El Camino alum launches new career, publishes first novel

Annie Laurie Cechini

Annie Laurie Cechini

Annie Laurie Cechini was a sullen seventh-grader when she swore she would never write again after sharing a creation that caused her classmates to laugh. She wasn’t trying to be funny.

It was a senior year English teacher at El Camino High School, however, that pushed her to nurture her natural gift for words and regain her confidence.

Today, the 1998 El Camino graduate is kicking off a new career as a full-time writer, already holding book signings for her debut novel, Liberty, a young adult work about a space captain navigating life after losing her ship and crew.

In an interview earlier this year with San Juan Unified School District’s marketing department, Chechini discussed what motivates her work, how she is a relentless self-editor and how young writers have more resources than ever to pursue their passion. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Explain your book for us.
Liberty is about a teenage girl who has lost her family. And she’s a space captain. She’s trying really hard to be tough and run everything and find a little piece of the world that she feels safe in. And everything just keeps backfiring. She’s got bad guys chasing her for something that she feels like she has that she shouldn’t, and her friends get threatened, and it’s just a big fun mess.

Were you a sci-fi fan growing up? What inspired you to tell this story?
I’m kind of a very big geek. I had very, very long hair when I was five years old, and Return of the Jedi came out that year, so I kind of grew up thinking that I was Princess Leia. … There’s something about science and the fact that we don’t have all the answers yet that lends itself to more imaginative writing. Because there’s still just a little bit of magic in science and space – because there are so many things we still don’t understand – there’s a lot more wiggle room to do some really interesting things in science fiction.

The central character is trying to find her place and is overcoming obstacles. Did you draw on any personal experiences for inspiration?
When I wrote Liberty, I was trying to remove myself as far away from the character as I could. Some writers feel like they need to have a direct life experience that correlates, and for me, that’s just therapy that I don’t want to deal with. I would love to just leave that at the door and write interesting characters.

But inevitably what happens is little parts of you sneak in, and I think authors try really hard not to let that go completely crazy. But I know one of the things that was really hard is there’s this theme of loss in Liberty, and I know everyone has had experiences with loss, but the year that I wrote Liberty there were some pretty big losses in my life, and that kind of found its way in. I didn’t even notice it until I was talking to a writer.

This is your first novel. Had you had any other writing published before this?
When I was at El Camino, I actually tried to publish a poem I wrote, and I think it was soundly rejected for being kind of terrible.

That’s good experience, too, right?
It absolutely is a good experience, because rejection is a permanent aspect of being an author. The sooner you can learn to tolerate rejection, the better.

Was this book difficult to get published?
Yes and no. I actually tried to start writing full time in 2009, and the first novel I tried to write was a total train wreck. It was huge and cumbersome and just a disaster. Liberty I actually wrote for fun on kind of a lark. I finished writing in March and I signed a contract in January of the next year. That’s pretty quick.

Can you talk about submitting your work to publishers and what that process is like?
Just in the time that I’ve been writing, there have been incredible changes. And really good ones, too. The first manuscript, or query letter, that I ever sent out to an agent, I had to send him a big manila envelope … and now, everything is digital. And because everything is digital a lot of publishers, small presses, agents, anyone connected to the industry – they’re online, they’re on social media, they have blogs, they tell you exactly what they want. So once upon a time, you had to … try and figure out who was accepting your type of book and then figure out if they were querying or not. And sometimes they wanted manuscripts, and you would have no clue what they wanted, so you were just throwing stuff out there hoping something sticks. And it’s not very effective.

Now, you can go online and visit a site like Query Shark – it’s a blog that I love – and it will tell you what not to do in a query letter to an agent, and … you can look at agents individually and see what they’re looking for and what they represent. … There are so many great resources out there for the aspiring writer to get their career going.

Can you talk about why you dedicated Liberty to your grandfather (a former English teacher at Rio Americano)?
When I was a kid, I lost a sibling to cancer, a younger brother, and when I was 7 or 8 years old I was just an angry, angry nightmare child. My parents were going back to school, so we lived with my grandparents for a time, and my grandpa would give me grammar sheets … for me to play with. And I did, and I learned stuff.

Then I started hounding him to let me help him grade papers, and of course that was never going to fly. But he did let me help him correct text, and I just developed this fierce love of the red pen.

Do you use the red pen a lot on your own work?
Yes. I think that’s one of the best things that you can possibly develop as a writer: the ability to see your stuff, and see where it sucks, and learn how to fix it. If you’re not able to take that step back and say, “This really isn’t working,” then it’s really hard to progress as a writer. You have to be really critical of your own stuff.

This story is courtesy of the San Juan Unified School District.

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