Updated: Jan 26
Novelist Jennifer A. Nielsen, right, talks to middle- and high-school students about the business of publishing during a workshop at the Prairie View Middle School libary. (Photos by Roger Sims, Linn County Journal)
LA CYGNE – Author Jennifer A. Nielsen was talking to a group of prospective creative writers in the Prairie View Middle School library on a morning in late November. She was giving students, from both high school and middle school, examples of how to keep their stories interesting.
“We’re all nice people,” she told the group of about a dozen students, adding that writing about nice people doesn’t interest most readers. However, while she encouraged them to continue to be nice people, she said, “You’ve got to be a cruel writer.”
She asked them to imagine an opening scene to a story, written by a nice writer, is about a nice family that isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. What can you do to make that family more interesting, she asked.
“Kill them off,” one of the students offered matter-of-factly.
Nielsen and several students laughed at the boldness of the reply. But she didn’t disagree. She said that would certainly make the plot more interesting.
The exchange was one of many the Utah-based writer had during a daylong visit to both the middle school and high school. An author of books for young adults and middle-grade students, Nielsen was on a weeklong tour of five schools around the state.
Corissa Uphoff, middle school librarian, learned that an educator in Hutchison, Kan., was planning on bringing Nielsen to her school and wanted to know if any other school would like to host the writer while she was here.
Uphoff jumped at the chance, and used funds from the Prairie View Educational Foundation and the sale of books written by English teacher Pam Dunlop’s class on the history of towns in the Prairie View school district to pay the $1,200 fee for the day.
Nielsen specializes in fiction with historical themes as well as fantasy. Her works include the Ascendence Trilogy, Behind Enemy Lines (one of the books in the Infinity Ring series), The Mark of the Thief, and A Night Divided.
She talked to students about how she broke into publishing, including her own experiences in receiving rejection letter after rejection letter from publishers to which she sent manuscripts. She showed the student several letters of rejection she had received.
She even talked about how she and a cousin, who didn’t have much experience writing, submitted manuscripts to a small press publishing company. Her cousin’s manuscript was accepted, and on her birthday she received a letter from that company. Her manuscript was rejected again.
“I was trying and failing, and trying and failing, and trying and failing again,” she said. But quitting was not a choice for her and she wrote one last manuscript.
“I wrote what I loved,” Nielsen said. “That became my first published novel.”
She told the story of Steven, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who was suffering from post-post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Nielsen said she met Steven at a book signing. She said the couple told her that Steven, while not much of a reader, made an almost instant connection to her novel The False Prince.
She said he told her that her book was the only thing that connected his to to his life. After that initial meeting they continued to remain in touch, and she learned that Steven was better able to control his PTSD. But he was also inspired enough to go on to write and publish his own book.
She told the group that their stories could change lives.
“I want everyone in this room to make the decision not to quit,” she said. “You have stories that matter, and you need to keep putting words on paper.”