Sara Shepard has been writing for as long as she can remember, though when she was young, the things she wanted to be when she grew up were a soap opera star, a designer for LEGO, a filmmaker, a claymation artist, a geneticist, and a fashion magazine editor. 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. The Visibles/ All The Things We Didn’t Say is her first novel for adults. Pretty Little Liars, her bestselling young adult series, is loosely based on her experiences growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line…although luckily she never had any serious stalkers. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Do you begin with character or plot?
It depends. With Pretty Little Liars, I began with the kernel of an idea–girls stalked by an anonymous text-messager they think is their missing best friend. Quickly after that, though, I developed the characters and who they were about. When I work on my adult novels, I usually think about characters first and then put them in certain situations. Often, I think about themes first of all– for instance, in The Visibles, my first adult novel, I knew I wanted to write about mental illness. For The Lying Game, my second YA series, I knew I wanted to write about class differences. That isn’t plot, per se, but it gives me a framework and a direction to go in.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
Well, I’m working on several things at once right now—revisions for Pretty Little Liars 10, Ruthless, The Lying Game #3, Two Truths and a Lie, and my adult novel, which is untitled. RUTHLESS picks up where the girls have discovered yet another new A who knows about the horrible thing they did in Jamaica. A fun fact about RUTHLESS is that Ezra, everyone’s favorite on the TV show, comes back into the mix as Aria’s romantic lead. My adult novel is about both young and older characters in a small town. An abortion clinic features prominently. It’s about love and loss and doing the right thing even if it’s against your principles.
What advice would you give young writers?
Everyone says “write what you know,” and although I think that’s important, I think it’s interesting to write what you DON’T know, too—it helps you expand as a writer. I’ve never investigated a murder or even known anyone was murdered (knock on wood), but it’s been fun to imagine how I would feel, emotionally, if I were in that situation. I think that writers, especially young writers, feel limited by “write what you know” because not much has happened to them yet! So write wherever your imagination takes you, but don’t forget to have life experiences as well. That can help your writing in the future.
Another piece of advice: imitate writers when you’re starting out. I didn’t have a “voice” for a long time, so I copied other’s voices. I especially loved Vladimir Nabokov and Tom Robbins when I was in high school. When I was younger, I imitated Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. By picking apart styles and the way writers you admire construct a story you’re actually gleaning a ton of knowledge about what makes a good book. I’m not saying go out there and plagiarize– not at all! But imitating voices is a great exercise to get you writing.
What’s the first item on your bucket list?
Actually, this is kind of weird, but when I was younger I really wanted to be on a TV show. Well, a soap opera, specifically. So I’ve achieved that by playing a tiny role on season one of “Pretty Little Liars.” I will never be an actress—I was kicked out of the school play in seventh grade for talking– but it was so much fun being on the set, going to hair and makeup, having a trailer, and even having lines to memorize!
Another item on my bucket list is a little strange though perhaps not unreachable anymore: I’d love to have livestock. Like goats, maybe, or alpacas or llamas. Something that has wool and likes people. My husband and I just bought seven acres of land, so maybe I can achieve this someday! (Of course, I’m not sure my husband is really keen on having animals besides dogs, so we’ll see.)
Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress? Or do you keep it a secret?
I generally don’t let people read my work-in-progress unless it’s at a place where I think there’s a good break. I let my mom read the first half of “The Visibles” and then we talked through the rest of the book. I’ve let my agent read other novels in progress, but it’s only after I’ve combed through the writing to make sure the sentences make sense. My husband sometimes reads my Pretty Little Liars outlines, but I usually don’t show him the manuscript until it’s in its second or third revision.
Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?
I am an outliner of my YA books but a little more loose with adult. Outlining is definitely smarter and saves you a lot of time. My problem is that, especially with my adult novels, which follow less of a formula, for lack of a better word, than the PLL books, I can outline the book to its end and I still think of ways that I want to change it midway through. That happens with PLL too, I suppose, but for some reason it seems like more of an arduous and slow process with the adult books.
What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?
I would love a Herman Miller Aeron chair. Boring, I know, but I had one at a job I worked at and loved it. I’d also love a beautiful view. But I think once we moved I’ll get this– we’ll be nestled in the woods, so I’ll most likely be looking at a large tree.
In grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be all kinds of things when I grew up in grade school—a Lego designer, a soap opera star, an artist, a filmmaker, a biologist a doctor. I knew I wanted to write, too, but I never really thought, “I’m going to be a novelist.” My fourth grade teacher did tell my mom that she knew she’d see books on the shelves with my name on them someday, though. Who knew she’d be right?
Easier to write before or after you were published?
It’s been easy both before and after. Now that I am published and have deadlines, I’m definitely motivated. Before, I was in an MFA program, which had deadlines, too, in a way—we had to write several short stories each semester. Before the MFA, I mostly wrote journal entries and very very short stories. I was always writing, though.
Daily word count?
I don’t do daily word count. If I’m on a deadline I often do daily chapter count—I try to work on at least a chapter and a half a day. In revisions, it’s much more than that, because some chapters need a lot less work. But generally I don’t pay much attention to word count.