Many beginning authors believe that the only thing necessary for success is one “big break,” but that is a myth. Some of the most successful Christian authors of our time got their start without the help of a “big break.”
I recently interviewed Jerry Jenkins to find out how he started writing and how he’s maintained a successful career. Jerry is a New York Times bestselling author who has written 197 books in multiple genres such as biography, self-help, romance, mystery, science fiction, young adult, and thriller. His books have sold over 71 million copies, and he’s most well-known for the Left Behind series.
How did you get started as a writer?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: What was the first book you published?
Jerry Jenkins: I started writing long before I published my first book.
My mother taught me to read before I was in kindergarten, which made me an obnoxious elementary school student. The joke in our family is that by the time I was in first grade, I was reading at the fourth-grade level, and in college, I was still reading at the fourth-grade level. My mother told me I wrote stories when I was a kid, but I don’t remember those.
I grew up reading Sports Illustrated and the sports page of the newspaper. I used to play a dice baseball game my dad had invented, and when I got the box score at the end of the game, I would do a write-up as if I was writing for a newspaper.
When I was 14 years old, I went to the local newspaper’s sports editor and asked, “How are you fixed for sports writers because I am one.” He assigned me a couple of games to cover at my high school, and I went back to the newspaper office to bang out those stories on a manual typewriter.
I was big for my age, and the editor didn’t realize I was too young to drive and that my mother was waiting for me in the car. He read my articles and edited me hard. I got one dollar per inch of writing that survived his edits and was printed in the paper. So, I have been a professional writer since the age of 14.
I felt a call to full-time Christian work in my later teen years, and I thought I’d have to give up sports writing and become a pastor or missionary. But a wise counselor told me, “Sometimes God equips us before he calls us, and your interest in writing may be the vehicle you use to fulfill that calling.”
That has proven true. I’ve never been called to be a writer, but I have been called to be a full-time Christian worker, and writing has been the vehicle I’ve used to follow that call.
That subtle difference changes the way I look at success. Most writers view success as bestsellers and great reviews. Success to me is obedience. If I’m obeying the call, it doesn’t matter how the books sell.
Thomas: The apostle Paul had a similar story. Before he was even a believer in Jesus, he was being prepared for his later ministry. Paul studied the scripture under Gamaliel, who was so famous that people still study his writings today in synagogues. Paul learned the scripture before he became an apostle.
In the same way, Jerry wasn’t writing alone when he started. He got feedback from a professional editor. Feedback transforms practice into deliberate practice. Plain practice can reinforce the same bad habits. Deliberate practice causes you to get better faster because someone teaches you how to correct your mistakes.
Jerry: When people ask me to look at their work, it’s easy for me to tell if they actually want criticism, input, or helpful critiques. Most of the time, new writers simply want to be discovered, but few are ready to be discovered. They need input from editors who can teach them.
It’s painful to be edited, but how you respond to it will make the difference between your success and failure as a writer.
Thomas: The other benefit of journalistic writing is that deadlines are for real. The paper will be published the next morning, whether your column is finished or not. Journalists must be disciplined in their writing and deadlines.
Jerry: I learned that the hard way when I was in the newspaper business back when rainbows were still in black and white.
We were setting hot type to publish the newspaper. When the deadline hit at midnight and your copy wasn’t ready, the typesetter would tip that tray of letters back into the hot lead melter, and your copy was dead. If you missed your deadline, your copy was dead.
When I was the publisher of Moody Press in the 80s, I learned that one in 100 writers hit their book deadlines. As a writer, that taught me that simply hitting my deadline would separate me from 99% of my competition.
If you hit your deadlines, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
How do you hit your deadlines?
Thomas: What is the secrete to being in that 1% that hits their deadlines?
Jerry: You need a system. I figure out how many pages I need to write and how many days I have before my deadline. Then I calculate how many pages per day I’ll need to write to hit my deadline.
Over the years, I’ve learned to schedule procrastination. It sounds counterintuitive, but I know I’ll procrastinate, so I block out days where I may not get anything done.
I keep the deadline sacrosanct and ensure I have enough time to edit and rewrite.
If you turn in your manuscript on time, your publisher may not know what to do with it because they probably weren’t expecting it to be on time.
Thomas: While only 1% of all authors hit their deadlines, I’ve found that among bestselling authors a much higher percentage hit their deadlines. People who sell lots of books have disciplined rhythms that help them stay on track.
When you say yes to writing and publishing, you’re saying no to Netflix.
Jerry: When you have a big success, such as the Left Behind series, it becomes even more important to hit your deadlines. My publisher had so much riding on me hitting the deadline. They had trucks scheduled to deliver palates of books. Bookstores and distributors were waiting for the book. If I missed my deadline, it would throw off everything. The pressure became greater with successive books.
Big-name, successful authors like Stephen King, John Grisham, and J.K. Rowling have to keep their deadlines.
What is your writing rhythm?
Thomas: Do you write every day, or do you write for a season? How do you break the project into smaller goals?
Jerry: I don’t write every day, but I write when I’m on deadline. I like to take breaks while I’m writing. For many years I wrote four books per year. Writing in several different genres allows me to take a break from a certain genre. When I’m on a deadline, I get up before dawn and do my best writing before noon.
In the afternoons, I don’t schedule writing. If I don’t finish a certain number of pages in the morning, I’ll write in the afternoon because I can’t fall behind. But I don’t schedule writing in the afternoons.
Thomas: Writing intensely for a season with breaks in between is a very sustainable way to write. It’s a good way to honor the instrument of your writing.
How do you work with coauthors?
Thomas: You’ve worked with many coauthors over the years. How do you get a coauthor to write with?
Jerry: Coauthor is almost a misnomer because any time my name is on a book, I’ve either written or edited every word. I never do both. I don’t co-write.
For instance, I’ve done 55 books with Chris Fabry. On those occasions, he writes every word, and I do a heavy edit and rewrite of every word.
For the Left Behind series with Dr. LaHaye, I wrote every word, and he served as the theological and scholarly critic. He was also a great cheerleader. I’d send him 100 pages at a time, and he’d ask for more because he wanted to know what happened next.
That project appealed to me because Dr. LaHaye didn’t want to write it. It was his idea, and he brought me into it. We discussed many things, but he had full veto power because it was his project. I got to play to my strength by writing the fiction, and when it came to the writing, he deferred to me. I became the arbiter of the words on the page, and he was the overall decision maker about what would survive.
Thomas: To return to your sports writing career, it’s as if one of you was calling the play-by-play and the other was calling color to round out the context.
Jerry: The separation of duties was good. I didn’t need or want to be the face of that whole project. If someone had a problem with the eschatology or theology, Dr. LaHaye could address it. If readers didn’t like the writing or the story, I had to take the heat.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking for a coauthor?
Thomas: Besides looking for someone who can split the duties, what do you look for in a coauthor?
Jerry: It’s almost like a dating relationship because your personalities need to mesh. You want to work with someone who gets you. If you get excited about the same ideas, most of the time you should agree. If you don’t, the relationship might not work. However, some people argue a lot, and if you can survive without getting your feelings hurt, that can work too.
The best way to start a cooperative approach is to look for someone who is not a writer but has a story to tell. If you’re a writer, you can interview them about their story and offer advice on how to shape the story. Then you try to write it in their words.
With my sports background, I wrote many books about Christian athletes. The athlete would tell me the story, but I had to write in a style that sounded like that person. They had full veto power. If I used a word they wouldn’t use, they could tell me, and we’d make the change.
I tried to put myself in their shoes as if I was the athlete and knew how to write. A project like that will teach you a lot.
Thomas: It sounds like the first step to getting a good coauthor is to become a better writer yourself. Then you’ll have the skill to bring the storytelling to the book.
Jerry: Once you have a well-known book, even if it’s not a bestseller, people will come to you and ask you to write their stories.
I’ve rarely had to pursue books for the past several years because publishers come to me with projects. If it sounds interesting and I am excited, I’m happy to do it.
My first New York Times bestseller was about Orel Hershiser, a pitcher for the Dodgers in the 80s. When that publisher was looking for an author to write the story, I sent my latest novel to the publisher. Hershiser’s agent read the novel and called Orel to say he’d found a writer.
Get your writing where it needs to be, and people will come to you.
Does the publisher always initiate the matchmaking?
Thomas: What has been the most common and uncommon way you’ve been matched with a coauthor.
Jerry: Early on, I had to initiate it. I’d think of a person I’d love to do a book with and pursue it.
I wanted to do a book with Walter Payton, a superstar for the Bears. I went to a publisher, pitched the fact that I was a former sports writer, and said, “If I can get Walter Payton to let me write a book about him, would you publish it?”
After I tracked down the athlete and his agent, I had to talk them into it.
Publishers have also come to me. Thomas Nelson asked me to write a book about Meadowlark Lemon, a Harlem Globetrotter and a childhood hero of mine.
The most unusual match happened when I was working at Scripture Press. My boss had been asked to write an inspirational book about Hank Aaron. Aaron and his wife were in a Catholic hospital when they lost one of their twins, and a priest at that hospital was very helpful during that difficult time. As a result, Hank Aaron converted to Catholicism and became a devout Catholic.
My boss asked if I would like to write it because he didn’t know much about football. I said, “If you think Hank Aaron is a football player, you certainly don’t know much about football.”
I was only 23 at the time and got so excited about the project. My boss saw that enthusiasm and offered to write the inspirational part while I wrote the sports part. That was my fourth book, and it really opened doors for me. Once you’ve done a book with Hank Aaron, other athletes are impressed because they’re fans too. It becomes easier to secure those projects.
How did the Left Behind series change your career?
Thomas: Did it get even easier after the Left Behind series?
Jerry: I had a few bestsellers before Left Behind, such as Billy Graham’s memoir and the Hershiser book.
Left Behind was a crazy mega-bestseller. It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
Any book that sells tens of thousands of copies is an incredible success. If a book sells 100,000 copies or anything near a million, it’s considered a crazy success. When Left Behind was at its peak, the first book alone sold 275,000 copies per month for years.
At that point, you no longer have to write query letters and pitch your work. You can tell your agent to call someone and say, “Jerry Jenkins would like to do this book,” and they’ll agree before they even know what it’s about. I had to be careful not to take advantage of that and just start mailing it in.
Thomas: Left behind was a special book for a special time. Those books came out in the late 90s when people were nervous about Y2K. There was a lot of uncertainty about the future, so it was the perfect moment for a mega-bestseller.
Your runaway hit happened in the middle of your career. You still had decades of writing ahead of you.
What was it like to write your first book after the Left Behind series?
Jerry: It was intimidating because publishers wanted a repeat of Left Behind.
I was 46 years old when the first Left Behind book came out, and by the time the third book was released, it had become a phenomenon.
I got some nice contracts for fiction. The publishers tried to pay me as if the new book was going to sell like Left Behind. If the new book only sold 500,000, they would apologize. It was a whole different world.
After you have a mega-hit, you must face the expectation that everyone wants a mega-bestseller. It’s not easy to reproduce.
Thomas: The important thing is that you kept writing. It would have been easy to retire and say, “I’ve sold enough books.” Your continued writing benefited everyone, including your coauthors.
Jerry: Left Behind was so big. In some media interviews, I was asked if I had written anything else. Left Behind was my 125th book. The fact that people weren’t aware of my first 124 books was sobering. I was an “overnight success” after 124 books.
How can an author learn about writing from you directly?
Jerry: I have been teaching at writers conferences for decades, even before I was well-known. With more visibility came more interest from students who wanted to do what I do.
At JerryJenkins.com, writers can find the Jerry Jenkins Guild. For a modest monthly fee, authors can get all kinds of training. We do four fresh features every month, and we archive everything. Once you sign up, you can see everything we’ve ever written or recorded, and you can conveniently access it 24/7.
I offer several more expensive courses that require more of my time and more time from my students. And I offer my blog for free.
I have about 2000 online students. In some ways, I feel obligated to pass along what I’ve learned. This career has been a blessing, and it’s fun to pay it forward.
Thomas: The great thing about courses is that all the money you invest goes toward your education. When you attend a conference in person, a lot of your money goes toward travel, lodging, and food. When you take an online course, you typically spend less money, and most of it is spent on educating yourself.
The FREE Guide to Self-Editing by Jerry Jenkins
Jerry: Writers need to become ferocious self-editors. Beginning writers often turn in a rough draft, hoping an editor will fix it. With the competition for publishing contracts, you must turn in a well-edited piece.
I’ve compiled a handy list of 21 items to look for in your own writing called How to Edit a Book: 7 Steps to Becoming a Ferocious Self-Editor.
Thomas: If Jerry Jenkins still needs to self-edit on his 198th book, you do too. If you provide your editor with a clean, self-edited manuscript, he or she will be able to give you a better and more in-depth edit. Your book will be better for it. You’ll also want to avoid these common publishing mistakes.
To learn more about writing a tight manuscript, listen to our episode on how to tighten your writing.
How do I know when my book is done?
Jerry: People often ask me, “How do I know when I’m done editing my book?”
I answer by saying, “You want to be happy with every word.”
Some people ask if I am embarrassed by my early work. In a way, I’m not because my goal at that time was to write the best book I could write with what I knew then. Even then, I didn’t submit a manuscript until I was happy with every word. If I wrote that book today, I would do things differently, but back then, that was my capacity.
It’s so easy to make revisions with today’s technology that sometimes people don’t know when to stop editing. You need to know when you’ve gone from making it different to making it better. If you’re only making it different, then you’re done.
Write the absolute best book you can write. Self-edit ferociously, and when you’re ready to submit your work, submit the best you’ve got.
Writing courses: https://jerryjenkins.com/online-creative-writing-courses
Writing tools: https://jerryjenkins.com/writing-tools
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Congrats! Great show!