With several books to her credit, including one that has been made into a movie on Disney Channel, Jackie French Koller is a successful author as well as an accomplished painter.
She recently shared her top writing tips for people who don’t think they can write. This popular writer has some empowering words of wisdom for all aspiring authors. Read on:
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a professional writer?
The road to publication was a long one for me. Although I grew up loving books, it never occurred to me that an ordinary person like me could actually “write” a book. I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree and went to work in insurance, because I lived in Connecticut at the time, and Connecticut was the insurance capital of the world. I was actually an under-“writer”, but underwriting had very little to do with creative writing.
When did you first discover that you wanted to write?
It was not until I got married and had my first child, and began reading to her that my love of children’s books came flooding back and I started getting ideas for stories of my own. I began by writing stories just for her, but the more I wrote, the more I began to dream of becoming a “real” writer.
Soon I was sharing my stories with others, and I came to learn of a Writer’s Conference at UMass, just over the border from where I then lived, in Simsbury, Conn. I attended the conference and set my dream in motion. It would be 10 years before my first book saw publication, with lots of rejection and disappointment in between, but I was determined, and now, over 30 books later, I can say it was a journey well worth taking.
What is the primary tip you would give to people who don’t think that they can write?
When I was a little girl, my father told me I could be anything I wanted to be, and I believed him, so when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I never really doubted that it would happen. It took a LOT of work, and a LOT of learning, but I knew that the only person who could stop me from succeeding was myself – by giving up – and I wasn’t about to do that.
Everyone has something interesting to write about because we all share in the human experience and we are all interested in how others cope with the cards they are dealt. Look to your own life, and the moments that stand out. Think about the funny experiences, the sad experiences, the scary experiences, the touching experiences, the over-the-top silly experiences. All of these are rich fodder for stories.
What is the first step one should take in order to improve their writing?
The No. 1 step is to write! You can’t become a piano player without playing the piano. You can’t become a football star without playing football, and you can’t become a writer without writing – a lot – just as much as music students and aspiring sports players need to practice to get to the top. The No. 2 step is to join a critique group, or at least share your stories with others who will give you their “honest” feedback, because your own writing comes from your heart and it is very hard to see the flaws in your own work. I was lucky to be a children’s book writer, because it was easy for me to get unbiased feedback. I remember reading one of my early stories to group of children and watching them start to fidget and lose interest about a third of the way through. Big wake-up call! Back to the drawing board.
Do you think there is one creative process that can work for all?
Absolutely not. There are some irrefutable truths. You have to write and write and get honest feedback (don’t ask people who just want to make you happy), but beyond that, you have to find the process that works for you. Some writers swear by outlining. I HATE outlining. My process is to start to get to know my characters by thinking and thinking about them and their story until they come to life for me and I can hear their voices in my head. It took a long time to get to that point, but interestingly enough, after all the years of writing and learning, the very first time I could actually hear a character’s voice in my head resulted in my very first published book. (Impy for Always – Little Brown & Co.).
How easy or hard is it to become a published author?
The exciting thing about being an aspiring author today, as opposed to back in the 80s when I was starting out, is that there are so many more publishing opportunities. You can self-publish an e-book so easily, and you can publish real, nice quality hardcover or paperback books as well, at reasonable prices. These options are nice for published authors as well because most books inevitably go out of print, but now we have options.
We can make our out-of-print books available again to fans who loved a book, and want to share it with their children or grandchildren, but can’t get it anymore. It also gives us a chance to publish books that we know are good, but that just didn’t find the right editor at the right time. So much about publishing is subjective, and so many factors play into the success of a book, that many good books fall between the cracks. Thanks to today’s technology, they can find new life.
How do people achieve next-level readiness to learn and move up as a writer?
Write, write, write, get honest criticism, and re-write, re-write, re-write. Also, read, read, read. There is no better teacher than a well-written book. Pay attention to the passages that make you pause and say, “Wow, that is so beautifully written. Those words really grab me by the heart and soul. They draw me right into the moment – make me laugh, make me cry, make me ‘see,’ make me feel.”
What things should a writer never do?
Never underestimate your reader. Never write “down” to a child. Never compromise your values to make a sale. And never overwrite. Simplicity is the key to good writing. Never try to show off your vocabulary. Never use two words when one will do. One of the most simply and beautifully written books I’ve ever read is Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan. The writing is so pared down and bare bones beautiful that every word sings. Read it and be inspired. I tried to emulate that simplicity in my own writing, and I think the book that comes closest is The Promise.
What is the key ingredient to writing well?
Look at writing like you would look at any other career. Don’t think you are going to dash off your first book and hit the best seller list. Put the same time and effort into learning your craft that you would put into any other career.
Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
Not everyone wants or needs to be a professional writer. Some people want to write their memoirs to share with their families. Some people want to write down a beloved story that has been told orally to their children and grandchildren, perhaps passed down from their own parents or grandparents. Illustrated by a child or grandchild, these can be some of the most beautiful stories of all. Or perhaps your child has written a story of his or her own that you want to publish and save forever. The amazing thing is that anyone can do these things now thanks to sites like Bookemon. Aren’t we all lucky to have so many wonderful new creative opportunities at our fingertips? So what are you waiting for? Start writing!
Start creating your book today.