Previously in my author conversation series: Alexandre Varela, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Megha Majumdar, Ada Limon, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Crystal Hana Kim and RO Kwon, Lydia Kieslingand Bryan Washington.
This month, a week before publication day — a time when many writers would struggle to manage a million promotional tasks and try not to crumble under the weight of pre-pub anxiety — Romance novelist Jasmine Guillory asked her Instagram followers, “Do you have a question for me? Need a helping hand? One person turned to her for career advice, another for motivation to write, a third for insight into the publishing process. Others shared more personal stories and struggles, and I followed her as she responded to each with her typical care and candor.
This is one of the many reasons I wanted to chat with Guillory for my newsletter. She is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including his first, The date of the wedding; Reese’s Book Club Pick Proposal; and its youngest, the sparkling Drunk in love– and he can often be seen recommending books on the Today’s show. She is, in other words, one of the busiest, hardest-working authors I know — and I don’t know anyone who gives better advice or offers more generous encouragement to fellow writers.
Guillory wrote her first books in her little free time, while working more than 60 hours a week as a lawyer. “I had writer friends and I knew how hard it was to make a living. I thought I was going to juggle both jobs for a long time,” she said. She writes full time now and speaks honestly about how inspiration can falter and then burst; the stress of deadlines and messy first drafts; and the cycles of brainstorming and hard work, frustration and epiphanies that make up a writer’s life. She doesn’t pretend it’s easy. At the same time, it is clear that she is doing what she chooses to do and what she loves: writing books that are a source of joy for her and her many readers.
“I think leading up to your release is the best time for you to experiment,” she told me. “Listen to different kinds of writing tips, try them one way, then try them another way, and see what works for you.”
Nicole Chung: Jasmine, can you start by telling us how you started writing and how you found time for it outside of a full-time professional life?
Jasmine Guillory: A lot of people decide they want to be a writer when they’re little, but that wasn’t me. I started writing relatively late, when I was in my thirties. I was a lawyer and realized I needed a creative outlet in my life – I had been out of school for a while and missed the experience of learning something new. I’ve always loved to read, and I had writer friends and had conversations with them and they were very encouraging, and I had a new idea, so I just dove into it.
It helps to know what kind of writer you are. I knew I was not going to be one of those writers who get up early to write. I would take my laptop to Starbucks across from my work and write for 30 minutes at noon, write for an hour in the evening after coming home from work, and write longer on weekends. I don’t think you should write every day if your life can’t support it or it’s not working for you, but for me it worked. If I don’t write every day, the next day is much more difficult. Even if I only write a few hundred words, working on the draft every day keeps it alive in my brain; it helps me find new ideas, solve problems and understand how to fix things. I also monitor my word count every day because it helps me to be able to look at the spreadsheet and see that it adds up, like, Oh, it’s been two weeks, and look at all I’ve done, even though it was so slow and impossible back then.
Chung: Do you think working as a lawyer has impacted your approach to a creative career?
Guillory: In some ways, it made me think about it as a company sooner than I otherwise would have. In the beginning, it was relatively easy for me to learn to separate the writing and editorial parts of the work. My legal background, I think, made me more organized and detail oriented in terms of my approach to editing – I remember being very analytical when trying to figure this out.
Chung: So, unlike me, you probably knew how to read your first book deal.
Guillory: Oh, absolutely not! That’s the problem: editing is an entirely different language that you have to learn. I remember when I got my first book deal, I was like, I know what these words mean, but I don’t know what they mean in this context. I think because I know the law it meant I knew exactly how much I doesn’t to understand.
Chung: Tell me about your early drafts. You just said they’re messy – what do you mean by that, and how do you build them next?
Guillory: I always have a preview. I’ll have at least the first third or so in my mind, a general middle and end. As I write and learn more about the story I will continue to go back and add to the outline. For my latest book, According to the rules, I had a very detailed plan – then I started writing and I got a third of the way there and I thought, No. I have to start over. I had never had to start a book over again before, but I understood who the main character had to be and I knew what was wrong. For this new book, Drunk in love, I had a looser outline. I knew the beginning, I knew the first third of the story, but I didn’t quite know the rest. With this book, which is set in Napa, I knew the setting would be a family winery and at least one of the main characters would work there. Since I live an hour away, I can go there often, and I started researching these trips, asking more questions. I had to do a first draft before I knew what questions to ask, though – to some degree, I don’t always know what I don’t know until I’ve written the story.
I usually start writing a book by hand, because I think a blank Word document is so intimidating, then type it up and continue on my laptop. With this book, I wrote the entire first draft by hand. While typing what I had written, I found out a lot about the book – I saw that one of the subplots was not correct and how to fix it. When I discover something in the middle of a draft, I never go back, I just keep writing as if I already knew it. So anyone reading my early drafts would be very confused, and that’s what I meant when I told you they’re drafts!
I have a great review spreadsheet, an idea I got from my friend, author Amy Spalding. Each draft is in a different tab. I create a column for each chapter and add notes about things I want to cut and edit. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, I can view the entire book in the spreadsheet and have a record of most of the changes I want to make to the next one.