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Student authors: Rice students talk writing and publishing books

Illustrated by Ndidi Nwosu

By Tomás Russo     4/13/21 11:09pm

While most Rice students have written at least a handful of essays and papers, few have written entire books — and gotten them published. The Thresher spoke with four student authors about their writing and publishing processes.

A truth stranger than fiction

When she published her first book at 17, Sofi Aguilera was unaware that she would be embroiled in a legal battle to recover stolen money and the rights to her other books. 

The Brown College sophomore’s first book, “The Paragon,” is a science fiction and fantasy story about a 17-year-old boy who discovers he has superpowers after his parents are murdered. While “The Paragon” is Aguilera’s only published work, she has also written two other books within the same series and two more books belonging to a fantasy series based on constellation myths around the world. 

Unfortunately for Aguilera, the company she used to publish “The Paragon” was plagued with corruption, leaving her unable to publish the rest of her books and in a nightmare that she said is more fantastical than the stories she has written.

“We ended up figuring out that one of the people who worked in the company was a very corrupt man,” Aguilera said. “I think he stole 231 million [Mexican] pesos. He escaped the country with fake passports and is now in Europe. I think the police in the U.K. are trying to find him. This is just a wild story.”

While the situation has been emotionally taxing for Aguilera, she said that this is just a part of her story as a writer and will not lessen her love of writing.

“I'm either thinking of a story or writing one,” Aguilera said. “I don't do it for the publishing. It’s just my love for writing that has really kept me going. I know that this is a tough patch but I know that eventually, it will get better.”

Aguilera said she takes an unstructured approach to writing, preferring to let her writing dictate where a story goes.

“Most of my best ideas just come while I’m writing,” Aguilera said. “When I start writing a book I usually don’t have the entire story thought out. I’m just writing and then I come up with ideas. Once I finish a very rough draft I start going back and putting everything together.”

Despite her passion for writing, Aguilera chose to major in bioengineering.

“One of the reasons I got into bioengineering is because I realized that what I really love about science fiction is the science part of it — and I just think bioengineering is really cool,” Aguilera said. 

Looking ahead, Aguilera wishes to combine her love of writing with her love of science, a combination that she recognizes is unusual.

“I think writing science is something I want to do,” Aguilera said. “I want to be part of that science itself that is really revolutionizing everything right now. I think it's combining both, not just bioengineering or writing but finding a way to combine the world of science and the world of writing.”

From blues to Billie Eilish

Jacob Pellegrino is a self-described melomaniac. 

“I have listened to a lot of music, ranging from early rock, jazz, rap, reggae and blues,” Pellegrino, a Will Rice College freshman, said. “Pre-COVID in 2019 alone, I believe I went to 29 concerts. I also play guitar and cover a lot of songs. I have also written a few album reviews for the Thresher.”

Pellegrino’s passion for music inspired him to write and publish his first book, “Redefining Music: How Artists Continually Change the Musical Landscape,” a narrative of how individual artists have driven the evolution of music. 

Pellegrino said his book covers the stories and influences of 15 different musicians — ranging from 1930s delta blues musician Robert Johnson to the more contemporary singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.

“I’ve always been really interested in music, and I started seeing a lot of interesting connections between musicians who I listened to,” Pellegrino said. “I started seeing a lot of parallels between different types of music that people don't normally associate with each other and how artists have a big influence across genres and time periods.”

Pellegrino said he wrote his book one chapter at a time, focusing on the musician dedicated to that chapter while keeping in mind the book’s overall organization and how their stories fit together. Music, of course, helped him along the way.

“I like listening to whatever musician I'm writing about when I'm writing about them,” Pellegrino said. “It helped to see if anything else clicked that I hadn’t thought of before.”

Pellegrino began writing his book last May after the start of quarantine and finished the rough draft around October 2020. Since then, Pellegrino has gone through multiple editors, test-readers who are less familiar with music than he is, and a hybrid publisher called New Degree Press, who will be publishing the book later this month.

“What they [New Degree Press] do that is different from a lot of other publishers is that they let me maintain the rights of the book,” Pellegrino said. “So I can later republish with another publisher. They [also] provide the full staff of editors, cover designers, layout design, launch, distribution and all of that.”

While Pellegrino is a computer science major and is doubtful that writing a book about music will be directly relevant to his career goals, he said that improving his writing and exploring his interests were well worth the effort.

“It’s important to express ideas in a way that people can understand,” Pellegrino said. “Interpersonal communication and writing are useful there. [This was] primarily something I wanted to do to explore one of my interests.”

The main takeaway Pellegrino wishes to convey through his book is the underappreciated influence of individual artists on the ever-changing state of music.

“A lot of people think music changes based on what the consumers want, but really it’s more influenced by individual musicians who go outside of those norms,” Pellegrino said. “The big overarching theme is to try to shift that focus from audience reception to the musicians themselves when looking at how music changes over time and across genres.”

From New York City to Delhi

Getting your first book published at the age of 14 is no easy task. But Kavya Sahni was up to the challenge. All it took was tenacity, a printer and a ride to a big book festival in Delhi, India. (Disclaimer: Kavya Sahni is the Thresher’s assistant features editor.)

“I was walking around with my backpack and all these printouts of my entire manuscript with synopses and chapter summaries and I walked up to these people at the publication houses,” Sahni, a Will Rice College sophomore, said. “Normally they're not supposed to give you the emails of the actual publishers who read through the manuscripts, but the fact that I was standing there with my backpack with a bunch of manuscripts, I think they were like, ‘fine.’”

Sahni’s first book, “A Day Just For Me,” is about a teenage girl in New York City who has to juggle her deteriorating mental health with her aunt's legal troubles. Although schizophrenia and environmental legal issues drive the plot, Sahni said that the story primarily deals with family relationships.

Sahni said that she has always been interested in writing, a passion that began during frequent road trips with her family.

“I would go on these road trips with my parents and sit in the back of the car and whenever there was light I would be writing things,” Sahni said. “Then I started typing them up and then at a certain point I started writing this [book]. And then it was the middle of the night one day and the entire story jumped out to me, and I wrote the entire plot of the book.”

Sahni wrote “A Day Just For Me” in a little over four months during the beginning of her freshman year of high school. After going through the whole publication process, Sahni said seeing her first book in an actual bookstore was exhilarating.

“You got all these really famous books sitting there and right next to that I got my own name and my own book there,” Sahni said. “It was really fun seeing someone I don’t know, a stranger, picking up my book and flipping through it like other books.”

This feeling of elation would motivate Sahni to write and publish her second book a couple of years later: “Road to Rajgarhi.” Sahni’s second book is a thriller and drama about a political campaign that results in a local girl going missing and the political candidate’s daughter taking her own life. Like her first book, Sahni said “Road to Rajgarhi” is about family relationships at its core.

Sahni said that she has evolved as a writer since writing her first book.

“I feel more comfortable shifting voices and I don’t think as much about the whole writing process,” Sahni said. “Now when an idea strikes me, I think about whether it fits into the story or not, because I know that I have the stamina to write an entire novel and that I can do it again. It takes the pressure off me.”

Sahni said that her biggest challenge with writing is balancing it with her other responsibilities, particularly school work.

“While writing, sometimes it can really mess with your mood because you are writing about heavy content,” Sahni said. “I am very immersed in the book myself while writing it. It takes a lot to get back into the real world and get back to what you were doing.”

Sahni is a political science and religion major who plans to attend law school. She hopes to leverage her writing abilities to get into political advocacy, lobbying and speech writing. Sahni’s second book in particular tied into these career aspirations.

“When I’m writing about a political campaign, you kinda need to devise the political strategy as well,” Sahni said. “Even though it's a completely fictional thing, you need to know what your candidate's stance is. I even wrote the mini-speeches in the book.”

Making reading more representative

Eli Mendoza’s first book began as a way to vent in middle school.

“[It] wasn’t meant as something to be published — I just enjoyed writing,” Mendoza, a Duncan College sophomore, said.

Mendoza said that his book, “Theory of Reality,” looks at the intersection of ethnicity and LGBTQ+ identity, mental health and the environment. 

“[It] looks at the perspectives of two different characters as they go through high school,” Mendoza said. “It is intense, as it’s based upon the experiences of myself and other people I know.”

Mendoza, who is transgender, wanted to write a book that better reflects the diversity of our generation by giving representation to those who are often left out of the world of literature.

“Intersectionality means we experience things differently, but at the same time trauma doesn’t discriminate,” Mendoza said. “I try to have a good amount of representation, so hopefully there will be people who normally aren’t represented in young adult novels that will feel represented.”

Mendoza sporadically worked on what became his first book throughout middle school and high school. After seven years of working on the project, Mendoza has spent the last year working with a writer’s program through Georgetown University in order to edit and publish his book.

“It was the one time I got a random LinkedIn message and actually responded to it — and I don’t regret it,” Mendoza said. “They deal with finding editors, distribution and the entire process.”

For Mendoza, the editing process has not been easy.

“The hardest part was definitely taking the original manuscript and rewriting the entire thing,” Mendoza said. “Especially after working on it for so long, I really didn't want to change it. That manuscript really meant a lot to me. I was like, ‘it’s been like this for five years, what do you mean I have to change it?’”

However, Mendoza believes that all the edits are worth it because he will finally be published by the end of May.

“When I was younger I always wanted to be a published author, and it’s weird that it’s actually happening and I’m not even 21 yet,” Mendoza said. “Younger me is so excited to have an author bio and to know what’s going to be on the back cover of the book. [It’s] small things like that that get me really excited.”

Mendoza is a psychology major who plans on going to graduate school in psychology. He hopes to address barriers to accessibility for marginalized populations. 

“If my books take off, it would be great to use that platform to bring awareness to mental health beyond the usual depression and anxiety route,” Mendoza said.

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