Author J.T.Ellison ~ Interviewed

What two or three things would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?

Honestly, nothing. I had a really good, lucky start my debut year. Working with some friends, we created Killer Year, an organization that helped get us all on the map. We learned the ropes together, which made it easier. I love my agent, love my publisher – I’m a pretty happy camper right now.

What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?

Saying no. Good time management is vital to career longevity, and I have a tendency to overcommit myself. I’m practicing saying no – it’s not easy. But it’s necessary. The work is the most important thing, and those days when I find myself sucked into business instead of creative can be grueling. But I’m trying.

What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?

Best advice was given to me by Stuart Woods. He said, “The only rules are those you create, page by page.” It was incredibly freeing. I was able to toss away all the conventions I was constraining myself with and write for me. Marry for love was another one – I listened to that too.

What one issue ignites your passion? Does your passion fuel your writing? What would you do with your life if you didn’t write?

I’ve always been a writer, so I can’t imagine not writing. I’d golf a lot, and travel even more. Read more too. But I get to do all those things now, so I can’t complain.

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

Not terribly convoluted, actually. I was rather lucky. I wrote what I thought was a book and shopped it around – not realizing it was only a little novella. So I started over, wrote a full-length novel and got an agent on board rather quickly. That book didn’t sell though, which was a big disappointment. My agent told me to write him a new book, which I did. That sold in a three-book deal. So I learned early on to A—listen to my agent and B—not everything is meant to be. It took three years from inception to agent and deal. Not bad.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

Goodness, of course. Self-doubt is what makes us better. It helps us hone our edge, grow with each book, stretch our wings. I don’t believe in block – I think that’s your story telling you you’ve gone in the wrong direction. If nothing is working, write something else. It’s as simple as that. My struggles come from worry about making the current book better than the last. That can be crippling if you let it. You just have to let go and trust that you can do it.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I don’t know if there’s a good answer to that. Without mistakes, we don’t learn and grow. I was very lucky to have a great group of people who were quite savvy about the business surrounding me, so I didn’t fall flat on my face too many times. Publishing has changed a lot since I got in, so now I’d be inclined to tell people to lay off the social networks and focus on the story. I’m always amazed at new writers who say they don’t have time to write, but are sharing YouTube clips on Twitter and Facebook. And don’t complain publicly about your house. And don’t engage reviewers when you don’t agree with their assessment of your work. That’s just bad form.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

My dreams. If I can remember them, they’re always a fertile environment. But mostly through reading others. I always find those little things I’ve missed in my own story.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

I called a local lake once to ask about their security measures, and said, without thinking, and I quote: “I’m dropping a body in your lake.” There was this pregnant pause, then the woman said “Really?” with the shocked awe of someone who’s just been told something tragic. I burst out laughing – she thought I was serious!

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Read everything, and focus on the work. Get your manuscript in perfect, tip top shape then get outside opinions from readers you respect – and listen to them. Revise, revise, revise. Own your work. Read. Did I mention read? Once you think you’re ready to get an agent, go back and read Stephen King’s ON WRITING and make sure your manuscript is really the best you can make it, then and only then look for representation. Oh, I read that wrong – for me? Funny, the same advice holds true.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

Taking a pseudonym. I chose my nickname, and now, several years in, the lines between the real me and the writer me have blurred.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)

I’ve always been fond of a little short flash piece I wrote called Where’d You Get That Red Dress. It’s in my new short story collection, SWEEET LITTLE LIES. It was the first time I really ventured into the twisted, and it freed me to write a bunch of funky short stories.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

I worry about new authors having to do the bulk of publicity, simply because it impacts our creative time. I’m blessed with awesome publicists who handle the big stuff for me, and it makes a huge difference. For those starting out who don’t have the infrastructure behind them, it can be really difficult. And let’s face it, without a book, you have nothing to promote. My advice would be to hire a superb publicist to do the heavy lifting for you, someone you can trust, then get to work writing your next book.

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.

Oh, I don’t know. So many to choose from… Being in Italian was a major dream come true, that just happened. The idea that I’m being read at all is flummoxing, the fact that the books are all over the world is truly humbling. I just want to continue making a living as a working writer. That’s my dream.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course)?

That moment when a reviewer “gets’ it, or a reader sends you a note and tells you they were touched by the work. Nothing can beat it.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

I was taken by aliens… wait, no, that’s not my story. I think we’re all an amalgamation of our parts, so everything that’s happened to me makes its way into the books in some shape or form.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

After I finally figured out POV, dialogue. Really, really easy to write once you recognize that people don’t talk in perfect, grammatical, proper English. There’s nothing that kills a good story faster than stilted dialogue.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

Title. I’ve got to have a title. It is my guiding light, my North star. My theme. Without it, I can’t go forward. Then I make notebooks, open Scrivener files, choose music, format the manuscript – oh, I could go on for weeks getting ready to write a book. At some point, all that becomes dressing and you have to just buckle down and get writing.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

No, I can write most anywhere. It’s a job hazard, with deadlines, you don’t have time for rituals. I do start the day by reading what I’ve done the day before, to get myself into the groove. Otherwise, it’s full steam ahead.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Organic, all the way. I despise outlines. They give me hives. My team knows this – they understand that what I give them sometimes isn’t what they’ll be getting in the end, bless them.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

I write first drafts. That’s the scary thing – sometimes the book doesn’t really come together until the third or fourth draft. But that’s the process. I also panic at the 60,000 word mark. That’s when you’re on the slide, and it can be terrifying.

Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?

Be yourself, and always say thank you.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

E=mc2. … no, wait, that’s wrong… nope. I think you pretty much covered it, Thanks for having me!

JT Ellison is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series. Her novels have been published in 22 countries, and she was named “Best Mystery/Thriller Writer of 2008” by the Nashville Scene.

Ellison grew up in Colorado and moved to Virginia during high school. She is a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and received her master’s degree from George Washington University. She was a presidential appointee and worked in The White House and the Department of Commerce before moving into the private sector.

As a financial analyst and marketing director, she worked for several defense and aerospace contractors.

After moving to Nashville, Ellison began research on a passion: forensics and crime. She has worked with the Metro Nashville Police Department, the FBI, and various other law enforcement organizations to research her books.

Her short stories have been widely published, and Ellison recently released an anthology of her short fiction called SWEET LITTLE LIES. This includes her award winning story “Prodigal Me” in the anthology Killer Year: Stories to Die For, edited by Lee Child, “Chimera” in the anthology Surreal South 09, edited by Pinckney Benedict and Laura Benedict, and “Killing Carol Ann” in First Thrills, edited by Lee Child.

She is the bi-monthly Friday columnist at the Anthony Award nominated blog Murderati and is a founding member of Killer Year, an organization that was dedicated to raising awareness for the debut novelists of 2007.

Ellison is a member of several professional writing organizations, including International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America. She has an active following on Twitter under the name @Thrillerchick, and a robust Facebook community.

She lives in Nashville with her husband and a poorly trained cat.