Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Jen Vincent - Writing Wednesdays

I met Jen Vincent in 2011 at NCTE in Chicago. Jen was someone I had talked to online, but I was thrilled to get to know her better in person. Since then she and I have roomed together at writing retreats, debated whether we were Team Bear or Team Rabbit, met up for author signings, attended countless conferences across the country, and she’s even stayed at my house and visited my classroom. Jen is the best kind of friend to have, she is a constant cheerleader for me and I’m always in awe of her ideas and the new directions she is moving in. Please welcome Jen to the blog!
Jen, Franki, and Bill at a writing retreat


Talk to me about your writing life - what does it look like?
Right now I’m sitting at my kitchen table. In front of me sits my MacBook with a zillion tabs open. I’m glad you can’t see them but I have them open because I need them! For example, I have an email open to a friend I need to respond to, I have Facebook open because I was looking for inspiration in a writing group I’m in, I have my blog open because I have a post I’d like to write. I’ve also been working on a new draft of a picture book and a new draft of a novel and some non-fiction writing for my National Board renewal. As you can tell, writing is in all parts of my life. The tabs don’t lie.

Similarly, under my right elbow, is a writer’s notebook I use for gathering writing to share with students and notes for mini lessons. It’s a beautiful not-quite-red pink with teal and pink flowers. To my left I have a stack of notebooks I’ve been carrying around lately. I have a big turquoise notebook I’ve been using to capture my learning from the Eñye Dream Accelerator coaching program, a sweet yellow notebook with a typewriter on the cover where I gather ideas and brainstorm and try things out (this is my true writer’s notebook), a small black notebook with some day-one day ideas for Story Exploratory, a creative writing space I’m creating, and a red notebook I use as a bullet journal where I outline things I want to get done. While I adore my laptop, putting pen or marker to paper in my notebooks fuels my creativity in a different way.
As a mom with a full-time job, I’m the kind of writer who steals time to write. I write when I can and I nudge myself along and celebrate progress based on what I’m working on. If I’m revising, I celebrate the minutes I put in. If I’m drafting, I celebrate the words get out. I also have an accountability partner who I check in with most mornings to share what I worked on the day before. I’m disciplined when it comes to getting things done but not in terms of consistency. I don’t write at a certain time or at a certain place or a certain way. That might be because it’s my style or it might be because I’m trying to figure it out. I’ve heard others say just because you write a book, it doesn’t mean you know how to write. You just know how to write that book. Other books might be different. So I’m still learning about myself as a writer but I’ve tried pantsing and I’ve tried plotting and I think I’m somewhere in between. But I’m also the kind of person who likes to have lots of projects going.

While I’m at my kitchen table writing right now, it’s not the only place I write. I have a tv tray table set up in my bedroom with a chair where I write a lot but I’ve also been known to write in my laundry room after reading how it worked for Stephen King. I would say my all-time favorite place to write is a coffee shop and with a friend. I love the ambiance, the people, the sounds, the energy. I also really love a good soy mocha.

Where do you get your inspiration?
Life! Honestly, I live my life as a writer. I’m always looking for ideas, noticing people and places and sounds and smells and soaking up life. But also, I’m a reader and when I’m reading, or listening to a podcast or watching a documentary or a movie, I’m constantly thinking of ideas. It all started when I asked my students to create their own writer’s notebooks. We decorated them and I wrapped them in clear contact paper. They were things of beauty...except the pages inside were empty. Yikes, I thought to myself. I have to model how to do this writing thing. And so I started paying attention to ideas and people and places and things so I could write in my notebook with my students.

What was your journey into writing?
In 5th grade, my teacher Ms. Corn asked us to write back in forth in journals to her. I honestly have no idea what I wrote about but she invited me out to lunch to thank me. Looking back now, I’m guessing she was doing her Master’s or something that asked her to work with her student writers and I think she used my journal for her class. It’s my first memory of my writing being important. After that, I had writer’s workshop in middle school and high school so I got used to the writing process. I didn’t really write consistently again until I was much older. In 2011 I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time and after knowing so many authors and illustrators on Twitter and meeting them at conferences, I decided there wasn’t any reason I couldn’t try to get published too.

Were you a writer in middle school? A reader?
I was definitely a reader and a writer in middle school. In sixth grade, my teacher handed me Avi’s The True Confession of Charlotte Doyle. She said something about it being a difficult read but that she thought I could manage it. And I did. I loved that book and was super proud to be reading it. I remember reading Maniac Magee, Cheaper By the Dozen and The Outsiders in middle school too. I don’t remember as clearly what I was writing in middle school but I know we had portfolios and we had to collect our writing to share.

What was your publishing journey like?
I’m still on my publishing journey! And so far it has involved online contests, lots of queries, an agent who turned out to be a not-so-agent, more querying, lots and lots of writing and connecting with writers near and far.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
I’ve had lots of friends along the way just tell me to keep writing. Even though I believe in myself and trust in the process, having others cheer me on tell me to just keep writing has been the best advice. No matter what, just keep going.

What is some writing advice you’d like to give either to my students or to other aspiring writers?
Read! I’m a huge fan of mentor texts. Basically that means paying attention to everything you read - or consume - because it can give you inspiration for your own writing. Here are some examples! I went to Jeni’s with friends and on the wall they had written about different characteristics of their ice cream. It was really great writing. The voice was amazing. It was a perfect example of a nonfiction mentor text. I snapped pictures because I wanted to remember how great their descriptions were.

Another time when reading helped me with my writing was when I was working on a picture book and I was feeling sort of stuck. I went to the library and grabbed 30 picture books and read them all. While I was reading, I paid attention to what the authors did and I got ideas for the book I was working on and for other books too!
Sometimes, I never know when I’m going to be inspired. My son and I were listening to an episode of the Dear Hank and John podcast and they were answering a question someone asked about why people feel the need to tell you if your shoe is untied. All of a sudden my son and I were talking about story ideas. And he actually told me a story that I suggested he make into a zine. (By the way, if you want to make a zine, check out his video on how to make a zine.)
Reading - or consuming different kinds of text or media - truly is important if you want to live the life of a writer.

And also, I believe in you. You should keep writing. And when you finish what you’re working on now, write something else. Just keep going.

What do you do when you’re stuck?
I keep finding different strategies to get unstuck when I feel stuck. Like I shared above, sometimes reading is a great way to get unstuck. Another strategy I have is to do a free write. I set a timer and make myself write something. It really can be anything. Sometimes I get caught up on what’s the best thing to write or the right thing to write and then nothing gets written. Free writing helps me get started and sometimes that’s the hardest part.

What are you reading now that you’re loving?
I just finished Anne Ursu’s The Lost Girl and I LOVED it. It’s so great on so many levels and I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone and everyone. I blogged about it here if you want to read more of my thoughts!

Finally, do you want to share the inspiration for your most recent project?
I’m currently working on a novel and I can share 5 key words: Guatemala, primas (that means cousins in Spanish), loss, love, volcano!


A huge thank you to Jen for taking the time to share her love of writing and where she gets her inspiration with us. If you want to know more about Jen, please see the links below.