Tonight we have Siri Mitchell, an amazingly gifted writer who you’ll be hearing a lot more about in the coming months. She’s about to enter the fray with a handful of deceptively benign fiction novels (my description, not hers), so I asked her to tell us a little about her journey and how she came to CBA land. Siri is a family friend, so I’m admittedly a little biased, but when you read her first book in July, you’ll realize I’m not being biased enough. This lady has serious skills. When Chip MacGregor was just picking her up, legend has it he singled her out as an example of extraordinary voice on a panel at the American Christian Fiction Writers’ conference in 2004. And she’s going to be embarrassed that I mentioned that, but I don’t care. She’s someone to listen to.
Mick: So Siri, tell us about your journey. How much have you written, what kinds of things, and how did you land your contracts?
Siri: The first book I ever wrote, I tried to follow the golden rules of fiction writing: write what you know, write what the market will buy. So it was set on the West Coast in an area I knew well. But the characters wouldn’t behave. The pastor refused to marry the neighborhood’s nice girl, and talked me into letting him marry the retired prostitute instead. And by the end of the novel, I had a book no publisher would buy in 1996.
My next book, Something Beyond the Sky, featured four military wives and tackled issues like racism, eating disorders, and motherhood; but although the Mormon character flirted with Christianity, she made an informed decision not to convert, and a mother of two year-old twins decided to go back to work. Another book that no one in the CBA would buy in 1999.
My next book was non-fiction and investigated cultural Christianity. Sending a proposal out with the title of, Christians Should Be More Parisian, basically guaranteed that no American publisher would touch it.
So after writing three books that no one wanted, I decided to write a book for myself. Chateau of Echoes. And I placed it in a country I love: France. It had two love triangles, five centuries apart, set in the same chateau. A modern story illuminated by history. Of course, what writer can complete a book and not try to sell it? But there were a few problems: the medieval love story featured the marriage of a 12 year-old to a 30 year-old, and the modern story was lubricated with wine. And just to make things interesting, I’d woven stories about King Arthur’s search for the holy grail in Brittany, France into the story.
Obviously, I’m into self-sabotage.
But a funny thing happened. An editor at Harvest House read my non-fiction manuscript in 2004 and liked it. Couldn’t publish it as non-fiction, but thought there might be a novel in it. No guarantees, but would I be interested?
In writing yet another book no one wanted to buy? No.
I went on a writing strike for about a month, and then I set up an appointment to talk to the editor. I wrote 5,000 words on the idea, and called it Kissing Adrien. Just to see what it would happen. He liked the way it looked.
But was he sure? Because basically, if I wrote a book about finding God in France, it would have to include drinking wine, and possibly not include wearing pantyhose, bras, or slips underneath clothing. And it would have to convey the idea that faith and having fun are compatible. And there might be kissing. With people actually enjoying it.
He was sure. So Harvest House bought Kissing Adrien for release this July, and they also picked up Something Beyond the Sky for good measure (release date: early 2006).
And then NavPress acquired Château of Echoes to help launch their fiction line this September.
Mick: That’s quite a turn of events. I’m assuming you were pretty surprised by the whole thing. But what’s encouraging to me is that you’d already written enough to know that characters do what they want and you have to go with them. You have to have a lot of trust for that. Sounds like someone at Harvest knows that too. Very encouraging.
So tell me, since you’ve basically done what a lot of people are dreaming to do—to write what you want for a Christian audience and get it published in CBA—what’s your advice to writers attempting to do this? Is it as hard as it seems?
Siri: First, I think you need to love your readers. I think the last time I kicked someone in the kneecap was when I was 6. It was one of the McCaughn brothers and it was because he was trying to climb the tree in front of my house. It’s not nice to kick people. And it’s not nice to hit them over the head with a book either. Samuel Goldwyn once told a writer, ‘If you want to send a message, I’ll call Western Union.’ Our primary purpose as writers of fiction is to entertain. And to do that, you have to tell a good story, and you have to not beat people up while you do it. General market writers write for the same reasons Christian writers write: to tell a story. General market books sell, not because they have a better message; they sell because they tell a good story. I think sometimes Christian books process thoughts for their readers; we really want to make sure they ‘get it.’ Sometimes Christianity is much more alluring to people if they have to pursue it themselves. Didn’t you hate it in Sunday School when they never gave you a chance to figure out parables before they told you the ‘answer’?
Second, love yourself. Be true to the kind of writer you are. I had another writer critique my non-fiction book. She read through the introduction and when she came to the end, she said, she understood what I was saying, but didn’t feel like I was really saying it. She didn’t feel any emotion — from me, or inside herself. She wasn’t hearing me. Which surprised me, because what people usually like, even if they can’t publish it, is my voice. She turned the page and began reading the first chapter, and said, “This is what I’m talking about! Now I’m hearing and feeling everything.” As I thought through the history of the book, I realized why there was such a difference between the two sections. In 2002, the manuscript had been seriously considered by a conservative Christian publisher. They had asked for an introduction. But as I wrote it, I didn’t feel like I could be honest about why I wrote the book. I didn’t think they’d buy it if I were. And so as I wrote, I censored what I was saying.
As you write, don’t censor yourself. There’s time enough for that later. If your editor asks you to re-work a section, if you feel re-writing would dilute the story, if there’s too big a difference between what you can say and what you’d like to say, then delete the offending sentences. Or consider deleting the scene altogether.
Third, love your characters. Be true to the people they are. Who wants to be a goody-two-shoes? No one likes to be a stereotype. Neither do your characters. In the same vein, no one wants to be told to be like someone else. It’s not cool when you’re 10 years-old; it’s extremely frustrating when you’re 30 years-old. As a reader, I’m tired of reading CBA books about how I should be; I want to read books about how I am. But remember, your characters are not you. You’re writing fiction, not an autobiography. Characters are their own people. If you keep emerging on your pages, ask yourself, ‘who am I not?’ and then write about that person. I don’t think the Bible would be as interesting a read without people like Ehud the Left-handed Man or Tamar. Just because your characters are Christians (or not), doesn’t mean they would do the same things you would in any given situation.
And forth, love your editor. What does an editor have in common with a writer? They both want to sell the writer’s book. But here’s the challenge: the editor is not representative of the CBA. The editor is not your market, the CBA bookseller is. That means a book that both your editor and you love may have to be tweaked in order to sell. Decide with your editor which big issues or sensitive areas need to remain in the manuscript. If the remaining issues aren’t necessary to the story, then by definition, they aren’t necessary to the story and you can compromise. Readers can be offended. And you’d hate to offend one on a minor issue, when you’re crossing your fingers that you won’t offend them on a major one. Even with issues necessary to my stories, like wine drinking, I’ve minimized the frequency of drinking, and confined my characters’ imbibing to wine only, cutting out references to hard liquor.
Mick: Wow. Great stuff. Thanks, Siri.
Tune in again next time when I ask Siri about the dreaded CBA taboos and how she’s dealt with each one. Until then, fellow wanderers, keep fighting the good fight…