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Interview with Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is an incredibly talented, relatively new writer who crafts intriguing stories of depth and spiritual insight. She also does it incredibly fast. Blazing fast by some standards. She has been nominated for many awards, won several, and recently took issue with a comment I made in response to Athol Dickson’s post at Charis Connection about the pace of publishing. I just don’t happen to think quality fiction can be written much faster than she does it.

Is Susan skimping on quality? Does she need a tongue-lashing by Bret Lott to get her act together? I decided to ask this acclaimed CBA fiction writer to answer some questions in the center column.

MS: Susan, thanks for being here, in the center column of the computer where you can’t see the faces I’m making at you for disagreeing with me.
SM: Indeed, you can’t see faces, which might explain why you suppose I disagree with you when I was simply posing a question. Blogs don’t allow us the advantage of tone, timbre, facial expression, and body language. My issue-taking (and I make it a point never to take things that do not belong to me) was really more soul-searching and using your blog to do it. The issue was raised: Can writers produce anything of depth and quality in a compressed time frame wherein they publish a book two or three times a year? I posted my dilemma. I write fast. Not because my contract demands it but because that is the speed of the words that spill out of my head. Where do I fall then in the speed=mediocrity equation? Is there an equation? I don’t disagree. I question.

I stand corrected. I mean uncorrected. I’m the one who’s always saying we need to discuss rather than disagree. Stop taking my lines. But come on. How many full drafts do you go through before submitting to your ed?
I write one draft. Only one. Every morning I read what I wrote the day before (usually ten to 12 pages), make edits, clarifications, improvements. Typically no more than an hour. Then I write the next chapter. I’m usually done by the time the kids come home. There are times when a key scene takes two days. When I’m one third through the book, I take a day to read. And then again when I’m halfway done. By then, I know the characters and can write the rest just reading the previous day’s work.

Well, I’m glad that works for you. Have you experimented with other methods, like just writing all the way through?
SM: Well, see, writing for me has never been an experiment. It is art. And no, I’m not trying to elevate myself to some lofty position above the uncultured masses. It’s just what it is for me. It’s not a science that begs to be studied or proven via experimentation. I didn’t come by this way of writing by experimentation; it just seemed to be the best way for me to tell a story.

How do you feel you’ve improved in your writing?
I think I pinpoint story weaknesses more quickly—pet phrases, stilted dialogue, unrealistic characterizations, trite descriptions. This is mainly because I’ve a great editor who has given me an eye for these weaknesses; he saw them in my first manuscript and was kind enough to throw down the penalty flags. The mechanics haven’t changed much. The day’s quota is the same, and I still outline and research ahead of time. I still edit as I go.

How much do you outline. What’s your method and how did you come by it?
SM: It depends on the story, really. Every book I write has a map, if you will, of where I intend to go. When I write a mystery and I have to have red herrings here and there and enough truth-hinting so that the ending rings true, I craft a sentence outline for each scene or chapter. In the book I am working on now (chick lit with heavy concentration on the “lit”), I am using index cards, each of which has a scene I want to weave into the story somehow, somewhere. I know how each story will end, what’s at stake and how the characters will grow and change. I came by this method because I needed it. I’ve never felt the pull to write something that I’ve not thought out first.

When you get rewrite suggestions back, is it a lot?
I’ve heard some get pages and pages of rewrites. Mine have always been manageable, with perhaps six to ten instances per book where I need to rewrite a paragraph to make something clearer or drive the plot better. I don’t know if this is the “just right” amount. But I trust my editor. I don’t get the impression that my manuscripts aren’t being scrutinized at every level.

Why do you edit as you go?

If I make an unexpected plot change I want to make sure what I’ve already written will mesh and I don’t want to hunt for those plot discrepancies when I’m polishing. I don’t make sweeping edits as I write (that would curdle my creativity) but I usually don’t have to. The outline keeps major surprises from messing with the flow.

Do you use Stephen King’s “drawer” technique to gain objectivity?
I do the drawer thing but it’s usually only a couple weeks. I go fourteen days, which isn’t six weeks, but were I to wait longer I fear I would lose some of the passion for that particular story’s key elements. I don’t want to lose my connection to the characters and their plight.

How long do you let your story and characters gestate before putting them down? Do you have a technique for developing plot and character?
I always have story ideas tumbling around inside my head. I concocted my current book a year ago while I was writing something else. I’ve been contemplating her and her dilemma for many months and haven’t written more than one paragraph for the proposal. But I’ve spent a year with this woman, in my head. I know who she is, what she wants, and why she struggles to have it. My technique is pretty straightforward: familiarity sums it up. I plot, I interview characters, I study the setting, I try out lines of dialogue —whatever I can to get to know the people, place, and problem so that I’m writing from a point of knowledge, not conjecture.

Bingo. I think you’ve answered why the outline becomes less critical with experience. You know, like when you’re a seasoned explorer, instead of a map you can just sniff the wind. Do you think there’s a significant difference between seat-of-the-pants writers and outliners?
My take is the outliner and the seater-of-the-pantser have more in common than most know. The Outliner does her supposing up front; the SOPer does it while she writes.

I feel like beginners who are “SOPers” tend to be “SLOPers.”
I would imagine the Outliner has less editing to do when the project is finished. But one is no more desirable than the other. Both require the skill of a convincing storyteller.

Are you in a crit group for feedback?
At one point I had a crit partner, but it was an unfair pairing. She was a crock pot writer and I’m a “convection oven” writer. I would produce four chapters in the time she produced one. No one sees my work as it’s being written, not that I don’t let anyone; that’s just how it is. A few times I have sent the first few chapters to my editor’s assistant and that was very helpful. My agent reads the finished product before I send it and so does my mother and a friend from church. My mom, by the way, doesn’t read a lot of CBA lit, mostly literary-quality ABA bestsellers, so I tend to value her opinion a little higher than anyone else’s.

Ooh. You went and stepped in it now. Are you saying you value her opinion more because ABA literary fiction is of higher quality?
ABA literary fiction is boxless. In the CBA, we—by the very nature of being a subgroup—have a box. It’s not a bad box or a good box, it’s just a confining space and there hasn’t been a whole lot of literary fiction popping out of it. And that’s what I like to read. That’s what I aspire to write like. I think the CBA is predominantly (please read predominantly, not only) filled with talented writers of popular fiction, many of whom write to the very edges of those confining walls. But my guess is not very many of us have the skill to produce what could be a classic fifty years from now. Yes, I’d say the quality of ABA literary fiction is higher, and yes, the ABA writers I’ve enjoyed probably wrote their best work in an elongated time frame, not a short one. My writing probably doesn’t compare with theirs. But I’m not totally convinced I could write to the same level if I had two years between books instead of six months. I don’t know if any writer can produce something truly stellar simply and only because they massaged it for two years. You have to have the ability to tell a great story. You either have it or you don’t.

Hmm. Good point. We may need to define this “quality” word some more. I’ll do some digging into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which may help. Maybe we can develop a sort of quorum with a few more writers and see what sort of consensus we can get on this tricky word.

Thank you for your quality and time here. Personally, I think your books are ABA literary-quality—in a CBA commercial package. I’ve never read a book of yours where I don’t want to spend more time with the characters and their world.
You’re very welcome and too kind. That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my stories. Thanks for the group, too. You give us isolated communicators a great place to socialize, discuss and debate.

6 Responses to “Interview with Susan Meissner”

  1. Great facial expressions, Mick. And that was some pretty wild body language, Susan. ;)
    Okay, my lazy self is squirming right now. Susan’s ability to churn out quality books with remarkable speed certainly indicates talent, but it also appears to be tied to good, old-fashioned hard work. Is ten-to-twelve pages a day really such an earth-shattering quantity? If many of us (namely me) would stop blog hopping or checking e-mail or getting a snack or pick-your-pet-distraction, we might be able to do the same.
    I agree with Mick’s concluding remarks. Susan is proof there’s no one-size-fits-all writing speed to guarantee quality. I may never achieve her pace, but I know I could waste a lot less time and accomplish a lot more. And I suspect the muse would appreciate the exercise.

  2. michael snyder says:

    That’s good stuff, guys. I had the good fortune to meet both of you (Mick and Susan) in April and am not surprised to see such civility, wit, and wisdom crammed into the middle column.
    I am however a wee bit envious of such prolific output.
    Man, I wish I could write faster. But never mind that, it’s time to check Jeanne’s blog again.

  3. siouxsiepoet says:

    hey mick, (and susan)
    i loved reading about her process. it sounds so familiar to mine. though a poet’s crockpot and a novelist’s crockpot are likely entirely different things.

  4. Pattie says:

    Much to think about here. Thanks for this interview!

  5. Katy McKenna says:

    I’ve got “A Seahorse in the Thames” right here in my TBR stack. Can’t wait to dig in! Thanks for revealing so much about the way it works for you, Susan. I feel heartened, as I prepare to begin writing my second novel, that it doesn’t HAVE to take as long as the first.
    You know that “catch-up” provision written into guidelines for retirement funds? So older folks who’ve neglected to save enough can dump in boatloads of $$ per year? I think older (eeeek!) writers who’ve not managed a great deal of output should be automatically entitled to write twice as fast as whippersnappers.
    Not just twice as fast, either. Also twice as great. ;)

  6. Susan Meissner says:

    Thanks one and all for affirming me and the way my muse works. She’s a caffeinated nymph, I think. I simply have to run to keep up with her. When she slows down, I will, too. And that will be just fine. Just as fine as running was.
    When someone asks me how long does it take to write a book, I am tempted to answer back, “As long as it takes God to answer prayer.” It takes as long as it takes. I’m okay with that.
    Susan :)

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