Denise Jaden

denisejadenpr (1)Denise Jaden

Interviewed by Michael Reyes-Smith

Denise Jaden is a master of the fast draft. Her first novel Losing Faith was drafted in under thirty days during one National Novel Writing Month. Since then, Denise has penned four other young adult novels as well as several writing guides including Fast Fiction and this year’s Story Sparks: Finding Your Best Story Ideas and Turning Them into Compelling Fiction. Denise balances her writing with working part-time in the film industry background acting, as well as homeschooling her son, and dancing with a Polynesian dance troupe. I asked Denise about her relationship with writing, including her style, her process, and the workings of the fast draft and YA.

What was the first thing you ever wrote for yourself?

Growing up, I always saw writing as a chore or an assignment. I didn’t keep a journal, and I didn’t equate “enjoyment” with neither reading nor writing. It’s only in the last fifteen years or so that I found a love for both.

I attribute the change to “pregnant brain.” When I was pregnant with my son, I was struck with an insatiable desire to write things down—to-do lists, true stories, fiction, poetry, you name it. At that time, I wrote a very badly crafted novel, but I wrote it just for me, just for the enjoyment of writing. I have taken bits and pieces, plot points and character traits from this novel over the years and used them in other stories, but this first novel itself will likely never see the light of day.

What was the first thing you wrote where you thought “I can make something of this?”

Well, believe it or not, that first badly crafted novel went through many drafts of revision where I had high hopes before I gave up on it. I learned a lot about writing during that time, and met several other writers who were pursuing publication. They convinced me to give it a try, and I ended up submitting this book to many agents and editors. Eventually, I started a second novel, and only then did I gain some perspective on how much work the first one still needed. By that point, I had run out of steam for working on the first.

My second novel Never Enough was actually my third to get published. My third novel Losing Faith was the first of mine to get picked up by a publisher.

What is the most frustrating thing about writing for you?

For me, frustration comes from trying to rework a story that I’m tired of or overly familiar with. Characters and their journeys get stuck in my head the way they’re written, and I sometimes can’t see past them to other options.

I have some great critique partners who often help me through this. A long conversation goes a long way in helping me to see my book through another person’s eyes.

Was there ever a time you seriously considered giving writing up?

Haha, yes, almost every week! Actually, to be honest, I rarely think about giving up writing, but I often think about giving up on getting my writing published. There are many frustrations with working in the overcrowded area of book publishing right now (but there are also some great opportunities in this new digital age—and I try to remind myself of this.) There will always be times when I retreat from social media and all thoughts of sharing my work with the world. For me, I think it’s part of my natural process.

What is your personal relationship with the writing process? Is it expression? Didactic? Purely entertainment?

I see writing as my best avenue for connecting with other people. I’m a quiet, introverted person in everyday life, but I have a lot going on inside me. I’m just not always sure of how to express it in conversation. My characters don’t always believe what I believe, but the disparity helps me see the world from different angles, and then, in turn, I feel like my books get to express some depth of thought on a variety of subjects. I love seeing reviews where a reader has really connected to a particular character or plot point. It makes me feel like I’ve succeeded.

When you are working on something, how much do you keep the reader in mind? Do you think about a target audience, or about how your previous works have been received?

On first drafts, I never think about a target reader. Sometimes when outlining, I brainstorm settings and character traits that might be appealing for my readership, but once I start the drafting process, I like for my story to come out as organically as possible, without boundaries.

I’ve learned a lot from working with a variety of editors in the young adult market, though, and have kept notes on the types of changes I have made. When I come to the point of revising, I definitely keep a keen eye on what will work best for my target audience using the editorial wisdom I have gleaned over the years.

Do you have a writing soundtrack? Is music or some other background noise a help or a hindrance?

For me, music is a hindrance. Lyrics are especially distracting, but even the tone of instrumental music can pull me out of a story while I’m writing. I do, however, like to listen to music when I’m brainstorming a specific story, and I have been known to create playlists for this purpose.

During the actual writing, though, all I like to hear is the buzz of my trusty space heater.

Did you have a genre or style that you aimed to get into when you started writing?

That first badly written novel I talked about earlier was—officially—an adult contemporary novel, starring a thirty-year-old man. However, as I shared it with critique partners, the one common response I received was, “Are you sure this isn’t YA?” I argued that it was starring a thirty-year-old man, so it couldn’t be YA. It wasn’t until I wrote my next novel—intended to be a young adult novel—that I realized that age group truly did feel right for me.

As for genre, so far I’ve stuck pretty closely with contemporary realism. I’ll never say never, but I don’t generally gravitate to stories that are outside the realistic world for pleasure reading, so I don’t see myself writing those types of stories either.

Was YA ever a conscious choice? Or a label attached after writing?

I guess I pretty much answered this above. All I can add is that I have a very strong inner teen that voices herself in my writing effortlessly, so it would probably take a lot of editorial work to mold the voices of my stories into something older or younger.

Why do you think your writing voice fits YA so well?

Here I go again, answering a question before it’s asked! If you talk to me, you’ll pretty quickly hear that I don’t speak like your typical forty-something woman. (I don’t dress like her or act like her either. LOL). Aside from writing, I also dance with a Polynesian dance company where many of the members are teens. I think working in a professional capacity with people this age has helped keep my essence young.

I also love seeing young people who are pursuing something they’re passionate about. The first time I noticed this draw was when sixteen-year-old Avril Lavigne came on the music scene. I wanted to see her achieve great things. I watched her journey with interest and took notice of how fame and her very public life changed her and her music. I’ve had the same experience with other teens I have known personally, as they’ve pursued different goals. I’m smitten with them and their growth, and it’s better for me than watching any movie.

But, honestly, that may be reaching as far as explanations go. I don’t know exactly why my writing voice fits well with YA, but I’m glad it seems to resonate.

What does YA mean to you today?

I’ve always thought that the young adult/teen years come with a bunch of universal and timeless emotions. It’s a time of firsts: first kisses, first loves, first driver’s licences, first rebellions, first true taste of adulthood. I still enjoy reading Judy Blume books as much as I enjoy many contemporary YA authors, because many of these universal themes are present, and I love experiencing these “firsts” with the teen characters.

Why do you think it emerged as its own distinct branch of literature?

The teen years are so unique. Teens are not kids anymore, but they’re not quite adults either. It doesn’t surprise me that there was a demand for literature that represents this unique age, because their propensity is often to think nobody understands them. We all want to feel like someone in the world understands us. We all want to see ourselves in some respect in the books that we read, and teens are no different.

NaNoWriMo puts a lot of pressure on high-mass writing. What is the draw in that for you?

I think I was born a goal-setter, but when my critique partner first suggested trying to draft a novel in a month, I admit, I thought she was Crazy with a capital “C.” I told her I like to set goals that are possible. But somehow, she convinced me, and I gave it a try. The idea of writing a novel this quickly can feel overwhelming, it did for me the first time, but it worked well for a few reasons:

It made me push past my perfectionist nature. While I had spent a lot of time writing and re-writing my first novel and allowing my perfectionist side free rein, that novel ended up with a slew of unfixable problems that I was too close to in order to have perspective. Writing a novel quickly means you’re not overly attached to any of it, and, in fact, I have so much distance from my own fast-drafted stories, quite often I don’t remember writing much of them. This allows me to see my stories from a reader’s point of view. (More than once, I’ve been reading my own stories, and said to myself, “Oooh, I wonder what happens next!”)

And did I mention I’m goal-driven? I truly do get a lot accomplished by giving myself an ambitious goal. But I think the biggest reason I love fast-drafting is because it helps me find solutions that are buried in my subconscious. When you have time to sit back and think about all your plot points and character developments prior to writing them, it’s all on a very conscious level, and in many ways, I default to reaching for the easiest solutions. Fast-drafting seems to help me bypass that level and the writing flows from a different part of my brain altogether. Wild and crazy ideas come to me during the writing and I’m willing to throw them in to give them a try. I’m not sure how else to explain this process, but I highly recommend all writers give fast-drafting a try before deciding it’s not for them. (If you’re not sure where to start, check out my book Fast Fiction, chalked full of ideas based on my own experience with fast-drafting).

What is the most important thing about being able to do a fast draft?

I think I answered this above (again!) but to recap, fast-drafting helps me get a lot accomplished in a short amount of time, helps me see my stories as a reader would, and helps me come up with unique solutions from the back of my mind.

What do you consider to be the difference between work, a job, and a career? And how does writing fit into those ideas for you?

I think I’m in the minority here, but even though I make an income from it, I still think of my writing as a hobby. I’ve always felt that creative ventures don’t thrive under a lot of pressure, so I try to keep this attitude in able to accomplish my best writing. I figure I can always do something else to make money, but I may not be able to do my best creative work if paying my mortgage is dependent on it.

That said, I always wished for a job where I could get paid to sit around and write without any pressure. It was a fleeting wish—I didn’t think a job like that actually existed. It turns out it does! Lately I’ve been working part-time in the film industry doing background acting. I spend hours per day in a holding area, perched behind my computer until I’m called to set. Not only does this allow me a lot of uninterrupted time to write, but it’s also great being around such a creative atmosphere. I really do love my life.

With such a range of experiences, from Polynesian dance to mushroom farming, are there any specific experiences you find that you draw particular inspiration from?

I think I draw more inspiration from people than experiences. My husband loves studying people, and specifically their personality types, and we chat about this regularly. When I talk with new people, I’m often intrigued by how they speak and gesture, and what their countenance says about them. I don’t model characters after specific people, but I think this everyday study helps flavor my characters.

On a more tangible note, my Polynesian dancing has taken me traveling through much of the world. This has led me to exploring some different locations in some of my novels, such as Foreign Exchange, which is set partially in Spain and Italy.

I don’t foresee writing a novel about a mushroom farmer, but you never know!

What aspects of your personal life influence your style and content the most?

At the moment, the film work is probably the biggest influence. I sit with different people every day I’m on set, and get to hear bits of their stories. I get to watch how actors portray characters and how changing gestures and tone of voice can affect a scene. I love meeting new people every day and being reminded of how deeply varied we all are.

Do you ever get stranded when a moment of inspiration strikes and you can’t immediately devote time to work on an idea?

I would love to have hours alone with my laptop every time inspiration strikes, but that’s just not realistic. I have an app on my phone I use (Google Keep) where I file ideas away under Characters, Settings, Motives, or Obstacles. Rarely do I have time to fully develop these ideas, but I have zillions there waiting for me when I’m stuck for one of these components. Some writers are stuck for ideas but struggle with sitting in front of a blank page or screen feeling blocked. I’m the opposite. I have a million ideas, but I’m always wishing for more writing time. To tell you the truth, I prefer it this way. I’ll never get to tell all of my stories, but I love feeling eager each time I sit down to write.

Are there any forms you haven’t tried yet that you would like to in the future?

I don’t think so. I’ve tried adapting one of my novels into a screenplay. I didn’t love writing that form and I think there are many people who are far more talented with it. I’ve also written short stories, but I felt like I couldn’t get to the depth of my characters with those. I write some poetry and songs, but those are more for personal enjoyment.

My true love is novels. I don’t see that changing, but again, you never know where life will take you!

Michael Reyes-Smith is a student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He is compiling a collection of short stories while finishing his Bachelor’s degree. When not looking back into the histories of his mixed heritage, he enjoys hiking and cycling, taking inspiration from the forested ranges of BC.

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