Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Disappearing Act

So... I kind of dropped off the face of the earth for the past week or so. I know I should apologize for the huge blogging faux pas, but can I just say that I've had a wonderful week?!? I never intended to turn off my computer for eight days, but life just got in the way of emails, blogging, Facebook status checking, and all the other "work" I do online. If I had a "Gone Fishing" sign, I would have hung it in my metaphorical blogging window. But that wouldn't be entirely accurate, because I wasn't fishing at all. Instead, I was...

  • Scooping out from under two feet of snow. What a blizzard!
  • Playing in said snow with my kids. It was so soft and powdery white we could swan dive off the steps and sink a foot into the snowy fluff.
  • Celebrating Christmas! Church was cancelled because of the blizzard, but we still sung carols, read Luke 2, ate like kings (and queens), and shared gifts. My favorite Christmas gift? A SonicCare toothbruth. I know, I'm a dork. But I love clean teeth.
  • Swimming at an indoor waterpark during our three-day family getaway. The Baarts took a mini-vacation this year in lieu of fancy presents, and we loved every minute of our time away. I still smell like chlorine.
  • Cuddling our sweet, spayed puppy. Poor thing has eleven staples in her tummy and she just can't leave them alone. It's my job to hold her. It's rough, but someone's got to do it.
  • Writing! I am having so much fun with my third and final installment of Julia's story. And my aunt just (inadvertantly) gave me the pièce de résistance, the scene and symbol that will tie the whole book together. I'm pretty excited. Thanks, Auntie Julie! 
Well, I think that's about it. I am sorry for disappearing on you, but I hope my reasons are understandable. And I hope you had a fantastic Christmas week, too! It's your turn: What have you been up to this past week? What was the highlight of your Christmas? What was your favorite present (to give or to get)? I'd love to catch up with you...

Merry (belated) Christmas!!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to Brand (a stab in the semi-dark)

I know it's Christmas week and I should be waxing poetic on the snow (we're going to be dumped on), the season (it is magical) or how excited I am to see my kids' faces on Christmas morning (they're going to be so excited!). But instead of getting all sentimental on you, I'm going to be diligent and finish the conversation I began in Branding (not the cow kind) and Author Branding (a needle in a haystack). I'm not done inflicting my half-baked ideas on you. Merry Christmas. ;)

Anyway, after bringing up the issue of branding, what it is and why we do it, I thought it would be helpful to talk about some practical ways that author branding is achieved. I've seen it done poorly, and I've seen it transform careers. But whether or not you think it's a great idea or a pathetic attempt to peddle more books, I do believe that having a working understanding of branding is helpful to both aspiring authors and readers. Why? Well, if you hope to be a published author someday, I think you will be well served to have a firm grasp of who you are, what you write, and what sets you apart from the other 95% of the US population (yes, that's a true stat!) that longs to write a book, too. And if you read, I hope that this conversation opens your eyes to some of the marketing strategies authors and publishing houses use, and that the information you glean allows you to become a more informed reader eager to seek out the books and authors that will truly stir your soul (not necessarily the ones with big bucks behind their name).

So, how are authors branded? I honestly think it's part perception, part accident, part divine appointment, and only a small part intention. Let's deal with perception first.

Like it or not, it only takes a moment for someone to form a first impression of us. Our God-given looks, our self-imposed hairstyle, make-up application, and wardrobe, our personality, social skills and shortcomings are all pretty evident within the first five minutes we meet someone new. For an author, these things are summed up in a head shot. Or a video-interview. Or an encounter at a booksigning. And whether or not it's a true reflection of who we are, it is carefully orchestrated. Take a look at these author headshots. Can you guess who writes mystery/thrillers? Literary fiction? Women's fiction? (Do you know who these authors are? Take a guess in the comments!)

How others perceive us has to have something to do with our brand. I don't think I'd ever succeed as a female Stephen King. I'm not spooky enough. Nor do I want to be. Maybe this aspect of branding is much more organic to who we are than I'm giving it credit for.

If you're an aspiring author, ask yourself: Who am I? How do others perceive me? What about my looks/personality/interests/hobbies/etc. can I play up? What about me might readers be able to relate to? And if you're a reader, it doesn't hurt to be aware of what you're drawn to... The lovely lady in the final picture above (the one with the candy) so intrigued me that I bought her book simply because I loved her website and who I believed she was... And she remains a dear author to me because of her charm, whimsy, and wit. (You can see that about her in the photo, can't you?)

The second thing that I think contributes to brand is accident. Maybe that's not the perfect word for what I mean, but I do believe that at least some part of branding is more or less fated. It's who we are, like it or lump it. I consider these contributions to branding almost accidental because it's not like we set out to write this way. It just happened. For me, these characteristics of my writing include several things. The literary, almost poetic quality of my prose is not something I try to do. It's just how I write. In fact, when reviews started coming in for my debut novel and "poetic" seemed to be the buzzword, I was honored and completely stunned. I had no idea I was writing such lovely prose. My work also has a certain dramatic flair, an ability to connect deeply with human emotions. Again, I didn't set out to do that, and I was blown away when I started receiving emails from people telling me that I had written the words of their heart. Really? Cool.

If you're an aspiring writer, I advise you to take some time and try to identify those things in your writing that are just a part of who you are. Maybe you can't discern that for yourself... and maybe you shouldn't. I thought I was capable of writing humorous vignettes--until a few friends were kind enough to tell me that I simply wasn't funny. I'm not sure that we can always see ourselves clearly. Do you have a writing partner? Someone who critiques your work? Ask them what things stand out in your writing. What things set you apart that you may not have even realized? And if you read, what things are you drawn to in a good book? I long for lovely prose (maybe that's why it comes out in my work), a story that lingers in my heart long after I close the final chapter, and moments of vivid truth and beauty. How about you?

So this doesn't get too long, I'm going to finish the last two components of branding (divine appointment and intention) on Wednesday. Then, hopefully, I'll wrap this all up and move on to new things in the New Year. Believe it or not, I do think about more things than just branding. :) In the meantime, join the discussion! Am I right on or way off-base? If you're an aspiring author, are you beginning to piece together an "author identity" for yourself? If you're a reader, have you ever bought a book because you felt an affinity with the author? Do tell!

Friday, December 18, 2009


My son just picked a number between one and fifteen, and LORI is the winner of my Christmas giveaway! We didn't make it to twenty comments, but I'm going to give our winner two of my books anyway. Lori, please email me ASAP with your snail mail address and your choices of books (you may have two of the same one if you'd like).

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Giveaway

I have to interrupt our ongoing branding discussion (see my last two posts) to offer my readers an apology. The 15th of this month slipped by with nary a mention of my regular installation of The Grapevine--an author introduction and book giveaway that I launched this past July. Believe it or not, I had a post set to go, but unfortunately I programmed it to publish on the 25th of this month instead of the 15th. Oops. I must have been sleepy (or fat-fingered) when I typed that in. Any-hoo, I sincerely apologize. The following is a quick summary of what you were supposed to read on the 15th.

Since it is the holiday season and everyone is busy with parties, baking, gift-wrapping, get-togethers, and much-needed visits to both the chiropractor and family counselor, I'm not going to introduce you to a new author this month. Instead of asking an author friend or acquaintance to answer interview questions and send out one more gift package, I'm going to do it myself. I know a lot of you already have my books, but I do think they'd make a good Christmas present. :)

So, here's the deal. If 10 people leave a comment for a free book, I'll give one book away (reader's choice). If 20 people leave a comment, I'll give two books away (to the same person). If 30 people leave a comment, I'll give away my entire collection to someone. Signed, of course, with bookmarks and a Christmas card to top it all off. Since I'd like to get this package to you by Christmas, I'm going to have to make this one short. You have until Friday at noon to comment, then I'll announce the winner and send out the package on Friday afternoon (Saturday at the latest). You should have the books by early next week. Sound good? Leave a comment!

Author Branding (a needle in a haystack)

I brought up some issues in Monday's post that I'd like to revisit. To use my husband's #1 most reviled catchphrase: let's unpack this concept. Doesn't it just make you wanna gag? ;)

Back to branding... A few weeks ago I spent some serious time trying to identify themes in my body of work. As you may or may not know, I have three books in print, one awaiting publication, and two half-written. So who is Nicole Baart as an author? What does she write? And if I've read (and enjoyed) her first book (or her second or third), why might I also enjoy reading her other work? These were questions that I seriously wrestled with over the course of a long, contemplative weekend. Not because I want to make my name (or my brand) great, and certainly not because I want to diminish my art to some palatable tagline. My reasons are much more varied and complex. (Though I'd be a big, fat liar if I said all my reasons are pure as the driven snow. What author doesn't want a break-out bestseller???) From a statement I wrote after that soul-searching weekend:

"Branding is a concept that I’ve shied away from since signing my very first book contract three years ago. It seemed somehow unctuous, false and ingratiating as if I was trying to package and sell myself as a product. And I do think that some branding has that certain identifying trace of salesmanship that seems unnecessarily smarmy. But since the release of my debut novel, I’ve learned that proper packaging is not so much greasy peddling as it is truthful marketing. It’s about distinguishing the strength and passion of your work, and helping the right audience to discover the art that has been created just for them.

To that end, I’ve given a lot of thought to my own brand, and though I haven’t nailed down the perfect essence of what I write and why, I think that the body of my work is beginning to have a specific shape and purpose."

My brand (though I hate that particular term) is not something that I'm creating as much as it is something that I am discovering. I'm learning about myself and my work. I'm taking my passions seriously and trying to make connections between the many threads that tie my books together.

Why do I think this is so important? Well, my agent, editors, and other friends and professionals in the industry have told me so. But really, I think it's rather commonsense. Most people don't walk into a bookstore and say, "Where can I find Ford County?" They say, "I'm looking for the newest John Grisham." Or Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Michael Crichton, James Patterson, Anne Rice, Mary Higgins Clark... You get my drift.

There are certain authors whose books I will always and forever buy just because of the name on the cover page. Elizabeth Strout, Leif Enger, Sarah Addison Allen, Anne Patchett, Donald Miller, and Robb Bell are just a few of the authors who have (for one reason or another) stolen my heart. I want to own all of their books, lined up neat and pretty on my bookshelves, even if every book isn't a five-star. Why is that? The answer isn't necessarily easy to ascertain, but I think it's partly because there is something honest about their writing that resonates deep inside of me--even if I'm not always wowed by the story.

What I would like to do is find the readers that are going to resonate with what I write... Like a needle in a haystack, right? Stay tuned--I'll explore different ways to do this on Friday.

If you're a writer: Have you spent some time struggling through these questions yourself? Can you identify even one thing that sets your writing (your books) apart? What aspect of your identity as an author do you think you could play up?

If you're a reader: What authors are you "loyal" to? Who gets shelf space in your home, even if the books aren't necessarily your all-time favorites? Why do you think that is?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Branding (not the cow kind)

Growing up in a rural, farming community, my definition of a brand included a hot iron and a cow's backside. Granted, this may have more to do with cowboy movies than reality--I'm not sure I've ever seen a cow being branded in real life. Thank goodness. Sure I dehorned, immunized, wrangled and medicated my fair share of bovines in my brief and never realized (but very exciting) journey to becoming a doctor of veterinary medicine, but I never participated in the act of branding one of my four-legged friends. I think if they could, they would thank me for that small act of grace.

Funny thing is, in my two years working as a ranch hand on a dairy, I never gave branding a second thought. And now, as a veteran wife, mother of two, and fledgling novelist, the concept of branding is something I wrestle with on a regular basis. Of course, my definition has changed a bit.

So what is branding? I found this excellent (and concise) definition at BusinessDictionary.com: Branding is the... "Entire process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product (good or service--books, in my case) in the consumers' mind, through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers."

There are lots of words in that definition that jump out at me: unique, consistent, significant and differentiated presence, loyal customers. The more I write, and the more I deal with publishers, agents, and other industry professionals, the more I'm starting to understand that if I hope to do this gig long-term, I need to figure out just exactly who I am and what I write. What makes my books unique? What about my writing will help me create a significant and differentiated presence in the vast (and ever-growing) publishing market?

According to R.R. Bowker's publishing statistics, there were 407,000 books published in 2007. That's a significant year to me because it is the year that my first book, After the Leaves Fall, was released. My sweet, little debut is lost somewhere amid that overwhelming mass of books. Think about it. How many books do you read in a year? I manage probably one a week. That's 52 books a year--only a miniscule fraction of all that was available in 2007. And more books just keep coming and coming and coming...

Okay, I do have a point to all this musing, but it's going to take me a couple of days to flesh it all out. In the meantime, I want to leave you with some questions to mull over.

If you are a writer: What is unique, different, or attractive about your writing? What sets you apart? If you had to write a one or two-line branding statement, what would it be?

If you're a reader: Do you notice different "brands" in books? What brands are you drawn to? Do you think that creating a brand is a good idea? Or does it limit authors and create cookie-cutter books?

Join the conversation! I can't wait to hear what you have to say.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gift Ideas

So I wrapped presents for an hour straight yesterday and I can officially say: I'm done! Well, almost. I have one more itty-bitty thing to wrap, but I'm not counting it. I can do that. It's my tally.

Anyway, as I think I've already shared, we're pared back Christmas at the Baart house this year. Not that it has ever been a big, extravagant ordeal, but somehow it made sense to simplify even more in 2009. So why did it take me an hour to wrap our presents??? Mostly because we love the little things. Books, slippers, games for the family... Five to ten dollar items that quickly become treasures. I'm all about the small stuff, but I have to admit that whileI adore scented lotions, boxes of gourmet chocolate, and bottles of special wine, nothing fits the gift-giving bill more perfectly in my mind than a good book. Don't have all your shopping done this year? I have a few good ideas for you. The following are some of my favorite reads of 2009. There's a little something for everyone...

For Anyone & Everyone
After the Leaves Fall (Nicole Baart)
Summer Snow (Nicole Baart)
The Moment Between (Nicole Baart)

What?!? You don't own my books yet? What's wrong with you?!? They'd make a perfect Christmas present--to give or get. Okay, I'm done with my shameless plug now.

For the Kids
Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid (Megan McDonald)

Judy Moody's little brother James (Stink) is the perfect misfit and a source of great delight for my boys. Though my youngest is only three, he loves the slapstick gags and cartoonish pictures. And my six-year-old is riveted by the storyline. A great way to introduce slightly older kids to reading.

For the Family Theologian
The Furious Longing of God (Brennan Manning)

A self-proclaimed ragamuffin, recovering alcoholic, and former monk, Brennan Manning offers wisdom, insight, and moments of grace in this beautiful, beautiful book. I wept throughout, and felt like a changed women when I turned the final page.

For Mom
Land of a Hundred Wonders (Lesley Kagen)

A perfectly delightful story about Gibby, a young woman who is NQR (Not Quite Right) after a tragic accident kills both her parents and leaves her suffering the side effects of a traumatic brain injury. Determined to become QR (Quite Right), this tenacious, self-proclaimed reporter finds herself enmeshed in a small town tangle of lies, deceit, and murder. This is a fast, fun read that reminded me of a grown-up Nancy Drew. (However, be forewarned that this book is not rated G. Some language and sexual references might make it inappropriate for your mother.)

For Your Erudite Older Sister
The Master Butcher's Singing Club (Louise Erdrich)

Gorgeous prose and a story steeped in heartbreak make this book a powerful read. It's epic in scope, and so hauntingly well-told that I ached reading it in parts. Our main character, Delphine, is caught in the middle of impossible relationships where she is both exquisitely loved yet agonizingly alone. A must read. (Also not rated G.)

For Your Hubby
In the Woods (Tana French)

This creepy, psychological thriller kept me turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. That's no small feat--I like my sleep. When a young girl is murdered near a small town in Ireland, Detective Rob Ryan is put on the case. It doesn't take long for him to realize that the case he's working is frighteningly similar to his own childhood horror--a night twenty years ago when two of his best friends went missing and he was found blood soaked and incoherent, with no memories of what had transpired. Though the ending of this book is a little to vague for my liking, the book itself was compelling enough for me to consider it a great read.

For You (& Me)
The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

I haven't read this book yet but my agent (and numerous others) told me that it's hands down one of the best books she's read in a long time. It's on my list, but I haven't put down the dough for it quite yet. Maybe it'll be a little Christmas present to myself.

Happy holiday shopping!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow & Sweets

Talk about a winter wonderland. There's a blizzard raging just outside my window, and with an afghan on my lap and the Christmas tree twinkling away, I couldn't ask for a prettier sight. I absolutely love winter. For the duration of a storm or two. Then I hate it. Fickle, aren't I?

I may curse snow come January, but right now I'm really enjoying the swirling flakes. They're piling up slowly but steadily--we're supposed to have 7-10 inches by tomorrow morning. Makes me want hot cocoa, a good book, and a batch of warm Christmas cookies.

Thankfully, I have all those things. And some bonus goodies too--a puppy asleep beside me and my boys playing games on the floor.

Anyway, I'm going to share my favorite Christmas recipe with you. I made a batch of these this morning and as soon as I'm done blogging you can bet I'll have one. So yummy... They combine my two holiday favorites: turtles and shortbread. Wish I could pass one through the computer to you.

Hope it's winter wonderlandy wherever you are!

*     *     *     *     *

Turtle Shortbread

1 cup butter, softened (no substitutes!)
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups flour
4 premium chocolate bars
pecan halves

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar until soft and fluffy. Add egg yolks. Stir well. Add flour. Incorporate flour with a wooden spoon or spatula. When you can't work with the dough anymore, turn it onto an unfloured surface and knead until smooth. (If the dough is too sticky to do this, refrigerate for 10-15 minutes or until firm enough to knead.) Form the dough into small balls. Place on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Press a thumbprint into the center of each ball of dough. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Remove from the oven. Fill thumbprint with 1/2 a caramel. Return to the oven for 1-2 minutes more. Let the cookies cool completely. While the cookies are cooling, melt 4 chocolate bars (I use Dove Dark Chocolate). When the cookies are cool, dip the tops in chocolate or use a spoon to drizzle chocolate on the cookies. Immediately place 1/2 a pecan in the chocolate.

These are sinfully good. If I were Catholic, I'd have to go to confession after eating one. ;) It would still be worth it!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


An 8-foot balsam pine is twinkling in the space between our dining room and family room. The short banister is wrapped in great swags of evergreen, twined with crimson cords and sprinkled with snowflakes that leave glitter on my shoulders when I pass. I've resurrected the Christmas CDs and downloaded them to our iPod--even now Third Day serenades me with O Come All Ye Faithful. I've already made cookies (Peanut Blossoms, the best ever), sought out my favorite toffee recipe, and ordered the requisite Christmas cards. They're beautiful, by the way. Everyone is smiling just so...

Christmas is in full swing at the Baart house. And I love Christmas. So why am I feeling so... blah?

I could blame it on the fact that right now I'm facing uncertainty in both my professional and personal life. That's enough to throw someone off-game, right? Or I could lament the sad truth that Aaron and I have been busy with a capital B, something you know I've been struggling with (and working on) for some time now. Maybe it's that as the holiday season approaches, we are apart from family and friends in British Columbia... Any way you cut it, Christmas does have a certain bittersweet edge to it, doesn't it?

Whether it's warranted or not, I can't help feeling like a bit of a Scrooge. It's not that I didn't relish picking out and decorating our tree with my sons. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't close my eyes every time I bite into one of those perfectly Decemberish peanutbuttery cookies... Bliss. Yet even with these quiet sparks of cheer, I know that this season I more closely resemble a bah-humbug recluse than Christmas Barbie with a Santa apron and a maxed-out credit card.

Guess what? I'm okay with that. Go ahead and call me Scrooge. Remember the story? He faced himself, dug deep and learned things about himself and the world that most people don't have the courage to confront. It was a journey, but he was a changed man after he walked that arduous path.

I feel like I've been doing a lot of waiting this year. How fitting that as we journey through Advent, I'm waiting yet again. Waiting for news. Waiting for a positive report. Waiting for the days to pass... Waiting. Expecting. Hoping. Worrying. Praying.

Believe it or not, it's a good place to be. A hard place to be, for sure. But I'm hoping that a journey of refinement is just what I need. I'm already looking forward to Christmas Day... In a quiet, reflective sort of way.

How about you? Do you ooze candy canes and tinsel from your pores? Or are you a quiet Christmas observer? How is the holiday season hitting you this year?