From Russia with Love

Susan Books, Life in Russia, On Writing, Scribbles


This year marks the tenth anniversary of my first novel being published. Happily Ever After came out in 2003 just as we returned home from the mission field in Russia, and I still remember staring wide eyed at the cover thinking…how on earth did this happen?

See the truth is that I never set out to get a book published. I was a missionary in Russia and loved what I did, had no desire really to do antic else. In fact, when someone suggested that I write a novel I thought, I can no more write a novel than I can be fluent in Russian.

At the time I was struggling to learn the language and the helplessness of being in a foreign country, unable to communicate drove me to books for escape. Oh, the sweetness of my mother tongue! But it was there, engrossed in the pages of a novel, I first felt the tugging, first heard the whispers . . . What if?

If I could learn Russian, perhaps I could also pen a novel.

Oh, my ridiculous attempts at speaking Russian should have scared me off. But I was just desperate and naive enough to believe I could learn this language full of guttural khas and sharp itchkas.

But perhaps that is what it takes to learn something as daunting as another language . . . whether it be Russian or the language of story. Naiveté. And passion.

And perhaps a few other things.

The truth is that all it took to be fluent in Russian is a commitment to the task, willingness to look like a fool and the determination not to quit.

Yeah, that’s all. Right.

But the truth is, one misspelled, then corrected word at a time, and someday you will get there.

This truth slowly hit home as, armed with nothing but a stack of giveaway novels, I would open them in the cold night after my children were ticked tight into their beds. Armed with a cup of Russian tea and a highlighter, I’d go to work, reading, dissecting, tabbing down pages, and noting words that sang to me in my little Russian notebook.

Never, I thought, as I studied these masters, and then put words to paper. Oh, my efforts could make me weep with frustration. How did these authors arrest words into these amazing sentences, create such realizing characters, whittle such intricate plots? I looked at my own sweaty attempts and nearly quit, over. And over.

But, like the acquisition of a new language, the more I fumbled about, the more fleeting success I had putting together a sentence, then a paragraph, then a chapter, the more the desire . . . and dare I say confidence grew, blossomed, and began to bear fruit.

I will never forget the triumphant joy of finishing my first novel. Yes, it was 400,000 words and completely unpublishable, but I had finished it.

Which meant I could finish another. And another until suddenly one day, the words would congeal as if by magic . . . and I’d make sense.

And then . . . someone might listen.

People often ask me what the secret to getting published is: There is no secret, of course. It’s hard work, and pressing on, looking foolish, being misunderstood, frustrated at your own inabilities to get it right until one day . . . you do. And you find that one person who suddenly hears you, understands your story. Your crazy Russian.

[Tweet “The secret to getting #published? There is no secret. @SusanMayWarren”]

So, two thoughts I bring from Russia, with love, to my writing friends on the journey:

1. Fluency takes time and practice. It doesn’t come overnight. Keep speaking and don’t despise the little steps, the tiny victories.

2. You will lose it if you don’t use it. Or strive to improve. After the sweat of learning Russian, I’ve used it little since retiring to the states, and although, when I need it, it will come back to me like a favorite song, some of the words are missing. Don’t let your skills stagnate.

What have you found to be the most difficult part of your writing journey?

Ya vero tebe!
C Bogom!

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