The following questions were asked of me by a high school student. I found that they resemble many other questions I get as a writer and missionary, so I've included the questions and answers below.
I hope they will be helpful to you, too.
1. I know that you went to Vanderbilt University and studied English and French Lit., but was there any training/education you received in order to write better? Would you recommend the same thing to another aspiring author? If not, what would you recommend? What could/should I be doing now in high school that could help me attain my goal?
Besides my study of literature, (I believe reading great literature is one of the most important things an aspiring writer can do), I read books on how to become a writer (There are MANY, but one I just read which is fantastic is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird), I took creative writing courses at Vanderbilt, and, when my husband was in seminary, a class at the seminary on writing articles for magazines. I attended a Christian writer’s conference and took a seminar on novel writing. As you read in my biography, the writing conference really helped me get my foot in the door as far as getting published. I think you also read that I started writing for Jill Briscoe’s magazine for ministry wives—articles—when my kids were young. There are many magazines that need writers—you won’t necessarily get paid, but you’ll get experience.
What you can do now? WRITE! Write for a school paper—or homeschool paper; propose a project where you will write a short story for credit. I used every opportunity possible in high school to use my creativity. Whenever there was a choice between writing a typical essay or writing something from my imagination, I took the path of creativity. In college, I did a Senior Project for my English Prof which was a short story. I’m sure you’ve got lots of opportunities with home schooling to write. Use them.
2. Were your expectations fulfilled when you became an author? What kind of misconceptions did you have about being an author and how did they affect you?
Well, the fact that I got a contract and was paid to write a book was just amazing to me. It happened very fast and honestly, I found myself playing ‘catch up’—learning lots as I went along. I definitely experienced great joy in creating my story. But every author learns that our dreams of writing an immediate best seller are probably not going to happen. Writing is a LOT of hard work, long hours and rejection. It is perservering, rewriting, doing your best. It is NOT instant success and novel writing is definitely a HARD way to make a living. I think the hardest for me was all that is involved in publicity and marketing. An author HAS to be involved, but we creative types aren’t typically gifted with the business world.
3. Could you please tell me about a typical day's writing?
I tell writers to find the time of day that works best for them. I am not a morning person, so I don’t try to get up at 5 am to write. Sometimes, I’m awakended with an idea and then I’ll get up at any time of the night or day to jot it down. But typically, when I am in the writing process of the novel (as opposed to the editing or marketing process), I try to be done with my quiet time, kid stuff, business stuff and be in my office by 9:30. I don’t take many breaks and usually write straight through lunch and finish around 3 pm. But this depends on if I have ministry things in the afternoon. I definitely only write part time. I usually only write for 4-5 hours 4 days a week. Sometimes five. Occasionally, I go away and hide and just write, but this is very rare. Now that my sons are older (one in college, one a Jr), I have a more flexible schedule. When they were young, I wrote for three hours in the morning—that was it.
Let me explain a typical writing week. Once I have written my synopsis and gotten a contract and have done most of my preliminary research, I try to write a chapter a week. That means I start on Monday I reread the end of the last chapter and then I just write the next one—usually it’s not well crafted at all, I’m just throwing ideas down on the page. If I get stuck, I go over research, take a walk, but I am trying in the first 2-3 days just to let the creative juices flow. Then, the rest of the week is spent editing and fine tuning and making those metaphors work, ironing out details. I strongly believe that writing is a two pronged process—the creative part when you put down the ideas, and then the editing. I try not to mix the two because editing as I create really slows me down. (When I say ‘editing’ in this paragraph, I mean my own personal editing, which takes place throughout the writing of the novel. Once the novel is done, it goes to my publisher and then I work very closely with a line-editor and we do lots of corrections etc together. That is the editing process I mentioned in the first paragraph).
4. What is most satisfying about your job now?
Many things are satisfying. When that unbidden image just makes its way onto the page, it is delightful. As characters develop, it is so fun to watch them ‘take over’ and do things I hadn’t planned. I am always so thankful when I have an eternal idea that I can communicate without cliche or preaching—it just flows from the story line and the characters’ hearts and experiences.
Getting wonderful reader mail is most encouraging. My main goal in writing is to honor the Lord Jesus and have my writing be used as a tool to communicate truth—especially to those who may never go to church. I love receiving letters that affirm this goal. It is like a huge hug from the Lord.
5. What is the most difficult aspect of your job now?
What part of the writing process do you dislike the most?
I really don’t like the publicity and marketing part. This involves making lists of media places where my publisher will send advance copies of the novel, making suggestions about signings and speaking tours and all kinds of other marketing opportunities. I don’t mind speaking and signing but I do not enjoy the detail and business end that comes before the actual signing. Also, I’m trying to learn more about using the internet as a means of publicity. I find all of this draining.
And I believe that my main job is to make my writing the best it can be and trust the Lord. I often pray that I will be a good steward of my time and gifts and my responsibility to do my part in letting others know about the book.
6. What are some of the hitches you have hit while writing/before beginning writing?
I tend to have complicated story lines—plots and multiple themes. Sometimes I get stuck in a situation and am not at all sure how to get out of it! Since I try to stay true to history, I often ask the question of others: could this have happened? If it really isn’t feasable, then I have to change my story line. I’ve had to almost completely rewrite a large portion of one novel. That was hard, but I trust my editors and publisher—which is a great blessing—and I am not afraid to give up something and start over. I think that writers who hold too tightly to their words and cannot accept criticism are doing themselves a disservice. We can always learn and improve our craft.
7. What skills are especially necessary for an author to possess and what is a good method of developing such skills? What, aside from skills in writing, does an author need to have? (i.e. computer skills, speaking skills, the ability to communicate over the phone,...).
Develop perseverance and determination and also, learn to love your craft and accept that you are a writer, long before you publish anything. Writers will always have to battle those voices of criticism that say ‘What do you think you are doing? Are you crazy? Who would ever want to read this stuff?’ You need to have a few friends to help you stay on track and pray for you when you face ‘writer’s block’ or hear voices of discouragement. You’ve got to develop a bit of a tough skin (all the while keeping the sensitivity that allows you to write) when you receive criticism, a negative review, a rejection to a proposal. Know your grammar, know the rules of good writing. Then if you choose to break them, okay. But be a good writer. Work at it! Write, write, write and pray, pray, pray.
I don’t think I had a method. I could not NOT write. It was stronger than I was. So I asked the Lord to bless this passion and gift.
I’m not a great typist, but I do okay. Learn to type. I am not at all up on the latest computer stuff. All I want is some kind of writing machine that works. Pen and pencil are fine if I have nothing else. I don’t go for ‘writing software’ etc. I’m not saying it isn’t helpful, but I’ve never used anything like that.
Go to a writers' conference and learn how to be professional in presenting your book idea. Read about the writing field. Find out about agents. Conferences offer 2-3 day classes from beginner through professional and opportunities to meet with other writers, agents and publishers. Do your homework and learn not only about the craft of writing but about the publishing business.
I happen to be a pretty good speaker and am often asked to speak to groups about my ministry in France and my writing ministry. This is not mandatory, but I know many writers do this. Also many teach at conferences and workshops on how to write.
8. How does the balance of mission work and writing function for you?
Balance is an interesting thing. I love what Jill Briscoe says: “If Jesus is first, you’ll know what is next.” That’s about how it goes. Some days, I dedicate soley to writing. Other days or weeks or months, I am soley involved in ministry and my family. It is never a neatly organized schedule. I DO need routine, so I have a schedule, but I have to remain flexible.
Basically, I started writing novels when my boys started school. I wrote while they were at school in the mornings, and then did ministry when they were at school in the afternoons or after they were in bed at night. I never tried to write while they were home. (Or very rarely). My life was pretty crammed because I did not want to sacrifice ministry for writing. (Which spells PRIDE).
Then I got very sick with a chronic pain illness right when my first novel came out. I now attribute this to overwork, spiritual attack and just my normal human frailty. God taught me that I couldn’t ‘do it all’—I had to slow down and listen to Him and sometimes, that meant NOT writing or backing off of ministry.
I would strongly suggest that you learn about your personality (the book Please Understand Me is a great tool for this) as well as your spiritual gifts and give this all to the Lord. I know that if I get too tired and stressed, my body falls apart. I can’t take as much as someone else. I’ve learned to accept how the Lord created me and delight in that and that HE chooses to use me with all my weaknesses. Expectations, false, high expectations of ourselves and others can be really detrimental on the mission field. Learn to laugh at yourself, to be open minded, to be sold out to Jesus, to work hard and to wait. He has us in the waiting room so very often in our lives, but He never wastes that time of life and He never wastes our pain.
Hope these things have been helpful, albeit a bit random. Blessings on you as you pursue your education, your dreams and our great God,
About Agents, Editors and Writers' Conferences:
Here's my best advice. First a question: have you ever attended a writers' conference? If not, do so. I have only been to three in the past 15 years, but at the first one I met the editor who would eventually publish my first novel and is still my editor today, at the second one, I took a class from a man who is now my agent, and at the third, I connected with many other writers. If your novel has a Christian slant, I would suggest attending a Christian writers' conference, of which there are many--just look on the web. Also, the biggest Christian fiction writers' conference is the ACFW conference, which is held in a different city each September. You can find out about this wonderful association and their conference at www.acfw.com Look on the left side of the home page and click on 'annual conference'.
At most of these conferences, there are very helpful classes and seminars on everything about writing and getting published, for beginners up through professionals. And typically, you can schedule an interview with an editor from a publishing house and with an agent. Both are excellent opportunities to 'pitch' your idea for a novel. Plus you'll get loads of info at the conference to help you along the way towards publication. Again, if your writing has a Christian slant, I suggest you become a member of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), for $40 a year. They have incredible resources, and are growing daily--I think the membership is over 2000 now.
But there are many, many other writers' conferences all over the US, for every genre, so spend some time on the internet and I'm sure you'll find lots to help.
What's all the Buzz about Needing a Platform?
I was writing fiction before authors needed to come up with a platform. However, I already had a platform in all those many folks who prayed for us and encouraged me to write and received our quarterly prayer letters. I was often asked to speak to church groups, first about our ministry in France, and then, once I began writing, many, many church groups asked me to speak about my books. I often weave my faith, books and ministry together in my talks. That's my best platform, and now I also speak to book clubs, library associations, schools, etc. besides churches and women ministry groups. But as you see, I didn't start out with any knowledge of platforms and my platform started solely thanks to our ministry and the people involved in that. I am afraid I don't have a lot of other things to share, except to encourage you to look at your sphere of influence and start there.