A writer like you: Susan J. Barrett
Meet Susan J.Barrett, a learning designer by day and a writer of YA/middle-grade fiction by night.
She started writing seriously about 4 years ago, self-publishing her first novel in a series in December 2017. Sue loves a home yoga practice but can also be found chasing after plot lines at the weekends on a run along the beautiful English Riviera coastline (where she gets many of her best story ideas). Her favourite authors include Jodi Picoult, Lee Child, Neil Gaiman, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell and Michael Crichton. She reads across genres and loves nothing better than a great series: Harry Potter (obviously), The Hunger Games and Jason Matthew’s Red Sparrow trilogy included. She’s in the minority of people who’ve read the entire Game of Thrones series but has never watched a single episode of the TV show.
After immersing herself in the world of indie-publishing and realising very quickly how much she had to learn, Sue decided to revise her first novel: Layla Garina and the Second Chance Agency, and is currently completing the edits on the revised version, prior to publishing an updated second edition. She’s also just over half-way through writing the second novel in the series: Layla Garina and the Widgery Rooms, with two more to follow.
Her story of why she became a writer will intrigue you (hint: it may involve a fortune-teller) and her obsession with notebooks is endearingly relatable.
I’m excited to learn from Susan today, so let’s jump into the interview.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I enjoyed writing at school, but have always needed some sort of inspiration-I’ve never been able to just sit down and write something unless I have an idea in mind. At ten, I used to regularly get RTCs from my teacher (Mrs Diddymus-ace name) for my compositions. RTC stood for ‘read to class’, which meant you’d stand up in front of the room and read your story aloud. I was a proper show-off, so I relished both the recognition and the attention. I almost held the record for the most RTCs in my class, but was soundly beaten by Roger Mayne; a ten-year-old with the mind of a genius who wrote like a demon.
In my early twenties I visited a fortune-teller, who told me I had a book in me. Never having physically consumed one, I assumed she meant that I would write one. The idea of writing a novel has always interested me, but it’s not something I would ever do just for the sake of it, so I waited until I had an idea for a story that I thought would be engaging and immersive. This didn’t happen until I was well-into my forties. I guess you’d call me a late developer. Now I’m super-busy not only writing, but learning about writing too.
What have you learned about writing along the way?
I’ve learned that there’s no ‘right’ way to write a novel (phew), but there is a difference between punctuating dialogue tags and action tags* (*these are a recent discovery-please tell me I’m not alone?). I started as a 'pantser’ but have discovered the value of plotting (especially when writing a series), and have developed an unhealthy obsession with cute notebooks and fancy handwriting. These can lead to hours of endless distraction and provide a great excuse for procrastination. I heartily recommend both if you’re in no hurry to accomplish anything.
I’ve found the #bookstagram community to be an invaluable source of inspiration, information and support, and having recently joined Scribophile, would also recommend that as a fantastic resource for indie authors looking for peer-support and free editing advice. I’m also a fan of the Oxford comma, as no doubt, you’ve realised.
What are your current writing goals, and how do you plan to achieve them?
I’m aiming to complete the edits on Layla Garina and the Second Chance Agency, ready to re-publish at the end of this year. I’m also planning to finish the first draft of Layla Garina and the Widgery Rooms by the end of June, and will then begin the editing process, with a view to publishing by Christmas 2020. I’m always on the look-out for beta-readers, so if you’re interested in an early preview please get in touch via my Instagram or Facebook pages (details below).
What is your ultimate writer dream?
Initially, my ‘dream' was to get an agent and a publisher, but I’m not sure whether that’s the right approach for me at the moment. I really enjoy what I’m doing; I can write at my own pace (which is helpful with a full-time job and a notebook fetish), and make all my own decisions. I do everything, including the cover design. I love the whole creative process and I’m not sure whether I’m ready to sacrifice any of that at the moment, or subject myself to deadlines and the pressure that comes with them.
I’d love to be able to write full-time, but I’m incredibly lucky to have a wonderful job as a learning designer. I work from home and create learning solutions all day: elearning, workshops and workbooks, so I don’t have a job that I’m desperate to escape from. It’s turned out to be a good background for being open to, and accepting of, feedback, which is so fundamental to creating an engaging and commercially successful piece of writing. I think many writers dread sharing their work, as feedback can feel very personal. It's something I’ve become used-to and I’m the opposite; I can’t get enough of it. It’s one of the reasons I value Scribophile so highly.
Ultimately, I’d love to walk into an airport bookstore and see Layla on the shelves, but that won’t happen without a publishing deal, and the timing’s not right for me as far as that’s concerned…yet.
What strategies do you use to promote your book?
I’m not actively promoting Layla at the moment as I’m revising book one. Marketing is tough if you’re not a professional and for an indie-author it’s super-tough. My strategy currently is to build my Instagram following, to maintain engagement with my Facebook followers and get my updates published. Once I’ve done that I’m going to look more seriously into Amazon advertising, as I publish via KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). I also need to get my review numbers up. I currently have 14, five-star reviews on the UK site for the first edition, and one five-star review on .com, but I need to increase the total number of reviews to over twenty on both sites for them to really start having an impact.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I work from home, so during the week it’s quite easy for me to switch off my work laptop and switch on my personal one, so I can get at least an hour’s writing in on most nights. That’s mostly due to my no-children/no-pets policy, and a very understanding husband whose many talents include cooking and finishing his day-job on time. However, that’s not to say I always turn-on the personal laptop, as easy as it may be for me to do so. I’m better if I make it a regular habit; structure works for me and I can be quite disciplined, which helps. My husband says that I focus obsessively on things, which is also good, so long as it’s writing and not other distractions. (Did I mention my notebook/calligraphy obsession?)
What are you currently working on, and what makes you excited about it?
Layla, my ten-year-old protagonist, is an RI: a Reincarnated Individual. She’s the product of a licensed human-cloning programme available only to the privileged few who have the inclination and means to afford it. She’s being raised in a children’s home run by the agency responsible for her reincarnation, when her beloved guardian Carmel is arrested for genetic theft. Layla and her friends set out to prove Carmel’s innocence, but in the process, discover much more than they bargained for.
I struggled for ages to find the appropriate genre that accurately describes Layla’s story. It’s a children’s adventure story about human cloning (so science fiction without the spaceships), set in our world, in the current day. I learned recently this is known as mimetic fiction, so if I’m feeling ostentatious I describe it as: 'a hybrid of science fiction and mimetic fiction'. In reality it’s a story about a spunky ten-year-old girl, who values love and friendship above everything else.
I have another story that came to me recently in a dream (this one actually had ‘legs’ when I woke up). It’s also YA/middle-grade, but in the fantasy genre, and features a female heroine; this one is 14 and just as spunky as Layla, but maybe a bit tougher. It’s at the very high-level outlining stage at the moment, and I’m gradually filling yet another notebook with a load of ideas, so that I don’t forget them when it comes to actually writing it. I won’t start work on the first draft until I’ve finished Layla’s story, which involves another two and a half books. (Better get a move-on then.)
Before the dream, Layla was the only story in my head, so I’m quite relieved to know that there’s more than one in me, despite what the fortune teller said. She also told me I’d have three children, which has never come to pass (the ’no-kids’ rule probably had a significant influence), so I like to think that Layla is the first of my three children. I already know the name of my second child (the fantasy that’s currently spilling over the pages of my most recent Paperchase purchase), so I’ll just wait for my final offspring to make themselves known to me. If they could just give me a chance to finish my first series, that would be great.
What writing advice would you give other writers like yourself?
In terms of advice, I’m not sure that I’m qualified to be dishing any out. The main thing I’ve found through talking to many different authors and reading what others have written, is that there is no ‘success formula.’ What works for one writer won’t necessarily for another, and vice-versa. So I guess it would be to follow your own path, be true to your own voice and be honest with yourself about what you really want. At the very least, you’ll enjoy what you’re doing, and that my friends, is surely what it’s all about?
Where can we connect with you?
You can find me on Facebook, Instagram, and on Goodreads (please feel free to send me a friend request) and you can find Layla on Amazon or Amazon UK. If you’re on Scribophile come and say hello too; it would be great to hook-up.
I love Susan’s honesty about where she is in her process; she owns where she is at and inspires me to do the same. My FREE THE WRITER takeaway is that we need to remember to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously.
To freethewriter today, let’s set aside time for a lovely walk outside and be open to the ideas that come to us, whether from fortune tellers or dreams or Mother Nature herself.
Enjoy your time today,