Sarah Sundin is rejoicing—with good cause. Over eight years after embarking on her journey to publication, she’s made her first sale, a three-book WWII series to Revell.
(Update as of 2/28/09: Sarah’s first book now has a title. A Distant Melody, the first book in the Wings of Glory series, is coming from Revell in January 2010.)
Sarah was raised in southern California. Her home was crammed with books, understandable since her mother would later serve as president of the local Friends of the Library group. With buckteeth and penchant for big words, Sarah didn’t exactly fit into the SoCal beach scene, but she found a home in church and in books.
Sarah didn’t start out as a writer. Nope. After college, she went to UC San Francisco and got a Pharm. D. (a doctorate in pharmacy). She met her future husband on the first day of pharmacy school orientation. Family and part-time work filled the better part of a decade—and then she was called to write. She answered the call, which has now led to The Call.
I saw Sarah’s sale notice on the American Christian Fiction Writers loop and got in touch with her. We began to email and learned that we’d both attended the 2008 Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in March. Although we didn’t meet, it’s possible we rubbed elbows at some point. If I were a morning person and had gotten up for the traditional “walk to the cross” that takes place at Mount Hermon, I may well have met Sarah. She and about thirty others made the climb to the landmark site.
And now I invite you to learn more about Sarah, her stories and how God used others to encourage her on her path to publication.
•Sarah, how did your journey as a writer begin? What shifted your focus from filling prescriptions to filling pages with your stories?
I can actually pin a date on the start of my writing journey—January 6, 2000. Although I’ve always loved reading, I never seriously considered a career in writing. Instead I became a pharmacist to use my love of science to help people. Pharmacy also offered me the chance to stay home with my children and work as many hours as I wanted. Since my first child was born, I’ve worked only one day a week as a hospital pharmacist.
On January 6, 2000, I woke from a vivid dream. The characters and premise were so compelling, an entire story whooshed together. For a few days I played with it while changing diapers and scrubbing toilets. But who was I to write it down? I was a pharmacist, not a writer. I had three small kids and a house I could barely keep clean. However, I couldn’t shake it. My grandmother always said she’d write a book, and she never did. I didn’t want to get to the end of my life and say, “I could have written a book.” So I sat down with my #2 pencil and college-ruled paper, feeling incredibly foolish. I didn’t want to act outside of God’s will, and I didn’t want to waste my time, so I prayed a lot.
I knew absolutely nothing about writing or the publishing business. That first book took me only six months to write. And it was 750 pages long. A simple contemporary romance. Yes, 750 pages.
•So, you had a story that filled a ream and a half of paper. I have a copy of my first that was over 600 pages, so I can relate. How long was it before you learned that your “baby” was far too long and that it might be time to get some information about the writing craft and publishing world?
Oh, this is where God shows His sense of humor! My mother bragged about “her daughter the writer” at the bowling alley. Well, one of the bowlers was Kathy Collard Miller, a well-published author. Kathy recommended the Christian Writers Market Guide and spent time on the phone answering my questions. She suggested I attend a writers’ conference and join a writers’ group.
In September 2000, I attended an American Christian Writers conference. I walked up to the book table and asked the lady where I could find a book about submitting my novel. She asked if it was my first conference. I said yes, and where could I find that book? Instead, she directed me to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. A wise woman, and she hadn’t even read my work! From what I learned from that conference and that book, I pruned my novel down to 350 pages. Now I pray no one will ever read that book, but it taught me many valuable lessons. First, that I could finish a novel. Second, that my work was not gospel. And third, that I needed others to help me in this journey.
I then joined the Diablo Valley Christian Writers Group, a wonderful group of people who have been both blessedly encouraging and brutally critical. I need both.
•Ah, yes. Getting feedback is so important. Once you found your writers’ group, what project did you work on next?
Another really bad contemporary romance. But writing that novel gave me an idea for a romance set in World War II. The thought of research put me off for a while, but the story wouldn’t let me go. Then I saw a show on the History Channel about B-17 bombers in the U.S. Eighth Air Force based in England. I already knew my hero was a pilot, and now I knew where he’d serve.
I quickly found I loved research, and then realized one book wouldn’t tell the whole story. Since my hero had two brothers, both of whom were pilots, I decided to write a trilogy, with each book focusing on the romance of one of the brothers.
•I’ve read some wonderful WWII stories recently. Since many who lived through those war-torn years are still here to share their experiences, do you find it easier to conduct your research? Have you been able to work facts from family members or friends into your stories? How do you get a feel for the time period and the settings?
I love talking to people who lived through WWII. They’re called “The Greatest Generation” for a reason! And family history definitely came into play. My great-uncle was a B-17 pilot who flew into Pearl Harbor during the attack, flew missions from Australia, and then became a squadron commander with the Eighth, so his letters and family stories got me started. The hero of my second book is loosely based on him. Also, I talked a lot with my grandmother about the Home Front.
Since I’m a stickler for accuracy, I’ve been way too thorough in my research. The local librarians are my heroes! They’ve located amazing books in libraries all over the country. Internet research led to some interesting catalogs in my mailbox. My favorite catalog find is a reprint of the actual B-17 flight manual. I know way more about B-17s than any woman should!
To get a feel for the settings, I’ve taken advantage of my husband’s frequent flier miles to do on-the-ground research in England and Germany. Tough, tough research (she says sarcastically). Also a beautifully restored B-17 flies into our local airport every year, and you can actually walk through the plane. I go every year. It gives me such a great sense of the dimensions, the smells, and the feel of the bomber.
Other “research” includes old movies and an iPod loaded with Big Band music—enjoyable, plus they give me a sense of language, outfits, hair, manners, etc.
•You headed to Mount Hermon for the first time in 2003 with a third of the first story of your trilogy written, and you submitted the first chapter for critique. What was the response?
The response blew me away. Lauraine Snelling and Randy Ingermanson critiqued my chapters and told me I was writing at a publishable level and should be talking to editors and agents. I was stunned. I came home with requests for proposals from three agents and three editors.
•Wow! With feedback like that, you must have thought your manuscript was as good as sold. What happened next?
I began a lovely collection of rejection letters. Five years’ worth. Most of them have been very nice—they liked my writing and story and characters, but historical fiction wasn’t selling in the Christian market, especially stories set in WWII.
•Yikes! Five years passed before you received serious interest in the story. That must have been hard. What kept you writing during that time, and how did you battle the discouragement that must have crept in on occasion?
Discouragement? Oh, yeah. Any time of waiting is tough. We like to hear “yes” from God. We can deal with “no”—after we grumble and whine a bit. But “wait” is tough. I had to trust God to do His will in His timing—not mine. I kept writing and kept submitting, kept going to conferences and kept reading about craft, and most of all, I kept praying. I also joined American Christian Fiction Writers, where I’ve learned even more through their e-mail loop and courses.
What helped a lot in the waiting period was the support of my husband, my friends from church, and my writers group. Since it looked like my book might never be published, I let family and friends read the manuscript. The cool thing was, whenever I felt discouraged, I’d get a call or e-mail telling me how much someone loved my book.
In the fall of 2007, through a study on Experiencing God, the Lord showed me I was indeed fulfilling His purpose for me by writing, even if I never got published. He showed me the work He’d done in my life and in other people’s lives since I obeyed the call to write. This really encouraged me. The Lord also opened up other ways to use my writing for Him. I started writing devotions for the women and children’s ministries’ newsletters, and helped edit a church publication.
•What an incredible summer this past one must have been for you with the interest in your story, but at the same time you had to endure the nail gnawing weeks of waiting. And then it happened. You got “The Call.” I love hearing call stories, so would you please share yours? How did you react? Having been in ballet for ten years, was your happy dance a series of graceful pirouettes and grand jetés, or did it entail all the energy of an Eighties disco number?
Yep, an incredible summer. At Mount Hermon in March, I submitted to Vicki Crumpton at Revell. She asked for my full manuscript in June and in August told me she was taking it to the publication board September 3. I’d never gone that far before, so I kept a precarious balance between elation and trying not to get my hopes up too high.
For me, The Call wasn’t a phone call. After days of jumping on the phone like a teenager hoping for a prom date, on September 12 I got an e-mail. I assumed good news came by phone and bad news by e-mail, so I opened it with shaking hands. “I have good news for you,” Vicki wrote. Since when was rejection “good news”? I had to read the first paragraph multiple times before it hit me. They actually wanted to buy my book. Not just the first book, but the whole three-book series!
My ballet teacher would have been gravely disappointed in my dance. Nothing more than pathetic hand flutters like a deranged chicken. Not pretty.
I yelled something unintelligible like, “Aah! Aah! I’m going to be published!” My kids came running. My oldest son slapped the phone in my hand so I could call my husband. Then I called my mom and my best writing buddy, and sent as many mass e-mails as I could to family and friends. As always, God has a sense of humor. I opened the e-mail at 3 p.m. on a Friday. I had three loads of laundry waiting to be folded, a carpool kid waiting to be driven home—and I had to be at work at 5 p.m. at the hospital!
•We writers often hear how important it is to secure an agent and entrust the pitching of our stories to him or her. You got a contract offer first and then went in search of an agent. How did the process work with the reverse scenario?
I’ve never been normal. Never. I tried to do it the conventional way. Really, I did. Most of my very nice rejection letters were from agents. But the beauty of a writers’ conference is the ability to submit to publishers without an agent. And I’m proof it can actually work that way!
However, I still wanted an agent, not just to handle the contract, but for long-term career guidance. On the Monday after The Call I sent an e-mail query to Books & Such Literary Agency (my dream agency), and I signed with Rachel Zurakowski on September 22. I had the privilege of meeting her last week, and I’m just so pleased to be able to work with her.
•You’re a busy mother of three and now an author with a three-book contract and deadlines to meet. How do you see your life changing as a result of selling? What will you do to ensure there’s time for fun? What do you do to relax and recharge?
I don’t see things changing too much. One of the fringe benefits of all that time waiting is I’m partway through the third book in the series, so the deadlines are completely reasonable.
Recharging? Well, my husband and I try to keep our lives as balanced as possible, but the kids are 10, 13, and 16 years old, so we’re at the peak of the activity whirl. My non-writing time is spent on the soccer field and in karate class. Watching, not participating. Let’s get that straight.
For fun (and really, it’s a blast), I teach Sunday school to fourth and fifth graders, and I teach women’s Bible studies.
Also, we just got a yellow Labrador retriever puppy named Daisy. So, I’m getting lots of exercise. Lots. She chews on the furniture. She chews on the carpet. She chews on the walls.
It’s been great having you as my guest, Sarah. And now, in closing, is there a final comment you’d like to make or a question you’d like to ask?
A final comment—persevere! If you really feel called to write, keep learning, keep submitting, and keep writing. This business is crazy and cyclical, so don’t let trends stop you. For years I heard, “Historicals are dead; we want chick lit.” This year I heard, “Chick lit is dead; we want historicals.” Go figure.
A final question—who is your favorite member of the Greatest Generation and why? Mine is my grandma washing diapers by hand and line-drying them while my grandpa served in the Navy in the Pacific.
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I’m holding a drawing for a set of sixteen nostalgic note cards. Each person leaving a comment for Sarah gets one entry. I’ll hold the drawing the evening of November 7th.
Congratulations to Andrea, winner of the drawing!