Friday, November 14, 2008

Love Inspired, Suspense, and Blood Red Ink: An Interview with Sharon Mignerey

Last January, I had the honor of reading and critiquing the first ten pages of a manuscript that blew me away. At first, I thought about throwing darts at the manuscript, since it was for workshops at school and should have been rough enough to warrant lots of red ink.

Meeting the author in person was awesome. Sharon Mignerey is a wonderful, kind, and open person with tons of sage advice, and I liked her right off the bat. She's no stranger to the Five Scribes - she started out in Colorado and knew some of the other Scribes before I'd ever heard her name.

In June, I had to critique the first ten pages of another manuscript by Sharon. Again, it blew me away. This time, I gave in to the urge to throw darts, but I used it as an excuse to pick spots for made-up suggestions or, if I had no idea what I might offer up, mad props. If I get another submission for her this January, I might just give her a dart hole-ridden stack of paper and save us both the time.

And now I present Sharon Mignerey.

When your editor approached you to write for Love Inspired, what was your first reaction? Did you think it would be a successful venture for you?

I’d had five books published by Silhouette Intimate Moments (now Silhouette Suspense) when I was asked if I’d consider writing for Love Inspired Suspense. On one hand, I was flattered because my publisher thought I had the right voice to do well in this market and because they were actively looking for authors. At the time Love Inspired Suspense was a new imprint. The choice was also scary because this would be writing for a new market that I hadn’t read widely and didn’t know much about. Obviously, I took that leap of faith, and I’ve had five books with them since the first in March of 2006. It has been an honor to be part of a new imprint and seeing it grow. The one aspect I was most concerned about in the beginning, and still am, is that I’m not a particularly fast writer. So, I don’t have books coming out quite as fast as they (or I) would like.

What themes do you like to explore? Do they differ according to the type of book you’re writing?

I don’t think about themes at all when I’m figuring out a story. I know a theme emerges, but for me, theme is one of those literary conventions that seems to belong to readers more than to me as the author. We all remember the literature classes where some professor wanted us to figure out the theme of a book. Rarely was the theme obvious to me. After I’m finished with a book, I usually can see a theme, but it may not be the same one that stands out to readers. That said, I’m always pleased when readers tell me they’ve found and enjoyed a theme within one of my books because I know that can enrich the reading experience.

If you don’t think about theme in your books, what is the jumping off point for you?

The impossible conflict. I love the promise of a happily-ever-after in romance, even if the ending is bittersweet. But, I never want getting to that uplifting ending to be easy for my characters. In fact, I want it to be nearly impossible. I love creating characters that are easy to identify with, easy to like. And, then I equally love putting them in situations where they may literally have to do or die to succeed in the end. One often quoted axiom for building these kind of stories is to ask: “Why is this hero perfect for her, and why is a happily-ever-after with him impossible?” This requires understanding not only what a character wants, but also why she wants it. The answer to the why question is always (for me) more important than the what.

What first drew you to romance, and do you think you will always be drawn toward writing romance since you like those happy endings.

I probably will always be drawn to writing romance, at least in some form. The novel I’m working on now isn’t a traditional romance because it’s about a couple who’ve been married for nearly twenty years. But, it’s still a romance in that the focus of the book is on their relationship and how, in the context of that relationship, they deal with the things that happen to them over the course of the book. Their happily-ever-after depends on them figuring out the relationship. One of the things that made me want to write this book is because romance is characterized as totally being the fantasy and ignoring there’s a whole life of experiences that comes after the couple walks into their sunset. I found, at least in this book, that figuring out how to re-establish a torn relationship is as compelling as establishing a new one.

Though it’s true that I like happy endings, the most compelling thing about romance for me is that within the pages, women are the heroes of their own story. They aren’t the objectified sex object or the side kick for a male protagonist. When I first began writing, romance was the only genre where this was consistently true. Since then, women have successfully created female heroes in fantasy and mystery, as well. And so, in that regard, romance has been subversive feminist literature for decades, and the strong heroines in romance have created a space for strong heroines in other genres. It’s also provided growing room for authors who have expanded beyond the genre–just look at the NYT list any week for proof.

When your Muse is pouting in the corner, how do you entice her back to your side?

My muse lives behind Bartlett’s Book of Quotations. She’s very particular and somewhat shy, and so it is a job to coax her out sometimes. She never responds well to imperious demands, and she hates stress though she likes discipline (as in sitting down to write at a certain time). She sometimes likes music, and sometimes she likes the silence. Unfortunately, when I sit down to work, I’m never quite sure what her preference is going to be. Lately she’s been wanting music, and her tastes go to New Age and Light Classical.

When I hit a dry spell in a book, I always find that it’s an invitation to reassess what’s going on with the current novel. It can be something as simple as writing a scene in the wrong point of view or as far reaching as having a character behave out of character. If my own consciously thought-out process doesn’t yield any result, I make a date with my muse–literally. At the appointed time, I sit down and journal without any particular outcome in mind. Almost always, the answers to the problems come. Then my muse and I are once more on speaking terms and ready to go. I’ve also discovered my muse likes me better when I eat properly, exercise, and get enough sleep. Boring, right?

LOL. Not at all! It's fascinating to see what works for each person. What is your personal philosophy for writing?

When I first read this question, I laughed because it struck me as being much like the theme question. But then, I did discover I do have a philosophy for writing. It’s this: know why you are writing. Is it for the joy of the thing (and there is a lot of joy in the creative aspect of it) or is it to become published (or published again)?

If you are writing simply for the joy of the thing, know there is value in the process whether anyone else ever reads it or likes it. That creation and the creative juice that went into it are all yours. There’s value in that all by itself. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of the finished piece.

If you are writing with an eye toward publication, you still want the joy that comes with creating. But, the second component is making public (publishing) your work, which is an invitation for someone else to judge it. Others will have a subjective standard they hold your work against, and they will judge it as good or bad. If you want to be published, then you have to think about craft and honing your skill. That process may not be as much fun as the process of writing just for the pure joy of it. Allowing your work to be judged doesn’t end, either, after a book is published. Then, it is fair game for critiques who may love it or wonder how it got into print.

Writing with an eye toward being published is a whole different game than writing for the sheer joy of writing. I believe a published writer must continue to love the day-to-day process of writing. If you don’t, the rest of it can drive you crazy.

When you teach, what books do you like to use as examples?

The answer to that depends on the class, but I have a couple of reference books that have formed the core of my beliefs about the structure of good stories. I always say that if you can afford only one writing book, the one you buy should be TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight Swain. Though this book was first published in 1965, Swain’s advice still stands up; he tells writers not only what to do, but how to do it. The second book I often refer to is WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass. I think the workbook is particularly good. Both of these are excellent resources for showing authors line by line and chapter by chapter how to tell a compelling story. Because novels are so influenced by movies and television, references for screen writers can also be useful. My two favorite are THE WRITERS JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler, which is based on Joseph Campbell’s work with myths, and is brilliant; and WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL by Michael Hauge, who has wonderful examples of how internal and external goals impact story.

I rarely use novels as examples when I teach because, even among avid readers of a particular genre, we often have not read the same books unless they’ve been assigned as part of a reading group. We are much more likely to have seen the same movies than to have read the same books. So, if there’s some particular aspect of storytelling that I want to illustrate in a talk, I’ll often use a movie as the example.

Got a blurb for your newest release?

The latest release is THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, a November 2008 release from Love Inspired Suspense. The blurb: He’s the detective charged with solving the first murder in this quiet community in more than 30 years. She’s the witness who found the body, a gentle woman who appears to genuinely care for others. Or is she more, perhaps a gold digger with a motive to kill? As each piece of evidence mounts against her, he is pulled deeper into a mystery where faith and fact are at odds ... and where the future of the good neighbor hangs in the balance.

I’m very pleased that Romantic Times gave it 4 stars and a nice review: “For an equally good love story and mystery, be sure to pick up Sharon Mignerey’s book.”

What can you tell us about your thesis novel? Do you have plans for it before or after graduation, or are you writing it purely for the learning experience?

My thesis novel is a longer, more ambitious project than I’ve had for the last ten or so years writing and publishing category romance. It’s a contemporary women’s fiction novel about a successful couple whose perfect life falls apart and whose future depends on whether they can fall in love with each other again. I am enjoying the experience at several levels. First, it’s a bigger story, so there are more threads, more room to play. Second, I don’t have to be writing with my eye on making sure I don’t exceed a specific page length, as I do in category. Third, because I’m writing this without already being sold, I have more latitude in where I can take the story. That last comes with a “within reason” clause since popular fiction, by its very definition, always has market considerations. If a writer hopes to sell, that general market needs to be kept in mind. So, in answer to your question, yes, I’m learning. And I like that a lot. And yes, I hope to sell it after I graduate.

What do you hope to do with your degree from SHU?

I enrolled in the program for two major reasons. The first was that I’d found myself in a rut where I wasn’t feeling inspired by the direction of my career even though I was having a degree of success. The lack of inspiration was a culmination of a whole bunch of things life changing things that happened over a three-year period: a cross country move and all the associated upheaval, the deaths of my best friend and my mother. And, of course, my muse took (needed to take, in fact) a hiatus. I wanted an environment where I could continue to work and learn, but without the same pressures as being under contract for publication. The SHU program has provided that in wonderful, wonderful ways. I’m so grateful for the experience.

The second is that I’d like to teach. I know lots of writers who are teaching without an advanced degree, but it seemed to me that I’d have more doors opened to me if I had the degree. One more year, and I’ll have it. Hooray.

What is your writing kryptonite?

Oddly enough, it’s the first three to five chapters of a book. I agonize over every single decision, every single choice. Are the characters right? Is the story interesting enough? Does it all fit together? As a writer, I’m all the things I preach against being at the beginning of a story –I’m judgmental, anal-retentive, and perfectionistic. I’m enough to drive my own self crazy. After all the books I’ve written (a number bigger than the ones that have been published), you’d think I’d know better.

At the beginning of a story, writing–just writing–and letting go of everything so the characters can take me where they and the muse (all that right-brain, subconscious stuff) simply want to go is difficult for me. I love writing the last half of the book, and I love REwriting the first half of the book. The initial writing of the first third–not so much. It’s such an odd thing, it makes me wonder how I ever became a writer.

If you had the financial, career, and editorial leeway and you could get as crazy as you want with a book, what would you write?

Boy! There’s a wish list to aspire to. As I mentioned earlier, I really like the novel I’m writing as my thesis project at SHU. It’s a bigger book with more threads drawn through the story. To write more stories like this one and be well paid – that would be wonderful.

Thank you, Sharon, for joining us today.

Sharon's book, The Good Neighbor, is available in stores NOW, so run out and get a copy.* Be sure to check out Sharon's website to see her other releases and the classes she teaches.

*Support my peep so she can spend more time writing books as wonderful as those she writes at school. I promise you won't be sorry!


Renee Ryan said...

Wow, Sharon, GREAT interview. (Thanks, Donnell, for pointing me here today.)

Sharon, you mentioned the "impossible conflict" between your hero and heroine. Can you share a little more on that. How do you drive them to their happily-ever-after when it looks like all is lost? Is it through a major change in their thinking, a significant shift in their faith walk, a little of both, or something else entirely?

I'm fascinated!


KellyMarstad said...

Excellent interview! LIS is on my agent's submission list so it's always good to hear from an author who is currently writing for them. I need to bone up so it looks like I need to pick up a Sharon Mignerey and get crackin'. :)

Margie Lawson said...

Sharon -

Your writing impresses me. Your approach to life impresses me. Your style, eloquence, and fortitude impress me. You are dynamic and impressive!

I consider myself lucky to count you as one of my friends. :-)))

And - I just added another item to my do-before-heading-up-the-mountain-tonight list: BUY -- THE GOOD NEIGHBOR!

I trust I'll see your thesis book in print in the next couple of years. :-)))

THANK YOU to the FIVE SCRIBES for this fabulous interview.

All smiles..........Margie

Donnell said...

Anytime I've picked up a book by Sharon MIgnerey, I've been impressed. So now it's an automatic, if Sharon's the author, it's a good read. To think she's attending Seton Hill, only adds to her level of commitment. Thanks for the interview KL. Well done.

Nancy said...

Sharon and KL, fabulous interview! Sharon's books are favs of mine, but I don't have THE GOOD NEIGHBOR yet. Now I have my next B&N coupon earmarked! :)

I, too, loved the "impossible conflict" you mentioned. I'll be looking for your response to Renee.

Happy weekend, and thanks again for your inspiring interview!

Nancy Haddock
La Vida Vampire

Sharon said...

Wow! I was so surprised to see all the comments when I logged on even though Kerri-Leigh told me there would be lots! Even better, from friends ... (waving especially to Donnell, Margie, and Nancy!)

Renee, in answer to your question about the impossible conflict. When I'm writing romance, the question I like to ask is why are these two people perfect for each other, and why is their happily-ever-after impossible? I suspect that when you look on your keeper shelf, the books you really love and that most tugged at your heart strings are those where you wondered how the hero and heroine would ever work things out. For me, it's a process of asking the "why" question and to keep asking it until I'm to the bottom.

For instance, suppose a hero wants to be an FBI agent. Why? In real life, he just does. In fction, something more needs to be driving him. Maybe he wants to be one because his childhood best friend's dad was. Okay, but why? Because he got to carry a gun. Okay, but why is that important? Well, because maybe the hero could have protected his mother from being beat up by his father. Ah! Now, there's good material to work with. We know the hero wanted to be in a position of power and authority to protect someone who couldn't protect herself. We also know that he had a good role model for what a man might be and also for what a man ought not to be. Whether he got to be an FBI agent, in this example, is less important (possibly or not, since stories can go in a gazillion directions)than why that goal was important to him.

From here, I'd begin playing with who would be the perfect heroine, and at the same time, why would she be all wrong for him.

After I've gone through a similar process, I'd apply the Donald Maass advice of "how can you make it worse than that?" To use one of my own books as an example (since I know where my thinking eventually led me): I had an idea for a story where an ex-con on parole falls in love with his next door neighbor. How can I make it worse than that? She's the niece of the police chief. Okay, but what's even worse than that? Her ex-husband is a cop in this same little town. Okay, but so what -- make it worse than that. The ex-husband is stalking her. Sounds bad, but you still don't have a reason why it can never ever work out for these two people. What is worse than that? She wants to adopt a child. Ah!

See how you keep digging and keep making it worse? The book in this example is SMALL TOWN SECRETS.

Hope this more or less answers your question, Renee.

... Sharon

Leslie Ann said...

Great interview Sharon and KL!

It's always interesting to see how other people work and how their muse behaves :)

Sharon, I wish you great success, and am very intrigued with your thesis project. Can't wait for that could any editor resist it?


Renee Ryan said...


Excellent explanation. THANK YOU. I especially loved your specific details. I'm going to hop over to eharlequin right now!


Dr. M said...

Excellent interview, K-L, and excellent answers. Very wise!

Helen Hardt said...

Very interesting interview! Sharon, I was nodding when I read what you wrote about theme. I agree that it belongs to the reader. Unfortunately, lit teachers didn't always see it that way! I'm looking forward to reading some of your work!