Meet Rising Star
Author Susan Johnston Taylor!
Susan Johnston Taylor is a Writing Barn fellow and author of Colorful Creatures: Poems About Animals in Surprising Shades (Gnome Road Publishing, 2023). Her poetry also appears in 10.10 Poetry Anthology: Celebrating 10 in 10 different ways. As a freelance writer for over a decade, she’s written over a dozen titles for the educational market and published nonfiction articles in children’s magazines including FACES, Highlights and Scout Life. Her writing for grownups has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur and Fast Company. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and their two rescue dogs.
Susan is currently seeking agent representation.
AD: Let’s start with a speed round…
- Top three favorite children’s books of all time? So hard to choose but here goes: The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & The Invention of the Piano by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, 7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald,The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
- Coffee, tea (or neither)? Tea
- Where is your safe place? Reading in a hammock
- Dogs, cats, (or neither)? Dogs
- Early bird or night owl? Night owl
- Three words to describe what it takes to make it in the kidlit world… Tenacity, curiosity, focus
AD: Okay, now down to the serious stuff…Please dish us the dirt on who you are and your journey into the fabulous world of children’s books.
SJT: I’ve always been passionate about writing. As a kid and teen, I wrote poetry, American Girl fan fiction, even an unfinished musical based on The Crucible (for an 8th grade book report). As an adult, I worked as a freelance writer, crafting press releases, magazine articles, and website copy.
But I burned out, so my husband encouraged me to try more creative writing to balance out the articles on business topics. I glanced at our dog and blurted out the first thing I could think of: “maybe I’ll write a picture book about our dog!” I knew nothing about kidlit so this seemed ludicrous. He urged me to try it anyway. Sebastian, the Little Red Rescue Dog went through many, many revisions. I doubt it’ll ever get published, but it did spark my interest in kidlit. I took my first picture book class at The Writing Barn in fall 2016 and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m now a Writing Barn fellow. While querying agents and pursuing traditional publishing, I’ve written for children’s magazines including Highlights for Children and Scout Life, published a poem in an anthology for kids, and wrote over a dozen work-for-hire books for the educational market (Ride Across Time is now out and several more historical fiction books for kids and teens are forthcoming).
My trade debut comes out with Gnome Road Publishing in 2023! Colorful Creatures: Poems About Animals in Surprising Shades introduces kids to different poetic forms as well as animals like the blue-footed booby and the violet snail, presented in rainbow order.
AD: I love that your initial inspiration for writing for children came from your rescue pup. My rescue pup, Cora, also inspired one of my own early stories, titled Where Are You Now? Rescue pups really do make the best muses. BIG congrats on all your published works and now your trade debut! Hooray! The ocean, poetry, and animals are a few of my favorite things. I can’t wait to read! It sounds both fun and informative.
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
SJT: Most of my jobs as an adult have been writing-related, but my interest in writing books for children came later. I’m also a professional singer and a former party princess (dressing up costume for children’s birthday parties).
AD: That’s so fun! These sounds like great ideas for picture books 🙂
What topics or themes do you tend to focus on in your writing? Favorite genres you like to write in?
SJT: Whether through board books, picture books, chapter books, or middle grade, I write stories that spread kindness and curiosity.
AD: Breaking into the publishing industry is not easy! What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far? What have you done to persevere?
SJT: Finding the right industry partners have been challenging: the right critique partners (many are Writing Barn classmates), the right mentors, the
right editor who gets my work. I now have a wonderful group of critique partners, and my editor at Gnome Road is fantastic. From our very first Zoom, I sensed that we shared similar visions for my book.
I’m still trying to find the right agent, but when I’m feeling discouraged, I turn to my critique partners and members of the Courage to Create (a community created by Bethany Hegedus of the Writing Barn) for support. Pre-pandemic, a multi-published author told me that one of my manuscripts had a completely unmarketable premise, and I just wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry. Instead, I went to a critique partner’s house for our monthly meeting. Their words of encouragement (and chocolate) helped a lot! That manuscript has since gotten some interest, so fingers crossed for good news.
AD: As creators (and humans), we tend to focus on the flaws of our creations or areas for improvement. This helps us grow and develop, but we need not forget the many things we are doing well. With this in mind, what has been your biggest accomplishment or something you are most proud of thus far on your writing journey?
SJT: I’m proud of selling my debut picture book on my own. I wanted an agent and had several almost-offers but by late 2020, I was nearly out of agents to query. They kept saying they loved the writing but weren’t sure they could sell another poetry book. My critique partners and I still believed in that project, so I decided that in 2021, I would start submitting directly to publishers. By early March, I had an editor interested! As we say in the Courage to Create, “we believe our books into being.” I really feel like that’s what I did, so I’m glad I didn’t shelf that project or wait for someone else’s approval before submitting to editors.
AD: That’s awesome, Susan. I think it’s so important for fellow creators to hear the different paths to publishing. Thanks for the reminder that there’s no one way to succeed in the industry and the main thing is that we never give up and believe in our work!
AD: In a similar vein, what do you feel are your strengths as an author? What makes your writing unique to you?
SJT: I’ve written product descriptions for freelance writing clients and figuring out how to capture the essence of a watch or a necklace in 140 characters or less has prepared me well for the brevity of picture books. My past writing experience also taught me to be open to revision and to take the time to choose the exact write word to really build a scene. I also love puns, so I have several punny manuscripts!
AD: What inspires your work?
SJT: Engaging with the world: reading a variety of books for all ages, listening to podcasts, reminiscing about childhood memories with my brother, visiting museums, attending concerts, taking walks, goofing off with my dogs.
AD: Tell us about your creative process and what you do to keep ideas flowing or what you do when feeling stuck?
SJT: If I’m feeling stuck on a manuscript or revision, it’s usually time to put that project away and go for a walk or work on something else. My challenge is not a lack of ideas (I still have idea lists from several years of Storystorm): it’s refining those ideas and figuring out how to execute on them in the most engaging and kid-friendly way possible.
AD: Walks always seem to do wonders and yes, refining is a tricky part of the process.
What sorts of things have been most integral in your growth as an author?
SJT: Lots of classes, conferences, and critiques! There are so many opportunities to hone your craft (much of it available online at a reasonable cost), so over time, I’ve learned to be choosey whenever I sign up for a class, conference, or critique. Who’s teaching the class, speaking at the conference, or doing that paid critique? Do they write or edit the same kinds of books I want to write? Have any of my critique partners taken that class or gone to that conference and did they find it useful? Is this manuscript even ready for a paid critique? Asking these kinds of questions before I sign up boosts the likelihood that I’ll get what I’m hoping to get out of each opportunity.
AD: That’s such a great way to assess what may be worthy and valuable. There are so many options out there that it can be hard to choose (I often have FOMO about it!) but reflecting on these questions can help narrow down our choices and make sure we are maintaining a good balance of classes, conferences, etc. with writing and creating.
What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
SJT: Find your people! Although it’s your name on the front of your book, you can get a tremendous amount of support, commiseration, and helpful advice from others who are in the trenches with you. If you’re taking a class, maybe you’ll find a critique partner or you could form a critique group with your classmates. If you meet someone at a conference who likes similar books, maybe you can stay in touch and bounce ideas off each other. You could join a Facebook or Clubhouse group for kidlit creators, participate in a Twitter chat, or connect with other illustrators on Instagram. Just don’t go it alone.
AD: Yes! Putting ourselves out there and connecting with others is so important. Speaking of, where can readers find out more about you and your work?
SJT: Learn more about my writing for kids on my website: http://staylorwrites.com/writing-for-kids/index.html
Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/UrbanMuseWriter
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