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Interview With Ron & Janet Benrey

This month we have the prolific writing team of Ron and Janet Benrey. Since 1999, this couple has published seven Christian novels in three different series: their Pippa Hunnechurch Mysteries (for Broadman & Holman), the Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries (for Barbour), and the Glory Mysteries (for Steeple Hill). And this list doesn’t encompass all of their fiction! Enjoy a glimpse into the many talents of the Benrey team.

You actually have four books out, recently out, (or nearly out) at the moment

1. Gone to Glory, book two in the Glory Mysteries series (Steeple Hill).

2. Ron’s upcoming nonfiction book titled the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction (will be published in December).

3. Carolina Carpenter Brides, a novella collection recently published by Barbour (both Ron and Janet wrote novellas for the collection).

4. Ron’s racing-based novella in Race to the Altar, a new novella collection from Barbour (it will be published in October).

Give us a glimpse of these books?

Well, Gone to Glory is a cozy mystery, the second installment of a romantic suspense series set in the make-believe town of Glory, North Carolina.

Carolina Carpenter Brides is a romance novella collection based on the idea of people meeting each other in home improvement superstores like Lowes or Home Depot.

My other novella, “Clear! Clear! Dear!” is a NASCAR romance. The heroine is a former NASCAR driver who had a bad accident (or so it seemed at the time) three years earlier. She’s hired to be a spotter for the hero, a rather stubborn and arrogant driver who’s not living up to his potential.

My CIG to Writing Christian Fiction takes me back to my nonfiction roots. I wrote several nonfiction books over the years before I joined forces with Janet to write novels.

Ron, How did you approach writing the CIG to Writing Christian Fiction and what do you feel this book has to offer for published and unpublished writers?

Alpha Books gave me a fascinating challenge: “We don’t need a generic book about writing novels—there are dozens of those available today, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel. Rather, we want a guide that addresses the distinctive challenges of writing Christian fiction, starting with what makes Christian fiction Christian? This notion of a tightly focused rather than generic how-to guide became my target when I planned the contents.

To ensure that the guide is useful for both published and unpublished writers, I included chapters on the forces that are shaping Christian fiction, including the dramatic changes taking place at leading publishers. Other chapters in this category are “Christian Fiction as Ministry,” which investigates the power of a well-written Christian novel to change lives. Naturally, I did put in a few relevant chapters on the craft of writing fiction, but these are presented in the context of writing a publishable Christian novel. I included a chapter on the most popular Christian fiction genres, because an important aspect of publishability is to write a novel that fits one of the popular Christian fiction genres. Another requirement these days is a strong authorial voice. More than a dozen leading Christian authors suggested samples of their current novels for me to include in my chapter on voice.

I believe that one of the most useful chapters explains how to write a compelling Christian novel without overstepping your publisher’s restrictions on profanity, non-Christian behavior, and other content offensive to readers. I also offer suggestions on how to improve your craft at Christian writers’ conferences, and how to get the most from your Christian writing critique group, starting with choosing (or launching) an effective group that will meet your needs. And I provided lots of practical information about meeting the challenge of fitting a novel into your life and how to deal with distinctively Christian writing issues (starting with the question of have you really been called by God to write a Christian novel?) Another unusual chapter talks about the dark side of writing fiction that can seem especially dark to Christian writers—specifically the challenges of jealousy, envy, pride, and unrealistic expectations of success.

I offer many suggestions about making your manuscript more attractive to Christian publishers, and for getting past the “gatekeepers” (chiefly literary agents and editors who ultimately decide whether your Christian novel is ready to be published. Lastly, I included information on self-publishing for Christian novelists, including interviews with three authors who tell self-publishing success stories. Self publishing fiction is not for everyone, but it can be a path to success for an author in the right circumstances.

Reflecting back, what do you see as being most significant to your joint publication journey?

The most significant aspect was our decision to actually set off on a joint publication journey. Plenty of folks told us that writing together would be disastrous—that a husband-and-wife couldn’t collaborate as a writing team. Truthfully, in the beginning, we had thoughts along the same line. We used to joke, we married each other for better or worse, but not for rewriting a manuscript. Well, we’ve come a long way since our first tentative steps in the early 1990s. We’ve worked out a process for writing together that works for us.

Just looking at your website, you both are multi-talented—writing technical books, articles, coaching, literary representation—it’s an long list of accomplishments. How do you both balance your writing time with other responsibilities and manage to keep your marriage/partnership running strong?

That’s really an interesting question—a question that actually contains its own answer. Because we work together so much when we write, when we plan our presentations at writers’ conferences, and occasionally in Janet’s literary representation work (Ron serves as a part-time manuscript critiquer and helps Janet deal with some of the legal aspects of agenting), our literary partnership and our marriage partnership overlap. Simply put, we spend lots of quality time together, which is a good thing. And of course, we have other hobbies that we enjoy together. For example, we enjoy sailing on our sailboat. At least, we do during most years. Book commitments, Ron’s day job, plus our move to North Carolina, consumed most of our free time this year.

And how do your faith and spiritual lives play into the picture?

Our faith is exceptionally important to us. We’re both late blooming Christians. Ron became a Christian at a ripe old age (somewhere in his mid 50s). Janet returned to Christianity in her early 50s. Like many other Christian novelists, we see our fiction writing as a ministry. But we also view ourselves as good examples of the ideas expressed in the book Sacred Pathways written by Gary Thomas (and noted in Purpose Driven Life.) Our writing involves a significant amount of learning about God, which we consider an intellectual mode of worship. And of course, we’re active in our church. In fact, we helped plant a new community church in Maryland. Now that we live in North Carolina, we’ve rejoined our old Presbyterian denomination.

What is your biggest obstacle as a writing team?

Finding the times and opportunities to work together. We literally have more ideas than time to execute them. Janet spends an increasing amount of time as a literary agent, and Ron is doing more independent writing—both of which of course cuts down the amount of time we have available to write together as team.

What has been the highest moment of your writing/publishing career?

You’ve probably heard the same thing from many other writers—but we’ll never forget “the call” from our agent announcing that we made our first fiction sale. An equally high moment was the first time we were asked to sign a copy of our first novel.

Who/What is your greatest inspiration to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?

I wish that we had a suitably deep answer to that question. In fact, many of our best ideas have come while we were out together driving somewhere. One of us suddenly had a thought for a new book. We tossed it around for a few minutes and amazingly the idea grew and took root.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?

We know too many great Christian storytellers to believe that our style of storytelling is unique. What we try to do is to create rich stories with multiple subplots that are tightly woven together. We’ve also focused on cozy romantic mysteries during most of our novel writing career. We design our novels to be entertaining and fun to read. Not much angst, not many tears, hardly any pain.

Finish this question. When we think of our next writing project …

When we think of our next writing project, we know that we are blessed, that the opportunity to write Christian fiction is a God-given privilege that we can never take for granted. We know that we must respond to each new opportunity by committing to write the best possible novel we can create.

Any parting words for up-and-coming writers?

We frequently talk to up-and-coming writers at Writers’ conferences. The heart of our message is strive to write publishable fiction. Too many unpublished writers we meet want to invent their own genres, write books that go against marketplace trends, and break the well-established Christian fiction rules about language and content. It’s hard enough for a new novelist to sell his or her first manuscript. Why make things even more difficult by swimming against the currents of publishability?

Also, never submit a manuscript to an agent or editor that isn’t truly ready to be published. Early in our career, we wasted many “Golden arrows” by sending out manuscripts that “weren’t soup yet.” (I call each invitation to submit a proposal a manuscript a “golden arrow.” They are much too valuable to waste.) This can be a tough call, but when I look over Janet’s shoulder, as I frequently do, I see far too many submissions with point of view errors, weak storylines, and prose that doesn’t engage the reader’s imagination (i.e. doesn’t begin a compelling fictional dream).

Thanks for sharing with us, Ron and Janet!

It’s been our pleasure. We both enjoy talking to ACFW members, even “virtually.”

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