Our editor, Lisa Tener, met Sandi Schwartz through the Nonfiction Authors Association. Lisa was so inspired by Sandi’s book concept and writing a book about nature for parents that she invited Sandi to be featured in one of our Author Spotlights.
The Inspiration to Write About Nature, and for Parents
Simon: I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book, Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer. What inspired you to write about nature, and for parents?
Sandi: The short answer is that I want to help people—especially children—who are struggling with mental health issues, and I also want to save the planet at the same time.
The idea of ecohappiness came to me a couple of years ago as my worlds were colliding. I have been passionate about the environment ever since high school. Then I have my struggles with stress and anxiety, which have been part of my life since I was a young child. I did not really know much about what anxiety was and I did not do anything about it until after I had my first child. In experiencing postpartum anxiety I noticed how stressed I would get and how it made me feel so crummy. I began to have distracting, and oftentimes, troubling physical sensations, so I embarked on a research journey to figure out what I could do to better manage my stress and anxiety in natural ways.
This led me to the world of positive psychology, which focuses on our strengths instead of weaknesses in order to thrive. Some positive psychology tools include mindfulness, gratitude, volunteerism, and being in awe. I then began researching and writing about positive psychology and eventually turned my focus to these tools through a nature lens. Hence, the Ecohappiness Project was born.
Ecohappiness is all about connecting to nature to feel happier and calmer. Spending time in and around nature is so beneficial to our health and well-being. It calms us when we are feeling stressed and boosts our mood when we are feeling down. What is really fascinating about this topic is that there are now so many research studies that have come out in the last few years connecting nature to improving mental health.
It is also a fun area to be involved with since there are so many incredible ways to tap into the healing power of nature, from hiking and bike rides to visiting nature centers and science museums to volunteering outdoors. The book captures both the science behind how nature can improve mental health and also the many nature-loving activities that families can enjoy together.
Tips for Writing About Personal Experiences in Nature
Simon: You begin Finding Ecohappiness with a personal story about your own experiences with nervousness and stress in your youth, and how nature helped you feel calmer. What tips would you give to help authors who are looking to share personal stories in their book?
Sandi: While the personal stories were absolutely critical to connecting with the reader, they were not always easy for me to write. I am used to crafting how-to blog posts and articles that offer solutions to a problem. I have been trained throughout my science communications career to write in bullet points and to be as succinct as possible. The personal stories sprinkled throughout my book are a very different type of writing: much more emotional and descriptive. These stories were buried deep inside of me, and sometimes it was challenging to bring them out onto the page.
My biggest advice to writers struggling to add personal stories to their work is to use the dictation feature on the computer (it is called Dictate in Word). When I would get stuck trying to write a personal story, I would talk into my computer and then go back and edit the text later. I found that getting these stories out was actually very therapeutic and rewarding for me. I also know how helpful they will be to others experiencing similar situations. Another tip, which involves nature of course, is to get outside and clear your head. Whenever I get stuck with writing, I head outdoors for a walk or bike ride. The words then always seem to appear. Be sure to have your phone or notepad with you to jot down your ideas as they come to you.
Writing for Moms
Simon: Who is the target audience for Finding Ecohappiness?
Sandi: The target audience for this book is mothers with children in elementary or middle school who want to prevent their children from feeling stressed and overwhelmed; manage their children’s current issues regarding stress, anxiety, and mood; enhance their children’s treatment plan with some simple nature tools; or simply expand the time they enjoy nature as a family.
My goal is to make the concept of nature for stress reduction accessible to all families, no matter location, socio-economic status, or even interest in the environment. Whether they already consider themselves outdoorsy and avid environmentalists or have never even given nature much thought, this book will guide them to incorporate nature into their family’s routine to help them and their children feel happier and calmer.
I understand that not every parent has the time or financial means to provide nature activities for their children. Therefore, I am committed to donating a portion of the proceeds from this book to help those children access nature through organizations, such as Children & Nature Network and National Wildlife Federation. These groups offer exceptional programs to ensure that all children have access to outdoor spaces and activities.
Although written with parents in mind, this book can also be helpful to child psychologists who want to share the ideas and resources with their patients and their parents; pediatricians interested in giving out nature prescriptions to their patients to address their stress level; school principals, teachers, camp directors, yoga instructors, or other types of educators looking to include more calming nature-related activities into their curriculum; or other types of caretakers like grandparents and childcare providers.
Incorporating Beautiful Images of Nature
Simon: Your book is filled with beautiful pictures of nature. When viewing the pictures of nature, I feel very relaxed and peaceful. Why did you decide to incorporate the pictures and how did you decide which pictures to include?
Sandi: The publisher’s vision was to have pictures included in the book to bring the information to life. There are not too many parenting books that include colorful images, but the publisher believes (and I agree) that this will help the book stand out in the market and attract readers. Nature is all about beauty and awe, so it really is a wonderful bonus to have the images in the book.
Some of the pictures were provided by individuals I interviewed for the book and the others I found by searching stock photography. I really tapped into my own emotions when choosing the images. I would read each section in the book and decide if it could be enhanced with photos. It was also very important to me that the images throughout the book were diverse, and this was also a big priority when designing the book cover.
Lessons Learned in Writing About Nature
Simon: You begin each chapter with an inspiring quotation that captures the overall theme for the chapter. What did you learn during the process of finding excellent quotations to put in Finding Ecohappiness.
Sandi: Yes, I chose to include these inspiring quotes to communicate the essence of each chapter because I think a quote helps the reader get ready for what they will learn, and it also helps them remember the main point of each chapter. Many of these quotes jumped out at me during my research. I included so many incredible experts throughout my book who have been researching and/or writing about their niche topics that contribute to the overall area of nature for mental health.
There were a couple of quotes that I had to seek out, such as the ones for the creative arts and food chapters. I think my biggest tip with regard to finding quotes is to keep in mind that they do not all have to be from famous people. I was more concerned with the message accurately reflecting the content of the chapter than readers recognizing who said the quote.
Sandi’s Favorite Chapter
Simon: What is your favorite chapter of Finding Ecohappiness and Why?
Sandi: This is a tough one, but I would have to say that my favorite chapter is the conclusion: “How Your Nature Habit Can Heal Your Family…and the Planet.” After writing an 80,000-word book, it can be very daunting to try and pull together a conclusion. I was very intimidated by this task, and definitely procrastinated. But when I finally sat down to write it, the words just poured out.
I love this part of the book because it wraps everything up with a critical call to action. While the overall topic of the book may not feel like it has anything to do with sustainability and saving the planet, that is actually a huge part of what it is all about. I wanted to be sure to communicate that message to readers—to help them understand that we need to protect the planet for many reasons, including our mental health. I can’t think of anyone else in the environmental movement communicating this message, so it was my chance to put it out into the world to make a difference.
The Most Important Lesson for Writing
Simon: What is the most important lesson you learned from writing Finding Ecohappiness that you would apply to any future books or writing activities?
Sandi: The most important lesson from writing my book is that dreams do come true in life if you set your mind to it. Being an author has been a dream goal of mine for many years. One of my favorite childhood movies is Back to the Future, so I have to quote Marty McFly here: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” It took being very organized and writing daily checklists to get the writing done, and I am now taking the same approach to market the book.
Resources for Readers
Simon: At the end of each chapter, you offer an activity checklist as well as resources for the reader, which include a list of children’s books. How did you decide which activities or resources to provide for the reader?
Sandi: All of the organizations, websites, and books (except the children’s books) included at the end of each chapter came from my research for the book. I have been researching and writing about these topics for several years, so I have been collecting resources by filing them in my email folder system. When it came to writing each chapter, I would go through the resources I had saved. To compile the list of appropriate children’s books, I searched after I wrote each chapter. I visited my local library and also searched thoroughly online using bookstores, library databases, and blogs.
Working with an Independent Press
Simon: You published Finding Ecohappiness through an independent publisher, Quill Driver Books. And for our readers, “independent” usually means a smaller traditional publishing house. What was it like working with this publishing company and what did you learn?
Sandi: It has been a pleasure working with the team at Quill Driver Books. Like many authors, I started by querying literary agents. When that did not pan out, I researched publishers that accepted unsolicited manuscripts and sent my book proposal to about 40 publishers. I really feel like a smaller independent publisher was my sweet spot, and I often encourage other non-fiction writers to highly consider that path rather than only thinking they have to go through an agent and a top publisher.
The Quill Driver Books team provides me a good amount of attention. I am working with a publicist who has been doing this for many years and knows all the ins and outs of book marketing. I really wanted to work with a traditional publisher for my first book because I knew I needed the guidance.
The biggest advice I have for writers is to be patient throughout the entire process. From querying to negotiating to the book publishing timeline, a great deal of patience is needed. Publishers are juggling multiple projects in various stages, so the process takes time. In fact, the contract stated that the publisher has 24 months from manuscript submission to pub date. If you want to bring a book to market quickly, then self-publishing is really the only way to go. I am enjoying the long lead time so I can work on marketing the book without feeling stressed about a tight timeline.
Simon: What marketing activities have you engaged in—or plan to engage in—to help promote Finding Ecohappiness and what advice would you give to authors who are hoping to successfully market their book?
Sandi: I have been working on marketing even since I was writing the book. In fact, I now have a 30-page marketing plan and I turned the tactics into a monthly spreadsheet to keep track of everything I am doing to get the word out about my book. I have invested a great deal of time (and some money) over the last year or so in attending webinars and online conferences to learn everything I can about book marketing.
The Non-Fiction Authors Association and the Women in Publishing Summit have helped me tremendously throughout this process. My publicist is handling some of the top-level publicity, such as reaching out to print magazines, submitting the book to writing contests, and sending the ARC to top reviewers. I am blogging, posting on social media, contacting libraries, networking with key organizations and influencers, building a launch team, pitching podcasts and other venues for speaking engagements, and writing articles about the topics covered in my book.
I also worked very hard to secure some endorsement quotes, and am thrilled to share that Golden Globe and Emmy Award Winning Actor/Director Kyra Sedgwick sent the following quote about my book: “As a mom, I saw first hand how connection with nature lightened everyone’s mood. Finding Ecohappiness is a beautiful and informative guide to calming our mind and replenishing our souls in nature for ourselves as well as our children.”
My advice to authors is to plan to spend a great deal of time on marketing. Identify your target audience, learn as much as you can about all things book marketing, set a realistic plan, and do a little something everyday to share your book with others. Pace yourself—this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Including Book Features
Simon: Throughout Finding Ecohappiness, you place some content in a box with green borders. An example is when you provide a personal story of sending your kids off to sleepaway camp. This seems like a great way to highlight important content and separate it from the regular text. How did you decide which content to separate out into these boxes versus having that content reside in the main text of the book?
Sandi: The idea to have boxes throughout the book came out of my first discussion with my publisher. He has worked on numerous non-fiction books and recognizes how best to present information. Many of the boxes include stories from people I interviewed to enhance the science content in the chapters. I highlight success stories from organizations and individuals and also include specific actions that readers can take, such as a meditation. I have been extremely happy with the layout of the book, which includes green text, green text boxes, and colorful images throughout the book.
Sandi Schwartz is an author and journalist specializing in parenting, wellness, and the environment. She has written for Chicken Soup for the Soul, Scary Mommy, and Very Well Family, among other publications. She founded the Ecohappiness Project to help families build a nature habit to feel happier and calmer by exploring positive psychology tools through a nature lens. Previously, she held communications positions at the United States Environmental Protection Agency and National Academy of Sciences.
Schwartz has a Masters in Government (Environmental focus) from Johns Hopkins University and Specialization Certificate in Foundations of Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is an active member in environmental and writing organizations including Children & Nature Network, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Sierra Club, and more. Schwartz splits time between Florida and New Jersey with her husband and two children.