Welcome to the journey

I’ve spent many hours perusing the internet, talking to authors, praying, and thinking about how I was going to get this “candle book” off the ground. The journey from first word written to first copy sold was long and messy. I didn’t have much idea what I was doing during any of it.

My blog features the writing, editing, illustrating, publishing, and marketing journey of Candle’s Great Feast. If you’ve ever wondered how a book comes to be, want to publish yourself, or just like stories, I discuss the whole journey here.

This is the story behind the story. Buckle up.

The inspiration of Candle’s Great Feast

Even though I’ve published a children’s book, I don’t consider myself a “children’s book writer.” I’ve spent considerably more time and energy working on a novel, short stories, articles, and other musings. While I hope some of my other stories will find their way to the spotlight someday, a little candle stole the show first.

Sometime in 2017, I often found myself at the adoration chapel at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo. I’d come discouraged and exhausted, praying that Jesus would show me a new direction in my life or provide some consolation that I was on the right path.

This was my default prayer, and it was one God frequently answered. I often left the chapel assured that God wanted me to continue living and working in Fargo and focusing my spare time on building relationships and writing.

At some point, this routine consolation ceased to be enough for me. It wasn’t enough to know I was on the right path; I wanted to see some fruit of my efforts. I wanted some success. I was tired of my friends moving away and constantly trying to form new communities. And I was especially tired of wondering if I was a decent enough writer to be trying as hard as I was. Surely there were plenty of other ways I could be furthering God’s kingdom: teaching religious education at my parish, volunteering at the homeless shelter, or getting involved with any of the other great ministries in town. If this writing thing wasn’t going to work out, I best bail out now before I waste more time.

But the thing is… I’d tried that. I tried volunteering my time at several places, and I often left at the end of the day feeling more discouraged and exhausted, which in turn made me feel like a terrible, selfish person. How was my current path–spending hours and hours crafting a chapter of some fictional story only to scrap it in three days and start over–be what God wanted? Aren’t I being selfish with my time? Who was I helping? Who was I evangelizing?

I know now that the answer is that by writing, I help everyone. I’m happiest when I’m writing. When I don’t make time for it, I slog through my days with less energy and resolve. I find less meaning in my job, relationships, and every other area of my life. I have less patience. Reading books and writing for fun helps me love the people around me because I’ve first taken care of myself. Books help me to see the world as one epic story authored by God, which in turns helps me see my place in it and find joy in it.

On this particular day at the chapel, my thoughts and prayers were not so orderly and uplifting. I was frustrated, feeling selfish for wanting success and feeling trapped because while my desire to be a writer wasn’t bearing fruit, there didn’t seem to be anything else in the world I wanted to do.

I found myself staring at the monstrance and wishing my life could be more like one of the four candles surrounding it. They didn’t question the desires God gave them. They didn’t feel trapped. They didn’t worry if they were good enough.

Nor are they alive, but you see where I’m going with this.

They look like every candle in every church—white and skinny. Before coming to the chapel, they probably spent a lot of time crammed in a dark box, which would be hard for something created to give light. What a great day it would be for those candles when they were lit for the first time and realized who was beside them. How happy they must be to finally be fulfilling their purpose. And when the day came that their flame dissolved into smoke, how satisfied they’d be knowing they spent so much time glorifying Jesus.

I wrote the first draft of Candle’s Great Feast in the chapel without any idea what I’d do with it. Naturally, it lived quietly in my computer for two years, but every time I went to that chapel, Jesus would remind me of that little candle and how happy I’d been writing about him.

Candle’s first audience

In 2020, I read Jenifer Fulwiler’s Your Blue Flame. It’s about discovering and doing the things you enjoy and make you come alive. It’s not about making big changes like quitting your job, selling everything you own, and moving across the country but about making space in the busyness of your everyday life to cultivate your unique talents.

On deciding what “your blue flame” is, Fulwiler writes, “Where’s an area where I can handle the pain of the work better than the people around me? The area where you are more well equipped to suffer is the work you were made to do.”

This quote resonates with me because I recognize that I’m willing to suffer for my writing. I’m willing to scrap a lot of hours of work to start something over. I’m willing to ruminate over a single word knowing there’s a better one out there to convey my idea. In no other part of my life am I so stubborn and particular. For nothing else am I willing to fail over and over and still get back up.

Your Blue Flame helped me to recognize why the next steps with Candle’s Great Feast were so difficult. Writing the story was step one, and there were far more steps after that than I realized, none of which involved much writing.

You see, I knew publishing would break my happy little writing place which includes a couch, laptop, candle (a real one that smells like Holiday Sparkle or something), tea, and silence. Publishing involves other people. It involves research, submitting proposals to publishers, waiting, getting rejected, wondering about self-publishing, researching some more, waiting some more, and doubting the point of it all. Ugh.

But God kept reminding me about what became affectionately known as “my candle story,” and I knew I had to make an honest effort to get it out there. The next step was getting other people to read it. Friends and family enjoyed it and encouraged me to move forward, but I knew what I really needed was to show it to a few strangers, who would be more inclined to give me their opinions straight without concern for my feelings.

I discovered a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) group in Fargo and met with them. Whoever had a draft of a children’s book to share brought copies for everyone and read their work out-loud. The group then provided feedback. I brought a different children’s book I’d written first, one to which I felt less attached. The group enjoyed it, but agreed it wasn’t quite “there” yet. Their feedback was courteous yet blunt and genuine, so I knew this group was where I needed to be in order for “my candle story” to thrive.

I was a lot more nervous bringing this story for two reasons. One, I really liked it and didn’t want to see it torn apart. Two, it’s Catholic. It’s about the Mass and the Eucharist. Now I never want to be afraid to show my faith, but that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous about it. It’s also one thing to reveal your faith when someone asks or if a conversation naturally brings your faith to light. It’s quite another to launch it out there unprompted. I brought the story anyway, knowing the regret of being a coward would be worse than an hour of discomfort.

What happened next was the first of many unexpected blessings on this publishing journey. I made someone cry.

For a writer, making someone cry—or feel any emotion deeply—is the ultimate victory. Stories are fickle, and you never fully know if you land all the details right until someone else tells you. Even then, people can still withhold their true reaction, especially if they have a difficult time explaining why they like or don’t like something. Tears don’t lie.

The woman who cried shared how the story reminded her of Jesus’ pure love and how much she appreciated her church community. Someone else said the story spoke of the gift of faith. The power of hope. The joy of persistence.

Their reactions allowed me to see the story from new perspectives and reminded me that not everyone leaves a story with the same emotion. A good story allows the reader to place themselves and their experiences in it in order to learn more about themselves or the world. Knowing I managed this boosted my confidence to prepare me for more difficult tasks ahead.

And now we research

When it comes to publishing a children’s book, most publishers request just the text of your story. If they decide they want to work with you, they pair you up with an illustrator. Since my book involves a Mass, it was important to me that whoever illustrated my book understood the details of what that looks like. The priest’s vestments look a certain way. There’s a tabernacle behind the altar. The architecture of the church should be ornate. I also wanted the illustrator to be as invested in the project as I was.

For this reason, I submitted Candle’s Great Feast only to Catholic publishers. Some rejections I received within days, informing me that while they liked my story, they receive up to 3,000 proposals a week and only publish 3-5 a year. Some rejections were more generic, stating that the story was simply not what they were looking for.

I’ve never been a proponent of self-publishing. Until taking the journey myself, I saw it as the route people take when they can’t get a publisher—the rejects, the impatient, or the not-as-good writers.

Well, here I am. Thanks for keeping me humble, Jesus.

I’ve since learned that self-publishing is for a lot of other people too: those with projects for a small audience, those who feel they have a platform to market well enough on their own (and thus keep more royalties), and in my case, those who want complete control over their creative process.

I was surprised to find that I wasn’t that disappointed when the rejections came. I was realizing that I had a particular style in mind for the little candle, especially once I started perusing the Catholic Illustrator’s Guild website. There I found an image of Mary holding Jesus. Everything about them—their facial expressions, postures, colors they wore—radiated joy. Imagining my book in that style refreshed my love for the story. I felt that whoever was behind that artwork was not only talented but joyful, and joy was something I was lacking amidst the endless research and rejections.

I bookmarked the website and scrolled to that image now and then until I finally decided to send the artist an email. To my dismay, the website was suddenly under construction, and the image and contact information for the artist were gone.

At first I thought this might be God closing a door, telling me I should be looking elsewhere. I had no idea what I was doing anyway. Was I pursuing self-publishing? Was I even looking for an illustrator? Or should I keep submitting to publishers? I knew self-publishing and hiring an illustrator would cost money, and once I started investing, there was no backing down. Once I had my own illustrations finished, I likely would need to self-publish. It wasn’t the route I wanted in my ideal world, but that image was really, really great.

I scrolled to the bottom of the Catholic Illustrator’s Guild website and sent an email to the generic email you often find at the bottom of websites—the one I doubt anyone checks. I sent an email that went something like this: “Yeah hey, so the other day I was on this site and saw this awesome artwork of Mary holding Jesus. It’s very joyful. I know that describes half the artwork on this site, but I’d like to contact the artist. Please help. Thanks.”

Someone replied the next day with the name. Virginia de la Lastra.

Taking the leap

Here are a few things I hate: forming relationships online, spending money, and making plans.

It took me a week to email Virginia. Each day I stalled, I reminded myself that my fear was stupid. There was literally no risk in sending an email to ask a few questions. Maybe she wouldn’t even respond. Still, I had the sense that Virginia was not only going to respond, but she’d illustrate my book, and I had yet to mentally prepare myself just how much money I was willing to spend. I also didn’t have a plan for what would happen once the illustrations were in hand.

We emailed back and forth a few times. Conversation was good. I sent her the text of my story. She loved it. We seemed to understand each other, but I was very guarded. She was a stranger on the internet, and I was getting closer and closer to sending her a bunch of money. Why? Because I liked her art. What was I going to do with these illustrations once (or if. Hello, stranger on the internet!) I received the illustrations? Self-publish? What does that even mean? What self-publishing company would I use? What did they all offer? Sure, I’ve done some research, but did I do enough research? Shouldn’t I be more responsible than this?

I kept going to that same chapel where this all started, knowing I needed to see Jesus and those little candles to keep from going insane.

Virginia and I spoke over Facebook video, and she was a delight. She provided everything I needed to keep moving forward—a timeline, a budget, and most importantly, enthusiasm and joy. Seeing her face assured me that she was a real person with real integrity. And really, she ended up taking the bigger risk with me since she sent me half the illustrations before I sent her anything. We signed a contract in November 2019.

Nothing was better than sending that first batch of money off. It was more than I wanted to spend of course. I wanted to spend exactly $0 if I could get away with it. But now that I had invested something tangible, I was finally in and finally moving forward.

I’m not much of a risk-taker, so while taking this leap was scary to me, I was surprised how peaceful it was once this one decision was made. The anxiety of the risk all came before actually taking it. Now that I was no longer staring at an incalculable risk, I could enjoy the ride God placed before me, trusting it would ultimately lead to someplace good. I didn’t need to understand it all. God knew I just needed a few parameters—a few closed doors—so I could focus on the doors still open.

Two nations, one Church

Iglesia San Francisco de Borja, Santiago, Chile

Sometime in January 2020, after agreeing with Virginia what the characters of the book would look like, it was time to design the church. Virginia asked if I had any preference in architecture style or color and, to my own surprise, I didn’t. I enjoy beautiful architecture, and when it comes to houses for God, it makes sense that they should be the best work man can do. I was so happy with how the characters turned out, I was confident that whatever Virginia designed would be perfect. She’s the illustrator after all, not me.

She said she had an idea, and that she’d tell me the story behind it later. Ooo, a story? Yes please!

I wish I could say the story was a happy one. However, at the time of our conversation, Iglesia San Francisco de Borja a church in Santiago, Chile (where Virginia lives) was severely damaged by a fire set by protestors. The pictures were gruesome with protestors wearing smokescreen masks taking selfies with burning statues. It’s one thing to see a church on fire. It’s another to see its destruction celebrated.

Virginia shared several photos with me of the damage alongside her illustrations depicting those same places in their former glory. The contrast between the scorched stone and the bright illustrations hit me hard. The next few days were an emotional ride. I found myself mourning this church alongside the people who once worshiped there. I hated how much I loved the illustrations and the story behind them, feeling like I was using someone else’s pain for my profit. I was amazed at God’s perfect timing and Virginia’s skill that made the artwork possible.

In October 2020, I learned that Iglesia San Franciso de Borja was burned completely from a Catholic News Agency article. They provided a video of the steeple crumbling to the ground, and again I felt my heart drop for this community a world away. I emailed Virginia that I heard about the church and offered my prayers for her and the people of Santiago.

This was her response:

“They burned what was left of it along with another beautiful church. This is truly demonic. To be honest I do not have the stomach to watch the news. But I do feel I was given the opportunity to honor that church twice: by the reparation Mass after the first attack in January and then by illustrating it for your book before they burned it to the ground. I am so happy it will live in your book with your candle. Thank you so much for your prayers! I am praying for you and the USA as well! It is exciting to fight the good fight in such hard times!”

It blows my mind that God planted this seed for a little story in Fargo, ND and connected it to a beautiful church in Chile. There was no way I could plan for that. But God has a way of bringing light out of darkness. Just as Jesus was born a tiny baby in some obscure cave in some backwater town, he uses the smallest, the most insignificant to bring about his greatest plans.

COVID-19 and more awkward emails

Watching Candle’s Great Feast come alive was so fun. I’m amazed how artists create designs, characters, and colors that all work well together. Overall I was surprised how seamless the process was. Every few days I’d hear back from Virginia with new illustrations or tweaks to previous ones. That is, until I didn’t hear from Virginia in over a week.

It was March 2020, and I had a decent guess what was up. I started working from home due to COVID-19, and it seemed like absolutely nothing in the world was going to be left untouched by it. That was when I learned that Virginia is not only an artist but an infectious disease specialist. So you know, she was busy.

We threw our original contract timeline out the window. While the process moved a bit slower, by May, I had all the illustrations in hand. Illustrating turned out to be a stress-reliever for Virginia and receiving them from her brought some movement in my life when everything else was at a stand-still.

The following summer turned out to be the true stand-still. With the illustrations in hand, I investigated a few more traditional publishing options. Contacting publishers involves a lot of waiting normally, and I suspect COVID-19 didn’t help.

This time also involved some more awkward emails, mainly, finding endorsements. When you google things like “how to submit to a publisher” or “how to self-publish” as many times as I have, you’ll regularly see this really annoying suggestion to “list your credentials.” In the articles, they will then list examples like, “I published my poetry collection Awesome Poems by Sandra with We Publish Awesome Stuff back in 2018. It won best collected poems in the Midwest in 2019.”

Yeah, that’s really great for Sandra, who indeed has a credential worth listing.

All right, I’m a writer and editor by trade, so yes, there’s a credential. But when it comes to talking up my children’s book with publishers, mentioning I work with a magazine as my day job is a little like saying, “I’m totally qualified to work at your sushi restaurant because I bake birthday cakes in my spare time.” Sure I know my way around the kitchen, but I’m not fixing the meal in question.

So what’s a girl to do? How do you get that first personal project to shine like the big dogs?

You find famous people to say nice stuff about your work. 🙂

Fortunately, my first endorsement didn’t even require an awkward email. I work for the Diocese of Fargo, so I work for Bishop John Folda. I gave him a copy with my own cheaply added text to the illustrations, mentally freaked out for a day wondering what would happen if he hated it, then received a stellar endorsement. I then used those kind words to seek out more endorsements.

With the nature of my day job, I’m well-connected to much of the Catholic community in Fargo and throughout the diocese. I easily could have sent the less awkward email to people I know, but it was important for me to branch out and seek endorsements from those outside my community.

So I sent emails to several people in Catholic media, including Danielle Bean and Marcie Stokman. To me, those emails go something like this: “Yeah hey. So you don’t know me. I have this book that’s not finished. I want to try to sell it when it is finished. Can I send you an unprofessional copy of it and then you tell me how great it is? My Bishop said it was nice. Thanks.”

God bless Danielle and Marcie for their kind words.

When the traditional publishing options ultimately fell through, I turned to Luminare Press, a Catholic self-publishing company that could help me make my candle book look professional and be more widely available. I signed a contract with them in November 2020 with the hope that the book would be available in February 2021.