Susan Whitfield, author of three published novels, Genesis Beach, Just North of Luck and Hell Swamp, interviewed Shelagh Watkins on her blog on Monday 12th October:
Susan: Welcome to my blog, Shelagh.
Shelagh: Hi Susan, Thank you for inviting me to be your guest.
Susan: When did the writing bug bite, and in what genre(s)?
Shelagh: I began writing in 1998 and wrote my first novel, The Power of Persuasion. The book, a work of literary fiction set in Scotland, takes the reader around the world from Europe to the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, and then back to Scotland. I wrote my second novel, Mr. Planemaker’s Flying Machine, in 2002. Although a work of children’s fiction, the book is aimed at a wide audience: from nine-year-olds to ninety-year-olds! I wrote the sequel, Mr. Planemaker’s Diving Machine in 2011.
Susan: When you started writing, what goals did you want to accomplish? Is there a message you want readers to grasp?
Shelagh: The Power of Persuasion, which I submitted to all the major London publishing houses, was well received but failed to attract a single publisher. Along with the rejection slips, the advice from all the publishers was the same: I needed to find an agent. However, finding an agent proved to be as difficult as finding a publisher so I stopped writing. I did not write again until 2002 when my brother died and left two young children, then aged five and eight years old. I began writing again and, this time, I found a publisher. The second book, Mr. Planemaker’s Flying Machine, was published in 2005. Two years later, the publisher, PublishAmerica, gave me joint print rights and exclusive electronic rights to my novel and I self-published the book through Lulu.com and as an ebook on: Amazon’s kindle.
In 2007, I rewrote The Power of Persuasion, which took twelve months to complete. In January 2008, I set up Mandinam Press to publish the novel. Having learned how to self-publish, I used the experience to publish Forever Friends, an anthology of short stories and poems written by members of the Published Authors forum and network. The book was published in September 2008 and, this month, appeared in Today’s Chicago Woman magazine.
The only message I would pass on to anyone setting out with the idea of becoming a published author is to be realistic about expectations and do not have a preconceived notion about the number of sales a first time author should make. For some new authors, the number of books may be in the thousands but, for the majority of newcomers, the number of books sold is more likely to be in the hundreds. This means that royalties will be small − small enough to be disregarded as an increase in yearly income. It is far more likely that the expenses incurred in selling a few hundred copies of a book will far exceed the amount earned in royalties.
This situation is no different to those facing most talented individuals who pay traveling expenses and teaching/coaching expenses when pursuing their chosen career. It is the same with writers. Everyone has to learn and, as such, new writers should accept that the learning process will involve some costs.
Susan: Briefly tell us about your book(s).
Shelagh: Mr. Planemaker’s Flying Machine is a story of flight, fantasy, adventure and courage. Although Emmelisa Planemaker is a strong-willed little girl, she misses her dad, who died when she was only five years old.
Emmelisa and her brother Dell have a happy and carefree life until their father becomes ill and is forced to retire at the age of forty-three. After retirement, Mr. Planemaker decides to build a scaled, model airplane because he wants to build something lasting for his children but he dies before completing the task.
Three years later, Emmelisa is being seriously bullied at school by a group led by the notorious school bully, Mayja Troublemaker. When Emmelisa becomes increasingly withdrawn and unhappy, she seeks help and advice through the computer her father had used to locate specialist model aircraft companies in his quest to build a model airplane.
The computer is more than just a computer and full of surprises: Mr. A. Leon Spaceman being one of them! He guides the two children to Hardwareland, where they train to become astronauts and take on an extraordinary mission into space: to follow their father’s TRAIL OF LIGHT.
Mr. Planemaker’s Flying Machine was a top ten finisher in the Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll 2005.
The Power of Persuasion is a tongue-in-cheek work of literary fiction set in Scotland. The title is taken from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The satirical fictional story is about a journalist who stalks a reader (as opposed to a reader who obsessively reads everything written by a particular journalist). The reader, Beth Durban, is aware that she is being followed around and is totally bemused by the unwanted attention:
Beth Durban is persuaded to write a letter to the editor’s page of a national Sunday newspaper in response to a film critic’s prejudice against adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. When she receives an unexpected visit from the newspaper’s critic, F. William D’Arcy, she is bemused but, after several sightings of the inquisitive journalist, she’s neither pleased nor amused.
Beth is so distracted by the unwelcome interest from such an arrogant man she fails to see that a close work colleague is falling in love with her. As a scientific researcher in a Scottish University, she has led a varied life travelling the world, spending time in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, America, Singapore and Israel. With such a full life, she has had little time to form any serious, romantic attachments that might lead to a permanent relationship.
When she decides to take driving lessons, Beth opens up new opportunities for herself and realises that perhaps she isn’t too old to find love after all.
The Power of Persuasion was a top ten finisher in the Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll 2008.
Susan: What’s the hook for the books?
Shelagh: There is an underlying philosophy to Mr. Planemaker’s Flying Machine that is left for readers to figure out for themselves. The opening chapters lay the foundation for the philosophical underpinnings of the book. Mr. Planemaker is dying. He knows this as do his family, friends and work colleagues. They are all trying to help in this last stage of his life.
In his dreams, the Dream House is his final resting place. In his first dream, when the children approach the door, the house disappears because the time is not right for them. They will not be stepping inside the house for quite some time. Bill Dare, who built the house, tells Mr. Planemaker that no one lives inside the house and no one has ever lived inside the house – this is the house of the dead, not the living. The door to the house is missing and cannot be closed or reopened: a one-way passage. Mr. Planemaker asks about the missing door and Mr. Dare explains that the door is actually there and those who can see it won’t be able to walk into the house. In other words, the door is always closed to the living and only open for the dying.
In all his dreams, Mr. Planemaker asks about the children because every waking minute is spent thinking about his son and daughter and what will happen to them when he has gone.
At first, Mr. Planemaker is afraid and he doesn’t want to step inside the house. It is grey and gloomy and unwelcoming. To allay his fears, the people who built the house – the architect, the builder and the workmen – are always cheerful and reassuring. They know the house is bleak and uninviting but the love and care they put into it overshadows the dull, plain appearance of the grey house.
When Mr. Planemaker meets Joy Nair, he is given his first glimpse of light inside the house. The light is warm and soft, and makes the prospect of stepping inside the hallway more attractive. However, he doesn’t step forward because his thoughts are interrupted as he remembers the children. He still wants more time with them.
At the end of chapter five, he finally gives in and his last dream takes him through the door, not into darkness but into light. Before he finally slips away, he asks about the children and is told that they are going to be okay. With that last thought, Mr. Planemaker lets go of his grasp on life and steps into life after death. Now you must read the story to find out what happens to the children.
The hook for The Power of Persuasion is on the first page:
“Do you wake on Sunday mornings feeling bright and cheerful before you step out to buy your favourite Sunday newspapers, and spend the next four hours reading the print off the page? Does this weekly ritual result in a change of temperament – signs of irritability, aggressiveness and a distinctly argumentative frame of mind? I do. To be more accurate, I did. Everyone around me suffered from my inability to avoid the very thing that caused the Jekyll and Hyde mood swings. The news items didn’t affect me much, but the journalists with a point to make were my Achilles’ heel. To a man and a woman, I disagreed with all of them. We were as black and white to each other as the printed page before me. There was no grey area, no common ground and no compromise.
How could there be compromise in a situation where they wrote and I read? In order to see one another’s point of view, I would need to explain mine. To inflict regularly my own half-baked ideas on my family would have been unfair, and yet they probably suffered more from my silent fuming than they did if I succumbed to soap box outbursts.
The more thoughts I kept to myself, the greater the irritation, but at least I did eventually begin to recognise all the symptoms of Sunday paperitis.” If you like the style of writing, you will want to read on …
Susan: How do you develop characters? Setting?
Shelagh: My characters are composites of people I know. I take characteristics of someone I know well and put those characteristics into a completely different character. A teenage girl with a bad attitude might be transfigured into a difficult young boy with a surly disposition. The appearance of the character will be very different to the real person.
Most settings are taken from real life where possible, otherwise I do extensive research to make the setting as real as possible. This was extremely important in the Power of Persuasion where every location had to be accurate whether I had visited the region or not. The reader must not be able to detect the difference.
Susan: Who’s the most unusual/most likeable character?
Shelagh: Cosmos, by a mile. He is so bright and all-knowing. He is always there if he is needed but he is never under anyone’s feet. He is the perfect companion. By the way, Cosmos is a cat, but an extremely bright one!
Susan: Do you have specific techniques to help you maintain the course of the plot?
Shelagh: No. The plot drives itself. All my brilliant ideas away from the word processor soon lose their brilliance when I begin to type. Writing seems to release a creativity that cannot be evoked any other way.
Susan: Do you have a specific writing style? Preferred POV?
Shelagh: Yes. My style of writing for children is very different to my style of writing for adults. There is a sharpness to my adult writing that is absent in my children’s novels.
Susan: Share the best review (or a portion) that you’ve ever had.
Shelagh: My best reviews are all for Mr. Planemaker’s Flying Machine, which appeals to just about anyone. The Power of Persuasion is really aimed at Jane Austen fans and not everyone is a fan! Consequently, I found these few words encouraging:
“I read your book some weeks ago and hope you do not mind, put some thoughts on paper:
I was intrigued the way you set out your book with the link of the mysterious appearances of D’Arcy. My very early and mistaken assumption was that Beth’s letter was equivalent to Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy’s proposal of marriage by Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. If you saw the production with Colin Firth, he became frustrated at this and was obviously haunted by her.
I was particularly interested in the ‘snapshots’ – I could see where the university scenarios came from and those concerned with human interaction showed your perception of how we mortals behave. You must have done a lot of research on some of the geographical visits – I have been to most places so recognise the authenticity. Many of these could be expanded into short stories and then you could have your own anthology. Well done!”
Susan: What’s the most unexpected thing that’s happened to you as a writer?
Shelagh: I was amazed when a presenter from Preston FM community radio asked if I would be interested in a serialisation of Mr. Planemaker’s Flying Machine. The book was aired over ten weeks from May-July this year. Daily excerpts and a Sunday Omnibus edition totalled over thirteen hours of air time. It was quite brilliant. The narrator, Mike Gardner, did a superb job.
Susan: What are your current projects?
Shelagh: I am about to ask for submissions for the third anthology in the Forever series.
Susan: Where can folks learn more about your books and events?
Shelagh: On my website: http://shelaghwatkins.co.uk
Susan: Shelagh, I wish you the best with all of your many endeavors!
Shelagh: Thank you Susan for allowing me this opportunity to talk to your readers. It has been a real pleasure, and thank you to all the readers who dropped by to read this blog post.