At the Author’s Desk: Holly Jennings

In this series, ELA Academy interviews several published authors to get some tips for aspiring writers trying to get into the writerly mode and finish writing projects.

Holly Jennings, author of Arena and Gauntlet and winner of the American Library Association’s 2017 Alex Award, spoke to me via video chat from her home in Canada.

EA: Thank you for joining me today! Tell me a little about yourself.

HJ: I’m the author of two novels, Arena and Gauntlet, which is a sci-fi series about a futuristic gaming teen inside a virtual-reality video game tournament. I’m published through Ace Books, which is a sci-fi imprint of Penguin. I was just signed on a few years ago, so I’m just getting started as an author.

EA: I’m assuming you haven’t been a perfectly diligent writer all your life. Was there a point at which you said to yourself, “I need to get serious about this, or I’ll never actually write a book”?

HJ: I’ve been writing all my life, especially as a teenager, but it was something I was mostly doing for fun. I wasn’t really taking it seriously. I was quiet and introverted as a teenager, so it was an easy way for me to express myself. Then in my mid-20s I had a couple of major life changes: I moved to a new city, got a new job, a major relationship came to an end – my whole life just kind of flipped around. It had nothing to do with writing, but for some reason having everything change and shaken up that way made me realize that I’d never really pursued writing. I’d gotten a degree in psychology and was working in administration, but writing had always been a passion and I’d always wanted to see what I could do with it. So it was other things in life that pushed me towards going for that dream. It grew very slowly. I started out writing short stories and just doing a little bit at night and on the weekends. As I started writing more short stories, sending them out, and getting my first publications, it just grew from there. My passion and dedication grew, and I started spending more and more time on it every night.

EA: How does your current “writing mindset” compare to what it used to be?

HJ: Before I began pursuing writing as a career I considered it to be a hobby, and I kind of put everything else in front of it. I felt like it was something I was doing for myself, so it felt kind of selfish to put it before things like taking care of the house or going to see family or friends. But eventually I realized that if writing were an office job, if I went into an office every day and a company was paying me to write a book, I’d have to set aside those hours every day, and people would expect me to be “at work.” So I had to adjust my mindset to realize that I had to treat it like a career before I’d actually “made it.” I had to get into that mode of sitting down every day and not being afraid of writing stuff that would be garbage or get cut. Getting into that habit every day really helped me be productive overall.

EA: Would you talk a little about your writing process? What is it that you do when you sit down to write? What gets you through that writing session?

HJ: Well, there are always times when I get the spark of an idea and I’m rushing to the computer to write it down as fast as possible. But usually before I even sit down to work, I’ll put on my headphones and listen to some music that reflects something in the story I’m working on. I write science fiction, so I listen to a lot of futuristic techno stuff. I’m not really into that kind of music, but I listen to it because it gets me into the right mindset. While I’m listening, I think about the story and what I want to write. That way, I’m already thinking about the characters and the story before I even sit down at the computer. I find that it helps the flow.

EA: You give yourself a starting point instead of sitting in front of a blank screen with no idea what you’re going to do.

HJ: Exactly. I’ve said this to younger writers before, that if you think about it, musicians and actors get themselves hyped up and into character and in the moment before they step onto a stage. Why shouldn’t writers do the same thing? It is a performance art. I know that it’s delayed, it’s a while before the audience sees what we’re doing, but essentially it’s the same thing.

EA: So after you get yourself into the right mindset, you’re sitting down at the computer for a certain amount of time. You said you try to treat it like an office job, where you commit to spending a certain number of hours working on it. How do you pace yourself during that time? Are you plugging away the whole time? Do you take breaks? What do you do to get yourself through that work session?

HJ: Unless I’m in the throes of some idea where smoke’s coming off the keyboard and I can’t stop, I definitely take breaks. I find that it slowly builds, like a runaway train. When I first sit down, I’m slowly chugging along with 100 words here, 100 words there. As soon as I feel like I can’t sit there anymore, I do walk away: I don’t want to sit there and be frustrated with the work. But as the day goes on, productivity slowly builds. Getting towards supper and early evening, I find myself typing faster and faster, so I’m at the keyboard longer and longer as the day goes on and as I’m getting more and more into that world and that mindset.

EA: So the breaks help you to get away from a frustrating moment and get the blood moving, but you don’t need as many breaks once you’re into the flow.

HJ: That’s right.

EA: What about your work area? Is there anything you do to make that work area a place where you feel more productive?

HJ: I used to write at my dining room table, but I found that made it hard to dissociate writing from other things. Out in the middle of the house, I could see all the other things that needed to be done – dishes, dusting, etc. – so it was very easy to be distracted. I finally set up an office in one of the bedrooms and bought myself a big desk, so when I come in here and close the door and sit down, that’s it: there’s no dirty dishes, there’s no errands to run, there’s nothing, just the desk. I set it up like an office, and when I’m in there, that’s all I’m doing. I think it’s important to have an area that’s dedicated to writing because it helps you get into the writing mindset.

EA: You’ve said that when you get frustrated or hit a block, you’ll get up and take a break. But sometimes, if you’re working on a deadline, you might have to jump-start things more quickly. Do you have any other tricks you use to motivate yourself when you have to keep going?

HJ: For me, a deadline itself is pretty motivating because I know my editor’s expecting something by a certain time and I want to make sure I deliver. If the deadline isn’t absolutely looming, sometimes I’ll let myself work on a different book or story for an afternoon or a day or two. Letting myself walk away from the story for a little bit helps, and using that time to work on a different piece of writing keeps me in the writing habit and mindset. Having something else to switch off on has helped me quite a bit. I also tend not to write in order. I’ll have an outline, but I don’t necessarily work from chapter 1 to chapter 2 to chapter 3: I’ll jump around a little bit. If I have a lot of energy, I might decide to write an action scene. If I’m feeling sort of emotional, I’ll work on a scene that fits how I’m feeling that day. So if I’m working on one scene and it isn’t getting anywhere, I’ll switch to working on a different part of the book. That usually takes care of any writer’s block I’m dealing with.

EA: You mentioned an outline. I’ve heard that there are two main types of writers: those who write by the seat of their pants and those who plan everything out before they write. Are you a planner, then?

HJ: When I first started out, I was definitely a “pantser.” But as I write more and more, I’m plotting a lot more, and my outlines seem to get more extensive with each new thing I do.

EA: Do you feel that outlining and planning ahead of time has improved your work?

HJ: Yes. I do know some authors who never have a plan, who never plot stuff out, and it always seems to turn out really well, even in science fiction and fantasy where there’s so much to keep track of in terms of world-building and consistency. That’s just what works for them, and they find it more exciting when they’re not quite sure where it’s going. For me, I find that it’s easier to keep track of everything and to be able to go through the story and think, “Where are the weakest point? Where does the plot slog a little bit? Can I add something in there to ratchet up the tension?”

EA: We’ve already covered writer’s block to some extent. Is there anything you’d like to add about how you cope with it?

HJ: I mentioned that I’ll try switching to a different story or a different scene. There was one novel I was writing on deadline, and for several months it was a real slog – every day it was like I had to push the words out. There was an editor there expecting me to make a deadline, so that kept me going. But there are definitely times that professional writers will get stuck, sometimes for weeks or months. I think you just have to keep sitting down and keep pushing through, and switch to writing something else if you need to. I know that other writers will sometimes find a change in environment helpful, but for me going to write in the back yard or a coffee shop or library hasn’t generally been very effective for me.

EA: Obviously everything we’ve talked about can help young, aspiring writers, but is there anything else you’d like to add? Advice to somebody who wants to write but hasn’t made the commitment yet?

HJ: One of the biggest things that helped me when I decided to pursue writing professionally and see if I could land a book deal was finding critiquing partners and not being afraid to let them read my stuff and give me feedback. We would exchange stories or chapters. It was really helpful to get constructive criticism like, “This part is really good, but if you changed such-and-such, it would be even stronger.” Also, by reading and giving feedback on other people’s work, I started to become more critical of my own. I started to recognize some of the things I was doing that weren’t necessarily mistakes but could have been better or stronger. This has been the most important thing I’ve done to improve my craft.

EA: Where did you find these writers?

HJ: I had some friends who wrote, but a lot of it was online. There are a few different websites where you can find critiquing partners, even on Twitter. They’ll be very helpful and prompt because they’re hoping to get the same thing from you.

EA: You mentioned that critiquing other people’s work has helped you improve your own craft. Are there other things you do on an ongoing basis to improve your writing?

HJ: I like to read other books to study the styles of other authors. So instead of reading just for pleasure, I’ll read to pick apart the story and look at individual sentences. Also, the internet is full of writing advice from authors, so I can find help on anything I’m struggling with. So if I don’t feel like I’ve described my characters very well, I can find countless blogs offering strategies I can try until I find what works for me.

EA: I think that’s everything! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

HJ: Just keep going. It’s been said many times that writing and publishing are a marathon, not a race. Also, if you send out a book or story and get a rejection, that’s not the end – it’s just a step on the way to making it. I think Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected something like 100 times*, and now it’s huge. So just keep going.

EA: Thank you so much for taking time out to give advice to ELA Academy’s readers!

Here’s where you can find Holly Jennings online:


Twitter: @HollyN_Jennings

* According to this article, Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times! Wow!


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