Plug time. What new book or project do you have coming out?
Informed Consent (Cook). It’s about a resident in infectious diseases who’s the next Einstein of research. While working on a way to revive water submersion victims, he makes a breakthrough discovery, but during the media frenzy that follows, he gets distracted. In his negligence he allows his son to contract a life-threatening virus. Ultimately he has to decide whether to let his son die or violate the rights of a young transplant donor—a choice which forces him to stand face-to-face with the unfathomable love required to sacrifice an only son.
How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?
The story had a thousand or more “what if” moments. I’m pursuing a PhD in Aesthetic Studies, and I worked on the setting, characters, a lot of the plot, as well as my narrative voice during three novel-writing classes taught by a novelist who writes fiction reviews for Publishers Weekly. And I got some great feedback from fellow students who don’t believe in Christ about ways to address faith issues more naturally. I also took a Dante class, which influenced my choice to give my characters five of the seven deadly sins. (I’m saving the other two for a future work.)
But the elements in the plot designed to keep readers up at night came through a brainstorming session with a medical doctor, William Cutrer, with whom I’ve coauthored three medical thrillers, one of which—Lethal Harvest—was a Christy Award finalist in the suspense category.
Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?
[I’d been writing] about a decade. After I graduated from college, I worked for a 700-employee company where my boss thought I had some writing talent. I got my start twenty years ago working as the editor of employee publications. When the company sold, everybody got laid off. I mourned over leaving a job I loved, but it was the best thing ever for my career. Suddenly I had 700 business contacts all over the city.
I started a free-lance writing business, and one of my first clients was the music producer for Barney and Friends. Another of my clients was Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). I edited (and still edit) their magazine, Kindred Spirit. I dabbled in some classes in DTS’s media arts program, and I learned about Joseph Campbell and myth and about Hebrew narrative and Gospel storytelling. I figured if I could tell better stories, I’d write more engaging non-fiction. I had no aspirations ever to write a book.
But my husband and I were experiencing infertility, and at that time we found nothing on the market that helped us think biblically on the subject. When it came to considering in vitro fertilization, the standard answer was “Don’t do it!” Yet we needed to know the whys and hows. As part of a DTS class assignment, I met with a book publisher, and at the end of our conversation he mentioned that his daughter had just experienced an adoption disaster. I told him if he’d publish something on infertility, I’d edit it for free. I was on my way out the door when I said it, and he shot back with “Why don’t you write that book?”
I was so stunned I had to sit down. Up to that point, I’d been writing professionally for at least ten years, and I’d never considered writing a book. As I saw it, the money was in business writing, not book publishing. But sometimes you have to tell your story.
Our foray into fiction began when we saw stem-cell research coming, though we never imagined it would make its way into headlines. We encountered the related issues in our work with fertility patients, and we wanted to sound a warning. Yet we knew if we wrote a non-fiction book on the subject, we’d sell two copies—one to each of our moms.
At that time, Kregel was looking to expand their fiction line, and we proposed a work of fiction about stem-cell research. Bravely they took the plunge with us. We went on to write a sequel, and then Kregel released us to move to WaterBrook for a third one, in hopes of breaking into the crossover market. But for a variety of reasons, including 9-11, False Positive didn’t do as well as our previous titles had.
Zondervan then asked us to write two non-fiction books in partnership with the Christian Medical Association (CMA)—one on infertility and one on contraception that explored in depth whether the pill causes abortions.
When we finished those, we both had projects we wanted to pursue on our own. I launched the Coffee Cup Bible study series, which has four titles with two more due at the end of this month—Cappuccino with Colossians and Premium Roast with Ruth (AMG). And Dr. Bill, as he is known, wrote a book on pregnancy for teen moms.
Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Never. I know…I almost feel guilty saying it. I attribute that to my second grade teacher, who had me write one story a day and raved about whatever I wrote. By the time I was old enough to realize nobody’s that good, it was too late.
A brain has two sides, right? The creator and the editor. And she allowed the creator to run wild without introducing the editor. Ever. And as a result I have an extravagant sense of confidence about the first draft. Then I re-read it, and it stinks. Totally. But it’s too late. It’s already out there. And nobody ever complains about editor’s block. I’m not saying I recommend her style. Surely a second-grade teacher should help a student with grammar and spelling, right? But she never mentioned it. And that approach worked for me.
Today I teach some of those DTS writing classes that I once took, and when I work with students, I find that often the cause of their writers’ block is that they haven’t written the famous Anne Lamott first draft. When they try to tweak and perfect before getting the lousy stuff down, they freeze and can’t write any more. My teacher gave me such a gift. I have tried to locate her so I can thank her, but haven’t found her yet.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you or was when you first started on your writing journey?
I still struggle with expressing character emotion. I feel like I’ll insult the reader if I stop to say “the shock of the news hit like a two-by-four in the back of the head.” I figure if I tell the horrible circumstance, the reader has enough imagination to feel what any normal soul would feel. I want to say simply “His dad died in a plane crash,” and let the reader fill in the blanks. Yet he or she needs more than that. Everybody experiences shock and grief differently. For some the room spins. For others it shrinks. For some it grabs in the pit of the stomach. Or it feels like a physical jolt.
It’s part of my job as a developer of character to choose how this character will react and respond. When the emotions get intense, I need to slow down and let the reader enter the character’s head. But I’d rather get on with the plot.
Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated office or a corner or nook in a room?
I have an office in my house, but I never write there. The desktop computer’s too high and within minutes, my shoulder aches. I prefer the bedroom. There I have a dusty-blue stuffed chair with a matching ottoman where I sit with my laptop, which is linked to the network. My husband calls that chair “mission control,” because I have a TV remote, a VCR remote, a DVD remote (I need a universal remote!), a CD remote, and my laptop. Oh, and the cordless phone and my cell.
From that chair I answer email, write books, craft blog rants. . . I love that corner.
Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?
No. I never know more than a few months ahead of time what days I’ll teach and when I’ll have to attend class. My dabbling at DTS turned into a cap and gown, and as I mentioned, now I serve on the faculty there. So every semester I teach a class, take a class, and try to write a book.
My most productive writing time is from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., and then again after eight at night. In the earlier morning, I answer email. After two p.m., I answer phone calls, run errands and handle more email. If I have to teach from nine until noon on a Monday, I don’t get home until about 2, and I can’t gear up to write again until nighttime. I wish I could write in one-hour slots, but I can’t. I need longer blocks because it takes me so long to ramp-up and ramp-down. Often I have to write in the blocks on the edges of the day—mostly the night edges.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I start the day by making dinner. Throwing something in the crockpot after I get up prevents me from having to stop in the late afternoon. Every other day I work out. Daily I answer email and read the New York Times email version and the blogs to which I’ve subscribed. And I run errands. (Every third day or so, I update my blog.)
On Sunday I worship and rest and read (nothing required). I have Gene Peterson to thank for that. Rest is to the week what holes are to lace.
Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.
Next, I create the main characters. I have four pages of questions I answer for each. About thirty percent of novel-crafting for me is the pre-writing imaginative work on the plot and character sketches.
Then I choose a setting. I ask myself how I can use setting to communicate something. Where was Jezebel when she stole the vineyard? In Jezreel. Where was she years later when dogs ate her? Jezreel. The setting tells more than a place. It says something about the character of God. So I try to choose a setting that communicates on a deeper level.
All the time I’m making these choices, I deliberate about the best way to tell the story. First-person? Third-person? Who will be the main POV character? Why?
After that I craft a proposal. It starts with a one-paragraph synopsis. While my agent shops it around, I develop the summary into a chapter-by-chapter outline. And then I make a file for each chapter and start dumping in ideas.
When my agent has some success, he calls. Here’s what happens from there…
Editorial person really likes it
I find a typo
What are some of your favorite books (not written by you)?
The Brothers K, Tale of Two Cities, Are Women Human?, Under the Unpredictable Plant, The Pink Maple House, The Philippian Fragment, A Wrinkle in Time, Pepito’s Story, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, A Severed Wasp, The Man Who Was Thursday, Romeo and Juliet, The Book of Common Prayer, War and Remembrance, The Red Tent, Kite Runner, Gilead, and Peace Like a River.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?
If you want to be a fabulous writer, start with the Bible. Here are a few examples of how that advice has paid off…
If you want to your characters to be compelling, give the “good guys” some weaknesses. Consider Hebrews 11, often called “The Faith Chapter.” With the exception of a few like Abel, we could just as easily title it “The Foul-Up Chapter.” We find murderers, adulterers, hookers. Despite their flaws, however, they have one thing in common: faith. Moses is humble, but he has an anger management problem. Peter is spirited but impulsive—just ask Malchus.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?
I wish I had known the publisher has final say on the book title. And they also have the final word on whose name goes first on the book, regardless of the deal you and your “co” have worked out. We had planned to take turns having top billing. That was naïve. Totally.
How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?
I do more than I used to, less than I “should.”
What works best is totally of out of my control: the sovereignty of God. When our first novel, Lethal Harvest, came out, it hit the CBA best-seller list. Okay, so it was number 19 on that list. Still, it made the top twenty. As it happened, the book is about characters dealing with stem-cell research, and at the time that phrase was not yet in the headlines. The day we released it, it was announced that the human genome had been mapped, and suddenly we saw enormous interest in bioethics. The timing on that was completely out of our control. My students asked my secret to marketing that book, and I could only say “God.” Seriously.
It works both ways, though. In the middle of trying to market our third novel, False Positive, terrorists flew planes into a couple of skyscrapers, the Pentagon and a field. So suddenly nobody wanted to talk about a plot set in a pregnancy resource center.
In addition when it comes to marketing, I’ve had to make a major career choice to do less marketing than I need to. Because I teach writers at DTS, I have a teaching load and a PhD course load. (The accrediting institution allows me to teach based on my portfolio, but both the seminary and I believe I need “doctor” in front of my name if I plan to keep teaching grad students.) I see my teaching job as a form of discipleship, because the more solid Christian thinkers and graphic-novel writers and poets and storytellers and movie-scripters I can help launch into publishing, the more widely I expand the boundaries of my own ministry. They have already gone into places with their life messages that I could never reach. Some of them you have featured in this column.
Yet I can’t be a wife and parent and professor and editor and student and also do the marketing I need to do. And there I have to trust God. It requires faith. Sometimes my students have to exercise faith to lower their standards and get “B’s” instead of “A’s” so they can be good spouses or parents or both. And sometimes I have to exercise faith to pursue fewer TV and radio appearances and certainly fewer book signings, but it’s the only way I can do what I know I’m supposed to do. So I’ve had to redefine success. Success is not having a book that hits the bestseller list. It’s being the best writer I can be and staying faithful to the calling. The kingdom of God comes first, not the kingdom of Sandra.
So what doesn’t work is marketing at the expense of wisdom. And what also doesn’t work for me is using people. I try to promote others and open doors for them and pave the way for their success, so I “get” networking. But sometimes people treat marketing connections the same way people treat potential underlings in a pyramid scheme. They act like they’re your good friend, and then you find they invited you to dinner only because they want you to edit their manuscript for free or offer an endorsement or introduce them to a Christian celebrity (DTS has a few of those). If people want that stuff, I wish they’d ask straight-up instead of making me feel used. So I probably pursue fewer connections I have that I could use (in the best sense of the word) because I’ve been burned a time or two.
Having said that, I maintain a web site (aspire2.com) and a blog (aspire2.blogspot.com). I send hundreds of postcards (printed at vistaprint.com), and I serve on the boards of organizations like the Evangelical Press Association and the women’s advisory board for bible.org, which gets about four million hits every year. I have something to give to these organizations, and I expect nothing in return, but the connections don’t hurt.
One last thing: Kregel is a marketing machine. I’ve published fourteen books with six houses, and every Kregel book I’ve ever done has earned out its advance, and is still being aggressively marketed.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
Back before I’d ever published anything, I used to look at all the books on the market and think, “Do we really need another novel?” “Why yet another book on marriage,” or “Why would someone want to publish another Bible study on Sermon on the Mount?”
What I came to know years later was that each author’s unique sphere of influence provides a platform through which some readers are more apt to hear from that author than from others—even if the others are more eloquent. So there will always be a need for more books, new books, even on “old” topics. Richard Baxter wrote wonderful stuff for Puritan audiences, and it stirs me when I read it today.
Because of this, every year I exhort my journalism students to go ahead and write on topics that interest them or in the genres they love, even if someone else has already done it better. Several years ago after hearing this little lecture, one of my students showed up the next week with a quote that I have since cherished. It’s from St. Augustine’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity), translated by Edmund Hill:Not everything … that is written by anybody comes into the hands of everybody, and it is possible that some who are in fact capable of understanding even what I write may not come across those more intelligible writings, while they do at least happen upon these of mine.