Since it’s National Novel Writing Month, I was wondering if you’ve ever participated?
Not in any sort of official way, but in unofficial ways, sure. I sort of challenge myself, "Like, alright, we’re gonna try to get this done within the month." November or other months. But, no, I’ve never officially participated.
When NaNo rolls around each year, it reignites the pantser versus plotter debate – where do you stand on this vital matter?
I’m a plotter, for sure. Writing mystery/thrillers you kind of have to know, otherwise you’ll just go on bad tangents. You kind of have to figure out your clues. And then usually I work backwards, so I know who the killer is, for example, and then go backwards from there. I have very, very detailed outlines - twenty pages, single spaced. I do a lot of behind the scenes – what the killer is thinking – manuscripts. What the killer wants everybody else to think. What the police think. A whole bunch of different documents that never make it into books, that are just supplemental material that I refer to.
I wish I could just follow the flow, but it doesn’t work very well for me. Because I’ve tried it, and it just leads to a lot of agony. *laughs* So, yeah, I’m a plotter.
What's your writing ritual like? What’s your day in the life as a writer?
It used to be before I had kids, I wrote whenever. But now I have two little kids and somebody comes to watch them from nine to five, Monday through Friday, and I am dedicated. I make myself write from nine to five. I mean, do I take breaks? Yeah. Do I leave my computer? Yeah. But I feel like this is my time to work.
I have an outline, and I’m writing to the outline. Or I’m doing something related. Maybe I’m writing the outline, maybe I’m editing, maybe I’m revising, but it’s something regarding the books.
After you finish a first draft, what does your revision process look like?
Well, it depends on if I have time. If I’m at the deadline, then it goes to the editor. Is this a really, really rough first draft or a pretty polished first draft? Because even my first drafts have like six drafts. So once it’s a polished first draft, then it goes to the editor.
Within polishing the first draft, there’s a lot of – most of my books are multi POV, so for example PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, I’ll take all of Aria’s chapters and read them to make sure that they work. Then all of Spencer’s chapters. And then sort of go over it again, making sure that it works as a story. It’s like layers, different layers of how does this story work.
Has there been an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?
The thing that I have realized is that I have bad writing days – I’m not getting ideas, everything that I’m doing is not working – but those days pass. You have better days after those days. So just try to write something in those days and don’t doubt yourself. Being a writer, unfortunately, your life is full of self-doubt. Insecurity. Paranoia. Ya know, horrible feelings. *laughs* But it’s just sort of the faith in, “Well, I have done this for long enough that I kind of know my story works, and I’m going to work through it, and it’s eventually going to make sense.” And it has always worked. And I have good editors, too.
But there’s never been like one single moment of, “Oh, this is the key.” Because all books are different, every single book I write is different, and it’s a different challenge, and they’re all hard, and I’ve never written one that’s easy. Unfortunately.
I read on your website that you create projects with your sister, which I think is so cool because I write screenplays with my brother. So what kind of projects do you guys do?
Well, this was when we were younger. Unfortunately. I have been trying to get her to work on a couple of print projects with me. She’s an artist, she works as an art director at a record label, and I want to write a picture book and I want her to be the artist for it. I don’t have an idea yet, but I just think it would be fun if we teamed up.
We were the kids that didn’t play outside. We just sat at our coffee table and drew and talked to each other and drove our parents crazy. But I feel like we need to come together – maybe just doing them as a picture book because they were very, very fun. But, yes, well into our twenties we would still talk about this world. We realize anybody else would think this is crazy, like your childhood little universe, imaginary friends, are still part of your dialog. But it’s fun to have that. I think a lot of people don’t have that creative relationship with their sibling, and it’s fun to have it.
I saw that THE AMATEURS has been optioned for TV – congrats! This is now your third after PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and THE LYING GAME, right?
The THE PERFECTIONISTS was optioned for TV as well, but it’s just floating around in TV land. It’s great for things to be optioned for TV, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to be made. It’s a really long process. The person that is developing a pilot, I think he has a really good idea of how it could become a TV show. He made a couple of really minor changes, but mostly it’s the same. So we’ll see. It’s all about, “We’ll see.” PRETTY LITTLE LIARS was optioned for TV in 2005 and then in 2010 it became a show, so it’s a long waiting process. But it would be really fun to see it as a show.
I know authors don’t have much control about getting a show optioned or input once it does, but our readers dream of seeing their book become movies or shows, so can you pull back the curtain for our readers about the process?
I have agents in LA, who that’s what they do – they pitch the ideas to studios and networks. It’s a lot of me not really doing anything. Unless … I’m now involved in trying to do an adult pilot. I sort of have a pilot deal, which is not related to THE AMATEURS or anything like that – it’s not book-to-screen, it’s a pilot idea. But I have script deal with Warner Horizon, and so I know a little bit more. There are a lot of steps. You have to create this pitch document where you have your core idea, you have your characters, you have like why do people want to see this as a show, you have all these things and you kind of have to explain it in four minutes. Because you have to go to the studio and they get bored, and then you have to go to the networks and they really get bored. I’m in the process of putting that together and getting ready to go and present it, which sounds very nerve-wracking. But that’s, I think, how it works.
I think getting a good agent that specializes in that kind of stuff is helpful because they know how to get your material out there. But I think it’s also great for writers who want their book to go to TV to be involved in it because I was not that involved in PRETTY LITTLE LIARS or really even with THE AMATEURS I wasn’t involved with getting it out there for TV. But I think it’s kind of fun to see how the process works – it makes you sort of empowered and, I don’t know, it’s an interesting angle to see how it all unfolds.
Since you’re so successful at having your books optioned, do you have any advice for people while they’re writing a novel to facilitate getting it optioned?
It’s hard to say. For commercial TV you want a story with a world that will build beyond just a season – that has a compelling reason to continue beyond a single arc. Which is hard to come up with. I’m thinking about very, very network TV, not like the HBOs of the world, not like Netflix, where you can kind of branch out a little bit. I think you want relatable characters that enough people can relate to and they’re not completely out there, you know, way too quirky. Or like relatable situations that a lot of people are going through. PRETTY LITTLE LIARS was lucky in that it was the right time for a lot of the issues that the characters were going through, like Emily coming out. It was the right time for that to be on TV. Now it being on TV maybe wouldn’t be as impactful, but in 2010/2011 it was. So it’s timing it right, and getting your characters right and relatable and that kind of stuff. It’s hard. Its’ hard to kind of figure out what’s going to make a good show. Fortunately, I deal with a lot of people who have worked in the industry for a long time, so they kind of are like, “Yeah, this will make a good show” or this won’t.
What are you working on now?
I am working on THE AMATEURS 2, which is called FOLLOW ME. And there’s going to be a third Amateurs, which I haven’t even thought of yet. And I’m working on this unnamed pilot thing that’s sort of in the atmosphere. And I’m trying to figure out my next YA series because I love YA, and I never want to not be doing a YA something. I have a couple of early ideas, but I’m not sure yet. But, yeah, I’m pretty busy!
Thank you, Sara, for taking the time to chat with me!
As we wait for FOLLOW ME, make sure you've read her latest, THE AMATEURS.
ABOUT THE BOOKThe Amateurs
by Sarah Shepard
As soon as Seneca Frazier sees the post on the Case Not Closed website about Helena Kelly, she’s hooked. Helena’s high-profile disappearance five years earlier is the one that originally got Seneca addicted to true crime. It’s the reason she’s a member of the site in the first place.
So when Maddy Wright, her best friend from the CNC site, invites Seneca to spend spring break in Connecticut looking into the cold case, she immediately packs her bag. But the moment she steps off the train in trendy, glamorous Dexby, things begin to go wrong. Maddy is nothing like she expected, and Helena’s sister, Aerin Kelly, seems completely hostile and totally uninterested in helping with their murder investigation.
But when Brett, another super user from the site, joins Seneca and Maddy in Dexby, Aerin starts to come around. The police must have missed something, and someone in Dexby definitely has information they’ve been keeping quiet.
As Seneca, Brett, Maddy, and Aerin begin to unravel dark secrets and shocking betrayals about the people closest to them, they seem to be on the murderer’s trail at last. But somewhere nearby the killer is watching . . . ready to do whatever it takes to make sure the truth stays buried.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For as long as she can remember, Sara Shepard has been writing. However, when she was young she also wanted to be a soap opera star, a designer for LEGO, a filmmaker, a claymation artist, a geneticist, and a fashion magazine editor when she grew up. She and her sister have been creating joint artistic and written projects for years, except they’re pretty sure they’re the only ones who find them funny.
She got her MFA at Brooklyn College and now lives outside Philadelphia, PA with her husband and dogs. Her first adult novel is called The Visibles/ All The Things We Didn’t Say.
Sara’s bestselling young adult series, Pretty Little Liars, is loosely based on her experiences growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line…although luckily she never had any serious stalkers. The series has also inspired the ABC Family television series of the same name.
Which Sara Shepard books have you read? Do you write documents of supplemental material that never make it into your books? Do self-doubt, insecurity, and paranoia plague you and how do you push them away? Did you/do you have a creative relationship with a sibling? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!