Monday, March 23, 2009

Ghostwriting--Interview with Lu Ann Staheli


by Heather Moore


One of our senior editors, Lu Ann Staheli, has been working for the past several months on ghostwriting a book. I thought it would be interesting to learn more about this process. Many books are ghostwritten—especially those you see with "celebrity authors". Some ghostwriters are acknowledged inside the pages (i.e. Glenn Beck’s book The Christmas Sweater had two ghostwriters). Others are acknowledged on the cover such as When Hearts Conjoin, by Erin Herrin with Lu Ann Staheli. Today, Lu Ann has joined us to share her journey of writing the story of Herrin family and their conjoined twins who were successfully separated.


1. From a ghostwriter’s standpoint, how do you begin a project like this? Of course, because I live in Utah where the Herrins twins were born, I had heard some of their story on the local news so I was at least familiar with who they were and some of what the girls had gone through in their short lives. When I first heard they were doing a book I thought, “Wow! What a great project. I wish that I could have written it.” As things worked out, the universe must have read my mind because last August I found myself in that very position. I was given a book outline, and few sample chapter pages, but I was told that Erin, the girls’ mother, didn’t feel the tone of what had been written was right. She wanted a more personal story instead of sounding like a magazine article. So I set to work, drafting a single chapter to get a feel for the project, choosing to write the book more like one might write a novel, using a first person narrative voice, and that voice had to be Erin’s. I hadn’t met Erin yet when I wrote that first chapter, but we sent it off to her, she loved it, and we were on our way. I met with her in October just to chat. It was a good experience because I was able to hear her true voice, begin to understand a little more about her, and to see first-hand her interaction and relationship with the girls, their sister Courtney, and her husband, Jake. The boys were not at home the day I visited. After that meeting, the real work began.


2. When creating the chapters and the flow of the book, how did you decide what information to use and what not to use? We didn’t want this book to turn into a medical procedural, yet we knew we had to maintain the story’s reason to be told. Erin wanted to insure that nothing in the book would ever delve too deeply into the girls’ privacy, so I had to weigh the information I discovered against making sure we had an accurate portrail of events, yet keeping the book more about the emotion instead of the medicine. Since we wanted to stay in Erin’s point of view, it was important to only share what she experienced, felt, and understood. There were many times I just tried to put myself in her place as I worked on the draft and let my own emotions and questions surface. The interesting thing was when I sent her the drafts she would often reply, “That’s exactly how I felt!”

3. The mother of the conjoined twins, Erin Herrin, is listed as a co-author. How did the writing relationship work between the both of you? After I met with Erin, I came home and started a draft of the book in earnest. A flurry of emails went back and forth between the two of us, details were added, I did online research to support what I was writing, Erin corrected things I hadn’t gotten quite right, sent me tidbits she had remembered, and answered my million questions, until at last we had it right. Sometimes she and I were online at the same time, so answers came quickly. Other times, I had to just write through a section and wait for her response. That meant I had to do rewrites a little more often on those sections, but as a writer, I think we all understand the need to just get words on the page and worry about revision and researching later.


4. What type of research did you find yourself doing to flesh out details? I did a lot of reading about conjoined twins in general, but mostly about Kendra and Maliyah. You’d be amazed at how much is really out there about these two little girls. Jake runs a website for them as well, and I watched several video clips of news reports about their surgery. I found online articles about the girls that even Erin didn’t know were available. I also had to learn about medical procedures and equipment. My husband is an LPN, so I asked him a lot of questions and he was able to explain things to me pretty well. Since I’ve never given birth to a child, I relied on my friends to tell me details about pregnancy, ultrasounds, labor, and nursing. Sometimes I think I heard more than I ever wanted to know.

5. When ghostwriting, what are some of the challenges you faced? And what aspects were easier than you thought? Originally I wanted to tell the story completely in chronological order, but I realized that the hook of this story was the girls, and although the family history played a key role, we needed to start with a dramatic moment, so I had to take their life story and organize it into a plot, just like I would for a novel or screenplay, a process I was already familiar with. I reviewed the chapter outline they had given me, and decided where the real story was found, to insure this didn’t become just a travelogue of events. I worried that Erin wouldn’t agree with me at first, but as the story started to come together and she could review the pages, she relaxed and felt good about where the book was headed. Probably the most difficult thing about this book was that Erin had tried so hard to shut out all the fears and bad memories from the past that she had almost blocked out some of the very details we needed to make this story alive enough to touch the hearts of the readers. Sometimes getting the chronological order just right, or remembering which doctor played what role, or sorting through details was confusing, but we hope anyone who finds an error will forgive us, knowing that revisiting this time in her life and the lives of the girls was not always an easy thing for Erin to do.

6. What types of agreements or contracts were made between you, as the writer, and the Herrin family, as the story source? I was originally approached to do this book as a straight ghost-writer, which means I wouldn’t have had my name on it at all. However, as the book progressed, and as Erin and I got to know each other via email and our in-person meeting, we both came to realize how important it was to work as equals on this project. She couldn’t do the book without me, and I couldn’t write her story without her. Erin’s original contract was with Richard Paul Evans as the publisher, and it’s through his company that all of us are being paid, so we came to an agreement that Erin and I would share the writing credits. The girls have their own share of royalties for their trust fund, so everyone wins. Erin and I have also talked about working together on a screenplay for a movie-of-the week based on the book, so that may come about in the future as well.


7. Most writers don’t have a hard time to write their own books, let alone one for someone else. How did you manage this project with your own personal projects? People often ask me how I manage to do all that I do at any given time. I don’t know. I’m a workaholic? I am always busy on something, and I have a husband who doesn’t mind cleaning house, cooking meals, shopping, and running kids around from this thing to that. (Well, let’s say he doesn’t always mind.) Because I’m an English teacher, there are times when my students are reading or writing that I can too. I don’t watch much television, and I’m usually in my home office for at least a few hours each day. I’ve gotten good at writing fast and using little pieces of time to reach my goals, although sometimes a favorite project gets set aside for something with a more immediate return. As a newspaper columnist, I learned how to write a 500 word piece from scratch to final draft form in under an hour. I’m also great at working on multiple projects at the same time, a talent that certainly came in handy as I wrote When Hearts Conjoin at the same time that I finished the screenplay for Seasons of Salvation.


Thanks, Lu Ann for sharing your ghostwriting journey with us!


Note: When Hearts Conjoin will be out May 2009.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Writing Schedules

by Annette Lyon

Sometimes I listen to a great podcast called Writing Excuses, produced with writers Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells. It's a very helpful podcast with lots of good information, and I recommend listening to it. Some of what they discuss refers specifically to fantasy and science fiction, but most of it is applicable to any genre.

One of the episodes, however, had me snickering and giggling: the one about a writer's schedule.

All three of the guys who are part of the podcast are full-time writers. I suppose they've forgotten what being a part-time writer was like, because they said things like (paraphrasing here):

"If I'm going to get any writing done, I need at least a four-hour block."

I burst out laughing.

Most of my writing career has been spent as a stay-at-home mom with several small children. Finding a four-hour block for writing was something that existed only in the realm of fantasy. Heck, for years, a TWO-hour block was pretty much an impossibility.

I had to find a way to make time, to use small snippets here and there. I learned to think ahead so that when I did have 30 minutes to write, I could type fast and make the most of the short session I had. I got really good at finding pockets of time and using them efficiently.

I wrote several books and sold lots of articles this way.

I imagine the vast majority of writers are in the same boat. They don't have large swaths of time to warm up and get into the mood and wait for the muse to strike. Not if they want to produce anything, anyway.

And that's fine.

Rumor has it that John Grisham worked as a lawyer while writing his first book, a page or so at a time during his 30-minute lunch break. Other now-famous blockbuster writers did the same before they could quit their day jobs.

If writing is a priority, you can find the time, even when a four-block is totally unrealistic.

Some ways:

What can you cut out of your life? Something will have to go, because there are only 24 hours in a day. Maybe it's a hobby. Or TV time (can you skip a sitcom six nights a week? That's THREE hours of writing!). Or it might be something else.

What can you consolidate or do faster? For example, if you ran all your errands on one day instead of spreading them out all week, you might be able to find a little time on a day or two to hit the computer. Maybe you can take the bus to work and write during the commute.

Plan ahead. That means both with finding time and with planning your writing. One small example: if I plan dinner well ahead of schedule (even doing something in the crock pot) then I can save myself half an hour or more that can be spent writing.

Then, if during the day, I thought ahead to what scene I'll write during that half-hour period, I can get right to work and be productive.

When are you sitting around doing nothing? I've written entire scenes in the doctor's office, the dance class lobby, and more. Time otherwise lost to the ether was made productive.

"I want to write, but I just don't have the time," is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Writers don't have time dropped handily into their laps. They MAKE time. They carve it out. They hunt it down, tie it up, and suck out every drop.

One irony: now that my youngest child is in kindergarten and I actually have a regular two-hour block, I find that I'm less productive in small snatches. It's as if my brain has realized it doesn't have to focus and work so hard--it's got two whole hours! Let's relax!

Next year when she's in school all day, I'd better not end up saying I need a four-hour block to get anything done.

If I do, smack me back to reality.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Observation Exercises

By Josi S. Kilpack

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass."

--Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

My father is a teacher of many things artistic--pottery, jewelry making, drawing, oil painting, sculpting, and photography. It's the photography I want to talk about a little bit, and a specific element of photography that I have never heard anyone talk about but my dad. That could very well be due to the fact that my only photography teacher has been my dad, but still :-)

The element is called 'point', and it's rather hard to describe in technical terms. Whereas line and curve and framing are all fairly easy to explain, point is an element that is best shown:

Pepper on a fried egg
A red tomato set within a basket of green peppers
Three black birds sitting on a power line
The steeple of a church
The star on a Christmas tree
The red ornaments on a Christmas tree
Two glowing green eyes peering between stalks of corn on a moonless night
The slight part of a bride's lips just before the groom kisses her

In photography, point is not the main subject, but it's the detail that draws the eye and is often the difference between a nice photo and a photo that you look at a second time. Imagine something as simple as a photo of a fried egg, what exactly does the pepper do for it?

Adds contrast? Breaks up the solid color?
I like the egg 'show' of what point is because the photo is not of pepper, it's definitely a photo of an egg, but you can't help but notice the pepper when it's there. It draws the eye, and yet does not change the subject of the photo.

In writing, the word 'point' is often thought of as the moral or the plot or the main conflict. I think that works pretty well--in most cases the 'point' is seen as the main event. I can talk to my kids for half an hour and then say "The point is . . ." effectively summing it up. So, there are definitely interpretations of the word. But for right now I want you to ponder the details of your current Work in Progress, viewing 'point' within the photography definition of the element. I want you to back up and look at the 'points' in your writing. What is it that makes your book different than others? Not in overall things, but in the detail. Things like:

The smell of freshly cut grass that clings to his skin
Highly polished loafers that catch the light of the ballroom
A nervous habit of shaking the coins in his pocket
The amber glints in her otherwise green eyes
The fact that there are two different colors of shingles on the house
A doorbell that plays the first measure of Bethoven's fifth symphony
A doorbell that plays nothing at all
The barking dog just after two a.m.

I promise that you have them--or better yet, I sincerely hope you have them. My favorite books always do. And yet sometimes I look at my own writing and find that those details are missing, that I've become so caught up in the 'Point' of my story that I've forgotten the 'point'--which is to make it real. To bring fiction--unreal; completely made up things--to life. I submit that it's those details that are the difference between good books and great books.

Look around you right now, where ever you happen to be and find point--a detail that draws your eye. It won't be your computer or your desk, but something small, something that almost goes unnoticed.

For me, it's the silver lettering on the spine of a book on my desk that reflects the light of my computer; it looks like christmas lights set inside the cover. Or perhaps it's the orange highlighter wedged between a hundred other writing utensils in my pen holder. Maybe it's the sheen of the light that catches the scotch tape holding a quote to the wall above my desk, or the smudge of black on the side of my printer that I've never gotten around to cleaning.

Take a minute and notice the details, the points, around you. Then find a way to show them in words, to create them for your reader. Doing this type of exercise on a regular basis will not only make you more aware of the world around you, but will likely make your readers more aware of the world you create in your book--and that, after all, is really the point, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

One of the Many Revisited

by Annette Lyon

Last time I talked about how there are so many aspiring writers out there and how only those few with the inner fire will make it.

As a follow-up, I feel like I need to explain my general writing philosophy.

One commenter said in part:

Everyone should be encouraged to write. It's never a waste of time--even if all they do is write little stories for their children, or blog or letters to missionaries.

I couldn't agree more. But since my two opinions seem to conflict, today I'll clarify my stance.

Writers who think it would be "neat" to publish a book most likely won't get there. That's why I say it's a waste of time to encourage and mentor these folks. They're traveling a path they don't have any intention of seeing the end of (especially when--not if--it takes major ups and down to reach that end).

What's the point of that?

That's what last week's post was about.

What I also believe is that writing as a process should always be encouraged. There is power to putting words together and expressing one's innermost thoughts and feelings.

In a very real way, writing can be a powerful form of meditation and prayer.

Writing can free the mind and heart and even act as a type of therapy, a catharsis.

Writing helps you learn what you really think and really feel about a topic, a situation, an event, or even a person.

Writing out a personal problem can help you solve it.

And writing can do much more.

I believe everyone on the planet should be this kind of writer. Everyone could benefit from the simple act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and making something out of nothing, of putting their souls into words and expressing themselves if this amazing medium.

This need to communicate, this power of writing, I believe, is the reason behind the huge boom in blogging and the increasing number of blogs every single day. Anyone can write and have a readership. It's revolutionary.

People want to write. They want to be heard. They want to express themselves.

And they should do all of those things, whether they are one of the few with the fire of publication inside them . . . or whether they are not.

Because everyone should write. This world might be a happier place if there were more people writing things out, regardless of whether it ever gets published.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Is This a Kissing Book?

By Julie Wright

I was a guest speaker at the LTUE symposium a couple of weeks ago and oddly enough, was placed on a panel dealing with romance in the science fiction and fantasy markets.

The room was full. People wanted to know how to include good romance in their novels and what consisted of good romance. I was surprised. I didn't think anyone would show up to that panel.

What made the panel extra cool (aside from the fact that I was on it) was that Tracy and Laura Hickman were on it with me. These are people who are universally acknowledged as brilliant writers. They've won the accolades of generations worth of readers. In short, they know what they're talking about.

And the discussion went to the basic human need to be part of a companionship. Humans need love. They need to give it and receive it. And all things at their core come down to that one amazing word: LOVE.

It is no wonder that an infant deprived of affection will literally perish from a syndrome called "Failure to thrive." At the beginning of the last century, the mortality among children under two years of age, living in orphanages in Europe and in North America, was almost 100%. These children were being well taken care of physically. They had all the food and health care they needed. Yet hundreds of those babies died. At that time, they feared touching the babies would spread germs and infection. That was changed in 1920 by a pediatrician who made a rule that all babies get a certain time allotment for "mothering" every day. The mortality rate dropped dramatically. The babies only needed love in order to survive.

Love is so wired into our basic needs that we will die without it, much like we will die without oxygen and food. So, should your book have an element of romance? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends if you want to relate to your reader at a very basic emotional level or not. Part of your job as a writer is to make certain your readers can relate to the characters. If you have aliens, you can't make them so alien that the reader cannot connect with them, or you fail as a writer.

At the beginning of Princess Bride, the young sick boy interrupts his grandfather and says with a great deal of accusation, "Is this a kissing book?"

When Grandpa gets to the kissing part, he stops reading, but is encouraged to continue by the same child who had already declared he wanted nothing to do with kissing. Why the change?

Because even at his young age, and feeling a little hesitant to step into something that might brand him as a sissy, the child recognized that true love really does conquer all.

And I'm not saying you have to have kissing and sex in your novel--I'm saying you need love. That love can come from a relationship between a man and woman, a mother and daughter, two best friends willing to die to save each other--it can come from any relationship where two humans let go of their own pride long enough to find something worth living for.

You might find yourself saying, "Well, this is a historical book." What? People didn't love each other historically? Or maybe you're writing a war novel. Do you think people give up their basic needs just because they are in a war?

Even the Grinch needed his heart to grow in order to find his happy ending.

No, you don't always have to include romance (in the strict sense of boy meets girl), but if you want your book to strike that perfect chord of poetry where you have spoken to your reader in a language they will always understand, you'd better make certain to remember Love.