This months' Write-Away Contest judge was the talented Annette Lyon. Her blog is The Lyon's Tale but beyond that her sixth novel (yes, sixth, people!) was released earlier this month and is called Tower of Strength. If you like historical fiction I suggest you check it out stat.
Ms. Lyon was kind enough to answer some questions I put to her and of course I focused on the topic of writing. What else?
What kind of benefits does writing a blog have over writing a novel?
While fiction is my first love, I have to say that blogging does have some great perks.
First, you can write a post and publish it in a short period, start to finish—in minutes or hours, depending on the post. A novel can take year before you see the final product.
Also, with blogging you can be read right away and get feedback fast. With a book, you write it, submit it, go through the entire publishing pipeline, and even when it’s on shelves, you often have to wait weeks to get a review or hear anything from readers.
What are the differences in writing techniques?
Blogs and novels are totally different animals. When you write a post that’s just a few hundred words long, you can grab the reader, talk about whatever is on your mind, and move on. A novel has to be complex enough to maintain reader interest for somewhere in the neighborhood of 95,000 words. Another element is that blog posts stand alone, while each scene and chapter of a novel has to work together as part of a much bigger whole.
Would you say one is harder than the other?
Fiction is harder for me for the simple reason that it’s more complex than blogging. There are so many plates to keep in the air (point of view, pacing, conflict and characterization, just to name a few). Another issue is that with a novel you have to please so many people. With blogging, there’s no publisher, editor, reviewer, or even reader with expectations hinging on something so much bigger than a blog post. In that sense, blogging is less scary.
How do you encourage your children to write and improve their skills?
The same way a lot of parents do—first and foremost by reading to them and letting them see me read. I still read aloud to them, even to my teenager. We often talk about books that we’ve read together and by ourselves, and they love discussing ideas for their own stories.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some things they’ve learned just from being around me and my critique group (which often meets at our house). The other day, my fourth grader complained about a book she was reading—how the author was telling instead of showing and had picked a poor tense to tell the story in. It was great.
How long does it take you to complete a novel from inception to publication? Can you give us an idea of the time line?
As you can imagine, a lot depends on the individual book and the publisher. For me, it’s not unusual for the entire process to take roughly two years. I’ve had both shorter and longer time lines, though.
Do you feel it’s necessary to hire a literary agent if you have a manuscript you’d like to see published? Why or why not?
Yes and no. It really depends on who you’re trying to get published with. My historical novels are with a regional publisher that doesn’t work with literary agents. Having one wouldn’t have helped me break in with them.
On the other hand, a writer shooting for New York publishing house almost has to have an agent. With the flood of submissions, editors don’t have time to read them all, and many won’t even look at un-agented material. Agents are the gatekeepers who wade through the slush pile.
I have some manuscripts that don’t really fit what my regional publisher does, so while I have no plans to leave them, I’ll be querying agents soon for those other projects.
How would you advise getting an agent?
Learn the process and follow the rules. You want to be professional. That means if a particular agent wants a query letter and the first ten pages, send that and only that. Another might want only snail-mail queries, while others take only electronic submissions. Find out what each agent wants and give it to them.
There are lots of resources out there that teach writers how to find an agent. Follow agent blogs like Nathan Bransford, Pub Rants, Janet Reid, and Query Shark to learn the ropes of what to do (and not do).
To find agents, use agent directories (such as Agent Query or Publisher’s Marketplace). Zero-in on ones that are a good fit for what you write. There’s no point in querying an agent with your awesome cookbook if they represent only young adult fiction.
Finally, know that you should never, ever pay an agent. Reputable agents make money when you do. They don’t charge reading or editing fees.
I’ve heard debate over the “write about what you know” rule. Do you agree that people should stick to writing about their own experiences?
If I believed I could only write what I know, I wouldn’t have six books published. My belief is that while what you know can be a fantastic jumping off point, keeping to that can be pretty limiting.
Since I write historical fiction, I do a lot of research about things I know nothing about firsthand. I often consult experts for help, and I’ve learned many fascinating things in the process.
I prefer to change the rule to, “Write what you’re willing to learn about” and “Write what you can imagine.” (What if J. K. Rowling had written only what she knew?)
How do you define success? Both as a mom and as a blogger?
As a mother, I believe a big part of my job is to prepare my children to be adults. I want them to be independent, well-adjusted, and moral. So anytime I see my kids maturing, trying out their own wings, and being kind to others, I feel like that’s a kernel of mothering success. My other big job as a mom is helping my children to have faith in God—a trickier one to measure, since a person’s spiritual life is hard to gauge, but it’s so important.
As far as blogging goes, I keep redefining success. I think there’s a point where most bloggers define it based on the number of hits and comments they’re getting. While I won’t pretend I don’t notice those things, I’m also to the point where the rewards of blogging are bigger. I love the interaction with readers—making personal connections and finding out how others think and feel and what their view of the world is.
I consider several bloggers dear friends even though we’ve never met in person. Those kinds of relationships are something I never anticipated when I started, but they’re definitely something that makes it worth the effort.
What’s your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Caveat here: While I’m known for my grammar peeves, I don’t really notice them on blogs and in casual conversation, so there’s no need to get paranoid that I’ll get an eye twitch reading someone’s blog!
One peeve that drives me bonkers is when “less” is used in place of “fewer,” which I see constantly on commercials (such as, “less calories”). If you can count the items, then it should be “fewer.” If it’s a general quantity, it’s “less.” So it’s, “less filling, fewer calories.” You’d never know that based on the ads we see, though.
What’s your favorite book on writing and improving your writing skills?
I have two: Stephen King’s On Writing is just fantastic. And Jack M. Bickham’s Scene and Structure was a huge eye-opener on how plot works.
What do you think the most challenging thing about being a woman today is?
Today’s woman has a huge challenge based on something no other generation has had: we have so many choices and opportunities.
We’re almost bombarded with choices. That’s great on one hand, but finding a balance between them all is a struggle. Each woman must answer the question for herself on how to manage her time and energy between God, spouse, children, home, career, passions, hobbies, service, and eighty-five other things (including blogging!) that pull at her. The trick is that almost all of these things are good, so it’s not as if we’re choosing a good thing over a bad thing. It’s between good things and other good things. There’s just no room for everything.
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