Word Witch and Professional Daydreamer

Category: Being a writer

“The Lady of Souls” turns 4!

Four years ago today, I achieved my biggest life-long dream: I became a published author.

First of all, let’s just stop and marvel at that idea for a moment. How often, really, do we manage to achieve the one thing we’ve wanted most since we were kids? And that’s a shame, really, because there is so much that we could do, if circumstances were just a little bit more in our favor, or if we had just a little more time, or if we were able to try just a little bit harder. I know how incredibly lucky I am, to be able to say that, and I couldn’t have done it alone. I had enormous support along the way. From my parents, from the very beginning, when I was a little kid and telling people I would be an author one day; and from friends and family, who cheered me along the way; and from my husband, who did so much I literally can’t list it all. I’ve had emotional support, labor support, financial support, to make this happen. Not everyone is so fortunate. Thank you. I love you all.

My first-ever paperback proof, with bonus Helpful Cat. Not pictured: my stunned, elated grin, as this whole thing becomes real.

These past four years have been a wild ride, and nothing at all like I expected it to be. It’s so much more work, and so much more joy, and so much more stress, and so much more laughs. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Every day is something new, every day is a chance to do what I love most in all the world.

Thank you to everyone who’s ever bought my book. Who’s listened as I ramble about my career. Who’s asked me what my books are about, and enthused about my answers even if it wasn’t your particular genre. Who’s cheered my on at my writer’s group. Who’s said “hi” at a signing. Who’s left me reviews, who’s told their friends about me, who’s written to me. My heart is so full, and I am so, so grateful to have you all by my side.

This is where it all started: with a head full of characters, a fat manuscript, a stack of edits, and nothing but hope that it would all come together in the end.

Happy Birthday, little book. This is just the beginning.

They exiled her from the capital & forbade her magic. But as the walls of the living and dead break down, what they don’t know… might just save them.

Or Read the first chapter for free!

A Novelist Walks into a Poetry Workshop…

I approach poetry much like I do a Jackson Pollock painting: that is, while I fully appreciate the value and artistry of the work—and even, depending on the piece, can quite like looking at it—I do not, at my core, understand it. I know this. I know this, because if I am being honest, I cannot fully differentiate what makes his work Art, while the paint that accrues along the drop cloth on an artist’s floor is not. And this is on me, because I know there are people who do understand it. I know there is something there to be understood.

Similarly, I do not entirely “get” poetry, even when I like it. And I do like it. Sarah Kay’s No Matter the Wreckage is gorgeous, and the novel-in-verse Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough left me shaken for days. So of course I try to write some myself. I have some skill with words, after all. I understand metaphor, imagery, symbolism. I can take my pen and dip it into the well of my thoughts, fling some words onto the page. But I cannot tell, in the end, if I have in fact written a poem, or merely splattered paint on the walls.

Or, to put this question in meme form:

This week, I attended a poetry workshop.

I want to preface this by saying that the presenter is a lovely person who is genuinely enthusiastic about her craft. And she does a good job leading you through how to take a starting spark, and dig deeper, and create something that could, in the end, be a poem. It was a solid workshop. Assuming that you understood what a poem was in the first place, and roughly how to craft one.

Again, this is on me. I went into the experience thinking it was slightly more introductory than it was, and confident that my writing skills would be up to the task even if I was wrong. And there were a lot of factors that particular day that led to a dry creative well: I had just come off my day job, which already saps my energies; I don’t really do well creating in groups on command anyway; I was out late, by my standards, and tired, and worried about getting to bed on time considering I had to wake up at ass-o’clock to get back to work the next morning.

So I didn’t get too much out the workshop itself, but then the presenter offered to let me stay and chat with her for a while about my struggles with the form. She listened to me try and fail to explain what I didn’t understand, and to my questions that were both inanely basic, and oddly existential at the same time. What is poetry? How does it differ from prose? Are these poems, or just random thoughts with line breaks? She tried to answer these questions as best as she could, offered permission/encouragement to just jump in and play with it even if I didn’t quite get it, and suggested several books to read, both poetry itself and how-to books that might explain what I am missing. She really is very nice, and it’s always enjoyable to connect with another writer, even if our styles and genres are wildly different.

In the end, I went home jazzed. And as I tried to fall asleep that night, fragments of poems were floating around in my mind. I lay there feeling like something had finally clicked, like the “voice” of poetry made sense to me. I had visions of awaking a new writer, of churning out a half a dozen poems my first day. Of making poetry a warm-up routine before I tried to work on my novels, a refreshing pleasure that would get me keyed up to work with words all day.

Five hours later, zombie-shuffling into the shower, that voice was gone, and I was forced to wonder if it had ever really been there in the first place.

It still has not come back to me.

The truth is, I don’t know if I will ever really understand poetry, and that’s fine. Not all forms of art need to be for all people. But I know I will keep trying anyway, if for no other reason than the effort costs me nothing.

P.S. Here is a really good list of poetry books, if you are interested in that sort of thing: 42 Poetry Books By Women To Read For Women’s History Month. Don’t let the time of year put you off—be a rebel, read women always. Also: Poetry Rx is both a fantastic concept and a phenomenal read, please and thank you.

Author Influences: The Mural of My Voice

I’ve been thinking recently about all of the things that can influence a person.

Because none of us becomes a writer in isolation, and every book that we read adds something to our experiences—but some of them do a little bit more than that. Some of them speak to us so deeply that they add a whole new paint color to our palette, opening our eyes to brand new ways of looking at books, language, storytelling. These books become turning points in our development, and without them we would not be the writers that we are today.

Four authors have done this for me.

Roald Dahl

When I was in third grade, the school librarian started to read us a book that I had never heard of, by an author I had never heard of. That book was Matilda. It was a yellow hardback, with a picture on the cover of a girl surrounded by books.

I was immediately drawn into it. She read the first one or two chapters to us, the story of a girl who loved books but whose parents disapproved. Sometime soon after, I found myself in a bookstore with my mother, begging her for my own copy. I remember feeling as if I would burst, if I did not find out the rest of the story.

By the time our class went back to the library, I’d read my copy three times. I clutched it to my chest, silently reading along as she continued the story for the rest of the group.

I quickly worked my way through as many of Roald Dahl’s books as I could. The Witches, Esio Trot, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. I easily gravitated toward the books that were macabre or crass. His was probably my first taste of dark humor, and I found myself eating it up as if it was candy. And yet, at the time I wouldn’t have described it as dark. Roald Dahl’s books felt happy to me, in a way that I couldn’t understand as a child. Matilda remained my favorite by far, though The Witches and Revolting Rhymes were read often as well.

I am not exaggerating when I say that he changed my life. He was the first author that I’d read that broke out of the mold of what was safe and normal and acceptable for children’s books, and this showed me that stories were capable of so much more than I had previously thought. Roald Dahl taught me that it was okay to break out and write something that was oddball, that the only limits placed upon me were the ever-expanding edges of my imagination. He taught me that it was okay to lift up the rocks and write about the worms that slither away from the light.

Sarah Dessen

If any one author is responsible for shaping the way I construct a story, it’s Sarah Dessen. The funny thing is that I did not even realize this until years later.

My first Sarah Dessen novel was Someone Like You. I was maybe 14? It was the middle of the summer, and there was nothing in Waldenbooks that really appealed to me that day. And then I picked up this book, a brand-new hardcover by an author I didn’t know. I admit: I didn’t really like the cover (this was the original), and I’ve put books back for pettier reasons than that. But I read the blurb, and then I read the first few pages, and then I took the book to the register and continued to read it in the car on the way home—something I had never really done before, as I get carsick if I don’t stare directly out of a window. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I reached the end and discovered that this author had only written one other book! I dutifully bought it as soon as I could, and reread both of them obsessively until I heard the glorious news: a third was on its way! This was my very first preorder ever, and I stalked the mailbox waiting impatiently for it to arrive from Amazon.

Sarah Dessen became an immediate preorder author for me. For a few years. Eventually, I decided that I was too “mature” to be enjoying YA novels, and let her work fall by the wayside. Oh, I still reread the ones I owned, when I was feeling down and needed a comfort read. But it remained a guilty pleasure, not something that I would admit to.

Then two years ago, more or less, I picked up her books again for the first time in forever. At the bottom of the very first page, of the very first book, I stopped what I was doing, got up, walked into the kitchen, and passed the book over to my husband. “This is where I learned to write,” I told him, and made him read the first page for himself. He barely got into it before he started nodding. “Yup,” he said, as he passed it back. Yup.

Sarah Dessen taught me about how to construct a scene. She taught me about jumping the narrative around in time, starting one place and then backing up a day, a week, a year, to shade in the details that are impacting the character’s emotional reaction to what’s going on around them. She taught me about pacing, and narrative arcs. Her early books, read over and over and over again, until the pages turned soft and I could mouth the words along, imprinted themselves deep in my subconscious. I thought I was reading purely for fun, but it turns out that I was getting a crash course in how to write a novel without ever realizing that’s what was happening.

I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but without Dessen I’m not sure if I would have ever figured out how. At the very least, it would have taken me a lot longer, and been a lot less fun.

Ann Patchett

In the years after Sarah Dessen, I was trying to take myself Very Seriously as a writer. When I was 20, I came across a book recommendation by a blogger I admired, someone a few years older, who was also trying to become an author. The book was Bel Canto.

I can’t say that I fully understood what I was reading, at the time—I didn’t have to. Bel Canto led way to the rest of her back catalog, and from there to Margaret Atwood and John Updike, to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I read poetry, and essays, and short stories from the New Yorker. I read memoirs. I read Nicole Karuss, and Johnathan Franzen. I read Virginia Woolf. I read Shakespeare.

These authors, Ann Patchett in particular, peeled back a layer that I had never noticed before. She showed me the glory of prose as an art form all its own. I read her sentences over and over again, reveling in the sound of them. They had texture and form, beauty and grace. They made me ache, sad in a way that was also deeply happy. They made me feel inferior. They inspired me to reach for something better.

This isn’t to say that the prose of every other book that I had read before was bad—it wasn’t. Sarah Dessen and Roald Dahl alone can both turn a phrase quite well. But there’s a difference, between writing that serves a primary purpose of telling a story, and writing that serves a primary purpose of being art. This is something that I had never understood before. This is something that I learned to crave. This is something that I had to figure out how to do in my own work.

Whether I’ve achieved that yet is up for readers to decide for themselves. Ann Patchett, however, put the goalpost up.

Terry Pratchett

At the same time, though, something funny was happening. No sooner had I finished reading Ann Patchett’s back catalog than I picked up my first Discworld novel.

There is no excuse for me not to have read his work earlier. I met my husband when we were teenagers, and Terry Pratchett was his favorite author from day one. He had a steadily growing collection of Discworld novels by the time I read Witches Abroad, and several times before this, I had picked them up and read the jacket copy, the first few pages. I was held up, I know, by vanity. Remember, this was a time that I was trying to take myself Very Seriously, and so I was not interested in science fiction and fantasy. Never mind that I had grown up watching every Star Trek episode ever. Never mind that my childhood reading was stuffed with equal parts unicorns and orphans. Never mind that I bought an omnibus edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was 15, even if I only ever got around to reading the first book. Never mind that I was reading Harry Potter just like everyone else in the world.

At the same time as Ann Patchett was showing me the beauty of words for words’ sake, Terry Pratchett was showing me the beauty of genre. The way that an imagined world can reflect truths back at us. How humor can skewer as well as entertain. He refreshed my belief in the power of imagination, in weird. He taught me dry wit.

And of course, he brought me back to science fiction and fantasy, sparking an obsession that would eventually consume my reading habits for years. The obsession that led to my current career path. Literally everything that I am as a genre author is thanks to Terry Pratchett’s influence.

Some people worry about sounding too much like their favorite authors. It even has a name: “anxiety of influence”. This is something that I have never worried about. The thing is, you will always be influenced by what you read. You will always be influenced by what you watch. You will always be influenced by what you listen to.

You will always be influenced by life.

The way to avoid being pegged as a cheap knockoff, then, is simply this: read widely. Love broadly. If your influence is constantly changing, if you’re constantly trying something new, if you’re exposed to genres that you’ve never tried, voices that you’ve never heard, then each of these will blend into your own authorial voice, and combine into something entirely different. I am not Roald Dahl. I am not Sarah Dessen. I am not Ann Patchett, or Terry Pratchett. Each of these authors is distinct from the others—it is only once you mix them together, and steep them in years of so many others, that you end up with Jenn Gott.

Your influences will blend into something different, too. If you let them. Don’t try to stifle the parts of other authors that sing to you. If you do, all that you’ll end up with is a voice that is defined by the lack of those sounds. And what good does that do? Do you really want your stories to contain nothing of what brings you joy?

So thank you, all of my literary forebears. Thank you for shaping me, thank you for sharing your secrets. Thank you for the colors.

I’ll try to make you proud.

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