Author Talk: Q&A with novelist Mesu Andrews

Author Talk: Q&A with novelist Mesu Andrews

Mesu Andrews (pronounced mee-sue) is well known for her fiction based on biblical figures. Her novel Miriam was a Christy Award finalist and her newest novel, Isaiah’s Daughter, will be released in February. This accomplished writer talks about her fiction and her writing life.

Q: What do your readers say they like about your biblical fiction?

A: From what I’m hearing from my readers, they enjoy the fact that the characters they read about in Scripture become real people to them. When I put clothes on them, give them brown eyes, have them stub their toe, all of a sudden they have flesh and blood and a heartbeat.

My goal is to put readers in the story so they can smell and taste it, and the people are real to them. These people were real; we’re reading history, not a story book.

Q: How do you get yourself into the chair in order to write consistently?

A: I don’t have an issue with starting to write or keeping my nose to the grindstone. My issue is stopping. I tend to be a workaholic. When I have trouble thinking of the word “the,” it’s time to stop.

Q: How do you connect with your readers?

A: In the past I haven’t done a lot of release events. I do online things like Facebook parties because I tend to be a homebody. This year the North Carolina ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) is a new chapter, so the weekend before the release of Isaiah’s Daughter I’m doing a one-day workshop in Raleigh.

Q: How do you do your research?

A: I have a significant library thanks to my husband being a pastor and college professor, and I’ve been doing this a few years so every time I write I buy a few books. We recently moved to Boone, North Carolina, home of Appalachian State University, and I’ve found a lot of resources there on the Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. Children’s books also have been a great source, often full of pictures of houses and dress and other things.

The Encyclopedia Judaica is one of my favorites. Rabbinical texts have a lot of information on Jewish traditions, and there is so much legend in Jewish literature. I also have copies of the works of Josephus and Herodotus. Before I began writing books, in 2000 I visited Israel. I remember that trip like it was yesterday.

Q: What kind of criticisms and roadblocks have you faced, and how do you deal with them?

A: I went to my first writers conference in 2001 and I wanted to write one book: a Bible study on the Song of Solomon. Someone looked at me and said, “Wow, you really need to stick with speaking.” I kept writing anyway.

I had been speaking as a Bible teacher at women’s events and as a pastor’s wife. I was teaching 4-5 times a week, and traveling once or twice a month to retreats. But my body decided it was done with that. I got a virus in 1997, then in 2004 my body gave out again and I was in bed for six months.

Since 2005 I’ve had a daily migraine. I stay home, am quiet, and don’t do much. But the Lord has given me an incredible gift to be able to write. I teach with my writing. I absolutely love it.

Q: Tell us about your new book and your next project.

A: Isaiah’s Daughter (Feb. 2018) is the story of Hephzibah, the wife of King Hezekiah who was one of Judah’s best kings. Hephizabah means “the Lord’s delight.” I’ve always been fascinated by her, who was married to one of the most righteous kings in Judah and who mothered the most evil king in Judah. I love to think about her faith journey.

The next book is tentatively titled Of Fire and Lions and is about Daniel and his wife and is due out in February 2019. After that I want to write another book about Hephzibah and the second half of her faith journey, that of raising Manassah and up to her death.

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Writing for the Books & Joanna Davidson Politano

Writing for the Books & Joanna Davidson Politano

2017 was a great year for novels with storylines involving writers. Four were on my reading list, and should probably be on yours if for no other reason than they are about writing.

Rachel Hauck’s The Writing Desk is a luscious time-jump tale with a writing desk in the middle. Tenley Roth has one bestseller, but is completely blocked when it comes to writing her second. Her estranged mother calls her to Florida where she comes across an old desk full of secrets, including those of Birdie Shehorn. Birdie lived during the Gilded Age, the daughter of Old Money. This is a useful—and entertaining—look at what it takes to really live a writing life amid obstacles.

The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck turned out to be one of my favorite novels of 2017 thanks to author Bethany Turner’s rollicking voice and story, as well as her slanting look at sexual tension in Christian romance. Sarah, too, had bestsellers—written before coming to faith and chock full of scandalous material. I enjoyed discovering how Sarah dealt with her previous books as she entered her new life. I would have given this book a starred review in Publishers Weekly if someone else hadn’t already done so.

I always love a good John Grisham story, and Camino Island was no different. It’s quite different from his legal thrillers, but I’m not arguing with a tale about a heist from Princeton’s library vaults of priceless F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts. Enter Mercer Mann, novelist with severe writer’s block, who is asked to help find the manuscripts that may be hidden in a bookshop on Camino Island.

Lastly, Lady Jane Disappears by Joanna Davidson Politano, another novel of two plots and multiple mysteries this time sent in Victorian England. Aurelie Harcourt’s father dies in debtor’s prison, leaving her with the task of finishing his wildly popular serial novel written under the pen name Nathaniel Droll. Aurelie must go live with her father’s snobbish family, and there uncovers mystery upon mystery surrounding her long-lost mother. She must keep her identity as Droll secret even as she writes about her family.

Joanna Politano visited Grand Rapids in 2017 and I was able to meet her and talk about her novel and writing life. She’s the mother of two young children, Elena and Levi, and lives with her husband Vince in Michigan City, Indiana.                                                              

Tell us a little about your writing journey and your debut novel Lady Jane Disappears.

The novel evolved as I wrote it over nine months or a year. It started out as a fun thing I did during my daughter’s nap time, then became a more formal project. I had decided to set aside my publishing goals to raise a family but God said no. He said, “It’s noble but not what I want you to do.”

I went to a writers conference where I met my agent Tamela Hancock Murray. She signed me and I finished the book several months later. We got interest very quickly.

What surprised you as you wrote Lady Jane Disappears?

It surprised me that the book became more of a mystery novel than I thought. For fun I put in every element that I like in a story. As I edited the book, the mystery became more of the story. In fact, what happened to Aurelie’s mother surprised me. I didn’t know if she would pop up, didn’t know who was the villain. My first readers had me rewrite the ending because it was boring.

What do you like most about writing?

I enjoy the connection with my spiritual life, how art integrates with my walk with God. God and I unfold the novel as a process together. I also love connecting with readers who are kindred spirits and who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I love to to sit down and play with words, to change sentences around, all the twists and turns of writing.

What is your best advice to new writers?

My advice is to not care so much about what people think of your writing. I also think writing to any kind of fad isn’t going to get you very far, and thinking too highly of yourself is only going to hinder you. There is a lot to be said for learning the craft, and I’m not trying to cop out on that, but you have to be true to your story.

Get feedback, enter contests, and really listen to the people trying to help you. It’s easy to think  your writing is really good and others just don’t get it. But if three or four people are telling you something, you need to listen.

What authors do you like to read?

I like to read anything well written. I grew up reading the Brontes and Dickens; now there are so many good novels out there, especially in CBA. I like Bethany Turner for contemporary, Lynn Austin for historical, as well as Jodi Hedlund, Kristy Cambron, Laura Frantz, Rosanna White, and Susie Finkbeiner.

Visit Joanna Politano at www.jdpstories.com, on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

The Professional Writing Life by Intern 1 (Sarah Traill)

The Professional Writing Life by Intern 1 (Sarah Traill)

image1During my months with Ann, I’ve had time to see the professional writing life up close. Here are a few of her tips:

First, have a master plan. Make sure to write down all your tasks and deadlines. If you don’t write them down, you’re liable to forget!

Once you have everything written down, make a plan to accomplish it. Allow for more time than you think you’ll need. Those last-minute technological problems or tea spills over that critical document you needed are bound to appear if you’re working on a too-tight schedule. By having a weekly or monthly master plan, the daily struggles won’t be as stressful.

Secondly, be fluid in your plans. As a professional writer, your schedule changes on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. Accept these changes and allow both yourself and your plans to be flexible. If you’re unable to accomplish something on the day you wanted it done due to scheduling conflicts or some other issue, allow for that and get something else done instead.

Third, complete small tasks on a daily basis. Make sure you’re finishing at least one small task on your project (or projects) every day. If you try to tackle all the huge tasks, you’ll burn yourself out, so try instead to take a certain amount of time or a certain number of small tasks to complete daily. Start with just half an hour to work on one project and move forward from there.

For example, send three emails, research for 15 minutes, make one phone call and write for half an hour. That’s maybe an hour of work, but you’ve made substantial progress on several on-going projects. If you do this a few times a day, every weekday your projects will quickly be completed.

Fourth, be open to new possibilities. Keep an open mind towards new ideas, new writing projects, and new connections. You’d be surprised how many new opportunities appear because you asked others for advice or information. Connections come where you least expect them!

Fifth, make time for your writing. Life can get busy, but make time to write during your day. If writing every day is too much, try three times a week for a set amount of time instead. Or write every day for two weeks and take a week off. To succeed as a professional writer, you must make sure you are making time for writing as often as you can.

Finally, Ann’s favorite tip: be nuts! To be a freelance writer, you have to be a little crazy. But that’s what makes it so much fun.

What I Learned from a Summer of Not Blogging

What I Learned from a Summer of Not Blogging

IMG_0149I haven’t posted a new blog entry in months and I’m trying not to feel guilty about that. The summer was filled with writing two books which, frankly, took priority over blogging.

One book was a co-writing project with Bill Blacquiere, soon-to-be-retiring director of Bethany Christian Services. The Call to Care helps focus readers on how each one of us is called to care for vulnerable children and families. How we work out that call day to day is different for everyone.

The other project was my own book, Christian Publishing 101, releasing in January 2018. I interviewed many experts in the publishing field—editors, agents, authors, publicists—to help create this writer’s-conference-in-a-book.

Throw in a family vacation, writers retreat, helping plan and pull off the Breathe Christian Writers Conference, and being a good family/church member and mom/wife, and suddenly it’s early November.  There are a couple of lessons I learned during this blogging hiatus. Hopefully you can take some of them to heart.

1. Social media is fluid. I didn’t blog, but discovered the joys of Instagram. Who knew that #writingwithchickens would be so much fun for me and for readers? It started because every time I wrote outside on the deck or swing, our three chickens would rush over to get in my business. They walked across the keyboard, pecked at the keys, studied the screen, did other crazy chicken stuff.

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Once I started posting goofy pictures on Instagram, #writingwithchickens became a thing. People started liking and following the girls. We don’t have a ton of followers, yet I’m always surprised when people talk to me about those chickens. And they buy me chicken stuff! I now am proud owner of a tiny chicken notebook and a stack of chicken plates, plus a chicken item or two that I purchased.

I may not have blogged, but I now have an Instagram following and friends on Facebook who comment on the crazy fowl. Plus I’ve taken the girls on the road thanks to a traveling flock of three tiny chickens that fit in my pocket. (See if you can find them in the photo.)

2. Interns are fun and make me work. I had my first intern over the summer: the lovely Sarah Traill. Her guest blog posts will appear here soon. She was a true gift, helping me research, writing a bit, and generally making my writing life easier. This fall Hannah VanKampen, a senior at Cornerstone University, interns for two afternoons a week. She took the photo of my cool chicken stuff. Hannah is eager to work and learn, too, and a real gift.

Sarah and Hannah help me focus my writing life—because I have to give them something to do! Being accountable is always a good thing, and these two have helped me tremendously.

3. Guilt is a choice. I knew this already, but it’s good to reinforce that I don’t have to feel guilty about not doing everything all the time. As many in the publishing industry say, focus on what social media platforms you enjoy and let some of the others go for the time being. I was good at Instagram this summer; I’m adding blogging, which I enjoy, back into the mix now. It’s all good!

(Photos by Hannah VanKampen)

I would love to hear how you have balanced writing and social media, how others have helped you along the way, and how you’ve dealt with guilt as it has assailed you in your writing life.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about Christian Publishing 101 and entering for a chance to win a free copy in January, email me at annbyle@gmail.com.

 

The Power of Small Changes

The Power of Small Changes

pencil-1692530__340December and January are lost causes when it comes to social media. Between holiday preparations, birthdays, and high school wrestling, the last month of one year and first month of the next are post-less in my world.

I have a hard time getting back to it until I remember the importance of small things. Doing one small thing or making one small change can open the door to progress and all manner of good things including Facebook, blogging, Instagram and Twitter.

Just one Instagram post about my haunted office nudged me enough to think about others. One blog post after weeks of absence has me sitting here writing another. One trip to the gym makes it easier to head out a few more times a week.

If I get restless writing in my office, I take my laptop to the couch, or to the nearby Panera, or to Icons Coffee Bar, where my daughter is manager.  A little change makes the creative juices flow.

Small changes can prompt big changes, small wins can make way for big wins. Small place changes made me open to a really big place change. I’m writing this on a retreat to Florida, made possible by a plane ticket that I couldn’t refund. Instead of letting it go to waste, I booked a rental car and a 1950s-era motel right on the Atlantic and headed out.

It’s costing a fair bit, but I sure needed it. And the place change is opening my mind to oceans and crashing waves and soaring pelicans and writing. It’s also preparing me for a mighty glut of writing between now and June.

What small changes might you need to make? Adding weight-lifting to your walking regimen at the gym? Yup, did that. Taking up a new genre in your reading life? Doing it. Decorating on the cheap with unique finds? Why, yes.

These are my changes. What are yours? And how will they effect your writing life and your living life? Make a list, stop the inner voices saying no, and take that first small step.

PS: There’s a gap between this and my last post. I’m putting my advice into action today, letting myself forget preparations for the Mount Hermon CWC and big writing projects. Instead, posting a blog about small changes even as I make one.

The Benefits of Retreat

The Benefits of Retreat

Last summer my writing group visited my parents’ cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We scattered around inside and out in the mornings to work on our writing projects; in the afternoon we went on an adventure. In the evenings we talked and laughed.

What a wonderful time away in a place that demands relaxation and retooling thanks to no television and limited cell service. And how fun to spend that time with dear friends.

img_1262Last week I was on a retreat in Florida, far from Michigan’s gloomy skies. Far from the obligations of house and pets and family.

Here’s what I’m discovering about retreat.

  1. Day 1: It takes time to unwind. My first day here I’m still thinking about answering emails and texts and sending pictures and deadlines. A story I covered several years ago for a major magazine is breaking news at home and around the publishing world, but I’m not writing the first stories. It’s OK. I’ll do stories when I get home, but now I’m on retreat and beginning to wind down.
  2. Day 2: Take some down time. Today was a slow start and that’s OK. It’s OK to read and stare at the ocean. I worked—this is a writing retreat after all—but I also went out to dinner at a lovely seafood restaurant.
  3. Day 3: Face the future. I could live like this for another two weeks, but it’s my last day and I’m starting to miss my family a little. I need to address the huge writing project that looms. Remember that line in “The Devil Wears Prada” when Miranda is on her way up to her office and Stanley Tucci’s character yells, “Gird your loins!” That’s how I feel about the next three months.
  4. Home: Reenter slowly. I was gone Wednesday to Sunday. I don’t count Wednesday and Sunday as part of the retreat because of travel. Taking time to rest, relax and prepare for the days ahead is necessary. No need to rush back in immediately! Take it slow and easy for a day or two, then get back into the crazy, hectic days of deadlines, writing and caring for those around you.

I’m posting this from home and remembering the warm and sunny days, the ocean breeze, the little community I entered for three days at my 1950s-era motel. What a wonderful time away and what a fine collection of memories.

Please consider a retreat of your own. The time away is relaxing, the unstructured time is remarkable, the mind space is revealing. Enjoy!

Lessons from Moving Office

Lessons from Moving Office

img_1135I recently inherited a bedroom left vacant by Kid 3, who took Kid 1’s bedroom when she moved into an apartment. This empty bedroom has become my new office. It was no easy task to move a decade’s worth of stuff from my small office on the main floor to this vast expanse on the second floor.

I learned a few lessons while on this month-long journey.

  1. Take it step by step. Anne Lamott’s lesson from “Bird by Bird” applies to paint and decor. Her advice to move through your writing one step at a time, step after step, makes the same sense as I removed cowboy decorations, spackled, primed, taped and painted the walls. The process couldn’t move ahead without accomplishing the previous steps. Same in your writing life. Take the next step, then the next.
  2. Know your plan and work that plan. I wanted gray walls so found accessories with that in mind. Gray lamp from Ikea, off-white chair with gray writing from Wayfair, gray and white curtains from Home Goods all worked with my plan. That lesson works for writing too. Know the plan for your novel, so you stay within it with research. Outlining your nonfiction book keeps you from rabbit trails. In writing and decorating, a plan is a wonderful thing.
  3. Move outside the box. While having a plan is good, experimenting can be good too. My office isn’t all gray. There are coral-framed bulletin boards, a coral shelf, a light red wagon bed holding miscellany. I also hung a huge vintage painting of downtown Grand Rapids (after painting the hideous frame the dark gray of one wall.). Your writing, too, can use a little outside-the-box thinking. Plot twists, new genres, new markets, new styles. Never hurts to try something different and a little crazy.
  4. Throw stuff away. You’ll not believe the pounds of paper I tossed. Papers, notebooks, old files, brochures, business cards, notes: into the trash it all went. I didn’t need 25 reporter notebooks with notes from stories I wrote 15 years ago. It’s a great feeling to get rid of stuff you can’t possible use ever again. Same with your writing life. Toss the stuff that doesn’t work, physically and psychologically. This could be a characters, others’ expectations, a genre you’re just not good at, bad advice, or a critique partner whose passive-aggressiveness is diabolical. Lighten your life, space and mind.
  5. Recycle. I have boxes of books to bring to my two favorite used bookstores to sell. Boxes of stuff headed to Goodwill. I’ve given away a few things, too. Some things deserve a new home and I’m happy to give it to them. Same with writing. I recently interviewed a local author and will use that interview in two publications. Sometimes I’ve sold one interview three times. Use extra research for your novel in another novel, a short story, or a novella. Don’t waste anything good. Find a home for it if you can.
  6. Get help. Moving my file cabinets up the stairs took four of us: two kids pulling on the rope wrapped around it, and one kid and me pushing from the bottom. It took effort to move those things—and they were empty! I also paid a kid to paint the walls for me; it helped that he needed cash. Good help is a good thing in decorating and writing. Find a good critique partner; hire an editor; find a tutor for social media. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  7. Enjoy the results. I love my office. I sit in my chair and stare at the walls and decorations and  curtains a lot. I smile, too. It was worth all the work. So is that first clip, first box of your books, byline, or media interview. Enjoy every minute of the good stuff that comes from being a writer, no matter how small or large. It’s the life we chose and the life we’ll keep.