Deeanne Gist has rocketed up the bestseller lists and captured readers everywhere with her original, fun historical novels. With three-quarters of a million trade books sold, her awards include National Readers’ Choice, Book Buyers’ Best, Golden Quill, Books-A-Million Pick of the Month, Romantic Times Pick of the Month, Award of Excellence, and Laurel Wreath. She has also received four RITA nominations, two consecutive Christy Awards, and rave reviews of her books.
In today’s show, Deeanne shares her inspiring story of overcoming rejection and becoming a bestselling traditionally published author.
Deeanne took an unlikely path to becoming an author. She developed dyslexia as a child. Her father would read textbooks to her until she got to college.
She went to Texas A & M and got a degree in elementary education. When she graduated with a 2.3 GPA there was a lot of celebrating.
She got a job as a teacher. After she had 4 babies in 4 years it made more sense for her to be a stay-at-home mom, so she quit her job to take care of her family.
Becoming a Fiction Writer
Deeanne needed a creative outlet. She tried crafting. She ended up being a journalist because she could do that from home. She wrote articles for People, Parenting, Parents, and Family Fun.
Being a journalist taught Deeanne:
- How to write by word count
- How to write to a deadline
- How to write tight
- How to get a thick skin
- How to deal with rejection
The skills she learned as a journalist were a wonderful base of knowledge for her when she decided to try her hand at fiction writing. Deeanne worked at journalism to support her fiction habit.
When she finished her first novel she thought it was the best book ever written, and that the publishers in New York would be falling all over themselves to publish it. Fortunately, they didn’t publish it. She wasn’t a good enough writer yet. Writing that first unpublished novel taught her a lot about how to write fiction.
The rejection letters Deeanne kept getting said, “This girl can write but she needs to learn her craft.” She was tired of receiving those types of rejection letters. She did a number of things to learn the craft of fiction writing.
- She joined a writer’s organization
- She entered contests
- She read how to books
- She got a critique group that met every Monday and swapped chapters
- She wrote a second book, and that book sold
Deeanne found her literary agent in 1997. But she didn’t sell her 1st book until 2005. The key to being a successful writer is perseverance.
“Selling a manuscript to a New York publishing house is like finding a spouse. Everything’s got to be just right. Everything’s got to be lined up in the heavenly bodies. Even, like the editor can’t have the flu when he picks up your manuscript that day. You can’t have a manuscript that has a premise similar to a manuscript they are already publishing that you have no idea about. There are so many reasons that you might be getting rejections that have nothing to do with the craft of the novel.” – Deeanne Gist
Deeanne learned the craft of fiction writing after joining the Romance writers of America and attending the local writer’s workshops. She recommends that everyone join the Romance writers of America.
You don’t have to be a romance writer to join the RWA. They have local chapters all over the world and they’ll invite speakers to teach craft workshops and everything about the business of writing.
“I really want to encourage those of you who are getting rejection letters to get a thick skin and no that it is not necessarily the craft, and certainly not you personally.” – Deeanne Gist
If you’re not a romance writer, you can just skip the speakers discussing genre specific skills, like including sensuality in your book.
On the other hand, you might want to attend those discussions anyway. You don’t have to write a romance to benefit from including romantic elements in your story.
Recommended Books on the Art of Fiction Writing
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain is a classic in the field. The book focuses on the mechanics of writing a great story.
Dwight spends a fair bit of time talking about “motivation-reaction” units. For example, if you want to have a character laugh you have to give them a motivation to laugh before the laugh takes place. It won’t make sense to have your character laugh and then explain why they’re laughing.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. The first half of this book talks about character archetypes. The second half talks about plot structure. The book is written for screenwriters but a novel should also use the same kind of story structure.
Deeanne refers to these two books every time she writes a novel.
Christopher Vogler and Michael Hague are the 2 plot experts that Deeanne really pays attention to.
Tips on Writing Better Fiction
Pay attention to your motivation reaction units.
Avoid flying body parts. Don’t say things like, “his eyes flew down to his handkerchief,” or, “she threw her hands up in the air.” There are better ways to express those kinds of things on the page.
Avoid head hopping. This is where you hop from one character’s point of view to another character’s point of view in the same scene. It’s much better to choose a character who has the greatest emotional stake in the scene and then write the scene from their point of view. It makes your story easier to follow and just generally better.
When you choose one point of view for a scene in your novel you should convey the feelings of other characters in the scene by using body language.
Deeanne owns many books on body language because learning about body language and how to describe body language gives you a powerful tool when you’re telling a narrative story.
It can help to visualize a movie actor for your character when you’re trying to write a scene.
Avoid clichés like, “he furrowed his brow,” or, “he gritted his teeth.”
Whenever possible use all 5 senses to pull the reader into the story. Sight and hearing are easy. Remember to use touch taste and smell.
How to Organize the Writing Process
For every book that Deeanne writes she has a circa binder where she includes sections on:
In her character section she has detailed notes about the character, and their relationships to other characters in the story. She records important physical details that stay the same throughout the book.
It takes Deeanne a year to write a novel and there are times when she’s not going to remember the specific details of individual characters.
Deeanne once had a character who started a novel with blue eyes and ended the novel with green eyes. It was a romantic suspense novel that she cowrote with Mark Bertrand.
This happened because everyone working on that novel missed that specific detail. When Deeanne got an email from a reader she asked Mark how they missed that and he replied, “Don’t you remember? The color of his eyes changed because he fell in love.”
It’s important to keep track of the important details of your characters.
Now whenever Deeanne writes a book she chooses an actor for the male and female protagonist. This helps her keep details of the character in mind.
In the plotting section of her circa notebook she has detailed notes on the plot. In particular she answers the questions in The Writer’s Journey.
In her research section she has detailed notes about the time period of her book and specific attributes of the time. The attributes she wants to include in her novels. It’s very important to her that everyone who reads her novels has a truly immersive experience where they feel like they’ve traveled back in time and really experienced the time period.
Specifically she focuses on:
- The clothing
- The homes they lived in
- What kind of plates they used to serve food
- What the weather was like
- What the streets look like
- The social/economic/political climate
How to Research a Historical Novel
Deeanne always starts her research at the library. The Internet has made access to information much easier, but the thing you have to be careful about on the Internet is the accuracy of your information.
Deeanne tries to confirm every detail she uses in her books with at least 3 sources if she can.
The History Behind Tiffany Girl
At the turn of the 20th century, Louis Tiffany, who was the heir to the big Tiffany fortune, was an artist who specialized in stained-glass windows.
His big debut was going to be at the 1893 world’s fair. He was building a chapel completely of mosaic cut class. About 5 months before the world’s fair the glass cutters Union made up entirely of men went on strike.
This put the construction of the glass chapel in danger. It was only 5 months before the 1893 world’s fair. So Louis went to art studios and hired women art students to finish the chapel for him.
This was a huge scandal at the time for a number of reasons. Females were not allowed to be members of the union, so they were breaking the strike of the all-male union. The prevailing opinion was that women weren’t strong enough to do all of the glasswork that needed to be done to build the chapel.
After the girls successfully completed the glass chapel for Louis, he started the women’s department in his store and hired women to fill out the workforce in that department.
Deeanne’s Research Process for the Book
In 2005 researchers found out that Louis Tiffany did not design the dragonfly lamps that Tiffany is so well-known for. Those dragonfly lamps were designed by the head of the women’s department at Tiffany’s.
We know this because someone found a box full of old letters written by Claire Driscoll, the head of the women’s department at Tiffany’s during the early 1900’s.
The letters were mentioned as an aside on a PBS special. When Deeanne’s mother heard that story she immediately emailed Deeanne about the discovery.
When Deeanne received the email she knew she was going to write a novel about a Tiffany girl.
Deeanne’s first step was to go up to Queens and read all the letters that Claire Driscoll wrote to her mother.
She went on to study about New York in the 1890’s. When she needed to find her female protagonist a place to live, she found out that there was a big controversy regarding boarding houses at the time.
In the early 20th century it was scandalous for unmarried men and unmarried women to be near each other without chaperones. That’s why boarding houses were popular.
In response to the stigma, women made an effort to build a community within the boarding houses that resembled a more traditional idea of a family home. They organized community events, held gatherings in the parlor, and lively discussions at dinner.
Deeanne decided to have her female protagonist organize these events at the boarding house she lived in, while having her male protagonist be annoyed by the whole thing.
Deeanne read a lot of journals of people who were living in boarding houses. When she took her trip to New York she looked at a bunch of brownstones.
She researched the 1893 world’s fair and the Tiffany chapel in particular. Her research expanded as she found out new details about the world and local events that would’ve happened during the time frame of her novel.
Deeanne’s Writing Process
After Deeanne gets an idea for a story she does as much research as she can at her local library before traveling to the location where the story is set.
Then she visits the city where the story is located, and she has an idea of what she wants to do when she is there.
For instance, after reading Claire Driscoll’s letters, Deeanne knew her address. She knew she wanted to visit the address and get an idea of the neighborhood that Claire grew up in.
One of the things Claire found out in her research is that people in boarding houses spent a lot of time on the roof because in New York there weren’t any backyards for boarding houses in those times. So when she visited Claire’s home (now a Holiday Inn express) she asked to go on the roof. They refused. So she went around to different homes in the neighborhood until someone took her up on the roof of their house.
That’s when she realized that Claire could see the water from that vantage point. That’s a piece of information she wouldn’t have without doing this type of in-depth research. She took pictures from every angle on the roof so that if she wanted to do a scene on the roof she could have an idea of what the characters setting was like.
Deeanne never actually had a scene on the roof of her fictional boarding house, but she doesn’t consider that research wasted, because everything gives you a sense of the character and how they lived.
After Deeanne tours the locations of her novel, she goes to all the local used bookstore she can find and looks for used books that talk about the town.
She looks at every book that talks about the town. If it talks about the time period the book is set in, she buys that book. She has all the books shipped to her home in Texas. When she flies home she has a lot of books to read.
As she’s reading those books she takes note of historical events that were taking place at the time of her novel. Those historical events can become plot points for the novel.
After she has all of those things written down, only then does she start writing.
Working With a Critique Partner
Deeanne has worked with the same critique partner Meg Mosley since the beginning of her fiction author career.
Meg writes more poetically, and Deeanne is strongest when coming up with dialogue. Their talents complement one another. Deeanne is comfortable working with just one critique partner because she’s confident in the majority of their writing craft ability. It can be useful to have a critique group of at least 3 people so that everyone gets at least 2 opinions of their work.
There are going to be times when you disagree with your critique partners. You know your own work best, and you should do what you think is best for your work. If your editor agrees with your critique partners, you should strongly consider going with their recommendation.
Meg and Deeanne exchange one chapter at a time so they can make changes more quickly.
Deeanne found her first critique group through the RWA. It was two unpublished authors, but because they were in Deeanne’s RWA chapter, and sometimes at those meetings you share what you’re working on, she had already read some of their work and knew that they were ahead of her in their writing craft ability.
Deeanne’s first critique group would meet on a weekly basis. They would discuss the chapter they had been given the week before. Deeanne learned a lot about writing from these critique group sessions, especially because each of the ladies went to different RWA lectures on writing.
It’s easier than ever to find a critique group that fits your needs in the Internet age. You can even run a critique group using videoconferencing tools like Skype or Zoom.
Picking the Best Critique Group
When looking at joining a critique group you want:
- Critique partners that have as much writing craft knowledge as you or more
- Critique partners open to constructive criticism
- Critique partners willing to freely communicate
- A drama free environment
- A harmonious group of critique partners
Resources Mentioned in This Interview
The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition – a book that deals with plot and characterization.
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
https://www.storymastery.com/ – Michael Hague’s website. Get his book. He also has several classes available on various elements of fiction.
https://zoom.us/ – videoconferencing software with the free option. You can all the one-on-one videoconference for an unlimited amount of time on the free plan. If you have 3 or more users in the meeting room, your free meeting will last 40 minutes. After 40 minutes has elapsed the meeting will end. At that point you can start a new free 40 minute meeting.
To have meetings with up to 100 participants for an unlimited length of time the cost is $14.99 per month.
Deeanne’s 11th book Tiffany Girls comes out May 5, 2015 at IWantHerBook.com
Join Deeanne on her blog, on Facebook, Pinterest, and on her YouTube channel.