Interview by: Kelly Klepfer
What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?
The biggest issue I struggle with is procrastination. When things seem overwhelming, I turn away to diversions like Facebook, watching television, playing games, etc. I think much of this stems from fear—fear I won’t be able to finish a project or it won’t be as good as I’d like.
I battle it in two different ways. First, I pray for courage, direction, and focus. Knowing God is on my side helps me know I can conquer the project no matter how daunting. Second, I use little tricks to keep myself moving forward, like bribing myself with small treats for forward progress or setting a timer and allowing myself only scheduled breaks.
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
Write the story God has placed on your heart regardless of the current trends in publishing. God knows the plan He has for your writing. We’re better off following His wisdom than chasing after the wind.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
Out of the Ruins is the first book in the Golden Gate Chronicles, set in 1906 San Francisco. While her sister lies on her deathbed, Abby Fischer prays for a miracle. What Abby doesn’t expect, however, is for God’s answer to come in the form of the handsome Dr. Robert King, whose experimental treatment is risky at best.
As they work together toward a cure, Abby’s feelings for Robert become hopelessly entangled. Separated by the tragedy of the mighty San Francisco earthquake, their relationship suddenly takes a back seat to survival. With fires raging throughout the city, Abby fears for her life as she flees alone through burning streets. Where is God now? Will Robert find Abby, even as the world burns around them? Or has their love fallen with the ruins of the city?
We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
I’d long felt God encouraging me to write a novel, but I didn’t believe myself capable of writing 90 thousand words. Instead, I decided to try writing for children because I thought those books would be short and easy.
After stumbling through several horrible picture book manuscripts, I pieced together a middle-grade chapter book. I took it to the Mount Hermon Writers Conference in 2009 and showed the manuscript to some professionals. Several of them suggested I rewrite it for young adults. That didn’t sound so difficult, so I took the book home and spent a year doubling its length and deepening the story line for teenagers.
As I worked, the desire to write for adults deepened. It seemed silly to rewrite a third time, so I finished the book as a YA novel, taking it back to the conference the next year. It was well received, and a few months later I received an email from a publisher. They might be interested . . . if I would consider rewriting it as a historical romance for adults. God knew what He was doing—it had just taken me a while to catch up. The publisher ended up declining the novel, but it encouraged me to follow God’s leading and not to let fear slow me down.
I got back to work, writing now for the adult historical romance market. Mistaken released with Abingdon Press in 2013. And that novel I rewrote three times for three different age groups? Out of the Ruins releases in May.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
All the time! When my first novel, Mistaken, was approaching its release, I was overcome with crippling anxiety. I’d been so focused on getting published, I’d sort of forgotten the fact that my friends and family would someday read the words. What if the book wasn’t that great? Every time someone said, “I just bought your book,” I felt sick.
I’d heard people talk about spiritual attacks, but I’d never encountered one that had so effectively driven me to my knees. After receiving wise counsel from several friends, I began to pray in earnest and to beg others to do the same. I think the only effective remedy for fear is prayer.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I’m a firm believer that writers need to have a teachable spirit, but early in my career, I took this too far. I believed every suggestion and criticism was gospel truth. This actually slowed me down. Later editors would ask, “Why did you write it this way?” I’d have to hide my face and say, “Because someone thought it would be better like that.” I’ve learned to weigh advice and to trust my own instincts at times.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I’m not typically a note-taker when I listen to sermons, but something the pastor said triggered an idea for my current manuscript. I snatched the pencil from the pew rack and started writing furiously on my bulletin. My husband leaned over and whispered, “What are you doing?” Annoyed at being interrupted, I snapped back: “I’m plotting!” A visitor sitting in front of me turned around with a horrified expression. I’m sure she thought I was coming up with plans for world domination.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
First, bathe your writing in prayer. Second, go to writing conferences. Attending my first Mount Hermon Writers Conference back in 2009 took me from being a hobby writer to a professional writer in a very short time. Conferences are like learning a foreign language by immersion—everything comes at you at lightning speed, but you learn the business end of writing very quickly. There are many great conferences around the country. My personal favorites are the Mount Hermon conference and the Oregon Christian Writers Conference.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
I get frustrated with how focused we’ve become on certain trends. We’re encouraged as writers to write to the market. Supposedly, if the market is hot for Amish, you should write Amish. If it’s fantasy, we all start writing fantasy. If it’s pirate werewolves . . . well, you get the idea. The problem is, by the time the trend is obvious and you are able to pull together a publishable novel, it’s passé. I think you need to write the story God has placed on your heart, in the genre you feel passionate about. You might have to wait for the market to turn around, but when it does, you’ll be ready for it.
Share a dream or something you'd love to accomplish through your writing career.
Since I practically grew up in my public library, it was always my dream to see my books on library shelves. I love seeing novels in bookstores, but libraries? That really makes me happy.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course)?
Reading through a manuscript months later and stumbling over a particularly good phrase and thinking, “I wrote that? Cool!”
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Starting a new book often feels like breaking open a new box of crayons. There are so many choices and I often don’t know where to start. Usually I take my new characters out for a test drive. I free-write a couple of sample chapters just to see how they react to things. These chapters may get trashed, rewritten, or used in some fashion, but they’re primarily written as an experiment. Only after I get a good feel for the characters will I sit down and try to frame out the story in a rough outline or synopsis.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I used to always set my iPod to play the song, “Word of God, Speak” by MercyMe before I would write a word. The lyrics felt like a prayer and they helped me focus on turning my writing over to God. Eventually the ritual became just that—ritual—and I had to change it up a bit. I still like to start in prayer.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
It’s a bit of a combination, but I lean toward seat-of-the-pants. I like to allow my characters some freedom of expression, and they often surprise me and take the story in different directions than I anticipated. I do keep a simple outline/synopsis to keep the story from getting too far off track.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
The middle is always the toughest part for me. By that point I’m juggling multiple characters, plot lines, and emotional/spiritual arcs. Sometimes it feels like everything is degrading into a tangled mess. That’s when I need to go back to my synopsis and refocus my efforts on moving the story forward.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
This past year I was named the Writer of Promise at the Oregon Christian Writers Cascade Awards. It was a huge honor, especially since my fellow writers at OCW have been such an amazing support system. I’d learned so much through the organization’s coaching classes and workshops, and I met my editor at their annual summer conference.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you'd share with us?
I loved working with Library Insider. Organized by Books & Such Literary Agency and author/librarian Judy Gann, this evolving database makes it simple to market to libraries around the country. Since my dream has always been to see my books on library shelves, this was a perfect marketing tool for me. Plus, readers who fall in love with authors via their public library will often go out and buy other titles by the same writer.
Bio: Karen Barnett is the award-winning author of Mistaken and several articles published by Guideposts and other national magazines. Her latest release is Out of the Ruins (May 2014). She lives in Albany, Oregon, with her husband, two children, and an attention-loving dachshund named Mystery. For more information, visit her website KarenBarnettBooks.com.