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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

From Improv to Writing MG Novels: An interview with Jen Nails

When did you start your first novel? 
My first novel began as a solo play that I wrote and performed over about five years or so. When I first moved to New York, I was 22 (this was a long, long time ago) and ready to take on the improv comedy world! I joined about four improv groups, started taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and started writing my own characters. Gilda Radner was my idol, and I loved how her characters were so funny and real and you could start crying for some reason at their innocence and irreverence (I could anyway). 

My first characters were kids (inspired by Radner's Lisa Lupner and Judy Miller I'm sure). They just came out that way. A character named Lylice made her way into a dream I had when I was around 19 or 20 (in the dream her name was Lylice, spelled that way). She was dressed exactly like me and was trying to be my friend. She was about ten or eleven. I woke up, and I think I probably didn't run to the computer to start writing, but I know the dream affected me and later I'd write a solo play called Lylice, which later became the main character in my first novel, NEXT TO MEXICO. 

Why did you choose to write for the Middle Grade genre? 
I think that middle grade characters came to me as an actor first, and later, as a writer, it made sense to me to develop them further for a novel. I guess I didn't consciously choose the middle grade genre. It just happened. 

Was there any particular author you read that made you think, I could write like that? 
My favorite author growing up was Beverly Cleary. I read her books over and over and over again and can still quote sentences from Ramona the Brave and Henry Huggins. I don't know that I ever thought that I could write like Cleary, but I sure was pulled into those characters and that world because I could identify so fully with Ramona, a spirited, misunderstood and creative younger sister with a super-smart and talented older sister. 

How long did it take you to write your first book? Are you active with any writing critique groups? 
I think that overall, it took me about nine years to write my first novel. I count all of the years that I developed/performed/revised/edited the solo play (about five), plus the years it took me to adapt the play into a novel (about four). Over the years, I've belonged to three tremendously helpful writing critique groups. I've been with my current group for four years and could not imagine my life as a writer without them. 

What is the hardest part of writing for you? Starting? Creating a scene? Dialog? etc? 
Plotting is the most challenging part of writing a story for me. I am jealous of writers who can make a clean outline and then write out the story, following it all the way until the end. I know the process is not as simple as that for anyone, but you know how you do that thing where you imagine everyone is doing it in a much easier/better way than you are... 

Anyway, I will usually begin with a scenario and a character, and then I write notes and diary entries and scenes, piecing things together as I go and crossing my fingers for a plot. I wish I were more calculated about this, but this is how I've always done it. The more that I craft stories, the more confident I become, though, and the more I believe that as long as I follow my ideas through, even when I am unsure of where I am going, I will find my way. 

I do find that as long as I can produce a long and messy first draft, I can find clues within it when I go back that shed light on little hints of what I really want to write about. My favorite part of the process is being somewhere around the 6th or 7th or 8th draft, knowing the characters, feeling in the driver's seat, making decisions; it's like the difference between having a vague idea of where I am going on a road trip and continually getting lost and having to make U-turns and taking the wrong exits, versus knowing exactly which exit to take, which way to turn, where the Denny's is in that little town. 

We have all experienced rejection. Give me an example of one you’ve had, and how you learned to write past it. 
I've experienced so much rejection I think I'm an expert at it. Before I started writing in earnest, I was an actor in New York, going on auditions several times a week, performing improv comedy several nights a week. Over about eight years of acting and auditioning, I probably went on roughly hundreds of auditions that yielded dozens of jobs. So, maybe ten percent of what I auditioned for, I booked. 

The thing with acting is, you don't get paid unless you book it (same with writing, I realize)! So, it's like working 100% of the time on your craft and getting paid for it 10% of the time. That is how it was for me anyway. I'm digressing a little but trying to make the point that before I committed myself to writing, I'd already felt hardcore rejections and so when I began receiving rejections on my first novel, it didn't hurt so much. In fact, the novel was rejected over 40 times before Houghton Mifflin wanted to take it on. 

What has surprised you the most in writing/publishing? What frustrated you the most? 
This was difficult for me to answer for some reason. I think that what continues to surprise me is that I'm improving as a writer. Not that I thought I'd never improve, but you know when you start out and you think you should be instantly good, and that if you're not instantly good, it just means you're bad? Not true. 

With time and practice and patience I've become a different and stronger writer than I was when I started. This gives me a new kind of hope. In terms of publishing, I plead the ole AA serenity prayer:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

What do you know now about writing that you wished you had known sooner? 
I think you just keep learning along the way. I couldn't have known that a novel I worked on for about eight or nine years would get sent around and sent around and never get published. I couldn't have known that an agent that I worked with for a few years would decide that she just couldn't sell my work and then "break up" with me. I couldn't have known anything about writing had I not just decided to commit to it. 

Even when you're told "this is hard, you'll work really hard and sometimes it'll seem like it's not really paying off or going anywhere." You can be told that - and I was - but I didn't really understand until it happened to me. So, I think that all of the things I know about being a writer I've just had to learn the hard way and as I move forward, I know there'll be more that I'm told but that I won't really get until I'm knee deep in it. 

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
I've sought and been given so much sound advice over the last twenty years or so, through acting and writing, but the advice that has kept me going, that I always try and come back to is on a little tiny card that my dad had laminated when he was a high school football coach. 

It's a poem from an old, retired educational magazine called Scholastic Coach. He found it and liked it, so he kept it in his wallet during every game that he coached (and he did pretty well; when he retired from coaching, his stats were: 52-9-2). The poem is called All in the State of Mind and it goes like this:  

If you think you're beaten, you are, 
If you think you dare not, you don't,
If you'd like to win, but you think you can't, 
It's almost certain you won't. 
If you think you'll lose, you're lost, 
For out in the world you'll find 
Success begins with a fellow's will— It's all in the state of mind. 

Full many a race is lost ere ever a step is run, 
And many a coward falls ere ever his work's begun, 
Think big, and your deeds will grow; 
Think small, and you'll fall behind; 
Think that you can, and you will— It's all in the state of mind. 

If you think you are out-classed, you are; 
You've got to think high to rise; 
You've got to be sure of yourself before 
You can ever win a prize, 
Life's battles don't always go 
To the stronger or faster man; 
But soon or late the man who wins 
Is the fellow who thinks he can. 

The internet lists the author as Walter D. Wintle. My dad gave this poem to me the day I moved to New York and it's been in my wallet ever since. I know that I will pass it on to my sons when they are old enough to appreciate it.                                 
What is the next book that will be coming out? 
My newest book is ONE HUNDRED SPAGHETTI STRINGS was just released. The novel is set in Greensboro, NC, and centers on Steffy, an eleven-year-old chef who aspires to unite her broken family by preparing them their favorite meals. 

That's all for today's interview. I really like the poem and hearing about Jen's writing journey. 

If you would like to learn more about Jen's writing, try these options: and @jenmnails 

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