Theresa Shea’s Advice to New Authors + On Social Media’s Effectiveness On Book Promotion

theresa shea-picName: Theresa Shea

Hometown: I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, lived in a few different states, and moved to Canada in 1977.

Based In: Edmonton, Alberta. Canada

Education: BA, MA. PhD in literature.

Briefly: Poet and essayist. Author of The Unfinished Child (Brindle & Glass, 2013).The Unfinished Child was a finalist in the BookBundlz “Book Pick” Contest (2013), and it’s just been long listed for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award (2014). It’s also now in its third printing, which is pretty cool considering it didn’t make any of the “big” national prize lists here in Canada.

Favorite Read: I can never answer this question! I have too many favorite books. What I really want from a book is to be emotionally moved. I want to care about the characters, and I want the narrative to be well written.

Pet Peeves: Food left in the sink after it’s been drained. Or, conversely, water left in the kitchen sink. I despise and resent having to put my hand into cold, greasy dishwater.

If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…A musician. I started playing the violin when I was 40, and I had a lovely teacher who was from Texas (I was living on the Sunshine Coast, in British Columbia, at the time). I seemed to be picking things up pretty quickly, and after one lesson she said, in her thick drawl, “I think you missed your calling.” How bittersweet!

Author Crush: Hmm… I’ll give you a few crushes: Barbara Kingsolver, Alistair MacLeod, Elizabeth Strout, Gloria Sawai, Alice Munro. And, of course, I still have a crush on my husband, the writer Tim Bowling.

Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book You’d Recommend: I don’t generally read how-to writing books, but I remember my husband had one lying around the house once (I have no idea what it was called), and I picked it up and found a section on “back story.” I realized, Eureka! The Unfinished Child doesn’t have a back story! That was a great (and disappointing) moment, for I realized I had more work to do, but that’s what enabled Margaret and Caroline to come into the book. And Dr. Maclean. So I think reading about writing can be useful; however, one needs to avoid the trap of reading too much. In the end, you just have to sit down and get writing.

When the Canadian writer W.O. Mitchell went to Toronto for a short spell, he said afterwards that he’d never met so many “talker writers” in his whole life. I don’t want to be a “talker writer,” and there are plenty of them out there. Maybe you know some.

I’m well into the first draft of my second novel and am quite excited by how it’s going. I hope to have a draft done by September. That’s my goal. What type of a reader were you growing up: an avid reader, or the sort of reader who only read school textbooks and reading assignments and nothing else?

Books were my first addiction. I was a bookworm from a very young age. I was an extremely shy child, and I honestly don’t know how I would have survived childhood if not for books. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia made a big impact on me. I had absolutely no idea that they were at all religious; rather, I was moved by the ideas of goodness and justice that fill the books. I also loved Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, in particular. So I guess I was into “fantasy” books, but I’m not sure they called them that then.

I also loved horses, so I read The Black Stallion series again and again. The idea of being shipwrecked and saved by a horse was marvelous. How I envied that boy and his uncanny connection with that horse. I can still get all tingly just thinking about their unlikely victories at the race track. How did the idea for The Unfinished Child come to you?

The early ideas came to me when I was 34 and pregnant with my first child. I knew nothing about prenatal testing and had always been healthy. I remember agreeing to a simple blood test and thinking, “why not? I’m healthy.” Little did I know what that would lead to. The phone call from the doctor’s office came on a Friday afternoon. “Please call,” the message said, but the office was closed, and I spent the weekend convinced there was something wrong with my baby.

That was my first pregnancy, and all the joy I’d been feeling was suddenly replaced by fear. And I was so angry! I didn’t want to be afraid.

I went on to have two more children, and as I was older with each one, I was fully aware that my “risk” of having a child with Down syndrome had increased (and it seemed to me that Down syndrome was the thing to watch out for). Some of the women I knew were having amniocentesis with their pregnancies, some were saying “no” to all testing. Regardless of their decisions, I knew that human reproduction had changed, and I wanted to explore some of the stories that come out of the options people now have. Once you finished the final paragraphs of the first draft, what came next?

I wrote many drafts before sending it to publishers. And I also sent the book out quite prematurely. All told, I spent 12 years on the book, but I sent the very first “draft” to an agent after working on it for a year. It was rejected, and I’m glad! Later efforts to have it published were also met with rejections, and I’m glad for that too. It wasn’t until year 10 that Margaret and Caroline came into the book, and they make the book what it is. I’m so grateful that no one wanted the book sooner, for it became a much better book with time. Now the way the book initially got attention was through an online contest?

Yes, an early reviewer, Lisa Morguess, suggested I send it in to an online book pick contest (BookBundlz). She sent me a note two days before the deadline. I initially replied that I had too much on my plate, but then I felt sheepish because Lisa has seven kids. It’s just wrong to play the “I’m too busy” card to a woman with seven kids. So I phoned my publisher, asked them to send copies to Chicago, and wrote the $50 submission fee. As luck would have it, The Unfinished Child was one of the five finalists. I ended up coming in second place by a narrow margin. It was fun, and I sold quite a few e-books in the month that voting for the contest was running. In that your book is about moral principles and ethics, did you at any point worry that the writing would come across as preachy?

Absolutely. This was a hard book to write because I didn’t want to come down on one side or the other. I wanted to create likeable characters and place them in difficult situations, and I wanted readers to care what the outcome would be. I also wanted it to be a bit of a page-turner. Personally, I love when I have a book I can’t wait to get back to. What is the one factor you feel has contributed to your growth as a writer?

That’s a hard one. I think I’m a pretty sensitive person. I’ve always been able to imagine what other people might feel in various situations. Do you think a writer’s writing space can affect how productive he or she is?

I do 90% of my writing in coffee shops. I’ve always wanted an “office,” but I still don’t have one. My kids have been home-schooled, so the house is never empty, and it’s never quiet. Thank God for laptops. I’m not sure a space is as important as the discipline of daily writing. Your next book is going to be about the Civil Rights Movement.

Yes. My parents were both born and raised in Washington, DC. I was born in the 60s, an incredible time in US history. The Civil Rights Movement has fascinated me my whole life, mostly because it’s hard to imagine the kind of hatred that existed towards African Americans. When I was 3 months old, my mother took me and my sister to the March on Washington. I didn’t find out until I was in my 40s that I had been in attendance when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. I realized that was a gift and I had to do something with it, so that’s what I’m working on now. I can’t give too many details because I’m still in the draft process, and what I learned from writing The Unfinished Child is that I really won’t know what’s going to happen in the book until I’ve reached the end. And even then I might have characters show up in a way that will surprise me.

theresa shea Do you think that social media participation is the most effective way to promote a book?

I really have no idea. I’ve only been on social media since early 2013 because my publisher wanted me to have an online presence. To be honest, I’m not comfortable with the self-promotion aspect of social media. For the BookBundlz “Book Pick” contest, for example, people could vote every day for their favourite book. Every day! For an entire month! Ugh. I ended up “encouraging” my friends/readers to vote, and by the end I felt sheepish about the whole thing. Had I badgered them all? I didn’t get into writing to badger folks!

To be honest, I’d like to write books and have someone else promote them (and me), but I think I might have missed out on that kind of publishing world.

What I have enjoyed about social media is “meeting” people I might not have met otherwise. I’ve had readers from the Down syndrome community contact me, and that’s been incredibly rewarding. I honestly feel like I’ve made some new friendships that will be lasting ones. It’s a wonderful thing to be contacted by readers. In all honesty, it has encouraged me to keep writing. What have you learned as a first time novelist that you wish to pass on to others?

My first draft had a lot of people thinking about things. There was very little action. Now I know to just start in the action itself. Place the character in the place where the action is happening and don’t always revert to flashbacks or conversations in which past events are revisited. That was a big thing to learn, but I also learned that the very best writing is in the re-writing.

So, I would tell first time novelists to take their time. Let the story unfold. I was in the midst of babies and toddlers and sleep-deprivation when I started The Unfinished Child. That was really a crazy thing to do, and yet it kept me going. With my second novel I’m not trying to force it as much. I now know that I can write a novel, and likely I’ll write another. And another.

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