Shallee McArthur: Learning What's Important When You Debut

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 (Successful Author Talk) is Shallee McArthur, author of THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE. Shallee originally wanted to be a scientist, until she discovered she liked her science best in fictional form. When she’s not writing young adult science fiction and fantasy, she’s attempting to raise her son and daughter as proper geeks. And because people always ask, her name is pronounced "shuh-LEE." But she answers to anything that sounds remotely close.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

When I first wrote, I was a straight-up pantser, but eventually my planner brain took over. I usually spend months brainstorming and plotting a 3-act-structure plot diagram (I’m a visual person). But with my most recent story, none of that worked out! I couldn’t get a plot planned, couldn’t plan out characters, and eventually I just let the story pour out. Pantsing means I take longer on first drafts, but for that story, it worked out to be exactly what the story needed. So…I’m both.

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

The first book I queried took 4 months to draft and about 9 months to revise. The next book—The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, my debut!—took 6 weeks to draft, and a year to revise (and another few months to revise with my agent). My most recent story took over 6 months to draft! But it only took about 2 months to revise (though a few more revisions are needed).

Basically, I’m unpredictable.

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

I usually work on different stories at different stages. I can only really draft ore revise one story at a time, mostly because I get super obsessed with that idea. But I’m pretty much always, ALWAYS musing and planning and exploring a new idea (or several) in my brain!

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

More like I have to overcome fears EVERY time I sit down to write! I’m one of those been-writing-since-I-could-hold-a-pen types, and when I was young, I had no fear. All I had was a love of stories. But somewhere along the way, I started to doubt myself. I’m always afraid I’ll never have another good idea, or never be able to pull off another story, etc. etc. 

But it’s kinda funny how once I am in the midst of writing, all that matters is the story and how much I love it.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

I’ve got dozens of wonderfully clichéd, poorly written stories of varying lengths that I love dearly and no one will ever see. But if we’re talking stories that I attempted to get published, I have one trunked novel. I queried it, but it wasn’t quite ready. I thought it was, of course, but at one point I re-read it and realized it was a story that I loved, but it just wasn’t “there” yet.

So I trunked it and wrote the next one.

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

I have a folder full of stories at varying lengths of “completeness.” I haven’t really quit on them—mostly they just need more development time.

But the trunked novel I mentioned above…that was hard to decide to let go, because I still love it. I suppose I could have gone back and tried to revise it some more, but I knew the best thing was to move on and write the next one. Writing the next one is the best way to actually use all the things you learned writing the last one. And my next one is the one that’s getting published, so it worked!

One thing that helped me let it go was “selfie-publishing” my trunked novel. Not for selling to others or anything, just for my own self. I made a cover, printed it through Lulu, and now I’ve got a copy sitting on my shelf!

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

Hannah Bowman is my agent, and she is my agenty soulmate! I found her in a bit of a unique way. Before she was an agent, she actually read my trunked novel and gave me fabulous feedback. When she became an agent, I knew I wanted to query her. She saw me tweet a pitch for The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, and requested the full right there! I shrieked and freaked, but didn’t send it for a few months until it was ready. When she offered rep, there was  much more shrieking and freaking!

How many queries did you send?  

I queried around 20 agents, and Hannah offered in a week! I talked to two more great agents who offered over the next week, so it was just over two weeks from the start of querying when I officially signed with her.

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

Timing and numbers of requests and all that jazz…it doesn’t matter. So what if someone had seven requests within a week? So what if someone queried for a year and finally got that one perfect offer? It’s hard to remember that when you hear all the stories, but when it comes to your career, those things don’t matter. You can still have a kick-butt debut that launches a kick-butt career, no matter how long it takes or how many offers you get. 

How did that feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

Well, it’s not for sale until November 4, but I did just get my ARCs in the mail, and found out my eARCs are on Edelweiss. The knowledge that my book is in the world for people to read is exhilarating. I wrote this book—all my books—because the story feels like something I love and need to share. So now that it’s being shared, it’s like the book is finally fulfilling its destiny.

Which is also terrifying. Because I want everyone to love this book the way I do…and they won’t. 

How much input do you have on cover art?

I got to send in a document full of descriptions, pictures, and covers I liked as a “mood board.” The designer from Sky Pony worked from that and delivered a cover. There were a few changes my agent and I requested to the final cover, and they were wonderful about making some tweaks. I’m so happy with the way it turned out!

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

How all the things you think matter SO MUCH…don’t. There were some things that happened that I didn’t expect, like the cover going online before I knew about it or could schedule a reveal, and I had legitimate panic attacks (my poor agent and editor!). I thought it was going to be such a huge deal, and it didn’t go the way I wanted, and it was SO IMPORTANT. And it wasn’t. It made no difference to anything at all. So basically, I’ve learned to relax!

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I do most of my own marketing, though my publisher has done some of the big things, of course (ARCs, etc.). I actually enjoy the “business” side of things, and I love social media! I’m on pretty much every social media platform out there, but the ones I use the most are my blog, Twitter, and Tumblr. I’m also on Facebook, and plan on being more active there!

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

I totally say before. It takes a long time to build up connections and make friends, and publishing is a long process…but not that long (my own deal ended up being 11 months from signing with the publisher to my release date!) Besides, it’s the best way to not feel alone in the writing world!

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Absolutely. I don’t think there’s always a one-to-one correlation, but I don’t think that’s the point of social media. Not all the people who follow me on Twitter are going to buy my book, but I’ve made some great friends through social media. They might buy my book, and they might tell others who’ll buy it, and in the end, I have more people talking about my book—and most of all, more friends who support me in all kinds of ways.