Why I Can't Do Lines

Years ago when I wrote the first of several never-to-be-published novel manuscripts I didn’t have a clue about trends or popular genres. I was a middle school teacher with a story idea and a cast of characters, and I’d read enough young adult literature to think I knew what I was doing. The characters weren't complete stereotypes, the plot wasn’t awful, and, being an English teacher, I double-checked the manuscript's spelling and grammar. My effort was greeted by a steady stream of form rejections, which I read with dismay. I wrote another manuscript, received more rejections, wrote another and another ad infinitum. A sad tale, but the same one told by thousands of other hopeful writers.

In the meantime I read at least a hundred YA books, worked on my craft, and kept an eye on market trends. As the years, manuscripts, and rejections piled up, I sometimes longed to tap into the latest trend. If I could catch that magic wave a savvy editor would certainly unearth my manuscript from the slush pile and make me a best-selling author. Or at least take the time to send me a personalized rejection.

That fantasy would never come true for me because I can't invent a plot on command. Knowing the trends was one thing; writing to a trend was beyond me. The characters in my head told me what to write, and they didn’t care what the market guides were saying. Nobody was buying my work, but I had to keep doing what I was doing.

In 2007 I finished a story about a fifteen-year-old girl living in Des Moines, Iowa--of all places--who dreamed of being an actress. She didn’t smoke, drink, swear, or dream about boys, and she was woefully lacking in supernatural abilities. On top of that, she had an obscure condition called alopecia, which caused her gorgeous hair to fall out. Where did a story like that fit into the current market trends? Good question. Trendy or not, Fairest of Them All was my first published novel.

My second novel, A & L Do Summer (May 10, 2011, from Egmont USA), also strays far from the vampire-beaten track. It features two high school girls looking for excitement in a rural Iowa town. Their co-stars include a sexy farmer, three nasty villains, a grumpy old woman, and a cop who always shows up at exactly the wrong time. Throw in assorted farm animals for authentic Iowa flavor and the result is a summer of chaos, romance run amok, and general pandemonium.

That's my story. Until the characters inside my head stop pushing me around, I’ll continue writing outside the lines.


  1. Love it! While I devour paranormal books, I hold Contemporary in a special category and it is also the genre I choose to write in. I love hearing stories about other writers who are going against the grain and against the trends and writing about real people with real issues and real life romances. Thank you for not writing inside the lines :-)

  2. I hope your characters continue to push you around for a long, long time to come, Jan!

  3. I love this post! I love a lot of genres, but contemporary will always be my true love. When writing it always just amazes me where your characters will take you and how their lives come around. So I hope your characters keep on pushing you around!

  4. I love this, Jan, so much. First off, I've been to Iowa and I think it's a great setting for outside the line sorts of stories because to people who've never been there, they would equate it with very inside the lines sort of stories-- the shattering of expectation is one of my favorite story tropes.

    And A&L Do Summer sounds like a blast. Quirky and fun in all the best ways. Can't wait!

  5. What a wonderful post about staying true to yourself and, of course, never giving up!

    And I want to say thank you for making me feel less foolish for having four--count them, four--unpublished manuscripts in my house. I'll just keep writing and querying, then. :)

    Going to check out Fairest of Them All right now. Congratulations!

  6. Thanks, everyone!

    Keep writing, Katrina! You've finished four manuscripts, which is more than many writers have accomplished. If you keep working, you'll get there.

  7. I hear you, Jan! I only do what the voices in my head--I mean, characters!--tell me to do too! So if that means going out the lines, well, that is where I go! I can't wait to read A&L Do Summer. It sounds like such a fun read!


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