Today’s guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Amy K. Nichols. Amy lives on the edge of the Phoenix desert with her husband and children. In the evenings, she enjoys sitting outside, counting bats and naming stars. Sometimes she names the bats. Her first novel, YA sci-fi thrillerNow That You’re Here, will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on December 9, 2014.
I started out a total pantser, but after starting a few manuscripts and fizzling out around page fifty, I knew I needed to try a different approach. I read a blog post by YA author Elana Johnson about plotting, and she recommended Save the Cat, Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting. I decided to give plotting a try, and lo and behold, it worked! Since then, I’ve developed my own planning/pantsing hybrid, creating a loose outline while remaining sensitive and flexible with what the story wants and needs. I should say, I still pants short stories, but anything longer, I need a road map.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
I can really crank out the words when needed. One of my first forays into writing was the 3-Day Novel Contest, a crazy writing marathon that takes place over Labor Day weekend, in which participants try to write a novel in a weekend, beginning on Friday at midnight and ending Monday at midnight. It’s insane, but so much fun. (The first year I participated was 2004, and I won third place, which I took as a sign that this writing gig was, in fact, for me.) Anyway, it taught me on how to get words down fast and worry about revising later. When I’m in a groove, first drafts typically take me a month or two. Revising, however, takes me much longer, at least when I’m not on deadline. I revised Now That You’re Here for a couple of years before querying agents. The sequel, While You Were Gone, took less than a year, though, since I was working with my editor and on deadline. I would love to get proficient enough to write and revise a novel every six months.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?
When I’m working on deadline, the contracted book takes priority and everything else has to wait. (I’m obsessive about hitting deadlines.) If I’m between deadlines, though, my writing is a bit like a horse race. I work on a number of projects, writing a little here and a little there depending on which story has me most intrigued. Typically one “horse” will gather momentum and pull away from the pack. Once that happens, I put all my money on that one and cross my fingers it makes it across the finish line.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
I have to overcome fears every time I sit down to write. Looking back, I put off writing for years because I was afraid. A while ago I found some notes I’d scribbled down in college about what I would need to do to switch to the creative writing program. I never made the switch, though, because that would mean facing critique and rejection. Years later, it took a brush with death and a bout of depression to convince me to finally give writing a try. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Now when I sit down to write, those same fears of critique and rejection are still there, but I’ve learned that the magic happens in revision, and I can survive rejection. I don’t think I can survive not writing.
How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?
I wrote two complete manuscripts before selling Now That You’re Here (and started a number of others). One of the completed manuscripts will remain in the trunk (though two of the characters ended up in NTYH). The other I’m hoping to spiffy up to show my agent. Fingers crossed.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
Yes, too many times to count. I can think of at least five manuscripts that completely fizzled out as I was writing them. It wasn’t a matter of me quitting them, but them quitting me. They probably got annoyed with me and went to find a better writer. Seriously, though, if I’m working on something and it begins to falter or I start to lose interest, I try to go back to the last place where the story was interesting and start over from there, making different choices. Sometimes that feeling that a story is failing comes when I’ve made a wrong turn and led the story in a direction it didn’t want to go. Then it’s usually a matter of backing up and trying something else.
Who is your agent and how did you get that “Yes!” out of them?
I’m with Adams Literary, and Josh Adams is my agent. They do things a little differently than other agencies: rather than send a query letter, you submit your manuscript via a form on their website. So I sent my manuscript off to them and received a confirmation that said if I hadn’t heard from them in six weeks, it was a pass. This was around May of 2012. When I left for the SCBWI conference in August, I hadn’t heard from them, so I’d crossed them off the list. The night before the conference started, however, I got an email from them asking me to meet with Josh during the conference. It was such a surprise. We had a chat in that awesome lobby (if you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about), and he told me they were interested in my work. Hearing him say that was surreal, to say the least. A week later, I signed with them, and I couldn’t be happier.
How long did you query before landing your agent?
I don’t remember how many queries I sent, but I do know the process went relatively quickly. I started querying in late April/early May and signed with Adams in August.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
I once heard someone compare querying to dating. Having been through it, I can say it’s a fair comparison. You’re looking for a partner in this process, someone who will walk along side you, hopefully for your whole career. Yes, you want to get signed so bad you can’t see straight, but you don’t want to end up in a relationship that doesn’t work. You want to find the right partner, and that can take patience. It’s worth it, though, to take your time and make sure it’s a good fit. And for the record, this dating metaphor applies to taking a manuscript out on submission. You want to make sure you’re a good fit with your editor, too, that you share the same vision for the book.
How much input do you have on cover art?
Not a lot, but so far that hasn’t been a problem. I love the covers of both Now That You’re Here and While You Were Gone so much. The designers did an incredible job.
What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?
One surprising thing I learned was how much fun revising can be. I’d always heard “magic happens in revisions”, but I hadn’t experienced it to such an extent before. There’s nothing like seeing the pieces click together. When I wrote Now That You’re Here, there was a journal that showed up a couple of times. I wasn’t sure why it was there, so I just kind of left it alone. Then, during a round of revisions, I suddenly realized why it was there, and it ended up being a pretty significant part of the book. I love those moments. Revising may be difficult, but it really is magical.
How much of your own marketing do you?
I try to do as much marketing as I can, though being new to this I’m not sure what’s effective and what isn’t. My original publicist quit a few months before my publication date, which left me a little panicked, and I ended up setting up a lot of guest blog appearances (such as this one!) on my own. My publisher did assign me a new publicist, who has been great, so I don’t feel as much pressure to make thing happen on my own. Still, I do what I can to partner with my publisher and make it a team effort. I’m on Twitter, and I blog at my own blog as well as my writers’ group blog, The Parking Lot Confessional. We also do a writing podcast called Curb Chat, which is so much fun! You should check out.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
I began blogging and tweeting before I had an agent, mostly as a means of connecting with other authors. I think getting (somewhat) established online before I got my agent was beneficial, not only because it showed them I was willing to network and promote, but also because it gave them a sense of who I was before they reached out to me.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
It’s still a little early to say yet, but I really hope so! Regardless, I like being on Twitter and blogging, so I’ll continue doing it even if it doesn’t increase my readership. I also like being on Tumblr, though I confess I’m mostly reblogging photos of Benedict Cumberbatch over there. Maybe that will help grow my readership!