Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sarah Sundin's Writing Process and a Giveaway


Okay, that's out of my system now, and I'll try to behave like the professional I am. Sarah and I are both members of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers). When her first sale was announced on the email loop, I noticed it was with my publishing house, Revell. So I shot her a note saying something about congratulations and welcome to Revell. A very well spent 30
seconds because it means I'm now friends with an incredible author. Seriously, the whole time I was reading A Distant Melody (the first in the Wings of Glory series) I kept thinking, "This is so stinking good! And I know her!"

Anyway. Sarah's books are unbelievable. Today she's giving away Blue Skies in the Morning. If you don't win, you should still totally read it.

Today Sarah is sharing her writing process with us. To get yourself entered to win Blue Skies in the Morning, leave a comment either asking Sarah a question or answering hers, which is at the end of her post. (Contest closes Tuesday, August 16th. US Residents only.)

From Sarah:

One of the cool things about meeting other writers is seeing how different we are. Some can’t function without an outline. Some can’t function with an outline. Yet we all create novels!

I’m an outline-oriented writer. The thought of writing without a destination makes me hyperventilate. Yes, I also color-coordinate my family’s schedule and alphabetize my spice rack. So, I’m a nerd.

Before I start the rough draft, I go through a process of percolating, researching, character development, and outlining which can stretch for years while I’m writing and editing other projects.


An idea comes—from a movie, a “what if” question, a dream, historical research—wherever. Then it percolates in my head while I’m doing other stuff. Characters flesh out. Scene ideas float in. A story structure forms. At some point, everything gels and I know this is a Book. During this stage I take notes—dialogue, scene ideas, and character sketches. These go in a file folder. The percolation stage lasts several years for me.


Since I write historical romance set during World War II, research is vital. I do research from the percolation phase through my final edits, but the bulk of it comes pretty early. When my basic story idea is well percolated, I need to make sure it works historically. I take lots of research notes and reference everything carefully so I can find it when I need it. Don’t make that face—I told you I was a nerd. Research also brings out more story and character ideas, so I keep adding notes to my file.

Character Development

My novels tend to be character-driven rather than plot-driven, so this is one of my favorite phases. And yes, it involves charts. Because I like them. My master chart for the hero and heroine has questions about appearance, health, family, friends, education, career, romantic history, home, talents, religious history, goals, and secrets. Then I give them personality tests. I also scribble down important incidents in their pasts. It’s kind of like hanging out with a friend and getting to know them. Then when I start writing from this character’s point of view, it feels really natural.


You’d think this would be my favorite part, but it’s not. This is where I wrestle and squeeze and grumble at the computer monitor. And I make more charts as I stretch my story ideas onto a solid framework. I like the Hero’s Journey analysis described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. Read it! Knowing good story structure helps me see where my plot works, where it stinks, and how to fix it. Last I make a chapter-by-chapter outline, and then finally, I get to write!

How about you? Do charts and lists give you a blissful sense of fulfillment? Or are you planning to come to my house and de-alphabetize my spice rack?


  1. Good morning Sarah!! It's so wonderful to see you here! Just the other day I finished reading A Memory Between Us and LOVED it!!! Both of your books were amazing and had me so wrapped up in the characters, I was sad when I reached the end of the book! I look forward to diving into my copy of Blue Skies Tomorrow (Oh, yes, Stephanie, I already have a copy. So don't include me in the giveaway.) Anyway, just had to get out there that I'm a big fan of yours, Sarah!!! :-D

    Okay, on to your post. Wow, that was helpful! A lot goes into your books, and it really shows in the end results. You're historical detail is amazing and something I absolutely LOVE!

    I also write a chapter-by-chapter outline. I write a synopsis that's often many pages long, but my favorite thing to work with is a chapter-by-chapter outline. It just really helps me get my thoughts in order, and I always write who's POV that chapter will be in and so forth.

    Very helpful advice, Sarah! Thanks so much for stopping by GTW!

  2. With my first book, I didn't plan anything. No clue what the story was about or where it was going -- I just wanted to write it. Thanks to my nonexistent foresight, I've had to rewrite the book about three times, and it's taken me longer than I would've wanted. Next time I'm going to *make*myself plot out at least the main points of each chapter -- that way I can still pants enough of the way through that I still have plenty of fun, but I don't get lost on the way.

    Charts and lists don't exactly fulfill me, but no worries -- your spice rack is safe with me.

  3. Thanks so much, Sarah! I also am a plotter. For the book I'm working on right now I wrote a three page outline and then at the beginning of each chapter I write a mini chapter outline. Those really help me to know what is going to happen and I don't spend a whole bunch of time re-writing whole chapters. I've tried to write chapter by chapter outlines, but I can never seem to stick with them, because somewhere along the way my story will lose a character and gain a few new ones and a new subplot too.
    I grind my teeth at the thought of character charts, though I always try to scribble their physical features down somewhere. I think if I knew everything about my book before I started, I wouldn't want to write it, but knowing nothing terrifies me so I outline a little bit. Thanks so much for posting, I would love to get that copy of your book.

    ~Sarah F.

  4. I really didn't do any charts. I did a lot of things in my head. (probably not a good habit)I do find myself repeating words and phrases so I will have a list of synonyms.


  5. Great post and she looks like a great author too!I love that cover and I realllllllllllyyyyyy want to win! And hey, alphabetized spices are very useful I find. I've actually just found myself writing down important events, character description etc. It helps me to have it all out and not just floating around in the story. No way would I do that lie I said they're awesome.I do love lists.It's like taking out a mess from my head and putting it in order on paper.I think it's a great writing process.I just don't know if it would work for me.I'm probably half in with the charts and stuff.I'm still finding my style.I'm not sure how in the world it's going to come together. I'm just writing a couple chapters...then looking at the plot and I'll go form there I guess. Do you have any suggestions on how I could become closer to my characters and really write with them as them?If that makes any sense :P
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

  6. Sarah,

    Thanks for coming! :) I love the cover of your book and your points are really helpful. I liked reading about your writing process because it is similar to mine. I am a list fanatic! For my first novel, I had an experience that echoes Jenna's "I've had to rewrite three times."

    With my current WIP I scribbled a page of rough notes like a back-cover copy then after writing the first three chapters, I made a chapter-by-chapter outline, which has totally electrified my writing process! It's become my street map--I don't write anywhere without it! So, yes, my character charts and outline are a necessary part of my writing process!

  7. Thanks, everyone! Your comments show everything from outliners to "pantsers" and everything in-between. The key is finding techniques that work for YOU! When other writers share their techniques, sometimes the old lightbulb goes off and I think, "Ooh! That would work for me." Other times I don't see the appeal at all. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and find techniques that fit your personality and address your weaknesses.

    Katie & Sarah & Rachelle - it looks like you've found what works for you. Isn't that a great feeling?
    Jenna - that sounds like a good plan. Experiment with different tools and see what sticks.
    Alyson - you're probably a "pantser" who would be stifled by charts. So don't do them. But you might want to jot down notes so your characters don't change eye color and things like that :)
    Sierra - There are lots of ways to get to know your characters. I find my character charts really help me, as well as personality tests (you can find these free online). Some people like to interview their characters, asking them all sorts of deep and probing questions - keep asking "Why do you do this?" and "Why do you think that way?" Some people like to write a straight biography or an "autobiography" told from the character's POV. What I've found is when my character doesn't like a question, I'm on to something and have to probe deeper.

    I had my biggest character "ah-ha" moment working through the boring "health" section of my character chart for Helen Carlisle in Blue Skies Tomorrow. I knew she loved to dance. I knew she was clumsy. Those things don't go together well, do they? My chart asked for childhood diseases, and since she was born in 1922, I thought through all the diseases we're vaccinated against like...polio. Hmm. Polio produces paralysis and lingering weakness. What if her parents put her in ballet to help her gain strength and coordination? Hmm. What if her ballet teacher was verbally abusive? This opened a big whopping key to understanding Helen. So I try not to glance over the "boring" questions :)

  8. Percolation and Character Development are probably my two favorite writing stages :) I have a question - when writing romance stories, how you keep the heroes/heroines from sounding generic?
    ~ Mirriam

  9. Hey Sarah! I loved this post! Great stuff. :)
    I try very hard to be a planner, with my character charts and outlines, but in the end, I'll sit down at the computer and all of the sudden I start writing something completely different than what I had originally planned. But I'll reread that section and like it even better than my original idea. So then I try to figure out where I go from there, totally forgetting about all of my charts and outlines. My problem is trying to find the balance of planning and letting myself just write. If I don't plan at all, my characters can get confusing, my writing erratic, and my plot underdeveloped. But if I plan too much, than I lose something too. *sigh* this is one of my biggest problems with writing... :)

  10. Well, for me it's mostly ALOT of notes/lists about practically anything in the plot. I try to keep things organized, but sometimes I change things in my plot which means more tweaking everywhere else.

    Sarah, looking forward to reading your book:)

  11. Mirriam - that comes down to great character development. Get to know both hero & heroine - what drives them? What do they love/hate? What are their strengths/weaknesses/quirks/flaws? What's their greatest secret? Greatest fear? What wound/scar do they carry - either external or internal? What are they missing in their lives? How do they compensate? How are they going to grow and change during the book? What mistakes are they going to make? Generic characters usually happen when we make either hero or heroine too perfect, or when we reach for easy stereotypes. If your character's a stereotype, put a twist on it. Think of Indiana Jones. He could be a stereotype - strong, smart, handsome, adventurous, brave. But he's afraid of snakes! Isn't that the point in the movie when we all decide we REALLY like this guy? A twist. A weakness. And you just KNOW he'll have to deal with it later.

    Clare - you might have stumbled on what works for you - planning, then letting yourself write freely. I'm a thorough planner and I always find scenes and characters that surprise me - and I go with them too. Take time to analyze if this is the character/plot direction you really want. You may need to tweak your original outline, but I say trust your instincts. Those scenes that surprise me are always my favorite scenes in my books! That's when I know my characters have truly come to life in my mind - when they take over the plot :)

    Faye - pretty much what I told Clare :)When you change things midstream, it is important to analyze the whole plot. Do you need something earlier to lead into this new plot point? How will this new point affect the rest of the story?

  12. I do find lists and charts to be calming and fulfilling. They make me feel better. Thank you so much for the chance to win this.


  13. Mrs. Sundin,

    I completely agree with you on your outline sequence, but I unfortunately tend forget what I'm thinking about very quickly. I try to write my ideas down quickly, but a lot of the time that doesn't happen. To answer your question...yes, I have to have an outline/chart/list in order to write anything, but I tend to write what I am thinking and forget where I was going after that... :(

    I love reading fiction about WWII, so I am really looking forward to reading your book!!!

    Rebekah Dooley

  14. Haven't written enough yet to know what process is best for me. I don't even know what I will write. I do know that I love crafting effective meaningful reading.
    Thank you for your generosity in sharing your expertise. I'm learning so much from writers like you who are putting the wealth of their information out for others to be enriched.

  15. yeah I am glad I am writing shorts that way it gives me less time to make those kinds of mistakes. (Even though I have found a couple.) I read my work over and over and over again that kind of makes it easier.

  16. I tend to get so excited about a story that I just dive in and start writing without making an outline. However, for a contest I wanted to enter, I needed to submit an outline of my novel plus the first four chapters...so I HAD to create an outline and it actually ended up helping me :)! I still do like some of the surprises that can come from winging it, though :). (On the other hand, I love making to-do lists!)

  17. Rebecca - ah yes, lists are comforting for us list people :)
    Rebekah - maybe that's all you need! Sometimes you just need to scratch down an outline then dive in. The funny thing is, when I teach, I write everything down, making careful, detailed notes. Then when I teach, I hold my notes like a security blanket, but I never look at them - I just wing it! It's odd, but it works for me.
    Annette - glad I can share! Enjoy the learning process.
    Alyssa - you just might find yourself in the middle, using a rough outline but letting yourself play. Once again - what works for YOU - your personality and style and story. Some of the best writers in the world use detailed outlines. Some of the best writers in the world start with an idea and don't use an outline at all. There's no one right way. Weird, isn't it? :)

  18. Well, I certainly want to read your book, Sarah, after reading that mini-author-review from Steph! Oh, I love all that personality stuff, and that's probably one of my favourite parts about writing -- the characters, figuring out who they are and what they believe and everything. So I don't know about the question -- sometimes I just like to write, and sometimes I like to figure things out in lists and stuff!

  19. I find I need an VERY basic outline to make me feel secure, but at the first opportunity my characters like to go a totally different direction.....which is fine with me. However, when I wrote a screenplay that followed closely three different people who had very different perspectives, I did have a detailed outline following all three and where they were in their journeys throughout the movie.

    Thank you for sharing your writing process. I like reading everyone's approach because I inevitably read a better way, or a different way, to do something.

    By the way, I am in New Zealand, so don't enter me in the contest. :)

  20. Emii - aren't personalities fascinating? Having a good understanding of different types helps you craft characters that aren't all alike. And that's important if you want to write more than one book :)
    Tiffany - New Zealand? Very cool! And you're right - the more characters or the more complex a plot, the more notes we usually need.

  21. I am such a list maker. Sometimes whenever I finish a task, I get to mark it off 3 or 4 different to do lists. I'm obsessed.

  22. Hi Sarah! :)

    Your whole writing process was super cool to read about. I think I liked how you said outlining wasn't really your thing, I'm not to good with outlining either, but even so... it helps. A LOT.
    Character development is so much fun to do, I'm not good at that either. But its so much fun to create characters. :)


  23. Sarah Faulkner (comment #3) is our winner. Congratulations, Sarah! I'm jealous :)