Shelley Blanton-Stroud On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer
Write. I hate to say what everybody says, but it’s true. Writers write. Don’t just think about writing. Write. Don’t idealize writing. Write. Don’t just read books about writing. Write. Don’t just shop for journals and pens. Write. Don’t worry your writing won’t be good enough. Just write. And after you’ve written, you’ll have something to work with and editing will feel like the most gratifying, creative thing in the world.
Some writers and authors have a knack for using language that can really move people. Some writers and authors have been able to influence millions with their words alone. What does it take to become an effective and successful author or writer?
In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer” we are talking to successful authors and writers who can share lessons from their experiences.
As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Blanton-Stroud. Shelley Blanton-Stroud is the author of The Jane Benjamin Novels, a historical thriller series. She recently retired from decades of teaching university writing and continues to consult with writers in the energy industry. She co-directs Stories on Stage Sacramento, where actors perform the stories of established and emerging authors; serves on the advisory board of 916 Ink, arts-based creative writing nonprofit for children; and is joining the advisory board of Claremont McKenna College’s Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
In spite of teaching academic and professional writing for decades, I’ve always thought of myself as a reader, not a writer. I never dreamed I could be a novelist. I didn’t much believe in such an outlandish possibility, I guess.
Then, about ten years ago, I got a call from the Monterey Bay Ambulance, telling me my husband had suffered congestive heart failure while scuba-diving with my sons. Everything stopped.
Well, he made it. He’s doing great. But the incident taught me that if there was something I wanted to do, I’d better just start doing it.
I dusted off my longings and discovered what I’d always secretly wanted was to write those books I’d gobbled up as a reader. And so I began ten years of fiction- and personal-writing, taking craft workshops, attending writing conferences, submitting stories to journals. At the end of that ten year apprenticeship, I had a novel to publish.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
The germ of my first novel, Copy Boy, was a personal story my father always told me about living with his family in a tent alongside an irrigation ditch after escaping to California from the dust bowl in Texas. He didn’t tell this story to everybody. It wasn’t a feel-good story. For about five years, I’d been writing all around the details of that story, trying to figure out how to do something with it.
Then came the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. To celebrate, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas sponsored a 10-day Joad-inspired trip on U.S. Route 66. They brought a painter, a filmmaker and a playwright along to reflect on the experience of the dustbowl Okies who’d made the pilgrimage in the thirties. The trek culminated in Bakersfield, where I grew up. At the culminating event, they invited my dad on stage, where he was interviewed by an oral historian about picking cotton before and after school, about being hated as a dirty outsider by the local townspeople. And then becoming an educated person and local leader.
I watched my father tell his devastating private story, the one he’d always told me, about a terrible thing he had to do as a boy, living in such desperate circumstances. It was the story I’d been futzing around with for so long.
I saw the playwright in the front row sit up, get out his notebook, and start scribbling as my father spoke.
I thought, He’s stealing my story!
That was the kick that got me focused. My father’s story was mine to write and I understood I’d better get it done. It’s the story that inspires the first chapter of Copy Boy.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a writer? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
When you begin to write, you find piles and piles of writing advice. (Like this piece!) I was a very eager student and wanted to be A plus, to do it right. In publishing, that has generally meant submitting your novel to agents, over and over, until you find one who believes not only that your work is good, but that it will sell to a traditional publisher. (An agent has to be paid for her labor, of course.) If you are lucky enough to be chosen by an agent, then you have to be chosen by an editor of a legacy publisher, who needs to believe your book is destined to sell a lot of copies, that something about your name and its cover will make it fly off the shelves.
This hopeful chain seemed unlikely for me, as I didn’t have any real platform or an especially intriguing public persona.
I experienced a period of loss after submitting to my first tier of agents and hearing nothing in response.
I was nearing fifty.
Then the fog cleared. I wasn’t going to do it that way. I would publish through a reputable, professional hybrid publisher — She Writes Press. They curate their books and create a quality product, distributed in bookstores (and even one airport, in my case). But they also partner with authors in bearing the publishing costs.
My challenge has not been in achieving satisfying success by partnering in this way. The challenge was in deciding to do it in the first place. Deciding not to care that I wouldn’t be a legacy author. Deciding to ignore the traditionals who chanted “never pay to publish, never.” But then, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about people who tell me, never.
Because I taught in universities for 34 years, and continue to work as a writing consultant in the energy field, I am in a privileged position to invest in my writing career, to invest in me. I have never looked back on that choice and am proud of what I’ve made, what I’m making.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was first drafting my 1930s-era novel Copy Boy, I brought a chapter to workshop at the Community of Writers. The scene featured my nineteen year old male protagonist at a party, where he meets a beautiful girl. In that workshop, a couple of the male participants let me know that my main character would certainly have been physically aroused in that scene. And that I had failed to convey that.
That was the day I turned my protagonist from a hearty young man to a cross-dressing young woman.
In your opinion, were you a “natural born writer” or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Because I was always a reader, and then became a composition teacher, sentences were never a problem for me. The reading life made them seem to come naturally. But I had to work very hard to learn to structure a story so that it does something, says something. Structure did not come naturally.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am working on book three of the Jane Benjamin Novels. It takes place in 1941, in the San Francisco Bay Area shipyards, where the very first crew of female welders participates in a contest to build a WW2 liberty ship faster than any before. Amidst the publicity campaign, bodies begin to drop.
Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Writer”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Write. I hate to say what everybody says, but it’s true. Writers write. Don’t just think about writing. Write. Don’t idealize writing. Write. Don’t just read books about writing. Write. Don’t just shop for journals and pens. Write. Don’t worry your writing won’t be good enough. Just write. And after you’ve written, you’ll have something to work with and editing will feel like the most gratifying, creative thing in the world.
2. Excavate your own bones. When were you broken by the topic of your writing? How did you heal? What you write won’t resonate with you or anyone else if you haven’t dug up what you’ve really thought or felt or experienced about it. Even if you’re not the subject matter of your writing, you are its consciousness. So figure out what in your history affects how you think about this content. Even if that information never goes explicitly into the text, it will be there, just underneath, informing what you write, how you write.
3. Believe in your own authentic voice. You will never be that favorite writer on the horizon. That’s fine. Work to be the best expression of your own voice, which no one else can do better. Figure out what it is about your voice that makes it particular to you. Readers will relate to it. Cultivate your own authentic voice.
4. Grow thick skin. It’s easy for writers to get their feelings hurt. Critique partners, reviewers, even friends or family, can seem dismissive if they don’t get what you’re trying to do. You need to grow a thick enough skin that you can say, as Lena Dunham does, “Maybe I’m not for everybody.” But still, that thick skin will allow you to ask questions about their response when you think it may be instructive to know the answers. Your thick skin will help you be a student of your own writing and of readers’ response to it.
5. Be one of the good guys. Even if you feel the sting of mean in the writing community, remember to be kind to the writers and readers you encounter. Don’t become one of the mean girls or boys yourself. Life is long. A writing career can be long. It will help you as well as them to be generous to the people you encounter in your writing world. Literary citizenship makes a difference, however you achieve it.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study). Can you share a story or example?
Unreasonable optimism. When things go south, I look north. But that only looks unreasonable until I start to get someplace.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Inspiration. That’s an interesting question. I won’t, then, say what books I love best, or what books have most influenced my own writing. The book that has most inspired me as a person is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which I read as a college sophomore and now regularly reread. I give it to young adults I love because these lines from that book have taught me what to aim for: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would start a movement of people who engage in radical, generous curiosity about ideas they’ve never considered, and about people wholly unlike them.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I hope they’ll subscribe to my twice-a-month newsletter for details and happenings and recommendations. tinyurl.com/janebenjaminsubscribe.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!