Jenny Rae Rappaport has been published in Lightspeed Magazine, Escape Pod, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among other magazines. She is a 2009 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and holds a BA in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon University. In the past, she has worked as a literary agent, a marine sciences field guide, and spent a semester observing monkeys as an intern with the Pittsburgh Zoo. Jenny lives in New Jersey with her family, where she divides her time between writing and herding small children. She can be found online at www.jennyrae.com and on Twitter at @jennyrae.
You’re a 2009 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
At the time I went to Odyssey, I was working full-time as a literary agent. Much of my writing was squeezed in around evenings and weekends, like many other writers who have day jobs. Pre-Odyssey, I would have periods of productivity that were often centered around participating in writing contests for the Codex Writers Group or trying to meet a particular submission deadline for a market I really wanted to sell a story to.
But I’ve never had a set writing schedule, even pre-Odyssey. There are writers who know they’re going to sit down and write three hours each morning from 9 am to 12 pm, and that they’re going to get in their 1,000 words each day that way. But that simply doesn’t work with how I write.
Sometimes, I’m really angry about something and I write really fast and I get a ton of words in; at other times, I sit there for twenty-five minutes changing the wording of one sentence until I’m satisfied with how it sounds when I read it aloud. So much of writing for me is the dreaming time, the thinking time, the imperceptible moments when you need to let a story percolate until it finally comes to fruition in your subconscious.
I’ve always been a “pantser” in terms of my actual writing—outlining something takes away from the fun of discovery for me, which is an integral part of my writing. This was true before Odyssey and is true nowadays as well.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
I really wanted the chance to grow as a writer. I have a BA in creative writing, so I was familiar with workshopping, and I really wanted the chance to do that again. I had graduated from college in 2005 and I hadn’t really participated in a critique group since then. I had tried to find one in my geographic area, but it was difficult to find writers who were writing at approximately the same level I was at the time. So, after I had saved some money, I started applying to writing workshops.
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?
I think one of the best insights I gained from Odyssey was that Director Jeanne Cavelos basically told me one of my writing strengths was coming up with these disparate things that you wouldn’t necessarily think should fit together, but that I was able to turn them into compelling stories. And that the creativity in my work was something I should lean into.
I also feel like Odyssey helped me tremendously with plotting. Not so much in outlining and pre-planning a story because that doesn’t really work for me as a writer. But I remember one of the things we spoke about was how plot was essentially a series of actions and then characters reacting to those actions. And you can escalate the tension in the plot by having it essentially be a series of actions and reactions that never ends. It’s almost like the classic improv reply game of “Yes, and?” because you want the plot to continually tighten the screws on the characters until they hit a breaking point and must do something different at the climax of the story.
Your story “In the Cold, Dark Sea” came out in Lightspeed in January 2022 and is a chilling tale about sirens seeking revenge on the men who slaughter their kind. How many stages did this story go through before you sent it off to the publisher? How much of your time was spent writing the first draft, and how much time was spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you typically do for a short story?
What was published for “In the Cold, Dark Sea” was essentially the first draft. I write fairly clean first drafts because I edit them as I write them. If they don’t sound right, I’m not happy with them, so I fiddle with them a bunch until I’m able to move on to the next part of the story. I changed the wording of the final sentence a tiny bit and I added five words to my first draft, and that was what I sent off to Lightspeed. After it was under contract, the copy editor and I changed a sentence or two, but overall, they were pretty minor changes. They mattered to me, as the author, but the story could have been published without the changes.
For other stories, I’ve done major rewrites of the first draft. I recently sold a story that’s been through six major drafts over the years, and each time I’ve changed substantial bits of it. Each new draft came in response to comments from editors who didn’t end up buying the story but liked it enough to tell me why they weren’t buying it. I knew there was good stuff in the story, so I kept rewriting it because I believed in it.
I think it also depends on the editor. I love working with Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies because he always takes my stories, which are usually not a first draft by the time they get to him, and he sees into the heart of them and makes them even better. For both of the pieces I’ve had published by him, I’ve done substantial rewrites on the endings; I don’t think either story would have been as strong a piece without his input during the editorial stages.
In the past you have worked as a literary agent. What did you learn as an agent that you apply to your writing? What’s the best advice you have for writers who might be looking for an agent?
I read so much slush as an agent. Novel after novel after novel, some of which were really great, but also many of which could have used a good edit because they were hiding the interesting stuff under a bunch of introductory prose. As an agent, I really learned to value writers that hooked me at the beginning of a novel either through the quality of their prose or the innovativeness of their ideas. You don’t need to start a novel in media res, but you do need to give me something that’s going to make me turn the page and keep reading. It’s the same thing with short fiction, but even more compressed than with a novel. As a reader, I need to know why I’m supposed to care about the main character by the time I get to the end of the first page or two, so within about 250 to 500 words.
The best advice I have for writers who are looking for an agent is that this is a subjective business. And that someone may love your work but not be able to take you on as a client because they’ve just signed someone who’s writing similar things. Or because they feel the market is oversaturated in that particular novel subject. Or because they’re a young agent and they’re hungry and they love your work, but their supervisor doesn’t agree with them. There are a million scenarios where it’s not your writing but the actual business aspects.
When I was working in the field, we used to say, as a general rule of thumb, that you sold your third or fourth or fifth novel—meaning you’ve got a bunch of novels in your writing trunk that you couldn’t sell at that moment in time. So, if you end up with a bunch of agent rejections, you keep writing. Or you self-publish the novel you really love. But you don’t give up.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Endings. Mostly because I don’t know what they are until I get to them and I often have to rewrite parts of the story to make them fit with what the ending is supposed to be. Or sometimes I change the ending a bunch of times, until it’s the right one. But that’s part of my process, too, so I’m not entirely sure it’s a weakness.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I realized recently that I have both a novella and a novel that I haven’t really submitted anywhere, so I have tentative plans to do that, after I revise them. But I also have lofty goals—I’d love to publish a short story collection one day, for example. I’m still slowly writing a YA novel that I adore, in between getting hijacked by various short story ideas.
And I’m doing what I’ve always done, which is processing my reactions to the world around me through writing. I’m writing this interview at the end of June, and I’m currently both blazingly angry and depressed about the repeal of Roe v Wade. So I’m writing a story in reaction to it, which doesn’t actually deal with abortion, but rather with the mixture of feelings that I’m experiencing right now. It may never see the light of day, but then again, it might get published one day. You never quite know which story an editor will fall in love with.