“I wrote on with a strong belief that my writing skills could transition from one genre to another if I just kept at it.” ~~ Jennifer Smith Turner
Rethinking Her Approach
Jennifer Smith Turner won several awards for her debut Child Bride, the story of a woman who defied her expected destiny in a time when African-Americans in the South did not have many options. She generously shares her experience of being both a poet and a novelist and includes lots of practical and philosophical advice in the interview below.
BLG: Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you know you were a writer?
JST: I’ve always been a writer; I just put the focus on this aspect of my life on hold for a few decades — creative hibernation, if you will. February 4, 2000 my mother passed away. That night I made a promise to her to become a writer, and here I am all these years later with two published poetry books and a debut novel. June 23, 2001.
Eric and I were married on Martha’s Vineyard. We both turned forty-nine that year. Shortly after our wedding we agreed that I’d leave the corporate world and devote my time to writing. My first poetry book, Perennial Secrets, Poetry & Prose, was published in 2003. It was an homage to my mother, my way of keeping the promise to her and also a way for me to grieve her loss. It was a cathartic process and set me on the path of being a serious poet and writer. Now it is Eric who says to me, “I’m proud of you.”
BLG: What inspired Child Bride? Is it based on someone’s real story, stories you’ve heard, or is it from your imagination?
JST: Child Bride was born from the failure of my first attempt at writing a novel, and from the strong voice of its minor character, Mother Claire, who became the protagonist Mother Nell. I will always be grateful for the honest criticism people offered of the first manuscript that gave me the ability to hear Nell’s voice and the strength to continue writing her story. It was in the early 2000’s after I had published two poetry book collections that I decided to embark upon writing a novel. I quickly learned that the work of writing a novel is different from poetry in most ways.
In poetry I’m able to capture a sentiment, an image, or feeling in as few words as possible and yet with enough descriptive language to grab the reader’s attention. Here’s an example: “always proud”/whispers in motherless ears/gentle as baby’s breath. This brief ten word poem evokes strong emotions about the loss of my mother. Most readers can appreciate the sentiment whether or not they’ve experienced the death of their mother.
As I asked people to read parts of that first novel their feedback centered on my “telling” not “showing” in my writing. This baffled me since “showing” is how I successfully communicate through poetry. But I wrote on with a strong belief that my writing skills could transition from one genre to another if I just kept at it. Over three hundred pages later I wrote “The End” with a sense of tremendous satisfaction for a completed book.
I then set out to use my contacts in the literary world to find a publisher or agent for my debut novel. People were willing to take my calls and agreed to read the manuscript. I waited anxiously for the offers to come in, but you guessed it, that never happened. I did however get something that has proven invaluable — honest (even brutal) feedback and suggestions from professionals in the industry.
One agent said, “Telling, telling, telling, typical first time novelist mistake…and oh the grammatical errors!”
Another said – “I did not like the characters, even if you had developed them better.”
But one comment virtually everyone made who gave me feedback was along these lines – “The only thing of interest in the whole manuscript is Mother Claire. I’d like to know more about her.”
The storyline in the manuscript was about Mother Claire’s children who were young adults. She was represented in the novel as the elder person they turn to as they went through turmoil in their lives. I had no intention of making her anything other than a minor character. But based upon the feedback I received from people reading the novel I began to rethink Mother Claire.
BLG: How does writing poetry affect or influence your prose?
JST: Initially I approached the novel as being so different from poetry that I needed to abandon my poetic style and create a new novel-writing style. But in taking this approach, I stripped out my natural lyrical voice.
The creative process is similar for both fiction and poetry; however the novel is a much more expansive project. Character development, staying in scene, expanding the storyline through descriptive narrative and dialogue, and keeping the reader engaged for fifty thousand words or more – is a challenge.
I rewrite each scene of the novel as much as I rewrite a poem – it simply takes more time. The novel is imbued with poetic and lyrical language that draws the reader into the characters’ lives, emotions, culture, and settings; all of which is a result of how being a poet influences my writing.
BLG: What do you hope readers will take from the story?
JST: We each have things that occur in our lives that are joyful, exciting, sad, disappointing, and sometimes terrifying. What I wanted to capture in Nell’s life experience was how someone as young as she deals with these life emotions and still maintains a sense of both naiveté and hopefulness. Her inner strength is developed through the quality of her family relationships and the quality of the friendships she develops as she moves from the south to the north. The story is grounded in the belief that good and bad coexist but if you have strong character and a moral compass — good can prevail. Nell is grounded in all that she does because of her religious upbringing, her strong sense of family, and because of her inner strength that blossoms with time.
African-Americans exist in a world of duality, it is simply part of the American experience for those of us whose ancestors were enslaved people. We live our lives as everyone else does with the ups and downs that life presents any individual or family on a daily basis. At the same time though, we also live our lives within the construct of a society that has historically oppressed us and everyone like us. What I wanted to capture in Child Bride is the reality of “just living our life” for Nell and her family, but not ignore the fact that racism is always present.
The over-arching themes I wanted to highlight in the novel were — the value and importance of family in all its permutations, relationships between women and how they support one another, perseverance and inner strength, the power of love between people, the constraints society places on people because of gender and race, and the importance of education.
BLG: Were the contests you’ve won recommended and by whom? If not, how did you find them?
JST: My publisher, Sparkpress, shared lists of the best awards to consider and I did extensive research as well. From their recommendations and my own research, I made choices of which contests to approach.
BLG: Do you have any tips for turning an idea into the best possible story?
JST: An idea is like a fragile egg that must be held gently and nurtured. As you turn it over in the palm of your hand, examine its contours and weight, you begin to see what it can become. When that sense emerges, you need to write it down, and write more, until the layers of the idea take hold of your mind. Then write, edit, rewrite, and enjoy. To aspiring writers I would say, just sit down and write, not for an audience, but for yourself, write from your heart.
BLG: Why did you choose Spark Press for your publisher and how did they help you?
JST: Once I knew publication was my next step, I began to send out query letters to both agents and publishers. If I received any response, it was a quick rejection. Literary magazines are the best places to learn about potential publication opportunities. I read about SparkPress, followed their submission guidelines, and was selected to join their team. They are a hybrid publisher meaning that I’m considered an Indie author but I have the benefit of a publishing house that provides traditional publishing support.
Probably the most important aspect of that support is distribution through Ingram Sparks. With this my book was immediately available to bookstores around the country, the ebook version was available on all platforms, and the metadata is updated and consistent everywhere. It’s invaluable to be part of such a vibrant community.
BLG: Where can readers learn more about you and your books, and what are you working on now?
My website is the best place to learn more about me and my writing, https://theauthorjennifer.wordpress.com. There are links to several media publications and reviews of my book, Child Bride below.
I just completed a selection of poems that will be included in an anthology of about twenty poets’ work.
I’m in the process of outlining a sequel to a Child Bride and feel very excited about that. Just the other day I felt Nell in my head once again telling me there’s more to the story.
I’m working on two audiobooks. One is an audiobook for Child Bride and the other will be an audiobook of my poems. I always journal. This keeps my mind nimble, thoughts flowing, words falling on the page with wonton abandon.
BLG: Thanks for sharing your wisdom with the readers of Writer Advice. This award-winning book should be of interest to all women and the men who love and respect them. I look forward to reading more of your work.