Stories that Matter

Susan Meissner Is Here!

Okay, I’m seriously excited about today’s guest! I’ve been a big Susan Meissner fan ever since I read White Picket Fences, so I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to share some thoughts with us here on the blog! Her books are amazingly realistic and speak to the soul, with characters you feel could just step off the page, pull up a chair and have a cup of coffee with you. I loved The Shape of Mercy, and Lady in Waiting is on my TBR pile, and now I have to add A Sound Among the Trees to that as well! If you haven’t read any of Susan’s books yet, I hope this post will inspire you to do so!

Here’s Susan:

If you’ve spent any time around four-year-olds you know that they have just one thing on their minds. They want to know why. It is their favorite question to ask, and they can be relentless— sometimes embarrassingly so— about it. A four-year-old might see a young woman at the mall with an unconventional shade of hair color and the tyke will turn to his parents and ask rather loudly, “Why is her hair purple?” The child is making sense of his world. He needs to know the why of everything to do that. When you’re four, that’s all that matters – knowing why. Thanks goodness social graces usually follow and the kid will in time learn to ask why in a way that won’t embarrass mom or dad. But when you’re four, the why of things is how you grasp your universe.

So what can a writer learn from four-year-olds?

Every good novel presents the reader with a character who wants something and must overcome barriers to have it. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading Seuss or Steinbeck, the emotional glue of a story is that the reader indentifies with what the character wants and why.

The why is everything. It’s what bonds us to the main character and entices us to keep turning pages. If we don’t know why the main character wants something, then it doesn’t really matter whether or not she gets it. And if we don’t care whether or not she gets what she wants, we’re going to put the book down.

Bye-bye reader.

If you’re writing fiction, you need to know that your reader is going to be a bit of a four-year-old when it comes to your book. They probably won’t even realize it, but while they are reading your novel, in their minds they are asking “why “ all the time. Which means you have to ask why as you are writing. You need to be your own four-year-old. And you need to be relentless about it.

Why does your main character want what she wants?

Answer that question and then ask why again.

Answer that question and ask why again.

And again.

And again.

Keep asking until you’ve reduced the question to the very essence of your story.

Let’s take a look at a classic to see how this might play out.

In Gone With the Wind what did Scarlett O’Hara? Ashley Wilkes.

Why? She thought he was in love with her.

Why did she think he was in love with her? Because she thought everyone was in love with her.

Why did she think everyone in love with her? Because she was pretty and smart and always got what she wanted.

Why did she always get what she wanted? Because she lived a life of privilege.

Why did she live a life of privilege? Because her father was wealthy and she never had to want for anything. She didn’t know what it was like to suffer. She didn’t know what she was really made of.

Why didn’t she know what she was made of? Because she had never been tested.

Ask enough why questions and we find out the heart of the plot of Gone With the Wind isn’t so much that Scarlett wanted Ashley, it’s that Scarlett had no idea what she was capable of before war took her to the crucible of suffering and showed her.

Suddenly the book becomes bigger because none of us readers want Ashley Wilkes (what did she see in the guy?) but we all wonder what would we learn about ourselves in the crucible of suffering. That’s something we might want to know. And when you dovetail what your character wants with something your reader wants, you’ve bonded them to your story. And that is your number one goal.

Try it with your novel.

Be your own four-year-old.

Relentlessly ask yourself why your character wants what she wants. And keep asking until you can’t ask anymore. Do it right now.

What did you learn about your character? What did you learn about the takeaway of your novel?

And what did you learn about you?

Share away.

About Susan:

Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the 100 Best Novels of 2008. She is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults. When she’s not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at her San Diego church.

How to reach her:

Website: http://www.susanmeissner.com

Twitter: @SusanMeissner

Susan’s latest book, A Sound Among The Trees:

For 150 years, Holly Oak has stood the test of time and wills in historic Fredericksburg with Civil War scars to prove it. Marielle Bishop marries into Holly Oak’s family, leaving behind Arizona’s deserts to become a wife and stepmother. But it isn’t long before Marielle is led to believe that the house brings misfortune to the women who live there. Local folklore has it that Susannah Page, a Yankee spy haunts Holly Oak because she’s longing for pardon. When Susannah’s great-granddaughter Adelaide McClane tells her that the house is “stuck” because of it’s tumultuous past, Marielle is determined to get past the rumors and uncover the secrets that are buried within its walls. 

Read An Excerpt

View The Trailer

Susan has graciously offered to give away a copy of A Sound Among The Trees! Leave us a comment and I’ll announce the winner on Monday – please include your email – North American residents only, please! 

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38 Comments

  1. Ada Brownell on February 10, 2012 at 9:15 am

    A Sound Among the Trees sounds like my kind of book. I’d love to have it.

    • Cathy West on February 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      Thanks for stopping by Ada! I also can’t wait to read it!

  2. Suzanne D Williams on February 10, 2012 at 10:19 am

    I loved this post; it was very helpful to me. Loved the book trailer as well. That was fantastic work.

    • Cathy West on February 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      Hi Suzanne, I’m glad you liked it! Susan always has great advice about writing!

    • Susan Meissner on February 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks, Suzanne!

  3. Jennifer Fromke on February 10, 2012 at 11:10 am

    The four year old exercise will be perfect for my WIP right now. A wonderful way to sharpen motivation. Thanks!

    • Cathy West on February 10, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      I thought so too!! I’m going to have to go back and apply it to everything now! Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Michael Mulligan (@socalmulligan) on February 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    The why question really gets my heart beating. And when a great author answers the question, I feel a special connection. Thanks for sharing, Susan. Well done!

  5. Cindy Thomson on February 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I can so hear Susan giving this advice in person, and just what I needed to hear today as I plot my next novel. Thanks for the interview!

    • Cathy West on February 10, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      Glad you came by, Cindy!

  6. A Dollop of Dolly on February 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I loved “A Lady in Waiting” & am always encouraged by Susan’s writing tips. Thanks for offering us another look at an incredible author!

    • Cathy West on February 10, 2012 at 1:16 pm

      Lady in Waiting is next up on my TBR pile! So many great books out there. I love that Susan can write historicals AND contemporary fiction! I don’t think I could ever have the patience to do both!

  7. Lindsay Harrel on February 10, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I just recently read Lady in Waiting. So good. So full of description and emotion and heart. I loved it.

    And I love your advice, Susan. I’m going to try to keep asking “why” until I get to the bottom of my character’s motivation!

    Lindsay {dot} Harrel {at} gmail {dot} com

  8. Camille Eide on February 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    I have A Sound Among The Trees and it’s up next to read (actually I cracked open the first chapter & love it so far but some crises interrupted my reading time, can’t wait to resume my AUTOGRAPHED copy…) 🙂

    I didn’t see mention of Blue Heart Blessed, an earlier book of Susan’s I think, and another of my favorites. What a smooth voice. It’s sort of calming, gentle, yet deep and full of truth. Love that! I love well-drawn, deep characters.

    Thank you Susan for the tips. I appreciate the reminder, especially now as I plot out a 3rd novel. My 2nd needed me to ask the WHY? questions a short time into writing it when I realized there wasn’t much at stake for my heroine. Knowing there is a deeply rooted (knotted) Why? motivating her helps “up the stakes” in a story, helps determine what kinds of conflicts & obstacles will give the story page-turner appeal. For my “Sue,” avoiding a return to the emptiness that nearly crushed her as a kid motivates much of what she’s doing as an adult, including avoiding any love that becomes necessary. What you don’t need can’t disappoint you. Now to pester Heroine #3 like a 4 yr old. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing, Susan, and thank you Cathy for sharing Susan with us!

    • Cathy West on February 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

      Camille, I guess I forgot Blue Heart Blessed! I’ll have add that one to the pile as well!!

  9. Janet R on February 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    This book sounds SOOOoooogood! I’d love to win it!.
    Love to read!!

  10. Anne Payne on February 10, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Don’t enter me. I already read and reviewed the book. It made my favorites list for 2011! If you haven’t read it, you really are missing something 🙂

    I think Susan’s post today is relevant to our own lives as well. I know I have a four year old mentality about some things. It would be advantageous for me to remember to stop and ask these questions of myself. Ouch!

  11. Paula Moldenhauer on February 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Oh! Pick me. I love Susan Meissner’s writing and believe her to be one of the great talents of this are.

    And thank you for the craft tips. My brain is clicking on them as I think about my WIP.

    If I win the book you can contact me: Paula@soulscents.us

  12. Paula Moldenhauer on February 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    PS . . . shared this post on my fb page. :O)

  13. Donna Pyle on February 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Wow, true words – “Want is everything.” Great interview!!

    • Cathy West on February 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Donna!

  14. soozmeizzner on February 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for all your kinds words. And thanks for having me, Cathy!

    • Cathy West on February 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm

      It was great to have you, Susan! Thanks for sharing the wonderful advice, I am sure you’ve helped a lot of writers already!

  15. Teresa Rice on February 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I love Susan’s books. I enjoyed the interview with her. Would love to win the book. Thanks.

  16. Sue Harrison on February 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you to Cathy and to Susan. I learned so much reading this post and immediately began asking why in connection to my main characters in my WIP. What a great way to walk yourself right to the heart of what you’re writing! Can’t wait to read Susan’s new book. (And Cathy’s new book.)

    • Cathy West on February 11, 2012 at 12:13 pm

      Awe, thanks Sue! Stay tuned on that front!!

  17. Sharon Moore on February 10, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Would love to win a copy! Thanks for the give away. “Shape of Mercy” was great and “Sound Among the Trees” looks good.

    • Cathy West on February 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      Hi Sharon, thanks for visiting This Is A Blog About Books!

  18. macolady on February 10, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    We’ve written non-fiction… a memoir. That’s a cake walk compared to fiction. But we both dream about writing fiction and this was such excellent advice and encouragement. Thank you so much for the very practical advice and clear example. Loved that. I so want to read this book. Currently in Vzla but we have a permanent stateside residence, does that count to include me?

    • Cathy West on February 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm

      Marie, yep, if it’s a stateside addy then you’re in!

  19. bethkvogt on February 11, 2012 at 12:28 am

    Ah, the unending why . . . quite honestly, this can drive me crazy … but I also believe it is so, so important to crafting a good story. I usually have to take several tries at asking why. I give up to easily the first go-round and then a mentor who is known for digging deeper shoves me back into a room with my characters and says, “Keep digging.”
    Sigh.
    But I know she’s right.
    Wonderful blog post.
    Thanks so much.

    • Cathy West on February 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      It’s one of the hardest things for me, Beth, asking the right questions to figure out why my characters want what they want!

  20. Becca Whitham on February 11, 2012 at 2:01 am

    I want to be Susan when I grow up. Sigh.

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