Historical fiction’s finest, bestselling author Susan Meissner answers The Career Authors 11: Questions Charting the Journey to Literary Success.
1. What book changed your life?
I’ve read several books that I would say changed my life, but as far as my life as a writer, the gamechanger was The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. I read it as a high school senior perplexed over which career path to follow. I loved that novel, not just the story itself, but the construction, the character development, the attention to setting, and I longed to believe I could write a book like that someday. I had the desire but I lacked the confidence. It would be two decades before I began to even whisper to myself that I could maybe pull it off if I just tried. Every time I saw that book in a library or on my own shelf the whisper would get a little louder.
2. Was your first published book the first manuscript you ever wrote?
My first published book was also my first finished manuscript and came about because I finally decided I’d rather deal with rejection than regret. It was called Why the Sky Is Blue and was published in 2004 by Harvest House. It’s no longer in print, but it is available on Kindle and in audio form.
3. Stephen King says, “The hardest part is just before you start.” What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
Stephen King is a genius. The hardest part is Chapter One. A writing colleague told me once, “Well then, just begin with Chapter Two and do the hard one after you’ve got a running start.” I’ve tried that, and it helps a little, but the truth is, I need Chapter One to write any of the other chapters. Chapter One is more than just the opening shot for me. It is the opening dive. I drop into it, fall in, plummet in. Climbing out of the story pit to restart or regroup or rethink the whole thing is scary and debilitating and exhausting. I have to get Chapter One right. And it’s hard.
4. Do you know the story’s ending before you start?
I do. I may not know exactly how I will get there and I may change my mind along the way, but I know where I am headed when I start out.
5. When you’re having a difficult writing day, what do you tell yourself to get through it?
Depending on the difficulty itself I vary my self-talk. If I’m feeling impossibly stuck, I remind myself that I’ve been stuck before. This is not my first rodeo, yada yada. I’ll back up a few chapters and write some new stuff from when I was feeling fine. If I’m feeling unequal to the task (aka “I’m-a-hack!”-syndrome) I remind myself that every writer I know personally has felt like this at some point and that some of my more critically-acclaimed books were ones I had these crippling self-doubts over. Difficulties almost always make us try harder with better and surprising results, if of course, we don’t give up.
6. Do you read your reviews?
As a rule, I don’t. I read the trade reviews (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, etc) but not consumer reviews. The five-star ones don’t usually make me a better writer and the one-stars don’t usually either. I might read a three-star now and then to see what a reader who liked some of what I wrote, but not all of it, had to say. That person’s comments sometimes do help me craft a better book the next time around.
7. Besides being persistent and correcting your spelling errors, what’s your best advice for a new author?
Listen to what experienced writers and editors and agents (whose opinion you value) tell you about your work-in-progress. Listen, and do not defend. Listen and consider that their advice is exactly what you need to hear. It’s possible they don’t get you or your work or the reader you’re attempting to reach, but it’s more likely they do.
8. What’s your definition of writer misery?
Not knowing how to fix something in your manuscript that you know is broken.
9. What’s your definition of writer happiness?
There’s a feeling of supreme contentment when the thing you were itching to write has now been written and it’s better than you imagined it could be.
10. What’s your favorite book on writing?
There are so many! Stephen King’s On Writing is masterful, as is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (even though I’m not a screenwriter).
11. What book are you reading right now?
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She has me spellbound.
Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling novelist with more than half a million books in print in 15 languages. Her novels include The Last Year of the War, a Library Reads and Real Simple top pick, and As Bright as Heaven, starred review from Library Journal. She attended Point Loma Nazarene University and when she’s not working on a book, she volunteers for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.