Conversations with an Aspiring Novelist

Aug 20th 2014
Posted by Susan

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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

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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.

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“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.)

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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

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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!

Ekaterina

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!

Marina

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!

Oksana

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

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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

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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!

Behind the Pages of ‘When I Fall in Love’

Jun 18th 2014
Posted by Susan

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For better or worse.  Richer or poorer.  In sickness and in health.  I’ll be celebrating 25 years with my amazing husband this summer, and as I look back it feels like time is but a blink.  Just yesterday, I was walking down the aisle to his smile, wondering how I got so lucky.  And life has been generous to me – four amazing children, a rich landscape of faith-building experiences.

It’s not been without challenges, however.  Many a day, as I lived in Siberia, I thought…what did I get myself in to?  And, we’ve changed, become different people.  Life and romance didn’t always measure up.  Thankfully, we’ve had a long-term view of the game.  But what if I was only promised five years, or less.  Or, what if he had a terrible disease that required me to care for him all our days? Would I have said yes to this adventure?  It’s one thing to pledge yourself to love, and then endure through the unexpected challenges…completely another to look at life knowing the darkness is ahead.

I came upon the idea for When I Fall in Love a few ways. First, I had a friend who married her sweetheart, knowing he had incurable brain cancer.  He died three years later, and she said it was the best three years of her life.

Then, I had another friend who married young, and just a few years into her marriage, her husband came down with early onset Alzheimer’s.  She nursed him until she couldn’t care for him any longer, then fell in love with someone else and, although it was painful, divorced her first husband and married the other man.  It haunted her.

I wonder if it was the perspective of knowing what lay ahead that helped the first rejoice, while the second felt robbed.  Knowing her days might be few…my first friend feasted on every moment and ended well nourished, the taste of hope in her heart.

Read more about the inspiration behind the story here.

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ACFW Conference

September 25-28, 2014
St. Louis, MN
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