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Monday, August 21, 2006

Getting to know Jennifer Tiszai...

It’s so fun to learn from published authors about their journey to publication. What it was like for them, and how long it took, etc… But what about before they were published? What about those years of learning craft and struggling to make ends meet? For every published author, there’re hundreds, if not thousands, of unpublished writers who work hard every day to make those stories come alive. Over the next few weeks I’m going to showcase these writers and their work. Hopefully by the time we’re done, you’re going to have a few new favorite writers you’ll be on the lookout for.

Today’s guest is a woman who has taught me so much about the business side of writing. I, along with Malia Spencer, was lucky enough to get Jennifer Tiszai as my official ACFW mentor. Over the past year Jen has taught us about things we’d never pick up on our own. She’s spent the last 4-5 years learning the business and perfecting her craft.

Welcome, Jennifer! Let’s just jump right in there. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Family, faith, careers, etc…basically anything you’d like to share. =)

Ah, you might regret leaving that wide open! My husband and I are native Californians that moved to Arizona over three years ago when we felt God calling us to do that. It was a pretty scary step for me because I felt like I was finally beginning to have some success with my writing and my music after putting all of that on hold to start a family.

We attended Saddleback, Rick Warrren’s church, and I was active there singing in the choir and on a worship team. I also led a team of writers that turned Rick’s sermons into small group Bible studies each week, wrote devotionals for the website, and wrote articles for the website. One of my favorite moments was when an article I wrote on my son’s dedication was posted on the front page of Saddleback’s website for ten days and received a million hits. So it was pretty hard to leave all of that behind and come to the desert, away from my beloved beach, and into the unknown. From the coast to toast, as we like to say.

Peter and I fondly refer to the next three yeas as boot camp. Peter was out of work for over a year, and we were pretty much challenged in every area of our lives. But we came out of it with the strong assurance that God is faithful to provide our needs, often using other people to do it. It deepened out trust in Him, and I know it was preparing us for even bigger challenges down the road.

What made you want to start writing? And who are some of your favorite authors? (no pressure here) ;)

I think I wrote my first story when I was six. I had an active imagination and was always coming up with stories for me and my brothers to act out. Star Wars seemed to figure heavily into them. I didn’t end up being a sci-fi fan, however. But creativity wasn’t encouraged in my family. It was expected that I would do something practical with my life. I went through multiple majors in college (pre-med, English, Business/finance—got a degree in that one, then philosophy, comparative literature, history—my other degrees). I worked as an underwriter for an insurance company, a job I grew to hate as it slowly ate away at my body, causing nerve damage in my neck, elbows, and wrists. Nobody knew much about ergonomics then.

Still, I struggled with how to work writing into the equation. I didn’t know any other writers. I didn’t get any support, and I didn’t have the time. So I would take creative writing classes, attended a conference, and mostly wrote when I felt inspired.

Until I started writing for Saddleback and met another writer who would become a good friend, Peggy Rose. She got me into some online classes, and we joined a writer’s group together. I attended Mount Hermon the next year, 2001, when I was pregnant with my son. But shortly after that, I had to go on bed rest with him and there went my writing for nearly a year. It wasn’t until we moved out to Arizona that I was able to commit to writing daily for two hours, and I finished my first manuscript, a historical.

Oh, the dreaded favorite author question. I’m pretty eclectic in what I read, but here’s a sampling: Richard Russo, Elmore Leonard, Dee Henderson, Suzanne Brockmann, Dale Cramer, Lisa Samson, Michael Snyder, Alison Strobel, Harlan Coben, Douglas Coupland.

Currently in the middle of some editing, she’s well past the honeymoon stage. ;) Her current WIP, Witness, is making the rounds through her agent. Tell us about the book.

Since it just underwent major surgery I’ve had to rethink my hook for it. It’s a romantic suspense, the story of Heather McAlistair, editor of a Christian teen magazine, who has lived a pretty sheltered life. Until she meets Detective Kyle Taylor. On their first date they get caught in the middle of a gang initiation robbery. She gets shot at, placed in protective custody as a material witness, and has her life turned upside down. Kyle tries to keep her alive, she tries to keep her job, and both of them have no idea that their biggest threat is closer than they think.

I’ve read the story. It’s fabulous. How’d you came up with the idea?

Thanks, Sabrina. It’s always nice to hear great things about your writing. This story was one of the ideas I was playing around with before I was seriously committed to writing. I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the idea, but I had typed up about 20 pages of it and stuck it in a drawer. When I made the decision to move from historicals to contemporaries, I pulled out my story folder. This idea, plus two others, came together to loosely form a series I’ve called Hometown Heroes. Each book focuses on one of the three friends: Kyle the detective, in Witness; Joe the fireman in Flash Point; and Scott the naval aviator in Justice.

What is the hardest part of writing for you, or your biggest challenge as a writer.

Two things, really. One, since I have little kids, I always struggle with feeling like writing is taking away from them and stuff around the house. Even though I know it’s good for them to live without me at their beck and call for two hours, and my husband is very supportive of this, I easily feel guilt over it.The second thing is really specific to writing. I don’t consider myself overly creative. I’m more of a concrete thinker and so I need a germ of an idea to build on. Once I have something to go on, I can move out from there. But the other problem this creates is what I call “quick-drying cement.” Once I go a certain way in a book with a plot or a character, I have difficulty seeing any other options. I am blessed with a few writing partners who understand my writing and what I want to accomplish, and still help me come up with new things that I can’t see.

And what do you hope to accomplish with your writing. To entertain, to minister, to educate, etc...

When I was writing nonfiction, the goal was to educate and minister to people while entertaining them. In fiction I think entertainment has to be the upper most concern. Yes, it’s great if people can walk away from my books relating in someway to my characters and their struggles. And I know my beliefs will always come through in my work, whether or not there is a heavy spiritual thread. I think one thing fiction does is explore ideas all of us have about life. A spiritual journey is a big part of that for everyone, so those kinds of questions are natural to explore. The degree to which the author explores those questions depends on the kind of story she is telling and the characters she has created. But if it’s not done in an entertaining way, it will come off as a thinly disguised sermon. And nobody enjoys that.The thing is, God called me to write. He doesn’t waste anything, so mostly I trust that He has a purpose in my writing and my job is just to be faithful to my end of the deal: sitting my butt in the chair and writing. :)

Thanks, Jen. Point well taken. Consider my butt in the chair! LOL. Now could you give us a buildup for the scene you're going to share with us?

This is a scene that got cut from the latest rounds of revisions. Originally, Kyle and Heather dated a little before the gang initiation scene. To up the suspense, I cut about 50 pages out of the first part of the book, making the gang shooting occur on their first date. So a lot of good stuff had to go. This scene takes place right before the shooting. Bernie is the one who introduced Heather to Kyle, but he has an interest in her as well, though Heather doesn’t realize it. Bernie had driven Heather to Bible study after Kyle got caught up in a case and couldn’t make it. But Kyle was waiting at Heather’s house when Bernie dropped her off, ruining Bernie’s plans, which included stalking her in the first version.

Bernie made a right on El Toro, curious if Kyle’s truck was still at Heather’s condo. He’d been driving around, not wanting to head home yet. What was Kyle telling her?

It had made his day when Heather had called him. He always knew if he could get her away from Kyle and just talk to her, let her get to know him, he’d have a chance. They’d always gotten along well at choir practice and in the green room. She’d liked his comments at Bible study tonight. He just needed to build on that.

He liked Kyle, but Bernie saw what Heather didn’t: Kyle was in love with his job. Everything else came second. She didn’t see that now, but she’d end up with a broken heart. He hated to see that happen to her.

Of course he could be there waiting with a shoulder to cry on. He turned into her complex. Kyle’s truck was gone.
Good. He hadn’t stayed long.
Maybe Heather asked him to leave. Bernie smiled at the thought.
He pulled out of her street onto El Toro, heading home. Passing the shopping center on his right, something caught his eye.
Kyle’s truck. Parked under a streetlight.
Bernie slammed on the brakes and swung into the parking lot. He scanned the area. The Jitter Bug was the only logical place. He eased toward the shop, peering through the big plate-glass windows into the brightly lit interior.
Kyle and Heather sat at a back table.
His stomach filled with lead. He slammed his fist on the steering wheel.
“No, Bernie, I’m too tired for coffee.” He mimicked Heather’s voice. Apparently not too tired for coffee with Kyle. He should have driven her here instead of her condo. Then he’d be in there with her now, and Kyle would still be sitting in the dark, waiting.
He sped out of the parking lot, nearly sideswiping another Honda idling near the entrance.

There you go, folks. One of our future authors of tomorrow. Be on the lookout for Jennifer Tiszai! And you can say you knew her when. ;)

Thanks for having me, Sabrina. This was a lot of fun. And you can bet I'll be letting you know if I get any good news on Witness. J


Jennifer Tiszai said...

Crap, I should have proofread better. I found three typos! And I never noticed that my collar is crooked in that picture! Sigh.

Malia Spencer said...

Great interview guys! This was actually a scene I really liked. Maybe Bernie will reappear in the same form in another book? That would be fun.

Okay, sorry ignore me Jen. I'm over tired and my brain is going in a million directions as usual. :)

Jeanne Damoff said...

Gosh, Sabrina. I can't believe you'd interview a girl with a crooked collar . . .

Oh, Jen-benny-boo. You're too hard on yourself. This was a great interview, and (despite your typos) you're quite the articulate interviewee. I'm just a little surprised you didn't mention your body guard experience, but I guess that's best kept undercover, eh?

Sounds like exciting things happening with Witness! I look forward to reading the updated version.

michael snyder said...

Very cool interview, ladies. Jen, you've had as many (possibly more--I'd have to count) majors than me. And let me know where to send the check for including me in that list of heavyweights. I'm going to spend the rest of the day belieiving it's true.

Jennifer Tiszai said...

I woke up to 3 comments already, wow! I know, Sabrina really lowered her standards to interview me of the crooked collar. I'll be eternally grateful.

I have to admit, after all the years I did interviews when I worked for the newspaper and stuff for Saddleback, it was a little different being on this end. Fun, though!

But you know, Jeanne, we can't talk about the body guard thing. I mean, if people knew, . . . well, there'd be all sorts of trouble and we would lose the whole secrecy thing.

Sabrina L. Fox said...

You guys crack me up. Thanks, Jen for doing this interview. You're a great writer and I can't wait to buy that first book!

Jennifer Tiszai said...

Aw, it was fun, Sabrina. Thanks for thinking of me.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Great interview, Jen! And no one would have noticed your collar if you hadn't pointed it out. LOL!

Mary said...

Great interview! Couldn't resis when I heard it was Jennifer getting interviewed! Jen you will forever be special to me as one of the first to make me feel welcome at ACFW. I've loved what online chapters you have available at your website and already anticipate adding you to my favorite author list one day very soon!

Jennifer Tiszai said...

Aw, thanks, Mary. That's so sweet! See, you found the secret of ACFW: hang out in the forum. :)

GeorgianaD said...

Great interview (despite the crooked collar!) Now I see why moving to AZ was difficult for you. I can't wait to read your book someday:)

Crystal said...

I think you are close to being snapped up by some publisher, Jennifer, as all of this in this interview shows that you have what it takes. Look forward to Hometown Heroes! The titles are great: Witness,Flash Point, Justice. Good job, Sabrina, on the interview. You could be a profile writer!

Sabrina L. Fox said...

Thanks everybody for making my debut series a hit! And please come back Tuesday to meet a very cool lady. Crystal Miller. A smart, funny, talented writer. You won't want to miss this one.