In 2016, I had the pleasure to speak to Victoria Aveyard, author of the bestselling YA series, Red Queen. In Part 2, she talks about her books being turned into a movie (or movies) and more about her writing life.Read More
In 2016, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author of the young adult bestselling Red Queen series for The Star. Here, she talks to me taking that big leap to write her novel and grappling with the fame that came with being the author of a bestselling series.Read More
When Sharnila Pillai was laid off, she didn’t waste time sulking about it. Instead, she took the chance to build a dream business that fills her days with joy.Read More
Amanda Hocking has become quite a legend among budding writers - those who publish independently and traditionally. After uploading her Young Adult ebooks to Amazon and Smashwords, she ended up making up a million dollars in a few months. Unsurprisingly, big publishers took notice of her. (Ironically, these publishers rejected her novels over and over again years ago.) She ended up signing up with St Martin’s Press, for a US$2mil (RM6.4mil) four-book deal.
I had the opportunity to speak to Amanda. The result is my article, published in The Star: Amanda Hocking: A Success Story.
The following is the full transcript of our conversation:
What inspired you to become a writer? I spent the majority of my childhood sitting in my room writing stories, telling stories, or acting out stories in my backyard. I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
You've written about 17 novels by the time you were 26. When did you start writing? What is your writing process like? I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to write, but I wrote my first novel in high school. I would start writing around 8:00 or 9:00 at night, and then keep going as late as I could. That’s pretty much still how I do it today.
Did you have a day job when you were writing your novels? Yes, I was working at a group home for mentally disabled people.
How did you balance writing and your day job? My job was usually from about 3:00-10:00 PM, so when I got home I would just go to my office, and write until 8:00 or 9:00, go to bed, get up, work, and do it again.
What stories fascinate you? I think all stories fascinate me, for different reasons. I will read just about anything. I recently saw The Avengers, so right now I’m in kind of a superhero phase.
When did you start trying to get your books published? How was it like? I wrote my first novel when I was 17, and I started sending query letters to agents immediately after that. I would take a few breaks here and there, but I was pretty much always sending out letters. Now, I realize that the book I wrote when I was 17 was pretty horrible, and the agents were right for not accepting it.
How did you end up publishing your books on the digital platform? I heard about some people having success with selling their books for e-readers, so I thought I could give it a shot.
You've made millions from e-publishing. Did you ever anticipate such a success? No, not at all. E-publishing was very new to me, so I had no idea what to expect. I’m very thankful to everyone that decided to take a chance, and buy my books though.
How did you react to your success e-publishing? I was ecstatic. At first, I was taking screen shots of my Amazon sales page if I sold like 30 books in a day. I slowly started selling more and more books each day, and things got pretty crazy. It was fun.
How has success changed your life? I think the thing I’m most grateful for is having an audience. Like I said, I’ve always told stories, but it was mostly to myself, or my mom. To have people actually interested in my books, and to actually pay money to read them, is a huge honor.
What do you think is the secret to your success? I have no idea. I try to write books that I think people will enjoy, and be entertained by. I think that’s the best anyone can do.
Why did you decide to publish traditionally in the end? Doing everything on my own got to be a lot of work, I knew that going with a traditional publisher I would have a whole team of people to help me, and to be along with me for the ride. I also wanted to get my books out to people who don’t have e-readers.
How did people react to your decision to go down the traditionally-published route? I think most people were excited about it. I know there were a few self-published authors who thought I was making a mistake, and that I was a “sell-out” but I never said that I would only be a self-published author, and I think I made the best choice for me and my career.
How has your writing process changed now that you are traditionally published? My writing process hasn’t changed at all. The editing process is definitely much smoother now. Before I would have to try and find editors online to go over my work, and I didn’t always like their style, or agree with what they said. The editor I have now at my publisher is amazing, and working with her is a lot of fun.
What was it like seeing your books in print? I was on a book tour when Switched came out, so I got to see a lot of different covers, and a lot of different stores/displays, so that was a lot of fun.
What inspired you to write Switched? I had this idea to write a book about a changeling, and while I was doing research I came across some Scandinavian folklore about trolls that described them as beautiful, ill-tempered, intelligent creatures. I thought that sounded really interesting, and that’s how the whole series got started.
What are you currently working on? Right now I’m working on the last book in the Watersong series, which is a four book series. The first book, WAKE, is coming out this Summer.
What advice would you give budding novelists? I think the best advice I can give is to get a lot of advice. Before you start sending letters to agents, or throwing your book online, it’s good to know what you’re getting into, and what’s going to work the best for you.
This post was originally published on Oct 2, 2012
When did you first start writing?
I started late, about halfway through my 17-year software engineering career and at a time my children were needing less of my time. A friend suggested we start writing a series of e-mail letters “in character” so she could practice her writing. It sounded fun, not near so hard as planning and writing a whole story, which I had always imagined next to impossible. When I sat down to write the first letter, I came up with twenty pages. I was astonished, and I was hooked.
What kind of stories interest you most?
Complex, layered stories about interesting people caught up in dramatic adventures. I want to like the protagonist – eventually if not at first. And I want a satisfying ending, not artificially happily ever after, but not ambiguous or unrelentingly grim.
What does your family think about your career?
My husband has been totally supportive throughout it all. He is thrilled that I’ve discovered work I’m passionate about. Writing is not just “a job.” My sons are also enthusiastic supporters. When my youngest son Andrew was in seventh and eighth grade, and I was still writing for myself, he would come in and have me read my work to him. He kept coming back for more, which was a great encouragement. He still likes to read my work before it gets printed.
Of course, my eldest son, a musician, has told me he thinks my books need more pictures. I threw a book at him.
What spurred you to quit your full time job at HP to write full-time? was there a particular event?
Actually yes. In 2002, my employer Hewlett-Packard Co. bought Compaq Computer. One of the first things they did after the merger was offer to pay those who had been with the company more than fifteen years to leave. I felt as if it was an IQ test which I passed.
How was the transition like?
Very easy. I was already working at engineering only three days a week and writing for the other four. I just dropped that old day-job stuff.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Actually, I never believed I could write a book. I have always been an avid reader of many genres, fantasy and science fiction, mystery, spy thrillers, classics, you name it. But the idea of figuring out a complicated plot, making characters come to life, foreshadowing events so that a reader would say, "Ah-ha!" just seemed horribly difficult. For many, many years, I was content to read, and channel my creative efforts into my work as a software engineer and my family.
How long did it take for you to get published?
I wrote for the sheer pleasure of it for about nine years, never imagining anyone else would want to read my stories. Along the way, I picked up bits of information about the craft of writing. Eventually I entered a few contests and got some good feedback. In 1998, I started a new story and knew it was better than anything I’d written thus far. (That was Song of the Beast.) When I finished it, I started Transformation and knew that was the best thing I’d done thus far. Meanwhile my friend and I went to a regional writers conference to learn about publishing. A year and a half later, I sold Song of the Beast, Transformation, and the book that became Revelation and Restoration.
How did you feel when you finally got published?
Elated. Disbelieving. I still don’t quite believe it. I see myself as a very ordinary person – wife, mother, teacher, engineer. I took up this hobby, and wow, here I am doing an interview for a Malaysian publication!
What drew you to the fantasy genre?
I’ve always read across many genres: mysteries, historical fiction, classics, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, mountain climbing stories, mythology, spy thrillers, romantic suspense, and so on. What I love about fantasy is that it is such a grand canvas for telling any human story. Its “genre prescriptions” are very minor, and one can incorporate all the delights of these other types of stories.
Your characters are often put through quite a bit of torture in your books! Is there a reason why?
It’s true, I am not easy on my heroes and heroines. Conflict is the meat of a good story. Conflict changes people. And in order to make people change, in order to make them do things they really, really don't want to do - to be truly heroic - I confront them with hard events. My characters tend to be smart and strong, which means their challenges have to be hard, mentally or physically or both.
What's your writing process like?
I am not an outliner. Most of the time I begin with an image of a character in a bad situation – a handsome, arrogant young warrior riding through the desert, as if bound for a great destiny, though I know he is currently unworthy of it (whatever it is) or my poor musician getting released after seventeen years of torment still not knowing why he had been imprisoned.
Or I get struck by something I hear, like a news feature on our National Public Radio entitled The Last Lighthouse that gets me thinking about lighthouses and what they do. Which, of course, led to the development of the Lighthouse Duet. As to the events in the unfolding plot, I come up with them along the way, always trying to think: what would these people really do, and how can I turn these events upon their heads. I keep notes and timelines and “who knows what lists” that I develop as I go.
What do you think about your books becoming eBooks?
I think it’s terrific. Clearly more and more readers are reading on electronic devices, often in addition to paper books.
But I do think someone is going to have to do something about piracy. I’ve seen “torrent sites” where 1,500 copies of one of my books have been downloaded, and there are hundreds of these sites. Authors get not a cent from pirated books. This not only prevents them getting royalties, ie. income! But also it cuts into their sales, which means publishers won’t pick up their next works. Readers will eventually be stuck with the twenty bestselling authors and miss out on lots of wonderful stories.
Among all your books - who's your favourite character and why?
Oh, that is like asking which of my children I like the most! Valen from the Lighthouse Books, is my delight. But Anne, Portier, Dante, and Ilario … new in the Collegia Magica books … are all waving their hands at me. And then there is Seyonne … and Aleksander. Aidan is incurably romantic, and I loved Gerick from when he was a troubled ten-year-old, all the way to maturity. And that's not even getting in to the secondary characters like Saverian and Jen and Paulo … Nope. It's impossible to answer that.
Would you consider writing other genres?
Possibly. But right now, I’m really enjoying what I write. There are limitless possibilities in fantasy.
What do you enjoy most about being a writer right now?
I love having readers tell me they reread my books and find new things in them on each pass through. That’s the relationship I have with my favorite books. I enjoy meeting readers at conventions and conferences. I enjoy the writing itself – even when it is hard – especially feeling the pieces of a story fall into place by the end.
What do you say to aspiring fantasy writers?
Here are the pieces I consider essential for a fantasy that I want to read:
1. Complex characters that live and breathe, who have all the richness of human beings (even if they are not quite human). The genre has far too many pasteboard heroes.
2. Intelligent, likeable heroes and heroines and intelligent, complex villains. People who are not all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good or all-evil.
3. A world that hangs together logically, that while I am reading, makes me believe it could exist, even including its fantastic elements.
These things require lots of hard thinking, true research, and hard work at the craft of writing.
How many more books do you have in you?
Many more, I hope.
The publishing industry is a brutal one, and staying published is a challenge - how do you manage to keep being published?
Mostly it is thanks to faithful readers, who not only buy my books, but write reviews or recommend them to friends and coworkers. I like to think that happens because I work hard to create stories I am passionate about. Readers do need to know that almost every author they follow is on the verge of being dropped.
Finally, if you can spare us some details about the second book after Spirit Lens, it'll be wonderful.
The Soul Mirror takes up the story four years after the ending of The Spirit Lens. The missing perpetrator has not been found. Strange things have been happening around Castelle Escalon, which lead Portier and the king to believe that they have not ended the conspiracy, but only delayed its result. And our renegade sorcerer has become more erratic and much more dangerous.
But it is the abrupt murder of one of the witnesses from the trial that sets a new train of events in motion.Our librarian friend Portier does not tell this portion of the story. The narrator is Anne de Vernase, who was herself a most important witness in the culminating trial in The Spirit Lens. Anne is reserved and intelligent and very, very disciplined. She is a skeptic when it comes to magic and despises its practitioners (except for her sister). Which means, of course, that she is thrown into a situation where everything she believes is turned upside down, and she is forced to confront some Very Bad Things, including our scary renegade mage, with only her wits. And that's before she starts hearing voices and seeing … mmm … apparitions.
Would you put your book out there on the world wide web? Nina Amir says that one can do it.Read More
Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's Beautiful Creatures was the first YA novel I bought in eBook format. The book had garnered such praise that I couldn't resist taking a look. I was indeed impressed by what I read, and instantly identified with Ethan, the popular yet lonely boy in the Southern town of Gatlin. (Not that I was popular in my youth, but I was a thinker like Ethan, always thinking deeply about the issues of identity and belonging.)
I met Stohl at the MPH Reader's lounge at Mid Valley megamall, and I found out that this was her first visit to Malaysia and that she had spent “a good four hours eating” the night before.
“I always say my favourite food is food,” she said, laughing.
It is always such a pleasure to speak to writers. I regard all of them as my sifus and take every opportunity to learn from them. And they have such wisdom! The result of our conversation is the article, Margaret Stohl finds her voice, which was published a few days after Christmas.
The following is a partial transcript of our conversation.
How did you end up writing Beautiful Creatures?
I've wanted to be a writer my whole life and I've been working as a writer for 20 years but never writing a book. Because it was the thing I most wanted to do and I think I was afraid that I'd fail. So I wrote video games for 16 years. I wrote animation, screenplays before that for Nickelodeon Pictures .... And then I finally stopped making video games and really wanted to write but I didn't know what I wanted to do and I was messing around with different things when I went out with Kami Garcia, who was my daughter's teacher.
She taught all three of my daughters and she was a Reading Specialist. And what we have in common is a love of books. So we came up with this idea and the rest happened really quickly after that. I came home from lunch and told my eldest daughter who is a teenager that we were going to write a book and she laughed and laugh and thought it was the funniest thing.
And I said, “No, really, I'm going to write a book!” And she said, “Mummy you may think you're going to write a book but in three days you'll be doing something else because you never finish anything. And I said, “Oh, it's on! I'm writing that book and I'm going to show you. And that's exactly what happened. It took me 12 weeks.
We had to revise it after that for nine months but the draft was finished in 12 weeks and I won the bet. Although if you ask what I won all I can say is I made a teenager cry.
How did you get over your fear of writing that novel?
For me it was my daughter. You do things for your kids you won't do for yourself. And I just had to do it do it without thinking too much about it. I think it was because we weren't writing it to be sold. We were just writing to tell them the story. And I wrote it for my teenagers and Kami's half sister who is a teenager and their best friends. So, seven teenagers. It's actually quite easy to write when you know who you're writing for. And it was almost like writing a bedtime story for these children. When it was over I was so happy that she resepcted me that I won the bet that I honestly didn't care what happened to the story.
And my friend who was a middle grade writer – a writer for younger children - sent the manuscript without telling me to his agent. So she called me and I didn't even know who it was. And I'm quite shy on the phone so I pretended I did. And I called Kami after and said, “Well, the good news is someone likes the book. The bad news I don't know her name, her phone number or where she works. But she eventually tracked us down. And then everything happened really quickly.
We had multiple offers. Amazon declared it the No.1 teen book and No.5 adult book which is something they've never done except for Harry Potter.
And then the movie rights sold. And all that happened before the book even came out. So then my life changed really, really quickly and everything was very strange for a while. Then I sort of got used to it and things got back to normal.
How did your life change?
Instead of being afraid to sort of call myself a writer. Then suddenly I really was a writer. And it was in the news. My friends were all writers. I met the people who were doing what I do. And I sort of found this whole other world. I found my tribe.
It felt great. I was in Paris when my book hit the NYT best seller list and I remember that was one of the great nights of my life. Also, the day the publishers sent me the book for the first time and I held it in my hands. That was a really big day for me. And that was exciting.
Why write young adult fiction?
I always say I didn't choose it. It chose me. It's where my voice is. I read a lot of Young adult books. I think I've always been interested in fantasy and imagined universes. The most creative place now is the teen genre.
How do you write with Kami? In Europe they ask me, “How do you write with four hands?” That's what it feels like. I will send her my pages, and she she will send me her notes. And I will do the same. We trade chunks of writing and we are very critical of each other. I would write over her writing and she will do the same.
Why do you think supernatural-themed fiction is so popular? I've met with students and readers in Canada, US, here … I am surprised by how similar teenagers are. Their life is controlled by standardised tests. They feel that they don't have any control and that decisions are made for them. The fundamental story for our book is Lena not being able to choose for herself. I think that's a “teen feeling”.
Fantasy is a way of exploring dangerous and powerful emotions and topics. When you're writing about supernatural powers you're writing about emotional power.
Some YA novels have been adapted successfully into movies, and some not so well. Do you worry about the fate of the movie based on your books?
I worry about that. But I could never control it. (The movie) is casting right now and filming in April. They're putting really well-known actors in the adult roles. Not that many books are made into movies, however. Many are optionied, which is a halfway step.
What can you tell me about the last book of the series?
The last book is very much the end of the series. It is very closely connected to the third book they're almost two halfs of one book. And the stakes are the very highest. The feeling of writing the last book is like a cross between a funeral, a wedding and a graduation. When I finished writing the draft I cried and when Kami finished writing her part of the draft she cried and when the editor finished reading it she cried. It's just so emotional to finally have this world closing.
Is it possible to return to the world eventhough you've closed the chapter?
We really don't know. Obviously with the movie coming up there's a lot of pressure to do more. Right now I think it's important for both Kami and I to explore our own voices.We are going to do that and we'll always be friends and the possibility will always remain. I will never say never.
Any chance of writing a vampire novel?
Who can say? I don't know.
More from Margaret:
“I can't stand books where monumental things happen and the character just moves on. Your fantasy has to be quite real and honest emotionally.”
"Teens are very critical. They can smell a phony from miles away and they will tell you. I'm very respectful of the people I write for."
To writers: “Be kind with yourself and be patient. And carry a book with you and write down your ideas. The difference between someone who is a writer and who is not is that they start writing ... I tell students to 'sit down and write the worst book you can'."
"I love books and readers. I love talking about books. I love bloggers. They're the same in every country. I really like the YA book community. The writers are my very good friends.
It's really strange because you'd think we'd be competitive. But we're not. They say: 'The rising tides lift all the boats.' Because they want everyone to be reading YA."
First, read my article in The Star, Everyman's Economist.
I interviewed Tim Harford via e-mail to get his thoughts about economics, his new book The Logic of Life. He replied my questions while flying to a book tour destination, that hardworking fellow!
Tim Harford achieved the impossible with me: He made economics fun.
The writer of the The Undercover Economist (a book and a column) said that “Economics is not just about the study of commercial transactions but about the way we make choices, especially hard choices – choices about voting, crime, alcohol or the response to racial discrimination.”
Harford never expected his book to reach such heights, and to become a bestseller at that!
(Read Pursuing Perfection, my article in The Star. I interviewed Picoult over the telephone - she was in Singapore on a book tour.)
Can you guess what really attracted me to Jodi Picoult's works the first time?
The book's fonts.
Yes, not exactly the most logical thing, but I loved the editions by Washington Square Press. The books were so nicely packaged, the fonts just the right size and type, the book just the perfect size and thickness. So I gravitated towards the books, picked one up as if it was some delicate toy and read the back covers.
Of course, like many other Picoult readers, I was then attracted to the dilemmas the characters suffered. Salem Falls was my first book and I really felt for the character.
"Salem Falls is the one place where the character doesn't get his comeuppance, because he couldn't because of the end of it," Picoult told me over the phone in early May. Boy, did I feel the same. I stamped my feet towards the end, sniffing, "No fair!"
She also talks quite a bit about religion too, and it's pretty obvious where her political leanings lie:
“Keeping Faith is about religion and spirituality and the differences between them. It also examines how religion and politics never were separate in America.”
She speaks about how Americans are thought of as a “wildly religious group”, and about the rise of a Christian evangelical group that seem to preach the gospel but endorse causes that seem so contrary to its message, such as the death penalty.
“And in addition to that they (evangelicals) are working very hard to make sure that the politicians elected to run the country are also people of faith - their faith.
“Just because someone endorses something different from your own beliefs, it might not just be as valid – and I think it's a dangerous place to be for the country.”
Then she talks at length about the Barack Obama, and how he had to be shown that he goes to church, but then his minister starts saying racially biased comments but all of a sudden he has to distance themselves. “Its ridiculous the machinations politicians have to go through to get the right demographic vote.”
I thought the same too, wondering why it's so important that Barack has to tell Americans that he's not a Muslim but a Christian over and over again on TV.
But enough of that - here's my newspaper article about Jodi, Pursuing Perfection where she talks about how she started on her writing path, her future novels and ghost hunting.