Have you ever wanted to know how a book goes from idea to the hands of a reader? I have someone who can tell you that, not only as an author but as part of a family in the book publishing business. She used to be one of the people that read the Author submissions. Meet . . .
Co-Author of The Sowing
She’s the one in the middle.
(Be still my heart if I were ever in the same room with all three for an interview.)
RW: Amira, you have a book out now, with another one closing in on completion of the process, tell us about your book, The Sowing.
AMIRA: The Sowing is, at its most basic, a story about two people coming to terms with each other and the world around them. In the future society of the Okarian Sector, science rules all, and the food you eat has the power to change who you are. Sector ‘Dieticians’ program certain individuals for specific roles using genetically modified seeds and chemically-altered food; some are programmed for success, others for servitude. The majority of the Sector is kept in the dark about the true extent of the manipulation taking place, but some have learned the truth and are fighting back. The Resistance, a small, underground group of guerrilla fighters, has sworn to stop the Sector’s oppression of its citizens. Remy Alexander is one such fighter; when her sister was killed in a classroom massacre, her parents fled, taking their surviving daughter underground to join the fight against the Sector. But now, Valerian Orlean, who once loved Remy and has never forgotten her, is put in charge of a military operation to hunt and destroy the Resistance. The two are set on a collision course that could bring everyone together – or tear everything apart.
RW: I think I may have a few friends who would like you to write their book jackets for them. You are a co-author, who are the other authors of THE SOWING?
AMIRA: Two of my favorite people in the world: My mom, Kristina, and my sister, Elena.
RW: I can’t imagine working on such a creative project with family and not wanting to perhaps do some type of bodily harm one another but we can get to that later. Real quick, where can my Friends purchase your book, THE SOWING?
RW: I want to focus on your writing process during our time today because we’ve discussed you coming back for an interview for when your next book is set for publication. With that being said let’s get into your writing process, and please use THE SOWING, which I have a copy of, (And no, it was not a gift.) as an example so we can see the process in real action.
First, what is your background as far as education, degrees? What brings you to the writing arena?
AMIRA: I have a bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Chicago. UChicago is a grueling place with a strong emphasis on academia. I wrote countless papers in college, which, I think, honed my ability to write from a structural and grammatical perspective. Studying history is also where I really found my love of storytelling, and therefore, writing. History is just the assembled story of hundreds of thousands of lives, and studying history, at its most basic, is nothing more than discovering, analyzing, and retelling those stories.
RW: As a Historian myself, degree thereof, bravo. (I have never actually written the word bravo before. You must try it. Fascinating.) Now we know about your background to be a writer, let’s take this step by step: how did you come up with your book idea?
AMIRA: It was definitely not my idea. I wish I could take credit for it, but it’s actually Kristina’s, my mom. She had a dream almost four years ago that sparked the original concept of THE SOWING. In her dream, two young adults are fighting in an abandoned city at night, on opposite sides of the battle. The girl skids to the ground and falls. The boy reaches his hand out to her. When their fingers meet, a flash of electricity pulses through the two of them – and then the dream ended. Kristy woke up and knew she had to tell the story of these two young lovers. Although the electric jolt has since been removed from the novel, this fundamental scene became the crux on which the entire first book rests: when Remy and Vale meet again for the first time in three years, on opposite sides of a battle with enormous ideological consequences.
RW: So your Kristina has the idea, she brings it to you and your sister, what did you do next?
AMIRA: After Kristy decided she really, really wanted to write this story, she and my sister Elena sat down and drafted what ended up being that scene. Then they went back and wrote what eventually became Chapter One of THE SOWING. They showed both chapters to me, and I was really impressed. So impressed that I sat down and wrote Chapter Two, but this time, I wrote it from Vale‘s perspective, instead of Remy‘s. The dueling protagonist narrative was something we’d never seen before in a novel, but we wanted to tell both sides of the story, so we took it and ran with it. My sister and I went back and forth like that for a while – she would write several chapters from Remy’s perspective, and I’d write a few from Vale’s. We kept going that way, plotting out the next few chapters, but without a fully-conceived idea of where the book was going and how it would end. In a way, it was a stroke of good luck that the first draft came out as well – and as coherently – as it did. I think we were all a little surprised when we finished writing. We kind of looked at each other and said, “Well, now we have a book. What do we do with it?”
RW: So it sounds like there really wasn’t any outlining really or even really the seat of pants writing, but as technical as THE SOWING is how did you make the book flow considering there were two writers?
AMIRA: We didn’t really outline in THE SOWING, although we always tried to make sure we knew what the next few chapters would be. It was kind of like driving at night – we could only see as far as our headlights, but we always knew there was more road ahead.
RW: And the research?
AMIRA: Most of the actual research we did came in draft two, when we focused on perfecting the science and making the world believable. When you’re dropping words like ‘hovercar,’ ‘airship,’ ‘DNA encryption,’ and ‘genetically modified’ on almost every page, we knew we’d have to do a fair bit of research to make the science at least feasible. I like to think we succeeded.
RW: How did the writing go for THE SOWING, was it smooth and just come easily for the first draft?
AMIRA: It was very smooth. The first draft was, in many ways, radically different from the book that we eventually published. For example, Remy had superpowers – we called it “bird vision”, and she could see in frequencies that no one else could. But we threw that baby out with the bathwater – we didn’t want to write another superhero novel, and we wanted our protagonists to be powerful because they are good, strong people, not because they have superpowers. But the first draft came very smoothly. We just went back and forth, chapter by chapter, until we came to a good stopping point and we said “I guess that’s that!”
RW: You mentioned writing the book with your mother and sister, how easy or difficult did that make the initial creation of the book?
AMIRA: The initial creation was so much fun! Working with Elena and Kristy was a thrill, as both of them bring unique abilities to the table. We all complement each other. For example, Kristy is very imaginative, and is really good at filling in plot holes. A lot of the times, when Elena or I were stumped about how to move forward or to make a chapter work, Kristy would come up with a really good idea and Elena and I would just be like, “Why didn’t we think of that?” Elena, by contrast, is a very emotional writer. She spins these gorgeous phrases that just knock you off your socks and make you totally empathize with the protagonist. Also, both Elena and Kristy tend to be much better at writing humor. My own writing is starker, and more serious. I’m also the one who brings the “science” to the “science fiction”. I’m not a scientist (though I do work in a laboratory!), but I do tend to be the one who makes sure everything’s correct, consistent, and yet readable for a layperson.
RW: Let’s say you have your first draft done, did all of you walk away and leave on the shelf for a time like so many say to do?
AMIRA: Yes. We did, and I think that was enormously helpful. I recommend it to everyone who’s editing a novel. We finished writing the first draft of THE SOWING in November of 2012, and we handed it to some trusted friends and writers for a beta-read. The feedback we got was not only really encouraging, but also critical to shaping what the book eventually became. This interim period was when we came up with one of the most critical elements of THE SOWING, which was the mystery of the DNA encryption. Without giving too much away, the DNA mystery became a driving force in the first novel. We dove back into editing two months later, in January of 2013, and that was when we shaped the book into, essentially, what it is today.
RW: How many drafts did you do for THE SOWING?
AMIRA: It’s hard to say, because we did so many different stages of revisions. I would approximate that we did five major drafts. Three of those were re-writes for structural changes, and the last two were line-by-line edits for language and style.
RW: Who did the editing for your book?
AMIRA: All three of us! And boy, was that a challenge. If writing the first draft with three people was smooth sailing, by draft three, we’d hit stormy seas. We all had very strong opinions about the book and believed passionately in the story, which meant that we were willing to fight tooth and nail to get rid of parts we thought weren’t good enough and to keep our favorite parts in. Editing with two other writers is a humbling experience. You realize that not every word you’ve written is gold, and that your opinion is by no means the right one. It was both an honor and a challenge to write with two other equally talented authors at my side.
RW: Is there a favorite “darling” you had to “kill”, and can you explain to some of my Friends what it means to “kill your darlings”?
AMIRA: For me, killing your darlings means sacrificing parts of the story or phrases you love for the improvement of the novel as a whole. It means prioritizing the big picture over that scene you wrote one night that you absolutely love. One of my darlings was a scene I wrote early on in the story where Vale accompanies a squadron of soldiers on a ‘training’ mission to show him how to be a commander. In this chapter, Vale watched a fellow soldier die, killed by poisonous flowers planted by the Resistance, and his reaction was one of righteous anger and a desire to take revenge. At the time, I loved that scene, because I thought it helped justify Vale’s passion at the beginning of the novel, and it upped the ante on both sides of the war. But in the end, it didn’t fit in the overall narrative. We neither had space for it in the beginning, when we really needed to get to the heart of the action, nor did it make sense for Vale’s character arc. We cut it, and it was definitely the right choice.
RW: How long did it take from the idea to the final in the hands of the publisher of THE SOWING take?
AMIRA: We really started writing in January of 2012, and we had a published book by August of 2013. So, almost exactly a year and a half.
RW: Once the publisher had your book, how long did it take to make it out to the masses?
AMIRA: Well, our publisher was us! We self-published the novel, a choice I’m still proud of. It gave us more control over the art and the story, and it allowed us to get the story to the public much more quickly. We had a finished book in mid-July, and we published the whole thing in early August. So our turn-around time was about three weeks. For most books, the time between when your agent sells your book and the finished product actually hits bookshelves is around eighteen months to two years. So the fact that we put the book out a mere three weeks after finishing it is frankly pretty amazing.
RW: What has been the most difficult part of the whole novel process from idea to actually selling your book to the masses?
AMIRA: People aren’t joking when they say that writing the book is the easy part. Marketing, and learning how to sell in this new, strange world of digital books and independent publishing, is one thousand times more difficult than writing. I love writing – it’s something that comes naturally to me, no matter how tired I am or how burnt out I am on a story. But marketing, selling, advertising, spreading the word – that’s the hard part. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about marketing a book on social media, it’s simple: Just be yourself. There’s a writer on Twitter I very much admire named Ksenia Anske, and for a little while, when I was new to Twitter, I tried to emulate her. I was at my most boring, then, when I was trying to be her instead of myself. My follower count started jumping (not that it’s anywhere near hers) and people started really listening to me when I decided to stop being her and to start being me instead. (It was a lot easier, too!)
RW: When you had those moments of frustration, exhaustion, almost burnout, what did you do as an escape?
AMIRA: Whiskey. And beer. And wine. No, I’m not joking, and I’m not trying to play the ‘tortured artist’ card, either. Food, drink, and good conversation with good friends, has always been my escape during times of stress. And since my co-writers are also two of my best friends, it’s easy to find an escape in a bottle of wine and a heated debate over environmentalism or economics or whether an IPA is a better beer choice than a porter.
RW: What gets you pumped to write?
AMIRA: Music! When I’m lacking in focus, I’ll close out all my social media tabs and turn up the music. I’ll listen to everything from classical piano to jazz to indie folk to classic rock.
RW: Who is your favorite author right now?
AMIRA: That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t know that I’ve had a ‘favorite author’ since I was much younger. I’ve been trying to read books by a lot of different authors, instead of delving deeply into the works of only one. But I will say that the book that most recently blew my head off was INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace. The book is enormous, and it took me almost six months to finish, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so overwhelmed by how thoroughly a writer inhabited so many different writing styles. DFW is like a shapeshifter for writers – he transitions effortlessly between countless voices. I was astounded.
RW: What book are you reading now, or the latest book you read that you really enjoyed and recommend?
AMIRA: Right now, I’m reading IRONWEED by William Kennedy. So far, so good. The most recent book I would recommend is THE VAMPIRE LESTAT by Anne Rice. Technically, it’s a prequel to INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, but you don’t need to have read Interview in order to understand Lestat. I didn’t expect a book that was so enormously popular and ‘hip’ to be so philosophical, or so emotional. But it was both. It really resonated with me as a story about trying desperately to make connections in a world where loneliness is so prevalent, and about trying to understand the world from an outsider’s perspective.
RW: What writing resources would you recommend to my Friends, including sites, anything?
AMIRA: Joanna Penn’s website on publishing and writing is fantastic: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/, although to be honest, I haven’t read very many books about writing. Personally, I’ve found that the best way to learn how to write is simply to read a lot and write a lot, and that if you don’t do those two things, no amount of writing ‘advice’ is going to help.
RW: What is your favorite beverage?
AMIRA: I’ll take a really nice Riesling or a whiskey sour, depending on my mood. Also, dry rose wine, which is chronically under-appreciated in the United States, is the perfect drink for sitting on the patio with friends and family.
RW: What is your favorite munchy food while writing, and if you don’t while writing what is it anyway?
AMIRA: Cheese and olives. 100%. Cheese is manna from heaven, and olives are the perfect complement.
RW: Would anyone be surprised if I told you she had some Greek in her? What is your favorite word and why?
AMIRA: Oh, but I have so many! Recently I’ve been really digging the word ‘loquacious’. It’s just so weird, and I love weird words. Look at it, how weird it is. ‘Loquacious.’ It means ‘talkative’, but I can’t help but think of lollipops and Dr. Seuss whenever I think about it. I don’t know why.
RW: And a Bonus Question: When can we expect THE REAPING, the next of the THE SEEDS TRILOGY to be out?
AMIRA: We are shooting for October 15.
I hope everyone likes the cover of THE REAPING. It was revealed Friday, and I had to sit on my hands not to let everyone see it early as I was able to get a peek at it early. I thank Amira for the trust.
I want to thank Amira for doing this interview. Hearing her experience from beginning to end was a learning time for me. I learned that my thoughts and ways of doing things aren’t completely off the mark, and I see how you have to keep working. Even if you had a publicity machine behind you, you still have to keep working. Even walking away from your draft doesn’t mean you aren’t working on another project, you best be.
Amira has agreed to come back for an Author Interview when The Reaping is released. Who knew a simple follow on Twitter would turn into a great friendship. I just wish the time zones were the same.
Amira didn’t ask for all the links and the like in the interview and she definitely didn’t ask for the below but I wanted you to have everything in one place. By clicking on each book cover below you can go to the Amazon.com site for each book showing. THE SOWING is in both kindel and paperback.
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Much Respect to Y’all
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