If you’ve ever wanted a peek behind the curtain at life as an author and what it’s like to write and publish books, this newsletter is for you. Thanks to everyone who sent along these great questions over the past couple of weeks! Things have been pretty eventful on my end as they’ve trickled in…

  • I signed with a new film agent—Kim Yau of Echo Lake Entertainment—and I’m so excited (and nervous!) to see what happens with Under the Surface in Hollywood.
  • I’ve been hearing from lots of indie bookstores who are excited to stock Under the Surface. If you’re a bookseller and would like signed bookmarks and book plates for your readers, let me know! Here’s how to reach me and here’s what they look like.
  • I rewrote the first six chapters and a chapter-by-chapter outline for Book 5 and sent those to my editor. This is the first time I’m mapping a book out so closely before drafting in the hopes of making revising easier. We’ll see how it pans out! Either way, I’m excited to tell this new story—it’s very different from anything I’ve written so far and I can’t wait to see what you think.

Plus, I wrote up answers to all your fantastic questions. Whew! Let’s dive in. I hope this is interesting (and helpful, if you’re a writer).

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Questions about writing and my books

What’s your day-to-day like as an author?

It varies based on where I am in the lifecycle of the book I’m working on. I don’t write every day, either—sometimes I’ll have full days dedicated to marketing tasks, answering emails, etc.

Ideation/outlining phase. This is my least favorite part because I like to end my day being able to quantify my output (words written, chapters revised, etc.), and this phase includes a lot of staring at the wall or going for walks or daydreaming. It’s hard to measure progress or hours invested. My days are extremely variable during this phase.

Drafting phase. The slog of pulling words out of absolutely nowhere. Difficult, but measurable. I try to get up at 6:30am each day, wash up, make my coffee, and write until I’ve hit 1,000 words. Sometimes, if I’m really in the zone, I’ll keep going and write 2,000 – 3,000 words. Other times, I’ll switch my focus to marketing for the book I’ve finished but is yet to be published, or tackle some other author-related task (taxes, interviews, email correspondence, gabbing with other authors, etc.).

Revising phase. My favorite part of writing a book! I usually go through 3-5 rounds of revision before even sending a draft to my editor. This is where the real magic happens for me. I have a similar schedule to drafting during this phase, except my goal will be 1-3 chapters a day, depending on how short a deadline I’m on. But when I’m in the zone, I can work 12-14 hour days and hardly notice time has passed. Not that I want to glamorize long days. Breaks are important!

What makes writing thrillers and murder mysteries enticing for you?

I’ve always preferred reading about high-stakes situations than more “quiet” books, and I’m a sucker for a good twist or stories where I feel like I’m piecing together a puzzle right alongside the protagonist. And I love that feeling where I simply MUST stay up way past my bedtime to find out what happens next, and if I have to put the book down, I’m counting the hours until I can pick it back up again.

So I want to write the kinds of books that give me those feelings, both because they’re fun for me to write and because I want to create that experience I love so much for other people. Nothing’s more gratifying than getting a message from a reader that my story kept them up until three in the morning, or that I shocked them with a twist, or that they read the book in one sitting.

Were any of the plots/backstories in your books inspired by your own high school life?

There’s a reason friendship breakups have made an appearance in literally every one of my books so far. 😢

Have you based the characters off of anyone?

Never. Very rarely, I’ll picture a specific actor for one of the adult characters. For example, I always pictured David Harbour for Amber’s dad in All Your Twisted Secrets because season one of Stranger Things came out while I was writing AYTS, and Christoph Walz for the villain in the book I’m writing now. But it’s really rare—I think those are literally the only two.

How do you come up / keep up with so many backstories? I for one am exhausted just keeping up with one.

My process is chaotic, so I don’t have organized spreadsheets like some other authors do. Developing characters’ backstories happens gradually and organically over the course of many drafts.

I’ll give you an example of one side character’s backstory. In Under the Surface, Selena wasn’t into all things space and sci-fi until draft 2, after I played Mass Effect and got really into watching YouTube videos about deep space and the International Space Station and such (because I want humanity to discover a mass relay, dammit). Then I gave Selena that obsession, too.

But her backstory doesn’t exist simply to give her interests—it impacts her actions and decisions, which helps drive the plot. Because she so fiercely wants to be an astronaut someday, she’s prideful about not being afraid of the dark or small spaces, so when Val mocks her being scared of delving deeper into the dark, claustrophobia-inducing catacombs, Selena makes a rash decision to prove Val wrong that gets them all in deeper trouble.

How do I keep track of it all? Hm. It exists in the manuscript, in a notebook where I jot down ideas as they come to me, and in my brain. That’s really it.

Does it hurt when you have to kill your own characters? Or like, torture them? Or unnecessarily put them through traumatic events?

My characters’ trauma is extremely necessary.

Just kidding. Sort of.

To be more accurate, my protagonists’ trauma is extremely necessary.

A story where nothing bad happens to the main character isn’t the kind of story I want to tell. I want terrible things to happen to them so they can find the strength to overcome them, ideally by facing their inner demons in the process to complete a lovely character arc.

But it is tough killing or hurting the side characters sometimes. I felt the worst about it in Under the Surface. I cried every single time I wrote or revised a certain scene. Every. Single. Draft. Even second pass pages (the absolute last draft). It never got less sad for me.

Did you plan the ending of All Your Twisted Secrets, or did you come up with it as you were writing?

While I wrote the first draft, I had a completely different ending in mind. Then as I reached the second-to-last chapter, the true ending hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ll never forget writing the first line of that chapter (the one “4 Hours Ago”)—I remember exactly where I was sitting on my lunch break that day. That line hasn’t changed since that moment. I knew what I had to do. I knew it would make for the most delicious twist. But then I had to go back and rewrite the whole damn book.

Questions about author life and publishing

Before diving in, I want to say that all of my answers in this section are based on my own personal experience as a traditionally published author with Big-5 publishers, but I’ve spoken with lots of other authors whose experiences have been vastly different. Please know that there is no one “normal” publishing journey, nor one “correct” way to go about the process.

What’s it like to be an author? (Merged with: What’s the hardest part about being an author?)

Like any other career path, it has its ups and downs. Before becoming a full-time author I worked in marketing at tech startups, and a big difference between working for myself as an author and working for someone else’s company is that the ups and downs feel a lot more intense and dramatic.

Some extremely cool things about being an author:

  1. Getting to write fiction as my JOB. On dedicated writing days, it feels like I’m getting paid to daydream full-time, which is absolutely wild.
  2. Getting messages from readers. Knowing I entertained a fellow human and gave them a break from the stress of day-to-day life brightens my day. Sometimes it gets a bit surreal when I reply and they say, “OMG I can’t believe you replied!!” Meanwhile, I’m lying on my couch eating Tostitos with crumbs all over my sweatshirt. That part kinda makes me giggle.
  3. Getting good news. Like when my agent offered representation, or when a publisher offers to buy my book, or when I get a new foreign rights deal, or when I sell a TV option, or that time I got a blurb from R.L. Stine. Those highs are extremely high.
  4. Getting to become friends with other authors. This part is wildly cool, and I’m humbled by how brilliant my friends are and honored they want to be friends with ME. WHAT. 🥹
  5. Getting to see readers’ excitement IRL. It’s surreal to sign books for people and have them want to take pictures with you, and to know they took time out of their busy lives to come and see you. Once someone arrived dressed as one of my characters. I nearly passed out, that was so cool.

Some extremely difficult things about being an author:

  1. The lack of control. I’ve learned to advocate for myself more over the years, but sometimes, no matter how hard you push, XYZ thing won’t happen for you. Publishers and retailers often make decisions—advance amounts, marketing resource allocation, cover design choices, exclusive edition/book box/book club selections, etc.—at least partially based on vibes. Vibes are subjective. And as someone who’s data driven and likes to find patterns and makes sense of things, this has been difficult.
  2. The uncertainty. Publishing is not a meritocracy. Unlike in my marketing career where I could work really hard and put in the time and be rewarded with raises and promotions, in publishing you can hustle your entire butt off and get absolutely nowhere. Truly, sometimes you can even go backwards. And getting another book deal (especially one that isn’t a pay cut) isn’t a sure thing unless you’re a steady bestseller, which is rare.
  3. Getting bad news. Like when your proposal for your next book gets rejected, or your sales didn’t meet expectations, or you get a scathing or mediocre review from a trade publication. These lows are extremely low.
  4. The hour after getting editorial notes. It doesn’t matter how kind or correct my editor at the time is (they’re usually extremely kind and extremely correct!), my brain goes absolutely haywire. Full panic mode. Then I start to piece together ideas to solve whatever the problem was and everything has always worked out in the end (so far!). But that first hour or so. WHEWWWW. It’s rough.

I’m a junior in high school. What steps should I take now if I want to become an author? What did you major in?

When I was in high school I had no idea I’d be an author someday, or that I’d even try. And I majored in Advertising. So you’re already off to a fantastic start! Some tips:

  • Write. This seems obvious but a lot of people self-reject before they even start writing, thinking “actually, nevermind, I can’t do it.” You can. Don’t let fear hold you back.
  • Know that your first draft never has to be perfect. You can be the only one who ever sees it if you want! Write fiction, write fanfiction, journal, whatever. Just play with words and have fun. It takes a long time to finish a novel. Take one day at a time.
  • Read a LOT. A lot a lot a lot. Read in the genre you want to write in. Read in other genres. Read for fun, not just what you think you should read to hone your craft, because it’s the books you have the most fun reading that will inspire you the most.
  • Find educational series from authors on craft. For example, R.L. Stine teaches a MasterClass that is excellent (and costs less than a college course!).
  • Read On Writing by Stephen King. This isn’t a step-by-step guide… honestly it was most helpful for me to see how even for the greats, starting a new project is scary.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an author starting out?

Success in publishing takes three things, in equal measure:

  • Skill – you can hone your craft over time
  • Persistence – you need to have grit for the long haul
  • Luck – you have zero control over this one

Do the best you can, but know that if you aren’t getting the results you want, it’s not your fault, because a solid third of the equation hinges on luck. Your publishing status does not reflect your self-worth. Focus most on what you can control: the writing.

What are the steps to becoming a published author? (Merged with: How did you find your agent?)

Getting this question made me realize I signed with my literary agent seven years ago, and now I’m having an existential crisis. Time is weird!

The market and best practices have shifted some since then. For example, in my day it was a big no-no to self-publish your book and then query it, but these days, successful self-published books get picked up by traditional publishers a bunch. Since I’m not the best source of information for this kinda stuff anymore, instead I’ll link you to a few reputable resources that might help as you start to research this process:

I also want to say… when you’re looking for advice on the publishing process, be wary of people trying to sell you things or “experts” who speak in absolutes. (e.g. “5 Things All Querying Authors MUST Do!” or “5 Plot Points EVERY Bestselling Book Has!” or “Become a Six-Figure Author with These EXACT Steps!”) These are clickbait, and the truth about art and the business of publishing is that there is no normal. There is no single formula for success. Don’t let anyone try to sell you one. Results are never guaranteed.

How long does it take to start making a profit off a book?

There’s no simple answer, sadly. If you traditionally publish, it depends how lucky you are when you get your first advance, assuming you get a book deal at all—the amount can range anywhere from $5k (or less!) to six figures. Rarely, seven figures, but that’s pie in the sky. Afterward, depending on how big your advance was, it depends how quickly you can earn out your advance and start earning royalties. These days, it depends whether you (or a reader talking about you) go viral on TikTok. It depends on whether the amount you earn is something you would consider a “profit” against the amount of time you’ve invested. It just… depends.

Also, your advance will be split over the course of 1-3 years, depending on your contract and depending on your publishing timeline. My advance splits are usually:

  • 25% on signing
  • 25% on sending in a first draft
  • 25% on D&A (delivery and acceptance — meaning, it’s off to copy edits)
  • 25% on publication

Generally speaking, if I would dare to generalize: years. Unless you’re one of publishing’s darlings and get a big early break, the chances of which are equivalent to winning the lotto. And even those darlings usually spent years and years and years working on that book or honing their craft via trunked manuscripts, fan fiction, etc. This is a long game.

Do you occasionally do workshops or have writing partners i.e., people you meet up with for the sole purpose of writing especially at those times when you may have writer’s block?

No, I generally write best in isolation at home. I have 1:1 writing dates with friends at local coffee shops a bunch, but we end up talking most of the time and I get very little actual writing done.

But I know writing retreats work wonders for other authors! I don’t know much about these or how to organize them because I know I personally wouldn’t get anything done, and as an introvert who prefers 1:1 meetups I don’t think this would be my cup of tea.

Have a great week!

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