Ann Christine Fell writes powerful, moving literature. Her memoir, In the Shadow of the Wind, is widely read in book clubs and serves as a beacon of inspiration amid harrowing trials. Her novel, Sundrop Sonata combines her love and knowledge of pianos with the terrible realities of bioterrorism. Here she shares her favorite tips and tricks for success.
What makes your books and writing unique?
Anyone who writes draws on their own experiences and recollections. That fact alone will make a writer’s work singular. We are all as different as the myriad snowflakes in a winter storm. My memoir, In the Shadow of the Wind, draws exclusively on experiences of my younger days, set in a sea of factual history.
Beyond that, the fictional work Sundrop Sonata also is a mixture of imaginary scenes, characters, and conversations drawn from my own background. In a story set on the prairie I love, the world of pianos collides with my background of science. Characters based more or less on people I’ve met struggle with conflicts that intrigue readers. The novel is uniquely drawn from experiences and interests that are mine. If I challenge other writers to pick a product they know well which is often imported to the US, and make that product a vehicle of smuggled goods, every story we tell would be different.
What product would you pick to write such a book? What kind of goods could be smuggled within your product? What motivates the smugglers? Who would discover the plot? And what would or could she or he do about it? The possibilities are endless.
I don’t write from a formula. I translate stories in my head into readable words. With Sundrop Sonata, the entire basic story played in my imagination one summer during a road trip to Oregon. There was a story. I was convinced it was a good one. My challenge was to write it so that others could enjoy it as well. I didn’t set out to write a suspense novel. I wrote the story that was in my mind, and then I had to figure out what kind of novel it represented. It didn’t fit well into the typical genres.
How did you find your writing niche?
Since grade school days, there has always been a story, or an idea for one, floating through my mind. I was a big fan of make-believe games. I thought everyone enjoyed, “Let’s pretend.” I didn’t outgrow this phase, though. Imagination has always been alive and well in my life. Never bored, I can always find something to dream about, as if life is a continually running plot sequence. I believe I was born to write. It’s a calling. It is my purpose, and I’m never happier than the times I put pen to paper.
That said, it’s also true that I didn’t find time to actually write for decades of my adult life. Raising a family and earning a living kept me far too busy to find time to write. A few years ago, my father died suddenly from a heart attack. He’d been very supportive of me during a particularly tough time in my life. I wanted to honor him, and decided to speak at his memorial service about his faith in my intuition to spend forty days in the wilderness after I was widowed.
Following his service, people asked to know more about those forty days. It was as if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear, “It’s time. Finish that book. Someone out there needs your story.” A sublime directive set my new course.
How do you balance writing, speaking, online platform, other work, church or community service, and family? How do you organize your time?
Balancing the many activities of life is a continual challenge for me. I still work full-time as a piano technician, and teach private piano lessons. Additionally, we are currently guardians to an active six-year-old grandson. I work family activities around the piano schedule, and I count church and community service as part of the family support.
When I set out to pull a memoir from my journals, memories, and ideas, I attended a number of writing conventions. The first one featured Kurt Hickman, who had us sit down and write for ten minutes, pen to paper. We counted our words and multiplied by six and I discovered I could crank out about 1000 words in one hour. Eighty days at an hour a day, and I’d have a full-length manuscript. That’s less than three months.
I started rising early for a daily hour of writing, and have completed two books now, with a third draft underway. At one conference, I started a blog, and it’s a learn-as-you-go project. Blog posts fall into that writing category, an hour a day, with one day every week or so devoted to the blog.
I rely on my years as a student and a school teacher to divide my days into a variety of activities. Each area of my life is addressed regularly that way. I also give myself assignments, or due dates, for large projects and dive in to work toward the goals.
As far as speaking goes, when I published the memoir, invitations to speak filtered in. My motto became, “Where You lead, I will follow.” Now the book was ready. God would have to find the readers who needed the story. But I was willing to help by sharing the story through presentations to groups that asked me to speak. Though I am a quiet, reclusive person, I have accepted all invitations to speak and it has been rewarding.
Beyond that, I keep a calendar for work appointments, speaking engagements, and all other activities. A veteran list-maker, I also make lists of things to do each day, and check them off as they are done.
Why do readers buy your books?
The memoir speaks to readers who may have experienced a recent loss, or know someone else who has. As with my piano service business, word-of- mouth recommendations go far toward specific publicity. To have better than 90% five-star reviews on Amazon may help others decide they’d like to read my books.
How do you find new readers?
I accept speaking engagements about my book topics, or about writing in general, whenever they are offered. In conversation with friends or casual acquaintances, if our topic drifts anywhere close to books, or movies, or grief, or terrorism, I might mention the books.
I promote them when appropriate on social media and my blog, The Bridge. If anyone comments how much they’ve gained from reading my books, I suggest they post a review on Amazon.com if they have a chance.
What helps your business succeed despite competition?
In today’s world, it is easier than ever before to publish a book. No longer is it necessary to hook an agent, or to convince a publisher to take a chance on your work. Anyone who writes can publish a book. And there is a plethora of choices out there for folks to read. Competition is a fact of life.
How to succeed? Make your book worthwhile for readers. Write from your heart. If your book connects with readers on an emotionally, it speaks to them with passion. Polish the prose until it offers an unforgettable experience through endearing characters and plot twists that keep readers turning pages. Eliminate any words that don’t propel the story forward and edit carefully for grammatical errors and misspelled words. When you’ve finished, do it again. There will always be things you can do to improve your work. Make a concerted effort to offer your very best to the world and then let go.
If the only definition of success is measured in dollars and cents, I have yet to arrive with my writing. However, there is no small amount of satisfaction to know that I have received almost exclusively five-star reviews. I secretly glow when someone out of the blue unexpectedly remarks how much my book meant to them. And I feel a remarkable sense of accomplishment to know I have completed two worthwhile projects that have touched more people than I can count. I can’t find words to describe the pleasure I feel when I read a review from a complete stranger that starts out, “This is the best book I have read in a long, long time.”
What have been some keys to your success? What have been your biggest barriers?
How to succeed? These steps help:
- Make writing a priority in your life.
- Build a network of writing friends and beta readers.
- Attend writing conferences and seminars
- Join a critique group.
- Be willing to accept criticism as an honest attempt to help improve your work.
- Consider all suggestions from your test readers and give them a try. Use the ideas if they help polish your words.
- Learn how to offer constructive criticism on the work of your writing friends. Doing so makes objective evaluation of your own work easier.
As far as barriers, I am my own biggest obstacle. It is not easy for me to put my words out there in writing, nor to feel at ease as a speaker. I have developed a system to provide multi-media presentations, using photos and charts, along with music, to help in my speaking engagements. By nature a private, reclusive person, it’s hard for me to even post a blog entry on a regular basis. I feel unparalleled angst before every publishing event, (even the blog posts), which is only relieved after nothing drastic happens post-publication. I find myself reviewing and revising everything to strive for word perfection. In a strict sense, perfection is unattainable. I can say with no exceptions, the feeling of making stories and ideas available to others has been overwhelmingly positive but I still fight with myself every time.
Ann Christine Fell was born and raised in Kansas. She has spent time as a high school science teacher and a piano teacher. She is a musician, nature lover, piano technician, photographer, and an award-winning writer. When she is not writing, she enjoys playing her piano, hammering on a dulcimer, ringing handbells, gardening, wandering the prairie in her front yard and spending time with grandchildren.