Category Archives: Writing

The dog days of summer

Veeka in a clothing-optional hot pool at Breitenbush

These are the dog days of summer, so named because the ancient Romans believed that the star Sirius (known as the “dog star” because it was the brightest in the constellation of Canis Major), actually radiated extra heat toward the Earth during the summer, when Sirius rises and sets with the sun.

Veeka had some time off in June, so she went to a local Bible camp, then enjoyed a soccer camp where she could bone up on the game before joining a league this fall. She did well. Meanwhile, over the Fourth of July weekend, we attended a family camp near Silverton, Oregon sponsored by Good Samaritan Ministries, a Beaverton-based charity that I’ve been connected with for years. The weather was decent and it was located in the woods near Silver Creek Falls State Park, a tourist draw in that area.

Right after that, we went to Breitenbush, an alternative resort that specializes in vegetarian food and hot springs located near Detroit Lakes, Oregon. Breitenbush is made up of scores of individual cabins near some rivers in the Oregon wilderness.

My budding soccer star

It’s a holistic retreat and conference center that’s pretty New Agey in a way but I must say I certainly gained no weight with their non-sugar, non-dairy cuisine. Veeka found a few friends there to play with in the tubs, which are clothing-optional, which was a bit odd. One was always trying to make fascinating conversation with the other people soaking away while trying to keep one’s eyes focused from the waist up. With me having gained lots of weight in recent years, I wasn’t too wild about appearing in the buff but just about everyone else did so. By this time, the weather had seriously warmed up, so it was delightful being in the mountains without simultaneously freezing to death.

The following weeks were filled with new stuff (to us) such as attending our first-ever Seattle Mariners game downtown, which was great fun in that the Mariners beat the Oakland A’s that time around. We spent a weekend camping out – with folks from our church – at Fort Casey on Whidbey Island and went harvesting mussels; a new experience. Basically, you stand in the cold water and scoop up loads of shells that are affixed to huge clumps of seaweed.

Otherwise this summer, we’ve been on a ton of hikes and trips to places like Guemes Island (in Puget Sound), Tipsoo Lake and Natches Peak (near Mt. Rainier), a Christian family conference at Warm Beach (north of Everett), Franklin Falls (near Snoqualmie Pass) and lots of other outings thanks to Seattle’s record-breaking rainless summer this year.From mid-June on, there was no rain in western Washington. Before that, there was nine months of continuous rain. We finally

Me at the summit of the Natches Peak loop hike with Mt. Rainier in the background. Gorgeous views and clear, fresh air.

got a miniscule portion of rain on Aug. 12, setting a new rainless record at 55 days, all of which drove Veeka and I to try out several unusual swimming pools in Seattle, one of which is right on the waterfront.

We also had a quickie trip to Washington, DC at the end of July for a piece I’m doing for the Washington Post Sunday magazine that I’ll talk about closer to publication. Will say that Veeka (who I took with me) and I expected hot weather but we got three very cool days there. She and I stayed near our old place in Hyattsville and got to see several old friends. I was delighted to find that the photographer accompanying me on the assignment was none other than Mary Calvert, who I knew from Washington Times days and who’s now gone freelance. (Mary shot the photo of me in Lucknow, India that’s featured on this blog). It was very odd to be reporting again in downtown DC, which included my getting on the White House grounds for about two hours. I retired from full-time reporting seven years ago, thinking I would move seamlessly to a career as a college professor. Which worked out for a few years until all the jobs in my field dried up.

So I’ve been picking up gigs here and there and trying new ones, such as helping folks write books. Will say that a book that I’ve been editing along with Dr. Bob Eckert, who was one of the chief elders at Church of the Redeemer during the 1960s and 1970s, is now out and ready to order!

). I’m very happy about its release in July because we had a ton of delays in getting that project done. If you want a good read, please order “God’s Doctor: A Texas Physician and the Miracles of God.”

Veeka enjoying the Mariners game and, even more importantly, the blue cotton candy.

AND, my upcoming book is also available for pre-order on Amazon, so naturally I’m excited. Right now I’m editing page proofs and putting together an index for the book, all while I’m also putting together the aforementioned WaPo piece, which will be about 4,000 words. Nothing like three deadlines all on the same day.

about that. I’d love to say I could make a living writing full-time but I’ve not discovered how to do that as a freelancer. Speaking of freelancing, Veeka has started a small petsitting business and just got $50 from her first cat-sitting engagement. Housing prices are sky-high anywhere near Seattle, so every little bit helps. Other than that, I’ve been reading tons of books to Veeka, including another go at The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I read straight through. Starting in May, we began watching all the movies and appendices connected with LOTR, so everything was very Tolkienesque around our household for awhile. Then I moved on to Zenna Henderson’s “The People” stories and am now wrapping up Joy Chant’s “Red Moon, Black Mountain” one of the best sci-fi books ever. So wish Studio Ghibli (a Japanese studio) would pick it up for one of their movies! It’s got just the right mystical storyline for a Miyazaki film. Will say that Chant’s worldview is very Christian, so the showdown between Lucifer and the Archangel Michael near the end of the book is one of the best confrontations in all of literature.

Our missing piece, one year gone

My mother and Veeka at Cannon Beach by Haystack Rock.

These are the lovely days of early summer when the days are long and beautiful. We’ve had a run of lovely weather lately, so I took a dip and went kayaking Thursday in the local lake, courtesy of a long-time high school friend who has a home on Lake Sammamish. Last week, I took my mom and Veeka to Manzanita, Ore., where friend have a cottage they graciously let us rent cheaply. My mom hadn’t been to the beach in ages and certainly not to the Oregon coast in at least a decade. Our first day, we wandered about Cannon Beach, a nearby town that was packed with tourists there to see a sandcastle building contest. We wandered near Haystack Rock, a huge stone island in the surf.
The next day, we sat on the beach at Manzanita where it was sunny and then a fog bank rolled in. There was still some sunlight but huge drifts of white stuff passing by us, as the clouds had come down and seeing people wander about the beach mixed in fog and sun was like a Brigadoon stage set. Of course Veeka didn’t want to be more than 10 feet from the waves at any point of time. I always forget how lush and rain forest-like the coast is. On our way back, we had lunch with a friend of my mom’s in Astoria, a city I’d never been to in all my years in Oregon. Our restaurant was right at the mouth of the Columbia River, where huge barges floated on by.

With Manzanita behind her, Veeka runs toward the water while clouds fill the beach.

A number of things have happened since I last wrote, one being that I had another birthday. Just before that, I’d seen an essay by Anne Lamott, who is the same age as me, on her thoughts about turning 61. So,I decided to write down a few pieces of wisdom about what I know at this venerable age. First is:
PERSEVERANCE – Never, never, never, never, never give in. Winston Churchill said this first, not me, and it’s true. The only way I’ve gotten a lot of things in life is that I plugged and plugged away. I’ve had TWO books that both went through more than 30 rejections from various publishers before they were picked up by actual publishing houses instead of vanity or self-publishers. One came out in 2009 and the second is coming out this fall (University of Tennessee Press, everyone!). Then I had a children’s book that came out in 1998, then was taken out of print two years later even though it was still selling. The publisher sat on the rights to the illustrations for 10 years. I never gave up bugging them about this until finally a new set of executives was hired and they gave me the rights in 2010. It went back into print in 2011.

This is a hike I dragged Veeka on that’s near Stevens Pass in the Cascades. We were on our way back from Barclay Lake.

TRAVEL – When flying somewhere for an event, always plan to arrive a day early. Airlines these days are so messed up, it’s easy to get bumped and marooned overnight if not longer. Had I not followed this advice last summer, I would have missed a friend’s wedding in Montreal. We were flying there via Washington DC when thunderstorms hit while we were changing flights at Dulles. (Note: Never fly through any East Coast city in the afternoon during the summer thunderstorm season, which lasts about 3 months. The humidity brings in the thunderheads and it’s good-bye to flying anywhere that day.) Anyway, all East Coast airports shut down and we were stuck. United put us on an early flight out the next day, then that got cancelled. Fortunately, they put on an extra plane and got a bunch of us up to Canada in time.
YOU CAN GIVE UP COFFEE – Recently, I decided to get serious about losing some weight I’ve gained in recent years and went on a diet that forbids one to drink coffee on the grounds that coffee is a toxin that compromises the liver’s ability to burn fat and thus the liver stores the fat around your middle. I’ve been on this diet off and on since 2012 (when I lost a ton of weight on it), so starting June 1, I went off the java. After the first few days, I have begun to do very well w/o caffeine. I almost have more energy than I used to and yes, the pounds are coming off. I know many people feel they can’t give up caffeine but it is possible.
I’ve gotten a few things published recently, including this piece on traveling the AlCan with kids, which appeared in AAA’s Journey magazine. Also, there’s another travel piece on Barkerville, a historic town in central British Columbia that I wrote for ParentMap, a local web site with amazing ideas of things to do with kids. Journey just came out with another piece of mine but alas, I don’t have the link for it. Here’s another link that shows a portfolio of my work in a very attractive layout. And lastly, here is the first mention of my upcoming book from Inside Higher Ed.com.

This is a buddy bumper ball that we discovered during Duvall Days.

We’ve done lots of local travel like a lovely fair in Duvall that Veeka and I went to one Saturday where she ended up wrapped in this huge plastic ball – called a buddy bumper ball – which apparently is the rage these days. It’s fun watching kids bang into each other, then bounce helplessly across the grass. After that, we went for dinner at the home of a Lewis & Clark alum who lives in the middle of the wilderness in a gorgeous home overlooking the Tolt River. She’s selling it for $1.3 million. Then I got a pair of hiking boots for my birthday, which means I can drag Veeka on more treks in the mountains. And the 80-year-old bed she had been using (that was used by my mom when she was a kid) broke recently, so Veeka got a lovely PINK bunk bed that some saintly friends helped us assemble.

On a sadder note, today is the first anniversary of my father’s death, which was June 24 last year. We still miss him very much and Veeka keeps on saying that she always expects him to be sitting in his rocking chair when she comes through the door. It was odd last week when it was Father’s Day and for the first time in my life, my dad was not here. And it feels that a piece of our lives will always be missing. My mom had not traveled at all since he died, which is why, over Mother’s Day weekend, I took her on a ferry to Sequim (on the Olympic peninsula), to see the new home that my brother Rob and his wife, Jan, live in. Seems amazing that seven years ago, Rob and I were both living in Maryland and, by circuitous routes, we both came back to the Pacific Northwest. It also feels odd that we are well past the middle of the second decade of this century. I remember thinking forward to what the year 2000 would be like and now we’re 17 years past that.

Veeka, my mom and Rob in front of his place in Sequim.

Rain, rent and raising money for braces

Dressed in her Halloween best, Veeka vamps it up a bit with her candy around her. She did learn one does not trick or treat in heels.

Dressed in her Halloween best, Veeka vamps it up a bit with her candy around her. She did learn one does not trick or treat in heels.

I’m happy to say that a GoFundMe campaign I started a few weeks ago to raise funds for Veeka’s braces-to-come has brought in $1,100. The bad news: I have another $5-$6K to go! I really didn’t want to go this route, but after being unemployed for more than 18 months (other than freelance and substitute teaching gigs), desperate times call for desperate measures. Because of a tooth that is ravaging her gums, she not only has to have braces, but also some minor surgery to get that tooth back into position. Sigh. My health insurance – which goes up 25% in 2017 – only pays for braces for medical reasons, ie birth defects.
And so I’ve told friends that I need to raise at least $2,000 to call up the orthodontist and sign the contract for two years of braces. I realize that not all can or feel led to give, but if you do, feel free to click on the above link. As I’ve been agonizing over which health insurance to choose for 2017, I am trying to squelch feelings of panic at the thought of the incoming presidential administration doing away with Obamacare. On the other hand, it feels as though insurance companies have already abandoned it, as they are getting queasier and queasier about covering anything.
Meanwhile, the rich keep on getting richer in Seattle. The median income here is now $80K.
I wonder: How many of those people with supposedly higher salaries are over 50? That’s where the real unemployment is. Past a certain age, it’s impossible to get a 9-5 job that pays more than $15/hour. Try living on that.

Veeka also got new glasses this fall because we've discovered she is farsighted.

Veeka also got new glasses this fall because we’ve discovered she is farsighted.

Or, $20/hour is what local school districts pay emergency subs, which is a good way to pick up some money if you have a degree but no teaching certificate. That’s what I’m doing two days a week, but compared to what I used to make, it isn’t much, folks. Even full-time public school teachers often only  make in the $40s around here. That’s nuts.
As many of you know, one of the many ways I eke out a living is to do freelance writing. I was on a conference call today (Dec. 12) with a group of other religion reporters and we were talking about how tough it is to sell your pieces for good money.
Try getting paid more than, say, $300, max $400 for a 1,200-word story. That’s about 30-40 cents a word. (The decent pay is $1/word for those of you not in the know.) I’ve been amazed at the low rates publications in the Seattle area pay people, considering the expense of living here.
Nevertheless, I’ve come out with three pieces since I last blogged. This piece on Jim Eichner, a local Episcopal priest who runs a food bank, came out in the November issue of 425, a magazine for Seattle’s Eastside. Yes, Jim is the same priest who was at my dad’s bed side right before he died. Then, the Washington Post ran two of my travel pieces two weekends in a row. This piece on cross-country skiing in the Methow Valley ran the weekend of Nov. 11 and my grand-circle-around-British-Columbia piece ran the following weekend. So…I am selling more travel than religion pieces.

Veeka and her little first-cousin-once-removed Wyatt relaxing at Oma's.

Veeka and her little first-cousin-once-removed Wyatt at Oma’s.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of articles out there about house prices that continue to soar.
In late October, my brother Rob and his wife, Jan, moved from Maryland to Washington, choosing to settle somewhere on the Kitsap peninsula where the weather is a lot better than here! They chose a place in the fast-growing retirement haven of Sequim, and managed to grab a place that’s being built now. They felt lucky to get that. Nearly everyone I know is renting. No one can afford to buy. Well, I do have a friend who just bought a townhome near me and he paid a cool half a million to get it. Maybe the top 1% is doing well here, but there’s a lot of us who aren’t.
It’s been a quiet fall for us, with just one trip out of town to Portland to attend a banquet for Good Samaritan Ministries on Nov. 5. Veeka has started fifth grade and we squeezed in after-school hikes and swims in local lakes before the weather went south on us. And it looks like it’s going to be another record breaker for rain this season. While Alaska enjoys almost historically warm temps, we’ve had record-breaking rainfall. Veeka and I grimly joke that we’re both gaining weight because we get no exercise on the weekends because it’s always a.) raining and b.) cold.

Right off the TV screen: Election night 2016

Right off the TV screen: Election night 2016

As for other things: The election? Totally shocked, as everyone else was. I’m in the weird place of being glad Hillary lost but not overjoyed that Trump won, especially since he looks to be trying to dismantle half the federal agencies in one swoop. He’ll have one enemy in me if he touches healthcare. I will say I was beyond amused at the stunned looks on many of the TV anchors’ faces as the returns came in and it was clear that Hillary was not sweeping the country – or the Electoral College – as we thought would happen. So many in the media totally misread the mood of the country. I wish I could say that, one month later, I see a difference in coverage but I don’t. I mean, you have New York Times editor Dean Baquet saying they need to cover religion far more than they do. Well, no kidding. But until I see the want ads go up for an extra handful of religion reporters at the Times, I won’t believe a word he says. I heard similar breast beating back in 2004 when George Bush beat John Kerry and everyone wondered what hole those Protestant evangelicals had crawled out of. In December 2004, I wrote a column for Poynter.org using “It’s the hiring, stupid,” instead of the better-known saying “It’s the economy, stupid,” to point out that media organizations have been stinting on good religion coverage for a long time. I named names, calling out specific newspapers that had either left the beat empty or hired ingénues for the beat instead of seasoned reporters, making for some pretty clueless stories. Meanwhile, they scoured the country to hire for beats they considered more important like health, tech and real estate. So, of course they miss what’s really going on by a mile.

Age discrimination is simply everywhere.

Me running away from it all by skiing at Stevens Pass.

Me running away from it all by skiing at Stevens Pass.

See this picture of me skiing? That’s what I do when I can’t handle the age discrimination in the job market. After eight months of applying to everything from Amazon to Alaska Airlines’ magazine, I’m amazed when my resume and cover gets no responses. OK, we’ve got two master’s degrees here, a distinguished job record and joy of joys: This weekend the Washington Post is publishing my travel article on the Dalton Highway in Alaska’s far north. You’d think articles like that would at least get me a call back. I’ve won awards for my writing all over the country but the past eight months has been a frustrating desert.
People ask me: Why aren’t you a technical writer? Well…here’s what Google expects of its tech writer applicants for jobs in their spiffy low-slung white-walled office building in Kirkland:

Responsibilities
• Learn complex technical information and write technical documentation for Google engineers, such as architectural overviews, tutorials for software developers, API programming guides, and more.
• Respond to technical questions from Google engineers about the subject matter that you documented.
• Edit documents written by others; coach engineers to improve their writing skills.
• Develop tools and processes to automate document creation and maintenance.
• Read and write code in C++, Java, JavaScript or Python.

Sorry, folks, I don’t do Python. Even non-techie places like the real estate company Zillow has openings with these names: Data scientist, quantitative analyst, graphics engineer, senior IOS engineer. I’d need a third MA for that. Jobs that end with the disclaimer “college degree required” are not aimed at anyone over 25. A lot of companies want advertising or design agency experience, which I don’t have. I loved getting this second MA, but it is not helping me get hired. So I run away and drag Veeka on mountain hikes like Little Si, whose summit is shown below.

At the top of Little Si in North Bend. This charming hike in the Cascades was crowded due to the long-awaited sun. Veeka is in the foreground.

At the top of Little Si in North Bend. This charming hike in the Cascades was crowded due to the long-awaited sun. Veeka is in the foreground.

There was a fascinating Seattle Times article about how local industry is scrambling for talented help. Then I read the comments section where folks over 50 were saying no one’s looking for them. One person wrote:
“On the one hand, a company doesn’t want to spend time/money on giving a older worker any “on the job training.” And on the other hand a company will hire a new graduate with no real world working experience – and spend $$ more on extra perks and creating a youth culture environment. That student usually is ill-prepared to hit-the-ground-running at a new job. They may as well help train the older worker, it’s probably less expensive.”
Then someone with 30 years in Systems Engineering and Systems Management in the IT field said he couldn’t find work because companies are hiring college grads and H-1B visa foreign workers.
Person after person (in this same comments section) talked about the willing and desperate older workers who’d take jobs in a second. For example, one wrote, Microsoft is willing to train young veterans with minimal tech experience by giving them classes in the basics, then putting them to work in entry-level jobs. Why not tap the “older worker” in the same manner? Many already have much tech experience and only need a refresher class to bring them up to date, and a chance to work.
Another said, Yep, I agree with you but don’t expect anything to change. I’m in my 60’s, EE, mgmt experience, web design, C, C++, HTML/CSS/js, sql, php and electronics design experience but nobody will even call or email back if I put my history on the resume. (The reason why, he added, as that older people don’t want to work 100-hour weeks, they want decent pay and they tend to get sick more).
Another said: You would do very well getting high-paying temporary assignments. You can make a living that way if you have skills that are in demand–I do, and I’m not even in tech. If they don’t have to pay you benefits, employers don’t care how old you are.

At least someone in our family is making money. Last day for Girl Scout cookies

At least someone in our family is making money. Last day for Girl Scout cookies

And even if you do get hired, if you’re female, you’ll still get paid less, according to this  New York Times piece.

Surely, folks tell me, you could get hired by Amazon? They’re scooping up as many humans as possible to move to Seattle. Well, here is what they are looking for in a tech writer:
• Degree in English, Technical Writing, Computer Science or related field highly desirable
• Experience with cloud/Web Services, IaaS, PaaS, or related areas is a plus
• Previous experience working with agile project management methodologies is a plus
• Programming skills in at least one programming language, such as Java, JavaScript, Python, Ruby, PHP, or .NET (C#) is a plus
• Experience with GitHub a plus
• Experience working directly with engineering teams

I don’t even know what PHP is. I do know what Ruby is, though. Should I try somewhere else? How about the travel company Expedia? Well, here’s their ad:

Expedia is seeking an experienced IT professional with a background in Technical Writing, Onboarding & Operational Readiness. The person will have responsibility for the creation/editing of technical content created by the Engineering teams and create onboarding/transition-support documentation, operational processes and procedures for the EDW Platform. This is a key role that will involve you partnering with the Engineering teams and creating the right level of high quality documentation and ensure that all procedural / technical details are gathered completely and accurately. This is a senior role that will require you to be self-disciplined, self-motivated professional. This will be a rich, rewarding opportunity for the right professional, to include exposure to some of the best IT talent and technologies in the world, and an opportunity to be largely self directed and to be afforded creative latitude to develop the processes for this new function.

Veeka and her troop hard at work selling those Thin Mints. Companies are hiring folks closer to her age than mine.

Veeka and her troop hard at work selling those Thin Mints. Companies are hiring folks closer to her age than mine.

One bright spot this month was that Veeka sold 55 boxes of Girl Scout cookies by slogging it out door to door and then she earned about 100 more points  helping sell cookies in front of various Safeways and WalMarts. I taught her how to present the cookie sale sheet; how to explain what each cookie contains and that we don’t collect the $4/box now but later when we deliver and by the time we were doing the last 10, she was getting pretty accomplished at her spiel. I had hoped for 30 sales; she easily surpassed that during our walks around the complex where we live, so I began to hope for more. We had finally reached 50 and were walking home when we dropped by a neighbor I’d met by the condo dumpster, who ordered 4 more. Veeka gets a badge if she reaches 55, so I threw in a box for us and her goal was met. And we got to meet a bunch of people near where we live.

How to *really* plug your book

As our final exam for my social media class, we’ve been asked to create a social media strategy for a product. Since I’ve published five books and know lots of authors who are tearing their hair out over how to effectively publicize their work, I thought I’d create a social media strategy for a new book. So, would-be author, I’m assuming at this point your book has been accepted by a publisher and is in pre-publication stages. Most publishers will do some minimal PR but these days, it’s up to the author to create buzz. And that is where social media comes in.
If you are self publishing, you definitely need this advice. You are the expert on this book, by the way, so you’re the driving force behind getting this work on the map. The first rule of a social media strategy is goals. You need to set them for your product. Set some goals, ie get on the NYT bestseller list by next May. Set small goals and big goals. Here are some lofty ones:

• Add 100 Twitter followers in a week
• Increase sales to 10 percent in a month
• Build and promote a Facebook fan page and get 50 likes per day
• Get reviewed by the Wall Street Journal or similar publication

My fourth book, "Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It," sold the best of all my books.

My fourth book, “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It,” sold the best of all my books.

If you have the time and staff to do that, wonderful. Put together a list of places where you would like your book reviewed and send it to your publisher’s PR office. Most publishers I’ve dealt with have one overworked person managing all the PR, so that person may be a little slow to help you out. They may or may not ignore your list, but at least give them something to work with or think about. The PR folks, I’ve found, are a bit more on the ball if they think the author is monitoring their progress. With my fourth book “Quitting Church,” the PR at Baker Books sent a copy to the Wall Street Journal, which ran a full column about it the day after my book came out. I was beyond delighted about this, but one doesn’t get such breaks every day. (When I approached the Journal with book #5, they ignored me so go figure). If you can’t get your stuff mentioned in the top publications, set your goals a bit lower to something like this:

• Tweet your book/article/reviews twice per day
• Submit your book to three review sites per week
• Have one live author event a week

Let’s assume your book is good, it meets a felt need and has broad market appeal. Establish your brand early. Work with the designer of your book cover in terms of color and design and use that same design on your Facebook page, in letterhead (which you can create in InDesign) and even in business cards. Figure out a few social media platforms you’ll concentrate on to market your book. What do you do best? Twitter? YouTube? Podcasts? Blogging? Facebook? Pinterest? Instagram? Where is your main audience? Even if it’s not Facebook (and for a lot of us, it is), create a Facebook fan page. On it, ask people to buy your book. Concentrate on the platforms that work for you and create high quality content.
Post really interesting questions and problems on Facebook, so people can answer them and start great discussions. On your Facebook page, list contact information, speaking dates and appearances. Try Facebook ads for the book. They are not expensive. Recently I’ve been working on a magazine

Nadia's book

Nadia’s book

article about Nadia Bolz-Weber, a most unusual Lutheran pastor who’s also a weight lifter, is covered with tattoos and heads up a church in Denver that’s called House for All Sinners and Saints. She’s very profane, a former alcoholic and walks around in black tank tops and pants. Her command of social media is amazing. She posts outrageous tweets; she has a column in on the religious multi-blog site Patheos and she is always doing fascinating things that she tweets about. She’s got 22,600 Twitter followers and 39, 354 folks following her Facebook page. She’s latched onto a huge public dissatisfaction with organized religion. Call up her name on Google images and you’ll see pages of photos of her. She’s got her brand down pat, plus she has an amazing twist on the Bible and Christianity that brings people back for more. Study what she does to see how one person can leverage themselves into celebrity just through Twitter and Facebook.
One person who has got lots of good book promo ideas is Michael Hyatt, a former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville. He formed a group of people that he called his “tribe” to whom he turned for advice on things such as titles, subtitles and jacket covers. This is a good idea to copy. Find a group of people who will stick with you until the book is published and well on its way. Make sure these folks are committed for the long haul. (Note: For my fifth book, I too enlisted 10 members of a ‘tribe.’ They promised to lend me moral support and pray for the book. They all dropped by the wayside within a year or two. Not surprisingly, the book took 15 years to get into print!)

"Knights, Maidens and Dragons" continues to sell, as it's a lovely book of Victorian-era tales.

“Knights, Maidens and Dragons” continues to sell, as it’s a lovely book of Victorian-era tales.

Sometimes people drop into your lap who are willing to help. After my third book, “Waiting for True Love: And Other Tales of Purity, Patience and Faithfulness,” came out, I was approached by Julie Hiramine, a kind woman from Colorado who loved my book and wanted to sell it off her web site, Generations of Virtue. She had ideas for renaming and re-branding the book. Once WFTL went out of print, I took her advice and self-published it as “Knights, Maidens and Dragons: Six Medieval Tales of Virtue and Valor” but without the illustrations. I paid a friend to design the cover as I didn’t have the rights to the one for “Waiting for True Love.”  It took me 10 years to get the rights to the illustrations from the publisher, but when I did, Chalfont House out of Dumfries, Va., published it with the illustrations, with new inks and with an up-to-date layout.
Secure endorsements and use the name of the first endorser to nab other influential endorsers. Then form a launch team. These are the people who get special attention from you. Before publication, they get a free electronic copy of the book, of course; access to any tele-seminar you may give, a private Facebook group, a Skype conversation, etc. In return, get them to mention your book and what they think of it on their blogs and social media platforms. You may include your ‘tribe’ with your launch team or have them be different groups altogether. Here are suggested times on best times to post on various social media:

Facebook: 1-4 pm
Twitter: 1-3 pm
Pinterest: 2-4 pm and 8 pm-1 a.m.
Instagram – 7-9 a.m., 5-6 p.m.
Google+ – 9-11 a.m.
If you haven’t already, join Hootsuite. Its autoscheduler allows you to schedule Facebook and Twitter posts. Its browser extension Hootlet allows you to share content (on Chrome and Firefox). You can also follow all your social accounts on there. Before the book comes out, create and schedule several weeks’ worth of tweets on Hootsuite so there can be a constant flow of book-related material going out during your busiest time. Have original content. Include blurbs from the book or photos or even an infographic.

"Days of Fire and Glory" took 15 years to get out. It's my best book but I did poorly in terms of getting good promo for it.

“Days of Fire and Glory” took 15 years to get out. It’s my best book but I did poorly in terms of getting good promo for it.

Make your tribe promise to review the book on Amazon right before the book comes out. (Hyatt recommends they do so four weeks in advance). They can say what they think. Give them URLS they can paste into their Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Instead of just you doing all the PR, you are backed by your tribe and launch team. What you want is for people to buy this book within a short window of time so there’s an uptick in sales that will help you make it onto a bestseller list. Ask all your friends to buy it the week it’s released. Then hit up more bloggers to review and tweet the book. You’ll have to arrange a lot of this in advance in order for them to get a copy in time to read and review it. I’ve reviewed a lot of books as a newspaper reporter and what most authors don’t realize is that journalists are overwhelmed with books and often don’t get around to reading them until months after it’s out. Which is why you can’t always count on professional reviewers. Be sure, however, to have copies of the book to Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal four months in advance. If you mail it two or three months in advance, they won’t touch it. I know this from sad experience with book #5. I was with a small publisher that had no social media strategy plus they sent review copies out weeks too late. “Days of Fire and Glory” is the best book I’ve ever written but I was working full time, had just adopted a small child and I couldn’t get my mind around ways to publicize it. I was invited to speak at a charismatic conference at Oral Roberts University where I pitched the book, but I sold almost no copies. The weekend it came out, I threw a launch party for journalists during an annual convention of religion writers on the top floor of a skyscraper in Minneapolis. Lots of scribes made off with my book but not one of them reviewed it. Well, nine months later when I visited a city where one of them worked, she wrote a piece saying that I would be speaking at such-and-such a church. The missing ingredient here was a good social media strategy.

I've often used this photo of me speaking at St. John the Divine in Houston about "Days of Fire and Glory" for their 2010 Lenten series as an example of how my need to promote my book dovetailed with their need for a speaker.

I’ve often used this photo of me speaking at St. John the Divine in Houston about “Days of Fire and Glory” for their 2010 Lenten series as an example of how my need  to promote my book dovetailed with their need for a speaker.

Back to your strategy: Think up events around the book so you can create a buzz and at least have the appearance of activity. Publishers these days aren’t so hot when it comes to marketing, but one thing they can do is get you on radio shows. Radio folks are always looking for content, so think up an alluring title for your presentation and pitch it like crazy. Some of the bigger shows are tough to reach but you might hit them on a good day. For instance when my book “Quitting Church” came out, my mother contacted a top Seattle radio station and asked host Dave Ramsey to interview me, as I was going to be in town. It was Christmas and the host knew he had several post-Christmas days to fill up, so he asked me to drive downtown on Dec. 27. I scheduled a booksigning that afternoon at a local Christian bookstore, so I was able to tout the signing on the show. Anyway, if you’re out in public doing anything book-related, make sure someone snaps a photo of you doing it and blog and tweet that photo like crazy. The idea is to look active, involved, busy and happy that your book is selling.

Hyatt came up with a stratagem that’s worth repeating: If anyone bought a book at a store or online and emailed him the receipt, Hyatt would send them several self-help videos on things like how to write a winning book proposal, become a best-selling author, etc. Which is why it’s a good idea to have some professional videos of YOU lecturing or speaking that you can package as a freebie for people who buy your books. Put stuff out there on YouTube that showcases you and the book, even if you have to pay a college student to film and package it. (Students are always looking for projects to fulfill class requirements, so consider approaching a professor to ask to be referred to one of his/her best students. And that you are willing to pay). There’s a whole different audience out there that cottons to anything video-related and you don’t want to miss those folks.

Here's a local authors event I appeared at in Hyattsville in the summer of 2012. Together we pushed the event on our various platforms and actually got a good turnout.

Here’s a local authors event I appeared at in Hyattsville in the summer of 2012. Together we pushed the event on our various platforms and actually got a good turnout. I am on the far left.

It’s OK to do the traditional kinds of PR: Email blasts to media (I actually have such a list); book fairs (which are very time intensive and usually don’t yield much in sales but they do get you out in the public and provide photo ops if you need content for your blog posts); speaking engagements (these are gold in terms of selling books); and being part of an author’s group, as they tend to share connections, offer support and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Booksignings are very 20th century and notorious for not doing much for sales unless you’re J.K. Rowling but if you have friends who will host one in a private home with you as a speaker, free food and of course plenty of books, go for it. Get your church or university to host an event for you, too. All these activities need to be listed on your Facebook page and blog.

CNN, serpent handlers and July

Veeka and the Saturn 5 rocket in Huntsville

Veeka and the Saturn 5 rocket in Huntsville

In all the fuss over getting a new Mac, I forgot to say I got another blog published on CNN’s Schools of Thought blog on June 21. It was on the trend toward classical schools. I’m already working on another piece for More and putting together a book proposal on youthful serpent handlers. I’m really fascinated by these 20-something pentecostals who do this and publicize their exploits on social media. Which is why I made two visits to famous serpent-handling churches last month. The first was in Del Rio, Tenn., a six-hour slog across the state. There was a homecoming at the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ’s Name (homecomings are when folks in these circles gather once a year at a particular church for worship and a banquet) where there’d be lots of people from outside of town attending. Meanwhile, I’d gotten an email from a man named Jonathan Campbell who admired my “Quitting Church” book. He said that if I was ever in the east Knoxville area, we could stay with him. WELL, he got an email right back asking if Veeka and I could come the next day!

Jimmy Morrow and one of his serpent handler dolls. Notice the tiny snake.

Jimmy Morrow and one of his serpent handler dolls. Notice the tiny snake and similar shirt.

It turns out we had a great stay at his lovely home, met the wife and son and then I snagged Jonathan to come with us to church that morning. When I walked in, I saw the place was filled with the most gorgeous primitive art painted by Jimmy Morrow, the pastor. A painting of a mass baptism was right over me during the whole service which, yes, featured lots of singing, dancing, preaching and snakes. Afterwards, the pastor showed us a huge collection of his art, which was the equal of the legendary Christian primitive artist Howard Finster, IMHO. He even has a snake-handler doll. He makes everything. There were several people well-known in the serpent-handling world who were at this service and I was fortunate to get interviews with most of them while shoving down a delightful and fattening Southern-style lunch. Jonathan, who works in the area as a school counselor, seemed amazed to encounter a culture close by that most people never see. Because you have to know where to look.

The Jimmy Morrow painting that hung above me at church.

The Jimmy Morrow painting that hung above me at church.

The next weekend, on the advice of Ralph Hood, the preeminent scholar on this topic and a professor at University of Tennessee/Chattanooga, I drove to Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama for a service at the Rock House Holiness Church. Fortunately, it was an hour east of Huntsville, where I happened to have longtime friends. And Rebecca, the female half, took care of Veeka while I schlepped over to Sand Mountain Saturday and Sunday. Saturday afternoon, Craig Hodge, the male half of the couple with whom I stayed, kindly took Veeka and I to the space center, which is the town’s main attraction. It was similar to the Air and Space Museum in DC but there were things there I’d not seen. It was a blistering hot day, but we still walked among the Saturn 5 rockets while trying to explain to Veeka what interplanetary travel is. Later that afternoon, another friend from south of Birmingham, dropped by. John Morgan and I had corresponded for years, but we’d never met and he wanted to attend a holiness church with snakes, so off we went. The drive down the Tennessee River was quite lovely in the early evening and we stopped at a gorgeous viewpoint on the way where we ran into some folks having a wedding ceremony just before sunset. It was no problem to find the church, which was made famous in the 1993 book “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” When we left that evening, however, I got disoriented and forgot which turn to make on those back country roads. Were it not for John’s GPS, we’d still be driving about there, as there are no street lights down those roads.

John and I on a viewpoint overlooking the Tennessee River on the road up Sand Mountain.

John and I on a viewpoint overlooking the Tennessee River on the road up Sand Mountain. Notice the long skirt-a recommended dress code for pentecostal  services.

The next morning, John and I were back. He being from a rural Alabama church culture, he knew several of the songs these folks were singing whereas I was clueless. He was fascinated by the fact that one of the most famous of the handlers, ‘Punkin’ Brown, had died about five feet (yes, of snake bite) from where we were sitting plus we were listening to one of his sons preach that morning. And the son was handling snakes despite his father having died from the practice in 1998 and his mother, Melinda Brown, having died of the same thing in 1995. Quite a few of the well-known names in the movement were there that morning and later on John and I had a good talk with the pastor, Billy Summerford, a kind and hospitable man. We also talked with some of the foster kids he had taken in, a true sign of saintliness. And so I am busily typing away at this proposal before we depart next week for Seattle and much cooler weather.

Graduation and canoeing

To my delight, Veeka got a trophy the day she graduated from first grade for making A’s and B’s.

Veeka atop Sugarloaf island overlooking Greer's Ferry Lake. It was a tough hike to get to this point.

Veeka atop Sugarloaf island overlooking Greer’s Ferry Lake. It was a tough hike to get to this point.

Considering how her year started out, this is a big accomplishment for her. To celebrate, she and I are doing some traveling, the first port-of-call being north central Arkansas and a place called Fairfield Bay. A kind friend let me use her time share there, so we have had several nights in the Ozarks, a part of the country I’ve not seen before. Our first morning there, we hopped aboard a boat to Sugarloaf Island, which is shaped like a bread loaf. We hiked about the trails there and Veeka did pretty well clambering about, albeit with some complaining about the bugs. The next day, we visited the caverns at Blanchard Springs, then dropped by a dulcimer shop so she could see what one looked like (hard to find those in Jackson, Tenn.) and then wandered through the Ozark Folk Center, which is filled with people doing handicrafts the way they were done a century ago in those parts.

Today, I was driving north when I crossed the Buffalo River and remembered someone telling me on Facebook to try floating down it. One thing led to another and by 1:30 pm, Veeka and I were set up in a canoe, thanks to a canoeing company at the Gilbert General Store. They dropped us off at Tyler State Park and we floated/rowed like crazy for five miles to the pick-up point. Or rather I rowed and Veeka complained about the work, the bugs, whatever. The weather was super pleasant and lots of people were on the river but the wind was against us and our canoe kept on turning around so that sometimes we’d enter the rapids backwards which didn’t appeal much to me. The water was very refreshing and after awhile, Veeka got the hang of it and she never dropped the oar once. The banks of the river were rather pretty and it only took us 3 hours to go 5 miles, which I thought was quite an accomplishment.

My little cutie ready to take on the oar on the Buffalo River.

My little cutie ready to take on the oar on the Buffalo River.

In the midst of all this, I had a very quiet birthday. I also had a huge article in More magazine about women who want to become Catholic priests. I got the assignment last fall and spent two weekends in San Diego, then Louisville researching it, then many, many hours working over various drafts. I described much of my editing working blow by blow to the young women in my magazine and feature reporting class this past spring. Unfortunately, More has not posted it online as of yet, so I cannot link to it, but it was in the May issue. I got to know a lot of women in this movement plus the arguments for and against why/why not on women’s ordination. This having been a fait accompli for several decades in most Protestant denominations, it felt a bit odd to be writing about this in 2012-2013 as still being an issue, but it is a live one that the Vatican is willing to punish severely. Women who are ordained in this fashion are excommunicated quickly and the church rates them as equal to priests who sexually abuse young children. That is, the same Latin phrase is used for both groups; a label that angered many of the women I interviewed. It was not super easy to get church sources on this. Many didn’t want to talk about it or did not get back to me, so I had to work the few sources I had.

3rd week of January

Am hard at work these days putting together new syllabi. Yes, am teaching a few of the same ourses, but all the textbooks are different (am trying new ones), so I am having to design four courses. And then got the disheartening news this week that the person I thought was my book agent…..isn’t. So, in addition to a pile of things I’d hoped to accomplish this month is the search for another agent. Good ones are so hard to find. This interesting 2009 discussion with BBC’s Katty Kay is on how books are now so labor-intensive and one really doesn’t pay back one’s advance much less sell lots of copies, that the way to fame these days is a blog. In my short career writing for the Post’s On Faith blog, it became quickly clear that to do the job right, you have to update it every day and work like a dog promoting it. This blog, for instance, gets updated only once a week.IMG_0346 I have a few more books I’d like to work on but I want to be sure they’ll sell before I put in the time to do them.

IMG_0348

More fun at the kiddie cashier

It has been a quiet month for us so far. Veeka is back in school. Two weekends ago, we were so bored, we drove to Memphis for the afternoon, spending a delightful time at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, where Veeka got to ‘shop’ at a faux supermarket, perform on a stage, dress up, climb up and down crazy ladder concoctions, drive a cop car and motorcycle and do all sorts of other Big People things. Then we drove downtown to the Peabody Hotel, where there is a twice-daily march of the ducks. It was the funniest thing; during the day, several mallards splash about in the hotel lobby fountain but at 5 pm, an official duck walker gives a speech and escorts the ducks out of the room while about 100 people sat in overstuffed chairs, sipped coffee laced with all sorts of brandy-type additives and ogled the webbed-feet things. Veeka wasn’t super impressed but I had a good time. A kind woman from Nashville, who was sitting across from us, had ordered 2 hot chocolates for her sons but they were running about. She said Veeka and I could have them rather than having them grow cold, so that was a treat. Then we walked down to Beale Street, a brassy collection of night clubs where all sorts of bands were playing. Veeka could have stayed there all night but me the killjoy hauled her away.

 

 

Quitting church video

More from the trenches in the land of TWT. To the horror of many of us who used to work there, the paper has brought back John Solomon as a top editor. John was the subject of this devastating piece in the Columbia Journalism Review and believe me, the writer only got a portion of many of the antics he pulled. At first, he was wonderful to work with, but things went sour quickly and the stuff I endured under him at the Times was pretty nasty (he did his best to fire me, for instance) and it seemed poetic justice that he was canned well before I was laid off. (And the editor responsible for forcing me out was himself dumped several months later). But now John is back, probably getting paid some stupendous salary. During his reign, he brought in some very high-priced editors to give TWT a better reputation around town. This caused a ton of resentment among us serfs who were getting about one-third of what these editors were reputedly getting but toiling just as hard if not harder. I confronted John once about where he was getting the money to pay these folks while regular reporters and editors were told there wasn’t the funds to give us raises and he said he had some kind of special fund with which to pay his new hires. I seem to remember those folks were laid off soon after John left. So much for importing talent.

Also, I have now become a filmmaker! My very amateurish video touting the coming-out of my re-done “Quitting Church” book is done and can be viewed on YouTube. It’s about two minutes long. Note: the B roll with the film is strictly that and does not reflect on the actual thoughts of the recognizable people in this video. There are some hazards to working with a camera; I was filming in front of one church when a state trooper approached me to demand what I was doing. It was just after the Newtown shootings so he was understandably nervous but it was pretty weird trying to explain I was a local professor who needed shots of people exiting churches.

Other news: Very little. Am spending Jan term trying to put together four new syllabi plus attend more new faculty orientation meetings.

Second week of Advent

Second candle lit

It’s been in the mid-30s the past two nights here so my banana plants outside are definitely fading away and I wore my winter coat for the first time today. And we’re lighting Advent candles; the second set during a pleasant visit by Estine Nwakwuo, a Catholic priest from Nigeria who began writing me nearly three decades ago when he and fellow seminarians discovered my “Purity Makes the Heart Grow Stronger” book. Estine and I had never met, so he happened to be in Oklahoma visiting another priest friend and the two of them drove 400 miles yesterday so Estine could see us. He had a lot of stories about what it’s like to work out of a parish in Zamfara State, which is in the heavily Muslim northern part of the country. Amazingly, he’s gotten through five years there alive! Then they drove back this morning – seven hours of driving on I-40.

Veeka and Estine

I’ve been thinking over what 2012 has been like and the second half of the year may have been the busiest in my life. There’s never been such a time when I had so much to do that had to be done right away and when there seemed to be one crisis after another that had to be tended to. Or huge things to get done, ie moving a household and starting a new job, not to mention an entirely new career. One task I took on in all this madness was getting my “Quitting Church” republished as an e-book with a different publisher that was willing to pay me better royalties. So, amidst everything else that needed to be done, I wrote an 11th chapter, an update if you will, as to what’s happened in the four years since “Quitting Church” came out. A lot of things, including the new cover, are still under wraps, but Bondfire Books, the publisher, just came out with this press release about me.

Cardinal & Cream Christmas party chez moi

Other than that, I’ve hung up Christmas lights in front of the house, made a batch of Christmas cookies containing eggnog (which weren’t all that great, oddly) and gotten most of my shopping done. I attend a Christmas lunch on Thursdays at Veeka’s school. Finals at UU are this week and I gave one today. Now I have to grade it. I and the school newspaper assistant adviser met with the editor and managing editor today to discuss staffing for next semester. And the days keep on getting shorter with the sunset at 4:30 at this point.

Late-breaking news

Standing firm at 3600 New York Avenue

And in case I ever yearn for the life back in my old newsroom, here are two posts from MediaBistro about impending layoffs again at the Washington Times. The first is about the mess that Tom McDevitt is making of the whole place and the second has to do with the black humor that reporters have adopted to cope. If anyone cares to read this post from my blog entry on New Year’s Eve 2009 (aptly titled ‘Surviving the Massacre’) about 110 people getting laid off, you’ll quickly pick up the zeitgeist from tons of reporters being shown the door during the Christmas season. Obviously the Times’ management didn’t learn any lesson from the horrible PR it received for cutting so many people lose three years ago this month, so they are playing Ebenezer Scrooge again. MediaBistro says they’re monitoring peoples’ emails, which was not done when I was there. (Not that I know of, that is). I vaguely remember security being ramped up but I knew my job was safe, so I was a lot more careless than most, even walking outside to have my photo defiantly snapped in front of the Times’ building. And it sounds like the misery index this time is much, much higher. Because they’ve been through this how many times before? I remember in the spring of 2008 when a bunch of people – including my immediate boss – were let go and we were promised by John Solomon, the editor at the time, there’d be no layoffs, firings, what-have-you after that. Solomon only lasted another 18 months (although he was brought back this year as a consultant – no doubt a highly paid one) and all the editors since him have been sacked or pushed out in one form or another. As for the employees, I wish them well and hope they end up as well as I have, at a higher salary, mind you. And I wonder if the interior of the building is in as much disrepair as it was when I left. Hopefully they re-hired the exterminator to get rid of the snakes!