I have been lucky in my travels to come across some great writers to work and talk with. One of them I have known both personally and professionally is the author S.R. Johannes – or as I know her, Shelli.
Shelli and I go back a long time – though we don’t see too much of each other any more. In the decade or so that I have known her, she has worked on some projects with me and was a fabulous writer who was always dependable. However, doing the corprate stuff was not her goal, and she was busy working on her own fiction as well as bringing up her 2 beautiful kids.
SR Johannes is now an award winning author, always receiving high accolades from multiple sources about her work. But more importantly, her audience LOVES them even more, and it is an audience that just continues to grow – her Nature of Grace series has rabid fans singing her praises and clamoring for more. They can’t seem to get enough of spunky character Grace Wells and all she encounters…allowing Shelli to create two more thrilling installments after her popular first offering hit the streets in 2011.
So You Want to be a Writer?
As a proud KSU alum, I get asked by writing classes every year to shed some light on what it means to be a writer, to me. Dr. Margaret Walters has a great class over there that opens up budding young minds to new possibilities, and interviewing a writer is part of it. I am always happy to help – the students are wonderful.
At the beginning of this year, I approached Shelli and a couple other friends who wrote in different ways, looking to create a series of interviews called So You Want to be a Writer? and addressing some common questions I hear from the KSU students. It is meant to look at some of the ideas we have as students about what it is to be a writer, compared to the actual nuts-and-bolts of the daily grind once you “arrive” (if anyone ever does) – sweat stains and all.
While my whole project idea may not have had enough steam behind it to keep going, Shelli’s answers were great, and it was a shame to be sitting in my desktop, unseen…so here you go. Dedicated to the ongoing classes of Dr. Margaret Walters at Kennesaw State University and the interviews they do – keep them at it, Margaret!
HUGE thanks for Shelli’s patience and candid answers, and apologies it did not get out here sooner…I am indebted to her once again. 🙂
At what point did you determine you had a knack for writing?
I always wrote when I was little. Poems and short stories. I won a writing contest in Elementary school. But as I moved into high school, I stopped. For reasons unknown. I think business was pushed more than the arts.
Since I got a degree in marketing – I’ve always done business writing in creative ways. Ads, employee newsletters, etc. But in 2004 when my daughter was born, I read Harry Potter and got inspired to write a Fairy series. got great feedback from editors and agents but no one ever picked up the book. I knew then I could write and I’ve been writing ever since.
Who encouraged you? How?
At first, editors and agents gave me feedback around “this story stinks but you can really write.” Then, writing buddies and critique partners. Of course my family was very supportive as well, helping me find time to write.
Who discouraged you and how? How did you overcome this?
Editors and agents are discouraging in general when they give rejections. You just have to know rejections – many of them – are natural for most authors. Learn from them and don’t take it personally. Also know you are one person away from a yes. This business is subjective. It took me until my first book come out until I realized that I was good enough. That my book was good enough to sell. Before that , I took their words and criticisms as law. Keep in mind – agents and editors are always focused on what sells big. Not necessarily quality first.
What were important turning points or milestones for you, mentally or otherwise, once you decided to pursue writing more directly?
When I got an agent, I knew I was good enough to publish. Unfortunately I didn’t sell with that agent and left her. But you get nuggets of inspiration and encouragement along the way. You have to look for them though. For example: a personal note from an editor is encouraging. A fan letter from a teen saying how much she connected to your book. A writer contacting you about how much you inspire them. Or a winning a contest/award unexpectedly.
Did you go to college for writing? If so, did it help? Did it slow you down at all?
No. But I study craft by reading books, getting critiques, attending conferences and workshops. There are several writing groups SCBWI is for children book writers, Thrillerfest is for thriller writers, and RWA is for romance writers . There are groups for any genre – get involved and learn. In Georgia, there is the Atlanta writers club and the Georgia writers association.
Did you hold any writing-related jobs? Do you today?
I have a marketing degree and worked in corporate America. So I have always been a copywriter and kept busy writing even if it was business writing. I still do that now as I do fiction writing on the side.
How long did you work on your first published book? Were there others before it?
I started in 2004 and wrote a middle grade at 100,000 words. That book didn’t sell. For Untraceable which is my first published book it took 3 years. That book went through so many revisions, I think I technically wrote about 3 different books during that time.
How much of your book was complete when you started seeking someone to help publish/promote it?
All of it. Publishers and agents wont look at partial books or outlines. You need to write the book to sell it.
How many different publishers did you appeal to?
Many – I could not even count. I queried anyone who seemed like a good fit – agents or editors. Use the writers market guide to find publishing houses, editor names, and what they are looking for. You can use agentquery.com and querytracker.com to search for an agent by genre.
Were there a great number of rejections to get through? If so, how did you stay motivated?
TONS. I probably have over 150 rejection letters. You have to look for the personal rejections and hope the rejections give you feedback. If they are generic- you need to go back to square one – something is wrong. If they are personal, that means you have something special but something is missing. Use the rejections as learning tools on how to fix your manuscript. And again, know every author gets rejections. Even Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) received many rejections. After her book was bough for 6 figures, she got a rejection in the mail saying it sucked.
What made you choose the publisher that you did?
After years of trying to get published, I decided to self publish. I researched online and bought books on self publishing and marketing. Self publishing is HARD and a lot of work. But at the time it was the right decision for me. I would not recommend it for everyone and I won’t do it for every book.
Did you have another job while working on your book? Do you have another job now? If so, how easy or hard is (was) it to balance both work schedules? (share any tips for staying on track)
Yes never quit your day job until money comes in regularly. You can be on top one month and then get nothing for a period of time.
Was the editing process what you had imagined it to be?
Editing is hard. My book has gone through many rounds of edits from beginning to end. And it sucks every time I have to revise. After I write a first draft, I send it to my critique partners. Once they read it, I revise it and send it to a few more. Usually in the traditional publishing process – agents and editors also provide edits. IN self publishing, I hired editors for content and copyediting.. So expect edits. They are a part of the process.
How much do you feel outside editors influenced the finished work?
I would say 20%. You have to know when to listen and when to follow your gut. I can’t explain it but I know when I see a comment if it fits or not. I don’t get upset at criticism and I don’t take it personally. I think that is hard for most writers.
How long did it take from the time you had a publisher, to the time you had a finished manuscript? Is there anything you suggest as a way for others to make this time spent more efficient or less stressful?
Manuscripts should be done when they get bought. But the editorial process can take 6 months to a year. Waiting for long periods of time when nothing is happening is part of this business and it sucks. Just write something new to keep your mind off it.
Did you have input into the cover art and jacket design?
Yes but I’m self-published. I chose my cover designer and had input into the book. The concept was all mine and exactly what I pictured. Most authors do not have any input unless it is James Patterson.
What was the moment that you finally said to yourself, “This is a finished book, written by me.”
When I saw it on the shelf! 😛
Was there any promotion of the book on its release?
Yes, tons. Mostly online. Blog tours, online ads, contests/awards, reviews etc.
How was/is it being promoted after the fact? How much do you find you are promoting it personally?
All the time. I do marketing every day. Whether it is social networking, guesting on a blog, price changes, talking to readers, setting up signings. Etc. I don’t think you do as much marketing as a traditional author.
How many books have sold to-date?
Maybe about 20,000
Are you receiving a significant part of the earnings? Is there a break-even point? What constitutes a measure of success beyond the sheer number of books sold?
Yes. But again, I’m self-published so I get 70% of everything. In traditional publishing, you get royalties on sales and an advance but it is all dependent on the publisher. There is no magic number. It depends on what the book sells for and how many you sell.
Has the process been what you expected or how/where has it varied?
Harder. Self publishing is hard. It is a one man show. I wasn’t ever expecting this side of publishing. I spend a lot of time marketing and less time writing that I wanted.
Are you writing a book right now? What lessons from the first experience are consciously in play?
Yes, I’m always writing books – I’m an author. 🙂 My lesson, is to just write and know everyone’s path is different. I have to focus on my own paper and not worry what everyone else is doing. My lesson is to just write.
Do you look at writing the same way you did before publishing?
No I didn’t know how hard it was to get published. I just thought you wrote a book and someone bought it and put it on a shelf. But now I know it’s possible to do it so I focus on that by writing daily.
Is it time to quit the day job yet – or when does that finally happen?
When I make enough a month on a consistent basis to do only writing. My goal is by 2014. 🙂
Something tells me, going into fiction full time in 2014 won’t be much of a problem for SR Johannes.
My thanks to Shelli, and my wishes for a long and happy career doing what she does best.
Be sure to visit and catch-up with the author SR Johannes socially, and on the web: