By Shaymaa Mohammed
Many students nearing the end of their educational career look forward to achieving their dreams and starting a new stage in their lives. To many of them, writing a first book and getting it published is one of those dreams. However, some students need advice on how to get to that crucial next step. With the recent publication of her second book, WSU professor Dr. Sharon Yang, is in a unique position to offer that advice.
In her noir-influenced novels, Yang takes her readers to a world of mystery and suspense; in her classes, she inspires her students to tap into their creativity and create their own worlds. She has been a full time English professor at Worcester State University for 18 years and was a part time instructor for several years before that.
How long have you been writing?
I started writing fiction when I was 8 years old, and it was really bad (laughs). I’ve always liked to create, so I have been writing ever since. I wrote when I was in high school, and I wrote sometimes when I was in college. It was a little hard during the school year because I didn’t have time. The first book I had published, its first draft was finished in 1980. But there wasn’t really a market for a mystery set in the 1980s, so that put me at a disadvantage. I wasn’t as good a writer as I am now, so I have just kept writing and improving my ability until the first novel was published in 2015.
What inspired you to write in the first place?
Well, part of it was, when I was little, my brother used to write, and I wanted to be like my big brother. I kept at it, but he didn’t. I guess I surpassed him in that respect. Also, I like to create, I like to tell a story. Even when I was a kid, a bunch of kids would sit around me. I used to tell scary stories, but finally one of the mothers said, “Could you stop telling these stories because they are scaring the kids?!” so I said “Okay!” So, I must have been doing something right!
What kind of stories did your brother write and what made them inspiring for you?
He wrote kind of scary stories, or adventure stories. We used to read comic books as kids, so he would write stories about Thor, the Avengers and Spiderman, and sometimes he made up his own superheroes, too. Then he wanted to write adventure fantasy. Then he just petered out. Well, he was a good storyteller. It was interesting enough that you wanted to see what was gonna happen next. I was five and a half years younger than him, so I kinda looked up to him.
Why do you write mysteries?
I love mysteries. I like not knowing what’s gonna happen next, I like to leave my readers alarmed and see if I can trick them and keep them guessing: keep them in suspense. I like to read them or watch them in movies too. I like to create that kind of atmosphere.
How did you get your books published?
It took a long time and it it took a lot of perseverance. I got a lot of rejections. Sometimes it wasn’t that my writing was bad, but that there wasn’t a market for it, or people thought there wasn’t a market. Then, what finally happened was, I went through several periods when I had time, when I would really make a big push to get published, and a couple of [those attempts] just didn’t work. After I got tenure, I had a little more time and I could really devote myself to it. I invested in the Writer’s Guide to Publishing and the Writer’s Guide to Agents. I got myself to make up a list of who would be most likely to publish what I wrote. I was looking for a market for what I wrote. There was one agent that looked perfect; I checked online, and it said they weren’t accepting anything anymore. But I said to myself, “Oh, I’m just gonna send this anyway, because the worst thing they can say is ‘No!’” So, I sent it. The woman I sent it to wasn’t an agent at the agency anymore; she had started her own publishing company. She loved it, and she said, “send me the rest of the novel” after I had sent her a sample chapter. After about two months I didn’t hear from her. I wrote her again, and she said, “Yes, I like it. Please send me the rest; we will publish it.” It took a while, but then I had the second one ready, and I asked, “Are you interested in the second one? This is what it’s about.” She said, “Yes, just send it directly to acquisitions and they will send it to an editor,” so I didn’t even have to get it approved or anything, she just sent it right through. Apparently they liked what I did the first time.
Are your books a series?
Yes, it’s a series. The first one is called Bait and Switch, published in 2015, and the second one is Letter from a Dead Man, published in 2017. I should point out that even when I was trying to get the first one published, I didn’t stop writing and wait. I just kept writing the whole time. When the first one got published, I had already finished drafting the second one and was working on a draft of a third one. I never stopped writing. I completed the third one, and I want to edit it down a bit more before I submit it.
How did you get them recognized?
You have to do a lot of self promotion, especially when you go to a small publisher. I created my own website on WordPress. I also entered my books in competitions, and the first one was a finalist in the National Independent Excellence Awards. I also joined Sisters in Crime, which is an organization for mystery writers and readers who want to be published. The information about me and my book are up on their webpage. I also joined the Speakers Bureau, which will send you out in panels to libraries and other places to talk about writing [in general] and talk about your own writing. I also talk about my writing to everybody. I go to different independent bookstores, too, and I say, “I’d like to do a reading, signing, or just a signing; could I do that?” And usually they say yes, which gets the book out there. You have to do a lot on your own.
Have you been able to build up a big audience for your writing?
It’s hard to say. I’m not selling millions of books, I don’t even know if I sold a thousand of the first one — it might have been a few hundred. I am on Amazon, and my publisher does sell on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I have asked people who read it to post reviews. I have made a lot of connections with other mystery writers, and we talk about each others’ books on our webpages and in interviews or newsletters. So we help get the word out for one another. It’s a nice network.
What are some of the hardest things about writing?
Finding time. I can’t write during the school year; I’m too busy reading, grading and preparing for classes. I have many comfortable places to write. Finding a place to write isn’t a problem, but a lot of [the difficulty] is finding time. I basically have to do it when I’m not in school. Having the summer not teaching is a great thing; that helps. Sometimes I work on it during the winter break, but not usually, because it goes by so fast.
Do you ever have trouble coming up with ideas?
I have always had ideas. I wouldn’t write unless I had an idea. If I don’t have an idea, I don’t wanna write. It’s the ideas that make me write.
How do you deal with your readers and their reactions?
Mostly I have gotten people who have liked what I write. They like the characters, and they like the stories. Sometimes I like to put in some in-jokes with characters’ names, names of places or phrases. Occasionally, some people get sort of upset or somehow disappointed because they may like a certain character and that person turns out to be the bad guy or gets killed or something. I would tell them why that happened and why it had to be. I have to write for what the story tells me; I can’t write for what I think somebody wants to hear. I have to be true to the characters in the story.
Do you have any more books in the works?
Yes, there is one. But I haven’t send it to the publisher yet. It’s called Always Play the Dark Horse. I’ll probably be working on it this summer, so it may take six months or so to go through the editor. Maybe it will come out by the end of 2019. I don’t know, they have to accept it. It depends on how much editing is needed. I would say it probably will be out in two years.
What’s your favorite book, author, or genre?
It’s hard for me to pick one particular author. I teach English.
But I love the Victorians. I am reading Jane Eyre now; that’s a wonderful book. Charlotte Brontë is a beautiful writer, she is very settled. She’s got a very dry sense of humor. She also writes descriptively. I also like Elizabeth Gaskell, who’s also a Victorian author. For mystery writers, I like Patricia Wentworth and Frances Crane. There are a few who haven’t written many books, like Lisa Lieberman and Lesley Wheeler.
What inspired you to teach English in addition to writing?
I love reading; I love to talk about what I read and share ideas. I get so excited when I see students pulling stuff out of literature and falling in love with the writing. It’s a way of sharing ideas and sharing a love of literature.
What do you do to inspire students?
I try to get them to look at what’s in the literature, to see how well it’s crafted and why it’s important, what the ideas are, and how it’s important to see what those people are saying. It not only tells them about the past, but it’s relevant to their lives now. I try to have a sense of humor, so that it won’t be boring. I try to make it enjoyable.
What advice would you offer to students who are hoping to write a book?
Keep writing! No matter what, keep writing. Keep improving. Get feedback from people whose opinions you value; you think they know something good about writing. Read, read, read. Read good stuff, because it gives you hints and little suggestions on how to create and how to be a writer. You can learn from other writers. You don’t want to completely copy them, but they provide a little foundation for you. Getting published is perseverance and luck. You have to be in the right place at the right time, but you don’t get there unless you work really hard to be in the right place at the right time. Write for the sake of writing, not for the money, because there’s not a lot of that; just write for the joy of writing.