I apologize for my tardiness in posting—a combination of technical difficulties and a crazy weekend. But I’ve been looking forward to this interview, and I’m excited to share it with all of you!
I’ve blogged before about teenagers writing books and publishing young, but I really wanted personal insight from such an author. So I emailed Jennifer Lynn Barnes and begged for her help. She took time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions! I met Jen last year at Conestoga in Tulsa, and I can honestly say that she is an amazing combination of intelligence, fun, and super sweetness. Plus she’s a writer and a scientist, so she’s one of my personal heroes. I was thrilled to interview her!
A few of the questions I wanted to ask are already on Jen’s website, so I’ll start with her biography and those questions:
Jennifer Lynn Barnes (who mostly goes by Jen) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has been, in turn, a competitive cheerleader, a volleyball player, a dancer, a debutante, a primate cognition researcher, a teen model, a comic book geek, and a lemur aficionado. Jen graduated high school in 2002, and from Yale University with a degree in cognitive science (the study of the brain and thought) in May of 2006. Now she’s back at Yale, working on a PhD.
How do you have time to write AND go to school?
This is probably the question I get asked most frequently, but honestly, balancing school and writing has never been all that much of a challenge. For me, writing is a way to relax. It’s what I do to wind down at the end of the day. As a result, a lot of times, I end up doing most of my writing really late at night (usually between two and four in the morning), and this works out really well, because if I write after everyone else has gone to sleep, I don’t end up missing out on anything while I’m writing.
How old were you when you wrote your first book?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, so I’d probably guesstimate that I wrote my first “book” when I was five or six. If you’re talking novels, I started writing my first serious novel when I was sixteen, but didn’t actually finish a novel until my senior year of high school. The first novel I completely finished became what I now refer to as a “practice book,” and I wrote several more practice books before I wrote Golden, the summer I was nineteen.
How long does it take you to write a book?
That depends on how busy my life is and whether or not I get to write every day. I wrote the first draft of Golden in about three weeks. The majority of Tattoo was written in about a month. The last two books I wrote took closer to two to three months. It takes me about the same amount of time to revise a book, and I usually end up revising at least three or four times before the book is ready to hit the shelves. From the day I started writing Golden until its release took about three years.
How did you get published?
I wrote a book. Then I bought a wonderful resource, The Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Marketplace, which lists the contact information for hundreds of children’s publishers and literary agents. I also joined The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and joined a wonderful online writers community. After doing some research, I sent out a bunch of one page query letters, pitching the book I’d written to publishers. And then I wrote another book, and did the same. Wash, rinse, repeat. I started submitting my senior year of high school, and eventually landed a fabulous agent, who sold Golden a few days before my twenty-first birthday.
Thus ends her website’s Q & A. I had a few more questions of my own:
1. Did your family encourage you and support your pursuit of publication? Did they have any doubts?
My family has always been super, super supportive. My mom, especially, has helped me every step of the way. She’s been the first person to read every book I’ve ever written. When I first started submitting, she helped me set up a filing system for replies (mostly rejections at that point), and to this day, she keeps me organized on the business end of things. Honestly, I should probably be giving her a cut of royalties! The rest of my family is incredibly supportive, too. My brother and dad have mastered the art of “facing out” my books at stores.
No one in my family has ever expressed any negativity about my pursuing publication- but at the same time, they were very adamant that I not set aside the rest of my life in the process. Their attitude was never “That’s your dream- great! So what’s your back-up plan?” It was more of a “Don’t limit your options at this point in your life. You’re a smart girl with a lot of passions- pursuing one dream doesn’t have to mean giving up anything else.” I’ve since become a big believer in having multiple dreams- and I like the security of having another career! Oftentimes, when I talk to teens or other aspiring writers, they complain about their family wanting them to have another career to fall back on, but I personally don’t see that as doubt or discouragement in and of itself- to me, that’s common sense good advice, and it’s advice that’s made me a happier person (and a better writer).
2. I know you like to write at night, but then when do you sleep?? Does it ever get too stressful, juggling school and writing?
Things definitely get stressful sometimes, but I’m really passionate about everything I do, and for me, the stress is worth it (most of the time, at least!). Usually, if I’m lucky, crunch time for school-related stuff and crunch time for writing-related stuff come at different times. I’m a procrastinator by nature, so having two careers works really well for me, because I can write when I’m procrastinating about school stuff, and then turn around and go out and gather data on an experiment when I’m procrastinating about writing. I’m the type of person who really likes keeping busy, so at this point, I can’t really imagine it any other way.
As for sleeping, school is (luckily) not usually a 9 to 5 kind of job, so I have at least a couple of days a week that I can sleep late. I’m a marathon sleeper, so I can go weeks at a time getting very little sleep, and then conk out for 17 hours straight. It all evens out in the end.
3. As a published author, do you feel less or more pressure as you get older? How have you changed as a writer over the past few years?
Every step you take in this business comes with more pressure. Every success means greater expectations- from your readers, from your publishers, from the little voice inside your own head. For me, it’s been incredibly important to keep writing as something that brings me joy. This was easy before I was published- I was always writing something, and every time I sat down to write, I’d have this huge grin on my face. It was the perfect way to relax, and it was thrilling, and it was one hundred percent mine. But the longer I’m in the business, the more I have to fight to keep that feeling- because as much as writing is my passion, it’s also now my job. And like all jobs, there are good things and bad things, and good days and bad days, so probably the single biggest change I’ve gone through as a writer is that I’ve really started consciously keeping the writing end of things and the business end separate. At the same time, it’s hard to write without thinking about my readers! Or my editors! Nowadays, I know I’m working on the right book when my characters speak louder than any of the stresses involved in publishing, and those are the books that I finish (and love).
4. Based on your experiences and those of other authors, what are the advantages of being a relatively young author? The disadvantages?
You know, I don’t really think that being young has been an advantage or a disadvantage to me on a professional level. I look a lot younger than I am, so whenever I go to conferences, I write my age on my name-badge, just so people won’t have to ask! But in terms of being taken seriously within the industry, in my experience, if you act like a professional, people treat you like a professional. Age doesn’t matter nearly as much as the way you conduct yourself.
5. If you could go back in time, would you change anything about your writing life?
On the one hand, I’m happy where I am right now, and as a sci-fi/fantasy fan, I’d hesitate to change anything if I went back in time, because I’d have no idea what parts of my writing life (or even my real life) that might affect. I fully believe that as a writer and as a person, everything you experience contribute to the kind of person and the kind of writer you are, so from that perspective, I wouldn’t change my own experience. I can say, however, that there are a couple of pieces of advice that I tell aspiring writers that no one told me- I tell them to enjoy writing, even when submitting or trying to get published seems daunting, or when the rejections are piling up, because if you can’t enjoy writing before publication, things are just going to get harder afterwards. It’s a great thing to have goals and dreams, but there are times that I wish I’d savored the moment a little more, instead of looking forward.
Another piece of advice I’d give my younger self is that even though your current goal might be to get a book published, that’s not going to be your long-term goal if you want a career in this business. Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. Getting published soon is not as important as getting the right book published at the right time, with good people in your corner and an eye toward the long game. All of which goes to say, if you’re mired down in the rejection muck, and you’re thinking “this book is as good as a lot of what’s being published,” remind yourself that you don’t want to be “as good as.” You don’t want to be “publishable.” You want to write the BEST, most incredible, biggest book you can.
6. Do you think you’ll continue using your dual superpowers of writer and scientist, or will you someday focus on just one?
As long as I can do both, I will do both. The idea of giving up either one makes me really sad.
7. Besides your website, where can readers learn more about you and your books?
Jen, thank you so much for your time and insight! Loved your answers and advice!
If you’d like to know more about the books Jen writes, here’s an excerpt from her blog:
I’m a young adult writer/cognitive scientist/pop culture junkie. I’m told we’re a rare breed, but I really think the movement is growing.
My first novel, GOLDEN, tells the story of a teenage aura seer dealing with the cliques at her new high school- and a supernatural mystery that just might be more deadly than the mean girls themselves. Its sequel, PLATINUM, follows the leader of the school’s A-List, whose life is complicated by a newfound ability to see ghosts.
My second novel, TATTOO, centers on four best friends who apply a set of temporary tattoos that unbeknownst to them have a mystical origin. As a result, the girls develop supernatural powers and a destiny that involves taking down an ancient evil- before she can wreak havoc at their high school dance. The sequel (set two years later) is called FATE.
THE SQUAD series is sort of what you’d get if you mixed Charlie’s Angels and Bring It On. When loner Toby Klein is recruited to the varsity cheerleading squad, she discovers that the cheerleaders are goverment operatives and that the squad is just a cover-up. Life as an anti-social blackbelt turned cheerleading secret agent is about to get interesting…
June 8, 2010: RAISED BY WOLVES is the story of a human teenager who’s been raised since age five by a pack of werewolves. Part coming of age, part action adventure, with a side of supernatural romance.