What Writing My First Novel Taught Me

My thanks to Donna Winters for inviting me to guest blog for her at Great Lakes Romances. Visit her blog to find great books by Michigan authors.

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Hallie stuck her head of tangled red curls around a corner of my mind when I was twenty-two years old. She was just fifteen, and for the next ten years she refused to leave me alone until I finally sat down and told her story in my first contemporary Christian novel, Hallie’s Heart and the sequel, Morningsong.

Hallie blames herself for the drowning death of her little sister. She accuses God of being a monster who watches his children suffer. After struggling for two years with her guilt, she steals her father’s Harley and heads off to the scene of the tragedy–her Aunt Mona’s Lake Michigan beach house to face her demons. What unfolds is her story of confronting God in the rubble of her guilt, anger, and feelings of abandonment.

Why did I write Hallie’s Heart and the sequel Morningsong?

I grew up in Muskegon, Michigan, alone the Lake Michigan shoreline. I wanted to write a novel that incorporated places and experiences that had influenced my life. The book is set, in part, on the grounds of Maranatha Bible conference and in other locations in the West Michigan area, such as the Cocoa Cottage bed and breakfast.

I was attacked by a serial rapist when I was nineteen years old. I wanted to write a book that honestly confronted questions about God’s goodness and sovereignty in tension with our suffering.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

God is good, all the time–no matter what circumstances look like to us. Life is hard and sometimes just plain awful, but God’s love never fails, and his goodness never changes.

What did you learn writing Hallie’s Heart?

This book was my opportunity to ask God tough questions about my own abuse and horrible circumstances my dearest family members had struggled through. I found hope and strength through my characters. I learned it’s okay to question God and bring him our anger. That’s not something I was allowed to do when I was growing up and that I felt I was allowed to do even as a young adult Christian.

I also learned that faith often grows in the darkness and the silence, when we may not sense the presence of God at all.

What was your favorite scene in the book?

Hallie's Heart cover smallerIn one critical scene in the book, Hallie and her Aunt Mona are having an argument on the breakwater at Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon as a storm comes in. This key scene changes the course of the book. And I found that at the end of the chapter, I’d written a scene totally different from what I’d planned. Sometimes your characters simply take on a life of their own and surprise you.

What’s the toughest test you’ve faced as a writer?

Although I write fiction, I also write nonfiction. My writing always flows from my own conflicts and personal and spiritual growth. I’m a consultant on post-traumatic stress disorder. This means that my “research” has included painful trauma and PTSD treatment for a number of kinds of traumatic experiences. I’d rather do research that takes me to the south of France, but I love knowing that my writing has impact. Check out PTSDPerspectives.org. In June Love Letters from the Edge: Meditations for Those Suffering from Brokenness, Trauma, and the Pain of Life will be release with Kregel Publishers. I wrote this book with my best friend and colleague Wanda Sanchez.

Where do you write?

Typically, in my living room. Our house is small. I do have an office, but it’s crowded with bookshelves and office equipment. I prefer sitting in my living room so I can look out the front window at the bird feeder and the horses across the street.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hallie’s Heart won the Christy Award for contemporary Christian fiction. I’m the author of ten books and co-author of a number of others. I served as managing editor for the Hope in the Mourning grief Bible (Zondervan 2013) and contributed to the Holy Bible Mosaic (Tyndale), as a contributing editor to David Jeremiah’s study Bible What It Says, What It Means, What It Means for You.

I’m a co-founder of two Christian writer’s conferences: the Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s Workshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I’m also an expert consultant for Caring.com, writing to an audience of two million caregivers across the nation.

I have two adult children and live with my husband Dan in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. shellyI can often be found in the nation’s prisons speaking to women with Daughters of Destiny women’s prison ministry with my friend and colleague Wanda Sanchez or consulting on post-traumatic stress disorder as the co-founder of PTSDPerspectives.org.

I’m also a proud Harley-riding grandma in search of the nation’s best cupcake and looking for the next place to tell someone about my great God.

Morningsong Launched

Making friends at the launch of Morningsong

Making friends at the launch of Morningsong

In spite of seeing smaller-than-expected crowds at the Dallas Christian Book Expo in March, I’ll have to admit that I had a fabulous time meeting new readers and chatting with folks who are fans of Hallie’s Heart. Take me anywhere and I’ll find friends and friends of friends, and the Book Expo was no exception.

During my free time I had the opportunity to chat with readers, retailers, and beloved friends in the publishing world. It was a special treat to enjoy the Picnic with the Authors venue offered by my Advanced Speakers and Writers Association and have the privilege of hearing many of my gifted AWSA sisters speak. For those of you looking for gifted conference speakers who speak nationally and internally on a wide range of subjects, be sure to check out the AWSA website.

 The Expo also provided an opportunity for me to spend time with a number of folks who came to the event looking for good books but who also needed one-on-one encouragement. I was privileged to be able to do signings for Ambushed by Grace: Help and Hope on the Caregiving Journey and found people thirsty for a listening ear and a word of hope.

I’m especially excited about the launch of Morningsong, a book that deals with the realities of struggling with chronic illness, as well as the challenges of families entangled in cycles of addiction. The book is written with the same accessible, humorous, yet approachable tone that makes it an appropriate and quick read for a teenager or adult. It presents heavy-hitting themes with a touch of grace. In conferences where I speak and reference Morningsong, people often purchase it to give to family members as a summer read or as a gift, hoping to use it as one means of broaching the difficult subject of addiction wrapped in a faith-based story of hope.

So I’m off to Seattle next, to speak at Warm Beach Christian Camp and Conference Center with the amazing and awesome Thelma Wells the weekend of April 24-25 and May 1-2. If you’re in the Stanwood, Washington, area, come on out to hear Mama T and me (I love the sound of that). I’ll be speaking on “The Silent Seduction of Self-Talk,” my upcoming June release. But more about that later.

Shelly at Dallas Christian Book Expo



 This March, the first ever Christian Book Expo will be held in Dallas, Texas. I’ll be there, soaking up the excitement, meeting faithful readers, and making new friends. The event will be held at the Dallas Convention Center March 19-22.

       Full details are available on the Expo website at www.christianbookexpo.com.

morningsong-cover-jpgI’ll be signing my Christy-Award winning novel Hallie’s Heart and its much-anticipated sequel, Morningsong, at the Kregel booth on Friday from 1:00 to  1:45. I’m  especially excited that Kregel has chosen the Christian Book Expo for the release of Morningsong. This book continues the next chapters in the life of Mona VanderMolen as her niece Hallie and Mona’s sister Ellen begin new lives in Stewartville.


Look for me at the Barbour booth for meet-and-greet events on Saturday, March 21, from 11-12 and 3-4. I’ll be glad to discuss caregiving issues with you, just visit, or sign copies of Precious Lord, Take My Hand: Meditation for Caregivers or Ambushed by Grace: Help, Hope, and Heart Transformation on the Caregiving Journey. These books make great gifts for caregiving friends or your church library, and I always appreciate the opportunity to personalize books with a note of encouragement.

Please get the word out to your friends and family about this exciting event. Check out the Christian Book Expo website for a detailed listing of special activities, seminars, educational sessions, and inspirational opportunities.

And if you don’t stop by to see me, I’ll have to hunt you down!



Shelly’s Interview with Andrew Rogers

Andrew Rogers, Promotions Manager, Zondervan

Andrew Rogers, Promotions Manager, Zondervan

Earlier this year, up-and-coming author Andrew Rogers interviewed me for his blog. Besides being a talented writer (see Andrew’s blog at  www.andrewrogersonline.blogspot.com), Andrew is  the Promotions Manager (marketing guru) for Church, Academic, and Reference Resources at Zondervan Publishing in Grand Rapids. Andrew’s blog also appeared in the December issue of the West Michigan Christian Newspaper.

I’m so thrilled to have a Christy Award-winning novelist on Novel Journey! Of course, I’m talking about Hallie’s Heart, which won a Christy Award this year.

Hallie’s Heart is set in my hometown of Muskegon, Michigan, as well as a rural Michigan community where my husband and I raised our children for ten years. The major conflicts in the story flow from struggles in my own life. One central character in the book, fifteen-year-old Hallie, is responsible for the accidental drowning of her little sister an lives with her alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father. Hallie’s struggling with the age-old question: If God is truly sovereign and loves us, then why doesn’t he protect us from evil and suffering? Is he a monster?

At the age of nineteen I was assaulted by a rapist who’d attacked more than forty women. Years later, my own child was molested by a family friend. So these questions were my own and my children’s for many years.

But in spite of the heavy themes, Hallie’s Heart is humorous and fun and engages readers from their teens on up. I especially enjoy doing inter-generational chick-lit talks with mothers and daughters using the study guide developed for the book.

Do you think this success will make your writing easier or more difficult?

Being a recipient of the Christy, especially for my first book, confirms my awareness that attention to the details of craft are enormously important. I wrote and rewrote some sections of HH a dozen times until I sensed that a conversation flowed naturally or a character’s motivations rang true. At times I thought it must be because I’m a slow learner or a poor writer. Now I understand that much of writing is instinctive, and I need to learn to trust those instincts. I believe trusting my instincts will be easier in the future, but the work of craft will remain the same as I continue to learn and develop as a writer.

I’m sure you’ve had your share of reviews. What impact did they have on subsequent books?

I tend to avoid reviews, knowing I bring my absolute best effort to every book I write. I’m an avid learner. I listen to editors, other writers, and industry professionals to help me hone my skills. But once a book is out there, it’s easy for me to lose momentum in my work by focusing on either the positive or the negative elements of reviews.

So tell us a little about your latest release.

I’m really excited about Morningsong, the sequel to Hallie’s Heart. It plunges readers into a wold of real-life complications and family conflict as the characters wrestle with some tough issues. Mona, the forty-five-ish main character, is struggling with her physical rehabilitation following a traumatic brain injury. In the middle of her recovery, her fifteen-year-old niece Hallie pulls into town with her alcoholic mother nearly dead in the back seat of the car. Throw in Mona’s conflicting feelings for the man she believes she’s falling in love with and her frustration with God at a body and life spun out of control, and you have the essence of the plot.

How did you come up with this story?

In 1999 I was diagnosed with a golfball-sized non-tumorous lesion near my brain stem. I lost my ability to walk, stand, see, to take care of myself in even the simplest way. Although doctors were able to shrink the lesion, I was left with permanent after-effects. Mona’s struggle, in part, is mine.

Other elements of the plot grew organically from the characters and the nature of their struggles. Hallie is a teenager dealing with an addicted parent who’s asked to become the parent and forgive over and over again. As the victim of an assault at the hands of a rapist, I had to learn that forgiveness must become a moment-by-moment lifestyle. It is never a decision made in our past.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed her.

Mona shares many of my characteristics–favorite foods and not cooking and brain damage. But she’s not me. She’s a blend of a number of strong women who’d influenced me and whom I’ve observed. I typically develop the core of a character by creating a personality profile and personal history. Then I place them in a setting and watch them react to their environment, to conflict, and to other characters. Their personality begins to emerge more fully as they interact with people and life.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

Most–creating scenes where characters struggle with feelings and questions I believe readers will relate to, knowing the book may in some way point them to the hope God provides for us in even our deepest pain. Least–having to write through my own personal grief and pain, but to know that that pain brought greater depth to the book. My mom died while I was writing Morningsong, and I’d cared for her in my home for several years. It was tough to force my mind to write when my thoughts were with Mom.

What does your writing space look like?

Meticulously organized, immaculate . . . Oh, sorry. I slipped into fiction mode. Here’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it. I’ve cared for parents in my home for the past eight years, and I just haven’t gotten down to the nitty-gritty of organization.

I have an office that overlooks a field where every morning half a dozen or so deer cross from one woods to another. My oak wrap-around desk is usually stacked with files, research materials from my most recent nonfiction book or Bible project. This year I worked on the NIV Stewardship Study Bible (2009) and Crossway’s Pastor’s Resource Bible (2009).

I occasionally allow my husband to use my office to use his desk and computer, but I’m one of those writers who likes total silence, so he only gets access to his computer when I’m out of the room. A few file cabinets are sprinkled around the room, and I have a bookcase made by my grandfather during the Depression. And then there are the stacks of files on the top of the filing cabinets . . .

Are you a plotter or a SOTP (seat of the pants) writer? Why?

I begin with a skeletal plot structure in my head, as well as a sense of who my primary characters are going to be. From there, my plot develops organically as my characters develop. As the book begins to take shape, I  begin to plot in a more linear way through individual scenes.

This method of plotting works for me because my characters tells me where the story is going–often on a second draft. I may try to force a plot sequence, only to find that those choices aren’t true to my characters. But once my characters begin moving around, I discover where we’re going and why we need to go there.

How much marketing do you do? Do you market all of your books at once, or concentrate solely on the most recent release?

I enjoy speaking and signings because they give me opportunities to be with people. I’m continually cultivating opportunities to interact with people or seek out media. I tend to market all my books at once because I love them all, I believe they’re all important, and several have had very close release dates.

What would you do with your free time if you weren’t writing?

If I had the means, I’d travel in Europe and do more Harley riding with my husband.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

I’ve touched on that previously. There’s a bit of me in each of my novels–my struggles and my enormous gratitude to God for his grace in the tough times.

What message do you hope your readers gain from your novel?

A loving God is pursuing us and providing for us, in spite of the pain and difficulty we see in this world. He is moving all the details of our lives toward his intended purposes, and he loves us beyond measure.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

Look for my next nonfiction release with Moody Publishers The Silent Seduction of Self-Talk is releasing in April. This is a powerful book about our propensity for self-deception. Once again, it’s humorous and embarrassingly autobiographical and helps readers recognize patterns of thinking that trap us.

On the fiction side, I’m stirring up some characters and the plot line for a new series I’m energized about. I’m excited about developing a new main character because I can already envision the unexpected places life is going to take her. We often set out with goals we think are important and discover they really don’t get us where we want to go after all. That’s a glimpse into Reese’s story.

Any parting words of advice?

Because writing flows from life, our relationship with Jesus Christ is central to everything we do–as writers, as spouses, as parents, as friends. My priority is to keep the main thing the main thing–to keep my heart fixed on Jesus. Everything else has to flow from that.