Author Jerry White is a 1996 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He teaches writing, math and science to middle grade students in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, three sons, and a hamster named Ophelia that doesn’t like him very much. Jerry also works for a production company that makes short films and book trailers. His first book, the middle-grade fantasy The Thickety: A Path Begins, will be published this month and will kick off The Thickety series.
Learn more about Jerry and The Thickety and peruse Jerry’s teaching blog at http://www.jawhitebooks.com.
Congratulations on your forthcoming book series! We’re so excited for you. You graduated from the very first Odyssey Workshop, held in 1996! Can you share with us what made you decide to attend? What was your Odyssey experience like? What surprised you most about the Workshop?
Thanks so much! I decided to attend Odyssey 18 years ago (whoa) because I’ve always been attracted to fantasy and horror, ever since I was a little kid and got hooked on Edgar Allan Poe and Lloyd Alexander. The writing workshops I took in college, however, were focused on more “serious” literature, and while I was learning a lot it wasn’t necessarily in the genres that interested me the most. Odyssey was the best of both worlds, and for a few weeks I got to hang around a bunch of people who were passionate about the same types of stories as me.
I think the thing that surprised me the most about the Workshop was how approachable and friendly the visiting writers were. I remember just chatting with Craig Shaw Gardner, Jane Yolen and Elizabeth Hand–writers I had read and admired–and they couldn’t have been friendlier. It was the first time I understood that writers were just normal people doing a job, and somehow that made the goal of eventually becoming a published author feel somewhat more attainable.
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
The first thing I learned–and pretty quickly, too–was that writing requires an insane degree of commitment. There is much fun to be had, but Jeanne expects you to work. Here I was, this 22-year-old kid, and on a beautiful summer day I had to force myself to slog through a story that might not amount to anything! It was very good preparation for the next seventeen years of my life. I also learned how to be a more merciless editor. I was prone to long, descriptive paragraphs, but seeing the majority of workshop members (and Jeanne) slash through my flowery prose with red pen really made me reconsider this inclination.
In the years between Odyssey and the sale of your novels, you published a nonfiction book on the Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, took a stab at screenwriting for a few years, and finally settled into writing a novel for children. You’ve described children’s literature as “the right niche” for you. Many writers search for that “right niche.” Can you describe how your various projects and explorations led you to that realization?
It has been a very odd road indeed. I tried doing the short story thing, but I didn’t get very far. It just wasn’t for me (though I did get a few lovely rejection letters for my efforts). I wrote a novel, but I didn’t feel that it was good enough and never even tried to get it published. Then I wrote another novel, but midway through I lost it to a computer malfunction. That was pretty fantastic. I think for many years I didn’t attempt another novel because I didn’t believe I was good enough.
I still wanted to write, though, and I’ve always loved film, so I wrote the Kiyoshi Kurosawa book, a screenplay that got optioned but not made, and a bunch of short films for Escape Goat Pictures, many of which won awards. It was all very cool and gratifying, but none of it could take the place of having my name on a novel, so I decided to give it another go. As far as my choice of writing for children, I’m an elementary school teacher, so I spend my entire day with them! Writing about kids seemed a natural extension of that.
You’re a full-time teacher and a father of three. How do you make time for writing? What is your writing schedule and how do you stay on it?
It’s been a struggle, to say the least, but I try to maintain as regular a schedule as possible in order to stay sane. On most days, I wake up at 4:45 AM and write from 5:00-7:00 AM, then go to work. I’m smartest first thing in the morning, with a gradual decline in my IQ as the day progresses. I also write on the weekends from 6:00 AM-2:00 PM or so, though that can change based on our plans/approaching deadlines. The summer is my most productive writing time, and I can often write 60-70 hours a week.
Tell us about what it was like to write and sell The Thickety: A Path Begins and its sequels, from conception to sale.
The Thickety actually began as a short film I made with my friend Jack Paccione Jr. (owner of the aforementioned Escape Goat Pictures). Unfortunately, our ambitions exceeded our meager budget. I fell in love with the idea, however—and the characters of Kara and Taff–and I couldn’t seem to get their story out of my head. I finally began writing the novel about three years after the short film. After it was completed, I sent The Thickety (then entitled Path) to a bunch of agents, following the proper etiquette (polished cover letter, five pages).
Over a period of seven months, it was rejected about 40 times. I got some partial and full requests, and some nice emails, but zero takers. However, I had also sent the manuscript to a contact at HarperCollins, with whom Jack and I had made several book trailers. She passed the book along to an editor, Sarah Shumway, who loved the book! And then, to make things come full circle, Jack directed the beautiful book trailer. In my opinion it’s the best book trailer ever, and I am in no way biased about that. At all.
How much of your time was spent writing the first draft of A Path Begins, and how much time did it take to revise it? How many stages did the manuscript go through before you sent it off to an agent or publisher? What sort of revisions do you do?
The first 100 pages took me about three months. The final version is in the limited third-person voice, but in this original version I jumped from viewpoint to viewpoint. I was a bit concerned that it wasn’t working out, so I showed it to my wife, Yeeshing, who confirmed my suspicions in the sweetest way possible. I threw those pages out and started a new draft, which took me about two years. I had a lot of other things going on, so my writing time wasn’t nearly as structured as it is now. After that I did an additional two drafts, which took about another six months.
The big question was whether or not to keep the prologue. I kept going back and forth with this, since I had read that prologues are frowned upon by many agents and editors. I sent out some versions of the novel with the prologue, and others without it. In the end, however, the prologue stayed, and I can’t imagine the novel without it now.
If you would, share a little bit about the process of plotting a story arc across three books.
I’m not a huge fan of outlines. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. I’m a HUGE fan of outlines in theory; I’m just not particularly good at following them. Of course I have a general idea about where the story is going, but forcing myself to plan ahead and follow a specific structure takes away a lot of the pleasure of discovering the story along with the characters. Plus, I like to be surprised. There is actually an event in the first book that I had not anticipated, but it felt right, so I went with it even though it meant I had to rethink everything else I had in mind.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
I think my biggest weakness is my method of writing, given that I am so pressed for time with teaching and all these children running amuck in our house. It’s hard for me to know what works without writing it–so I write it, and if it doesn’t work, I toss it. I totally envy authors who can outline their story in advance and follow it closely, but that’s not me. I think what helps me cope with this is the knowledge that no writing is wasted. Even if it’s a chapter or two (or three) that doesn’t make it into the final draft, the process of writing it helps me to realize that. That’s where my Odyssey training helps the most–I don’t hesitate to cut where it’s necessary.
You’ve said that your experience teaches that “Persistence really is rewarded.” Many writers are discouraged by rejections; can you give them some advice based on your experience?
All it takes is one person–the right person–to like your work. Is there a degree of luck involved? Absolutely. However, you also have to create your own luck by getting your work out there–especially to those willing to give you honest feedback–and doing your best to improve it. Rejections can be extraordinarily discouraging, but they can’t take away the joy of writing a story. You brought something new into the world. Unpublished or published, you should take great pride in that.