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Ask Not What a Publisher Can Do For You

It’s an extraordinary realism for aspiring writers: many publishers and agents often seek authors who already possess a substantial following.

The search for publication can be akin to seeking that crucial first job — employers want experience, but how does one gain experience without a job? Traditionally, writers begin with shorter works, offering their skills for free, then progressing to paid assignments. With luck, perseverance, or a blend of both, they may eventually see longer works accepted, though not always or often with a major publisher. Many first publish with midstream or small press; indeed, it’s possible to manage successful careers with smaller publishers, and most writing credits improve a writer’s chances. Like with any job application, the writer builds a resume.

By saying publishers and agents seek writers with an audience, I’m not only referring to their preference for published authors. They have a keen interest in sales figures and, therefore, followership. Today, social media presence is an important and complex challenge. Writers often struggle to balance writing with networking, which, while occasionally enjoyable, can also be time-consuming, demoralising, and a tempting excuse for procrastination. Also, the effectiveness varies.

Accurate statistics to determine what works and what doesn’t are problematic. Success hinges on too many variables including but not limited to genre. A large following doesn’t always translate into sales, while some authors with modest audiences enjoy sturdy trading.

Publishers and agents naturally prefer writers with an existing readership. They desire assurance that taking on an author will lead to worthwhile sales. They’re increasingly interested in writers who can bring their own audience. Today’s publishers are asking not what they can do for the writer, but what the writer can do for them.

This shift partly explains the rise in self-publishing, and it has contributed to the perception that publishers prioritise writers based on what they can offer. But remember, this is not an absolute rule, and it’s important not to view the industry as heartless; we all share a love for the written word. Still, with this perspective, rejections become less shocking.

Sadly, these days some publishers do nothing, and writers will, at some point, need to ask the right questions. While tempting to sign the first hint of a contract, depending on the size of the publisher, it may be important to enquire about career prospects, potential sales, and marketing support. Understanding what questions to ask and when is more important than pressuring the publisher or asking obvious ones.

Update March 2024

Hi Everyone!

We visited relatives for an extended Easter break and, for once, the journeys weren’t too bad despite a hold-up and diversion when returning home owing to a lorry on fire. Of course, these days, the moment one leaves the main road, there’s little to no help. Gone are the days when anyone puts out signs, and don’t bother relying on GPS as Satnavs try the utmost to turn you around to go back the way you came, placing you on the very road you need to avoid.

Monsoon season continues — we’re on our 8th storm of the year right now — and this is affecting a lot of the country. Farmers understandably complain about ruined crops, and business owners complain about lost bookings and fewer visitors. There’s been little in the way of a spring, though we could work on the garden occasionally.

Working our way through classic episodes of Doctor Who is interesting. At season 9 now, with Jon Pertwee, who was my first Doctor. I’d forgotten how argumentative this Doctor could be with Lethbridge-Stewart, though the smirk of amusement on the Brigadier’s face softens their confrontations. It’s a delight to see Katy Manning as the companion (Jo) being that she voiced the short audio story I did for Big Finish Productions. I remember her, of course, though I recall which episodes I’ve seen by the monsters more than anything. I’d also forgotten how adventurous Jo Grant was.

I am writing, though there’s not much to report right now, as I’m mostly doing some editing rounds and re-writes. Not very exciting but that’s how writing goes sometimes.
Stay happy and healthy!
Sharon x

Reads March 2024

Everlost (Book 1 of the Skinjacker Trilogy), Neal Shusterman
A teen book for 12 up that deals with death and, to some extent, what happens afterwards, although this isn’t a religious book. Everlost is a kind of purgatory for the souls of children who get knocked off course. The world the author creates with its various characters, creatures, and monsters is the best thing about it. However, there’s a lack of emotion from Nick and Allie over their death, to a point which struck me as unrealistic. There’s plenty to like about them, but there could have been more. Likewise, the suggestion of a budding romantic interest seems out of place so early in events. The book is more of an adventure plot than a teaching method, which is fine, though I feel it could have done more. Still, the book contains a great cast, and I’d still recommend this for children even though I feel some under 12s could read this. I was reading books like Oliver Twist when I was 8, so the nasty parts don’t seem to warrant such a high age rating for some. I’m sure well-read younger readers would enjoy this and it’s easily readable, containing some fabulous ideas, and a well thought out story world.

The Face, Dean Koontz
A re-read for me, and a well-plotted exceptional book for someone prepared to suspend disbelief and accept a storyline heavy on supernatural elements in a thriller involving a kidnap plot. Some of the descriptive passages could be called overwritten, and I can’t help feeling a little trimming would help the book. I liked the use of a child in this story, those chapters being some of the best. The parts which revolved around the antagonist(s) were a little heavy-going, but the various threads certainly keep the reader guessing with so many creating an intricate story overall. It’s hard to say more without giving the plot away.

The Girl of Ink and Stars, Kiran Millweed Hargrave
A young adult book that has enough of a story for adults to enjoy, with a story complex enough to stretch younger readers. The book’s beautifully presented with maps and patterned pages. The world building here stands out, though there’s something vaporous about the overall plot and some of the action sequences, which may confuse a younger audience. Even I found a couple of sequences difficult to picture; with all the drops off ledges, I expected broken bones. Although characters get hurt, they seem to have miraculous escapes. Still, there’s something charming and magical about this story. The young female lead shows more than her share of bravery, as do her young friends. I’m left wanting a grumpy old chicken.

A Stroke of the Pen, Terry Pratchett
A collection of lost stories written before Discworld. There are many hints of Terry’s developing style here and of his books to come. Light reading but charming, and every story left me smiling. Worthwhile for the dedicated Pratchett fan.

Green, Jay Lake
I’m unsure how I feel about this novel, which can easily be called an epic fantasy. The plot includes slavery, abduction, and mystical holy wars. Green is a girl whose path in life changes when her father sells her, but by the end of the book, the reader and the character have reason to question her destiny often. Mostly, I found the writing and story absorbing even though I don’t favour first person storytelling, but in parts I found the narrative lagged because of meticulous description, which includes all the training Green goes through. This made the book feel overly long despite much of the training being interesting. When we learn of the planned life path various people have for Green, there’s good reason to feel increasingly sorry for her. None of her choices appear to be wonderful, none of them simple. The sexual content never feels entirely natural or necessary, though perhaps realistic and handled well for those whose companionship is restricted. The details become somewhat vague when dealing with the various deities. I sometimes found Green’s character vs her age hard to believe despite her training, but it’s nice to see a young lead treated with the same respect an adult character would receive. For so long, the ‘rule’ has been a child lead marks a book for a young audience. That’s plainly not the case here, couldn’t be, and even though Green is in infancy when taken, we are privileged to her inner thoughts as she’s moulded into what others would make of her, while she battles to keep a sense of self. Strongly character driven, wonderful in parts, weaker in others, I’m pleased to have read this, but feel disinclined to read the rest of the trilogy, although Green makes for an interesting and capable female lead.

Update Feb 2024

Hi Everyone!

Living in the countryside isn’t always the holiday atmosphere people assume. Officially on the news the South West has had 3 to 4 times the amount of rain it usually has this time of year, so despite trying to get out and about more, some days have been a bit more like monsoon season making some outings impossible. We went for a meal one night, driving through mist and fog to get there. There’s been a lot of what locals call mizzle, some of it icy. There’s some snow at high altitudes. Trying to sort out the garage and make a start on the garden where we can.

Watched Saltburn mainly owing to all the shocked buzz about the film, but I worked out what was happening and didn’t see all that much to be perturbed about. The real world is far more startling. I can’t say much surprises me.

Both Asteroid City, and Everything Everywhere All At Once, though fun and entertaining, left us with a sense of WTH did we just watch?

It’s easy to see why Brendon Fraser’s performance in The Whale was award-winning, and makes for compelling drama, throwing up a lot of reasons to question personal point of views, mostly for the good. Of course, The Whale doesn’t refer to his size, but to the emotional states of the characters. In particular, Ellie believes her father, Charlie, to be uncaring, and this has affected her attitude. The end is a little abrupt and purposely ambiguous, with various meanings. The film also showed how some people can react in negative ways to emotional upheaval, such as Charlie’s weight gain, a physical representation of the emotions that weigh everyone in the story down.

I at long last found the missing idea for another book, and I am thinking about re-editing another for a re-release, and am working out a new timeline for a book already written.
Stay happy and healthy!
Sharon x

Reads Feb 2024

Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, Benjamin Stevenson
All the clues needed are here, some so subtle it’s easy to pass over them, but it all ties together in the end. For me, it’s the style in which it’s all presented that made this book so engaging. I’m not usually a fan of first person and I’ve seen that the fictional author of the book talking to the audience has annoyed some readers, but I loved it. Others call it confusing and say it’s all been done before by better. That can be said for many books, but that doesn’t negate other novels. I wasn’t confused and don’t feel it’s fair to assess a book against another. All I know is I had fun with this. I did, however, set my sights on the suspect(s) before the denouement, but not early enough to spoil the outcome. I may check out other works by the author.

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, Laura Imai Messina
Based on a real phone box people visit to talk to their departed loved ones, this is a gentle story even though its subject is one of dealing with loss; of how to open oneself up to a future in which one can find the right balance to live a hopeful and love-filled existence, even though genuine grief’s a close companion through life. Snippets and minor details intersperse the chapters to the section just read, which lend the book a certain unique charm and style. Yes, the story lingers afterwards, although I its emotional aspect failed to move me.

Citizen Alex (Let Freedom Ring), Bruce Campbell (ebook)
A lighthearted, short, fun read. The main character of Alexander Madison could easily be the lead in a series, and the writing shows Bruce’s sense of humour well. Maybe not as funny as I expected, but there were moments with political satire woven in.

The Lost City of Z, David Grann
The only trouble reading a book like this is it does nothing to lower the to-be-read mountain because I couldn’t help wondering if the author’s written any more than half as good. If only all my history lessons could have been so entertaining and informative. A factual historical adventure as gripping as fiction, the book follows in the wake of Percy Harrison Fawcett into the Amazon to answer the question of what happened to Fawcett and whether he was on the track of an amazing civilisation. Often brutal, this tale is also enlightening. We know all about the destruction of the rainforest in recent years, but this reveals how deep that ruination goes, of how early explorers began that devastation in pursuit of the land’s resources more years ago than most of us probably imagine. Many of the hostile tribes greeted these men in defence of that land and in response to the enslavement of their people. The treatment of indigenous races and pack animals is harrowing. The description of diseases and insectile hazards may make you itch. If I have one criticism, it’s that the version of the book I have had seriously small writing, which made the experience less pleasant, if pleasant is a word one can use when reading this type of book. Note: The film on Netflix based on the book takes only the main part of the story and dramatises it. The film’s worth a look, but I preferred the reading experience as it’s much more in-depth.

The Power, Naomi Alderman
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book, although ‘enjoy’ doesn’t feel like the right word. This is a dystopian look to a future in which women develop the ability to emit an electrical discharge, turning almost all women into a walking weapon. The resulting upheaval in societies and cultures all over the world plunge the planet into wars on both the small and large scale. There’s too much in this novel to go into without writing an essay. The meaning may well be different to different people, based on their own biased views. To me, it screams that there is no better or worse, just the corruption of power, and we should all be equal. But, sadly, though likely accurately, this shows that equality also includes all human traits, both good and bad. The book shows what people are capable of, questioning gender equality on a grand scale. It’s thought-provoking, though touches only lightly on a subject that has greater depth than you’ll find here. Some might feel it’s a feminist novel, but it speaks more eloquently of the failures in human nature. Creative and possibly provocative for some.

Consider Setting

Often a story’s need dictates setting, but think of your setting as a character as much as any of the beings that populate the story. Setting can be more than just choosing a place and time. Setting creates atmosphere and the writer can use it obviously or in contrast, or even to tell the reader something about the characters within the story world.

Consider a spooky old house. Straightaway, this conjures up images of darkness, bats flapping around the attic, spiders hanging from their webs and something menacing hiding out of sight around the corner. A house may bring to mind specific films or characters from the movies. In Psycho, the physical setting in which Norman Bates lives represents looming danger and his twisted mind, although the film sets out to mislead us. His home speaks of isolation, abuse. We feel sympathy for Bates, believing him to be a victim (which he is as much as those he kills). However, placing unusual happenings against a more mundane backdrop can have an equal or greater impact.

Or use a haunted house setting to tell a completely different story. Write a comedy, and deliberately use the unlikely setting as part of the joke. Whatever the story concerns, remember the atmosphere. There’s no need to be overly descriptive to build a story world, either, although sometimes writing the perfect, concise description takes longer than a meandering passage, but it’s worth practicing.

Often, the reader only needs to know the exact colour of a room or the pattern on the wallpaper if it has a direct bearing on the story or a character. That said, the way a character sees his or her room after returning from an absence of many years can give the reader a clear idea of the type of childhood this person has had. If the room is unchanged, kept as a shrine, this could tell the reader much about the character’s parents, or it could turn the story upside down and provide another unexpected and surprising reason for the room remaining untouched. Either way, the room itself becomes a tool to give us insight and therefore provide atmosphere. The room becomes as much a part of the story as the people the writer places in that world.

So, although it’s unnecessary to do this meticulously for every scene, when building the world around characters, consider settings carefully. Don’t simply erect a house with four featureless walls. The type of home the character lives in says much about him or her as much as the more obvious details do. Conversely, a character might live in rented accommodation where the roof constantly leaks and the walls are so thin arguments next door may as well be going on in the same room. If the character has a personal reason to be miserable, the accommodation can reflect their emotional state, cause it, or be the reason they’re forced to interact with others.

In one book of mine, I specifically choose to place several scenes in a garage where my MC (main character) works. At first glance, it’s easy to think my character simply needed a job, but the career I chose has always had a masculine persona, and this reflected his personality. The first evidence of his feelings comes to light in the garage, when the other men are trying to joke around. My other character’s sister confronts him in the garage more than once, and ultimately, something nasty happens there to make him face his feelings. There’s plenty of other action that takes place elsewhere in the book, but I deliberately set several pivotal moments in this setting because this is ‘his space’. It’s where he feels most comfortable, doing the thing he loves (taking care of cars), and where he feels most secure. In the garage, he’s a bloke’s bloke, and in charge. Suddenly, he’s insecure in the one place where he should feel safe. The sister’s wrath is an attack and his emotional state can find no solace in the one place where he’s always felt confident. He’s lost his sanctuary. His self-assurance takes another blow. He’s unanchored, insecure, and unable to find a moment’s peace from his emotions, even when working.

As with all writing, choose words carefully and deliberately, but this is especially true with setting. Light that glints ‘wickedly from the sharp edge of a blade’ leaves a distinct impression as opposed to a ‘soft amber glow of the sunset, made the knife gleam’ even though the second option may be as deadly — For example, this option also makes me think of two people preparing dinner about to have an explosive argument where the sharpest weapon will be words.

Don’t overdo adjectives and don’t forget to include more than one sense. People don’t just see; they touch, taste, smell, and hear, too. Apparently, smell can be one of the strongest things to invoke memory, so use it well. Likewise, music can create memory-recall more vividly than a photograph. Note: when using things like music, don’t simply use a favourite song. The story isn’t about you (the writer) — unless it actually is — it’s about the character and in this a writer has to consider age, context, history. If it’s a song she remembers from a time when she knew someone she’s never stopped loving, what age would she have been, and how long ago was it? What year? What played that year, in that month? Why did it resonate with her then and why now? Choose something historically accurate. Do the homework.

Such things also spark tension. If calling on a fastidious neighbour, and the putrid smell coming from the bin rankles your MC’s nose, the reader will surmise right away that something is wrong. An outside bin not pushed to the curb for collection can do this as effectively as an indoor bin a neighbour accesses with the use of a spare key when dropping off a regular shop, an errand run out of neighbourly goodness. In both cases, if this naturally clean neighbour hasn’t emptied the bin, then there must be a reason. Is the neighbour ill? Dead? Murdered? Does the rank smell coming from the bin herald the conditions in which they will find this person?

You can also use setting to place your story in time, but if writing a period piece, especially do your homework. Readers will know a writer has just made it up and guessed. It’s one thing to make a mistake, but quite another not to try at all.
And don’t be lazy. Don’t simply tell a reader that it was a rainy/sunny/cold/windy day. Describe the day and use it to bring something your character is doing, or feels, vividly to life. Is the weather that day in tune with your MC’s feelings, or irritating in contrast? Use setting to establish the scene or even to misdirect.

Update Jan 24

Hi Everyone!
Sorry there was no update for December, but not a lot to report. Trip to relatives, horrendous traffic, and a general hatred of travelling anywhere on a major holiday. A definite reason to exclaim one is getting too old for this. And January always seems to be a bit of a bleak month. Illnesses in services have interfered with our receiving various treatments or tests. And, despite my vow to not spend more on the garden, various plants await better weather so that they can go in the ground. There’s also a few more to come.

We’re continuing with a few series, including Doctor Who originals. So nice to see finally The Web of Fear, Doctor Who, Season 5 with Patrick Troughton as the first book in the spin-off series of novels featuring Lethbridge-Stewart was The Forgotten Son, written by Andy Frankham-Allen, which follows on from the yeti invasion by the great intelligence. A series I was fortunate to write for. Watching the old shows also made me realise what an excellent book Andy had written in his unofficial guide: Companions, Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants.

We finally got around to watching The Full Monty series (Disney+), and were pleasantly surprised. We thought it would be good, but it has real social commentary, funny, sad, and serious. Every episode flew by.

I have attempted to write again, somewhat delayed with one project potentially lost as I can’t find the article whence the idea sprung. Not as bad as losing actual writing, but a reason to grind teeth for sure. Nothing to report as I’ll be in the old rewriting phase for sometime on an existing draft.
Stay happy and healthy!
Sharon x