There used to be one way only to become a successful author: first get an agent, then land a publishing deal. That was it. Now, there are numerous routes – which can make it both easier and harder to know what to do. In a short series, authors share their fascinating personal journey to publication with me. Today it’s bestseller Sharon Maas…
Sharon Maas was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1951, and spent many childhood hours either curled up behind a novel or writing her own adventure stories. Sometimes she had adventures of her own, and found fifteen minutes of Guyanese fame for salvaging an old horse-drawn coach from a funeral parlor, fixing it up, painting it bright blue, and tearing around Georgetown with all her teenage friends. The coach ended up in a ditch, but thankfully neither teens nor horse were injured.
Boarding school in England tamed her somewhat; but after a few years as a reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown she plunged off to discover South America by the seat of her pants. She ended up in a Colombian jail, and that’s a story for another day…
Sharon has lived in an Ashram in India and as a German Hausfrau–the latter giving her the time and the motivation to finally start writing seriously. Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, was published by HarperCollins, London, in 1999 and reprinted as a digital edition in 2014. After working as a social worker in a German hospital she finally retired and now has time for her favourite pastimes: reading, writing, and travelling.
I WAS A LATE STARTER IN THIS WRITING MALARKEY
Sharon says: ‘I was a late starter in this writing malarkey. I was 48 when I wrote my wrote my first novel; I wrote on a small Brother word-processor which looked like a jumped-up typewriter with a tiny screen at the top. It didn’t have a hard drive. I had to write it one chapter at a time and save each chapter separately on a floppy disk (remember those?). When it came to printing, I had to insert the disks one by one and print the book chapter by chapter. It was a breeze compared to the manual typewriter I’d used just a few years previously, and I was delighted to be able to see my typos on the tiny screen before saving to disk. It felt very modern.
The novel I finally produced was called Women of Mixed Blood. I had no internet at the time (hardly anyone did) but I still managed, in Germany, to get hold of a copy of Writers’ News, and there was an article about a new agent who had set up shop in London. I wrote her about the book; she wrote me back asking for the manuscript, which was all of 700 pages. I sent it.
I TURNED UP AT HER DOORSTEP PETRIFIED
Weeks of silence followed; but then: a phone call, asking me if I could come to London to meet her. Well, do horses eat grass? I flew over in a matter of days, along with my whole family. I turned up at her doorstep petrified, certain she had summoned me only to tell me my book was rubbish. But she didn’t. It’s terrific! were her first words, but then she sat me down and went through it with a red pen, striking through pages and pages. She sent me home with a mutilated manuscript and instructions to send it back once I had edited it.
I followed instructions to the letter; she began sending it out to London publishers. An agonising time followed. One by one, the publishers rejected the book. Each rejection caused heartbreak. When she called me with the final no, I burst into tears on the phone, and broke out in deep, gulping sobs. All that effort, for nothing It was all over. I was a rubbish writer.
A MAJOR LONDON EDITOR WAS ON THE PHONE
But then – no. I put the phone down and re-read my Bible of writing, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. New strength poured into me. I sat down at my trusty Brother and started a new book, Of Marriageable Age. That book seemed to just write itself. At the time we lived in a draughty farmhouse in a German village. It had no central heating and, tropical bird that I am, I was freezing. But I had to write; an internal fire burned in me and the story was bursting out of me. I wore a warm coat and fingerless gloves and a cap and finished the book in record time and sent it off.
When I did not hear back from my agent (she must have been thoroughly fed up of me by now!) I sent it off to a critique service for an assessment. The editor who read it loved it, but had a few suggestions; I followed her advice, sent it back – and the next thing I knew a major London agent was on the phone; that editor happened to be a scout for the agency.
I HAD TO MAKE A CHOICE ON THE SPOT
Back to London; this time, by the time I met my new agent she already had not one, but three publishers lined up. The book went to auction, and I flew off to Guyana with the family for my yearly visit to my mother. We stopped off with relatives in Trinidad, and I was still sleeping off my jet lag when my cousin woke me to say there was a call from London. Totally groggy, I took the phone from her and there was my agent. Two publishers had offered to buy the publishing rights. I had to make a choice, on the spot…
I chose HarperCollins. The following year, 1999-2000, I spent in a whirlwind of writerly dream situations. Meetings with editors and marketing and sales people from the publishers, telephone calls telling me of foreign sales; later on, a launch party with a couple of famous authors, media interviews for print and radio and TV. A contract for two more books. The dream was coming true.
THE TROUBLE WITH DREAMS COMING TRUE
The trouble with dreams coming true is that they can take over your head, and that’s never a good thing. Because that’s when you discover that dreams are not real. They are made of an ephemeral substance. They can disperse like soft mist.
With my fourth book, everything fizzled out. The manuscript was rejected and there I was, back to square one.
I had made the mistake of firing my agent – part of the illusion that the confidence given by a dream is real, that the wings I had grown were on permanent – and now I had to discover that I was well and truly on my own again.
The next ten years were spent in writers’ purgatory. I was in exile. I wrote one book after the other, submitted them to probably every single agent in the UK and USA. Twice I was taken on by agents from major US houses. Once I came within sniffing distance of a contract; but in the end the dream puffed up into vapour.
Looking back, those ten years seem to have gone by in a flash. It’s hard to believe that throughout it all I kept on writing. By now the internet and email had taken over and everything was much simpler, but had the rejections been in paper I could certainly have plastered all the walls in my house. But I kept on, writing and maturing, and by 2012 my aim was no longer to get published but to write the best books I could.
NO ENTHUSIASM OR TALENT FOR THE MARKETING THAT SELF-PUBLISHING DEMANDS
I wrote five novels, several memoirs, two screenplays, and a new version of the Mahabharata. I did a stint as a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund at Brighton University. I was accepted by the BBC into a select screenwriting group which now seems to be defunct as I can’t find it. I started an MA in Creative Writing at Sussex University (I dropped out halfway for a multitude of reasons, but it was good while it lasted). I participated eagerly on a couple of writers’ forums. And I kept submitting, and kept getting rejections.
The big change came when the digital age dawned. I decided that Of Marriageable Age, my most successful book, and maybe my best – needed a new lease on life. I never seriously considered self-publishing, apart from the Mahabharata (which I thought, would sell itself, and it does) – I have no enthusiasm or talent for the marketing and self-promotion that self-publishing demands. I am reticent rather than assertive.
LITTLE UPSTART BOOKOUTURE
But my American agency had just opened a division for “assisted self-publishing” of authors’ backlists. Of Marriageable Age was accepted into this programme. Around this time, HarperCollins offered me a digital contract for all three of my books. And I had just read a fabulous book by Renita D’Silva, published by Bookouture, a brand new digital publisher. Against the advice of a few knowledgeable friends – Bookouture had only published 3 or 4 books at the time and did not have the fantastic record we aspiring authors were told to look for — I submitted Of Marriageable Age to founder Oliver Rhodes – and he offered a contract.
So, it was three busses arriving all at the same time. The serious choice, of course, was between the venerable HarperCollins (I still yearned to pass through their gates at Fulham Palace Road once again) and little upstart Bookouture. I sent both contracts to the Society of Authors for legal assessment and advice. The SOA said that the Bookouture contract was far better and fairer.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE
So I chose Bookouture, and have never regretted it. Not only did this innovative little house breathe new life into Of Marriageable Age, republishing it in 2013 – they also allowed me to re-write –and improve — my two other HarperCollins books under new titles. Best of all, they also published most of the books I had written during the years of exile, including my beloved Quint Chronicles.
The moral of this story? Writers write. They don’t give up. There is never a guarantee you will get published, or, once published, that you will get rich and famous. In fact, getting rich and famous should not be part of the motivation at all. Write for the sake of writing, because it is a good and worthy thing to do what you HAVE to do.
During my years in “exile” I didn’t only write. I got on with life. I moved to England and back to Germany. I travelled to India, where I stayed in an Ashram, and to Guyana, to visit my mother. I got a day job and learned new facets of life, met new people. I read, I grew, I turned 60, passed 65. I took care of my seriously disabled husband. I learned the value of equanimity in the face of failure (even if I couldn’t perfectly practice it!).
In fact, I learned that there is no such thing as failure because with every new piece of writing I became a better writer, and a better person: better at living, and dealing with things that don’t go my way. I learned patience, and to get on with the things that really matter: my family, my friends, my life besides writing. Recently I retired. What better time to write?
*** A truly inspiring and uplifting post, Sharon – thank you for sharing it with us. You make a wonderful point about writing never being wasted, because the more we do, the more we improve. Enjoy a happy and prosperous retirement, full of books! Barbara xx ***
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