Jerry Jenkins Interview

Author Interview: Jerry Jenkins

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You know Jerry Jenkins as the New York Times best-selling author of the Left Behind series. Jerry’s also written countless biographies, edited two children’s books series, and he’s even written for a weekly comic strip. 

I discovered Jerry through his website, a fantastic resource for writers in any stage of their career, but especially for people just beginning. Jerry is dedicated to helping young writers. Here’s how he puts it- 

“When I was a teenager, an author I admired took an hour to advise me, and I vowed that if I ever succeeded, I’d pay forward that kindness… I want to help you achieve the dream you’ve had for so long: to become an author.” 

If you’re interested in help and resources from a seasoned pro like Jerry, start with some of his amazing writing courses!

Jerry Jenkins Left Behind

I like to ask every author about their writing process. Jerry, can you describe what it’s like when you sit down to write? What time of day is it? Where do you like to get work done?

When I’m on deadline, I rise before dawn and head to my writing cave — which is just an ancillary office several paces from my main workspace (where I do everything BUT write). The writing I do before noon will be the best I do all day, so I try to get my daily allotment of pages in before lunch. But I start with a heavy edit and rewrite of what I wrote the day before, so each day is a step back and then a return to where I left off. That way, when I finish my first draft, it’s really a second draft.

You’re best known for the Left Behind series, but one of your earliest books was a children’s novel called Rookie. And you’ve continued to write for children throughout your career. How is writing for children different from writing for adults?

Well, Rookie was actually an adult book with a child character, but it was enjoyed by both audiences. Writing specifically for children can be difficult, because it means more than just limiting your vocabulary. You must never appear to be condescending or didactic. I like to give kids credit for being astute readers. They understand more than we give them credit for.

That said, it has been a while since I’ve written for kids. The Red Rock Mysteries and The Wormling series were both actually written by my former protege Chris Fabry, though we brainstormed these together and I edited them all. He’s the father of nine children and more in touch with kids, now that my three are adults.

You’ve also penned some great biographies on figures like Nolan Ryan and Hank Aaron. How do you start the research process for a biography?

Many of my subjects are superstar athletes, so I start with the team they play for. Connecting with their publicity people — who have a vested interest in seeing a good book appear on them — is always beneficial. I like to have access to all their records and statistics. That way I don’t have to ask the subject logistical questions. I can home in on what they were thinking or feeling when this or that happened on the field or on the court, etc. Of course the bulk of what goes into such a book comes from interviewing the subjects themselves.

Continuing our talk on biographies. I’m interested in how you structure a biography. Do you choose a pivotal moment in your subject’s life and write towards that?

An interesting dynamic of a biography is that people don’t tend to answer questions in chronological order, and neither do I necessarily want to write their story chronologically. For instance, when I wrote former Los Angeles Dodger Brett Butler’s as-told-to autobiography (Field of Hope), it made more sense to start with the pivotal incident — life-threatening throat cancer that interrupted the prime of his career.

But my first task, after getting the transcripts of days’ worth of interviewing is to get all the information back into chronological order. Though I won’t write the book in that order, I need to know where and when things happened to keep everything straight.

Do you have any tips or advice on writing a non-fiction book, like a biography? Something new writers might not know?

Most of mine have been first-person as-told-to autobiographies, so written in the voice of the subject. It must sound like them, as if they wrote it, not like you. That’s not easy, but when you get it right, it shows. That’s why, while you’re doing all the writing, the subject must have full veto power over every word.

You used to write the comic strip Gil Thorp. With only four or five panels and a few speech bubbles, how would you structure stories in such a small format? 

Actually, there were only three panels per day, and the key was to use the first one to bring the story up to speed, the second to move things along, and the third to make the reader want to find out what happens tomorrow. I wasn’t the artist, so I was really writing a script and suggesting what the artist would draw. It was like writing poetry as opposed to prose. The more I could have him show visually, the more I could devote the few words in the dialogue bubbles to advancing the story.

What goes into planning a successful series? Do you plan story arcs that will span the entire series, or do you take it one book at a time and let the characters act as a throughline?

Being primarily a Panster (one who doesn’t outline but rather writes by the seat of his pants), for me writing a series can be tricky. Each book must be complete and a satisfying read in itself, while still leading to the next installment. So, yes, there must be series-worthy arcs, book length arcs, and arcs for each chapter and often each scene. That’s the genius behind binge worthy TV series as well, and they are a great resource for learning how to accomplish this. It’s a matter of inventing a lot of setups that demand payoffs — as many and as frequently as possible.

You’ve also co-written novels with different authors, ministers, and even sports figures. How is the writing process different for these novels? And, how do you keep a consistent voice or even settle disagreements when writing with another author?

I have never written with another author and wouldn’t attempt it. If my name is on the cover of a book, I have either written every word or edited every word. It’s important in co-authoring for each person to be clear on his role. On the Left Behind book with Dr. Tim LaHaye, I was the writer; he was the theological and biblical consultant (and it was his idea originally). In the kids books with Chris Fabry, I was the editor.

Let’s talk about I’ve used a lot of your resources personally- thanks, by the way! What made you decide to create a blog to help new writers

I’ve taught writing for decades and wanted to make the training available to any who wanted it. I’ve been so blessed by a dream career that it fulfills me to be able to pay it forward. I have about 2,000 online students now.

What are some daily practices that you think every writer should adopt?

Some of my adages: 

All writing is rewriting.

The only way to write a book is with seat in chair. 

Dreamers talk about writing. Writers write.

Finally, what is one piece of advice you would give to new writers? Something you wished you had known at the beginning of your career?

Writer’s Block is a myth. No other profession gets to claim this malady. Imagine someone telling their boss they can’t come in today because they have worker’s block. Sure, you may not feel like writing per se, but there’s ALWAYS something you can be doing. Do it. 

Check out more articles from Jerry here!

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