Friday, July 1, 2011

Parenting to Publishing: Christa Allan


Christa Allan is the mother of five adult children, a grandmother of three, and a teacher of high school English. She and her husband Ken live with their three cats in Abita Springs, Louisiana, where they enjoy their time playing golf, dreaming about retirement and dodging hurricanes.
A true Southern woman who knows that any cook worth her gumbo always starts with a roux and who never wears white after Labor Day, Christa is a writer of somewhat unusual Christian Fiction. She weaves stories of unscripted grace and redemption with threads of hope, humor, and heart.
Let’s see how she’s doing it all:

CW:  When did you start writing? 
 CA:  I started writing in high school when I realized that I couldn’t sing [at least not anything anyone would want to listen to], I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t draw or paint anything beyond stick figures, and as for sports…well, let’s just say I was the kid everyone wanted on the other team.  Many years later and married, I wrote for a newspaper when I had two children and two on the way, then—when four of my five children were out of the house, I decided to start writing a novel.  Actually, I started because my precious husband had more faith in me than I had in myself. He guilted me into getting started by buying me a laptop!   
CW:  What genre do you write?
CA:  I think the genre chose me! At first, I tried writing romance, but my characters fell in love too quickly or not at all. And while I loved reading books by Robert Ludlum, I knew my brain would twist itself into a soggy pretzel attempting to figure out a plot.  Teaching teens for over twenty years, I was naturally drawn to Young Adult. I even have half of a YA novel, and perhaps may return to it in the future. But, for now, I’m focused on women’s fiction (or contemporary fiction) and writing stories of challenges women face in their lives.
CW:  What is your book about?
CA:  My debut novel, Walking on Broken Glass, tells the story of Leah Thornton, a woman whose life looks pretty from the outside; she seems to “have it all.” But appearances can be deceiving because she’s a mess. She drinks to numb her pain and, until her friend confronts her with the truth, she thinks no one else has noticed. Leah admits herself to rehab, and the novel-told from Leah’s point of view-follows her through her recovery as she attempts to discover who she really is and what she’s willing to sacrifice to find out.

CW:  Tell us a little bit about your journey to getting your agent. What were your query stats? What is the most memorable feedback (good or bad) you have received about your book?
CA:  The same day the agent received my sample chapters and proposal, she emailed me asking for the full. After I picked myself up off the floor, I sent it and then tied myself in an emotional knot. 
A few weeks later, she sent another email asking when she could call (that instant would’ve been great!). I opened that email and my third hour class walked in wondering how I could be in tears when they’d not yet sat in their desks! Kidding, of course, they were so excited with and for me. The week between that email and the call didn’t seem to pass as quickly as I’d hoped! When you and 145 other people (a day later, all my students knew about the call) are waiting.  Finally, at 3:00 on January 30,, 2008, she and I spoke, and the celebration began a few minutes later!
I didn’t keep query stats…for the same reason I don’t keep score when I play golf. It was simply depressing and counterproductive for me. Let’s just say that the good news/bad news about being able to query online is that you don’t have to wait long for your rejections!
Generally, agents don’t provide feedback with rejections, which I understand because some receive hundreds of queries a week. But, the most memorable actually did come as one of the nicest rejection letters I’d ever received from Beth Jusino, an agent-at the time-with Alive Communications. She and I had met at a conference a few months earlier. Then, she’d given me suggestions how to strengthen one of my characters. Later, even though she didn’t extend representation, she did so in the kindest way possible. And though it may have been a “stock” letter, it didn’t come through that way. By the way—      Beth is now doing marketing help for writers and she is AMAZING.

CW:  Most writers dream about getting published. Tell us how it works. How amazing did it feel to hold your book for the first time?
CA:  About four months after I signed with her, my agent started shopping the novel. I was sure that at least one publisher out of that long list she’d sent it to would leap at the opportunity. 
Not so much. One month later, she called to tell me that the editors thought the novel was “too issue-driven.”  And my being a first-time novelist didn’t help either. She said she’d continue to look for a home for it, but I may want to start considering some ideas for another book.
I spent my summer working on proposals for my editor appointments at the September American Christian Fiction Writers conference. As much as I loved WOBG, I understood that the subject matter being outside of the usual boundaries of Christian fiction and my being a new writer were risks for publishers But, my agent believed in the novel, and I believed in her, so I prayed that God would teach me to “let go.” 
Then, two months later, my agent met Barbara Scott, the then-fiction editor of Abingdon Press, a Methodist publishing house launching fiction for the first time. She pitched my novel, and Barbara asked to see it. A few weeks later, Barbara said she was interested. My agent called at 11:43 am on October 30, 2008 to tell me Abingdon bought my novel.
Holding it over a year later was, and still is, one of the most surreal experiences of my life!

CW: What are you working on now?

CA:  “Edge of Grace”  

An early morning call shatters Caryn Becker's world. Unable to cope with her brother’s news that he is gay, Caryn rejects him and disappears into her own turbulent life as a young widow and single mom. But when David is attacked and nearly killed, Caryn is forced to make hard choices about family, faith, and her own future; choices that take her to the very edge of grace.

I'm so proud of Abingdon Press for publishing this novel, which is rooted in my own experiences coming to a relationship with my gay brother.
“Edge of Grace” comes out August 1st but you can purchase it now on Amazon.

CW:  Can you describe your writing routine? Do any certain types of music, food, smells or atmosphere get you in the mood to write?
CA:  I don’t do music, or scents…unless you count popcorn, chocolate, Coke Zero and coffee. Knowing I have to get to deadline puts me in the mood to write!
CW:  Tell us a little about your kids, husband and home life. 
CA:  I have five children, two boys and three girls, ranging in age from 34 to 26. One of my daughters, who is one of my 28-year-old twins, was born with Down Syndrome.  I have two precious grandgirls, ages 6 and 4, who live in Houston. In fact, all of my children except Sarah live in Houston. Sarah lives at The Mustard Seed, a Christian community for special needs adults outside of Jackson, MS. She’s been there two years, and loves being “on her own” like her siblings.
My husband is stepdad to the gang, and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary.
We have three neurotic cats.
CW:  How do you balance writing and family life?
CA:  Balance? Only when the seesaw pauses for those almost immeasurable seconds between up and down. Of the over twenty years I’ve spent teaching high school, I’d only call myself a writer for the past six or so. I suppose if I didn’t feel compelled to “reinvent the wheel every year,” I might have more emotional energy to devote to writing during the school year.  I’m constantly searching for more effective ways to engage my students, and it’s time intensive, especially when I’m already drowning in a sea of papers.
Adding writing to that is like, in the words of my grandmother, “trying to squeeze California into Rhode Island.”  I realized early on that I don’t have the emotional capacity to handle it all during the course of a school week.  So, I focus on taking advantage of my summers, holidays, and weekends for writing.  And, like that seesaw, sometimes, I’m down when I should be up. But I know that I can push myself where I need to be. 
I know many writers advocate daily or weekly word or page goals. At this point in my life, I haven’t found that works for me. What’s important is to determine what works in your life, with your obligations and your family. Perhaps the greatest consolation for me was discovering life, regardless of our career, is never truly balanced. Sometimes our families require more of our attention, so we yank ourselves out of the orbit of work or school or whatever, to devote time to them. Other days, it might be work. I remind myself that asking God for direction here should come first.

CW:  What is your guilty pleasure? 
CA:  A spa day. 
CW:  Tell me something people wouldn’t guess about you.
CA:  Weeding the garden is stress 
CW:  Any advice you can give to writers? Also, any helpful tips, tricks or websites? 
CA:  Read books that make you wish you’d have written them. Be teachable. Read books about the craft. Joining American Christian Fiction Writers and attending their conferences opened doors to writing and publishing that I didn’t even know existed. 
Don’t be afraid to write awful stuff. The awful is far easier to rewrite or edit than a blank page. 
And as for that adage about writing what you know…Well, I don’t think Stephen King personally knew a high school girl with telekinetic power who wreaked a bloody revenge. But he did know high school girls who were bullied and teased, who had weird mothers, and he wondered, “what if…” Stephenie Meyer had no personal experience with vampire love. Write what you know doesn’t mean you’re limited to the 21st century and characters who look like your siblings and live in Tallahassee or Tickfaw.  You know about betrayal and envy and joy and hope and fear. You know how your mother bites her lower lip when she’s thinking or your daughter twirls her hair when she’s nervous. 

Christa suggests these BOOKS for writers: 
Any writing books by James Scott Bell, but especially Plot and Structure
Stephen King’s On Writing
Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird
Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones
Mary DeMuth: The 11 Secrets of Getting Published (e-book)
Donald Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel (get the workbook too!)

I am reading Walking on Broken Glass right now, and it is my first ever Christian Fiction book read. All I can say is, WOW. The writing is beautiful and the storyline is very touching. I advise everyone to go and read it; it’s a great look at dealing with some touchy subjects. 
Her new book Edge of Grace comes out August 2011, but is available to purchase on Amazon now.
Christa is represented by Sandra Bishop of the MacGregor Literary Agency.
Thank you so much to Christa for her wonderful interview. We cannot wait to read more. Check Christa out on her website and follow her on Twitter @ChristaAllan.
Christa Allan is awesome—she believes in paying it forward to her fellow writers and she is offering up two contests!  Here are the details:
Contest 1: Be a follower of this blog and comment below with a question or comment for Christa.  Don’t forget to leave your email address so that you can be entered in a drawing to receive Christa’s new book Edge of Grace.

Contest 2:  Hook us on your book in 140 characters and win a 10-page critique of your manuscript. There will be time to get feedback before the official contest day. Come back next week for the details and rules. Hook Day will be Friday, July 8th. 


  1. Christa, could you describe one of the most difficult decisions that you made anywhere during the process of writing this book?
    Matthew Kreider

  2. If you're referring to Walking on Broken Glass, my first thought was to answer that finishing it was the most difficult because I'd never started or finished a novel before this one. There's something about knowing it's complete that eliminates excuses for eventually submitting it.

    As for The Edge of Grace, it was letting go of my head and leading with my heart. This novel focused on a sister's struggle to accept and love her brother. It was difficult to set aside the ongoing controversy, the theology, the politics and let Caryn and David be who they were. I suspect this novel might cause me to be on some churches' lists of Least Wanted in our Congregation. That, for me, was my difficult "coming out."

  3. Wonderful, wonderful interview. Please enter me in the contest. I am a new follower and would love a follow back. I also have a give away on my blog. Hope you'll enter. Donna

    Twitter: @MyBookofStories
    Facebook: My Life. One Story at a Time. (Please enter your give away here for my followers.)

  4. Thanks for stopping by Jessica's blog. I'm headed to your blog now! Great to meet another Louisiana woman! How far from Abita Springs are you?

  5. I love, love, loved your Walking on Broken Glass! Your dry wit made me connect warmly with the protagonist despite her brutal struggles.

    You write with refreshing honesty, sans the whitewashing I often encounter in faith-based fiction. Gritty, intelligent writing from an author who breathes my reality. Thanks, Christa, I'm richer for having read you.

    I cannot wait to read the Edge of Grace!


  6. Hi Christa and Jessica!
    Thanks for the interview. Just became a follower.
    Chista, I'm wondering if you're a seat-of-the-pants writer or a plotter? If you do any kind of plotting, what method do you use?
    Kristen Johnson

  7. I loved reading this interview and it came at a very apropos time for me, when I've been wondering how some true Christian friends of mine might feel about the topic of someone being gay. I'm glad your publisher was willing to stretch the bounds.

    And I related to every word you said--about the triumph of finding an agent, the shock of not getting an offer on sub--I have just recently signed my first deal (after 11 years) and am inspired reading about your book being ready to hold in people's hands! Congrats! Your family sounds beautiful, too.

  8. it was great to learn more about your writing journey, christa. i love that you tackle these difficult issues in your books.

    i use to live in new orleans myself while i was getting my masters at the seminary there!

    the character therapist

  9. Ann: You're such a tremendous encourager! Thanks so much for stopping by, and I'm looking forward to buying your book one day!

    Kristen: As a teacher,I'm so glad that you found support for your writing from a teacher. Sometimes we never know if our words make a difference, so it's heartwarming to know they do.

  10. KRISTEN: Oops! Forgot to answer your question. I'm a seat-of-the-pants who so wants to be a plotter! I'm still trying to balance over-thinking every weensy detail and dropping globs of info everywhere! The blessings of going to ACFW conferences is making friends with all sorts of writers. I have one friend who is a whiz at plotting, another who can spot a weakness in my plot just by brainstorming.

    And I think that's what's most important, finding friends who "have your back" when it comes to the story. So, if you're one kind, start looking for friends who are the author! LOL

  11. Jenny: Wow, you've had some big hitters weigh in on your novel! Impressive.

    It's so wonderful that by the time you hold a book or see it online, you forget how long it took for it to happen. Like childbirth, I suppose!

  12. Jeannie: I am in awe of you! Your character therapy and website are incredible. In fact, I hope I can "hang out" there soon, and absorb what you've provided. Sister, that's a book waiting to happen!

    I am so fortunate to have Abingdon Press as my publisher. They haven't blinked at tackling the tough stuff and, not too surprisingly, we've found that there are readers who want and need to know they're not the only ones struggling.

    Hope you enjoyed your time in New Orleans...the city can be both charming and chaotic!

  13. Christa, I really enjoyed this inspiring interview. Thanks for sharing many good insights.



  14. Hi Elaine,
    I appreciate your kind words, and I'm so glad you stopped in! By the way, Christina is one of my favorite people. Great interview.

  15. What great contests! Christa and Jessica, I love this interview!

    BTW, Christa, I don't believe for a second that you have five grown kiddos and three grandkids. You're so young-looking and beautiful! :) Thanks so much for sharing your publishing journey. I personally know about believing in a book and sending it out widely just to have it passed by everyone on the list. So it's very encouraging to hear that happened to you, yet you still got that book pubbed and didn't have to trunk it. :)

  16. Thank you for being brave enough to tackle an issue like this, Christa. While it's not something I've had to deal with personally, the way Christians treat gays is something that God has laid on my heart for some reason. I would be honored to win this book.

  17. Anita: You're repped by Jenny Bent! Great guns. I'm certain she'll score a deal for you.

    And, as for the photo, someone told me eons ago to spend money for professional photos. Worth every penny! Plus, my photographer can photo shop like nobody's business!

  18. Suzanne: Thanks for your kind words. You're one busy chick judging by all that's going on at your website.

    And Terry Burns is so highly respected. You'll be able to take the "pre" off of publish probably sooner rather than later!

  19. Thank you to Christa for a wonderful Q&A and to the amazing comments from everyone. I am excited to get to know my new followers and will be visiting your sites soon. Hope you all learned as much as I did from this post.

  20. wow amazing post :)

    your newest follower Michelle