Pantser or Planner?

All writers are created differently.

We can sit in the same classes, but each of us holds different stories in our hearts and minds. Each of us has our own voice. Each of us has our own process or lack there of when we work on our books.

Thank the Lord we are all so different or we wouldn’t have a variety of stories and books filling the shelves and internet. But no matter how different our process or our stories, there is a rhyme and reason to structuring our novels.

I just got back from the Deep Thinkers Retreat through My Book Therapy where we focused on story and structure. Both Susie and Rachel write fantastic books. Both have different processes. As I sat listening to how they process and plan, I realized that I fall in the middle of their styles. I’m a planning pantser. Like how I just created my own title there?

Planners need an outline, a very specific structure. The story is mostly written before they begin. They just have to weave it. Pantsers don’t like the structure. They have it all in their head and heart and want to sit down and write however the story leads. There is a beauty to both. There is also a danger to both when we overcompensate. It is important to focus on story structure. It makes the story cohesive, focused, and strong. There is also a beauty to allowing yourself the flexibility for letting the scene change.

Historically, I write a very brief outline, focus on some character development and personality, and then hit the page. Often the structure would overwhelm me and make me feel boxed in, so I would toss my hands in the air and just start writing because there I find the freedom to breath.

After this retreat, I have realized I need the structure, I need to plan. I know how and have the tools to accomplish this in a manner that makes my character and plot sing. Then I need to use that to allow the words to just flow.

So where do you fall on the wide spectrum of writers? If you are a planner, plot that thing out. Know the ins and outs of your character. My boss always says to “plan to be flexible,” and I would echo that with your writing. No person, place, or thing is without the ability to change, even if only a little. No matter what you plan, the story will probably change as you write. Enjoy the process!

And for all my pantser friends out there, own it and enjoy! I would encourage taking a little time to make sure it all connects and then rock that flexibility.

I am discovering that I don’t need to follow the process of other writers. They are succeeding with their writing not because they all write the same, but because they have owned their voice, story, and process. Perfection isn’t the end goal. I would argue that connection with reader and excellence in the story is more important. However it works best for you, get that story on the page, write from the voice that God gave you, and do it to the best of your ability as unto the Lord and not unto man.

Are you a pantser or a planner? What works best for you?

Should I Write Fiction or Non-Fiction?

When I was an aspiring writer, I had no idea whether I should pursue novels, (fictional stories using made-up characters, scenarios, and plots), or nonfiction, (themed projects using real-life examples). So before I signed with WordServe, I wrote a proposal for both.

Juggling a Writing Career and a Day JobWhen my literary agent steered me in the direction of nonfiction, I felt two distinctly different emotions. One part relief, because it’s easier for me encourage, inspire, teach, and motivate through true stories and practical application. But I also felt a twinge of disappointment. After all, it’s a little more fun to make stuff up. Besides, you can get away with things under the guise of imagination, where non-fiction holds you to a strict standard of authenticity.

Mark Twain once said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” He also said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

Today, I’m much more comfortable in my true writer’s skin. Occasionally, I still feel the old pull to write novels, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll do it for fun, but for now, I recognize that I am on the right path. I was made to inspire through nonfiction. But it doesn’t mean I have to give up story-telling…as a matter of fact, for me, stories enhance the topics I am drawn to write about.

Maybe you understand my dilemma. If so, perhaps these bullet points will provide clarity. After all, facts help us make informed decisions.

Fiction

  • Defined by Merriam-Webster as written stories about people and events that are not real. Literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer; something that is not true.
  • Many readers are drawn to the escape of make-believe story, becoming passionate followers of characters.
  • You can hide truth in a fictional account.
  • There is an increased opportunity to sell two to three book deals as a fictional series.
  • There are fewer speaking platforms to engage with readers, and introduce them to your work.
  • There are fewer fiction publishers available to buy your books.
  • You must write the entire book before submitting it to publishers.

Nonfiction

  • Merriam-Webster describes nonfiction as writing that is about facts or real events. All writing that is not fiction.
  • Statistics show the greater majority of dedicated book buyers gravitate to nonfiction.
  • You can use fictional techniques to tell true stories.
  • On average, studies show nonfiction authors are paid more for their books.
  • With effort, you can find a place where groups gather for practically any true subject–and where they meet, a speaker is needed. Most publishers will require speaking platforms from nonfiction authors.
  • Tapping into felt needs sounds easy on the surface, but unearthing fresh subjects a publisher will buy, and a title that draws readers, is almost as tough as writing the book.
  • Though you need only write two to three chapters of your book, a thorough proposal including a solid marketing plan, comparative analysis of similar books, and complete outline with chapter blurbs is required.

Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Book CoverFor me, nonfiction is my natural fit, and reviewing these bullet points confirms my choice. I have a speaking platform. I prefer truth-telling over make-believe. I love to research facts, statistics, and the latest studies. I actually enjoy the challenge of coming up with a fresh approach to an existing issue, while pounding out a unique title.

There are readers for every genre, or those genres would fade away. Thankfully, there are writers to supply the demands. As an author, I must look at where I can do the greatest good, after all, the books I write ultimately belong to readers. I can’t pen it all, so wisdom says, write what I can pen best. In my case, this means nonfiction.

Are you writing fiction or nonfiction? Why is that your choice?

 

 

 

 

Do You Want to Change The World?

signing declarationWriters can be agents of social change.

I was reminded of that truth after hearing a keynote address at a conference for animal humane workers. The speaker, Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, discussed the importance of social change to transform communities in order to improve our treatment of animals. But her words could also be applied to what traits writers need to cultivate to do their job well; in fact, I felt that Amy’s characteristics of social change makers accurately described many of the writers I know. Here are Amy’s six key traits; do you see yourself in any of them?

Social change makers:

  1. Collaborate across sectors. In my own writing, be it the fiction of the Birder Murder Mysteries or my best-selling memoir Saved by Gracie, I draw from many fields of expertise. My sources are birders, dog owners, psychologists, trainers, sociologists, scientific researchers, conservationists, biologists and historians, to name just a few. To be effective, writing has to draw from the world of knowledge.
  2. Are inclusive. Writers want their message to reach wide audiences. To do that, we keep an open mind about who might benefit from our work, and we rejoice when a new market presents itself as one that we might engage productively.
  3. Build empathy. For any piece of writing to succeed, it has to appeal to the heart of the reader. Having something meaningful to share is the first step of the writing process.
  4. Choose curiosity over judgment. The best writers try to see the world with fresh eyes to uncover what is true. Judgment can shut down avenues of investigation that might just lead to new revelations that will transform myself and my readers.
  5. Check assumptions. Writers make careers out of questioning assumptions. Sometimes, we even turn them upside down in the course of our creative process and/or production. The result is new perspectives and new ideas that can often improve readers’ personal or public lives.
  6. Learn from those they serve. Whether it’s hearing about new conservation efforts to protect bird habitat, or effective approaches to increasing animal adoption, or the need for more transparency about mental illness, every bit of research I’ve done for my books has not only taught me more about the world and the people and creatures in it, but how I myself can better connect with and serve my readers by passing along what I have learned. On a regular basis, I hear from readers about the ways my writing has affected them, and it guides me as I plan my next project. Without that feedback, my writing lacks focus, not to mention effectiveness.

Given these shared characteristics of writers and social change makers, I find myself considering my own work as a potential agent for change in the world; I won’t be the first author to do so, nor the last. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” may have come from the pen of English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, but it expresses a timeless truth.

What will your pen accomplish today?  

Sharing Insights Through Stories

I first learned the value of stories in sharing insights through public speaking. A fascinating story can captivate an audience, build rapport, illustrate an important point, and make the speaker’s message memorable. In writing, an appropriate story can keep a nonfiction book from becoming dull, and teach truths about life in a work of fiction. So, what makes a good story?

Opened magic book with magic light

1. Vivid and Sufficient Details

In reading along with my daughters several children’s books awarded the Newbery Medal, I found myself transported to a different time and place by the skillful writing of the authors. In these books, the authors provided enough details to help the reader enter into the world described in the book. In describing a food foreign to most American readers, one author provided such vivid descriptions of the taste and smell that I felt as though I, too, was sitting down for dinner next to the characters in the story. In any story, too many extraneous details can cause the impatient reader to start skimming the page to the next section. These award-winning books had the proper balance of information and brevity.

2. Relevance

For a nonfiction writer seeking to illustrate a certain point with a story, relevance is vital. To illustrate the author’s message, the characters and plot must be relevant to the theme of the book, the intended audience, and the point to be made. In writing my nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I learned to edit out parts of a story that slowed down the reading of a passage without further elucidating the concept I was illustrating. In fiction, story lines that do not further the plot may be interesting, but they may also confuse the reader and become a distraction that takes away from the flow of the book.

3. A Story Arc

All stories, even short illustrations contained within one paragraph, need to have a story arc. We need to meet the character or characters in their everyday setting. Next, we learn of an event that brings a challenge to these characters and starts off the story. Then we must see the character(s) grow, learn something new, overcome a hardship, resolve a conflict, or make a difficult decision. Finally, we need a sense of closure as the changed character(s) resume everyday life in a new set of circumstances, perhaps a bit wiser for the experience.

Knowing what elements to include within each section of the story arc is an art. Timing makes the difference between a forgettable story and one that drives home the author’s message. Sometimes I find that reading a passage aloud can help me identify which words can be deleted and what sentences should be smoothed. Feedback from beta readers also can be useful for determining if a story succeeds in illustrating your point.

As a reader, I remember the insights I glean from stories more than those presented through statistics, lists of information, and persuasive language. When writing, I include stories for my readers to make it easier for them to process the insights I hope to share with them.

What do you think makes a good story?

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?

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)?