Ep 276 Meet Amie Kaufman, international bestselling author of YA and middle-grade fiction.

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In Episode 276 of So you want to be a writer: International bestselling author Amie Kaufman joins us to chat about her YA and middle grade fiction. We have double passes to Burning, a film based on a story by Haruki Murakami, to give away. You’ll also learn the meaning of vicissitude and more!

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Show Notes

Writer in Residence

Amie Kaufman

Amie Kaufman is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of young adult fiction.

Her multi-award winning work is slated for publication in over 30 countries, and has been described as “a game-changer” (Shelf Awareness), “stylistically mesmerising” (Publishers Weekly) and “out-of-this-world awesome” (Kirkus).

Her series include The Illuminae Files, The Starbound Trilogy, Unearthed and Elementals: Ice Wolves. Her latest book is the second in the Elementals trilogy: Elementals: Scorch Dragons, released in March 2019.

Her work is in development for film and TV, and has taken home multiple Aurealis Awards, an ABIA, a Gold Inky, made multiple best-of lists and been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

Raised in Australia and occasionally Ireland, Amie has degrees in history, literature, law and conflict resolution. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, their rescue dog, and an extremely large personal library.

Follow Amie Kaufman on Twitter

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(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Amie Kaufman is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy for young and not so young adults. Last month, Scorch Dragons, the second book in her middle grade fantasy series Elementals was released. And next month will see the release of Aurora Rising, the first book in Amie’s new YA sci-fi series, The Aurora Cycle, co-authored with Jay Kristoff. Welcome to the program, Amie, and sorry about the glitch in my radio intro there.

Amie

Thank you very much for having me!

Allison

All right. So we’re going to wind the clock back into the mists of time and go back to the beginning. When and how did your first ever book come to be published?

Amie

Um, gosh. So the first book that I had published was not actually completely the first book that I signed with my agent on. So I wrote for fun for a really long time. And it genuinely didn’t occur to me that authoring was a job I could have. I was just writing stories for my friends and myself and enjoying it. And I sort of got my million words or my 10,000 hours – or however you like to think about it – out of the way without ever angsting about what the outcome would be. Because I didn’t ever think of there being an outcome.

And one of my writing partners, Meagan Spooner, with whom I wrote The Starbound Trilogy and Unearthed and so on, was trying for publication. And she had… We had been working together on stuff purely for fun. Purely because we were very close and we lived a long way away and writing each other little bits of this story back and forth was one of the ways that we tended to our friendship.

Meanwhile, she was writing another series and suddenly she signed with an agent and got a book deal on it. And I had always been an enthusiastic cheerleader in this. I’d been helping research agents. Almost like I was trying to get it done myself. And suddenly when it happened for her, and it was suddenly all reality, we sort of looked each other and we looked at this thing we were writing together and we thought, oh, okay. I wonder if someone would want that, as well?

But they wouldn’t. But I wonder if they would? But they wouldn’t. But what if they did?

So we started chipping away at that slowly. And in the meantime I was writing a middle grade book. And what follows is a tale about what not to do. So for those listeners who are aspiring writers, do not follow this path. It is not a good idea.

There used to be a website a long time ago, I think it was called the YA Oasis. And they would have competitions every so often where you would give perhaps… Sometimes it would be a 100 character pitch of your book, sometimes it would be a two sentence pitch. Sometimes it would be a paragraph or whatever. And then there’d be a prize. And the prize was always that an agent would critique the first couple of pages of your manuscript. And they stressed that you had to have a finished manuscript. But the truth was, you always just gave the first couple of pages.

And so I literally hit the end on this middle grade book that I was writing one day, and entered a competition on this webpage the next day. Because I thought, well, it is finished. I’m within the rules. And I only need page one… So good to go!

And then the results were announced. And I wasn’t one of the winners. And I was deeply grateful because it turned out that for once the prize was the opportunity to query an agent who was usually closed for queries. And I thought, oh my god, imagine if I had been one of the finalists and I had been told to query this person? I mean, it’s finished, but I’ve literally just written the end. I haven’t done anything with it.

So I counted myself lucky and walked away. And then two days later I got an email from the agent, who said, “I know I chose my winners, but I’m still thinking about your pitch, and I would just love to see it.”

And it was… I mean, I have ten books under my belt now and I still don’t have the language to discuss the unique combination of absolute delight and absolute terror that this moment induced.

And this was a Thursday morning. And so I took a deep breath, shot her back an email and said, “oh, fantastic. That’s so wonderful. I’ve actually just had a really helpful piece of feedback from one of my critique partners. So if it’s all right with you, I might just polish that up over the weekend and get it off to you on Monday.” And she said, “on wonderful. Thanks. I’m looking forward to it.”

And then I phoned in sick to work. Sorry if anyone I used to work with is listening. And I spent the next four days madly attempting to edit an entire middle grade book from start to finish. Which was, you know, an experience I will not forget in a hurry. But I had made my writing partner, we were flatmates at the time, she would be critiquing things and passing them to me, and I would be madly editing them and passing them back. And my poor confused husband would be just bringing us food and say, “I don’t what you’re doing, but here, eat something.”

And so I sent it off to her and I collapsed in a heap. And this little thought got in my head and I thought, oh, I know this is silly and it will never happen, but I didn’t think she would pick me in the first place. So what if she offers? And I haven’t queried anyone else. And so I haven’t had a chance to query some of the other agents I’m really interested in.

So I thought, oh, I better just, even though this is ridiculous, I better send off some more queries. And one thing I have learned since then is that I’m good at writing a pitch. I can write a pitch about a book that doesn’t exist yet that will sound exciting.

So I wrote what turned out to be a great pitch – uh-oh – and sent it off and got ten requests in no time flat. And so now I’m sending this barely edited book out to all these agents, thinking to myself, oh my god. They’re going to remember me when I actually have a decent book. What have I done? This is a disaster.

And in the meantime, in the background, Meg’s agent says to her, “where have you been?” Because she stopped responding to everything because she’s trying to give me first aid. And he said, “oh, funny story. My flat mate’s querying.” And he said, “why hasn’t it come to us?” And she said to her agent, “well, you don’t do middle grade.” And he said, “well, there’s two agents here. My wife does middle grade. What are you doing?”

And so sent it off to his wife. And we also sent the first 50 pages of this thing we were working on together. And a couple of days later I had an agent. My number one choice was always this agency, but I didn’t know I could send them middle grade. And the only excuse I can make for that ignorance is that it was a long time ago and it was a little harder to find information back then than it is today.

So I ended up suddenly signed sort of for the middle grade, but her letter diplomatically said, “but the YA is also great. What if we went out with that first?” Which it took me some years to realise, oh, that’s because the middle grade wasn’t very good, but the YA was.

So suddenly I’m signed for a book that only has 50 pages. And off I go to write it.

Allison

Right. Wow. I think that’s possibly one of the more interesting origin stories we’ve had yet. That’s an extraordinary correlation of events.

Amie

There’s no one way. There’s no one story. Everyone I know has done it differently. And although in this case I guess I did go to that agency via someone I knew, none of the other agents who ended up involved in that situation knew who I was from a bar of soap. And I had a lot of them participating. So I think the myth that you have to know someone is very much that.

Allison

Yes. But I also think that your point about writing a really great pitch is probably key to the whole mess in there somewhere buried beneath all of that stuff.

Amie

Oh my gosh. No, it absolutely is. And I always say to people when they’re querying, “don’t send all your queries out at once. Send out just a handful. Ten at most. And if that’s you’re querying the US where there’s lots of agents. But preferably even fewer. And wait. And if you don’t get requests, that doesn’t speak to your manuscript, it speaks to your pitch.”

Because that’s what they’re reading first. And if your pitch is no good, you could have the best book in the world, but probably no one is going is going to read it.

So send out a few. If they start requesting, you know your pitch is good, you can now proceed. But don’t throw it all away on what might be a bad pitch.

Allison

So let me ask you this then, Amie. Why do you think your pitches are so good? What is it about your pitches that is making them stand out? Let’s just go with the really easy question first, shall we?

Amie

Let me think. So when I wanted to learn to write a pitch, I went out there and looked for people who could teach me. Because there’s a lot of people who can.

One fantastic resource is a blog called Query Shark, which used to be run by an agent, and she would take people’s queries – with their permission. They would submit them for this purpose. And she would just eviscerate them in a post. And she would explain, not nastily, but everything that was working, but all the things that weren’t working. And why would you choose this word? This is a boring word. You could choose a much more interesting word to take its place. And so on and so forth.

So I think for a start, looking at things like that. And teaching yourself about the little things, like making sure every word is the most exciting gripping version of itself it can be, was very helpful.

And I also read an eBook, which I’m not sure if it would be still in date these days. But it was by Elana Johnson, who spells her first name beginning with an E, and it’s called From the Query to the Call. And I suspect that probably the information around actually getting an agent probably is out of date. But what she does is give a formula for how to write a pitch and then dissects a whole bunch of great pitches and explains how they all fit the same pattern. And I found it illuminating.

And so these days when I sit down to write a pitch, the couple of rules that I have in mind are that first of all, it needs to follow the very basic concept of: when incident happens to person, they must action before consequence.

Allison

I like it.

Amie

That’s every story, right? If you can’t fit your story into that, that may point to a problem with your story. Not guaranteed, but if you don’t have that basic underlying structure, you may have a problem.

And before that little bit happens, maybe a sentence of world building. And then you think about the sandwich sentences which go at the top and at the bottom. And the idea is that, well-written, you should be able to take everything out except the first sentence and the last sentence and then be left with your elevator pitch.

And your elevator pitch, I’m sure everyone’s familiar with it, it’s your 30 second pitch. You get in a lift with an editor and they say, “what’s your book about?” And you’ve got until the fourth floor to tell them. It needs to fit into that time.

And so it will be something like so-and-so lives in a castle and began their day thinking this. Now, unless they can find the dark magician, they may never do whatever again.

And that’s your elevator pitch. And in the middle of it goes the other stuff, a couple of sentences of world-building at most, and then when incident happens to person, they must action otherwise consequence. And in all of that, you’re looking for the best most active most interesting language. And you’re looking to stick around 200 words if you can. Not more than 250. And you don’t tell the ending. A lot of people think that they’re writing a synopsis, and it’s much better to think of it as back of the book copy. You’re writing the blurb.

Allison

Okay. Excellent tips all round. Now, the thing I’m finding quite interesting about this too is that your first manuscript, the one that you were querying through the competition, was middle grade.

Amie

Middle grade was my first love.

Allison

Yeah. Well you then jumped off into YA in quite a serious way. And then of course with Elementals you’ve come back to middle grade. So was that YA voice, so it wasn’t the YA voice necessarily that dragged you in straight away, it was more middle grade?

Amie

I loved middle grade books. And I wrote a couple for my Nanowrimo novels before I ever got into YA. I mean, obviously I love writing YA because I’ve got eight of them out already and a bunch more to come. But once I had published in YA, I felt it would be wise to establish myself there a little bit. And to keep writing books for the people who had begun to pick up my books.

But I always knew that I was going to come back to middle grade. Without a question. And my very first editor, the one who bought These Broken Stars, my first book, which I guess I never answered your question about how that got published! The very short answer is that it went out on submission and two weeks later we had a fantastic auction that was happening at Thanksgiving in America, with editors literally bidding as they got on planes to fly back home.

Allison

That’s an extraordinary story, Amie! Like, really. That’s kind of like… What you’ve got there is the story we read in the papers that makes everybody sit down to write a book, is that, isn’t it? It’s the random pitch that becomes a random offer that becomes a random auction. That suddenly within two weeks is, you know, there you are. It’s an extraordinary story.

Amie

My other writing partner Jay says I’m not allowed to tell the stories about how I sell my books, because they make people want to vomit.

Allison

That sounds like something he would say, yes.

Amie

It does, doesn’t it? No, those are his words! But the reason he says that is because I have been really fortunate and I’ve never been on sub for a long time. Everything I’ve subbed has sold quite quickly.

So I can give sanctimonious speeches about the importance of writing the next thing while you’re on submission and cultivating patience. But the truth is I haven’t had to. So it’s very easy for me to make those speeches.

Allison

All right, well let’s not do that speech then.

Amie

No. No. It does then make people want to vomit, I suppose.

So my very first editor who acquired These Broken Stars also shared a love of middle grade with me. And she ended up leaving that publisher and moving to a new role at a different publisher fairly early on in our process. But we stayed in touch because we genuinely liked each other. And in publishing, you always meet people again. It’s like musical chairs. Everyone’s always moving around. So there’s a piece of advice. Never burn a bridge because you will meet that person again. And never assume that everyone doesn’t talk to everyone else, because they do. And that unhelpful or uncharitable thing you said will get back to the place that it was said.

But every so often, when I was in New York on tour or something, she would reach out and we’d catch up and we’d have lunch. And we both knew that we were just staying in touch because maybe one day we’d be able to do something together.

Then Harper in the US which is where she then was had an opening for a new middle grade series. They were just getting in the process of wrapping up a couple of theirs and they wanted something a bit more for the roster. And she said, “you know who has always wanted to write one of those?” Because it wasn’t something a lot of people knew about me. And next thing my dream opportunity to write the middle grade fantasy I’d been wanting to write was presented to me.

Allison

Oh, isn’t that lovely. Look at you being presented. I’m with Jay now. I’m starting to vomit slightly. Just a little.

Amie

I know right?

Allison

Just quietly. Just a little bit. But that’s okay.

Amie

But what I think you actually take out of that though is it is an effort to stay in touch with people. And it is an effort to continue relationships. And it is an effort… You get lucky when you make luck.

Allison

That’s very true.

Amie

And you also get lucky when you get lucky. Make no mistake. There is an element of luck in everyone’s publishing journey. But some of it you can manufacture. And in this case, I positioned myself to become lucky by making sure people knew what I wanted to do, making sure they knew I would find the time if the opportunity came up, maintaining the relationship.

And having the reputation for being a pro. Because there are authors who don’t have that reputation. And I can guarantee if one of their names got thrown in the ring, people would say, oh well, that’s going to be too hard and you know it’s going to be drama.

Allison

So be a pro.

Amie

Yeah.

Allison

All right. So let’s talk about the difference then between YA and middle grade fiction. So you said you love middle grade fiction. What is it about it that you love? And what do you see as the difference between it and YA?

Amie

I must say, for me the difference is definitely a work in progress. Every time I think I’ve nailed down an answer, I find more exceptions.

But part of what I love about it as a grown up is that it takes me back in a way nothing else does to the way I used to feel when I read as a kid. I used to… And I was under the impression until I thought about it again recently that my parents didn’t know I was reading late at night. And I’ve now realised they almost certainly did. I was not that wily. But I thought I was doing it secretly.

And I would spend hours reading books at night. And I’d be propped up on one side with one finger on the switch of the bedside lamp, and the book in the other hand, reading, reading, reading, ready to flip the bedside lamp off if I heard the kitchen door open. And I’m sure my reflexes weren’t that good. I know they knew that I was reading away.

And it was just a way to completely escape into my own world. To go somewhere… And my real life was not bad! I had a happy family and friends and it was all good. But I still loved the tingle that I got when I ran away to magical worlds, was something that I couldn’t replicate in any other way except reading those books.

And so that’s what I think about when I’m writing my middle grade now. I look for all of those little things that give me a bit of a spine tingle and in they go.

But I think in terms of the difference, I once heard someone say that in middle grade you save the world and in YA you save yourself.

Allison

That’s interesting.

Amie

Yeah. I’m not sure it’s 100% true but I do like it. And I think that certainly in YA, even though you might technically be writing around saving the world, you might technically be defusing the bomb or overthrowing the empire or whatever, what you’re really doing is figuring out who you are and what your place is in that world.

Sarah Rees-Brennan, who is very wise, says that young adult literature is the literature of transformation. And the reason that we like it as adults is because we’re still transforming as adults. Whether it’s your first day at school or your first day picking up the kids at a school where you don’t know any of the other parents. Or whether it’s your first date or your first date post-divorce. Or whatever it is. We’re still going through these transformations.

And I think in middle grade, you certainly are thinking about who you are – and my series is certainly about that – but you are also, one, you are literally saving the world, and two, you’re more just beginning to establish your place in the world. And beginning to realise that you have a place in the world and it’s something that can be influenced, and it’s something that can be adjusted and that your actions can affect what your place is in the world.

Allison

I think that’s an excellent description. Well done.

Amie

Call back next week, it’ll change.

Allison

You kind of touched on this a little bit, but you write in totally imaginary worlds. Sci-fi, fantasy.

Amie

I do.

Allison

You’re diving into. So rather than contemporary fiction. You’re not writing about what it’s like to be in high school today. What is it about, though? Is it because of that escape aspect? Or the fact that you can do what you want in the world? What is about the totally imaginary world that you like so much?

Amie

Oh. I mean, I think there are lots of factors. One is definitely the escape. That’s what I grew up reading. And I actually do read a lot more contemporary now than I used to. But when I grew up, growing up, I wasn’t interested in it. I wanted to read science fiction and fantasy. And so that is naturally where I go when I want to tell a story.

I have such admiration for people who wrote contemp. Because if I want an encounter to feel dramatic, I can have a massive showdown with a battle with guns or magic, and things exploding. If they want a showdown to feel devastating, they have got to find a way to make somebody walking past you in the school corridor and choosing not to make eye contact with you feel devastating. And they don’t have guns or magical battles or anything at their disposal.

So I think what they do is incredible, and I’m not sure how to do it, to be honest. I have one book I’d quite like to write that’s a contemporary that will be years away, because I’m busy. But I spend a lot of time thinking now about how they achieve that stuff, so that one day when I have the time I’ll be ready.

I really enjoy the escape aspect. I really enjoy as well that you can manipulate the world depending on what you want to do. Because each of my books has a big question at the centre of it. And it means I can build and create a world that allows me to centre the story around that question.

Allison

So you can manipulate the world to help facilitate the story?

Amie

Yeah. Absolutely.

Allison

Yeah, okay. So when you start your stories, when you start writing a new manuscript, are you starting with the world and the question? Or are you starting with the characters?

Amie

Usually, I am starting with the premise. Which is kind of not quite either. I don’t do a lot of world building up front. I think about some premise that would affect the world. And it might be as simple as we are 500 years into the future. There is now an interstellar military academy that’s kind of like the UN. And there are kids going there. That’s the start of Aurora Rising.

Or the start of These Broken Stars is a soldier and the richest girl in the universe, essentially a space Kardashian, get shipwrecked… She is!

Allison

Space Kardashian. I love it.

Amie

Get shipwrecked together on a planet. Something that’s quite broad. And then the world might get build a little from that. And then I pause to ask myself, okay, who is the character in this story that I’m interested in? And for that it’s usually has the capacity to suffer the greatest pain? And who has the capacity to make the greatest change? Both to themselves and to the world around them.

And once I’ve got that, then I begin to build the world in ways that will challenge what I want that character to do. So it’s more like braiding them together rather than doing one and then the other.

Allison

Okay, that makes sense. Have you got a series manual where you keep all the rules and keep track of who’s who and what’s what? And what town is this, and where is that, and it’s 500 miles to here. Do you keep all of that?

Amie

Can I ardently advise your listeners to do that?

Allison

Because you don’t?

Amie

With every fibre of my body. Because I don’t. And it’s the worst.

I’m terrible at it. I don’t do it. And it’s not like… I’m on what? My fifth or sixth series now? I know better! And I still don’t do it.

So what I do have is that especially in the United States when they copy edit you they write what’s called a style guide. And it’ll have a giant list of especially inspecting all the words you’ve made up and how you like them used. So for instance, in The Illuminae Files style guide it will say, “if the prefix is mag, as in magnetic, like magboots, or magsuit, or maggun, or whatever, no hyphen and no space. It just goes on the front of the word or whatever.”

So they’ll have all that stuff. And then they’ll also have their list of characters for you and what they look like and all that sort of stuff. So someone does some of it for you. But there’s still, gosh, there’s a lot that… I’m lucky that I have a really good memory. So I generally…

I was copy editing the novella that we’ve written for the Illuminae Files the other day, Memento, and I saw a character say something and I thought, “ah, now, in book one he said something similar to someone and the words he used were this.”

And so I was able to go back and do a Ctrl F and find it and check he wasn’t contradicting himself. Where that fits in my brain, I don’t know.

Allison

Right. That’s pretty good memory. That’s really good memory. Most people, by the time they get to book three aren’t going to remember what’s going on in book one necessarily.

Amie

Oh yeah. Look, there’s a lot of useful information in my life that I don’t store that I wish I did. But that stuff I tend to keep.

Allison

Excellent. So I’m not getting much of a sense here of you as a planner. Someone who writes out the spreadsheet before they begin writing the story and knows exactly what’s going to happen by book three. But you must have… You’re writing a pretty solid pitch here so you’ve got a fairly strong idea of the scope of the work? Is that a way of looking at it?

Amie

I mean, I sort of like the phrase ‘headlights writing’. Which is you’re driving along a dark road and you’re only really in detail outlining as far as ahead as your headlights illuminate.

So I will usually start a book with… Particularly if I’m writing with someone, we might have ten things that we think will happen that will be the ten points we’ll hit along the way. And some of them might be ‘they steal the thing’. So how they’re going to steal the thing, I have no idea. But they will do it and that will lead to the next thing.

And then the next thing is ‘they are being chased’ or whatever. So when we get there we’ll figure out based on what’s gone before what would be a cool way for them to steal the thing, what would develop their characters, what will create drama, etc.

I do do more when on myself. I will tend to… I sit there with a big bundle of notecards and I write down everything I know happens in the story – which will generally be a bunch of set pieces. And then a bunch of tiny little details or moments. And I just sit there at my dining table and I just move them all around until they’re in an order that I sort of like. And that’s my version of outlining.

Allison

It’s dining table style. It’s good. I like it.

Amie

Yeah. I think it’s that everyone has a different approach. And I think so many writers waste a lot of time by trying to follow the approach of someone who they feel is successful. Because we all want there to be a formula. I mean, I want there to be a formula! That desire does not go away. But I think, someone who they admire says, oh I do it this way or I do it that way, and so they spend a lot of time trying to do that. And it’s not the way that suits them and so therefore nothing comes out of it.

So I think for me, and one of the great disappointments of having a longer term career as an author, is discovering that I have to come up with a new system every series. That I can’t just replicate, you don’t just get the hang of it, unfortunately.

But I think… Some people just need to completely pants it and they just need to sit down and write ‘once upon a time’ and see what happens. And for me that doesn’t work at all. Because the uncertainty about what’s happening really undermines my confidence. Some people need a 35 page outline and they’re going to get a better tighter stronger book because they do it that way. And for me, that doesn’t work either, because if there’s not something to discover along the way I get a bit bored. And once I get a bit bored, I don’t write as well. It’s not just about the quality of the experience, it’s about I genuinely don’t write as well because I’m not excited. And so for me, it’s half way.

Allison

Half way, okay. Well, you have created a huge amount of work over the past few years. And I know you’ve got many manuscripts coming up. So I’m thinking that you must then have a fairly strict writing routine at least? Some kind of… You’re not necessarily strictly planning your stories out, but you are, what? Sitting down at the same time every day? Or trying to hit a word count? How does that work for you?

Amie

I would say what I have is very strong self-discipline. Because I generally just don’t get to have a writing routine. At least two times a year I’m whipped away on tour and there are so many different… I’m always juggling at least three projects at once. So one of them I’ll be editing, and one of them I’ll be drafting on, and then another one, out of absolutely nowhere, suddenly my copy edits I didn’t know were coming will arrive with these have to be back in five days, and I’m supposed to drop everything and do that but I can’t because I owe my co-author a chapter and…

I think if one is having trouble writing, then a word count goal can be really useful. Even if it’s just 250 words a day. Because it’s sort of like going to the gym. If you can just get there, you’ll probably stay for the whole workout. It’s the getting there that’s really hard. It’s the getting your butt on the chair and starting to write.

But otherwise I tend to do time goals. So it tends to be four hours a day of really concentrated writing or editing or copyediting or what have you. And that means not looking at my email, not looking at other things, not taking more than the break it takes to make a cup of tea. And just staying on task.

And if I do more than four hours, I find I will generally, whatever extra time I do I will tend to lose it over the following days. So it tends not to be worth it.

There’s a fantastic book by a guy called Cal Newport called Deep Work that talks about this that really changed the way that I work. And one of the things I did when I read it was I started tracking how I spend my time for a little while, just to see. And I discovered that those days when I came out of it thinking, god, I’m a champion because I’ve just done eight straight hours of writing and staggered out with thousands of words and quick, someone, hang a towel around my neck and feed me an orange quarter, and whatever – I would simply, the extra four hours that I did that day, I would simply lose them off the next two or three days. There would be four hours less. It’s not something I can add.

Allison

That actually makes perfect sense. I’ve never thought of it like that, but that is exactly how it works.

Amie

Yeah. And the thing is, you can bet your bottom dollar that on the big eight hour day I did, that probably the last two if not four hours were of less good quality than the first four.

Allison

Interesting.

Amie

I mean, sometimes emergencies forbid this and I find myself having to work all hours of the day and night. But most of the time I try really hard to do four solid hours of writing or editing. And then I usually have enough to fill up the rest of the day with admin and the stuff that comes from juggling multiple publishers in multiple countries and everyone’s asking questions and I’m trying to answer them. And I’m trying to remember what I’ve already asked, and all that.

Allison

That’s just a whole nother job in itself, isn’t it? I was thinking about. Because I was looking at the number of publishers that you have for your various projects and thinking wow, that is a lot of admin. A lot of admin.

Amie

It is. And I have a very strong policy that I never tell a publisher I can’t do something because I’m doing something for someone else.

Allison

Yes.

Amie

It’s a little bit like saying to one boy that I can’t go out with him on Thursday because I’m already going out with another boy. No one wants to hear it.

Allison

No one wants to hear that.

Amie

And also, it’s not their problem. When I made a contract with them, I told them I could do the work. And they don’t want to hear that I can’t do the work because I’m doing someone else’s.

Allison

So true. Now, you touched on this a little bit before, but you’ve actually worked with a couple of co-authors, including Jay Kristoff, who we actually interviewed in episode 127 of our podcast. And Meagan Spooner. How does that process work? Do you work the same way with both of them? Are you swapping chapters? Or is it different with both of them?

Amie

No, it’s actually remarkably similar. Because the two of them are remarkably similar personalities. Which a lot of people don’t expect because they don’t present as particularly similar people. But they have very similar personality types and very similar work styles.

I still remember the first time they met, I had wanted to be there, because I had in my head, oh my goodness, what if they don’t like each other? Then I’m going to have this issue where I don’t want to talk to one of them about the other one because there’s bad blood! I have a vivid imagination and I put it to good use imagining all the ways this could go wrong.

And then… Something like my flight got delayed and so the two of them got into New York a day ahead of me and ended up going out with a bunch of authors for dinner and karaoke and getting wildly drunk together and having a fabulous time.

And I’m getting text messages at 3am going ‘Meg’s awesome!’ and from Meg going ‘oh my god I’m meant to be meeting an editor in five hours. Jay’s the worst!’ And I’m thinking, but she’s still there. Which means it’s where she wants to be.

And so the two of them got on like a house on fire, which was great. But they both tend to think the same way. They both tend to even brainstorm and work the same way. And so our styles are pretty similar. We get together to brainstorm what’s going to happen next. We divide up what will go into what chapter. We pass it back and forth. We edit each other as we go.

I think there are many ways to co-author. And this is just mine. But for mine, it’s deeply collaborative and involves a lot of respect for the other person. Because in some co-authoring arrangements – and the participants are very open about this, it’s not some dirty little secret – but there might be a better known author and a lesser known author, and the better known author might outline the story. The lesser known author might draft it. And then the better known author might come through and edit it and stylise it and so on. And provided that’s what everyone volunteered for and wants to be doing, that’s great. No problem.

But the way I’m working with my co-authors is very much we each love what the other one does and so we’re trying to put more of the other one’s voice in. So I’ll be the one or they’ll be the one fighting for the other one’s joke or the other one’s line, saying, you can’t cut this, this is great. And I think it is important that if you’re going to write with someone, it needs to be someone whose voice you actually want to be present in your book.

Allison

Yes, definitely. What is it that you like so much about writing with other people? It’s interesting that you have two co-authors. And then of course the Elementals series, which is your middle grade series, is just you.

Amie

I actually have more than two, I’m just not allowed not to talk about it yet.

Allison

Oh! Okay!

Amie

At the moment I have two public co-authors.

Allison

But there will be others?

Amie

Maybe… I mean, gosh, there’s so much I love about it. For a start, writing is a very solo sport, and you often have to get quite a long way into a book before you can ask anyone what they think about how it’s going. Whereas when you’re co-authoring, every chapter you write, you send it off. And when it comes back, not only are there helpful comments all over it, but there’s a whole other chapter that you didn’t write. So that’s nice.

And if you ever get stuck, there’s someone who knows the book as intimately as you do, who’s ready to brainstorm with you, who can help. And they’ll often take 30 seconds to do it. Whichever one of us is stuck in a hole, we’ll explain it at length and say, “and so that’s how I’ve gotten myself into this unfixable situation.” And the other one will go, “what if you did this?” And the first one will go, “ah yes, yes, right, bye, I’m off. That’s all I needed.”

So I think having someone who’s intimately familiar. And then there’s also… I mean, I think anyone who writes, there are very few generalisations about all of us, but I think one that you can tend to make is that at some point when you are writing a story, you will have a moment when you think, oh my goodness, this is terrible. And in fact, I am terrible. And in fact, everything is terrible.

Allison

The whole world is terrible.

Amie

It’s all terrible and I have to start again. If I even can, because who knows if I even have any talent.

Allison

I’m only laughing because I’ve been there.

Amie

Right! I mean, the thing is, I think if you never have those moments, that’s probably a bad sign.

Allison

Yeah. I agree.

Amie

Because the doubt and the worry is what keeps you sharp and makes you keep striving to do better. And if you’re not striving to do better, then you’re not improving. So I think a little… Overwhelming doubt, terrible. But a little doubt, not so bad.

But when you’re co-authoring, you can have moments when you think, oh my goodness, that chapter has not worked at all. But you never think that the whole book is terrible. Because you love the bits the other person wrote.

Allison

Okay. So it’s only your bits that are terrible!

Amie

And that’s much more helpful. And if you start to go badly off the rails, they’ll sit you down and go, no, no, let me tell you why it’s working you idiot. And that’s helpful too.

Allison

Yeah. Okay. All right, so let’s talk about Elementals, because you’re on your own with this. This is you writing your stuff, doing your thing. And the new one that is out is called Scorch Dragons. So book one is called Ice Wolves. Book two is called Scorch Dragons.

Now this is the middle book of a planned trilogy. And I just need to ask you… First of all, tell us a little bit about it, and then tell us whether you agree with me that the middle of any story is the most difficult bit to write. And whether this was more of a challenge than the others. I’m just going to throw two at you at once there.

Amie

Okay. So in terms of what it’s about, it’s a little bit… So when I teach workshops, which is unfortunately not very often anymore, we often talk about a thing called, or that I call anyway, the ‘shut up and take my money’ list. It’s the list of stuff that if that is on the cover of a book or the poster for a movie or you see it on an ad for a TV series, it’s shut up and take my money. I go toward that thing instantly.

And the truth is, probably whatever I’m reading, watching, whatever, it only really even needs to be seven out of ten good and I will love it, because I will forgive a lot of things because it’s got the stuff I love in it.

And so Ice Wolves is one of my shut up and take my money lists. It’s got shapeshifters, it’s got wolves, it’s got dragons, it’s got twins, it’s got a medieval setting with cobblestone streets, it’s got magical inventions, it’s got a very Icelandic landscape, that I got to go to Iceland for a month to research, which was amazing.

Allison

Get out.

Amie

It was us in a campervan for a month just every day saying, look, I know we said this yesterday, but actually this is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen. Over and over again. We felt like the Famous Five. We were quoting Ann constantly. Food always tastes so much better out of doors. And picnicking on mountains constantly. And just having a great time.

And it’s got little things in it as well. Like it’s got sibling relationships and it’s got tiny things like runes. I think runes are cool.

Allison

Yeah, I agree.

Amie

So it’s got big feasts at school and trips to the library to figure things out.

Allison

So just every single thing that you’ve ever loved, you’ve put into a story.

Amie

Yeah, pretty much.

Allison

Okay, cool.

Amie

Which is why I have so much fun writing them.

Allison

Excellent. So even the middle of this story, Scorch Dragons, was not a challenge because it was full of all the things that you love?

Amie

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that one of the things I’ve definitely learned about writing series is there’s always a temptation when you think of a cool thing to save it for the end, or to save it for a later book. And instead these days what I do is whatever the biggest baddest most awesome thing I can think of to do, I put it in the book I’m in. Because something else will come along that is even bigger and badder and more awesome for the final book.

And there’s also no point in hoping people hold on for the final book to enjoy your big set piece that you’ve been waiting three books to do if you’ve lost them along the way. So ideally what you want is in book for all of the crises they face to feel very real and big and terrible. And then in book two, you want to look on those things that genuinely felt earth shattering all the time, and think, oh my sweet summer child. That was nothing. Now look at this. And then you want to do it again in book three.

Allison

So you’re just taking the stakes up every single time, more and more, as much as you can?

Amie

Yep. And then it’s up to future Amie to figure out how to raise them above what I’ve currently done. There’s always a way.

Allison

Poor future Amie. All right, let’s just switch gears a little. We talked a little bit before about juggling various publishers and things. You also have a huge social media following on Twitter and Instagram, which for a YA author is a great thing. Is that something that you have to actively plan for within your working day? Are you actively slotting in ‘now I must respond and engage on social media’ into your day?

Amie

What I have to actively plan for is making sure it doesn’t take too much time. Because it can take us much time as I give it. So I use Chrome as my browser and I have an extension called StayFocusd, and I give StayFocusd a small list of websites – you know, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – and collectively across the whole day it allows me 20 minutes on those websites and then they all get blocked.

Allison

Wow.

Amie

So that encourages me, I don’t have time to waste, I don’t have any of them on my phone except Instagram because you have to use Instagram on your phone. And it means I got 20 minutes a day. And that means I’ve got time to quickly bob on to Facebook, which is my only personal social media. And look at my cousin’s babies. But for someone who lives in a different country to most of their family that’s priceless.

And then I jump across to Twitter and Instagram. And I don’t scroll, I don’t sit there letting all the clickbait make me angry. I just respond to things and get off.

And if something big is happening, like we’ve launched a book or a pre-order campaign or something that I think, no, no, legitimately today I should spend an hour responding and retweeting and helping hype things, because today that is a part of my job, I can adjust the timer and then just put it back again when I’m done.

But I think… I think sometimes people say, oh social media doesn’t sell books. And I actually don’t think that’s right. I think it’s great. But you’ve got to keep your use for pushing it. And we only have so many willpower and so much decision making power available every day. The famous example of that is Barack Obama wearing the same suit every single day, same things, because we’ve only got so many decisions we can make and so much willpower we can exercise, and I don’t want to spend it on getting off Twitter.

If I can outsource that bit of willpower to a program, which I can, then I can save it for the things that no one else can make happen except me, like getting my butt in the chair to start my writing session.

Allison

So interesting on that, because I did see a Twitter thread from you last week about passionate reader responses to a glitch with access to a preorder. You appear to be very accessible to your readership through those platforms. Are those boundaries sometimes difficult to manage?

Amie

I think on the whole it works okay. And I do try really hard to be really accessible because I’m deeply aware of what I owe my readers. And I think, especially with some of my books, especially with Illuminae, it was a word of mouth book. And that might sound like a funny thing to say, because I know people will have seen a big publicity campaign for it. But when I’m touring, every second person coming up in the queue is someone coming up with their friend and pointing to their friend and saying, “she made me read it. She just kept yelling at me until I read it.”

Because it’s an unusual looking book. And so having someone open it and show it to you and talk to you about it is how a lot of people get into that book. So I think that I’m deeply aware, and so is Jay, that word of mouth is what carried that book to where it was.

And my first book, These Broken Stars, it hit the New York Times bestseller list 13 months after it came out. And nothing special was happening that week. It was a word of mouth hit. Which is very unusual. And so I’m aware that I’m not just giving something…

Sometimes I hear people say that if a reader pays you for a book then what you owe them is a book and absolutely nothing more. And I don’t know that that’s strictly true. I think you have to acknowledge what the readers do for you.

But there is also a boundary. Because I do also stop being a writer and go away and be a family member and be me and do my own thing. And we had a bit of a brief blip on those boundaries that led to the Twitter question. And it’s the first time I’ve ever said something like that on…

 

Allison

But I actually think, and the other thing I found… Because the other thing I found interesting about that was that was retweeted into my feed, and the amount of support that you got around that particular thread was fascinating as well. So it kind of works both ways as far as it all goes. But it is something that particular the YA community can be very vociferous. And I think it’s something that can be a little bit daunting for some YA authors. So that’s why I was interested in your thoughts on that.

Amie

Absolutely. And I think… Some of your listeners who perhaps pick this up in a year and are thinking, what on earth are they hinting at? So I guess the thirty second version is that…. We’re all familiar with the idea that suddenly now in the last few orders, we all have access to creators in a way we never did before. Growing up, you’d write a fan letter to someone, but you’d never think that they would write back. You’d just hope that maybe they instead of an assistant would read it.

And suddenly we all have nonstop access to creators. But we haven’t yet had time to develop any kind of etiquette or rules around how we do it. And so it can sometimes a bit of a free for all. I feel like the Stars Wars movies are the greatest example of this. But there are plenty.

So what happened in our situation was that with Aurora Rising coming out next month, our publisher decided that they would make available a novella which is set in the Illuminae universe. So if you pre-ordered Aurora Rising you could go and upload your receipt and six weeks after publication you get posted this novella.

And this was available from our US publisher for people who bought the US copy. But it was not available from our Australian and UK publishers for very good reasons that involve they’re small, they’re in a smaller market, they have a smaller budget, they made other choices about how to handle their preorders. All completely legitimate.

But the international readers who could not access the novella were very distressed about this. And they were not backward in coming forward. To give an example, the sort of language I heard over just a few days was that I had personally stabbed readers in the back, slapped them in the face, devastated them, betrayed them, forgotten about the people who had supported me, forgotten where I’d come from. So very strong stuff. And I would wake up to this every morning.

And another magical ingredient in all of this is that I’m currently seven and a half months pregnant. So it’s not that hard to make me cry right now. I hate to live up to generalisations, but I’m a little bit more emotional right now than normal.

So I sat with it for a while, because I have not really seen a creator respond to this sort of thing and have it go well. It tends to blow back somehow. And eventually I thought to myself, okay, hang on a minute. One, I’ve seen this a lot. I’ve seen authors whose covers get changed halfway through a series, or have a preorder situation like us. Or who tour to certain cities but not others. I’ve seen them cop this kind of feedback. And I’ve seen it be deeply distressing, but they don’t say anything because they don’t know what to say.

And secondly, this is hitting me in the face every morning when I wake up. And I don’t think it’s reasonable. And I actually don’t think anyone involved in this desires that I should have to somehow emotionally stop crying and pull myself together every morning before I can work. I don’t think the people who are doing this are going for that outcome. I just don’t think they thought about it.

And then I thought, thirdly, I have literally a master’s degree in conflict resolution and a decade as a mediator behind me.

Allison

I can do this!

Amie

So if anyone’s got a crack at maybe having this conversation and have it go well, I’m better qualified than most to do it. So I thought, all right, I’m going to have a go.

So I just wrote a very brief Twitter thread that was as gracious and courteous as I knew how to make it without stepping back from my point. That sort of said, guys, one, authors don’t make these decisions, so you’re actually shouting at the wrong people. But two, can I also suggest that no one should be shouted at in this way about anything. And can I also say, if you wouldn’t say it to my face, don’t leave it in my mentions, don’t leave it in my DMs. And if you would say it to my face, check yourself and step back please.

I explained that I was pregnant and exhausted. And then acknowledged that I completely get that these howls of rage are coming from a place of passion for the books and it’s very important not to forget that, and it’s important to acknowledge it. But that perhaps we could all speak going forward in a way that reflects the affection we have for each other, rather than sounding as furious as we are.

And I got, oh gosh, well over a thousand responses in the first day. Every single one positive, without exception. Not even people saying things like, oh you’re right, no one should shout at you, however it is really terrible what you’ve done. Just nothing.

Allison

I don’t mean to offend you, but…

Amie

But you are awful. Literally not even those. Nothing. Just positivity. And I think a lot of people had a moment, because I said, we all forget sometimes that there’s a person on the other end, but guys, I’m a person. And you’ve made this person cry, so stop.

And honestly I think people just hadn’t thought about it. And when they did… And they were genuinely speaking out of a place of love for a thing they were a fan of. And so it all just screeched to a half. It all just stopped. And everyone started either trying to figure out a solution to get the novella, or just didn’t direct it to me, which is all I’m asking. You don’t have to love… The thing is, they don’t all have to be happy if they’re not happy. I’m not asking them to fake it. I’m just saying don’t scream at me.

Allison

Don’t shout at me. Fair enough.

Amie

I didn’t do it.

Allison

The things that those authors that you read when you were under the covers at night there, they didn’t have to manage all that did they?

Amie

They did not have to do this; I’m telling you that much.

Allison

All right… Sorry?

Amie

I actually think this is really important stuff, though. Because like I said, we don’t have any rules or etiquette around we interact yet. But this is how we make them.

Allison

That’s right. We have to learn from each other, don’t we? We have to learn from the responses and we have to learn as to how we respond. So I think it’s important that everybody take a step back and have a think about it occasionally.

Amie

Right. And it’s okay if you have to be prompted. We’ve all had stuff in our lives where we’ve had to be prompted to think about what we’ve just said. And if the next time this happens someone can point back to this conversation and says, “hey guys, remember this conversation? It’s happening here now, too.” Then maybe that makes it a little easier.

Allison

Yeah, see, that masters in conflict resolution has come in handy.

Amie

There’s a reason that in the middle of Scorch Dragons there’s literally a chapter where the kids kind of have a lesson in conflict theory.

Allison

Use what you know. That’s what they say, don’t they? That’s fantastic. So thank you so much for your generous time today. I’m going to finish up by asking you for your three top tips for writers.

Amie

Okay. Let me think. Okay, first tip is, I’m sure people will have heard before, but I feel really strongly about it, which is you need to read really widely. You cannot just read what you read. Sorry, what you write. Someone, I’m having a moment where I can decide if it was Tolkien or Peter Beagle, one of them, though, talked about… I know. Not the same thing. I don’t know why I can’t…

Allison

Okay.

Amie

Baby brain? Can I blame it? About the idea of creative compost. That everything that you see and read and listen to and absorb falls to your mental forest floor, and what you write grows out of it. And if you only read the thing that you write, then you end up sounding like everybody else. Because you’re cooking with the same ingredients.

But if you want to learn about how to write something scary, read horror. If you want to learn about relationships, read romance. Read, read, read all this stuff that is not your thing.

Second piece is finish your work. Because the number of… If you finish your work, it will by dint by having an ending, an ending of any level, it will be better than 99% of books out there. And the number of people out there with a perfect first chapter or a perfect first three chapters who never finish a book is staggering.

Allison

So true.

Amie

I also think of the first draft as… In the first draft, you’re just putting the skeleton together. And then once you’ve got that you can decide, okay, are the arms the right size for the body that I’ve made? Does it look the way that I want it to look? Then you can go back and start putting on muscle and skill and deciding what colour the hair should be and stuff.

But if you spend your entire time just crafting one perfect hand and getting the fingernails just right and all the rest of it and then you realise it’s the wrong scale for the rest of the body that you’re about to do, one of two things will happen. Either you will have to throw away a giant amount of work that you just did. Or worse, you won’t throw it away because of your sunk costs. And you will end up with this thing in your book that shouldn’t be there because you couldn’t bear to get rid of it.

So finish the whole thing first.

And my third one is more a piece of micro advice. Which is something I’ve been practising recently. Which is I feel like we all think the word trope is a dirty word. Oh it was so tropey. And what we mean there it was terribly stereotypical.

But tropes actually work for a reason. It’s kind of like when you go to Paris, you go see the Eiffel Tower for a reason. Yes, everyone else does it, but it’s great. That’s why you go.

And tropes, they’re beaten paths for a reason. And my advice is not go out and write the tropiest story you know how. It is when you’re a bit stuck and you’re not quite sure what would happen next, close your eyes and think, okay, if this was a movie, what would happen next? And you’ll almost always know the answer. You’ll almost always know that, oh, there would be a heist now, or there would be a fight, or they would sneak away or whatever. And think about how similar things you love have handled it. And make a list of as many things as you can think of that would happen if you were using all the tropes that go with this thing.

And then from those you can take one and just bend it a little to the left or combine it with something else. And that can often be a way to break a deadlock.

Allison

Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today, Amie. It’s been such a pleasure. Readers can visit Amie’s website at AmieKaufman.com. And I will put the link the show notes. But I so appreciate your generous time and the information that you’ve given us today, it’s been great.

Amie

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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