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Success Story Interview - Suzanne Johnson

An Interview with Suzanne Johnson (suzannej3523 on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Marlene Stringer of Stringer Literary Agency.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Suzanne Johnson:
The book, Royal Street, is an urban fantasy set in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina—during late summer of 2005. The inspiration came from my own experiences as a New Orleanian during Katrina, and began as a way for me to deal with my own post-Katrina stress, translated into a genre I love. In it, when Katrina causes the metaphysical levees to break between modern New Orleans and the preternatural world, a young wizard whose foundations of home and family have been ripped away by the storm, must learn to stand back up and fight for her home and her way of life. It’s a metaphor for New Orleans’s survival—and revival—after Katrina. Royal Street will be released by Tor Books on April 10 as the first in a new series.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Suzanne Johnson:
I’ve written nonfiction for decades, but this was my first work of fiction.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Suzanne Johnson:
I started the book in August 2008 and finished it in April 2009. Or at least I thought it was finished—LOL. It needed a lot of revision.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Suzanne Johnson:
I just kept writing as I sought representation for this book, and then as my agent sent the book out on submission I completed the second in the series and was fortunate to sell both.
QT: Is this your first book?
Suzanne Johnson:
Yes, and it still surprises me after a career in journalism—I never thought of myself as a novelist, or had expected to be one. I’m still not quite sure how it happened!
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Suzanne Johnson:
I have degrees in English and journalism, and have worked as an editor and writer in the higher education field for more than 25 years. The techniques and structure of writing longform feature articles is not so different from writing fiction.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Suzanne Johnson:
I work full-time at a day job, so I have to use my writing time carefully. I usually read over the previous night’s writing during my lunch hour, relax a couple of hours after work, then put in three or four solid hours of writing (which includes all that dreaded “platform-building”) at night.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Suzanne Johnson:
I rewrote it three times...maybe four…before submitting it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. It did pretty well in that, making to a semifinal round, which gave me the confidence to send it out to agents. Then it went through a couple of rounds of revisions with my editor after it had been contracted for publication.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Suzanne Johnson:
Yes—would never try this without beta readers! I have a three or four readers in my genre and at least two outside my genre so that my story doesn’t get too “insular.” I also have an “alpha reader” who reads the first draft and gives me big plot-point feedback that I use to tackle revisions before it goes to the beta readers. And since I’m writing a series, I had two betas read the second book who hadn’t read the first one—that way, I could tell how well it stood alone or where I needed a little more backstory. I’ll likely do that with the third book as well.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Suzanne Johnson:
To be honest, I was learning as I went on the first book, and did not outline. I did a lot of backtracking that could have been avoided if I had outlined. Now, I’m a dedicated outliner and would never again try “pantsing” a 90,000-word novel. It helps me be more productive in my limited writing time, and makes for a much cleaner first draft.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Suzanne Johnson:
I queried about twelve agents, and had full manuscripts in the hands of nine when I was offered representation.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Suzanne Johnson:
I looked for agents who represented my genre, first and foremost, and who had a good track record in selling to New York publishers since that was my ultimate goal. I used the QT website to identify the agents I wanted to query, track when the queries went out, and keep up with who requested what. I also looked at the acknowledgments page of some of my favorite author’s books in my genre and saw which agents they thanked.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Suzanne Johnson:
Stick with it. I think there’s a temptation, during these changing times in publishing, to forego the agent and submit directly to the publishing house, or to self-publish. If traditional publishing is the route you wish to pursue, though, I’d continue with the agent search. A good agent can help you bypass the “slush pile,” have a good feel for where your book might fit into the marketplace, be an advocate for you with your eventual publisher, and navigate the contract landmines.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Suzanne Johnson:
The query for Royal Street is below:

Query Letter:

Dear (agent):

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina not only laid waste to the city of New Orleans; it also opened breaches between the modern world and the preternatural world beyond. Through these breaches has come an old god bent on completing the destruction Katrina left undone and a rogue wizard intent on bringing magic back into the world of humans.

ROYAL STREET, a completed 90,000-word urban fantasy with strong elements of mystery, history, and paranormal romance, follows the story of Drusilla Jaco (DJ), a funny, tough female wizard whose pre-Katrina job was to help guard the borders between New Orleans and the Beyond, even when it called for such questionable duties as seducing the undead pirate Jean Lafitte. After the storm, DJ, an empath who fights to keep from absorbing emotions from everyone around her, must return to her ravaged city and cope with her own personal losses while unraveling the plot woven by the voodoo god Samedi and her own missing mentor.

The novel blends magic, humor, and romance to explore life in post-Katrina New Orleans, and it uses that backdrop to show the power of love and friendship in persevering against horror and chaos. It blends the antics of historical New Orleans “royalty” such as Louis Armstrong, Huey Long, and Jean Lafitte with preternatural creatures such as shapeshifters and one very human bar owner with killer dimples.

The novel will appeal to fans of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, as well as those interested in a different take on New Orleans history and Katrina.

I am a Hurricane Katrina survivor myself and was a longtime resident of New Orleans, which helped me bring both sensitivity and accuracy to the topic. I also am a widely published journalist with more than fifty national awards in feature writing and editing. ROYAL STREET is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and attention. I have attached the (amount requested) of the manuscript below--I hope it entices you to want to read more!

Best wishes,

(signature and contact info)