Guest Post: Sybil Johnson

Reflections on Being A Published Novelist

It’s December, a time to think back on everything that’s happened in the past year so I thought I’d reflect on my first year as a published novelist. My first book, Fatal Brushstroke, came out November of last year. My second, Paint the Town Dead, came out a few days ago, December 8th.PAINT THE TOWN DEAD front

When I signed the contract with Henery Press a little less than two years ago, I thought I knew what to expect. I mean, as a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and former board member of that chapter, I know a lot of published writers. I’ve heard the war stories. I’ve gotten lots of great advice. So I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t realize just how hard and, at times, gut-wrenching it was going to be.

Not that I regret signing that contract. Not at all. It’s been quite a growing experience for me as a writer and a person. I’ve discovered a lot of things about myself and this mystery writing world I’ve become a part of.

  • The mystery community. The generosity of the mystery community never ceases to amaze me. Not only have authors written endorsements for my books when I know their plates are already overflowing, they’ve also helped me gain exposure and given me encouragement and advice when times got tough. For all of these things I’m eternally grateful. I pay it forward wherever I can.
  • Writing. I’m a slow writer, probably the slowest in the world. I’ve discovered in this past year that writing to a deadline is hard, way harder than I expected. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me it sometimes causes so much anxiety it can be crippling. So I’ve found coping mechanisms that help out. I’ve also discovered that writing the first draft longhand often works best for me. I write better drafts and I’m not tempted to check out things to buy on Amazon or watch that cat video someone told me about.
  • Convention Panels. I’ve been on panels at conventions—Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and California Crime Writers. What I’ve discovered, and this shocked me: They don’t make me nervous at all! For some odd reason, they don’t bother me a bit. Not even a twinge of nervousness, not even the first one I was on. In fact, I actually *gasp* ENJOY them and, *double gasp*, look FORWARD to them. Now, this particularly shocks me because, well, I stutter. I have since grade school. Not the kind where you duplicate sounds, but the kind where you get caught on certain sounds at the beginning of words. So, on the days where I’m not fluent—usually high stress days—there are a lot of pauses in my speech pattern. I know exactly what I want to say, I just can’t get it out. When I was a kid, some people who didn’t know me thought I was retarded. (It was the 60s, no political correctness!) Nowadays, people think I’m done speaking or think I can’t remember my own name. (Yeah, S is one of the sounds that often trips me up.) So speaking in public can be a bit nerve-wracking for me. But for these panels the enjoyment that I get out of being on them overrides any fears I have about talking.
  • Learning when to say no. Conventional wisdom says do not turn down an opportunity. If someone asks you to do something related to promoting your book, do it. In general, I agree but I also know how much I can handle so a few times I’ve said no when most people would say yes. It may not be the brightest thing to do, but I’m the only one who can truly know if that “yes” will be the straw that breaks my back.
  • Persistence and courage. I’ve discovered persistence is probably the most important thing to have in writing. When you encounter a setback (I’ve had doozies, believe me), just dust yourself off and keep on trucking even if you’re scared to death.
  • Compliments. Whenever someone tells me I’m a great writer or that they enjoyed my book, my gut reaction is that they must be mistaking me for someone else; they couldn’t possibly be talking about me! I don’t say this to their face, of course, but that’s what’s going through my mind. I’m also blutterbunged* at the impact a positive comment has on me. A simple email can transform a bleak day into a bright one. Now when I enjoy a book I try to reach out to the author to express how much I liked their work because I know the impact it can have on a writer.
  • Social Media. I’ve read so many articles and heard so many talks about what authors should be doing on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Post at least twice a day on Facebook. Tweet multiple times a day (I’ve heard everything from 3 to 10). The list is overwhelming. I understand the value of social media, but I know I can’t do everything, get writing done and have a life. I’ve made peace with that. I do what I can and concentrate on the activities I enjoy the most.
  • Breaks. I know so many writers who work on several series at once. I don’t know how they do it; how they balance a day job, family and writing. They don’t seem to need breaks. I’ve discovered that, for me, I need periodic breaks from writing or thinking about writing or promoting my writing. I used to feel guilty about it, but I know that I come back stronger from a day off than I would have had I continued to try writing.
  • Making your own path. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that there’s no one approach to writing and marketing your books. Everyone needs to figure out their own path like author Jenny Milchman who went against conventional wisdom and embarked on a year-long book tour. Read about it here:

I’m still figuring this mystery writing thing out, how to balance what I want out of life with the demands of my career. As time goes by, I’m sure I’ll settle into a rhythm. What about all of you? What has your journey been like?

*confounded, overcome by surprise


Sybil Johnson’s love affair with reading began in kindergarten with “The Three Little Pigs.” Visits to the library introduced her to Encyclopedia Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and a host of other characters. Fast forward to college where she continued reading while studying Computer Science. After twenty years in the computer industry, Sybil decided to try her hand at writing mysteries. Her short fiction has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine among others. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in Southern California where she enjoys tole painting, studying ancient languages and spending time with friends and family.

Twitter: @sybiljohnson19

14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Sybil Johnson”

  1. Love this post so much, Sybil! So many wise observations. Thank you for sharing. And I never thought about how writing longhand would address the temptations of social media before. Brilliant!

    ps: I have seen you on two panels (Bouchercon 2014 and Malice 2015), and you definitely seemed like you were having fun. You’re fabulous!


  2. Congrats on Paint the Town Dead – how marvelous, Sybil. Happy book birthday. This is the best and most concise description of real life publishing I’ve ever come across. Well done.

    OK – now dish – share those coping mechanisms. There are days…


  3. I think time is the most difficult issue for me. Just how long it takes from idea to that link to the book on Amazon. When I began the first pages there was no such thing as Amazon, Kindle, Nook or whatever gizmo is available for reading a book. There were book stores and Goodwill. New or used. When I finally decided to get serious about my fiction, the manuscript was in need of a major re-write and the query process switched from stamps and envelopes to e-mail and Word. But despite the frustration and dissapointment of rejection and the slow moving pace of response, the writing continued. Well over twenty years from idea to publishing contract and then it was almost twio years until that fabulous day that I clicked onto my first novel up for sale. But I don’t mind it so much now. I have been very fortunate to have three more novels under contract and am busy with new projects while working through the editing and cover art work for those in the works. Time is now occupied not by frustration and the unknown but by rationing. Getting it all done and still being creative. I suppose I’ll never get it all figured out but it keeps it interesting and challenging.


  4. Great post! Thanks for the insights. Twitter looks like one long series of commercials to me. I know people who post, but few people admit to looking at it (I do when I’m standing in line at the grocery store).


  5. Congratulations on your journey! It’s wonderful how conventions are so energizing. The balancing act between that energy, writing, and promotion work is so difficult, but it sounds like you’ve found the way. Kudos!


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