say yes. I pitch my book in 30 seconds or less. Once I’ve given the pitch, I ask questions to keep the person engaged. I put a book in their hands as we talk.

One of my events was in a gift store that also served lunch. The owner had me set up at a table at the edge of the lunch area. I took my books to the tables as guests waited for their food to be delivered. I kept this pitch very short and made sure not to overstay my welcome. An idea for next time: Create table tents to alert people I’m there and to keep my books in front of them as they eat.

Be flexible – I was on the road mainly to market my new novel, but at one library, the book discussion group had just read my memoir and that’s what they wanted to talk about. So we did. I included messages about my novel when it was relevant.

What if no one shows? In spite of all my efforts, at one library, that worst-case scenario happened. I was all set up and the audience didn’t show. I felt worse for the librarian than for myself. She’d done a lot to get the word out, but for who knows how many reasons, no one came.

I’d whiled away a half hour on my own, then a miracle. One young girl walked in the door. Turns out she was the librarian’s daughter. I learned she’d written a story and in that small town, she had found no writing support. We talked one-on-one about what she was writing. How she could get support from her teachers. How she might engage her classmates.

At that library, I didn’t sell any books. I didn’t share the story of my novel or my memoir. But I did something more important. I encouraged another writer.

Now that I’m back at home, feet up, glass of wine in hand, reflecting on the week, I count all the events a success. Everything that happened is part of the writing life. I reconnected with friends. I made new friends. I sold quite a few books. And I encouraged another writer.

That last achievement? Priceless.

* Photo by Larry Baker’s wife, Ginger Russell, at an appearance in Cedar Falls – 2009.