Monday, August 22, 2011

Q & A with A.S. King

A.S. King, is a YA author who is known for her generous spirit and willingness to give back to the writing community. It's in this spirit that she agreed to do a Q & A for us about her writing process and life as a writer. First, the official bio:

A.S. King's first published work was an article about patios and several poems that a lot of people didn't understand. Her short fiction for adults has been widely published and was nominated for Best New American Voices 2010. Her most recent YA novel, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, an Edgar Award Nominee, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book for Teens 2010, a Junior Library Guild selection, an Indie Next List Pick for Teens and a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. Her first YA novel, The Dust of 100 Dogs, was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an Indie Next pick and a Cybil award finalist. Next up: Everybody Sees the Ants from Little, Brown in 2011.

Amy now lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and children and is a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut, corn on the cob, nice weather, and fleece socks.

Q & A

Let me start by saying: These were awesome questions. I wouldn’t usually go into such detail about writing, and I’ve had a turbulent few years with many of the issues you raise, so I used this interview as a weird sort of self-centering exercise and I thank you for that. I keep this kind stuff to myself these days, but considering you’re the Apocalypsies and the world could end, I figured I’d use every last minute I’ve got to ensure my place in literary history.
1. I fell in love with Amy's writing back when Dust of 100 Dogs came out ... her books are gutsy and innovative. In the age old debate of outline versus organic writing, do you go into a story with a full outline or do you start with just a character, theme or plot idea and let the story unfold?
First, thank you for the compliment! I’m so stoked to hear that you dug The Dust of 100 Dogs. That book has been an interesting ride!
Confession: I am a full-fledged organic pantser. I usually start with a character—a few paragraphs of the character’s voice and a glimpse of what the struggle is, if there is one. After I have that, I think on it awhile to figure out the plot. Themes usually bubble up midway through writing a first draft. In between all this, weird things happen. Pagodas talk. Flow charts get drawn. Ants do what ants do. I save those parts until I can figure out why those things are happening. Then, they tend to find their way into the book.
I did try to outline a few times. All those books died partway through because I was forcing them down a path they didn’t seem to want to go down. Or, in the case of ASK THE PASSENGERS, my 2012 title which I outlined vaguely and sold on a partial, the outline for the final part was scrapped once the book got rolling past page 100 because it was all wrong. So, it seems pantsing is the way for me even if I try to envision the outcome beforehand.
2. I'm always curious about how full-time writers structure their days. Do you have a regular word count goal when you’re drafting? What other business/promo/etc is part of your regular routine?
I’m not really a full-time writer. I have two little kids and I run another business so I have very little structure at the moment. Frankly, I can’t wait until I can have some sort of structure. For now, when I write a first draft, I try to carve out a month to six weeks to write every day until I’m done. Maybe 2k a day or so, but really, until whenever I finish. I usually check my email first thing and answer anything pressing, and then I turn off the internet for large chunks of the day and write. Then, most promo stuff (designing promo materials, blogging, answering mail, etc.) is done at night between community board meetings and kid stuff.
I think the answer to this question is changing for me, too. This year, I was on the road for most of April, May and June and will be again in October and November. From the looks of my autumn, I will be writing on airplanes and in hotel rooms a lot. I have no idea how that’s going to work out, but my plan is 1k a day at least, which will be 1k more than if I didn’t write at all. Cross your fingers for me.
3. I would like to know your views on author "branding." You write one stand-alone after another, and they're all rather different; I think of you as a writer with tremendous range and creative freedom. I'd like to know how you view your "brand" or that concept. And do you pitch new book ideas to your agent before writing? Thanks!
Fact: I had to Google “author branding” to make sure I knew how to answer this question. So, when it comes to any previous views on it, I have none. I’m sorry for the lame answer, but if I had to Google it, I couldn’t really lie and say I had thoughts on it, right? But now that I read a bit about it, I guess the way you put it is perfect. I write stand-alones that are all rather different. Also, I agree with the way those people who signed my yearbooks put it. They always said, “To a weird girl I met in. . .” So, I guess in my case, their brand works: A.S. King writes kinda weird books. How do I view that brand? I think it’s probably accurate, but I’d never aim to write more weird books just so it could fit the brand. I’d rather just write what comes out and see what happens. I know that’s probably not a very good answer, but I also think that when I write what comes out, it’s usually weird and fits the brand, if that is the brand.
Can you tell I’m uncomfortable with the word brand? I think your question has just made me realize something about myself, so I thank you for asking it. It’s been difficult being a former self-sufficient weirdo and present anti-consumerist weirdo alongside being an author who has to sell books in order to eat. I guess I could say that brands freak me out. Any brands. It’s safe to say that I mute all commercials if I ever turn on my TV. So considering myself a brand in any way is kinda uncomfortable. Not because I think my books poop Hagen Das and are some sort of brandless anomaly, but just because I’m weird about stuff like that on a normal day. When I’m writing, I try to keep things simple like it was back on the farm when I wrote 6 books over a decade and didn’t really care if they ever got read. I know that might not fit a lot of people’s way of doing stuff, but as much as a businesswoman as I am, I’m a writer first, and for a long time, I only talked to chickens and dogs. And a few cats. And vegetables. A lot of vegetables.
To your second question: I don’t so much pitch my YA ideas to my agent. I give him snippets of what I’m working on. I’m usually a few books ahead. So, the 2013 book I have to write in the next few months, for instance, I mentioned to him first last winter while we were selling ASK THE PASSENGERS. He hasn’t read any of it and he won’t until I have a proposal together. Two nights ago, I wrote the basic overview for the 2014 book. I won’t mention that to him for a while because I have no idea if I can actually pull it off. It may end up the 2015 book. (As I wrote this, I just realized that this is totally possible. I think I have the 2014 in my head already.)
I do pitch other ideas to him like for younger readers or other genres. At the moment, though, with my limited time schedule, I’d rather concentrate on YA and continuing to deliver what my readers expect. (Which is a brand, Amy. Deal with it you hippy freako.)
4. How do you prepare for your book launches? You'll be up to #3 in October. Does it get easier/harder in terms of preparation, nerves, etc.?
I do basic stuff to prepare. I design bookmarks and launch invites. I get tour dates in line and plan my annual trip to Arizona because Phoenix people have always treated me so well. I plan a small blog tour with my favorite bloggers.
The entire process of launching and having books out in the world changed dramatically when I stopped looking at Goodreads, Amazon, etc. or most reviews. My Google alerts go to my husband who screens. Every week or so, I’ll see him checking sites from across the room and I’ll ask, “Everything good?” Usually he answers, “Golden.” Sometimes he says, “You got a one star from someone who thinks you’re the devil.” At that moment, I have zero interest in reading that review or seeking it out at a later date.
This has been the single most impactful thing I’ve done as a working writer. It helps my mood, my focus, my time and everything I do to promote. I am not thin-skinned by any means. This has nothing to do with skin. And I’m a curious person by nature, so it did take a little getting used to after the reading-a-lot-of-reviews first book launch period.
So, that was a long way to say I’m not nervous anymore, for the most part. At the moment, I’m working two or three books ahead, so my mind isn’t really on the launch two months down the road.
5. I’ve heard you have a special method of editing whereby you color-code your drafts. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
I color code a lot of stuff. I write a first draft on white paper and get it into shape to call it a real “first draft.” Then, I print it on blue paper and I let it sit for about a week and go through my 40+ pages of notes looking for bits to cross out and bits to highlight and then I do a huge digital revision based on that read. Then it goes to yellow, more digital drafts, then it goes to pink. Then my first reader reads pink and then it goes back to white after a few last revisions. Then to my agent. Then to my editor.
Those digital revisions all have an additional color coding. I print tables of contents, staple them together, and highlight each thread in a different color. I make about 20 or more of these for each book. This isn’t something I always did, but after a lot of books, it’s become my habit. And it really helps me with timing and plot.
Thanks again so much for having me! Rock on all of you with your upcoming releases! I can’t wait to cheer you from my windowless cave!
Thanks for this amazing insight into your process and a little peek into what life is like for A.S. King, the author! We're so looking forward to your fall release of Everybody Sees the Ants! And for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, check out the new paperback cover for Please Ignore Vera Dietz, which will be out next spring.


  1. I love that you write weird books. Because they are AWESOMELY weird. Please don't ever change and thanks so much for being with us today, Amy!

  2. Awwwwwwe-SOME! Thanks so much for the great info!

  3. That was wonderfully interesting! I think I got lost in the rainbow of revision colors at the end, though. :) I would love to see your revision process as a much-speeded-up movie.

    Please continue to write whatever "weird books" strike your fancy!


  4. absolutely adore Amy's books, the Apocalypies, and this interview. You guys are so cool interviewing rock stars like Amy.
    Thank you!
    and cheers for hippy freako's everywhere.

  5. Thank you, Amy for taking the time to talk to us, and thank you, Joanne, for coordinating this interview! Amy, there is so much helpful info here, but what I love most is knowing you don't read reviews. That goes on my list of Top 10 Best Suggestions Ever!

  6. thank you, Amy, for such in-depth and honest answers!

    i'll be in the front row next time you're in Phoenix. :)

  7. Erinjade, I'm LAUNCHING the next book in PHOENIX! Oct 6th 7pm Changing Hands [awesome] bookstore.
    Be there!

    Gina: I do read trade reviews--or at least I skim them. Good or bad. But those reader sites where people read just the Kindle sample and review or they give you two stars because they just broke up with their boyfriend and tell you that they are depressed, so maybe "I'm not the best person to ask about this book right now" etc. etc. are really off-limits to me. Who has the time?
    Add to this that I don't look at my bookscan sales numbers because they are SO FAR OFF my real numbers. Or any sales info at all.
    I am google-myself-free since April 2010 and so happy about it. So far the BEST thing I ever did for myself. And after 350 rejection letters and 15 years of novel writing pre-publication, this isn't about thick skin. (I've got that.) It's about concentrating on what's most important, I think.

    Thanks so much for having me to the blog, guys! And for the groovy questions. I'm still twitching about the branding one, but I'll get over it.

    Amy <---hippie freako.

  8. Awesome interview!!!! I'm a huge fangirl *squeels* and waves at a fellow pantster. I'm going to have to come back and pet this interview often. *grin*

  9. Great interview. Thank you, Joanne and Amy! I love the idea of the color coded drafts. Must try this!