It’s not often we get insights and advice from an author who has published seventeen books! Well, here’s our chance! Susan shares with us her thoughts about publishing today, writing with some structure, and how reading good books leads to really good writing!
Please welcome Susan Meissner back to WFW!
Author Susan Meissner Says: “Reading Good Fiction Really Does Prepare You To Write Good Fiction”
Amy: Susan, you’re the author of seventeen novels, with more on the way. That’s such an accomplishment. Can you tell us a few of the changes you’ve seen (and felt) in the industry since you began as a novelist?
Susan: Maybe every ten years we say this, but it sure seems like the last decade has shown us tremendous change in the book industry. Ten years ago e-books were the stuff of futuristic movies, nobody who self-published got any respect and we still had Borders bookstores in every major city. Now e-books are just as popular as paper, indie-published books can actually look good and win awards, and Borders is sadly history. The Big 6 publishers are now the Big 5. Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen to books in the years ahead. I really don’t know. If I was a publisher or an agent, not knowing might keep me up at night, but since I am a storyteller and there will always be a need for stories, I am okay with whatever the future holds. There have always been stories. The medium and the delivery may change in the years to come but the hunger for stories will, I think, endure.
Amy: How do you think your writing and stories have changed over the years?
Susan: When I started out ten years ago writing for the inspirational market, I was trying to find my place in the big world of published novels. I wasn’t sure where I fit or what kind of voice I had. 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. My writing has, I hope, matured over the years, and I would also like to think that my stories reflect an upward tick in quality and depth, but I think the core of my writing has stayed the same. I still want to write stories about the virtues of love, friendship, sacrifice, forgiveness, and acceptance that I wrote in the beginning of my career. I just happen to write those stories now for the general market. I am a baker on Main Street, if you will, and I bake bread that I hope will appeal to the general appetite.
Amy: Obviously, you have this “writing thing” down pat. Do you outline your stories? Write as it comes to you? Do you use any special tools you use (post-it notes and index cards come to mind for me)?
Susan: Ha! The only pat in writing is the one you employ to wake up your fanny when you’ve been sitting on it writing too long! I do outline my stories, but loosely so. I use my version of the 3-act structure with lots of room for discovery while I write. I plan for the big plot pivots, the twists, the internal goal and external goal, the darkest moment and the climax, but I leave lots of wiggle room in how I get to those places. The plot of any novel I write evolves and morphs as I go but I still want to be to be able to look at the evolving story and see that I do in fact, have plot pivots and twists and a dark moment and internal and external goals, even if they change as I write.
Amy: Do you adhere to a strict writing schedule or word count goals?
Susan: I research first and then write. And since I write novels with a blend of historical and contemporary story threads, there is a lot of research up front. I call the research part stocking my grocery store. When I transition into writing mode, I plot the story using my own version of the 3-act structure, and then I finally start writing it, shopping from my grocery store as I write. I shoot for 2,000 words a day 4 to 5 days a week. I try NOT to content edit as I go. Just minor edits. Like, I will read the 2,000 words I wrote yesterday, fix them, and then move on to the 2,000 words I will write today.
Amy: Who are some of your favorite characters you’ve written?
Susan: Hard, hard question! They all feel like friends after I’ve just put them through the worst thing that is likely to ever happen to them. Lauren from The Shape of Mercy still feels like she is in my skin. And so does Caroline from A Sound Among the Trees. And the book that just released? All of those characters in Secrets of a Charmed Life feel like they are still houseguests, especially Charlotte and also Emmy’s mother.
Amy: What sticks out in your mind as one of the most difficult scenes you’ve written?
Susan: When I had to write the chapters on Taryn watching the Twin Towers fall on 9-11 in A Fall of Marigolds, those were probably the most emotionally exhausting words I have ever written. I had to research that terrible day to be able to write about it as though I had physically been there, which meant reading the firsthand accounts and practically reliving every terrorizing moment. Then I had to mentally step into the mind of someone whose husband perished in that attack. It was brutal. And yet necessary for the story.
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Susan: Read, read, read! Read the people who are writing the best in women’s fiction these days. Don’t read to copy anyone’s style, read to find out which writers resonate with you. And then see if you can figure out why. If they are writing the kind of books that you want to write, then you need to figure out what makes them stand out to you. Is it their attention to detail or character motivation or secondary characters or story construction or voice or pace or mood? Reading good fiction really does prepare you to write good fiction. That said, don’t read swill. Not even for the lame excuse that it’s just for entertainment. If you aspire to write women’s fiction you don’t need any empty calories messing with your mojo. Just read the good stuff. There will be time later, if you really want it, to read empty fiction. But I doubt you will want ordinary once you’re hooked on exceptional.
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