Friday, January 29, 2010

Michelle Obama

I used to love politics. In fact, there was a time in my life when I was so enamored with our government and its seemingly infallible processes that I longed to be a politician myself. Yup, I was an idealist. A little naive. These days, I hardly dare to breathe the name of our president or engage in a conversation about any of the hot-button issues that seem to plague our country. It's just too bi-partisan. Too black or white, left or right. I worry that if a friend (or fellow blogger or complete stranger) hears my political leanings and disagrees with me, we'll no longer be friends. Sad, isn't it?

So, before you delete me from your blogroll or run screaming from my site, let me assure you that this is not a political post! My reactions to Wednesday night's State of the Union address are for me to discuss with my husband. My reactions to Michelle Obama are what I'd like to discuss with you.

I love her. I really do. Not necessarily her politics or her past choices or her stance on controversial issues. I just think she's an amazing lady, whether or not I agree with her 100%. Not only is she beautiful, classy, and articulate, I think she's authentic. I love watching her with her girls, and I chuckle every time I see her admonish the president of the United States with a wink and a smile. Isn't that exactly what marriage is like? I think she has a great sense of humor, and I appreciate that she's quick to laugh at herself and her husband. She doesn't try to act superior or holier-than-thou because she's the most watched and influential woman in the most powerful country in the world. Instead, she's down-to-earth, real, and approachable. During her husband's political campaign, many tried to label her an "angry, black woman." To me, she's just well-spoken, intelligent, and passionate. She's exactly the sort of woman I would like to be: an appealing mix of gentle mother, supportive wife, and strong, successful woman in her own right. Did I mention I think she's the best-dressed first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy?

Anyway, as I watched Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address, it struck me that we collect people as if they are tokens and try to take little pieces of them that we wear like accessories. I try to wrap my grandmother's kindness around me. I wear my mother's compassion like a ring--a constant reminder whenever I reach out a hand to help (or hurt). My dad's resolve is a warm coat. And the sphere of influence widens... All the way to the president's wife who makes me stand a little straighter every time I see her.

In many ways, I am who I am because of the people that I admire. I want to look like them, and I take the things about them that I love and make them my own. So, what about you? Who do you admire? Who makes you smile wider, stand taller, or reach for impossible dreams? I'd love to hear from you...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More Wide World of Publishing...

Since Monday's post was more personal, I'm answering a couple of questions today that pertain more to the business side of the publishing world. I don't know that I'm an expert, but I'll happily share what I've learned!

Sara Richardson is the author behind our questions today. She is... a lifelong storyteller... passionate about communicating reasons for hope. Previously she has been an advertising copywriter, an Internet communications manager, and a whitewater rafting guide. In addition to writing fiction, Sara has published nonfiction articles in parenting and family magazines. As a member of MOPS International, Sara enjoys speaking to moms’ groups. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from Regent University. Sara lives and plays in Colorado with her husband and two young sons.

Check out her blog at MomStories!

Sara's questions: 1) Does your publisher check on things like how many people are visiting/commenting on your blog? Do they care about things like that? 2) How did you go about finding the best agent for you? I have a couple of possibilities right now and I need to make a decision.

I'll start at the beginning and admit that I have absolutely no idea if my publisher checks (or even cares) about my blog hits. When I signed my first contract, I was encouraged to start a blog and begin the process of creating an online presence. It was a hard thing for me to do since I'm a pretty private person... But I get the spirit behind it, especially since I know how I feel if I go looking for information on an author and find zilch. It's very frustrating. (On the flip side, I can say that visiting an author's site/blog has caused me to go out and buy their book on two separate occasions. Online networking/marketing does work on some level.) Anyway, once I had a website and blog started, I invited my publisher to give me and my designer feedback. I wanted to know if they were happy with what we had created. I received some very helpful comments and critiques and changed the site accordingly. Now I just do my thing, and as far as I know it's a non-issue.

However, this topic seems to dovetail into a issue that has been at the forefront of my mind lately: branding. The longer I spend in the publishing business, the more I'm beginning to realize that if, when, and how you blog or whether or not you have a stellar website are not necessarily the most vital things you can do to help readers connect with you. It seems to me that authors who have a clear understanding of who they are, what they write, why they write, and who they write for are the most "successful" writers around. Of course, we measure success in a hundred different ways (and some of us could care less about the more traditional definitions of success), but I'm talking about authors who reach the greatest audiences... At any rate, I've tried to tackle this enormous subject in several posts: Branding (not the cow kind), Author Branding (a needle in a haystack), and How to Brand (a stab in the semi-dark). I actually never finished the conversation as the Christmas holiday fit smack-dab in the middle of these more serious posts, and it seemed like people weren't tracking with me. Who knows? Maybe I'll finish up the final two posts now... You've got me thinking. ;)

As for the agent question, my only advice is: go with your gut. I had three agents in the running when I had to make that difficult decision, and the deeper I got into it the easier the choice became. Of course I prayed about it, solicited the advice of my husband and friends, talked to other authors and industry professionals, and spent time on the phone with all the candidates, but from our first interaction my agent seemed to stand out. We had similar goals and visions. I appreciated her candor. She appeared to be excited about my work and eager to represent me. In a nutshell, we clicked. And it's been incredible. I couldn't ask for a better agent.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Camera

Since I used my camera a lot this weekend (to capture snow-laden trees, the excitement of our One Body One Hope Liberian Luau, and to document my growing kids) it seems very appropriate that I'm answering Nikolyn's question today. Her blog, Answer to my Prayers, is a peek into the life of "an average, everyday woman who loves the Lord." She's a public health nurse, an intercessor, a wife and mother of four. Her youngest is a newly adopted babe with the sweetest, most kissable cheeks I've ever seen! Except for my own kids' cheeks, of course. ;)

Nikolyn's question is: What kind of camera do you use? I'm flattered to say that Nikolyn likes my photographs, and I'm happy to share the story of how I became an amateur photographer...

The short answer to the question is: A Sony DCS-H2 with a Zeiss lens. Sounds fancy, but it's not an off-the-charts camera. I love it for some things, loathe it for others. The truth of the matter is, we bought our fancy, digital camera a couple of days before we hopped on a flight to Ethiopia. We had everything packed and ready to go--clothes, passports, copies of our dossier, homestudy, important government papers, medicine (for us and our new baby), everything--except for a decent camera. I had a bit of a conniption because we were on our way to Africa for heaven's sake, and our camera was a gift I had received in college. Thankfully, Aaron had a little emergency fund stashed away and we decided to blow it on a good camera. The Sony was an impulse purchase.

But I've never regretted it! The photos from our time in Ethiopia are exquisite, and as I learned to manipulate the many settings (including aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) I started to have lots of fun. I have to confess that probably 80-90% of my pictures are just so-so. But every once in a while serendipity strikes and I end up with a gorgeous picture. And so does Aaron! His photos of last year's Liberia trip are absolutely stunning. National Geographic worthy. Ah, that's the beauty of a digital camera. :)

It seems appropriate to leave you today with (what else?) photos! I hope you enjoy them. And I hope you take the time to answer a quick question: Do you have a hobby that snuck up on you later in life? If so, what is it? How did you get interested in it?

Here are a couple of my favorite Ethiopia photos. Actually, all the shots of my new little son are my favorite, but these are quite nice, too! I think people imagine that Ethiopia is this desolate, barren place, but we found it to be strikingly beautiful. At least, in the mountains in and around Addis Ababa.

And here are a couple from our spectacular trip to Spain. The top one was taken at the castle in Malaga, a city at the southern tip of Andalusia. The door was photographed in the Moorish palace at the Alhambra. Words cannot begin to describe that amazing place.

Last but not least, a few portraits that Aaron took in Liberia. You should really see his entire collection--it's absolutely breathtaking.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Restaurant-Worthy Recipe: Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

I made the most delicious meal last night (if I do say so myself), and I just had to share it with you. It would be perfect for a dinner party or a romantic at-home date night when the kids are in bed. Who needs to go out when you can make something like this at home?

Here's hoping your weekend is filled with reason to celebrate!

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Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

1 1-lb. pork tenderloin

2 cups chopped fresh spinach
1 small jar artichokes, drained and chopped
1/4 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup finely shredded feta cheese
1 tsp. fresh snipped rosemary
dash of kosher salt
fresh ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup frozen cranberry juice concentrate
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. brown suger (optional--you may leave this out if you like it tart)

Preheat oven to 425. Cook spinach in a skillet with a small amount of water until just wilted. Drain. In a bowl, combine all the filling ingredients. Slice the tenderloin lengthwise, making a pocket. Spoon filling into the pocket (you'll have to stuff it in there, but it'll fit!). Secure with toothpicks if necessary. Place tenderloin in a shallow roasting pan, filling side up. Roast, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes. (Or, if you have a meat thermometer, until the thermometer registers 155 degrees. Since we don't have a meat thermometer, I sliced the tenderloin in half after 25 minutes in the oven. There was a tiny bit of pink in the middle, which is perfectly fine according to the USDA. We like it that way--if you want to cook it longer, no prob.) While the pork is roasting, prepare the glaze. In a small saucepan combine the thawed juice concentrate, balsamic vinegar, and brown sugar (if you're using it). Bring to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until sauce is reduced by half. (Don't let it reduce too far or it will turn into sludge!) Spoon over pork during the last ten minutes. To serve, bias-slice the pork.

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We enjoyed this yumminess with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh-frozen sweet corn (a taste of summer!). Homemade fudgy brownies with raspberry sauce finished the meal... Mmmmm. I could make it again tonight.

See you next week with more answers to your questions. Cheers!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Children's Book Winner!

Thanks to my adorable six-year-old (who is home from school again due to "inclement weather"), we have a winner for our children's book contest! Brandi is the lucky lady this week. Please email me privately with your snail mail address and a preferred age group for your book pick. Like I said before, this is a grab bag giveaway, and I want to tailor it to your kids or interests, so I won't even know what I'm sending until I hear from Brandi! I'll let you know what I send out after the fact.

Speaking of kids, I am yet again stuck inside with what feels like a houseful of rowdy boys. Granted, there are only two of them, but take into consideration the fact that we also have a dog and a rather tiny house, and things can get out of hand in no time. I'm the anti-TV mom, so I'm always looking for ways to keep them entertained and occupied during these long winter months when cabin fever reaches epidemic proportions. Since I loved sharing book picks with you (and reading your suggestions), I thought I'd share some kid-friendly, winter-weather activities, too. Have any good ideas of your own? Please share! No really, please share! I'm begging you--as a woman who hasn't managed to squeeze in a shower yet today, but has decorated glitter snowflakes, made homemade donuts, read dozens of books, and played animal train--don't be stingy with your good ideas! My sanity depends on it.

Keeping the Baart boys happy in the winter consists of:

Cooking/baking together. Simple, I know, but we have to eat three times a day, and I might as well make an activity out of it. My older son is perfectly capable of nearly anything in the kitchen--including cracking eggs with a little help. The younger one is eager (to put it nicely) and able to help with "big picture" things like dumping ingredients into a big bowl or smashing Oreos for a dessert crust. Sure, I have to do extra clean-up, but at least I was somewhat in charge of the mess.

Animal Safari. When the sky is overcast and we can't go outside, I arm my boys with flashlights and turn them into honorary African Tour Guides. While they are secreted in their bedroom, I hide their stuffed animals all over the house. No hiding place is out-of-bounds, from the tops of cupboards to nestled between the branches of one of our many houseplants. They must find every animal before their safari is over.

Games. Though we have many board and card games, we like to make up our own. My eldest likes to invent crazy rules and then force us to follow them to the letter. This time-consuming endeavor begins with a lengthy period of strategizing and planning, and always ends in giggles.

Balloons. The cheapest secret weapon I've ever encountered. A $1 bag of multi-colored, multi-sized balloons is a staple in our home. Blow up one for a game of volleyball. Blow up several (one for each member of the family) for a rousing game of hot potato (don't let a single balloon touch the floor!). Blow up the whole bag and go wild. We also like to take markers and decorate them with silly faces. It's fun to guess which balloon person will last the longest and which will be the first to pop.

Snowball Fight. We're big into playing outside in the snow (sledding, making forts, and just enjoying all that white fluff), but sometimes it's just not possible to bundle up and head outdoors. Like when it's -20. Boo. Anyway, a friend introduced us to the indoor snowball fight--a messy, but fun way to kill an hour. First, get yourself a new box of tissues (yup, it'll take the whole box). Enlist your kids' help to pull the tissues one by one out of the box and lightly press them into a little ball. Deposit all these "snowballs" in a laundry basket. When the all the tissues are gone, have you kids lay on the floor with their eyes closed and enjoy the "snowfall." I bury them in it. Then we make snow angels, play with it, and have snowball fights. Like I said, messy, but fun.

Movie-making. My kids are actors and love to make up elaborate plays. I tell them that if they can create an entire play, I'll videotape it and we can watch it on TV. It doesn't have to be a long play, but it does have to have costumes, props, and a point. Giggling at the camera doesn't count. They can kill hours planning it... Then all I have to do is tape and enjoy.

Okay, my list is exhausted. Of course, there's toys and coloring books, and playdates with friends... But we're always on the lookout for something new. Your turn. How does your family beat the winter blues???

Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting Published

Thanks for the prayers and well-wishes on our fun news! I'll keep you updated as things progress. As for now, back to answering your questions...

Lori is "on this journey called life along with my handsome husband and two spectacular boys." You can find out more about her at her beautiful blog, Beaumont Butterfly. It's filled with photos, quotes, and encouragement. Check it out!

Though Lori asked several questions, I'm just going to tackle a few today: How did you get your first book published? Did you send it off to publishers or agents? Did you have rejections at first?

My road to publication is rather unusual. Although, aren’t they all? Anyway, it’s a long, convoluted tale that actually began a year before I started to realize how God was weaving lives together for a purpose that I had only dared to whisper to my pillow. But I won’t bore you with all those details. I’ll commence with a conversation.

Aaron (on his way to Grand Rapids for 14 weeks to complete his denominational requirements for ordination in the Christian Reformed Church): I’m going to miss you so much!

Nicole (preparing to be a single mother for 14 weeks as her husband is incognito, studying church polity in G.R.-usalem): Not half as much as I’ll miss you!

(Wanton smooching ensues. You might want to avert your eyes.)

Aaron (finally tearing himself away): Just promise me that you’ll write while I’m gone.

Nicole: I always write.

Aaron: I know, but keep working on that book. You’re going to be a published author someday, and in order to accomplish that I believe you have to write an actual book.

Nicole: Whatever. My chances of being published are about the same as being struck by lightning. It’s all about who you know and I don’t know anybody in the publishing industry…

Fast-forward six weeks. Aaron’s still gone, I’m still single-parenting it, and God’s still (always) working in mysterious ways. One night while Aaron is in Grand Rapids, he shares a supper with the amazing couple who has agreed to billet him throughout his semester-long stay. During the meal they end up chatting about our family--in particular, me. When Aaron tells them that I’m a teacher, the lovely matron of the family asks, “But what does she really want to do?” The question stuns Aaron so much he tells her my secret (the truth): “She wants to be a writer.”

Turns out, this godly, generous couple just so happens to know the senior acquisitions director at a major publishing house. They promise to hand deliver 50 pages of an original manuscript to their publishing industry friend if only I can complete a few chapters and a proposal in time for Christmas. Madness ensues. I spend four weeks hammering out the intro to a new book, send it off with a wish and a prayer, and promptly forget about it. After all, could anything really come of this??? Only in a fairytale.

Three months later I get an email from the senior acquisitions director. I’d like to see the rest of your manuscript… The rest is history.

Yes, I have a Cinderella story. This is not usually how things happen in the publishing industry. But in my defense, my manuscript did sit in the slush pile for three long months. I have no doubt that the talented woman who discovered me was probably not a huge fan of the “as a favor to a friend” manuscript submission. And who can blame her? For all she knew, I had all the talent of a trained chimp. Thankfully, she didn’t ultimately think that, and (Praise the Lord!) I signed a two-book contract as a result of this unlikely connection.

Writer’s Tip: In some ways, it is about who you know. But you don’t have to be best friends with an industry professional to get someone to notice your work. Go to conferences and conventions, join a writer’s guild like the ACFW or the Christian Writer’s Guild, read publishing blogs and leave comments, research agents and discover who might be a good fit to represent you, make friends… You never know how God is going to use a connection (that might seem insignificant!) to open doors for you that you never dreamed possible.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Grapevine: Children's Books

This month's edition of The Grapevine is going to take a bit of a detour from our regular format. Though I'd love to introduce you to a new author (and I will next month!), something in my personal life should be addressed before we go back to business as normal. You see, the rabbit died. Don't know what that means? Your grandma would! For those of use who aren't familiar with that 1927 lab test, maybe this will help... the stick turned pink, I'm exhausted and nauseous, and that sweet, teeny one in the ultrasound photos is a squirmy little thing.

Yup, the Baarts hope to be a party of five by July. I won't lie, it's been a rough road so far. I inject myself with Lovenox (a blood thinner) daily, take extra folic acid and progesterone, and have seen my perinatologist every two weeks since that first positive pregnancy test. But I'm firmly entrenched in my second trimester, and so far everything seems to be going good. With a history of four miscarriages behind me, I'm stunned by the level of peace that I feel... But I truly do believe that whether I hold a baby this summer or whether God sees fit to take her home, His plan for my life is even better than my wildest dreams. For now, we're going to hope and pray those plans include a healthy pregnancy and a baby this summer. I covet your prayers...

Anyway, I thought it would be appropriate this month to talk about children's books. We have an extensive, and much-beloved library, and I'm looking forward to sharing some of my favorites with you. In response, I'd love to hear about some of your favorite children's books! I have babies on the brain, and I'm a firm believer in reading to them from a very young age. In-utero, in fact. ;) In addition to sharing some of my favorite kids' authors, I'll be giving away one of my books. It's a grab-bag, you won't know what you're going to get until you receive it in the mail, but I will try to tailor the choice for the age group you request. So, enjoy my pics, and don't forget to bless me with a few of your own!

Sandra Boynton is definitely one of our favorite children's authors. Her books are witty, silly, and so much fun to read. They're geared more for the younger set, but my kindergartner likes to "read" them to his brother. (He mostly memorizes the cadence of the words and fills in gibberish when he can't remember how it goes!) The best of the best, in our humble opinion, are: Barnyard Dance, The Bellybutton Book, and The Sleep Book.

Robert Munsch rocks. I can't help believing that this Canadian author is still a six-year-old at heart, because he so obviously possesses the mind and soul of a child. His stories are outlandish and fun, and every one is based on a child that he knew or met at one time or another. A classic Munsch in our home is Aaron's Hair because it's all about a boy who has wild hair. If you've seen my husband (Aaron) and his (wild and crazy) hair, you'll know why we love this book. Other great choices are: Alligator Baby, Playhouse, and Just One Goal.

Laura Numeroff stole our hearts with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. My kids adore watching the consequences unfold, and sometimes enjoy applying the same sort of logic to their own lives. "If you give me a slice of pizza, I'm going to want a glass of juice to go with it..." We own many of these books, and though they follow the same pattern, they never seem to get old. If You Give a Pig a Pancake is our top pick because we take pancakes very seriously at the Baart house. Mmmmm... pancakes.

No childhood library would be complete without a big collection of Dr. Suess. When I was a little girl, my two favorites were McElligot's Pool and The Sleep Book--two lesser-known books that are so charming and sweet I could get choked-up just thinking about them... Okay, that could be the hormones. All the same, if you haven't read those books, run, don't walk, to your nearest library and track them down. You're missing out. We also adore If I Ran the Zoo and Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Though my kids are only six and three, we are big chapter book fans. Even my little one will happily sit through several chapters of a picture-less book. But the stories have to be quick, entertaining, and full of adventure. We're currently hooked on The Boxcar Children. Tell me you're familiar with the Boxcar kids... If not, get thee to a library! Though these books might be considered old-fashioned by some, I love the exciting, kid-friendly storyline and the way that these kids rejoice in the little things in life. The whole series is a blast, but the first book is unparalleled.

Your turn! Tell me about some of your favorite kids' books. And don't forget to leave a comment to enter yourself in the drawing...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why I Write

I'm taking a little break today from answering your questions so that I can address one of my own... Let me give you some background.

Yesterday I drove half an hour to a neighboring town so that I could participate in a booksigning and a book club discussion. It was cold and blustery; snow blew across the road for most of the trip making it a bit of a white-knuckle ride. When I got to the library itself, I was greeted with blank stares by some and complete disregard by others. A few kids stopped to take a Hershey's Kiss from my tantalizing stash, but their moms quickly ushered them away--afraid of the sugar high or of me, I don't know. For most of the booksigning hour, I wandered the stacks near my table, read a beautiful book called Tear Soup (it made me cry), and a short story from Say You're One of Them (that horrified me to the core). I sold two books.

Don't get me wrong. I love libraries, I love reading, I love meeting people. Even if I would have gone home after the booksigning hour, I would have enjoyed my evening. One sweet elderly lady stopped to tell me that I was pretty (that made my night). And I had a fun chat with a fellow bookworm--a mom my age who I would love to have over for coffee.

But my night wasn't over after my somewhat solitary hour. At 5:30 it was time for the book club meeting. I was led to a room in the back of the library where a couple of women were already gathered. Over the course of the next few minutes participants continued to trickle in until we had a dozen of us around the table. What ensued was an hour of pure joy for me. We talked about my debut novel, After the Leaves Fall, and I was in turn surprised, touched, and awed by all the things that Julia DeSmit meant to my readers. They engaged her life, drew connections between her story and their own, gleaned lessons from the pages, and saw depth in the book that left me feeling humbled and incredibly grateful. The group was filled with beautiful, intelligent women ranging from thirty years old to eighty, and I felt blessed to be a part of their thoughful and thought-provoking discussion. Wow.

As I was driving home, a question kept rolling around in my head: Why do I write?

It's not for the fame. Honestly, unless you're Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer, being an author doesn't make you famous. Sure, a few people know who you are and like your books, but to most of the world you're just another wannabe. To this day, I regularly participate in conversations that go something like this: So, do you self-publish? Tyndale? I've never heard of them... Oh, you're a Christian author. Did you have to pay them to publish your book? It's disheartening sometimes to know that I am a teeny-tiny drop in a great big ocean. But then again, I am. And it's good to be reminded that there is only one Famous One.

And I don't write for the money. I sold two books yesterday for a whopping profit of $20. That's $10 an hour, not counting the gas to drive there, the babysitter tab, and the time away from my kids. Anyone who tells you that authors make big bucks is referring only to those on the NYT Bestsellers List. In reality, most books don't sell more than 5,000 copies. And most debut novelists will sell their first book for somewhere between $5,000-$10,000. If you figure that it takes authors several months to a year to write a book, in the end we barely make minimum wage.

So why do it? Writing is a lot of hard work! It wrenches my soul, consumes my mind, makes me want to throw things... And yet, I write.

As I was driving home last night I feel like I was finally able to articulate a big part of why I do what I do. To me, writing is all about inviting someone into conversation. I tell a story that resonates with me or is somehow connected to my life, and I hope that someone out there will read it and say, "Yes." It's a dialogue that helps me to better understand who I am, where I came from, and even how I fit into the world around me. So I offer these words, sit back, and pray that somewhere out there my pathetic attempts at meaning will bless someone. If and when they do, nothing could please me more than to engage that person in a conversation. That's exactly what happened last night. I write for the ladies of the LeMars book club. Bless your sweet hearts. Thank you for having me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where it all begins...

J. David Vansandt (a good, Dutch name!) is an Air Reserve Technician in the US military. His Blogger profile is a little sparse on personal information, but by reading some of his posts I've learned that he is a man of many talents. Mr. Vansandt is a soldier, a writer, and a man of great compassion. I loved this excerpt from one of his posts: "I spent hours hunkered down in tents and bunkers splitting bag after bag of Jelly Bellies while deployed to Southwest Asia. Want to see a grown man get giddy? Hand him a bag and watch him remember what it's like to wonder like a child then dare his bunker buddy to find a better combination of flavors than what he just discovered." Makes me want to send boxes of Jelly Bellies to all our troops!

Mr. Vansandt's question is: How do your stories start?

That's a bit of a hard question for me because the answer is different every time. After the Leaves Fall grew out of a scene that I had written years earlier... When I was about to deliver my firstborn, my beloved grandpa was dying from cancer. I was living in British Columbia at the time, and there was no way for me to travel to Iowa so I could be with him or attend the funeral. It was a very difficult time for me, but punctuated by joy, too, because less than two weeks after my grandpa passed away, my son was born. Anyway, when my son was about five months old, I put him down for a nap one afternoon and suddenly found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn't figure out why I was so inconsolable, so I got out a pen and paper and began to write. I ended up writing a graveyard scene, with a young woman attending her father's October funeral. It was my way of dealing with the loss of my grandpa. Years later, that scene became the first chapter in my debut novel. The rest of the story just evolved from there.

So some books come from very personal, almost private places. They grow out of my own feelings and experiences... But that's not always the case. My sixth book, which is still in the concept stage, is very loosely based on a story from my dad's past. We have some pretty unreal stories in my family--some very movie-worthy plots that seem more fiction than fact! But it's all a part of me and my history, and I'm fascinated by the long journey that brought us to where we are today. I love a good story.

I guess more than anything, my books and my writing come from things that grip me. If I experience something or hear a story that grabs hold of my imagination and won't let go, you can bet that at some point in time it will come out as a novel, a scene, or even a character in one of my books. I'm blessed to have more ideas than I know what to do with! Right now I think I have at least six books in queue.

*I've got a little bonus for you today... Since Mr. Vansandt has got me thinking about our troops, I'll send out a book to the first person who emails me to say: "I've sent a package to our troops!" Your choice--of book and package contents... though I think Jelly Bellies might be appropriate. ;) My favorite flavor is buttered popcorn. What's yours?

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Aaron and I were putting the boys to bed last night and talking about one of our favorite subjects: Liberia. One Body, One Hope has a big trip planned for November of this year, and we're contemplating bringing the whole family along. Why not? The biggest deterrent for our kids is the number of immunizations they'll have to endure before going to this third world country. Hepatitis A and B, PPSV (for meningitis), and yellow fever, plus anti-malarial meds for while we're there... Hmmm. Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Anyway, we were snuggled in bed, chatting. Here's an excerpt of our conversation. I'm still laughing...

Big Boy: When is the trip to Liberia?

Aaron: In ten months. A long time from now. Do you want to go?

Big Boy: I don't know...

Little Guy: If I get two shots I can go to My-beria (he can't say his L's yet) for two days. If I get three shots I can go to My-beria for three days.

Big Boy: That's not true.

Aaron: Well, kind of. But we'll stay for about two weeks... And there will be a few more shots.

Little Guy: Uh-huh. And if you get two shots you can go to Your-beria for two days. If you get three shots you can to to Your-beria for three days!

Sorry, that had nothing to do with answering your questions, but it tickled my funny bone. Had to share! Hope you have a great weekend!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Holding My First Book

Janna Qualman is "a freelance and women's fiction writer. She lives in the Midwest with her family, where she finds inspiration in the simplicity of everyday life." I love that last line of Janna's Blogger profile, don't you? I am all about simplicity these days, and I adore knowing that I'm not the only one. Janna's writing has appeared tons of places, including The Kansas City Mother and Child Reunion, The Buzz, The Chick Lit Review, and Joyful Online. She's SOTPing (see Wednesday's post if you don't get that little joke) her way through her second novel. 

Janna's "question" is: Describe what it felt like when you held your first published book in your hands.

Oh, my goodness, words cannot describe... Looking back, all I remember is caressing those books like they were made of pure gold. My kids were asleep when the package was delivered, and my husband and I opened the box and sat on the living room floor for an hour in the middle of all those beautiful dreams come true. We turned the books over and over, studied the print, admired the chapter intros, and read passages to each other. It was utterly and completely surreal.
The best part was, my goal had always been to be published by the age of 30. I had won some awards for my poetry and short stories, and been published in the English Journal, but I wanted to be published published. The real deal. And I was. My box of books arrived on Thursday, August 30. My 30th birthday was on October 10.
If you'd like to read my original post from that magical day, click here. It captures all my raw emotion from that unforgettable afternoon. :)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Writing Types

According to her Blogger profile, Katie Ganshert is "a wife, a mother of two (one is black and furry, the other is more human looking), writer, and 5th grade teacher in the good ol' state of Iowa." Her life's ambition is "to stay home, raise babies, and write all day long." Katie and I share a dream, but with two young boys I have to admit that the raising babies and writing all day long bits don't always coexist. ;) Maybe her little one is better behaved than my two! Katie has also recently signed with Rachelle Gardner at WordServe literary agency and her first book is being shopped around to publishing houses. Exciting stuff!

Katie's question is: I'm curious...what kind of writer are you, Nicole? Do you outline, or do you just sort of wing it as you go?

I'm a bona fide SOTP (seat of the pants) writer with a nasty Plotter streak. Most authors will agree that there is a sort of writing spectrum, with most people falling somewhere on the line between "I wing everything" and "I plan every detail." For my first two books, I was as far to one side of the spectrum as I could possibly be. I quite literally winged the whole thing. I had NO IDEA what I was writing when I began After the Leaves Fall. I wrote one chapter, liked it, and wondered where to go from there. Every new chapter was an adventure with Julia's story unfolding itself before me. It was an exciting, surprising process that also managed to give me an ulcer (no joke!). Unfortunately, I didn't learn my lesson with Summer Snow, and wrote my second book much like my first (ulcer and all).

When it came time to start The Moment Between, I knew that I had to do a bit more planning. I hoped to pull off a complex, three-tiered narrative, and I wanted every section to have the same emotional/thematic punch. It was staggeringly complex to my puny mind. So I planned as I went, always looking a few chapters ahead and trying to see how everything would pan out as my story continued to unfold. The best way I can describe the process is to liken it to weaving. I'd braid a few strands (chapters) together, then revise, pull them tight, go back if necessary, and slowly move on. It worked great.

After The Moment Between, I started to feel guilty about my slapdash approach to writing. I thought that if I wanted to pull off a really great book, I'd better do it the traditional way: plot it. So I spent a couple of months doing character diagrams, researching setting, outlining my plot, and graphing every chapter and scene. I wrote 60,000 words of a book that I hated. I abandoned the project and started over from scratch.

Now, with four books under my belt and a fifth well on it's way, I've accepted my writing style as is. Like I said, I'm a SOTP writer but I can't stop myself from plotting a bit. It helps me immensely to know at least some of the foundational elements of my story--it helps me work neat elements like symbolism and metaphor into my books from beginning to end. Also, I think that adding a little structure and forethought to my work makes for a tighter, more intricate book. When I have an idea, I ask myself: Where is this going? How do I see this playing out? How will it affect my characters (short-term and long term)? By taking my inspirations seriously, I can make them work for me in the book instead of becoming nothing more than a nice scene or a throwaway line of dialogue that could have been integral to the rest of the story.

Writing Tip:
While SOTP writing is fine if that's what works for you, know that publishing houses and agents are not going to be interested in a book that is "yet to unfold." If you hope to secure an agent or turn the eye of a publisher, you will have to have a full synopsis of your book including the entire full-disclosure ending. Many would-be writers start books, but few finish them, and people in the industry want to know if you have what it takes to bring a story to it's conclusion.

Your turn:
What type of a writer are you???

Monday, January 4, 2010


I'm a good girl. I read my "How to Blog" missives and take special care to avoid those sticky blogging no-nos. Like making my blog the unofficial Nicole Baart show or blabbing on endlessly. Of course, sometimes I'm feeling blue and sink into whining, and I've always been long-winded. But the number one tip for a successful blog has always eluded me. It seems that everyone who has something to say about blogging etiquette is convinced that bloggers have to give something to their readers. That completely stumps me. What do I have to give?

I tried doling out writing advice. Turns out everyone and their dog has something to contribute to that topic of conversation. Besides, it's not like I'm some decorated writing guru. Then I tried (and I'm still trying) to take the counsel of fellow bloggers literally and give something to my readers. Namely: books. My mid-month book giveaways still garner more attention than any other blog posts. And that's great with me--I love introducing people to new authors. But I can't do that every day... Argh. It's an ongoing battle.

Thankfully, a reader of mine gave me a new idea. Just last week Katie Ganshert, a friend, reader, and fellow author asked me a question in the comments after a blog post. I'm curious...what kind of writer are you, Nicole? Do you outline, or do you just sort of wing it as you go?

Not only is that a great question, but it gave me an idea... Maybe instead of trying to read your collective minds, I need to just ask you what you want. Imagine that. If you're a regular reader, what keeps you coming back? If you're a first time visitor, what would draw you back? What do you want to know? What would you like to see more of? What totally doesn't work for you? Can I introduce you to the wide world of publishing (or at least what I know of it)? Or would you like to know more personal things? Either way, I'm game.
So here's the deal. I'm opening up my blog to my readers. Ask me anything and I'll answer it in an upcoming post. Within reason, of course. ;) In return for your question, I'll highlight your blog and include the link for my readers. We may be online, but we're still a community. When it comes down to it, all we've got is each other out here in cyberspace. How was that for cheesy?
Thanks for reading! Stop by Wednesday and I'll answer Katie's question. In the meantime, if there's something you want to ask me, leave a comment!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Remembering 2009...

Our basement flooded last spring. We had to rip up everything down to the concrete.
Please Lord, spare us a spring mess in 2010...

A family vacation to sunny southern Florida.

The release of my third novel, The Moment Between.

A trip to Denver, Colorado for the ICRS convention.
Summer Snow was nominated for a Christy Award.

Our '77 'Vette (ahem, Chevette) finally bit the dust. The dealer told us it was scrap metal.
A friend of the family fixed it in his garage in a few hours.

We added the adorable Lucy Pevensie to our family.
She's such a honey!

We enjoyed every wonderful moment outside.
I think 2009 was my all-time favorite summer.

I "retreated" with fellow writers Mary DeMuth and Tosca Lee.
Awesome weekend. Awesome women.

I don't have photos for these things, but also in 2009...
-my Big Boy started kindergarten
-my Baby (finally!) potty-trained
-I finished my fourth book
-my husband accepted a job as the chapel speaker at our local college
-we spent 10 days in British Columbia speaking, seeing old friends, and visiting family
-I "met" most of you...

Thank you so much for joining me in 2009!
May it be filled with unexpected joy, profound peace, and love that surpasses understanding.