A two-time ACFW Genesis winner, Carla Stewart is a Guideposts Writers Workshop alumna and has been published in Guideposts, Angels on Earth, and several regional magazines and anthologies. Her debut novel, Chasing Lilacs, releases in June 2010 with FaithWords. Carla enjoys a good cup of coffee, weekend getaways with her husband, and the antics of their six grandchildren. You can learn more about Carla at www.carlastewart.com.
Carla! Welcome to Novel Journey. You told me in your email that you’ve been writing seriously for about nine years. What did you do before that, and what made you start writing?
Thanks. I’m honored to be here.
From an early age, I loved reading, but I also had a heart for those who are hurting. It didn’t surprise anyone when I chose nursing as my career. I got my BSN, married, and had four sons. My life was full and busy. Yet, deep down I knew that someday I wanted to write novels like those I loved to read.
When my youngest son was in high school, my job required me to drive 60 miles each way to work, and with all that time on the road, I daydreamed. Wrestled really with my writing dream. Fear, doubts, and what it would take to commit myself to writing were the thoughts most prevalent. One day, while reading my Bible and praying, this verse from Matthew 5:17 jumped out at me: “Simply let your yes be yes and your no, no; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Soon after I quit my job as a nursing instructor and made a wholehearted commitment to write. I haven’t looked back.
What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?
Focus. When I’m working on a first draft, I find a million things to distract me from getting the story down. Things like the internet, planning our next vacation, doing more research, or going on rabbit trails with my plot. Usually, the tangents are because I’m coming up on a difficult or emotional scene, and I’m trying to avoid going deep into my characters.
Do you put yourself into your books/characters?
I think everyone does to some extent. I know I draw heavily on my past experiences to find the emotions of my characters, and my first book’s setting is very much like the place where I grew up. I don’t intentionally write myself in, but often a character will say or do something like I would. More often, the people I’ve known become the basis of my characters.
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?
At times I almost crave the critique or thoughts of others and have asked fellow writers to be brutally honest. That has been valuable to me, and I’ve learned a great deal about craft and nuance in this way. I’m also the proud owner of many contest judges’ critique sheets. What I’ve found, though, is that I get the most favorable comments when I’m writing in my own voice and style. My confidence has increased over time, but I still have moments of doubt. Chasing Lilacs is a story that many folks said was a hard sell—child narrator, first person, subject too dark (Hint: It’s not that dark). Yet it was the novel I believed in, so I kept going.
Tell us a little about your latest release:
Chasing Lilacs is a coming of age story set in Texas. In 1958, Elvis is on the radio and summer is in the air. Life should be simple and carefree. But not for twelve-year-old Sammie who has plenty of questions about her mother’s “nerve” problems. About shock treatments. About whether her mother loves her. As her life careens out of control, Sammie has to choose who to trust with her deepest fears. Her best friend with an opinion about everything? The mysterious kid from California whose own troubles plague him? Or her round-faced neighbor with gentle advice and strong shoulders to cry on? Then, there’s the elderly widower who seems nice, but has his own dark past.
Trusting is one thing, but accepting the truth may be the hardest thing Sammie’s ever done.
How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?
As a child of the 50s and 60s myself, I have always been curious about those forbidden subjects people whispered about but were too polite to discuss, especially “nerve” problems and shock treatments. What would it have been like if a young girl’s mom had these problems? At the same time, I always wanted to write a story set in a tight knit petroleum camp like the one where I grew up. In 2004, I took a solo venture to the camp (which is now a ghost town). A few miles away, I saw the smokestacks on the horizon. My breaths quickened. A lump appeared in my throat. As I approached and later rambled over the vacant ground where my childhood home once stood, wonderful memories washed over me. I knew I’d found not only the setting for my story, but also the theme of the book—the power of community that shapes our lives.
Your main character is a young girl (twelve years old) but the story has some very complex context. Who would you say is the target audience for this book, and what do you hope they gain from reading your novel?
For a while I thought this might be a young adult book, but as I wrote, it became clear that even though teens might read it, it was really more for people of the baby boomer generation—those who remembered the fads, the music, the simpler times. While the story is nostalgic, some of the themes are universal: depression, loss, dealing with difficult people. Women especially will relate to these issues, but I believe that anyone who likes redemptive fiction will enjoy it.
You went through many ups and downs in the creation and publication of this novel. Tells us a little about that, and share what it was that motivated you to keep going.
I wrote the book in 2004 and accumulated a fat folder of rejections from agents, mostly in the secular arena as I didn’t suspect that it would fit the Christian market. I won second in a couple of regional contests, which made me think that at least the story had merit. In 2006, I joined ACFW and signed up for a paid critique at the conference. The author was very complimentary and introduced me to an agent who said I wasn’t ready for prime time, but that a freelance editor might help. The freelancer’s content edit was a revelation. I rewrote the last half of the novel and entered the Genesis contest in 2007. My manuscript (called A Dandelion Day at the time) didn’t fit any of the categories, but followed the guidelines and entered it in Historical Fiction, knowing I had little chance of winning. I was shocked when I did win and received a request from the same agent again (). A few months later, I signed with Sandra Bishop, who had just started with MacGregor Literary. Seven months later the book sold to FaithWords.
I’m not sure that any one thing motivated me to keep going, but crumbs of encouragement came my way, usually at the perfect moment. Winning the Genesis certainly helped, and when I attended Mount Hermon, an editor there read my first pages and loved the writing, but it wasn’t what his house published. Signing with an agent who believed in me was also a huge factor.
What does your writing space look like?
I used to have an office, but when I started using a laptop, I found I loved the comfort of my recliner more. Now, that’s where I write with a pile of references and writing books on one side of my chair and an end table with a warm cup of coffee on the other side. My dachshund, Zelda, snuggles on my lap most of the time. A picture would be too scary. Just think of a Maxine cartoon with her hair in rollers, fuzzy slippers on her feet, propped up in front of the computer with a cup of coffee in her hand. Add a weiner dog and you have it!
What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?
During the day, it helps to take short breaks by working in the yard and I usually take a walk with my little dog at the end of a writing day. I love going to the Broadway shows that come to town or concerts at the Jazz Depot. Max and I like weekend getaways and often visit our grandkids who live a few hours away.
What is the first book you remember reading and what made it special?
The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink. It was the first book I received through the Weekly Reader Book Club. It had this cute pink cover and was about a mom who inherits a motel in Florida. For this Texas country girl, it was very exotic and adventurous. I wish I had kept it because I think it sells for something like $90 on Amazon
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
I think of it as the osmosis factor. If you regularly read well-written books, you learn about character development and story arc and the type of writing that makes your heart beat faster. I often find an author I love and read everything she (or he) writes. Over time, I’ve learned that I like succinct writing styles with a literary bent. Some of that filters into my writing. I also think you can learn what not to do from reading books that are poorly written, although that’s not a learning technique I would recommend. It’s much better to learn from examples of exquisite prose.
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?
Having a critique group or partner would have been helpful. We lived in a remote, rural area at the time, so I didn’t have that option.
In publishing, I wish I’d known more about the inspirational market early on, but I honestly believe that God’s timing is everything. The years I spent learning the craft and honing my voice have made me a better writer, and that greatly outweighs any frustration I’ve had.
You told me that you launched your career writing for magazines. How was that important? Do you think it led to the eventual publication of Chasing Lilacs?
Magazine writing has taught me how to work with editors, follow guidelines, and has provided those important first writing credits. In 2002, I had the coveted honor of being invited to the Guideposts Writers’ Workshop. For five days I learned from seasoned writers the importance of using concrete nouns and strong verbs, how to write scenes, make smooth transitions between scenes, how to interview people, and how to craft the take-away of a story. All of these techniques are crucial to novel writers as well, and while I don’t think it directly affected my getting a contract for Chasing Lilacs, it certainly gave me publishing experience and credibility with agents and editors.
Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?
Chasing Lilacs is the first of a two-book contract. My second novel, Broken Wings, has a strong nostalgic thread, but is the story of two woman in present-day Tulsa who become unlikely friends. I’m very excited about this book. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I think it has a depth and perspective that many people will relate to. It will release in 2011.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
Write what you love to read. Write every day. And don’t be afraid of being unique.
Thanks so much for having me on Novel Journey and for the work you do to spread the word about great fiction. God Bless!