I love interviewing debut authors on this blog. I think talking with first-time authors can help illuminate paths to publications for people who are writing their books and trying to find agents and get published.
Today’s spotlight is with Susan Spann, author of the July 2013 historical mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT. Tasha Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of Death in the Floating City, said of Susan’s book: “Susan Spann skillfully transports the reader to Samurai Japan and serves up a feast of intrigue and suspense in a well-drawn exotic and unforgettable world. Claws of the Cat is a delicious adventure and a remarkable debut.”
Susan Spann is a transactional attorney focusing on publishing law and a former law school professor. She has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Spann is a member of the Historical Novel Society. She lives in northern California with her family.
(Author photo credit: David Llewellyn.)
What is the book’s genre/category?
It’s Historical Mystery, but not a cozy – think “police procedural with swords.”
Please describe what the story/book is about.
When a samurai is murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has three days to find the killer in order to save both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect.
Where do you write from?
Fair Oaks, California – a lovely area outside Sacramento.
Briefly, what led up to this book?
I was attacked by ninjas. Well, one ninja – and he’s fictitious – but the rest of the story is true.
In early 2011, I was standing in the bathroom preparing for work when an idea popped into my head: “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.”
I’d written some unpublished fiction before that, and published several nonfiction articles (in my role as a publishing attorney), but the minute Hiro popped into my mind, I knew I’d found my fiction niche – in historical mystery.
I studied medieval Japan in college, and I’m a lifelong fan of Japanese history and culture, so writing a mystery set in the samurai era seemed like a perfect fit – though I admit it took me a very long time to think of it.
What was the time frame for writing this book?
I wrote the first draft of Claws of the Cat – then titled Shinobi – in 30 days. (The editing took much longer.) That pattern has continued with the next two books in the series – I write the initial drafts in a month or less, but every manuscript sees at least eight rounds (and several months) of serious edits before it’s polished and complete.
How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?
I met my fantastic agent, Sandra Bond of Bond Literary Agency, at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference in 2011. I’d done a lot of research on different agents over the years, and when I was ready to seek an agent for Claws of the Cat, Sandra was my #1 choice.
I couldn’t get a formal pitch appointment at the conference, because all of Sandra’s slots were booked, but I approached her after the Saturday evening banquet and asked if I could pitch the novel anyway. (I might have stammered a little – I was nervous.)
Sandra heard my pitch and asked to read the manuscript. Six weeks later she offered representation – and I was thrilled to accept. She’s a terrific agent, very communicative, and I’m delighted with our partnership.
What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
When I started writing seriously back in 2004, I heard someone mention the old cliché that “the first million words are practice.” I didn’t believe it.
I wish I had.
500,000 words and four trunked manuscripts later, I wrote Claws of the Cat (full manuscript #5, for those of you counting) – the book that landed me an agent and a publishing contract.
The biggest lesson I learned from the process? Keep writing, keep learning, and never stop improving your skills. Hard work and perseverance will eventually bring success, but the road isn’t short, and it isn’t paved with unicorns and rainbows.
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Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?
I never gave up and I kept moving forward instead of stalling out on a single story.
I “didn’t give up” in the sense that I never stopped writing. I’d finish a manuscript, send out queries, and immediately start writing something new. When I had the next manuscript finished and polished, I put the older one in a digital drawer and started to query the new one.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
If I’d spent all those years revising my very first story, I never would have improved enough to write a mystery novel like Claws of the Cat.
It’s hard to put 100,000 words in a drawer. It hurts to let years of effort go. But if I hadn’t kept moving forward, I wouldn’t be the author I am today. On a related note, I don’t think the “improving” stage is over – I’ll continue learning for the rest of my career.
On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?
I might not have worried quite so much that I’d die alone and unpublished, surrounded by cats and rejected manuscripts.
More seriously, I’d have learned to accept real criticism sooner. Like most novice authors, I didn’t seek out honest critique – or learn to appreciate its value – early enough. I might have cut a few years off my journey if I’d taken that step more quickly.
Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing to build a platform and gain readership?
I started blogging, and using Twitter, before I had an agent or a publisher, but I wouldn’t say I had an existing platform. For the most part, my early following was based on my “day job role” as a publishing attorney – which doesn’t transfer automatically to fiction or to mystery.
As far as what I’m doing now, I have an author website with a lot of “extra features” planned and I blog at http://www.susanspann.com. I’m also active on Facebook and Twitter, which lets me meet and talk with people I’d never get to meet otherwise. I speak at writers’ conferences, as an author and also in my attorney role, and I love to meet with writers’ groups and book clubs.
Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?
“Never give up; never surrender.”
Or, the longer version: Write. Edit. Polish. Find a competent critique group or writing partner and learn to take honest criticism. If your novel still doesn’t sell … write another one. And another. Write as many as it takes.
And don’t be discouraged by other authors’ success – instead, let it encourage you to work harder, write better, and hang in there – your turn will come.
Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I’m an avid gamer, and my game of choice is WORLD OF WARCRAFT. For the gamer geeks: I play a holy priest (healer) and a balance druid, aka “boomkin.” For the non-gamers: I spend a couple of nights a week pretending to be a blue-haired troll who can shape-shift into an owl.
In color: Jurassic Park. I read the book before I saw the film, and the images on the screen were a near-perfect match to the ones in my head, which translated to instant love. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s one of the few I can (and do) watch over and over again.
In black and white: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. It’s hilarious. Plus … who isn’t a fan of Cary Grant?
I’m addicted to blogs and blogging, but if we’re talking “total hours invested” I’d have to say Twitter. I’ve met a lot of friends (and readers) there, and it’s probably the only website – other than mine – that I’m guaranteed to visit every day. (You can find me there @SusanSpann – please say hello!)
My love for Twitter carries a heavy dose of irony, too, because three years ago I swore I’d never use it. Which just goes to show that “never” is the most dangerous word in the English language.
Right now? More coffee.
In a writing sense, “next” involves the continuing adventures of my ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, and his Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Book 2 in the Shinobi series, currently titled BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, is in production and I’m also editing Book 3 in the series – currently titled “FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER.”
I love “working” with Hiro and Father Mateo, and hope to write my way through many future adventures in their company.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Writing a Novel or Memoir Synopsis: Tips For Writers.
- How to Make a Book Trailer: 6 Tips.
- 9 Things We Can Learn From Other Writers.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Why Writers Must Train Themselves to Produce on a Deadline.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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I Will Speak At These Great Writing Events in 2012-2013:
- June 7-8: Clarksville Writers Conference (Clarksville, TN)
- June 22-24: Crested Butte Writers Conference (Crested Butte, CO)
- July 26-28: Midwest Writers Workshop (Muncie, IN)
- Aug. 2-8: Homeric Writers Retreat & Workshop (Isle of Ithaca, Greece)
- Sept. 13-14: Chicago Writers Conference (Chicago, IL)
- Feb. 14-17, 2013: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- April 5-7. 2013: Writer’s Digest Conference East (New York, NY)
- April 19-20, 2013: Kentucky Writers Conference (Bowling Green, KY)
- May 17-19, 2013: PennWriters Conference (Pittsburgh, PA)
- May 23-26, 2013: Writers Guild of Alberta “Words in 3D” Event (Edmonton, Canada)
- June 6-7, 2013: Clarksville Writers Conference (Clarksville, TN)
- June 7-8, 2013: Carnegie Literary Center “Books-in-Progress Conference” (Lexington, KY)
- June 21-23, 2013: Agents & Editors Conference / Writers League of Texas (Austin, TX)