Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March Author Interview: Susan Meissner

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Susan Meissner's books first came to my attention through an article in the American Christian Fiction Writers Association journal. She was included in a list of Christian literary fiction writers and I had to investigate. I started with A Sound Among the Trees. I've been mesmerized by her lyrical prose, intricate plots, and deep characters ever since.

Here’s my mini book review of my latest Susan Meissner read:
Secrets of a Charmed Life is a lyrical exploration of the effects the choices we make have on our lives. Set in the disruptive time of the Blitz of London and the evacuation of the city's children, the story will hold you mesmerized. A Must Read.

ZM: I’m so thrilled that I get a chance to interview a writer whose writing embodies what I’m reaching for in my own work. This quote from your interview on Women’s Fiction Writers says it all to me: 

“I was a Christian who wrote fiction, so I started out writing Christian fiction thinking that’s where I belonged. But I found that what I was really writing was fiction that fit my worldview, which happened to be Christian. I knew I was more like a baker who is a Christian and who wants to bake amazing bread that people can’t stop talking about rather than a baker who bakes Christian bread.”

Tell us about your journey into publishing.

Susan: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write. It’s always been an itch that I had to scratch. I started out career-wise in journalism, but after ten years in newspapers, I knew what I really wanted to write was fiction. I quit my job as editor of a little weekly newspaper to write my first novel. It was published, by the goodness and favor of God because I had no idea what I was doing, in 2004. I’ve been writing books ever since. I started out in the inspirational market but moved to the general marketplace in 2014. Secrets of a Charmed Life is my sixteenth novel.

ZM: I love how many of your books weave the past with the present. What was the process that led you to this type of storytelling?

Susan: I’ve always liked mulling over how the past informs the present. History shows us what we value, what we fear, what we are willing to fight for, and what we don’t want to live without. When two separate and perhaps even unrelated story lines revolve around the same theme, we can see that there are aspects about us that don’t change, even though the years change. In The Shape of Mercy, which is the first book I wrote using this kind of past and present construction, I used a diary to link the two stories together. That book seemed to strike a chord in my readers. They wanted more books like that. In Lady in Waiting I used a ring to dovetail the story of Lady Jane Grey with a modern-day Jane. In A Fall of Marigolds the item that bridges both stories is a scarf. With Secrets of A Charmed Life, Thistle House is the constant in every time change as are the paintings of the Umbrella Girls.

ZM: I’ve classified your books as literary fiction, but I want to include them as women’s fiction, too. Would you agree? Do you think women’s fiction is limiting for writers? Do you favor a specific genre? 

Susan: “Women’s Fiction” is really just a way of describing a novel’s intended audience rather than how to find that book by genre in a bookstore or online. Men read literary fiction, but would not necessarily read what is classified as Women’s Fiction. WF can have a decided literary feel, but it’s not targeted to male readers. It can also have a definite comedic slant, which I don’t think of as being literary in tone.  I have heard my kind of book called an “upmarket novel,” which Writers Digest defines as literary fiction with commercial appeal – my favorite genre.  I don’t think classifying my books as Women’s Fiction has any kind of limiting effect if we understand it’s just a way of describing who the books are primarily for.

ZM: Ha! I like the sound of "commercial appeal", too. Many craft books stress that writers must read and read a lot. Who is your favorite author, or what is your favorite genre? What draws you to a book you read for enjoyment?

Susan: I have a number of favorite authors whose storytelling skills just amaze me. Two of those writers are Geraldine Brooks and Kate Morton. I like books that deal with historical events and multiple time periods, and that are peopled with memorable characters. I can usually tell by the first two or three chapters if a book is going to completely woo and wow me. What I am usually carried away by is voice. Every novelist I love has the ability to give their characters a believable voice. The books I like best are the ones where I forget the author even exists and that I am reading stuff she pulled out of her imagination.

ZM: Finally, what question do you wish interviewers would ask, but they never do?

Susan: What a fun question! And a hard one… I suppose I wish interviewers would ask if writing novels gets easier the more I write so that I could answer with an emphatic “No!” I used to be under the impression that when you do something long enough it becomes second-nature to you. But that’s not the case with writing novels; at least it’s not that way for me. Even though I’ve written sixteen books, I still approach every blank page with a healthy dose of apprehension and trepidation. I raise the bar higher with every book I write but I still start out the same way when I begin a new one – with a whole lot of nothing. That part thrills me, but it also scares me to death. Starting a new book always feels like I am writing one for the first time and haven’t a clue as to what I am doing!

ZM: It terrifies me, too! Thanks, Susan, for taking the time to let me "grill" you. ;-)

Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include A Fall of Marigolds, named by Booklist’s Top Ten women’s fiction titles for 2014, and The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the 100 Best Novels of 2008. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University. Susan is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults. When she’s not working on a novel, Susan writes small group curriculum for her San Diego church. Visit Susan at her website: www.susanmeissner.com on Twitter at @SusanMeissner or at www.facebook.com/susan.meissner

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Four Books: March Mini Book Reviews: S. Bradley, L. M. Bujold, B. Freethy, S. Meissner

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I have some lovely reads for you this month. Enjoy!

KEPT Sally Bradley: Christian Romance

Deeply drawn characters carry this romance to a suspenseful conclusion. The discussion of Christianity ties directly into the characters' lives and is not an after thought or add-in. Good Read.

MEMORY Lois McMaster Bujold: Science Fiction (of the very best kind)

In Memory, Bujold takes her iconic Miles Vorkosigan on a whirlwind ride and shows what a coming of adult status really means. You must read all of this series. I promise even those who don't usually like SF will fall in love with Miles. 

SUMMER SECRETS Barbara Feethy: Women's Fiction with elements of Romance

The secrets that bind the McKenna sisters have also strangled their lives. Then, a dashing stranger, bent on the discovery of their past, throws a twist into their stories. Wonderful Read. You won't put it down. 

SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE Susan Meissner: Women's Fiction

This is a lyrical exploration of the effects the choices we make have on our lives. Set in the disruptive  time of the Blitz of London and the evacuation of the city's children, the story will hold you mesmerized. Must Read.

Mother's Day Update: It was a last minute rush, but I made the deadline for the first contest I plan to enter this year. Whew! Now, I have 45 days to get twenty more pages polished and the synopsis expanded to two to three pages. Yikes!

Next week: Author Interview of Susan Meissner. You don't want to miss this one. ;-) 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

March Tip: Five Helpful Links on Queries

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Querying is always a daunting task for writers. Here's some of the latest posts I've seen about them.

What No to Do When Querying K. Whipkey has a great list of dos and don'ts.

The Hunt is On: How to Find an Agent Janice Hardy has six steps in the process.

And some oldies from the Books and Writer's Forum. If you've ever been curious about a writing forum, this is the place to be. The Research and Craft and Writers Exercises folders are golden. (Can you tell I'm a member? ;-)

Advice Please! Dig around in this one. Though is specific to Fantasy writer Julie, there's a lot of general info, too.

Query Help Dig in this one, too. Check out the query checklist for some lovely advice.

Query Based on First Twenty Pages This is a great resource, too.

Next Week: I'll have four more lovely reads to review. See you then! ;-)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

IWSG: What do you need to give up to write?

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Insecure Writers Support Group

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time.

Be sure to visit our fearless leader--Alex J. Cavanaugh and his co-hosts for the March 4 posting of the IWSG will be Chemist Ken, Suzanne Sapseed, and Shannon Lawrence!
First thing I have to give up to write, is the Fear of Failure.  

Fear of Failure-You don't succeed without experiencing failure. Just make sure you fail forward.
~~ Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Old Bridge, N. J.

I found this list by chance through a radio station I listen to--The JOY FM --and the very first on thing to give up for Lent on the list, really hit me where my writer's heart lives. That's the inspiration for my first Insecure Writers Support Group post. I hope you find some help here.

40 Things to Give Up for Lent

Writers are very prone to the Fear of Failure. That's what keeps up from writing at all. It also causes us to quail at the thought of revisions and editing. Are we scared of writing a query or synopsis? Yep, that's the Fear of Failure, too.

So, how do you Fall Forward? Here's some ideas that came to me while I contemplated this idea.
  • The only bad words are those that never get written. Having to revise is a good thing. Really.
  • Risking a hard critique is also Failing Forward because we can learn some things that don't work as well as we thought and we can learn to do them better.
  • Rejections hurt! But we can use them to spur Failing Forward when we double down and rework our submission.
  • Contests are important, not because we win (though that would be nice), but because we can Fail Forward with the feedback that adds to our writing from people who have no prior knowledge of the MS. Which is what happens when we query.
As a writer and a person, I'm giving up the Fear of Failure. From now on, I want to embrace failure as a learning, growing, improving occasion. 

Remember! Take every failure as a chance to Fail Forward. ;-)

Next Week: I'm going to dip my toe into the Query Game. At least, I'm going to share a few links to info about that necessary step. ;-)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February Author Interview: Linda Grimes

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I met Linda Grimes at the Books and Writers Forum, and boy, am I glad I did! Her paranormal urban novels will rock your reading world. The sharp characterizations and wry sensibility of her main character Ciel Halligan will have you glued to your seat and turning pages. They should carry a warning: Compulsive reads—if you start, you will not stop.

Her latest, The Big Fix, is just the ticket to let you in on what those of us who have read all of Linda’s Ciel Halligan books know—this is one sexy, sassy, sarcastic aura adaptor. Don’t call her a shape-shifter unless you want to be smacked with a lecture on the impossibility of that. ;-)

I suggest you read them all to relish the whirlwind life of Ciel Halligan.

Aura adaptor extraordinaire Ciel Halligan, who uses her chameleon-like abilities to fix her clients’ problems—as them—is filling in on set for action superstar Jackson Gunn, whose snake phobia is standing in the way of his completing his latest mega-millions Hollywood blockbuster. There’s only one thing Jack fears more than snakes, and that's the possibility of his fans finding out he screams at the sight of one. Going from hero to laughing stock isn’t part of his career plan.

Seems like a simple enough job to Ciel, who doesn’t particularly like snakes, but figures she can tolerate an afternoon with them, for the right price—which Jack is offering, and then some. What she doesn’t count on is finding out that while she was busy wrangling snakes for him, his wife was busy getting killed. When Ciel goes to break the sad news to the star, she finds out Jack was AWOL from her client hideaway at the time of the murder.

Ciel begins to suspect Jack’s phobia was phony, and that he only hired her to provide him with an alibi—but if she goes to the police, she’ll have to explain how she knows he wasn’t really on set. Up against a wall, Ciel calls on her best-friend-turned-love-interest Billy, and her not-so-ex-crush Mark, to help her set up the sting of a lifetime.

ZM: Linda, your characters are deep and rich.  Do you have any specific exercises that you use to get to know your people? Do they develop as you write, or do they come to you as complete people from the start?

LG: Thank you! You are so kind. And thank you for inviting me here today.

Ciel was pretty much who she is from the start. She appeared in my head as a complete personality. Of course, she's growing as the series goes on, but the basics were all there from the beginning. Same with Billy, who elbowed his way in right away, daring me to try to ignore him (which turned out to be impossible—the guy is irrepressible). Mark, on the other hand, has always been more of a mystery to me. He's been slower to reveal himself, but he's getting there. I'm learning more about him—some of it quite surprising—with each book.

ZM: What’s your writing and publishing journey been? How do you get your stories out to readers?

LG: It's been like sliding my way, barefoot, across a frozen pond strewn with banana peels. In the dark. Never knowing where I was going, forever fighting cold feet … 

Oh, all right. Maybe not quite that bad, though it did feel uncertain in the beginning. But every time I fell—i.e., got rejected—I picked myself up, brushed the frost off my rear, and kept on going. I'm stubborn that way.

Seriously, I got kind of a late start with publishing, probably because I suck a multitasking. I started my first novel (Catspaw, a paranormal suspense I might let out of the drawer someday, but no guarantees) way back in the dark ages. Then I got married, hopped around the globe for a bit with my husband, had a few kids, and settled down. Read tons, wrote for my own distraction. Found the Compuserve Writers Forum, and started thinking maybe … just maybe … I could actually do something with my "hobby."

When my youngest went off to college, I decided if I was ever going to make a go of writing, I'd better prioritize it as my job. I wrote In a Fix, to make sure I could write more than one novel, while giving the aforesaid Catspaw a cooling off period. Turned out I really liked writing funny stuff better serious stuff. Huh. Who knew?

I started querying agents, many of whom were quite taken with the concept of aura adaptors, but weren't sure how to sell it. It got to be kind of a joke around here: query, send pages, get agent reply of "I'd totally read this book, but I'm not sure where to sell it—good luck!"

Most of the responses were encouraging enough that I stuck with it. (Definitely not all the responses, but I conveniently ignored those. Stubbornness and denial: two tools that work for me.) I finally found the right agent (Michelle Wolfson, of Wolfson Literary Agency). She loved In a Fix enough to convince me she'd work her butt off to find it the right home. And she did, even though she had the same responses from editors as I had had from the previous agents I'd queried—they loved the concept and the humor, but most didn't know where they'd sandwich it in on their list.

I was at the point of giving up on Ciel and Co. (thinking to move on to another project) when I got The Call. Michelle had sold not only In a Fix, but the next book, too (which, no, I hadn't actually written, but figured I probably could). My egg cooker signaled my hard-cooked eggs were done at exactly that moment. I tried to take the top off the cooker with one hand, and burned the crap out of my fingers. I'm pretty sure Michelle thought I was screaming in delight—and I was—though not only delight. Talk about having something burned into your memory!

As for how I get my stories out to readers … well, my publicist at Tor (doesn't that sound fancy? I'm one of many Tor authors she works with, so not really that special) sends out advance reading copies to reviewers, sets up signings, things of that sort. I do what I can via social media. I have a website (www.lindagrimes.com), a Facebook author page, and a Twitter account, all of which give readers easy access to me and my books. When I have a new book coming out, there are usually several kind bloggers who feature it in some way (thank you!), which is the best kind of exposure.

ZM: I’ve seen your books described as paranormal, urban fantasy, and mystery. What genre do you think fits the best? Have you ever written other genres?

LG: They're a little bit of all of those, I think. Tor labels them as urban fantasy (UF). I think of them as light urban fantasy, because much of what is called urban fantasy is darker than what I write. So, for me, LUF it is. (Don't you just LUF that? *grin* Or perhaps that should be *groan*…)

ZM—Many craft books stress that writers must read and read a lot. Who is your favorite author, or what is your favorite genre? What draws you to a book you read for enjoyment?

LG: I couldn't possible pick a favorite genre—I read and love so many of them! It all depends on my mood. I'm drawn by any book that engages my curiosity—and I'm curious about a lot of things. What can I say? I'm nosy by nature.

My absolute all-time favorite author is Diana Gabaldon (no surprise there). I couldn't for the life of me tell you what genre she writes, unless, I don't know, is "BIG" a genre? Her books are feasts for a book-lover's soul—anything you could possibly want in a read. Action, adventure, mystery, romance, history, humor, tragedy, and, yes, even some science fiction—all can be found between the covers of her books. (As opposed to my books, which are, admittedly, more of a snack than a feast. But I comfort myself that sometimes, if you're only a little peckish, a light snack is just the ticket.)

 Linda grew up in Texas, where she rode horses, embarrassed herself onstage a lot, and taught teenagers they'd have to learn the rules of English before they could get away with breaking them for creativity's sake. She currently resides in Virginia with her husband, whom she snagged after he saw her in a musical number at the now defunct Melodrama Theater in San Antonio. (There's nothing like a rousing chorus of "If You Wanna Catch a Fish You Gotta Wiggle Your Bait" to hook a man for a lifetime.)

Like her globetrotting main character, Linda has spent her fair share of time overseas, though fortunately under less stressful circumstances. Kidnapping and daring rescues are all well and good in fiction, but she prefers sanity in her real life.

Next Week: I join the Insecure Writers Support Group. Tune in to find out what's it's all about. ;-)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Four February Mini Book Reviews: U. Carbone, D. Gabaldon, H. Michael, L. Thompson

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DANCING IN THE WHITE ROOM Ute Carbone: Women's Fiction

Using the ski slopes--both competitive and recreation--Carbone creates a fascinating look into what it means to grow up and take responsibility for your decision. Good Read

A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES Diana Gabaldon: Historical Fiction

In the sixth book of Gabaldon's amazing Outlander series, she creates the story of the turmoil leading up to the American Revolution by focusing on the Fraser/McKenzie family and its social setting. Must Read

CROOKED LINES Holly Michael: Christian Literary Women's Fiction

Using a young girl in America and a young man in India, Micheal explores what it means when "Our lives are written in crooked lines and God straightens them." Good Read

WHAT'S LEFT BEHIND Lorrie Thompson: Literary Women's Fiction

By exploring what's left behind after a death, Thompson shows what it means to live our lives fully. Must Read

Next Week: Author Interview with Linda Grimes!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

17 Ways to Answer: What Can You Say About "Said"?

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 I love it when one of my favorite authors and Forum friends puts on her writing teacher hats at her blog. Joanna Bourne not only writes the very best Historical Romances, but she can write anything and teach anyone how to do it. Her latest technical topic is "On Beyond Said" and with her permission I'm going to share her expertise and use a few examples from of my own to illustrate the point. It's only fair to tell you up front that I hate using said in my writing. I love using some of these other ways and it's not by using asked, screamed, yelled, whined, etc. in place of it. ;-) (Joanna's words will be Italicized.

Elsewhere someone was wondering whether to use 'said'.
Or not.
 I keep talking about tagging, actually.
So I will do it some more.

Here are a couple of simple, basic guidelines in the tagging of dialog:

1) Make certain the reader knows who said every line of dialog. No confusion.

2) Don't forget there are lots of ways to tag dialog. Be adventurous.

3) You can almost always tag with 'he said' and you will be invisible

4) You can tag with the equivalent of 'he said' and you will be less invisible.
.....   'he muttered', 'he whispered', he 'remarked', 'he answered', 'he objected'.

5) In the choice between 'he said' and one of the saidisms,
you are about all the time better going with 'he said'

6) You can tag with an action

.....   'he began to put the fire out', 'he stabbed Guido', 'he activated the bomb', 'he put oil on the salad', 'he reconsidered'
Action tags are good.
Action that occurs close to the dialog tags it. The action has to be performed by the one speaking. It has to be in the same paragraph.

7) Tagging actions are separated from dialog by a period.
..... I piled my cookies closer to the edge of the tray so the little ones could reach them. “Glad they’re a hit."
..... Her hand tightened and my bones ground together. “Why didn’t you come back for me when you got out?”

8) Unless the action occurs inside the sentence.
..... “You’re old enough for the truth, Samantha,” his face tightened, “the whole truth."
..... “I was there and I'll not sit here,” I glared at him, “and have you murmur murder in my ears all night.”
(You can write this sort of sentence with em dashes instead of commas, but why would you want to?)

9) 'Said' and its brother saidisms are always separated from dialog by commas.
.....  Raising my voice over the chatter, I said, “Well, of course kids love sweets, but since I taught teens, I don’t have a clue what to do with little kids except ply them with cookies.”
.....  “Samantha,” she whispered.
If you do not know whether something is a 'saidism' or an action, go sit and think about it for a while. Over there.

10) Do not double-tag. If an action or other method tags the dialog, don't add 'he said'. You will eliminate many 'he saids' from the manuscript by following this simple rule. Over a lifetime you will eliminate a small mountain of them.
..... NOT “Cause people call me Sam and that’s a boy’s name,” she said and rolled her eyes.
..... BUT “Cause people call me Sam and that’s a boy’s name.” She rolled her eyes.

11) Do not mistake actions performed by the mouth, tongue, lips and throat for saidism. One does not grin, laugh, mime, simper, chortle, frown, or sneer words.
Go ahead. Smile me a couple words.
The  readers won't care about this but grammar purists all over the English-speaking world are grinding their teeth. Can't you hear them?
Can one 'grind out' words? Spit them out? Cough them out?
I'm still thinking about this.

Also, one does not hiss dialog containing no 's' or 'z'.
It's not, "Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum," he hissed.

12) Many lines of dialog are tagged by responsion. We know who spoke because they are taking turns. (Middlemarch does this for pages.)
Tweedledee said, "Your fault!"
"Not," Tweedledum snapped.
"Is not."
"You're the one who put Cicero in the pudding."

13) Many lines are tagged by 'voice'. The reader knows the speaker because no one else sounds like that.

14) Many lines are tagged by special knowledge, by location in the scene, by what the speaker perceives.

15) You can tag with Internal Monologue. This assigns the dialog to the POV character.

.....  “I’m older than the kids here, too.” My gray hair was a dead give away.

16) You can tag with Internals, which also assigns the dialog to the POV character.

.....  “Shows does it?” My bitterness shocked even me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—”

17) You can tag with Direct Address in a two-man conversation or where it tags the next line of dialog or responsion or where the Direct Address identifies the speaker. 'Not now, Papa' tags the daughter as the speaker.

Careful not to over use this. Real speak contains very little Direct Address.

In short, tagging dialog gives the writer a lotta freedom of choice. We only start out with 'said'.
We don't have to stay there.
There's a whole big universe of clever things to do with words when we jump off and let go.

I hope Joanna's masterclass in dialogue tags helps your writing and your understanding of what writers do as they construct scenes and dialogue.

Update: I'm polishing the first 35 pages of Mother's Day like crazy and struggling with creating synopses of varying length that still carry a flavor of my writing. That's hard work, let me tell you.

Next Week: February Mini Book Reviews!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Garuanteed Worst Advice and Best Advice on Writing

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When I saw Charlotte Rains Dixon's prompt for January 16 in her new book, I was off to the races. Words flowed out and I saw that I needed to share my thoughts on the Worst Advice and the Best Advice I've been giving. For some reason, both centered on writing. Are you surprised? ;-)


The Worst Advice I've received about writing is easy. Truly, how lame is "Write what you know"? As if research wasn't invented way back when the first scribe wrote out the first records in mud tablets with a sharpened stick? We've kept records, recorded stories, and shared them all ever since then.

And the advice wants to limit me to a finite number of things that I've been able to cram into my head through experience? Bah! I have far better things to learn yet. And, let's be honest, as long as I can learn, I can write about things I don't know--yet.

The Best Advice is easy too. It's Read, Read, Read; Write, Write, Write; Re-write, Re-write, Rewrite! All of this is one piece of advice really. That is Work With WORDS. Glorious words are the building blocks of every thought, every story, every invention, every discovery. Without words, our minds can't organize, can't create, can't fulfill its purpose.

Here's where I'll get very personal. We were created in God's image to create. And He gave us the building blocks for everything when He made us able to use words. 

So, go forth and multiply the words of the world. Read, read, read! Write, Write, Write! Re-write, Re-write, Rewrite!

Next Week: I'll post the February Tip!

Update: MOTHER'S DAY is complete! The story is ready to polish (re-write) and, hopefully, share soon.