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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Interview ~ Susan Sleeman

Susan Sleeman is passionate about Christian suspense, both as a reader and a writer. She believes fiction has the power to deliver God’s unchanging message to an ever-changing world. She has poured her enthusiasm for Christian suspense into her novels and hosting the popular internet website The Christian Suspense Zone. Her first book in her Garden Gate Mystery Series, Nipped in the Bud, will release soon from Barbour Publishing.

Susan grew up in Northern Wisconsin and has had the pleasure of living in nine of our fifty states. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Psychology with postgraduate coursework in Accounting and Project Management. Susan lives with her very talented Music Director husband in sunny Florida and has two beautiful daughters, a very special son-in-law and an adorable newborn grandson.

Welcome to Novel Journey, Susan! You were one of those lucky people who received your first contract in front of hundreds of authors at the ACFW annual conference. Can you tell us about that experience?

Wow, is that a story--one I couldn’t have dreamed of if I was writing it in a book. It was one only God could have created for me.

At the end of March, I submitted a proposal to editor Susan Downs for Nipped in the Bud, and within three days received a request for the full manuscript. Then within three weeks I received a positive evaluation of the manuscript with a few suggested revisions. Susan was not able to contract new works until the fall, and she requested I return the revised manuscript to her by August 1 when she was in a position to make a decision. I was pumped. I’d have to wait until August for any firm answer, but surely this was a good sign. Right?

I made the revision and sent the manuscript back in late July. I’d completed book two in the Garden Gate Mystery series and sent that proposal to Susan, as well. Now all I had to do was sit back and wait for her to call. She didn’t. No phone call. No email. Nothing. No response. And when I asked my agent about it, he was vague, encouraging me, yet at the same time saying nothing. I whined to my critique group, which at the time included three Heartsong Mystery authors. They tried to encourage me, but when August came and went, I was certain Susan had lost interest in my book.

In September, at the ACFW conference when Susan Downs took the stage to award a contract for the Heartsong Presents Mysteries imprint, I sat back and said, “Man, it’s too bad Susan didn’t like my book. It would be so cool to learn of your book contract in front of 500 fellow writers.” Susan began describing the writer who would receive this contract. She began with vague clues and grew more specific. Imagine my surprise when I realized she was talking about me. I turned to my crit group sitting next to me and learned that they knew about this. Some since April. Ditto for my agent, of course.

Yes, they were in on the surprise. They had to be. You see, I wasn’t planning on attending the conference. So they had to help Susan get me there. My first reaction was "No fair. You knew for so long, and I stressed all this time." But then, I realized it was an honor to have Barbour publicly announce their affiliation with me. Today, the question I am asked most often is, was it worth waiting for months to learn of the contract this way. My answer is a resounding YES.

Tell us about the book Barbour contracted. How did you come up with the story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?

Barbour contracted Nipped in the Bud, the first book in my Garden Gate Mystery series with scheduled dates to publish and a letter of intent to contract Read Between the Tines and Seed You Later nearer to publication. This series features Paige Turner a landscape designer and radio show host who lives to garden and unfortunately dead bodies have a way of sprouting in her life. The series was a natural fit for me as it originated from my love of gardening and of the Pacific Northwest, a gardener’s paradise.

There was no real ‘what if’ moment in creating the book, which is odd because I am constantly asking that question, but I had a moment after the rough draft of the book was complete. As I was editing Nipped in the Bud, I thought, what if I gave the readers gardening tips at the beginning of every chapter so they could learn a little about gardening as the story entertained. I didn’t want a dry, boring little blurb so I asked, “What if Paige was a radio show host and her callers phoned in to report misunderstood gardening advice from a prior show and something funny happened in their lives from this misunderstanding.”

I went back through the story and rewrote Paige as a radio show host, and I think this really brought the character to life and made the story more interesting. So I guess, it’s never too late in the process to ask, “what if?”

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:


Paige Turner is a quirky landscape designer, radio show host, and proud owner of an African Gray parrot that spouts TV-isms at the most in opportune times. Paige is witty and has a great sense of humor. She lives for gardening and looks at everything through roses. This is not a typo. I didn’t mean rose-colored glasses. More comfortable with plants than people, she actually assigns plant names to people in her life based their physical characteristics, personality traits, and mannerisms and treats the people accordingly. Of course, people are a little more complex than plants so Paige frequently fails in her interpersonal relationships and has to regroup often.

I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to gardening and it was natural for me to create a character with my love for gardening then kick it up a notch and turn the hobby into such an obsession that it changed the way she looked at life. Voila, we have Paige.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

I loved every bit of writing this book because I love, love, love gardening (have I mentioned that yet?). Even the research, which I often find tedious, was fun. Paige and the other people she interacts with in the story are quirky, and I am a huge fan of offbeat characters so I got a kick out of creating every one of them. And of course, I dearly love to kill people, so that was fun, too.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that it took so long to hear back from Susan Downs. Oh, and maybe that my crit partners kept a secret from me for months. Shame on you ladies.

Shortly after you got the contract from Barbour, you found out they had decided to close down the mystery line. Can you talk about that?


Honestly, I can talk about it, but not without a bit of residual pain and sadness over the postponement of my first ever novel. Nipped in the Bud was scheduled to release in May of 2009 and in January Heartsong Presents Mystery authors were informed that due to an unsatisfactory number of subscriptions to the book club, the line was ending and the last cycle of books to be released would be in April. Drat, I’d missed the release of my first book by one month. Still, we were also told that all contracted books would be published in some format at a later date.

I wish I could say that I accepted the news and had instant peace about God working this for my good, but I have to admit to a period of discouragement and second-guessing. You see another publisher wanted this series, too, but this occurred after the Barbour contract was agreed upon. I wondered why God would arrange for the books to go to a publisher who would postpone publication and may never publish the entire series.

I am pleased to tell you that I have worked through this and though I am not happy about what happened, I grew as a person from the experience, and I trust God’s plan for my life. If that means Nipped in the Bud never sees publication then that is what is best for me.

Do you know what plans Barbour has for this book?

Interesting that you should ask as I just contacted Barbour last week to see if there was any news about Nipped in the Bud and was told there is nothing new to report. The mysteries are currently being published in three-in-ones. The three-in-ones released this year are compilations of the books already published as single titles.

Because Nipped in the Bud was my first book and the last two books in my series were scheduled but not officially contracted, I don’t expect to see Nipped in the Bud until after Barbour publishes the work of authors who had two or more books contracted.

What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

The hardest part of writing for me is getting that all important first chapter just right. Because I know the first chapter can pique an editor’s and reader’s interest or send them into the ho-hums, I work hard on getting that first line just right. Then I fret over the rest of the chapter, too. Sometimes this is because I am starting in the wrong place, or am trying to give backstory when is shouldn’t be there, but no matter the reason, I am rarely satisfied with chapter one.

What does your writing space look like? (Insert picture if possible)

Laughing really hard that you asked for a picture of my writing space. I’d have to clean and organize the office if I sent that to you.

Seriously, I have issues with the degeneration of my spine and sitting in a desk chair all day gives me crazy bad headaches. So, most often you’ll find me in a recliner with my feet up pounding away on a laptop, and our trusty puppy dog Maddie nearby. (I did include her picture).

I do have a nice little office off the master bedroom with a desk and computer, bookshelves loaded with books for reading and books to giveaway on The Suspense Zone, and a fabulous chair that when I can sit, I do love to sit in.

What would you do with your free time if you weren’t writing?


I can’t imagine never writing, but if that ever happened, I would spend time reading for enjoyment once again. As the owner of TheSuspenseZone.com, I am always reading with the intent of reviewing the book when I finish. Though this is great in that it helps me see what publishers are looking for, keep current on my chosen genre, and network with the fabulous writers, I haven’t read many books of late that I can simply read because I want to. Excellent Christian fiction abounds, and I would love to explore even half of it, but time constraints prohibit me from doing so.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?


Because of our experiences and perceptions, we all put something of ourselves in our characters, but I try to make each character different and unique and that means they have to possess a variety of characteristics. If anything, I try to write characters that have features I would want to have or that I admire.

That said, though not done intentionally, when I finish a book and evaluate the spiritual struggle of the main character I am surprised to see issues I am either struggling with and or have recently come through. Though Christian fiction entertains, and some would say that is the only purpose of fiction, God can really help us develop our spiritual walk through great stories.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?


Hands down, I want people to really embrace the verse, Trust God with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding. We can see only a small view of what God has planned for us, and we base our decisions on that teeny tiny slice. Or we become frustrated because God doesn’t give us long-term direction that we crave. But in reality, if we listen, He gives us the next step and as long as we trust Him and are willing to take those steps, we will arrive at the perfect plan for our lives. Trust is ongoing and active not passive. No matter what happens around us, we have to keep focusing on Him so nothing distracts us from the direction we have been given.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

First comes the spark of an idea, generated from something I see in the news, on television or on the internet. For weeks, maybe months, I ponder on that spark until I have a basic plot for a book. This is so basic that it only consists of how the story starts and ends.

At this point, I begin to visually see the story and characters audition in my head for the starring roles. The next step is to get to know these characters to see what makes them tick so I know what types of conflict they may be involved in. That’s when my actual writing process starts. I’m not the kind of writer who plots out the entire book, but I work scene by scene chapter by chapter. I must spend time in a quiet place with my eyes closed, visually seeing the scene almost like watching a movie and then I write what I see. Writing this way can take you on rabbit trails that seem to lead nowhere, but most often become integral plot points for the story.

One day I will write the scenes, the next day I start by editing them and then writing additional scenes. When all chapters are on paper with a rough edit, I begin to evaluate each chapter and add layers. I read, looking for conflict, my overall spiritual message, for red herring mystery clues, and for the character arcs to see if the characters have developed as well as a million other little things. Of course, all along the way I correct typos and improve sentence structure.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?


Not having a book soon to release, I can’t speak to specific marketing for a book, but I can tell you I started marketing years ago. I get very frustrated when I find an author I love and cannot locate a website. So the first thing I did was to develop a website and begin participating in social networking sites such as Facebook and Shoutlife.

Then, I looked for a way to develop a platform and to associate my name with Christian suspense, my chosen genre. Two years ago, I launched a book review website dedicated to Christian suspense,
www.thesuspensezone.com. When I began the site, I hoped to do two things. The first was ministry driven. I wanted to promote the suspense genre and the terrific authors who write it. My second goal was to associate my name with Christian suspense on internet search engines and to build a contact list for the future promotions. The site has been successful in meeting both of my goals, and I continue to marvel as the site expands beyond 500 pages and the readership continues to grow beyond any expectation I had at the onset.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

After feedback from a publisher, I am hard at work changing a few plot points and the pace of a romantic suspense book that I hope to resubmit this month. I also have a thriller about identity theft that I work on as time allows. And I have a mystery with a fun snarky tour guide set in Orlando, where I currently live, that keeps me laughing.

Do you have any parting words of advice?


Don’t enter the writing business unless you are committed. Note I didn’t say unless you want to be committed, though after a few years of writing to be published, we might all benefit from a short commitment.

This is a tough business and only the strong survive. There are those flukes where a person sits down to pen a book and finds fame, but mostly it is a business that involves years of writing, editing, learning, growing and overcoming rejections. Oh and waiting. Lots of waiting for a publishing wheel that doesn’t spin rapidly.

And as I learned with Nipped in the Bud, it is a business filled with surprises. Some good, some not so good. But all in all, if you are a writer and can do nothing else then you take heart, work hard, listen to advice, be teachable, and persevere through the tough times.

18 comments:

wilsonwriter said...

Congrats, Susan. I knew you'd got a deal with Barbour, but it's fun to hear the details.

You've always been a great encouragement to me, both professionally and personally. I'm thrilled to see your journey continuing, both as a reviewer and writer.

Susan Sleeman said...

Thanks for stopping by, Eric. It's so easy to encourage someone as talented as you. I can't wait for Haunt of Jackals, book two in your Jerusalem's Undead Trilogy to come out this summer. You've left all of your readers in anticipation of the book. And yes, this is a shameless plug for Eric's books. Pick up any of his books and I promise you'll be glad you did.

Elizabeth Ludwig said...

Thank you for a wonderfully candid and encouraging interview, Susan. It's a pleasure to have you here on Novel Journey!

CHickey said...

Great interview! I received my contract from Susan Downs at the 2007 conference! Wasn't it fun?

Susan Page Davis said...

Susan, I loved reading your story. I hope to see your books on the shelves one day--and not too distant. Hang in there!

Janelle said...

Hey my dear, if I ever had trouble describing someone's jaw dropping in surprise, I wouldn't have after you heard Susan Downs call your name. And people WILL get to read Nipped in the Bud and they'll love it, especially Paige. Love you, lady.

Susan Sleeman said...

So Cynthia, you can totally understand what it's like to have such a surprise. Wasn't it great?

Susan Sleeman said...

Ah, Lisa, thank you for the opportunity to spend the day at Novel Journey. This is such an awesome blog.

Susan Sleeman said...

Thanks for visiting, other Susan. LOL I too hope to join your wonderful books on the mystery shelf soon.

Susan Sleeman said...

Ah, Janelle, are you sure you weren't confusing my expression of surprise with shock over my loyal, loving critque group keeping a secret from me for months. HMMMMM.

Elizabeth Ludwig said...

But don't forget, Susan. One loyal member of your crit group was just as much in the dark...at least right up until the conference. What a joy it was to see the surprise on your face. A moment I'll never forget.

Susan Sleeman said...

That must have been so hard for your writing partner not to tell you about it. Maybe I should be praising her for being able to keep the secret from you for so long. LOL It's a moment I'll never forget either and it was so much sweeter having all of you there with me to share in the surprise. I hope Barbour keeps doing this for years to come.

Sandra Robbins said...

What an awesome testimony you give for other writers who experience disappointments. You are going to see Nipped in the Bud published, and we're all going to celebrate with you when it happens. And BTW, Janelle is right. Your jaw did drop when you heard the news. I still laugh when I think of the expression on your face.

Sandra Robbins

Susan Sleeman said...

Sandra, I can think of no one better to celebrate with than the ones who made this surprise possible for me. Hmmm, maybe I'll keep the celebration a secret. LOL.

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow! What a wonderful way to hear about your contract. Brilliant! And a great interview. Thanks.

Eileen Key said...

Great CANDID interview, my friend. Enjoyed it.

lynnrush said...

Wow, what a great story!

sherrinda said...

Fabulous interview! I loved the details about your writing procedures...how you visual, write, edit, and layer. Writers are so different and it is all so very interesting!