Mormon Artist

Annette Lyon

Annette Lyon has been writing ever since second grade, when she piled pillows on a chair to reach her mother’s typewriter. A cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English, she has had success as a professional editor and doing newspaper, magazine, and business writing, but her first love is writing fiction. She’s perhaps best known for her historical novels centered around the four old Utah temples. Her most recent novel, Band of Sisters: Coming Home (January 2013) is the sequel to the Whitney Award-winning novel Band of Sisters. Website
Photo courtesy Annette Lyon

Have you always wanted to be a writer? How did your writing career start?

I’m one of the weird writers bit by the bug early on. I began writing in second grade, originally because my older sister, Mel, was writing, so it had to be cool. (She’s currently finishing her MFA in creative writing and specializes in creative nonfiction.) I never stopped writing, and even as a teenager, I thought how great it was that what I wanted to do with my life professionally dovetailed nicely with my other desire of being at home as a mother.

I consider my official start to be Labor Day weekend of 1994. That’s when I mailed off my first submission (and subsequently received my first rejection). It’s when I got serious about writing and never looked back.

Why did you choose to write for the LDS market?

In some ways, it chose me. The story ideas I had in the late 90s and early 2000s were influenced so much by my Mormon-ness that the stories coming out of me were overtly Mormon. The LDS market was the obvious—and possibly only—place to send them. I decided to shoot for one of the then three big publishers who did LDS fiction (Covenant, Deseret Book, and the now-defunct Bookcraft), knowing I’d be disappointed in myself if I settled for someone smaller. When I began writing Band of Sisters, I had no idea if I’d even offer it to an LDS publisher, but then suddenly I had one character show up at a Relief Society meeting and another wanting a priesthood blessing. I sort of shrugged at that, thinking, I guess it’s an LDS novel after all.

I always knew I’d eventually write something besides LDS fiction, but the fire to write those stories burned for many years, and I feel there was a reason for me being in the LDS market.

Image courtesy Annette Lyon

What motivates you to write?

This may sound odd, but I write because I’m more me when I’m regularly putting words down. I’m a better wife, a better mom, a better servant in the kingdom. I’m simply happier and more aware of my blessings. I’ve had a few experiences where I stopped writing for a period, and each time, I’m reminded with a smack to the head that I can’t stop.

The first time was years before my first novel was published, soon after I sold a few articles. I stopped writing for two months because I was supposedly “too busy” with three little kids and a demanding calling, but my life promptly fell apart—no matter how hard I worked, I had less time for my family and my calling, and the house looked like a bomb went off. I worked like crazy but got nowhere, like running on a hamster wheel. The kids could sense my stress and acted out. It was like a cyclone was tearing things apart. One day, out of sheer desperation, I took twenty minutes to write, and I did the same thing the next day. Lo and behold, the cyclone calmed right down. That’s forty minutes over two days—less time than a Sesame Street episode. I realized then that I couldn’t wait to write until the kids were grown. For their sakes, I had to keep going, writing regularly, even if it was only a few minutes a day.

Another time, years after becoming a published novelist, I’d missed my critique group meetings for about four weeks straight for various reasons. On the next meeting night, one of the kids came down with a slight fever, and I said, “I guess I’ll miss critique again.”

My husband shook his head and said, “Please go. I need my wife back.” He could sense that I was losing my mind without spending time with my writing friends and in the writing mentality.

L. M. Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame) wrote in her journal that “When I am writing I am happy for I forget all worries and cares.” That idea resonates for me, yet in my case, it’s less that I’m happy when I write and more that I’m happy after I write and during periods in which I write regularly. I can always tell when I’ve been editing others’ work or focusing on the business side too much; I get stressed out, cranky, and depressed. One good writing session can turn all of that around, and I leave my computer wondering why I keep forgetting how much better I feel when I write.

Tell us about your writing process—do you have a specific routine or time you like to write?

I would love to be able to be one of those people who wakes up at five in the morning to write while the house is quiet, but the truth is, while my parents are early birds, that gene skipped a generation. One of my daughters loves getting up early, and I envy that. I’ve always had a hard time waking up. It doesn’t help that this school year, two of my teens insisted on taking early morning seminary to free up their high school schedules. Isn’t living in Utah one of the perks of not having to do early morning seminary? Oy.

My body and mind literally take a few hours to fully wake up—I’m a bit of a zombie before that—so if I were to try to write then, anything that came out would be utter drivel. Because of that, I spend my mornings doing things that don’t require much brain power: laundry, dishes, exercising, and so on. My most productive writing time is after that. I try to work hard from ten or eleven in the morning until the kids get home from school, around 2:30. At times I can get a little extra work in after that, depending on their activities.

Sometimes I leave the house altogether and write at a bakery or the library so I’m not distracted by the siren call of duties like housework. When I need more time to meet a deadline, I’ll work in the evenings and pull late nights, which are far easier for me to do than early mornings.

When my kids were little, though, I had to get more creative. I didn’t have long stretches to write, so I used otherwise busy, brainless times (like household chores) to think ahead to my next scene, what I’d write the next time I had forty-five free minutes. Then I’d hit the ground running when I got my hands on a keyboard. I wrote a lot this way—cranking out a 1500-word scene in the dance studio lobby, in the rec center hall during gymnastics class, in the dentist’s waiting room, in the car waiting to drive carpool, whatever. My Alphasmart Neo saved me back then.

The older I get, the more my ADD (technically ADHD-I) interferes with my writing, so staying focused for long sessions is getting harder. I’m starting to go back to what worked ten or so years ago: write in those focused, thought-out spurts.

My real secret weapon, though, is my angel friend and accountability partner, Luisa Perkins. We’ve had a system for a couple of years now where we email our to-do lists the night before or early in the morning, and then we text throughout the day as we knock items off our lists and cheer each other on. If my phone goes off several times in a row without me replying with my own accomplishment, I know I need to get my act together. If I’m having a rough day, Luisa’s warm encouragement and prayers are only a text away, even though we live states apart.

Photo courtesy Annette Lyon

How was your writing process different when you wrote Paige and collaborated with the other authors of the Newport Ladies Book Club?

The Newport books were the first time I had to incorporate other people’s opinions and ideas into my own book—this went way beyond getting outside feedback, which you can consider and then either use or discard. Yet the entire process was a total blast, easily one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had, and it stretched me in ways I didn’t know I could go. It wouldn’t have worked with just anyone, though; my co-authors are both some of my best friends and writers I admire professionally. I knew I could trust them implicitly.

For the most part, for the first set of Newport books, I did most of my writing with the other authors on weekends we’d get together overnight. The collaboration had a level of synergy I have yet to find anywhere before or since. Everyone set their egos aside for the sake of the project as a whole.

The second set of books turned out to be very different. We did get together to map out the basic storylines and how our characters’ lives would intersect, but we didn’t have nearly as much time together during the actual writing. I missed that. (The first book in the second set was released in July, and the last will likely be released summer 2014. The full series will have taken almost six years from concept to completion.)

Where do you draw your storyline inspiration from?

From the world around me. That sounds a bit vague, but it’s true. I came up with a character thanks to an Ann Landers column. One of my novellas was inspired by a Collin Raye song. A line from a TV show merged in my head with a conversation I had with my brother, resulting in an entire plot idea. For my historicals about the four old Utah temples, researching the locations always led to my main characters appearing almost fully formed in my head, but only after several weeks of research (and always at the point where I was sure I’d never come up with a story). In one case, a line of dialog belonging to the heroine popped into my head when she trotted on stage as I blow-dried my hair. For the Band of Sisters series, I was inspired by watching a friend go through deployment and hearing her talk about how it was not what she expected. Stumbling onto an idea is the easy part; turning it into a book worth reading is the challenge.

You’ve written across a broad spectrum of genres—a cookbook, a children’s fantasy, even a book on grammar. Is your process on those different from your other novels? Which genre is your favorite to write in?

The writing process with nonfiction is definitely different from fiction. In some ways, it’s easier. I can work on nonfiction piecemeal over months and never lose my momentum; there’s no need to get into the flow of a fictional world or to plan out character motivations, plot arcs, and the like. The cookbook was a different animal altogether and presented a huge challenge—I spent months in the kitchen, with only minutes here and there at the computer. It didn’t feel like a writing experience at all, and it was incredibly stressful. (You know something is wrong when the smell of cocoa makes a chocoholic nauseated.) When I finally returned to fiction, I had a total writer identity crisis that lasted several years. I wondered which genre I should write and if I even could write fiction anymore.

Fortunately, I’m past that. Although I have some plans for other writing-related books, fiction is still my first love. As for genre, I used to think I’d end up doing middle-grade or young-adult fantasy, possibly because so many LDS writers in Utah write for that market. In a sense, I had to be okay with never belonging to the cool club, but between the Newport books and my Band of Sisters series, I know I’ve finally found my wheelhouse in women’s fiction. That’s where I belong.

Finding my writing home earlier would sure have been nice, but I joke that I had to live as an adult for a couple of decades before having enough maturity and life experience to be able to write women’s fiction well—and I’m only half kidding.

What advice would you give to Young Annette as she just starts her writing career?

Oh, wow. Probably to trust your gut and don’t worry about what other writers around you are doing. Don’t compare your writing or your journey with theirs. You have a different path and different things to share with the world. It’ll take time, but hang in there. The road is rough and steep and slippery at times, but the vistas are totally worth it.

Image courtesy Annette Lyon

How do you balance your writing career with family and church obligations?

As I mentioned, I believe it’s thanks to writing that I can balance my life. Yet I don’t necessarily balance things perfectly. There are times when deadlines and other obligations creep into family time, or my calling may slip to the side for a day or two.

One big thing I’ve learned is that to be a serious writer, something has to give. For example, I used to be an avid scrapbooker. Someday, I’ll probably spend a week getting family pictures up to date in a digital scrapbook (of course, I’ve been saying as much for ten years now), but scrapbooking as a regular hobby is long gone.

In a similar vein, the only TV I see is whatever family members happen to be watching as I walk through the house, and Dr. Phil or maybe the morning news as I sort laundry and clean the kitchen. (Dr. Phil is a treasure trove for character and plot ideas!) And sometimes Studio C gets thrown into the mix in lieu of Family Home Evening. (Ahem.)

I’ve also decided that my writing is more important than having a perfect, Martha Stewart-like house. I assign household chores to the kids, do a little cleaning daily myself, and call it good. I rarely clean toilets or vacuum—the kids do that—and the older ones do their own laundry.

Years ago, I was heavily involved with the Utah Chocolate Show, and things got so busy that I knew something had to give: family, church obligations, writing, or the show. When I looked at it that way, the choice was obvious, if not easy. Family and church were givens, and my writing was non-negotiable, so I dropped the show, even though it was a great experience. It’s about priorities, and that often means reevaluating what I’m doing day by day.

The LDS market is relatively small and focused—what do you think needs to change or stay the same in order for it to keep thriving?

Tough question. In an ideal world, I’d say that having more publishers—more avenues to publish—would help, but that’s not realistic, because the retail outlets are owned by publishers, and without a store chain, any new publisher is at a big disadvantage from a distribution standpoint. I’ve seen many publishers start, struggle, and close, leaving a monopoly for Deseret Book and Covenant, who have a very narrow audience base that isn’t really growing.

So in that vein, I’d love to see those two sister companies (which do function separately) try to reach out to new readers rather than just marketing to the same readers over and over again. I run into readers who have finally been convinced to read an LDS novel for a book club or something, and they say things like, “I thought LDS fiction was all bad, but I really liked this! I think I’ll read more!”

Granted, not everything on the shelves is great, but every year, a higher percentage is—the problem is that too many readers assume the market got stuck in 1989 and has never improved, or they read one book (one that happens to be not too great) and judge the whole market based on that. To continue, the readership needs to grow, and grow a lot—but I think it’s possible, if the marketing departments will think beyond the typical guaranteed sale of the mom who gets the circular in the mail.

In the future, I’m guessing we’ll see much more self-publishing by LDS writers for LDS-themed books, offering a broader scope of what it means to be Mormon and write within that framework—and I think that’s great. That may well mean a lot of books that aren’t Deseret Book or Covenant “appropriate,” as they have to cater to the most conservative readers.

I would like to see better, fairer contracts, which would certainly help publishers attract—and, more importantly, hold on to—great writers. I know many writers who have refused to sign unfair contracts, and I applaud that. I’m lucky in that I have a better contract than many, but I’m saddened that instead of getting better as the years go by, some contracts have gotten worse.

My one concern with self-publishing is that because it’s so easy, new writers won’t take the time to really work on their craft as long as they should, getting the outside feedback, professional editing, and proofing needed to make a book polished. Sub-par work hurts everyone.

What future projects of yours can we look forward to?

Right now I’m part of the Timeless Romance Anthology series with Heather B. Moore and Sarah M. Eden. We put out four anthologies a year, each with six novellas (three of our own plus three from guest writers we invite). I edit them all as well, so they keep me busy, and we have plans to continue them for the foreseeable future.

My final Newport book, Ilana’s Hope, will be out April of 2014, followed by a reunion book by all four co-authors, which will conclude the series. The four of us are writing that book round-robin style right now.

In addition, I have a several women’s fiction projects in the works. One is a historical set during a little-known conflict of World War II, which hearkens to my family history. I’m a little giddy over that one and pray I’ll be able to do it justice. I imagine I’ll continue to do clean romance novellas and issue-driven, sometimes hard, women’s fiction. That’s where I feel most at home and what I feel I’m supposed to do.

How do you see your work helping to build the kingdom?

I’ve read studies that show fiction readers as being more able to empathize with other people from different walks of life, because living in a fictional world provides the experience of seeing people and events from different viewpoints. In some ways, I think fiction helps us move closer to being like our heavenly parents.

Van Gessel, former Dean of Humanities as BYU, gave a powerful devotional where he defended reading fiction, saying, in part, “Can we, I wonder, ever be gods and goddesses of our own universes, eternal parents of imperfect beings who will have to go through the mortal travails as each of us will have done, without somehow having an understanding of and even an empathy toward our flawed progeny?” and went on to say that fiction is one powerful way to do learn how to gain that understanding.

I hope my writing provides a window into another perspective. I do consider writing as a calling, something I’m supposed to do. For many years, every priesthood blessing I received, even when I was set apart for a new calling, mentioned my writing as something I needed to do and would find time for.

I have received letters from readers who have been influenced by my LDS books in spiritual ways, and those are absolute treasures.

Yet I no longer write LDS fiction exclusively. I feel very good about what I’m writing and where my work is headed—and how it could potentially build the kingdom in different ways, even if my primary audience isn’t LDS, and even if what I’m writing offends some readers.

I believe that the key to building the kingdom in any way is to remember that you’re an instrument. You can’t do anything on your own; the Lord has to step in and make something of your meager, mortal offering. He can make it better than you can, and he can ensure it reaches the hands of those who would benefit from it. Keeping prayer as part of the equation is crucial to staying on track.

I’ve been in the industry a long time, so I’ve seen many writers develop big heads and egos. I believe that’s when the potential for building the kingdom drops off. Right now I’m in one of those pendulum swings where I’m convinced that everything I write is awful, so I don’t think getting a big head is a current danger. Yet I’m fully aware it could be a problem one day, so it’s something I need to guard against. The day I think I’m all that is the day I stop being an instrument in building the kingdom and the day my writing ability may well be taken away. ❧

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