1.) Tell us about how you got started in writing from start to finish. How did you get interested in in it, what were some of your first experiences, what was it like getting published for the first time and what was it in? What made you interested in writing YA books specifically? Please include how you found your first publisher, steps you had to take to get where you are now, etc. Please include what the time frame in your life was when your first book was published - were you in HS or College, out of school, etc. and what else was going on in your world, if anything relevant. Please include sacrifices and struggles as well as accomplishments and inspirations.
I have been writing my entire life. In kindergarten, I had my first book published in my elementary school library through a student program (it was about moving houses, which my family was doing at the time), and I’ve been writing novels in my free time ever since.
My first published novel, Cairo in White, was published under my real name, Kelly Ann Jacobson. The book was a work of literary fiction for adults that I started writing in my first semester of college and finished during my last semester of graduate school—so six years of writing, editing, putting the book aside, and then rewriting again. The summer before the book got accepted, I realized that my masters in fiction and many classes and life experience had improved my writing drastically, so I ended up printing the entire manuscript and rewriting the book from scratch. Can you imagine spending five years on something just to start all over again? But that was the year my book got accepted, so I’m glad I did it.
My publisher, Musa Publishing, was incredible to work with, and I found them online without an agent. Getting a book published was the most amazing feeling in the world. I would write every day even if I never got a single story published, but nothing can compare to the real pages with a beautiful cover that I can hold in my hands.
However, I will say that being an indie author who publishes with small presses is a difficult job; there are no publicists helping you get gigs or book stores clamoring to stock your novels in their stores. It feels a lot like being a small business owner—giving talks, running tables at book festivals, promoting yourself through social media. I think people don’t realize how much work comes after the book gets published.
I became interested in YA when I went to visit Rainbow Room, an LGBTQA+ youth program in Doylestown. The kids there told me about how much trouble they had finding books they could identify with, and suddenly I had an overwhelming desire to write them something. Right after that I wrote Caron High News, which is about two girls who pretend to be dating in order for one of them to get back at an ex and the other to make GSA (Gay-Straight Allience) cool, and then I started The Sun Dragon Series.
A lot of people ask me about the pen name and how I decided on it. It’s not a secret name—both of my websites have links to each other in the top right corner—but a way to keep my genres straight and separate from each other. My YA readers would probably not be interested in my literary fiction or poetry, and my adult readers would not be interested in me dressed up like a fairy for Halloween. Well, maybe they would… Anyway, everything from my pen name comes from my real life: Ann is my middle name, “Kellbell” is my nickname, and Jay is just the J from Jacobson.
2.) What opportunities, if any, did you receive just by being an author? Please include people you might have met, places you got to go, etc.
Being an author is considered “cool” by almost everyone, which is a major benefit. It’s like being a celebrity, only you don’t make any money doing it and you spend most of your time alone in your pajamas trying to wrestle your story onto the page. I think people are so interested in writers and what they do because most people theoretically want to try their hand at it—everyone has an interesting story to tell—but they also don’t always realize how much work really goes into every book.
I do feel so lucky for all of the opportunities that I’ve had in my career so far, even the ones I’ve worked hard for. Some of the highlights include my amazing network of talented author friends, my peers from George Washington University and Johns Hopkins, and the many author readings I’ve gotten to do at events like the Baltimore Book Festival and Fall for the Book and George Mason University. I travel frequently, such as the upcoming Book Expo in Chicago, and get the chance to talk to classrooms and young writers groups about writing. Just last night, I got an invitation to speak at the Virginia Festival for the Book, as well as a local school talk to which they will actually bus local YA LGBT groups to hear me speak, which is mind-blowing.
Plus, when I walk in a Barnes & Nobles, I can find a bunch of novels written by people I know well, which is pretty awesome!
3.) What is your most recent works? Where can teens find your books?
The Sun Dragon Series, a series of five books published by Harmony Ink, is my most recent writing project. The series started as just one book, The Sun Dragon, about a bisexual witch who has to battle the evil King Roland and his army of half-dragon, half-human soldiers, but then I got the idea for the next book. And the next book. Suddenly, there were five.
The series is interesting for several reasons, first of which being every main character in every book is LGBTQ+. In Book Two, Merlin’s Moon, the main character, Mani, is a gay half-boy, half-dragon. In Book Three, Starsong, the main characters are both intersex, but their society forces them to pick a gender anyway.
However, these books are not about the character’s journey being LGBTQ+. There are plenty of coming out stories already; what I’m interested in doing is bringing LGBTQ+ characters into the mainstream, into fantasy and science fiction, so that they can have what every other character has: adventures.
The second thing that’s interesting about every book in the series is that each one takes place in the generation following the previous one. Characters from the other books come back, especially during the time travel in Luminosity, but readers never get the same main character more than once. They do all have a unifying theme, though: each hero struggles with both the outside world of magic and the magical world within.
The Sun Dragon: Book One came out on Amazon, the Barnes & Noble website, and most other sites in January. The next book, Merlin’s Moon, will come out this summer, and then the following books will come out every six months through 2018.
4.) What is life like for you on a regular daily basis as an author? Do you have certain routines that you swear by, or how do you structure your time?
My routines and structures come and go, depending on my life at the time. For example, I’ve taken entire summers off to just write, whereas now I’m teaching a full course load as an English professor and any spare time I have becomes a writing opportunity.
Typically, I try to write about 500 words a day. I know that doesn’t seem like much, but the words add up quickly. On days when I’m off, I end up writing a lot more than that; the most I ever wrote was about 5,000 words, but that was because I wanted to finish the book that day.
I only write in the morning, when I have a hot cup of coffee by my side and nothing to distract me. My husband knows that on the weekends he can’t come downstairs until 10:00 AM because I’m working, otherwise I’ll lose my train of thought and stop. Some authors write really well at night, but if I’m even slightly tired, the words don’t flow.
5.) What advice do you have for anyone who wants to be an author, in particular, in teen books?
I think the number one thing I can’t stress enough is that having a good idea is not the same as being a writer. Being talented at writing is not even the same as being a writer. All that being a writer requires is that you write, so you have to be willing to put the time and effort in. The good news is that if you truly love writing, it won’t feel like work.
On the flip side, being a writer is not the same as being a published author. Drafting the book is just part one of a very long, very difficult process of selling the book and marketing it, and that process requires very different skills. If you hate speaking to crowds, interacting with readers, and keeping up with social media, being an author will not be an enjoyable experience. If the idea of visiting a book club and listening to people’s thoughts about your book is the worst thing that could ever happen to you, being an author will not be an enjoyable experience. And that’s okay. I have tons of writer friends who write only for themselves, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
If you definitely do want to be an author, start now. Build a group of dedicated friends and acquaintances who will support your work and come to your first book readings. Practice reading in front of people, even if it’s just your parents or a mirror (plus, reading your work out loud really helps you hear weak spots you might otherwise miss). Join a writing group, or if there isn’t one at your school, start one. Read everything you can, even the bad stuff—especially the bad stuff, because it teaches you what not to do.
Most importantly, get rejected. I know that sounds like crazy advice, but I started submitting when I was very young, so even though I’m only twenty-seven, I’ve already received an endless amount of rejection letters. That’s okay. It’s part of the process, and the earlier you develop a thick skin, the better. Nothing disheartens a new writer like a form letter saying how sorry the editor is for not accepting the work that that editor most likely didn’t even read, but eventually, those letters just become white noise.
Most importantly, write. Every day. And when that writing starts to feel like too much work, if it becomes arduous and monotonous, stop. Only start again when you realize you have no other choice.
Model Dakota Durflinger
Image by Conway Productions Inc.