If you’re not a TikTok addict like me or part of the online book community, you might have missed the heartwarming story of Shawn Warner and his unique book promotion at a Kroger store. Let me catch you up.
On July 2, 2023, a single video thrust Warner and his fellow Texan, Jerrad Swearengin (known as “Red” online), into the national spotlight. Swearengin was simply picking up some ice cream at a Fort Worth, Texas, Kroger when he noticed Warner surrounded by stacks of books in the grocery store.
Warner, who resides in Arlington, was there to promote and sign his debut YA murder mystery novel, Leigh Howard and the Ghosts of Simmons-Pierce Manor, published by Black Rose Writing. Swearengin, moved by the sight of Warner sitting alone after a long day, struck up a conversation and shared a video of their encounter on his TikTok account. This video quickly garnered the attention of tens of thousands of viewers.
The viral video, initially meant to bring joy and recognition to Warner’s book, surpassed all expectations. However, there’s a deeper layer to this remarkable story. Even if you’ve already glimpsed the viral video or explored Warner’s book, you may not be fully acquainted with the man behind it all. He’s not just an author; he’s also a husband, a father, and a former army veteran who chased his lifelong dream of becoming a writer.
Warner’s journey from a passionate reader to a writer was a gradual evolution that he describes as a “slow burn.” He firmly believes that every book we read and every life experience we go through influences all facets of our lives, regardless of timing. According to Warner, humans are naturally wired to absorb insights from their readings, life experiences, and interactions with others. In his case, these influences shape his writing, giving life to imaginative ideas.
“I’ve always loved reading adventure stories,” Warner said. “When I was about six or seven, I got interested in the Billy and Blaze series about a boy and a horse. As I got older and could read more on my own, I delved into works like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Conan series. Around the 4th grade, I started reading those, along with Marvel Comics, I remember a friend’s older brother who introduced us to comic books when we were about ten.”
Warner’s career path has taken him on a fascinating rollercoaster ride, and he remains uncertain about how all those unique experiences have ultimately shaped his current writing career. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that his journey has been packed with many intriguing jobs.
“As a teenager, I started working in warehouses, and then I joined the military, serving in the infantry as a paratrooper for a four-year enlistment before starting college,” Warner said. “I earned my first degree in psychology and followed that with a Master’s in social work. I worked in pediatric mental health, I did that for a long time, and that field kind of soured a bit for me. Things changed, and the environment changed a little bit. So I returned to school and got an engineering degree, started in electrical engineering, and didn’t like that. However, I discovered my interest in programming and software engineering. This led me to pursue degrees in computer science and software engineering, and I worked in that field for a while. When I lost my job in that role, I stayed home. My wife was completing her degree, so we relocated to support her career. As a family, we discussed our options and decided that I would stay home and homeschool our children. This is where my journey towards taking writing seriously and studying the craft began.”
Despite Warner’s initial focus on a different book, as is often the case with great writers, a persistent idea gnawed at him, refusing to let go.
“This idea of a girl whose parents were murdered, and she’s working on this mystery to solve it, kind of got into my head,” Warner said. “I just started toying with it because that usually happens. I get a character in mind, someone facing a unique challenge or a different experience. Then, I started playing ‘what if’ games in my imagination. So, what if she goes to live with wealthy relatives in a mansion? What if that mansion’s haunted? Okay, that’s getting more interesting. Well, what if she makes friends with a ghost? And then what if these characters have multiple personality issues? From there, it was just, ‘Okay, now we’ve got enough steam for a book.’ The concept of it just wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s like when you get a jingle or song in your head and have to sing it to get it out of your head or listen to it.”
Warner’s debut novel, “Leigh Howard,” weaves a tale of resilience and an unrelenting search for truth. The story follows Leigh, who, after a tragic loss, is thrust into a world of unimaginable wealth, grappling with grief while determined to uncover the mysteries behind her parents’ unsolved murder. Joined by an intriguing cast, including a unique twist involving a ghost, Warner’s storytelling prowess shines through.
Yet, those familiar with his “Writer’s Musings” blog on his author’s website won’t be shocked, as it reflects his passion for young adult (YA) novels, offering personal experiences, advice, book reviews, and insights into writing analytics.
“I’ve worked in pediatric psych for a while, and there’s a soft spot in my heart for kids who live at that intersection of true mischief and real trouble,” Warner said. “There’s a fine line there, and I’ve always been fond of kids who walk that line a little bit. With ‘Leigh’ and other things I write, one of my priorities is to write things that are fun to read. We’re moving away from reading as a recreational activity. There’s a lot of pressure to have weighty themes or address social issues or politics. They’re all important. I don’t want to downplay their significance, but reading should be enjoyable, ranking up there with movies, TV, and video games.”
Like countless authors, Warner knows the sting of rejection all too well. But rather than dwelling on it, Warner encourages writers to embrace it as a chance to grow. He advises diving into learning opportunities, churning out words prolifically, and acknowledging the power of critique groups.
“Anything that was going to offend me was pointed out by drill sergeants long ago,” Warner said. “You have to have a healthy perspective on what we’re talking about. At the end of the day, writing and publishing is a business. Every decision, every rejection, is a business decision. Publishers are looking at whether they can market and sell the book, and it doesn’t have anything to do with you personally. They’re not thinking your writing is terrible; they’re considering whether the market will support this story. They’re looking two to three years down the road because that’s how long a book takes to get out. Getting a book from submitting a manuscript to publishing could take as many as two years. So, they’re business decisions, and you have to grow a thick skin.”
But then, when the hurdles persist, and even critique groups fall short, it’s time to explore what strategies truly harmonize with your unique storytelling style.
“I sometimes struggle with finding my voice,” Warner said. “But usually, when I start writing, the story begins to tell itself and finds its own tone. Starting can be challenging, and if you take a break, you may need to read or immerse yourself in it again to regain momentum. My only advice is to write a lot in your genre and maybe try writing in other genres. Everyone who starts writing sounds bad and clunky at first, but it smooths out with practice. I get motivation when I go on walks or when I’m driving. I do a lot of self-talk. So quiet individual time, whether it’s on a walk or it’s driving, is kind of helpful as far as a setting or environment. That’s really helpful.”
Currently, Warner is diligently crafting his next project, offering exclusive news about upcoming books, sneak peeks, and more for VIP members on his website.
“I’d been sitting at the booth for hours that day, about six or seven hours before Red took that video,” Warner said. “I’d been there all day, so I was bored and tired. My concern was that people might buy the book out of pity, and I didn’t want that. But I could relax as the reviews started coming in and the sales maintained. As of the last check, I had over 5,000 reviews on Amazon alone, which is huge. I do occasionally read some, both the good and negative ones. Some people avoid the negative ones, but I always look for ways to improve and learn. I’m a lifelong learner. I remember when the books arrived, and I saw a book with my name on it, and it was a huge thrill. It really is. The hardest hurdle for any writer is to be noticed, to get discovered, to let people know, ‘Hey, I’m here, and I have this book.’ I’m very grateful that what’s happened to me with a debut novel is not the norm for writers. Usually, it takes writing three to five books and then gaining some notoriety. I’m humbled and grateful for how this has happened for me.”