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Interview With Virginia Smith

Named Writer of the Year at the 2008 Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, Virginia Smith has been an unstoppable writing force since the release of her first chick-lit, Just As I Am. She joins us this month to talk about the sequel, Sincerely, Mayla.

Purple hair…nose studs…Ginny what was your inspiration behind Mayla’s character and how is she evolving?

The idea for Mayla’s character came from a visiting singer in my church. This girl was young and pretty and on fire for the Lord – and she had a pierced lip. Today it’s really common, but just a few years ago I’d never seen anything like that in my fairly conservative church, and as I was blown away. Did she pierce her lip before or after she became a Christian? And if it was before, why didn’t she take it out afterward? What did her home church think? And since I had a daughter about her age, I kept wondering what her mother thought about her pierced lip. As I thought about the reactions this girl must surely receive every day, I knew I’d found a story I wanted to tell. God loves us just as we are, no matter what we look like. But not all of His children feel the same way. That’s how Mayla’s character was born, and her story, Just As I Am, became my debut novel.

In Sincerely, Mayla, her spiritual journey continues as she grows in her faith. As her relationship with the Lord deepens, she has to face some rather unpleasant facts about herself, and surrender even more of herself to Him. Isn’t that the way it is in real life, though? As John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less.” I poured a lot of myself into Mayla, so the experiences she has in both books often reflect my life.

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

I am a firm believer in critique groups. Without a doubt, my critique partners over the years taught me the craft of writing, and worked with me to hone my skills until I could produce a piece of publishable fiction. They taught me how to discipline myself to meet a deadline, how to receive feedback without falling to pieces, and they encouraged me to submit—and keep submitting, even when I wasn’t having any success. That’s why I’m a firm believer in critique groups, and why I continue to participate in several today. Not only do my skills keep growing, thanks to the input of others, but I hope I can return the favor and help them as well.

How do you balance your writing time with other responsibilities?

Ah, that’s a tough one. I’ve never been any good at balance. When I worked for the corporate world I was something of a workaholic, and that didn’t change just because I switched jobs. The danger of working from home, I’ve discovered, is that you never leave the office. When I’m involved in a book, it’s easy to just keep working. My husband helps me stay anchored in the real world. At 5:30 every evening he comes into my office and reminds me that it’s time to stop. He very diplomatically says, “Can I help you get dinner started?”

But I do work in the evenings sometimes, especially if I have a tight deadline. I tend to devote my daytime work hours to writing, and in the evening I’ll do marketing or other business activities on my laptop while my husband watches television. That schedule works well for me. It takes me several hours to pull myself out of my fictitious world when I’m writing a novel, so if I wrote in the evenings I’d never get any sleep. I’d lay there after the lights went out and live in Novel World for hours. I do that sometimes anyway!

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

They’re the canvas on which my picture is painted! My faith is such an integral part of who I am, and I’ve learned over the years that it has to come first. Relationships require effort, and my relationship with Jesus is no exception. Since I have a tendency to let my writing take over my day, I make time for Him first. Before I have breakfast I spend time in Bible study and prayer. I’ve discovered that my study time is more effective if I follow a Bible study workbook. Right now, for instance, I’m making my way through Beth Moore’s To Live is Christ, a study on the life of the Apostle Paul. In addition to my daily study, I attend a weekly Bible study meeting with some ladies in my church on Wednesday mornings. I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t keep the living Truth pouring into my life, I have nothing to pour out into my writing.

Beyond daily study and prayer, I really do view writing as an act of worship. It’s a time of fellowship with the Lord for me. I am so aware that He has given me every story I’ve ever written, and that He guides me word by word through them. It’s an awesome thing to work right alongside Jesus every minute of every day. I know He was with me when I worked in the corporate world, but writing is so much more intimate. I don’t know why, but I feel His minute-by-minute direction much more intensely when I’m writing than when I was installing computer systems. I tell Him all the time, “You’re the best Boss I’ve ever had!”

What would you describe as your biggest obstacle in writing and how do you overcome it?

In every book I’ve written, I always come to a place about two-thirds of the way through the story where I hit a wall. Every time. I decide the book is boring, the writing is flat, and I hate all the characters. I also realize about that time that I have another 20,000 words to write in order to fulfill my contract, and only about 5,000 worth of story left.

I take a day and whine and cry and mope. I ask myself, “Who do you think you are, pretending to be a writer?” I tell the Lord, “You’re just going to have to find somebody else to tell this story, because obviously I’m not up to the task.” I cry on my critique partner’s shoulder, ACFW member Tracy Ruckman. And she encourages me by reminding me, “You always say this. You do it with every book. It’ll be fine. Get back to work.” She’s right. I always do. And I always get through it. So I do as she says and get back to work.

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

That’s a tough one. Receiving my first book contract was huge. Opening the box with my author copies of Just As I Am was an unbelievable moment. I handed a copy to my husband and he read the dedication and got tears in his eyes—I’ll never forget that feeling. Being named Writer of the Year at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in March was a tremendous moment, and I won’t ever forget that feeling either.

But I think the highest moment of my career was when I received a letter from a reader telling me he used my book as a discussion guide in a state prison, and led someone to the Lord because of it. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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

This is probably going to sound really corny, but writing has become like a ballooning fireball inside me. It gets bigger and bigger, hotter and hotter. The more I write, the more I am inspired to write. I have always loved writing, but with each successive book my passion grows. I think it’s because of what I said above – writing is an act of worship for me, a time of intimate fellowship with the Lord. It’s addictive!

Characters seem to come fairly easily to me. I get them from real life. Not that I recreate any real person in fiction, but I use people I know—or, more often, myself—as starting points and develop them from there. The models for the three sisters in Stuck in the Middle, for instance, came from my sisters and me. But when I started working on the story, they quickly developed their own unique personalities.

Story ideas are harder to come by. Many times they evolve from the characters. In Sincerely, Mayla, for instance, the subplot about Mayla’s Aunt Louise and her search for true love developed as I got to know her character and started asking myself questions like, “Why does this 50-yr-old woman live at home with her mother? Has she ever fallen in love? What would her mother think if she fell in love now?” It’s almost like Louise said to me, “Oh, goodie! Let’s find out!”

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?

I have a unique voice, and a unique but subtle sense of humor. I like to think my style is easy to read without being simplistic, and that I can instill touches of humor naturally even into my romantic suspense books. I’ve got three coming up within the next year that get increasingly more suspenseful than anything I’ve done before, but readers will still find traces of humor throughout. I work hard on characterization, so I also think my characters are all uniquely quirky no matter what genre they find themselves being written into.

Finish this question. When I think of the evolution of chick-lit, I …

... am glad I got into the game fairly early, so my stories could evolve with the genre.

Frankly, I love what the chick-lit genre is becoming. When I put together the proposal for Stuck in the Middle and the Sister-to-Sister Series, I quoted an article from Today’s Christian Woman that said, “The broad appeal of current Christian chick lit provides hope that the genre won’t simply expand but also will mature.” I think my contemporary books, and especially the Sister-to-Sister Series, are products of that maturing genre.

Any parting words for up-and-coming writers?

Find a good critique group and commit yourself to it. I’m telling you, it’ll do more good for your career than you can imagine. And besides, you’ll make friends that you’ll keep for the rest of your life.

Thanks for sharing with us, Ginny!

Thank you! I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.

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