Are you ready to finally finish that novel you’ve been dreaming about? We think it’s finally time to bring that story to life, and you can put yourself in the trusted hands of Janelle Brown to help you do so.
Brown’s debut novel, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything,
was a national bestseller and Library Journal named it one of the best books of 2008. Slate called her 2010 follow-up, “Enthralling… Brown is at her best when she is exploring the neurosis of the ambitious artist, and many who are struggling to make a life in a creative profession will find This Is Where We Live
to be almost uncomfortably familiar.”
A novelist, essayist and journalist, Brown’s writing appears regularly in The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Wired, Self, The Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. Previously, she spent five years as a senior writer at Salon, covering everything from the war on drugs and public policy issues to the digital music movement. She began her career as a staff writer at Wired during the heydey of the dotcom boom.
We recently had a chance to catch up with Janelle and ask her all our burning questions.
As an accomplished journalist and essayist, what was the biggest adjustment when you made your foray into novel writing?
Definitely trying to finding the dividing line between writing too much and not enough. As a journalist, you are limited by both the truth and the kind of information that you gather in your reporting — generally, if it’s a good bit of information, a nice detail, a fun piece of dialogue, it makes it into the final article.
As a novelist, your limit is simply your own imagination: it seems like there’s an endlessly infinite amount of material you could put into your book. The key for me was learning how to edit down, to decide what helped my story and what was just “filler” that didn’t do much for the bigger picture. I threw away a lot of material that I loved but that just wasn’t necessary.
Oddly enough, it was a passage in a book called Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media by Elaine Showalter. She wrote about chronic fatigue syndrome, and mentioned a family in which a mother and her three daughters all came down with the syndrome and never left the house for months at a time. I loved the hothouse feeling of this: all these women stuck in a house together over a summer, with only each other and their own issues for company. The mother and daughter relationship in extremis. And although I quickly lost the chronic fatigue idea, I gave my characters different issues and then shoved them inside that house in Santa Rita and shut the door.
I often think of a chapter as a “turn” — I tend to write long chapters that take place over a short period of time, focused around one specific turn of events or plot twist. I always ask myself: Where is the character beginning this chapter, and where is he ending it (both emotionally and in the greater narrative arc of the plot)? My belief is that it should always be in a slightly different place. So as I’m embarking on a new chapter, I make sure that there is a significant enough “turn” to change the direction of that character and the greater course of the book.
It can be a very small turn (a decision to get a job, a realization that a character really wants to save their marriage) or a big turn (a decision to kiss an ex-girlfriend, to tear up a $200,000 check). But it should always register a change in emotion and intention. That’s how a book keeps moving forward.
How did your writing process change from the first to second novel?
I got a lot faster! I knew what I wanted more clearly, and understood more how structure works. Generally, though, the process was the same: A lot of experimentation at the beginning, a lot of tinkering with characters and plot, and a lot of material that ended up in the garbage before the characters started “talking” to me and telling me where to go with the story.
What tricks of the trade do you use when you’re stuck for ideas?
I do a few things, consistently:
- Read other books. I can’t emphasize this enough. Great books often make me think about ideas and themes, which in turn helps me riff in new directions.
- Read the news. If anything, there’s a GLUT of ideas that you can get just off your daily twitter feed.
- Talk to people. This is the most important. When I start talking out my ideas to people (friends, fellow writers, whoever will listen to me) I often end up brainstorming with them, and typically walk away having unearthed a whole raft of thoughts I didn’t know I had buried inside me.
- Get up, spend three hours groggily drinking coffee, feeding two children and one husband, and attempting to get everyone dressed and off to school and work.
- Go to my office and spend an hour or two procrastinating by reading the news, my favorite design blogs, Facebook, occasionally idly thinking about my book, etc.
- Panic and realize that I only have four hours left in the day to get anything done before I have to pick up my daughter from school.
- Read the previous day’s writing. Do a little bit of editing. Hopefully feel inspired to continue on from this point.
- Write frantically for as many hours as remain.
- Spend the remaining part of the day again dealing with feeding and entertaining two small humans before collapsing into bed with whatever novel I’m reading.
Thanks, Janelle! That was inspiring! Join us as Writing Pad hosts A Novel Approach: Tackling the Long Format Writing Project
with Janelle Brown this Sunday, February 10th and March 3rd where she’ll share more of her secret techniques for crafting novels that are impossible to put down and for finishing the dreaded book length project. She’ll even give you feedback on your own work! Click the link above to sign up before it’s full.