Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Author Interview ~ Tracie Peterson
Tracie Peterson, bestselling, award-winning author of over seventy fiction titles, lives and writes in Belgrade, Montana. As a Christian, wife, mother, writer, editor and speaker (in that order), Tracie finds her slate quite full. After signing her first contract with Barbour Publishing in 1992, her novel, A Place To Belong, appeared four months later and placed as favorite historical for 1993. She has over twenty-four titles with Heartsong Presents' book club (many of which have been repackaged) and stories in six separate anthologies from Barbour. From Bethany House Publishing, Tracie has several historical three or four book series as well as many stand alone contemporary women’s fiction stories. Voted favorite author for 1995, 1996 and 1997 by the Heartsong Presents' readership, and awarded Affaire de Coeur’s Inspirational Romance of the Year 1994, ACRW’s Book of the Year in Inspirational Long Historical Romance for 2002 and other awards. Tracie enjoys the pleasure of spinning stories for readers, and thanks God for the imagination He's given. Tracie also teaches at a variety of conferences, giving workshops on inspirational romance, historical research and anything else that offers assistance to fellow writers. Recently Tracie resigned as Managing Editor for Heartsong Presents after heading that line up for three years.
What new book or project is would you like to tell us about?
I have several new book projects in the works. One is for a new historical Philadelphia romance, another is a new 3 book contract for a historical New York series with Judith Miller. I also will have a contemporary story coming out next year and the conclusion to the Alaskan Quest series coming out in November of this year.
Tell us about your own publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?
I had wanted to write since I was very young. I always thought it would have to be a hobby, however, even if I could get published. Everyone told me how difficult and unlikely it would be to get published, but I kept hoping. I had published some articles in magazines and Sunday School take-home papers when I got on with a local Christian Newspaper in Topeka, KS. I did a volunteer column and enjoyed that a great deal, but my heart was in novel writing. I sent out hundreds of letters requesting guidelines from a variety of secular and Christian publishing houses.
One day when I was at my lowest, I begged God for answers. I was at my regular job and remember just praying and pleading for God to either show me where to take my writing or to take the desire out of me to write novels. That afternoon I received a call from a man at Barbour Publishing. He introduced himself and said, “I have your letter requesting guidelines for historical romance. It just so happens we’re putting a bookclub together and need both historical and contemporary stories. Do you have any contemporary romance?”
I told him no. Not only that, I told him I wasn’t interested in contemporary romance and he spent the next 10 or 15 minutes convincing me to send him something anyway. I did, but reminded him in my letter that I had a complete historical novel all ready to roll. A couple of weeks later he called and asked me to send in the historical which I did and two weeks later he called to offer me a contract. That was November 1992 and the first book A PLACE TO BELONG came out in February 1993 and was voted by the members of the bookclub as favorite historical that year.
Do you still have self-doubts about your writing?
In the early days I did, because I still thought it was about me and what I had to offer. God quickly dealt with that, however, and I learned that it was completely about Him. I don’t have a college degree, I couldn’t even get into high school creative writing class (the teacher said I didn’t show enough talent or imagination), so I know that I have nothing to offer in an of itself, but through God I have everything I need. I know the books are a ministry for Him and that He can take it where He wants it to go. There’s no room for doubt when God is at the helm.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
Just that day before I got the call from Barbour, I really wanted my work to be what God wanted and to go where He wanted it to go. I know that for now—this season—writing is what I’m called to do. However, I’m trying to put it completely in God’s hands and not make it who I am. I belong to Him – not to writing. I know He will never be taken from me, whereas the writing could end tomorrow. I need to have that foundation firm, or I’ll never be of any use to anyone.
What mistakes did you make while seeking a publisher or an agent?
When I first got started – long, long ago, I didn’t bother to do my research or homework where it came to guidelines and knowing the publishing house and what they needed. I figured rules were made to be broken and surely they would make exceptions for me. They didn’t of course. It was a hard lesson.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?
When I first got started writing I read mostly secular romance. Jude Deveraux was a favorite author of mine – still is – and I wrote to her telling her how I hoped one day to be published as well. She wrote back the best advice I’ve ever had regarding this business. “Write what you know, learn what you don’t, and never give up on the dream.”
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I was writing small romances and wanted to break out and do longer novels. I had been requested by a popular Christian publishing house to submit something. The editor sent me back a rather curt note suggesting that maybe I should just stick with the small romances and not attempt longer books. Of course I didn’t listen. The thing is, however, while her advise was wrong – it also caused me to look at my work and try to figure out why she would suggest such a thing. So God used even the worst piece of advice to His glory.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
The pretense of us all being one happy family of Christian authors is something that bugs me. There is a lot of backstabbing that goes on and it really grieves me. In the Christian publishing world we are encouraged to get together and pray for each other and tell our troubles. We are encouraged to support one another and help one another and all of that is fantastic. However, in many cases I’ve seen people hurt because of this. Jealousy runs amuck and feelings get hurt. It saddens me that we allow the world to influence us and come between us.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?
That guidelines need to be followed and respected. Editors have very little say over what the publishing house wants or doesn’t want. The guidelines are in place to save you, as well as the publisher, time with projects that don’t fit.
Was there ever a difficult set back that you went through in your writing career?
The difficult times I’ve endured came due to family crisis rather than writing block or problems with publishers. I’ve really been blessed not to hit any major walls where writing was concerned. I believe in varying my projects and doing a variety of time periods, as well as both fiction and nonfiction and I believe that has saved me from burn-out.
What are a few of your favorite books?
I love Jane Austen and Louisa Mae Alcott books. I read a lot of classics as a child. I enjoy the historical detail and plotting from writers like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Jude Deveraux, and Rosemund Pilcher, as well as Liz Curtis Higgs, Judith Pella, Judith Miller and others. There are so many awesome authors offering quality stories these days, it’s hard to pick just a few.
What work have you done that you’re especially proud of and why?
I feel good about working on projects that are glorifying to God. I know He has guided each project, so I feel strongly about each one. When one of my books draws a person closer to God or helps them to find salvation, I know I’ve done the job I’m here to do.
Do you have a scripture or quote that has spoken to you lately?
Deuteronomy 4:31 (KJV) For the LORD thy God is a merciful God; he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.
Can you give us a look into a typical day for you?
There are no typical days for me. Summer is hectic so generally I accomplish family stuff through the day and write at night. During the school year I generally get up and spend some quiet time with the Lord, read email, then write. Afternoons are generally spent researching or plotting out additional stories.
Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?
I write a chapter a day. That’s the goal.
Are you an SOTP writer or a plotter?
Definitely a plotter. I work with a detailed chapter by chapter outline that acts as a road map. It helps me eliminate problems like holes in the plot, characters that I fail to pull through the story, etc. I seldom have much of anything in the way of rewrites and I credit the synopsis for this. With a detailed chapter synopsis I get a good idea of how many days it will take to actually write the book. Of course this is only after the research is in place and the outline figured.
What author do you especially admire and why?
I think it would be impossible to pick just one. I have many I admire for various reasons. Some are authors who have worked through great adversity, others are authors who make me laugh and cheer my day. Ultimately they are all authors who leave me with something to take away.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
I love to use my creativity and love of history. It allows me to travel for research and work with my husband. Least favorite would probably be the paperwork and business end of managing the corporation.
How much marketing do you do? What's your favorite part of marketing?
Very little. I really don’t feel cut out for marketing or for the public side of being an author. However, I like to do what I can to promote the books. I love getting the fan mail and knowing how God is using the books for His glory. Nothing touches me more deeply.
Since you're also an editor, let's chat about that. How long have you been an editor?
I started working as a content review editor with Barbour as early as 1994. Over the years one thing led to another and I got involved in acquisitions and eventually took over as Managing Editor of the Heartsong Presents romance line. Recently I decided that this season of my working experience was over and am currently transitioning to give Heartsong back to Barbour.
Did you write before or after you became an editor?
As an editor, what's that special something you look for in a book?
A compelling story that keeps me turning the pages. Recently I had a proposal that I sat down to consider. Before I knew it, I had forgotten to take notes or pay attention to the regular details that usually catch my eye. The author had pulled me into the story so quickly, that I knew it was a keeper.
What are some things that set off red flags in a manuscript?
There are so many. Characters who aren’t consistent or who come across with so much negative baggage that you’d rather see them in therapy than in a book. A reader needs to be able to bond with the main characters and if they are too nasty or grief stricken or mean spirited, it’s usually going to alienate your reader.
There are also issues with poorly constructed plots. I see authors who have great beginnings and endings, but the middle drags. Pacing is critical to books and the middle has to compel the reader forward. I also see a lot of books where the author has given too much information up front. Backstory can generally be woven throughout the book and needn’t be imposed on the reader first thing.
What makes a manuscript stand out from the rest?
Professional presentation, strong pacing, characterization and storyline.
We all hear how subjective this business is. Can you elaborate on that?
Anything that can be listed in the “arts” is going to be subjective. One person might love musicals or another modern art, but no one thing generally appeals to everyone all the time. Writing is that way as well. You see bestsellers all the time that people either love or hate.
The same is true for manuscripts that are being reviewed by the editors. Some stories are going to click and some won’t. Some styles are going to speak to the reader and some will not. I mentioned above that I like the work of Kathleen Woodiwiss, yet I’ve had many people say they don’t like her work because she gives too much detail on setting. I love detailed settings and feel that Woodiwiss blends it in so well that setting almost becomes a secondary character.
I encourage authors to remember it’s as simple as flavors of ice cream. Some like chocolate, some just want vanilla, and on top of that there will always be that group of folks who would walk through fire for licorice flavored anything. It’s all a matter of taste.
Added to this – when it comes to publishing houses, some work is simply not going to fit the image they want, or else it’s been done before, or they already have something in the works coming out. A lot of times authors think, “Ah ha. If the Left Behind series is what’s selling, then I’ll write that kind of book.” But the publisher is saying to themselves, we want something fresh and new – something to hook the readers just like the Left Behind series did, but yet they aren’t looking for a repeat of the same thing.
What's the best piece of advice you can give our readers about getting published?
Hone your skills. Read all kinds of books, but especially the genre that interests you. Some people have said, “But I worry that I’ll accidentally copy someone else’s plot line.” I think the risk of this is really a moot point. There are only a few basic plot lines anyway. I always tell writers of romance – don’t get miffed or worried when people say it’s formula work. Every genre has its formula in one way or another – it’s what you do with that formula that makes it yours.
Let's say I have an intriguing query, a well developed synopsis and my three sample chapters are strong. Why might I still get a rejection?
Easy. The publisher may have three similar projects on their desk from authors who are well established or contracted to produce X number of books from them. When they already have an author on the pay-roll so to speak with an exclusive contract, they’re going to try to go with that author. Along with this - it could be that the publisher already has a book releasing that is too similar to what you’ve proposed.
Another reason and this is why we really need to be professional in all we say and do, authors gain bad reputations for being high maintenance or difficult. I have had contracts in the past that came from problem authors. I’ve never been eager to move into repeat situations even when stories were interesting and strong. I’ve talked to numerous editors from various publishing houses who feel the same. Editors talk amongst themselves and if you have a bad reputation it’s going to follow you.
If a writer is rejected and reworks the manuscript, can he/she resubmit it?
Generally speaking – the publisher/editor will ask them to do this if they really want to see the manuscript again. If I received a rejection letter with many suggestions for revision and the publisher didn’t note whether they’d like to see it again, I would write and ask, but I would just presume that this is what it meant. Most of the time editors don’t have time to give a critique of a proposal, while other times they offer advise, but almost always if they like the story and want to see it again, they will ask.
Would you recognize a resubmission? If you did, would you be able to see it with fresh eyes?
Yes. I keep notes on proposals for a certain amount of time. Some manuscripts just stick out like sore thumbs. Long ago I had someone submit the same proposal about three times within a matter of two or three months. I finally wrote a letter telling them that I had received the manuscript three times, had rejected it three times and would appreciate it if they would not resubmit it again. Two weeks later it came back to me with a different title and under a different author name. (grin) I rejected it a fourth time and after that didn’t see it again.
The only way resubmission would work for me would be if I asked for the proposal or manuscript to be resubmitted. I’m sure this would vary a little with various editors, but I doubt it would vary much.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
Pray and spend time seeking the Lord no matter what job He gives you to do. This is especially critical, however, if you view writing as a means to share the Gospel and encourage the body of Christ.
Set aside time to write each day. Even if it’s just 15 minutes. Even if you just write one page. That’s 365 pages in a year and that’s pretty much a book.
Get the guidelines and follow them. Do not presume publishers will change the rules for you. The best place to talk about this even being possible is at conferences during private meetings. Even then, I don’t really encourage it.
Ultimately I would offer others the same advice given me.
Write what you know, learn what you don’t and never give up on the dream.