Author Interview ~ Michelle Stimpson

In addition to her work in the field of education, Michelle ministers through writing and public speaking. Her other works include Boaz Brown, Divas of Damascus Road (National Bestseller), Breaking Bondage to Biscuits, the upcoming young adult release, Trouble In My Way, and several short stories. Michelle serves in the Creative Tyme Ministry at her home church, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship. She lives near Dallas with her husband and their two teenage children. Visit Michelle online at www.michellestimpson.com.

Welcome to Novel Journey, how long did it take you to get published?

For the novel, thankfully, it didn’t take very long. I sent if off to two publishers. The first one said “no,” the second one said that the book had potential, but it also had a lot of problems. She was kind enough to tell me what those problems were. I worked on the manuscript for about 5 months and resubmitted it. The second time around, she signed it. I do have my fair share of rejection letters for short stories.

Do you think an author is born or made?

I’m not so sure about that one. The writing snob in me wants to say that TRUE writers are born. But I’ve run into so many great writers who kind of stumbled onto a good story and penned it, and fell in love with writing later that I’m re-thinking this whole born-to-write thing.What is the first book you remember reading? I don’t remember the title, but I know it was the Ramona Beasley book where either Ramona or her little brother squeezes out all the toothpaste. That cracked me up!

What common qualities do you find in the personalities of published authors?

I tour every year with six other faith-based authors, and we’ve become pretty close over time. I find that we’re all pretty easy to get along with and we’re always finding “stories” in everything. The quirkiest thing, however, is that because I know them, I have a hard time reading their books because I hear their voices in my head. It’s weird!

How do you know if you have a seemingly “stupid” book premise that is doomed to fail versus one that will fly high?

When I’m writing something that I believe will be a success, I feel that I have a close relationship with the characters. I know them, I love (or hate) them, I feel like I’m in a relationship with them as I write. When I feel that strongly about characters and what’s happening to them, it’s all good. Let me add, though, that there is a mysterious feeling I get with every book when I’m about 2/3 of the way through writing. I hate it! I can’t stand it! I think it’s stupid and I just know that no one on earth is going to want to read it! I’m learning, however, that that’s part of the process. I simply must force myself to see all the good in the book and stick it out; finish it. Now that I’m thinking about it, this is pretty much how relationships go – every relationship loses its innocence at some point. Sometimes you just have to focus on the good, stick it out, and you’ll fall back in love with it again.

What is the theme of your latest book?

Well, I’ve got two that are coming out at almost the same time with two different publishers (big no-no, I hear). The first one is The Good Stuff – it centers around marriage, forgiveness, and surrender.The second is Trouble In My Way. It’s a mother-daughter kind of book starring a 16-year-old main character. With this book, I really wanted to focus on the character’s identity. She’s the daughter of a minister and struggles with who she is spiritually and socially.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

This may sound weird, but I avoid critique groups when I’m in the process of writing. When I emerge from the office with a complete manuscript, I’m ready for critique. But when I’m in the process, I can’t take it. I find that if I start seeking other people’s thoughts, I start stalling – I spend more time driving to the writer’s group than actually doing any writing. I do bounce ideas off of other writers as I’m planning for a novel, and I’m totally open to people tearing my work apart because I’m pretty sure I can rebuild it. But the middle part is sacred.

Are takeaway messages (in your book) important to you?

Definitely. When people finish my book, I want them to feel like they’re a little better off for having read my book. Maybe they understand themselves better, maybe they understand their daughter or their mother better. Ultimately, I want their faith to be strengthened.

When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?

I have to steal from James Frey – author of “How to Write a Damn Good Novel.” He says that you will know when your work is finished because you will want to throw up when you look at it. At that point, re-writing doesn’t make things any better – you’re just moving things around; changing “sleepy” to “drowsy” and “happy” to “elated” which, is probably an overstatement.Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books? As I was writing my first novel (Boaz Brown – interracial romance) I had to really check myself about some deep-seated views I inherited from my father (whom I lovingly refer to as the black Archie Bunker). I did a series of little “experiments” to explore discrimination from the black side of the fence. I had an African-American neighbor who had just moved across the street from me, and she had walked past several other houses and come to me to for the African-American perspective on our neighborhood. I proceeded to tell her about our neighbors in very non-ethnic ways: “Oh, the people at that house have two teens,” and “Those people have a dog that always gets out, but it’s harmless.” After every description, she asked, “Okay, now what color are they?” I think she actually got annoyed with me at one point because I wasn’t giving her the specifics. Writing Boaz Brown, having such conversations, and being more conscious of how I do simple things like describing a neighbor has really caused me (and my kids) to be less focused on a person’s outside and more concerned with their inside qualities.

How would you pitch this book to your intended audience?

For “The Good Stuff” I’d let them know that this book is not about a marriage that simply lacks communication – these couples are past “date night” and putting each other on calendars. They can’t stand each other, wish to God they’d never met each other, and have decided that if God can’t fix it, they’re out.

For “Trouble In My Way” I think that young adult readers enjoy reading something that expresses their point of view, so I’d read a diary entry – one where Karis laments about falling in love with a guy she only saw from the 9th row of bleachers at a basketball game.

Christian Fiction: No Men Allowed!

By Mike Duran

Last I checked, God made them “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). Sadly, half of that demographic is barely represented in Christian Fiction.

Don’t believe me? Just scan the recent ACFW Genesis and Book of the Year winners. Out of the 72 winners (1st – 3rd place), a whopping 3 men received awards. That’s right — 3 out of 72! Perhaps it’s not unusual when you consider that the ACFW has only one man on its 14 member Board of Directors. The 2008 Christy Awards were a little better: Of their nine winners, 3 were men. A brief foray into the world of Christian writing blogs reveals a similar lopsidedness. Novel Journey is a good example. Of its ten contributors, I’m the only guy (but after this post, I might be its last). Other group writing websites share a similar preponderance of females. The Master’s Artist is comprised of 8 women and 3 men, the 11 member team of Focus on Fiction contains only 3 men, and of Charis Connection‘s 21 contributors, only 7 are men. For every one male Christian Fiction writer, there’s a gaggle of chicks.

It’s one of the more uncomfortable realities of the religious publishing world — when it comes to fiction, women rule the roost.

To be fair, this inequity is not limited to Christian circles. Statistics repeatedly show that men don’t read fiction. In the August 2006 issue of Writer’s Digest, in an article entitled Do Men Read? Maria Schneider put it bluntly:

Conventional publishing industry wisdom has it that guys just don’t buy fiction. Men account for only 20 percent of novel sales…

And then, quoting Karen Holt, deputy editor of Publishers Weekly:

“The gap starts early, as girls in elementary and middle school read a lot more than boys, picking up a lifelong habit that most men never develop. Whether by cause or effect, most novels are published with women in mind.”

Proposed answers to this enigma range from biological, to sociological, to emotive. Some offer that women tend to be shoppers, making even the casual female reader susceptible to a well-marketed book. In the aforementioned article, one author suggests that men do not read fiction because they don’t want to deal with “complicated, painful internal conflict”. In fact, it’s been suggested that men choose novels of alienation, while women go for passion. Hmm. Is that what’s driving women to Christian Fiction — romantic passion?

Perhaps it’s also what’s driving men away.

An NPR article entitled Why Women Read More than Men also hints that content may partly be the culprit to men’s disinterest in fiction:

There are exceptions to the fiction gap. More boys than girls have read The Harry Potter series, according to its U.S. publisher, Scholastic. What’s more, Harry Potter made more of an impact on boys’ reading habits. Sixty-one percent agreed with the statement “I didn’t read books for fun before reading Harry Potter,” compared with 41 percent of girls.

For publishers and booksellers, that offers a ray of hope…

So maybe the problem isn’t fiction per se, but the type of fiction being aimed at the male reader.

Okay, so I’m thinking out loud. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this is something to be corrected or just conceded. I mean, why should the Christy and Genesis Awards consider more men if it’s primarily women buying their stuff? However, couldn’t it be that the absence of Christian Fiction for men has completely driven men from the fold? Why should a guy bother browsing the religious fiction aisle if all they see is pastels and lipstick and harlequin heroes and lacy curtains? Might as well cruise Nordstrom’s lingerie section.

I know, I know. Supply and demand. The Christian Fiction industry is just reflecting the demands of its readers. But doesn’t this create an echo chamber? Or as the author of What Chicks Don’t Like About Science Fiction suggests, “a self-confirming prophesy”:

If there’s something keeping women away from enjoying science fiction, it’s not spaceships. It’s not “aliens on some far-off planet.” It’s the fact that people on our very own planet keep telling us that women aren’t supposed to like science fiction. It’s a self-confirming prophesy, because the more that scifi creators are told this, the more they imagine that their audience is all boys. (emphasis mine)

The author conjectures that it is the perpetuation of a myth — that sci-fi is mainly for males — which keeps the industry from expanding its base. In a similar fashion, because the braintrust tells us that men don’t read Christian Fiction, it becomes “a self-confirming prophesy.”

Which brings me back to my question: Is gender inequality among fiction readers something to be corrected or just conceded? And if it is to be corrected, shouldn’t Christians be in the lead? Or has Christian Fiction become so “feminized” that it’s beyond reclamation? Hey, I’m just asking…

Anyway, as long as the Dekkers, Perettis, Cramers, Dicksons and Wilsons of the world are writing, I’ll hold out hope. Still, whenever I think of Christian Fiction, this reader can’t help but feel in the minority.

Watching Someone Read by Marcia Lee Laycock

I was on my way across the country to participate in the School of Writing at Canadian Mennonite University. I was nervous about going, even though my work had been accepted and I’d been granted entrance to the advanced fiction class with Canadian literary icon, Rudy Wiebe. To gain that entrance I had submitted three short stories that I’d worked on long and hard, but I had chosen to workshop another ten pages – part of the sequel to my novel, One Smooth Stone. Would they like it? Would the writing be good enough?

As I settled into my seat on the small plane, the stewardess came down the aisle and asked us all to move forward, to balance the load. I ended up sitting one seat back and across the aisle from a young woman who took out a book to read. As she did so, the colour caught my eye. Hmm … same colour as the cover of One Smooth Stone.

I watched out the window as the ground dropped away and the plane lifted off, then glanced across the aisle again. The young woman had turned the book. My book. It was a surreal moment. A comforting, though in a way, disconcerting moment. What did she think of it? She seemed to be reading eagerly enough. But did she like it? Was it good enough? For the rest of the flight I peeked over at the woman, trying to gauge her reaction. In the flurry of disembarking I lost track of her and never did find out.

Then I arrived at the University and was swept into the routine of classes and writing assignments. The day my excerpts were to be critiqued, my palms were sweating and my heart was beating a little faster than normal. My fellow classmates began to comment on my work. According to the rules I was not allowed to speak until given permission by the instructor. Staying silent was at once a relief and a hardship. Then Rudy made some comments, asking for further input from the class as they dissecting the excerpt.

Then his words, “This is good writing.” Words from “the master.” I could have danced down the aisle.

But now the euphoria has worn off as I’m continuing to work on the sequel. What will people think of it? Will it be good enough?

And then I go back to why I write – because it’s the way I’m “wired.” Because I can’t not write. Because the images and characters and scenes and emotions flood out of me through a keyboard and I can’t stop them any more than I could stand in a flood and stop the raging waters.
And then I remember who made me this way, who controls what happens to the words I type on this computer, and who will some day say, “well done,” if I work in obedience to Him.

And I realize how much I want to hear that Master’s voice and how much I want to some day dance down the aisle that leads to His throne. So I go on, trying to be obedient to the task of being a writer, fighting off the self doubt and the need for affirmation from men when the only thing that counts is affirmation from Him.

ACFW, 2008

Every year I get something different from the ACFW conference (or any conference I attend.) There were over five hundred people this year. So many people that I finally got to hug a few of my favorites as I was waiting for the shuttle to take me back to the airport! But this is all good. It means ACFW is growing.

Robin Miller/aka Robin Carroll, ACFW’s president, along with the rest of the board, planning committee and all the volunteers work so very hard to put on a great program and they truly did. It worked like a well-oiled machine. Kudos and a heartfelt thank you to these folks. What a ministry.
Also a special mention should go to Cara Putman and whomever else had a hand in arranging the Mall of America book signing. It was an absolute hit! The exposure Christian fiction received that evening was wonderful. This is the sort of thing Christian authors need to be doing more of. Christian bookstore signings are good and we need to be supporting those stores but also we need to be going out among the masses. Until Left Behind’s success I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Christian fiction. Many, many people still don’t. We put a small dent in that number at our mass booksigning though and that’s no small feat!
Okay, so back to what I was saying about what I got out of this year’s conference, well more than anything else I got with God as I always do. Over the last two years, I’ve been dealing with the struggle of my life. My husband filed for divorce and without going into all the details, it was hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. (No, I didn’t cheat on him abuse alcohol or drugs, our children, the dog, or anything else… He simply has some struggles he’s dealing with.)

Needless to say I’ve been really hurting. God has always been Abba, Daddy to me but this year at the conference, He wooed me as the lover of my soul. He reminded me that when something goes wrong with the plumbing, He’s there. When finances are scary tight, He’s there and when I’m lonely, He’s not just next to me but living inside of me. He told me I was beautiful in His eyes and worthy. That was the best part.
Much of this wooing came during song. (Thank you Rachel Hauck and the worship music team… it was awesome!)

Writing-wise I had lost much of my motivation to write. I got that back big time. I came home and wrote two chapters in one day when it’s been taken me at the fastest a week to write one chapter.

Of course I got to pray with friends, give and get lots of hugs and laugh myself silly. But this year, like no other, there was such a peace about me, a quiet sense of being. Not feeling I needed to pitch this editor or catch that person or be noticed, but just a real sense that what is supposed to happen will … and it did!
I’d love to hear from those of you who attended. What was your take away?