How did you become a writer? I was a secret writer for many years. From age nine, when I wrote my very first unicorn-y story, until the end of high school, I kept my notebooks hidden beneath the clothes in my dresser drawers. When I went off to college, I majored in music (with an English lit minor) and started publishing a few poems in small journals—but I would never have dared to call myself a “writer,” and I still kept most of my writing safely hidden from others. There was a lot of it to hide by then; besides reams of poetry, I was writing short stories, working on adult novels, and trying my hand at comic books and plays. In my fourth year of college, I started work on a story for young readers that would eventually grow into my first published book: The Books of Elsewhere, Volume One: The Shadows. I dropped out of grad school when I finally realized that I didn’t want to be an opera singer, found a paid writing gig with a local arts weekly, and published more stories and poems. Within a couple of years, I had finished my English teaching certification, gotten a chapbook of poetry accepted by an academic press, polished up my manuscript for young readers, and found an agent. So that’s how I became a writer: secretly. Or sneakily.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Because of the whole secret/sneaky thing, I’ve taken very few writing-focused classes. Most of what I learned about writing came through extensive reading and lengthy, sloppy, sometimes embarrassing practice. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books—my mother was an English teacher—and I started reading early and voraciously: fairy tales, Milne, Carroll, Tolkien, Dahl, Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Bill Watterson. As a teenager, I fell head-over-heels for poetry, devouring Plath and Sexton and Eliot and Shakespeare, with hearty helpings of Salinger, Bradbury, Dickens, Vonnegut, Poe, Atwood, and the Brontes in between. Eventually I sought out books by writers on writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, Plath’s journals, Stephen King’s On Writing, everything by Annie Dillard. It’s a weird stew of influences, but that’s what has fed me.
When and where do you write? I’ve turned out to be a morning writer. Generally, I write at home, either in my office or at the dining room table. When I need a change of scene or an absence of homey distractions, I’ll head to a coffee shop. If I’m drafting something new, I try to cross the thousand-word threshold every day…although this doesn’t always happen. (I blame the internet. And the dog. And then I go to the coffee shop.)
What are you working on now? The fifth and final volume of my middle grade fantasy series The Books of Elsewhere was released this summer, so I’m getting to delve into some new projects at last. My still untitled YA novel will (probably) be published in early 2016, and between bouts of revision, I’m making headway on a draft of the first book in what I think may be a whole new MG fantasy series.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? The kind of writer’s block in which you stare, paralyzed, at the blank page?—no. The kind in which you are certain that everything you write is so humiliatingly awful that the authorities will arrive at any minute to take away your pens and paper and ban you from writing anything ever again?—yes. Accepting the fact that my first, second, or thirteenth drafts may be light-years away from what I had intended to write is a daily struggle. But the struggle is getting easier.
What’s your advice to new writers? Read widely and write widely. Experiment with genre and form. Try everything. Expect your first million words to feel like dreck; expect to spend ninety percent of your time revising and rewriting. You’ll get there.
Jacqueline West is the author of the New York Times-bestselling middle grade series The Books of Elsewhere (Dial Books for Young Readers). The series has been selected by the Junior Library Guild, received a CYBILS Award, and was named a “Flying Start” by Publishers Weekly. Her short fiction for young readers has appeared in venues including Spider and The School Magazine. A former English teacher and occasional musician, Jacqueline currently lives in Red Wing, Minnesota, surrounded by large piles of books and small piles of dog hair. Visit her at www.jacquelinewest.com.