Pen Friends ~ Today’s YA Author, Aminah Mae Safi, has got her hands full with all kinds of writerly projects and great advice across the board! She truly inspires as she talks about not giving up on your craft & dreams and how her first book, Not the Girls You’re Looking For, came to be!
SP: Hi Aminah Mae! Thanks for joining us. First, can you please tell us a bit of who are you and how long have you have been writing?
Aminah Mae: Forever! But also– seven years. That’s a big difference, no? I grew up writing and I come from a family of storytellers. The kind of people that everyday life becomes a big dinnertime epic. We’re a fairly dramatic lot. I remember the time I read a Camelot comic in some after school program and I noticed that Guinevere didn’t do anything. So I re-wrote it. I must have been about seven or eight. Please note: this involved not only re-writing, but type setting, photocopying, cutting and literally pasting new words over the old comics, then photocopying again to make the final product look legit.
But I’d have to say, I didn’t take myself seriously as a writer until I got out of grad school about seven years ago. I didn’t believe writing was something I could do in a professional capacity before that point. It had always been this pipe dream, this thing I loved but didn’t know what to do with. I’d planned to go get a “respectable” job and maybe write on the side. I never let myself think of writing as the endgame. So that switch after grad school was huge for me.
My takeaway from that has always been: take your art seriously and treat your work with respect. Even if you aren’t any good yet, even if it’s not something you ever want to do professionally or for money. It’s okay to believe in your creative work; in fact, it’s vital to believe in your creative work.
SP: Your debut, Not the Girls You’re Looking For, will come out June 2018. (What kind of torture is that?) On your website, you say this book is an ode to “messy teenage girls, ride-or die friends, and bad decisions” — can you tell us a bit more?
AMS: I write girls as I have known them– with grit and anger and ambition and nerve. At its core, NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR is a book about friendship and sisterhood. I didn’t have sisters growing up, but I’ve made so many in the friends I’ve had over the course of my life. I love any story about sisters and I wanted to write one where the characters made their own sisterhood.
I also wanted to write a story where young women screw things up and can still come back from that. Growing up as a girl, you get this message that if you screw up once, that’s it, you’re done. Game over, you’re branded for life. So I wanted to write a story where the main character makes some pretty big mistakes and where other people make big mistakes with her. Lulu is a girl that I didn’t want to be defined by her worst days or the worst things that happen to her. I wanted her to be seen on her own terms, which was messy to deal with as I worked, and so rewarding to see come together in the end. Lulu is definitely her own young woman.
SP: You are no newbie to writing. You write short stories, (some of which will come out in anthology and won a contest with WNDB!) and for magazines, and do screenwriting! Wow. So in light of all that, how was writing a novel? Easier, harder?
AMS: Have you ever heard that Neil Gaiman quote about how he’s never learned to write a novel, he’s just learned to write the novel he’s working on? I think novels, and most creative writings, are definitely like that. I’m onto drafting my second book now and I just think– wow I should know what I’m doing by now, but I’m still learning as I get through this story. Because it’s different than my first book. This book is its own thing with its own difficult bits and its own assets.
Most of my training was in academia. Fun fact: I thought I wanted to be a professor. But I think learning each format just helped me see that a novel– like a short story, like a screenplay, like an academic paper– is just a format. They’re all vehicles for telling stories. There are parts of drafting a story that hit you like a big yellow school bus. And other parts you intuitively understand and can practically breeze through. Learning multiple formats just helped me embrace the chaos that is storytelling.
Every format has its strengths and its drawbacks. You’ve got to learn how to maximize the strengths in your own voice. Also, don’t worry too much about getting it right on the first go. Editing is a godsend.
SP: How does screen writing fold into your novel writing and vice-versa?
AMS: I screenwrote with a partner, so that was a huge difference! We definitely worked with more of a structured outline on those than I do with my books, since we were two people trying to work together on a common project. Both in my screenwriting and in my novel writing, I am character driven. So character sheets are a huge part of the process for me.
I feel really lucky that I was writing a novel at the same time as I was writing my first screenplays. They both informed one another. Movies are typically must faster paced– particularly if you’re writing a movie for an American audience. Novels can meander and sit in quiet moments a bit more. Genre and tropes are so important to a film that they were often the first thing I set my mind to– “I’m going to write a heist” or “Let’s work on a children’s adventure à la Goonies.”
But with novels, I always want to write about a couple of characters first, then understand what genre they fit into second. But ultimately, I think novel writers should watch more movies and screenwriters should read more novels. There’s a characterization in novels that can be lacking in movies. Yes, even big-budget, plot-driven movies benefit from character development. That’s what makes even the worst of the Fast and Furious movies so watchable– you’re rooting for the characters.
Tropes can be essential to embed into a book, because they’re helpful signposts for the reader to hold onto, especially in the opening act. I love reading what Romance writers do with tropes. They’re inventive in such a big way and they don’t get nearly enough credit for it. Romance writers often reference the archetype and then play off of it in their own idiom. Taking a character beyond the tropes and the archetypes, subverting them even– that’s where the magic happens.
SP: How do you balance all of your writing time? And what is your biggest distraction?
AMS: Actually, it helps me to balance several projects at once. If I do get stuck, I can switch gears and work on something else. The internet is my biggest distraction. I turn it off when I’m drafting. I got to coffee shops with no wifi. I go to public libraries and refuse to go through the rigamarole of logging in. I can handle the internet when I’m editing, but when I’m drafting, I need to be in a digital vacuum.
SP: We Need Diverse Books. Seeing that you are going to be published by them, can you tell us when you first heard about this initiative and what kind of impact it had on you?
AMS: Oh man, I think I heard about WNDB on Twitter, back when it was just a hashtag. But watching people take action and commit time and money and energy to the enterprise has been just spectacular to watch. Ellen Oh, Dhonielle Clayton, Lamar Giles, Phoebe Yeh, Elizabeth Stranahan, and everyone working on WNDB are just the real deal. They are so committed to getting books into kids’ hands that reflect what a vibrant, diverse world we live in. I have so much respect for the work that they are doing. I’m in awe of them ninety percent of the time, and trying to do my best to follow their example the other ten.
There’s the obvious impact that it had– they’re publishing my short story! A short story about a girl who wants to be a physicist named Shirin who’s got this impossible crush on a baseball player named Jeffrey Tanaka! I never could have imagined that I’d get to write that as a kid. But there’s also the subliminal impact. Watching as WNDB continues to produce content, continues to nurture careers, continues to foster bringing diversity into the publishing industry in all its myriad forms has just been such a blessing. You feel so much less alone, so much less like you might be some kind of outlier. WNDB as a movement just re-enforced for me that I’m not totally bananas for doing what I do. That there is room for the kinds of stories I tell at the publishing table. And let’s be real, there wasn’t ten years ago. So it’s been truly wonderful to watch and, even better, to get to contribute a small piece of work to what they’re doing.
SP: The Agent Search. We love hearing how authors found their beloved Agent. What was your journey like?
AMS: I submitted to the first #DVpit! It was an amazing, incredible experience. I had the opportunity to meet so many other writers in the trenches, and I’m still in contact with many of them. Again, Beth Phelan is just one of those people who puts her money where her mouth is. She’s so committed to helping foster diversity and getting diverse books by marginalized writers into the hands of agents.
My agent, Lauren MacLeod, favorited one of my tweet pitches. I subbed after looking into her and The Strothman Agency. First she asked for a partial, then she asked for the full, then I got that magical call. I’ve always felt so lucky to find Lauren, because she’s been the right agent for me from the get-go. She gets my stories and her editorial eye helps me rework them to make them as strong as can be. Also, she’s a really fun person to talk characters and story with. She gets all my nerdy cinema jokes. She’s just plain good people.
But honestly, before that? I’d subbed my manuscript several times. I’d gotten critiques. I’d submitted to contests. Nothing. It took five years of work on NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR before I found an agent. It will have been seven years of working on it by the time of publication. The trenches are tough. But so much of writing novels is being patient, being willing to table work, being willing to go back and re-write. It’s okay to not be there yet. I think every writer hits the point where they think “I can’t possibly work on this anymore.” And what I’ve learned is, if I give myself some space after a rejection or a critique, I can always come back to the work. Especially those times I didn’t think there was anything left to give. Putting work aside is what enables me to pick it back up again.
Is that counter-intuitive? Maybe. But achieving professional goals as a writer– finding an agent, having your manuscript bought– means you’re earning more work for yourself. So even if you think “I can’t work on this anymore” while querying for representation, you better be ready to work on it some more, because best case scenario you’re going to go through a round of edits with your agent.
SP: What has your publishing journey been like? Can you tell us what it felt like to be on submission to editors?
AMS: Oh my gosh, it was nuts! My first book sold in three weeks. I still sometimes pinch myself when I think about it. I’m so lucky to be able to work with Kat Brzozowski at Feiwel and Friends. She’s a brilliant, brilliant editor. Her notes are so incisive.
Being on submission is exciting and nerve-wracking. Your books are out there to new people! They are reading your work! But also, every time you get an email your heart leaps, wondering– is this when I hear back? I definitely had to turn my phone off a couple times for sanity’s sake. Even this second go round, you’d think I’d feel more calm, but I was just as amped up, just as excited. I think there’s something about the potential energy of a project when you’re on submission that just keys you up.
SP: What are some things that have inspired you along the way/as a child? Any life shaping moment that you remember?
AMS: Growing up, we would go to the bookstore and then to the movies on Sundays. I think that shaped me so much. My whole family would go and we’d all take turns picking the movie. My Jedu— my grandfather who spent several months with us out of the year in the States and the other months in Iraq– was such a big movie lover. He always made going to the movies so fun– highbrow, lowbrow, action, prestige drama, rom coms, gross out comedy, family drama. He loved it all. And he was just this amazing storyteller. His sense for comedic timing is still, in my mind, unparalleled. So I think I learned a lot just watching him watch stories and listening to him tell stories. All those books from the bookstore didn’t hurt, either.
SP: Which book stole your heart as a kid?
AMS: As a kid, I re-read FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER about a million times. I was obsessed with the idea of running to somewhere, rather than running away from anything. When I’m having a bad day, I still run to The Getty museum in LA, just to re-boot and shake myself out of a mood. I’m definitely from that generation that grew up with Harry Potter, so it’s hard to separate those books out from my childhood. They’re just part of the fabric of growing up for me. Louise Rennison was super formative. I loved her wacky humor and there were so many batshit hijinks in her work that you couldn’t get in American books at the time. I found those stories so cathartic. I loved books where girls got to be physical and angry and angsty and just plain weird the way boys did.
SP: Greatest writing tip you’ve heard up until now? (Optional!)
AMS: Other than the Neil Gaiman quote above? The greatest thing I’ve ever heard was actually from a Natalie Dormer gif about acting, but I think it applies to all creative careers. I can’t find it right now– help me internet!– but effectively she was saying, “Don’t want someone else’s career. Go out and build your own.” That was super powerful for me to hear in my twenties.
I can only make my own best career. I can’t go chasing someone else’s. It helps when that inevitable jealousy creeps up. Because I can see someone else’s success and think, “good for her, that’s so wonderful for her journey to get her to that place.” It’s so much easier to be happy for your peers when you acknowledge that the path they walk will be inevitably different from yours and that it’s a good thing. Your journey is your own. Find the joy in it, even when it sucks. As someone who’s learned that lesson the hard way, trust me on this.
SP: You were also an Author Mentor Match Mentor (which is where I learned of you!) how was it being part of that community? What was your favorite part?
AMS: All I wanted when I was in the query trenches was for someone to tell me what I was going through was totally normal, that I wasn’t alone. So it’s been amazing to feel like I can help others when they’re in that place. I’ve also met some fantastic writers. I think the best thing about any of these events is that they connect people across the country and around the world. Writing is such a solitary task so feeling like you have a community that you can access– and one you can access around the world without leaving your neighborhood– is incredible.
SP: Fav drink while writing?
AMS: Tea! I drink coffee in the morning, but I drink tea when I write. Black– with cardamom– or green. Iced if it’s summer.
SP: Any weird, silly habit or skill that you care to divulge to the world?
AMS: I talk to my cats a lot. I play with a slinky while I think. I really enjoy that writing facilitates a pants optional lifestyle.
SP: LOL!!! Thanks for all of your amazing answers! Last one: where can we learn more about YOU and your books?
AMS: I am basically everywhere on the internet @aminahmae but I spend most of my time on Instagram-click here. So that’s probably the best place to find me. Or my website www.aminahmae.com!
SP: Thanks so much, Aminah!
Nova, signing off.