What is Voice and How Do You Find Yours?

Aug 27th 2014
Posted by Susan


Outside, the wind howled, the thermometer dropping to a bracing negative nine degrees as I waited for Sally to arrive for our Monday Morning conversation. I had hoped she’d found a story question as she thought about the themes of her story. Ironically, I’d been thinking about marketing my new book, and had to return to the storyquestion of that book to create the right marketing and PR campaign.

I blew on my hot cocoa, glad I’d opted for a large as Sally came in, wrapped in a scarf and hat, the icy blast dragging in behind her.

Anne already had her coffee ready. Sally set a stack of books on the table as she retrieved her coffee. I looked at her choices – Jane Eyre, the movies Pearl Harbor and Casablanca, and one of my favorites – Redeeming Love. An interesting collection and I searched to find the connection as she sat down and unwound her scarf, her cheeks rosy. “You said you wanted my favorite books.”

“Tell me why you love these,” I said.

“I love Pearl Harbor because of the mix of historical fact and the fact that the story is romantic and personal.”

I nodded. “That’s what makes a story set against an epic backdrop so fascinating – how it affects individuals. James Cameron did it in Titanic too.”

“I want to weave in the details, while still keeping the story focused on the character.” She picked up Redeeming Love. “I love the theme of this one, the unconditional love of God. And the hero is so…heroic.”

“So, you love the characters and the story question – does God love us even when are sins seem unforgiveable.”

“And the way she tells it. No fancy language, just a great story.” She picked up Jane Eyre. “And yet, I love the style of writing. Poetic and rich.”

“And this one?” I held up Casablanca.

“The romantic angst and tragedy. “

“You are a romantic,” I said. “And I’ll bet a fan of Benny Goodman and Mary Jane shoes.”

She grinned.

“I’m going to save my Casablanca discussion next week when I talk about the four things that every book has to have. But for now I want to gather these elements to talk to you about Voice.”

Outside, the wind shook the panes of the windows, a film of ice building along the sash.

“Voice is about the way you tell your story. An agent friend of mine, Sandra Bishop, calls voice the author’s ‘Personality on the Page’.”

“But I thought an author isn’t supposed to intrude into a story.”

“You’re correct. Author intrusion is annoying. It pulls you out of the story. It’s like an “aside” in a play, where the character walks to the front of the stage and addresses the audience directly, giving them an explanation, or begins to tell us some nifty information about the history of windmills or something the author feels we need to know, even if your character doesn’t know it. It can sometimes also happen when an author wants to get on their soapbox about something, often unrelated to the plot. They just want to use their fiction, now that their reader is trapped in the story, to make a point. As an author, you want to be invisible on the page. Only the characters should speak.”

“Then how do you put your “personality on the page,” if you’re not supposed to be visible on the page.”

“Have you ever been in a play?”

“Actually, yes. I was a church lady in the Worst Christmas Pageant Ever.”

“So, you know that you are given a set of lines, and you have to make them come to life. Your job is to add the life and breath to the lines. And every actor takes those lines and does something different with them. As a novelist, your voice in the story is the particular way you tell the story through your characters, your syntax, your grammar, the rhythm of sentences, even your choice of words. Think if it as your style.”

“How do I know what my style is?”

“Do you watch HGTV?”

“Of course.”


“To get ideas of what I want to do.”

“What you like, right? So you’ll find your style.”

She nodded.

“You do the same thing with books. You gravitate towards these authors and stories because there is something about their writing and storycrafting that sings in your soul. Your job this week is to find out why. I want you to go through these books with a highlighter, and note every sentence, every character nuance, every plot device that you love. Even better – take a notebook and write these elements down so you can see it all at once. It’s a collection of your favorite examples of Voice, and it will help you recognize the style you like.”

“But I don’t want to write like them.”


“Okay, I guess I do. But my way.”

“Of course. And you will. Because after you collect these examples, I want you to take a look at them and figure out why you like them. Is it the words, the turns of phrase, the rhythm, the characterization techniques? These are the things you will incorporate into your writing – in your own way.”

She was looking at me like I might have lobsters growing out of my ears.

“I promise, it will make sense when you do it. But here’s your truth for the week. Your voice won’t matter if you haven’t nailed your grammar. When you’re writing, you have to know the fundamentals of grammar to allow your voice to emerge. The better you can write, the more your voice is freed. Sort of like how when you know the steps of a dance, you can add embellishments.”

“I have a copy of Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style at home,” she said.

“Perfect. Because that’s part of your homework this week. I dare you to read through Elements of Style, and really review the foundation of proper written language. Then take a highlighter to your favorite books. It’s okay, it’s not a sin, I promise.”

She laughed. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

“And in the meantime, I have a test for you. Watch Pearl Harbor and Casablanca and see if you can figure out the four elements they have in common, besides the war theme. I’ll give you a hint – the four things are what make a film, or a book, a best-seller.”

“Popcorn, a blankie, romance and tears?” She winked as she gathered up her bag.

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Conversations with an Aspiring Novelist

Aug 20th 2014
Posted by Susan


I agreed to meet Sally at the local coffee shop on a Monday morning, and I told her to bring a notebook. I’d seen her at church a few times with her four children hanging off her like she might be monkey bars. She ran the children’s program and had even pulled off the church Christmas musical with twenty haloed children in under a month, so I knew she had energy as well as the chops to make it happen if she wanted it.

She wanted to write a novel.

I told her over the next year, I would be glad to help get all the way to a finished manuscript. She simply needed to be willing to hear the truth and dare to take my advice.

I sat there nursing my extra tall latté, watching the snow peel from the sky, the drifts lining the rocky shoreline outside the window remembering my own journey, started in Siberia, Russia. Armed with just a desire to write a novel, I began to pull books off my shelves and studied the masters.

Now, thirty-five novels, later, I am still amazed at the journey. I’ve learned a few things, made a number of mistakes, took a few courageous steps and now looked forward to helping Sally Anderson become a published author.

She came in five minutes late, wearing a parka, a skier’s hat and carrying a messenger bag, her eyes bright, if not a little nervous. She dumped her bag on the chair and tugged out a three-ring binder. “I brought a sample of my writing,” she said and handed it to me as she went to order her coffee.

I read through it while I waited. A few newsletters, short stories, a children’s play, a number of devotionals. All interesting, if not just a little predictable, the writing solid, if not engaging. But enough of a voice that with the right encouragement, she might encourage it to sing.

She had potential. And when she sat down with her moose mocha, enthusiasm. “Thank you for meeting with me! I just love your books. I want to write like you someday.”

I handed her back her notebook. “I want you to write like you someday,” I said with a smile. “Tell me why you want to be a writer.”

I wasn’t just being polite. I have found as I’ve taught writing across the world, that there are different types of novelists. There are those who have a message and want to change the world by writing it into a novel. These folks are zealous, but they aren’t always writers – sometimes they are simply evangelists, and writing a book seems the easiest way to get their message out. I fear for them because they sometimes become easily discouraged when they see other books written on their topic. Or if they have the book they’ve worked so hard on, with such a great message turned down by an agent. (Who clearly doesn’t know what they are doing.)

Then there are those who have endured incredible suffering or struggles and are seeking to make sense of it through a gripping novel. Maybe, if they write a best-seller, their suffering will be justified. I try to help them see the other side – the part where people might not appreciate their suffering, and in fact, the Amazon reviews could only cause more struggle (because even if there are thousands of great reviews, the few negative ones will eat away at their purpose). To these folks I say, “You didn’t suffer so you could write a book. And your novel won’t suddenly justify your struggles. You have to find that answer, that peace somewhere else.” Here’s some truth: If you aren’t happy with who you are before you are published, you won’t be after you’re published. It only gets harder, really.

So, I asked the question with a little intake of my breath, hoping..

“I think story has the power to change lives…”

Uh oh.

“And I have a number of life experiences that I think would be interesting in a novel, and I think I’m supposed to share them…”

I tried not to wince.

“But really, I just can’t help but write. I love words, and how they flow together, and I love stories and spend way too much time dreaming up plots. I know my kids are little, but I just can’t escape this urge to write. I would do it even if I never got published.”

I wanted to give her a little hug, but I didn’t want to scare her off. “Yes. Isaac Asmiov said, “I’d rather write than breathe.” This is the mark of a true novelist – that idea that you can’t turn off the stories, or the words. You must have this kind of passion to stay the course of writing a novel, because I promise, there will come the day when you want to put the book down and walk away.”

She looked dubious.

“Your passion, however, won’t let you.”

She nodded.

Sally, I could work with. “Do you have a story idea?” I asked, needing a warm up on my latte.

“Not yet. Can you help me?”

“I can’t help you find a story, but I can point you where to look. See, every story starts with a story spark – a great idea generated by something you see or hear and nurtured by something you care about. My latest book, The Shadow of your Smile, was sparked by the thought of my daughter leaving for college, and what I would do if something ever happened to her. The story spark acts as your Vision for your novel, and generates the story question that will drive your reader through your story.”

“A Story question?”

“We’ll get to that. But here’s your assignment, if you dare: Write a list of Five things you are passionate about. Five things you fear the most. Five things you’ve always wanted to do, and Five interesting things that have made you stop and think in the past couple weeks. Then apply a what if question to each of those Five things.”

“Like the fact that I lost my son in the mall for twenty minutes during Christmas?”

“Exactly that. What if…what if you hadn’t found him? What if someone took him? What if…I dunno…Santa took him?”

She smiled.

“But seriously, it’s those sorts of situation and questions that can lead to a novel spark. Now that you have the truth – do you have the courage to take the dare?”

She finished her coffee and gathered her notebook. “I’m a mom. What do you think?”

Yes, I liked Sally a lot. I couldn’t wait see what she came up with next week.

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A Christy Awards Interview

Aug 13th 2014
Posted by Susan

Thank you again, dear readers, for supporting my books and my writing! Without your support, I would not be the author I am today, and my book Take a Chance on Me would not have received a Christy Award. Check out this interview I did after this year’s Christy Awards ceremonies:

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Winner Announced from My ‘When I Fall in Love’ KitchenAid Mixer Contest

Aug 11th 2014
Posted by Susan


Congratulations to the winner of my When I Fall in Love KitchenAid giveaway and Hawaiian chef showdown, Megan Besing! Megan, you’ve won a KitchenAid mixer, books 1–3 of the Christiansen Family series, Melissa Ringstaff’s Kitchen Planner, and Jackie Brown’s Freezer Inventory sheet! Please email your mailing address to my assistant, Caitlin (caitlin {at} litfusegroup {dot} com), to claim your prize!

You can check out some of the submitted recipes HERE! Yum!

Enter to Win a KitchenAid Mixer in My Hawaiian Chef Showdown

Jul 24th 2014
Posted by Susan

It’s 7:00 pm. I’m holed up in my office, tapping away at the computer, wrestling out a new scene. In this one, my hero and heroine are preparing dinner. Pad Thai. With noodles and shrimp, bean sprouts and eggs. I can nearly taste it.

Except, I can’t really because no one is in the kitchen at my house, no one frying garlic and onions, chopping carrots, boiling pasta. And, it’s been hours since my last meal. If you count an apple with peanut butter as lunch.

But I’m so into the scene, I can’t look up, can’t tear myself away from the flow. So, my stomach growls as I write about the crunch of the peanuts, the tangy cilantro.

Then, suddenly, I hear a door open. Close. Steps. The creak of the refrigerator.

Maybe my youngest son, home from work. Hopefully he won’t ask me what’s for supper.

I hope he likes apples. And peanut butter.

I’m well into the back half of the scene when I smell it: the fragrance of onions frying in olive oil. Then the sizzle as pork is added, and the smell of curry rising upstairs. Rice—it’s in the cooker and the nutty aroma draws my attention.

I press hard to finish the scene. The hero is reaching across the table, taking the heroine’s hand, about to—

“Supper’s ready!”

Supper? I look up. The smells are abundant, intoxicating and my roiling stomach presses me to hit SAVE. To put the computer aside.

Rise. Go forth.

Enter the land of the real. The tasty.


“Hi, honey. I’m home,” my husband says, handing me a plate of pork curry over rice.

“It’s about time,” I say and wink.

I love food. Especially when I don’t have to make it! I’m so blessed to live with an armchair Iron Chef who can scour the fridge, emerge with a few old green beans, eggs, a frozen pork chop, and some dry, twisty carrots, and whip up something that can make my eyes roll into the back of my head.

Without him, we’d probably starve. (I live in the land without pizza delivery. Imagine!) It’s his brilliance (and the endless episodes of Chopped, Iron Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives I’m forced to watch) that inspired my new book, When I Fall in Love. That, and a trip to Hawaii we took a couple summers ago. (I think I ate enough sushi to swim to Japan.) I just love the story about a “pull-from-the-cupboards” north shore pizza girl who joins forces with a hockey-playing Iron Chef to create culinary (and romantic) magic. I hope it inspires you not only to believe in happily ever after—but to take some chances in the kitchen, too!

Most of all, I’m super excited about a fantastic giveaway I’m doing for this book. I gave my daughter an apple-green KitchenAid Mixer for her wedding because I love mine (now 25 years old). They’re fantastic . . . and you can win one by following the instructions below! (Click on the picture that’ll take you to the instructions.)


Cool, huh?

Listen, I’m all intention and no action when it comes to serious cooking . . . but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream big. Pick up the book and dream big with me—and enter to win!

Meanwhile, what was my hero saying as he leaned over to the heroine . . . ?

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Why Should I Read Your Book?

Jul 17th 2014
Posted by Susan


It was early on a Sunday morning, and the house was quiet. It’s my favorite time to read so I wandered downstairs to my bookshelves to hunt up a book. I have more than 500 books, many I haven’t read. Twenty minutes later, I was still hunting. (It’s not unlike trying to find something to wear!) What was I looking for? Voice, character sympathy, an intriguing plot, and the most important element: WHY.

This is the last—and the most important—trick to writing a suspense.

W – Why – Why should they read your book? So it’s fun? So it’s romantic, so your character has overcome some dangers and saved the world. The key to a great suspense is that it more than just a romance, more than just a thriller. A great book says something about life, about God, about the human experience that the reader can resonate with.

A great book makes us think, long after we put it down. A great book might even change us.

Yes, even a suspense. Why were Tom Clancy books so popular? They posed a “What if?” that made us sit up and panic, our hearts in our throats. Really, was a terrorist attack right around the corner? (Sum of all Fears) Or, did we really narrowly miss WWIII? (The Hunt for Red October)

How about the Vince Flynn thrillers? Or the John Grisham books that make us think about issues in our legal system? A great suspense can confront global issues . . . or personal ones. How about the Harlan Coben books? He’s made a career out of asking scary “what if” questions about everyday people. What if you came home and discovered your wife missing? What if someone from your past showed up to threaten you? Scare questions that can make a person think about how they live their life.

A story that resonates is a story that gets under our skin and asks questions that don’t leave us alone. How do you do this?

Ask yourself, What will my reader learn from this story?

Then ask, What truth am I telling? A great suspense embeds not only a story question but also a universal truth into a reader. For example, Harlan Coben has convinced us that yes, your past will come back to haunt you. Tom Clancy has embedded the idea that there are always evil forces at work in the world. It’s these truths that linger with the reader and keeps us up long after they put the book down.

What is the universal truth of Dante’s Peak? Even in the midst of trauma and trial, two people can find true love. Bird on a Wire? True love is worth waiting—and fighting—for.

In my book Expect the Sunrise, it’s that each day is a new day with God, even when there are terrorists chasing you across Alaska.

Ask WHY.

The answer is the trick that will sell you story.

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Cooking and Fiction

Jul 9th 2014
Posted by Susan

I love cooking shows, and I’ve always wanted to write a story about an everyday Iron Chef (hello, every mother out there who’s opened the fridge and said, “Huh, what can I make with a carrot, a hunk of cheese, two eggs, and a leftover pancake?”). Our family went to Hawaii last year, and the setting captured my heart—I knew I had to put a book there, and even better . . . a cooking book. But vacations also have a way of making you forget your troubles. So, what if a couple met and fell in love on vacation; could they bring the romance home, into real life?

Read When I Fall in Love to find out!



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Happy 4th of July (And an Epic 99-Cent Sale to Celebrate!)

Jul 4th 2014
Posted by Susan

I never realized how patriotic I was until I spent Independence Day in another country. To my shock, July 4th in Russia came without fireworks, hot dogs on a campfire, or any hint of watermelon! We had to decide—did we celebrate our freedom anyway, on our own?

We lived in the middle of a county just experiencing the first taste of freedom from oppression, fear, secrets, and the right to pursue a life of opportunity. Stories of the KGB listening to conversations via “bugs” in the light fixtures, legendary bread lines, and songs of devotion to Father Lenin made us ever aware of how free we were to even think for ourselves in America. Proof of this was the standard—now defunct—propaganda radio affixed to my kitchen wall.

YES. Regardless of where we lived, when the 4th of July rolled around, we donned our red, white, and blue, bought some hot dogs and took a day to say thank you to those who sacrificed and believed in a country where people could pursue life, liberty and happiness. May you have a happy, hot dog, watermelon, and apple pie 4th of July no matter where you live!

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 2.40.24 PMDo you like stories of intrigue from the past, with romantic heroes, set in foreign lands?

Join me on the journey of the Heirs of Anton—three women fighting for freedom and family!


Who are you and where did you come from? Upon receiving an unusual package in the mail, Ekaterina “Kat” Moore boards a plane to Russia, her ancestral home, to seek answers.

Get Ekaterina now for only 99 cents at Amazon!


What if you, in order to save your family, had to sacrifice yourself? I put the happy ending in Ekaterina, and the epic beginning in Oksana – but the glorious middle story betrays the compelling choice that Marina makes. If you like World War 2 stories, I invite you to journey with me to the Russian Front, to courage, sacrifice, bravery—and the secret that only love can save.

Get Marina now for only 99 cents at Amazon!


Who is this woman, and why does the Czar of Russia ask a lowly merchant to take care of her? When Oksana’s secret is discovered, is Anton Klassen the man she needs to save a family’s legacy? The exciting conclusion to the mystery of the Heirs of Anton.

Get Oksana now for only 99 cents at Amazon!

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Passion Versus Publishing

Jul 2nd 2014
Posted by Susan


I receive a lot of questions from aspiring writers, and this one caught my eye.

Have you ever had a story you wanted to write, a spiritual message you wanted to share, but it won’t let you just yet?

Yes, I have a couple stories sitting in my heart I haven’t had the opportunity or perhaps the divine timing to write yet.

I’m a firm believer that God will work out the story in the right time, so I continue to collect ideas, impressions, do research, and let those ideas soak, waiting for the right timing.

But sometimes I’m not ready—emotionally or even professionally—to write it. Maybe I don’t have the skill level yet. And I certainly don’t want to waste my swan’s song on mediocre writing! Or maybe the market isn’t ready for my brilliant idea. So, in the meantime, I move onto the stories I have the ability to write right now.

This is what happened with my Josey series. The story of my hilarious happenings in Russia simmered in my heart years before God opened the door to write it. And when He did, the timing was perfect. (My first book in that series, Everything’s Coming Up Josey, was a Christy finalist.) The same thing happened with Nothing but Trouble. I cooked up my heroine PJ Sugar four years before I saw it come to publication. And I’m glad I waited; I was able to write a deeper story than the one I had originally envisioned.

I’ve always loved historical fiction, but I had to wait until I had the time to do the research, as well as the ability to pull them off. I envisioned something more literary, so I had to grow into those skills, reading widely and doing a thorough scrutiny of my writing. My first dive into the historical genre was Sons of Thunder (which won the new Inspy Bloggers award!).

I think a lot of writers believe they have to write the stories on their hearts . . . but perhaps they’re also not ready to write that story yet. I think it’s wise to ask God if it’s time or if there is another story that could hone your skills in the meantime, in preparation for that heart story.

So don’t give up on your heart story, but consider that you’re not quite ready to write it yet. Or, maybe the market isn’t ready for it yet. Or both. Wait on Him, and be open to working on something else in the meantime.

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‘When I Fall in Love’ Available Now!

Jun 25th 2014
Posted by Susan


I’m so happy to announce that my new book, When I Fall in Love, is available NOW everywhere books and ebooks are sold! You can buy the book from Barnes & NobleChristian Book Distributors, and Amazon!

ACFW Conference

September 25-28, 2014
St. Louis, MN