My interview today is a talented and gracious author who has made her dream come true through hard work, determination, and a strong belief in her writing.
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series: The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, Thrilled to Death, Passions of the Dead, and Dying for Justice. Her novels have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler magazines, and all four are on Amazon Kindle’s bestselling police procedural list.
Thank you for taking time to answer my questionnaire. It’s a real honor to have you as my guest!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I loved to write even in grade school. Writing assignments were always fun for me, especially reports that involved research. Learning new things, then putting it all down on paper was very satisfying. When I started college, I spent a term or two thinking I should be a social worker, but quickly realized that getting a degree in journalism was the only thing that made sense for me. Throughout my years in school, I also enjoyed creative writing assignments, but I found them more challenging. I even convinced myself I wasn’t creative enough to write fiction. I believed that until I was thirty. Then one day I was reading a particularly bad novel and thought, I could write a better story than this. A few days later, I sat down to write my first novel. It was so much fun, I wrote another one immediately afterward. I was hooked on writing fiction.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I’m a journalist, so my writing tends to be direct and lean. I also write in a tight third-person perspective with multiple POV characters.
What genre are you most comfortable writing?
I’ve always written suspense novels because that’s what I like to read. My first two stories had subtle medical themes, and then I wrote a police procedural because that’s my favorite subgenre. I now have five books in the Detective Jackson series, in addition to the two-standalone thrillers. I also have an outline for a futuristic thriller I want to write. It will be a new subgenre for me, and I’m both nervous and excited about the challenge.
How long does it take you to write a book? (Average word count?)
When I was working full-time and raising kids, it would take a year or so to write a novel. Now that I’m a full-time novelist, the first draft only takes three months. My novels are all between 80,000 and 95,000 words, which is typical for the genre.
How long did it take you to get an agent when you were first starting out?
I’ve been writing fiction for 22 years, and I’ve had two agents over that time, one of which was Al Zuckerman, founder of Writer’s House. I landed him about three years after I started writing fiction. I sent him the first few chapters of my second novel, and he contacted me and said he couldn’t sell that story, but he thought I had a lot of talent and wanted to see an outline of what I was working on. He ended up representing a novel I wrote under his guidance, but he wasn’t able to sell it, even though editors loved it. It was devastating, and I quit writing novels for a while and wrote five screenplays instead.
Nearly ten years later, I signed with a new agent to represent The Sex Club, my first Detective Jackson novel. It took about four months and 25 queries to get that representation. And again, I had editors say they loved the story but didn’t buy it. So I self-published the novel. Eventually, through networking on a mystery listserv, I found a small publisher to pick up the series and publish the next two books. But that didn’t work out well.
How many agents or publishers did you query before finding one?
I’ve never counted, but I’m sure I’ve sent out hundreds of query letters, both to agents and publishers. Most of my queries were to agents until I finally gave up on agents, then I started querying publishers directly. None of it did any good. The small publisher I ended up with is someone I had networked with online, who had read The Sex Club, and then I met her in person at a conference. So I never sent a formal query to the one publisher that offered me a contract. It’s rather ironic.
What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?
At this point, I’m making a living writing novels, which has been my goal for two decades. I’m also getting terrific reader feedback on my stories, so I’m living my dream.
Why did you decide to pursue self-publishing?
I wasn’t making any money with my publisher, but I was spending plenty to promote my series, so something had to change. Then my husband and I were both laid off our jobs and I either had to give up writing novels or do something radically different. I decided to join the e-book revolution and self-publish all the stories I had ready. I knew I had the promotional skills, and I once I no longer had a job, I also had the time, so I laid out a plan and made it happen.
Did you hire a professional editor? (Do you recommend any for other struggling writers?)
Renner and some of the editors at Blood-Red Pencil. I’m fortunate that I know a lot of editors here in Eugene who I’ve worked with in a publishing office.
Did you hire someone to format the books for you before they were published as Kindle and print?
I contracted with BookNook to have my Word documents professionally formatted as mobi and epub files. Some authors do the formatting themselves to save money, but the learning curve takes time and I wanted to get it done quickly and correctly.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned during your experience as a struggling writer?
The biggest surprise and disappointment was to learn that writing a great story is not enough. With two different manuscripts, I had editors at major publishing houses say the loved the story and still not buy it. It’s another reason I was willing to jump into self-publishing. I had already given up on the Big 6.
Do you have any helpful suggestions to help unpublished writers become better novelists? If so, what are they?
The only advice I can offer is to be tenacious. Keep working at your craft by reading magazines like Writers Digest and taking workshops. Most important, keep writing. It’s also a good idea to get feedback from professionals in the industry when you can.
Were there any major revisions to your debut novel? How long did they take?
The agent who represented The Sex Club, (Detective Jackson’s debut) asked me to add both an FBI element and a false suspect to the story. Those both felt like major revisions. I worked with my agent for six months before she thought the book was ready.
Can you suggest any books, blogs, or websites that you found the most useful in your pursue of a writing career?
As I mentioned, Writers Digest is a great magazine. I’ve been reading it for decades. I also recommend the Blood-Red Pencil blog. It has great writing and self-editing advice.
What books or writers have influenced you the most?
As a young person, I read Rex Stout, John MacDonald, and Lawrence Sanders, all of whom influenced me. As an adult, I most influenced by John Sandford and Michael Connelly.
Do you write under any pen names? (Why?)
I don’t, and I’m not likely ever going to. All of my novels have an element of suspense, so there’s no reason to switch names for anything I might write. As my own publisher, I get to decide these things. J
If you could be any literary character, who would you be?
I answered this question once, so I’m going to paste my response here: Archy McNally, a private investigator for his father’s law firm. (McNally’s Luck, McNally’s Secret, etc., originated by Lawrence Sanders). He lives on an estate in South Florida near the ocean where he swims every day. He has a live in-cook who makes exquisite meals, often on demand. A typical breakfast is “duck pate on toasted bagel.” Archy drives a red Mazda Miata and spends his days playing tennis, having lunch at the local Pelican Club, drinking vodka tonics, and sleeping with beautiful members of the opposite sex, who often give him expensive gifts such as gold lighters and cashmere pullovers.
He worries about nothing (including calories or liver disease) and has almost no responsibilities. In his world, an investigation involves a little snooping around (more fun), attending rich people’s parities, eating exquisite meals that end with “warm New Orleans pralines and chilled Krug,” and getting involved with suspects, i.e., “sexual romps where realization exceeds expectation.” I could live with that self-indulgence, at least for the duration of a book.
*Fun Bonus Questions
What are you currently reading?
CAUGHT, by Harlan Coben
What’s your favorite movie or TV show?
I’ve always liked medical shows: ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and House (although I’m losing interest in this one). My favorite movie is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I’ve worked as a magazine editor and freelance fiction editor, so I’d probably be editing fiction full-time.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Energetic, optimistic, and tenacious.