Her debut novel is All The Pretty Girls (Mira): A vicious, highly mobile killer is terrorizing the Southeast. Showing no mercy to his victims, he leaves a trail of mutilated bodies faster than investigators can process the crime scenes. Nashville Homicide Detective Taylor Jackson, working with FBI profiler John Baldwin, must follow the killer along his devious path. How many will die if they don't succeed?
Based in Nashville, Tenn., Ellison had a career in politics before turning to crime fiction full time. Her short stories have appeared in Demolition Magazine, Flashing in the Gutters, Mouth Full of Bullets, and Spinetingler Magazine. She blogs at Murderati.com and is a founding member of KillerYear.
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AS A NEWBIE NOVELIST, WHAT IS SCARIEST FOR YOU?
Speaking in public, absolutely. I’ve always had a real issue with an audience. I’m learning to conquer that, but it’s been something that really scared me for a long time. What I’ve learned is quite heartening, actually. When people come to a signing, it’s because they want to meet you, want to hear your story, want you to be humanized in a way. I relate to that, and it helps get me through. I’ve decided that when I go on tour I’m going to do a series of cocktail parties instead of the traditional signings, because I’m much more at ease working a room that standing at the head of one.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO COMBAT YOUR FEARS?
Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Seriously, I try to find out every detail of what an event is going to be like so I know what to expect. I find that the real fear is based solely in ignorance. As I attend more conferences, do more personal appearances, this will fade away.
HOW HAVE YOUR "KILLER YEAR" CLASSMATES HELPED YOU THROUGH THIS CAMPAIGN?
There is something so tantalizing about knowing that there are 13 other writers going through the exact same thing at the exact same time. We’re all working on new novels, trying hard to learn the ropes, meet the right people, do what our publishers and agents advise, attend conferences, etc., and it’s lovely to have that safety net of people who you can count on to help in a pinch.
And each member brings a different layer of expertise, be it graphic design, marketing, market knowledge, public relations – and having all that knowledge at our fingertips is phenomenal.
WHAT ARE YOUR WRITING HABITS?
I wish I could say that I have a set writing schedule and I’m terrifically disciplined, but that’s just not the case. I write when the spirit moves me, which is usually every day. I’ve found that simply being on the computer means I’ll get some work done, so I’ve stopped beating myself up and trying to force my mind to conform to a set of rules. I shoot for 1,000 words a day. But if I do 4,000 on Tuesday, I might not get my 1,000 in Wednesday. I’m happy with that system for now.
I don’t outline. I’ve tried in the past, but the work takes on its own personality and the story veers off in whichever direction it chooses to go. I had this conversation with another writer and she thought it was cool that I was so into the story that I didn’t have to plan. It’s not that I don’t plan, I do. I have a white board on the wall and tons of yellow legal pads scattered through the house, because for some reason if it’s not on the yellow legal pad, it doesn’t get into the story. I make notes and go back to them when I hit that section of the book.
I’m sure as I get some experience under my belt I won’t be quite so fly by night, but for the meantime, I find it easier not to constrain myself too much. I don’t get blocked nearly as often now as I did in the beginning, when I was trying to force it.
AS A READER, WHAT MAKES A BOOK INTRIGUING TO YOU?
If I’m buying by sight, a great title, an intriguing cover, a blurb or two by a name I recognize. I’ll buy a book based on those criteria alone. I’ve stopped reading jacket copy, which used to be my mainstay, because so much of it is misleading, in a sense. Plus, I want to be surprised. I don’t like to know what a book is about before I crack the cover. I’ll read a review of the book after I’ve finished, to see if I agree with the reviewer. I do tend to read books that have been recommended, or buy a name I recognize from a blog or a list serve.
So if I’ve bought (or borrowed) a book, what makes it intriguing? Characters who I both identify with and revile, and a complex story that captivates me throughout. When I take the time to read, I demand to be entertained, to be inspired, to be moved, and when I’m not, I’m disappointed. There are so many incredible novelists out there in crime fiction that I set my standards pretty high. I find that a good book motivates good writing from me, while a poorly written tome can sidetrack me, so I am pretty careful in my choices these days. I look for lyrical use of language. I love it when I’m reading something and I don’t know a word, need to grab the dictionary and learn it. That makes my day. I want to be challenged by the form, for the words to be used in ways I wouldn’t have thought of, for characters to be unique yet recognizable. If you talk down to me as a reader, you’ll lose me immediately. And if you have a morally ambiguous character you can make me root for, you’ll have me as a reader for life. Look at Barry Eisler’s protagonist, John Rain. He’s an assassin, yet I want him to succeed, am invested in his actions. That’s true brilliance.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?
Write. Write. Write. Write. Read. Write some more. That’s not meant to be flip. The more I read, the better I write. Especially when I was first learning the craft, I depended on the books in the genre to guide me. That book that stayed with you? Analyze the style, voice and characters. Do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, chart how the story ebbs and flows. You can certainly teach yourself the tricks if you’re willing to spend some time.
Then, do your research. Know the marketplace. Get a site on Publisher’s Marketplace, subscribe to Writer’s Digest. Start small and plan to spend some time working on your craft. Get on some of the webthreads, like Dorothy L, and absorb what the readers have to say. Write short stories and use them to bolster your name ID. And proofread everything that leaves your computer. Everyone makes mistakes, but remember that your spell check doesn’t cover your subject line.
Follow the rules of submission. Once you’ve finished a book and start submitting, start the next book. You don’t know how long it will take, and it’s just good practice to keep your forward momentum.
And don’t ever forget that this is a business. If you can handle the creative side colliding with the practical side, you’ll go far.
WHAT DO YOU WISH NON-WRITERS UNDERSTOOD?
That I actually am an “expert” in my field. Getting published traditionally isn’t a cakewalk, and most New York publishers like to take on writers with a modicum of talent. I’m amazed by the number of laypeople who a) assume they can tell you what to write, and b) assume you’re going to give them the book for free. I don’t ask my doctor to provide free service, nor do I tell him what to diagnose. Almost all conversations with strangers follow a pattern – “Oh, you’re a writer? I’ve always wanted to do that. I tell you what, I’ve got the greatest story, and you can use it if you want, just make sure I’m going to get paid for it. It’s about my great aunt Gertrude, she once threw a set of keys into a room and the door locked behind her.” Yeah, I’m going to get right on that. Seriously, it’s amazing how many people think they can write. It’s always refreshing to meet someone who says, “Wow, you wrote a book? What’s it about?”
The other scenario just kills me. For some reason, every person I know thinks I should GIVE them my book. Umm, guess what? When you GIVE me a year of your life, then we’ll talk.
WHAT DO YOU WISH OTHER WRITERS UNDERSTOOD?
I think we've lost the edge in our blogs. We're writing for each other rather than for a reader audience. We've all pulled back the curtain; we reveal our innermost thoughts, neurosis and worries. But do our readers care about our moments of writer's block, our colds, our contractors? No. Other writers care because they go through the same thing in their corner of the world. I'm guilty of it as well, and I'm trying to stop. (This sounds like I need a 12 step program to reform my blog entries - not to be flip, but it is cathartic to journal your writing life.)
Let's start focusing on the craft again, see what we can do to attract readers to the blogs instead of other writers. Because really, aren't we all just commiserating on the fact that we're procrastinating every time we write a blog entry lamenting our day?
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT PUBLISHING THROUGH THIS "KILLER YEAR" CAMPAIGN?
Publishers, editors and agents aren’t the big bad voodoo daddy that I expected. Those New Yorkers are normal, everyday people with a healthy love for good writing, which in essence makes them just like you and me. I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask questions, that no one will fault you for not knowing something, and that groups get a lot of attention.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF?
I have a few leadership skills tucked away from the old days of politics and marketing that I’ve had to take out of the closet and stretch. And I underestimate myself. A lot. Which, in truth, isn’t all that bad, right? I’d rather be humble than cocky.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOUR CRAFT?
That I don’t know nearly enough about it. I learn something new each and every day, a new trick, a new way of thinking about the story. I’m astonished by the depth of my Killer Year mates, and read their blogs religiously to get more insight. I think the minute you stop learning, you’re dead, and that ain’t a place I’m ready to go to just yet.
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Thanks to thriller novelist J.T. Ellison. Find her online at jtellison.com/ and at the multi-author blog Murderati.com.
Find more at the Killer Year website, the Killer Year blog and the Killer Year MySpace page.
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KILLER Q&A: DAVE WHITE (When One Man Dies)
KILLER Q&A: BRETT BATTLES (The Cleaner)
KILLER Q&A: BILL CAMERON (Lost Dog)
KILLER Q&A: MARC LECARD (Vinnie's Head)
KILLER Q&A: GREGG OLSEN (A Wicked Snow)
KILLER Q&A: PATRY FRANCIS (The Liar's Diary)
KILLER Q&A: ROBERT GREGORY BROWNE (Kiss Her Goodbye)
KILLER Q&A: MARCUS SAKEY (The Blade Itself)
KILLER Q&A: SEAN CHERCOVER (Big City, Bad Blood)
KILLER Q&A: SANDRA RUTTAN (Suspicious Circumstances)
KILLER YEAR: Class of 2007
Adopting Killer Year