Navigating Rough Waters

Photo courtesy of Jim Coffey, Esprit Whitewater

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

What does whitewater rafting have to do with writing?

For one thing, rafters and writers often endure blasts of icy water in the face. For authors, the cold, wet shock is metaphoric—a stinging rejection, a hideous review, a kiss-off from a publisher.

Today’s story begins when my pal, former river ranger Susan Purvis recently sent me a link to a podcast about whitewater rafting. Susan often leads me into adventures that always pay off in unexpected rewards so when she recommends something, I listen.

That day, with a crammed to-do list, I didn’t have a spare hour for a podcast. Yet once I started to listen, I couldn’t stop.

The interviewer is Barry Kruse, entrepreneurial coach of Leading Steep, and his subject is Jim Coffey, founder and owner of Esprit Whitewater, a Canadian rafting company.

Jim’s rafting business began in 1992 and survives nearly three decades later, a rarity in the field. A seasonal operation is especially tough because he has to earn enough income in four, maybe five, months to last the entire year. Plus, recreation-oriented businesses are hit hard during recessions when people can’t afford vacation trips.

Jim believes entrepreneurs who succeed have “a high tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.” He proves his point when he relates the setbacks he’s experienced that would tank most businesses— a fire that destroyed part of his facilities, a couple of floods, the Covid shutdown, and, last summer, his own diagnosis of throat cancer.

His attitudes and coping tools struck me as helpful advice for authors. The following are a few gold nuggets from his podcast.

Jim: “You never know where that first step is going to lead.”

When you’re stuck in your writing, take a step.

Inertia is not healthy for writers, in body, mind, or word production. If you’re bogged down, take a step in a new direction.

Write a public service announcement for a charity you admire. Write ad copy for a fundraiser for a worthwhile cause.

If your own ads don’t pan out, analyze what authors with similar books do for promotion. Try new avenues.

Learn a new skill—make a video, add fresh features to your website, try a different software writing tool, create an audiobook.

First steps sometimes lead to dead ends. But they can also lead to new universes.

 

Jim: “You never know who that [most] important customer is going to be. Treat every customer as if they are that person.”

Readers are the author’s customers. Building their loyalty and trust is key to selling books.

A major breakthrough opportunity for Jim’s company occurred when a particular customer was impressed with the fledgling operation. That man turned out to be an influencer who booked more trips for large groups and retreats, as well as recommending Esprit Whitewater to colleagues. A single customer hugely expanded Jim’s business.

For authors, treat every reader as your most important customer. They might place your book in Stephen King’s hands for a blurb. Or convince Oprah to feature it in her book club. Or catch Reese Witherspoon’s attention for a new movie production.

Not likely? Okay, but how about these possibilities?

A reader invites you to speak to their book club. That results in more sales and more readers.

A reader from that book club works for a major media outlet and wants to interview you.

The leader of a civic or professional organization hears/reads your interview and invites you to talk to their 500 members.

And so it can go.

When you treat each reader as that most important customer, their reach and recommendations carry you and your books into markets you never imagined.

 

Jim: “We manufacture our own luck. Preparation collides with opportunity.”

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Preparation can mean: take a class; read a new craft book; attend a conference; research new marketing angles.

When you’re doing the work, opportunities pop up in unexpected ways in unexpected places.

 

Jim: “Be unselfish and generous with your skills and pass them on.”

Help other writers.

The writing community is a continuum of authors at different levels of accomplishment, from beginners to multi-published bestsellers. We have all been helped by authors more experienced than ourselves and, in turn, we can help others less experienced than ourselves.

Freely share what you’ve learned. Teach a workshop. Write a guest blog post. Produce a newsletter for a charitable organization. Mentor a struggling writer.

You might think you’re too new at the craft to offer anything. Not so. You can beta-read. Judge a writing contest. Offer to talk to schoolchildren—most teachers are delighted to host writers and kids are eager to learn.

 

Jim: “It’s easier to train a great person to be a great whitewater guide than to take a great whitewater guide and turn them into a great person.”

For authors, attitude is more important than skill. Approach learning as a humble student.

I’ve known many talented authors who were positive they were destined to knock Michael Connelly off bestseller lists. They were usually so busy talking about how much they knew and how great they were that, not surprisingly, I haven’t noticed any of their names in USA Today.

C.S. Lewis said: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.”

That advice spans to entrepreneurs, military, industry, and, of course, writing. Nobody knows everything.

Before you become a great writer, you must first be a great student.

 

Jim: “You never know when people you’ve contributed to will come back and contribute to you.”

At the beginning of the podcast, interviewer Barry said Jim had recently undergone chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer. While Jim was laid low during the busy summer season, his team kept the business going and took care of hundreds of happy whitewater rafting customers. He’d earned the loyalty of his staff who came through when he needed them the most.

At the very end of the podcast, Jim mentions he gave the interview while lying in bed… with a feeding tube.

Wow. Just wow.

That left no doubt Jim Coffey is off the scale in his tolerance of adversity and uncertainty.

 Perhaps the most important lesson can be found in Jim’s actions:

Help others and never give up.

Works for authors, too.

~~~

Many thanks to Jim Coffey and Barry Kruse for their permission to quote and reference the interview which can be heard here: https://www.leadingsteep.com/podcast

~~~

TKZers: What is your favorite advice, touchstone, or belief that helps you over treacherous rapids and shoals encountered in your writing career?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever, her main character persists in spite of lots of cold water thrown in her face. Please check it out here.

+10

Writing Lessons From The Masters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, the headline is sneaky wordplay, as I am not referring to writing experts, but The Masters golf tournament recently concluded. Something shocking happened there and I think we can all learn from it, as writers and as normal folk making our way through a life that tosses out plenty of lemons.

jordan-spieth

Jordan Spieth

There is a young golfer named Jordan Spieth. He is twenty-two years old and a huge talent. He’s already won two majors (the hardest thing to do for a pro golfer), and one of those was last year’s Masters. He’s also a classy, well-spoken gentleman. And boy, do we need more of those these days.

Which is why what happened is so sad.

Jordan Spieth was set to go absolute legend. Only three players have ever won back-to-back Masters. You may have heard of these guys–Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.

Spieth was playing lights out, leading the tournament all the way into the final round. He was up by five strokes with only seven holes left to play. All he had to do was avoid a major mistake and a second green jacket (the Masters’ cloak of honor) would be his. And then they’d begin measuring the space for Jordan Spieth on golf’s Mount Rushmore.

So as Spieth stepped up to the notorious par-3 12th, he could feel it, the victory. The crowd was with him. As were the millions watching at home.

But then the unthinkable, the shocking, the disastrous happened. Spieth hit two consecutive balls into the water. The first from 150 yards, the second from just 80. These were shots Jordan Spieth can make in his sleep, left handed. Not this time. The infamous Masters pressure caught up with him and … plop, plop.

His next shot went over the green and into a bunker. When it was all over, Jordan Spieth, one of the best players of his generation, carded a quadruple bogey.

And lost the tournament.

That, my friends, will mess with your head. To his credit, Jordan took it like a man, stood up to reporters’ questions, and made his obligatory appearance in Butler Cabin to slip the green jacket on the surprise winner, Danny Willet. Poor Jordan went through the motions, but he was clearly not there. He looked like an actor auditioning for a part in The Walking Dead.

This loss will be with Jordan forever. The only question now is, how will he handle it?

I know for sure he will hurt for a long time. But I suspect Jordan Spieth will muster his competitive spirit and play great golf again. I believe he will add several more majors to his resume before he’s done.

Which leads me to three lessons for writers:

  1. When you get knocked down, let it hurt for an hour. Then write something

Rejection. Rotten reviews. Dismal sales. They hurt. Don’t deny it. You can’t.

But after an hour (set a timer!) get yourself back to your keyboard.

If you’re on a project, write a new scene. If you’re not, write a journal entry.

Or use a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing. (There’s a wonderful “writer igniter” over at the DIYMFA site. Check it out).

When you write, the pain of the setback begins to fade a little. It will try to reassert itself, but then you write some more. Eventually, the pain ceases to hold any power over you.

  1. Be the kind of writer that readers pull for

People like Jordan Spieth. He’s humble and positive and polite. Golf fans want to see him do well, especially now.

So show in your craft and your social media presence that you are a positive writer, someone who seeks to add value to other people’s lives. Readers who know you that way are much more likely to give you another chance should something you write fail to catch on.

  1. Don’t expect the easy road

Let me engage in a golf analogy for writers who are contemplating self-publishing. Imagine that suddenly anyone could play in The Masters. Just show up and tee off. Would being able to play mean you’d finish in the money? Of course not. The best golfers in the world would still win the prizes, with a few exceptions. Some really good amateurs would get in and maybe a handful of these would play out of their minds and make some tournament dough.

But the vast majority wouldn’t. Why not? Not because there’s a “tsunami of golfers,” but because their game is not good enough yet.

What they would need to do is go practice, get some coaching, and expect that it will take years to develop a great game. Even then, there are going to always be better golfers than you.

But if you grind and drive your beat-up Saturn from tournament to tournament, maybe you can earn enough to make it worth your while. Plus, you are playing a game you love.

Well, publishing is like that now. You don’t have to wait for an invitation from the Forbidden City. You can publish anytime you like.

But please don’t think that “getting to play” is an automatic win. You need to work on your craft, every day, just the way a pro golfer does. Think in terms of many years and many books, not just next month and your one completed novel.

Jordan Spieth will be back. And so will you, writer, because the only way to stop you is if you quit.

And you’re not going to.

So what about you? What major setback did you have to overcome, as a writer or in any other arena of life? How did you handle it?

+9

Give it Up or Suck It Up

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




This anonymous question was submitted to our blog. I thought I would attempt an answer and would love it if everyone could share their own answer.
“When you were at your lowest point and about to give up writing fiction, what pulled you through?”

I distinctly remember this low point. Ironically it came after a huge high. Go figure. I’d been working full time in the energy industry, doing a demanding job with travel, and had been writing for 3-4 hours every night (much longer on weekends). I did this grueling schedule for 3 years and it felt as if I worked two full time jobs at the same time.

I had joined a writer’s group, attended conferences & craft workshops, entered national writing contests, and submitted proposals to agents and editors with countless rejections. Mind you, I’d been named winner or finalist in half the contests I entered and I’d been receiving “good” rejections. The ones with handwritten notes or encouragement to resubmit from editors and agents, and I had 7 full requests out at the time. This kind of feedback requires risk. A writer has to dare to put their work out there for public scrutiny and rejection in order to learn and open your mind. Here’s an excellent post from TKZ’s James Scott Bell on the importance of Rhino Skin.

With every one of these aspiring author stories, there often comes tantalizing peaks along with devastating emotional valleys. I had entered (for the first time) the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) Golden Heart contest for aspiring authors and had been named a finalist. This is like the Oscars for RWA. This was the Mt Everest high I’d talked about.

A good friend of mine, who had also been a finalist that year, gave me good advice. She told me to simply focus on my writing (a new project) and not get caught up in all the hoopla of the event, like what formal dress I would wear, or my shoes, or hair. From her experience, she knew it was too easy to get distracted and that if I didn’t sell from this, I would have to find a way to carry on and keep going. As high as I’d been from the contest, I felt my hopes dashed when I didn’t sell by the time the event came around. (Often, expectations are the proverbial albatross.) My friend had been right. I had to focus on what was important.

What got me through the crashing low after such a Rocky Mountain High was one question. I asked something that would change how I looked at my writing from there forward. “Would I still write if I never sold?” When I answered with an enthusiastic “YES,” I knew why I wrote. I wrote for the passion of the process and the love of storytelling, my way. I had tapped into a form of self-expression, creating something from nothing, that I hadn’t experienced any other way. The love of writing and reading had been with me since I was a child. It would always be a part of me.

Writing has elevated my quality of life. It’s changed me forever and in that moment, the burden of expectation (something I had no control over) was lifted. After I’d let go of the Must Sell mentality, it wasn’t long after that I sold big. My first sale story is here at this LINK. Yes, I sacrificed a body part to sell. But after I finished “No One Heard Her Scream,” I knew it would sell. Don’t ask me how I knew. I just did. Who needed pain killers when the euphoria of writing had me walking on clouds?

In that stage of my writing journey–after I’d rediscovered the joy–I focused on the craft of writing and forgot about what was popular or what some publishers were wanting in their detailed submission guidelines. I never was one to worry over or chase trends. I had my day job. I treated my writing as something I did because I loved it. Writing still brings joy to my life and I continue to write the stories I want to read.

I’d love to hear from others in our TKZ family. What gets you through the slumps? What keeps you going?

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