Interview with Liesl Shurtliff

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Today's guest for the SAT is fellow Class of 2k13 member Liesl Shurtliff, author of RUMP: THE TRUE STORY OF RUMPELSTILTSKIN. Liesl Shurtliff was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the mountains for her playground. Just like Rump, Liesl was shy about her name, growing up. Not only did it rhyme with weasel, she could never find it on any of those personalized key chains in gift shops. But over the years she’s grown to love having an unusual name—and today she wouldn’t change it for the world!


Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Both, but probably more of a panster. I don’t outline, but I do lots of pre-writing, exploration of characters and world-building, and sketch a basic idea of a beginning, middle, and end, but when I start drafting all sorts of things crop up, from problems to better ideas, and I have to go back, tweak things, and sometimes do complete rewrites of several chapters. My process is haphazard to say the least, but it’s how I roll.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

I’m not certain I have a “typical” time-frame. I drafted RUMP in about 4 months and revised for another 5 months before submitting to agents. In my opinion that’s fairly quick for a novel. Other projects have taken me longer and right now I’m at the year mark of another project and I’m not even half-way. Pantsers are at the mercy of so many factors. Sometimes stories come more fully formed, and other times they need a lot more coaxing out of the dark corners of my brain. I don’t think either scenario is better or worse. It’s just the nature of things.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I used to be a one-project-at-a-time kind of girl, but now I’m a proud multi-tasker. I always thought that it was important to have tunnel vision on one project, pour all your creative energy into that baby, but recently I started working on two projects at once out of necessity, and I found it to be surprisingly good for my writing in terms of energy and productivity. Sometimes one project will give me fits but another one will be very compliant (much like my children) so it really helps to switch back and forth, giving natural resting periods to each project as I work on the other. This also naturally shrinks the number of “bad-writing days,” which is good because I hate those.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Yes. I was afraid that I was wasting my time, that I really didn’t have anything of value to say or share. There are so many great books in the world and so many books period. What makes me think mine belongs on the shelf? And here’s a little secret: I still have to overcome those fears. I have to tune out the voices of self-deprecation, give myself permission to do what I love, and give others permission to love or reject what I do. I still struggle with these fears and many others, but at least I consciously recognize that they’re evil.  

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

Two. I never queried either of them. (Wise.)

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I quit on the two previously mentioned mss. The first was something I wrote years ago during the insanity we call NaNoWriMo. I revised for a very short while before I decided that it was just an exercise and really wasn’t meant to be anything more. It helped me build some endurance, get a feel for pacing and plotting and that’s it.

The second ms I absolutely loved (the idea at least) and really wanted it to be the novel I debuted with. I wrote and revised for two years, but it just never got to that place where I felt like it was good enough. I was still figuring out my process, finding my voice, figuring out pacing, characterization, and a myriad of other writing skills. I learned a lot while writing and revising this novel, but you can only revise a novel so much before it just gets overworked and mangled. It was with a heavy heart that I shelved it, probably very similar to the feeling one might have about breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend that you know just isn’t that great, but you’re so afraid to let go because what if there really isn’t anyone better? Worse, what if there’s no one? I can’t speak for boyfriends or girlfriends, but in terms of writing, your ideas really aren’t something to get too sentimental about. Sure, some are better than others, but at the end of the day it’s the execution of the ideas that matter, and you have to have faith that your powers of execution will improve with each book you write (if you’re deliberate about your practice.) It was hard for me to shelve that novel, but I’m so very glad I did.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?  

My agent is Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary and I adore her. I cold-queried her (that means I had no previous connection) and she responded within a few days with a request for a full and two weeks later she made an offer. Seriously one of the best moments of my life next to “Will you marry me?” and “We’re having a baby!”

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I queried about 30 agents for one month before landing my agent.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

I know my time in getting an agent is pretty darn fast compared to many, so it might seem that I did not go through enough of hell to give any advice. (Though it was hell. Absolute torture, no matter how long it lasts.) I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of that had to do with luck and timing. I found the right person at the right time for my work. However, as you’ll note in some of my previous comments, I wasn’t overeager to query—just the opposite in fact—I was terrified. I didn’t just write a book and say, what next? I was careful to make sure I really understood what “next” meant and what it took to get there. I worked on my craft for seven years before I got an agent. When I felt the time was right, I spent many hours researching agents, making a list of those I thought would be a good fit and taking careful notes of their preferences and submission guidelines. I studied how to write a great query letter, and made sure I was absolutely certain I was ready for this—for publication. It wasn’t just about landing an agent and getting a book published. Publishing is brutal. Even if you get an agent and a publisher, you still have to win over the world. The world can be a very mean place. So basically my advice is this: Know what it is you’re asking for and feel confident that you’re ready for it.

How much input do you have on cover art?

I felt very included in the process and that my publisher wanted me to be pleased with my cover. They asked what I envisioned and asked for some examples of other covers I thought were along the lines of what I wanted. I was thrilled when they showed me the artist they chose. Absolutely could not have chosen better myself. When the cover came through, I had some concerns about certain elements being an accurate reflection of my story, and they did make some changes based on some of my feedback. All in all I was pleased with how everything was handled and I adore my cover. It’s magical, don’t you think?

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

Honestly, what surprised me was that my opinions mattered to my publisher. One hears horror stories about the publisher always getting the last word about everything from covers and titles right down to the content, and never listening to the author’s opinion. So I had this idea that I just needed to shut up, be grateful, and enjoy the ride no matter the bumps. Maybe that is the case for some, but as I got into the process, I learned that books are a collaborative process and that collaboration included me, the author. I learned to articulate my opinions in a professional manner and if I felt emotional about something, (and it’s all too easy to get emotional about one’s book) I’d step back for a few days until I could calmly articulate what I thought was wrong and present a viable solution. And—Surprise!—most of the time they thought my solution was better than theirs. On the other hand, sometimes I didn’t always have a great solution or alternative, and I had to respect their wisdom and expertise. But I’m not a total peon. That was surprising.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I do A LOT of my own marketing. I have great publicists both at my agency and publisher who do a lot of the legwork in scheduling events, reaching out to book bloggers, reviewers, schools, etc. I have a website, blog, Twitter, FB, so I guess most of the marketing I do is online social networking, or of course guest posts and interviews that I can’t allocate to someone else. I also took charge of any marketing materials such as bookmarks, postcards, etc.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I don’t think it’s every too early, taking into consideration that building your writing skills is far more important, at least for fiction writers. For non-fiction, the platform is essential and will have a lot to do with getting a contract, especially at a big house. For fiction, it’s not going to make or break you, but it’s still important and I think any amount that can be done before acquiring an agent or contract is helpful. Just don’t let it get in the way of building your writing skills. If you’re spending all your time blogging and tweeting instead of actually writing a book, then you might want to reconsider what it is you love to do.  

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I don’t have statistic, but I would say yes, it does. People definitely won’t read your book if they don’t know about it and social media is just another medium of letting people know about your book. (A pretty good medium, I’d say.) Speaking from personal experience, the more I hear about a book through blogs and other social media, the more likely I am to read the book, or at least check it out and read a chapter to see if it’s my kind of book. So yes, social media does help, but I don’t think it’s the secret to making a bestseller. (I have no idea what that secret might be and I don’t think anyone else does either, no matter what they say.)