Lessons I Learned From My Editor

From conception to finish, I spent a couple of years on my first novel, Shaken. I had a mentor who coached me, a professor who professionally edited the manuscript, and an internationally acclaimed novelist who provided a critique. But nothing affected my story quite as much as signing with my publisher and beginning work with my editor.

Writing is difficult. You are bleeding your emotional artery on the page, complete with life experiences, beliefs, and creativity. But editing? That became another playing field entirely. In my military-romance-driven brain, it could be described as surgery to remove shrapnel. Each piece of metal must be plucked for an individual to get back to full health. In a similar way, editing requires painful digging to remove everything that does not add value to the character. After the shrapnel of your story is removed, you are freed to enhance and improve your story until it’s as close to perfection as you can get it this side of heaven.

KarissLynch Kill Your Darlings

Working with an editor is refining, a true process of iron sharpening iron (just don’t throw the sword at them if you don’t like what they say), but ultimately, it is a beautiful journey. The longer I work with my editor, the more I am thankful that God gifted her to look at stories differently than I do. She makes me better, and she is constantly teaching me and reminding me of craft tips that just haven’t taken root yet. Over the course of writing The Heart of a Warrior series, here is what my editor has taught me:

  1. Timeline is everything.

By the time my first novel went to my editor, the timeline needed major surgery, something I hadn’t thought about in great detail during crafting. I am a pantser and only use a bullet point outline to guide the major points of my scenes. Everything else just spills out on the page. This can make editing much harder for me. When it came time to edit Shadowed, I had a better timeline in place. Lesson learned? Don’t make the same mistakes on the second novel as you did on the first.

  1. Ground your character. Ground your scene.

Ever heard of floating head syndrome? No? Well, that’s probably because I just made it up. But I have it. Bad. Especially when I am writing in a steady stream of consciousness. Characters speak but you don’t know what they look like or what is going on around them. Thankfully, I am now aware of this ailment and am working to correct it before the manuscript goes to my editor. Each character needs to be firmly grounded in whatever is going on, each person in the scene accounted for, even if only briefly. Your scene also needs to be grounded within the larger story. Your reader should have no question where the character is, what is going on, who the character is with, and what drama is unfolding.

  1. Provide concrete details. Paint the canvas.

I actually love this part of writing, but I also struggle with fear. What if people think that a place or person doesn’t look that way? What if I get a detail wrong? What if, what if, what if? The “what if” game keeps me paralyzed from simply using my imagination and the beautiful tools of my eyes and the Internet to ground a scene exactly as I see it. I use research to make sure I didn’t get a basic detail wrong, but otherwise, I craft exactly what I want the reader to see. They are less likely to question what I paint in great detail than they are a canvas where I leave glaring holes due to my own people-pleasing and insecurity. No fear. Write boldly. Paint that canvas, and give the readers a scene they don’t have to try to imagine. Let it unfold in all of its beautiful detail. And then make that process even better in the next book.

Time for surgery on your manuscript. What weaknesses do you notice that you could improve on next time? What lessons have you learned from your editor (or critique partner)?

Refusing the Writer’s Call

Refusal of the call questis a common element of great stories, fictional or historical. The hero is called to a quest, but, initially, he balks. He says, whether through word or deed, “I’m not big enough for this task.” Or maybe just, “I’ve got better things to do than sacrifice myself for that.”

From Jonah getting on a ship sailing in the opposite direction of Nineveh to Bilbo Baggins telling Gandalf that all he wants is a nice tidy hobbit house with tea served on time, heroes have been trying to escape the call since mankind has been telling stories around the fireside. And for just as long, the stories have been winning the hero over to the adventure.

Why? Few of us see ourselves as heroes. We know we’re not up to the task, whatever the task is, and we’re right. We’re not big enough, strong enough, brilliant enough or good enough for the task at hand. And yet, deep in our souls, we know God made us for more than having our tea on time.

In all good stories, the hero finally accepts the call. After trying to outrationalize his call, Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes on the role of hero as he boards what is likely the last ship home to Nazi Germany, a ship that takes him ultimately to his death.

Having been elected to archbishop because he is quiet and conservative, expecting to make no waves in an El Salvador on the brink of civil war, Oscar Romero finally accepts that he must speak out, as he stands over the bodies of two murdered priests.

Paul accepts what he must do as God calls his name in a flash of heavenly light.

Little Samuel answers God on the third call in his small child’s voice: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Not knowing, of course, that he was accepting a lifetime mantle as prophet.

We writers refuse our call, too. Sitting down at the computer and typing out a page is such a small thing, right? It’s tiny in comparison to the heroes that have been written about. And yet, it feels daunting.

There’s the courage it takes to face a fresh scene. Will it be beautiful or fall flat? It’s as if it’s a test of everything inside you.

And there’s the courage it takes to call yourself a writer. The voices are insistent. How many times have you told yourself that you should just concentrate on being a parent, give your talents to your church and your job, and live a peaceful, ordinary life? You don’t have time for this story? Or more likely, you’re not talented enough for the story you want to write?

But if God made you to write, you’re going to be restless until you do. You can play the role of Jonah, and get on the ship going in the opposite direction and fight it out with the big fish. Or you can accept that being brilliant and big-hearted enough for the story is not what’s at stake. If God made you for this writing quest, he’s planning on equipping you as you go. Sit down at your computer and get started.

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (Part I)

I never aspired to be a writer. Truly. In fact, Mr. Johsen, my high school senior English teacher, once said to me, “Cofer, you will never graduate from college because you can’t write!”

grunge image of a fieldI also never really aspired to write a book. Seems most everyone who survives trying times hears from well-wishers the old adage, “You ought to write a book.” And many of us believe that we could… but never do.

Writing didn’t become a consideration in my life until, uh, well, God and Oprah suggested it. This happened during the height of the recession when my physician recruitment business of twenty years was struggling to pay the bills. Exasperated, I turned the computer off early one business day and shifted my attention to the Oprah show. A discussion was underway about women who had founded new businesses, many starting in a basement or garage. Mrs. Fields was among those featured, as was the creator of Spanx.

I was surprisingly inspired and then on my knees. “Lord, please show me a new way to be in the world. I’m likely too old to start a new business, and the garage is already full, but please weigh in if you have any ideas. What can I possibly do at this age to augment the business I already have?”

I was unprepared for the answer I received about ten days later. It was mid-morning on a Friday and I was alone in the house. The stillness was unnerving. I leaned on the door jam of my office and faced the darkened expanse of the room. I dreaded entering. The only thought in my head was the ever-present drone, get to work. And then it happened. I heard The Voice. It was that commanding “voice within my own” that William P. Young so beautifully describes in his book, The Shack. I’d heard it before.

“Write a book about the gifts you were given.”

Huh? God, is that you? Write a book… really?

I’d never written anything more than a decent consumer complaint letter, and yet I just heard God tell me to write a book. Like I knew how to do that.

But the nudge was unmistakable.

I knew too what He meant by “gifts.” I often thought of as gifts the lessons learned through my daughter’s addiction and recovery. Even at the moment when Annie broke into our house and literally stole the family jewels, the opportunity that event provided for intervention seemed a gift. Maybe the judicial system would stop her from killing herself with drugs.

If I was indeed to write a book, I first needed my daughter’s permission to share our story. Then in sustained recovery from drug addiction, Annie would be both antagonist and heroine in my memoir. Telling an authentic story would require vulnerability on both our parts, as well as a willingness to reveal some very private details from our lives. Were we ready for that kind of exposure?

Annie’s response was wholehearted. “Go for it, Mom!” I didn’t know at the time she was secretly musing, isn’t that precious? Mom thinks she’s going to write a book.

So the new entry on my daily To Do list became “write a book.” I mean, how hard could it be, right? I already knew the story, so I figured I could crank something out in a couple of months. Uh-huh. I really was that clueless.

My writing began one night at 10:00. I’d promised my husband not to take valuable time away from our business day in order to pursue my newest folly, plus late night hours also provided a peaceful quiet. The time was guilt free. Settled in with a cup of tea, I faced the blank Word document on the computer screen before me…and silently prayed.

Okay, God. Now what?

(Stay tuned for Part II about finding a voice, and the will to keep going.)

Was there something that happened to you that got you on the writing path?

Revising Aloud

Tihamér_Margitay_Exciting_story“Reading aloud,” I’m always telling my writing students, “is the best way to revise.”

I encourage them—sometimes require them—to find read-aloud partners or start writing groups in which they take turns reading their work aloud.

“Hearing your sentences spoken lets you know whether they’re clear and natural-sounding—whether someone actually could speak them,” I explain. “And it doesn’t work to read to an empty room. You need a warm body, a listener, to complete the communication. Speaking is, after all, a collaborative act.”

Finding that read-aloud partner is easy at college, where everyone’s engaged in writing all the time. Outside the college setting, though, finding someone willing to listen can be a challenge.800px-Anker_Sonntagnachmittag_1861 People are busy. Few have time to sit still for an hour while some verbose writer drones on. That’s how they’ll imagine it when you propose reading to them. We Americans have lost—or never had—the habit of listening to people read. We had only the shallowest tradition of serial novels, released chapter by chapter as Dickens’ novels were and read to the whole family at fireside. And no comfy pubs—without blaring TVs—like the one where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their writer buddies hung out, drank beer, and read their work to one another. Writers who give public readings these days will tell you it’s hard to get even close friends to attend. Our lives are too busy for read-alouds.

I often recommend to writer friends that they make use of the lonely people in their lives: shut-in relatives, kid-imprisoned friends who wish they had a grownup to talk to, recently retired colleagues with time on their hands. 1280px-Anker-_Die_Andacht_des_Grossvaters_1893It sounds terrible, this “making use” of others, taking advantage of their neediness to assuage your own, but in my experience such mutual exchanges not only helped my writing but also transformed intended acts of mercy—“I should spend more time with my mother-in-law,” I was always telling myself—into pleasurable time together, which we both looked forward to. My mother-in-law not only got longed-for company but also felt needed; I got my warm body but also genuine enjoyment, without having to chide myselfHugo_Bürkner_Lesestunde (usually in vain) to, as Paul recommends, “give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.7 NRSV). The mutual benefit, I found, guaranteed that cheerfulness, for both of us—because attentive listening and being listened to can’t help but nurture relationships.

My daughter Lulu has been on semester break from college for the past month, with a couple more weeks to go. It’s tricky having a grown daughter home that long. We’ve long since put our Christmas CDs away, but I’m still in the throes of Bing Crosby’s parental prophecy for the season: “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!”

Luckily, Lulu’s engrossed in the final revision stages of her senior project—a hundred-Amédée_Guérard_Bibelstundepage translation of and critical introduction to an East German book—and I’m busy trying to cut 30,000 words from a novel before sending it out, so we have tasks to distract us from the inevitable mother-daughter combat. Also, since we’re in about the same place in our revisions—where what we need most is to hear them aloud and find out if they work—we’ve established a read-aloud schedule: I read her a couple short chapters during her late breakfast, and she reads me one long chapter while I trim vegetables for dinner.

I can’t say it’s the perfect exchange my mother-in-law and I had. Lulu doesn’t end my readings, as my mother-in-law always did, with “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written!” And, as a writer and teacher of writing, I give more critical feedback than Lulu really wants. But our reading fills two hours of our day with mostly pleasurable, mutually beneficial work. More importantly, the listening involved gives us both practice, at this complex juncture of our parental-filial journey, in navigating our new relationship as related but separate adults. As peers, in other words. Equals. Reciprocally heard, appreciated, and loved.

The Unfastened Safety Harness

Working on my most recent book, Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program (University of Nebraska Press 2013), changed my life forever.

The date was June 22, 2010, and research for Wheels Stop had led me to Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronaut Doug Hurley was kind enough to invite me to do a run on the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, an ultra-high-tech contraption that tilted upward to simulate the launch position, and then shook and rattled to prepare astronauts for the ride uphill.

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Although I was smiling alongside astronaut Doug Hurley (left) in the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, my heart was broken. A major life change was already beginning to take place.

I couldn’t wait to take him up on it. I have dreamed of being an astronaut my entire life — my last name is Houston for crying out loud — and this was as close as I would ever get. Slowly, I fastened four of the five safety harnesses as we prepared for the run. The fifth belt refused to buckle due to the size of my belly. It still hurts to think about that fifth seat belt even four years later.

This wasn’t happening. I’d been embarrassed many, many times by my size, but never with an honest-to-goodness astronaut standing over me, trying to figure out a way to help. Doug never said anything ugly, but he didn’t need to. I was devastated, and becoming more and more so as I desperately tried to force the issue. My ribs hurt so badly, I could barely breathe.

SLIDE THREE

My before …

Fortunately, we proceeded with the simulation of two launches and five landings. It should have been one of the most memorable moments of my career, and it was, but inside my heart was absolutely broken. I had to change something, and I had to do it quickly. My wife needs a husband, and my sons need a daddy. Heading the way I was headed, I wasn’t going to survive.

Rather than going on some crazy diet when I got back from Houston, I simply started eating like I had some sense. Chinese buffets were my absolute favorite, but they had to go.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were were like my crack cocaine. No more. Not even half of one. Oreo cookies … country fried steak … it was once nothing to eat nearly two pounds worth of bacon and tomato sandwiches. I’ve never been drunk or high, but I know full well what it means to be addicted.

I could do one lap of a half-mile track near our local YMCA without feeling like I was going to break. Then, I could do two … and then four. I signed up to walk in my first 5k, and then I signed up for another. I took a class at the Y on how to actually train for a 5k, and ever since then, I’ve been running. More than four years later I’ve run seventeen 5ks, four 10ks, and three half-marathons. I’ve lost approximately 110 pounds.

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… and after photos.

Today, I’m satisfied with my weight. I’m not skinny by any means, but I’m happy with where I am. There’s nothing all that special about my story. Yes, I’ve been able to drop a significant amount of weight, but it wasn’t some super-secret diet or workout routine that did the trick. I was a writer who was almost completely sedentary behind a keyboard and computer monitor, and once I started moving, I haven’t stopped.

Trust me. If I can do it, anybody can. Working on your latest project is important, yes, but not at the expense of your quality of life. Hang in there. You can do it. I promise!

The Cheater’s Guide to Building Your Author Platform – Part 1

With a glazed look on my face, I obediently handed my phone over to “the expert” sitting beside me. As she looked up my twitter account which had an oval egg shape for my picture, I couldn’t help feeling intimidated by the task of building an author platform.

I had spent my entire life serving in pastoral ministry. When social media first came on the scene, I was suspect of the enemy’s evil intent to use the media to entrap our children.

Now here I was, listening to Michael Hyatt talk about the power and necessity of every author building a platform to launch their book. Much of what he was saying went over myplatform head. Yet as I listened for the still small voice of the Holy Spirit to guide me, I simply heard this word: engage.

As I engaged in the social media platform beginning that day two years ago, I grew from 4 twitter followers to over 21,000. I joined the social conversation and found a whole new world of influence.

Since my first book, 9 Traits of a Life-Giving Mom, hit #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases for Christian Women’s Issues, I regularly have authors seeking my advice on how to build their own platforms.

Let’s Begin at the Beginning

Watch Michael Hyatt’s simple video on Platform Building.

1. Start with a Blog

Begin to build a following. Give people an opportunity to get to know your heart. Use your blog as a spring board to all of your other social media engagement.

If you are an author of a number of books, you are probably your brand. You may write on a number of blogs. A foundational part of your strategy is your own blog where you can share your passion and build a loyal following. I chose to use my own name for my primary blog at SueDetweiler.com.

2. Develop a Social Media Strategy

You are unique. Social media needs to work for you. As you begin to see the power of social media, use these principles as a guide: 12-28-14 Social Media

  • Use Time Management Tools
  • Link Social Media Posts
  • Strategically Post Throughout the Day

The key to social media is to see it as an ongoing conversation with a friend. You are sharing about all the things that you care about. People who read your tweets will know what you enjoy. Don’t be afraid to share your personal story and pictures. Provide your tribe with ongoing helpful resources.

3. Be Real

Don’t try to appear to be anyone else than who you truly are. You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, one of the ways that people will be drawn to you is when they sense you are transparent. Don’t try to be Barbie or Ken; just be who God made you to be. Let your quirks come through in your social media platform.

Don’t be tripped up by your own perfectionism and fail to launch into a new thing. Allow yourself the freedom to try something new. Stoke the fires of your own adventurous spirit.

4. Use Video

Video can be really simple. The technology on your smart phone will allow you to do video in minutes. As an author, you can use the power of video to sell your book. Here’s a simple book trailer that was created for me on Fiverr.com. Video doesn’t have to cost you a fortune to be effective in telling your story.

I also used simple video introductions of each chapter of my book as an additionalbuilding your author platform resource. At the end of each chapter a simple code invites the readers to watch the video or download a printable of written prayers that enhance each chapter.

5. A Gateway to Traditional Media

As you build your platform as an author, others will become excited about your message and help get the word out about your book. Build relationships with other authors, radio hosts, and television hosts. Two events that I think are helpful to connect authors to traditional media are National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and The International Christian Retail Show (ICRS). There may be other events that your publisher encourages you to attend to build relationships with the media.

Next Week

We are just scratching the surface of things that you can do to build your platform as an author. Join me here at The WordServeWaterCooler for part 2 of The Cheater’s Guide to Building Your Author Platform.

Also connect with me on social media! Let’s start a conversation. Let me know if there is any way I can help you get your message out.

Do You Think I’m Insecure?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI usually feel pretty good about myself when I wake up—for the five minutes I refrain from looking in the mirror. That’s when the voices start: “Your thighs have more dimples than a Shirley Temple look-alike convention!” they say, or “What kind of eighties-wannabe haircut is that?”

Then I take my older son to school and notice the work-outside-the-home moms, all coiffed and stylish. The voices deride my writer’s wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts. Later, my fingers poised at the keyboard while my trusty cup of java grows cold beside me, I hear the little demons again: “That paragraph stinks. How are you ever going to keep getting published if you write stuff like that?”

When I pass through the living room and kitchen to go to the bathroom, the hisses continue: “The kitchen counter is filthy. And when was the last time you dusted?” By the time I grab a mid-morning snack, I’m already defeated, and it’s only 9:30 a.m.

Sigh.

I don’t know who said it, but I believe it’s true: Insecurity is the devil’s playground. Or maybe battleground is a better word. His weapons attack from every side and inevitably leave a wound.

file3991282945508Those of us who struggle with perfectionism find it especially difficult to remember that we are wholly loved by our infallible Heavenly Father. It’s a constant war to not let the “How do I measure up as a parent/writer/Christian?” questions run away with my emotions—and my peace.

Maybe you can relate. If my hunch is right, a lack of security is epidemic. And let’s face it: We have plenty to be concerned about. There are our figures, finances, future, and families—just to name a few.

Recently, while at the grocery checkout line, I noticed the headline on a women’s magazine: “Eat right, get fit, get organized, and relax.” Who are they kidding? I barely have time to take a decent shower each day, let alone have a perfect body or a spotless house. And relax while trying to keep it all together? Ha!

So I’ve decided to go on the offensive in this war on my thoughts and emotions. First, I’m going to stop letting the world’s standards rule my mind. With God’s help, I will tune into His Word and turn off the chatter from social media, print media, and television. I will bathe myself in His approval and love, knowing that while pursuing good health is wise, Jesus cares more about the size of my heart than the size of my jeans (can I get an AMEN?).

Second, I’m going to remind myself regularly that the career I have is God-given, and He controls the future. I don’t need to compulsively check my Amazon stats or fret about future book contracts. Instead, I must focus on fine-tuning my craft and being a good steward of the gift of words with which God has entrusted me.

Similarly, I can rest assured that God knows I am doing the best I can as a mother to two strong-willed, energetic boys. He’s the only perfect parent, and I can turn to Him in my frustrations and foibles. I can lean on Him and learn from Him, trusting that He will fill in the gaps my husband and I will ultimately leave.

The bottom line is this: when I focus on His kingdom, He takes care of the rest. 

Bit by bit, the whispers of doubt and defeat fade. Peace overtakes insecurity, and I can concentrate on living moment-by-moment in His grace. Microsoft Word - Grace_Race-v2.docx

You know what else? I’m betting that since Jesus was a carpenter, He doesn’t mind a little dust.

(This post was adapted from “Grace for the Race: Meditations for Busy Moms,” published by Patheos Press.)