Today, I’m excited to have an interview with my friend, Tamera Alexander. Tamera’s first book just hit the store shelves and it’s a must read. I know you’ll enjoy getting to know her better!
First, Tammy, I want to start by saying, “Congratulations!” for making the CBA Bestseller’s List. How did you do it?
Honestly? My gut response is that I have absolutely no clue. I never set out to write a bestseller. I simply set out to write the best book I could.
That said, I’ve been completely blown away by the response to Rekindled. The emails I’m getting from readers (both men and women) have both humbled and encouraged me, big time.
So while I can’t answer your question directly, I’d like to share (for what it’s worth) some of what I’ve learned along the way. How’s that for a compromise? 😉
1) Write the book that God puts on your heart, while still listening to sage advice. Don’t worry about what’s selling and what’s not. By the time your book is done and ready to be subbed to a publisher/agent, chances are great that the trends will have already changed anyway.
When I first set out to write Rekindled, I was told repeatedly that historicals weren’t selling. That the historical market was “soft.” That I should write a women’s contemporary fiction first, and then pursue historical fiction should that venue become more open down the line.
I took that advice to heart and started writing a women’s contemporary fiction but … I kept getting pulled back to this historical story idea. So I turned back to the historical and wrote more on it until I had a first draft completed. Then I stopped and waited quietly (okay, well not so quietly…I was chatting with Him constantly about it!) before the Lord for an answer. And what He did was so surprising.
In 2004, Colleen Coble and Kris Billerbeck (American Christian Fiction Writers members) sponsored a contest through ACFW where they paid the way (out of their own pockets, mind you) for an unpublished writer to go to the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference in California.
I decided to sub my women’s contemporary first chapter (because everyone was saying that genre was selling). Long story short, Krista Stroever at Steeple Hill judged the final entries in the contest, and low and behold she chose my women’s contemporary fiction as the overall winner.
That MH conference turned out to be a pivotal point for me because that’s where I met my agent, Deidre Knight, who then sold Fountain Creek Chronicles (Rekindled, Revealed, Currently unnamed Book 3) historical series to Bethany House Publishers in the fall of 2004.
All that to say…I’ve learned to listen to “His voice” as well as to those wise people God has placed around me. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have started on the women’s contemporary fiction when I did, and then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to MH, and chances are I wouldn’t have met my agent. (At least not that weekend.)
I’m a firm believer in God’s perfect timing and how He orchestrates all the facets of our journey here. Every “No” that I’ve received along the way, and will undoubtedly still hear on occasion in the future, is really part of God’s final “Yes” once His perfect timing is reached. And this point leads us to #2. If you’re writing a story that’s really on your heart, with characters that you’re passionate about, it’s gonna show in the story itself.
2) Write a story that you’re passionate about. One that consumes your own thoughts and emotions, then do your best to get it down on paper. The story in Rekindled literally consumed me for about 3 or 4 months as I was writing it. I lived with those characters in ways that only other writers will understand. 😉 My husband still shakes his head when I try to explain that phenomenon.
3) Be willing to learn. From anyone. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Realize that, and then open yourself up to be willing to look at what you can improve. Or maybe at what you’re just flat not getting right.
The first novel I wrote was a historical and I submitted it to Bethany House in mid-2000. After a couple of rewrites, they finally rejected it in 2002. One of their comments was that the story itself was good, but that the characterization and dialogue needed work, as well as the pacing. And they were right. So I made it my goal to study those three aspects of writing.
a) How to write real characters that live and breath and stay with you after a novel is done. (A book that I’ve read twice–some chapters more often–on characterization is Brandilyn Collins’ Getting Into Character. I highly recommend this book, and I tell ya…I’m not one much for studying books on characterization per se but this one is fantastic.)
b) I started listening to people talk around me. Not so much “what” they were chatting about, but “how” they spoke.
c) And then the pacing…I read book after book to help me learn about plot pacing. I read writer’s books certainly (a list of my favorites can be found on my website— http://www.tameraalexander.com/ —under FAQs), but I read a ton of books in general and if they didn’t grip me by chapter 1 — or chapter 2 most certainly (because that’s about all we get with a reader, and that’s if they’re patient) — I put them down and started another. Then the ones that did grip me, I dissected, and learned why they were gripping to me. Which leads me to point 4.
4) Dissect your favorite book. Read it at least twice more after you first read it and fell in love with it. Francine Rivers is a favorite of mine (along with the other 2,000,000 of us!) and I’ve done several of her books this way, read them numerous times. Study how the author swept you up in the action or emotion of the book. And for heaven’s sake, mark that novel up one page and down the other. 😉
Use sticky tabs to mark fantastic characterization, hooks, evocative sections that made you laugh or cry. Study the style of writing itself and explore why it made such a strong “connection” with you. Chances are you’ll discover “seeds” of your voice in there.
Those are excellent tips. Thanks so much! Now, I just have one more question: How do you balance the real life of family with the real life of writing?
Some days are better than others, for sure. Let’s take today, for example… I knew today would be a wild one (working on taxes, meeting with accountant, grocery shopping, Food Bank run for needy families, mailing out books for website contest, care package for daughter in college, getting ready for my son’s 17th bday tomorrow, emailing the evaluation forms for the annual women’s ministry conference I coordinated in Estes Park last weekend (such fun, btw!) , etc…), so therefore I gave myself “license” to not write one stinkin’ word today. LOL!
That may sound silly, but sometimes the guilt or pressure I feel “to get words on paper for that next deadline” can lead to a cycle of self-defeat. Especially if I’ve overcommitted which, admittedly, is something I have a tendency to do.
One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m “better” when I’m running. Meaning, I’m more productive when I have a busy schedule and keep a steady pace, both in family, writing and women’s ministry.
My husband is a great partner in this and he helps me to be accountable, and I…him. He and I meet for dinner out every few weeks with the express purpose of bringing our PDA’s and comparing notes and helping each other get back to “the balanced center” again regarding what we need to be focusing on. We’re due for another one of those nights soon because we’re both running. Assortment of things that help me to keep things balanced:
1. When you’re writing, turn off email. Turn off the email notifier. This is simple but I’m amazed that when I do this I get SO MUCH MORE done.
You may think, “Oh great! Suzi just wrote, I’ll bop over there real quick and say hi.” Then before you know it you’ve been “out of the writing pocket” for 10 minutes, but then it takes you another 5 -10 minutes to get BACK into the story flow. At least it does for me. I was really frightened to do this the first time because I was certain the world as I know it would come to a screeching halt. 😉 Surprisingly? It ran fine without me and I average a much higher word count per day this way. Come lunch, reward yourself and check email again! 😉
2. Have set times to write. That said, you must remember I don’t have small children at home. And my hat and my heart goes out to those of you who do. I recently babysat a younger woman’s daughter (13 months and adorable!! Makes me look forward to the “grandma Tammy” days…down the road!), and I got so little done that entire day.
If you have children, realize that those precious children are also a ministry, and that they are “books” that no one else can write. Only you.
I started writing “seriously” (with the goal of publication) in the late 90’s so my kids were about 10 and 12 then. They needed me, sure, but not like a toddler.
When I started writing, I was working outside the home at the time…and my normal time to write was 10:30 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. Then I’d take a notebook with me everywhere (soccer games/basketball/drama rehearsals) and journal about characters or plot ideas.
In the back of Rekindled I wrote an acknowledgment to our kids that said I appreciated them giving me the time and space to find out what I wanted to be once I grew up. I meant that sincerely. They made sacrifices so I could write, so now I’m working hard to make sure to give them a share in this part of the journey with me too.
3. Realize a messy house isn’t a mortal sin. I used to be SOOOO obsessive about having everything straight and clean. And while any therapist on the street might still be tempted to slap me with the OCD label
4. On the flip side of that…when the house simply gets to be too much, have a twenty minute crash cleaning session on occasion. We started those years ago, and my kids still hate them! LOL.
Just kidding. This is where everyone (everyone…no matter how young, everybody can do something to help) drops everything and comes and signs up for jobs that are listed in the kitchen. I’m not the only one who gets this house messy, and I shouldn’t be the only one who cleans it. 😉
5. When you’re writing and come across a historical fact that needs to be checked, write it down for later and highlight that part. Don’t stop writing. Keep the flow going.
6. Crit groups are a great way to encourage accountability. Knowing that your group subs chapters every Friday (or whenever) and you need to have something ready is a great impetus to get that writing done. Also, never underestimate how much you learn by critiquing someone else’s work. You’re giving, for certain, but you’re also getting so much back as you’re learning what works and what doesn’t.
7. Keep a spreadsheet that records your progress. I just went back yesterday and checked where I was with Revealed (book 2 that I recently turned in) throughout the writing process and that’s helping me to set my schedule for Book 3.
8. Have an errand day (like mine today) where you pile all your “running” into one day. That makes your other days so much more productive. I think we can all do lots of things, we just can’t do them all at once.
There are seasons of life, and if life and family responsibilities are keeping you from writing regularly right now, then I’d encourage you to not add the self-imposed stressor of having to make a huge daily word count. Speaking from experience, that can be devastating to your psyche and motivation, and can set you up for failure, and even depression (been there, done that).
Pray about where you are right now with your family, with your job, your ministries outside of writing. Can you write 100 words a day? What about 250? That’s roughly a page, and in a year you will have written an 80K word book, and that’s even with taking about a month of days off. ; )
And lastly, a book is never written by one person and Rekindled is no exception. I owe so much to my critique partners who read this mss in its early stages and gave invaluable feedback about what was working and what wasn’t, and then to Bethany House for my FABULOUS editors (Karen Schurrer and Charlene Patterson) who worked their magic on Rekindled and made it so much better than it was on my lonesome.
Thank you, Tamera for sharing your heart and your TIPS! For more information about Tamera, go to her website.