Many writers like to work within one genre or niche. They write thriller books or police procedurals, or mystery books.
Other writers find working within one genre or niche confining, and they like to try different types of writing to see where it takes them.
In this episode, I recently had the chance to catch up with Jenn Ashton, and she’s done just that. She’s published poetry, children’s books, journalism, historical research, technical manuals, and she’s also an accomplished visual artist.
I had many questions for Jenn about her creative ventures and whether other projects like painting can improve your writing.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Jenn: I really just had a feeling in myself that I was a writer and I would always be a writer. I started writing very young. I think before I knew any big words, I used to dictate to my dad, and then, when he started to have input into what I was writing, I just went and learned more big words so I could do it by myself.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Is it possible to build a writing career by working across genres by writing short stories, essays, journalism, poetry, and more?
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins, and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. Some writers like to work within one genre or niche. They write thriller books or they write police procedurals or mystery books and they commit to publishing a certain amount of books each year within this genre.
They build up a back catalogue and they have a loyal fan base of readers and that’s certainly one great way to earn a living as a writer because readers know the type of material you’re going to create and they know what to expect from you. Other writers, and I probably count myself in this, find that a little bit more difficult because they find working within one genre or niche confining and they’d like to, I suppose, try different types of writing for fun and also to see where it takes them.
That may mean writing poetry, it could mean writing personal essays, memoir, or short stories. The good thing about experimenting with different genres is, if you learn a lesson about how to write a poem, that could potentially improve your ability to write a short story and if you learn the art of personal essay writing, for example, then that can also help you with, I suppose, your paying writing job like freelance writing or content writing or whatever you’re engaged in.
So, I’d encourage you to allocate a little part of the day or a little part of your week for taking some creative risks. If you normally like to write blog posts, then maybe set aside some of the week to write a short story, or if you spend a lot of time writing thriller books, allocate some of your writing time to writing something altogether different, like some poetry. You could potentially find a new audience and, not only that, but you could learn a little bit more about the craft that you can take back to your original subject matter.
This week, I recently had the chance to catch up with Jenn Ashton and she’s done just that. She’s published poetry, children’s books, journalism, historical research, technical manuals, and she’s an accomplished visual artist and, in fact, that was one of my key takeaways from this interview, because I’ve often found writers, or at least when I’m writing, can enter a state of flow whereby all sense of time and effort fades away.
I know when this happens to me, I’ll have my noise-canceling headphones on and I lose track of the time and I won’t even know where I am and then somebody would go up and tap me on the shoulder and I’ll nearly jump up into the air in shock, which has happened a few times when one of the kids walked into the room when I’ve been working, you know, on a book chapter.
But I’ve often wondered, does this happen to people who are engaged in other creative projects like painting, and that’s a question I put to Jenn in this week’s interview. And I’ve also often wondered, can painting or can other creative work like music help improve your writing, and that’s also a question I put to Jenn in this week’s interview as well so I’d encourage you to hang on for that.
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Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Jenn Ashton.
Bryan: Welcome to the show.
Jenn: Hi, thanks for having me. I’m excited.
Bryan: So, Jenn, it’s fascinating to hear from another writer who’s working across multiple different genres and trying different formats and I know you also coach writers as well, but before we get into any of that, could you give listeners a flavor for who you are and then we can talk about your new book?
Jenn: Sure. So, I’m a writer and I’m also a professional visual artist, which is a bit of a balancing act. They don’t often come together but, thankfully, in my new book, People Like Frank, my publishers did throw in a few of my paintings in there. My painting is also on the front cover so I think I’m really fortunate to be able to blend those two professions together.
Bryan: How do you balance painting with writing? Do you set parts of the day for both or do you just depend what you’re working on?
Jenn: I think I do. You know, I took a graduate writing program at university a couple of years ago and they, you know, my mentor was really kind of drilling it into us to get up early in the morning and write and just kind of make that a habit and when I paint, I paint usually in the last hour of the day before bed so they’re kind of opposite ends of the day and then I just do my kind of admin in the middle.
Bryan: A lot of writers would say, particularly fiction writers and creative writers, they get into a state of creative flow where all sense of time seems to fade away. Does the same happen when you’re painting?
Jenn: Oh, definitely, yeah. Yeah, definitely. And writing too, yeah. You just get into that space and I’ve burnt so many dinners and things and, yeah, I’ve forgotten to take the dogs out, yeah. I’m in the zone, for sure.
Bryan: When your publishers were selecting the paintings for the collection of stories, did you have ones in mind or was that something that just emerged towards the end?
Jenn: That was a complete surprise. I didn’t even really know that they wanted to do that so they chose all the paintings.
Bryan: Yeah, it’s fantastic that you were able to bring two different creative projects together like that. So, could you give people a flavor for what People Like Frank is all about?
Jenn: Yeah, People Like Frank is a collection of short stories, there’s 20 in there, and they were written during NaNoWriMo on November 2019, most of them, where, instead of doing my 50,000-word novel which I had done the year before, I challenged myself to instead write a short story every day for that month so I got up in the morning and write a short story and sometimes it was very short flash fictions, sometimes it was kind of the beginning of something longer, and when the publisher came to me in February of last year, I just had this whole pile of short stories for them to choose from and a lot of my stories kind of had these champions in them who were not people that you would think would be a hero.
They look differently, you know, some had physical or mental, different abilities, and some were kids and some were old and some had Alzheimer’s and they did a really good job of curating this collection so it reflected all kinds of people and just the struggles of normal people. Yeah, so I think it turned out to be a really powerful book, actually. I really wanted people to be able to see themselves and to see themselves as heroes in their own life, whatever that looks like.
Bryan: It’s fantastic to see there are stories of people who may have disabilities coming true on the page. Years ago, I used to work in a service for people with intellectual disabilities and I was always a big fan of the writings of Christy Brown. When you were working on this collection of short stories, was it based on any of your work experiences or personal experiences?
Jenn: Yeah, I’ve had a very busy long life and I’ve had lots of jobs and many of them have been in the nonprofit sector. I’ve worked in child protection and I’ve worked with children’s counseling and so, I think, although there’s no particular person I would write about, obviously, you know, I think some of the people in my book are culminations of little bits of different people over the span of my life and working career.
Although, I have to say that when I get up early in the morning and I write like that, I don’t have any plan. It’s just kind of stream of consciousness writing and it just kind of happens. I don’t really have any kind of character in mind or anything.
Bryan: So you don’t outline any of these stories in advance?
Jenn: No, no, I’m definitely just a kind of a stream of consciousness free writer, and then I always just kind of get the — what do they call it? The bloated first copy, I think, out on the page and then, in the editing process, I will have more kind of input into shaping the story but there’s no plan.
Bryan: Years ago, I used to write short stories but I spent a lot of time rewriting them. So, it’s fascinating to hear that you wrote one in a day, but is that the first draft or did you write it and edit the story in a day?
Jenn: For some of the flash fiction, some of the shorter fiction like I think in the book, there’s some stories that are just three pages long, and I would, yeah, get that pretty tight in that day.
A lot of stuff is pretty tight. For this book, though, you know, the publishers wanted some stories longer, not fans of flash fiction, so I did have to work on them to make them quite a bit longer, some of them, and during that editing process, some of them morphed into something completely different, some I would like join together so they were two or three stories in one. Yeah, so the editing process for this book was really interesting actually.
Bryan: Did it take you long to get the tone and the point of view right for the short stories? Like I noticed some were first person, some were second person.
Jenn: Yeah, that’s just the way they come out. I have no idea. You know, I have a real problem with present and past tense, my tenses are terrible, so my publishers worked a lot on that but, yeah, they’re kind of all over the place. I never really know what’s gonna come out.
Sometimes I’ll get up in the morning and I’ll have a sentence in my head and that will be the cue for my story for the day or I’ll have a memory or something like that and so, yeah, it can be all different. I will never decide that’s what it’s going to be unless I’m writing something more work or nonfiction oriented where I have to actually think about what I’m doing.
Bryan: Did it take you long then to get the pieces and stories into a place that you’re happy with prior to publication? Like you mentioned you wrote these in NaNoWriMo of 2019.
Jenn: Yeah. I think I signed my publishing contract in March of 2020. After November 2019, I don’t think I actually worked on them much, I just kind of put them in a folder and then, once I signed my publishing contract, it was a marathon from March until it went to the printer, I think, at the beginning of September, and it was a lot of hard work because it’s 20 stories and it’s kind of different than working on one book where the character is the same and you know the place they are, you know the world is all there, but with 20 stories, every single story is different, every world is different, every character is different, and so it felt like 20 times the work. It was a lot of work. I didn’t think it was gonna be so much work but it was.
Bryan: I can imagine. Did you spend any time working with beta readers or did you share any of the stories with people before you published them?
Jenn: Yeah. I have a writing group that I work with that were — we were all in school together and we’ve actually stayed together so we meet —
Bryan: That’s amazing, wow.
Jenn: Yeah. We meet once a month and we share each other’s writing and we give feedback and we meet once a month and go over issues and things and, yeah, so that’s been really helpful and I think we had one, two, three, four, maybe four meetings before I signed my contract and I think we did go over a few of those stories, yeah, so I did have some feedback and probably made some adjustments before they went to the publisher.
Bryan: Are there other published authors in the writing group? If you’ve been together for quite a while.
Jenn: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah.
Bryan: Yeah. Must be really interesting just to see how people’s voice and themes and their work would evolve over the course of a few years.
Jenn: Yeah, it’s really interesting. And the funny thing is that if we, you know, have a person missing from the group for one or two meetings because they’ve got life happening, we really miss their voice and we miss their characters and we can’t wait to get them back and find out what’s happening in the story. It’s really exciting, actually.
Bryan: I was in a writing group for a few years. Unfortunately, it just disbanded. Just — we all kind of moved on to different things but some people there are published authors now. It sounds like you were friends with some of the people in the group if you’ve known each other that long. Do you find it difficult to give feedback to somebody if you’re actually quite friendly with them as well?
Jenn: No, no, we definitely — I think because we met in writing school, we all have that kind of level of professionalism and we were taught, you know, how to give constructive and positive feedback and we were also taught how to give constructive feedback positively so it’s all very, you know, there’s never any hard feelings and it’s always very happy and we actually leave our meetings so recharged. It’s, yeah, I think we’re really lucky, actually.
Bryan: So somebody is listening to this and a friend said, “I’d like you to critique my piece because you’re a writer,” and now I’m critiquing the piece and I have to give feedback, what would you say to me? How can I give feedback that’s helpful and not going to ruin the friendship?
Jenn: Right. I think the most important thing that you could do is ask that person what kind of feedback they are looking for. Some people might be looking for line edits and some people might be looking for just kind of overall feedback. Does my story work? Does this character seem believable? Try and get as much as you can out of the writer so you know what kind of feedback they’re expecting. And then I think when you’re gonna give the feedback, you know, there’s that rule of the sandwich.
You give good feedback and then you give your not-so-great feedback and then you always end with the good feedback again so if you’ve got that kind of sandwiched in there and I think it depends who the writer is too. If you know them and you know they are a sensitive writer, then I would just be really heavy on the positive feedback because you can get a lot across to a person even just giving positive feedback because they will also understand what’s working really well and maybe what’s not working so well.
But I think it’s key to ask them what kind of feedback they’re expecting. Even still in my group, we do that. Everybody will write at the top of their piece, “I just wanna know if you like this character? Is this character believable? Is this flowing? There’s this one part here I don’t think it’s working, what do you think?” and offer suggestions. I think that’s the other thing is, you know, if you can give examples of your suggestions, it’s easier for the person to move forward instead of trying to figure out what to do especially if they’re a beginning writer.
Bryan: Yeah, it makes sense. When I was with the writing group, we used to meet in person and, at one point, it was facilitated by a writing instructor but he said that if you’re getting your writing critiqued, you aren’t allowed to say anything until the end because when somebody reads something you write later on, you’re not standing over their shoulder saying, “This is what I meant by this sentence.”
Jenn: Yeah, yeah, that’s really important. I remember the very first day in school, someone was critiquing my writing and we had, I think we had nine people in our class and I was like saying something to each one of them after they were finished critiquing and then I realized, oh, that’s why our class went on for four hours, but, yeah, we’re all pretty polite and don’t say anything until — it’s hard sometimes, you gotta sit and bite your tongue, but you get used to it.
Bryan: Yeah, and so you, I mean, you’ve been writing for, it says in your bio, you’ve wanted to become a writer since you were six. So, how has your writing evolved over the years and how have you gone from nonfiction to fiction?
Jenn: Yeah, I really just had a feeling in myself that I was a writer and I would always be a writer. I started writing very young. I think before I knew any big words, I used to dictate to my dad, and then when he started to have input into what I was writing, I just went and learned more big words so I could do it by myself.
And, let me think here. I think my voice has always been strong. In whatever I write, in whichever genre, my voice is pretty strong so that hasn’t really changed and, yeah, I don’t know about the transition to different genres. Stuff just pops into my head and so I just kind of go with it. I don’t — I try really hard not to judge my work so whatever comes out, it is what it is.
Bryan: Do you have a process for deciding what to write next? Like you’ve been in a lot of different publications.
Jenn: No. Sometimes, somebody will come to me, like for the journal in Finland, for example. Somebody came to me and wanted their journals made into a story and transcribed and, once I had that, then I had to find a place for it so I found the journal in Finland that published so there’s that kind of way. And, for example, right now, I’m writing for BC History, British Columbia History Magazine, for this year, and so it’s kind of specific writing so, in my mind, I guess, I have like work writing and I have my other writing. So my work writing, I always kind of know where it’s going to go or what kind of publication it’s going to end up in. That’s a lot more thought involved with the nonfiction writing, for sure.
Bryan: Could you give me an example of work writing? Because just many people, myself included, you know, struggle to find the balance between something that’s creative but you’re not necessarily doing it to pay the bills versus something that you need to pay the bills, like what would represent work writing for you?
Jenn: For me, work writing, well, actually, for about the past six years, this is just an example, I was on fiverr.com, which is people can hire you to do stuff so that’s kind of work writing for me where I have a guideline that I have to follow and the same with writing for a magazine, they’ve got a format that they expect and guidelines that they have to follow so there is a certain amount of freedom within there too because you, you know, you know what your rules are and, you know, so you can play around inside of that.
But for my own writing, my more creative writing, I have no boundaries or anything so it’s very, very free. Somebody said I probably use different sides of my brain for both, those two different things, because when I’m writing for work, it’s definitely more analytical and it’s fact-based and I have to fact check and so it’s a completely different process.
Bryan: Yeah, I find that as well, they are quite different. One tends to involve a bit more research and analysis whereas the other is probably more exploratory. So, you’ve entered a good few writing competitions over the years, some of which I recognize because they’re Irish but —
Bryan: — what advice would you have for somebody who’s considering entering their first writing competition?
Jenn: Well, first of all, just do it. Don’t think too hard about it. You know, you gotta get your work out there and so, yeah, I think getting past that fear is a big step and, in order to do that, you have to kind of untangle yourself from your work. You can’t make your work about your worth as a human being so you really need to disentangle from that and just get it out there.
And the more you can do that, the better you’re gonna be able to accept rejection because, as a writer, there’s just tons of rejection, you know? When somebody is judging your work, you need to be separate from that work or you’re just gonna feel like crap.
Bryan: That’s a mistake I made and I spent a year entering competitions in 2010 or 2011 and I got rejected from a good few, but it’s pretty heartbreaking towards the end. Do you take a story and do you write it with a specific competition in mind?
Jenn: Not really, but what I do is, if I write something and I think it’s pretty good, I’ll go look for a competition to put it into and I usually find that on submittable.com or —
Bryan: I’m not familiar —
Bryan: I’ll check on it.
Jenn: Yeah, submittable.com —
Jenn: — and it’s worldwide and it’s free so everybody posts their competitions and things there, or something local and the only change I will make is, for example, if it needs a theme, I will kind of maybe rejig it so the theme is stronger or if it has a specific word count, I will, you know, lengthen it or shorten or whatever just to make it fit, but I don’t normally sit down and think I’m gonna write something for that contest, no.
Bryan: So we understand you correctly, you might submit something and then if it doesn’t place in that competition, you might look at another competition and just see if the word count needs to be adjusted to meet their submission guidelines but, apart from that, you won’t make major edits?
Jenn: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Yeah. I’ve got — I’ve had pieces and then I just keep submitting them and submitting them and then, after a time, maybe after a year or two, you know, I will look at it again and think, “Oh, I can’t believe I submitted that,” and throw it away or rejig it again or whatever.
Bryan: Yeah, the one good thing I found about competitions for me was they gave me a deadline to work towards so even though I didn’t get anywhere in the competitions, I got into the habit of publishing my work, which probably helped later on.
Jenn: Yeah, definitely, definitely. Deadlines, yeah, deadlines can be good.
Bryan: Yeah. Yeah, I know a lot of writers are in fear of them but I’d encourage people to use them. Although I will say that because I was a journalist. What about your approach to building your name as a writer, like on your website and promoting your work, are there any particular strategies that are working quite well these days?
Jenn: For me, I was really fortunate, well, first of all, because I was already a writer so I kind of had a body of stuff when it came to making a website, I had something to put on it, but you don’t necessarily need that.
Social media is super helpful for me because I was already a painter, I had kind of a fan base, I won’t call them fans, I’ll call them friends because I think that it’s really important to not use social media in a business sense but use it to make friends and to talk about things that you’re interested in and those friends down the line will buy your stuff, they turn out to be your friends and I’ve got thousands of them now because I enjoy talking about painting and I enjoy talking about writing and sharing tips and everything and it’s not just I’m bombarding people on social media with a marketing campaign, it’s about the relationships that you make. So, I think in self-promotion, I use a lot of my social media venues to meet people and make friends.
Bryan: Yeah, it’s a good way to build relationships with readers and followers. So, you mentioned you have a body of work as well. I suppose just to go back to your actual writing process, do you write in Word and just have it all on a folder on your computer or do you have some other system?
Jenn: Well, up until the 90s, I had the system of pen and paper and then, when I got my computer, yeah, I started using Word right away. I tried to use some of the other programs but I just haven’t been able to, I guess, either take the time or to learn them or they just, you know, I’ve tried them and they haven’t worked for me. So it’s, yeah, I do that, I just write or I will leave myself a voice message or scribble something on the back of an envelope but the bulk of my writing is in Word, yeah, and then I just put it all supposedly in a tidy file but that’s a lie. It’s all over the place. About once every six months, I put it in a pile.
Bryan: Yeah, no, it seems like a good approach. If a new writer is listening to this and they were wondering about how to get published, what would you say to them?
Jenn: I think it’s the same advice as for the contest. Get rid of your fear of doing it and just do it. If you’ve got something that you’re happy with, find a place to send it, go to submittable.com, get an account, it’s free, find a place that fits your writing or your word count and just send it in. Be prepared for the rejection.
Again, try and not value your personal worth by what you write because those things aren’t connected, even if it’s personal writing, you know, and you wanna get it published. If you are a writer and you are doing personal writing like your journal and you’re not gonna get it published, then, by all means, keep it attached to yourself, but if you’re gonna be sending it out into the world, you gotta realize, it’s, yeah, a lot of rejections, especially when you’re beginning. So, yeah, overcome the fear of actually doing it and just do it. That’s the only way to get started.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah, it certainly is. I mean, the first step is always the hardest and it is difficult getting rejected but, oddly enough, the more rejections you get, the less they sting. What about for somebody who’s learning to write and they’re balancing it with studying the craft, are there any resources that have helped you over the years or that people could use or even great writing books you’ve come across?
Jenn: Yeah, gosh, there’s Stephen King’s On Writing, I guess, is probably — people will know him as the kind of horror author but he’s a brilliant writer and, you know, there’s a reason that he’s at the top of the game because he’s amazing. And I think, you know, for many years, I was a writer and I was writing and I was getting published but I didn’t actually really know much about writing. I didn’t know about the craft and so when I signed up for the Writer’s Studio program at Simon Fraser University, I can’t say enough about it because, for that year, I learned everything about writing. I learned about publishing, you know? I found my people and I think that’s probably key. Up until that point, I was a solo writer. I was so on my own. I was in my head, it was the struggle —
Bryan: It’s hard —
Bryan: — it’s hard doing it alone, yeah.
Jenn: Yeah, so I found, yeah, I found my people and look for, if you don’t have writer people or you don’t have a course, there’s actually, because we’re online right now, you can take the SFU program from anywhere in the world. We had, in our cohort, people in India and people all over America so you actually — and one in Bulgaria.
You can take writing classes anywhere in the world. It just depends. I think there’s free ones too. That one was paid but, yeah, and so I would recommend that, taking a writing course, finding your people, going on Twitter, using the hashtag, #writingcommunity, and look for your people there because they’re there and writers use Twitter. I’m surprised I’d kind of stopped using Twitter for a while until I went back to school and found out that’s where all the writers are hanging out so they do writing sprints and all kinds of interesting things and people share publishers and contests, everything, everything you can imagine. You can ask them anything. They’re a really good bunch.
Bryan: Twitter is a good network. So, you also have on your website the What I’m Doing page or What I’m Working On so rather than me saying what you’re working on, could you tell listeners what you’re working on right now? We’re recording this in April.
Jenn: Sure. What I’m working on right now is, as I mentioned, I’m the writer-in-residence at the British Columbia History Magazine so what I’m doing is I’m opening up the British Columbia history, which is mostly the history of the settler population, and I’m opening it up to the indigenous population so talking about the people who were here before the City of Vancouver was formed, the First Nations population, which is where my family is from, and just trying to get people more interested in that history of Vancouver so they can kind of understand what’s happened in history because that was a piece of history that was not much talked about.
So I’m doing that. I’m also — I’ve got a couple of books at publisher, sitting at publishers right now. Fingers crossed, hoping they’ll get picked up. I’ve applied for some writing residencies for the summer so I’m just waiting to hear back. May is kind of that turnaround point where I hear about grants and residencies and contests and things like that so I’m just kind of in that holding zone and I’m really waiting for the calendar to flip over tomorrow so I can find out about some of these things and then I’ll be able to plan the rest of my year, but I’m always writing and I’m writing a program for new writers for one of our local libraries and I’m pre-recording lectures I have to give in the fall and things like that. It’s non-stop.
Bryan: That’s quite a lot, wow. How do you do it? So, Jenn, where can people find more information about you or, by the time this is out, I’m sure you’ll be working on another project, where can they read what you’re working on now?
Jenn: Well, my website is jenniferashton.ca and that’s my writing website. My art website is jennashtonart.com and my publisher is Tidewater Press and my book is available everywhere, I think, Amazon and, yeah, all over the place. And, yeah, I think that’s probably — and I’m @raveonstudio on all social media so you can find me or you can Google me and I usually come up. Everything usually comes up.
Bryan: Well, good luck with People Like Frank. It was great to talk to you today.
Jenn: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. This was fun.
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