Author and MFAC alum Aimee Lucido talks about her middle grade novel, Emmy in the Key of Code (September 24, 2019).

EMMY IN THE KEY OF CODE is the story of a 12-year old girl finding her voice in programming class just as secrets from her new best friend and her new favorite teacher threaten to destroy her newfound confidence.

What inspired Emmy in the Key of Code?

I had the idea for EMMY while I was reading Andrea Davis Pinkney’s THE RED PENCIL. I was at the hotel gym during my second-to-last Hamline residency, distracting myself from exercise by reading this beautiful novel in verse which has nothing at all to do with computer science, when I realized how much Andrea’s poetic conventions resembled those of a coding language called Python. Colons, newlines, tabs, spaces… and all at once, it hit me how similar poetry was to code. Both encapsulate a large amount of information in a short amount of space, both can seem intimidating to interpret if you aren’t familiar with the form, but both can be elegant when crafted with a keen eye. That’s when I decided to write a novel in verse about a girl learning to code, and my goal was to use the verse format to show the similarities between code and poetry, even though people so often think of them as opposites.

What were the challenges (literary, psychological, logistical, etc.) in bringing this book to life?

The biggest literary challenge happened fairly early on, and it was letting go of a major plot point that didn’t serve the story. In early versions, Emmy had a vague anxiety-based eating disorder, and as the book began to develop, it became clear that that thread had nothing to do with the story I was trying to tell. Once I cut it, the story clicked in a way that I’d never felt a story click before.

The biggest logistical challenge was one that came at the tail end of publication: formatting! Formatting prose is hard, formatting a novel in verse is even harder, and formatting a novel in verse that combines two colors, two fonts, and two sets of stylistic guidelines (Java code and poetry) was a huge pain in the behind.

Copy editors do so, so much, which I am now fully aware of, since I was acting as one for the code portions of this novel. I was the only one who understood Java code on the team, and so it was on me to point out mistakes where I saw them and suggest changes. But I couldn’t just make the changes myself, I had to write up a document with the changes that should be made, so that the designer could make them using the appropriate software. Everyone on the Versify team exercised such incredible patience with me as we went into the twelfth round of “pass pages” about two days before the book had to be sent off to the printer!

If you could be friends with only one of your characters, who would you choose and why?

As a kid, I would have wanted to be friends with Abigail because she’s fun and funny and bubbly and smart, and she’s cool in a way I always wanted to be. But as an adult, I think I’d be buds with Ms. Delaney. We’ve both spent time in the tech industry and have left in order to pursue creative passions, and as I was writing her I kept picturing her doing things like going to raucous concerts and wearing extravagant Halloween costumes and eating a lot of tacos… she just always seemed like she brought the party wherever she went.

How has your writing process changed now that you have been published?

Honestly, it hasn’t, and I think I was expecting it to. You kind of figure that once you get published, everything you write will magically be good, and sellable, and you’ll have a guarantee of a paycheck before you even type a word. And while it’s wonderful to be able to sell books on proposal to Versify now, I still have to *write* the dang thing, and writing is writing is writing, no matter how many books you’ve published. It’s hard! It never gets any easier! And I keep feeling like it will but it doesn’t!

What did you edit out of this book?

I mentioned above that Emmy had had an eating disorder in an early version of the book, but as it turns out, in my head the eating disorder actually stemmed from a bigger change I made in the book that only seemed like a small change until I started writing it.

I had always been told that starting books on the first day of school was cliché, and I suppose it still is a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason: they tend to be useful. But, I decided that I was NOT going to start Emmy’s story on the first day of school, so I started it on the first day returning back from winter break. But, when that was the case, it was true that Emmy had been at this new school for four months and still didn’t have any friends. In my head, this is where the eating disorder came from: a deep loneliness, a hopelessness to her ability to ever make friends, and an intense desire to remain unnoticed.

But when I gave myself permission to embrace the cliché, I wrote Emmy’s story as beginning on the first day of school. This meant that her anxiety didn’t have the time to grow into anything as scary and heavy as an eating disorder, which meant I got to take that real estate and use it instead to focus on her friendships and her confidence and her love of music and code. So, it’s funny how one little decision (like whether the story starts on the first day of school or the first day of school after winter break) can change the entire course of a novel.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

These days, my job is just as much promotion as writing. I’m doing a ton of travel for EMMY coming up in October and November, and up until the book launch I spent time speaking at conferences and putting together my school visit, as well as preparing my launch party. But when I’m not working on anything writing-related I love to run, cook, play piano, and make crossword puzzles!

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

To go off the theme of revision, my advice would be that nothing in the story is set in stone. I’ve had so many conversations with writers where I’ll be giving them feedback and throw out an idea about removing something from the story, and their response is always, “But if I remove the Thanksgiving scene, then when is the dad going to accidentally light the table on fire??” And the right answer is… maybe it doesn’t matter if the dad never lights the table on fire!

But as writers, we get so married to our words and our plots and our stories that we sometimes forget that they’re just words on a page! We can delete them! We can retype them! Cutting the eating disorder from EMMY was the hardest craft decision to make because I had internalized it as being so, so important to who Emmy was, when in reality it had nothing at all to do with the story. So, my advice is to remember that nothing is etched in stone. Words change, stories change, characters change, and the best writers are the ones who can accept when it’s time to let go of something that once felt like the beating heart of our story.

What is next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m very fortunate to have a bunch of travel for EMMY lined up in the next few months. I’ll be in Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, New York, Sarasota, and Seattle. For those of you who are local Minneapoleans, I’ll be at The Red Balloon on October 2, so I hope to see you there! But beyond EMMY promotion, I have to get cranking on book two, RECIPE FOR DISASTER. I just got my revision letter and there’s a lot to work on, but I really love what the book is about and I can’t wait to jump back into that world.

What else would you like to add?

I want to say that none of this would have been possible without Hamline. I’d never even heard of a novel in verse before Hamline, and no way would I have had the support system to write something like this without the time I spent there. I love Hamline so much and I’m so thrilled to be a part of this community!

Aimee Lucido is the author of EMMY IN THE KEY OF CODE and the upcoming RECIPE FOR DISASTER (Versify, Spring 2021). She’s a former software engineer, and she got her MFA in writing for children and young adults at Hamline University. She lives with her husband in San Francisco where she likes to bake, run marathons, and write crossword puzzles.