As long as she could remember, Shelly Ellis (who also writes under the name, Shelly Stratton) has wanted to be a writer. In college, she studied journalism and started out as a crime reporter for a small local newspaper. Now she is an editor at a trade journal in Virginia.

Her fiction writing career began when she became one of four finalists in the BET Books First-Time Writers Contest when she was 19 years old. The prize was having her first short-story romance published in the book, All That and Then Some!

Her first novel, The Right Maneuver, debuted in April 2011 and her second, A Love Built to Last, was released in November 2011 and nominated for the African American Literary Award in the romance category. Shelly started her women’s fiction series with Kensington Publishing in 2013. The series earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly for the first novel in the series, Can’t Stand the Heat, and a 46th annual NAACP Image award nomination for the Gibbons Gold Digger novel, Another Woman’s Man.

She lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland with her husband and their daughter. She loves to paint, read, and watch movies.

A few odds and ends

How did you know you wanted to be an author?
Well, like most authors, I’ve been writing for a pretty long time. I wrote my first short stories in my black and white composition books when I was 8 years old. The stories got more complex as I got older and my family and teachers told me I had a lot of talent. The final push came back in college when my mother encouraged me to submit to a writing contest held by BET Books, a publisher that no longer exists. I was 19 and didn’t think I had a chance of winning, but I figured, “What the heck… I’ll try it.” I submitted just days before the submission deadline. I didn’t win the contest but I was one of the 3 runners up and got my story published in an anthology series. That’s when I finally said, “Hey, I can do this!”

How did you become an author? How did you find your publisher and/or agent?
Thankfully, I’ve always had good luck through the direct submissions process, which is basically when you take your chance with the “slush pile” and submit your work to the publisher directly. (Though I’ve had my share of rejections too!) In addition to submitting to BET Books through its writing contest, which later led to works in two anthology series, I previously submitted manuscripts to another publishing house that released The Right Maneuver and A Love Built to Last. I submitted the Gibbons Gold Diggers series directly to my editor at Kensington Publishing and was offered a contract a year later. I do not have an agent.

UPDATE: That last part is no longer accurate. I am now represented by (the very funny) Barbara Poelle at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

Where did you get the idea for the Gibbons Gold Diggers series?
It’s funny. I didn’t grow up with siblings. But my mother comes from a tight-knit family (all girls) so I got to see the sister dynamic play out over the years. I knew I wanted to do a series that was a little spicier than my previous works (Who doesn’t like spice?) and I’m a big fan of books that have complex characters. I wanted the Gibbons sisters (Lauren, Stephanie, Dawn, and Cynthia) to have their flaws but to evolve and grow during the course of their respective stories. The Gibbons sisters aren’t perfect by any means: They’re gold diggers who were trained since childhood to be money hungry and take advantage of men. But they’re loyal to each other. They play by their own set of rules. (See the Gibbons rule book.) And they’re hilarious! I love their drama-filled lives!

How many books are in the Gibbons Gold Diggers series?
For now, there are three books in the series. The first book, Can’t Stand the Heat, is about Lauren and will be released in May 2013. The second book is about Stephanie and is also slated for September 2013. The third book is about Dawn and is tentatively set for 2014. So far, Cynthia isn’t scheduled to have her own book. But we’ll see how the sales go with the series. (Wink, wink to all those readers out there.) She’s the stalwart gold digger in the family so it would be fun to see her get her comeuppance!

UPDATE: Cynthia’s book was greenlighted by my publisher! You can expect for her story, The Best She Ever Had, to come out January 2015.

Hey, I’ve got a great book idea! How do I get into the writing game?
Well, that’s a hard question. The path to becoming a published author is different for everyone, especially nowadays when you can upload your self-published novel to just about any book retailer. You don’t have to submit to a publishing house or an agent if you don’t want to, though many like myself still do.

But I would say first and foremost, you should develop your skills as a writer. I didn’t take any novel writing courses, but I was a journalism major in college with a focus on feature writing so I went through a pretty intensive writing program and got used to critiques. I also read writing blogs (Romance University is one I followed, for example) that talked about the basic structure of genre writing. I’ve taken grammar courses also. Natural talent is great, but one or two writing courses can’t hurt you. You can find these courses at local community colleges or by joining organizations like the Romance Writers of America, to which I belong.

Secondly, you should be prepared for rejection. I’ve definitely had my share in the course of my career. I won’t say it gets easier as you go along, but you know its part of the process and you just accept it and try to grow from it.

Thirdly (and any author will tell you this), don’t give up. Yeah, it sounds obvious, but when you get those rejection emails or when you work for months on a manuscript that you realize just isn’t working out, giving up is usually the first thing that pops into your mind. I’ve had my weak moments, but I always felt the urge to write stories. I always thought it was worth giving my writing career another try. So I dust myself off and start all over again.