Faculty interview: Jerry B. Jenkins

Interview by Alex Mellen (PWR class of 2014)

Jerry B. Jenkins will be serving as one of our keynote speakers and running his “Thick-skinned Manuscript Critique Clinic” (more on that below).

What was your first byline—the first piece of writing you had professionally published?

I’ve always looked older than I am—an advantage at age 14 when I wanted to be a sportswriter, not so much now when I wonder if I’ll ever live long enough to be as old as I look. The sports editor of the local daily didn’t ask whether I was old enough to drive when I sought a job as a stringer, covering local high school sports. He assigned me a game, and my parents drove me to it and then back to the newspaper office where I wrote it up. I could not have been good and had a quarter-million clichés to get out of my system, but the sports editor saw potential and said so, edited my story, and printed it. I was paid one dollar per column inch, and so have been a professional writer for more than 50 years. I became the full-time sports editor of that newspaper at age 19.

You’ve written dozens of novels, but you’ve also penned several nonfiction books and biographies. Are there differences in how you approach writing fiction and nonfiction?

Oh, they’re as different as night and day. Fiction is your own creation. You invent the world, the setting, the characters, plot, etc. Admittedly, sometimes fictitious characters are just as obstinate as real people and surprise you with what they say and do, but in the end a novel belongs to the author. I’m a “Pantser,” meaning I write by the seat of my pants as a process of discovery. I try, as Stephen King advises, to put interesting people in difficult situations and write to find out what happens. That gives me an out when readers demand to know why I killed off their favorite character. I tell them, “I didn’t kill him off—I found him dead!”

Nonfiction cannot be done Pantser style. It must be outlined. My specialty has been first-person, as-told-to autobiographies. The secret to success with those is to recognize that they are not in the least about the writer. My first New York Times best-seller came when I wholly got out of the way, truly caught the subject’s voice, and wrote the book not as if I were a writer with his skill set but rather truly in his voice.

Tell us more about your writer mentoring program, the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild. What is its origin story, and what does it offer?

For nearly 15 years I owned the Christian Writers Guild, with a headquarters, staff, and carefully chosen mentors all over the country. I wanted to restock the pool of Christian writers, and I did not plan to or expect to make money at it. It was my way of giving back to the industry — paying it forward, as they say. I did, however, hope that Guild would eventually at least break even. But I was reluctant to cut corners or scrimp on quality, so after a while it became a financial albatross. When I finally shut it down with all the bills paid, it had had a remarkable run.

A year or so later, still feeling the desire to teach and give back, I started the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild with an entirely different model. I engaged a most creative (and young) management team that handles all the behind-the-scenes stuff, and I handle all the teaching/coaching/mentoring online myself. At www.JerrysGuild.com, for a modest monthly fee we offer:

  • Live Online Workshops (one per month since January 2016, archived on the site, as are all the features below)
  • A live Office Hours session (where I answer members’ questions for at least an hour and guarantee an answer in the Forum on our site if anyone’s question doesn’t get answered during the session)
  • Manuscript Repair & Rewrite sessions, wherein I have recorded myself editing a member’s first page, along with rationale for every change (the most popular feature we offer)
  • A monthly Master Class, a recording of my interview with a publishing expert, asking all the questions you would ask
  • Free access to two of my courses: Fiction Jumpstart and Nonfiction Jumpstart
  • Lots of Bonus Material (manuscript proposal examples, etc.)
  • A Forum where members interact with each other daily and occasionally with me; already people have found writing partners, formed virtual critique groups, etc.

We recently hit the 2,000-member mark. I’m so deliriously happy keeping up with all of them—despite lots of twelve-hour days—that I take only one or two speaking engagements a year now. Which makes me very happy to be coming to Taylor’s conference.

You’re offering a thick-skinned manuscript critique clinic at the conference. You’ve been wielding your red pen on writers’ first pages for years. Why is this workshop so popular—what have people told you they appreciate about it? Why should writers intimidated by the red pen submit their manuscript anyway?

I think writers are tired of getting form-rejection letters that merely tell them their manuscript “doesn’t meet a current need.” After a few of those, they’re desperate for someone to simply tell them the truth and show them, hands-on, what needs to be fixed and how to fix it. That’s not an editor’s or an agent’s job. But I’m happy to offer it because writers all over the world have told me it’s the most practical, applicable training they’ve ever received. Yes, it can be painful, and I never expose the name of the writer. But neither do I hold back. I’m not mean, but I am forthright and simply show them how much editing their piece would take to become a sale rather than a rejection. My goal is to teach writers to become ferocious self-editors. The most amazing thing about these sessions is that people tell me they learn as much from my editing of others’ writing as from their own. Writers with the most potential recognize that they need to develop a thick skin and get serious about revising.

What is your most recent novel, The Valley of the Dry Bones, about?

The Valley of the Dry Bones is set in California, ten years into the future, and shows what the state would look like if a drought never abated and lasted seventeen years. A contingency of sixteen people feel called to stay in the largely abandoned, condemned state. These holdouts face a clash of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and politics that pit friend against friend, with the future of the country at stake. In the midst of this chaos, while facing their most menacing opponent, the leader becomes convinced he’s heard directly from God Himself.

Name a book, nonfiction or fiction, that is not directly about writing but has taught you something about writing.

Alll Over but the Shoutin’ by Pulitzer prize-winning writer Rick Bragg is his memoir of growing up in the deep South, one of three sons raised by a single mother. It is, hands-down, the most gut-wrenchingly poetic piece of beautiful writing I have ever seen. I think Bragg is our best living nonfiction writer, and I always highly recommend him to any writing student. Some writers make you want to emulate them. Bragg makes me simply want to surrender and reread his succulent paragraphs.

Jerry Jenkins will be giving a keynote speech on Saturday morning titled “The Surprising Value of Fear as a Motivator.”

In addition, we will be honored to have him teach two back-to-back workshops at the conference, his “Thick-skinned Manuscript Critique Clinic.” To submit your writing for possible evaluation in this session, transmit the first page (only) of your work-in-progress (fiction or nonfiction) to debbie@jerryjenkins.com no later than midnight Central Time, Sunday, July 16. Be sure to leave your name off the writing sample itself. (No one is identified or embarrassed.) Formatting guidelines are strictly enforced. Click here for guidelines.

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