Posts Tagged ‘Academy of Forgetting’

Over the last months I’ve been asked a few times by wonderful people to do “The Next Big Thing,” which is a writer meme in which writers talk about their latest work. I said no because I’d already talked a lot about The Academy of Forgetting here, so it wouldn’t have been very interesting. But then my friend Amy asked me to do it this past weekend, and I thought, ooh, I can talk about the new book! So I said yes.

I’m going to post Amy’s bio here, and I’ll also tell her a little about how we met. She was in my first critique circle at my first SCBWI conference in New York, and I heard her read the first page of the YA novel she was working on, and I thought, “I want to be friends with her.” Happily, it turned out she is as kind and intelligent as she is talented.

Amy K. Nichols is a YA author from the Phoenix area. She is represented by Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary. Her first novel, Another Here, Another Now, will be published by Knopf BFYR in fall of 2014. You can read samples of her work at http://www.amywrites.com.
Blog: http://www.amyknichols.wordpress.com
Twitter: @amyknichols

But I’m not going to follow the rest of the directions. First of all, I don’t like tagging people because it reminds me of those chain letters I got in first grade that my mom wouldn’t let me do. I think she had a point. Plus, this meme has been going on for long enough that I have no idea who has done it and who hasn’t.

Second of all, I started reading through the questions, and I realized that, even talking about my new work-in-progress, my answers were mostly going to be…pretty boring. Or nonexistent. I mean, how could I possibly know what actors I’d want to play my characters when I’m still getting to know those characters? (And it’s not like I have ideas for any actors for Academy of Forgetting characters either. This is just not how I think.)

So instead I’m just going to tell you about my new book. It’s a YA murder mystery set in space, and I think I’m going to call it Nikki in Space on the blog because I have no idea what the real title is going to be yet. That’s why it’s called a work-in-progress.

I’m really excited about it for the following reasons:

1. Space! The setting is just the most fun ever to write. It’s set in the same universe as my short story Daddy’s Girl, and the beginning is set on a single family space habitation, and the rest is set on a space station. So fun.

2. Murder mystery! I’ve inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries for most of my life. (And I also really like Laurie King’s Mary Russell mysteries, which reminds me that I should read more of them soon.) And now I’m getting to do one myself.

3. Nikki! I’ve had Nikki’s voice in my head for over a year now, and it’s very satisfying to finally get to explore it.

I did my usual playing with index cards to outline (although I did a simpler version this time), and I’ve been working on the rough draft for the past three weeks. Last week I went up to the Rainforest Writers Village in Washington and pounded out the words. (It was lovely, the people there have become a core part of my writing family, and I feel so lucky I got to go.)

The view from my cabin up in Washington.

The view from my cabin up in Washington.

At this point, I’m very close to finishing Act 1 of the novel. In fact, by the time you’re reading this, hopefully I already have. This means I’m theoretically about 25% through the rough draft.

So that’s what I’m working on right now, and hence that’s where a lot of my brain is going. What about you? Working on any cool projects?

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This weekend I was in Detroit attending the Immortal ConFusion convention. While I was there, this happened:

Photo by Al Bogdan

You can read all about it here and here. But what you won’t read about in those places is how I ended up attending the private shooting session for this photo.

I knew my good friend Al Bogdan was going to be doing the shoot, and I asked him if he needed an assistant. I was kind of joking…but only kind of. Happily for me, no one objected to Al having some extra help, which led to one of the more memorable hours of the weekend. I helped unload, set up the backdrop, run messages, and compare the authors posing in front of me to the cover we were trying to imitate. And I take all credit for Charlie Stross’s silver modesty drape in the above photo.

Also, this happened:

Photo by Al Bogdan

Photo by Al Bogdan

I believe this is the only currently extant photo of me with a Hugo rocket.

I also had my first practical joke pulled on me. I know, I can’t really believe it’s my first either, but I’ve spent some time wracking my brains, and nothing else has come to mind. So this is my official first. It involved the personal delivery of pastries (yum, pastries) to my hotel room at an ungodly hour of the morning. Well, ungodly for night owl, jet-lagged me, in any case. I used Twitter to coin the term “pastry bomb,” as in “My friends totally pastry bombed me this morning.” I can’t think of a more Amy-appropriate first practical joke. Also, I had pastries to eat for the rest of the con, which was a definite win for me.

Maybe I should have taken photos of the pastries or something, but instead I have a photo of me a little later that day. I think this illustrates my mood post-prank pretty well, and if you look closely, you can see my Ferrett-inspired pretty princess nails.

Photo by Al Bogdan

Photo by Al Bogdan

And now I’m home and sleepy and happily working on the query for Academy of Forgetting (I might throw it up here at some point, since you heard me talking about that book all last year) and the brainstorming for my next novel, which takes place in space and is therefore inherently exciting.

Since I am new to the world of practical jokes, leave me a comment if you have any stories about ones you’ve pulled (or had pulled on you). I obviously have a lot to learn.

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You know that novel I’ve been talking about all year? The Academy of Forgetting, a riveting (I hope) YA psychological thriller set in the near future and full of awesomesauce?

Finished. Done. Kaput. Complete.

I’m having trouble believing it. But I am also very, very happy!

Celebratory pie! (Photo by Poppy Wright)

So what’s next, my non-writer friends ask me? Will we see your book on shelves soon? (Writer friends, bear with me here, as I’m sure you’ve received similar questions.)

The answer is NO. In fact, the book isn’t truly finished, as in it is not yet ready for publication. It is ready to be seen by agents, which means it is as good as I can make it. However, if an agent were to be interested, and if I were to sign with said agent, and then if said agent were to sell the book to a publisher, there would most likely be several more rounds of edits between the version on my computer right now and the version that would show up in bookstores.

This entire process can be remarkably time-consuming. And there are no guarantees at any particular step. The trick, I think, is to focus on what I can control, which is writing a novel that I can stand behind and be proud of.

So what’s next? I am updating my agent spreadsheet, I am working on short summaries for a potential book 2 and book 3 in the trilogy, and I am revising my query letter and synopsis. Then I will start sending queries to agents on the spreadsheet. And meanwhile, the fun will start:


Which realistically means I will spend the month of December brainstorming and fleshing out various novel ideas. If I’m really, really lucky, I’ll also choose one of those ideas and outline it. If the brainstorming goes more slowly, though, I won’t be doing the outlining until January. If the brainstorming goes very slowly, I might squeeze a short story or two in there somewhere too. (And for those wondering, no, this new novel will not be book 2 to follow The Academy of Forgetting. I’ll only write that book if AoF sells. Or if I get an agent, and my agent believes that starting book 2 before selling could be strategic, and I agree with him/her. Or if I have another particularly compelling reason.)

I am very excited about this, and it also feels weird. It feels weird to get ready to let go of this novel project that I have focused so much of my life on for the past ten and a half months. It feels strange to contemplate starting something new, with characters I don’t know better than I know my real-life friends and no limits at all until I lay some down in the outline. Soon I’ll be having new entirely made-up adventures instead of the familiar old ones.

It’s also interesting to see how finishing this novel, my third, feels different from finishing the first two. When I finished my first novel, there was this sense of euphoria because until I crossed that finish line, I wasn’t completely one hundred percent positive I could actually write a novel. When I finished my second novel, there was a sense of relief that the first one wasn’t a fluke.

But with The Academy of Forgetting, I feel more of a quiet satisfaction that I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell and grow as a writer. I already knew I could write a novel. And I know I’ll be writing another novel in the not-too-distant future. This is my life now.

And that is a truly wonderful thing.

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I’m back in novel immersion at this point, as I push to finish revisions, and my head is full of my characters and their plot arcs and a plot hole that’s going to be annoying to fix. It is hard to pull myself out of that world and back into this one.

So I’m going to talk about liminal spaces because when I’m having trouble leaving my fictional universe, that’s what I think is going on. I’m existing in a liminal space, partly in the world of the novel that my imagination has forced into being, and partly in the world in which I have blog post deadlines and dinner to make and errands to run.

Let’s talk about the word liminal. It wasn’t strongly in my radar until I read Farah Mendlesohn’s interesting Rhetorics of Fantasy a few years ago. She divides the fantastic into four categories, and one of those is the liminal. In liminal fantasy, she posits, “the magic hovers in the corner of our eye.” An example of this category is Joan Aiken’s Armitage family stories, which I enjoyed reading quite a lot.

But liminal means a lot more than a category in fantastic literature. Liminal is about being in between, about being in transition, about being both and neither at the same time. In anthropology, Wikipedia helpfully tells us, liminality refers to “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”

Being in a liminal space is uneasy, uncomfortable, possibly awkward. Standing at the threshold is not without its dangers.

Audience or specter?

I went to see Sleep No More while I was in New York, and one of the things this performance art piece does quite well is create a sense of liminality for its participants. Are we an audience, or are we spectres? Are we invisible, or are we obstructions? There is nowhere I am supposed to go, and yet am I where I am supposed to be? There is a narrative being created, and yet there is no narrative visible.

Traveling can also create a liminal experience. I can be both in a place and not of a place. If I travel to several countries in quick succession, I can wake up in the morning uncertain about where I am, what language is used here, what currency. There is a clash between what I know from my world and what I experience in this new place.

Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead, and literature about dying talks about it as a liminal state between life and death. In fact, liminal states exist in most major transitions in life. Coming of age stories often rely heavily on the uncertainty and turmoil of the liminal state between childhood and adulthood. Waiting can be involved in liminal states, too: waiting for the results of the pregnancy test, waiting to hear what colleges have accepted you, waiting for the answer to your question, waiting for the hurricane to hit. And what about that strange state between waking and sleeping?

Liminal spaces are challenging, and yet they can also offer freedom. The spaces in between offer us opportunities to recreate ourselves, to see the world with fresh eyes, and to drill deeper into the experience of being human. When we’re no longer sure who we are or what labels we’re claiming, we have room to explore who we want to be.

And critically, when we are standing in the shifting sands of liminal space, we are sometimes able to see more clearly what is important to us and what we want our priorities to be.

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It’s that time again! Birthday time! My birthday is tomorrow, but I am celebrating all week. Why? Because I can, that’s why. And because I’m happy to be alive. And because I keep thinking of things to do that sound like excellent birthday-related activities. Like playing an epic game of Battlestar Galactica this past weekend, for example. And visiting Ghirardelli Square. And going to a bookstore (any reason is a good reason to do THAT!)

Last year I wrote about Five Happy Things for my birthday, and I think that’s an excellent tradition, so I’m going to do it again.

1. The Academy of Forgetting. Flawed it might be, but it’s also the best and most ambitious thing I’ve ever written. I’m in the middle of an exciting (and at times turbulent) romance with it, and it reminds me of all the best parts of being a writer.

2. The Writing Community. When I went up to Seattle at the last minute this spring, I sent out an e-mail telling local writers I was going to be in town. I expected to spend most of the trip by myself; maybe a couple of people would be able to get together, I told myself. Instead, I got to see so many writer friends, it blew me away. People who went out of their way to spend time with me, help me (especially with the buses), and show me cool aspects of Seattle (the Underground Tour, the Theo Chocolate Factory, the nightlife, the food). And that’s when it hit me down deep: this is what community is. And I am a part of it. How amazing is that?

3. Food. I love food. I was raised on a bland and narrow diet, and ever since I went away to college, I’ve been on a journey of discovery. I am so happy there are spices! And onions! And different types of cuisines from different countries! Heirloom tomatoes exist, how exciting is that! And beets, and baked sweet potatoes, and cherries, and gnocchi, and sushi, and Ethiopian food, and curries, and white hot chocolate, and… You get the picture.

4. My bathtub. My bathtub is a proper big bathtub, like all bathtubs are meant to be. It also has jets, but I never use them. What I like about my bathtub is that I don’t have to bend my knees to fit in it, and I can be submerged in hot water from my neck to my toes. Sheer bliss.

5. Being able to set my own sleep schedule. I do not like going to bed. However, I do like to sleep and feel well rested. Do you see the inherent quandary? Happily I am able to set my own hours, and therefore I am able to stay up late and still get eight hours of sleep. This is a wonderful thing, and I appreciate it on a pretty much daily basis.

I will leave you all with the adorableness that is Nala. This is maybe my favorite photo of her.

You can see some Jack Russell attitude here. Classic Nala.

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“So how’s the revising going, Amy?” you might well ask.

Do not be alarmed if your question is greeted with me pulling contorted faces and making strange, growling noises. But never fear; my joy in being asked about what I spend most of my waking hours thinking about will outweigh my need to do an interpretative dance to express my varied ambivalence, sheer joy, and “what was I thinking?” reactions to my current revision process.

To catch you up: At the end of April, I went to Seattle. (Did I already tell you this? I can’t remember.) Bolstered by the excellent company of my comrades-in-arms for many adventures and meals in Seattle, I resisted the urge to play tourist 100% of my time and instead read through the rough draft of my novel The Academy of Forgetting. I took copious notes, rewrote sections, and tried to make sure it was more or less coherent. Then I sent it to my most trusted novel first reader for an opinion.

The magic of revision…oh, who am I kidding? I am totally using this as an excuse to use Trey Ratcliff’s awesome Walt Disney World photo on my blog.

A week later, Daniel sent me his critique, which ran almost 4,500 words long. This was obviously not going to be a small revision pass.

So for the last month, I’ve been thinking. I haven’t wanted to dive headlong into revisions because these changes are complex enough that there is a fair amount to be figured out ahead of time. Plus a few weeks were mostly lost to injury (but oh boy, did I have a lot of time to think) and then I went on vacation, and you know. Life. But I am about ready to start writing new words and begin the simultaneously delicate and destructive task of fixing this book. The prospect fills me with both excitement and dread.

Let me give you an example of one of the changes I’ve been thinking about. There’s a plot twist at the end of the book. It is, in my opinion, a fun plot twist, and one that I looked forward to revealing the entire time I was writing the first draft. Daniel suggested that the twist doesn’t work as it currently stands. It’s not foreshadowed amply enough, for one, but he also suggested the book might be stronger if I completely cut the twist.

So now I have to decide: keep the twist or cut the twist? At first I thought I’d cut it. But then I realized that if I cut it, I’d also be cutting a key bit of information about the narrator and the narrative, which would, in my opinion, take away a large bit of the narrative depth. So then I thought, well, what if I keep it and make these foreshadowing changes, etc.? And I thought about that possibility for a while, but something felt slightly off. And then I had an exciting idea for how I can cut the twist but retain the key insight into the narrative, and I was bouncing up and down in my chair. But then I realized this idea brings up a whole new problem in terms of the plot and how I can make it work…. And on it goes.

I love the revision process because it’s challenging and interesting and convoluted and requires thinking about many things at the same time. But while I think it’s one of the most exciting things ever, it looks like me sitting in a chair and staring into space, with perhaps the occasional spurt of typing or scribbling sentences in my notebook. The writing life is often glamorous in a completely invisible way.

So that’s what I’m doing: getting ready to start a new draft, trying to resist biting my fingernails at the thought that I might demolish something that I actually needed intact, or that I might keep something that turns out to be just an old eyesore. Either of these would be fine in an isolated case, of course, but they can add up so quickly into a manuscript that simply does not work. And I’d like to make this manuscript work, if I can.

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I am happy to report that a week ago today, I finished the rough draft of my latest novel, The Academy of Forgetting. It clocks in at a little less than 77,000 words, which is ideal for a YA novel with a speculative element, and gives me a little breathing room in both directions as far as final length is concerned.

Some of you may remember that I started this novel as part of Theodora Goss’s YA Novel Challenge last summer. I wrote the outline, banged my head against the beginning, and stopped after having written 10,000 words. In retrospect, I believe I wasn’t ready to write the book: my skills weren’t quite at the right level, my concept of the setting and main character weren’t clear enough in my own mind, and some of my ideas regarding the plotting of the beginning of the book needed to be rethought.

This photo makes me want to read my own book by candlelight. Or really just any book.

I started again this January. I threw out the 10,000 words. I kept most of the outline but made some key alterations. I began writing in first person past tense instead of first person present tense, and I conceived of a narrative structure that was very exciting to me. I had some different ideas about the tone I wanted to start with as well. With all these changes, the novel began to form itself in my mind in a new way. And three months later, I have a complete first draft. I am so relieved to have finished!

This novel is definitely the most complicated of the three I’ve completed to date. It’s a psychological thriller with a vastly unreliable narrator that plays around with memory, so it had to be quite twisty and involved by its nature. I really don’t think I could have written it pre-Taos Toolbox, which is a testament to the excellent teaching of Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress.

So what happens next? Revise, revise, revise. I’m going to do my own pass first, addressing all the notes I took while writing it, replacing brackets with actual decisions, and adding a soupcon of description along the way (I tend to go too light on description). At the same time I’ll be writing my own scene and chapter summaries for future reference. Then I’ll send it to my amazing friend Daniel, who is the ultimate plot whisperer. And I’ll revise it again. And then I’ll send it to more amazing writer friends. And I’ll revise it again. At some point I’ll write a query letter (which, if I do it well enough, will be somewhat similar to the copy on the back of a book) and a synopsis (which I really detest doing). The whole process will take several months.

But this week, I’m resting and enjoying the feeling of satisfaction that accompanies typing the words “The End.”

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My head is in the clouds. Actually, my head is in a fictional boarding school in a remote location in the Canadian Rockies.

In other words, I am obsessed by the novel I am currently writing. And when I’m not completely lost in my obsession, my mind invariably turns to the novel I want to write next.

This makes everyday interaction a bit…problematic. Because there’s a part of me that wants to spend all my time at Lincoln Academy because my god, the amount of tension and drama in the plot right now! I want to find out what happens next. (I mean, I kind of know what happens next, but it’s not the same as when the words are written. Words can be surprising.) There’s a part of me that never wants to leave my house. On days like today, when I don’t have to, I am suffused by a sense of well-being because I can just let my mind go on its haywire creative journey all day long. And I am deeply, deeply happy…even when in the depths of misery because the book will not cooperate, the book is not as good as it should be, the book is making my brain hurt because dealing with an unreliable narrator is even more mind-blowing for the writer than it is for the reader (or so I am learning).

Of course, I can’t spend every minute of every day writing. For that matter, I spend very little time actually writing, and much more time thinking about all things novel-related. But I can’t even do that all the time. However, I am finding it increasingly difficult to clear my mind enough to think or converse intelligently about other topics. I can do it, but it takes significantly more effort than usual. So when I wrote about how writers shouldn’t talk about writing on their blogs all the time, maybe I was being a touch naive. Because right now, what else could I possibly want to talk about?!?!

When I need a break from the novel, I do turn to Downton Abbey...

The blog is a particular problem because I choose the topics and the original post is just me talking about what I’m thinking about. In person I get along a bit better, because in general people are quite happy to take over most of the conversation, and I certainly have enough brain space to nod and smile at the correct intervals. I can even make vaguely relevant comments. The people who know me best can still strive for total engagement with strategic introduction of proven Amy-enticing topics: Disneyland, travel, theater, books besides my own, bridge, a sufficiently interesting intellectual topic (with extra points for neuroscience or social trends). Sometimes politics is shocking enough to dart pass my defenses, although this is invariably unpleasant.

But in the end, I am living breathing dreaming and otherwise immersed in my novel. So if I seem somewhat distracted here on the blog, or if you notice a certain, dare I say, sloppiness creeping into my thought processes, well, that is why.

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