Interview with Shaunta Grimes
Our guest is Shaunta Grimes, friend of mine, a coaching client of mine, and just a great person. And I want Shaunta to tell her story, but she is a full time writer. I mentioned her earlier, when we talked about the authorprenuer. So she is a fiction writer and, she has a website called whatisaplot.com. If you're a fiction writer or aspiring novelist, you should pay attention to all of her tips on writing. She has community of writers called Ninja Writers. There's a Facebook group called Ninja Writers, that thousands of people are a part of. She loves two things, she told me. She loves writing, and she loves helping writers. For years, she tried to do this and it didn't work and finally she found a way to make it work and now she gets to do those two things every single day and makes a living at it. So everybody welcome Shaunta Grimes.
Hey! How are ya?
I'm good, how're you?
Good! Okay, so I just introduced you, I said lots of nice things about you.
I heard, thank you!
I kind of briefly told your story, at the very beginning, and I'd love for you to kind of go into it more, starting with... You always wanted to be a writer, and then, finally, you kind of reached what many people think is, like, the Holy Grail. You got published. You got picked up by a major New York publisher, and it didn't turn out the way you thought. Can you start there, and share your story?
I can. And I have news that you don't even know yet! So I get to surprise you.
So I was published by Penguin. I write young adult books, books for kids. And I was published by an imprint of Penguin in 2013, was my first book, Viral Nation, and then Rebel Nation in 2014. And, yeah, it didn't turn out the way that I thought it would. My children's books were picked up by an adult imprint of Penguin. Which, at the moment, I was like, "Penguin wants to publish my book! "I don't care!" Whoever, you know, whatever they wanna do. But it makes a difference. Penguin has a huge machine to market children's books that my book did not make it into, and so they got good reviews, but they didn't get a lot of attention, because it was not being... Marketed properly. So that was a real struggle. After the second book was out, the publisher did not pick up my third book, so I had 2/3 of trilogy hanging out there in the world. For about a year, I couldn't write at all. I was totally just in this space. My whole life, I've never gone a whole year without writing, since I was a little girl. So it was a really tough time, and I was at a job that I really, really hated, and I was just like, "What am I gonna do?" And I thought, well I need to write another book, and try to get another advance, so I can quit my job. And I thought, really hard, why did this not work for me? And I realized it was because I counted on Penguin to market my books. I thought that's all I needed to do. And they even told me that's all I needed to do. Because I asked them, "Should I be building an email list?" They're like, "Don't worry about it." You know, they gave me a publicist! I really thought, I was like, this is it! I made it! And, yeah, they didn't do a good job of marketing my books, they just didn't. They aren't designed, it's not even their fault. Well, I mean, they bought my books, so I guess that's kind of their fault, but I'm grateful for that. But they just are not designed to, the imprint that bought my book mostly publishes romance books. I don't know what caused them to buy a children's book, but they did, and then they weren't equipped to market it properly. And I realized that the only person who's really equipped to market my books properly is me. And so I decided, in February of 2016, that what I really needed to do was build an email list, and get my own audience. So that's what I did.
So I wanna pause.
The reason I share these stories with you is because people go, "Well, does this work anymore?" I mean, pay attention to the timeline. This was not decades ago, this is recent. So I love the story about how you kind of started the series on this one blog that you had, and then you realized, "Oh, there's a demand here," and then you started your website, whatistheplot.com. Talk about that. How did you start your website, and then what did you do to grow the email list?
So I had another blog that was kind of a lifestyle, like, mom blog. That I just threw a lot of stuff on. And one thing I did was, I decided to write, like, a six month series of how to write novel. I have a very specific method for writing a novel. And so I decided to do a series of blog posts, and it was the most popular thing I'd ever done on my blog. Some of the posts had 100,000 or more page views. So I decided to pull all of those and make it its own blog. Just make a writing-centric blog. My actual thought was, "Well, I get about $ "in ad revenue from my first blog, "so maybe I'll get that much from this one, "and that'll be one more little step towards "not having to do this horrible, really terrible day job "that I really hate." And I had a goal, in February, of getting 50 email subscribers. And I knew I'd get some from my crossover from my other blog. I had about 3,000 subscribers on my other blog, and about 200 came over, so that blew that out of the water. But by the end of February, by March 1st, I had 800. So there were 600 more that were not related to my other blog, that I just found. And that was mind-blowing. It was exciting, and a little scary. And I'd had this idea, for a long time, to turn a series of blog posts into a class. And so I just... I couldn't handle any learning curve. So I knew how to use Gumroad, so I put a sales page on Gumroad, and I sent out an email to my subscribers, and I just said, "Hey, I'm gonna do this," and then I went to a movie and freaked myself out. I was like, "I can't do this, what am I doing?" I don't even have it written, and it was $750, and I'm like, "No way, I'm gonna go home "and just say 'nevermind'." But by the time my movie got out, two people had bought the course. I didn't know anything about selling a course, so it was like a two month long window of the course being open, 'cause I didn't know any better. I would never do that again, it was horrible. Yeah, don't do that part. But it was kinda good for me in the beginning, because, by the end of two months, my list now was like 3,000, so it grew more, and I ended up making enough money to quit my job. Which was super exciting. But also building this community that, even though it wasn't specifically like "read my fiction," 'cause at that point I still wasn't writing. I was still caught in that cycle, where I knew I wanted to write another book, but I was scared, 'cause I really had a bad experience. But these were people who were interested in what I was saying, and I knew that they would follow me to my fiction. When I got there.
I love that. Something we talked about earlier, we just talked about email lists, so real quick, I want you to talk about kind of those first thousand to few thousand subscribers. What were you doing to grow the email list? Because you eventually got to 10,000+, and you had this $100,000 year, and so how did you grow the list? This is hard for people in general.
So the one thing that I did that worked really well for me was Facebook ads. So I would run an ad, I don't do it as much anymore, but in the very beginning, I had this little cycle, where I would... It was called Ninja Writers Academy, and I would teach a lesson on Saturdays. And then on Sunday, I would do office hours. And I would just run an ad to, like, sign up to join the Ninja Writers Academy, which basically was just joining my email list. And then I would send you an email to let you know, Saturday, "Hey, we're gonna have a class!" And then the thing I did, though, because I was working, remember, this really terrible day job. My son worked at Wal-Mart and he made more money than me. So it was a really low-paying, horrible job. So I didn't have money to pay for ads. So what I did was I had this planner that I created for myself that I had been selling through my other blog for about $20, and I just lowered it to $7, and when someone signed up for my blog, email list, I mean, when they signed up for my email list, they got a thank you page, was the next thing they got, that said, "Thanks for joining Ninja Writers, "and as a gift, you can buy this planner for $7." And so, literally, if someone bought the planner, then that $7 I would spend the next day on ads. And it was like a little cycle, so I was never out of pocket for ads. Because even $7 of ads built my list pretty... I usually sold about three a day, so I would able to spend about $20 a day, which really is $600 a month, which is a decent ad--
Spent for such a small, brand new business.
Another question that we had earlier was, like, how do you stay flexible, right? And I want you to talk about your big news in second.
You want to be a fiction writer. You did, I think this is kind of challenging, particularly for what we call "the working writer," the person who just wants to write. And you realized that there was a demand for something that you could do, but initially wasn't what you thought you wanted to do, which was write fiction. How do you reconcile that? We had some questions earlier today about, like, "What if I want to do this, "but other people want me to do this?" Or, "What if I'm really passionate about this, "but it seems like there's a demand for that?" And I think we're trying to teach what actually works. At the same time, I don't wanna tell people, "You've gotta trade one job that you hate for another." So can you talk about that?
I can. So one thing that really worked for me was realizing that I'm not all that special. Like, if I was really interested in writing, then there was probably lots of other people who, like, if I really like to have a system for writing, my other blog was about systems. Like, I'm super right-brained, so, for people who have trouble with systems, I like to create systems for myself, because otherwise I don't get anything done. And I thought, well, there's gotta be other writers who want to have a system. I can't function if it's just like, "Hey, write this story!" I can't do it, it will never get written. So I have a real specific system. And I thought, well, if it works for me, it will work for other people. So I think that one thing is nicheing down as far as you can, and realizing that as far down as you can niche, there's gonna be lots of other people. There's seven billion people in the world, there's gonna be lots of people who are interested in your specific, tiny little niche of the world. And then just creating what you would want for yourself, and trusting that other people will also want it. And not thinking so much about "how am I going to make money with it" or whatever, because I think that's where people get messed up. And they don't let themselves do it long enough.
What's your big news?
I sold another book!
Yay! Thank you.
Can you talk about it?
I can, yeah. So I sold, it's actually a middle grade book, so for even younger readers. Magical realism. I sold two books to a children's imprint of a children's publisher, which is Macmillan, one of the big five children's publishers. So it's super exciting.
So you said, "If I build a platform "helping people become better writers, "that my writers, my readers who are writers, "my readers will follow me to my fiction."
And you're saying it actually worked out that way.
Well, my book doesn't come out until 2019. Publishing is very slow. But I do believe they will, and they're excited for me. But mostly, what they helped me do is start writing again.
So it was a community. They gave me the community that I needed. And I think, I hope, I created the community that they needed, too. 'Cause there's other Ninja Writers that have been published or have sold books in the last 18 months, which is even more exciting to me than selling my own books, so.
That's very cool. Anybody have any questions for Shaunta?
We have time for one or two questions here. Don't be shy.
Hey Shaunta, it's Maya.
It's so lovely to see you, 'cause Jeff talks about you so often. To kind of see you in the kind of flesh is really cool. I have a question about how you balance, or how you resolve within yourself, what you're growing into, which is an authorpreneur. Because, when I was looking at the three different ways of being a writer, initially I thought I wanted to be a working writer, but I am gravitating more towards the authorpreneur model. And what I'm hearing in your story is, your writing community doesn't necessarily consist, or overlap totally with what your passion is, in terms of writing fiction for children, so...
Well, all of my community is fiction writers. Ninja Writers is all fiction.
I mean, there are people in there who also write nonfiction, or other stuff, but we focus on fiction.
Okay. So in terms of building your audience for Ninja Writers, is your regular posting and blogging content that speaks to them and helps them? Or is it more for--
It's all about them.
It's all about them, right.
So I don't write a lot about myself, or about my own books, or whatever.
But I'm definitely the center of the community. Like, it's definitely about me, but I make it about them. Does that make sense?
It does, mm-hmm.
Saying it's about me sounds weird. But I'm like the creator of the community, or the teacher, you know what I mean? I answer questions. I'm very available to them.
Shaunta, did you struggle with that at all, when you started What Is A Plot, and then started Ninja Writers? 'Cause people say, "I don't wanna write about writing, I wanna be a writer." And I know you're really passionate about helping writers, but this was a new thing for you. Was there any struggle there?
No, because for me, it was stages, right? My first stage was quit my job. I was really in a toxic job, so I had to get out of there. So I really didn't, I wasn't writing. And I knew that I wanted to write. I've always been a writer, so that was coming. But I was more focused on, for about a year, just really on... 'Cause remember I sold my course without having it written or created? And it's a huge, year-long course. So I spent a year writing the course, just barely ahead of my first students. But as I was writing it, I was so focused in this method that I used, I just started using it again, and I just started working on my own books. And I sold the book I wrote during the last year, so that was really exciting. It was exciting for me to be able to show them, yeah, this really works. Like, if you do this, if you follow my system, you can create a book that will... Sell. That you can sell however you wanna sell it.
We'll do one more question. Caroline?
Hi, Shaunta, this is Caroline. I am trying to place your platform personality. I think you are a star, but I'm not positive. Did you struggle with being a star, or did you fall into it naturally, as you have, sort of, discovered that you are guiding people and giving people instruction? But I may be wrong about your platform personality. I'm curious about that.
I don't think you're wrong about my platform personality, even though it's super hard to sit here and say, "I'm a star. I'm a superstar." But I think, you know, my platform definitely centers around what I can teach you, or whatever fiction writers are out there. And also, probably if I started out going, "Okay, I wanna be a star," it would've been a lot harder. I created it, and then I met Jeff, and then I heard about being a star, and I was like, okay, that's probably my platform. It just happened naturally. I'm actually, in retrospect, probably pretty glad that I didn't start out thinking, how can I be a star? 'Cause that would be hard.
The message of the star is, "If I did it, you can do it." And if you--
Yes, that is my message, 100%.
Absolutely. And if you read Shaunta's emails, she says over and over again, "Look, if I did it, you can do it." Didn't have any special advantages, had a lot of struggle and failure. So, very relatable, lots of empathy, and it's really encouraging. And I agree that you can sort of create a community around whatever your most dire need is right now. In her case, she's like, "I wanna quit my job, "and I know this is probably the low hanging fruit." And they will continue to follow you wherever you wanna lead them. And I think Shaunta's recent success is an illustration of that.
You're welcome. But definitely, I did not start out saying "I'm a star!" It was mostly "I am not that special." And if I can do this, absolutely... You can do it. It's all mechanics that I can teach you. It's not like you have to be this super artist to write a book. You can become an artist through the work of doing the writing the book.
This was awesome, thank you. If you wanna find out more about Shaunta, you can visit her website at whatisaplot.com. Be sure to check out her course. She's got some other cool projects. Shaunta, we can't clap, 'cause it makes a bunch of noise. But we'll... (laughing) Thank you so much!
You're welcome, thank you!
So as we wrap up, I just wanna kind of overview what Shaunta did. She focused on a very specific topic, she built a website, she grew her email list. She found out what her audience was struggling with, what they wanted, and then she launched a product before she created it, and made $100,000 in a year doing that, and is continuing to grow her business as an authorpreneur. We're going to teach you, the rest of this day, on how to do that.