Susan Andra Lion is an award-winning designer, author, and illustrator with a full line of poetry drawings and a variety of decks of affirmation cards, journals, greeting cards, and prints. Sue is also a fine artist and works in colored pencil and pastel. Her work has been displayed in galleries, exclusive shows, and many private collections.
Tell me about your latest book and what inspired you to write/create it?
Fox Light, Magic Hidden in Plain Sight, was inspired by a comment made in a class I took with an elder member of my writing group way back in the 90s. She urged me to take the class, too. Sign me up, I said. By the way, what kind of class? Writing Your Memoirs, came the answer. Well, I wasn’t to the age of thinking of writing my memoirs, but the teacher was terrific. One woman in the class noted that in America, stories of “the olden days” weren’t valued. We have a history of charging ahead, even to the point of devaluing the wisdom of our older generations because of the false belief that whatever they did “back then” wasn’t productive or economically useful now. Times change. Keep up or get out of the way. All the wisdom, work ethics, problem solving, and experiences were dismissed. That led to a good class discussion about the value of passing down our stories, if only for our children and children’s children.
In the past, stories were passed down from generation to generation by the elders of the communities. The Storytellers were often the Uncles or Grandfathers, Aunts or Grandmothers. They told them over and over again to the little ones, making sure the history of the tribe was embedded deep in their hearts. Those stories became the foundation for future actions, decisions, moral stances, and pride. From oral histories came written accounts, even artwork to accompany the words. A commitment to the weaving of the community came through shared beliefs and an understanding of the earth, the plants and animals, the wind, spirit beings, and all humans.
Well, now years later, I was struck with the notion that recording experiences in my life didn’t have to be dull or outdated. I reflected on the “magical” incidences I’ve had, many of which can’t be explained with math or logic, and I started scribbling notes. One note lead to another, and the pages kept getting a little higher. Each story triggered another, until I realized I had the content for a book. Just for me, just for my children, but created with my professional approach to any job in my list.
Then, because I’m an illustrator, I felt creating drawings to augment the text was a combination of my skills. So, why not! They touched a deeper place in me – I think images do that – but I was surprised at how deep. A piece of me went way back, back to the days of being a little kid sitting at the kitchen table when we lived in North Dakota, and just drawing. I didn’t actually take an official art class until I went to college, but I was lost in bliss when I did art back then.
Fox Light is a collection of short stories based on my experiences of something magical happening in my life. I saw my beloved dog’s blue, ethereal spirit rise from her body. I’ve had Beings hike with me, transparent though they were. I’ve had a connection to the workings of the earth that have lifted me to a different plane. I believe we all have these magical moments, if we are willing to let go of our preconceived notions about how things work. Too often we say, “that can’t be” or “it’s just a figment of your imagination” and the magic that presented itself disappears. I hope my book helps people be more aware of the magical moments in their own lives and revel in their bigger world.
Share your personal publishing story. Did you choose self or traditional? How did you go from book manuscript draft to finished book available for purchase?
I have done a lot of reading and discussing with other experts and authors about the pros and cons of traditional publishing, a hybrid of publishing, and self-publishing. I think all of them have their positive – and negative – points. One thing that suits me is if I’m the publisher, I have full control over the content, process, cover, and marketing. Of course, that means I have to be willing to do all that! I’m a writer, illustrator, and designer – I have the right tools to get the job done. I have the knowledge to get the final files created and print-ready. I can talk to the printer, etc., etc. I have a great sense of satisfaction in being able to accomplish all this. But the marketing part is harder for me. A traditional publisher takes care of that. A hybrid takes care of some of that. But I’ve weighed the task of marketing with the satisfaction I get taking care of all the other details, and what keeps coming up for me is to self-publish.
My process is fairly simple: I write everything by hand first. I’m a short story writer, so scribbling on my paper tablet is a very stimulating and satisfying process. I don’t rush this stage. I don’t keep things all tidy, though – I write and cross out stuff, then, add words in the margins, sometimes spilling over to the next page, but I keep writing. It’s not the time to be a perfectionist. It’s messy. And frustrating. And inspiring and exciting. Once I have the bones written down, I type everything up in Microsoft Word. Of course, as I go along, I make more changes. Then, I print it out and go at it again, this time in pencil on the printed version. Many changes, reconfiguring, rethinking goes on, but each time I see it again, it becomes tighter and more refined. Each time I make edits on my Word document, I become more clear. When I am finally done with each chapter, I send or read my drafts to valued reviewers. I listen to their comments carefully. They are helping me see my own thoughts through a different lens.
As I write, images come to mind. I doodle ideas in the margins or work up some thumbnail sketches on scraps of paper. I found that my own life stories are easier to illustrate than something I’m doing for a freelance client. I’m very clear about what happened when, back then. It’s more a matter of deciding how to construct the image and what style to use. For Fox Light, I did a combination of black ink drawings, then airbrushing the color in Adobe Photoshop.
Once the text is finished and the illustrations are done, I set up the whole book in Adobe InDesign. This is where design comes in, an essential third leg of a three legged stool. Design is the glue that holds everything together. It’s a visual impact, a feeling, that creates memory for the reader. Good design, writing, and illustration carry a reader from one chapter to the next, with the intention of leaving them lighter than before. I find use of fonts and color are subtle impacts, along with how the chapter heads look and how the cover speaks to the content. I love the design stage. I get a charge out of how things come together. And since I’m the author and illustrator, I can change my mind at any time! This isn’t to say it’s all a walk in the park. It can be frustrating and exhausting, just like any work that is important, but it is equally exciting and freeing. Holding the finished printed book in my hands is indeed a joy.
Describe your writing and creative routine. How many hours a day/days a week do you write and illustrate?
I’m a freelance graphic designer, as well as a published author and illustrator. So, I’m in my studio five days a week, with a variety of clients and projects. I work on things like events, brochures, and logos, but I also design and illustrate books for other people, too. I just finished a children’s book, Rosa’s Monarch Butterfly, written by Martha Driscoll and Ann Driscoll, which is a visual science book for kids 4-9 years old. I learned so much about monarch butterflies! That’s part of the fun about working on other people’s jobs. It’s a challenge though to set aside time during the day to work on my own projects. I have three children’s books in process, and I’m starting another book for adults, different from Night Threads and Fox Light. My commitment to myself is actually scheduling time on my calendar for my own books, instead of stuffing them just into the late hours or weekends. A balancing act, for sure, but one that is possible.
How do you name your characters or titles?
Good question – naming my characters is an act of faith sometimes. Same with naming my books. I try to be very inclusive and not just choose names that I grew up with or my kids’ friends. One thing about writing my life stories is I didn’t have to worry about that, other than naming the book. As I was working on Fox Light, I kept writing down titles until I had a list of a hundred. Well, at some point I had to trim it down! One of my chapters is about me being a little introverted girl who found solace in the lilacs in spring. That eventually lead to my understanding of the spiritual meaning of fox energy, and voila, a name was born. The other challenging thing, too, is making sure another book doesn’t have the same title. I did extensive searches on Google to make sure what I was considering wasn’t taken. I crossed out several possibilities because of that. Other authors are good resources for bouncing off ideas. One woman is a miracle worker with headlines and names, and I took her recommendations seriously.
What is the most difficult part of your creative process?
I have discovered that some people think the creative process is easy. Whatever comes to mind somehow gets finished without a struggle. They are surprised, almost astonished, when I go through my process with them. No matter what I’m writing or drawing, there are challenges that go with it. I can’t just turn on a switch when I’ve scheduled myself to be creative. I can’t always phrase things right. I have go back more than once to smooth it out or reconstruct it. I want the beginnings and endings to complement each other, but when I’m in the throes of writing, it’s not always clear how that path will appear. The biggest thing is not to give in. It’s the same with illustration – I’m not successful with every piece of artwork and there are times I crumple the paper and start over. But each time I reconsider, each paragraph that finally comes together, I forget the challenges and am grateful for the end results. It’s worth the effort. What is that saying? “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Well, there are thousands of steps, sometimes two forward and one back, in each of my journeys.
How do you go about obtaining book reviews? Do you read them? How do you deal with the good and the bad ones?
I have taken a soft approach to book reviews, something that needs to change some. I do read book reviews before I buy a book, so I know there is value in them. For each book I write and/or illustrate, I ask other readers/authors/artists from different walks of life to review my work. It is enlightening to hear what they say and I seriously consider incorporating their comments. It also makes me aware of what I find important enough not to change. But I haven’t submitted my book to organizations that review books and know nothing about me.
Do you prefer reading print, audio or ebooks? Why?
I love reading print books of all kinds – fiction, murder mysteries, children’s books, trade books on illustrators and design, magazines about colored pencil techniques and software tips, you name it. I also listen to audio books, especially when I’m working on an illustration at my light table for hours. I have a traveling buddy, too, and we choose what audio book to listen to before a road trip. But I’m not a champion of ebooks, at least not yet. I spend so much time in front of a computer or on my phone that I relish the time I take to hold a print book in my hands, especially if it has illustrations or photographs. I have to laugh though – both Night Threads and Fox Light are not only in print, but in ebook form and available on Kindle. I think ebooks would be terrific if I was traveling overseas or stuck on a subway for a long commute. But that’s not part of my life right now.
There are many trends in self-publishing that have come and gone. What do you think is going to change next in the self or traditional publishing landscape?
Self-publishing has become such a powerhouse that it has changed the landscape of traditional publishing a lot. In the Olden Days, I think there were many good manuscripts that went unnoticed, mainly because it was impossible for a publishing house to read all of them. Sometimes it was because it didn’t fit the tastes of a reviewer and without further ado, it hit the trash can. Those were the days of complete power over the author, from editing to final print. But I see a good change in many publishers, particularly midsized and small, to be partners in getting a book to market. It takes a lot of effort, from a lot of people, to bring onboard a new author, and there are considerable risks involved, not the least making sure book sales pay for all of that. A publishing house has lots of experience in marketing, editing, and promotion, and can be a tremendous asset in the success of the book.
That said, I believe with the advent of self-publishing, many books have come to market that wouldn’t have before, and we are blessed with a rainbow of possibilities. There is also awful work out there, work that hasn’t been refined or reviewed or edited, and that kind of sloppiness puts a mark on all authors who are bringing their own work to market. Something to consider, too, is there are three parts to any book – writing, images, and design. It’s important for an author to choose carefully the people who can help make the book professional. A traditional publisher takes care of that. A self-publisher makes it all happen on their own. Hiring the editor, designer, book cover designer, and production person to get it to the printer, plus paying for all of that, is on the shoulders of the self-publisher. The nice thing is all those people/companies are out there!
For me, I choose self-publishing. I know the path and relish the process, so it’s very satisfying.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Be clear about what you are working for. Make sure your heart is engaged, not just your head. If you’re just doing it for money, rethink it – it’s a long and winding road. Dedicate time and resources to your creations, and keep going. You don’t have to know everything to start. If you have an idea, if you experience something that has changed you, if you have memories of meaningful events in your life, then write it down. Tuck your scraps of paper in a folder. And don’t let the dust settle too long before you open the folder again.
Who is your favorite author, book? The last book you read?
This is a hard question – there are so many! Children’s picture book authors – Chris Van Allsburg, William Joyce, Pamela Zagarenski, Oliver Jeffers, Sophie Blackall just to start. If you want to slow down, go to your favorite bookstore and sit and read in the children’s book section. There are authors and illustrators speaking to every subject in every way and you will be moved. Adult books? I just finished Midnight Library by Matt Haug. Another one that sticks with me is Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus, with an amazingly visual plot. Catherine Landry’s series of three small The Way books (the first is The Way of the Simple Soul) are intriguing, and Julie Loar’s new book, Symbol & Synchronicity, is a handbook on dreams and how to remember your dreams. I can also recommend As You Feel, So You Heal, by Donna DeNomme.
One thing I’ve found is if I start a book and it doesn’t grab me, I know there is another one just around the corner that will speak to me better. That’s a wonderful thing about used bookstores, too. You can try something out without spending a lot of money.
Thoughts for applying for awards for your books?
The publisher who brought How the Trees Got Their Voices to market taught me the value of awards. I was hesitant – how could applying for a bunch of awards actually benefit the book? As it turns out, many of the awards programs have a robust marketing impact. They make big announcements to their extensive lists, they send out press releases, they post the book on their websites, etc. I discovered how just having an award sticker on one of my book covers helps sell the book. I’ll use this as an example: I had contacted a small gift / bookstore about having my book on their shelves. The manager was pretty non-committal, until I mentioned the most recent award I had received. She immediately looked online, saw the book and the awards it had received, and ordered books from me to sell in her store.
It doesn’t matter if I have a publisher or I self-publish to apply for an award. Night Threads has received three prestigious awards, all because I filled out the applications and sent them my book for them to read and review. I admit, I learned a lot from the publisher of “Trees,” so I knew about some of the awards programs and the strategy of which category to place the book in. It’s a plus to know how to write a proposal, too. But in the end, as a self-publisher, I did my own research, decided on what categories to submit the book, and applied. Of course, beware – there are awards programs that will take your money and not deliver the goods, but that’s the value of being able to research them online.
More about the author and how to find her books.
She has written, designed and/or illustrated many children’s and adult books, including How the Trees Got Their Voices, published by Satiama Publishing, a service mark of Satiama, LLC, and the winner of 17 national awards for writing, illustration, and design, including the Moonbeam Children’s Literacy Award and the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award; White Butterfly and Her Wings of Many Colors, winner of a eight prestigious awards, including Winner and 2016 Book of the Year, Creative Child Magazine; and Night Threads, a Weaving of Soul Stories from the Dreamtime, a Nautilus Gold Winner, Inner Prosperity & Right Livelihood category, Independent Press Distinguished Favorite, Inspiration category, and 2019 Next Generation Indie Finalist, New Age category. Night Threads is an illustrated book of short stories for adults using her magical, movie-like dreams as a foundation for expressing universal symbolism and soul connections that all humans have. Her Spontaneous Sacred Spaces, a pocket-sized book of portable Earth altars, has a fold-out altar on each spread, along with a short meditation. It is a two-award COVR recipient, Retailer’s Choice and Winner.
Sue is also a fine artist and works in colored pencil and pastel. Her work has been displayed in galleries, exclusive shows, and many private collections. As a graphic designer, Sue has worked in high end agencies, corporate visual communications, and currently operates her own graphic design studio, Sue Lion :: ink. Her clients include healthcare, environmental, and high tech industries, and also many small, independently-owned businesses and book authors.