My life and social calendar seemed to stay perpetually full beginning in mid-2004. I had just returned to the United States from a year-long tour with the U.S. Army in Sinai, Egypt. I had just launched my second career as a contemporary fiction author, was still pursuing my bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland University College, and was beginning my new job in the U.S. Army as a journalism instructor at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md. On top of all that, I felt the brunt of being the single parent of an energetic 4-year-old daughter.
As I performed my teaching duties during the week and attended school both online and in class, I travelled from city to city each weekend promoting my first book, Cheatin’ in the Next Room. Each night, after putting my daughter to bed, I sat in bed, chained to my laptop, writing my second novel, A Dead Rose, while editing Cheatin’ in the Next Room to prepare it for re-release. If I wasn’t writing, I was doing homework. Many days, I functioned on only three to four hours of sleep.
Eventually, a lot of the work paid off. Just this year, I completed my Master’s in Human Relations, finished my fourth novel, Some Wounds Never Heal, contributed to seven anthologies, and am now about to start on my fifth novel. I have completed almost 17 years in the U.S. Army, and am currently serving in Iraq. But most importantly, I still maintain a close relationship with my daughter, who will be 11 years old this year. How did I do it? With a lot of prayer and a few survival tips I learned along the way.
1. Make it a family event. There have been months when I’ve been gone every single weekend to promote my books. I refused to continue to burden my friends with babysitting duties, so I packed my daughter in the car and took her with me. She soon looked forward to these outings and began passing out flyers and drawing customers as I stood by the table and signed books. I rewarded her with an activity of her choice once the signing ended. These trips helped us both. She had fun working on her social skills, while I worked and spent quality time with my daughter. She now looks for her own opportunities to sell books, as she calls it. Once, when I took her to a movie, she took one of my books into the theater, walked up to a lady standing in line, and actually sold the book with no fear! That child will be an entrepreneur one day! Other members of my family have also jumped in to help. My mother, aunt and sister are like my personal publicists, while my nephew has taken on the job of watching the door during my signing events. The more support you get from your family, the better you will feel about pursing your dream.
2. Cyber multi-tasking. As I mentioned earlier, I am continually chained to my computer, so I do my best to make it work for me. Since I’m a bit of a Facebook and Twitter junkie, I ensure I spend a great deal of my time promoting my books and interacting on my Facebook fan page. As I post my funny status messages, I also research marketing ideas and network with other authors. I’ve also learned to get more mileage out of my cyber addiction by linking my Twitter and Facebook pages so I only have to post once. Also, by linking my social media to my cell phone, bright ideas can stay bright with the touch of a key. This way, I’m having fun, yet promoting at the same time. And it’s free!
3. Social multi-tasking. When attending parties and other social events, I don’t just treat it as fun time. When getting ready for the event, I load myself with business cards and my best elevator speech. What is an elevator speech, you ask? Think of yourself getting into an elevator with one other person. In the short time you have with that person, you should be able to introduce yourself, explain what you do, and why it’s important. Get in and get out. This way, the person doesn’t feel chained to stand there, missing the rest of the party, while listening to you place yourself on your imaginary pedestal. You’ve given the person enough information to catch their interest, and if you’re successful, the person will ask for more. Just remember that the main reason you’re there is to have fun, so don’t get so busy promoting yourself that you forget to dance! Remember to charge your batteries to keep yourself effective!
4. Know when to say when. There have been days when I’ve felt completely burnt out. I would stare at my computer as I tried to write a research paper or a few pages for a literary project, and nothing would come to mind. Those were the days when I had to force myself to push my computer away and get some rest. Although there are some notable people out there who claim to function on little or no sleep, we all need to know our breaking point. If not, we’re just spinning our wheels, thereby rendering ourselves ineffective. Additionally, when we take time to give uninterrupted time to our families, they’re more apt to support our dreams. Giving ourselves time to rest or just spend focused quality time with the family can help us charge our batteries and get more mileage out of our computer time.
5. A little is better than nothing. There will be times when your day will be filled to the brim, to the point where nothing else will seem to fit. This isn’t the time to procrastinate or fall off track. On days like these, I would still take time to write just a paragraph in my book, or make a posting or two. It may seem like a little bit, but it set me up to get a lot more mileage the next day. Even when you can’t meet your daily goal, just a little will get you closer. Yet, if you put it off, it will be that much harder to catch up the following day.
6. Watch your finances. Being a single parent and promoting books often put a serious dent in my finances. Yet, if I didn’t spend some money, no one would know about my books. I needed to find a way to get the most mileage out of my limited funds, while not taking food out of my child’s mouth. It wasn’t easy, but I found a way. Little things like adding my Web site address to the bottom of my emails, sharing my reviews on Facebook and Twitter, and even giving away free books to people I trusted to spread the word about my work helped a lot. To cut expenses, I would stay with friends when I travelled, and make my own flyers. Be careful with this last tip. Homemade promotional items CANNOT look homemade. Be as professional as possible in order to be taken seriously!
7. Know when to spend money. While watching your finances, there will be times when you will have to spend money. All advertising cannot be free. All assistance cannot be free. In order for us to reach our target market, we may have to spend money to make money. The key is research. Network to find out if this opportunity to actually too good to be true. In pursuing our dreams, we must be careful to whom we trust our funds. Paying $300 for someone to run an email campaign for you may sound like a good opportunity, but is the benefit worth the cost? At the same time, spending the same amount on a more lucrative opportunity just might pay off two or three times over. The same goes for signing events and workshops. Will there be networking and selling potential at an event that will cost you $100 to participate in, $400 for a plane ticket, and $200 for a hotel, not to mention food and transportation? You be the judge, but remember, your family shouldn’t have to suffer while you pursue your dream.
8. Learn from others. I know, I know. I’ve been in this world 37 years, I have two degrees, four books, seven anthologies, a successful career as a Soldier, and a well-adjusted daughter. I should know it all, right? Wrong! We never stop learning. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or look for fresh ideas. This will only make you a stronger contender in your industry. Reading is fundamental for a reason. It doesn’t just expand our knowledge and vocabulary, but it also helps us to learn from others. Networking gives us the chance to pick up new ideas and meet people who may eventually become strong allies. You might even stumble into an opportunity to help someone else!
9. Keep your health a priority. I have learned the hard way that one of the first things to go out of the window when the calendar gets full is my health. I don’t have time to cook, so I stop at the first fast-food place I pass. I need to meet my deadline, so I put off working out until later, although later never comes. I can’t afford a gym membership, so I’ll just exercise at home. Yet, once again, life gets in the way, so by the time I start thinking of exercising, I have to cook dinner, clean the house, check email, and pretty soon I’m too tired to even render a crunch! As I’ve said before, we need to recharge our batteries or else we render ourselves ineffective. Eating healthier will help us to focus better. To achieve this, try cooking larger meals and freezing the leftovers into meal-sized portions to eat later in the week. Stock your fridge with cut-up vegetables and fruit to satisfy late-night hunger. Read a book while on the stationary bike or elliptical. Watch your favorite TV show while stepping on your at-home stepper. By the time you’re done, you’ve exercised at least 30 minutes! Now you can attack that project with more energy and fresh eyes!
10. Pray. Or meditate. Or whatever you need to do to draw on your strength. I know I wouldn’t have achieved all that I have without dropping to my knees to pray for strength or thanking God for what I have been able to achieve. Prayer has also helped me to go into events with the right mindset. Even if I sold only two books that day, it was two more than I would have sold if I had stayed home. Being thankful for the little things set me up to more appreciate the bigger things.
These are just a few tips that have helped me along the way. Hopefully you can add them to your own tool bag. I don’t share these tips to say I have it all figured out; I share them because they’ve helped me to pursue my goals without losing my mind. Your dream may not be writing a book. Maybe it’s starting a business or acting in a movie. The same rules apply. You can do all that you set your mind to, as long as you keep your eyes on the goal.
Rhonda M. Lawson is the award-winning author of Cheatin’ in the Next Room, A Dead Rose, and, most recently, Putting It Back Together. She is also an Army journalist, garnering various journalism awards, including the 1997 Training and Doctrine Command Journalist of the Year. She is a sergeant first class stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia, where she works in Army Public Affairs, and is currently serving in Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. Perhaps even more impressive than her seventeen-year career as a soldier is the proud role she plays as a single mother of a young daughter.
Rhonda’s career as a Soldier-journalist has taken her to various parts of the world, including Japan, Hawaii, Korea, Afghanistan, and Egypt. Her work has appeared stateside in various Army and civilian publications, including Soldiers Magazine, The Seattle Times, and The Army Times.
Without any thoughts of publication, Rhonda began writing when she was twelve. “I just knew I loved to write,” she says. “Today I still write purely for the love of it.” Unlike some authors who emphasize entertainment over content, she readily acknowledges that she has something to say and is doing so via her writing: “I want to touch people with my stories. All of my books are entertaining, but have a message.” That message has not been lost on Rhonda’s readers, who write to her about how they identify with her characters and their situations. “This is why I write,” Rhonda says. “And this is why I say I write real fiction for real people.”
Rhonda’s journalism career began at Loyola University in her native New Orleans, Louisiana, where she served a short stint on the campus newspaper. When she left college and joined the Army in 1994, she continued her journalism career. Her first duty station was Fort Knox, Kentucky, where she edited all sections of Inside the Turret, the post newspaper. During this tour, she earned awards for both commentary and feature writing.
In 1997, she moved to Fort Story, Virginia, and served as Fort Story Bureau Chief for the Fort Eustis Wheel newspaper. Awarded Journalist of the Year and Non-commissioned Officer of the Quarter, she began pursuing her first love, fiction, and started work on her first novel.
An active member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.-Chi Pi Zeta Chapter, Rhonda holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Maryland University College and is currently working on her Master’s in Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma. She is also a member of the Divine Literary Tour, an organization made up of authors who are members of African-American fraternities and sororities, and the U.S. Army’s Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, and has contributed to five different anthologies: Second Chances, Crimes of Passion, Gumbo for the Soul, The Heart of Our Community, Surfacing and the recently released Heart of a Military Woman.