I’m a Glutton for Information!

French bulldogSelling books and signing them is a happy experience for any author, but if I had to name my favorite part of the writing process that leads to publication, it would be doing the research that goes into my books.

I love doing research. In high school and college, I was the student who jumped for joy when the instructor assigned a research paper. I couldn’t wait to dig through the library for books, or hunt down obscure magazine articles. These days, research is even more expansive (unending, even!) thanks to the internet, but I love it, along with the hands-on research I encounter in the course of writing manuscripts. I’m just a glutton for information, I guess.

In celebration of that nerdy writerly trait, here are a few of my favorite research moments.

  1. I got a personal, private tour of a donut shop. Need I say more?
  2. I spent hours in the dark one night with some good friends checking nets for owls to band. We never got one, but I did get to wear a really cool headlamp while we strung up nets in the woods and told funny stories to pass the time.
  3. I took a firearms safety course and learned how to shoot a gun. I put 19 of 20 shots into the center of the target, so you can call me Eagle Eye from now on!
  4. I puckered up for a kiss from a French bulldog at a Pet Expo and posed with rabbits running an obstacle course. (Yup, that’s me and the bulldog above.)
  5. I spent a week in January at one of the world’s premier birdwatching areas in southern Texas. It was sub-zero and snowing back home in Minnesota at the time, which taught me the critical importance of timing when it comes to planning research trips.
  6. I took my husband on a very special summer date night to watch 300+ Chimney Swifts go to roost in an old chimney stack at dusk. It was a breathtaking aerial display and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event as the populations of these birds dramatically decline.
  7. I met a World War II veteran who worked as an ordnance officer, which led to learning about camouflaging British air bases to hide them from Nazi bombing raids.
  8. I got to sit in the mixing booth of Prince’s Paisley Park Studio while interviewing a pre-eminent Christian composer as he completed mixing his musical tracks for a new CD.

Do you count your research as one of the best parts of your writing pursuit? What is your favorite research moment?

Finding the Fatal Flaw

It is the core of every struggle. The root cause of many reactions. It is a constant enemy lurking below the surface, waiting to rear its ugly head.

It’s the fatal flaw. Everyone has one. Every character has one, too.

I would argue that fatal flaws never completely go away. They just manifest in different ways as we grow and change and conquer certain circumstances. But what does this really look like?

Kariss Lynch Heart of a WarriorTake Superman. I would say his emotional fatal flaw, or one of them, is a deep desire to belong. It shapes his decisions and actions to blend in at the Daily Planet, settle down with Lois Lane, but still seek the true identity of his parents. We all know his physical flaw is kryptonite. Or Lois Lane, depending on how you look at it.

Choosing and shaping a fatal flaw proved an interesting challenge as I finished out my Heart of a Warrior series. I noticed there are multiple factors I need to account for as I select flaws for my characters.

Timeline

All three of my books take place over the course of fifteen months, which made it a challenge to have a fatal flaw that never disappears but consistently morphs. Kaylan, my main character, struggles with fear. Since our fatal flaws never really go away, I had to figure out how to cause this kryptonite to reemerge as she grew. In Shaken, she fears letting people close to her because of the loss of people she loved in the Haiti earthquake. In Shadowed, she has to learn to love a man she could lose at any second, Navy SEAL Nick Carmichael. In Surrendered, she will learn to accept Nick’s career and the constant danger, and not only accept it but thrive in his absences. The root of every one of her struggles is fear of losing a loved one, but as she accepts growth, the flaw manifests differently. Still always fear.

Complementing Characters

If you are writing romance, what fatal flaw will most threaten the relationship and will cause the characters to have to fight together to overcome? In Shadowed, Nick struggles with anger and detachment. This creates a challenge when Kaylan needs reassurance in her fear and Nick needs her to get over it and let him deploy in peace. Both characters grow as they learn what it looks like to merge two lives into one.

Plot and Theme

Shadowed_AUG 1 (1)Each book in this series, had to capture the overall theme: Anyone can develop the heart of a warrior if they are willing to have courage and commitment in the face of insurmountable obstacles. My fatal flaw for each character needed to threaten accomplishing this goal. Kaylan’s fear has the potential to stunt the relationship. Nick’s anger prohibits him from being a strong leader in his home and confident and in control in war. My villain’s flaw causes her to sabotage others in an effort to obtain what she secretly desires most but also never wants to have.

The fatal flaws is one of simplest yet most complex aspects of your character. Which flaws will create complicated conflict? How does that flaw force your character to respond? How will your character grow through the flaw?

One of my favorite ways to identify character growth and a consistent flaw is to follow a specific television series. Over time, you will notice a core struggle emerge. This helps me understand how to develop a character over the course of a book and over the course of a series. I’m still learning, but this is becoming one of my favorite parts of creating characters.

How do you identify your character’s fatal flaw?

Writing Through the Storm

No author in her right mind sets out to write a novel in the middle of the craziest year of her mid life. But every author knows that life happens regardless of deadlines, contracted or self-imposed. A year ago I hit the keyboard at the end of December with ACFW in September as my self-imposed deadline. Thankfully I didn’t know the hurdles I’d have to leap to arrive the the finish line, or I may not have tried. Thankfully, God knew better.

Little did I know my day job would test my new revelation that I am bi-vocational. Little did I know life would swirl around me like the outer bands of Hurricane Katrina, or I may not have tried. Thankfully, God knew better.

Every writer has a well-rehearsed list of real-life waves that sabotage word count, goals, edits, and plotting. I was well acquainted with the pitfalls of Twitter, Facebook, and my favorite procrastination tool, Pinterest. For others it’s childcare, homework, housework–the list is long. I’d hit mid point of 50K when the waves mounted and crashed. My day job work partner went on vacation in March, leaving the office in my care for two weeks. I was planning my youngest’s graduation. My husband was in the midst of a new job and we spent an April stay-cation wading through twenty years of classroom supplies stored in our garage between his classroom moves. In the midst of wading through college applications, taxes, FAFSA forms, college visits, and open house planning, my nurse and prayer warrior retired two weeks after receiving a bad diagnosis in May (she is currently well).

My critique partners knew I was floundering with my writing by July, when my work partner had major surgery and was out of the office for six weeks, turning my usual full-time weeks into forty-hour-plus work weeks. They prayed and kept to themselves their worry that I’d just quit writing and give up on ACFW. That’s when my mother became seriously ill. On the way from the office to the emergency room, I stopped at a long red light, and I felt the world swirling around me. But God’s whisper came as clear as it had for Elijah–“I’m not in the storm.” And I could breathe again. The light turned green.

Ed5_Fig4_1

My mother made a miraculous full recovery, and the weeks that followed brought four funerals of family members of my coworkers by August. ACFW was breathing down my neck and I questioned if I could do it. But as miraculous as my mother’s recovery, I put my heart on the keyboard and my measly 50K turned into 80K in six weeks.

I was pinching myself. I stood in the elevator shaking on the way to my room at ACFW with my dear friend and critique partner. I felt I’d finally been spit out of the swirling storm and come up for air. I didn’t even have a pitch, but I’d been given four pitch slots, the last with WordServe. I was sure I was an impostor. I wasn’t really a writer. It wasn’t really me who’d just poured those words on the page. Thankfully, God knew better.

Life happens. Life will happen again, with or without self-imposed or contracted deadlines. But what I’ll take with me this time is a toolkit to survive it. I will remember:

1. God knows better than me. He’s not in the storm. He is sovereign and so is His work.

2. Even though I’m a hybrid plotter-pantser, pre-planning saved me in the end.

3. Critique partners are a life-line for friendship, prayer, counsel, hand-holding, dope-slapping, and yes, last minute pitch preps!

4. Being bi-vocational means God will supply enough for each calling. I’m not betraying one calling to fulfill the other. Like a mother with multiple children, her lap is fuller, but she has enough love for all.

5. Knowing my story, believing in it, and loving it, kept me from giving up.

I offer my work back to my Maker. Thinking of the future publishing possibilities, I tremble with excitement and fear. But I know He’s not in the storm. I entrust He knows the future best.

The Making of a Masterpiece

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” Michelangelo

I’ve spent the past month living as a hermit while I finished a manuscript. (Insert sigh of relief here.) I spent countless hours after my day job writing and fine-tuning every detail. Some days, I couldn’t wait to share the story with the world. Other days? All I saw were flaws, flaws that sent me running to fast food and the newest Netflix series while I processed what to do next.

That’s one of the many fun aspects of writing, though, isn’t it? I’m making the manuscript, but in the process, the Lord is making me. As my character wrestles through a growth point, I wrestle with it, too. Often what my character is learning is a lesson the Lord has spent months instilling in my own heart. From the overflow of my heart to the page…I think the story of The David illustrates this perfectly.

In the late 1400s, a group called the Operai provided blocks of marble for several prominent sculptors and artisans to create twelve statues of characters from the Old Testament. Work began on The David in 1464 but after initial carving, the piece was abandoned to the elements for twenty-five years. Then Michelangelo begged the Operai to allow him to complete The David. For three years, he carved the statue, shaving away the damaged parts and shaping features in great detail.

Kariss Lynch creating a writing masterpiece

If you hate history, I hope you stuck with me because none of that is the reason I love The David statue. Michelangelo took a wrecked, abandoned piece of marble and he turned it into a MASTERPIECE. Where everyone else saw a useless block, he saw potential and beauty, a story waiting to unfold.

I think the writing process is a lot like this. A story idea with little initial substance becomes a piece of art with a lot of effort. Over time, the author chips away the unnecessary and ugly pieces until a beautiful story is left.

I believe that’s what Jesus does with the author as he/she writes. Just as Michelangelo labored over The David and you labor over your manuscript, so the Lord labors over you, writer friend. He is in the process of creating a masterpiece that lasts for eternity, and he wants to do that with your writing, too.

Yours is a message of truth and hope. As you identify impurities and polish your writing to perfection, know the Lord wants to do that with you. He wants your voice for his glory. Sometimes the polishing and chipping are painful. With every bit you allow him to remove, you enable him to speak more clearly through you.

Keep chipping away at that novel while the Lord chips away at the excess around your heart. The beauty becomes more evident with every fallen piece.

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)?

Two Words of Advice: Stop it!

newhartWe were going around the room, introducing ourselves at a recent writers workshop I was leading, when one of the attendees got negative about herself.

I listened to this woman — a two-time winner of our Metaphors Be With You contest — explain why she wasn’t making as much progress on a memoir as she would have liked.

Most of it had to do with her inadequacies.

I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Stop putting yourself down,” I said. “You’re a good writer and you need to stop thinking otherwise.”

I proceeded to explain to her and the 15 others why one of the first ways we sabotage ourselves as writers is to look down on ourselves.

“For starters, writers need two things,” I said. “The confidence to believe they have something to say to the world and the humility to let others help them say it better.”

Instead, too many people write — and live — quite the opposite: with little sense that they’re worthy to be heard or with little openness to accepting help along the way.

As we discussed negativity, another workshop participant chimed in with a reference to an old TV sketch in which comedian Bob Newhart plays a psychiatrist. He listens to a woman’s problem — “I have this fear of being buried alive in a box” — and offers her a two-word solution:

“Stop it!”

Stop worrying about being buried alive in a box.

I love it. In fact, when it comes to advice, you could do a lot worse than offering people those two words — “Stop it!” — and two others: “Start it!”

“Start it,” as in take a risk. Begin your project, even if you believe it might fail. Try something new, even if it might feel awkward at the start.

“Stop it,” as in quit thinking you’re unworthy. Quit sabotaging your success because someone long ago told you you weren’t good enough. Quit believing the inner lie that you’re inferior.

Frankly, you can’t get to the “start” without the “stop.” Or so says Christian-based author Henry Cloud, whose book Necessary Endings (HarperCollins, 2010) I recently read.

Cloud, who mainly writes for a business audience, suggests “stop it” is about more than an attitude. It’s about action — or, more precisely, our unwillingness to take it when necessary.

“In your business and perhaps your life, the tomorrow that you desire may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today,” he writes.

But, some might say, stopping things can be hard.

Habits. Addictions. Relationships.

It’s easier just to stay the course. To not confront the norm. To not risk.

Easier. But seldom better.

“Endings,” Cloud argues, “bring hope.”

Frankly, I’d never thought much about that until a friend recommended the book and I gave it a read. I tend to be in a constant “add” mode. But, Cloud argues, sometimes you need to subtract. Prune. Say goodbye to something in your life — and, yes, in some cases, someone.

Can it hurt? Almost always. But, he argues, there’s a difference between “hurt” and “harm.”

Last week my mother moved out of the house she’d lived in for nearly half a century. It was difficult saying goodbye. But the payoff will be a simpler existence that better fits her life today. It hurt, yes, but to stay could have brought harm, she figured; it was too much house for someone who is 87 years old and slowing down.

It took courage to make the change. But, in sailing terms, to stay moored to sameness simply because change can be challenging is to miss the glories of the wind in your sails.

At the end of the day, my workshop student — the one lamenting not being good enough — offered a piece in the voluntary read-aloud session. The class’s enthusiastic laughter and applause affirmed what I’d felt myself: her story was among the best of the bunch.

I hope she’ll look back on this day as a new start — a new start only made possible by her first being willing to stop.

Marketing: To Do and Not To Do

Light a Fire with Your Marketing Plan

“It isn’t there. I looked,” I told my mother so many times I lost count.

I also lost count of how many times she looked in the same place I did and said to me, with frustration in her voice, “Shelley, it’s right here!”

Ugh. I hated when that happened. I felt stupid, embarrassed, and defective.

Why could SHE see it, but I couldn’t?

It took a few years, but finally, by the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I learned to instead say, whenever I couldn’t find whatever she said to look for or retrieve for her, “I don’t see it.” I’m 40 years old now, and I still use those same words in that situation.

What does this have to do with marketing? I’m certainly no expert in this field, but I have learned this: just because folks don’t see our books, products, services, or goods, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It also doesn’t mean they don’t have value. It just means that sometimes people need help to see the good stuff right in front of them.

So, how do we do this in an already saturated market where everyone (and sometimes their pets!) are on social media, have a blog, and publish their work? (I kid you not about pets, either.)

I asked around, and want to share with you what other authors shared with me. I am confident these tips will help you (and me!) in the challenging world of marketing our writing in addition to creating the content we’re trying to market.

  • Pay attention to social media: Don’t discount the value of sharing some freebies with folks right where they are. Find out where your audience hangs out most on social media and focus the majority of your social media time and attention there. For example, my readers tend to be on Facebook more than Twitter, so while I am in both places, I don’t kill myself in the Twitterverse when more engagement happens on Facebook (and increasingly on Instagram and Pinterest).

Remember, as you engage in today’s world of technology, these words from Marketing guru Rob Eagar:

“In a fast-paced world where Facebook, Twitter, and the 24/7 news media allow everyone to have a voice, it’s more important than ever to cut through all the noise. Use power-bites to punch through the cacophony, gain people’s attention, and spread your message like wildfire.” – See more good stuff from Rob here!

And this, from marketing expert Lori Twichell:

“The key to good marketing is making a connection with your audience. It’s got to be genuine. People can see through selfish motives. If you are only there to promote your book or product, people can sense that.” The more you get to know your audience and really make that honest contact, the more you’ll end up with a loyal audience that will follow not just this book, but future endeavors as well. That’s a key part of social media that is lacking in so many. We all love making new friends and connections, but no one wants to be spammed!

  • Newsletters: Emailing your subscribers is the best way to get content in front of your readers on a consistent basis. When they subscribe or give you their contact info, they’ve invited you to connect with them. Make sure to add value to your subscribers’ lives, inviting them to open, read, and engage—be aware of what can feel “spammy” to your subscribers. In other words, don’t just send emails to send emails. And make sure you give more than you request.

Here’s another tip from Lori Twichell: “Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the best days to send newsletters. On Fridays people are eager to go home and clean out their inbox more quickly and on Mondays, they’re buried in the weekend’s email pile up.” (Connect with Lori for more good stuff at http://www.beyondthebuzzmarketing.com)

  • Giveaways: Take advantage of what God has made available to you. What message has He entrusted to you to share with others? Offer some freebies along the way that build your credibility as one to listen and learn from in this over-saturated market.

As writers, we long to have readers find value in what we have to say, right? It can be so difficult to balance the discipline of learning and expressing with the necessity to also market what we write. Ultimately God is our greatest promoter. If we can remember that our social media numbers, our book sales, and our greatest accomplishments do not come close to God’s power to promote us in due season, we’ll remain at peace and loving life on the way to where we’re going.

Have you discovered a marketing to-do or not to-do?