Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

“Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.” ~Erin Keane
"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it." ~Jesse Stuart

"A writer's job is to take one thing and make it stand for twenty." ~ Virginia Woolf

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Joy in the Small Things

My daughter recently sent me a picture of the box of clothes she was getting rid of because, as she said, "wearing them no longer brings me joy."

I thought of the clothes I wear all the time that no longer bring me joy. Two pairs of pants I used to love but now have stains on the cuffs I can't get off. Shirts that don't quite fit me right or the colors are faded. A knit dress several years old that's now pilled. The list was quite long and disheartening.

These small imperfections I try to ignore because new clothes are hard to come by where I live in Guatemala, and I only go back to the States once a year. That's a long time to wait between shopping trips.

Then I began to think of other things that take up my time and energy which do not bring me joy. Not a lot, I must admit, because at my age I've learned how to bring joy into my life even with mundane tasks. But still, there are a few areas for improvement. Like the clothes.

Have you ever given up something when it no longer brought you joy?

Monday, July 13, 2015

How Much Information is Too Much?

In this age of information overload, how much online sharing is too much? As authors with books out, we understand the necessity of getting our name and work out there. People have to know about a book in order to buy it, and bookstores and libraries aren't where readers go anymore to discover new books and authors.

With millions of books out there, a physical bookstore can only hold a tiny fraction of them. Besides, what about the unknowns who have written good stuff just waiting to be discovered?

And thus we love Amazon with its unlimited shelf space, and the e-reader with its unlimited storage space.

Writers face this new frontier of book publishing with hopeful enthusiasm for the possibilities. Yet the problem of discoverability remains. With so many to choose from, how will anyone find your book?

We get on social media, figuring the more people know about us, the more we will sell. I wonder if this trend causes us to not only spread ourselves too thin but overshare in the process.

Image result for F. Scott fitzgerald photoRemember back in the far distant past when the mystique of the writer was part of the excitement of reading their stories? I used to wonder about the people who wrote my favorite books: what was their life like, how did they get their ideas, were they anything like the characters they wrote about? What kind of house did they live in? What was their favorite food? What did they look like beyond the author photo on the back?

We don't need to wonder any longer. It's all out there for the world to see. I know my life is. Read one of my books and want to know more? You'll find everything in a few clicks. This concerns me sometimes.
Not about my identity being stolen or being stalked by eager fans or having my picture taken without makeup. It's that I, who used to be such a private person hating anyone to know my business, now freely share so much of it online.

Blogging especially does this to a writer. You need a topic and there's your convenient daily life including pictures for variety. Besides, as writers, this is what we do. We write. And write. And write. We write about what we know, which is ourselves and our families and our activities, our good days and bad.

Seriously, there are times I'm tempted to delete my blog, wipe the slate clean and keep a nice, spare website with very little personal information. Do you ever feel that way?

But then reality hits. We no longer live in the day of author mystique. A writer who avoids social media might be diminishing the chance of success. So there we have it. The conflict between oversharing and the need to make oneself and one's work known on social media.

A few have found a nice balance between the two. Most have not. There's a well-known women's fiction author whose books I used to love, until I started following her Facebook fan page where she posts long, boring updates about her everyday routine. I can't get past the first sentence. Since I liked her on Facebook, I've had no desire to read any more of her books. Her Facebook oversharing has taken away my interest.

Do you think social media can hurt a writer more than help? 

How do you feel about oversharing with your own blogs or with others you've read? How much is too much? 

Think the pendulum will ever swing back toward writer mystique? I kinda wish it would, how about you?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What, I have to admit to being insecure?

I didn't realize how difficult it would be for me to come up for topics each month for the Insecure Writer's Posts. After all, insecurity and anxiety are a way of life for me and always have been.

My entire life-- at least since kindergarten when I told my mom if I got sick to not pray for me to get well since I wanted to die and not have to go to school--I've dealt with my fears in a specific way. By either denying they exist to take away their power, or facing them head on before they get me down.

So the first Wednesday of the month comes around and I think, What? I'm supposed to sit here calmly and confess to my insecurities all matter of factly, like it's some normal thing?

Honestly, Insecure Writer Wednesday freaks me out every time. It's like having to go to the dentist. Or to the doctor for a physical. I'm even anxious about getting a pedicure. What if they take too long? Ask too many personal questions? How much should I tip? What if I don't want to tip? And don't even mention when I need a hair cut.

I think about Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. She played the character brilliantly, an absolute mess of anxieties and insecurities and unreasonable fears. We all loved her and the role earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress while catapulting her career to superstar status.

If I could play insecure like Diane Keaton played Annie Hall, then it would be great. People would love me and take care of me and throw money at me and everyone would want to be my friend. Woody Allen is the same. He's so adorably neurotic people have been in love with him and throwing money at him for decades, even when he had an affair then married his adopted daughter.

"She was Mia's adopted daughter," he said, pushing up his glasses. Oh, right, people said, here's a million dollars.

When I feel anxious, I turn to stone. I freeze, most likely with a scowl on my face. If I do talk, it'll be something inappropriate blurted out at the wrong moment, making people back away. I can't do adorably intelligent neurotic like Diane Keaton or Woody Allen. My insecure is "Whoa, what's wrong with this woman??"

So well, it's the first Wednesday of the month, la di da, la, la, la di da, well, let's's my granddaughter...

She looks a lot like me at that age except she's afraid of nothing and everyone loves her and wants to take care of her and be her friend. I bet she's going to love kindergarten.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Down With Conformity

I came of age in the Sixties when conformity was a bad word. Everyone wanted to be different, to act different, to rebel. I did my own share of rebelling to be sure, but I never did drugs.

When I got to college and went to a few parties and saw unpleasant results of alcohol, I stopped drinking and stopped going places where people would be drinking.

When I transferred to the University of Illinois my sophomore year, drugs were hitting campus big time and what I noticed was that the people who seemed most against conformity were all looking and acting and thinking exactly alike.

Rebellion had become the new conformity. It made me turn away from rebellion and become my own kind of non-conformist.

I see this happening everywhere in our world today. People are afraid to express an opinion that differs from what's socially and politically acceptable. If you do, things can get ugly. You get called names like racist, homophobic, religious nut case, far right Republican, a bigot, intolerant.

I am none of those things, yet I have my own thoughts about issues, and I will rarely express them because if I'm not conforming to the politically correct view, then I'm something ugly.

What ever happened to free speech? What ever happened to a thinking society and open discussion of issues? It's like we're going backward in time to a society crippled by prejudice and fear and strict conformity.

I am so tired of the name-calling, the hostility, the ranting back and forth. People are unfollowing and unfriending on social media, and probably in real life, when they find out their friends have the "wrong" political ideas. Did you know in Hollywood there are closet Republicans? People afraid to be found out for their political and religious beliefs for fear of losing their jobs.

I don't care what side you're on politically, just stop it. Everyone should just stop it.

By the way, in case you think you know my views and can categorize me, you're wrong. I have a gay son and I'm very happy he is with such a fine person as his partner. I know neither of them chose to be the way they are, and I wish them all the happiness that is possible to them in this world. But marriage? Marriage is ordained of God and is between a man and a woman.

Let the name calling and unfollowing begin.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Rainy Season

While many of you in the U.S. are feeling the heat and drought conditions, in Guatemala we are deep into the rainy season. In the morning it is sunny and everyone is outdoors before the clouds come and the rain hits.

Gotta do laundry and hang it out to dry.

Gotta walk to the market before the water is pouring down the middle of the streets.

Gotta just get out and feel the sun on your skin.

Later in the day when it's pouring rain, wifi can get spotty. Sometimes the electricity goes off altogether.

If it gets cold and dreary, I've got a supply of wood ready for the fireplace.

It's nearly impossible to go all through the rainy season without getting caught in a downpour without an umbrella. When that happens, people stand inside stores or under shelter, watching for a tuk tuk, or just waiting for it to lessen a bit.

One of the best rains happened last year when we were at the hotel. It was evening, the electricity went out, it was dark. We stood on the balcony and watched the rain filling up the street as the parking lot across the way turned into a flood.

The main street of Panajachel during a light rain:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Deciding What to Write

As a writer, figuring out what project to work on next is part of the job. As a blogger, wondering what to post can be puzzling. Blogging is personal, and posts with heart are what appeal to me. I appreciate those who share something of themselves: things they're going through, insights, ideas, successes and failures, ways they've changed.

Writing books is not as spontaneous as blog writing. There's a form for each genre which must be respected. A book is a lengthy enterprise, not to be dashed off in a spurt of inspiration. Maybe the first draft can be written like that, but to achieve a professionally finished work, the spurts of inspiration must be supplemented with hours and hours of sometimes perplexing drudgery.

This is why I only write the book I want to write. Whether it's marketable or popular isn't a consideration, at least not in the early stages. John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, says to "write the story that will change your life."

As I look back on my six published books, I realize each one of them fit this principle. Each one was important for me to write at that particular time, and the writing of it changed my life in a significant way. When I hear from a reader, or see a review that shows me my book also changed a reader's life in a significant way, it means more to me than all the royalties in the world.

One of my absolute favorite reviews on House of Diamonds exemplifies exactly what I mean:


 "As a reader who is struggling to start a family this story was my worst fears put to paper. But it reminded me also of the love of a being more powerful than all who does what is best for us whether we see it or not. It was honestly what I needed to read to put my current struggles in perspective and I recommend it to anyone who feels they can't deal with their struggles. Thank you Ms. Gowen for writing this book, it was just what I needed to read."

Recently I've been struggling with what to write next. At first I was doing the third book in my Diamond series. After all, it's been four years since the second, House of Diamonds, came out. And it is supposed to be a Mormon Family Saga. What kind of saga only has two books in it?

Despite it making perfect sense for me to write that next Diamond novel, I just couldn't do it. I finally put the rough draft away for another time. Apparently this isn't the story to change my life at the moment. Whenever I worked on it, I'd get upset, revisiting a time in our family's experience I was not ready to face. I want so badly to write that book but right now I just can't.

Instead I'm eagerly working on something else. That's my clue I'm on the right track--how I'm excited when I think about it, getting ideas, looking forward to my writing time, jotting things down in a notebook when I'm not at my computer.

As writers, we think a lot about sales and marketing. We have to as part of the job. But maybe we should be considering what means so much more than money: changing a life. Especially one's own.

And if in the process our work changes someone else's life for the better, then we have truly done a fine job.

"Every story I write creates me. I write to create myself." 
--Octavia E. Butler

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Insecure about Twitter?

For my Insecure Writer (IWSG) post this month I choose Twitter. I've been insecure about how to utilize it in the past and have tried different methods and approaches. In fact, I've reinvented myself on Twitter numerous times.

I've at last come to the conclusion: There is no one right way or wrong way to use Twitter. All those rules you see about Ten things not to do on Twitter! You can bet someone is doing every one of them and highly successful while breaking all the "rules."

Like all social media, a Twitter account needs a purpose, a focus for the activity, and it must be enjoyable or why bother. Set your own rules. Mine are that I don't RT any tweets with sex or profanity, just plain creepy, or what I deem inappropriate. Regardless of what anyone else does, these are my personal boundaries as I fill my timeline with the cleverness of others.

I'll tweet the occasional book link, a Goodreads review, or a good article related to writing or publishing, but more often I'm tweeting and retweeting pithy comments about life in general. It's a word game for me. How clever can one be in 140 characters or less? Some of the best tweets are only a few words long and one reason why I find Twitter to be a challenging and enjoyable word game.

Do you ever see those accounts with 50K followers and wonder how they got them? One of my Twitter friends, has an excellent formula. In Gen's words: "Small accounts would be big accounts if they understood that all they have to do is write one decent or indecent) tweet a day and retweet."

That's the secret right there. Retweet and star the good stuff (believe me, it's easy to find with all the  cleverness out there) and then you put one decent tweet of your own out each day. It shows you're in the game and know how to play, and like-minded people will follow you, RT and star you, and it turns into a lot of fun.

This is how I'm playing Twitter right now. Bottom line: there's no need to be insecure about Twitter! It's fun, it's easy and it's fast, making it a very effective social media tool. Find your niche, set your boundaries then tweet away!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Paying for Publicity and Book Promotion

I came across a post today on Book Marketing Buzz titled "Why You Need $10,000 to Promote Your Book" , and I had to click over to see if he was joking. I follow this blog and enjoy many of the posts related to book promotion and updates in publishing trends. But this post shocked and surprised me.

For one thing, very few writers have this kind of money to use on marketing a single book. This is why we're using social media to such an extend, because it's free. And it can be a very effective way to get our names and work noticed while having fun too.

Another thing, there are absolutely no guarantees that any kind of marketing program will bring sales to match. I hired an advertising person when Farm Girl first came out and the one thing she said, and what every professional marketer will tell you, is this: We can promote for you but we cannot guarantee results. 

The subtle warning is, "Let me tell you up front you might be throwing your money away. Are you okay with that?"

At WiDo Publishing, there are books that have been highly promoted by the authors and still don't sell very well. On the other hand, we've seen instances where an author has done very little beyond write and then sit back, not even writing anything else for years if at all, yet this one book will take off and sell consistently month after month.

Throwing money at a product will not guarantee success. If it were so, the big publishers would be spending a specific amount on each one they publish to create bestsellers. All a publisher or a writer can do is put the work out there and go through their promotional plan, whatever that happens to be, and then hope it catches on with the reading audience.

There's no explaining which books at WiDo have been top sellers and which ones have not. It hasn't come down to promotional dollars or advertising or marketing savvy. In the end, it comes down to whether the reading public connects with the book. And this can be a mysterious blend of ingredients involving timing, genre, promotional efforts that hit their mark, cover, price, summary, what's going on in the world at large--you name it.

There are awful books out there that catch on (Gone Girl cough cough, 50 Shades of Gray cough cough) and excellent ones that never go anywhere. A high-powered advertising budget isn't going to determine or create a bestseller.

But what do you think? Do you feel if only a publisher or writer does enough marketing or spends enough money, a book will sell?

While you're thinking about it, let me do my own plug on my cookbook, Farm Girl Country Cooking: Hearty Meals for the Active Family, which is free for a short time on Kindle.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Blogging Burnout Anyone?

Today is the post day for the Insecure Writer's Support Group, and although I'm not real clear on what I'm feeling insecure about today more than any other day, I do like to hop around and visit other blog posts. This is my favorite day of the month to go blog hopping, because the IWSG posts tend to be sincere and heart-felt.

As for me, I'm burnt out from posting daily for April. I kept up with writing my posts but didn't seem to find time to go visiting others on the list. This is a shame since it's part of signing up.

Pretty sure it's my last year to do the A to Z Challenge. I've participated each time since Arlee Bird initiated it, one year with two blogs at once. Two years in a row I've posted on Guatemala, last year as a new resident, this time with things a tourist might enjoy. Three times would be too much and besides, I think I'm done with heavy-duty blogging responsibilities like that.

Having cut back on blogging during the previous couple years, I'll probably continue in that vein, posting only two or three times a month. This works for me, keeping me in the loop without creating too much pressure.

I'm not really insecure about my blog since I've been moving in this direction for awhile and it feels right for me. But after five years of blogging and promoting blogging and some years even spending 20 hours a week on it, it feels weird to finally accept and acknowledge and even embrace entering a more low-key phase with it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Location of Zarahemla and the Waters of Mormon

For my Z post last year I wrote about Zarahemla, a key city and land written about in the Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ and companion to the Holy Bible.

People often question the location of this ancient city in the American continent, and wonder where Zarahemla could be.

I'm borrowing my Z post from last year's Challenge,  Where is Zarahemla and Does it Matter, and changing it up a bit to connect it with another interesting Book of Mormon geographical location--the Waters of Mormon.

The Waters of Mormon were a short distance from the City of Lehi-Nephi. The prophet Alma and his people left Lehi-Nephi under duress and persecution from King Noah.

Escaping to the forest in the borders of the land, the people gathered at a body of water called the Waters of Mormon. Here Alma taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ and baptized them in His name.

The group then traveled from this location for eight days, and stayed for a time in a valley they named Helam. Another twelve days journey from Helam took them to the City of Zarahemla.

For a group of people to walk or ride in wagons pulled by animals-- (we don't know what their transportation was so this is an assumption, using the way large groups of people traveled across the Western plains in the U.S. before gasoline-fueled vehicles)-- it would take about 20 days to travel from the Waters of Mormon to the City of Zarahemla. This is geographical background that can be helpful if one is wondering about the location of these two Book of Mormon places.

Now, where might the Waters of Mormon be located?

To the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints native to Central America, it is not a question. They are convinced the Waters of Mormon are one and the same with Lake Atitlan. At the time of Alma, the Waters of Mormon are described as containing "a beautiful fountain of pure water” (Mosiah 18:4-6) where the people entered and were baptized by immersion. For this reason, it became a sacred place to the people and the church of Jesus Christ at the time.

Currently Lake Atitlan is a huge land-locked body of water much larger than how the original Waters of Mormon are described. However, the lake has a life-giving spring that bubbles up from the center, and because there's no drainage, the rains fill it up each year as the level continues to rise, rise, rise.

In addition to the spring, there is the legend of the Xocomil, the wind that blows across Lake Atitlan and carries away sins. These two elements would seem to validate the idea that Lake Atitlan is indeed the original location of the Waters of Mormon. And if so, it isn't too difficult to ascertain the approximate location of our Z letter, Zarahemla.