Author Q&A

Ally Carter talks Gallagher Girls, Embassy Row and getting started

Y.A. series phenom Ally Carter is celebrating a bittersweet milestone this week: The last book in her Gallagher Girls series, United We Spy, hits bookstores. While it's been tough saying see-ya to Cammie and her spy girl crew, Ally is already working on a new project, another young adult series called Embassy Row. We got her to put down her pencil long enough to answer a few Qs about what it was like being her in high school, how she got started writing and--yay!--her best advice for young writers.


Survey Says with Gallagher Girls and Heist Society author Ally Carter: 


My best friends call me…By my name usually. But my family calls me “kid”.

I "faked my way through" high school. I was never as confident or sane or comfortable as I pretended to be.

And back then, I was…Wound very tightly. I felt like everything had to be perfect at all times or else the world would fall apart. I’m still something of a perfectionist, but hopefully I have learned to mellow quite a bit.

I am seriously crushing on…The characters in my new series, Embassy Row. It’s been a long time since I have created a whole new cast. It’s been a lot of fun. And I can’t wait for all of you to meet Grace, Noah, Alexei, and the crew.

I wish…Full calorie Coke were good for you. But it isn’t.

My favorite book is…To Kill a Mockingbird

And right now, I can’t wait to read…E. Lockhart’s newest YA novel, We Were Liars. It will be out sometime in 2014, and I’m really looking forward to it.

The author whose work I read religiously is…Holly Black. She is simply the kindest, most talented person I know.

I absolutely could not write withoutPost-it notes. My office walls are lined with them. Ideas for future books. Scenes for the book I’m writing. Lines of dialogue. Potential titles. Grocery lists. You name it—I’ve got it on a post-it note somewhere in my house!

If I wasn’t a writer, I would…Probably still be doing my day job, working for a university, helping farmers and ranchers to run their businesses as efficiently as possible.

But I knew I was going to write great things when…I still wonder if I will ever write great things! I’m pretty sure all writers spend 99% of their careers thinking they are hugely untalented hacks.

My favorite punctuation mark is…Ellipses. I seriously overuse ellipses. Also the word “seriously” (but that’s not punctuation).

The grammar rule I always mess up is…Lie, lay, laid, lain, lying… I get them all confused. All the time. My poor mother (an English teacher) has been trying to teach me for years, but I just simply cannot learn.

The best thing about writing is…I work all day every day in my pajamas, alongside imaginary people who are smart and cool and interesting. And occasionally they have access to private jets. Everything is better with private jets (even imaginary ones).

And the worst thing, sigh, is…Having to write. Even if you don’t know what to write. Even if you’re sick or tired or happy or sad or just really, really hate everything you’ve written. But, hey. This is my job. And having a job means sometimes doing it even when you’d rather lie (or lay?) on the couch all day watching reruns of White Collar.


And now for the nitty gritty. Ally talks Gallagher Girls, planning out a series, getting the whole thing published and dealing with the not-so-fun side of being a writer... 


Q: If you were a spy like Cammie, what would be your specialty?

I have better-than-average common sense. I would never be able to do a lot of the things Cammie and her friends can do, but when they are all trying to pick a lock and rappel into a warehouse through the skylight, I would be the one to think to look for a key under the mat or if the door is already unlocked.


Q: You say on your website that you were bitten by the bug as a young teen. What was the first story you wrote as a “serious” writer, and what were the best and worst things about it?

When I was in college I wrote a screenplay called Southbound Buses. It was set in a small town during World War II. It wasn’t very good, I’m certain. But it was the first thing I ever wrote that was over a hundred pages, had a beginning, middle, and an end, and could be called a complete story. Its most important job was to exist. And because it existed, I could do it again and again until I finally finished something worth showing to the world.


Q: What is your writing process like, from start to finish? What’s your favorite part, and what do you dread?

I write very fast, very bad rough drafts that are solely for the purpose of figuring out what the plot is, who the characters are, and what the story should be about. Basically, I write one entire draft of the book just to figure out what should go on the back of the book. Then I will spend five to six months rewriting like crazy. 


My favorite part is when all of these disjointed pieces click together. My least favorite part is all of the hours I have to spend trying to get to that “click”.


Q: How did you plan out the Gallagher Girls series, plot- and character-wise? What was tricky, and what was easier than you expected?

When I was writing I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have To Kill You I had an extremely tight deadline. I knew I wanted to write a long-running series if I could, but I didn’t have time to sit down and plot out all six books. I don’t even think I could have done that. So I gave Cammie some unanswered questions—things that I could tackle eventually but that weren’t necessarily the focus of book one.


Then with each book I tried to raise the stakes and put my characters in more and more danger. I tried to focus on figuring things out a book at a time. I always knew where the characters would be at the ending of one book and the beginning of the next, but I’ve never been good at figuring out the details until it came time to write them.


Q: Sometimes, there are those scenes we love that just don’t further the story. How do you handle editing out the stuff you’re attached to (and ‘fess up, do you save it somewhere)?

I have a very strict “anything can go at any time” policy. True story: there was a totally different ending for United We Spy right up until the very last draft. But you’re right—I don’t delete anything. I simply cut and paste it into a “scraps” file, so that I can always go back and grab it if I need to. (Writing tip: I have never, ever needed to.)


Q: What’s the best advice about writing, editing or publishing that you’ve ever been given?

I have no idea where or when I heard it, but ages ago I read somewhere “Don’t get it right; get it written” and that phrase has gotten me through many a tough day.


Q: What advice can you give other writers who are hoping to get their work published? 

Don’t be in a hurry to get your work published. I know it’s not what most people want to hear, but I think far too many new writers rush the process of “going pro”. Especially now in the age of self-publishing when you literally just have to push a button to put your work out there. I’m grateful every day that that wasn’t an option when I was starting out. I would have put far too many things out there way before they were actually ready. And, most of all, before I was ready.


This is a business. And a hard one, at that. Don’t be in such a rush to lose your amateur status.


Q: Like all writers, I’m sure you’ve had your share of tough reviews and criticism. What advice would you give to young writers facing the same thing?

It’s not fun having someone say they don’t like or hate your books. Or you. (And that will happen sometimes as well.) But that is part of what you sign up for if you want to do this professionally. And it doesn’t matter if you have 99 raves for your book—you are going to remember the one person who didn’t like it. My best advice is to try to get to the point where you don’t feel the need to read (or dwell on) reviews. I am there, finally. And I feel like a much more sane person.


Q: When you’re stuck and have no idea what to write or how to solve a problem, what do you do?

Take a nap. I’m serious. There is something magical about turning off your brain and letting your thoughts just settle. Almost all of my books have had one massively significant realization come out of a “working nap”.


Thanks, Ally! Be sure to pick up your copy of United We Spy and the rest of the Gallagher Girls series, in bookstores now.

BY GL ON 9/17/2013 3:13:00 PM