Meet Susie Mander, a Sydney based writer who from her earliest memories has been writing and telling stories as she walked round and round a huge date palm in her back yard. In just one year this incredible lady has released her first novel and given birth to her first child.
She wrote her first novel (seven pages long) somewhere around the age of ten and by the time she started high school she had already accumulated a pile of rejection letters from publishers. But it was not a direct path to the release of her first novel.
With a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s of Teaching, Susie Mander has found herself in a number of different careers, Teaching English, designing a mobile phone app and getting involved in running a tech start up, before finally realising that writing was the only thing that was going to make her truly happy.
After being released on the 10th of August, just under fifty days before her daughter was born, Bird of Chaos; Book one in the Harpies Curse, has already been downloaded hundreds of times.
As Mander gets to work on Book Two, Manuscrapped caught up with this new mother and Emerging Writer to find out which was harder; giving birth or publishing a book?
Manu – So firstly – which has been the biggest change – Being a mother or a published author?
Mander – Definitely being a mother. Being a parent changes your entire perspective. I am now starting to appreciate how self-centered my life was prior to kids.
Manu – How are you feeling about your first novel just coming out?
Mander – I’m relieved! I set myself the goal of writing and publishing a novel before the birth of my first child and I just made it over the line.
It’s an interesting comparison you make – having a baby and writing a book. I guess they both have a similar gestation period! But I think writing a book requires more discipline. Once you’re pregnant you are a bit of a passenger. With a book you are calling the shots and, perhaps more importantly, you can walk away at any time. With writing, there are lots of distractions. Self-doubt creeps in, or did for me anyway, so to persevere regardless requires huge self-discipline.
Manu, That’s a really interesting way of looking at it. So once you got to the end of the book writing process, what happened next? Can you tell us about the release of the book?
Mander – When I first sat down to write a book I honestly thought that if I simply put pen to paper then the book would take care of itself. My husband suggested I write a plan but I ignored him and enthusiastically ploughed ahead. Six months later I reached a dead end. I realized I didn’t know what I was doing and I had to start again. At the time I was really annoyed with myself and I almost walked away. In the end it took almost eighteen months to complete. Now that my book is finally out, I am so glad I stuck with it. It has been such a wonderful learning experience.
After actually writing the thing, I hired an editor, which was an interesting experience indeed. She did both a structural edit and a copy edit, which took about six months once you factor in how long it took me to adopt her changes. I then hired an illustrator in America who works in the fantasy style using O-desk and he designed my book cover and map. The final steps, which were very time consuming, included proofreading and formatting.
Actually releasing the book was relatively easy because Amazon provides a step-by-step process for getting your work online as well as a fantastic tool to help test your ebook on multiple devices.
Manu – Can you tell us, what was it that made you stick with it? Why didn’t you just walk away?
Bullheadedness. You see, for a long time I thought writing was a gift; you either had it or you didn’t. I thought the same was true of all pursuits: art, music, business. Success came quickly or not at all. Then, while I was in Barcelona visiting the Museo Picasso I saw sketches from Picasso’s training period. I was shocked because they weren’t very good. I later read that Beethoven had spent much of his early career imitating other musicians like Mozart. A lot of his earlier work wasn’t very good either. I had an epiphany. First, people like Picasso and Beethoven were human. Second, even they had been beginners. They’d worked hard, obsessively so, and achieved greatness as a result. I’m not suggesting I have their genius. And perhaps my enthusiasm for writing will fizzle out the way it did for tech start ups but…what kept me writing was the knowledge that if I could maintain Picasso and Beethoven’s level of stubborn commitment then perhaps I could one day write something half decent.
Manu – Are you taking your husbands advice with the second one?
Definitely. I don’t want to waste another six months writing myself into a black hole! By planning the book’s structure, plot and characters from start to finish I can test my logic, find flaws in the plot and improve my story long before I invest any time in writing. Just last week my mum and I started workshopping book two. I’m lucky. My writing is a family affair!
Manu – It’s every Emerging Writers dream to be published and see their work completed – I know I have such a romantic view of the whole experience. I am wondering if it could ever live up to the fantasy? Was it anything like you imagined it?
Mander – No I don’t think it can live up to the fantasy but then I think it is rare for reality to ever live up to our expectations. Call me a pessimist but the anticipation of seeing my book completed was far more exciting than actually seeing it completed. I think this is pretty normal. It’s like waiting to unwrap presents under the Christmas tree. (I like the honesty)
Manu – Bird of Chaos is the first book of the trilogy. I know you have already begun working on the second book, and yet you still in the throws of post-publishing craziness and marketing (this interview)? Does it get confusing writing one book while speaking and promoting another?
Mander – I find it difficult to prioritise my time. I would love to just write all day while someone else took care of the marketing (and paid for it!). This is where traditional publishers play such an important role. In theory, they take care of all the marketing so you can get on with the writing though of course in reality they are doing this less and less with fewer and fewer authors. I also find it difficult to switch between my creative brain and my business brain.
Manu – After spending so long writing on your own – how does it feel to go public now? Being in the public eye now and pushing your novel.
Mander – I fluctuate between a state of euphoria and sheer terror. The thought of people reading my work makes me really happy. It also keeps me awake at night. However, I think going public is a necessary part of developing as a writer. Publishing your work on Amazon is such a wonderful opportunity for feedback. Whether or not I can handle their feedback is yet to be seen.
– Your Writing Practice –
Manu – Can you tell us a little about your writing life up until now?
Mander – Up until about a year ago I was afraid to admit that I wanted to be an author. For one, I bought into the idea that a person’s worth depends on how much they earn. Admitting to being an author was like admitting I wanted to die poor, alone with only my cat for company.
I also didn’t feel I was entitled to call myself a writer because writers are people like J K Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, people who are represented by agents, signed with large publishing companies and whose books appear on billboards. I think this is the same reason people feel they need to call themselves indie authors or emerging writers. They don’t feel entitled to call themselves what they are: writers.
Manu – At a Women’s literary event the other day, there was a lot of discussion about writers struggling with ‘impostor syndrome’, and that it tends to be more prevalent among female authors than male ones. Have you found this to be true?
I think women experience impostor syndrome, or feeling like a fraud, in many aspects of life because we live in a society which doesn’t always acknowledge female competence. If a woman succeeds in an area other than childrearing—especially in areas that are particularly male-dominated like business or politics—then her success is often put down to luck or deception. She is an outsider so it makes sense that she should feel like one, like she does not deserve her accomplishments.
Also, we have grown up in a society that relies on external validation so it makes sense that both male and female writers experience impostor syndrome. At school we rely on our teachers to tell us when we have done well. This carries on into university and the workplace where we are rewarded for appropriate behaviour with certificates and pay rises. This form of validation don’t exist for writers. There is often no definitive proof of whether a writer has done well because writing is subjective; some people will like your work, others will hate it. A writer has to rely on self-validation and this can be next to impossible.
Manu – Your first child was due around the time your novel was released. You were 9 months pregnant while promoting your first novel. Can I just say! Wow, and congratulations. Was it a coincidence do you think? or was the arrival of a baby the push you might need to get everything done and finished?
Mander- It wasn’t a coincidence at all. In fact, it was a conscience decision to publish before birth. While I was pregnant I felt this strange sense of impending doom, like my life was about to end. I wanted to wrap up as many loose ends as possible in preparation. Just in case it really was as hard as everyone said it was.
I did a lot of cleaning and filing, I got the car serviced and I went to the dentist. I redecorated, renovated the house and got my tax in order. I also finished the book. Having such an inflexible deadline was a really positive thing for me because without it, I could have kept editing (and putting off my tax return) forever.
Manu – Which brings us to the topic of how your launched the book, deciding to self publish your work.
Mander – I decided to self-publish because I was frustration with the old system. Submitting work to traditional publishers can be really disheartening. You submit, wait—often for months and in some cases years—and then receive a curt letter declining to publish. Such regular rejection is enough to send anyone mad but worse than that, it gives you no way forward. Self-publishing gave me the opportunity to get my work out there and get meaningful feedback.
– THE BOOK –
Manu – Without any spoilers for what happens in the end… I’d love to discuss with you some of your inspirations for the book. The most obvious for me would be the correlation between what we are facing today with issues of climate change skeptics, and what Verne and the people of Tibuta are dealing with in terms of the Tempest.
Mander – Yes it was a conscious connection. Queen Ashaylah’s skepticism about Typhon’s last tempest alludes to skepticism about global warming. This is perhaps most evident when Verne and her mother argue and Verne says, “The Tempest is inconvenient, yes, but it is the truth” which is a reference to An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film about Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about global warming.
Manu – I did notice that as I was reading it, that word inconvenient was quite powerful in it’s ability to bring the reader back to our time and that speech.
Mander – It can’t be denied; we are experiencing some very strange weather at the moment. And whenever we hear about a freak storm, a tsunami, snow in the middle of summer or whatever, it reminds us of how defenseless we are against the elements. I don’t think it matters whether global warming is real or not, though I think it is. In the end, it is better to be safe than sorry. But unfortunately in this instance democracy is failing us. Our leaders are more concerned with winning votes than with doing what’s right. People are frustrated. If we survive climate change, historians are going to look back and hold us in contempt.
Manu – Other inspirations you draw from those around you? Have any of your family members made an appearance in the books so far?
Mander – Are the parents in Bird of Chaos based on my own parents? No. I have taken what I see as a contemporary relationship where the man is the breadwinner—his value to society is measurable based on his time in the workforce—and the woman is the martyr, sacrificing her own happiness for his. I have taken a relationship that is quite common by today’s standards and flipped it on its head. That being said, I don’t think it is possible to write a book without including bits of all the people you know. We write from experience. I have taken aspects of all the people I know and amalgamated them.
– WRITING THE STORY –
Manu – Every writer is different but I’d love to talk to you about your writing practice. Can you tell is about your days?
Mander – Before I had Jean I prided myself on discipline. I would wake up early—or early by my standards, around 7 am—and do at least half an hour of timed free writing before breakfast. Free writing is an exercise I read about in Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. You write about anything you can think of without lifting the pen off the paper for a set period of time. I find it loosens up my hand and eliminates a lot of the anxiety of writing. Sometimes I start by writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over again until something pops into my head.
After free writing, I would work on my book. By about 3pm I would be tired of writing so I’d go for a walk and do some planning or editing. Now I have a baby I will have to learn to write in small bursts while she is sleeping so I imagine time spent writing will become more valuable.
I like to handwrite in a notebook the old fashioned way. Even though it is more time consuming because I have to type it up later, I find my creative juices flow better in ink.
Manu – I noticed in your author image you drink plunger coffee. Me too, I just started on long blacks?
Mander – I’m a coffee fraud. A few years ago I was having trouble sleeping so I went off caffeine. I have been a decaf cap girl ever since.
Manu – I wont hold that against you.
– EDITING YOUR WORK –
Manu – The process of editing has often been likened to being as huge as writing the process – how did you find it?
Mander – I really enjoyed it…initially. It was really beneficial to work with a professional editor who could approach my book from a different perspective. She came at it with fresh eyes and saw things that I had simply overlooked. Her advice was invaluable. She gave me the gentle nudge I needed to write about things I found uncomfortable. But after nearly six months of editing, I was over it.
Manu – What were you looking for in an editor? How did you find them, how many did you go through?
Mander – Finding a freelance editor in Australia was a horrible experience! I was looking for someone who had worked for a major publishing company and had a strong knowledge of the fantasy genre. I wrote the sort of job ad you would find in any other profession, listed it with the New South Wales Society of Editors directory and sent it to a number of editors I had found through LinkedIn.
Then things got weird. I started getting responses explaining that “this isn’t how we do things in the industry” and “had I considered signing up for a mentor program?” One guy even wrote this: Dear Susie. I am not interested in “applying” for the “job” you have advertised but if I were to consider it, I would charge $50 an hour. I realised that many editors in Australia still see themselves as the literary authority. They don’t “apply” for editing jobs. They fire writers. Eventually I found an awesome, young, progressive editor who was excited about my project but there weren’t many in Australia.
Manu – Finally, what would be one thing you wish you had known 5 years ago?
Mander – I wish I had trusted my instinct and followed my dreams.
Manu – And a year ago?
Mander – Editing is hard and time consuming. There are no short cuts.
Manu – And any advice you could give to emerging writers?
Mander – Let go of the angst associated with being creative. I think a lot of people believe you need to be dark to be creative. You don’t. In fact I think in order to write well, you first need to get on top of any negative emotions that might be holding you back. Only then can you give yourself permission to succeed and throw yourself into your job. Sure, I think a lot of us writerly types are prone to dark moods. We tend to be hyper-critical. We notice details other people overlook. We are (overly?) empathetic. And this perceptiveness makes us vulnerable. However, this notion that depression fuels creativity is absolute nonsense.
While it is incredibly rewarding to complete a book, the reward has to be intrinsic. Initially, there is little to no financial reward for self-publishing a book, no fanfare, and no fame so you have to be content knowing that you have done what you were put on this earth to do.
Manu – Those are fantastic words to finish up with.
Thanks so much Susie for chatting with us and good luck with Book Two! We will be looking out for it!
Follow Susie Mander on Twitter @susiemander