Jolie O'Dell

How did you become a writer?

I wrote my first "book" when I was six years old. It was a short story called "The Perfect Day," about a girl named Lucy. I recall that there was ice cream involved.

After that, I just assumed that writing was one of the things I was good at, so I tried to get better and better. I wrote a lot of poetry through high school, college, and young adulthood; some of it wasn't garbage. 

When I got to university, I was originally studying music -- operatic vocal performance, to be precise. But my bones didn't develop in a very operatic way, and my voice remains too "small" for opera. So at 19, I switched my major to journalism, a more interesting and practical application of my second skill, writing. It turned out to be a ball, and I was hooked.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I steeped myself in the classics and newer classics as a moody teenager, from the Greek tragedians to Keats to the Bronte sisters to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to the socialist writers of the 1890s-1930s. The literature was sometimes over my head and often overly dramatic, but I guess it was as good a place to start as any.

Nellie Bly really captured my imagination; she was the original gonzo journalist who got herself committed to an insane asylum in order to write an exposé on the conditions there. I also read (going back to the socialists) some Upton Sinclair and the like, which really got me thinking about how writing can be a tool for improving quality of life for all humans.

I have always really loved reading novels and plays that accurately depict dialog. Sinclair Lewis used to plant bugs in houseplants at parties and then transcribe ordinary conversations; he understood that our vocabularies and cadences of speech are fascinating and unique. It's something I try to depict faithfully in writing up interviews these days.

My writing is also full of literary allusions to two of the oldest, most beautiful, and yet most common sources: Shakespeare and the Bible. They're a huge part of Western culture, and it always surprises me when writers aren't well-versed (pun intended) in those sources.

Lately, I've been working my way through a few books for journalists/non-fiction writers. One is called Telling True Stories, on narrative journalism, and I highly recommend it to mid-career writers in danger of burnout. I've also picked up and am working on the autobiography of legendary journalist Belva Davis and a book on circular essay writing.

When and where do you write?

Since writing is my day job, I write when I have to, especially when a deadline is breathing down my neck. I can crank out 400 half-decent words about anything in 15 minutes with enough external pressure! I get especially excited about writing breaking news; you're in this invisible race with dozens of people, all of you scrambling to publish the story first, yet some of you are still trying to publish the BEST story as quickly as possible. It's a huge adrenaline rush; it's like extreme journalism or something.

Often, I'll procrastinate and do my writing late at night or on a lazy Sunday. I work on my books in the evenings and on weekends; the same goes for personal blog posts. I don't have very much energy left over for creative writing -- stories, poetry, songs. For professional writers, I almost feel like there's this unwritten rule, a daily or weekly word count that your own psyche won't allow you to exceed. I personally have to tap out between 4,000 and 7,000 words per day; I'm brain-fried.

What are you working on now?

I have two books in the works, and I'm also collaborating on an EP with my fiancé and bandmate-for-life. I'm trying to put together a magazine column for a rather reputable publication, and of course I'm a daily writer for VentureBeat, writing about all the exciting technology news happening in San Francisco and around the world. My newest project is something I'm particularly excited about: an interview series that will bring some really edgy narrative stories into our usual mix of matter-of-fact reporting. It'll also introduce a new cast of characters or archetypes beyond the usual suspects of Silicon Valley power players. Stay tuned for more! It's going to be quite different.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

HAH! Every day! It's why I procrastinate and why deadlines are so important to me. I coined a saying we have in our newsroom: "Writers' block is just laziness in a different hat." In other words, the best way to cure your writers' block is to shut up about how you can't write, sit down, and start putting ANY words onto a blank page. You can edit later, but you need to get started now. The fact that I can't really afford the luxury of writers' block is the only way I am able to churn out decent stories most days.

What’s your advice to new writers?

To new professional writers: Don't. Go into finance or law. Let writing be your hobby; you deserve to eat. To new hobbyist/side project writers: If you're new, your writing probably sucks; you'll look back in a year or two and cringe. Still, don't listen to criticism unless it comes from a true friend or someone who's paying you to write. Contrariwise, make sure your friends/teachers/mentors can give you honest crits and that you can take them well. Don't be a crybaby; aggressively work to make your writing better.

BIO: I'm a journalist currently writing about technology and finance. I'm a published poet (two self-published books and several poems published in periodicals), and I've published one book on photography. I'm currently halfway through with a new photography book, and I'm also under contract to write -- clutch your pearls and gasp! -- a "housewife" manual for the modern, single man or woman.