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Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

October 1, 2013

Brave new genre

RHmasthead 2On June 4, I wrote a post about the things I’ve been struggling with this year– eye problems, nightmare deadlines, and the death of my literary agent, to name a few.  That same June day, I began talking to new agents.  Days after that, I started writing my first YA book.  Although I’m a huge fan and reader of YA (almost always my go-to read-for-pleasure genre of choice), I’ve so far spent my literary life in nonfiction and adult historical fiction.  Everything I’ve written, even my high school memoir, is a period piece.  But I’ve had the itch for a long while to try my hand at YA.

Following my agent’s death, I sat down and thought good and hard about what I wanted to write next.  Not what I should write or what might make sense to write, but what I really, really wanted to write (which, for me, is always synonymous with what I really, really want to read).  For the past five years, I’ve been immersed in the voice of one character– Velva Jean Hart.  I’ve taken her from the Depression to World War II to the post-war period.  I recently finished writing the fourth Velva Jean adventure, American Blonde, which will be released July 29, 2014.  I love Velva Jean.  But creatively, I was ready for something different.

I wanted to write something edgy.

I wanted to write something contemporary.

I wanted to write something tough, hard, sad, but funny.

I wanted to write from a boy’s point of view.

There was an idea I’d been playing with for years, and at the end of May, I pulled it out.  It’s the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die.

That week of June 4, I began writing.  And in some ways it was as if I’d never written before!  There’s a whole new level of responsibility that comes with writing YA, especially when you’re dealing with a hard and sensitive subject.  It was very important to me, even as I was still figuring out the story, to strike the right balance of serious and light, and to make a tough subject (in this case, suicide) palatable, relatable, and educational, without seeming as if I’m trying to be educational.  It was also very important to me to nail the YA voice so that it seems authentic and not false or forced in any way.  Each day, I sat down at the computer afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the story, the characters, and the subject matter.

But when I was able to silence the worries and just write, the story and characters–and their voices– came quickly and naturally, as if they had been there all along waiting for me.

In July, I finished writing You Make Me Lovely.  On July 18, I signed with my new (fabulous, amazing, brilliant) agent, Kerry Sparks.  A couple of weeks after that, once Kerry and I had edited the manuscript, she put it on the desks of publishers.  One week later, we sold it to Knopf/Random House in a two-book preempt.

Now I am implementing the edits of my wise and wonderful Knopf editor, Allison Wortche, as well as my own.  After I hand those in, I’ll begin working on the second YA.

I’m proud of all my books, but I may just be proudest of this one.  It will be out in early 2015, and I’ll be posting updates periodically.

(Next up:  Changing a book title you love.)


PW Bookshelf



June 4, 2013

The book that nearly killed me (and my loyal literary cat Lulu)


On Saturday, I sent American Blonde off to New York and my editor.  From February till June 1, I conceptualized, outlined, researched, wrote, and edited 753 pages, which became the 525 pages I emailed on Saturday.  I’ve had to write most of the Velva Jean books quickly– Velva Jean Learns to Fly and Becoming Clementine each were completed in about nine months– but this is the fastest I’ve ever written a book.  (Even though most of the time I was working on it, I felt as if I’d been writing it my whole life and would always write it and that it would never end.  Ever.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  I handed in the original version of American Blonde last September.  But by the time I received my editor’s notes on the manuscript months later, I’d decided that the book needed to be rewritten from page 15 on.  Not just tweaked or edited, but COMPLETELY REWRITTEN, as in an entirely new plot, new characters, new everything.  This wasn’t something my editor requested, but I knew in my writerly bones what the story needed to be.  And it wasn’t.  So I wrote it.  Again.  Only in less time!

I went through more upheaval while working on this project than I did with any of the others.  To name just two of the upheavaliest… There were the recurrent eye problems from sitting at the computer every single day since February 1.  These last few weeks, I often had to type with my eyes closed because it hurt too much to keep them open.  Ahhh… And in March, my wondrous literary agent of fifteen years went missing, only to turn up in the hospital, where he died April 27 very unexpectedly.  I’d been with John Ware since the beginning, and suddenly, in the midst of the hardest work I’ve ever done, I found myself without my creative champion, mentor, and dear friend.  (During the roughest deadlines, John would call me just to tell me a joke or leave an old, scratchy blues tune on my voicemail.  “Onward, kid,” he would say.)


So when I crossed that long-dreamed-of finish line this weekend, the only sad moment was realizing all over again that John isn’t here to read the book.

But my eyes have slowly but steadily started to clear a little, and my mind is beginning to relax a little (as much as it ever does), and I am damn happy with the state the manuscript is in. (Lulu, incidentally, is exhausted. She has been sleeping nearly non-stop since Saturday, and this is a cat who rarely ever ever sleeps.)

As my mother says, You write it anyway and in spite of and because you have to (on so many levels).  And as someone tells Velva Jean in American Blonde:  “You have to be willing to work.  Just when you think you’re giving your all, know that you can go past that and give more.  You can always give more.  Don’t give up.  Don’t just rely on what you know you can do.  Think of what you hope you can do and then do it.”

Here’s a very tiny (and I mean seconds-tiny) movie that captures how it feels to have this book– for the time being– off my desk:

THIS JUST IN:  My editor has sent that manuscript back to me, asking me to trim 19,000 words before she reads.  And so, it seems, I spoke too soon…

April 20, 2013

Things I couldn’t write without

As many of you know, I’m currently doing a very fast, very intense, very daunting, and very complete rewrite of the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde (due out next year).

In this last stretch of the Book from Hell, as I’ve taken to calling it– otherwise known as That Damn Book– I’m making a list of the things that are helping me get to the end of the Worst Deadline I’ve Ever Known.

(Not including my computer and my imagination, of course. And my loved ones, who, I hope, will still love me once the book is completed.)

Thank you to:

  • My readers, who write me the most wonderful notes and emails, reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place
  • Robeks, which gives my weary brain sustenance
  • Scrivener, the greatest software for writers ever
  • My early morning walk/workout/girltime in the park with my friend Lisa Brucker (please watch her show, Ex-Wives of Rock!)
  • John Green, Melvin Burgess, and Raymond Chandler
  • Google
  • My fab intern, Laura Burdine, who, at lightning speed, can research everything from wire tapping in the 1940s to the Los Angeles streetcar system circa 1946 to the U.S. postal system in postwar America (not to mention her ability to help one brainstorm love triangles and ways in which to solve a murder)
  • The CW, Switched at Birth, and Adam-12, for good, fluffy fun
  • Newspaperarchive.com
  • My literary cats (a special shout out to Miss Lulu for being at my side throughout each long work day)
  • My copy of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which I’ve practically worn to dust
  • My team of experts– private investigator, medical examiner, and toxicologist– who are patiently answering my endless questions
  • Daryl Dixon, the most inspiring badass I know (or wish I knew), and my hero (as well as pretend boyfriend)
  • Lululemon, maker of the most comfortable writing clothes on the planet
  • Briana Harley, who not only helps me with Velva Jean’s music, but is the very best resource for Velva Jean idea bouncing–  after all, she knows Velva Jean almost as well as I do
  • My bosu ball and elliptical machine, which are productive places to have a good book think
  • Netflix, which, without complaining, delivers 1940s-era movies to my door or directly to my TV
  • The Los Angeles Public Library
  • And Ryan Bingham, who is Butch Dawkins

I couldn’t do it without them.

Speaking of Ryan Bingham, here’s a video that I use for inspiration. It really could be Velva Jean’s friend Butch sitting on her granddaddy’s porch.

March 13, 2013

Deadfalling, tiger-trapping, and exploring your attic: Ray Bradbury’s 8 rules for writers

Growing up, one of my favorite writers was Ray Bradbury. He was the primary influence on my teenage writing. He taught me the importance of a terrific first line, and an even stronger last line. He taught me the importance of writing clear, strong sentences that cut to the heart of the matter– no excess, no fat. During my years on my Indiana high school speech team, the story I competed and won with most frequently was “The October Game,” his chilling short tale about a husband, a wife, a daughter, and a deadly Halloween party.

His fiction spanned genres– horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery. The book I love most is his collected short stories, but in Zen in the Art of Writing, he writes about writing. Because I’m often asked to share my own rules on writing, I thought this time I would share some inspiration from someone I find inspiring:

1. Write with gusto. “[If] you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping your eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.”

2. In quickness is truth. “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.” In other words, just get it down.

3. Write who you are. We’ve all heard “write what you know.” But this can be limiting. Ray Bradbury believed in writing what you know but also writing what you can imagine. “Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are — the material within you that makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.”

4. Don’t write for money or fame. “If only we could remember that fame and money are gifts given us only after we have gifted the world with our best, our lonely, our individual truths.”

5. Feed the muse daily. “By living well, by observing as you live, by reading and observing as you read, you have fed your most original self. By training in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.”

6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic. It was Ray Bradbury’s belief that we each hide a “dark attic” in our minds– one we may be too frightened to face, but which harbors the most valuable, exciting material. According to him, we cannot, should not be afraid of it. “Alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting ‘way up there’ in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page… Your Thing at the top of your stairs in your own private night… may well come down.”

7. Surprise yourself. In fiction, it’s important to have an idea where your story is headed, but you also need to be open to where it wants to go, and where it will lead you. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact, not before.”

8. Do the work you were born to do — and no one else’s. Bradbury believed we all have a creative purpose. As my mother often tells me, only you can write the book you were meant to write. Give five people the same subject matter, and each will write a different and unique story. It’s important to be who you are and recognize that your voice is original. In his poem “What I Do Is Me, For That I Came,” Bradbury writes: “Be not another. Be the self I signed you in your blood… I leave you gifts of Fate most secret; find no other’s Fate, For if you do, no grave is deep enough for your despair, No country far enough to hide your loss.”

(Thanks to David McMillan for the inspiration.)

September 4, 2012

Literary Snacking

For me, reading, writing and snacking just simply go hand in hand. Here are this weeks sweet and savory snacks to help keep you focused and energised for your next sit down session.

Parmesan Popped Popcorn

½ cup popped popcorn kernels (popped using favorite method)

¼ cup melted butter

2 tbs parmesan cheese

1tbs garlic powder

⅛ tsp black pepper

1. Toss popcorn with melted butter. Add the remaining ingredients and toss until all mixed through.


Brain Booster Smoothie

1 cup apple juice

1 banana

1 ½ cups frozen blueberries

½ cup frozen raspberries (these berries can be substituted for alternate berries)

¼ cup raw walnuts

1. Blend all ingredients together until smooth.

April 24, 2012

The Advance Reading Copy

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , — jennifer @ 8:59 am

One of the strangest times in a writer’s life is when the ARCs go out into the world to seek early praise and attention. The “ARC” is book world shorthand for “Advance Reading Copy,” which translates to: an unedited, unfinished version of a book. Which translates to: one of my worst nightmares.

A little background: The ARC is sent out to reviewers, bloggers, magazines, newspapers, and libraries months before the book is officially released. The ARC can be sent out in the hundreds or the thousands. (The thousands!)

If the ARC does its job, it will inspire early reviews, blurbs for the back cover, advance orders, advance press, and a general sense of “buzz.” Inevitably, ARC copies will find their way to eBay so that the ARC collectors of the world (and there are many) can add to their collection.

Now, whatever your job or career, I want you to imagine just for a minute sending hundreds or thousands (thousands!) of copies of a very important project out before it is done. And not just any old very important project, but a project you have poured everything into for months and months and months and that is still in progress. You know what it will be and you know what you have to do to get it there, but before you can get it there, as you are still working, it is sent out for others to judge. This is your project’s first impression.

For all my complaining, it is truly thrilling when someone likes your book, based on this rough, unfinished version. (Because you know the book is only going to get better.) Especially when you have written a historical novel about a girl who spies and have tried to be as authentic as you can when building the world she spies in.

For instance, here are two blurbs for Becoming Clementine from a former spy and the founding curator of the CIA Museum (“the preeminent national archive for the collection, preservation, documentation and exhibition of intelligence artifacts, culture, and history.”). It’s like having your painting of Van Gogh endorsed by the artist himself as well as by the founding curator of the Louvre.

“Jennifer Niven has done it again! In Niven’s third adventure featuring this courageous female pilot, Velva Jean persuades the military to use her in flying intelligence agents to France, where she crash lands and is rescued by the Resistance. Her arrest by the Gestapo and her heroic triumph over the horrors of war (as well as her moving romance with a French agent) makes Becoming Clementine a riveting, ‘can’t put it down,’ must read.”
—Dr. Margaret S. Emanuelson, Veteran of OSS and author of Company of Spies

“A proud descendant of Revolutionary War espionage heroine Jane Black Thomas, author Jennifer Niven comes by her appetite and aptitude for spy fiction instinctively and naturally. In Velva Jean’s latest adventure, cloak-and-dagger buffs will recognize and appreciate Niven’s artful and knowing introduction of tradecraft—techniques used to carry out covert operations. Hiding local currency in shoulder pads. Miniature compasses designed to look like dress buttons. Lethal knives built into shoe and boot heels. All are actual examples of tradecraft utilized by covert agents staging missions behind the lines during World War II. As a collector of `spy gadgets,’ and as a fan and student of real-life female agents, I found Niven’s authentic application of tradecraft a hidden gift in the espionage thriller that is Becoming Clementine. Read it for the intriguing tale and the intriguing tradecraft.”
—Linda McCarthy, founding curator of the CIA Museum

That early praise is very affirming. Which makes me dislike the ARC process just a little bit less.

February 16, 2012

Becoming Clementine — the cover revealed!

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , — jennifer @ 2:11 pm

One of the most terrifying moments in a writer’s life is the moment her editor says, “We have a mock-up of the cover for your new book, which we’ll be sending you soon.”

The reason this is so terrifying is that you never know what they’re going to send you. It could be magnificent. Or it could be decidedly unmagnificent. In my thirteen years as an author and in my six books, I’ve been very lucky to work with publishing houses that have allowed me input into my covers. I try not to abuse that much-appreciated power, but I never hesitate in speaking up if I don’t like something or if I feel it’s not reflective of my story.

In the case of Becoming Clementine, I sent my editor, at her request, images I liked for the cover as well as pictures of other covers that I felt were similar in mood and tone to what I was imagining. These were forwarded to the art department, I returned to my work and, a few weeks later, my editor emailed to let me know she had overnighted the cover to me. Usually I receive the mock-up by email, so immediately something seemed Bigger and More Important about this one. Which meant I barely slept for the twenty-four-hour period before it arrived.

My heart literally started beating like the proverbial drum as I opened the package. Would I love it? Would I hate it? Would I be somewhere in between?

I reached my hand into the envelope and pulled out the mock-up (the same size as the actual book) and there it was– bolder and moodier than the other Velva Jean covers. More serious. More glamorous. And perfectly capturing the essence of the book. For Learns to Drive and Learns to Fly, I was adamant that we not show the readers Velva Jean’s face. I wanted them to be able to envision her for themselves without imposing an image on their imaginations. Here, as you’ll see, her face is front and center. But she’s perfect.

I love it, and I hope you will too.

So, without further ado, you can see the cover here and visit the brand new Becoming Clementine page here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

February 13, 2012

In Search of the Perfect Reading Chair

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 12:03 pm

Now that I’ve handed in the copy edits, here are the primary things I’m working on:

~ Creating, shooting, appearing in (!), and producing a book trailer for Becoming Clementine. (More on this later…)

~ Updating my website for Becoming Clementine, building web pages for the book as well as redesigning my homepage to feature the cover (which means I’ll be revealing the brand new cover soon!). (No, I don’t actually do the implementing and the building– my computer genuis boyfriend handles that.)

~ Researching and outlining Velva Jean’s adventure in Hollywood (hereafter referred to as “Hollywood”), which means sifting through volumes of material from that era, including book after book on everything from the studio system to Max Factor to Hollywood nightlife to the story of MGM to Los Angeles and the mob to every movie star biography/autobiography ever written about or by a star of the 1940s.

With all this researching and outlining, I’ve been reading at my desk, averaging two books a day, hunched over in my office chair, going back and forth between the book and my computer, where I’m inputting notes. At the end of the work day, my back feels 150 years old, and while yoga and Physique 57 certainly help, the next session at my desk seems to undo most of the good they’ve done.

So I am on the hunt for a cozy, comfortable reading chair– this is in addition to my office chair– something I can sink into and relax in, and something that will ideally be big enough to hold me and several books and maybe a literary cat or two at the same time. Of course, it also has to have a nice sense of style and look good in my office.

And, perhaps most important, the cats have to like it. After all, they spend almost all day every day with me in my office and they are always looking for new and exciting places to sleep. (Usually on top of my work or on the computer keyboard.)

Any recommendations? If so, I’d love to hear them.

January 19, 2012

Behind the Book — What it (Sometimes) Looks Like to Write a Book

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 3:10 pm

To be honest, if I’m going for pure historical accuracy, most days I’m working like twelve dogs pulling the Iditarod, racing against the clock to get everything done. But, even so, there are those other days– the darker ones– when the ideas don’t seem to come no matter how long you sit at your desk. Let’s just say that some writing days are better than others…

What it (Sometimes) Looks Like to Write a Book from Jennifer Niven on Vimeo.

January 16, 2012

Behind the Book — How to Quilt a Story

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , — jennifer @ 6:33 pm

A well meaning interviewer once said to me, “It must be wonderful to have endless, uninterrupted hours to just write and write.”

I replied, “It must be. I hope to experience it sometime.”

Today is one of those days that drives a writer (or any person) crazy. Every time I start on a task, something else comes along to take me out of it. Mondays are always busy days, even on holidays when so many folks aren’t at their desks (have I ever mentioned how much I love working on holidays when the phone and email are completely quiet?). I know on Mondays to expect at least a certain amount of distraction, and I know most of my Monday morning will be given over to the housekeeping of writing– the emails and phone calls and sorting through files or correspondence, things that need addressing or scheduling or paying, etc.

Every time I’ve turned back to the book today (the one I’m still trying to research and outline and figure out), after being pulled away from it, I have been immediately yanked away from it once again. At this stage in the book, this isn’t nearly as nerve-inducing (i.e. insanity-making) as it can be in, say, the heavy writing or editing phases. But it’s still frustrating. And exhausting. This kind of day is far more tiring than a day in which I write 30 or more pages.

Isaac Asimov once said, “Thinking is the activity I love best, and writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers. I can write up to 18 hours a day. Typing 90 words a minute, I’ve done better than 50 pages a day. Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put an orgy in my office and I wouldn’t look up– well, maybe once.”

This is exactly the sort of writer I am– my literary agent has called me, in a fond and somewhat amused way, “obsessive” on more than one occasion– except that emails and phone calls, etc., can sometimes be more distracting than orgies (I can only assume).

My mother calls it the Patchwork Quilt method of writing: because life is busy and unpredictable, and because it’s not always (try almost never) possible to enjoy long, uninterrupted hours of writing, you have to grab moments when you can. You learn to write between things, during things, in spite of things. Not just in spite of or in between emails and phone calls, but often in spite of or in between health worries, divorce, moving, the loss of loved ones. You take the leftover scraps of time and you work on one square here, another square there, till eventually you have an entire book, woven together, piece by piece by piece.

So that is what I’m doing today: quilting. And hoping that tomorrow, or at least a portion of it, won’t be quite so interrupted.

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