On the surface, one would think that Jessica Strawser was perfectly placed to easily become a novelist. She was the Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine — someone who had incredible connections in the publishing world, and understood it inside and out.
But her reality is different than the fairy tale that we tell ourselves about how a writer succeeds.
Today, we are going to dig into her creative shift to becoming a full-time author. I can’t even express to you how excited I am to share my interview with her, it is filled with insights and inspiration that will help you on your own path in your writing life.
You can listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
- She describes her early days of attempting to write a novel: “I was the queen of having things that I started, and then would lose interest in them really quickly. I had so many false starts. I never stuck with it.”
- She developed a serious writing habit once she was married, had a full-time job and kids. I loved her response when she was thinking back on her youth, “I think back on all those nights where it was just me, in my apartment, with a bottle of wine, and I squandered it. I would start half a chapter and then watch Allie McBeal reruns.”
- What changed for her: “Wanting to be a writer is not the same thing as having a story that you want to tell. I don’t think I had a story that I felt compelled to tell”
- On writing her first novel: “I rewrote that thing for six years, and it never sold. But I learned so much while I was doing that.”
- To my surprise, she purposefully didn’t use any of her connections that she had through Writer’s Digest. In fact, she did the opposite! She hid her writing from everyone around her and purposefully submitted to agents that she did NOT know, instead of agents she did know. She described it as “a completely backwards approach.”
- She spent half a year submitting it to agents, and when she got a ‘revise and resubmit’ request from one agent, this is what she did: “I opened up a brand new document and I rewrote the entire novel. I took about 9 months to do that. Then he signed me on the revision.”
- She did sign with that agent. He started shopping it, “I slowly collected rejections on that novel for 18 months. While I collected those, I wrote another novel.” This is such a reminder of the sometimes glacial pace of a writing career.
- When that book failed to sell, this is how she describes her situation: “I had two novels and no agent. I actually thought about stopping — taking a break. It was really exhausting. I thought, maybe I should put this dream on hold for awhile.”
- When she signed with a new agent, they decided to not seek publication on Jessica’s first novel, and instead she went out with the second novel. “She sold it in less than two weeks in a pre-emp. It was the exact same manuscript that had been sitting on my hard drive for months while I tried to figure out what to do with it.”
- Her story of when she received the news of her book getting sold is the embodiment of how complex it is to raise a family, work a full-time job, and have a writing career on the side. I asked her about the moment when she found out her book sold to a publisher. She says, “Do you want to know reality? My daughter was one, she had fallen and tripped the carpet at daycare, and knocked out one of her four teeth. I get this call from daycare that my daughter knocked out a tooth and is gushing blood. I flew out of work, frantically calling dentists. She was okay, but she was just going to not have a tooth in that spot for about 8 years. When I got home, I was cleaning blood out of shirt, and my agent called and said, “What did I catch ya doin?” She then told me we had an offer. It was one of those days that you are caught up in the disaster that is your every day life. [To celebrate], we were going mattress shopping that night, so we bought a king instead of a queen. That was our splurge. It was very glamorous.”
- We talk about her experience in marketing promoting her books. “No one should underestimate the amount of attention and time that goes into marketing and publicity. It is a big undertaking and it is as much a part of the career as the actual writing is.”
- She describes this time when she was publishing one book, writing another, and working a full-time job as: “I think I was existing on the smallest possible amount of sleep that anyone possibly could.”
- When she left her full-time job to become a full-time author, it was not easy to shift her creative process from being an evening writer to a daytime writing. “It took me 6 hours to do what I used to do in 2 hours. I used to be able to use my day to prepare myself for those 2 hours that I was going to write after my kids were in bed. I would know what chapter I was going to work on, I would jot down notes, I would dictate to myself in my car on my commute. I would psyche myself up for it. I lost that [when I had all day to write.] I ended up clicking around on Facebook and the next thing you know, it’s lunchtime. I do have self-discipline, but I had to recalibrate, and there was a learning curve.”
- Her advice for writers: “One of the things I would see so often at Writer’s Digest is that so many people just want someone to tell them the way, the steps to take, the path to follow to get it done. But it really is different for everyone. Even if you head down a wrong path for awhile, that is what needs to happen to get you to where you are trying to go. It’s smart to be aware of how other people find their way, and how it usually works, while at the same time, don’t get too get caught up in it. You can get distracted by what other people are doing and if you aren’t careful, you can spend the whole day feeling like you are doing it wrong. But there is no such thing as doing it wrong. If you just keep at it — persistence is huge. You have to be bullheaded about believing in yourself, while also being open-minded and flexible in how you get it done.