Jennifer Lynn Barnes sold her first novel when she was still in college, just before her 21st birthday. Jen’s just published her ninth novel for teens: Every Other Day, which you can begin reading on Figment here, about a teenage demon hunter who’s a part-time regular girl. Jen’s in the position to offer some valuable advice to aspiring authors, so take advantage of her crazy-busy, crazy-awesome personal experience.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for more or less as long as I can remember. There was a brief time when I was four that I wanted to be a veterinarian, but from the time I learned how to physically put words on a page, writing—and being an author—was The Dream. By the time I was in middle school, I’d started dozens of novels, but continually fell prey to a condition I refer to as “The New Shinies.” I’d get a few chapters into one book, only to get a NEW idea that was BIGGER and BETTER and, well, SHINIER than the previous one.
It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I finally committed myself to finishing a book. I started on a new project and decided that I wasn’t allowed to start anything else—no matter how SHINY!—until I’d gotten through an entire draft. Suddenly, the New Shinies became my motivation to finish, because I couldn’t wait to get started on those shiny new projects, and I couldn’t start them until I’d finished the old one.
I think finishing that first book was probably the single biggest turning point in my career as a writer—bigger than selling my first book and bigger than everything that has come since, because I discovered that as much fun as the first few chapters of a new book were, for me there is nothing like the rush of writing the end. My memory of how satisfying it is to write the final scenes of a book, where everything comes together and the plot takes a few final twists, has gotten me through writing the middle of every book I’ve written since.
But while finishing that first book was the biggest step I’ve ever taken as a writer, it was just the first step toward getting published. At the time, I had no idea how many query letters I’d end up writing—or how many books I’d end up writing before I finally got my first “yes.” Ultimately, the magic number was seven—seven completed manuscripts written between my senior year in high school and my sophomore year in college, when I wrote Golden at age 19. It was another 20 months (and drafts of three more novels) before I managed to sell Golden, days before my 21st birthday.
Sometimes people ask how I managed to keep writing, when rejection after rejection kept pouring in. The answer is that writing became part of my daily routine: I slept, I went to class, I hung out with my friends, I did school work, and I wrote. Rejections became routine, too. In my mind, “writing” became “you write a book, and no one wants to publish it, so you write another one.” I always had a new project underway, so the rejections didn’t sting quite so much, and if I thought about quitting, it was always “after I finish this one.”
Suffice it to say, by the time I’d finished “this one,” I was usually chomping at the bit to chase after a New Shiny. I spent far more time writing than I did thinking about publishing, and that kept me sane, because writing made me happy in a way that researching the industry or writing query letters did not. By my junior year in college, I’d fallen into the habit of writing from two to four in the morning, almost every night. I tried to pick classes that met later in the day, so that I wasn’t completely sleep-deprived, but I liked knowing that the only thing I was missing out on was sleep. I didn’t want to look back ten years later and realize that I’d missed out on all of the best parts of college because I was writing all of the time, and I didn’t want to get in the habit of thinking of writing as something I “had” to do when I’d rather be doing something else.
When I finally did get that first “yes,” writing was already a firm part of my daily routine, so it wasn’t that hard to find time for revisions and writing the next book and so on. Now that I’m in grad school, people frequently ask me, “How do you balance writing and school?” and I’m not entirely sure what to tell them, because I’ve been doing both for my entire adult life. I don’t really know what it’s like to be a writer and not be a student, too.
Ultimately, I think the best present I’ve ever given myself as a writer was finding another pursuit that I was just as passionate about as I am about writing. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but in college, I fell in love with cognitive science (the study of the brain and thought). At some point, writing stopped being The Dream, and it became A Dream. That didn’t make me any less of a writer, and it didn’t stop me from getting published. Instead, my research and class work has kept me sane when writing and publishing and everything that involves was threatening to make me crazy. And the experiences I’ve had in grad school (like spending summers on an island full of monkeys or working as a teaching fellow for a class called “Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature”) have inspired me as a writer and given me a unique perspective and exciting things to write about.
That’s why when teens ask me for writing advice, I always say three things: read a lot, write a lot, and find things you love to do that aren’t reading and writing. Everyone’s experience and journey to publication is different, but I think loving what you do and living a full life is a good place to start.