Category: On Writing

This ‘n’ That book news…

I don’t know about you but Covid-19 and its stay-at-home orders, the monotony of every day feeling like we’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the specter of empty parking lots, the police tape around playground equipment, the spider webs lacing the hubcabs on my car, has me a little brain-fogged. I know I owe you a blog post but I’ve noticed it’s hard to concentrate on things that aren’t a big part of this NEW ROUTINE, this blog being one of them. But I am here today – confetti toss to me – and I am dropping in with some fun stuff that I’ve been collecting, albeit quite by accident. Here, in no particular order is a bunch of fun stuff.

My good friend and fellow Berkley sister, Chanel Cleeton, has a new book coming out next month – pandemic or no pandemic – and to help pave the way for the release of THE LAST TRAIN TO KEY WEST, Berkley is having a super fun giveaway sweepstakes that includes two additional (and wonderful) books by Chanel, plus a pretty special edition tote bag. As you can see from the photo above, I loved her newest, but they are all great books! Truly. This giveaway is open to U.S. entries only (sorry about that!). You can enter for a chance to win here:

Have you noticed that World War II books just keep coming our way and no one seems to be tiring of them? I’ve only come across a couple people who say they’re ready to move on to another historical fiction backdrop; the rest of us just can’t seem to get enough of them. I know I am not tired of WW2 books. Not tired reading them and not tired writing them. There are still untold, undiscovered stories of WW2 and the time to tell them and find them is now, while we still have some of its living witnesses here with us. To align two of my older titles with THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, which is my most recent WW2 novel, my publisher has redesigned the covers of SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEAN – both of which are WW2 tales – so that they will easily be recognizable as from that era. And there’s better symmetry between the covers.

This may last just for now or for a long while. I still love the original covers (remember those beautiful dresses and the women wearing them with just part of their face showing?) We will see what people are drawn to? What do you think? I am happy to gain new readers who might not have picked up the two books before, but now will. Fingers crossed anyway!

These will show up mainly on ebook readers but also at some retailers. Let me know if you spot either one in physical form. Extra love from me if you nab a photo!

In more WW2 book news, I just finished Ariel Lawhon’s  CODE NAME HELENE, which I loved, and which I will share about next Friday. So do come back for that!

And now for some fun stuff just because. I loved this video, shot by a UK sports commentator who is obviously not commenting on any sports, because COVID. So he’s been finding little things in pandemic life to comment on in sports-commentator-like fashion. This is one is the absolute best to date:

And last for now, this just floors me. I am amazed by the amazing music coming out of the quarantined world, by yes, talented people, but recorded in their homes via their smart phone and laptops, all while in separate places!! Not in sound studios. This one just makes you want to dance a little:

So there you go! Happy Friday, friends. Hopefully I won’t let you down next Friday and I will be here with more FUN STUFF!


Looking back to look forward…

Annette Hubbell

It’s my distinct pleasure to welcome to the blog today, my good friend, fellow writer, and fellow San Diegan Annette Hubbell, so that we can talk about her newest work of non-fiction, ETERNITY THROUGH THE REARVIEW MIRROR – How Simple Faith Changes Everything–Seventeen Extraordinary Lives. (Make sure you read to the end to see how to get in on a giveaway for both an audio and print version.)

Annette is a writer and performer who produces and presents historical characters in theatrical settings, like schools, libraries, and museums. Her first book, A SPOONFUL OF GRACE: Mealtime Blessings in Bite-sized Pieces, published in 2017, was awarded the Silver Medal in the 2018 Illumination Awards honoring the year’s best new titles written from a Christian worldview. She’s San Diego native and has a business degree from SDSU, an MBA from CSUSM, and a Certificate in Apologetics from Biola University.

Being the lover of history that I am, I’m always interested in the people that shaped our past, and this book is all about culture-shapers whose faith played a significant role. Some of the historical figures in this book you’ve heard of, some perhaps not, and some are maybe people you thought you knew, but you’ll be surprised at the influence their spiritual lives had on the legacy they left behind.

Here’s the book’s premise in a nutshell (homeschoolers out there, this would make a great addition to your source library…)

What in the world do Galileo and Johnny Cash have in common? How about C. S. Lewis and Abraham Lincoln? Pull up a seat and make yourself comfortable; you’re about to have a heart-to-heart with once-ordinary people who discovered the secret to living an extraordinary life. “Eternity through the Rearview Mirror” is a collection of spellbinding, first-person conversations with seventeen historical figures. Let the evidence speak as these heroes reveal the secret to eternity’s timelessness. These seventeen, all wildly famous in their time-some still famous-speak from their heavenly vantage point. In addition to the four mentioned above, you’ll find: J. S. Bach, John Newton, Elizabeth Fry, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Amy Carmichael, Mary McLeod Bethune, Aimee Semple McPherson, Corrie ten Boom, Gladys Aylward, and Louie Zamperini.

So without further ado, the interview!

SM: I always like to know where the idea for a book came from. So how about it. Where did you get the idea for ETERNITY THROUGH THE REARVIEW MIRROR?

It’s questions like this that make me wish I’d journaled more! I didn’t think I had another book in me and can’t really pinpoint the moment. I do know the idea had to have been divinely inspired, because I don’t think I could have thought of this on my own—especially the technique of writing biographies in first-person. I mean, that’s very unusual, isn’t it?  An autobiography that isn’t an autobiography! Scripture tells us that nothing is impossible with God. I believe that, but I’m always thinking about what a skeptic would say, so I think that played into it.  Instead of telling, why not show – via words – real people who accomplished amazing things—world-changing things—and credited their accomplishments to God, specifically to their Christian faith. And so ETERNITY evolved.

SM: How did you go about building your list of amazing people?

Research, research, research. I surfed the internet continuously.  At first I looked for lists—lists of famous Christians. But all I got were the well-known ones:  Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the like. I wanted to find people who were not necessarily recognized for their faith—just driven by it. (Although I did make a few exceptions.) I didn’t want them to be still living, for their stories could change. I trolled through scholarly databases, thumbed through new and old magazines—the Wall Street Journal was a good source, especially their Saturday review section—and  I asked people who they admired.  After all that I had a list of about 100 people that might be good subjects, and began to research their backgrounds. I was able to get it down to about forty and from there to the seventeen. I think I could have gone the forty, but stopped when I had enough to fill a book.  Maybe a sequel!

SM: It’s always nice to have leftover research for another book! Were there folks that you thought you were going to include and then didn’t? Were there some stories that just didn’t make the cut? Why?

Oh yes!  Elizabeth Blackwell was a strong contender, for example. A Christian, she was America’s first female doctor.  But she decided later in life to follow a different religious path, so, obviously, that wasn’t going to work. There were many, too, that I just couldn’t find enough information about their faith to make a determination. Oh, and I wanted these biographies to be brief—accurate but not get bogged down in the details which would have overshadowed the theme of what one can accomplish with God. Can you imagine, for example, writing about Thomas Jefferson, getting inside his head about the issue of slavery, in just 4,000 words? Impossible. Not only that, he had his own ideas about Christianity. He rewrote the Bible (called it the Jefferson Bible) because he didn’t believe in Jesus’ miracles, including the Resurrection, and red-lined them out.

SM: So how did you approach this massive research project? What was the hardest part about writing it? What surprised you the most?

Well, first let me say I had no idea what I was getting into. I’m all about accuracy, but I thought reading a couple of books on each subject and some encyclopedia entries would do. I began to find many discrepancies, though—many conflicting truths.  Even autobiographies would sometimes present only their best side. And most books did not include references, so I really had no way to determine what was truth and what wasn’t. Very frustrating! I probably read the equivalent of five books on each subject before I began the search for source documents, which took a great amount of time and some fair detective work. Once I had each story pretty much in finished form I looked for experts who agreed to read and comment. (I wasn’t able to find anyone for Johnny Cash, Louie Zamperini, and Gladys Aylward, so I really had to double down the research on those three.) To keep the bios conversational I put the facts in endnotes—all 606 of them! (The audible version doesn’t include the endnotes.)

SM: As an accuracy-matter girl, I salute you! Do you have a favorite of the 17 extraordinary lives in the book, and if so, why?

I really don’t have a favorite.  As I finished each story I would say, “Oh this is definitely my favorite,” and then I’d start my research on the next one.  I will tell you that of the seventeen, I thought Abraham Lincoln would be the easiest and Johnny Cash the hardest, and it turned out exactly the opposite. Many to this day will argue that Lincoln was a non-believer all his life. “An infidel,” they call him. That was a big surprise to me.  So to present his life as a Christian, I had to do enough research to prove to myself that although he once was an atheist, he grew out of that—in a big way. And Johnny Cash’s life style, his drug usage was like Paul’s thorn in his side. Did you know that Johnny Cash was a schooled pastor, and that he wrote a book called The Man in White, about the apostle Paul? And in his concerts he acknowledged Jesus Christ as number one in his life. Johnny was a perfect example of the shortcomings of man and the ever faithful love of God.

SM: I didn’t know Johnny Cash wrote a book about the apostle Paul! What do you hope people take away from reading this book?

I want them to be inspired, to be motivated! To ask for a purpose if they need one. I want it to be a believer’s delight and a Doubting Thomas’s revelation. Most of these seventeen were just regular people—they had seasons to their lives, lessons to learn—like we all do. If we could go back in time and ask each of them what important lesson they would want to impart, I think they would all say that anything is possible alongside the power of God.  That is what I would say to anyone today.

SM: Good words!! Thanks, Annette. And now, reading community, if you would like be part of the random draw for either an audio or print version of Annette’s book, just say hello in the comments, tell us who is one of YOUR favorite inspiring persons of the past, and specify if you want either audio or print or both (but do note there will be two winners. If you’re the first winner for the audio, your name will be dropped for the print version.) Comment by noon on Weds, July 17. Let’s hear who are your favorite people of the past! (they don’t have to be famous…)

Thoughts on Educated

I’ve been on the book tour trail and neglecting the blog a bit, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading, because the great thing about airplane travel is ALL THAT READING TIME! It’s the best. I can’t write on a plane (because someone will see what I’m writing as I’m writing it and I hate that) and I can’t sleep on a plane (I don’t know why, other folks do it famously, even resting their heads on their tray tables to do it, but not this girl) but I can read. And I do. I’ve got some good reads to tell you about but I’m going to spread out the love and do it one Friday at a time.

Today I want to share my thoughts on the runaway bestseller, EDUCATED, a work of non-fiction by Tara Westover. I remember seeing this book when it first came out and kind of loving that pencil drawing (could nearly smell that wood shaving/graphite combo that only an old-fashioned pencil can produce when I looked at it) and wondering what it was about. I didn’t realize it was a memoir of one woman’s growing up in a very unique, dare I say it, dysfunctional quasi-Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. It’s a book about that kind of upbringing (ultra conservative, Ruby-Ridgish, oppressively survivalist) but more than that, it’s a book about this woman’s struggle to become her own person, which many of us do within the safe guard rails of home, but not her. (Here is a short PBS video in her own words…)

Tara Westover

The reading was compelling, partly because it’s a true story and partly because Tara Westover is a gifted wordsmith. Though she never stepped inside a formal classroom until she was seventeen, she nevertheless overcame every seemingly impossible hurdle to her education. She earned a Ph.D within a decade of that first moment in real school, all while navigating her journey to discovering her place in this world, sometimes with the help of her parents and siblings, but more often despite them.

I was reminded of Jeanette Walls’ THE GLASS CASTLE, which I loved, and though the stories are different, the two books evoke the same feelings, at least for me. I love what is written about the book in the inside front cover: “EDUCATED is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes of severing one’s closest ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.”

All of us are in a classroom of some kind when we’re growing up. We are all learning to be the person we will be the rest of our adult life. It may not be a traditional room with rows of desks but learning is taking place within the environment provided to us, from the moment we take our first breath. We are born, we begin to grow, we begin to learn. I am sure there are plenty of untold sad stories out there where children raised in oppressive learning environments could not break out of them, but this is a powerful story of a young woman who did.

Starting an Online Prayer Group

(This post is #6 in a series by six author friends who began an online prayer group together. To start at the beginning, head over to fellow author Lynn Austin’s blog).

One of the nicest things about the digital age is the ability to seemingly erase the miles between you and the people you care about who do not live close to you. Through the wonder of today’s technology, we can virtually gather with far-flung friends and family on various media platforms and and communicate in real-time regarding just about anything. I was invited in to the Transformational Fiction Prayer Group by Elizabeth Musser, whom I have known for years but who lives thousands of miles away from me. She and I have a lot in common including a love for God and our families, the itch to write compelling historical fiction and the knowledge that we need friends along the way in this journey called life: friends who understand us, who can advise us, who will pray for us, and who understand our “world” and whose outlook on life closely mirrors our own. These are the people that will see you through difficult times, celebrate with you during good times and hold you close during the worst of times. Starting your own online prayer group begins with wanting that kind of connection with a small group of friends, finding them, and then finding the mode and means that can best make it happen.

Finding the friends

Our group has six members, which seems just about right. Not too big, not too small. We have enough in common to be able to understand the struggles each of us face and we agree on the most fundamental distinctives of our faith. The number in your group isn’t as important as the fit, but keep in mind the bigger the group the less people might be willing to share or will even be able to share. The time goes by fast when you’re connecting with each other in real time. Here are some good questions to ask yourself as you ponder who will be a good fit: Is this person someone I can trust with my most personal thoughts and concerns? Have I known this person long enough to know them well? Does person do well in situations where everyone is afforded an equal chance to speak? Does this person’s faith perspectives coincide with my own?

Finding the “meeting room”

We meet on Skype on a group call once a month, but you can also use Google Hangouts or other online “meeting rooms.” The platform Marco Polo has a group setting, but the connections aren’t exactly in real time; your members will be able to watch the videos in real time, but the responses are then recorded and played back. You can also opt for a private Facebook group, which you can then post to as often as want, and then perhaps designate a time and day when you will all be on at the same time.  The nice thing about the Skype call, though, is we can see each other and the calls aren’t recorded. When we hang up, the call is gone. There is a certain amount of safety there. We do maintain a prayer log on a Google doc that we all have access to but that is the only bit of info that anyone writes down.

When to meet

Once a month, usually the first Thursday, works for us. We are spread out over a large geographic area. I take the Skype call at noon on the West Coast and Elizabeth, for example, takes it at 9PM in Europe. We found a time that works for the six of us about ninety percent of the time. Sometimes we move the meeting time if too many of us are traveling or otherwise engaged. So many people lead such busy lives; this may well be the hardest detail for your new group to nail down. But it’s been said that we always make time to do the things we really want to do. If the people you’ve gotten confirmation from really want this, you will find a time to make it happen.

Who will lead?

Every group that wants to accomplish something needs a leader. If you want to start a group like this but don’t want to lead, find someone with leadership skills who does. A herd of any size without a leader wanders aimlessly and never gets to where they want to be. You can all decide what each gathering will look like, but the leader should then execute the plan you all agree to. In our group, which Elizabeth leads, we meet for an hour. We share our lives and hearts with each other and then often one of us shares a meditative thought from the Bible, and then we pray for each other, right there on the Skype call, each praying for one of the others. (Here is another reason to have a leader; for facilitating this closing prayer time). Sometimes the hour flies by and we agree to pray after we hang up. Keep in mind, the person leading doesn’t have to be the one making all the decisions. They just ensure the decided things take place.

The world can be a challenging place. Sometimes you just want to share your heart with a few people who totally get you but who aren’t right there in the middle of your day-to-day life. They sometimes can see what you can’t see. Distance gives them perspective, and wonders like Skype allow us to hear what it is in unbelievably convenient ways.

Has the digital age impacted you in positive ways with regard to maintaining relationships? Tell me in the comments!

To enter the giveaway for a signed paperback of AS BRIGHT AS HEAVEN, sign up for my newsletter!

If you have already signed up for my newsletter, don’t worry! You won’t be signed up twice. To qualify for the drawing, though, I’ll still need record of your entry through the link above. Thanks!

To enter the grand prize (all six novels) enter each giveaway of the Transformational Fiction Giveaway Tour. Begin at Lynn’s blog which I linked above.

Giveaway Disclaimer: Ends Sunday, March 10, 2019 at 11:59pm CST. All Transformational Fiction Giveaway winners will be announced Monday, March 11, 2019, and will have 48 hours to claim their prize or thereby forfeit to the runner up. Participants must enter all 6 giveaways to be considered for the grand prize drawing. Limited to US residents only. Must be 18 or older to enter.

Take me away…

lucybartonSomething must be wrong with me.

I read another book that has been an overnight bestseller, is popping up all over the place on lists of books I should be reading, and which the critics adore.

I wanted to love My Name is Lucy Barton. I had hoped I would. But when I finished it, I was like… is it me?

I really, really liked (let me have my adverbs, please) Olive Kitteridge, loved the masterful way Elizabeth Strout made such an unlikeable main character compelling, loved the construction of a full-length novel told in short stories and was very happy when she won the Pulitzer for fiction for it.olive

So naturally with all the noise and notoriety about this new book by Strout, I assumed I would be as equally swept away. But when I finished My Name is Lucy Barton, I was sad that I didn’t feel as though I had been transported anywhere. It saddens me to even say that. It was well-written, but I didn’t connect emotionally with Lucy or anyone else in the pages.The book was, for me, too quiet.

I once turned in a manuscript for a novel that my editor said was written well but was too quiet, and I remember thinking, after I had a glass of wine to soothe my writerly ego, what an interesting way that was to describe a flawed book. (I fixed that sound problem by the way, in revisions). But she was right. I had to school myself on what a too quiet novel was, and basically, it boiled down to two things for me: the plot didn’t force my characters to make choices where the stakes were high, and I hadn’t given the prose enough emotional punch to make those stakes seem real and relevant.

kite-runner-cover-imageThat was the problem for me with My Name is Lucy Barton. I longed to be transported, not via an overblown plot-driven story told in stilted language, but with a character-driven story told in beautiful, even if it is simple, prose that challenged and teased my senses. I wanted the story to whisk me away to another time and place the way Khaled Hosseini took me to Afghanistan in The Kite Runner, or the way Barbara Kingsolver sent me to Africa in the 1950s in The Poisonwood Bible, or the way Geraldine Brooks carried me to Britain in the time of the plagues in Year of Wonders or the way Margaret Atwood carted me away to a hellish, dystopic future in The Handmaid’s Tale.

I experienced the same letdown a few weeks ago with the ravely reviewed Brooklyn because in the reading of it I was transported to nowhere.

With there being so many books and so little time, I don’t feel that I have the hours to give over to a book that is so quiet I must hunt for the sounds of its brilliance.

I would love for anyone who read My Name Is Lucy Barton and absolutely loved it to gently school me on its wonderfulness. Tell me how to pack my suitcase and which train to get on and I will. Truly.

I am standing at the platform, waiting…



The story that changed everything


Frank and me in 2016

This is not the first time I have blogged about my ninth-grade English teacher and it probably won’t be the last. Frank Barone was the single-most influential teacher I had in my growing up years. He not only saw I had the potential to do something with my writing he took every chance he could, with every assignment I wrote for him, to affirm that budding and yet raw talent.

I met him when I was 14 years old and in freshman comp. Our first assignment was to write about something that mattered to us, and I suppose what mattered to me most then was letting my storytelling brain have access to school assignments. Because what I turned in was a short story.


Frank Barone the year I met him – 1975

I don’t remember toiling over the words or pondering the tiny plot, I just remember – rather vividly – sitting in his classroom the next day and having him read my story out loud to the class. That’s how much he liked it. He didn’t warn me ahead of time, he just sat in the circle of students (no rows in Frank Barone’s classroom, always instead a circle), read it and then smiled. I have never forgotten that moment of supreme validation as a writer, even though it occurred 41 years ago.

Frank and I have kept in touch over the decades and get together for cappuccino now and then. He’s retired but still writes, plays golf, and teases poetry out of the ordinariness of a quiet life. We have often talked of that first story I wrote for him because we both remember it.


The story…

Imagine my delight a few days ago when I found that story in an old notebook that I hadn’t opened in decades; the very story Frank read aloud and which launched my writing career in a rather unique way. (Unique because I waited until I was in my early 40s to write my first novel. And yet it was that remembered moment in ninth grade that finally gave me the confidence to try).

I was already planning to see Frank this week. I spoke to a library book club very close to his home that he attended.  I was telling the group how I became a writer and what I had found while looking for something else that week. I told them Frank was seated among them and did they want me to read the story that changed everything for me? Oh, yes, they did. It was then my turn to read that little tale aloud and make someone’s day.

And yes, we had a cappuccino afterward and he gave me his newest book of poetry and we basked in the fellowship of words and life and the years between us.

How could I not share this with you! I especially love his comments on this paper, which he penned 41 years ago:

“Yes. I like this.

This is good writing.

You have shown me this experience, Susie.

We can feel the tension.

We can almost taste the “hated oatmeal.”

Keep writing.”


Frank Barone didn’t give out A’s and F’s and such on papers. He gave us affirmation or inspiration or direction or correction.

How wonderful it is to be able to say that I did.

What follows is the story, which for whatever reason, I left untitled.  Enjoy, and if you’re a teacher, I salute you. You change lives…

Untitled by S. Horning (that’s me)

The day seemed almost perfect.

When she awoke that morning the sun was a flood of beams pouring through the cracks in the closed curtains. She could hear the clinking noise of pots and pans downstairs, which meant she had overslept.

“Everyone else must be downstairs eating,” she thought to herself.

She rose out of bed and began to descend the stairs. As she reached the kitchen door she smelled the terrifying stench.

“Oh, no,” she said silently. “Could it be?…”

She went into the kitchen, and to her horror IT was there. Her father and mother were sitting at the table but IT didn’t seem to be bothering them. They acted as if nothing was wrong.

“How could they?” she thought. “Why are they doing this to me?”

She stared at IT for a long time and IT stared right back at her. When she could bear it no longer, she turned and began to walk out.

“You hold it right there, young lady. Where do you think you’re going?

“Mother, please?”

“You heard your mother.”

“But Papa…”

“No buts. You march right back here.”

She started to walk back, but no, no, she just couldn’t bear it. With a quick pivot she darted toward the door. Her mother grabbed her arm and began dragging her back to the kitchen. She tried angrily to release herself from her mother’s grip, but it was no use. She looked in the direction where her father was sitting but he made no move to rescue her.

When at last she saw that it would have to be done, she sat down. Giving a final sigh, she began to eat the hated oatmeal.

The End

(But of course it wasn’t!)



Today’s the day!

SOSB_NEW_Final.inddIt’s always thrilling and nerve-wracking when a new book of mine is released into the wild. I am usually on pins and needles waiting to see what the reaction among readers will be.  I want so very much to please those who’ve liked my other books. In fact, I think I worry about this more than pleasing reviewers! Interestingly enough, every idea for a book that I attempt to execute is harder to pull off than the one before it. Rather than getting eaiser, it actually gets more difficult!

I know that’s partly because I set the bar a little higher for myself each with each new story and yet I start a book the same way each time — looking at a scary blank page.

This one, STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD, was especially challenging to write, because unlike my previous two books, SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE and  A FALL OF MARIGOLDS, this one was carved against a benevolent setting. Old Hollywood was a glamorous, exciting place; very different from the malevolent settings of World War II and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire — the two settings for those other books. The tension had to come from my characters and their desires, not so much the environment.  But I think in the end, with the help of my wonderful editors and agent, I’ve been able to craft for you a transportive novel that I hope you will enjoy.

This book is about two studio secretaries who become best friends while working on the 1939 film set of Gone With the Wind. One wants to be needed, one wants to be wanted. Their desires will collide, of course, and when they do, we see what lengths a person will go to hold on to what she thinks she cannot live without — I took a few cues from Scarlett and Melanie here!  (Study these fictional characters and you will see that GONE WITH THE WIND is about their complex friendship as much as anything else…)

I so very much hope you will enjoy this book. I wrote it hoping you would! And I would love to hear from you after you’ve read it so we can chat.

On Friday I will share with you why I wanted to set a novel on the set of this iconic movie. I will have a giveaway that day, too, so come on back!

Until then

I wanted to but I couldn’t

BellmanI remember reading once that Harper Lee didn’t write another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird because she knew readers would expect too much with a second book and that kind of pressure was wholly unattractive. Perhaps Margaret Mitchell felt the same way after Gone With the Wind. We readers can be heartless in our desire to be wooed and won at a more breath-taking level than the book before.

Some years ago I read, nay, devoured Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I told every one I knew who loved fiction to read it, it was such a well-written, captivating tale. I read the book a second time for book club, and then a third time to just study the craft of having a young, idealistic protagonist cross paths with a much older realist; a pairing I wanted for The Shape of Mercy which I wrote in 2007.

I waited and waited for Ms. Setterfield to write a second book, and while I read many other novels in the interim, The Thirteenth Tale remained in my perennial  top five. When people would ask me to recommend a book in those in-between years, I would invariably ask, “Have you read The Thirteenth Tale?” and if they hadn’t, I would tell them that was the book they needed to read next.

So when I learned that, after eight years,  a new Setterfield book was on the horizon, I gleefully pre-ordered it – months before it was to hit bookstore shelves- and counted the days. Bellman & Black arrived on my doorstep in all its hardback beauty two days after its release. I had to finish another book I was reading and I itched to be done so that I could crack open the Setterfieldian pages and consume them.

I finished the book last night.  I can only say that I wanted so very much to be transported to another place with the story, just as I had been before. My expectations were high, perhaps illogically so. Perhaps with The Thirteenth Tale it was the writer’s story, not the story’s writer that so captivated me before. Perhaps it was something unique about me that made The Thirteenth Tale resonate within me, rather than something unique about its author.  The prose in Bellman & Black was lovely, Setterfield is still a master, but I never left the room while reading her second book. And I wanted to. Too much so. I wanted to be transported. I was not.

Perhaps I need to book-club this one to appreciate it properly. Sometimes it’s only after I’ve discussed a book with people that I realize what I missed. Some reader reviewers have said Bellman & Black is too dark; but so was The Thirteenth Tale, so I don’t think for me, that it was because there wasn’t enough light. As a novelist myself I know that in every great story, the main character has to be on a quest, a pursuit to have something he doesn’t have, and he has to overcome recognizable and somewhat relatable obstacles to get it. Doesn’t matter if you are reading Green Eggs and Ham or The Silence of the the Lambs. The protagonist, flawed but likeable, must want something and must overcome opposition to get it. What the character wants must be something we readers understand and WANT them to want. Their opposition must also be understood and recognizable. This is how we become emotionally invested. This is what keeps us turning pages. This is what transports us. The clash of the quest and the character and the conflict must captivate us.

Otherwise you just have words on a page. They can be great words, skillfully placed. But unless they transport, they remain words.

Not a ticket.

Will I read Setterfield again? Absolutely. This one just wasn’t the trip for me.

No experts here

A reviewer recently described me as a veteran, as in “veteran author Susan Meissner yada yada yada. . .” My first reaction was surprise, followed by a warm, fuzzy feeling, followed quickly by utter terror. Here’s why: If you are a veteran of the armed forces you are a hero. If you are a veteran of a trade, however, you are expected to know it all. You don’t make the mistakes a novice would make because you are a veteran. You have seen it all, experienced it all and vanquished all. When someone is an expert at marketing or brain surgery or astro physics, they have risen to the top of their skill. They are veterans. I seriously doubt there is a question about competitive swimming that Michael Phelps couldn’t answer. He’s a veteran of the sport.

Here’s the thing. The more I write, the harder it gets. I demand more from myself each time I start a new book. I don’t have the Phelpsian feeling that I know exactly what I am doing. In fact, there have been many days where I’ve sat down with my current book-in-progress, acknowledged my characters in the frozen state I left them in the day before, and I honestly haven’t known the best place to send them next.  To complicate matters, there is this instinctual pulse every novelist has of what needs to happen next: an escalation of the conflict at hand, a deeper connection to the protagonist’s quest, a tightening of the tension that is keeping her from having what she must must have.

Knowing what must be done is different than knowing how it should be done. And even the veteran must admit he or she can never stop learning new ways to execute a master plan. Sometimes the veteran needs to hole up in the situation room and reconstruct a new battle plan. I don’t know it all. I am no expert.

This past weekend I attended my friend James Scott Bell’s fiction intensive in Los Angeles. Jim is a gifted writer, a brilliant writing teacher and totally understands what needs to fall in place for a Story to catapult a reader into the fictive dream without feeling even a hint of motion sickness. I went because I am in the midst of writing my 14th book, a story which I have begun three times.  That has bothered me. My own fictive world has seemed elusive to me, the veteran.

But here’s what I learned this weekend. Every veteran of every discipline runs the risk of getting stuck in the ruts of their craft. Push a wheelbarrow enough times down the same dirt path and you will never be able to choose a different route. You will be in a rut. Even if you are a veteran wheelbarrow pusher. You may not even know that you are stuck in a rut. Chances are you won’t. All you will know is, you want to take a left and you can’t and you don’t know why.

Knowing the ingredients of a great story – which every veteran surely knows – is one skill that sets the veteran apart from the novice. But the novice has a huge advantage we veterans need to take note of. They are still making a path with their wheelbarrow. Sure, they get stuck from time to time and will probably take a turn too sharp, spill the thing and have to start over. The veteran’s rut doesn’t pose a threat because for the novice there is no rut. They are still learning what works and what doesn’t.

I came into the weekend with a dozen titles on my backlist but feeling plateaued with the current book. It’s not a great feeling to have. I felt like someone had taken the wheel off my wheelbarrow, leaving me with a bucket of story details I couldn’t move.  But the more I listened and internalized, the more I realized there was nothing wrong with my wheelbarrow. It was the rut I was pushing it in that was the problem.

So here’s my advice to other veteran wheelbarrow pushers out there. There might come a day when you feel like you are exerting the same energy you always have and you aren’t making any progress at all. You might think your wheelbarrow has become a dud, or worse, that you have. It’s not the wheelbarrow that’s a dud. And it’s not you. It’s just the rut you are in.  Re-enter the world of the novice and learn a new way of doing an old thing.  The ingredients of a great story don”t change that much from year to year, and even how to execute the telling doesn’t change. What changes is the storyteller. You can become rut-ified.

If you are a veteran writer feeling like you’ve lost your edge, take a class on the art of storytelling and learn a new way of doing what you’ve always done. I recommend Jim Bell’s intensive, of course, but if you can’t wait for the next one then start with his The Art of War for Writers or Donald Maass’ breakout novelist’s workbook. Do something different. Change it up. Climb out of the rut of your old writing routines. You’ll be glad you did.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with my wheelbarrow and an unbroken path. The sun is shining, I can’t wait to break some new ground.

Waiting for the voice

The first fifty pages of a novel are always the hardest for me to write. I keep thinking surely as I become more experienced at this the first five chapters will become easier to write, not harder. An experienced marathon runner doesn’t struggle with those pesky first five miles, does he? No. Does the prima ballerina bite her nails over the first five minutes of Swan Lake? No.  Does the mason lose sleep over the first fifty bricks of a new bridge? I seriously doubt it.

But there’s something vast and bottomless about the novelist’s blank page. And since I do much of the research and big-picture-plotting before I start, I begin each new book with a brain congested with facts and possibilities and no confidence in the best way to expel them onto the page. The release must be perfectly timed, expertly sifted. The blank page is terribly blank. The full head is terribly full. Full head and blank page should be perfect partners. But they are not. Not for me.

Over the last two months I have started the New Book three times. I have three files in my computer: Girl in the Glass, Girl in the Glass2 and Girl in the Glass3. All three have been edited and massaged over many cups of java and cans of Diet Coke. Lest you summon too much awe, you should know 2 and 3 are actually morphisms of the first. But all are a superhuman attempt to grasp the thinnest of things: the unwritten story. The characters aren’t dimensional yet, they don’t trust me, they don’t reveal all to me. Not yet. And the place where they live, even if it is the very place where I was born- the place I know better than any other place in the world, is not quite the same place for them as it is for me. It is almost like the geography of dreams: When you dream of your house, but it is not quite your house. Everything is just a little off.

And it’s this way every time I begin a new book. I have finally come to expect it. Expecting something nasty doesn’t change the nastiness but it does remove some of the fear factor.

I think I have at last have figured out what the secret is to finally having the reins of the story and why it takes so many attempts to finally have them in my hands. I have to hear my main character talk to me. Yes, I need to hear voices in my head before I am sane enough to begin writing. And dash it all, she will not speak to me until I pound out those first fifty pages without her. 

This is how it goes. I study her. I interview her. I clothe her and give her backstory and childhood trauma and joy, and a high school diploma and her best friend and her favorite dessert and a few quirks and talents and habits, good and bad. And then I concoct a life for her that is to be tested and I toss her into this carnival of choices and I follow behind her with my little note pad. 

But the story does not begin until she turns around and speaks to me. And she will not speak to me until I begin the story. 

It’s as simple as that.

And as spectacularly hard.

So now I know. Get ready to write. Get ready to listen. Write. Keep writing in the silence. Keep listening. Keep writing. She will speak. But only when you are already writing. 

Maybe now that I know this it won’t take fifty pages to hear her speak.

I’d be happy with twenty-five. . .