Shirley didn’t think it was anything extra-ordinary when she wrote her first novel. It was twenty-five pages long and she was ten years old. Only when she had her own ten-year-olds did Shirley realize that they would no more write out twenty-five pages long hand just for fun than they would volunteer to walk across a floor covered with thumbtacks, point side up.
After serving as editor of the school newspaper in 6th grade, Shirley's family moved from the quiet Philadelphia suburbs in New Jersey to wild and woolly Utah. She was twelve years old, nearly six feet tall, wearing big city fashions in the country, and starting her first day of junior high school. Several of her classmates told her later that they thought she was a substitute teacher!
In high school, Shirley worked on the paper staff, was appointed editor of the “Write” magazine, and had a poem published in a national anthology. Even though the dream of seeing her stories printed in books seemed far away, Shirley told the judges of the Miss Snow College Pageant that she would become a published author some day. They believed her, awarded her the crown, and Shirley's parents cheered, because the title came with a scholarship! She was awarded a second scholarship as editor of the college newspaper, and boogied down with her tenor sax in jazz band!
The best thing at college was tall, dark, handsome Robert Bahlmann, whom she married the day before graduation on June 1, 1978. They've been blessed with six sons who span twenty years, two daughters-in-law, a grandson and a granddaughter, with one more on the way.
Shirley's stacks of journals, road shows, plays, and skits attest to the fact that she's been writing all her life, but finally got past the “fear” when she came home late one winter night after selling skin care at a home show and her youngest ran out on the snowy porch in bare feet and diaper, calling, “Mommy! Mommy!” Shirley realized then that she wanted and needed to be the one staying home to take care of her family, so she began to write with a vengeance. Even though royalties don’t yet compensate for a part-time job, and she wouldn’t recommend relying on writing to pay the mortgage, all she knows for herself is that her soul hungers to write like a body hungers for food. She write every day except Sunday, and she doesn’t write after her boys get home from school. Shirley is too impatient to wait for the Muse. She just begins, and the Muse gets curious and comes to look over her shoulder!
So, with this knowledge in hand, let's check in with Shirley:
What book or project is coming out or has come out that you'd like to tell us about?
I've got several projects in the pudding pan. One book, titled "How Odd: Miracles and Adventures from the Olden Days" is in production. and should be done by May of 2008. Another book that I'm excited about is under consideration for publication, and is titled "Detours." It's a parable about life's journey, and how we see where we want to go, but when we get on the path, there are detours that we hadn't seen when we started out. It's a project from my heart, so I hope to find a publisher who's heart beats the same as mine. The book I'm currently writing is a YA fantasy titled "Witch's Heart," where an orphaned toddler's anguished cry brings forth an old legend to her rescue.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.
I've been writing since elementary school. My very first publication was in high school, when my English teacher submitted one of my poems to a national anthology of high school poets, and mine was accepted. It was thrilling, but even with that initial boost, I still didn't believe in my abilities to write well enough to publish a book. It was only after I'd tried all kinds of part time jobs and came home one night to my one-year-old running outside on the snowy porch in bare feet calling, "Mommy! Mommy!" that I realized I wanted to be home with my children and the best way to do that was to write enough to earn some part time money. It was like I fell off a cliff. When I submitted my first pioneer story book, may attitude was, "This is a good book, and if you don't accept it, that's your loss. I'll just send it to someone who wants to be successful along with me." And it was accepted by the second publisher I sent it to. My heart flew! When I got my first box of books, I opened it with trembling fingers, picked up the top copy, and opened it to find every single page backwards and upside down.
I burst out laughing. This was so funny to me, I kept the book as a good luck charm. (The rest of the books were fine.) Now, seven years later, I've had 17 books published that I've written myself or helped write. I'm not rich, but I do make some part time money, and it's good.
Do you still experience self-doubt regarding your work?
Only when I'm rejected, and I still get rejected. The thing is, I've worked with four different publishers, and I know that each one has a different personality or niche they're trying to fill. Some of my books have been rejected so many times, I know they need a serious re-write. Others just need to find the right home. I'm always open to re-writing, and feel confident that I can fix something that is close to what a publisher wants.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?
Not doing simultaneous submissions. Not understanding all of a contract before I signed. Some writers think I made a mistake by not going with a big publisher when they offered to take one of my books, but they wouldn't negotiate their contract to where I felt comfortable with it, so I walked away. I'm still not sorry I did. I could have made more money with them, but I wouldn't have been happier. So that was not a mistake.
What's the best advice you've heard on writing/publication?
Be willing to change your manuscript. Every word you write is not sacred. If it doesn't flow, fix it. "No, thank you," doesn't mean "You stink." Try another publisher. Run your story past some honest proofreaders. (I tell my dozen proofreaders, 'If you love me, be brutal.' Think about it... if your proofreaders won't tell you what to fix in your book, then you'll put it in front of a publisher and they wont' tell you, they'll just say "no, thanks." I don't want to hear that. So my proofreaders are my first line of defense. I'm NEVER offended by what my proofreaders say. I consider their comments, then decide what I should change and what I can leave as I like it.
Whenever I consider a new publisher, I talk to others who have been published by them and ask how their experience has been. I always speak to more than one person, ideally, half a dozen. That has worked very well for me.
What's the worst piece of writing advice you've ever heard?
Write a book and you'll be a millionaire.
What's something you wish you'd know earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
Publishers are people, too. Treat them like people, not gods. If you want to negotiate something in your contract, approach it professionally. Be willing to give in things that don't really matter, but stick to those that do. Decide if it's worth hanging on to certain things, even if it means you won't get a book out. There are only a few things that matter that much. (Mine was that if I signed the contract offered, I couldn't publish anything I wrote anywhere else until a certain number of years had passed after the publisher in question had none of my books left in print. I found it too suffocating, and I wouldn't do it.) means you don't get a book out.
Is there a particularly difficult setback that you've gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?
Being rejected after I was published. I thought once I was a published author, everything I wrote would go through like slick butter. I also thought I would be able to pay off my house once I got published. It may happen, especially if I invest my royalties and wait several years, but for right now, my husband said it's a hobby that pays for itself, and for right now, that's enough. But the worst thing that's happened to me is when I launched a huge promotional campaign for my "Fool's Gold" book, buying flyers for every book store, setting up a treasure hunt with Armor of God rings and other prizes, setting up a grid on a map for treasure guesses, doing radio spots and
press releases and book signings, and after all that time and money and effort, book sales were lower than any other book I'd ever done. That really bit, and it took some fire out of me. I hated losing that enthusiasm, and I've worked to get it back.
What are a few of your favorite books?
James Herriott's English veterinarian series, James Dashner's "Door In the Woods" series, all of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Shel Silverstein, Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones series, Minne and Moo Go Dancing, Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaur, Barnyard Dance.
What piece of writing have you done that you're particularly proud of and why?
The family newsletters that I send out every so often. They keep my extended family connected, and I like writing about the things that happen in my family a funny way.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with the business?
Not being able to just write and send out the manuscripts for publication and just let someone else handle the marketing! If authors don't get involved, though, then nothing much happens. I would just really like to write down all the great stories I have running around in my head, vying for my attention, and sometimes marketing, eating, and sleeping seem like such chores.
Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly-from conception to revision.
Well, I get ideas from everywhere. Once I get hold of a title or story idea that appeals to me, I let it percolate. After about three months, it's ripe and ready to write. I put the scenes on index cards, then lay them out in a row and read them through so I can make sure the story flows. This is where I add cards (scenes) or rearrange parts to make it more coherent. Once I like the layout, I stack the cards in order, sit down at my keyboard, and write from top to bottom straight through, from beginning to end, over the course of several days (or weeks, if I don't get to write as often as I like.)
Once it's written, I go back through and flesh it out. Then I let it sit for at least six weeks, then read it again, fixing things that need fixing. Then I give it to my invaluable proofreaders for a month. Once I get their feedback, I fix it again, then send it to a publisher.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
I think just about every writer would love to make a living from their writing. That's what I would like to do. It would be like getting paid to eat ice cream!
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
Briefly, maybe after a more unexpected rejection. But then it's like not breathing, so I give up on the idea pretty quickly.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
I've done a lot in the past, but when I didn't get the vast returns I had expected, I slowed down some. I'm still willing to go out there and pound the pavement, I'd just like to know which direction I should head. It seems that things are changing, with fewer booksignings and more electronic publicity. I'm interested in learning more about the electronic aspect of marketing. It just takes time.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?
Yes, I've had readers tell me that stories in my books answered their prayers. That type of thing raises gooseflesh on my arms. I do not take any credit for it, I just feel humbled and awed that Father in Heaven has used my writing talent as a conduit for helping one of His children.
When I told my mentor, Mr. Albert Antrei, that my first book was being published, he said, "Oh, no, you've caught the curse." I was puzzled. How could having a book out be anything but joy? Now I know what he meant. The drive to write is strong, sometimes painful, and I want my words to be read and enjoyed by others.
I can still write for myself, but I'd rather share. And the pain of rejection is still there, although it bounces off rather quickly. I have the mindset that I just need to send it off elsewhere and keep on writing. That's what makes me feel full and happy and accomplishing one of my main purposes on earth.
Shirley's latest book is The Pioneers: A Course in Miracles. Here's a quick little sample from the book:
I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure if rolling my little sister up in fencing wire is what nearly killed her. It wasn’t the wire or the rolling up that almost did her in, at least not the way I handled it. It was what she did later, when I wasn’t looking, that makes me wonder.Hmmm, sounds like this is another great book of pioneer stories that will keep us turning page after page. Congratulations on the new book, Shirley. Click on the cover of Pioneers: A Course in Miracles to order.
The thing is, I didn’t usually mind watching Clarissa, even though she was only four years old and I was eight. I was a good enough big sister, as sisters go, but today it was so hot outside that there was nothing I wanted to do except sit in the shade. The trouble is, Clarissa kept pestering me to play. It wasn’t until our cousins Mitchell and Matilda showed up that I mustered the energy to think of something to do. Even though our cousins were both younger than me, they were older than Clarissa, which made them far more interesting.
“Hey,” said Mitchell. “What should we do?”
That’s when I noticed a piece of fencing wire lying on the ground and an idea suddenly popped into my head.
“Let’s roll up in the wire,” I said.
Matilda gave me the eye. “Why?”
I shrugged. “For fun.”