Jennifer Ziegler is the author of Alpha Dog and How NOT to be Popular. Both books have been nominated for awards, and received positive reviews by Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly. Jennifer lives in Austin, Texas. For more information about her work, you can check out her website or blog. An excerpt of How NOT to be Popular is available here.
Tell us a little about yourself as a writer. Do you outline, or wing it? Do you write daily, or in snatches?
I do write daily -- or try to. Even if I just write a really long email to an old friend or a blog post, I have to at least compose something on a daily basis. It keeps up the momentum.
I used to never outline. When I was in school they would sometimes require us to do an outline with our paper. I would draft the actual paper and THEN do the outline. Now I'm the outline cheerleader! I don't do traditional outlines -- you know, the kind that begin with Roman numeral I, then subset A, etc. I simply do a chapter by chapter breakdown of the action before I begin my draft. It helps me map out the story and catch errors of logic or consistency. The more planning I do before I begin, the easier it is to write. This is not to say that I don't stray from my outlines -- I do, but usually in small ways.
When – and why - did you begin writing?
I was making up stories by the time I was verbal. So as soon as I learned to write, I was forever coming up with stories, essays, poems, cartoons, etc., and stashing them under my bed. As to why? I truly don't know. I just have to. I come from a family of born storytellers so it's in my blood. Whenever we have reunions we talk incessantly -- reliving past anecdotes and exaggerating slightly (or a lot). I see the world in stories. It's how I understand life.
Tell us about your process writing How Not to Be Popular. What inspired you, and what did you struggle with?
How Not to be Popular was inspired by my oldest, dearest friend, Christy. In the fall of 2005 she called from California to say she was getting married, so of course that triggered a whole series of giddy, lengthy, long-distance chats. Christy, like Maggie, moved around quite a bit when she was younger. I had always envied her worldliness, but later, when we were grown, she confessed that it could be tough. Well, I guess she was on my mind a lot, because one day I got a clear vision in my head of a teenage girl walking to school in a crazy outfit. The girl wasn’t Christy, but she was in a similar predicament: she was sick and tired of getting uprooted all the time, so she was purposefully trying to drive people away. I found myself so intrigued that I had to investigate this person and her world. What did she think would happen? What would happen? Who would she affect along the way?
I suppose my main struggle was in putting Maggie in difficult situations. You tend to both identify with and grow very fond of your protagonist, and it's tough to make him or her do bad things ... or stupid things. But you have to let the story unfold. As the author, you love your characters, but it's your duty to beat them up a bit. After all, if nothing major happens, there's no story.
How Not to Be Popular was an interesting story and actually reminded me of Stargirl, in an offhand manner. How did you find yourself writing about the subject of popularity?
Well ... as I said, the character of Maggie just came to me. After she appeared in her outlandish attire, purposefully trying to drive people away, I found myself needing to follow her and know more about what she was doing. I think I've always been fascinated with the theme of belonging and that of suppressing your real self in order to fit in (or not fit in, as in Maggie's case). What makes someone popular? Is it something you are born with? Is it what you wear or how you wear it? If you don't have it, can you get it? And if you are born charismatic, can you somehow turn that off? These are all things I explored in the book. I never try to drive home a point with my stories, but I attempt to be true to human nature as much as possible.
What was it liked getting published? What was your publishing journey?
I feel as if I tiptoed in the back door of the publishing world. Depending on how you look at it, How NOT to Be Popular is either my second book or my nineteenth. I started out doing work-for-hire writing on teen series such as Fearless, Sweet Valley High, etc. After a while I pitched my own story ideas to some of the editors I had worked for and ... here I am! However I would stress to anyone hoping to get published that you really need a good agent these days. I got lucky in my roundabout journey, but that doesn't work for everyone. I have a wonderful agent now and it makes things much easier.
Here on Headdesk, I have a minor obsession with the rules of writing. Is there any particular rule you write by?
Many. Some I'm great about following, others I'm still trying to adopt. I shall share two:
1.) Know thyself. If you fear rewriting, spend much more time on your outline and self-edit as you write. If you hate outlining and don’t fear rewriting, do the opposite. If you tend to procrastinate, make sure you set up a prewriting strategy that works for you and break the process into even smaller tasks. Don’t get trapped on one of the steps, i.e., mired in prewriting where you talk about the book and endlessly plan for it but never write it; or stuck in writing where you don’t have an outline or map and your draft meanders; or stuck in editing where you get too much feedback and talk it to death; or stuck in rewriting where you change it over and over and lose your sense of it. Sometimes you need to walk away from your work for a couple of weeks or months to regain perspective.
2.) Write invisibly. The best books are the ones that seem to come alive and pull you into their universes. However, if readers are too aware of the storyteller, they can only immerse themselves to a certain depth. Writers have to fight the urge to make it all about them. If your writing is too clever, too showy, too self-aware, the story will lose emotional impact. You should fall in love with the story, not your own prose.
How do you handle writer's block?
This is something I've had to learn to deal with over the years. Whenever I feel “stuck,” I go through the following steps:
A) Go for a walk/ start a load of laundry/ get into some yoga positions. Sometimes physical activity will clear my head and get things flowing again.
B.) Move from the computer to that favorite spot by the window. I’m not sure why, but a simple change of setting sometimes works for me. I usually write at the computer, but I often write very tough sections in a spiral notebook. This makes it easier to move around and get into a comfortable position. Plus, I’m able to still see the sentences I’ve crossed out. Often I can resurrect an idea I had tried and abandoned earlier and make it work. This is impossible on a computer since the “delete” function makes text disappear forever. Once I’ve finished the problem section I can add it to the draft copy on my computer.
C.) Skip the section that is giving me fits and move on to one that isn’t. There is no rule that you have to write chapters in linear order. Often I will leave gaps in my draft. This allows two things to happen: 1.) I don’t waste time and energy on a difficult scene and get so frustrated that I start to doubt myself or the project; and 2.) By continuing to write, I build up momentum. This momentum increases as I move through the draft. Soon I’m so immersed in the story’s “universe” it is easy to go back and write those abandoned sections.
D.) Replot. Often if the story fizzles out it means there is a problem with the plotting. Unfortunately, this probably means that a major overhaul of either the draft or plot outline is required. But sometimes major surgery is the only way to save the life of a book!
How have you grown as a writer?
Great question! I've learned so much about myself and writing in general over the past several years. I've created a "process" that works very well for me. I've discovered my strengths and learned how to work around my weaknesses. But more than that, I've learned to love the writing life. I have a greater understanding of what it takes out of me to create these tales, so it's gotten a little easier to meld it with the demands of motherhood, marriage, etc. And, happily, it never gets old -- it never feels like "just a job." I love disappearing into different worlds and meeting all these virtual people. It's like living extra lives!
What's next for Jennifer Ziegler?
I have two more Y/A novels in the works. I'm also doing lots of traveling and speaking engagements. I really enjoy reaching out to readers at schools, libraries, and book festivals. I meet the most interesting people who ask the most inspiring questions.
If knew you a teenager who aspired to be a novelist, what would you say to them?
In my opinion, there are three simple things that any aspiring novelist must do: Write and read and live life.
Read to understand good storytelling. Read several types of stories – of different genres, different formats, and different time periods. You don’t have to pick books apart as you read them. Just expose yourself to the voices and rhythms of other authors.
Live life to find your own stories and voices. Meet and observe people. Take in your surroundings. Ask questions such as: “How did this come to be?” “What if THIS had happened instead of THIS?” “What was going through that person’s mind?” You’ll soon find that there are all kinds of tales to be told – fiction and nonfiction.
Write to write. Like anything else you must practice it in order to get good at it. Keep a journal or blog. Write letters, even if they are to no one in particular. Find your comfort zone – a way of writing that feels like it fits you. Maybe you are a poet. Maybe you love to research and delve into the past. Maybe you are gifted at building suspense or crafting a hard-to-solve mystery. And when you find your voice, you’ll know it. Because it’s always been there waiting for you to release it.