Sensible Shoes: Sharon Garlough Brown’s journeyPosted by arhodes on Jul 25, 2012 in Blog | 1 comment
Sharon Garlough Brown is one of the pastors at Redeemer Convenant Church, our new location for the conference. Sharon will be sharing with us at the conference again this year. We are delighted to share with you her journey to publication with “Sensible Shoes”, including how she found community and encouragement at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference.
In September of 2008 I began leading a weekly women’s spiritual formation group that—I say this without hyperbole—forever changed my life. As a pastor I had led many kinds of groups over the years, and I thought I knew what this Monday morning group of twelve women would become. I expected to study spiritual disciplines together, using one of the many excellent resources about how Christ is formed in us.
By our second meeting, however, I was convinced that God was asking me to drop the idea of a book study. Instead, he was inviting me to trust him to journey into an unknown place without a syllabus or a curriculum. I began to introduce to the group some of the spiritual disciplines that had been life-giving to me: lectio divina, the prayer of examen, the labyrinth, journaling, and spiritual direction. We learned to sit with stillness and silence. Our time together became sacred space where we encountered the living God. The women grew to deeply trust one another, confessing their sins and heartaches so that they could be more open to receiving God’s healing love and power.
In one of our first meetings together, one of the women in the group looked around the circle and commented, “Everybody here is wearing really cute, but sensible shoes!” The phrase stuck, and we began to refer to ourselves as the “Sensible Shoes Club.” God was leading us through the difficult, unpredictable, and sometimes treacherous terrain of the inner life, and we needed sensible shoes for the journey. We also needed one another. As we walked together, we began to witness stunning and breathtakingly beautiful transformation. The Spirit was healing old wounds, opening blind eyes, and setting captives free. I began to sense that God was inviting me to share the story of the group by creating characters who were also learning to walk closely with God.
So I bought a Big Red Notebook and wrote these words:
“So Abram went.” There. At least it’s his word first. His word before any of my words. Or should I say, his word before any words he would choose to give me? I write because God says, “Write.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I say, “What shall I cry?” My putting pen to paper is my leap of faith into the unknown. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go…to the land that I will show you.’”
So Abram went. Now what, Lord? Who am I, that the exegesis of my life would have meaning for someone else? You say, “Write.” I say, “Speak.” Which one of us moves first? I hear your smile as you say, “We move together.”
Nine months later I had a 120,000 word manuscript that had poured out like prayer: a “spiritual formation novel” about four women traveling deeper into the heart of God. Not sure what next steps I was supposed to take, I registered for the 2009 Breathe Writer’s Conference. I had never attended a conference or been in a writers’ group, and I felt like I didn’t “deserve” to be there. The moment I entered, however, I was welcomed and put at ease. Yes, I thought. This was the right next step for me. Surrounded by a community of encouragers, I was a sponge that weekend, learning everything I possibly could about editors, agents, marketing, and craft. Everything was new to me, including information about dynamic shifts within the publishing industry. I heard people talk about options I never knew existed, like “print on demand” and “self-publishing.” I was intrigued. Could publishing a book be that simple and straightforward? I had friends who were printing out my word document and copying it at Kinko’s to share with others. Maybe self-publishing was the way to go.
At a lunch conversation during the conference, a couple of authors mentioned that Thomas Nelson was getting ready to launch a self-publishing division called WestBow Press. I wrote that down. The following Tuesday I Googled it. Turns out, WestBow had issued a press release just that morning announcing they were up and running and looking for authors. Glimpsing God’s fingerprints in the timing, I picked up the phone and called. The next day I signed a contract; a few months later I submitted my manuscript; and ten days after I signed off on the layout and design, Sensible Shoes was available for purchase (June, 2010). The whole process, from Big Red Notebook to paperback, was 18 months.
My husband and I were out of town when our teenage son called to tell us that the first print copy had arrived at our house. I told him to open the box. “What does it look like?” I asked breathlessly.
“It looks like a book,” he said.
Well, I thought, that’s already an improvement on the Kinko’s version.
WestBow markets itself as a potential acquisitions arm of Thomas Nelson, and I had been told that Thomas Nelson would be monitoring sales numbers of WestBow titles. As much as I had been advised to develop an aggressive marketing and promotion strategy to catch a traditional publisher’s attention, I kept sensing that God had a different way forward for my book. I let it travel by word of mouth only, from reader to reader. My only marketing strategy was prayer: Lord, this book is yours. Please scatter it in whatever way brings you the most glory. Let it not be about me. Just use it to bring people into deeper intimacy with you. I knew my deeply ingrained sin patterns of craving recognition and approval: the ancient Christian writers called my lifelong vice “vainglory.” I also knew that in by-passing the process of trying to be “discovered” by a traditional publisher, I was already being set free from my compulsive drive to be noticed and affirmed. God was shaping me in unanticipated ways.
In January 2012 a fiction acquisitions editor from Thomas Nelson sent me this email: “One of our editorial team recently read your novel, Sensible Shoes, based on the positive sales history. The editor was heartened by what you had to say and felt it was a worthy read. It connected with her on a personal level. However, it seemed more like a Christian Living nonfiction work, with fictional characters demonstrating the Christian growth. It was lacking plot, namely. We would be very interested to know if you have another novel in the works. Have you? What are your literary plans and aspirations?”
Well, I thought, I’m glad someone on their team was personally touched by it, and they’re right that it’s nonfiction disguised as fiction. But ouch! on having no plot. Not exactly a stroke for the ego. As for literary plans and aspirations, I had no idea. So I polled my friends on Facebook: “What are my literary plans and aspirations?” I asked. “Thomas Nelson wants to know.”
The response was passionate and varied: “Write whatever they want!” “Write whatever you feel called to write.” “This is your big break!” “Listen carefully for the Holy Spirit.” A week later, after much wrestling and prayer, I had a half hour phone conversation with the editor. Five minutes in, she astutely observed, “I’m hearing that you see your writing as an extension of your call as pastor and spiritual director—that you don’t see yourself producing books for the industry as a novelist.” Yes, I thought. She’s right. And that’s the sound of a door closing. We spent the rest of our time talking about spiritual formation, and she wondered aloud if Sensible Shoes could be published and marketed as nonfiction. “You did the right thing by self-publishing,” she concluded. “I think you would have felt frustrated trying to get it picked up.” What she didn’t know is that I have many friends in the publishing industry: authors, editors, marketers. It’s just that every time I had considered tugging on one of those connections, I had distinctly heard the Spirit say, No. Wait.
So I kept waiting and watching and praying. This past April I attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. At my husband’s urging, I decided to go to only one publisher’s “meet and greet.” For two years I had wistfully said, “If only InterVarsity Press published fiction. That would be the perfect place for Sensible Shoes.” After all, IVP published all my favorite spiritual formation authors. But no fiction. Even as I heard the editor say several times during her presentation, “We don’t publish fiction,” my heart was racing. I approached her afterwards and gave her a thirty second pitch—my first ever pitch. “I know you don’t publish fiction,” I said, “but I’ve got this spiritual formation novel…” I told her how Thomas Nelson had liked the sales numbers but hadn’t liked its non-fiction-y teaching elements. She was intrigued and asked questions. Then she handed me her business card and said, “Go ahead and send it.”
Ten days later she emailed to say that right after she met me at Calvin, she was at another conference. A woman she knew said to her, “Have you heard of the book Sensible Shoes?” The editor recognized God’s fingerprints, read my book right away, and called me within a week to say she would be taking it into the acquisitions meeting in May. I signed a contract in early June, worked on making minor changes to the text, and submitted the manuscript to them on July 1st. Sensible Shoes is scheduled for release under IVP’s new imprint, Crescendo, in April of 2013. IVP still doesn’t publish fiction. But they caught the vision of my book and responded to their sense of what the Holy Spirit was doing. As for me, I’m confident that this is the next step God planned, and I’m so grateful to the Breathe community for being part of the journey.