Wednesday, April 15, 2009
An Interview with Author Susan Taylor Brown - A Girl Who Wanted to Write
Susan Taylor Brown is the author of numerous books for children. The most recent is Hugging the Rock, an American Library Association 2007 Notable Children's book. When you visit Susan’s blog and website you will find out a wealth of information for writers, readers and bloggers. But first enjoy the interview.
Q: When did you decide to become a writer or did it just evolve?
It was/is a lifelong evolutionary process for me. I'm an only child with a very vivid imagination. As a child I was afraid to go to sleep at night and would imagine all sorts of monsters coming down from the ceiling to "get me" while I slept. I told stories about them, long, long stories about them, to get my mom to stay with me as long as possible. When I got older I started making up stories about the various TV shows I watched, changing the endings to suit myself. Usually that meant putting myself into the shows so I could be part of a big, normal (to me) family. Writing stories down progressed from there.
I've always sort of envied those writers who say they knew they wanted to be a writer from the time they learned to write their name on wide ruled paper in school. I thought I couldn't be a "real writer" because I couldn't pinpoint a time in my childhood that I knew had influenced my path to writing. The thing is, I wrote poetry for fun. English was easy for me because I loved to read and I loved to write. Because I was good at it, I got good attention. Which of course encouraged me to keep on writing. All through junior high and high school I wrote in spiral notebooks. Love poems to boys I liked. Hate poems to people that made me mad. But it was just something I did. I never thought I could actually make money at it or look at it as a career option until my first child was born.
I had tried all sorts of home businesses with zero success. One day I was walking around the block with a friend, both of us pushing babies in strollers, and my friend asked me what I would do if I didn't have to worry about making any money at it and I didn't hesitate for a moment before I said I would write. She pointed out that I might as well be doing what I wanted since it was obvious all the other things I was trying weren't making any money either. After we had a good laugh I realized she was right and I enrolled in a writing class the next week. That was over 25 years ago and I've been writing ever since.
Q: Is there any particular element of writing that comes more natural to you than others? For instance, plot, characterization, dialogue?
I think characterization comes easiest to me because my stories always start with the voice of a character whispering in my ear. Until I hear that voice, I find it hard to sit down and write the story. Each of my characters has a part of me that brings them to life.
Q: Which one gives you the hardest time?
Dialogue is always hard for me until I've been in the book for a while. At first it feels contrived. Well, the whole book always feels contrived for a while. But plot, plot is the absolute worst for me. Plot is a four-letter word. I have a really hard time with that one.
Q: What was your inspiration for writing your award winning book, “Hugging the Rock” in verse?
Hugging the Rock is, among other things, about making peace with things you cannot change. I never knew my father, well except for the bits and pieces (not much) that my mother and grandmother told that all added up to him being a horrible, rotten person. I have spent most of my life wondering about my father, wondering what kind of person he was, and what kind of person I might have been had he stuck around. Even though you learn how to pick up and go on, when there is a hole like that in your life it colors everything you think and do for the rest of your life. You can't help it.
Throughout childhood I got pretty good at making up stories about the kind of father I wished I had had. When I started writing I gravitated to the stories that tugged at my own heart, ones that had a main character trying to figure out where they fit into their family. I also knew I would have to write about my relationship, or lack of one, with my father some day. When I was divorced I watched my own children struggle to make sense out of it and wonder if they did something that caused the divorce. I couldn't write this story then, my own pain was still too raw, but it simmered under the surface. I also have several family members who suffer from mental illness and I have seen the devastating affect it has had on their lives and the lives of those they love. All that went into the idea stewpot and simmered for years. I couldn't write Hugging the Rock until I was at a place in my life where I felt safe and loved....I really needed that support system in place before I could tackle this tough topic.
Q: What type of book promotion works best for you? Are there any special strategies you’d like to share?
Oh boy, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? I think the best type of promotion begins long before you ever sell a book. You get your network in place with genuine connections, a combo of in-person and online networks, and you continue to build it, little by little so that when you have a book come out, your network is there, ready to support you. Every author needs to have a website, a place to refer people to learn more about you, your books, your speaking availability, etc. You don't have to blog but I think it helps because I think it makes you more real to your readers, more approachable. People want to buy from someone they know. If you aren't going to blog you should be online somewhere - Facebook, Myspace if you are writing for teens, or at one or two of the places you can find on this Social Media map put together by Lynn E, Hazen and myself. http://www.susantaylorbrown.com/freebies/LynnHazenSusanTBrownWebMap.pdf
I think blogging is the easiest for a lot of people to get started in and I really enjoy it. As for strategies, with regard to blogging (though I think it would ring true for other online networks as well) you need to remember that it is all about sharing. Even though you are doing this for you, to promote yourself and your books, you need to give the reader something first. You need to "pay it forward." Go visit other blogs and leave comments. Eventually people will come to your blog in return. Don't try to read and comment on 100 blogs a day. It will make you crazy. Find a few blogs that speak to you and begin to visit them regularly and leave comments. Grow your audience gradually. If you give good content, you will find an audience.
Q: I am sure you have experienced many memorable moments in your career. Is there one that stands out more?
I would say that one of the most memorable moments for me was being asked to speak at the 2003 Highlights Foundation Conference at Chautauqua. My talk was called Write Where it Hurts: Finding the Courage to Create (you can read a snippet of it here: http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/pages/current/writeWhereItHurts.html)
Q: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so what seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
Every day and all the time. There are some days where I wonder why I am doing this because I have absolutely no idea what I am doing, what to say next, write next, etc. After I finished Hugging the Rock I was so spent emotionally that it took me a long time to find my way back to the words. Sometimes my block comes as a result of that sort of thing, using up all my energy on an emotionally draining project. Sometimes real life intrudes. I am not a disciplined person but I am an obsessive person. I also have a strong sense of guilt when it comes to meeting my deadlines. So for me I have a lot of projects going at once so that when I stall on one, I can move to another one, a new obsession as it were. And I almost always have WFH projects or articles due so I have those deadlines to force me to sit down and write. When the choice is write or not get paid, well, I find a way to write.
Getting unblocked is sometimes as easy as going outside and puttering in the garden for an hour. My subconscious continues to work while I am doing mindless tasks. Sometimes it's much more difficult. Sometimes I need to be kind to myself, to tell myself that I only need to write one true sentence per day. If I do that day after day for a while, eventually, the block breaks.
Q: What is the most important lesson you have learned about making a career as a writer?
That's a tough one because I am learning new things about this business all the time. I think it at a very basic level you have to realize it is a business. Publishers aren't in business to make you feel good or stroke your ego. They are in business to make money. You have to treat your career like a business, make business plans, stay on a budget, get educated, share your knowledge, develop your own marketing plan. No one is going to do that stuff for you. And treating it like a business means making decisions about whether or not to write for free (sometimes yes, sometimes no), when to push for more money and when to be willing to take a credit. It means acting long before you ever publish a book. Because it's a small world. Editors and agents move houses. Agents become editors. Booksellers become agents. Everyone is connected.
Q: How difficult is it for new writers to find an agent?
I think the difficulty comes from finding the right agent. And you might have to accept that you won't have the same agent for your entire career. It's hard to find one that both likes your work and that you feel you "click" with. But just like writing a book, you have to put in the time. Go to conferences, research the agents and agencies online. Actually conferences are a great way to meet agents because you can often get a critique of a manuscript which might open a door for you. The secret to getting an agent is really the same secret to getting published - write the best possible story you can, be professional, and send it out into the world. While you're waiting, get back to work on your next project.
Q: Tell us about your newest project. I understand you also offer on-line classes. Tell us where we can go to find out about your classes and other writing resources.
I'm working on a couple of things right now. A YA novel about boy searching for, you guessed it, where he fits into the family dynamics. He's an airplane fanatic so there is a chance for me to tap into a lot of years visiting air shows when my kids were young. I'm in the discovery phase of a couple of MG novels, both in prose, that I'm not yet willing to talk a lot about yet except to say that one of them deals with animals and the other with nature. And I'm working on another verse novel, this one loosely based on my experiences teaching writing to at-risk youth. For National Poetry Month I gave myself the challenge to write a new haiku every day, one that is inspired by my California Native Plant garden.
Yes, I am teaching Online Social Media for Authors and Illustrators in May. There are still a few spots left. I also offer one-on-one coaching/mentoring for social media via email, in person or over the phone. You can read the details here: http://www.susantaylorbrown.com/classes.html To keep up with the latest events with me, check out my blog at: http://susanwrites.livejournal.com
Susan, thank you so much for your time to answer these questions. I know everyone will enjoy visiting your website and blog as much as I do.