faculty spotlight: Jody Gehrman
Author Jody Gehrman has been associated with the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference for more than ten years, both as a returning member of faculty and as an invaluable member of the advisory board. This summer, we’re thrilled to have Jody back to teach the MCWC 2017 Master Class. Jody is truly versatile. The author of ten novels and numerous plays for stage and screen, she’s also a professor of English and Communications at Mendocino College. Her young-adult novel, Babe in Boyland, won the International Reading Association’s Teen Choice Award and was optioned by the Disney Channel; her first psychological suspense novel, Watch Me, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2018. In exciting recent news, her full-length play, Tribal Life in America, won the Ebell Playwright Grand Prize, a prestigious playwriting award.
I sat down with Jody to find out more about the class she'll be offering at MCWC 2017, and to discuss her writing process, getting published, and how she finds motivation.
So you’ve published 10 novels. Can you tell us a little about that process? Were you traditionally published or did you self-publish?
Eight have been traditionally published and two were self published. When I’m talking to writers, I don’t recommend one over the other until I find out their personal goals, because they both have their strengths and their drawbacks. I like traditional better because I love having a professional marketing team and professional editors. I love the collaborative process. But it takes so long that way. Self publishing gives you a lot of creative control, like designing your own covers, and it’s usually much more immediate.
How did you first get published? Did you have an agent?
I first got my agent when I was in grad school. I went to the University of Southern California, and I picked that school on purpose because I knew that the professors were all working writers. All of my professors there were published, but there was one I really wanted to impress. So I tried my best, always handed in my best work, and she said ‘I like what you’re doing. I want to introduce you to my agent.’ And we went from there. I’m now on my third agent, actually. I don’t write the same kind of book over and over. I started in "chick lit," then moved to YA with a romance vibe, and now I’m working on a suspense novel, so I wanted to find an agent with a good track record for that.
Do you write under a pseudonym for when you changed genres?
My agent and I talked about a name change, but it seemed more harmful to start from scratch and we think my genres are closely enough aligned that it won’t matter. I always joke, ‘Thank God I haven’t had a runaway best seller,’ because then publishers would expect me to write the same book over and over again with a different title. Right now I have more freedom.
Is there anything you would have done differently with your first novel?
Not necessarily something I would have done differently, but there is something that surprised me when I went from being a student to a working writer. I didn’t realize just how much a publisher will push you towards the most marketable angle no matter what that is. My first novel, Summer in theLand of Skin, was the farthest thing from a romance in my mind, but it went to auction and the highest bidder was Harlequin, and so suddenly I was a romance writer. This is confusing to a lot of writers, because in school we’re pushed away from genre fiction; everyone wants to write literary fiction. But in the commercial world we’re pushed really hard towards whatever sells. I wish that someone had told me more about that. I felt a little blindsided by it. But young writers do have a better sense now of branding. If it’s important to you how you’re perceived and how you’re marketed, think about that and be an active participant in the way your career is packaged.
You also write plays. How is the playwriting process different from the novel writing process? Playwriting is therapeutic for me because it connects me to my audience in a more direct way than fiction ever can. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience and feeling their reaction to what’s happening on stage. With a novel, you’re basically launching a message in a bottle and sending it out to sea, and you know there are people reading it, but aside from reviews, you don’t have much connection to their experience. It’s abstract and kind of unsettling. So whenever I start to feel that distance, I want to connect with my community and work with directors and actors and have that feeling of collaboration. For me it’s about the collaboration and the insights I get when I sit in an audience that’s responding in the moment to a live performance.
Has an actor or director ever interpreted your writing differently than you intended?
I love that! Sometimes an actor will interpret a line of dialogue in a way I’d never thought of, and it’s much better. That’s the joy of collaboration. It’s the X factor that other people bring. When your creative process is linked to theirs, it’s so much richer and more complex. A part of me really enjoys being surprised by what other people bring to my work.
How do you find the time to write?
I’m a really big fan of writing a draft as quickly as possible. I’m always busy, so I have to be a binge writer when I can. On summer and winter breaks from school, I get a lot done. Sometimes I’ll sit down and write for eight hours at a time, but even during the school year, I try to keep a fairly regular practice. It’s important to dedicate a certain amount of time, space, and energy every day to your writing.
I have a group of girlfriends that I met at a conference and every winter and summer we get together to write in Carmel, and I don’t let myself focus on anything besides the writing. That’s always when I’m the most productive!
Writing retreats and conferences are so good for getting motivated! Do you have any advice on how to get the most out of a conference?
Before you go, you should ask yourself what you want to get out of it. Some people don’t expect to get any writing done— they want to get inspired and hear speakers, which is completely valid. Other people want quiet time to write. If you want to get writing time done, carve that out and guard it zealously. Don’t go to every event. You have to make time for yourself. But if networking is important to you, make time for those casual conversations. But don’t be too aggressive! My agent told me a story about how when she was at a conference, she was on the treadmill and three different people came up to her to pitch. You don’t want to turn them off and be too needy. Just wait for the natural moment!
How about a general piece of writing advice?
This is kind of a cliche, but I love that phrase ‘the writer’s strongest tool is the door.’ You need to have the willingness to close it and do your work. I know some writers that are so deeply social that they never find the time to get the kind of isolation that real creativity requires. On the other hand, it’s important to balance that out and connect with other writers and people that stimulate our imagination. Pay attention to who you’re surrounding yourself with and how they affect your work; whether you feel supported and inspired by people you’re working with or whether you’re feeling dragged down and distracted.
Can you tell us a little about the Master Class? And do you have any advice for those applying?
The class will be divvied up between mini lectures on the bones of storytelling, exercises to help students experiment, and critiques and feedback on everyone’s works in progress. As far as submissions go, I would say to just give yourself some time to really polish. Just like with any writing sample, you don't want to dash it off at the last second. Give it that distance and make sure it's the best sample of your work. Writing samples work best if they stand alone, even if they're part of something bigger. Usually the first section works best because you're already helping the reader get oriented.
I’m excited to be coming back to the MCWC and especially to be teaching the Master Class. I just want people to recognize what a gem this conference is. It’s small and focused, but at the same time, it’s not claustrophobic. There’s such a wide range of types of writers. It’s one of the least pretentious, friendliest, and most inspiring conferences I’ve had the pleasure to work with.
You will find submission guidelines for Jody's Master Class on registration. To register, please visit mcwc.org. Attendance is limited to 12 and juried in, with final selections made by Jody. The class is open to writers of all genres: fiction, memoir, playwriting, screenwriting, etc.
You can find out more about Jody Gehrman at her website: http://www.jodygehrman.com