Student Spotlight: How She Overcame Her Fear of the Blank Page (and Indie Published Her Novel) with Jennifer Lauer
I recently sat down for a conversation with Jennifer Lauer—one of the writers I have had the privilege of working with over the last few years—to talk about her writing, editing, and publishing journey.
And I’m so excited to share this episode with you today because it’s a very special day for Jennifer. It’s the release day of her debut novel, The Girl in the Zoo. And we’re going to talk all about how she got to this point in today’s episode.
In our conversation, Jennifer shares how her story developed over time—from her initial idea to what it is today—and how she made a big decision to change the genre of her story after finishing her first draft. She shares how she fell in love with the revision process, and why this totally surprised her and had a positive impact on her writing process. And she also talks about why she made the huge decision to indie publish her book—and you’ll be so surprised to hear exactly what pushed her to make this decision, it’s one of my favorite parts of the episode.
So, this is a jam-packed episode with my lovely client, Jennifer Lauer, and I’m so excited to share her story with you. If you want to listen to this episode, click here or search for the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast in your podcast player of choice.
Transcript: How Jennifer Overcame Her Fear of the Blank Page (and Indie Published Her Novel)
SAVANNAH: Hi Jennifer! Welcome and thank you for coming on the show today.
JENNIFER: Hi, thank you so much!
SAVANNAH: You have a really fun story, and I wanted to have you on because I think you're a good example of what's possible for people. I know that hearing your story's going to inspire so many people. So again, thank you for being here. Now, let's start at the top. Tell people who you are, what you're all about, what kind of books you write, and things like that.
JENNIFER: Hi, I'm Jennifer Lauer and I write speculative fiction. My debut novel, The Girl in the Zoo, the one we're gonna talk about today is a dystopia with AI. I love reading sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, literary fiction... I'm kind of all over the map as a reader, but I really love stories where an ordinary person is put into extraordinary circumstances. I think I like the idea of inanimate objects being personified.
SAVANNAH: I do too. And Jennifer and I have talked about this before—we’re the type of people that tell Alexa, “Thank you.” We're a little strange, but it's okay. I love that about us.
SAVANNAH: So, in this episode we're going to really dig into your writing journey and we're going to talk about your debut novel, which at the time this episode goes live it will be released on the same day. So that's very exciting!
JENNIFER: Yes, thank you!
SAVANNAH: But I'm gonna give listeners a really quick highlight reel, and then we'll go deeper into each of these things. So, Jennifer and I met in 2020 and we started working on her debut novel, which is called The Girl in the Zoo, and we're going to talk about that more later. But essentially this book started out as a love story, then changed to an action story all set in a dystopian world. So obviously changing genres like that took a lot of work and we'll talk about that later. But then in 2021, you finished the almost final version of the draft, and you got some feedback from beta readers, and you queried a few agents, and things like that because your goal was to traditionally publish. But spoiler alert for everybody listening, it's 2023 and your book is coming out today, like I said. So, you have indie published your book, and that's kind of where you're at. So congratulations. That is very impressive and exciting.
JENNIFER: Thank you so much! Yeah, I'm very excited!
SAVANNAH: Yep. I am too. And, I can't wait to talk more about your story, but I wanna time travel back to when you first got bit by the writing bug. What was that like? Or like when did you know you wanted to write a book?
JENNIFER: Well, okay, so technically I wrote my first book when I was six years old, but on some stapled paper and it was about trees surviving a windy day. But, you know, as an adult, I've been writing for as long as I can remember, journaling since I was a young teen and got really serious about novel writing about 10 years ago. I had been an actor and then I had kids and I was still wanting to create stories. And so that transition kind of turned at that time in my life. And my first novel I started was a NaNoWriMo novel. And that one lives in a drawer to this day.
SAVANNAH: Yep. And do you ever think you're gonna go back to it someday? Or is that a forever drawer novel?
JENNIFER: I mean, there's one piece of that book that I still think about. So maybe it's kind of like a cozy fantasy, which is now a thing. So, I do think about maybe bringing that back.
SAVANNAH: That's fun. Okay. So maybe someday in the future we'll have an episode where we're talking about your cozy fantasy that was a NaNoWriMo novel that lived in your drawer for like all these years. We'll see. Okay. And so then when we met in 2020, this is when you needed some help with what is now your debut novel that we're gonna talk about later. But to set the stage for everything, can you give readers a quick summary of that story?
JENNIFER: Yes. So Mirin thought she was the last human on earth captured during the AI takeover. She's being held caged in a zoo and suspects her guard, Borgie, is becoming sentient. When they introduce a feral man they want her to mate with, she realizes she's not alone, and now, she could be in more danger than ever. When Mirin discovers secrets about the zoo and how she got there, she's determined to survive. Aided by a feline companion and an unlikely love interest Mirin must face forced proximity, emotional scars, a deranged scientist, and robots gone awry. Will she finally escape the zoo?
SAVANNAH: Okay. That is so cool. And it's, it gives me a little bit of goosebumps because I remember the very early version of this and it's just cool to see it like, you know, wrapped up in a nice little bow on the back cover of that book. So where did this story idea initially come from?
JENNIFER: Well, I think a lot of stories come from many different places, so I'll tell you a couple of the stories that kind of melded together to make the book. The initial zoo idea came one time I took my young son to the zoo and another child was slamming on the glass of the monkey exhibit, and I was so drawn to the monkey's reaction to them. I feel like everyone's maybe seen that before, right? Where kids are screaming and banging and I kind of, you know, wondered what it would be like if I were inside and how that would feel, or if the kid was inside and how would he feel. And then the AI component came later. I remember seeing the movie Ex Machina, which I loved, and thinking, what if it were reversed? And the human was the experiment?
SAVANNAH: That's pretty cool. I remember you actually got me to watch that movie and I loved it too. But yeah, that's, that's basically what your book is about, what would happen if a human gets trapped in a zoo and, not to spoil the book, but your character's there for six years before we meet her, right?
SAVANNAH: So she's lonely and it's just kind of like, what happens when there's finally some changes happening in the zoo and like you said, a zoo mate comes in and she's kind of forced to almost mate with him. So that's kind of what things are about. But also time traveling back to like the early days of this story, what did your process look like when it was like you were first starting to write this book and then, you know, what kind of roadblocks popped up, if any? Just tell me a little bit about how you started out to write it and what happened.
JENNIFER: Well I was really focusing on the idea of the last woman on earth being held captive by the robot wanting to escape. And I knew I needed more than just the plot. Like, you know, this happened, this happened, this happened. And at the beginning, I was writing, it's actually funny, the first chapters were lists because I really wanted to, you know, I was really delving into the psychology of what would happen to someone if they were kind of stunted. So, she enters the zoo when she's 19 and she's kind of stuck there because she never has human connection or any way to learn or experience anything except the zoo. So, yeah, I was really curious about what that would do to you psychologically. And so she becomes very, it sort of simplifies everything for her, right? Everything is what she does on her daily activity list, I guess.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. The mundane becomes kind of her focus because that's all she has.
JENNIFER: Exactly. Yeah. So it started from a very different place than it is now.
SAVANNAH: Right. And that's what we're gonna talk about in a little bit. So when you were trying to kind of write and you said you were like, I knew I had plot stuff there and I kind of knew her mental state. What was it like to actually start to construct that on your own?
JENNIFER: Well, I was really struggling with the blank page, honestly. So, I would get, I would write a scene that excited me as a writer, and then I'd finish the scene and then it was like, okay, now what's next? And that blank page would stare at me and I would feel so intimidated. Like, okay, what can I write now that will be interesting and follow my plot and include my themes? It just kind of overwhelmed me. So, I was kind of piecemealing the novel together.
SAVANNAH: Right. So, at some point you were kind of thinking, okay, this isn't working, or I'm not making enough progress, or as much as I would like. So, how did you know it was time to get some help?
JENNIFER: Well, I was in a writer's group at the time and one of the members of the group had published several novels traditionally, and I asked him for some advice on how to finish the book, you know, like I wanted to finish this project. And his answer was kind of disappointing at the time because there's no trick. There's no trick. You just have to do the work and finish the book. And I have to say that even though that was disappointing—I mean I knew there was no magic—but him kind of like sealing the deal. Like there really is no magic. You just have to do it—kind of lit a fire under me to do whatever was necessary to finish the book.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And that's kind of telling about your personality, cuz we're gonna talk about this a little more later, but it's almost like… Whenever something becomes hard for you, you're kind of like, but I'm gonna go up against this and figure it out. And sometimes that means you take on too much stuff at once, right?
SAVANNAH: We're gonna talk about that a little later. But at that stage you were like, I'm going to figure this out. So then you needed to find someone to work with. And this was, again, three years ago at the time this goes live. So I don't think book coaching or like developmental editors were talked about as much as they maybe are now. So was it hard to find who to get help from?
JENNIFER: You know I'm a prolific researcher, so I was reading craft books. I was listening to podcasts, I was reading blog posts. I was watching YouTube. I was scouring for information about writing a book. So, actually, I think it was on the #AmWriting podcast where I learned about book coaching and Author Accelerator. And then I went hardcore into learning all about that. And then I was like, this is it. This is the thing I need, I need accountability and I need someone to help me with the development. And so, yeah.
SAVANNAH: What Jennifer's talking about is that Author Accelerator has a form— you fill out a form if you're a writer and then they will match you with someone who they think is gonna be the best fit for you. So if you kind of want that, you know, tailored approach of finding a coach, you can go that way. You can also obviously find coaches just on the internet and reach out to them yourself, but that's what she's talking about. She filled out their matching form and I really think it was like the genre angle because it's dystopian. I think that's probably why we got matched. But yeah, we got matched together and it was really fun. I remember falling in love with your idea pretty instantly. So, you filled out that form and then this was around like June, 2020 and we started working together. And then I have in my notes that I think you had a finished draft by October-ish. I know that was a while ago, but do you remember kind of what that process was like? Or, you know, were you nervous about working with a coach? Was there anything in the beginning that was like a big hurdle? Like just tell me everything you remember about that.
JENNIFER: I think I was nervous at first. I wasn't sure that this would be the thing, right? Because I felt like I'd tried so many things. But it really was the thing. You were so helpful in so many ways. I can't tell you how much it means to me that—just hearing those dates June to October—when I had been toiling for so long and with my previous book was like 10 years literally of toiling with that book. And then this one I had an urgency—I really wanted to get it done, and you helped me achieve that goal and I'm so grateful to you, Savannah. And I would say, I mean, there were definitely hurdles. I definitely struggled sometimes to, you know, move to the next step, but slowly but surely I got there and kept discovering new things about the story that I hadn't ever planned on. And that was probably my favorite thing.
SAVANNAH: Yes. And so I'm gonna take us down memory lane because I like that you said you had this sense of urgency. And I fully remember that you were like, I'm gonna finish this by December, 2020. And you had this really hard date in mind. And we had a finished draft by that point, but it wasn't fleshed out. I wanna say it was under 40,000 words or around there, right?
JENNIFER: Yeah. I think it was like 45,000 something around there.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. Yes. And so we knew that we had to figure out how to expand the story and flesh things out because there were a couple things we had issues with that we were like, we don't really know how to solve these problems until we get to the end. And one of them, if you remember, was we kind of pinned this as a love story between Mirin, who's your main character, and Pedro who's the feral man that gets brought in that she's kind of, they try to force them to mate. And then we realized, okay, this is about more than that. It's about her survival and how she's gonna thrive in the zoo and how she's gonna get out. Right?
SAVANNAH: And so what was that like when, like, do you remember that realization of like, oh, great, we need to change the genre. That's probably going to mean a lot of things we need to work through.
JENNIFER: Yeah. I mean, I think initially I was kind of like, I didn't feel solid that this was a romance novel. But that was my strongest character development, part of the story that I had figured out. I knew what I wanted to do with their relationship, but the main thing that we found that really changed things was I had no antagonist. And in a dystopia you need an antagonist.
SAVANNAH: Well, in every story you do. But yeah. It's funny because we had kind of the way a love story works and we're talking about content genres just for people who are listening. So her commercial genre is like sci-fi dystopia, but the type of story she was writing was love. And then we changed it to action. Right? And so in a Love story, the antagonist is the other character. And then through this first draft, it ended up being like just under 50,000 words. We realized, okay, it's actually not really about them being antagonists of each other and coming together. It's more like, now that this guy's here, this is an opportunity for me to escape.
SAVANNAH: So we kind of, we saw that door opening and we were like, all right, let's just finish the version of the draft we're working on, because we do need their love story no matter what. And then we're gonna zoom out and talk about what the story's really about. So yes, we talked about like, what would an antagonist look like? And then, you know, at some point that was Borgie your main AI caretaker.
SAVANNAH: And then it became a new character that I remember you kind of had to like, journal about who is this guy that's coming to my brain. It was a mad scientist—his name became Dr. Draven. And I won't spoil anything about him, but it was really fun watching that happen because once this flood of ideas about Draven came into the picture, it was almost like we knew how to fill in the missing gaps. Do you remember that?
JENNIFER: Yes. He changed everything! And the way that I got to Draven was just asking why and where did everything come from? Really just kind of going back to the origin was how he kind of developed.
SAVANNAH: Yes. And I remember we got there because we started looking at Borgie, the AI as your antagonist, and we're like, okay, well why is Borge doing this? Why did Borge pick Mirin? Why is Borge still in charge of the zoo? And we had all these questions and then we realized Borgie has a really interesting story and that's how we got to Draven, who's the, you know, the bigger bad guy. So that was really fun and that unlocked a lot of things. Then we realized, okay, this really is action. We feel good about that. There's a love story in here. It helped us kind of fill in those gaps between the love milestones and really just like add this whole new layer of depth to everything. So one of the things we learned for you through this experience is that you always have to think about your antagonist as a part of your brainstorming process, right?
SAVANNAH: Yeah, because I think and this is true for a lot of writers, if we don't make that a priority, sometimes it's easy to skip our antagonist and we're just kinda like, we'll figure it out later. And then we get halfway through a draft and we're like, why is my story falling apart? Well, it's because you don't have an antagonist. So we've already seen evidence of that going forward. It's now in your process because you've done things since this book. You've created a fiction podcast that we'll link to in the show notes and you've started other drafts. Anyway, happy to report that that's now part of your process. You won't have to worry about it anymore. But the other thing that we kind of had to delve into was Mirin’s character art. Do you remember that?
SAVANNAH: Okay. And so at first there were kind of multiple versions of who Mirin was trying to be, and it was almost like once you got to the end of that first draft, you had a much more clear idea of who she needed to be at the start. And part of this process to figure out her internal arc was we wrote an obituary for mirin, or you did?
JENNIFER: Yes. I actually wrote an obituary from Mirin, and Borge, and Draven.
SAVANNAH: Right. Because it helped you—I don't wanna put words in your mouth, but I remember you saying it helped you figure out like what people would remember about them was kind of how you wanted the book to end.
JENNIFER: Yes. And so, yeah, it really helped clarify things.
SAVANNAH: And so then what we did is we said, okay, if we know this is the tone of the ending of the book and like where their arc is going to end even in the future, how do we start the story with that type of, you know, starting point? And so that's, those were kind of the two biggest things I remember other than your fear of the blank page, which you know, we can talk about that a little too cause I know a lot of writers feel that way. How did you start getting over that? Or do you remember what we had you do?
JENNIFER: I think that, you know, the accountability of having to have pages to you on a certain day was really helpful for me. Yeah. I know that for some people that works and some people that doesn't work, but that really did—having you, you know, expecting them. But also I really like—over the process, this didn't happen right away, but by the time we finished—I really had a solid feeling that writing a really crappy trash version is okay.Like my perfectionism got a huge makeover. And it's now so much easier for me to write a really bad draft and let someone else like you see it
SAVANNAH: Yeah. That was hard at the beginning and it's hard for most people. But I remember there was a stage where you would even turn in things that, like a scene that was like 600 words long and it might not even be dramatized. It was just a summary of, you know, kind of what was gonna happen and then some bits of dialogue and whatever else you worked through that day.
JENNIFER: Yes. Right.
SAVANNAH: And then it was kind of like once you had you know, whether it was like, I don't wanna say my blessing, but it was kind of like, okay, I agree that this is the right direction to take it. You know, you're not going off the rails. Then it was like you had that freedom to kind of go in there and expand it.
JENNIFER: Yeah. I think what happened is like I wanted to be a good student for a while, where I wanted to turn in a fully completed essay. Or a full scene, a full chapter. And when I got over that, and I think what happened is I just kind of like, I had a bad week and that's, yeah. All I had was like, like you said, like 600 word summary. It's all I had, but I knew I needed to keep going and so I just turned it in. And I think the fact that the world didn't end because I did that was the, you know, catalyst for me doing that more actually. Which had me work faster.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. and I remember too, there was a part of you in the early days that we didn't really have a solid understanding of who Mirin was. So it was almost like we focused. What are the characters doing as far as movements in the scene? And then we went back and layered in that interiority. Do you remember that?
JENNIFER: Yes. The interiority. Yeah.
SAVANNAH: And so that was, that was a big thing in general. So, A) learning that it's okay to just start writing external stuff, if that's what helps you get the scene out. And then B) it's okay to go back and layer in the interiority, but then also for you, the interiority was kind of like pulling teeth for a while, right?
JENNIFER: Yes. Yes.
SAVANNAH: Interiority is like how the character's processing what's happening in the scene. And I remember there were scenes, I would send you feedback like, what is she thinking here? What is she feeling? Or like, and so how is she reacting to this? And it was like every other line. And you were probably annoyed. Do you remember that ?
JENNIFER: No. Not annoyed at all. No, I needed that. And also I think part of it too is I was, I really wanted her to have an arc where she doesn't really have a lot of interiority at the beginning because she's traumatized. And to develop it throughout and make her, you know, show the growth of her character was really important to me. And so I really appreciate all of those notes and like it made me a better writer for sure.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And it's funny because now Jennifer is working on a different story—a supernatural detective story—and she's got this stuff so ingrained in her head now that I'm not really asking those type of questions anymore. So it's pretty fun just to see like, you know, every writer has something that they're gonna be challenged with. And for some writers it's like scene structure. I think for you it was the interiority and you know, the blank page, but a lot of writers feel that. And eventually if you just keep working on it, you'll get over these hurdles. So, for everybody listening.
SAVANNAH: But also the other thing that I think benefited you, you tell me if this is true, but it was kind of creating an outline and we really. We started very high level. So it was like, okay, after this first 50,000 word draft, we knew where we wanted the story to end. Now that it was gonna be an action story. And then we kind of knew these high level moments and we took it each section at a time. So it was like, act one, let's map out eight scenes. Do you remember doing that?
JENNIFER: Yes! And it was so hard.
SAVANNAH: Were you an outliner before that?
JENNIFER: I can't remember. My first novel, I was a total pantser. And that's why it took 10 years to get nowhere. And then I think I'm a combo because I like to have the outline as a guide, but I don't like to get too detailed in my outline.
SAVANNAH: Okay. And so, yeah, I remember it was just hard because there were a lot of things I was asking you to do at once also. So it was like, let's change your genre. Let's make sure the scene structure's in there for each scene of those eight scenes. Let's make sure the interiority is kind of mapped out. So we were really tackling a lot. And the outline—you know, the other thing I'm just thinking of now too is like back to the interiority and back to your background comes from like screenplays and acting, right?
JENNIFER: Right. Yes.
SAVANNAH: I wanted to call that out because for anyone else… I've talked to other screenwriters and they're like, yeah, we're so focused on the action and just kind of what happens and then you have directors and producers and whoever to help it come to life. Right?
JENNIFER: Right. Yeah. It's a visual medium. And this is, you're creating that visual in the reader, right?
SAVANNAH: You're way inside the character's head. So I think in hindsight, that makes sense. Maybe why interiority was a little bit of a struggle and why even building that stuff into the outline, you know, because you're, you're probably not used to looking at an outline in the sense of a novel outline compared to a screenplay outline. So you outlined, you wrote another draft and this was like in the beginning of 2021, you started rewriting, I think this draft took us almost to the end of 2021. But I don't think that whole 12 month period was one rewrite. I think we stopped somewhere in the middle because we had learned something about Draven or I don't know what—maybe that was when we developed Borgie’s backstory, that was really cool. But anyway, we stopped and then we went back to the beginning and wrote through again. So that's, I think why it took almost a year to get that next draft done. Do you remember that?
JENNIFER: Yes. Yep.
SAVANNAH: Okay. And then at some point throughout there, you queried a handful of agents just to see what would happen. What was that like?
JENNIFER: So it was kind of like applying to college. I did all this research on all the different agents of different tiers, like top agents who represented my favorite authors to agents that sort of represented my category, but also were maybe stronger in a different category. So I sent a few to my top picks, and got a few rejections, you know? I was testing the waters and I got rejections basically on my first go.
SAVANNAH: And I remember our thought process… Because we also did a Twitter pitch contest.We did #PitMad, right?
SAVANNAH: So part of our exploration was A) we wanted to practice querying B) we wanted to test out the concept and the premise and just see like what we get back from it. And then C) we were like, you know what, maybe someone will bite. Who knows? So nobody bit and that's okay. We did get a lot of—I remember good feedback on your tweets, right?
JENNIFER: Yeah. I mean, the other people on Twitter, like the other writers and readers were amazing and yeah, it made me feel so sure about the story. They really seemed to like the pitch. So, yeah, even though agents weren't contacting me… Hearing that, you know, someone wanted to read that story was validating.
SAVANNAH: Right. And then there's, we're gonna talk about kind of a similar thing in a little bit, because there was somebody else who validated your idea, which was a really big thing. But we're gonna pause that and come back to it. So then that was like 2021 just focused on rewriting. And then you kind of, you ended with, you know, a pretty good quality draft. We got, I think we were over 70,000 words at that point. So you had really fleshed things out. And then in 2022 you got a manuscript evaluation from the folks over at The Spun Yarn, right? How did you know it was time to reach out to them? And what was that experience like?
JENNIFER: Yes. Well, I think at that point I had rewritten it. I say seven times because I think that's how many drafts I have saved. And it's so funny because you think finishing a novel is like this big, exciting thing, but I had that moment multiple times. And I would tell my family, like, “I've finished my book again!” And then “I finished my book again.” So the spun yarn is basically like hiring beta readers to give you this really detailed feedback. And I loved it! I thought it was a great resource because I wanted to have that really deep feedback. And a funny story that happened with Spun Yarn is—because of the way that I write and I save each scene instead of writing it in one big document—I had left out a chapter in the version I sent to the spun yard. And so all of the results I got back and feedback were great, and the one big complaint was that everyone wanted to know this one certain thing that happens in the story and I couldn't understand how they missed it. And I was like, you know, maybe I have to make that chapter pop more. I have to really work on that chapter. And it turns out I had left it out completely. So there was an entire explanation that was left out of the one version they got. And even still it did really well with the readers there.
SAVANNAH: Yeah! And they really seemed to like it! I remember it was so funny because both of us were kind of bamboozled. We're like, but this is in here..? We know it's in here. We went back and looked.And then it was like, I don't know, days or a week later and you're like, “OMG! I left that chapter out!”
JENNIFER: Uh Huh. I remember that!
SAVANNAH: That was funny. And then, yeah, the feedback from them was really great. They gave us some, I mean, they, they liked your story. They had some constructive things to say. So we took that. We kind of, we both read through it, we talked about it, and then we started to make a to-do list of what we were going to implement.
JENNIFER: Yes. Another rewrite. Another rewrite.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. So then what was, what were the revisions like at that stage? Do you remember?
JENNIFER: I have to say I learned to love revision at that point. I really enjoyed going back in when I only had like small details and when I was like highlighting things and making things thread together, that part was really like when people say they love revision, I get it now. I think before I thought revision was going over on a line edit over and over your chapter, trying to make it better, which was what I had done previously. And that is not revision. That is not what I was doing. I was just spinning my wheels in a line edit. I was polishing and it wasn't very fun because I hadn't been done with the whole document. But when you have a full complete manuscript that you're revising and making better, ugh. I just loved that experience.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And I remember at some point when you were starting to realize that, we were like, okay, can we get, I say we as in me and you, we were talking about how do we use this as a motivation tool. So one of the things I kept saying was something like, okay, how do we use this as a dangling carrot? Where like if you just get through the blank page, then you can revise it. And I remember it. That started to become exciting for you.
JENNIFER: Yes, it totally did. Which is kind of funny.
SAVANNAH: And I say that because if anyone else is feeling the same way that Jennifer did about like, you know, it's so hard to get over that blank page. Well, once you get over that blank page, then the fun part happens where you can, you know, it's kind of like having a block of marble and making it a statue. That's like what revisions are. Yeah. So after that, you had a finished draft that we felt relatively good about, right? And then at this stage, you still wanted to traditionally publish. But we already spoiled this and you have Indie published. So tell me how did you get there?
JENNIFER: Okay, so I was like a lot of writers, I had the dream of having a big publishing deal with a traditional house, and I did all my research. I knew that that's what I wanted, but you know, when I was doing all this research, I was learning a lot about indie publishing and it was pulling my attention like, oh, that does sound really appealing to me. And I think I kept asking myself, why, why do I want to traditionally publish? That's really the question I came down to. And then I realized that if I was being completely honest with myself, It was to have that external validation, I really wanted that someone would pick my story. Or say that my story was good enough to be published. And the cons though, of traditional publishing for me or how long it takes, you know, right at the time you get the agent to the publishing deal if you're lucky enough to get that. And then it takes years. Right? And I, again, like we talked about before, I had this urgency, I wanted to make this story and get it published and I wanted to move on to the next story, you know? And also I really was attracted to the idea of maintaining control of my story, my ip. And so I pursued traditional publishing and I sent out my queries, my first batch of queries and. I sent it to the podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing—which I love that podcast, by the way.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, we're both big fans! We'll link to it in the show notes.
JENNIFER: Huge fan. And during that time that I submitted, I did get a request from an agent and that podcast was going to go over my query on the podcast and I was so excited and nervous and fully expected to just like get all this feedback because they're so constructive. If there's something wrong, or whatever. And they were very constructive with my query and my first five pages. And not only that, but hugely validating all three of them understood my story and they got it. I could tell by the questions they were asking and they guessed some of the plot without even knowing. And I just felt so, seen and validated, like what I was trying to get from traditional publishing just by their podcast getting it right. And I actually think I cried because it felt so good to have professional people working in the industry get your story. So that actually really spurred me to scrap traditional plan and go indie.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And so let me back up because for those of you who don't know that podcast, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing, they have a segment where they will basically look at a query letter in the first, like, I don't know, five or ten pages. I think for you it was five, right?
SAVANNAH: And they go through it and they, because they're agents and they're also, some of them are writers and things like that, but they go through it with a critical eye and they give you advice for like, here's how to make it better, or here's what doesn't work, so that you can then have a better chance at querying. So Jennifer submitted to that and like she said, she got… Well first it was awesome that they even picked her story! And then also she got constructive feedback and some questions, and when she says that she feels like they understood it and she felt seen. I think, Jennifer, correct me if I'm wrong, but that was like, okay, my story's working. Even though there's things I need to tweak, it's doing what I want it to do because these people who are professionals get it. Right?
JENNIFER: Yes! Exactly.
SAVANNAH: And so then it was so funny because I expected you to be like, okay, I have a fire under my butt. We're gonna query, we're gonna get this publishing deal. And then I remember you were like, “I think I wanna indie publish. Like I feel really confident and I'm like, let's do it.”
JENNIFER: Yes! I know. It's maybe the opposite of what I expected of myself as well.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And it was so cool because I think just knowing you and knowing the way that your mind works and how you like to have that creative control, and you kind of are an entrepreneur anyway, you have that spirit. So it really makes sense for you to indie publish. And you've gone through that whole process by yourself pretty much now, right?
JENNIFER: Yeah. I mean, obviously I've had a lot of collaboration. And I've had your help, which has been invaluable. And the amazing cover designer, Dyna Kau, and the copy editor, Barbie from Monocle Editing. And The Spun Yarn feedback was so helpful. And The Shit No One Tells You About Writing—their feedback, I took all of that feedback into my rewrite before I went to copy editing. But yeah, I have loved the process even though it has gone in a totally different direction than I planned.
SAVANNAH: Yes. And so, like I said earlier, at the time this episode airs, your book will be available to the world. And was there any like roadmap or checklist or anything you were following to make all that happen?
JENNIFER: I kind of made one from all of the research that I'd done. I love Joanna Penn and her self-publishing series. 've read lots of books and anything on the subject I've written down. You've given me a lot of helpful lists and advice and things you've learned.
SAVANNAH: I think there was a checklist too from Jane Friedman, is that right? That we kind of integrated into everything? So I just wanted to ask because I'll gather some of these resources and put them in the show notes.
SAVANNAH: Jennifer's a huge researcher, so she went down the rabbit hole and just kind of made this like, here's what I need to do when, and then just kind of went after it. and yeah, like now it's available when this episode airs and it's so exciting. And we will link to like, where you can check that out, where you can learn about Jennifer in the show notes. But how do you feel now that you've like been through the whole writing and editing and indie publishing process?
JENNIFER: I loved it! I loved the process and in retrospect, I can appreciate all of the steps now. You know, during, when you're in it, not so much. But now that I look back, I can't wait to start over and do it on the next project.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And that was going to be my next question… How do you feel about writing a book? Do you think it's gonna be easier now having kind of gone through this whole thing? Or, you know, are you feeling excited, like you have tools in your toolbox?
JENNIFER: Yeah. I don't know if I think it'll be easy… I don't expect that at all. But I definitely am really excited about it and I feel like I have so many more tools and I kind of look at this like in the long game, like every book will get better. I'll learn new things each time. And so I'm just really excited.
SAVANNAH: That's awesome. And I asked you before we recorded this, if you could boil down the whole experience into like three key takeaways that we could share with listeners so that, you know, they can see these same kind of results. What were those big aha moments or those big lessons that you took away from this entire process?
JENNIFER: Okay. My three lessons are, number one, write a dirty, messy, rough draft. I couldn't quite understand that until I did the second project, after I finished The Girl in the Zoo. I was such a perfectionist, and now I get to write the worst possible trash draft, just get to the end. That's what I did with my draft over this summer from my next book.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, and it's, I am always sensitive towards the word “trash.” I know what you mean, but I will just vouch that like nothing you write is trash. It is just a little messy and needs… it's how you're fleshing it out to yourself.
JENNIFER: Right. But I think I need to tell myself that it's bad in order to like, let it out, you know?
SAVANNAH: Well, and I was going to say it almost like lets you forgive whatever you write too. It's like expecting the lowest common denominator. So if you like using that label, that's fine, but you know, for some people they're going to be a little more sensitive to that word, so I just like to say it's okay if we don't call it trash.
JENNIFER: Yes. Yes. Right.
SAVANNAH: Okay. So what's number two? Okay, number two is that revision is my favorite and I didn't really think this was true until I was properly revising. After the draft is complete, going back over the big work and adding all of the small details and putting the threads in, that was delightful!
SAVANNAH: Yes. And you really did have fun! I remember you would like text me random times and being like, “I just figured XYZ out!” and “I just figured out how to bridge this gap or to highlight a theme in this chapter!” or whatever it was. But you can't really do that until you see the whole picture, even if that picture's messy.
JENNIFER: Yes. And it's so true about your taste being above your level when you're starting and like the whole Ira Glass thing… The themes I wanted to put in this book were so heady and I didn't even know if it was going to be possible. And I'm so happy with the fact that we were able to put in what I wanted to say with this book. Even though I wasn't sure I was at that level yet of skill to do that yet.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And explain what you mean. Just for people that aren't in our heads about that Ira Glass thing and the taste level.
JENNIFER: Yeah. There's a famous Ira Glass quote… I'm sure you could Google it because I don't want to mess it up. But basically he says, just make your stuff, because when you first start making things, any kind of art, your taste level is going to be well beyond your ability and to just, it's kind of like accepting it. And eventually you'll get to that level if you just start. Because people who are making great art didn't start out that way. They had to make a bunch of other things to get to the great stuff. So I just try to keep that in my head as I make things.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And I think I remember we talked about that multiple different times because we're both perfectionists, we're both recovering perfectionists. And it's like… The stories that we read we just think are amazing. And then we look at our own stuff and we're like, you know, that's probably where that trash word comes in, right? Because we're like, that is terrible! But we're never going to get to that level of our taste if we don't just keep plugging away and getting better. So I think that is awesome, but okay, so now take us into number three.
JENNIFER: Okay. Number three is about collaboration. There's the stereotype of the lone writer toiling in obscurity, and I'm sure there is some of that. I mean, I did spend a lot of time alone. But I think you make the best work when you have people collaborating with you. And for me it was having a book coach and you as an editor and good beta readers friend. You can have classmates—anyone to bounce ideas off of. Even just having coffee with a friend who's interested in talking about your story. It could be hugely helpful to you figuring out what you wanna do.
SAVANNAH: And I remember there was one time that your son had a good idea for you. And how old is he?
JENNIFER: At the time he was like 11 or 12.
SAVANNAH: And I remember you were just saying something random to him and he just gave you an answer, you as a kid would, you know, like duh mom. Right? And then you were like, OMG, that is exactly what I want do! So collaboration can come from pretty unexpected places. I didn't ask you this before, but on this note of collaboration, what would you say… Because there's a lot of people that kind of fear working with a book coach or an editor because A) they don't want to be criticized or they don't want to like hear that they're stupid, which like, I mean, I doubt an editor or a book coach would ever say that to anybody. Or B) they’re worried that the coach or the editor's going to steamroll them and kind of just take over their story and make it something that they don't want. Like what would you say to someone that's worried about that?
JENNIFER: I would say, well, I mean, I imagine there are some bad eggs out there that are like that. But it's probably very, very rare and then you just leave and move on to someone else. But for the most part, at least the people that I've spoken with and other writers experience, it is an amazing experience. You, you'll learn so much more than you could on your own. Just having that other person to bounce things off of and I never felt ever judged or overtaken. I always felt very much in control of my story and just like anything that was added by an editor was like accentuating that story.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I think that's a good point, is like finding someone that—well there's two things. Finding someone that you can say, no, I don't like that idea, or I don't like that suggestion, and here's why. So someone that is also willing to kind of catch and or throw, throw and catch with you, right? And then also finding someone that you can kind of share your vision with—who then is going to be on the other side, kind of reflecting that back to you saying, well, if you wanna do X, then here's how we're gonna do that. Or we could do Y, but then that might change your vision a little bit. So it's kind of, I always think about it as like, it is a collaboration. It is a partnership, but it's more like, for me personally, I'm here to help the writer execute that vision and they're, they're the one in charge of the story, you know?
JENNIFER: Right. Yeah, I think the thing to remember is that most people have their own stories that they wanna work on. They're not really interested in taking yours. They have their own thing they're doing.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. I know a lot of people are worried about, you know, should I copyright my first draft and things like that. And it's, you know, again, there are some bad seeds to everything. But in general, yeah, people are mostly, I'd say, too busy. People ask me if your book coach or your editor doesn't have some kind of clause where it's like the story belongs to the writer. You can ask for that. You can ask for that in their terms, but, yeah… Now I have a question—if you were giving advice to the Jennifer that was just starting to write a book or another writer who's just starting out, what would that one piece of advice be?
JENNIFER: I know I've said this earlier, but it's really to do whatever it takes to finish a draft. Even if it's messy and you skipped the end and write the ending and then go back and finish it. Whatever you have to do, just finish it. And then the other thing, advice wise, the thing that helped me a lot was just saving the story in scenes rather than the whole big document. That was really overwhelming to me. And then to go back to change things around or fix things, having every scene in a separate file made it so much easier. I don't know why I didn't think of that until I started working with you. But that changed my whole writing experience.
Because it's so much easier to go back in and like work on one.
SAVANNAH: Well, and I think that's actually funny because, or it's a good point, that like whatever is overwhelming you, whether it's the document size, whether it's like some people get overwhelmed, how am I gonna flesh out all these characters? It's like just break whatever it is down into smaller chunks and that usually will take almost all the overwhelm out of the process. Like for you it was just saving files differently.
JENNIFER: I know. And it's so funny in hindsight, but at the moment it was a big deal. It was huge.
SAVANNAH: Okay. And so the other question that I always like to ask people, and this is our last one, and maybe we'll wrap it up, but did you have any of like writer's block, we talked about perfectionism, so I know you had that or did any like imposter syndrome, all of those?
JENNIFER: Yes. Okay. Of course!
SAVANNAH: How did you deal with that?
JENNIFER: With writer's block again, his is kind of a thing I heard another author on a podcast say, and I can't remember who it was.. So if you're out there, thank you for this tip! But it was actually opposite to anything I would think, which is to stop journaling. Because I was a heavy duty journaler for my whole life. And what I realized is when I'm in the process of writing a novel or a big project, I need to stop journaling because I was giving all my writing mojo to the journaling. And that was blocking me, I felt like I had writer's block when it came to the book, but really what it was is like I was just out of juice. And so that was a huge one for me. I don't know if that helps someone else.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
JENNIFER: And then imposter syndrome. I like to imagine that like in the metaverse, my author self is just a version of me and you know, that helps take the pressure off. That's kind of a weird way to deal with imposter syndrome, but that's fine. I deal with it. It's almost like one of my Spider-Man you're putting on a costume when you sit down to write.
SAVANNAH: And that's that's actually really cool cause it's almost like the Jennifer that that can't touch is your real Jennifer. That's pretty interesting. So we're going to link to all the different projects that you have out there. You have a fiction podcast, which we didn't talk about. But we will link to that. You have a book that will be out the day that this goes live. You have a website. But tell people are you on social media and where can we find you on social media?
JENNIFER: Yeah, I would say on social media, Instagram is my main one and you can find me @jenniferleelauer. I had to use my middle name. I am on Twitter and TikTok, too. My website is www.jenniferleelauer.com
SAVANNAH: Okay. So that's where you can find Jennifer, and we will link to all of that. Her book is called The Girl in the Zoo, and it will be out today. So very exciting! If you guys happen to follow Jennifer, give her a high five and a big congratulations and you know, all the fun things because it's such a big deal. But Jennifer, is there anything else you wanna add before we go ahead and sign off? Any last thoughts?
JENNIFER: No, just thank you so much for having me.
SAVANNAH: It's been really fun to sit down and talk about all of this, because I mean, this is like a two, well, just for this book, since we met—a two plus year journey. And I just know that hearing all the little bits and pieces are going to inspire other people to take action and get their books written and, you know, try some of these techniques. So yeah, thank you so much for spending time with me and I can't wait to see what you create beyond just this book. And maybe we'll have you back some day to talk about your next book or your fiction podcast. I mean, who knows? But yeah, good luck and thank you so much for coming on today.
JENNIFER: Thank you so much! And everyone should hire Savannah because she's amazing and it was my pleasure. Thank you.
SAVANNAH: Oh, thank you. Jennifer's making me blush over here!
I hope my conversation with Jennifer has inspired you to dig in and keep going—to keep working on your story and believing in your story even if you hit some speed bumps along the way or get rejections when you query. That was my favorite take away from my discussion with Jennifer—that she didn’t give up, and that she took her dream and her story so seriously that she got the help she needed to make it happen. I just love that so much!
To learn more about Jennifer, and to get all the details on her debut novel, The Girl in the Zoo, check out her website or follow her on Instagram @jenniferleelauer. You can also check out her fiction podcast, The Strange Chronicles, here.
If you want to learn more about my Notes to Novel course—and how it can help you finish your first draft—you can click here to get all the details!