Novelist Peng Shepherd joined us for an Ask Me Anything on June 24th.
We talked to Peng about her debut novel The Book of M, her upcoming work The Cartographers, her writing routine, as well as aspects of the creative process she loves and dreads.
Curious readers inside our book-club asked Peng a variety of other questions such as her opinion of audiobooks, how her MFA helped her writing and her earliest memory of her fondness for crafting stories.
Peng also shared some exciting updates on the upcoming TV adaptation for The Book of M and had some extremely valuable advice for aspiring writers.
Here is the entire transcript of the event:
Q: Question by community member
C: Comment by community member
Q: I truly enjoyed The Book of M and I'd love to start with one simple question: Why shadows?
Peng Shepherd: I just think they're so interesting! Shadows are a symbol in so many different cultures, and come up over and over in art and folklore and philosophy. I've been fascinated with them since I was a kid, and wanted to write a story in which they sort of "came to life" and had minds of their own.
PS: Thank you so much! I'm thrilled you enjoyed it.
Q: June 2020 marks two full years since The Book of M was published. What other projects are currently in the works? Are you currently in the middle of writing another novel? Is it going to be something similar to The Book of M or should we expect something entirely different this time?
Peng Shepherd: I actually just finished the first draft of my second novel! (HOORAY! Whew!)
I still need to do a round of revisions with my editor, but if all goes according to plan, it should be out in summer of next year.
It's very different from The Book of M -- society doesn't end in this one! It's set in the world of libraries and academia and follows a young cartographer who's trying to figure out the secret on a particular map that mysteriously comes into her possession.
Q: I listened to this book on Audible, which was very well performed by two talented voice actors. I wanted to know how much input authors get to have on an audiobook adaptation and if you think it’s a faithful way of taking in your work rather than reading it in print?
Peng Shepherd: I am so happy you liked the narrators! I think often authors are asked by their editors if they have any favorite narrators, or to listen to a few clips from some potential narrators and see if they like them.
My two narrators, James Fouhey and Emily Woo Zeller, were included in the clips I was sent, and I immediately fell in love and begged my editor to convince them to read my book!
I think if audiobooks work for a listener, then they're a great way to consume stories! To me, it's all just down to preference between reading and listening -- the important thing is the story. After all, humanity began telling stories via the oral tradition long before we figured out how to write them down. 😊
C: Very well said! We're lucky in our day and age to have many media to enjoy and spread stories.
Q: Has the global pandemic made you think differently about any aspect of The Book of M? Is there anything you would write differently now?
Peng Shepherd: The eeriest part has been the little similarities! For example, there's a line in the book about shoppers hoarding 250 bottles of shampoo in their houses, which seemed like a silly reaction at the time when I wrote it, but then we had a national toilet paper shortage, and suddenly it didn't seem that silly at all.
I also wondered if I was being a little unrealistic when I let my characters continue living their lives in the USA for several weeks after the shadowless pandemic began spreading to other countries around the world -- I thought it might not be believable that they would be so unconcerned about it, until it was clearly too late. Unfortunately, that also seems to have come true...
Q: Do you want each of your books to stand on their own, or are you aiming to build a body of work with connections between books?
Peng Shepherd: I do hope to write a trilogy someday (which of course would all be connected!), but I don't particularly envision my standalone works to be in the same world. I think the magic in each one is a little too different. I love authors who have managed to accomplish that with their books though!
Q: I’m also very curious to ask about the writing process for The Book of M and your new novel. Were they done in roughly the same way, and same amount of time? Or were there noticeable differences when you were writing the second one?
Peng Shepherd: They were both done in the same way, which is, unfortunately, entirely by the seat of my pants! (I'm a pantser, not a plotter, if you're familiar with those writing terms.)
The Book of M took about 9 months to write the first draft, and 6 months to revise, and this new novel, The Cartographers, has taken a little longer than that, about 13 months for the first draft, and I'm in the middle of hopefully 6 months of revision.
The plot for The Cartographers is more of a classic mystery plot, which is a new style for me, and also very hard to do when you aren't a writer who plans ahead. 😂 But I'm getting there!
Q: What other authors that have influenced you, and how have they helped you become a better writer?
I really love seeing the ways they play with genre and push the boundaries of their styles. For example, I never would have thought I could read an entire novel in second person POV, but then NK Jemisin wrote an entire trilogy in that perspective, and it was just amazing.
Q: Have you ever been to India? I just wanted to ask you this because I thought that you described the spice market (Mandai) in Pune and other scenes from India in the novel in a pretty amazing way!
Peng Shepherd: Thank you! I have been to India, I went a few years ago for a couple weeks. Although not Pune -- I've only visited Chennai and Delhi. I absolutely loved Chennai, and hope to be able to go back soon. And I'd really love to visit Pune during Zero Shadow Day!
Q: You’ve said that when you get a new idea you try to write 50 pages and if you can make it that far, you decide that’s a story you can write. How often does it happen that you have an idea in your head but you can’t make it to those 50 pages on paper and have to discard the whole thing before you come upon something that develops into a novel?
Peng Shepherd: Oof, really often! I have so many discarded 15- or 25-pagers in my "old stuff" folder. It used to discourage me, but I've come to realize that this isn't really all that different from authors who put their potential ideas on their mental back burners for months or years before deciding whether to pursue them or not -- I just work it out on paper instead of in my head.
Q: What aspects of the creative writing process do you enjoy most? Which are the most challenging for you?
Peng Shepherd: I really, really enjoy the first draft process, which seems a little unique! I see a lot of other authors say it's their least favorite part, because it's so messy or sometimes frustrating because the story doesn't yet make perfect sense, but I just love that sense of discovery.
I love plunging into a new world and digging around, figuring out what's most interesting and what will happen next. On the flip side, revision is sometimes really difficult for me, because it can feel more like "work" than play (to me). But it's definitely really necessary!
Q: It was announced in 2019 that the Book of M has been optioned for TV. Do you have any news or updates on that? How involved are you going to be with the screenplay?
Peng Shepherd: I think the studio is on the hunt for the right screenwriter, so I hope to have some good updates soon on that!
I have been asked to consult, and I'll be excited to do that, but I'm very glad that there will be a screenwriter for the project (as opposed to me). I don't have a lot of experience with specifically TV writing, and it's such a different style and requires such different experience, I'm happy someone else will be in the lead for it.
Q: Okay this one might sound kind of funny/lame but here I go.. reading The Book of M kind of made me aware of the presence of my shadow consciously for the first time in my life. I began noticing it more often, and even became (a little) paranoid for a day or two, at times checking if it’s still there. Has the book had this effect on other readers or is it just me?
Peng Shepherd: I get messages like that from readers every couple months or so! Those are always really fun to read, because I had that same experience the entire time I was writing the novel, but had no one to really share it with yet. 🙂
Q: If you could tell your younger self anything about writing, what would you say?
Peng Shepherd: I would tell myself how HARD writing a novel is! 😂 Not to discourage, but rather to encourage myself.
In the early stage of my writing journey, I thought that if I was meant to be a writer, it should be easy all the time and if it was hard, that meant that I was doing it wrong (because that's how lots of other things work, right?), rather than the difficulty actually being just totally normal and common. I think a lot of beginning writers end up giving up at that stage due to that misconception.
Q: What kind of research did you do for writing The Book of M? Did it involve a lot of research into Indian mythology?
Peng Shepherd: Yes, I did a fair amount of research into Indian mythology! Also a good amount into elephants and elephant biology/memory, which was really fascinating.
I also spent a lot of time studying a road map of the US, looking up routes and highways and pass-through towns for the long journey that occurs during the middle of the book. I wanted it to be a dangerously far, but still possibly do-able, trip.
Q: I’m curious to know if this started out as an Ory and Max story in your head and you kept adding more characters like Mahnaz, Hemu, The Amnesiac, and their separate story-lines as you kept writing, or you intended to have these characters as a central part of the story from the start?
Peng Shepherd: Yes, that's basically exactly what happened. When I first started writing, I thought the novel would be a very short, taut story about Max and Ory's relationship amid the pandemic. But once I started thinking about how the shadowless phenomenon would happen, and who the first person who lost their shadow would be, that's when Hemu Joshi appeared as a character, and it opened the whole story up.
I was actually a little bit stuck before I found him, going over and over the first few pages with just Max and Ory, and as soon as he arrived into the story, everything exploded, and the words poured out.
Q: Another question about process! What is your writing routine? Do you have fixed targets like writing X number of pages every day?
Peng Shepherd: I do have a routine! I find that it helps me get into the right flow, so I really make it a priority in my life/schedule. I write 6 days a week, always in the morning, always with my cup of coffee.
My desk is in a corner of the living room by the window, and that's where I do all my work, including brainstorming and research -- I just work better at a desk than on a couch or in bed.
If I'm writing a first draft, I aim for 1000 words minimum every day, no matter how quick or painstaking they are. When I'm revising, I try to tackle half to one full chapter per day (or two days), depending on how much work that chapter needs.
Q: As a beginner writer 3/4 into my first book, I would like to ask how difficult it was to get published? Did you have a hard time seeking out an agent, or convincing HarperCollins that your story is the absolute bomb?
Peng Shepherd: Congrats on being 3/4 of the way into your book! That's a lot of work already, and you're so close to the end!
Every writer's experience is different, but if you're seeking to be traditionally published (as opposed to indie or self published), the first big milestone after you finish and polish the book is finding the right agent for your work. Once you have an agent who loves your book, your style, your future ideas, understands what's important to you for future books/your career, etc., that really helps them find the right editors at the right publishing houses for you.
And luckily, because I'm terrible at pitching my own work, your agent will pitch your book to those editors and do all the convincing that your story is the absolute bomb! You just get to sit in your apartment and nervously chew your fingernails down to the stubs 😂
Q: How helpful was the MFA in creative writing to the writing of this novel, in what ways did it help and improve your writing?
Peng Shepherd: I think the MFA was really valuable, but perhaps not for the most obvious reasons. Of course, I did learn a lot in the craft classes and through workshops, but what was really the most important was the "permission" it gave me to start taking my writing as seriously as a professional, and to really make it a priority in my life as opposed to a minor side hobby I tried to squeeze in one weekend a month, if even that.
Once I learned how to treat my writing like a serious job, I was far more disciplined about it, I wrote much more, and I started improving much faster because of that. As well, the connections I made in the program were really helpful, but I you can also find those without an MFA (for example, writing conventions, online workshops, etc.).
I'm a member of SFWA, and the number of authors, agents, editors, and friends I've made through that organization is incredible!
Q: I am also curious if you think college degrees help someone who aspires to be a good writer?
Peng Shepherd: Lisa, I do have a college degree, but it's not in English/literature, and I also did not take a single creative writing class during college, so I think that writers can definitely succeed without a college degree.
Many MFA in creative writing programs also do not require a college degree (which sounds funny because they're technically masters programs, but I guess it also just goes to show they really understand and believe that writing is an art, and a degree isn't necessary).
Q: When did you discover you had a love of writing and do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Peng Shepherd: I will always remember the first thing I wrote! I was super young, probably only about 5 years old or so, and I wrote and illustrated a short story about Stanley, The Very Friendly Spider. My mom put all the pages together and bound them so it looked like a "real" book, and from then on, I was hooked. ❤️
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