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Friday, October 30, 2015

Christian Self-Promotion? Hmm.

New York Times Bestseller*
Winner of three Newberry Awards & two Pulitzers*
"Best book written in the English language to date." -- John Hammond, Publishers Weekly*
"Maria Keffler is the new standard in Christian fiction." -- Christian Publishing Today*

*The above are all factual.
(If "factual" means "I typed them with actual letters and hope they actually come true.")

An article in the Washington Post this week detailed the emerging business of catfishing in the digital publishing world. According to the journalist, a catfish “[hires] a remote worker to (research and) write an e-book for the Kindle marketplace (then puts) it up for sale under the name and bio of a fictional expert… Entrepreneurs will then buy or trade for good book reviews.”
I hadn’t heard of catfishing before (and I’m not even going to comment on the dishonesty inherent in fabricating a “fictional expert”), but a number of these entrepreneurs’ promotional strategies are widely taught and practiced even in the authentic publishing arena.
I’ve had rousing (and generally disappointing) conversations with other authors about self-marketing tactics. Go to a writers conference—Christian or secular—and you can attend workshops on subjects like “How to Promote Yourself and Your Book”, “Blogging Success”, and “How to Drive Traffic to Your Website”. Here are just a few of the tips and tricks I’ve been encouraged to undertake to sell more books:
·      Tweet frequently. Think 15-20 times a day.
·      Publish at least three blog posts a week.
·      Organize 100 or more people you know to buy your book on the same day.
·      Organize 100 or more people you know to review your book on the same day. Send them sample reviews they can cut and paste.
·      Pay professional reviewers to leave star-ratings and comments online.
The first two strategies above relate to content. Generate more and more and more content, the experts tell you. Because the more frequently your name comes up in a search engine, the better the chances you’ll snag readers and make sales.
But you know what? Churning out meaningful content is neither quick nor simple.
In January I challenged myself to publish one blog post a week for an entire year. I’m 44 posts in, and let me tell you, it’s hard work. And some of my blog posts, as anyone will confirm who’s followed them at all, are kind of… crap. (Speaking of which, does anyone remember the one about almost stepping in dog doo? Point made.)
It takes a lot of time, effort, and serendipity to come up with interesting, useful, and thought-provoking material. So if I write stuff just to write stuff because I hope more people will see my name, I’m simply pandering to my own vanity, as well as heaving by the handful more junk into an already junk-heavy junkyard of literary junk, thereby making it that much harder for anyone to find any actual treasure, even within my own body of work.
The remaining three marketing strategies—ginning up a fake appearance of widespread interest in one’s work—are nothing but good old-fashioned dishonesty. By manipulating a book’s sales and reviews, the author tries to game the algorithms that bring the book upward in visibility and search hits. That’s simple deception.
A lot of people are totally cool with misrepresenting reality. No Christian should be. If it isn’t the truth, it isn’t godly or right, and it isn’t ultimately good for you or anyone else. The end.
Rather than quoting the Bible, I would simply challenge any serious Christian to find scriptural support for self-promotion and deceptive marketing. If you really want some chapter-verse references that controvert these practices, email me or comment below and I’ll shoot you a few.
And to those who argue that Paul promoted himself, I must respectfully disagree. Paul promoted Christ and the gospel, not his own ministry. Big difference there. When people asked questions or sought wisdom Paul pointed them to the scriptures and to Christ’s words, not to his own teaching or writing. (A good standard by which to judge today’s Christian pop-culture gurus, too.)
I’ve been told a number of times by people in various positions within and around the publishing industry that I’ll never succeed as an indie author without undertaking a massive, best-practices-heavy marketing campaign to get my books moving. If success is defined as financial gain or name-recognition, then so far they’re spot-on. I’m ahead a few dollars via book sales, but nowhere near making a living out of it. Or even buying myself a new car. Or a new printer. Or dinner out with another person. Or name-brand makeup.
And there are probably only a thousand or so people in the world who’ve ever even heard of me. I’ve got a pretty big extended family, so many of those thousand people know me because we’re related. (And they, by the way, find themselves unable to rate any of my books on Amazon, once Amazon finds out we’re kin. My mom tried, but Big Brother Bezos was watching. Ka-boom! Delete that review!)
Still, I’m not going to do something just because it’s been shown to yield material results. Until I can find a marketing strategy that doesn’t require me to close one eye and pretend I didn’t read what God has to say about pride and greed and dishonesty, I’ll keep on foregoing the greater wisdom of the commercial masses.
     I’d like to think my integrity is worth more than that.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bon Appétit

Yeah, that's me. Sure.

I’m sick to death of food.
Not of eating food. I run so I can eat food. Seriously. I used to point frantically to the scriptures as a way to rationalize jogging as an inherently sinful behavior, because Proverbs 28:1 reads, “The wicked flee though no one pursues.” But after hitting middle age, and finding myself paunchy and weak, as well as too cheap and lazy to go to the gym, I took up running in order to support my dessert habit without turning into Jabba the Hutt.
No, I’m tired of planning food, and buying food, and cooking food, and cleaning up after food.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful—wildly thankful—that I can feed myself and my family. Every time I walk the aisles at Trader Joe’s, and restock my pantry and refrigerator with my abundant selections, I remember that there are kids who go to bed hungry night after night because their moms don’t have the access or the means to procure food for them.
There’s nothing about that that isn’t wrong.
But in the same light, I want to ask my children, “Why must you eat three times a day?!? Shouldn’t we eat less, and less often, so there’s more food to go around?
“And I just fed you yesterday. And the day before. And every day since I pushed you, with tears and sweat and blood and agony, out of my body. The body to which you immediately turned for food!”
Where is the rest for this weary woman?
I don’t like cooking.
There, I said it. I’m a lousy homemaker, because I loathe cleaning and I’ve run completely out of grace and patience and creativity for cooking.
I remember when I was a kid, around four o’clock in the afternoon my mom would say, “Oh, Lord. I have no idea what to make for dinner tonight.”
And I’d say, “Are you kidding me, woman? You have at least seven thousand cookbooks and five drawers stuffed with recipes, and a garden out back, and a freezer and a refrigerator and a pantry so loaded you can barely close any of them. The possibilities are endless!”
She’d lower her chin to her chest, look down at me through those steely blue eyes, and rasp, “Just wait till you’re a mom.”
Oh, I get it now, Mom. I get it.
The question, “What’s for dinner?” flays my woebegone soul at what I think ought to be the end of a long day. But it’s not the end of the day. Because I still have to feed people. I crumple into a demoralized heap of brokenness in the middle of the kitchen floor and whimper, “I don’t know!”
And inevitably one of those people comes up to the stove later as I’m cooking, with that facial expression, the one of suspicion and skepticism and disgust. And s/he points to the pot, nose wrinkled in a snobby little snarl, and says, “What’s that?”
And I say, “It’s stewed monkey brains in asparagus compote. And you’re going to eat it and love it.”
I’m probably shooting myself in the foot there, but it makes me feel better.
One of the things I’ve heard more than every-so-often from people who know me and read this blog and hear my stories is, “I feel so much better about my own life/parenting/spousing now.”
You’re welcome. Go ahead and use me as your litmus test for at-least-I-don’t-suck-that-bad.
And here’s another gimme for you. You know what I’m putting on the table tonight? A box of cereal and a handful of cheese sticks. Just one more thing for the kids to discuss with their therapists someday.
“And put the dishes in the dishwasher when you’re done, too, you ungrateful little gluttons. You’ve got no maid here, either.”
Bon appétit.

Friday, October 9, 2015


As Halloween approaches, I start preparing for Christmas. I spend October on present procurement. If I don't have all my gifts purchased/made by Halloween, my  stress level skyrockets and Thanksgiving looms over me like a turkey-headed firing squad.

I prefer to spend the month of November, on the other hand, getting Christmas cards ready to send out, which includes wrapping up our family's annual Year-in-Review, a month-by-month, blow-by-blow narrative of the chaos, confusion, and savagery that is our family. Seriously, this is nobody's social-media-spin, happy-happy-joy-joy document. You will not find in our letters anything which resembles the following:

“We’re so proud of Edwina, who graduated from Oxford this year at the age of thirteen, and has just received a Pulitzer for her groundbreaking work in the field of biomechanics.”

“Little Bonzo took his first steps this year at four months old, and was composing Ovidian sonnets three months later.  His foreign language instructor expects him to master Mandarin Chinese by next week, then she’ll start him on Arabic and Ancient Latin.”

“Carlton and I traveled this year.  We toured the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and the ruins of Atlantis.  Next year, we’re planning a cruise around the world and a lunar landing.”
Photo by Tim Regan

Case in point, 2014.*
* * *
Photo by
Tambako the Jaguar
Little Girl turns six! And the family discovers that the fluffy, fuzzy slippers the girls received for Christmas either have the mange, or were manufactured with materials of questionable quality. They shed like a pair of Shetland Sheepdogs in a Korean sauna. The house looks like a llama exploded in it. 
Mother tells Father her writing dreams. “I want something I’ve written to change someone’s life, alter the trajectory they’re on.” Father nods. “Pretty sure your Christmas letters have changed a lot of people’s minds about having kids.”
Photo by Pinké
RIP, big blue candy bowl. Its demise proved an act of God, for the child, alone in the kitchen at the time of the calamity, was NOT attempting to abscond with a piece of candy. Nay! Said child discovered, when pouring a glass of soda—I mean milk—that the candy bowl teetered inexplicably against the ajar cabinet door, of its own mystifying and foolhardy volition. And in the course of a tragically failed rescue attempt, control of the precarious bowl was lost, and it plunged to its granite-countertop death.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” As Inigo Montoya corrected Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Father and Mother attempt to rectify a number of semantic inaccuracies which pop up frequently in the children’s vocabularies. For example:
An “ACCIDENT” is an unexpected, unintentional, and unforeseeable event. It is not an action you carried out by malicious design, then later, upon getting caught, wished that you had not.
The phrase “NO FAIR” indicates either a condition of flagrant injustice, or that the local carnival has once again been shut down by the health department. It is not a war-cry to catalog the misery that is your life because of the unendurable existence of your siblings.
“I DON’T KNOW” reflects a state of ignorance of some relevant information or fact. It is not a synonymous alternative to I DON’T WANT TO TELL YOU, PLEASE DON’T SEEK OTHER WITNESSES, or I PLEAD THE FIFTH. It may, however, precede the phrase, I’D LIKE TO SPEAK TO AN ATTORNEY.
Mother attempts not to say, "You're making me angry," (because no one can make you angry) or "You're getting on my nerves" (an emotionally injurious thing to tell a child). Instead she stammers out, "You're... getting... on my... angry place."
At the library, Daughter asks the man at the desk for the book How to Train Your Brother. Discovering that said tome does not exist, Daughter undertakes to write it. Keep your eyes peeled for the book launch.
One night at tuck-in, Mother finds Daughter reading the biblical story of the Egyptian plagues. Daughter has many questions. In order to make the story real, to really bring it home, Mother says, "That would be Son in our family, if first-borns died today." A light bulb illuminates over Daughter’s startled little head. An expression of epiphany spreads over her face. And she grins from ear to ear.
The end of the school year arrives and Son graduates from elementary to middle school. He leaves the very next week for seven days of Boy Scout camp. And…
…Family's house becomes a haven of peace, tranquility and goodwill. Daughter and Little Girl play together in joy and harmony. Chores are accomplished with gentility and cooperation. Meals are punctuated with jokes and laughter, interesting discussions, and polite camaraderie. There is kindness. Love. Joie de vivre.
Then Son comes home.
“Mom!” he calls when the mail arrives. “Why’d we get a brochure for Fork Union Military Academy?”
Daughter turns nine!
FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, is “a form of social anxiety, whereby one is compulsively concerned that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience, profitable investment, or other satisfying event” (Wikipedia), which explains a number of things overheard in Family's household:
“Why does SHE get to scrub the toilets?!?”
“But I want to pick up Yogi-Dog’s poop!!!”
“I wish I got to ride in a wheelchair.” (Then get your own hemorrhaging gash and nine stitches.)
Freedom of the Seas
Mother’s parents celebrate their 50th anniversary by taking their children and grandchildren on a Caribbean cruise. During a port call to one of the islands, Father and Mother take the kids snorkeling for the first time. The “pirate ship” that transports them to the swim site encounters rough seas, triggering varying degrees of seasickness among its passengers. That night, during an elegant dinner in the formal dining room, Little Girl cries out to her grandmother across the table,
“Nana?! Can I tell you what my barf looked like?!?”
Son turns eleven! One morning he moans that the banana won’t fit in his lunch box. Mother suggests he problem-solve. He grouses, “Why don’t you and Dad ever help? All you do is tell me to think.” Mother advises him that his parents won’t always be there; he must develop his own mental acuity. “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day,” she explains. “Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Son rolls his eyes, turns back to his lunch, and mutters, “I don’t know what fishing has to do with putting a banana in my lunch.”
Daughter, the queen of yammering story-telling, listens to her parents discuss The Wizard of Oz, a movie the children have yet to see. Daughter interjects, “Speaking of flying monkeys—” Mother interrupts her loquacious child. “Seriously, Daughter? You have a story that segues from flying monkeys?” And darned if she didn’t.
Family’s children must learn every lesson the hard way. And sometimes not even then. After a city bus illegally passes the disembarking, red-lights-flashing, STOP-arm-extended school bus on the left side of the road, Son’s Nikes screech to a smoking halt, and he narrowly avoids becoming road-kill. Mother thanks God and Son’s much-overworked guardian angel, and consoles herself that at least Son will never again neglect to look both ways. Wrong. Mother picks Son up at the bus days later and watches him stroll across the busy street without the slightest, cursory nod to either the right or left. “I couldn’t look,” he insists. “I have a headache.”
Tuition is pricey at the School of Hard Knocks, my son. Prepare to pony up.
Mother suffers a night of insomnia. The next day Little Girl belts out “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to the stridently piercing tones of her annoying electronic keyboard while Daughter practices bouncing a Ping-Pong ball across the kitchen countertops. Again and again. And again. And again. ‘Cause, why not?
On a completely unrelated note, terrorists torture their victims by denying them sleep, playing abhorrent music at deafening volumes, and repeating nerve-blistering noises ad nauseum. Yay, Parenthood.
Merry Christmas, and may your family need less therapy than ours.
* * *
Version 2015 is in progress and coming in January 2016. Cheers.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Leaky Boots, Seppuku, & the Tao of Retrospect

Photo by Savannah Van der Niet
One long and painful stretch of my life—which had too much in common with the long and painful weekend I took a long and painful bus ride to the Nagano Winter Olympics then stepped out into the wet snow to discover that both my boots leaked—was the miserable year that my oldest went to elementary school, my middle attended half-day preschool, and the baby was on two naps a day.
Why so terrible, one might ask? Because:
4:45    Baby wakes up. Here we go.
6:30    Get everybody else up, fed, and dressed. Nurse the baby. Again.
7:15    Take son to the bus. If husband is on travel, as he way-too-frequently is, take all the children. If it’s cold, get them into winter gear. Undress the one that has to go potty. Ignore the baby as her sweaty self screams because she’s strapped into the stroller, yet rolling nowhere. Watch helplessly as the other child wanders off in boredom. Re-dress the potty kid. Find the missing one. Sprint to the bus stop pushing the stroller with your stomach and dragging the older two by their elbows.
8:30    Feed middle child second breakfast, so she can engage at preschool till lunch. Nurse baby again.
9:00    Drive to preschool. Swerve the car, pump the brakes, and blare The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round! to keep the baby awake in the car so she doesn’t catch three winks and thereby blow her entire morning nap. Because right there is Mommy Hell.
9:45    Arrive home. Do whatever it takes to get the baby to sleep.
12:00  Wake the baby, even if she just dozed off ten minutes ago. Nurse her, change her diaper, strap her back into the car seat.
1:00    Drag from the preschool classroom the exhausted, tantrum-ing second child who is furious that she is being dragged from the preschool classroom.
1:30    Steel nerves against the preschooler’s continuing tantrum. Nurse the baby. Change the baby. Clean up the preschooler’s tantrum-induced vomit.
3:00    Get the two younger children geared-out to pick up the oldest child from the bus. Bounce, careen, and shake the stroller to keep the baby awake so she doesn’t blow her afternoon nap and throw her mother back into Mommy Hell.
3:15    Arrive home. Do anything to get the baby to nap. Anything, please, Baby, please just go to sleep before Mommy actually DIES! Feed questionably-dated yogurt scrounged out of the back of the fridge to the two older children, who fight over which of them got more and who gets the TV remote after snack.
4:30    Start dinner just in time for the baby to wake up screaming to be nursed and changed…
Every. Stinkin’. Day.
Once, when I was pregnant with my youngest, I took the four-year-old and toddler on a trip to visit their grandparents, by myself, four states away. You can imagine the utter paucity of any peace or order or leisure involved with meals, potty-breaks, and diaper changes.
As we exited one travel plaza an older couple held the door for us. They crooned nostalgically, “Oh, I remember when our kids were that age. It was so much fun!”
Fun? Are you seriously serious?
I called back to them as I dragged my howling children toward the car by their forearms, their bodies writhing like a pair of murder-minded boa constrictors. “You look too young to have Alzheimer’s already.”
But everyone tells you the same thing, don’t they? “Enjoy it, because it goes so fast.”
Okay, yeah. It’s true. It goes fast. But how—HOW? How can you enjoy it when you’re on your third shower-less day in a row because your croup-y baby will only stop screaming when you’re holding her? When your second-grader gets sent home for biting the principal?  When your previously honor-rolled middle-schooler brings home three D’s and an E?
Oh, isn’t that sweet? They changed the grading scale low-end label from F to E. ‘Cause F is just too soul-crushing. F means Failed. Freakin’ Failed. Fully Freakin’ Failed. Yeah, an E makes it more palatable. Like, he gave it an Effort, but didn’t Excel. He Endeavored Earnestly, but did not succeed in becoming Educated.
Whatever color lipstick you want to put on that pig, it’s still a big, fat washout.
But these are fairly benign problems. What about the truly tough, chronic problems? Long-term illness. Family brokenness. The kind of pain that never seems to take a lunch break?
I’m not qualified to even touch that stuff.
But I have given a lot of thought recently about how to better experience the present. It seems to have quite a lot to do with the way we look at the past. When we remember “the good old days” why do we so often wear rose-colored glasses? And how can I get a pair to wear today?
I think it’s because we isolate the good things (like the way a newborn smells) and un-couple them from all the unpleasant stuff that was going on at the same time (like the way a newborn smells when she delivers a package of explosive diarrhea).
So, how do we focus on the moment we’re in with the same favorableness we’re likely to give it when we look back later?
Be Mindful.
This is today’s pop-psychology term for Pay Attention, Will You? According to Wikipedia, mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”. When you pause while eating butterscotch pudding to feel its smooth texture on your tongue, and to experience how the combination of brown sugar and cream tastes and smells, and to appreciate the feeling of sustenance it creates as you swallow it, you’re being mindful.
Think, “It Could Be Worse”.
My college roomie and I used to play this game when the misery that was our lives made us consider seppuku. We took a road trip to New Orleans one time, and got stuck in hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the middle of a sunny, scorching August afternoon. We took turns coming up with ways it could be worse:
“The A/C could be out.”
“We could have to pee really, really bad.”
“There could be an ax-murderer (or worse, a screaming baby) in the car.”
One important caveat, however: You may play this game only about your own situation. You may not play it aloud with someone else’s problems, unless you like being beaten to a quivery pulp.
Imagine the Reality of the Opposite.
Once when my kids were really little I visited a single friend’s apartment. She gave me a tour, and when I passed her bedroom intense jealously gripped me about the throat. Her bed was made. With hospital corners. No toys littered it. As far as I could tell no leaky diaper aroma lingered anywhere on or in it. She had to share her sleeping quarters with no one.
As enviable as the single life sounded at that moment, I thought back to when I was single and expected, for a number of reasonable reasons, that I would never have a husband or children. Having now lived in both circumstances, I could recognize that both possess their own benefits and drawbacks.
The key, I believe, is to take every thought captive and focus on the good you’re in as well as the bad you’re NOT in, rather than the other way around.
Someday Hubby and I will be empty-nesters like the couple at the travel plaza. We’ll get to sleep as late as we want and go out to dinner without dropping thirty bucks on a sitter. But there will be no more crayon-colored I LOVE MOMMY AND DADDY pictures on the fridge. We may also never have all our children at home at the same time for a holiday again. One of us may die early and leave the other more alone than s/he ever wanted to be.
Mark the Milestone. Over and over.
My youngest is seven years old at the time I write this. We haven’t had diapers in our house for four years. But every single time I pass the diaper aisle at Target, I laugh with insanely derisive glee.
I love not buying diapers.
What are you done with that you’re thrilled to be done with? Did you hate middle school? Stick your tongue out at one as you drive by it. Was your first miserable job delivering newspapers on your bike at oh-dark-thirty every morning? Toast the newspaper you pick up in your driveway (or the version you get on your iPad) with your coffee cup as you sit down at your table with it. Did your lousy boss get transferred? Or better yet, fired? Thank your new boss for the great job she’s doing. Frequently.
Count Your Days Aright.
This one doesn’t need too much explanation. You could be dead tomorrow. Some of us will be. Illness, accident, natural disaster; the graveyard is peopled with people who didn’t expect to be there yet. What about today would seem a lot less significant (or a lot more significant) if you knew you wouldn’t be here tomorrow?
I’d quit doing sit-ups in this ongoing, failed attempt to obliterate my baby-belly fat and pull a chair up in front of the chocolate fountain at my favorite restaurant’s dessert buffet.
Get a Wider Perspective.
Atheists, skip this one. There’s nothing for you here.
Everyone else, consider your spot in the bigger picture of the created universe. We are small, small, small, yet if you believe in the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence of a God who knows you, you must recognize that you have eternal significance. The eighth load of vomit-laundry, the broken china, the tantrum in the middle of the grocery store (the kid’s or yours, whatever) are momentary blips on a life-path that has God’s fingerprints all over it. We learn, we grow, we change, not for nothing, not out of a random collection of meaningless and happenstance events, but for something that is bigger than the short spans of our individual lives.
Sweeten your coffee with that and drink it.
Nobody Promised You a Rose Garden.
Lastly, there’s a lot to be said for just accepting that no one ever guaranteed any of us an easy go of it. In the spirit of the line of memes that’s been circulating around social media, “‘This parenting thing is a lot easier than I expected.’ Said no one, ever.” (Insert whatever episode of misery seems to be on a loop in the streaming-video of your life.)
A friend who went through anger counseling told me that when you’re mad you should ask yourself, “What do I want that I’m not getting?” Wow, is that ever an eye-opener.
I want the cat not to have thrown up. (I’ll keep working on that time machine.)
I want my husband to stop leaving magazine subscription cards everywhere. (Maybe I’ll put them aside to be used as scoopers the next time the cat barfs.)
I want my children to stop fighting. (Yeah, and I’d like world peace, one of my novels to be made into a blockbuster movie, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to grow out of the Aloe Vera plant on my kitchen windowsill. Get real, Maria.)
Sometimes life just stinks. Your days contain little or nothing of what you’d hoped they would, what you might’ve chosen for yourself, what you expected when you mapped out your life plan as an optimistic eighteen-year-old with a freshly turned mortarboard tassel caressing your cheek.
And you know what sticks in my memory most about that miserable weekend of leaky boots at the Nagano Winter Olympics? Immersing my frozen self into the hot tub at a public bath we happened across on Sunday afternoon.
Oh, yeah.
So eke out what wisdom or strength or virtue the situation offers while you buckle down and knuckle under till you’re through it. Then find your hot tub, have yourself a nice soak, and remember, in the immortal words of the medieval Persian Sufi poet, “This Too Shall Pass.”