THE CRAFT OF WRITING – FEBRUARY 2020
This month we’re adding a new element to the Craft of Writing blog series. Every other month I will feature an author whose first novel has been published within the last couple of years.
This month’s author is Lisa Simonds whose debut novel, All In, is a story of one young woman’s journey through a worldly life to redemption.
Link to book trailer video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIHzCM20cnU&t=62s
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Lisa Simonds and I met in 2019 through a blog and have become friends through our shared experience with writing. I am thrilled to welcome her as the first debut novelist to the Craft of Writing blog. Writing as L.K. Simonds, Lisa’s novel All In was published and released in 2019.
L.K. Simonds is a Fort Worth local. She has worked as a waitress, KFC hostess, telephone marketer, assembly-line worker, nanny, hospital lab technician, and air traffic controller. She’s an instrument-rated pilot and an alumna of Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas.
All In is her first novel.
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Welcome, Lisa, and thank you for joining us!
Thank you, Kay! I’m thrilled to be with you and your audience today. It’s such an honor to be your first debut author interview.
First, give us a short synopsis of your book.
I’ll let you in on a secret—a synopsis readers won’t find on the back cover or Amazon. But if they read All In with this synopsis in mind, I’m sure by the time they finish they’ll agree it’s spot on.
All In is a love story about a Man’s pursuit of a young woman named Cami Taylor, whom He loves desperately. This Man is all in to capture Cami’s devotion, even though she is completely oblivious to His existence. Enter the Man’s agent, his go-between, Kate Davis, who comes on the scene in Chapter Two. Kate is all in too, even though Cami doesn’t make it easy for her. The entire story is about Kate’s undercover work, as directed by Cami’s ardent suitor. Who is this Mystery Man?
Some readers might not recognize the REAL story right away because they’re seeing events unfold through Cami’s unreliable POV. But there’s a BIG clue in the novel’s front matter: An epigraph from the prophet Isaiah, “I was sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that was not called by My name.”
What one message do you want readers to take away from your book?
God loves you with an everlasting love.
What made you decide to write All In?
I was sitting in Trinity Writer’s Workshop in Hurst, Texas, on a Tuesday evening in the mid-1990s, when the idea occurred to me to write a story about a person who makes the journey from not believing God exists to falling in love with Jesus. At the time, I was writing unpublished children’s chapter books about a cat named Rodney, so this idea was quite a departure. I wasn’t sure how to even go about tackling such a book.
Around that same time, I vacationed in NYC with friends, and we got out the Manhattan phonebook in our hotel room to see if there were any people with our last names. We traveled together often and did this quirky thing on trips. There was one person, just one, whose listing had initials and a surname, as single women often listed their numbers in those days. We said we should call and see if she’s a long-lost relative who might show us around town. We laughed about it. Of course, we didn’t call.
But the idea stuck with me. What if you did call? What if a friendship formed? And what if the person you called was about to have a crisis and the friendship became a lifeline? All those “what ifs” became the basis of All In.
I chose to write the novel from the POV of the person who received the call, Cami Taylor. One reason was that I wanted to portray all the conflict happening inside Cami, even though she never tips her hand to the people around her, at least not until the end. For Christians who read the book, I wanted to show that our words and actions may have a lot more impact on people than they let us see, which is why it’s so important to say yes to those little prompts from the Holy Spirit. He knows everything about everyone.
What steps did you take to have your book published?
Kay, I may have taken almost every step a writer can take between completing the first draft in 1999 and the novel being published in 2019.
When I finished the manuscript twenty years ago, I queried agents and publishers like crazy. No one was interested. After a couple of years of rejection, I decided to go indie. Only indie wasn’t indie back then; it was vanity publishing. But I believed in the book enough to brush aside the stigma. With the help of Xlibris Publishing, the book released in 2002 in paperback and hard cover—no eBooks back then—under the title A Lifetime Ago. The self-published book was a sort of test ship to see how readers responded. “Test ship” is slang we used in air traffic for the first aircraft to go out and find a passable route through weather.
The book got some good reviews and feedback, including the attention of a senior editor at Harvest House. He pitched it to the pub board there—unsuccessfully, but still he pitched it. That was so validating. An author named James Baldwin once said a writer needs someone early on to let them know the effort is real. Nick Harrison, who is an agent with WordServe Literary now, was that person for me.
But writing is time-consuming work, and I was very busy with my FAA career. Alas, writing slipped away for quite a few years, but I still imagined I’d return to it one day.
But when I retired in 2012, it wasn’t writing I thought about. I was into flying and had every intention of becoming a flight instructor. I have a natural bent toward teaching, so instructing seemed like a great way to scratch the flying itch without spending an arm and a leg on airplane rentals. But then I really thought it through. How fun does it sound to sweat out hot Texas days crammed in a Cessna with a student pilot who’s trying to kill us both? Not very. Plus I needed to relearn a whole bunch of technical stuff that I’d forgotten and had no interest in anymore. No thank you.
What to do now? Hello, writing! Long time no see.
I dug into craft again and started writing a historical novel inspired by my aunt’s life. I even made half-hearted revisions to A Lifetime Ago and published an Amazon Kindle edition through Create Space. It got a very nice review from a judge in a Writer’s Digest contest, even though I didn’t feel the novel represented my writing style anymore.
By 2016, I had a complete—though rough—manuscript of the historical novel, and I had learned a heck of a lot more about writing. You know who my best teachers were and continue to be? Other authors. I truly believe reading a variety of novels by other authors has done more for my craft than any other single thing. Reading others’ work is like flying with other pilots—you pick up all kinds of new tips and tricks.
I believed the historical novel I had just written would be my debut. My real-live-I-am-not-fooling-around-anymore debut. I began querying agents.
Then one day in 2017, without thinking too much about it, I walked into the garage and looked at the half-dozen copies of A Lifetime Ago stacked on a shelf. “This is a good story, a God story,” I thought, “but it will never go anywhere if I don’t rewrite it.” And that’s exactly what I did. I took everything I had learned and spent six months cleaning up the manuscript, slashing almost 20,00 words, strengthening the characters, and sharpening the prose. The novel as it exists today represents the best craft I can offer readers at this time in my writing career.
When I finished, I found a freelance editor in my writers’ group, Leslie Lutz of Elliott Bay Editing. Leslie gave the manuscript a beautiful line edit, offering suggestions that focused the story even more.
I very much wanted a traditional publisher for the newly minted, newly titled All In, but the book was problematic. The narrative departed from accepted conventions for the Christian Fiction genre. But it was way too evangelical—and I admit “Charismatic”—for general market publishers. I knew this. I could have changed the novel to fit either of these markets, but I felt the story would lose too much.
I was not looking forward to indie publishing, believe me, and I prayed earnestly for help and guidance.
By then it was 2018. I’m in an online group called the Writers View forum. One week, in response to a “Writing Journey” topic thread, I talked about All In. The next thing I knew, an acquisitions editor named Terry Whalin contacted me about submitting the manuscript to Morgan James Publishing. MJP partners with entrepreneurial authors to get their work to the marketplace, pairing the benefits of traditional publishing with the author control of indie publishing. It was a match made in heaven, and by June 2018, I had a contract.
My debut novel, All In, released in August 2019.
Twenty years from first draft to debut.
What lessons learned (positive or negative) would you like to pass on to other new writers?
Respect your readers.
If you’re writing for yourself, buy a journal.
If you’re writing for readers, please, please, please consider their valuable time before asking them to invest 6-8 hours in your flight of fancy. A good place to start is Elmore Leonard’s Tenth Rule for Good Writing: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
And be sure to let readers know up front what they are getting into. I’ve discovered readers like surprises, as long as the surprise isn’t the kind of book they’re investing their time in.
What is the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
Unequivocally, getting started. Everything about beginning a new novel is challenging: Finding the story. Finding the voice. Finding the characters.
I believe a novel has its own voice, which is unique to that particular story. Music influenced the voice of All In. I was deep in a personal revival—listening to worship music all the time—when I wrote the first draft. There’s one particular song that I think of as Cami’s theme song: “Sing of Your Great Love” by Hillsong Worship. Particularly the lyrics, “It’s You alone Lord Jesus Who can cause the coldest heart to find Your love and everlasting peace.” To this day, I’m overwhelmed by those lyrics. They really are the “elevator pitch” for the book, but this is the first time I’ve shared that pitch. Coming up with an elevator pitch is the worst, isn’t it?!? The pitch I came up with for All In was, “This is the novel you give to your friend, your sister, your daughter, who needs to know God loves her.”
I have a playlist on my phone for my second novel too. When I listen to that music, much of which is Bluesy, I’m immediately transported to the times and places in the story.
I never listen to music while I’m writing, only when I’m ruminating.
Another hard part about getting started is finding the characters. I’m still such a rookie, even after thirty years of practice, practice, practice. Finding the characters takes me a LONG time, months even. I had several false starts when I began to write All In, but when Cami finally clicked, she was there in totality. I knew what she would think, say, and do in every situation and with every person.
The same was true for my second novel, Stork Bite, which is in the revision phase. I wrote all over the place before finding those characters—in this case, five characters. But when I finally found them, they were as real as living people, or more accurately, they are as real as memories of living people.
And finding the story? That happens over writing the first draft, at least for me. It happened with All In about halfway through writing the first draft. In Stork Bite, one of the characters had been waiting in the wings as little more than an extra. But when he walked on stage, he immediately shouldered the others out of the way. He created a story from what I realize now was only an idea when I began to write.
What are you working on now?
Stork Bite. I’m scheduled to have the manuscript to that wonderful editor, Leslie Lutz, by the end of March. I really need to hit that deadline because Leslie has her own debut YA novel, Fractured Tide, coming out in May and she’ll be very busy then.
What are your favorite craft books?
My all-time favorite craft book is Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy Here’s an example of the practical wisdom Mr. Percy offers:
“When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient – fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and efficiently place the reader in the story.”
I’m currently in an intermediate novel writing class at Writing Workshops Dallas that uses Thrill Me as the textbook.
What do you do when you want to get away from work?
I have a full-time job, so writing usually feels more like an escape than work. My manager, a friend of twenty-five years, occasionally asks me how my “other job” is going. I answer, “Are you talking about my nonprofit?” and we both laugh. For me, writing is not profitable work, money-wise. At least not yet.
This is a really good spot to bring up a book I recommend for writers and Christians. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde. Mr. Hyde explores the differences between gift economies and barter economies. God’s kingdom is a gift economy in which a few fish and loaves of bread can feed thousands. God’s kingdom is an economy in which a writer may not be able to measure her success in profits and reviews. Success may be measured by a book’s effect on individual readers, which the author only learns of anecdotally, or not at all.
But I digress. I’m not one to kill myself with work—paid or unpaid—and I do like to have fun. Fun for me is hanging out with friends and family, which almost always involves eating. Okay, I admit it. I’m a foodie from a long line of foodies.
I’m a reader too, more so with each passing year. I’m active on GoodReads, and anyone can see my reading lists and reviews there. I like to swap books with other authors. I have enjoyed some beautiful books from writers I’ve met, including The Watch on the Fencepost by Kay DiBianca.
My favorite hobby has been flying, but I had to give it up when I made a serious commitment to writing. There simply wasn’t enough time for both, and a pilot who isn’t proficient is dangerous. I haven’t flown in several years, but maybe I’ll return to it someday. My dream aircraft is the Citabria 7ECA. It’s a friendly, nimble pleasure plane.
What single piece of advice would you give to new authors?
Do. Not. Stop.
Keep going through the rejections and disappointments. Celebrate every victory, no matter how small. Thus you’ll encourage yourself. If you must fall back to regroup or to lick your wounds, give yourself some time and then get back in there.
Terry Whalin, my acquisitions editor at Morgan James, sends me little notes from time to time. “You’re doing great, Lisa. Keep going!”
Keep going. Keep going. KEEP GOING!
In due season, you will reap the benefits of your endurance.
Hey, Kay, that sounds like a marathon metaphor!
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
I have an author website http://lksimonds.com where you can find a link to Leaves of Grace. Leaves of Grace are essays I write monthly (theoretically) about spiritual topics that are on my mind. Sometimes the essays are about writing.
All my social media links are on the author website. I’m most active on Facebook.
I do want to share a video about the experience of sharing All In with women who are incarcerated in Texas prisons. It’s under 5 minutes long. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ63dBwUBH0&t=43s
Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your expertise with us!
Thank you so much for the opportunity, Kay. It was my sincere pleasure, and I look forward to responding to questions and comments from your readers.