“[Publishing is] an industry with so much turmoil, and I just have the attitude of I’m not going away. You can’t make me go away. And you certainly can’t make me stop writing.”—Sharon Short (Jess Montgomery)
Sharon Short—who also writes as Jess Montgomery—has learned about turmoil in her more than three decades as an author. She’s published 16 novels and short-short compilations, won multiple awards and grants, penned a column on literary life in the Dayton Daily News for nine years, and currently serves as a regular columnist for Writer’s Digest, but her success has been a product of many years of setbacks.
Take, for instance, her experiences with finding an agent. “I have one husband and plan to keep it that way,” Sharon says, but she’s currently on what she calls her “fourth and final agent.” Or revolving through as many editors and publishing houses in the constantly shifting world of publishing.
Sharon’s career progression has been comprised of ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks, steps forward and backward throughout—but listening to her story reveals a common thread: She knows how to pick herself up and keep going.
After publishing her first three books, Sharon wanted to branch out with her next project—but her editor at the time told her, “We want you to be derivative—you write in the PI genre, just keep following that formula.” When Sharon told her agent at the time that she wasn’t keen on this advice, that she wanted to stretch herself and grow as a writer, her agent advised instead, “Well, you could always just have another baby”–a response she describes as “one of the most horrifying things I’d heard someone say in publishing.”
Sharon left agent, editor, and publishing house. “I realized that if I wanted to keep growing as a writer, these weren’t the people who were going to help me do that.”
Back at square one, Sharon led a fiction workshop at the Antioch Writers Workshop, where she’d initially begun her career with mentorship from Sue Grafton, and met her second agent. They soon submitted another manuscript, and quickly found an editor who was deeply excited about the project and Sharon.
One week later, her agent called to tell her the editor had left for another publishing house and would be working under an editor who had already declined the project earlier. Her agent decided not to continue to submit the manuscript, instead advising Sharon to “write another novel.”
Sharon spent the next year doing exactly that, a suspense novel with slightly darker overtones than her earlier books, only for her agent to tell her she couldn’t even try to sell it because she didn’t have “the Stephen King gene.”
“I remember thinking rather snippily in my head, ‘If I have the Stephen King gene, what do you care, because that would be great for both of us,’” Sharon remembers now, but at the time she was despondent, questioning whether she wanted to continue trying to establish herself as a writer.
“I [could] always just say, ‘Hey, I gave it a whirl and I published three books and wasn’t that great?’ But I think if you’re really bitten by that writing bug, or any art, there’s just something that tells you that you have to keep going.”
And so once again she did, writing what eventually became the first in her Josie Toadfern cozy series, and an author friend, Kathy Trocheck, offered to connect her with her editor.
Kathy turned out to become Mary Kay Andrews…and the editor Sharon met with led to her signing a deal with Avon, with Sharon publishing six more books through the imprint, yet again shifting genres to humorous cozies.
Until six years later, while attending Malice Domestic (an author and reader festival), Sharon found out from a publicity assistant who was the only staff sent to the event by her publisher that her imprint wasn’t planning to publish Sharon’s genre anymore…effective almost immediately.
Sharon cast about for a new direction for her career, trying her hand at middle-grade fiction before deciding she wanted to go back to adult fiction…at which point her agent told her she’d decided to no longer represent fiction, but suggested that “what would make a great book would be how to retire in Mexico.” Sharon said she had no knowledge or desire to write such a book. “So then we parted ways.”
After another dark night of the soul upon finding herself for the third time without an agent or an editor, Sharon decided to embrace the freedom it offered her to write whatever she wanted, which resulted in her novel My One Square Inch of Alaska (“I think my writing just leapt forward in writing that book”) and her fourth and final agent, Elisabeth Weed (“She’s amazing, and it only took me twenty-some years to find her”).
They sold the book, along with her next four, the wonderful Kinship historical mystery series based on a real-life woman sheriff in Appalachia during the Prohibition era, and Sharon enjoyed “the best publishing experience I’ve had. Basically what I dreamed of way back when.”
Her three decades of ups and downs have taught Sharon important takeaways for building a writing career:
- On working with agents, editors, and other professionals: “Find people that you trust and who know what they’re talking about, and be coachable.”
- On rejection: “It’s not personal when people say no, when you get agent rejections, or even if you’re cut from a job. It can be brutal, but I’ve seen too many writers get really bitter about what publishing is like, and that embitters them personally and embitters them toward their art, and I think that’s sad. There’s no joy or creativity in being bitter. You can certainly have your moments, but overall stay in touch with, ‘This is why I do this. This is my calling.’”
- On letting marketing and sales define your success: “You have to find these ways to remind yourself that you are touching people, you’re reaching them.” If she occasionally gets hung up on sales or bestseller lists, etc., Sharon reminds herself there are tens of thousands of people who read her work. “That’s a lot of people! That’s an entire town, or a minor-league game stadium!”
I asked Jess about her biggest challenge in editing her own work and how she overcomes it, and I couldn’t love her answer more, both for the fact that editing and revising are her favorite parts (this fills my editor’s soul), but for how she asks herself that magical freeing phrase “what if” as she’s developing a story, how she approaches the process as the real work of writing story—which it is—and how she handles the self-doubts so many creatives fall victim to and keeps herself focused on the work.
How Sharon Short Revises
Once, years ago, I was told in my Sunday School class that I “have the gift of questioning.” (This was not considered a compliment in this particular class.)
Since then, I’ve decided it IS a compliment. Asking questions—particularly story questions of myself—is how I brainstorm and plan out my stories and novels. Like many writers, I start with the “what if?” question and build from there. And I love this part of the process.
As I draft, I keep track of questions that pop up as I let the words flow onto my computer screen. (OK, let’s be honest– flow is an optimistic word for how I write a draft. Let’s edit that last phrase: in order to just let the words plop out, clunkily and murkily, on my computer screen.) Questions like: what if I enhanced this aspect of my character? What if this object became a poignant symbol of my novel’s theme?
Clunky and murky draft over with (drafting is my least favorite part of the writing process), I’m always excited for revision and editing. I have all those questions to consider as I revise!
Except… there is a dark side, after all, to constantly questioning, well, everything. Because questioning also gets me into trouble as I revise and edit. Sneaky, self-sabotaging questions that threaten to undermine my self-confidence and even joy as a writer. Questions like: Wait, are you a good enough writer to develop a combat scene with that many characters? Maybe you should scale it back?
Or: Oh, what makes you think you can explore a theme that dark and deep? Are you really that savvy?
What always helps me regain my bravery as I revise is my mantra: Serve the Story. The story I created in the brainstorming phase. I believe that there is a core, a soul, a heart to each and every story. (It’s from this core that theme emerges.) So when I’m struck by self-sabotaging doubts and fears in the revision stage, I remind myself: “Serve the Story.” That takes me, and my ego, and my fears, out of the middle of revision, and refocuses my attention on exactly where it should be: revising, honing, crafting and editing my story to be exactly what it needs to be.