Today’s featured debut author is Shelli Johnson who, as a journalist, has won a Hearst National Journalism Award and two departmental Associated Press awards for her reporting. Shelli also earned a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing at Columbia College, Chicago, which is where she wrote her award-winning (congrats!) novel, Small as a Mustard Seed.
Name of book: Small as a Mustard Seed
Book genre: Historical Fiction
Date published: May 2011
Publisher: Ten Twenty-Seven Books, which is my own small press
What is your day job? I’m a free-lance editor. I am also a licensed massage therapist, which I do part-time.
What is your book about? As a child in 1960s rural Ohio, Ann Marie Adler finds herself caught between her father, Frank, a veteran who survived the war in Korea but with devastating post-traumatic stress, and her mother, Adele, who is blindsided by the mental illness that accompanied him home. In a series of escalating dangerous episodes, Frank confuses reality with soul-searing memories, believing he’s still a soldier fighting for his life in battle-torn Korea. During the delusions, Ann Marie and her younger sister, Jolene, become the enemy, which leaves them fearing for their lives. Unable to fully protect her daughters, Adele scrambles to keep order while her husband’s threatening and unpredictable outbursts slowly tear the family apart.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? Most of my struggle is self-doubt and feeling like I’m in over my head. Once I get past that, the writing itself is not too bad. Lately, also, it’s been a time management issue. I’m still figuring out how to do social media, take care of my family, do my day job, and work on my novel all in the same day.
What motivates you to write? I’ve always loved writing. The earliest memory I have of it is writing a story in the first grade and having it be selected by the teacher to be read to the kindergarten class. I don’t even remember what it was about. But I do remember thinking that writing was all I wanted to do. My favorite part of writing is when I get so caught up in the story that I lose track of time. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of that for me. It keeps me coming back. Plus, I love my characters. I actually look forward to sitting down and seeing what they’re going to do next.
Did you experience writer’s block? Someone once said to me that writer’s block is about perfectionism. To a degree, I think that’s true. When I don’t worry about how the first draft comes out, when I know I’m not going to be showing it to anyone, I usually don’t have any kind of problem writing. It’s when I start thinking about how readers will react to it that I start to second-guess. I think the worst thing you can do to yourself as a writer is to stop writing. Even when it’s hard, keep moving forward. A sentence here, a paragraph there, whatever. As I’ve often heard, the cure to any kind of writing problem is to just keep writing. If I ever start having a really hard time, I go for a run. After a few miles, it clears my head right out so I can think of ideas and hear the characters instead of my own mind chatter.
How long did it take you to write this book? About four years.
Why did you decide to self-publish? I chose to be an independent author early on, mostly because I got a substantial grant to do it. The Weisman Fund (the grant liaison, after reading only the first three chapters, believed in my novel so much that she fought for me to be awarded one of the grants) gave me money to start my own small press. I wanted to learn how to do it, so that’s the choice I made. It was a good choice, it seemed, at the time. Small as a Mustard Seed went on to win the Grand Prize in the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.
What is the biggest misconception about writing a book? For me, personally, it was that I didn’t think I had it in me to do it. Once I wrote the first one, the fear that I couldn’t do it was gone. In general, though, a lot of great authors make writing a novel look easy (great plot, beautiful language, memorable characters). In reality, I now know there’s a LOT of hard work that goes into it to make it look that easy.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? It was like a puzzle I had to put together. I had lots of pages and scenes that were disjointed and didn’t flow together. I had to figure out what the big picture was and then make all the little pieces fit together to create it. I love puzzles, so that was really enjoyable for me. What I also loved was getting surprised by the story, having it veer off in a direction I never anticipated, never planned for, and so I’m just as shocked as a reader would be about what happened.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I’ve submitted my book to contests and won. I’ve gotten reviews from the media and other authors. I’ve sent out press releases and been covered in a few local papers. I’ve done some blog interviews (like this one!) and have submitted my novel to book bloggers for review. I’m on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads. I have my own blog, which is less about writing and a bit more about motivational advice: how to keep going when you’d rather throw in the towel, goal-setting, having a vision that you turn into reality, that kind of thing. I’m still learning as I go, what works and what doesn’t. My advice to writers would definitely be to get plugged into social media, make connections and be visible and build a following.
How has life changed for you since the publication of your book? Well, I was featured in an international magazine (Writer’s Digest), did readings all around Chicago when I lived there, was invited to speak (and got paid!) on a panel during a big writing/story event in Chicago, and got to do a radio interview on NPR. I’ve received lots of letters/emails from readers about how my book impacted their lives. I’ve become a better writer. I have a lot more confidence in my writing ability than I did before the book was published.
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I absolutely agree. Sometimes you only have a few seconds to present yourself and your work. Don’t believe me? Read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s all about how people make split-second decisions, including on which books to buy. You have to be ready for that. Personally, I’ve worked late into the night and weekends and whenever I had a spare minute to finish my novels. I’ve got two books done and a third nearly completed. I earned a master’s degree in creative writing, and I still read writing books to learn more. I’ve got a website up and a blog I update regularly. I’m plugged into social networks, which takes a lot of daily time. I’ve taken online training to learn how to do things (ebook formatting, website design, typography, just to name a few). I’ve been following blogs to learn how to do social-media strategies/blogging/SEO better. The one thing I will be taking soon is some media training to learn how to best present myself when I start doing interviews again. Yes, it’s a lot of work, a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that most people don’t ever see. But when my moment in the spotlight finally comes, because of all that preparation, I’ll be ready.