By Heather Pontius
Inspiration can come from anywhere—even one’s children, according to author Jean Knight Pace. Seeing her children’s enthusiasm for make-believe and fantasy refreshed her own childish passion for telling such stories, “my children reminded me that life doesn’t have to be so terribly real and that fantasy doesn’t have to be so terribly un-real.” The oldest of five herself, Jean reflects that her younger self likely “had some bossy-pants wisdom to impart to those less worldly-wise than myself” even then. It is with that same youthful abandon and confidence that she approaches her current YA fiction.
As a girl, Jean was drawn to rhythm, whether in poetry or song. She still loves Broadway musicals because they integrate narrative and music in such a powerful way. Transitioning to telling her own stories already had a strong foundation. In college, her literary palette became more sophisticated. Ultimately, though, having her own children made her fall in love with those long-ago fantasies of teen/tween stories. She says she’s “growing less mature” with time, but I’m sure her fans love it!
Her passion for the subject matter notwithstanding, writing takes time. Jean says it take her two years to write a book, despite her best efforts to reduce it. Honestly, though, writing—and editing—great fiction isn’t something she wants to rush. Even when she thinks a manuscript is “ready,” Jean does her due diligence. After letting a piece sit for at least a month so that revisions can be done with fresh eyes, she then sends it to beta readers, friends, writer peers, etc. Jean also finds objective readers by attending writing conferences—you never know when that networking will yield professional connections later on. Having a writer of a different genre review her manuscripts allows for an alternative perspective for a truly well-rounded critique. If you can convert these writers into fan readers, then you know your story is ready for the next step.
Jean’s favorite fans—her kids—also review her work to make sure it passes the test of her target audience. “Even more telling than their feedback is how they react. When I was writing my first book, Grey Stone (an epic fantasy with an epic battle at the end), my son (then ten) would stop his reading to air sword fight with the invisible forces around him. It was then that I knew the book was working.”
Other than her family, Jean draws inspiration from life (real life means real feelings to imbue into her fantastical characters), nature, music, and food—evidenced by her food blog The Tasty Cheapskate. When writing, Jean refers to herself as a “pantzer,” versus a “plotter,” because she will often write a first draft all the way through, spending little time to worry about errors, inconsistencies, plot gaps, etc.i “I think it’s vital to write a first draft without having a lot of voices criticizing you in your head. There will be plenty of voices later—no need to rush into them.” We could all learn from her advice to quiet the inner editor in our heads.
But Jean’s writing process may differ from others in that she writes with a co-author. She says, “Writing with a co-writer is interesting.” Her co-author for Grey Stone (2016) and its sequel Grey Lore (2017) is Jacob Kennedy. They approach each manuscript differently, though. For Grey Stone, they met weekly to brainstorm, and Jean drafted material based on their conversations, before Jacob read over it. For Grey Lore, she refers to Jacob as the “writers-block-fixer/idea guy,” while she fine-tuned the draft. For their third and most current work, Jacob consolidated a mass of research, while Jean wrote. It seems like they have tried a number of approaches to co-writing, but either way, they each bring strengths to the table and balance one another to volley the best ideas and craft them on the page. They both refine sections as needed, and the male-female duo bring honest gender perspectives to create realistic characters and provides “a good balance between action and character development. We like to joke that if I wrote a book it would only be people talking and if Jake wrote a book, it would only be people fighting (which isn't really true, but definitely highlights what our strengths are).”
She achieved work balance with her co-author, but Jean also strives for work-life, or as she calls it, work-family, balance. “My best advice for work-family balance is to live life first and then write. And I do not consider an uber clean house ‘life’ so that can get ignored sometimes.” Ultimately, art mirrors life, so if your life is lacking, so will your writing. “Writing gives you an amazing opportunity to process life, to reflect on it, to help others discover and uncover things. Work and family should feed each other, not starve each other.” Jean, like many writers, processes life through her words, and the page reflects that back to her when life isn’t functioning well.
Jean is obviously very connected to her writing—both mentally and physically. She still uses pen and paper to write her first drafts by hand. She “loves the body-mind connection.” Jean also uses her laptop for revisions and such; her preferred writing position is on the couch with her cat (she asks: “how do people write without a cat on their laps”).
When asked if Jean works on multiple projects at a time, she confessed that she is “multi-task challenged” and focuses on one work at a time—at least one piece has more of her focus than any others at one given time. During downtimes from one project, she will often start up or tackle another. Jean likes to keep projects fresh so putting them down and revisiting them later when she’s recalibrated her perspective works best for her. She likes the slow and steady pace because it works well for her.
When she needs a break from writing, Jean teaches writing seminars and gives speeches at local schools and libraries. She expressed her love for these activities to me in all caps. At schools, she gives a short presentation and then follows it with a question and answer session, as well as fun writing exercises. “Kids are natural artists—they're full of creativity and expression.” She likes to take the pressure off writing, as when students do so for a grade, so she fosters an open atmosphere where kids feel safe to share, or not, knowing they can write anything they want. Jean enjoys the kids’ enthusiasm and lack of inhibition.
Libraries also bring Jean joy as it makes her recall visiting them as a child with fondness. “I love the atmosphere in libraries; I love how they smell, how they feel. I love how they open up a whole world to anyone willing to enter their doors.” Some may think books in libraries equals fewer sales, but Jean simply wants to share her work with others, in any capacity or walk of life. She is always to speak to groups in libraries as well, and she emphasizes that if any schools or libraries wish to have a copy of her book, all they need do is contact her via her website (http://jeanknightpace.com/contact-me/).
In addition to these educational opportunities, Jean also participates in her local writing community. She used to be the president of the Midwest Writers Guild and professes to draw inspiration from them—either through new ideas or commiserating soulmates. Let’s not forget about the digital community as well. Jean is present on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and she loves to interact with fans. Check out her website for fan art submitted by her followers.
What’s her favorite piece of writing? She can’t pick. “I love them all in different ways.” Grey Stone will always hold a dear place in her heart as it was her first full-length book to be published (and it is a great story). She learned a lot about the writing, editing, and publishing process along the way, too. She considers Grey Stone a bit of a “legacy” piece because she and her co-author deliberately wrote attributes of their children into some of the characters, which makes this story particularly personal.
One of her lesser favorites, though just as important, was writing her memoir, Hugging Death: Essays on Motherhood and Saying Goodbye (2018). Jean is not afraid of being open and honest, sharing of herself, but this personal manuscript “sucked to write.” She aptly told me that all writers will eventually have to write this type of piece. Through writing, “I was able to feel closer to my mother. I cherish that about it.” A writer often processes her feelings through what she does best, and that poignant and authentic voice comes through the pages. One of my favorite lines from Hugging Death, excerpted on Jean’s author website: “you feel her bones in your own and that insistence stretches into the vision you have of your own life.” This is an excellent example of showing, not telling, for which we all must strive.
Jean has several other new projects on the horizon, which she regularly features on her blog. The Determiner is a sci-fantasy set in the White House with history, mystery, and ghosts, oh my! Jean and Jacob are currently reaching to agents to represent this fun “alien lore” and intend to turn this into a series. Four Seconds is another memoir that she co-wrote with Laura Andrade. After meeting Laura in church, Jean learned of her story and became “impressed how she had turned an ugly life into a beautiful one. That's a story that always needs sharing.” Four Seconds should appear for sale this year. Finally, Click is a solo project about twin boys as they work to solve an interactive puzzle, a punishment from their mother to divert them away from their personal electronic devices. The mystery of the puzzle, though, quickly reveals a larger mystery about their town and a series of suspicious murders.
As Jean delights about her upcoming works, she expresses interest in the writing and publishing components of this industry as well. “What I love about publishing right now is that the sky is the limit. People can be successful self-publishing. People can be successful with traditional publishing. And, of course, people can finally be successful mixing the two.” She also reflects on the role of social media and digital advancements in helping writers and other creators promote themselves and share their work with such a greater audience than ever before. To augment a social author platform, Jean suggests that writers create a newsletter or blog of sorts to share the journey, interesting trends, and helpful tips of self-discovery. One cannot deny the benefit of face-to-face interaction of author peers who attend writing events—both local and national. Network, network, network, and hearing familiar stories builds a true sense of community.
Jean found her success as a writer by winning first prize in a writing contest. Thus began her relationship with her small publisher, Ink Smith Publishing. As she pursues other options for her current projects, Jean keeps her wits about her: “nerdy stardom would be lovely, but I’d settle for a solid book deal.” Writing is her passion, and it shows. “I think writing is the most successful when we take it in bites—a piece at a time. I'm always surprised at how much I can accomplish by doing little bits. And then I'll look back over the last few months and think, ‘How did I get here?’ ‘How did I complete this?’ Through a lot of little steps.” Jean’s self-proclaimed tortoise pace allows her to win the race to the last page every time.
Her advice to aspiring writers?
1. Write regularly.
2. After you've written something, then DO worry about making it better. Polish and edit.
3. Leave your ego at the door, but not your heart or your vision. By which I mean: take the good advice of others and open yourself up to that advice, even criticism. Consider it. But don’t take all the advice ever in the whole world. It will wreck your artistic work. Don’t lose sight of the things about your work that make you excited, that give it soul.
Well said, Jean. Jean holds enough childish innocence to inspire YA fantasies that fly off the page as well as the authentic maturity to write vividly about grieving for her mother. With the help from her co-authors, Jean continues to broaden her spectrum of emotions and narratives, and we all benefit from such wisdom.
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