I’ll never forget the first time I read Mark of the Thief. At the time I had never heard of the author, Jennifer A. Nielsen. All I knew was that I had seen the book on some reading lists and it was sitting on the bookshelf begging for attention. The trilogy flew by leaving me with that feeling of wanting more. Later I stumbled across The False Prince and after reading a few pages, I realized they were both by the same author. I read that series even faster than the previous. After that I started doing some research and discovered there were a lot more adventures where that came from. As a writer myself, I knew there was a lot to learn from someone like that, from someone who could pull me into stories in genres I never would have picked up otherwise. If you don’t know about Jennifer A. Nielsen, then you’re missing out.
I have read a total of nine titles by Jennifer and have loved every single one. It was because of this that I decided to reach out and ask her a few questions about why she writes and how she brings those adventures to life.
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Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
How did you feel when you first learned that your dream was coming true and you were finally going to be published? How did that feeling compare with when you discovered you had hit the New York Times Bestselling list?
For me, the road to publication was long and marked with a great deal of failure before I found my first success. At times I felt that the publishing world was a brick wall without a door and that I’d spent far too long banging against the bricks, unable to break in. So when I did, it was like finally knocking my fists against the wall and finding my way in – really an indescribable feeling.
Learning that I’d make the New York Times list was slightly different. It was a busy day and so I’d missed some phone calls from my editor. Finally, I saw a text from her that said, “WHERE ARE YOU?” It made me nervous that sometime awful had happened. So I was anxious when I called her back and then when she gave me the news, since it was so different from what I had expected, that made it extra wonderful!
I’ve noticed a theme throughout your books of snarky teens who have a certain disregard for rules. What has caused you to want to write such characters?
I just write the characters that are in my head, using their voices as they speak to me. And I write the kinds of characters that I like to read about, the kinds of characters that light up my imagination as I listen to them.
What does the process look like for you to take a raw idea and turn into a draft?
Every book is different, but in general, I start with the idea (and research, as necessary) and let that turn in my head until I begin to hear the main character’s voice. Once I have them, I begin to ask them questions about their world, about who they are, and then I listen as their answers start to put the story together for me. That’s the beginning of the outline.
One thing that is very consistent for me is that at this point, I go to the end of the story and force myself to come up with five possible endings. The reason I do this is it generates far more creativity from me than if I simply chose my first ending. Once I have that, then I start to fill in the blanks for the outline and then I start writing.
My first draft is pretty messy, and doesn’t always follow the outline as intended, but that’s because I let the character voices take things in directions I might not have anticipated earlier. I complete the first draft as quickly as possible then start in with rewrites. This is where I spend most of my time, fine-tuning and reworking and refining the details, and I am several drafts in before my editor sees the manuscript for the first time.
That’s when the real work begins…
If you were to trade places with one of your protagonist and be handed their task, who would you choose and why?
Oh wow – I’m so cruel to my characters, there isn’t one of them I’d want to trade with! Honestly, when I start a story, knowing what’s ahead for them, I feel like I need to apologize up front for ever having created them, even fictionally.
Is there anything that makes you cringe when you see new writers trying to get published?
For those who want to be traditionally published, the fact is that the final stage before getting an agent or getting a book contract is really difficult. It can beat up your ego, fuel every self-doubt you have, and wear you down. But for those who persist, who keep writing and finding ways to get better, they will eventually break in. I’ve met some amazing writers who have worked hard to learn their craft, write one or more full manuscripts, who have made the sacrifices of time and energy, and are maybe 95% of the way there. Then they bow out because of a harsh critique of their writing, or because of their growing pile of rejection letters as they try to get published. I hate seeing them give up because I have been exactly where they are and I know they are closer than they think they are.
There is a pattern of one-hit-wonders in the publishing world. You seem to be an exception to this trend with new, quality stories coming out left and right that get an audience. In your opinion, what has made you so successful?
I’m very grateful for the successes I’ve had, but philosophically, I don’t believe that success is a destination – a place you can arrive at and call it done. I’m very much in the camp that success – in any way the word is defined – is a journey, a constant climb from one summit to the next. With every project I do, my hope is that it carries me further up the mountain. Maybe because the book challenged me and taught me to be a better writer, maybe because the book made me a better person, or was discovered by a reader who really needed it, or maybe the book has great commercial or critical success. But any success I have had is because I am not settled with where I am. I want to keep climbing.
What has kept you writing for the teen audience?
I only write the books that fascinate me, that I would choose to read. I think books for young readers are some of the best literature out there – exciting and fast-paced and challenging new ideas and perspectives on the world. This is where I belong as a writer, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
Your historical fiction novels (and Mark of the Thief too) have all taken place in different time periods. What about those periods in history have fascinated you enough to dig deeper into what it was like then?
I love history and especially love discovering the unknown stories from the past – from whenever they take place. It’s like finding my own private gold mine and when I get to write the story, it’s me sharing this wonderful treasure of who we are and how we came to be where we are now. I am constantly searching for hidden history, and when I find something that begs to be written, I start down the wonderful rabbit hole of research.
With so many books and ideas, have your characters ever gone to war with each other in your mind, begging for attention during another project’s deadline? How have you handled telling him or her to wait?
Ah, welcome to my life. This is happening now for me, in fact. I’m working on a super secret project with a character that really wants my attention and doesn’t understand the concept of waiting. Usually when this happens, it’s because there’s a specific scene in my head that I know needs to be in that character’s book. So I’ve learned to pause from my current project long enough to write that one scene – even if it’s completely out of context for the time being – and then I can return more peacefully to the work in progress.
Several of your books are written from a male’s POV. How have you gotten inside their heads to bring them to life, when we all know a teen boy’s mind can be a scary place?
Haha! I rather think a girl’s mind is a bit scarier – we are so complicated about everything, which is part of what makes us awesome. But I do love this question. Soon after I released THE FALSE PRINCE, when I was relatively unknown in the book world, I once saw a blog that accused me of being a boy, stating there was no way a female author could have written that book with its male perspective.
I come at a lot of my writing from an actor’s point of view, and for an actor, playing a character different from oneself is part of the job, whether it’s stepping into a villain role, a person with radically different life experiences, or even playing a different gender. So to write from a male perspective, I simply do my best to walk inside that character’s head, as if I were going to portray him on stage.
Bonus: Now I have to fan-girl for a second. I won’t spoil anything for my readers, but the way The Mark of the Thief trilogy concluded left me wondering, have you ever considered going back to that world?
I have been asked this question, which surprised me because I felt it had a pretty final ending, but as I’ve looked at it through the eyes of readers, I can see how it suggests more books may come. So perhaps I will one day, though it’s not in my current project list
Thanks so much, Jennifer, for taking the time to answer my questions! However, I am even more thankful for the stories you continue to write for readers like me. I can’t wait to see what you write next. (I’m already waiting on the edge of my seat for The Deceiver’s Heart coming out in February.)
Have you read any books by Jennifer A. Nielsen? Which were your favorites?