Q&A With Jessica Strawser

Strawser Photo

By day, Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest magazine, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. By night, she is a fiction writer with a debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, new from St. Martin’s Press (named to the March 2017 Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction shortlist!), and another stand-alone book club title, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, forthcoming in 2018. And by the minute, she is a proud wife and mom to two super sweet and super young kids in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans more than 15 years and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. She blogs at WritersDigest.comand elsewhere (if you’d like a guest post, contact me!), tweets fairly regularly @jessicastrawser (please do say hello), enjoys connecting on Facebook, and speaks at writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.


I read her novel (ALMOST MISSED YOU) and was hooked immediately. Having a three-year-old boy myself really tugged on my mommy heartstrings and Jessica’s writing tugged on my writer’s heartstrings. Please, stop what you’re doing and download this ebook, or go buy it somewhere and start diving in! I even passed it along to my mom when I was finished (she adored it as well). Of course, after going gaga over this book, I had some questions for its fabulous author. So, here we go…

Strawser Cover.jpg


1-  When you are writing, do you have beta readers? If so, how do you find them? 

I do have a few trusted beta readers—mostly generous souls from my life who are kind enough to lend an eye and who happen to share my love of books: a librarian, a former bookseller, a voracious reader. I’ve also traded critiques with fellow writers on occasion, and in those instances we connected regarding something else first and the swap came about organically. I do not share my work “when I am writing,” however—only completed drafts that I feel are on their way to being ready for an audience.

2-  Are your characters for your works loosely based-on or inspired by actual people?

My characters are wonderfully not inspired by actual people—dreaming them up is half the fun.

3-  Do you have a basic outline that you follow when you are writing? Or do you wing it?

I tend to have a central question I’m pursuing an answer to, and some key themes and plot points in mind that I’d like to hit along the way, but definitely not an outline (though I often wish I did!).

4-  Who are some of your favorite authors?

Liane Moriarty, Maggie O’Farrell, Anne Tyler, Jodi Picoult, Alice Walker, Jojo Moyes, Chris Bohjalian, David Sedaris … I could go on and on!

5-  Do you read other genres besides your own? What genre do you consider your work?

Part of my day job as editor at Writer’s Digest involves interviewing bestselling authors across all genres, and I never do so without reading their work. I’ve found it’s wonderfully beneficial as a writer, and enjoyable as a reader, that this forces me not to box myself in. I find much to admire in the never-saw-them-coming twists of Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner, the happily-ever-afters of Susan Mallery, the nostalgia of Sarah Dessen. My own tastes are broad reaching as well, but my work is best defined as “book club fiction”—or, if you want a real mouthful, “upmarket women’s fiction with elements of suspense.”

6-  How did you go about finding a literary agent? Did you send many query letters out? How much time did it take to hear back/edit/receive an offer from an agent and then a publisher? 

The agent who sold Almost Missed You is actually my second agent. I had an earlier, unsold project that did help me land my first agent, on a revise-and-resubmit request (which really was more like a complete rewrite based on his feedback, which had resonated strongly), but ultimately he was unable to place the book and we went our separate ways for largely unrelated reasons. I had garnered many rejections for that first project, both from other agents and from publishers—I never kept count of how many, so as not to discourage myself further, but always tried to look to the next possibility.

With Almost Missed You, the only agent I approached signed me, and she sold me in a two-book pre-empt two weeks later. After years of waiting and being told no, I’d stopped getting my hopes up very high—it was completely unexpected!

7-  Do you listen to music when you write to create a mood? Or do you have the TV on? Do you prefer silence? 

I close the door of my writing room and aim for silence, though I don’t always get it! I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and do as much of my writing as possible when they’re asleep—but if they aren’t, I say a silent thanks to my husband for holding down the fort and do my best to tune out the noise.

8-  Which comes first? Plot/story or characters.

I simply can’t separate the two—they are intrinsically linked.

9-  What are some of your favorite TV shows/Movies/Music/Actors?

I’ve fallen woefully behind on both TV and movies, given that I work all day and write weeknights until bedtime—I really only have a chance to relax in front of the screen on weekends, so often stick to one thing at a time. Right now I’m loving the new season of “Better Call Saul,” and eagerly awaiting the new seasons of “This Is Us,” “Z: The Beginning of Everything” and “Mozart in the Jungle.”

10- When writing do you ever envision certain actors as you characters? If so, who?

I do not, but this is a popular topic at book clubs I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with! It’s fun to hear their own casting ideas (though to be clear, my work has not as of yet been optioned for film).

11-  How different is Almost Missed You from your previous novel? Any previews for your next stand alone book?

Almost Missed You is completely different from my unsold “drawer novel” (or “practice novel,” as Jane Smiley calls them), which was a very internal, first person, present tense story.

Not That I Could Tell, forthcoming in March 2018, has much in common with Almost Missed You—again asking the question of how well any of us really know anyone else, and alternating voices between three characters—though it takes a completely different approach. While Almost Missed You centered on our closest relationships (namely, our spouses and children), Not That I Could Tell looks to our friends and neighbors and raises some tough questions about the line between caring for those around us and minding our own business. It’s also a more linear story, in a more confined setting and on a tighter timeline, whereas Almost Missed You moved around in both place and time quite a bit.

12-  Any general advice to debut authors trying to get published?

Believe you can do it; persist.

13-  Any advice for writing with young children and trying to balance it all?

It’s not easy; sacrifice is involved. I suppose my best advice is to know your priorities (my first one is always my children), to not hesitate to make your writing one of them (which does mean learning to say no to outside obligations—including, sometimes, quite appealing ones), and not to be too hard on yourself when something falls short.

14-  Do you miss your characters when a book is complete?

You know, I really don’t. I try to leave them where I feel as if they can take it from there—and I love nothing more than hearing from readers who are imagining futures for these people beyond the page. The fact that they have become real to someone other than me is the greatest compliment I could receive, I think. (And given your questions at the end of this interview, that includes you, so thank you!)

15-  Is there a character of your own or of someone else’s that you think you are very similar to?

I think if authors are doing their jobs well, their characters are relatable in that they are like us, but also so apart from us that we can’t point to them as mirrors or archetypes of ourselves.

16-  I love your use of Gatlinburg and Asheville (since I am from Knoxville which is relatively similar and close) are these some of your favorite travel destinations? What made you want to feature them in your story?

The characters live in Cincinnati, as I do, and both Gatlinburg and Asheville are popular spots here for a long weekend away, which is what I needed for the purposes of my plot. That said, I do love them both, and it was great fun to write about Asheville especially.

17-  Do you think Finn romanticized his relationship with his ex (Maribel)?

That is, by design, for the reader to decide, rather than for me to say.


…The rest of my questions would be spoilers! So I didn’t share =)




(Happy reading)


Interviewed by – Audra McElyea


Audra McElyea @AudraMcElyea is a writer, personal trainer, blogger, contributor, wife and mom to two young boys. Her women’s fiction novel When Lilies Bloom is currently in the querying stage. She is a proud member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and she is the host of Book Moms #BookMoms @BookMoms & Women’s Fiction Wednesdays. #WFWed @WFWed

Her work has appeared in national online publications, including SheKnows magazine. When she isn’t endlessly editing her novel, you can find her in Tennessee cleaning up after two wild, little boys, or teaching Pilates. She is active on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads

Q&A with Kimberly Belle

I’m excited to kick-start my first author Q&A with the amazing Kimberly Belle. Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of three novels: The Last Breath, The Ones We Trust, and The Marriage Lie. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Agnes Scott College and has worked in marketing and fundraising for various nonprofits, both at home and abroad. She divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.

K.Belle headshot

I was excited to pick her brain (no, not literally, it’s a southern thing) about her path to success, and about her transition from women’s fiction to straight-up suspense.

When you are writing, do you have beta readers? If so, how do you find them? Any recommendations?

Yes, I have critique partners, plotting partners, and beta readers. As you can tell, I’m a strong believer in teamwork and am very open for criticism and advice. I believe that ultimately, smart criticism makes for a better book. The trick is developing a tough skin, which I’m still working on every day.

As for finding the right people, that’s a bit of trial and error. My critique and plotting partners are other writers I’ve met along the way, and my beta readers are a mix of writers, reviewers, and enthusiastic readers. Writing and reading groups are a great way to find folks, with Great Thoughts Great Readers and A Novel Bee being two of my favorites. I also help run Readers Coffeehouse along with a half dozen other authors. These groups are a great way to connect to other readers and authors.

Are your characters loosely based-on or inspired by actual people?

Yes and no. I do take bits and pieces of people I know and put them into my characters, but never enough that that person would recognize him/herself. I tend to mix and match, too, combining a bunch of characteristics into one very colorful character.

Do you have a basic outline that you follow when you are writing, or do you wing it?

My stories have a lot of moving pieces, so I do plot them out beforehand. I work from an outline, but it’s pretty fluid and there are always some surprises along the way. For example, Evan was nowhere in my outline for The Marriage Lie. He walked into a scene, and I was like, “who are you?” He ended up being an essential character for the story.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

How much time do you have, lol, because the list is long. In my genre—suspense—I adore Karin Slaughter (who I ran into at the doctor’s office once, btw, and was a stuttering fangirl!), Harlan Coben, Chevy Stevens, Mary Kubica, Heather Gudenkauf, and Kate Moretti. Jennifer Weiner is an automatic buy for me, as are Liane Moriarty and Allison Winn Scotch. Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger was brilliant, and I also adored Julia Heaberling’s Black-Eyed Susans. So many great books and authors out there!

Do you read in other genres besides your own?

Like most writers, I am a voracious reader, and I read way outside my genre. Women’s fiction, romance, historical, humor – I’ll read just about anything as long as it’s not horror.

How did you go about finding a literary agent? Did you send several query letters out? How much time did it take to hear back/edit/receive an offer from an agent…and then a publisher?

After I wrote my first story (The Ones We Trust), I began querying. Anyone who has ever queried knows what a hellish experience that is. Agents get hundreds of emails a week, and getting discovered from the slush pile is often a crapshoot. But writers write, so I started my second book, The Last Breath. As I was writing that story, The Ones We Trust finaled in a number of contests. One of them was at a local RWA chapter, so I went to that conference and pitched it to agents (this is a whole other story, btw. These pitching sessions are like speed dating and just as hellish; I freaked myself out so much I had to take a Xanax.) I signed with one of the agents, Nikki Terpilowski of Holloway Literary Agency, by the end of the month. She sold both those books to Mira in a 2-book deal, and they ended up flipping the order. The Last Breath was my debut, mostly because it needed the least amount of work. They asked me to rewrite the last chapter and that was about it. The Ones We Trust needed a pretty significant rewrite.

Do you listen to music when you write, or do you have the TV on? Do you prefer dead silence? 

I write best in an empty house and in complete silence. I have a lovely office upstairs, where I never, ever sit. I float around downstairs – the kitchen, the living room, the outdoor patio – with my laptop, changing spots whenever I get stuck or need a change of scenery. We’re currently building a house, and our architect calls them “landing spots.” He’s designed a bunch of them for me throughout the downstairs.

Which comes first? Plot/story or characters.

Plot, always. I write suspense, which means my stores are very plot driven. I backdoor in things like character and setting. For example, The Last Breath is a story about a scandal so I set it in a small town, where everybody knows everybody and everybody knows your business. The Marriage Lie was set in Atlanta, my hometown, amid big businesses and elite private schools, and I made my main character a school psychologist. Intellectually, she knows about grief, but when confronted with her own, she finds herself at the mercy of her emotions. I choose whatever works best for the plot – and by that I mean, whatever puts my characters in the worst possible position.

What are some of your favorite TV shows/movies/music/actors?

I watch very little television, other than news programs and a few guilty pleasures like the Housewives. I fly a lot, so most of my movies are seen on the plane. Like I mentioned in an above answer, I’m always struggling for balance, which means I’m very choosy with how I spend my free time. TV and movie time aren’t high on the list.

Music, however, is a different story. Whenever I’m not writing, I have music playing in the house. R&B, soul, country, lounge, EDM…. I love it all. Jill Scott, John Legend, Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and all the Dutch DJs (Tiesto, Afrojack, Martin Garrix, Armin and so many more) are some of my favorites.

When writing do you ever envision certain actors as you characters? If so, who?

I get asked this question all the time, but the answer is no. My characters feel very real to me, but they are unique and not based on a real-life actor. I also try to keep their physical descriptions a bit vague so that readers can make their own assumptions as to who they look like. If any of my stories get made into movies, there are plenty of actors/actresses who would fit the bill.

How does The Marriage Lie differ from your previous women’s fiction novels?

My first two novels kind of straddle the line between suspense and women’s fiction, but when I came up with the idea for The Marriage Lie, there was really no other way to tell the story other than as a twisty suspense story. A husband dying under mysterious circumstances, a wife determined to dig up the truth about the man she was in love with. To write it any other way would not do the story justice.

But it was exactly my background in women’s fiction that led me to write the story as I did—with a normal, everyday lead whose emotions play a big role. It’s not just about the action on the page, but about how Iris responds to what happens. When she loses her husband under suspicious circumstances, she’s dealing with grief and confusion but also feelings of betrayal, and her emotions color every decision she makes from there on out. The action drives the emotion and the emotion drives the action, and the two become so intertwined that one can’t exist without the other.

And while yes, this story is a departure from my two previous books, I am fascinated with secrets and how when they come to light (as they always do), they can really destroy a relationship. In that vein at least, The Marriage Lie is similar to my other two novels.

Any advice to debut authors trying to get agented/published?

The biggest advice I can give to any writer is to keep writing. Letter for letter, word for word. Don’t wait for an agent, a publisher, a contract, just keep writing and polishing your craft, every single day. Treat your writing like a job. Set your alarm and go to “work” behind your laptop every day, five days a week, because if you wait for inspiration to strike—or for a story idea to come upon you—you’ll never get anything written. Some days you’ll end with a lot of words, other days you’ll stare at your screen and pull out your hair. In the end, it all evens out and eventually, you have a book.

But at the same time, the end goal for any writer is to get published. Unfortunately, rejection is part of the process. Keep writing and keep fighting and keep putting yourself out there, even when you want to give up and crawl back in bed. The most successful writers aren’t necessarily the best but the most persistent.

Any advice for writing moms with young children who are trying to balance it all?

I began writing when my kids were older, so I can’t speak to carving out writing time with young kids in the house, but balance is something I’m constantly working on. Deadlines, reviews, sales numbers, etc. are all different pressures but they’re still pressures, and they can really mess with your writing mojo if you let them. It’s part of the reason I’m such a yogi. Getting out of my chair and into the studio help me to breathe when the pressure becomes too much.

Do you miss your characters when a book is complete? Do you have a favorite character or book of your own?

Oh, no! That’s like asking me to choose between my kids, lol. And no, by the time I put the last touches on a book, I’ve read it 84027490558236 times, so I’m ready to put a bit of distance between me and my story. What I do love, however, is when readers talk about my characters like they’re old friends. That’s the very best compliment you can give a writer, that people they create travel from their brain into yours and become as real to you as they are to the writer.

Is there a character of your own (or of someone else’s) that you think you are very similar to?

I put a lot of myself into Gia of The Last Breath, who like me comes from a small Tennessee town and made her career in disaster relief (I worked for 15 years in fundraising for nonprofits). When she returns to care for her dying father, her former hometown feels stifling, kind of like how it felt for me back when I lived there. But here’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming: throughout the story, Gia learns new appreciation for the place she thought she’d left in her rearview mirror, just like I did while I was writing it. By the time I typed “The End,” I was homesick for the blue ridges and the green valleys and the trains rumbling in the distance. As it turns out, my inner Tennessee girl was right there all along, lurking just under the surface.

Keep up with Kimberly on Facebook (www.facebook.com/KimberlyBelleBooks), Twitter (@KimberlySBelle), Instagram (@KimberlySBelle) and Goodreads (https://www.goodreads.com/KimberlyBelle). For more about Kimberly and her books, please visit her website, http://www.kimberlybellebooks.

More information on Kimberly’s books…

The Marriage Lie

Even the perfect marriage has its dark side…

Iris and Will’s marriage is as close to perfect as it can be: a large house in a nice Atlanta neighborhood, rewarding careers and the excitement of trying for their first baby. But on the morning Will leaves for a business trip to Orlando, Iris’s happy world comes to an abrupt halt. Another plane headed for Seattle has crashed into a field, killing everyone on board, and according to the airline, Will was one of the passengers on this plane.

Grief-stricken and confused, Iris is convinced it all must be a huge misunderstanding. But as time passes and there is still no sign of Will, she reluctantly accepts that he is gone. Still, Iris needs answers. Why did Will lie about where he was going? What is in Seattle? And what else has he lied about? As Iris sets off on a desperate quest to find out what her husband was keeping from her, the answers she receives will shock her to her very core.

Purchase links


Marriage Lie Book Cover








The Ones We Trust

When former DC journalist Abigail Wolff attempts to rehabilitate her career, she finds herself at the heart of a US army cover-up involving the death of a soldier in Afghanistan—with unspeakable emotional consequences for one family. As the story of what happened comes to light, Abigail will do anything to write it.

The more evidence she stumbles upon in the case, the fewer people it seems she can trust, including her own father, a retired army general. And she certainly never expected to fall in love with the slain soldier’s brother, Gabe, a bitter man struggling to hold his family together. The investigation eventually leads her to an impossible choice, one of unrelenting sacrifice to protect those she loves.

Beyond the buried truths and betrayals, questions of family loyalty and redemption, Abigail’s search is, most of all, a desperate grasp at carrying on and coping—and seeking hope in the impossible.

Purchase links







The Last Breath

Humanitarian aid worker Gia Andrews chases disasters around the globe for a living. It’s the perfect lifestyle to keep her far away from her own personal ground zero. Sixteen years ago, Gia’s father was imprisoned for brutally killing her stepmother. Now he’s come home to die of cancer, and she’s responsible for his care—and coming to terms with his guilt.

Gia reluctantly resumes the role of daughter to the town’s most infamous murderer, a part complete with protesters on the lawn and death threats that are turning tragedy into front-page news. Returning to life in small-town Tennessee involves rebuilding relationships that distance and turmoil have strained, though finding an emotional anchor in the attractive hometown bartender is certainly helping Gia cope.

As the past unravels before her, Gia will find herself torn between the stories that her family, their friends and neighbors, and even her long-departed stepmother have believed to be real all these years. But in the end, the truth—and all the lies that came before—may have deadlier consequences than she could have ever anticipated….

Purchase links









Kimberly has graciously offered to give away a signed copy of The Marriage Lie to one lucky reader! To enter, comment “book” below and for a bonus entry tweet a link to this interview and tag @AudraMcElyea.

Also, Kimberly agreed to give one lucky reader a query critique or critique of your first five pages (your choice). To enter, comment “critique” below and for a bonus entry tweet a link to this interview and tag @AudraMcElyea.

Interviewed by – Audra McElyea Audra2017Blog

Audra McElyea is a writer, personal trainer, blogger, contributor, wife and mom to two young boys. Her women’s fiction novel When Lilies Bloom is currently in the querying stage. She is a proud member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and she is the host of Women’s Fiction Wednesdays. #WFWed @WFWed

Her work has appeared in national online publications, including SheKnows magazine. When she isn’t endlessly editing her novel, you can find her in Tennessee cleaning up after two wild, little boys, or teaching Pilates. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads