Travel to Write, Write to Travel

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine

I’m an Irish girl, both by heart and by blood. As a teenager, I remember dreaming of visiting Ireland and Scotland and seeing the hallowed halls of my ancestors’ castles. The idea is more romanticized than real – the Lynch castle in Ireland is now a bank and the Chisholm castle in Scotland is a renovated weekend getaway.

Kariss - IrelandAs a kid, I loved studying the old folk tales, imaginative stories of the tricks and heroism of the wee folk. I grew up on a steady dose of faith and fairy tales. One nursed my convictions, the other my creativity. Three years ago, my dream came true. I spent three weeks on the British Isles. I didn’t see any of the wee folk, though I walked through the fairy gardens at Blarney Castle.

But this rainy tour wasn’t the beginning of my adventures. The travel bug bit me in middle school, and since then I’ve tried to visit new states and new countries, fascinated by the culture. Nothing stimulates my creative side more than exploring new sights, scents, and scenery.

Over the years, I’ve learned this serves me in my writing. All the sensory details, the tiny quirks, the cultural differences influence my settings and characters. I’m learning to identify different textures, not just what they look like but how they feel. I identify different scents with different people and memories. Color takes on vibrancy all its own, enhancing character features, scenery, and what the character experiences.

My travel stimulation reached new heights when I visited Haiti a couple of years ago. I had written and finished my first book, Shaken, which is partially set in Haiti around the time of the earthquake. I researched, talked to those who experienced the earthquake and those who visited before and after, and watched documentaries and the news. But when I finally had the chance to experience this tiny island for myself, I walked away changed with a perspective that enhanced the editing of Shaken.

Kariss - HaitiI remember the stifling humidity and heat as I stepped off the plane. Haitian men stood waiting in the small hangar where they tried to take our luggage off the conveyor belt and then quickly exit to the street as we chased them, hoping we would pay them to get our luggage back. While corralling our luggage was a challenge, I silently cheered their ingenuity and resourcefulness in a poverty-ridden city.

I caught my first glimpse of Port-au-Prince as I hopped in the back of a pick-up and gripped the seat as we played chicken on a two-lane highway, winding past people walking less than two feet from the side of the road. An old man bathed in plain view. Women balanced enormous baskets or jugs on their heads as their daughters trailed behind them with smaller cargo. The air reeked of garbage and burning plastic. Plastic bags that used to hold water littered the street.

Kids ran past in oversized American hand-me-down clothes or no clothes at all. Buses called tap-taps, that looked like a skittle pack blew up, wove in and out of traffic, people hanging onto the back of the cab. The people are down-to-earth and friendly. Those that work, work hard, and the kids are curious and intelligent.

ShakenWhile travel shows me the differences in this wide world, it also shows me the similarities. I noticed that the cement block homes on this tiny island resembled the colored homes in Ireland. I learned that cultures are not as different as we think, that people are people, no matter where you go. I learned to look at the human condition, the driving motivations behind actions, the heart, the hurt, the dreams.

Travel shapes my writing. Haiti certainly shaped Shaken, and adventures I had years ago in Ukraine shaped a few scenes in Shadowed, book two in the Heart of a Warrior series.

So, let the travel bug bite hard, and choose one new city, state, or country to visit each year. What places, people groups, or cultures have influenced your stories?

Writing is a Team Sport

olympics

As I write this, the Olympics are in full swing, and I don’t know about you, but I am glued to my television every night, cheering on Team USA.

I am blown away by the dedication of these athletes. As I watch them compete, I see similarities in their job and mine, in their passion and in my passion. And of course as a writer, I see an analogy in EVERYTHING. So here are my take-aways from the Olympics:

1. Identify your team.

Kariss' teamWhat strikes me about so many of these Olympic events is that they are solo endeavors, meaning the athlete competes alone and is scored individually, even though they are part of a larger team for his/her particular discipline and country. But regardless of the individual scoring, each athlete also has a support system, usually consisting of coaches, trainers, and family and friends. Writing so often feels like an isolated career. Unless I sit down and place my fingers on the keyboard, it doesn’t happen. A month before my first book, Shaken, released, I panicked. I needed help, but not with the writing. I have a great publisher, editor, and agent, but I needed a local team. In January, I invited a group of my friends to participate with me in the dreaming and execution. I call them my “Creative Brain Trust.” And, man, did they have ideas. They are the reason for all the buzz leading up to release day. They not only encouraged, but jumped in to help.

2. Have the courage to share your passion.

One thing I LOVE about watching these incredible athletes is the pure joy they feel in participating in and sharing their sport with the watching world. Writing is a vulnerable career. We splash our hearts and thoughts across bound pages and put it into the hands of those who can criticize. That is the beauty and the struggle of art. These athletes are no different. There is something beautiful about watching a snowboarder catapult in the air on a jump, stick the landing, and grin from ear-to-ear as they coast to a stop. What a rush! Move past the possibility of criticism and fear of what people think. Find the joy in writing, and be unafraid to share that with others.

3. Dedication and training pay off.

KLshaken

What is your Olympic moment? What are you training for? For a couple of years, I wondered if my training would pay off. I flew to out-of-state conferences, bought training books, took classes, spent money on professional editing, joined associations. It didn’t seem to lead anywhere. But my Olympic moment just came February 4 with the release of Shaken, book one in the Heart of a Warrior series. I look back and see all the training and dedication coming down to this one moment. And I’m not done yet. I’m gearing up for my next Olympic moment next winter with the release of Shadowed. In the meantime, back to training.

4. Be innovative and take risks.

I heard a snowboarder from Canada say that his sport is always changing. In order to succeed and stay on top, he has to be willing to change with it. But change in itself isn’t enough. He has to be willing to blaze the trail for new tricks, new techniques, and new skill. That’s what I love about writing. It’s fluid. Though the rules are specific, they allow for personal style. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of this field and make it your own. There is value in following the rules of the market, but there is also value in standing apart. Find the balance. I’m still learning what this looks like, but I relish the challenge.

5. Celebrate the victories.

Whether or not they win a medal, at the end of the day these athletes are Olympians, and so many of them celebrate that fact alone. I loved watching a first time cross-country skier celebrate eighth place because it was a personal best for her. She even talked about where she could be four years from now in the next winter Olympics.

At the end of the day, you are a writer. Celebrate the success and release of your work. Take a break and rest. Then get back on the horse and crank out something even better for your next Olympics. You have accomplished something great. Now, set your sights on something greater.

What lessons are you learning during the Olympics? What would you add to this list? Happy writing, and Go USA!

A Time for Every Purpose

MP900289709-300x197Many times, people come up to me and say they want to write a book but can’t find the time. Aspiring writers, people who are making an effort to write, often say the same thing.

Both groups cite full time jobs, church obligations, family responsibilities and activities that prevent or hinder them from pursuing their desire to write. These are all legitimate undertakings that must be accomplished if we’re to support ourselves, raise God-centered children and contribute to our faith communities and neighborhoods.

I want to share one insight I’ve gained over the last ten years of pursuing this writing dream: You’ll never find the time to write. You make the time to write.

When I whined to my mentor, DiAnn Mills, that I couldn’t find the time to write, her simple, straight-forward advice: GET UP EARLIER. Not what I wanted to hear but it took root in my heart and God nurtured it. Okay, he nagged me. I started getting up at 4:00 a.m. to write. This gave me one-and-a-half hours of solid, productive writing time every morning before I went to my day job.

Jerry B. Jenkins wrote between 9:00 p.m. and Midnight so as not to take time away from his family.

One of my close writing buddies negotiated with her children (she has 6) and husband for a certain amount of undisturbed writing time each week.

A soccer-mom friend uses soccer practice to write.

Need to make time to write? Take a couple of weeks and track your time. Make a simple MP900385402-214x300chart that blocks out the hours of the day and then note what you’re doing during those hours. After two weeks, you’ll be able to identify at least five hours in your present schedule for writing without having to get up earlier or stay up later. Start with your television and internet time and go from there. Set a schedule, negotiate with your family, find a writing spot and do it.

And pray. If writing is the desire of your heart, God will give you the insight into how to make the time to live out His call, His plan, for you.

Stalled and Happy: How to Keep Writing When You’re Not

John_Bourne__Woman_and_ChildHaving written five nonfiction books and countless essays, I’m now at work on a novel, and it’s going well. When it’s going at all, that is. Often it isn’t. Going, that is.

Nonfiction, for me, advances briskly and pretty much according to plan from the moment I have a picture of the completed book in my head. When I sit down at the computer, I know what I’m going to write.

Fiction, by contrast, develops in spasms or spurts. Like a living creature. Like a daughter, to be specific—one day cuddling on my lap, trying to figure out which one of us loves the other the most, another day slamming the door and refusing to talk at all.

This is not a new observation. Countless novelists over the centuries have reported that their characters seem to have minds and lives and schedules and intentions of their own, that they and the novel’s resulting plot shapeshift continually throughout the novel-writing process.

So it is, in this case, with my novel. I seem to be discovering my characters’ stories rather than inventing them, and my discoveries come on their own unpredictable, unschedulable timetable. Some days I can’t stop writing to make a pot of tea or eat lunch or speak civilly to whoever happens to be around. Other days—or weeks, even months—I have nothing whatsoever to write.

I used to find this timetable upsetting. I found, that is to say, the stalled part of the timetable distressing. And, while the spasmodic spurts were exciting, they were also hard to keep up with and seemed always to come when I was nosing some deadline or needed to be reading and responding to a looming stack of students’ writing or looking after Christmas guests. Never has it been the case with this novel, as it was with my other books, that I could sit just down at the computer on my designated writing days and simply write. Instead, I’m either frantically trying to set down a scene—before it evaporates from my brain, as I always fear it will, never to return again—or else I’m sitting before a blank screen, incapable of writing altogether. Idealess. Sceneless. Wordless.

All this to say, I have devised a simple method for getting through this problem that really works for me, and I thought there might be someone out there struggling with the same problem who might profit from my experience.

Before I reveal my method, though, let me just say that I do not consider my problem to be writer’s block. I refuse to let myself call it that, in any case. And I’m deep down convinced it is not writer’s block. (I’m protesting too much. I know that. Don’t point it out to me.)

But consider: I am progressing. I have characters, a plot, twenty-eight chapters, some eighty thousand words securely anchored in my hard drive. (And backed up on half a dozen USBs in case of theft or a house fire or accidentally substituting an ancient draft for the most current one. I’m kind of maniacal about the possibility of losing everything and not being able to start over again.) However slowly and erratically this novel seems to proceed, I’m nevertheless inching along toward completion. And the stalled moments, I like to think, are as important to my progress as the precious periods of frenzied writing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. Or, that is, not thinking so much as just letting the child poke around in the world I’ve created and experience it and respond. I need to forget about the whole project for a while and give her space and time to grow up and become someone I like.

Enough of that monstrously mixed metaphor. (Is the child the novel itself or my protagonist or the writerly impulse in me or what?) On to my method of taking advantage of the weird stopping and starting that is how this novel has been toddling forward. It’s simple, as I’ve said. Hardly worth writing about, except that, for me, it’s been transformative.

Here it is: When I’m stalled, I reread from several chapters back, correcting as I go. It’s like a magic charm. Long before I catch up to where I stalled, I invariably have new ideas, new words, and, before I have a chance to think about it, I’m frantically writing again.

I call my method recursive—that is, it progresses by means of looping backwards, as in cursive writing. Or, more exactly, as with those lines of loops we were made to draw when we were first learning cursive writing, before we ever got to stringing the loops together into actual words and the words into sentences and the sentences into our second grade stories.

Or it’s like bicycle-riding, in which progress forward depends on looping our feet backwards, over and over again.

One worry: This recursive method of writerly progress violates a primary rule of many resources out there on novel writing, and it’s a rule I have promoted to my students over the years—namely, squelch your inner editor and save revision for when the draft is done.

But, oh well. You gotta do whatever it takes to keep moving along.

Are You a Story Crafter or a Storyteller?

Are You a Story Crafter or StorytellerIn many ways, the world of book publishing parallels that of musical performance. Both are beautiful, exhilarating, and demanding. And both can sap creativity. Where the ultimate product is art, inevitable conflicts between the needs of business and creative expression exert themselves. When it comes to breaking in those with technical brilliance have an advantage, but to rise to the top, something else is needed.

I once represented my college as the soprano member of a vocal quartet in an honors choir made up of students from colleges throughout the western United States. We prepared on our own, and then met for three long days of intense rehearsal. Yes, there was glitz and glory in our single performance, but it wasn’t that I remember most about the experience but something thathappened during one of the rehearsals.

I don’t even remember which musical passage we were struggling with at the time, but our accomplished director refused to let us get away with good enough. He pushed us, irritatingly so, until in a moment of delirious harmony, glorious sound filled the rehearsal chamber. In the awestruck silence that followed tears pricked my eyes.

Our director thumped his chest. “Ever feel that?” He paced before us, meeting eyes. “You all have a lot going for you, but no matter how technically brilliant you become, the ability to feel the music is what will help you most. Never lose that.”

I have never forgotten his words. In my studies I knew students who could execute a passage of music to perfection but who lacked the passion to bring it alive. By contrast, I have seen a graying grandmother with a quavering pitch move an entire congregation to tears with her simple song. I say this not to invalidate the quest for excellence but to illustrate that feeling the music always trumps craft.

In writing, there is storytelling and story crafting. Yes, we must strive to perfect our craft and even consider our market’s wishes, but it’s even more important to tell a story that resonates on a deep level. If we lose our passion for story, we will also lose readers. It’s not enough to hone our craft until it shines. Producing a story that sings should cost in terms of creativity, drawn as it is from our very soul. It is this that separates artists from artisans.   

Because writing does not exist as art alone, however, I will add some technical tips for engaging reader’s emotions. I almost hesitate to do so, in case anyone latches onto these techniques as the way through. They illuminate the story path but are not the path itself.

Tap a universal experience.  A mother’s arms, teenage acne, and rejection in love are but a few commonalities to which we all can relate. Writing about universal experiences in an evocative way breathes life into writing.

Write to the senses.  Use taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound to bring a fictional world to life. The more vividly you imagine your story’s scenes, the easier this becomes.  

Show rather than tell. Create fully-realized scenes readers can step into. Narrative has its place to help in pacing as it skips us past unnecessary details, but most often passages of telling would be better if written as scenes. I got tired of hearing this advice given by rote with no explanation of how to do this, so I filmed the video 5 Ways to Show Not Tell in Fiction Writing for my Live Write Breathe site for writers.

Create a sympathetic situation for your main character. The reader wants to identify with and care about the main character. Provide a gripping opening scene to meet your reader more than halfway. Be careful here, though. There’s a difference between engaging a reader’s emotions and manipulating them. Being faithful to your true story will guide you. 

Have someone react. Not allowing room for reaction is a common failing, but this technique is so powerful it should never be ignored. As an example (spoiler alert), in the movie The Hunger Games, when Rue dies, the heroine grieves for her. If she didn’t, we wouldn’t feel the loss as deeply as we do. The riots that break out are also a reaction that stirs our anger at the injustice of the games.

Watch this part of the movie, and then imagine the scene with minimal reaction and you’ll see what I mean.

Hone your craft. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than clumsy storytelling, so do study craft. But remember that craft is no substitute for inspired storytelling.

There will always be tension between the business and art of writing, but that doesn’t have to be bad, not when you consider that the best fiction marries fine storytelling with excellent story crafting. It is even possible to thrive in the tension between business and art.  

WayFarer Tales of Faeraven 2 by Janalyn VoigtToday, January 3rd, marks the release of WayFarer, book two of my epic fantasy trilogy, Tales of Faeraven. In celebration, for today only my publisher is offering a discount of 50% on purchase of WayFarer from the Pelican Books site. 

When I first started writing this trilogy without agency representation or a publishing contract, fantasy was a hard sell, but this was the story I felt. It’s been a rough journey to publication, but well worth it.

What about you? What story sings within you? 

Twelve Qualities of a Big Story

I love big books. I’m not talking about page count here, but Bibliothek_St__Florianstories that are so big in scope that the novels live on with me long after I finish reading. I’m even drawn to reread the story.

That’s the kind of book I want to write, so before I begin writing, I analyze the bones of my story to see if it has some of those big-book qualities.

Twelve Big Book Qualities

1. A Hero or Heroes: Characters who take big risks and stand up for what’s right. They may be deeply flawed, and yet, they’re saints, magnetic leaders, or they show massive courage of some kind. They’re true to life and still larger than life.

2. An Impossibly Large Role to Fill: Characters step into a role that at first seems much too large for them. It may be leading a dangerous military mission, stopping a plague from spreading, or rescuing one child who is falling through an emotional black hole. In the beginning, the characters aren’t equipped, but as the story progresses, they learn to fill that big role.

3. Injustice:  It can be a large scale injustice (the Nazis) or small scale (a tyrannical parent), but at all costs, it must have high stakes and the barriers to justice must seem huge to the characters.

4. Complex Relationships: The story provides relationships that are full of great love and yet are greatly troubled. If there are complex relationships that intersect other complex relationships, that’s even better.

5. A Larger than Life Setting: The setting should carry the reader away – a family vineyard, an estate house perched on a craggy coastline, a frenzied metropolis, a bustling medieval village, or a dangerous forest. If your story calls for an ordinary town or city, make sure to find its personality and drama.

6. Time Scope: There are big books that take place in a year, even in days. But there’s something dramatic about watching lives take shape over a lifetime. Even a small story within the story or significant backstory can make the story feel larger.

7. Sacrifices and Crushed Dreams: A character may voluntarily give up something precious for the sake of loved ones, or their dreams may be grasped from their clenched fists. The story is bigger as they struggle to redeem the loss.

8. A Goal with Long Odds: The character – actually all of the characters – need specific goals, and they should be hard to achieve, with plenty of obstacles in the way.

9. Characters with Special Talents or Gifts: Readers love to watch gifted people work – artists, geniuses, prophets, clever detectives, explorers, brilliant doctors, even farmers if they have a special way with the land. If a character has a special calling, all the better. Starting off with only rudimentary knowledge or none, and bringing the reader along as the character learns is compelling too.

10. Souls that Don’t Belong: Whether it’s because of a special gift, an unusual heritage, a greater determination, their life has set them apart somehow, and they find themselves alone in their community. Of course as the story continues, they’ll find a mentor, a lover or friend, but there will be some bumpy roads before they understand that they fit together.

11.  A Long Mystery or Unusual Twist: Nothing keeps readers turning the page like dropped clues along the pages as they try to solve the mystery. Also great is a dramatic mystery, which the reader understands perfectly but the characters don’t. Waiting for everything to be made clear makes for great tension. Of course, any mystery or twist in a big book should have lots of personality and be critical to the character’s inner life.

12. Resonating Voice: I put this last, but really it’s a first. An original voice that carries the reader into the sensory and emotional experience of the novel will lure the reader in at page one and hold them until the last sentence. Voice, more than any other quality, brings me back for a second read.

Help me out. What is missing from my list? What qualities make a “Big Story” for you?

Writing Powerful Sentences

On my writing journey, I spent a lot of time studying the big-picture concepts of writing, suchas smusical notestory arcs, conflict and character, but then I began to notice some smaller scale aspects. A phrase or a small block of text would sing out to me as I read. For a while, I logged the best examples in an Excel spreadsheet. I noticed that my favorite books usually had a lot of these winning sentences.

What made them so powerful? Just as I had studied scenes and novels to see what made them successful, I began to study phrases and individual sentences to see what gave them that singing quality. All of them had one of the six qualities below. Most had several of them.

The Five Senses

The authors didn’t just use the senses. They bathed the words in sight or touch or taste (often using more than one sense at a time) until I could smell the burning gasoline or feel the dried leaves crumble between my own fingers.

“There was a sizzle and steam and a sound like a thousand muskets firing. Then the sheets of ore began to fall.”

-          Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks

Emotion

The phrases usually occurred in the context of an emotional scene, but then a few well chosen words would zing the emotion all the way home.

“I had only human comparisons for such a look. Caesar and Brutus. Jesus and Judas.”

-          The Host, Stephenie Meyer

Metaphorical Language

The authors utilized metaphors or similes, fresh images that made general ideas tangible and ordinary actions captivating.

“The prayer seemed to find shelter in the morning breeze, as though chanted by the leaves overhead.”

-          Book of Dreams, Davis Bunn

 Rhythm

Repetition of a word or a sentence structure gave the writing rhythm, almost like poetry.

“Each question would lead to another and another until there was only a man and a woman in a garden and a forbidden tree.”

-          At the Scent of Water, Linda Nichols

Forceful, Visceral Words

Even removed from their scenes and sentences, the words were strong, capable of evoking a reaction. I noticed that the writers often used words related to the body (bone, blood, flesh) or to a threat (thunder, electric, knifed). Even when the words were used in a different context (neither related to a human body or a physical threat), they still carried the weight of those associations.

“Her voice was a whip-crack in the silent arena.”

-          Taliesin, Stephen Lawhead

Unique

The text twisted the normal way of saying things. The writers clearly dug deep, looking for an original and unexpected way to convey their scene, and the words they found were guaranteed to catch the reader’s attention.

“She had skin the shade of bootleg coffee, and crossing her back were the memories of lashed scars.”

-          Harvesting the Heart, Jodi Piccoult

Once I pinned down what gave these memorable sentences their power, it was that much easier to write a few of my own. What about you? Have you found other traits that make a sentence or phrase sing to you?

Thank You, Doctors

compassI have a secret to share with you.

When I create characters for my novels, I often call on the expertise of two renowned psychologists. Their names are Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers. Many of us know their work in the form of the theory of psychological typology, or the personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I’ve found that once I start developing a character, I can turn to the Myers-Briggs personality types to fill out the outline of a character with true-to-life traits and behaviors using the four categories of personality type. In short, it’s like a cheat sheet for character creation.

Let’s look at an example using the first piece of the four-part MBTI.

I’ve got a rather demanding physicist I want to cast as my reluctant hero. As an academic, he fits the Introvert (I) type, rather than the Extrovert (E): he prefers private time, doesn’t do well in crowds, and is sometimes so wrapped up in his thoughts that he’s oblivious to what’s happening around him. I’d say that’s a good description of a physicist who loves to work long hours in a research lab. However, since I want him to come across as blunt and insensitive, I’m going to throw in a little Extrovert: he tends to act first, and reflect later, in social situations he finds challenging.

Here’s the scene I’m working on: After finishing a 20-hour stint in the lab, the physicist is awakened from a deep sleep by an insistent knocking at his front door.

Here’s the question I have to answer as the author: Is he going to greet the visitor with a smile, because he can’t wait to share the big discovery he made during that lab marathon? Or is he going to roll over and refuse to come to the door?

I decide he’s going to roll over and pull the pillow over his head in true Introvert style.

But the knocking continues. He has to do something to make it stop because it’s infringing on his solitude, which he craves.

Grudgingly, he drags himself out of bed; he’s not going to be a happy camper when he opens that door. Nor does he want to talk with anyone (this is an awkward social situation, remember!), but because of that bit of Extrovert quality (act first, think later), he ends up jerking open the door. When he see’s it’s his least favorite colleague from work, he blurts out a rude, “What are you doing here?”.

By using the MBTI as my guide, I’ve accomplished several things, such as giving him consistent character traits, motivation for his actions, and even the beginning of a conflict with another character.

By the time I identify the other three parts of his personality type – Sensing (S) or Intuitive (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) – I’ll have the keys to his actions in any situation my plot throws at him.

How do you make your characters come to life?

Editing Tips

 Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… Michael Crichton

The workshop leader looked over the group—a motley crew of aspiring and published authors seeking to learn. She arched her eyebrow and said, “The purpose of your first draft is to get the crap out. Then you can go back and write the book.” Okay, I thought, that’s an interesting way to look at it. And it actually freed me to write better.

I’ve also learned that each draft has crap in it. The goal is to have less and less in each revision. Even today, I’ll pick up my published novel, Journey to Riverbend, and see things I would change. And the published version is the eighth draft.

ScissorsOver the years, people have asked me, “What’s the best way to edit?”

I don’t think there is one best way to edit. Each writer will develop his own way of editing, mostly though trial and error.

My editing process has evolved as I’ve written more, studied the craft, and learned to test approaches and keep the ones that work.

When I write, I begin the day by reading what I wrote the day before. I look for typos, adverbs, passive tense, glaring POV issues, and grammar. This also helps me get back into the flow of the story.

On Saturday, I print out the pages for that week and do a deep edit of the week’s writing, polishing and refining, cutting scenes, re-working dialogue, correcting inconsistencies from the plot or character.

I use critique partners and group as I’m working on the story, incorporating their input as I Writinggo along.

Once the first draft is finished, I put it away. For a minimum of three weeks. If any thoughts come to me about the book, I put them in a folder until later. I send the story out to beta readers. At this point, I find I need at least two people to read the entire book and give me feedback to specific questions.

After three weeks, I pull out the manuscript and have my computer read it to me. And then I rewrite the story, incorporating input from the beta readers.

The second draft goes through almost the same process as the first, generally more quickly. And then it gets rewritten.

Editing is kind of like washing your hair—lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over.

There are two books I think are immensely helpful in this process: Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. And, Write Great Fiction: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell.

What techniques have worked best for you in your editing? What resources would you recommend?

Plain, Ordinary, or Beautiful?

14737877_s

Once I made the mistake of creating a heroine who wasn’t loveable because she didn’t forgive until the end of the story. Although her black and white thinking was true to character in her particular setting, it made her unappealing to the modern, more open-minded reader. Some who couldn’t relate blasted her in reviews.

Observation: Characters can be too realistic.

While she needs to stay true to her personality type, a good heroine breaks out of the norm for her particular setting from the get-go.

Because writing is a creative process, the rules are loose to allow us to create a unique voice. It’s a painful process to learn what works through our failures. After a dozen novels, workshops, and self-help studying, I still blunder my way along. At the end of each novel, I find myself vowing, Wow, I’ll never do that again. No more prologues for me—but that’s a topic for another day.

Under deadline, I write and juggle life. But between contracts, I study, plot, fret, and find more time to doubt myself. As you might have guessed, I’m currently developing characters. While fretting over my next heroine, I asked myself, what would help her connect with readers on page one and throughout my manuscript? This thinking led to another observation. Let me explain.

Growing up as a Mennonite, I call myself a plain-vain gal.

I was raised on humble pie and continue to strive for humility. But you know how it goes when somebody says you can’t have something. So if I’m honest, I have a craving for beauty and admiration. When I read, I enjoy living-escaping through beautiful, gutsy heroines. Most of my heroines have been lovely on the outside.

But since I’m wallowing in character fret-mode, I polled my Facebook followers with the following question:

Do you prefer a beautiful heroine or a plain one?

Every single response was plain, except for a few who didn’t care. Really? I expected the comments about inner beauty, but I was shocked they demanded plain on the outside. I expected mixed preferences.

For sure, they want a heroine who overcomes the ordinary. I’m still processing this information so I ask you…

…Is inner beauty or character strength more visible on a plain heroine?

As an example, Katharine Hepburn comes to mind, and I did a follow up blog post about using her as a character on plain girl romanticizing.

I’m conforming to my followers’ preference. Like most authors, I cut photos for each character and study them as I write. Here’s the plain-Jane photo I’ve chose for my WIP.

heroine 2

She’s really growing on me. I’m convinced I’ll make her shine. And hopefully make her smile too.

All of my responses were from women. I wonder: men, would you respond differently? But as a romance author, I’m writing for women. Or was this a genre thing (Amish readers ages 34-55)? Would it have been different for younger readers?

And what about our heroes? In secular romance novels, heroes are often dark and brooding with wicked pasts. It’s up to the heroine to bring out the good and change him. In Christian novels, the growth is often attributed to God. But what kind of heroes are Christian women seeking? Have you done any polls?

From my own experience, my favorite hero was my last one. He was ordinary looking. On a scale of one to ten, he started below zero with the heroine who remembered him as gawky and pesky from college. I developed his inner strength and found myself drawn to him more than my good looking heroes.

On book covers, publishers often hide the heroine’s face. But writers must describe character attributes.

So what do you think? Does it really matter how they look?

Or is it all about the writing?