"Writing for newspapers and magazines also gave me an appreciation for the fact that, in terms of story, a golden nugget can be waiting around the most ordinary-looking corner."
Lone Star Literary Life corresponded with Lisa Wingate as one in a series of profiles tied to the national conference of American Christian Fiction Writers, slated for Dallas, Sept. 17–20.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Lisa, your bio says you were a journalist before you wrote books. Where did you work as a journalist? How did being a journalist later inform your writing as an author?
LISA WINGATE: I wrote articles for various magazines and small-town newspapers, all of which I enjoyed. I can still lay out a newspaper page by hand, with a grid and a sticky-wax roller. I’m sure I never will again, but I do remember how. What journalism and technical writing taught me was that, as beautiful as words are, there’s a time and place for economy of language. Writing for newspapers and magazines also gave me an appreciation for the fact that, in terms of story, a golden nugget can be waiting around the most ordinary-looking corner.
Who gave you your first big break as a writer, and how long did it take you to “get discovered?”
I was fairly fortunate in getting started, although mine is not one of those magical Cinderella stories. I spent about a year writing Tending Roses, my first mainstream novel, mostly while my little ones were napping or playing. When it was finished, I edited it repeatedly and then sought agents for it. I did that in the typical way—researched, used Writer’s Market, and sent queries to the agents.
While I was trying to sell it, I wrote a second novel called Texas Cooking. Lisa Hagan of Paraview Literary Agency called me out of the blue one day, having read the partial of Tending Roses. She said she was crying and couldn’t wait to read the rest. I sent it. A couple weeks later, her rejection came via email. I was crushed. Weeks after that, she called and told me she couldn’t stop thinking about the book and, if I wasn’t mad at her, she felt she was meant to agent it. I wasn’t and she did. She sold both books to Penguin Putnam six or eight months later. I completely forgave her for having rejected me in the first place.
How did you balance raising a family and writing books?
I didn’t get serious about freelance writing and selling until after I’d graduated from college, married, and started a family. I can put some of the blame on a busy day job and sleep deprivation from raising young children. I wrote and sold various smaller projects between naps, diapers, and playgroups. As the boys grew older, I wrote while they were at school. I wrote while sitting in carpool lines. I wrote while waiting for baseball practices to let out.
I learned that I can write anywhere, anytime, with any amount of ongoing commotion around me. I don’t require quiet or soft colors on the walls or calm surroundings. I write from life and about life, and pretty much while life is going on around me.
How has publishing changed since you started?
I predate the days of electronic submissions, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and writer’s “platforms.” When I started, success was all about the in-store placement of physical books. I still remember my first editor telling me, “Oh, Lisa, don’t bother looking at your Amazon rating. That’s such a small percentage of the market. It means nothing.”
My, how times have changed! Now entire careers are built on e-books and Amazon. Many authors have chosen to publish their own works. Life is faster. Authors are hit with more marketing demands, in terms of online platforms and so forth. People are busier and more fractured. The upside of this change is that there’s more opportunity for new authors to step into the business and it’s easier for authors to maintain relationships with readers. I’m not sure that I prefer one age of publishing over the other; they’re just different. There’s good and bad in everything.
What’s your writing process like? How often do you write?
I write every weekday if I’m not traveling. I don’t battle writer’s block nearly as much as I battle writer’s laziness. For me, the battle isn’t so much about what to write as it is about getting myself to the keyboard and getting down to business.
In terms of getting a book together, I set a page count for myself (about 2,200 words per day) and I stick to it. Even if I feel that what I’m writing that day isn’t particularly great, I’ve learned to push through it and put words on paper. I can always revise it later, and there’s nothing better than a completed first draft. That’s when the fun really begins!
How do you manage to write for both a Christian and a mainstream audience?
People always tell you to write what you know. I write where I live—in a world where small towns center on Sunday service and life is bound by family ties. I like stories that are gritty and honest, but I don’t think a novel has to be graphic or gratuitous to be literary. As an author, the most satisfying thing you can do is to create stories you’d love to read. I love stories that dig deeply and earnestly into the characters, that investigate the drama of real-life history on a personal scale. Those are also the types of reads that can cross over between markets. I’ve been fortunate to write for both for CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] and ABA [American Booksellers Association] publishers over the years, which has helped to build a crossover audience for the books.
How has Christian literature changed since you started?
My first mainstream novel, Tending Roses, was published in 2001 in the general market by Penguin Putnam. At the time, there was a strong division between general-market books and Christian books. Tending Roses was one of the first novels to fall in that middle ground. Selling the book took a little over a year—roughly four months of searching for the right agent, and then about seven or eight months of shopping the book around to publishers. Because it fell somewhere between Christian and mainstream publishing, that was an interesting process, involving many rewrites and much discussion with several publishers.
Eventually, we ended up selling the book to Penguin in the general market. At the time, the CBA market was mostly dealing in historical novels set in the American west. Since then, CBA readership has broadened to include many different genres and stories that are more gritty or that trend toward literary. It’s interesting to see publishing strategies evolve as the market has changed, and it’s been nice to continue on both sides of the market. My next novel, due out in 2017, will be published by Ballantine in the general market.
The Story Keeper has won a multitude of awards and has been a best seller. In your words, what’s this story about?
The Story Keeper is about a young, New York editor who discovers a mysterious manuscript on an old slush pile and finds herself drawn to the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, searching for the book’s mysterious author.
The Sea Keeper’s Daughters is coming out this week. What’s this new book about?
While researching a different novel, I came across life-history interviews written during the Roosevelt era by members of the Federal Writer’s Project. I‘d never heard of the FWP and quickly became fascinated with the lives of these thousands of writers, working for the WPA and tasked with recording the lives of everyday Americans.
The Sea Keeper’s Daughters was born from the process of researching and imagining the experiences of a Federal Writer. In the novel, a modern woman, Whitney Monroe, finds herself tasked with cleaning out a turn-of-the-century hotel once owned by her grandmother. Inside, she discovers the letters of Alice, a great-aunt she never knew, who left her wealthy family behind to become one of Roosevelt’s Federal Writers during the Depression. What does Whitney find among Alice’s field notes? Possibly, among mountain stories handed down by oral tradition, not only her own family history, but a clue to one of America’s oldest mysteries.
What advice would you give aspiring authors?
First, remember that everyone starts out as a yet-to-be-published author. I know it sounds elementary, but don’t attempt to set out into the publishing world until you’re fully ready. In other words, begin by finishing a novel. It’s almost impossible to sell a partial manuscript or idea if you’re unpublished. Polish it and send it out, because as much as we’d like them to, editors won’t come looking in your desk drawer. Yes, showing your work to the world involves some risk.
If there is a particular area of your writing that seems to be holding you back (action scenes, dialogue, description, characterization, etc.) devote extensive study to this area. Seek out conference sessions and online workshops devoted to the topic. Study other authors’ techniques in this area. Don’t just read and admire—dissect, break down, take notes. Last, never marry yourself to one project. Keep creating new material—that’s where the joy is, and if you keep the joy in this business, you keep the magic of it.
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Praise for Lisa Wingate’s work
“. . . a gift for crafting a story. Lisa Wingate never disappoints.” —USA Today
“A novel of remarkable depth and power. Not since To Kill a Mockingbird has a story impacted me like this.” —Colleen Coble, USA Today bestselling author of Seagrass Pier
“Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller. Her story-within-a-story, penned with a fine, expressive style, will captivate writers and nonwriters alike.” —Booklist
“Wingate’s latest tale is beautifully crafted and has so many layers to appeal to readers. The plot moves at a quick pace to keep readers enthralled and turning the pages to discover what happens next.” —RT Bookreviews Magazine
Lisa Wingate is one of a select group of authors to find success in both the Christian and mainstream markets, with twenty-five bestselling books. Her novels have become a hallmark of inspirational Southern fiction. Her works have been featured by the National Reader’s Club of America, AOL Book Picks, Doubleday Book Club, the Literary Guild, and American Profiles and have been chosen for book recognition in a variety of venues. She is a Christy Award and an ACFW Carol award winner, with multiple nominations for both.