Interview with Susan May

Susan May

Susan May


Not only has author Susan May written a very compelling contribution to the FROM THE INDIE SIDE anthology this collection is largely her brain child. The story of how this came to be is told well in this interview of Suspense Magazine and it too is compelling, much because it underscores the idea that all a writer needs is one part good idea, one part determination, and one part words in a manuscript to find success in publishing.

Susan May is a mom and a author who has turned out some excellent writing. I got the opportunity to talk shop with her recently and if you’re looking for some excellent advice than I recommend that you read on.


MT THE WAR VETERAN was a difficult story for me to read. Your descriptions of Jack Baker’s life long guilt and PTSD induced anxiety, while not the same as my experience, provoked me in a way I found simultaneously uncomfortable and familiar. Excellent writing from start to finish. Even while I suspected what you might be doing with the story I felt compelled to read on, knowing that there must be some resolution, wondering how Baker would end. All the while feeling some kinship with this survivor of a different conflict. What about the horrors of war and the example from Salinger compelled you to write this story? Without giving too much away, was there an idea, beyond the carnage of battle, that you wanted to explore with this piece?

SM Thank you for your wonderful compliment. I guess Jack Baker puts paid to the idea that writers cannibalize their our own experiences. I’m a mom in Perth, Western Australia and I’ve no experience of war except what I’ve seen in films and read in books. I’m a long way from being an octogenarian, too. So Jack’s about as far from my experience as you can get.

While watching the Salinger documentary I was simply struck by something said by one of Salinger’s war buddies. He talked of still seeing armaments explode in his living room and bedroom fifty years after he experienced them. He didn’t preface it with “visions” or “imagined,” he saw these things as if they were real. I couldn’t stop imagining how terrible the original event must be to create that.

I don’t plot my stories, so all I had was that image. The battle scene, Jack’s guilt, all came from Jack. In fact, the scene on Omaha Beach came as a surprise to me. When I realized Jack was taking me there, I was forced to do some research. So I listened to recordings of surviving soldiers and read transcripts. What I wanted to explore was the aftermath, not the battle. What happened on that beach to create Jack’s guilt was all Jack behaving instinctively as a character. I wanted him to be a hero because that’s what happens in the movies, right? But he couldn’t be. He was just a normal person faced with an extraordinary situation.

MT Michael Bunker has mentioned that you were the originator and primary orchestrator of the FROM THE INDIE SIDE project. Bringing together this many independents authors must have been a challenge at times. Were there low points, when you thought the project might not ever make it to press, that you were able to overcome? Were there learning experiences that you might share with writers who might be interested in following your lead?

SM I’m an eternal optimist, so I never thought we wouldn’t get the book published. What I didn’t realize at the onset was what a huge job it was to manage an anthology project, especially with three of us conferring with each other.

I’m twelve hours in time difference from David Gatewood and Brian Spangler who live on the east coast of the USA, and that was the thing that was most challenging. A few times I’d wake up to a dozen emails, in which I was copied in, of them discussing something that I missed because I was asleep.

When it came to bringing together the authors, that was easy. Hugh Howey had enthusiastically agreed to participate back in May 2013 after I interviewed him and reviewed WOOL for Suspense Magazine. He was the first author. I knew with him on board we’d be turning writers away. Brian wrangled a few of other authors and then some of them suggested others, and I had already a few I’d rounded up, so the group assembled pretty quickly.

My advice if you are crazy enough to want to manage an anthology to publication, is to set up a plan first that includes everything you need to decide on like price, costs, launch date, even how you want the chapters laid out—what side you want the numbers, etc., and then work back from there. Allow time before the launch for things to go wrong. We spent a week on formatting problems that sneaked in from a glitch in some coding that we hadn’t factored in.

I calculate I spent at least seventy to hundred hours on this. To me that’s a book I could have written that I will never get to write. So be certain that it’s worth it to you. It’s a great exercise in building your brand and connections and possibly there is a small amount of money in there. Of course, you are splitting it between thirteen people so there’s not a lot.

My other advice is to be firm on quality. You need to ensure the stories are good, put in a proviso to your offer that it’s only an invite to participate, not a given. We were just lucky. It was thrilling reading the stories as they came in. By the time we had Peter Cawdron’s in as the last story, we knew we had something special in our hands.

MT Beyond them all being speculative fiction and short stories the tales in FROM THE INDIE SIDE don’t seem to share much in common. They are not all set in the same place or time and they don’t have any common reference or theme. Was this freedom a conscious decision?

SM We’re indies and this book was to show the quality of work we indies are capable of, so the only limitation we had was that there was a limit of 10,000 words. Then Peter Cawdron and I ignored that. So there you go, indies can’t help but break rules. So freedom was in our blood before we even started. All the authors, except Sara Foster and Mel Hearse (who’d never written any fiction before—crazy, talented writer that she is) were already writing in the speculative fiction genre, so we knew they would all fit together but be varied enough to offer something for everyone.

MT Have you thought about organizing additional anthologies in the future? Is there anything in the works currently?

SM Absolutely it’s going to happen again. I love the opportunity of meeting and working with other authors. And I love the short story form, and I believe it is enjoying a resurgence with eBook publishing. I want to contribute to that. Watch this space for later in the year.

MT I share your belief that “when it comes to writing you know what needs doing; you just need to make yourself do it,” but I disagree that the first steps are not the most daunting. Rejection, regardless of its source, is a cruel instructor and obscurity is perhaps the most merciless judge. What advice can you offer writers, especially independents, who find themselves wallowed deep down on the best seller’s lists?

SM I stick by my original comment with reference to me, but that is my opinion and probably due to my life experience and personality. We all come to this business with different experience, lifestyles, skill, and expectations. So what I find difficult or easy will be different to you or another writer. When I first hopped back into writing seriously in 2010, I began by writing a lot of short stories and entering them in competitions. That is a quick way to accumulate rejections, but the positive is you build a body of work as you learn to handle the ego bashing. That first eighteen months I cried a lot—a lot, but slowly I started placing in competitions and eventually having stories published in anthologies. It built my confidence. The whole time I kept writing novels. I’ve got 1000 pages of two novels on a thumb drive—work that will probably never be published. Since then I’ve written a lot and when I jumped into indie publishing mid-2013 I’ve keep up a constant pace.

My advice is to keep writing and do it for the love. You must get better if you keep at it. It’s a natural progression like building muscles. Now with self-publishing you can build a body of work quickly. Put up your short stories, your novellas, essays and books. It’s all buying an extra ticket in the lottery of success and another product in your book store.

I love writing. It is part of my day now and if I miss a day, I feel itchy. If you can get to the point where you don’t have to tell yourself to do it, where the call of writing is the master, then I think you are on your way. Eventually, I believe, the walls of the dam must burst from the weight of your passion. So obstacles and wallowing seem to disappear.

MT In the Forward to FROM THE INDIE SIDE Hugh Howey makes a very compelling case for being an independent author. He writes, “Just think about how many other adventures await, how many unknown authors are out there, fully independent, bending the rules while creating something extraordinary and new.” As an independent author myself I’m convinced and the success of FROM THE INDIE SIDE is compelling and enviable. But there remains a lot of fuzziness between “I have a manuscript” and the publish button which results in plenty of amateur and unpolished books. In an ideal world, what might indies do to help each other plan and polish their work more completely?

SM I’m not big on workshopping my work. I don’t really believe in working with other indies on that level. I don’t have beta readers except for my husband, who is brilliant on pointing out pacing issues and confusing sentences. The minute I have to explain something to him, I know I’m going to have to rewrite that passage. He’s my average reader.

Then my next step is sending it off to my editor. Finding an editor with whom you work well and who is also available when you need them is a challenge. If you have niggling doubts about your editor’s work or even whether you are the right fit personality-wise listen to your gut. It’s been a search to find my current editor. I’ve tried a few, but the one I have now works really well with me, they don’t cost a fortune, and I’m learning from them as well.

So that’s my system and from that I believe I put out stories that are as polished and as entertaining as any traditional press. I review books directly for all the big publishers and, believe me, a lot of their releases definitely need more work. Everyone is trying to rush their work out there, including them. I believe you should do the best you can, use an editor, run it by a person or a few people you trust, and then put it out there and forget it. Don’t keep fiddling with improving it. That typo that you think you missed isn’t going to make a lot of difference to sales or fans. So in a nutshell, keep going and you will work out your own system and pace and if that includes other indie authors—great. If it doesn’t, then that’s okay as well.

Indies can help each other by sharing blog posts like what you are doing, Matthew, and highlighting other great authors they’ve read—spreading the word. So many authors write to me asking can I review their book, but the first thing an author should do is build a relationship and help other authors. Eventually, the goodwill will come back to you.

MT Do believe that there are any specific or unique challenges for Australian independent authors that citizens of other countries might not encounter?

SM Well Australians are lucky because we start the day before almost anyone else in the world. The only problem with that is that the biggest English speaking markets don’t wake up until our day is almost over and they are on the other side of the planet. In saying that, what a boon ePublishing has been for us because we can sell to anyone in the world.

The USA is the biggest English speaking market, so I write in American vernacular and have an American editor so they can pick up any Australian words that slip in. We think we speak the same language, but not quite. Certainly we spell many things differently. My spell checker is set to US, so even my emails are in American because I can’t be bothered changing the auto-correct. My friends must think I can’t spell.

As I mentioned earlier, if you’re collaborating, the time difference can get annoying in a slight way. It’s very expensive to ship from CreateSpace to here as well. The postage and time wait is a killer.

But these are minor niggles, and as everybody knows Australia is one of the best countries in the world in which to live, so I’m not going to complain about the tyranny of distance. There’s so much amazing talent coming out of Australia that clearly whatever challenges there are, the Aussie contingent has pushed through.

MT Is there anything you would like to say to your readers before we sign off?

SM I would like to thank you, Matthew, for having me on and being such a great supporter of FROM THE INDIE SIDE. I’m humbled. To the readers: I thank you for using your precious time to read anything that I write or another professional indie writes. I always know that readers have a choice how they spend their time, and reading is only one choice.

If readers take the time to read my book, that is just wonderful, and I hope that I repay them by ensuring they enjoy their time with my work. I write what I call commercial “everyman” fiction that most people should be able to get into quickly and enjoy an escape, with a satisfying ending. Changing people’s view on life or putting in some deep and meaningful message on purpose is not my thing.

In my mind, I’m welcoming readers to a great little party, providing some well-prepared food, introducing them to some fascinating people, and doing my best to ensure they have a good time. If I’ve done my job right, they’ll hopefully want to visit with me again. That is my only goal. My books won’t win any literary awards, but my goal is to win readers. They’re more important in my world.

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