Category Archives: Digital Publishing

From Child Prodigy to Self-Publishing Expert: A.G. Billig’s Amazing Literary Journey

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on author/entrepreneur A.G. Billig, and how she is bringing her vast media, publishing branding experience to thousands of authors through SelfPublishingMastery.com. Here, she discusses her professional background, writing experiences, and her vision for the world’s most diverse self-publishing online platform.)

She wrote her first short story as a child. At age 13, the Romanian media dubbed her a child prodigy. Three years later, she was writing professionally for a popular national newspaper on teen issues. Then, at 17, she became a radio host — which led to producing a TV show for an independent Romanian network. Finally, when A.G. Billig entered her twenties, she became editor-in-chief for a variety of teen magazines.

Author, self-publishing and branding expert A.G. Billig

How’s that for the start of a writing career? A career seemingly predestined at birth? What happens if you add to that a Master’s Degree in public relations and communication and a sharp, incisive entrepreneurial mind?

Now, this captivating, multi-talented author, and international media and branding expert has established herself in the U.S., imparting her knowledge and insight to benefit thousands of authors. She is the creator of SelfPublishingMastery.com, a multi-channel platform that brings writing and business tips, consulting, books, writing and editing services, resources, online summits, professional referrals, the best writing instructors, a publishing imprint and much more. In 2017, it was named one of the Top 100 self-publishing blogs online. It’s only going to grow.

In an announcement I’m very proud to make, the editorial services wing of my company, Word Journeys, is shifting to SPM in a new partnership agreement.

As a writer, A.G.’s work is extensive in the journalism world, and growing in books. Her two books, Four Doors and Other Stories and I Choose Love, are award-winners. Her deep, thoughtful soul and incisive mind merge in her works to provide delicious prose that informs as it invokes feeling and thought, giving us insight into ourselves. Interestingly, that is what the greatest mentors do: show the way, often without stating it in those terms.

A.G. Billig presenting a workshop on branding and marketing for self-published authors at the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference. Branding and marketing are central themes _ and features — of  SelfPublishingMastery.com

A.G. is a mentor to authors throughout the world, and has caught the attention of writers conference directors. She has presented at the Greater LA Writers, Genre-LA and Digital Writing & Self Publishing conferences, and recently conducted a Master Workshop on author branding. In this two-part interview, she unveils the full scope of SelfPublishingMastery.com, a huge author asset in a self-publishing market that saw an estimated 900,000 titles published last year.

WORD JOURNEYS: Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to begin writing?

A.G.Billig: When I was 8, my parents bought a brand new car. My excitement about the prospect of future summer trips across Romania translated into a short story, the first in a long series. My father, an avid reader and aspiring author, loved my writing and encouraged me to pursue it. By 13, I was winning national literary prizes for short stories. I wrote my first novel, a teenage love story, at 15 —and then took a break from writing fiction until 2012.

WJ: What was one of the biggest takeaways of your early journalism career, when you had years of top professional experience by the time you reached your twenties?

A.G.: It was a beautiful way to meet extraordinary people and share their amazing stories with the rest of the world, stretch my comfort zone, and learn new skills. It felt good whenever someone would stop me on the street to tell me they enjoyed my shows.

WJ:   What books did you read as a teen and young adult? How did they inform and shape the stories and book ideas you wanted to pursue?

A.G. Though Romania was still under Communist rule in my early years, I was fortunate to grow up in a house filled with books. My father was born in Paris. He loved French culture as well as universal literary giants. The moment I learned how to read, I started devouring writers such as Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Lev Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Giovanni Boccaccio, Jane Austen, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. These authors and readings shaped my literary tastes and taught me how to write. I learned how to use description, write dialogue, and build solid characters from them. I also learned the type of emotional and cognitive experience a book is supposed to create for the reader, that essential element that stands the test of time. Although I never wanted to be like these authors, I always aimed at giving my best in my writing. We can all do that by being authentic and passionate about what we do.

WJ:   When did you start considering working with self-published authors? What need did you perceive?

A.G.: In 2015, at the London Book Fair. It seems like this event changes my life every three years — I wonder what’s going to happen in 2018! I attended as a journalist (I was a contributor to the Romanian edition of Playboy). I was already following podcasts on self-publishing and wanted to know more about it. The free talks and panels proved to be of great help. The success stories of self-published authors such as Mark Dawson and C.J. Lyons, making six-figure incomes on their books, gave me an A-HA! moment. I realized that the publishing game was changing and self-publishing opened a global market for authors, provided they had the necessary skills. Since I have an entrepreneurial mind, I seized the opportunity, not only for myself, but also for my fellow authors. I realized that they needed support with branding and marketing their books. They would needed resources, information, and education. “Why not use my passion for journalism to serve these people?” I asked myself.

Early in 2016, just about the same time I self-published I Choose Love, Self-Publishing Mastery was born.

WJ:   Let’s go back to your creative love – writing books. First, tell us about I Choose Love – certainly a timely read in this day and age.

A.G.: I never thought I would write a non-fiction book, but a lot went on in 2015 — terror attacks, natural disasters. The world was (and still is) governed by fear. The only way out was choosing love, again and again, every second of our life. At that point, I Choose Love came to me as what some would call a “download”. It took about a month to complete. It was easy for me, because it stemmed from my heart. I also had a clear structure from the beginning, and a thorough knowledge of the topic based on seven years of spiritual practice and personal experiences. It offers practical tools for overcoming fear and attracting love into one’s life.

WJ: Can’t think of a subject more purposeful! You also mentioned you shelved your teenage love of fiction writing until 2012. Typically, when we leave our story writing youth, we rarely find that thread again, but you did. Tell us about Four Doors and Other Stories.

A.G.: This book shows what can happen when we are in the flow. It marked my return to writing fiction, and it brought me a contract with a U.K. publisher.

I created this short stories collection about love, because love represents the foundation of who I am and everything I do, including helping other authors become successful. My vision was to portray love as our true essence, which can be expressed in so many different ways. Once I had this concept clear in my mind, I just allowed the inspiration to flow in.

WJ: What is your vision with SelfPublishingMastery.com? What are the features? How do you, and the platform, assist writers in their journeys?

A.G. My original concept for Self Publishing Mastery was to be the Billboard magazine for the global self-publishing industry. My vision was to support and empower indie authors from around the world to self-publish, and help them master the publishing process.

We began by (and are still) covering book marketing, the writing craft, the right mindset for success, writers’ conferences, success stories, writers Facebook groups, podcasts, and book blogs. After the past year of getting a chance to talk to authors, we decided to add an educational component. Now we will also have workshops, online courses, books, and an online academy. We’ve just further expanded the range of our services for authors through the full-service portfolio, twenty years’ standing, that Word Journeys is bringing in. We have evergreen content, constantly refreshing. We’ve also got some goodies for those who subscribe to our newsletter such as “The top 20 Amazon book reviewers list” and “The successful book launch checklist.” Authors can and will find all that they need for successful self-publishing on our site. Please stop by!

(NEXT: A.G. Billig breaks down SelfPublishingMastery.com, and the particular challenge self-published authors face with branding, distribution, and lifting their work above the growing mass of titles and voices — and how to reach their world of awaiting readers in the process.)

 

 

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Book Lovers: The L.A. Times Festival of Books is Here!

One of the most enjoyable parts of being an author is participating in book signings — and few are better than the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

Desiree Duffy of Black Chateau Enterprises and yours truly at the 2017 LA Times Festival of Books.

For the third straight year, I will be signing books at the USC Campus on Sunday, April 22, from 3-5 p.m. It also happens to be my sister Karin’s 50th birthday, so getting from USC crosstown to Encino for the birthday dinner afterward will be interesting, but the afternoon is all about books, and my sister understands… I think…

I digress. On Sunday, I will be signing Voices, Backroad Melodies, Writes of Life, When We Were The Boys and Just Add Water at the Black Chateau Booth #912 in the Black Zone. I will be part of a two-day author collective put together by my publicist and fellow author in the 3-5 slot, Desiree Duffy, the owner of Black Chateau Enterprises.

            The L.A. Times Festival of Books is huge, and awesome. Up to 150,000 people come for the two days to see a collection of bestselling authors, new authors, and entertainment ranging from panel discussions to live bands and very lively public question-and-answer sessions. The festival is the third largest of its kind in the U.S. It’s a book buyer’s and reader’s dream – and, for authors, a rare chance to talk with so many readers.

“I find that consumers like choices, so having several authors and books for them to chose from at a book fair, means that you are more likely to have something they’ll like,” Desiree says. “Book fairs can be exhausting. Authors signings can be draining. Doing an hour or two signing is much easier than committing to running a booth for an entire fest. It gives authors time to walk the fest, check out panels, and network.”

Since Desiree walks the delicate creative and time management tightrope between being a publicist and author (she’ll appear under her nom de plume, Vanta M. Black, to sign her novel Oubliette: A Forgotten Little Place on Sunday afternoon), she also understands the dual existence we writers lead. Often, we prefer to tuck ourselves into our offices and write, not connecting so much publicly — but books don’t sell if we don’t go public. Contrary to the beliefs of many, online presence alone does not beget success. The group signing helps even the shiest authors interact with their audiences.

“We are social beings. When we connect in person, that bond is stronger than it could ever be online,” she explains. “Being an author means being a brand. You are connected to your writing and being able to talk to people, share stories, learn about them as readers, and make connections helps strengthen your brand.

“Plus, what you do in the real world needs to translate to the online world. As an author at an event, being able to promote and post online about it gives you valuable content. Whether it is social media, your author newsletter, your blog or website, your book fest experience should be featured online. Online and offline exposure leverage one another, making each stronger.”

I’d like to introduce you to the other authors at the Black Chateau Booth (once again, #912, in the Black Zone), the works they’ll be signing, and their signing times:

Saturday, April 21:

11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Susanne Bellefeuille, author of Path of Lucas: The Journey He Endured

Autumn Doerr, author of Baker’s Dozen: A Lexi Fagan Mystery

1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Christina Cigala, author of XXvXY: The Final World War

Bobby Goldstein, creator of XXvXY: The Final World War; and the TV show Cheaters

3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Mark J. Rose, author of Matt Miller in the Colonies Series

Lon Varnadore, author of Mostly Human: A 4Pollack Novel

Sunday, April 22:

11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Sean Patrick Traver, author of Wraith Ladies Who Lunch

Raye Mitchell, Esq, author of How Women Negotiate from a Position of Strength

1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Michael Priv, author of The Fifth Battalion

Laurie Finkelstein, author of Next Therapist Please

3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Robert Yehling, author of Voices and Just Add Water

Vanta M. Black, author of Oubliette: A Forgotten Little Place

The booth will also feature books from Nanishka Torres, author of Fenrir Chronicles: The Prince; and Magda Ayuk, author of Blue Bird.

Each appearance at the L.A. Times Festival of Books has been a thrill: discussing pro surfer Clay Marzo’s life with autism in Just Add Water in 2016; and launching Voices to the world in 2017. This time, I’ll also be previewing Crawl of Fame, the memoir of Ironman triathlon legend Julie Moss, which officially releases on October 2.

As for Desiree? She well remembers the thrill of her first L.A. Times Festival of Books signing gig. It’s like runners feel about the Boston Marathon; I know I never get tired of that feeling when we arrive on the scene! “I had a booth the year I released Oubliette—A Forgotten Little Place. It was my dream to be there, and seeing it happen, was amazing,” she recalls. “I checked off an item on my bucket list. I think a lot of authors feel that way. There is something special about the L.A. Times Festival of Books. It is iconic. A must-attend.”

On that note, we’ll see you at Booth 912, Black Zone this weekend!

 

 

 

 

 

           

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THE WRITE STUFF: Official Newsletter of Word Journeys Inc. and Robert Yehling

V 20, N 1 • January, 2016

Celebrating 20 Years of Serving Authors, Publishers & The Written Word 

WELCOME!

Welcome to the 20th anniversary of Word Journeys, Inc. In 1996, I started the company to provide editorial services to magazines and corporate publications. Soon, my goals and the company shifted into the book world, where we have camped since 1999, providing writing, ghostwriting, editing, marketing, promotion, and publicity consulting services to authors, editors, agents, and publishers. We will provide this newsletter of stories, links, and specials to our Google + readers, and mailing list. We cover everything concerning the works of Robert Yehling, Word Journeys clients, and related publishing activities and events. Beginning in February, past issues will be archived on our website, www.wordjourneys.com.

HOT OFF THE PRESSES…

2016: The Year of the Writer

We’re declaring 2016 the year of the writer, and are re-releasing a pair of books to commemorate: The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life; and Writes of Life: Using Personal Experiences in Everything You Write. Both books are being published in second edition by Open Books Press of Bloomington, IN. The Write Time is now available, while Writes of Life will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon.com, and will be published in mid-April.

The Write Time features a different exercise for every day of the year — and a story to enhance it. All genres and styles are covered. This is perfect jump-start material if you’re stuck or just need some fresh creative juice. Used in writing conferences, colleges, high schools, and by many published authors. Links to more than 125 top writing and reading websites. http://amzn.to/1O2skaG

Robert Yehling, Martha Brookhart Halda to appear on Write NOW! TV show

Robert Yehling and Martha Brookhart Halda will talk about the writing life, and how they’ve collaborated, on Write NOW!, a TV program in Orange County, CA. The show will air Friday, January 22. Yehling will discuss his various works, while Halda will talk about the German launch of A Taste of Eternity, her remarkable story, and the book’s forthcoming release in the United States. The show hosts are author/publisher Charles Redner, and Judy Saxon.

Just Add Water a Finalist for Dolly Gray Literature Award

Just Add Water is a finalist for the Dolly Gray Literature Award, given to the top family-oriented book with autism themes. It joins ten other finalists for the prestigious award, which is followed by all of the autism organizations and schools. The ceremony is January 25 in Tampa, FL. For more information: http://daddcec.org/Awards/DollyGrayAwards.aspx

The Hummingbird Review: Michael Blake, E.E. King, memoirists featured

The writing of personal story serves as a theme of the winter-spring edition of The Hummingbird Review, now available through bookstores and online. Featured contributors include the late Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves author/screenwriter Michael Blake, fictionist-poet and Ray Bradbury protégé E.E. King, novelist W. Thompson Ong, Beat-era poet Michael C. Ford, an interview with guided autobiography facilitator Sheri Kohlmann, and the first excerpt of Martha Halda’s memoir A Taste of Eternity to be published in English. Plus more than 60 poems and essays from a dozen nations. Just $10. Order yours! http://amzn.to/1VohQIp

Appearance at Just Add Water at L.A. Times Festival of Books

Robert Yehling will be discussing the development and writing of Just Add Water at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, the nation’s second largest book festival, which takes place April 9-10 on the USC campus in Los Angeles. He will be signing both after the presentation and in a booth on-site. In 2015, more than 150,000 attended the event. Stay tuned for more details. http://events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks/

FROM OUR CLIENTS

  • Brandon Cruz, star of the smash late 1960s/early 1970s sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and I are shopping a pair of titles we’ve been developing for a year, one The Courtship of Eddie, his memoir; and the other a deep look at his work as one of the nation’s foremost alcohol-addiction recovery specialists. Both books are packed with powerful, emotional stories, messages of great hope, and Brandon’s entertaining storytelling style, laced with his sharp wit and insights. Stay tuned…
  • Cracked, Not Broken author Kevin Hines had quite a thrill on January 9, when he spoke at a White House conference on men’s health. Kevin is busily preparing a documentary about his story and speaking engagements worldwide; look for a second book by 2017. http://amzn.to/1Gle6Sf
  • Jeff Emmerson’s long-awaited book, Beyond ADHD, is making the publishing rounds through agent Dana Newman. Emmerson looks beyond the conventional ADHD protocols in this riveting work that combines personal story and the insights of more than 20 medical, neurological, and therapeutic experts. Its findings are not only revolutionary — but potentially transformative. View his Beyond ADHD blog at http://bit.ly/1Rk2lCt
  • Motocross racing fans of a certain age… Remember Gary Wells, the racing and jumping phenom of the 1970s and 1980s? The man who routinely outjumped Evel Knievel for years? As Gary celebrates his 60th birthday this year, his story, Closure, is on its way to publication, thanks to author Tyler Anderson, himself a champion racer. This is a no-holds-barred biography at the up and down sides of America’s love affair with one prodigy and his prowess on a bike, during the biggest 15-year period in U.S. motorcycle racing history. https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=gary%20wells%20closure

FEATURED TITLES

ON THE WORD JOURNEYS BLOG

How Just Add Water Was Written: Behind the Scenes Story: http://wp.me/p8UUi-hB

BLOG OF THE MONTH

Kristen Lamb’s Blog is annually selected one of the Top 100 writers blogs by Writer’s Digest. Not only is it packed with resourceful materials for writers, but readers will delight in all of its behind-the-scenes features. This is a MUST blog to add to your blogroll. https://warriorwriters.wordpress.com

WORD JOURNEYS SPECIALS

Service: 20% off editing of your next book! We’ll bring your manuscript to a publish-ready polish, as we have done with more than 150 others. All genres. Email ryehling@wordjourneys.com. Through Feb. 29.

Product: $5 off hard-cover, signed copies of Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant’s Journey with Asperger’s, the biography of autistic surfing great Clay Marzo. Shipped direct from author. Email: ryehling@wordjourneys.com. Through Jan. 31.

WRITING/READING TIP OF THE MONTH

“Reach into your bookshelf and grab twenty titles of any kind. Read the first paragraphs of each, quickly and in succession. What pops out? What really grabs your eye? How did the writer grab you? Now return to your work, and in the spirit of what you have just read and compared, make your sentences pop and snap.” — From The Write Time, by Robert Yehling

JOIN THE WORD JOURNEYS FIESTA!

Connect with and follow us on social media, and stay informed on latest news and happenings from Word Journeys, where publishing, writing, editing, teaching, reviewing, and love of the written word join forces.

 

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Snapshots from the Frankfurt Book Fair, Munich & Austria

It’s already been three weeks since a remarkable and, in some ways, magical trip to Germany for the Frankfurt Buchmesse. The journey morphed into an unforgettable few days of hiking and sightseeing in Austria, and then returning to my old home in Munich and seeing my dearest friends.

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Martha signs book cards at the Frankfurt Book Fair. She was a big hit with adults and kids alike.

I traveled to Frankfurt last-minute to  support my loving friend (and so much more) of 50 years, Martha Halda, there for the world release of her memoir, A Taste of Eternity, in its German-language version, Der Duft des Engels (The Wings of Angels). Watching Martha  sign autographs for thousands of festival attendees was truly divine, as we spent three years turning A Taste of Eternity from an idea into the life-affirming memoir it is. The same publisher that picked up Martha’s book, sorriso Verlag, also published Just Add Water in German translation — also launched at Frankfurt.2015-10-16 14.41.09

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A moment that warmed the teacher’s heart inside me: Kids hanging in the patio of the Frankfurt Book Fair, sitting in hammocks, reading … refreshing.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is an amazing conglomeration of publishing nations, their authors, and the hands that work the levers behind global publishing. I checked out books and publishers from dozens of countries, including wonderful exhibits at the Indonesia, Vietnam, Ireland, China, and Australia-New Zealand pavilions. (Also had to see When We Were The Boys and Just Add Water in two different booths in the English-language pavilion; that definitely fulfilled a life dream!)

Frankfurt also made a great effort to promote young adult and children’s reading through an outdoor reading area and a weekend nod to Comic-Con. Thousands of kids turned out. The way young reading has gone south in the U.S., I never thought I’d see thousands of teenagers in one place for the sake of books. I didn’t see anywhere near so many at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, whose overall crowd was comparable.

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A few of the earthly treasures at the Antiquarian Book Fair. Most of these titles are older than the U.S.

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One of the books that got Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei into hot water with the Catholic Church. The book was originally written in his hand.

The other highlight was the Antiquarian Book Fair, 48 exhibits and vendors. First of all, “antiquarian” in Europe carries a far different meaning than in the U.S.; jump on the timeline and go back several centuries. The fact that the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg, lived and worked not 10 miles away, added to the intrigue. Books dated back to the mid 15th century, but my favorite was De Systemate Mundi, a book on the planets by Galileo, likely among the volumes that got him booted from the Catholic Church for heresy and placed under house arrest. So much history in these 48 exhibits … I will be writing more on this.

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Mist, light, snow-covered mountains, and tight, steep roads in small mountain resorts… what’s not to love about this part of Europe?

Afterwards, Martha treated me to a huge “thank you” for helping her with her book — some hiking and sightseeing above the gorgeously rustic, small Austrian resort of St. Johann im Pongau, Austria. I’d driven though this town 30 miles south of Salzburg while living in Munich, but not like this: two days of long hikes, culminating with a random visit to Kreistenalm (Christ’s alms), a ski lodge in the Austrian Alps. While I got us around in my very broken German, Martha reveled. Ever seen a grown girl cry during lunch in a ski lodge? The reasons were clear: Her book concerns meeting angels and the Divine after she was pronounced clinically dead in October 1999, she’s coming off a Frankfurt launch (every global author’s dream) in October 2015, we’re in the Alps, and the lodge’s name is the center of her spiritual path. Wonderful, wonderful moment.

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A view of St. Johann im Pongau from the sky box seats (actually, beginning of the steep trail to Kreistenalm)

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The ski lodge that served up a magical moment: KreistenAlm: Hearty Welcome. And, it was.

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50 years to the month after we first saw ‘The Sound of Music’ in Carlsbad, we joined forces again in Salzburg, where most of the movie was filmed.

We had one more surprise, this belonging to our lifelong friendship. We spent a day in Salzburg, which I knew from having played tour guide to family and friends while living in Munich. Martha waxed nostalgic, and wanted to go on the Sound of Music bus tour. My idea of a tourist bus tour is to get to a destination, put on my pack, jump off at a random stop, and do my thing. Especially in a European city with a strong musical connection — outside America, Salzburg is revered not for Julie Andrews, but for Mozart, who grew up and began performing there. This time, I played nice. The reason? You’re going to accuse me of being a creative fiction writer, which I am, but follow this very true bouncing ball:

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Our ‘Sound of Music’ tour guide was brash, Austrian, and filled with the spirit of the tour. This is the gazebo where the love scene between Maria and Col. Von Trapp was shot.

Fifty years ago, in 1965, The Sound of Music opened and toured select theaters nationwide, among the last blockbuster movies to be roadhoused before chains and massive screen openings took over. A month after first grade began, in October 1965, Martha and I joined a class field trip to see the movie at San Diego’s Loma Theatre. Now, exactly 50 years later, we were touring the movie’s sets, both inside and outside Salzburg, after watching the film again to reacquaint. Let’s just say more than a few people were blown away when they heard this.

Afterwards, we did see a Mozart chamber concert, in one of the chamber rooms in which Mozart performed fairly often at the Festung Hohensalzburg, the 1,300-year-old white fortress atop Salzburg. The Sound of Music is awesome, but there is nothing like hearing a maestro’s music where he performed and conducted. The walls really do start talking…

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A quick return to my old Munich home on Oberlanderstrasse (yellow section, bottom 2 floors of windows).

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The Rathaus in Munich, one of the world’s most amazing buildings.

Finally, my friend Tobias Groeber, the director of the massive ispo trade fair (which I served as U.S. communications liaison for six years), and my closest friend in Germany, magazine publisher Wolfgang Greiner, threw a barbecue in Munich never to be forgotten. We feasted on fishes and meats from Spain, Turkey, and Germany, cuisine from a few other countries, first class all the way.

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How to keep a 6-foot-tall blonde with German blood happy: Bier und obatzda mit brez’l!

What amazed me, though, was talking about Just Add Water with 13-year-old surfing twins. Nothing unusual, except this: they were German surfers, locals who rode those frigid (but sometimes good) northwest swells in the North Sea. Chilling. Impressive. These hearty souls had no trouble connecting tall, blonde, California girl Martha with a place to stay on the Southern California coast. Smart kids!

Enjoy the photos and pictures … and get ready for an incredible next blog, an interview with British author and novelist Ann Morgan. Her book, The World Between Two Covers, may well change the way you read and regard world literature. Her novel, Beside Myself, is equally amazing. We’ll let her take it from there, in this special preview of a longer interview we will be publishing in The Hummingbird Review next summer.

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What A Decade: How Far Carrie Underwood Has Come

(I originally wrote this piece 10 years ago this month, while editing American Idol magazine. It is probably my favorite piece of magazine journalism, and Carrie Underwood is definitely the most put-together female performing artist I’ve ever known. So much is revealed in this interview, conducted two months before her debut  Some Hearts LP and ushered in one of music’s greatest careers. She is not only an exceptional singer, but an exceptional woman and role model for girls and teens globally. For good reason.)

The Country Girl’s Cinderella Story

Years after giving up her dream of being a star, Carrie Underwood decided to drive to St. Louis to audition for AI4. Now, she lives the greatest wish of millions of fans who selected her as the new American Idol while sticking to her simple, hard-working roots.

By Robert Yehling

Here’s a Cinderella story with a country twist. The blonde-haired girl leaves the glass slipper in the clover meadow of her adolescence and heads to college to prepare for adult life. There is no prince, no palatial ball, no castle. Then something happens: the glass slipper finds her, in the form of an American Idol audition. Of course the shoe fits. A year later, she’s a rising star in Nashville, America’s newest sweetheart, and a young woman whom all mothers would want their daughters to emulate.

Carrie Underwood, moments after winning American Idol Season 5 in 2005

Carrie Underwood, moments after winning American Idol Season 5 in 2005

If you’re worried that Carrie Underwood will strike midnight, don’t: The new American Idol’s career is in full ascent. It’s only been six months since we finally saw her cut loose when Ryan Seacrest made the winning announcement – “I will never forget that moment, that excitement, the fans in the audience screaming. How could I not let go?” she says. In that time, she’s cut an album, racked up a pair of major endorsements, headlined Idols on Tour, and considered countless offers from the entertainment and business worlds. The heroine of this fairy tale has met her destiny: life as a star in the 21st century.

“This whole experience reminds me of something I’ve heard quite a few times: ‘If you want to make God laugh, make plans,’” Carrie says. “My life is completely different in every single way possible. I’ve had to re-evaluate everything. What I was going to do before, I’m not going to do now. I’m going to be a singer for at least the next little while. There’s no more planning things out as I was doing last year at this time.

“The big change for me is that now my goals can be much, much higher than what they were a year ago, which were trying to find a good job out of college, work my way up the ladder – the typical business plan – find somebody, get married, have a family. Now it’s make an album, do well on it, so I can make another album, touring, promotion. After I’m hopefully an established artist one day, people will know me not just because of being an American Idol but because they’ve been hearing me a lot on the radio, and what I’ve done as a solo musician.”

How does a charming, highly intelligent and gorgeous 22-year-old country girl from Checotah, Oklahoma handle this sudden fame and fortune? Especially when you consider that she hadn’t flown on a plane until she headed west last November for the Hollywood Auditions? Or that she would much rather wear t-shirts or light blouses and jeans than alluring skin-clinging outfits (as she made clear to Skechers when they chose her to follow in the footsteps of noted sirens Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera)? How does she go from raising farm animals and studying for broadcast journalism finals to dealing with record company executives, television interviews, officials from Hershey’s and Skechers, career agents, press agents, countless people screaming “You’re

the greatest, Carrie!” and exhausting tour schedules synchronized to grueling recording schedules?

Therein lies the secret to Carrie Underwood’s climb to the top of American Idol and how she conducts her life from this point forward. Behind the blonde hair and brown eyes, reserved demeanor and remarkable voice is a woman who understands how to remain calm in the midst of storms. She’s very friendly and a joy to talk with, because she can handle countless conversation subjects while switching back-and-forth between the maturity of a grown woman and the doe-eyed enthusiasm of a girl on the rise. From a crisp tone of voice that broadcasts confidence and self-assuredness to the way she moves, Carrie exudes coolness in the greatest sense of the word.

She also knows she wants and how fortunate she is that her dream circled back to be reclaimed. “I’m a thinker, not a big dreamer. Every little kid wants to be famous, a movie star, a music star, whatever,” she explains. “About 99 percent of the time, it never happens. As a little kid, I used to pick four-leaf clovers out in the pasture and my wish was always the same: ‘I want to be a music star.’ But as I finished up high school, my thoughts were, ‘What makes me special?’ After high school, nothing had happened, so I figured it was time to grow up and get a job. It was important to go to college, learn a trade. So I did that, and then my childhood dream comes true. Life is pretty funny.”

Carrie prides herself on sticking to her core values, personality and interests, some of which raise eyebrows. She grew up bottle-feeding cows on an animal farm in a meat- and-potatoes family, but she is a committed vegetarian and recent honoree of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “I love to go fishing with my friends, but I always throw them back,” she says. She became the new American Idol by performing country music – Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride and Patsy Cline are favorites – but she’s a huge Green Day fan who plays guitar, piano and drums. She lives in one of the most rooted, earthen parts of the country and conveys pure radiance with every smile, yet her favorite movies are Star Trek: The Next Generation and a host of old horror flicks: Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Alien.

Then there is her reserved emotion. Farm life is doubly hard work: In addition to raising animals and crops, and synchronizing life to planting and harvesting seasons, the parents often hold full-time jobs. Stephen and Karen Underwood both worked outside jobs – Stephen at a paper mill and Karen as a schoolteacher – while tending to the farm and raising daughters Shanna and Stephanie. By the time Carrie came along, her sisters were teenagers and vital workers on the farm. They supported and nurtured her singing, first at church, then in local talent competitions, later in high school music programs. However, there was little time for deep discussions or displays of emotion. “We don’t really show our emotions; we’re not big huggers,” Carrie says. “We’re kind of a quieter family. For good or bad, I have a lot of my dad’s personality traits, and he’s a stoic man who gets things done. I really don’t get real excited about anything. A lot of times, I think that people’s emotions should remain within. You seem to have a lot more power and energy that way.”

Carrie Underwood channels her inner Axl Rose during the 2013 CMA Music Festival in Nashville. Her rendition of "Paradise City" reminds me of what she told me several times -- inside, she's a rock-and-roll girl. Check this out on You Tube.

Carrie Underwood channels her inner Axl Rose during the 2013 CMA Music Festival in Nashville. Her rendition of “Paradise City” reminds me of what she told me several times — inside, she’s a rock-and-roll girl. Check this out on You Tube.

There’s a flip side to being unemotional: It’s hard for audiences to connect with you. Despite possessing the best voice on the show – Simon Cowell told a KTTV interviewer in Los Angeles that Carrie’s voice stuck utmost in his mind from several thousand people who auditioned before he, Paula and Randy in 2004 – Carrie heard the loud whispers about her stoic stage presence throughout AI4. While she strictly adhered

to unofficial Rules 1 and 2 of succeeding on American Idol – “Be true to what you do best, and be your most authentic self” – she also ran the risk of being voted off as more flamboyant finalists like Bo, Constantine, Vonzell, Jessica, Nadia and Mikalah whipped up live audiences each week.

“It kind of kept people from really getting to know me, because I didn’t share my emotions as readily,” she recalls. “That’s not such a good thing. I’m definitely working on being more personable. For the first time in my life, I’m dealing with people who live and work at a completely different level, so I put myself out there more. It sure helps that the competition aspect’s gone and that type of pressure is off.”

While Carrie might be a rising superstar to America and the world, she is still a country girl, although people in Checotah and neighboring Muskogee refer to her as “our Carrie,” in the sweet and inclusive way locals regard fellow residents who hit the big time. She illustrated the ever-humbling vibes of going home. “As soon as I got home, my mom told me to clean my room. I was just joking, ‘Mom, the new American Idol doesn’t clean her room,’ and she said, ‘This one does.’ To my family, I will always be Carrie and not the American Idol. I never want that to change.”

Within a month of winning American Idol, Carrie stared into her potential in the recording and entertainment world. She became the newest jingle girl for Hershey’s –

the commercials have been on TV since July – and also signed with Skechers. The first print ads were timed for back-to-school. “I was really surprised to get these endorsements so quickly,” she says. “Hershey’s was really into the image I want to portray. The same thing with Skechers – they target younger people. Plus, I’m really happy to get free shoes and free chocolate. Those are two of a girl’s favorite things!”

Then she laid down a vocal track. With her 19 Recordings/Arista Records single, “Inside Your Heaven,” one of the three songs she sang in the Final Show, she became the first country artist ever to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It also was the first country song to go #1 on the Hot 100 since Lonestar’s “Amazed” in 2000. While selling more than 170,000 copies, “Inside Your Heaven” also topped the Pop 100, Country Singles and Singles Sales charts in July.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Carrie began working on her album during the Idols on Tour, flying to Nashville on her off days. “I don’t want to be one of those people who goes, ‘I’ve achieved the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, so I can cruise now,’” she says. When the tour concluded in September, she returned to Nashville. She’s moving into barely charted territory: Among previous American Idol finalists, only Josh Gracin has broken through in Nashville, but that came two years after he competed. Meanwhile, Carrie attracted America’s huge country music fan base to the show, and is delivering an album to them. Even at the Season 5 auditions, the shift was evident: Numerous country singers turned up from San Francisco to Boston. Everyone who watched her perform with Rascal Flatts on the Awards Show knows that she has superstar written all over her. Sales of her debut album could go through the roof, especially since it comes out in time for the holiday shopping season.

Down the line, she hopes to better reflect her eclectic musical taste. But for now, she’ll stick to her strength. “I definitely see myself on tour singing different songs live, but the album is going to be country first,” she says. “We’ve talked about Rascal Flatts and various people doing little parts, but nothing is set in stone. I’m basically living in the

studio, sleeping in there if I have to, until it’s done. I’m young, and this is my chance. I’m not about to let it slip away.”

It’s fitting that Carrie’s big break came on television. For the past four years, she prepared for a television career at Northeastern State University in Tallequah, Oklahoma. She also managed to keep her vocal chords tuned, singing in a country music show and finishing in the top three for two straight years in the Miss NSU Scholarship Pageant.

However, becoming the star of entertainment shows and talk shows wasn’t on the agenda – nor were pageants. “I’m not a pageant girl,” she says. She saw her future existing as a news producer, director, assignment editor, or in delivering stories and commentary like her heroines, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, “the people who have been there forever and have overcome a lot of obstacles on their way to the top. For a long time, no women were in there. It would’ve been impossible for me to do what I do without them.”

Once Carrie made it to the Final 12, the American Idol producers became familiar with her career aspirations. The producers take a keen interest in Idol contestants’ life goals, even as they work together to fulfill the dream of becoming a recording star. In Carrie’s case, they met one of their own. “The producers were really helpful,” she recalls. “They knew I was interested in a broadcast journalism career. I asked a lot of questions; I paid attention to little things. I like taping things, being behind camera, doing things like editing snippets and segments, stuff like that. They were always so good to answer my questions. I wasn’t asking about my place on the show; I was trying to get some tips from the pros on how good shows are produced, how they come together.

“You know those little snippets they showed about us? I came to the point where I knew what they were looking for. Later, people said how ‘naturally’ good I was at it, how I made things move better and I sounded better. Well, the truth is that I studied this in school, then studied how the producers of the show were doing it.”

The other side of celebrity is a constant request for interviews. While it sounds fetching and glamorous, it can quickly wear down even the heartiest of souls. Carrie conducted daily interviews during Idols on Tour, and will be doing the same before and after Christmas to promote her album. During press conferences, she often studied interviewers for that future day when she might join former Idol finalists Kimberly Caldwell and LaToya London in the TV world – or move beyond that. “I’m totally learning how to interview other people right now by watching the way they interview me,” she says. “I sit there sometimes thinking, ‘Would I ask that question? What different kinds of questions would I ask?’ What I really like – and what I would do if I was interviewing someone – is when people already know something about me and they really get in there, make me think about my next answer. What I don’t like are really boring questions.

“Thanks to my experience on American Idol, I got a lot more comfortable with the camera. Now I have to sing a lot on TV programs and stuff. I’m doing different media circuits and talk shows, and I find I’m a lot more prepared.”

There’s another goal in mind: Getting her degree from Northeastern State. Carrie has about nine hours remaining – less than a semester – and is working with the university to take the classes off-campus. She is also hopeful that through her experience

on American Idol, she can convince the school to credit her. “Certainly, I hope they count my experiences with the show as an internship!”

Carrie’s interest in broadcast journalism replaced her dream of stardom. It also stemmed from another ingrained reality of farm life – always make back-up plans .You never know what storm, drought, shift in the market or other unforeseen calamity will come your way, regardless of whether you’re running a farm, headlining concert tours or starting a new job. Even now, as her career heads toward a stratospheric height that could shoot past Kelly Clarkson, Carrie keeps her contingency plan at her side.

“What if, for some strange reason, I couldn’t sing anymore? I always want to have things going for me, where singing doesn’t have to be my entire world. I want to have the freedom to branch out and do other things. Certainly, music is the most important thing right now. But I went to college and intend to graduate because another career is very important to me. There’s a ton of things that make me happy, and I plan to experience them.”

Carrie will race forward thanks to the huge launch that American Idol gave her, and millions of us will watch her and buy her CDs. While her life reflects many of our dreams and fantasies come true, her personality and values will continue to guide her on what will define her career: Hard work, good timing and the most effective use of her exquisite voice. These are not the musings of a fairy tale, but of a country girl’s new reality.

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Just Add Water: Where autism, surfing, and a world-class athlete meet

On Tuesday, July 14, the book I wrote on autistic surfing great Clay Marzo, Just Add Water, releases to bookstores, surf shops and online booksellers.JUST ADD WATER by Clay Marzo and Robert Yehling copy

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Just Add Water culminates a 2 ½-year process of Clay’s story evolving from a dinner table idea to release. We’re also launching the first leg of our signing tour beginning Wednesday night (July 15) at Barnes & Noble in Lahaina, Maui, Clay’s hometown. We’ll then be in my stomping grounds, Southern California, for a week of signings (see schedule below blog), including an appearance at Jack’s Surfboards during the U.S. Open of Surfing July 30 in Huntington Beach.

Stay tuned to www.wordjourneys.com or to www.claymarzo.com for more details, as the signing schedule will grow over the next 6-8 weeks.

Just Add Water was incredible to write. I’d promoted the ASP World Championship Tour (of surfing), along with many U.S. events. I also wrote for all of the major surfing magazines at one point or another. It was a blast to put pen to paper again about the lifestyle I love, as expressed by one exceptional surfer.

However, that’s not what makes this book unique among the 17 I’ve written or ghostwritten. The experience did. Since readers rarely hear the ‘genesis’ stories of books, I want to share ours.

It began with a dinner napkin in Encinitas, CA, similar to how John Keats created his immortal poem “The Nightingale”. Only, we were at a Mexican restaurant in October 2012, not a Dublin pub in the 1790s. My longtime friend and Clay’s manager, Mitch Varnes, met with A Taste of Eternity author Martha Halda and I. While catching up, Mitch asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Clay. Before I said ‘yes,’ Martha brought up the opportunity the book would present  to showcase a family’s deeper struggles with an autistic member.

That did it. YES.clayday-960x340

I also had a feeling… an autistic world-class athlete? A household name to virtually every surfer under 35? With several million YouTube views on his channel? Add that up, and I formed one conclusion: Huge potential readership. I scribbled notes on a napkin, paid the bill, and Martha and I headed home. Quickly. Then Martha had to endure one of my all-night creative blasts. She knew what to do: close the door behind her and let the Energizer bunny write  until he ran out of batteries.

A few days later, my agent, Dana Newman, jumped in. In April 2013, we sold the book to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through acquisition editor Susan Canavan. By happenstance, Susan, whose office is in Boston, had seen the mainstream media frenzy that followed Clay after his Asperger diagnosis in 2007. She loved it. She also published Temple Grandin, the world’s most-read author on autism (and autistic herself) — another serendipitous notch in our belt.

On a very personal note, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offices are located on Boylston Street — the finishing stretch of the Boston Marathon, which I know a bit about. Did I say ‘serendipitous?’marzo-tube

Time to go to work. I met with Clay’s mother, Jill, who gave me open access to everyone and everything — as well as some of the most poignant comments in the book. Then, I spoke with childhood friends Gary and Teresa Manguso about their son, who, like Clay, is a surfer living with Asperger’s. They provided invaluable insight on Aspies’ difficulties reading social situations or facial cues, especially subtler emotional cues. I also spoke with Sarah Brookhart, Martha’s niece, whose young son is autistic. Sarah’s anxiety over her son’s future gave me a direct look at the silent anguish parents face. Which stitched in Martha’s dinner idea.

In October 2013 — one year after we had our pow-wow — I flew to Maui to spend a few weeks with Clay. What followed was among the most enjoyable and challenging periods of my career. What could be more fun than sitting in the water, dining at Kaanapali and Kapalua Resort restaurants, cruising Maui with a lifelong local, surface diving off the coast of Lanai, or hanging out at a hot, semi-secluded break like Windmills — for research? Work?

I’ve seen Clay in countless videos and magazine photos, but there’s nothing like being in the water with him. He made crappy between-season Maui surf look classic with his gravity-defying moves and ability to find wrinkles in the waves that sure looked invisible to me. “Most surfers paddle out to catch waves; Clay paddles out to be the wave. He has to; it’s a part of him,” his behavioral therapist and lifelong friend, Carolyn Jackson, said.2013-09-29 21.49.15

Now to the flip side: we had to develop enough material from Clay’s comments to write the book. Some days, we spent eight hours on the book, with bursts of conversation separated by 30 to 60 minutes of silence… interesting tapes to re-listen to. Some days, he didn’t speak — at all. On those days, the key was to sit quietly, communicate non-verbally, watch him surf or shoot photos of his food (an obsession), and wait until tomorrow. When I did, ‘tomorrow’ was always productive.

I also learned the four ice-breaking topics that get Clay talking … the L.A. Lakers, Western Australia (where he and his girlfriend live part-time), food … and surfing. If you ever hear him elaborate on wave and bottom conditions, and the weather, you’ll think you’re talking to a NOAA meteorologist or oceanographer. He’s brilliant in the subjects that occupy him. “Those with Asperger syndrome have the potential to be among the best in the world at the one thing that occupies them, because it occupies them entirely. They feel they can’t live without it,” Asperger syndrome expert Dr. Tony Attwood said. That fit Clay perfectly.

I spent many long hours wondering how we’d get enough for a book; after all, Clay has never spoken at length in any interview. I used every interviewing trick I’ve learned in 40 years as a journalist to develop and piece together solid commentary from Clay, some of it deeply insightful.

Still, it wasn’t enough for an as-told-to memoir. Midway through my Maui trip, I called Susan Canavan to tell her the original conception wouldn’t work. We mulled over our options and arrived at a biography in structure and style, but with comments reflecting the emotional depth and contemplation of memoir. Given the early reviews, we pulled it off.Photo 2

Without Jill and Gino Marzo, we would have stalled in place. They offered raw, honest accounts of the good, bad and hopeful of raising an autistic son who surfs like he and God are riding tandem. Jill and Gino are divorced, so their perspectives often clashed. Thanks to their graciousness and willingness to bare it all, we saw the deep familial side of this autism issue that is so rarely presented publicly. img014

We also received big assists from Carolyn Jackson; Clay’s girlfriend, Jade Barton; his brother, Cheyne Magnusson, and sister, Gina; the sixth-grade schoolteacher, Mary Anna Waldrop Enriquez, who first saw the hidden gifts in Clay’s mind well before medical experts in Hawaii knew how to diagnose autism; several surfing friends; Just Add Water film documentary creators Jamie Tierney and Strider Wasilewski (Jamie was the first to make a direct correlation between Clay’s idiosyncrasies and Asperger syndrome); my long-time friends Alan Gibby (who made surfing a fixture on ESPN in the ‘80s and ‘90s) and 1976 world champion Peter Townend; and Mitch Varnes. From my writing community, author and retired teacher (of autistic kids, in part) Claudia Whitsitt, and Marla Miller offered great advice during the Southern California Writers Conference at which we all taught workshops in 2013.

When I got home, it was time to write. After four months, we turned in the manuscript and then worked with the publisher for over a year on the other side of publishing —editing, marketing, promotion, publicity, and more editing. Finally, we landed on the date that is finally here: July 14, 2015.

It’s been an incredible journey. Please review us on Amazon.com and Goodreads, tell your friends, Share posts on Facebook, and send me comments on what you think. Be sure to buy the book on Tuesday, July 14, to drive up ratings both online and on bestseller lists. We have that potential, for sure. If you’re around, come to one of our signings.

Then jump into the ocean if you’re near one — and try to be the waves. That will give you an entry point into Clay Marzo’s world

JUST ADD WATER SIGNING SCHEDULE

(through August 13)

July 15 — Barnes & Noble, Lahaina, HI, 7 p.m.

July 25 — Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines, Carlsbad, CA, 10 a.m.

July 25 — Barnes & Noble, Encinitas, CA, 2 p.m.

July 28 — Rock Star promotion, Huntington Beach, CA, 1 p.m.

July 28 – Barnes & Noble, Santa Monica, CA, 7 p.m.

July 30 — Jack’s Surfboards, Huntington Beach, CA, 11 a.m.

August 10 — Tattered Cover Books, Denver, CO, 7 p.m.

August 12 — Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO, 7 p.m.

(NOTE: Check www.wordjourneys.com, www.claymarzo.com and the Clay Marzo—Just Add Water Facebook page for continuous signing updates.)Photo 9

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On Clay Marzo, Stevie Salas & Our Coming New Look

JUST ADD WATER by Clay Marzo and Robert Yehling copyIt’s been a busy and frenetic last two months in my personal writing world. This includes promoting When We Were The Boys, the memoir on which I collaborated with musician Stevie Salas; doing final caption touch-ups and proofs for Just Add Water, my biography of autistic international surfing star Clay Marzo available for pre-order on Amazon.com now and coming in Summer from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; pumping out proposals for books on which I am collaborating and/or writing (details forthcoming); and editing Innovation & Tech Todayone of the hippest and most diverse new magazines on newsstands and most digital magazine services.

Music. Surfing. Innovation. Three of my favorite things. Now for those books on running and fitness, a memoir, and the book for business, book, journalistic and personal writers that’s made it through some brainstorm sessions…salas cover low res

My webmaster and former Ananda College student, Chitra Sudhakaran, and I have also been overhauling the WordJourneys.com website — and our mission. Part of that will be our new-look WordJourneys.com blog, which will be unveiled Monday (3-2) featuring a fantastic conversation with author and international speaker Kevin Hines. His book, Cracked, Not Broken: Surviving A Suicide Attempt, offers one of the most painful, difficult, and ultimately inspiring and redemptive memoirs I have ever had the pleasure to edit. When a man jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge and is served up his greater life and soul purpose during the four-second plunge into frigid San Francisco Bay… well, you do the math. It’s an incredible book,  in its 20th printing just two years after its release. You are not going to want to miss this interview.

You’ll also see excerpts from Just Add Water and my long-awaited novel, Voices, which will release later in 2015.ITTodayWinter2014 cover

On our new-look blog, we will be incorporating a few new things, a stylistic reflection of my 2009 book, The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Expand and Fulfill Your Writing Life:

1) Inspiring quotes from writers, entertainers, artists, musicians, and other creatives

2) Resources for further exploration

3) Spot interviews with authors, thinkers, educators, and leaders

4) Book reviews

5) Perspectives on technology, fitness, health, the arts, education, STEM, and other subjects of interest to writers and creative artists

6) Excerpts from my books, as well as clients

7) Links to pieces and special service offers on WordJourneys.com, and client websites

8) Social Media services of the month (not only the Big Five — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube —  but many other sites)

9) An expanded blogroll

10) More opportunities for you to comment and/or guest post

11) Prompts, exercises, and tips from well-published authors, and creative and leadership

achievers

We’ve always had an eye out for our clients and other writers and creatives on this blog. Now, we will expand that, as part of our mission to showcase the lifestyle of writing and insight of the authors, as well as the final product.

Back to you on New-Look Monday!

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