Interview with Susan Shaw

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


Susan Shaw is the author of numerous YA titles, including SAFE , THE BOY FROM THE BASEMENT, BLACK EYED SUZIE and ONE OF THE SURVIVORS.  Shaw’s books have been chosen for many awards and appear on many reading lists. They include The Texas Lone Star Reading List, The Texas Tayshas Reading List, ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers, The New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, and the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers. SAFE is a Carolyn W. Field Honor Book.

You tackle some tough issues - rape in SAFE, survivor guilt in ONE OF THE SURVIVORS, and parental abuse in BLACK-EYED SUZIE and THE BOY FROM THE BASEMENT.  Is it difficult to write about the subject matter?

There are always points that are difficult to write, but often, the more compelling the subject is for me, the easier it is to write about it. Not that I don’t squirm or try to leave out the hard stuff. But what the story requires, that’s what the writer writes. Or else you don’t feel like you’ve done your story justice.

Your new title, TUNNEL VISION (available from Margaret K. McElderry - August 16, 2011) feels like a thriller! What was your inspiration for this story?

One of the ways TUNNEL VISION is different from my other stories is that my editor approached me with the idea. So my inspiration had a lot to do with what somebody else thought I could do. Nothing like validation! But I did find inspiration within the story itself, with Liza’s strength of character, with her determination to do what survival required.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Generally, I start with a sentence in which I feel the whole story. Hemingway called it ‘one true sentence’. Once I find that, I know I have something. I won’t know what the story is about, but I can feel the energy of it once I recognize it.

Much writing often takes place before that sentence appears on my computer screen. But when I have it, I know I have it. Then I follow the character into the story and write things as I see them. While pulling on my hair. I suppose that makes me a pantster.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

It varies. Four months to six months, give or take. That doesn’t count the editorial process. Add another two or three months after that.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I usually work on only one project at a time, but sometimes I will take a break from a larger work and write short, usually humorous, pieces—poems, short stories. But that is still only one project at a time.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I don’t remember a time that I didn’t write, so I can’t answer that. But for me, there is never any fear. I jump into the writing, write anything, and eventually find the ‘one true sentence’ that leads me on. So far that works.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I have more mss. than I can count that sit in my attic—most of them pretty bad. But I had three books published before I had an agent.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I have quit on many mss. When I see that problems are not fixable or that I’ve encountered a dead end, that the story peters out—that’s when I leave it. But often the story that peters out is the story that leads to a more viable one. Sometimes, that story pushes out the weaker one.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?

My agent is Alyssa Eisner Henkin. My query process was not traditional in any form. I was lucky. Alyssa and I had a mutual acquaintance who told me that Alyssa was leaving editing for agenting. So I contacted her. She liked what I told her, she liked my work, we set up a lunch, and talked. I liked her, she liked me, and we signed.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I don’t really know how many agents I queried before I started working with Alyssa. Perhaps ten or fifteen. My efforts that way were on-again, off-again, and I was lucky in some cases to get a response at all.
I think the main thing for Alyssa was that she thought my work was sellable. It didn’t hurt that I’d already sold three books before speaking with her, and that those books had received good attention.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Don’t wait for an agent to like you. If you’ve written a great story, send it out on your own. I believe there are still editors in the children’s market who take unsolicited manuscripts. Send to them. Also, go to writers’ conferences and meet them. Talk to them at lunch.

But the main thing is, write a good story. Go the extra mile to make it as wonderful as possible. No matter what you do, you won’t sell if you don’t do that. But if you do that, the chances are on your side whether you have an agent or not.

Editors really do want to find another Maurice Sendak, another Jerry Spinelli, another Kate di Camillo. And they don’t care if you have an agent once they think you’re story is great.

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

Thrilling! I told everybody I knew and a bunch I didn’t know.

How much input do you have on cover art?

None. But the art directors do know their jobs much better than I do. I’ve loved every cover.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

The whole thing was such a learning experience, that I’d have to say that I was surprised all the time by everything. But what continues to amaze me with my fifth book coming out this summer, is that I am one of the lucky ones, that whoever I’ve worked with has given me and my work such respect. It’s great.

How much of your own marketing do you?

I always try to do some kind of informal tour—go to libraries and talk to librarians, show them the books, sign one if they have it on the shelf.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before? Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think talking to people always helps, never hurts. Don’t wait to have an agent to get going.