The Rookie and the Pro: Different Ways to Succeed on Medium
A Q&A with Shannon Ashley and Shaunta Grimes, two top Partner Program writers
Writers come in many forms.
Shaunta Grimes has been one for a long time. She has a Master’s in writing fiction, is a published author, and runs the Every Day Novelist publication on Medium. Her third novel, The Astonishing Maybe, was published by Penguin Random House in March.
There is also Shannon Ashley, who began writing independently only a year ago, when she quickly went from writing social media posts for companies to publishing popular stories on Medium about the topics that interest her: sex, family, and mental health.
Both women work full time as writers and support their families on their income from Medium’s Partner Program — the system that makes it possible for creators to show up on Medium, write something, and earn money.
Medium sat down with Shaunta and Shannon to talk about their work, how they’ve built engaged audiences on Medium, and their advice to writers who have yet to hit their stride.
(This interview has been condensed and edited)
Medium: Shaunta, you created the Every Day Novelist publication on Medium, previously called the 1,000 Day MFA. What was your motivation in sharing the knowledge that you had acquired as a writer?
Shaunta: Well, I think I am equal parts writer and teacher, and I love doing both. I’ve had an online writing community called Ninja Writers for three years. Ninja Writers completely changed my life. I wrote a big, year-long course on how to write a novel. That was the start of it. Then I had a blog. Pretty much everyone who teaches courses does, but I only ever got traffic to my blog if I drove it there myself, which was defeating the purpose. I needed new people to read my work, and so in 2017, I started to post it on Medium. I’ve found a nice balance on Medium where my stories make enough money for me to work solely as a writer. I have a master’s degree; I could be doing something else. So, it does feel really good. It’s almost addictive that I get to do this — impact people with writing.
Has the process of writing for this bigger audience on a larger platform changed the writing at all?
Shaunta: I don’t think so. I wonder if Shannon feels the same way, but I mostly just don’t think of everybody. I just write like if I’m just talking to one person, and then I hope that lots of people will be interested. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not. But, I think my writing style is pretty conversational, not very formal. I just try to share what I’ve learned with other people so that they can learn it too.
Actually, a lot of times when I’m writing about writing, my audience is myself but when I was 20, and I really wanted to be a writer. I needed somebody to sit me down and say this is how to do it.
Shannon: I feel like my experience is different because unlike Shaunta, I’m not a published author. I built [my audience directly] from Medium starting last April. But I’m doing the same thing as far as using a conversational voice — I’m just trying to write stories that are the kinds of stories I’d like to read online, the stories I wish I had access to when I was a teenager.
If you dial back, before you were aware of that audience, what were your feelings about starting to put your work out there publicly?
Shannon: My initial feelings were I think the ordinary, “nothing that I write will be good enough, nobody is really going to be interested in this.” Writing, for me, has always just been a dream I’ve had. So, there was a lot of hesitation. Eventually, I just had to decide that I would put everything out there and see what happened.
Why did you keep writing?
Shaunta: Shannon had success on Medium almost immediately. I believe she was featured for her first post.
Shannon: Yeah it was weird.
Shaunta: I remember because you were on Ninja Writers right at the beginning.
Shannon: Yes, because you were one of the first big writers I knew who supported me and encouraged me to keep going. You and Michael Thompson. You were the first big people where I looked at your followers and I was like, “Wow! They’ve commented on my work. That’s really impressive.” It was weird for me because the truth is that I had been working for a social media agency as a writer for about three years at the time, and it had not been going well, and I was panicking because I’m a single mom. I was like, “I need to find more work.”
But, I didn’t want to just start doing the same old thing — writing for other people and not writing what I wanted to write about it. That’s what got me on Medium. I thought, “Maybe this can help me pay the rent. We’ll see what happens.” Having a little bit of early success definitely helped. Within the first 10 days or so, I had one article featured, and then I got top writer status in parenting and mental health, which were two things I really wanted to write about. So I just thought, “Okay, I’m going to take that as a sign from the universe that I’m on the right track and I’m going to just keep going with this.”
Shaunta, what’s the story behind Ninja Writers, the writing group you started on Facebook?
Shaunta: When I started Ninja Writers, I loved working with the kids. Being a classroom teacher has always been my fall back, and so I was working as an assistant because I was still trying really hard to not take my plan B yet. I really, really just wanted to be a writer. I know it’s silly, but in my mind, if I worked as a full teacher — which is the [practical] job that I’m probably most qualified to do — then I’d be saying I couldn’t be a writer, I couldn’t hack it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in contact or had access to another writer who’s actually a few steps ahead of me, but Shannon is killing it on Medium. So, every single day I’m like, “Shannon, what are you doing? How do I do this? How do I make this work?” That’s just what I do. I feel like a lot of times, when people want to be writers they think about it a lot and they talk about it a lot, and they really want it a lot. It feels like that is actually doing it — the thinking and the talking — and it’s not. You actually have to do it.
You have to write.
Shaunta: Yeah, you have to write. Also, the problem with my last books was that I didn’t have any way to market them, and I counted on Penguin to do it for me, and they’re the biggest publisher that there is. I thought “I don’t have to do that. I can just write my books and they’re going to take care of everything else. I’m published by Penguin, what the hell, I made it.” I didn’t make it. It was awful. I mean, it was awesome, but in the end, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I had to work [for] $9.75 an hour for a school district that would only give me 27 hours and 45 minutes a week so that they didn’t have to pay me health insurance.
I think a shared experience for many creative people is the lack of support you receive, and how you often have to leverage your skills in inventive ways in order to survive.
Shannon: I’ve been a single mom since my pregnancy in 2012. When I was pregnant, I decided that I was going to use this life change as motivation to actually start writing. It took years to start writing my own stuff, because first I was doing the social media work. But when I told anybody that this was my plan — I’m not going to get a regular job, I want to be home with my daughter and not put her in day care, I want to build a new life and show her what’s possible — people would look at me like I’m the worst mom in the world. Like, are you kidding me? That’s just up high in the sky kind of dream, how could you go for that. How could I not?
Shaunta: I think there are a lot of people who are like that, who say, “Well, you can’t just be a writer.” Then, there are people who just do it anyway. If you put the work in, you can do it anyway.
How do each of you go from the conception of the idea to actually writing the piece?
Shannon: I usually think like headline first. I might be reading another story, I might see something on the news, I might have an experience that just really ticks me off, and then I come up with a rough idea of what the headline would be. I always stick it in my folder. If I’m really inspired in that moment, I’ll start working on it right away. If not, I’ll just let it percolate for the week and add notes as I go.
Shaunta: I never write the headlines till the end. I read a lot, and a lot of my story ideas come from things that I’ve read. I like to read my own columns. I have a couple of ongoing columns on Medium and that helps me stay organized. Ninja Writers helps me a lot because people ask questions. I go on Quora and look at what people are asking on there too, so it lets me know that people are really interested in a certain subject. Shannon and I have a lot in common, but my posts are more about teaching and Shannon’s are more personal.
Do either of you do a lot of research to inform the kind of educational sides of your work, or are you taking a more experience-based approach?
Shannon: I’m definitely more experience-based but I will research things. I’ll know what my opinion is on a matter, but then I’ll want to know what experts think as well, to make sure I’m thinking through an issue correctly. With everything I write, I try to start from a logical standpoint. A lot of my stories touch upon my upbringing and religion, so there’s always that theme of how some of my thinking has been off and how I’m trying to re-educate myself and unlearn a lot of things. So, I definitely do have to do some research just to see, is this really a healthy approach I have?
Shaunta: I’m pretty experimental when I’m writing. So, a lot of times I’ll just try something and then write about trying it, about whether it works for me or not. I do some research, but I’ve also been writing for 30 years, and I have a formal education in writing. So, a lot of it is based on research that I’ve already done.
What do you think, for each of you, draws your audiences to your work?
Shaunta : I think that almost everyone has sex, and almost everyone wants to be a writer. So, we just happen to appeal to both of those large swaths of people.
But does everyone really want to be a writer?
Shannon: I think a lot of people, even if they’re not actually trying to write. The response that I get when somebody asks me what I do, and I tell them I’m a writer, is almost always that they have an idea.
Shaunta: It’s much more fun to have written something than it is to actually write it. I have this theory that the writer brain is pretty powerfully inclined to try to protect you from actually writing. So, it will tell you that, for instance, the conversation we’re having right now counts. This is writing. Or that if I’m editing, it’s the same thing as writing. I actually have to force myself to remember. The only thing that counts is actually writing. So, anything else, talking about it, researching, thinking really hard about it, taking a class, reading a book, all of that, none of that counts. The only thing that counts is you put up another story or you work toward your novel.
Novels obviously are much longer projects, larger projects than a Medium post, but maybe if I’m really good, I can write two books in a year, and I can write three or four Medium posts in a day. So, it’s obviously a different animal. When I hear people complain that they can’t make a living as a writer, they’re almost never actually writing.
What is that thing that gets you to the page or the keyboard and actually, physically writing?
Shaunta: Well actually, [Medium] is my family’s source of income — it’s the same for Shannon. I’m not a single mom, but I support myself. My husband and I have a 14 year old daughter. I have two adult children who I don’t support, but who sometimes need help. My parents-in-law both have dementia, and I support all of us with writing. So, I just write a lot. I wake up thinking about working, and I work until I fall asleep at night. The hardest part for me is to try to find some kind of balance.
Having income and providing for your family can be huge motivations for completing creative work that people tend not to talk about because there’s this assumption that if you’re creative, you’re not doing it for the money.
Shannon: Yeah, it’s like this dirty thing that nobody wants to talk about. It’s like, “You’re supposed to love writing. You’re not supposed to care at all about the money.”
That said, some of the best feedback I get is from like psychologists or counselors who say, “I printed this story off and I’m going to show it to some patients of mine because this is the type of feedback they need to hear that they’re okay.” So I think, “Oh, okay. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. This feels good. This is not just making money, but this is actually impacting people in a positive way. That feeds into the passion and creativity. You might not be changing the whole world, but at least there’s this little faction of people that are feeling some significant change.
What would you say to a writer who has tried and failed, and is trying to psyche themselves back into the practice?
Shannon: I feel like Medium is a good place to start, right?
Shaunta: My advice is to have a really small goal. I wrote my first novel in 2004 when I was very, very pregnant with my daughter. I’ve had the same writing goal all that time, which is to write for 10 minutes a day. It is so small. A lot of times writers will have these huge goals like they’re going to write 2000 words a day, or they’re going to write 10 pages a day.
What happens is that if you miss say like today, you’re sick, or your kid’s sick, or you have to spend all day at the hospital with parents who have dementia, or whatever, most people, your brain will tell you, you can’t write 2000 words today, so just do it tomorrow. It doesn’t say, you can’t write 2000 words today, so write 100 words.
So, start out with a goal that’s not your talking point but your starting point. My goal is so tiny that it’s actually psychologically more difficult to skip it than it is to just do it. Even on my very worst day, I can pull out my notebook and just hand-write something for 10 minutes to get it done with.
Shannon: I think it’s really important that writers quit having this visual idea in their head of what success looks like. I have this one path, and I’m going to write this one book and it’s going to be successful, then I’m going to get this award, et cetera. So many people who are writing, they’re burned out because something failed. I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s mega successful has had a lot of failures.
Shaunta: Especially if you’re writing long things like a book, because nobody sells their first book. Nobody. Or if they do, you know who they are because it’s [someone] like Harper Lee. You’re not Harper Lee, and that’s okay. I’m not Harper Lee either. I had to write five books before I wrote one that was good enough. I have a good friend and he really struggled with this. He’s said, “Well, if I was good enough, someone would have bought my book.” My answer to people who say that is, so what if you’re not good enough yet? The only way that you can get good enough is to keep writing.
Thank you Shaunta and Shannon for sharing your experiences with us.