How do you write consistently over a long career? How do you deal with huge ‘overnight' success on your 125th book? How do you balance faith and a great story when writing Christian fiction? I talk about these topics and more with mega-bestselling author Jerry B Jenkins on today's show.
In the introduction, I mention my writing diary at JFPenn.com/now, as well as the launch of my new audiobook ARKANE Thriller box set 1, with nearly 20 hours of audio. Longer books are definitely better for audio fiction. I recommend Sci-Fi and Fantasy Marketing podcast on What it takes to be a 6-figure author.
Want to use Scrivener to supercharge your writing and organize your book? Come and join me and Joseph Michael, the Scrivener Coach, for a webinar this Thurs 17 Aug at 3pm US Eastern / 8pm UK. Click here to register to join us live or to get the replay.
Today's show is sponsored by my own How to Write a Novel course, which I created while writing End of Days, so you get a behind the scenes look at how the book came together. One course member, Leigh Anderson said, “This course is exactly what I was looking for. I now feel well on my way to writing and completing my first draft. It has been a real breakthrough for me.” Check it out at www.TheCreativePenn.com/writenovel
Jerry B. Jenkins is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 190 books, with sales of more than 70 million copies, including the Left Behind series.
- The genesis of the idea for Jerry's best-selling series
- Tips for writing for the Christian market
- Reaching for the reader's heart when writing
- The motivation behind Jerry's writing guild for those learning to write
- The top two mistakes that new writers make
You can find Jerry at JerryJenkins.com and on Twitter @JerryBJenkins
Transcript of Interview with Jerry B. Jenkins
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com, and today, I'm here with Jerry B. Jenkins. Hi, Jerry.
Jerry: Hi Joanna, great to be with you.
Joanna: Thanks so much for coming on the show. Just a little introduction.
Jerry is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 190 books, with sales of more than 70 million copies, including the awesome “Left Behind” series.
Now you've probably written more than that now, Jerry, and sold far more, right?
Jerry: A few more, but I'm so busy teaching writing online now that I'm writing a little less.
Joanna: Yeah, well, we're gonna come back to that later, because that's awesome. But I wanted to start with the “Left Behind” series, because I was reading those books a number of years ago, and they've been instrumental in my own fiction.
How did those books come about, and why do you think they struck such a chord with readers all over the world?
Jerry: Well, this was really the idea of Dr. Tim LaHaye, who had been a pastor, and he was a nonfiction author, and he had spoken and written a lot about the end times over his career, and he'd had some pretty good selling books.
But he noticed that everywhere he went, people were reading novels, and he thought, “I wonder if I should try to put this in fiction form.” And he tried. Apparently either he did it himself or he got somebody else to help him and it just didn't work.
He realized he wasn't a fiction writer. And so, my agent called me one day and he asked me if I'd ever met Dr. LaHaye, and I had not, but I of course I was aware of him. He's a pretty famous evangelical here in the States. And so I said, “I'd love to,” and he said, “Well, he said he's a best-selling nonfiction author who has a great fiction idea, and you're a novelist with no ideas. So we need to get you two together.”
And we just, we hit it off immediately. He passed last year, right about this time. In fact, it was a year ago today that he died. The reason I know that is my oldest son's birthday is today and I remember how ironic that was.
But Dr. LaHaye was the age of my parents, so he died last year at 90. And so there was an almost an immediate father-son type dynamic there, and I loved the idea.
That's where the idea came from. I had been raised in the same tradition, so I believed the same way about the rapture, the church, and people disappearing and that type of thing. So it was really fun for me to get to write those.
Joanna: I'm fascinated with this, because when I read the books at the beginning, I was in a similar evangelical church, and back then, my beliefs were different and have changed over time.
I wonder about walking the line between writing about what many people believe is truth, but of course you can't know what's truth, because the rapture hasn't happened, yet.
How do you walk the line between faith, and truth, and also fantasy, and future apocalypse?
Jerry: That was the tricky line to walk, because obviously, we were writing about something that we believe will happen someday, based on Dr. LaHaye's interpretation of scripture. I'm not a theologian or a scholar, but I'm coming at it as a layman, but I agree with his view.
We decided that I would write the novels as literally as possible. He says, “Let's take it literally unless the scripture says otherwise. If it says it's like unto, then that's a comparison, but if it just says fire and blood and hail came from the sky, then that's what you write.”
We just went ahead and told the story, and basically what I was doing was putting fictitious characters in the way of these prophetic events. So I, in essence, had the grand outline. There was gonna be seven judgments…three series of seven judgments that come over a seven year tribulation period.
But we don't know exactly how quickly they follow one another, whether there are months in between, or days. And then, what would it look like if this happened just the way it says? So that's just the tack we took.
For one thing, we didn't think it would be so successful that people would care to comment on it. We thought it might be exciting.
I asked Dr. LaHaye early on, I said, am I writing to our tribe, the people who already agree with us and they're just gonna be encouraged by this, or am I trying to persuade people who have never heard of this or wouldn't believe it? And he said both.
I thought since I was talking to a theologian I'd act spiritual and I said, a double minded book is unstable in all its ways but I couldn't get him off that for a year.
In fact I had to put off the writing of this for a year because I got the invitation of a lifetime to assist Billy Graham with his memoirs. And I think had the publisher or Tim LaHaye known what would become of “Left Behind”, they probably wouldn't have let me do that. But they were happy for me to even say that, you know, that is a privilege.
But during that year I kept trying to tell Dr. LaHaye I need to know the audience I'm writing for and he kept saying both. And so all I could do when I finally got to it was simply do justice to his view and his position, and just tell the story and keep in mind that I'm writing to a lot of people who've never heard of this idea at all, and that might just be interested in the story. And I think that might have been the secret here.
The other part of your question was, what made it catch on?
As far as from the fiction standpoint, it's just a great story. I mean, if you just think about whether you know it's based on scriptural prophecy or somebody's view of it or not, it's a epic good versus evil story, and has the futuristic feel and the disappearing of people and where they go, and what's this all about.
In the first chapter, since this happens, all the people who would understand what it was are gone. So the language has to be not inside lingo, it's searching, scared to death people, wondering, “What is this?” and searching it out.
Then what we found was that people were fascinated by the end of the millennium coming. It's hard to believe the first book in this 16-book series came out in 1995, almost 22 years ago, it'll be in August. But people were already thinking about the end of the millennium, and we didn't see the connection, but everybody else seemed to.
They said the end of the millennium, people started thinking about the end of the world. I'm not sure why, but that really seemed to help. And then, you know, 9/11 came in 2001, and it brought some of the horror of some of the things I was writing about come close to home.
Here in the States, we've been separated from this kind of violence by either oceans or decades, and all of a sudden, here it is on our own shore today. And so, all that working together turned this thing into a phenomenon that we had no idea was coming.
Joanna: It's interesting that you'd say that. I remember I was reading Frank Peretti at the same time, “Running With the Demon” and things that were not in people's experience, but things that potentially had a basis in scripture.
And I think that they are good as, you could just read them as apocalyptic fantasy novels or almost thriller novels. And I wonder, are you seeing a resurgence in interest? Because that was obviously 1995, you know, I can understand the whole millennium thing. But now, we're also facing a interesting political time, and wars and rumors of wars and all of that type of thing.
Are you seeing that people still want these books?
Jerry: They really do. And the series continues to sell.
It did well over 60 million in its heyday, but the whole series is probably selling somewhere between 100 and 150,000 units a year ever since. And that's not like it used to be, but that's amazing for anything to even stay in print that long.
And the interesting thing here is that no matter who gets elected president over here, the other half of the country believes they're the Antichrist. And so, they write and say, “Doesn't this prove that, you know, Obama's the Antichrist, or Trump's the Antichrist, or Clinton?” or whoever's in office.
It literally happened, every time we had an election, we would get deluged with letters saying, “This must be the Antichrist,” and I'd go, “Yeah, you must be the other side of the political spectrum.”
And of course our feeling is that nobody's going to suspect the Antichrist. The scripture is clear that the first three and a half years of his reign, people not only don't suspect him of being the Antichrist, they think he's God incarnate, he's so attractive, and bringing peace, and all that stuff until his true colors come out. So, we're always happy to say, “If anybody thinks he is, then he probably isn't.”
Joanna: And that's actually quite good for book sales, because it doesn't matter who becomes president, it'll keep selling.
Jerry: That's right.
Joanna: Well, that's fantastic. But it's really interesting that when I was reading your biography because many people obviously became, or I heard of you, because of the “Left Behind” series, but I read on your bio that it was your 125th book. That's just crazy.
My question is many authors think that the first book they write, that it's gonna become a bestseller, and they'll be able to quit their job and be a millionaire, but you kind of walked this journey for 124 books before, I think, this was your biggest hit, right?
Joanna: How do you kind of stay the course over the long term writing career?
Jerry: This is going to sound falsely modest, but I really consider myself mono-gifted. I've got one gift, and that's writing. And so I feel obligated to exercise it.
For a long time, I was working full time, I was a vice president of a publishing company, and we published books, and I was writing on the side and churning out all these books. And some of them were fairly successful. We were going to be able to pay off our house and put our kids through college and that type of thing.
I was enjoying the career, and I thought having a better writing career than most, because most writers starve as you know. I'd had a few hits that weren't weren't New York Times bestsellers, but they'd sold six figures. I was enjoying my career, and this came along when I was in my mid-forties.
When it hit, I had had one New York Times bestseller before that, but it was nonfiction. It was a sports book. And so I'd had a little experience with success, but nothing like this. This just started to become an avalanche. You know, good book sales, people talk about they'd love to have a book that sells 100,000 copies, and they don't realize how unusual that is.
That's a career book. Well, when “Left Behind” took off, none of the previous books in the series went out of print, they just kept going. And the first book in the series, at the heyday of the sales, was averaging 275,000 sales per month, and the rest of them were similar.
So it was like, first we made a joke of it, “What are we supposed to do now?” and then it was…we really didn't know what to do. It was just overwhelming, the success of these.
I'm kind of glad it happened to me at that age, and not, say, mid-20s, because I don't know, and I'd like to think I could have handled it. But what it tended to do, when the first big results came in and it was like a million sales for the first three books total, that's pretty spectacular.
I remember feeling pretty good about myself, and then it just started to overwhelm like an avalanche, and it had a strange impact. It really humbled me. It was like, all right, this is clearly none of my doing, I mean, this is a confluence of time, this is something obviously God wants to happen. And so I just kind of got out of the way of it and quit trying to take any human credit for it.
Joanna: I've heard Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote “Eat, Pray, Love,” gets asked, “What do you do when you've written the biggest book you're ever gonna write?” How do you get back to writing something that you know won't sell as much as that? That is relatable to any author who feels like they've given everything to the last book.
How do you get back to the page at that point?
Jerry: Yeah, it's tricky. Publishers are almost apologetic, because some of my subsequent books have sold only a half a million copies. And I'm like, to me that's a dream. And being in the business, having been a publisher and all that, I knew how big it was, and so, they'd say, “Oh, sorry about the results,” you know, and I'd go, “Yeah, that's terrible that we only sold half a million.”
But, again, I think it's because I never wrote for material success, and my goals weren't bestsellers and award winners and big royalty checks. I mean, I love that stuff, it's been fantastic, but I used writing as a way to answer a call, and I felt like I obey just by doing it. The results aren't up to me. I can't make a book sell millions of copies, and all I can do is the best I can do.
And so, you know, there comes a time, in fact, sorry to be a name dropper, but I became an acquaintance of Stephen King through all this, and one time, I had written a book which I considered my magnum opus. It was called “Riven,” R-I-V-E-N. It's the longest novel I ever wrote, so even if you don't like it, you can use it as a doorstop.
I just felt like I'd given my all, and I thought, “I've got nothing else. I don't think, I can't think of another idea, and I don't feel like writing.” But I remember that every time, every few years, Stephen King sort of announces his retirement, and then, what do you know, a book comes out a little bit later.
And so I said to him, “What is that? What is this feeling of ‘I'm just done.'?” And he said, you know, “Believe me, I know the feeling.” He said, “Don't do what I do, and don't announce it.” Because the itch comes back.
You give yourself a few months, you get underfoot at home, your wife gets tired of you bandying around doing nothing all the time, and then you get an idea, and you just wanna get back into it. And that's what happened to me.
I'm a writer, and so it's what I do. I don't sing or dance or preach. This is all I do.
Joanna: That's great. And it's funny you say that about Stephen King, because his book, “The Stand,” is my favorite book, and of course that is a apocalyptic, that you could say has a lot of faith behind it, and good and evil and really interesting stuff.
There will be many people listening who are believers and who are writing in the Christian fiction market.
What do you think has changed in the Christian fiction market over the last few years? And if people want to write in the genre now, do you have any tips?
Jerry: I think the biggest change has been that people who criticize that market probably haven't taken a dip into it in the last decade or so, because I've lots of colleagues obviously in that market, and they're writing real, gritty, hard-hitting stuff that asks difficult questions.
Now, they haven't gone to the route of being too graphic, because people still want the sex and language to be relegated to the general market. But even in some Christian books where it would make sense, say you're setting a book in a prison, or in some situation like that, where there would be lots of language, we do have to jump through hoops to indicate what's going on but not actually use the words, because you can lose about a quarter of your audience automatically. They'll just be offended and say, “I'm not reading that stuff.”
But these authors are writing the gritty, hard-hitting life stuff, and not everything is all tied up in a neat bow at the end, and then there's not lots of inside lingo and scriptures throughout.
I would say somebody who wants to write in that genre but thinks that it's a little bit Sunday schoolish or whatever the term used to be, check it out, because publishers are getting bolder, and they want to reach people where they are, and we're facing a lot of tough social issues these days.
Joanna: That ties to the nonfiction, because you have a lot of nonfiction as well, including biographies, as you mentioned, Billy Graham, and Christian devotionals.
How do you balance those? Is one easier than the other? Do you pace them one each? How do you decide which one to do next?
Jerry: You know, usually it's I want to do something different than I've just done. In fact, when people say, I might be in the middle of writing a big novel, and somebody will say, “What's your favorite thing to write?” And I'll say, “Nonfiction,” you know, an as-told-to autobiography.
And then I'm into one of those, and they say, “What's your favorite thing?” And I say, “Contemporary fiction,” because you get so immersed in a book, that's the thing that still amazes me.
Having done over 190 books, I get about three quarters of the way through every one of them and wonder, “Why did I ever think I could do this?” It's so hard. I mean, it's just grueling, and you get to that point where you say, “I can't let it flag now. I owe it to the reader,” to keep the tension and keep things going and make it interesting, even through that what I call “the marathon of the middle.”
But it's so hard that while you're doing it, it's like, “I can't wait for this to be done.” I don't want to shortcut the process or not give what I need to, but I just want to be done with this so I can do something else.
And then the same thing happens with the next one. I just like variety. If a really interesting people book comes up, and it's a personality and a character that I like, I might take that on. But I still got novel idea, so I'll get back to those, too.
Joanna: And of course, you do a lot of research for both your fiction and your nonfiction.
How do you do your research? I think you have a book called “I, Paul,” which is obviously about Paul the apostle. And that's obviously set in the Middle East.
Do you travel a lot, or do you use books, or other resources?
Jerry: I use everything. I like to travel where I'm setting up a thing, because I've read too many novels where it's obvious the person is guessing. I read a novel where a guy had his hero in Chicago, in the loop, and he was being chased, and so he raced out of the loop in his car and he said he drove 20 miles east. Well, he'd be in Lake Michigan. So if he doesn't have an amphibious vehicle, he got that part wrong.
Being so far from the Middle East and those countries, I just need to go there and get a feeling for the culture and the climate and all that stuff. I do that when I can, and when I can't, I use everything at my disposal.
The internet has been fantastic, libraries are great, atlases, encyclopedias, tour guide type books. I had an experience where a very important scene in “Left Behind” needed to be set in Petra, the great city carved out of stone. And that's the one place I hadn't been. I just immersed myself with videos from people who took people there, and picture books and all that stuff.
I did the best I could on that, and I got a lot of gratifying letters saying, “Oh, it's obvious you've been to Petra.” And eventually, I did get to go, and it was really great and to see that those those things had done justice to this incredible place.
But usually, as I say, I like to have been there, just so I don't have somebody saying, “That never would happen,” and, “That's not where that's located,” and that type of thing.
Joanna: I think you have a signup on your website, don't you, that gives your tips for that type of research. I went and downloaded that.
Jerry: Yeah, I do. And pretty much the stuff I've just said, that if you don't do your research, your readers will notice.
Probably my best tip on research is, once you've done it, it becomes such a monumental thing in your life. For me to get to travel to the Holy Land or to go to Great Britain or whatever, it's a trip of a lifetime.
When you start writing, you want to show that off, and that's the wrong thing to do.
If all of a sudden, I've got two or three chapters on what it was like to write the great eye ferris wheel there in London, people go, “Well, apparently that's the last place he visited.” I encourage people to use research as seasoning, don't make it your main course. You just drop a few things in there so they know that it's accurate, and they get the feel of the place.
Joanna: I'm interested in your co-writing as well, because you've co-written with a lot of people, and it's interesting.
Co-writing is something I've started to do myself, and there are obviously pros and cons, and pitfalls, and you mentioned that you and Dr. LaHaye hit it off.
I wondered if you had any tips for successful co-writing or any things that have gone really badly wrong that people could learn from.
Jerry: It's going to sound unusual, because people assume that I've done all this co-writing, because I've had my name on books with other people.
I don't co-write. If my name is on that book, and it's fiction, I wrote every word. And if it's nonfiction, like a first person as-told-to autobiography even, I wrote every word.
Now, there is some fiction that I've done with another guy, Chris Fabry. He was a protege of mine. He wanted me to teach him to improve his writing. He's a radio guy. And he really is bright, and was a pretty good writer to start with.
So, I can't take all the credit, but he and I have done probably 50 books together, and in those, I list my name second, and he does all the writing, and I do a heavy edit and rewrite. So in that case, I'm in essence the editor, but an important part to the process.
But, what I hear about co-writing is that it can be a nightmare. And I don't want to lose friends. To me, the beauty, especially of fiction, you're creating your own worlds, and you're building your own stories.
Once in awhile you hear about sisters who do this, or best friends who do it, and it works out great. But you hear a lot of horror stories too.
I think it's really great in the beginning to just have it out. Who's gonna do the writing, who's gonna develop the story, how is this gonna work? And once you've settled on that and stay with it, I think that can make it successful.
Joanna: Someone doing the first draft and someone doing the edit, I think that is a quite a common form of co-writing. I know quite a lot of people who do it that way because of what you're saying.
I did another book with someone where we just took different points of view. So it is interesting how many different ways there are of doing it.
You obviously write fast, because you've put out a lot of books and you have a lot of books per year.
What is your writing routine like, and your working process?
Jerry: I don't write all the time like a lot of people do.
Stephen King, for instance, I think he writes at least something 364 days a year. I think he said he takes Christmas day off. And I accused him of being a slacker when he did that, but…and a lot of writers I know try to do that.
They write several days a week. I write only when I'm on deadline, when I've got a contract and it says it's due this, at this date, I keep that deadline sacred. I'd figure out how much time I'm gonna to need to do that, and once it's time to write, I get away from the office. Because I'm too curious, “Oh, who just drove up? Who's on the phone? What's in the mail?” I get away to my writing retreat, and I only write.
My day is basically, if I'm on deadline, I get up, crack of dawn, and sometimes I'll work out first, but whatever, the first thing I do, is I do a heavy edit and a rewrite of whatever I wrote the day before. And because I'm a fast writer, that can be up to 10 pages, which is a lot, and most people don't write that much.
But I don't go back to the rough draft and keep writing until I'm happy with those 8 or 10 pages that I've done the day before.
So, by the time I'm finished with the manuscript, I have done the rough write and I've done the rewrite for everything, just a few pages at a time. So now in essence, I have the second draft done.
And then I go back through from page one, make sure that I have engaged the reader's senses, that I've reached for the heart, that the logic and sequence and everything makes sense. Basically I'm trying to get happy with every word in the end, and then I don't transmit it to my publisher unless I'm totally satisfied.
It still has to be edited. Everybody needs another pair of eyes, and sometimes I'll miss big things, and they'll say, “Do you realize you had this guy in World War II and you talked about Japanese soldiers, but he wasn't in the Pacific, he was in Germany?” That's a pretty big mistake but that's how I work, and it works for me.
Some people need to write a whole draft before they go back and start over. My fear there is that when I'm in my second read-through, I'd find out that about third of the way in that I've made some big mistake, and have to write the whole rest of it again. So, that's why I do that.
Write one day, edit the next, and then that catapults me into writing. I wear two different hats. When I'm doing that heavy edit and rewrite, I put on my perfectionist hat, and I'm just a ferocious self editor.
But then as soon as I'm ready to write again, I just have to turn that internal editor off, and take off that perfectionist cap, and say, “Don't worry about mistakes, cliches, redundancies, anything, just get the story down. And it's a hunk of meat that's gonna need to be carved, but you can carve it tomorrow.”
Joanna: That's great. And one of the things you said there, you said, “Reach for the heart.” I think that's something that a lot of books are missing, and is the thing that almost separates fiction and nonfiction as well. Bad fiction doesn't reach for the heart.
How do you encourage your writing students to write that? And how do you reach for the heart?
Jerry: It's a very fine line to walk, because you can wind up doing it in a cliched way, where you set up artificial scenes just to make people cry or whatever. But I tend to quote Robert Frost, of all people, who said, “If there are no tears in the writer, there'll be no tears in the reader.”
And so, the way I know whether I've reached the heart is whether it reaches me. And especially since it's fiction.
I write as a process of discovery, and I'm a pantser, write by the seat of my pants, I don't outline in advance, I've got an idea where I'm going, I have a basic structure, but I want the scenes to surprise me, too, and for me to be moved, or disappointed, or shocked, or whatever by what happens with the characters.
If it moves me emotionally, I know it'll move the reader emotionally. And if it doesn't, then I say, “I've gotta look at this again and make it work without doing something phony to contrive it.”
Joanna: Obviously you've been writing for a long time. And publishing has changed a lot in that time. And you have a blog, a very active blog. You have social media profiles.
I wondered about your thoughts on book marketing in the current environment. I know you've said that some of your success has been none of your doing, and the results aren't necessarily up to you, but you do put yourself out there in some ways.
What do you think has changed in terms of how authors do have to do marketing?
Jerry: In many ways it disappoints me what's happened, because I'd love to see publishers look at new writers and new manuscripts solely based on the quality of the writing and the potential, the way they did when I was getting into it.
When you got an acceptance letter or encouragement from an agent or an editor, that made your week. “I'm making progress here, and I'm gonna get this done.”
Today, the first thing they wanna know is your platform. What kind of sphere of influence do you have? What are you an expert in? How many people read your blog?
And by the same token, if someone has a built-in audience, say they're a pastor of a huge church or they've got a radio show or a TV show, they don't even have to be good writers. The publishers'll say, “We want that audience. And so, what do you want to say to that audience? We'll put a writer with you, and there you go.”
But the fact is, it is a fact of life, and publishers, it's the publishing business is harder than ever for traditional publishers, so they have to be very picky, more than ever. The books they do have to work, and so they do look for that platform and visibility.
Some people say, “Well, I just want to write and leave that to them.” There are very few of us left who can do that because of our track records. And in a sense, as you say, I'm not really leaving that to them either, because I know, as visible as my books make me, I'm forgotten in two weeks if I'm not on social media.
My team does tweets, and we do Facebook, and, as you say, the blog, and my web site. It's just a fact of life.
One thing I try not to do, is to pretend I'm an expert in that book marketing and selling area. Because of my background, I haven't had to do it myself. But I love websites like yours and several others, there are some great ones in the States too, where they're just walking people through, “You're gonna have to sell this book. You need to contact the book dealers, you need to contact the distributors, you need to advertise yourself and get the book out there. And if you don't, it's not gonna go anywhere.”
I just limit myself to teaching, writing and self-editing. But I do direct people to great websites that tell them how to then turn around and market their own work, even if they're traditionally published.
Many are self-published, but that's even a worse problem, because if they think they can self-publish and just put a book up on Amazon or somewhere and then the money'll roll in, they find out very quickly that that's not gonna happen.
Joanna: The kind of disappointing moment for an author is that day after publication. “Oh. Nothing's sold.”
Joanna: I think that happens with a lot of traditionally published authors as well.
You have the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild, where you help writers become successful authors.
Why are you helping so many people, and what happens in the guild?
Jerry: I just felt I've been so blessed, and the industry and the business has been so good to me. I feel obligated to pay it forward.
And then once I started doing it, there's nothing I like more, because so many people want to be writers, and I see their writing and it's not good, but I realize, how could it be? They don't know. They haven't been inside. They don't know what things work and what things don't.
I just started saying gently, I don't try to be mean to anybody, but just forthrightly say, “Here's what needs to change to make this work.” And they responded so well.
So that's really why I started the guild. We have almost 2,000 online students now, and they pay a monthly fee. Of course my blog and that site is all free, people can get that anytime they want, but if they want a little more structure and specificity, and then that community, because they can interact with each other as well, that's what the guild provides.
Joanna: I wondered just off the back of that, what are the most common mistakes you see in new writers?
When people first feel like they want to write, what are the top mistakes they make?
Jerry: I think probably the two most frequent I see in fiction is they start a novel too soon in the story, instead of getting closer to where the action is and where the real inciting incident is. They feel like they need to set up a scene.
Maybe they're thinking of movies that start with a long shot, and then narrow down and you see a city, and then you see a neighborhood, and then you see a house. That works in the movies, because they can do it visually in a matter of seconds.
In a novel, if you try to describe that, you're going to bore the reader to tears. Now, there's a fine line there too, because if you simply jump into a scene, and it's a harrowing scene, and you've got your hero in trouble and all that stuff, the reader doesn't care yet, so you need to know how to make the reader care.
So, the biggest mistake I see then is people that do what we call “throat-clearing.” Instead of getting to the story, they're setting it up. They're describing the area, they're telling about the family, they're telling where this person fits in the family.
And then that goes along with the second mistake, and that's introducing too many characters too soon. If a reader is introduced to more than a couple characters in the first two pages, they all of a sudden feel, “Now, which one's which,” and they feel like they need a program to follow the cast of characters.
I've seen people introduce 15 characters in two pages, and they've thought about this for so long. They know where this person fits in the family, they tell their best friends and their brothers and sisters, and who who does what, and I just tell them, “I'm dying for a story here. So, you've got 400 pages to introduce these people if they're important to the story. But for now, let's stick with your main character and find out what the issue is.”
Joanna: That's so funny you say that, because do you know there are some books that seem to start with a list of characters. And whenever I've picked up a book like that, I'm like, “Ahh, can't read that.” I don't want a list of character names with who they are.
It's very rare, but when I've seen it, I've been like, “Why would they do that?”
Jerry: Yeah, yeah. It does kinda set you off. It's like if you're ready to just sit down and give your whole day for several weeks to this book, maybe that'll work. But, yeah, I'd rather they tell me a story early that makes me keep turning pages.
Joanna: Final question, just looking forward and into the future of publishing, because things are changing so fast right now, and of course you've got a lot of business online now, like many of us.
What are you excited about in terms of the writing community and what's happening in publishing and what's going forward?
Jerry: Well, like with most things and people, our strengths can be our weaknesses and vice versa. To me, I see it as a weakness that people can just write anything they want without any editing or input or proofreading or anything, and just put it online.
But on the other hand, there's no obstacle to getting stuff in print today. It used to be you write something and hope for the best, hope somebody would honor you by taking a chance on it.
Now, I encourage people to exhaust their efforts to get a traditional book deal, and if they can't, or if there's a reason that their book is valid, but it's gonna be a smaller audience, then it's perfectly fine to self-publish, and do it right.
But I'm excited about all the possibilities. It's just a wide open market, and if somebody really, really wants to be a writer, they can sure do it. There's all kinds of people teaching online, and there are all these avenues for them to publish when they get their book done.
Joanna: Fantastic. Right, so where can people find you and your books and advice online?
Jerry: Easiest place with me is just jerryjenkins.com. Now, my guild is jerrysguild.com, but you can get to there through my main one anyway. And when you get to the guild, often it'll say, registration would be open again in a few weeks or months or something, and so, better to just go to jerryjenkins.com, and there's all kinds of things there, an archive of things that I've done over the past few years, plus fresh stuff every week, so, look forward to seeing people.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Jerry, that was great.
Jerry: It's been fun to be with you, Joanna. Thanks for having me on.