Guest Post: Susan Tan on Navigating the Writing Life

By Helen Kampion

Susan Tan already is an author extraordinaire—unlike her character Cilla-Lee Jenkins Future Author Extraordinaire illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte (Roaring Brook Press, 2017). In all her books, Susan draws upon her own cultural identity and family dynamics to spin a funny and touching story that captures the reader and leaves them wanting more.

Being an author can be challenging, and sometimes overwhelming. What do you love most about the creative life you’ve chosen?

I still can’t get over the fact that being an author is my job now. It kind of feels too good to be true – someone will pay me to daydream and then write stories about it? What?! So all this to say, I feel very lucky and privileged to have found a footing in this creative field.

There’s so much that I love about being an author, even as there’s so much that’s difficult about writing and returning to the blank page every day. For me, though, I think my favorite part of writing is the surprise of it.

I’m someone who writes to think. So, even if I know the general outline of a story, or even if I think I know all there is to know about a character, I always learn something new during the process of writing. It’s the funniest feeling — like your fingers know something your thinking-brain doesn’t. I find this to be the ultimate magic of writing: that through writing, I can uncover feelings and ideas that were buried somewhere deep, and that chose this moment, or this particular story, to reveal themselves.

That said, I also want to acknowledge that writing can also be really hard. These moments of insight don’t come all the time. Some writing sessions, you’re just slogging away, one word after another. That’s okay too. In fact, weirdly, I think that’s something else I like about writing. You can write when you’re inspired, and write to tap into deeper hidden feelings. But writing to me is also like a craft or an instrument. Sometimes, you just have to practice. And sometimes, good, old-fashioned elbow grease is what you need to take your story further. When I’m particularly stuck, I like to write in short bursts – even just ten or twenty minutes on my phone or a notepad. These tiny moments build and build, and remind me that writing is, above all, an act of putting thought-to-page, even if your thoughts don’t seem particularly exciting or “deep” at that particular moment. To me, it’s one of the hardest yet most hopeful things you can do.

Writing also truly changes how I see the world. It reminds me to be curious, excited, friendly, and to always look for a story lurking beneath the surface. I particularly love writing middle grade and occupying a middle grade headspace. Imagining the world from this age reminds me to dream big, to always look for new friends, be open to learning, and (maybe most importantly?) to eat ice cream whenever possible.

Authors seem to have specific writing spaces and times of day. What are your favorite places to write and when?

My answer to this question changes constantly, and I love that. I’m a bit of a writing chameleon, and I’m learning that it’s okay to embrace what works for you at any given moment, and to change things up when you need variety.

If I’m feeling particularly stuck with writing, or if I have a deadline coming up, I find that the early morning is my best writing time. I think it’s because when I’m up early, looking out the window before the sun rises, it’s easier to forget about any outside pressure. On these kinds of writing days, I get up around 5 or 6 and write for a few hours, doing my best just to produce – not edit, or overthink. Writing in the morning always feels like something special – like I’m getting to partake of these special, magical hours, usually reserved for dreams, and getting to loop that energy into my creative work.

This said, I change my writing routine up a great deal, and I always try to find an option that feels just a tiny bit fun. For example, during lockdown, I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ house. There were a lot of people around, and there was a lot going on, which made writing feel very hard. But, my grandparents’ dog (who I adore) loved it when I’d sneak away to get some writing done. So, we created a tradition — I would sit and write in the afternoon while my grandparents were resting, and she would be my “writing desk” (pictured below). It was so much fun, and almost like I had a writing partner (albeit one who snored very loudly as I worked).

I also like to write on the go – on the subway, on walks, while waiting before appointments. I write a lot on my phone, using the Notes app, which allows me to jot down ideas as they come. When I’m stuck, I find walking is a particularly great way to free up my brain. As I go, I pause at benches or by a particularly nice view, open my phone, and see if I can jot down some new ideas. Then I get up again, walk, daydream, and repeat!

You have an early reader and a middle grade novel coming out. Tell us more about them.

I have two new releases coming up which I’m really excited about! First, in 2022, I have a new early reader series coming out with Scholastic, titled Pets Rule! I like to call it The Secret Life of Pets meets Pinky and the Brain. The story follows Ember, a rescue chihuahua who knows he’s destined to take over the world. When Ember is adopted by the Chin family, he begins his evil plans, though also faces unexpected challenges in the form of bullying neighborhood squirrels and power-hungry goldfish. It’s such a fun series to write, and it’s being illustrated by the incredibly talented Wendy Tan Shiau Wei.

Then, in winter 2023, my new middle grade novel Ghosts, Toast, and Other Hazards will be coming out with Macmillan. In my head, I like to call it a story of “friends, fears, and rock n’roll.” The story follows Mo Lin, a middle schooler with anxiety who has to move to a new town after a family upheaval, and who comes to believe that her yard is haunted by the ghost of an 100 year old circus elephant.

Ghosts, Toast, and Other Hazards is one of the most personal books I’ve ever written (ghosts aside). It’s offered me the opportunity to share and reflect on my own experiences with anxiety, both as a child and an adult. It’s been so healing and liberating to write about a young character who realizes that her feelings are valid and okay, and who realizes that anxiety doesn’t mean you can’t be both deeply joyful and profoundly brave. The book also features one of my absolute favorite characters that I’ve written – Mo’s great-uncle Ray, who is a self-described “aging Chinese hippy” who’s based on my dad and my uncle. Uncle Ray is such a fun character, who introduces Mo to music as a means of self-expression. And of course, writing about friendly ghost elephants has simply been the best!

Do you have any tips for debut authors about balancing the roles of author and writer

My biggest advice for debut authors and aspiring writers is this – go easy on yourselves! Writing is hard, and the industry can be difficult to navigate. There will always be another debut author who seems like they’re doing better than you, getting more event invites, better reviews, etc. Rather than seeing this as a single race in which book success has to look a certain way, remember that a debut is just the first step in a career. It’s such an achievement to have a book out, and how one book performs is not the measure of you, your worth, or your career as a whole. Give yourself a break, and then, keep going! And accept that every new book is hard.

Every time I finish a book and start a new one, I have a moment of crisis and doubt where I wonder if I can actually do this again, and if I remember how to write a book. My thoughts generally resemble something like: “what if [Insert last book here] is all I have in me?!” I think this is such a common feeling. When this happens, it usually means that I need to give myself a little downtime. I take a break, and instead of stewing in my feelings, try to find joyful, creative things to do – maybe it’s reading a bunch of new books, going to a museum, watching movies that are totally outside of what I’d normally watch, etc. I find that if I take this time to pause and remind myself of why I love stories, I can then embark on a new project with less anxiety and more excitement.

I’ll also say that in these moments of doubt and difficulty, one of my greatest joys and supports has been other people in the writing community. So, that’s my other big piece of advice – find your community! Whether it’s an online group, your debut group, a local meetup, or a writing group, reach out to fellow writers. I have found so many friends and people who “just get me” in my writing communities, and these friendships are what sustain and inspire me through the hard times.

So, if you’re a debut author, or if you’re an aspiring writer, just remember: you’ve got this! Take a deep breath and be sure to celebrate every possible achievement. You are incredible, and this is only the beginning!

Cynsational Notes

Susan Tan is the author of Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire (winner of the Asian/ Pacific American Librarians Association Children’s Book Honor Award), Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is A Classic (Roaring Brook Press, 2018), and Cilla Lee-Jenkins: The Epic Story (Roaring Brook, 2019). Her newest MG novel, Ghost, Toast, and Other Hazards, is forthcoming in 2023, and will follow the adventures of Mo, a middle schooler grappling with anxiety who comes to believe her yard is haunted by the ghost of an 100 year old circus elephant. Tan is also the author of the Pets Rule! series coming out with Scholastic in 2022, which follows the adventures of a rescue chihuahua who believes he is destined for world domination.

She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is an Assistant Professor of English at UMass Boston. In her spare time, she knits dinosaur-themed scarves and eats all the almond cookies she can get her hands on.

Helen Kampion writes poetry, picture books, and middle grade novels. She has published stories in magazines and written nonfiction articles for The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA, where she serves as Treasurer.

In addition to an MBA from Boston University, Helen holds an MFA from Vermont College in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She also founded the “In a Nutshell Short Story Award” at VCFA to encourage tight, focused writing.

As an Army child, Helen was born in England and lived in Germany, Japan, California, Virginia, and Florida. She now lives with her husband and two cats (her “mews”) in Massachusetts. When she is not scribbling away, you will find her curled up with a book, a cat, and a nice hot cup of tea.