Amy Shojai Is In The House Talking About Her Newest Book!

This post owes its very existence to a decision I made over a year ago to join the online community of Blog Paws. This group of pet bloggers has been such a wonderful support group for me. So, before I get to the heart of this post, my heartfelt thanks to every member who has reached out to me. It’s with such pleasure that I get to introduce one of Blog Paws’ members to my readers.

Everyone, meet Amy Shojai and Amy, welcome to Healing Rescue Dogs.

HRD:  You and I met online on Blog Paws when you announced your soon-to-be-published novel, Lost And Found. You were looking for a few honest reviews and I leaped at the chance to get an early look at what you’d written. The natural next step for me was to give you carte blanche to my blog once your book had launched so that you could expand your readership and also (quite selfishly on my part) so that I could pick your brain about how you came to write this book.

I drafted some questions and sent them off to you and did the easy part: I sat back and waited. You were quick to get back to me. Before we start, here’s a quick look at the book cover:

"Lost And Found by Amy Shojai book cover

A real page turner!

Stepping aside from the novel itself (which is one of the best, page-turner thrillers I’ve ever read) let’s talk about your creative writing process.

1. Where did you get the idea for this particular novel?

Amy:  The book premise evolved. My writer’s group (we’ve been together more than 20 years now!) brainstormed with me on the deck of a mountain cabin in Colorado at our annual week-long retreat. These are very savvy writers and editors with great insights and they asked all the right questions.

We’d also recently had a devastating flood locally that wreaked havoc and the original idea set the story in the middle of a flood. That later changed to a snowstorm (and yes, we had one of those locally, too!)

There were several things I wanted to do with the story. I love medical thrillers and I wanted to include “dog viewpoint” but as the DOG THINKS, not as a human in a fur coat. *s* This also was an opportunity for me to “edu-tain” readers about dog and cat behavior and some of the mis- communication that happen and the consequences of those misunderstandings, which make for some great plot points!

At the same time I wanted to ramp up the action so it wasn’t the warm-and-fuzzy style of mysteries, yet wanted a story to be more character-driven than simply chase scenes. At the time (2007, yes that long ago!) southern female protagonists were on the wish list of many publishing houses so it made sense for the setting to be local (N. Texas) and to make the heroine have an expertise in animals.

For me as a reader, it’s not just physical danger but psychological suspense that engage me, and having relationships at risk bring all of that to the literary table. The mother-child relationship likely is the most powerful and emotive of all. I knew any mom would be driven to distraction at the thought her child might be in danger–and they say to put characters on a tree limb, with a bear underneath and then saw off the branch. So I put the child at risk in a snow storm and then “chopped down the tree” by making the little boy also at risk mentally–but not just him, but THOUSANDS of children at risk.

Bottom line, I wrote the book that I wanted to read.

2. This is your first work of fiction – how was writing this different from your previous books?

Amy:  Oh my, this was WORLDS different! With nonfiction, much of the writing is research and simply rephrasing interviews with experts or interpolating materials into a cohesive whole. Each chapter in a nonfiction book can stand alone. Much of nonfiction writing also can be “tell” the how-to or explain the concept. But fiction writing must be “show” the story through action, dialogue and thoughts.

Also, I’ve written nonfiction for so long that writing “muscle” has been trained very well and takes little thought to do the job. I can multi-task to write nonfiction on several different projects at one time. But the fiction writing, at least for me, required full submersion into the story world. I found that a phone call or email or even a break for lunch knocked my concentration for a loop and it took enormous time to get back into the story. The longer that I worked this “new writer muscle” the easier it became to slip back into that fiction world. But it’s a very different process.

3) How did you develop the characters? – did they have their origins in real people/real animals?

Amy: Ooooh you’re going to get me in trouble! *s* People who write fiction can practice “revenge” if they want, or celebrate people they know. The main character September has a lot of “me” in there–for instance, she’s a behaviorist and trainer, and a musician–but then fiction takes over and September has some pretty horrific demons in her past, is at odds with her family, and is prettier, younger, smarter and more butt-kicking resourceful that I am.

Above all I wanted my characters to be distinctive, either likeable or villainous but never one dimensional. Even heroes like September have flaws, and even villains like Ghost have mothers who love them.

In the early drafts of the book, the dog character was named Magic. *s* Yes, that’s my dog’s name and yes, much of Shadow’s character is based on my dog. The Maine Coon cat character is a combination of many cats that I have known, although my own Siamese wannabe is trained to do many of those same behaviors.

4) What’s a typical writing day like for you?

Amy: I’m usually up by 7-7:30, take a half hour walk through our 13+ acres with the Magical-Dawg, and am at the computer by 8:30 or so. Email and social media take up the first hour, and then it’s on to the day’s to-do list. I have prompts on my Blackberry, on a paper calendar, and a weekly to-do list to keep me on track. I write 3 personal blogs a week at http://www.amyshojai.com, and another 4-6 blogs, 4 newsletters and at least 8 articles per month at puppies.about.com, 4 cat blogs each month at Chewy.com, and a weekly newspaper column. Fitting in the fiction is a challenge.

5) How did you create that very physical sense that the reader experiences – what several of the reviewers of Lost And Found have described as “fast paced,” “like riding a roller coaster?”

Amy:  I wish that I knew, LOL! My editor reminded me that readers also need a place to breathe. I also write music (I’m primarily a vocalist but also play piano and cello) and am aggravated when singing something that doesn’t consider the musician needs to gulp air! The same happens with fiction. Each scene has a “problem” that’s presented, followed by action fixes it (or more likely makes it worse), and them the result mulled over–and the new ‘problem’ considered, action, thought, and so on.

How much time is spent on each portion determines the pace of the story. I used several viewpoint characters–in other words, showed the story through the eyes of a specific person. Each chapter ends with a new but unanswered question, sort of a cliff-hanger that hopefully makes the reader want to read on to find out what happens next. But I also alternate between viewpoint characters, too, so Shadow’s chapter ends with a cliff hanger and then September is the next viewpoint, followed by the cop, and so on. I’m delighted the technique worked so well, and very grateful for the great feedback thus far.

6) How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Amy: It took a looooooong time. As I mentioned before, I started brainstorming the story in 2007. But during that time I also had bills to pay with the nonfiction assignments. By the end of 2007 I had about 1/3rd of the story draft written and had the rest outlined. I worked off and on for the next few years but never got the draft completed until 2009. Interestingly, what spurred me to finish was taking a “real job” for a semester teaching school. Before work each day I sat in my car with my laptop and pounded out chapter after chapter until I finally had a crappy first draft completed in early 2010!

7)  Once the 1st draft is written, what happens to it? – how many edits did it undergo before you considered it ready to be published?

Amy:  I lost count of the edits on this book. The first chapter I rewrote dozen of times and finally cut entirely. The current first chapter used to be chapter 3, and now is about 1/3rd as long as the original. Some of the chapter orders were rearranged to aid that alternating viewpoint and ramp up tension.

Finally I’d done as much as I could with the manuscript and hired an editor to review the book in early 2012, and meanwhile entered the first several chapters in a contest for unpublished work. This was a “blind” contest where I didn’t know the judge, and the judge didn’t know the author names.

The editor sent back a single-spaced multi-page editorial letter with LOTS of suggestions and corrections, so that was yet another re-write. Only then did I submit to Cool Gus Publishing. I’d worked with them bringing my backlist nonfiction books back into print. Honestly, if they’d passed on the story I planned to self-publish the novel myself, but they took a chance on me and bought the book!

Thank goodness they did, because my editor had some awesome feedback and editorial suggestions that made the story even better. That was another re-write. Then it went to copy editor for one last review–and once those nits were fixed, it was published.

By the way, remember that contest entry? LOST AND FOUND won 2nd place. And it turns out that the contest judge just happened to be the editor from Cool Gus. I’d encourage aspiring novelist to enter contests, because you not only get good feedback, you may get a furry foot in the publishing door.

8) How much preparation did you do before you started writing?

Amy: Before writing LOST AND FOUND I wrote an overview, some character descriptions, and a chapter by chapter outline. The outline stated the viewpoint character, the chapter/scene “problem,” the proposed “solution” and how it actually made things worse…and led to the next “problem” etc.

I also searched real estate listings and found a house with plans that I used for September’s house since that setting figures prominently in the choreography of some of the scenes. And (this was fun!) I searched actor website databases for pictures of people who looked like my characters. Before writing those viewpoint chapters I’d remind myself about their looks, personalities, and what they wanted most out of life (and couldn’t get).

9) Tell me more about the writer’s group you belong to.

Amy: I’ve belonged to a writer’s group for more than 20 years. We used to meet weekly for reading and critique but some of the group has moved away. Mostly now we offer each other long distance support, talk on the phone and meet whenever we can–and spend a week together each year in Colorado away from the bustle of ‘real life.’

10) What advice do you have for someone who’s never published before, but has an idea for their own book?

Amy:  Write. Write every day. Read. Read books like what you want to write. Dissect them, and try to figure out what they do that you like. Join a writers group or club, and attend writer workshops, seminars and conferences. You’ll not only learn a lot, you’ll connect with others on the same journey and there is NOTHING better than those connections of support and encouragement.

I’m a past president and now Honorary Lifetime Member of the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc (www.owfi.org) that has dozens of small writing chapters over several states and holds an annual writer conference. Most states have similar organizations. It was the OWFI contest that garnered LOST AND FOUND that 2nd place win and I suspect a better chance with the acquiring editor. *s* That could happen to you and your book, too!

HRD:  There you have it – more than a glimpse into what went into the writing of Amy’s first medical thriller.  And, yes, I did get to review it before it was published. And, if you look carefully, you’ll see that I’ve posted a review of it on the sales page at Amazon.

I did not receive any financial or any other “bribe” to review LOST AND FOUND, nor do I receive any commission if you go over to Amazon from this blog post to buy this book. Which, by the way, you should do! But, buy it only if you like smart, sassy heroines, quiet Texan men, Main Coon cats and adolescent German Shepherds. And, you should really buy it if you don’t want to get anything else done for however long it takes you to read this book in one sitting.  Really. It’s that good. I promise, on my reputation as a “raving fan.”  [gplus count=”true” size=”Medium” ]

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