An Interview With… Sarah Benton

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview Sarah Benton. Sarah is the Deputy Managing Director for Orion Publishing Group, and she was kind enough to answer my questions on what exactly her job role entails, and what she is up to in lockdown.

Over to you, Sarah…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Publishing was definitely not something I planned on doing, knew anything about or thought was an option for me. I always loved books, and writing, but by the time I did my A-Levels, I’d settled on something much more normal: I planned to be a teacher.

I studied English at The University of Southampton with that goal in mind, until my final year when I did my dissertation on children’s books. It sparked something in me that I might be able to combine the two things I loved: working with children and books. A stroke of luck set the path to my future(as is so often the case). My dad worked in education for local government and had met a librarian who knew lots of people in children’s publishing. She offered to take me to a Children’s Book Circle event in London and I left university a week early to go. I met a publicist from Macmillan Children’s Books and managed to get some (unpaid, then) work experience that summer. I loved it from day one and knew I’d found what I wanted to do.

2) How did you work your way up to being a Deputy MD? Did it make a difference that you didn’t come from an editorial background?

I worked. I worked, really hard essentially. I always looked for opportunities to expand my remit, to learn more, to get involved in things around the companies I’ve work in. I’ve been in the industry 17 years, and it was 11 years before I became a Marketing Director. I think some of my best experience came from the years I was a Marketing Exec, or Manager (6 out of the 11). Getting to understand a huge variety of readers, authors, genres, campaigns, people – seeing what succeeds and what doesn’t. Experience really does count when you get to the top and people are suddenly asking YOU what they should do. I always say that life, and your career, isn’t a race. People move at different speeds: don’t look at them, just look at yourself. You are in control of what choices you make, and it shouldn’t ever matter what someone else has. It’s also no-one else’s responsibility to manage your career but your own. I’ve never been afraid of having difficult conversations with people if it meant I got to understand what I needed to do to progress.

When I started in publishing, I thought I knew two things: that I ought to be an editor and that I would never want to run a company. I knew quickly that editorial wasn’t for me. I liked the buzz of marketing and publicity: the reader contact, the working out what is the thing about this book that would make it appeal to the audience. I have always been driven by the reader, not by my own taste and I think that has served me well in such a senior role now. I can be very objective, and that’s what needed. I view being in a senior position now the way I did training for a 10k. I started off never thinking I could go that far, but each day you train, you get a bit closer and then one day, you’re doing it. I hope the fact that I didn’t come from an editorial background shows other people that it’s possible, and that there is no one route to the job you love.

3) What does your job role entail on a day to day basis? Has it been any different in lockdown?

The thing I love about my job, but also what makes it challenging is that literally no two days are ever the same. There are basics – key meetings like acquisitions or our cover art meeting, catch ups with my team and my boss – but other than that so much of my day is driven by what is happening. Someone needs your advice, there’s an author or agent that wants to speak to you or a sudden urgent, high-profile acquisition. You start your week with a plan, but so rarely does it turn out the way you think, so you have to adapt and be kind to yourself. I used to be driven by my to-do list but in a senior role I have realised that it’s impossible to work like that – I have a rolling list of things I need to do, and a daily list of urgent things. You have to accept you rarely get to the bottom of either list.

In a way, while it’s been more intense in lockdown, the fact that I am so used to adapting has put me in good stead. I thrive on things changing, so in a way I’ve found the last few months hugely fulfilling. On the other hand, particularly at the beginning, we have had to make decisions based on almost no certainties, and that was hard – you have to rely on some data, but a lot of gut instinct. In the end you can never know you’re making the right decision all the time, but you have to make the one you feel is right based on the information you have.When faced with tough decisions, I often think: what’s the worst thing that could happen? What am I afraid of? In fact, and ironically, the worse thing you could do is to make no decision at all.

4) Are there any limitations of your job role in lockdown?

I really miss my colleagues! Of course, we are making things work well with video meetings and phone calls but running a company often relies on lots of very quick decisions, which can sometimes be done by chasing someone around the office and having a very quick 5-minute chat. Life in lockdown is definitely a little slower – asking when people are free for a call, playing phone tag. In the office, Katie Espiner (our MD) and I thrive normally by bumping into each other, chatting through the issues of the day and making a quick decision on next steps (and we have a lot of fun while doing it!). I really miss that.

5) How have you found balancing your work with being a parent?

I returned to work from maternity leave during the peak of Covid-19, so it definitely wasn’t how I planned it! We were waiting on a nursery place but due to everything being closed we needed to think again. My husband is a writer, so we can be more flexible than most, but it’s certainly a challenge. I work in blocks of time, while my husband has the baby, and then we swap over. I fantasize about a full day just to work but that’s not where we are right now. We are making it work,but it’s a lot and there isn’t much downtime. Nursery is on the horizon though, so hopefully things will get easier soon. I am enormously lucky in that Hachette are hugely supportive of working parents. Even when my daughter is at nursery, I will work flexibly and set my own hours. Now we’ve all proved we don’t need to be in the office 9-5 we won’t go back to that way of working and nor should any of us.

6) What books are you most attracted to? Do you have a favourite genre? What would you look for, ideally, in a debut novel?

I would say there is no one thing, no secret ingredient – sorry! I read widely, across all genres mostly (I think it’s so important to do this in publishing). What I guess I look for most is a strong voice and – a feeling. The kind of book that you read a few pages of and can’t stop thinking about. I remember reading Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams in the first draft and knowing, extremely quickly, that this book needed to be published and would be very big – it doesn’t happen every time but it’s nice to occasionally be right! 

I also try to read as much outside my comfort zone as much as I can. What are the books people are talking about? What is in the bestseller list? I think it’s important to understand what books sell, what readers love. I have so little time for reading outside of my job at the moment with a baby, but I do love a pacey thriller – the last one I read is one we are publishing, Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall, coming this August. I got “the feeling” about that one, and I’m very excited about it.

7) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

Like reading, I watch quite a varied mix of TV! I love a hard-hitting documentary as much as a trashy drama. I am currently watching and loving Little Fires Everywhere (after adoring the book), but also David Olusoga’s A House through Time – it’s absolutely fascinating to think about all the lives lived under one roof. My guilty pleasure is Grey’s Anatomy – it’s my total switch off TV and much needed!

8) On a Friday evening when you leave your desk, what’s the first thing you do? On the weekend, what do you do to relax?

I currently only work 4 days a week, so Thursday is my Friday! My day comes to a hard finish at 5.30 every day when I give the baby a bath and put her to bed so it’s after that I get to relax. Normally, I come downstairs, have a quick check of emails and sit down for a moment of peace. My husband has developed into an excellent cocktail maker, so we will sit down with a drink and some food and go over what’s happened that week.

Relaxing with an 8-month-old isn’t super easy! Running is what I do to relax. It’s just me, my music and the park – it really clears my head. I do try to switch off from work at the weekend – it’s really important. I don’t send emails and rarely check them. Spending time with my family normally resets me for the week ahead. Being a good leader is as much about hard work as it is about self-care: if you don’t look after yourself, you simply can’t do your job.

Thank you so much for your time, Sarah. It has been a pleasure to have you on the blog today for an interview.

Bio: Sarah Benton is Deputy MD for The Orion Publishing Group. In her seventeen years in the industry she has worked at Harpercollins, Bonnier’s Hot Key Books and Pan Macmillan, in marketing and publicity across children’s and adult publishing.

The Lies I Tell… A Q&A with Joel Hames

Hi everyone! A different approach to interviewing this time, I hope you enjoy it? Instead of a First Drafts With interview, or an agent/author interview, I’m quizzing Joel Hames with questions that directly relate to his newest release, The Lies I Tell.

Over to you, Joel…

1) Where did the idea come from and how did you first begin to flesh it out?

I’ve always liked the notion of the hunter becoming the hunted. And then there’s the idea that certain people can’t seek help from the usual places. If someone’s coming for you or me, we might contact the authorities. If someone’s coming for a thief and a cybercriminal, they won’t be able to. They’re forced to fall back on their own resources and intelligence. This is what happens to Lisa, and everything stems from that. It also heightens the paranoia and tension when you think you’ve get everything sewn up, when Lisa thinks she’s completely safe, and yet somehow, her enemy is still getting to her. It means she has to question absolutely everything and everyone around her.
I’ll add the fact that we fell victim to identity fraud of the change-of-address variety around a decade ago and I’ve seen plenty of attempts at the invoice scam; when you add the “veracity” element of social media, the subject becomes irresistible.

2) How did you create your main character Lisa? Did you enjoy writing her?

I loved writing Lisa. I wanted someone you knew you should hate but couldn’t help loving, and I made sure I threw everything I could at the relationship she has with her son, and her own childhood, to put the scenes of her present-day activities into some kind of context. In particular, Lisa’s life in Leeds and her memories of her sister almost took over, and at times I felt I could write another book just centred around them!

3) The book is different from your Sam Williams series. What made you decide to tackle the subject you chose?

I felt like a change. I haven’t finished with Sam Williams – he will be back – but I wanted to write a psychological thriller, and I wanted a “villain” as the central character, and these things alone ruled out Sam. I’ve mentioned the interest in identity theft above – but at the same time I needed someone relatable, which meant a proper, developed back story and a person who felt real, likeable and hateable at the same time. Everything came together in Lisa.

4) What was your research process like? Did any of the research surprise you at any point? Did you refer to it during the process of writing?

I always research my locations pretty thoroughly, and I spent a lot of time discovering the landscape of Orford Ness so that I could describe it for Lisa’s final showdown. I had to do quite a lot of research for the technical element of the book, because getting things like the dark web and the deep web mixed up will really annoy people who actually know the difference, and cybercrime in general is such a big thing that getting it right was absolutely essential. I also spent a lot of time looking into blockchain for some elements that didn’t make it into the final edit of the book, but may well appear as a short companion piece at some point.

5) How does your writing process for the Sam Williams series differ from the writing process for The Lies I Tell?

The plotting and note-making was pretty similar, in that I am hugely thorough with my planning and always and up with 30 pages or so of plot skeleton to work with. There were, however, at least two significant differences: with The Lies I Tell I was dealing with dual timelines, which meant I had to ensure that the right revelations occurred at the right moments even more so than usual; and with Sam, I’ve got a fully developed central character and a host of others with existing back stories through the series, going right back to The Art of Staying Dead, the three-novel Dead North trilogy, plus two novellas. Lisa and her friends and family – and enemies – all had to be created from nothing.

6) Lastly, do you use Scrivener or MS Word? Which do you prefer and why?

MS Word. I tried Scrivener for a few months back in 2016 and did write Victims (a Sam Williams novella) using it, but I have my own set-in-stone ways of planning and plotting and making notes, and adapting my process from the combination of OneNote and MS Word to Scrivener seemed to be time-consuming with little reward. If I was starting my writing career now from scratch I’d probably give Scrivener another look, but for now, it’s Word all the way.

Thank you for your time Joel, and for stopping by the blog to discuss your latest novel.

Bio: A Londoner in exile, Joel Hames lives in rural Lancashire, England, with his wife and two daughters.
His works of fiction include the bestselling Sam Williams trilogy and the psychological thriller The Lies I Tell.
When not spending time with his family, Joel likes to eat, cook, play the piano, and make up excuses to avoid walking the dog. There’s the MMA thing, too, but he doesn’t like to show off.

Joel’s website can be found at http://www.joelhamesauthor.com where you can find out more about the writer and the books, and sign up to his email newsletter.

If you want to know what Joel has planned for the future, what he thinks right now, or just stalk him a little, you can find him on Facebook at facebook.com/joelhamesauthor or Twitter at @joel_hames. Joel has never seen the word “Joel” appear as frequently as it does right here, and wholeheartedly approves.

Book Review: Witness X by S. E. Moorhead

Witness X – sorry for the cat in the picture 😩

Blurb:

She’s the only one who can access the truth…

Fourteen years ago, the police caged a notorious serial killer who abducted and butchered two victims every February. He was safe behind bars. Wasn’t he?

But then another body is discovered, and soon enough, the race is on to catch the real killer. Neuropsychologist Kyra Sullivan fights to use a new technology that accesses the minds of the witnesses, working with the police to uncover the truth. Will Kyra discover the person behind the murders, and if so, at what cost? And how far will she go to ensure justice is served?

About the book – ‘Silence of the Lambs meets Blade Runner. S E Moorhead is the future of crime writing.’ Stephen Baxter.

My review – Where do I begin with this utterly amazing book?? Kyra, I think, is one of my favourite ever characters. Tenacious, fearsome and bloody determined are just a few of the adjectives I could use to describe Moorhead’s heroine.

When we meet her in the year 2035, Kyra is a neuropsychologist and has developed a technology that can access the minds of the witnesses of the crimes – but, as the technology hasn’t yet been deemed ‘safe’, she must tread very very cautiously.

I really really enjoyed this book. Moorhead’s ability to world build and completely grab the reader, throwing them headfirst into Kyra’s world, a retro futuristic London, was just WOW!! Kyra is such an engaging protagonist. She has her flaws, don’t get me wrong, but that’s what I love, above all, about her. Her relationships to other characters she interacts with – Tom Morgan, Jimmy in her professional line of work is a nice contrast to her relationship with her mother and her niece Molly. Everything about Kyra I loved. My only complaint was that the book wasn’t long enough!! I wanted MORE!! If you like a good serial killer thriller, with a good twist on it, you will not be disappointed! I give this book 10 stars!

Witness X is available to buy on Amazon and Kindle download.

10 Questions With… M. W. Craven

Hi everyone, today I’m delighted to welcome author M. W. Craven to the blog. Along with some really insightful and important advice for writers, he answers my questions on his writing process and what he’s been up to in lockdown.

Over to you, Mike…

1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there any turning point with a particular book that made you go ‘Wow!’

My early introduction to reading was Enid Blyton’sFamous Five and Secret Seven series, but it was Watership Down by Richard Adams that was the turning point for me I think. It blew me away. I read The Hobbitshortly afterwards and had a similar reaction. I’ve been obsessed with books ever since.

2) Did you enjoy English at school? What were your set books and did you like them?

I did enjoy English at school, both Lit and Language. The books we read ranged from classics like Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mocking Bird to more regional affairs like The Machine Gunners and A Kestrel for a Knave. I loved them all.

3) How did you find your experience firstly in the Army and secondly as a Probation Officer?

Both jobs shaped who I am today – the army through building character and, weirdly, encouraging my obsession with books. In those days, everyone read, and everyone discussed what they’d read. My 16 years in probation allowed me to see how criminals thought and how they justified their actions. When I was in senior management it also allowed me to see how a complex county like Cumbria worked. Where the real power lay, which agencies didn’t like each other.

4) What was your route to publication and how did you find your current agent?

I found my first publisher and my agent at the same place – Crime and Publishment, a crime writers residential workshop in Gretna. I met the CEO of Caffeine Nights in 2014 and my agent in 2015. Caffeine Nights signed me after I pitched to them and my agent signed me after I showed him the first book in the Fluke series.

5) Do you have any plan formed when you come up with ideas? How does your idea generation work?

I have a rough idea of how it will start and how it will end. I know the crime and I know who committed it. After that I trust my imagination will fill in all the gaps.

6) How many times, roughly, would you say that you polish a draft before you send it off to your agent?

I never edit as I write the first draft so the second draft is really a rewrite. The third draft is usually tightening up everything, often to get a more manageable word count. Draft four is me getting everything as I want it and draft five is when I change things that haven’t worked afterI’ve read the novel out loud. My wife and beta readers then get it and if I’ll make any amendments accordingly. So roughly six drafts.

7) Do you have any advice for writers looking to send their work to agents?

Same advice as my agent: get the book as good as you can get it. Don’t send something incomplete or too early in the process.

8) What was the last book you read and did you enjoy it?

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly. And yes I did enjoy it, very much so.

9) On a Friday evening when you leave your desk, what’s the first thing you do? On a weekend, what do you do to relax?

It depends. Before the plague, on a Friday evening my wife and I would probably stay in and have a curry. Now during the plague, we stay in and have a curry . . .

To relax, I read or watch some of the decent dramas on TV. I walk the dog in some of the outstanding countryside we have here and, when allowed to, we go to the pub. Usually crime festivals are a big part of the year, as are going to gigs.

10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would it be and why?

Either. I quite enjoyed Queen’s music and I saw Rod last year in Vegas. He’s the consummate showman.

Thank you for visiting the blog, Mike. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Although he was born in Cumbria, Mike Craven grew up in the North East before running away to join the army as soon as he was sixteen. After training as an armourer for two and a half years (that’s an army gunsmith to you and I), he spent the next ten travelling the world having fun. In 1995 he left the army, and after a brief flirtation with close protection and bodyguarding, decided on a degree in social work with specialisms in criminology and substance misuse. In 1999 he joined Cumbria Probation Service as a probation officer, working his way up to chief officer grade. Sixteen years later, he took the plunge and accepted redundancy to concentrate on writing full-time, and now has entirely different motivations for trying to get inside the minds of criminals.

Between leaving the army and securing his first publishing deal, Mike found time to keep a pet crocodile, breed snakes, get married, and buy a springer spaniel named Bracken. He lives in Carlisle with his wife, Joanne, where he tries to leave the house as little as possible. Mike is also one third of Crime Ink-Corporated, a trio of northern writers who take writing out for the community and host events such as England’s first Noir at the Bar.

Mike’s first DI Avison Fluke novel, Born in a Burial Gown, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. He is a member of both the Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers’ Association.

His first book as M.W. Craven, The Puppet Show was published by Constable & Robinson in June 2018.

%d bloggers like this: