Saturday, January 31, 2009

Surprise and Delight

My son, Max, and I volunteer every Saturday with the Escondido Humane Society (EHS), where we take care of the rabbits the EHS has placed in local Petco stores as part of an adoption outreach program. Our duties, begun two years ago, include cleaning cages, replenishing hay, kibble, and water, bringing the animals fresh greens, exercising them in an x-pen setup, grooming and interacting with them, and providing information to store visitors interested in adopting.

What began as a volunteer activity to help my son with college applications has become a labor of love for both of us. During the past two years, we’ve cared for over forty rabbits and have seen many of them get adopted. Even though we’re happy when they find forever homes, it’s hard to watch the rabbits go; after weeks of working with them, they inevitably burrow their way into our hearts. But our volunteering has been a wonderful bonding activity for my son and me and has allowed us to give back in a way that sustains our mutual love for animals.

Max and I have developed a rhythm to our volunteer routine; since he’s good with animals, he does most of the bunny handling and grooming. Since I’m more into organizing and chatting, I take care of the trays, hay boxes, and water bowls, and answer potential adopters’ questions.

On a recent volunteer day, I was busy cleaning one of the rabbits’ trays when a mouse scurried out from under a display rack and skittered across the floor in front of me. The sight of the tiny critter motoring so quickly across the linoleum made me laugh out loud. After months of the same routine every Saturday, this little interlude made my day in a fresh and surprising way.

The runaway mouse also got me thinking about the importance of surprise in our writing. An unexpected element, especially one that makes us smile, can infuse new life into a story that has been rolling along on cruise control. This concept is especially true for those of us mired in the middle of novels, where we’ve become bogged down by static plot lines and characters. An unusual event, an atypical action by a character, or even a surprising bit of dialogue, can give us fresh perspective on a storyline and lend renewed interest and enthusiasm to authors and readers alike.

As an author, I love when the characters in a book I’m writing suddenly do or say things that surprise me. This usually occurs when I’m not sure exactly what will happen next in a scene – suddenly, a character will behave in an unexpected way, and it’s so refreshing and unusual that it peaks my interest. Soon, I’m off writing the next few lines, eager to see where the new direction will lead.

I believe that readers, like authors (and volunteers), also love it when we surprise them. So, if you’ve been slogging through the middle of your latest novel, try letting your characters do something unexpected. The unusual twist may be exactly what you need to give yourself – and your readers – a reason to smile.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Finding Opportunity in a Teacup

I recently read Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea, the fascinating non-fiction account of how Mortenson, a mountain climber and American nurse, came to build fifty-five schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Mortenson describes a 1998 talk he gave in a sports shop in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where the store staff was so busy he had to set up the seating -- over a hundred folding chairs -- himself. After weeks of publicity, including posters at a local college, an AM radio morning show interview, and segments in the local papers, he faced an audience of only three people: two store employees and a single customer, who hovered at the back of the room. Though he was dejected at the small showing and exhausted by his continual efforts at fundraising, Mortenson decided to give his talk anyway and began showing slides of K2's infamous summit and the eighteen schools he’d built so far in Pakistan’s remote and impoverished countryside. As he spoke, Mortenson felt a renewed enthusiasm for his work and his devotion to the Pakistani people and gave his all to the presentation, even though his audience was small.

When he finished, the lone customer disappeared, but the two employees approached him. One gave him ten dollars, while the other offered to volunteer his construction skills in Asia. Mortenson thanked them and then, as he picked up the brochures he'd set out on the chairs, he noticed an envelope on the last chair in the last row, where the customer had been sitting. In the envelope, Mortenson found a personal check, made out to his foundation, for twenty thousand dollars.

There is an important lesson here for all authors who initially see very little return on investment for the hours and dollars they spend promoting their books. Although a few lucky ones experience instant success when their books are published, the majority do not. Most writers, especially those who are publishing a book for the first time, can expect months and even years of effort, including building websites, posting on blogsites, giving interviews, sending out contest applications, presenting at speaking engagements, and hosting blog and book tours that don’t pan out to much in sales. And in our recently diminished economy, where consumers are pulling back on their expenditures, the return on an author’s promotional investment is lower than ever.

But, as Mortenson's story reminds us, opportunities exist (and sometimes abound) in every venture we undertake, and bad economy or no, there is always the possibility that a single investment of time and effort will somehow result in some good. Even a book signing with only one or two attendees can turn out to be worthwhile, especially if one of the two people there happens to be one of Oprah's producers, say, or a movie studio executive looking for a new idea for a script. We never know who will see our ads, read about us in a local newspaper article, stumble across our blog, or sit at the back of empty rows of chairs at a bookstore or university talk.

As another famous impoverished author, Henry David Thoreau, once said, "In the long run, we only hit what we aim at." Although the results we seek may not always come as quickly as we'd like, with persistence, patience, and good promotional guidance and execution, they eventually appear – sometimes when we least expect them.

Aim often and high.