Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction author Jen Malone is one of Inked Voices’ long-time writing instructors, and it’s fairly safe to say that she is beloved by the writers who work with her. That’s why I am especially excited to share this group interview with you. We wanted to know more about Jen and get an extra chance to hear her wisdom, so writers from this year’s fall workshop and I teamed up to ask her…all sorts of things. Special thanks to Steve Arnold, Risa Nyman, Kim Holster, Jackie Carberry, Kristine Carter, and Laura, Jen’s students and my collaborators in this interview.
Brooke: What sparked your decision to write, and were your first projects children’s literature? Do you have a project you are most proud of?
Jen: I started writing fiction on a bit of a lark- setting aside one afternoon to write my daughter (who was five at the time) a short story we could read together at bedtime. Turns out I’m as long-winded on paper as I am speaking, so that “short” story ended up being middle grade novel-length by the time I wrapped it up a few months later. I have to say, accidentally writing a novel is the perfect way to overcome the daunting task of beginning one!
I’m most proud of my latest, a YA called The Arrival of Someday, because I challenged myself to move away from plot-driven narrative and try out a character-driven one about literal life and death issues that were very emotional. It needed many rewrites to feel my way through that, but I’m really happy with myself for pushing through the fear.
Kim: What is your writing process? What kinds of research do you do and how do you find resources for it? How do you discover your characters? Panster or plotter or a hybrid?
I’m finding that each book is a very different process. One thing that has definitely changed about my process though is the amount of “pre-writing” I do- long drives where I let me brain wander, creating playlists or Pinterest boards for my characters and settings, gathering little snippets of research or maybe funny tidbits I want to include. I’m a bit of a magpie that way. Before I would have called it procrastinating, but now I recognize how valuable (and even timesaving in the long term) that slow immersion into the story’s world is for me.
Risa: I’ve read four of your books – so far. The stories quickly draw in the reader and the main characters having staying power after you finish reading. How many of your book ideas, characters and themes come from your personal reality and experiences or is the fiction truly all fiction?
You know that note on the copyright page that says “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental”? Total BS! Every author steals from their real life to populate their books! Mine are littered with Easter eggs, some just to make me smile and others hidden in there for specific people. As an example, in The Arrival of Someday, all the character names are (mix-and-match, for privacy) first and last names of actual organ donors, as a way of honoring them. The book itself is based on a real girl in my town, who died at nineteen on the very day an organ was found for her. She missed it by hours, and the tragic injustice of that stuck with me for years until this story emerged from it. And my kids are a constant source of material (hopefully they’ll one day forgive me for using all of it).
Laura: How different is your first idea of a book from what you end up with? Do you have an example from one of your books of how things changed and evolved as you wrote and revised it?
I’ve found this depends a lot on the book. If the story is more plot-driven, I usually have a decent outline in place ahead of time and while I make room for sudden bursts of inspiration from the muse, the backbone of the story generally holds firm. In fact, the pitch copy (similar to a query story summary, since I was selling the book on proposal and hadn’t actually written it yet) I wrote for my agent to use in pitching my editor THE SLEEPOVER ended up being used nearly word-for-word as the jacket copy when the time came- that’s how little the story changed!
On the other hand, my most recent YA, THE ARRIVAL OF SOMEDAY, is very character-driven and my first draft looks almost nothing like the final one. Turns out I had to write it and rewrite it several times before I could figure out for myself what the story was actually trying to say. That was… less fun. But more fulfilling when I ultimately typed The End.
Steve: What do you look for in a satisfying ending to a YA or MG novel?
Hopefulness. It doesn’t need to be a straight-up happy ending, but I do want it to leave me hopeful about the characters’ futures, particularly when they’re so young and have so much ahead of them.
Jackie: What are your favorite genres outside of MG and authors in those fields?
Romance/Romcom women’s fiction! I love the humor in so many current romance titles. Favorite authors include Sally Thorne (The Hating Game, especially), Christina Lauren, Lauren Blakely, Penny Reid.
Risa: How can an author make sure their book reflects the diversity of our world and communities in an accurate and sensitive way? Do you think a sensitivity reader, which is sometimes controversial, is helpful?
I think a sensitivity reader is always helpful and often critically important. My personal approach to writing characters outside of my own identities (an approach which continues to be refined after lots and lots of listening to and learning from diverse readers and writers willing to engage in dialogue about this) is to include diverse side characters in my stories, in order to accurately reflect the real world, but to no longer attempt writing from the perspective of a person whose identity I don’t share, since there is so much nuance to walking around in the world as a person of color or with a non-hetero sexual orientation, for example. It’s almost impossible to get that right, and far too easy to get it very, very wrong. I write for age groups that are just beginning to internalize implicit biases and I don’t want to be responsible reinforcing any of them, even if purely unintentionally. I used a sensitivity reader for The Arrival of Someday because Will, the potential love interest, is Thai-American. I was truly humbled by how many things I missed or got wrong. They were mostly smaller things and all were invisible to me until pointed out, but fixing them meant all the difference between having a Thai reader feel represented versus having them feel discouraged (or worse!) over how off-base this white writer was.
Steve: What are the most common writing mistakes you find in novice writers?
I’d say starting a story in the wrong place (too far from the inciting incident usually) and including too much telling/backstory. I finally truly understood the concept of Show Don’t Tell when I started watching right up to the first commercial break of the pilot episodes of different tv series. I made notes on how viewers were introduced to the character, setting, and premise through an active scene that had to grip viewers in the first five minutes, because that’s usually all the show runners get before the remotes start clicking… It was revolutionary for me and has informed my book openings so much!
Jackie: If you had to only give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?
Be gentle with yourself. The more guilt you assign to your writing time and output level, the more pleasure you’re stealing from playing around with something that lights you up. For writers seeking publication, I’d say the more priority you can place on finding joy in the process of writing stories, versus any results that might come from their publication (such as making a bestseller list or winning a particular award), the better equipped you’ll be to handle the ups and downs of publishing.
Kim: Aside from reading lots of books and the actual writing itself, what else would you suggest writers do to improve their craft?
Jen: You can’t write about life without going out and living it—everything you do that isn’t writing will show up in your stories in some way or another (which means lavish trips to Dubai should be a deductible business expense, right? Right?). Also, I prefer watching movies to hone the craft of plotting, since you can take in a whole story arc in one sitting, as opposed to reading a book over multiple days or even weeks.
Brooke: Your students have raved about how much they have grown as writers by working with you. What is your approach to the feedback and coaching process? How can writers apply this to giving feedback to their peers?
Jen: My approach is to take the critical out critiquing. I’m always going to be honest with writers, but I try hard to do so in a way that is encouraging, rather than discouraging. It’s always tough to hear that something isn’t working in your story, but the critique should ultimately leave you excited to find the solution that will take the piece to the next level. I also believe it’s just as helpful for writers to know what is working, so those positive aspects don’t get tossed out in revisions by a self-doubting writer!
Jackie: Have you ever doubted yourself as a writer – whether based on personal thoughts or after getting some not-so-great feedback? What did you do to get through that?
Wait, isn’t self-doubt part of the job description? This is a weird profession that requires the hubris to think we can write something worth sharing and the humility/self-doubt necessary to be willing to keep improving upon it.
Kristine: Many published writers who write full time also work in editing and/or teaching to make writing financially viable. Is this true for you, and how does teaching help you grow as a writer?
Jen: I’m always happy to answer this question because I believe there needs to be much more transparency about the financial side of publishing. The truth is, the average full-time writer makes around $20k a year (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/books/authors-pay-writer.html). For work that is sometimes even more than full-time. Obviously there are exceptions, but that is the norm. I do freelance editing, work as an Author in Residence at a middle school through a grant program, do school visits, teach classes (including at Inked Voices) and speak at conferences to supplement my income, and even with that, most of my family’s expenses (and our health care) are covered by my husband’s job. I jokingly call him my patron. There’s lots of other things to love about being an author (pajamas to work is quite the perk!), but “dripping in cash” isn’t part of the equation for the (very, very) vast majority of us, and I think it’s important to freely share that with aspiring authors.
Kristine: How do you balance and switch gears between helping others grow their writing craft and writing your own books?
Jen: I learn so much about the craft of writing from critiquing. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve spotted something in someone else’s manuscript that wasn’t working, only to realize I was guilty of the same transgression in mine. It’s far easier to examine a craft issue objectively when you take away the emotions of it being your own precious, precious words you’re talking about. So I don’t really see it as switching gears at all!
Jackie: If you were not a writer and teacher, what would you be?
Either a fiber artist or an interior designer. I adore color and texture!
Kim: Does you have suggestions for building a network/platform? How would a new author go about this?
Jen: For building a network of fellow writers to commiserate and celebrate with, I recommend Twitter or Instagram, because that’s where most of the book community tends to hang. Using hashtags like “#amwriting” or “#amquerying” to introduce yourself can be an easy way to jump into things. As far as a platform for marketing your books go, I think this is becoming slightly less of a consideration as publishers’ internal research is showing that social media “follows” don’t really translate to book sales. A website is critical (as is regularly ensuring it has up-to-date information), but beyond that it’s usually more beneficial to spend the time improving your writing skills versus improving your follower count. Note: exceptions for self-publishing and nonfiction authors!