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.
We interviewed Jerry back in 2014 when his first book, the middle-grade fantasy The Thickety: A Path Begins, kicked off The Thickety series. A second book, The Thickety: The Whispering Trees, was published in 2015, and The Thickety: Well of Witches, joined them this past February. The fourth book will be released in January 2017.
Learn more about Jerry and The Thickety series and peruse Jerry’s teaching blog at http://www.jawhitebooks.com.
Congratulations on the third installment in your Thickety series, The Thickety: Well of Witches, which came out earlier this year. What drew you to write for middle grade readers? What are some challenges unique to writing for a younger audience?
Thanks! There were a few different factors that led to me to write for middle-grade readers. I’ve been a classroom teacher for 17 years now, mostly 5th and 6th grade. Since I enjoy spending time with kids of that age, I suppose it makes sense that I would enjoy spending time with fictional kids of that age as well! I also feel like I have a much stronger relationship with books that I read as a child versus books that I read as an adult. Don’t get me wrong, I still love reading—but I understand the craft that goes into books now, and that publishing is a business. When I was a kid, a good story was absolute magic. I wanted to be able to recapture that feeling for my own readers.
The biggest challenge for me, in terms of writing for a younger audience, is toning down the darkness. I don’t even mean violence, exactly—just the overall dark tone of my books. I’ve always been drawn to scary stories, which is weird, because I’m a pretty chipper guy. Kids are always surprised that I’m not wearing a dark overcoat and scowling when they meet me.
Which middle grade books have inspired your own writing? What did you learn from them?
When I was a kid, my favorites were the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander and A Wrinkle in Time. However, in terms of inspiring my own writing, I’d have to say that the Harry Potter series was a big influence. I feel like those novels are as much mystery stories as fantasies, in that there are a ton of plot twists and the heroes are never quite sure what’s going on (the best example of this is Prisoner of Azkaban). That sort of genre merging can definitely be seen in The Thickety. I’m not surprised that J.K. Rowling has gone on to write some wonderful adult mystery novels.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revisions? What sort of revisions do you do?
I’m not an outliner; I’ve tried that a few times and it doesn’t work for me. I do some world building and character work, and then I just kind of dive into a draft and keep my fingers crossed that I
know what I’m doing. As I write, it’s very much an instinctual thing. I may spend a week on a chapter and realize that it’s not right, so I’ll go back and rewrite it, and go in a new direction. It’s a series of starts and stops. I try to pound through a first draft as quickly as possible, because it’s only when I have a complete draft that I’ll understand how the novel is built and how I can make it better. This usually takes me about 6 months. By the time I’ve completed a first draft I’ve sorted through the major plot problems by rewriting as I go. At this point, most of my time is spent seeing the draft through the eyes of each character and making sure they remain consistent and true. And then there’s the nitty-gritty language revisions: making sure that each sentence is perfect and that I’ve trimmed all the necessary fat. That’s my favorite part! To use an imperfect home improvement analogy, early revisions are like fixing the boring stuff that no one sees—plumbing, electrical, things like that. On the other hand, improving the language is like decorating your house and making it beautiful for guests. It’s a lot more fun, for sure.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
I published some non-fiction articles on film a few years after I started writing, but it took me about a decade to sell a book. It was a book about a Japanese filmmaker that I sold to a small press; it’s not even in print anymore. After that it was another 8 years or so before I sold The Thickety.
I think it’s unfair to assume that a writer who is unpublished is necessarily doing something wrong. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I wrote something that was good enough to be published. Some writers are good enough to get published at 20, and hurray for them! Alas, I wasn’t good enough until I was 38—but if I hadn’t been writing in those intervening years, I never would have sold anything at all.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
I was lucky enough to attend the very first Odyssey Writing Workshop, so I feel very special! At the time it wasn’t the big deal it is now, so I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but the thing that attracted me the most was that it was centered around genre writing, which has always been my vibe. I wanted to learn, be challenged, and see if I actually had any talent.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
My biggest weakness is actually finding time to write. I still teach full time, and I have three sons, so time is always a problem. I cope by being as structured and regimented as possible. Usually that involves waking up at an ungodly hour, or writing when I’d rather be doing something else (usually reading). I set daily goals for myself that I must meet before going to sleep. I have to. I’m not a big believer in muses or writing when the mood strikes. It’s a job just like any other, and it involves a great deal of discipline.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon?
In January the final volume of The Thickety will be released. Right now I’m writing a MG book called Nightbooks, which is about a boy who gets captured by a witch and has to come up with a different scary story each night to appease her. I’m also toying with an adult fantasy novel, which may or may not pan out—too early to tell!