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From Russia with Love

By Susan May Warren

This year marks the tenth anniversary of my first novel being published. “Happily Ever After” came out in 2003 just as we returned home from the mission field in Russia, and I still remember staring wide eyed at the cover thinking…how on earth did this happen?

See the truth is that I never set out to get a book published. I was a missionary in Russia and loved what I did, had no desire really to do antic else. In fact, when someone suggested that I write a novel I thought, I can no more write a novel than I can be fluent in Russian.

At the time I was struggling to learn the language and the helplessness of being in a foreign country, unable to communicate drove me to books for escape. Oh , the sweetness of my mother tongue! But it was there, engrossed in the pages of a novel, I first felt the tugging, first heard the whispers… What if?

If I could learn Russian, perhaps I could also pen a novel.

Oh, my ridiculous attempts at speaking Russian should have scared me off. But I was just desperate and naive enough to believe I could learn this language full of guttural khas, and sharp itchkas.

But perhaps that is what it takes to learn something as daunting as another language…whether it be Russian or the language of story. Naiveté. And passion.

And perhaps a few other things.
It Had To Be You
The truth is that all it took to be fluent in Russian is a commitment to the task, willingness to look like a fool and the determination not to quit.

Yeah, that’s all. Right.

But the truth is, one misspelled, then corrected word at a time, and someday you will get there.

This truth slowly hit home as, armed with nothing but a stack of give-away novels, I would open them in the cold night after my children were ticked tight into their beds. Armed with a cup of Russian tea and a highlighter, I’d go to work, reading, dissecting, tabbing down pages and noting words that sang to me in my little Russian notebook.

Never, I thought, as I studied these masters, and then put words to paper. Oh, my efforts could make me Weep with frustration. How did these authors arrest words into these amazing sentences, create such realizing characters, whittle such intricate plots? I looked at my own sweaty attempts and nearly quit, over. And over.

But, like the acquisition of a new language, the more I fumbled about, the more fleeting success I had putting together a sentence, then a paragraph, then a chapter, the more the desire…and dare I say confidence grew, blossomed, and began to bear fruit.

I will never forget the triumphant joy of finishing my first novel. Yes, it was 400,000 word, and completely unpublishable, but I had finished it.

Which meant I could finish another. And another until suddenly one day, the words would congeal as if by magic…and I’d make sense.

And then…someone might listen.

People often ask me what the secret to getting published is…there is no secret of course. It’s hard work, and pressing on, looking foolish, being misunderstood, frustrated at your own inabilities to get it right until one day…you do. And you find that one person who suddenly hears you, understands your story. Your crazy Russian.

So, two thoughts I bring from Russia, with love, to my writing friends on the journey:

1. Fluency takes time, and practice. It doesn’t come overnight. Keep speaking and don’t despise the little steps, the tiny victories.

2. You will lose it if you don’t use it. Or strive to improve. After the sweat of learning Russian, I’ve used it little since retiring to the states, and although, when I need it, it will come back to me like a favorite song, some of the words are missing. Don’t let your skills stagnate.

What have you found to be the most difficult part of your writing journey?

Ya vero tebe!
C Bogom!

Susie May

Susan May Warren Jan 2014Susan May Warren is the RITA, Christy and Carol-Award winning, best-selling novelist of over 40 novels. Her newest novel hits the stands in February: It Had to Be You. She is also the founder of My Book Therapy, a craft and coaching community of over 1500 novelists.

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12 Responses to From Russia with Love

  1. Ane Mulligan says:

    I love your story, Susie. It’s funny because the year your first novel came out is the year I started my first novel. And my debut novel will release this year. No, it’s not that same one. It’s a few down the road from that one. LOL But we can’t ever give up, and we’re never to old to start!

  2. Ron Estrada says:

    Oh good grief, which part is easy? For me, it’s been time. I know, I’m the only one. I can find the time, but the guilt kicks in when I’m not spending time with my family or letting some small repair job go undone (my wife has become quite handy with duct tape). And once you find out people are willing to pay you for the “boring” writing projects, it’s hard to turn those down. Last night my wife actually told me I had to spend time with the dog. I had no idea he was in such an unstable emotional state. But I keep pushing. Some nights I get ten minutes, some nights a couple hours. The “regular” writing schedule is in a constant state of flux, but somehow the words end up on the screen. Thanks for all you do, Susie. I love the MBT chats (Even though I have repeating nightmares of being the only man in a room of 30 women, all of whom just received rejection letters from a male editor). And the pizza party rocked! Can’t wait to see what you’ve got planned this year (I played a white pine in an elementary school play…just putting that out there).

    Blessings!

  3. Iola says:

    Is it really ten years since Happily Ever After? Wow. I loved that book (and all the other Deep Haven titles).

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Ian says:

    Wow, congratulations Susie on your 10 year anniversary. A wonderful milestone to acknowledge.

  5. Rick Barry says:

    Сусан, это мне очень понравилось. И это правда — шаг за шагом. Таким образом мы ходим вперед. Желаю Вам еще много успехов и благословенний от Господа!

    (My apologies to everyone else, but since I’m still involved in Russian ministries, I couldn’t help but offer Susan some practice. ;)

  6. Melissa Tagg says:

    This post would be one of a gazillion reasons why I love Susan May Warren. So grateful you pushed through and wrote that novel, Susie…and how you’ve carried that missionary outreach side of you into the writing world to help beginning writers like me. Love this post!

  7. I just started a Pinterest board called Books I Read in 2014. I started the new year with this book. I LOVE that you blogged about writing it, I added this link below my pin. I kinda’ feel like you read my mind and blogged my questions, because I knew it was your first of MANY novels and was wishing I knew the story behind it. Thanks for writing. You inspire many with your novels and your writing instruction. Blessings on the new year, Susie!

  8. Yes! totally agree with Melissa. My first book would never have been published if you had not poured yourself into my writing. Thank you!

  9. Becky Wade says:

    Yes, indeed! A blend of “naivete and passion” exactly describes how and why I started writing. If I’d been cynical and passionate I’d never have taken the leap of faith to be a beginner at something so daunting.

  10. Anna Labno says:

    Hi all,

    I studied Russian in Poland. I was a good reader. My teacher always chose me to read. But I didn’t want to learn a lot of vocabulary words since Russian langauge could be understood by Polish people. And Polish people were fighting communism and wanted Russian out of the school system.

    I didn’t read Russian for twenty years and would stumble over Russian words right now. It would be a slow process. The funny thing though is I might write [g] instead of [d] even to this day then catch myself.

    I’m a Polish speaker writing novels in English. I also had my share of embarrasing moments when I came to United States, and I never stop learning to this day.

    Z Bogiem! (In Polish)

  11. Anna Labno says:

    I’m setting my new novel in Siberia during WWII.

  12. Liane Carter says:

    Lovely post, Susan. Thank you. Mine has been self-belief. When people started raving about my book, it scared me – BIG TIME. I thought, eek – How did I do it? What do they like? Why do they? I can’t replicate it, etc. etc. I exhausted myself physically and mentally with negative thoughts.