Susan Elizabeth Phillips: An Inspiration

I was going to write the final blog post on goals today but changed my mind at the last minute. On Saturday, I got to attend a book signing by one of my writing heroes – Susan Elizabeth Phillips. She was in town to promote the book Call Me Irresistible.

I still remember the first book I read of hers; Dream a Little Dream, which is about the brother of Cal Bonner, the hero in Nobody’s Baby But Mine. A friend gave it to me – which is the way I got most of my books prior to the internet; recommendation – and I was immediately drawn into the story. I’ve read every book of hers since and went back to get the ones I missed. I love them all. I’m obviously not alone, as she hits the bestseller list every time.

I’ve loved SEP as a reader for a long time but only recently realized I love her as a writer. See, when you start writing for publication, you learn a lot about what makes a good story. Unfortunately, books which are not good make it into print. I’m a lot less forgiving of this now than I used to be, so I appreciate a well-written story from a craft perspective.

What makes her books so great? In a word – characters. I remember her characters from books I read ten or more years ago. This paid off for me at the book signing when SEP read lines from her books and the audience had to guess which book the lines came from. Here’s the one I guessed (and it’s one of my favorites of hers): “All that spring Honey prayed to Walt Disney. From her bedroom in the rear of the rusty old trailer that sat in a clump of pines behind the third hill of the Black Thunder roller coaster, she prayed to God and Walt and sometimes even Jesus in hopes that one of those powerful heavenly figures would help her out.”

Wow. Those are two powerful lines. Not only does she establish the character of Honey Moon with a big pow, but if you’ve read the book – and you should if you haven’t – it’s also got elements of the setting and the theme. These are the first two lines of the book, btw.

As a writer, I’m in awe of that.

One of the things SEP does well with character is the screw-up, difficult, miles-to-go heroine. I relate to that, personally. J As a writer, I’ve got to give her major kudos because that kind of heroine is really, really, really hard to write well. I’ve written three books and someone has hated at least one, sometimes both, of my main characters in all three. I’m somehow missing that elusive thing that SEP does which is create a heroine with flaws but who is still really likable and memorable. I’m going to read Call Me Irresistible with this in mind and take notes. Lots of notes.

The concept of readers hating a character is new to me. I’ve NEVER stopped reading a book because I didn’t like the heroine. I’m going to assume this is because I’m really picky about what I read and I only read well-written stuff. That means my stuff isn’t well written yet. Hence the notes…

I learned a couple of things about SEP at the signing that as a writer, I can’t get over. One, she doesn’t write with an outline. I would DIE without my structure. I can’t imagine writing something without knowing where I’m going. But I write plot driven books…she’s writing character driven books. The plot grows organically out of the characters and their reaction to things. It only serves to get them to the HEA.

Maybe that should be one of my notes? Do I want to write a good story or write good characters? Which one will people remember more? That’s probably not a black and white answer. Except I’m writing romance. Romance is by definition about the two people and their journey to happily ever after. That’s probably going to involve major aspects of their character if you do it right. So hmmm…

The other thing she mentioned is that it takes her 18-20 months to write a book. Holy cow. I’m worried because I can’t write one faster than eight months. Now granted, I don’t get seven figures for my books like she does, so perhaps I should be worried. But the lesson I’m taking from it is to write a good book. Take time with it. Get it right, not done.

You tell me: do you like Susan Elizabeth Phillips? Which book is your favorite and why? I’m very curious if anyone has a different opinion about why her books are so great.

PS One other cool thing about the book signing – I sat next to another writer, the super nice Traci Bell, who has a book coming out next month with Crescent Moon Press called Entangled. I love meeting other writers and learning about their process, triumphs, struggles, etc. Good luck with your release Traci!!

8 thoughts on “Susan Elizabeth Phillips: An Inspiration

  1. As you know, I LOVE SEP too! And I think you nailed what makes her writing great–her characters. She has a way of writing real, flawed people, and somehow manages to get to the heart of them without smacking you over the head with GMC. I SO wish I could write like that. *big sigh* LOL.

    As for a favorite book, I don’t know if I could pick just one. I’ve loved them all for different reasons…her books are total keeper (and your post is making me want to reread them!). I Know KISS AN ANGEL is one of my top faves, as is DREAM A LITTLE DREAM…but seriously, picking one to put above the rest is impossible for me to do!

    • Hi Cynthia! She told the best story about Kiss An Angel and how a traveling circus pitched their tent in the field behind her house. She walked around for two days taking notes. I should do that kind of thing myself. It obviously made a fantastic book! I know what you mean about wanting to reread. I was in that boat after hearing all the lines during the game of Guess Which Book – I went to my shelf and realized I was missing a couple. I think they were loaners that I never got back. Grr. But definitely worth rebuying…thanks for coming by!

  2. You’ve nailed what makes SEP’s books so great. No matter what problems her heroines are struggling through, what their life situations are, how far they’ve fallen (even when they’re lashing out or feeling sorry for themselves) they unfailingly come across on the page as someone you’d value as a friend. My favorite book of hers is always the one I just finished, so right now it’s Ain’t She Sweet.

    Current favorite line from that book, in which not even the heroine’s dog respects her: “Gordon lifted his head and sneered at her. He thought she was trash.”

    • Oh my gosh, Susan, I’m in awe you were able to PICK a favorite line! All her books are full of awesome writing. Hence the notes when I read the newest one. 🙂 You know what else is great: she seamlessly integrates characters from other books and I always enjoy seeing them again. I should take notes on that too, come to think of it. Hmm. Thanks for the comments and for stopping by! It’s a lucky day when my two biggest cheerleaders (you and Cynthia) make time for me.

  3. I think you took some really great insights away from that signing. That makes me happier than anything that you got to go–just so you could internalize them.

    I keep trying to seduce you to the darkside…I’m a hybrid between a panster and a plotter. I can’t plot anything until I’ve started writing my characters and get to know them, which gives me backstory, which lends its-self to GMC, which THEN leads to some plotting, when I get stuck. But at the heart of what I do is my characters. Two things leap to mind, one there is no scenario that at it’s core hasn’t been done. Two the coolest set of events in the world are only cool IF the right people are there.

    You are a storyteller, not a plot teller. Story IS character because it is how they react to what’s happening around them.

    I do have a SEP book, but I haven’t read it yet…it’s on my list of things to do. So I don’t know if I love her yet. I’ll let you know.

    • …And there’s my third biggest cheerleader. 🙂 Thanks for the comments! I wish I could understand why plot always comes to me first. I honestly have to figure out the characters second 100% of the time. I promised myself I was going to come up with characters first and then see what happened but I haven’t been able to work on anything new in quite some time. I’m curious to see what comes of it. Can’t wait to hear what you think of the SEP book!

  4. I love SEP’s books and I’d find it hard to choose just one. My 3 favorites are Nobody’s Baby But Mine, Heaven Texas and Ain’t she Sweet. But I don’t think she’s written a bad book.
    I don’t plot either and I hardly take notes, which makes it a pain when I write a new book in a series as I have to go back and read the other books to remember what people looked like etc etc.
    I heard SEP speak at the last RWA conference and she said that when she had her first hardback deal she was worried about writing a ‘bigger’ book and that Jane Anne Krantz told her to just write the same book she always wrote. That really resonated with me because I was struggling with going the other way from trade paperback to mass market. I emailed her to say how much that advice helped me and she was kind enough to email back and give the credit to JAK. 🙂

    • Hi Kate! I love hearing SEP speak. I was sorry to miss her at the last RWA conference. I also love that she emailed you back – that’s what’s so fantastic about the romance community. Everyone supports each other. Exactly like you do for me. 🙂 Thanks for coming by.

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