Shayla Raquel – Author Interview

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)

The 10 Commandments of Author Branding is an authorship reference book, according to Amazon categories, but I like to call it a self-help book for writers. Reference sounds so dry, doesn’t it?

It was NaNoWriMo 2018, and I needed a book idea. I was a few days late coming up with something, and I had just published my debut novel, The Suicide Tree. While I was at a coffee shop with my writers’ group (we do Saturday NaNoWriMo write-ins during November), it struck me to start compiling all of my articles, email newsletters, Facebook posts, and more into a Word doc. 

It just kept growing and growing. I knew then: This is my book. I need to help authors learn about branding, marketing, and authenticity. And so I did.   

What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?

The Suicide Tree took me three and a half years to write. I was constantly battling with perfectionism. Thankfully, I learned my lesson (to some degree) with Commandments. In fact, that book was written, edited, and published in under a year.

I did, however, encounter quite the setback when I realized an entire chapter (Commandment IX: Thou Shalt Not Bear a Boring Book Launch) had to be completely rewritten in two days before going to the editor. Originally, that chapter taught authors about Facebook launch groups. I knew, though, that they didn’t work anymore. 

That meant sitting down in my recliner and writing an entire chapter from scratch. Funny thing is, that chapter gets the most compliments! 

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?

I’m currently finishing up a book of poetry entitled All the Things I Should’ve Told You. Out of everything I’ve written, this has been the most important to me. It’s me bearing my soul and talking about grief, love, loss, resilience, and anger. Almost every poem was written in the moment—in the moment of grieving the loss of a loved one, in the moment of falling in love, in the moment of dusting myself off and trying again.

These poems helped me get through some dark times, and they’ve also shown me the light. It’s my hope that these poems will guide others out of the darkness and into a brighter world.

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?

Oh, self-publish all the way! I’m too much of a control freak to hand my books over to anyone else. Plus, the waiting game is unbearable. I have a hard enough time waiting on a microwave minute, let alone two years after getting a deal. 

I’m a self-publishing mentor and have been working with indie authors for years. It’s a blast for me, and I wouldn’t want to go any other route. 

The process for someone who has done it for years isn’t tough. But for those who are new to it, it’s seriously like taking on a full-time job. There are so many learning curves! I’ve been blessed with a team who helps me publish high-quality books, so that certainly takes a load off. 

I also have the Pre-Publishing Checklist: A To-Do List for Indie Authors because so many of my clients needed a road map for the process. 

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing? (No need to mention names unless you and they are comfortable with that. We’re more curious about what your writing life looks like and who/what influences/supports you.)

Absolutely! I’m the organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society in Yukon, Oklahoma. In fact, the majority of my friends are writers. We organize workshops and conferences together; we attend conferences in Texas (road trip!); we go to coffee shops to write; we send each other writerly memes and quotes. I’ve said it before in previous interviews, but there is no doubt in my mind that my books wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for writer friends.

I think, yes, accountability is a part of success, but it’s this loyal support I get unlike any other from them. If I talk about a new book I’m working on, or if I tell my friends about ideas for workshops, they immediately cheer me on. And I do the same for them.

Find your people, my author friends. It will change you.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?

No one has ever accused me of sticking to a routine. Ha! I’m kind of all over the place with my writing. The weekends and week nights (after 8 o’clock) are a lot easier for me. I get my coffee, a snack, my Bose headphones, and I get to work. I love setting a timer too, because it’s fun to see what I can accomplish in an hour. Or on the days when time is so limited, just 15 minutes of writing is better than none.

One thing that helps me stay engaged—and this is an odd answer—is ensuring my mental health is up to par. If I’m not exercising, eating healthy, staying in my devotions, and spending time with wonderful people, my mental health will deteriorate. And if my mental health is meh, then my writing is meh

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?

As I said, the book of poetry! But I am wildly excited about my first psychological thriller. It isn’t named yet, but I’ve been in research mode most of the year. This one . . . well, let’s just say it’s my magnum opus. 

For NaNoWriMo this year, I’m using this time to outline my entire novel using the Save the Cat! Writes a Novel method as my guide.

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?

As a born-again Christian, I know God gave me the gift of writing, and I never want to let a talent grow stagnant. So I’m very grateful for that. When I’m writing, I do think there’s a spiritual aspect to it, because I am genuinely bearing my soul to the world. I don’t care what genre I’m writing in; there is a piece of my heart in my writing. 

You need to take that writing time seriously. Turn your phone on silent or leave it in another room. Turn on some rain sounds (I like And for the love of Pete, leave your blasted social media alone.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?

I wouldn’t call it much of a life at all. Honestly. My whole life is centered on books. I think I would feel empty. I would always know something was missing in my life. A void.

Why do you write?

Because I can’t not write. 

Shayla Raquel is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, “The Rotting” (in Shivers in the Night), The Suicide Tree, andThe 10 Commandments of Author Branding. In her not-so-free time, she acts as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society, volunteers at the Oklahoma County Jail, and obsesses over squirrels. She lives in Oklahoma with her dogs, Chanel, Wednesday, and Baker.

Author Interview – Ava Collopy

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

It began to change my process when I was editing the book. At the time I didn’t have the money to hire a professional editor so I asked some acquaintances from writing workshops if they wouldn’t mind reading even the first chapter just so I get some feedback on it.

People were quite generous with their time, which I very much appreciated. It was through this process that I of course had to start thinking more about the process of communication, of how you convey a whole entire world that’s in your mind into someone else’s mind so that when they read your words they are picturing a whole world too. It may be somewhat different from how you imagine it but it still gives them a complete—not just picture, but experience.

When people came back to me and felt something for my protagonist, Sean Flanagan, and wanted to read to the end to see what happened to him, it was very gratifying.

By the time I was publishing 8 Days a Week I felt very thankful for the help I’d gotten.

The process of publishing made the audience much more real to me and me try to keep checking myself every so often when I write to make sure I’m still writing in a way that will be invite an audience in and not confuse anyone too much.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

For years I had many pieces of this and that; poetry, a few old songs from my teens, old characters I came up with before I had the skills to write for them, a few opinionated essays, mostly related to classism and sexism: the two main things that defined and ravaged my life for many years. I assume this is typical for all writers. We’re pack rats surrounded by scraps of our ideas from over the years.

In more recent years I worked very hard editing, revising, and rewriting everything I had, and ultimately throwing out what I had that wasn’t good enough. So at the moment I don’t have any extras lying around. I have just an idea for two other books, but I think they’re far off into the future. I have to take time for my master’s degree and my career at the moment.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice? Why or why not?

I think writing can be spiritual depending on the writer or the type of writing. Sometimes writing is more an act of storytelling, or an analytical exercise in truth-telling and making good arguments, and doing point-counterpoint. I’ve always seen poetry as more right-brain and emotional, and even more spiritual, and prose as far more left-brain. Sometimes when you’re writing you can feel like you’ve tapped into an incredible energy that may even go beyond yourself… but that could just be the endorphins, dopamine, or whatever else the act of creating art stimulates in artists. (Or both.)

How many hours a day do you write?

At the moment I can’t write much with work. But there have been times I was writing all day, every day. I literally wrote the first draft of 8 Days a Week in under two weeks, writing almost non-stop all day, every day, by hand. I’d have to put ice packs on my hand, wrist, arm, and shoulder at night to get the swelling to go down. But after a decent waiting period the dam broke and the story just flowed. The editing process took months, of course, but the first draft just kept coming.

What are your favorite literary journals?

I don’t have consistent favorites. I like to move around a lot so I get a very good mix of different genres, styles, and writers. When I want a new mix I go onto Poets & Writers online and look through their market listings, filtered by whatever criteria I’m in the mood for at the time. Then I find often obscure publications, usually online so I can easily access them.

What is the most difficult part of your creative process?

I suppose simply that when I’m really deep into one of my books I can’t really do anything else. I remember when I was getting ready to write Live Boldly, Fear Nothing I was going to an Irish dance class for a two or three weeks and I had to stop because I couldn’t concentrate. My head was just in Darian’s world, or thinking about Jenna’s storyline in it and what I wanted to say about (and say to) young women in her position, from her kind of background.

Art is a great gift and so is creating it, but it can also be incredibly draining and there are times when life just has to be put on hold for a while and that can be very hard. A few years ago I had a housemate who thought it was insane that I once went a few years without so much as going on one date. She couldn’t fathom it. I just said, I was busy learning how to write, edit, and publish books. I had no time for a personal life. It was worth it, but that was still an incredible sacrifice.

Do you believe in writer’s block? Why or why not?

I’m aware of it. I think it probably happens to all artists, it’s just more obvious with writers. For example, just think about all the singer-songwriters and bands who’ve had maybe two or three really good albums and then just had pretty bland albums. They can still play instruments and sing but that real, true spark of inspiration is gone. Once in a while they may still make a real gem but for the most part, their work isn’t very good anymore. If you do other forms of art you can still go through the motions but that’s a lot harder with writing.

I think the answer to this problem is to think about sources of inspiration. For the aforementioned musicians the answer is probably to leave their new mansions and go back out into the world. There they’ll find inspiration. The same is true for writers. If you’re blocked then go travel somewhere new, or go volunteer at a soup kitchen. Do something that will inspire you. Sitting at your desk (or wherever) staring at the problem won’t help.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

I couldn’t really say, especially since with 8 Days a Week in particular the editing process was so long, and although I didn’t make any changes to the plot or the characters, how I presented the last two chapters—especially the very last one—changed a great deal through the editing process.

I think the important thing is to write until it seems finished and let the work itself guide you rather than trying to make a schedule for it. Real art doesn’t work on a schedule.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

One of my best author friends has been Jennifer Fulford, although we grew apart after I moved to Ireland (she’s still in the U.S.) When I met her she’d written a new book about one of the three musketeers and a collection of poetry. I met her at a Unitarian Universalist church and we got along immediately and shortly thereafter were sharing some of our work at a poetry and writing group at the church.

I went to a free workshop she did about how to use Weebly and other sites to make your own website. She not only showed us how to use the sites but how to have fun with them and make the act of building a website not strictly mechanical but an act of creativity in itself.

Shortly thereafter I tried making websites and blogs as a new form of self-expression. This was also very helpful for promoting my work since my novels were too important to me to risk having to change the endings, the stories, or otherwise compromise the works like I knew I might have to if I got a traditional publisher. She said she found it inspiring how I would just go for it like that. Meanwhile, she got published—her musketeers book through a traditional publisher and her short collection of poetry through self-publishing. She said I helped inspire her to have the confidence to publish her own poetry book. I felt very heartened by that. One of my favorite things in life is to help bring out the best in others.

She was quite supportive of me in my writing endeavors and as a friend even though she’s happily a mom and I’m happily childless. In my experience, many women writers basically shun you if you’re a woman who’s happily childless. I had a lot of my work rejected by female editors until I learned to keep my mouth shut about being a happily independent woman when submitting to most female editors. I genuinely don’t understand this kind of behavior; I think it’s best when we all support each other. I assume this means those women are secretly very unhappy with the choices they’ve made in life.

Other writers I’ve known through workshops were helpful in the usual ways writers at workshops are, namely with critical feedback but also encouragement.

However, one writer I thought was my friend did the exact opposite but still had a very positive effect on me.

This was during the editing of 8 Days a Week. Like I said before, I was glad when anyone was nice enough to make the time to look at my little project. So imagine how good I felt when this woman friend insisted that we meet in a café so she could talk to me at length about my book project! Me of all people—someone from a working class background who back then didn’t have a college degree, unlike all the other women in the workshops.

When I got there she was very nice at first, then very quickly started picking the entire project apart. At first I just took it in stride and thought, this is just good practice for in the future when anyone asks me about my projects.

I’d already had years of experience submitting my work for publication to various places so—as any writer knows—that means experience getting your work rejected 99% or more of the time, and sometimes by editors who feel the need to go out of their way to tell you they think your work is garbage and that you’re guilty of an actual crime by making them waste their precious time reading your drivel. So I was quite able to be thick-skinned about critical feedback and to consider any good points.

But I quickly found that when I went to explain my artistic choice she wasn’t listening to me. In fact she was going out of her way to insult, belittle, and pick apart every last thing about my book. And she’d only read the first chapter. For example, one of her complaints was that it was slow. I said that was an artistic choice to show what Sean’s life was like, and to build to a shocking climax much later in the book. Of course she insisted no one would read my terrible, slow, boring book idea long enough to find that out. She also complained that the book was about a working class person and his life and said, why would anyone want to read about that?

Her seeming plan to obliterate my confidence had the opposite effect and made me want to succeed even more. And it just brought home to me how much women need to encourage each other more.

Shortly after that it seemed to me like all the women I’d known from that writers’ group stopped wanting to have anything to do with me. It only occurred to me much later that they may have resented me because I didn’t come from any money or education but still pursued writing. I can look at this logically and see the mechanism of it now but I still don’t really understand it. This is because I always believe that everyone should generally support and encourage each other. I think maybe they just wanted their workshops and to be left alone. There’s nothing wrong with that. But for me it wasn’t just a hobby; it was actually the only thing giving me hope that I could ever get out of poverty.

What are the most important magazines for writers to subscribe to?

I think Poets & Writers is a great resource. They have a great deal of advice about the literary industry as well as varied markets to read and/or submit your work to.

But to be perfectly honest, my opinion of most writers’ magazines is that they’re for people playing at writing. If you want to write I think you should go out and experience life so you have something to write about. I’ve read many stories, essays, and poems in various publications that were linguistically well-composed and grammatically accurate but actually weren’t about anything. I remember one story that was very long, very well-thought of my the publication’s editor, and was ultimately just about a couple ordering soup at one restaurant and another one several years later. In the first instance it was too salty and in the second they thought they had the same waiter, even though it was a different restaurant. When I finished it I just wanted the last 25 to 30 minutes of my life back. More than asking yourself if you can write something and write it well, and more than editors than asking if they can publish it, I think people in the literary community should look at if a work is actually saying anything.

This is why when I read anything, I tend to look for online zines that are well off the mainstream. That way I can find things that will give me a new experience which no other writer (or editor) has given me before.

In my extended family there is one set of twins who love everything to do with writing and storytelling. They subscribe to all of the local literary magazines, watch soap operas all day every day (to study long-term stories), and read books voraciously. Sadly they almost never leave the house. Last Christmas I gave them two books. Angela’s Ashes (an obvious choice for a couple of Irish aspiring writers) and Never Broken, the singer Jewel’s last book. Jewel isn’t an expert writer but if it’s one thing you’ll learn from reading her book it’s that more than anything, if you want to write, you need to just go out into the world and experience life.

I don’t care if her grammar was perfect or not. What I experienced was a vast range of completely unique stories, so bizarre but so true to life she couldn’t have possibly made them up. It genuinely was stranger than fiction.

If you want to create something truly unique than you need to just go live. But then maybe read a little Poets & Writers or some of the articles in Writer’s Market about the industry so you can try to develop a thick skin before you submit any of your work. Artists can sometimes take rejection too personally and have you learn to just move on instead.


Works by Ava Collopy

A View from the Bottom: Short Stories
8 Days a Week: the Story of a Working Man, a novel
The Price of Peace: the Rise of Truthology and the Alliance, a novelette
Live Boldly, Fear Nothing: a Vigilante and a Painter, a novel

Ava Collopy is published in White Liquor Steemit, Beautiful Losers, White Liquor, and others. She’s from Portland, Oregon and lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Learn more about Ava please visit her website.