Jan Gangsei writes YA fiction under her own name, but is also the voice behind several MG series commissioned by publishers and packagers. She lives in Northern Virginia.
Jan Gangsei’s first YA novel, ZERO DAY, was published by Disney-Hyperion and is a tense political thriller set in Washington DC, a city she knows well. She has also written a number of MG novels in series published as far afield as the UK and Germany.
Jan grew up in the hills of Vermont, where she began her career as a journalist and photographer. After stints in Key West, New York City and Barbados, Jan finally settled with her family in NoVA where she writes full-time.
When and how did you start writing?
I guess I’d have to say that like most writers, I’ve always been writing. In fact, I still have one of my very first “books” — a carefully stapled paperback written in multi-colored marker titled, “Why?” — which pondered life’s great existential questions, such as Why is the grass green?… Why do we have hair? And my personal favorite, Why is it Wednesday? (Seriously, no one has ever explained Wednesday to me. So please, drop me a note if you know the answer… )
I eventually moved on to writing (very bad and very angsty) rhyming poetry in high school. (Don’t ask to see it because I’ve destroyed the evidence — and no, Mom, this is not a challenge to dig through those boxes in the basement… ) Eventually, I moved on to short stories and (hopefully) better poetry in college. And after graduation, I became a reporter for a daily newspaper, covering everything from politics and crime to the occasional four-way stop sign controversy.
But, I always had it in the back of my head I wanted to write a book — the kind of book I’d toted around when I was growing up, reading over and over until the pages were dog-eared and worn. So I hashed out ideas and thought about it for a long time. However, it wasn’t until my dad unexpectedly became ill and sadly died that I became laser focused on actually writing a book and getting published. I literally got back from his funeral, sat at my computer, started writing and never stopped.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
I loved reading anything I could get my hands on—books, magazines, cereal boxes. If there were words, I would read them. But I think the author that had the biggest impact on me as a young person was Judy Blume. I was totally convinced that Blume had somehow managed to find a window directly into my brain. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I would have made it through adolescence without her (though I’m sorry to say, those “exercises” in Margaret do not work. My friends and I tried, trust me.).
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
That’s tough… I mean, there was the very careful marker and color selection that went into writing “Why?” (Should grass be written in green, or is that too obvious…?) And why Wednesday, and not Thursday… ?
Oh, I assume you mean my first published book. So let’s chat ZERO DAY, my YA debut… well, I’ll certainly never forget the call from Sarah, telling me I was going to be published by Disney. After I hung up, I might’ve terrified my poor dog by jumping up and down and dancing around the family room while happy crying… But then the work started, as I had the contract before the book had actually been finished. So the coming days/weeks/months were a bit of a blur filled with long hours of writing, revising, reviewing editorial notes, etc. I also did a lot of research into some rather questionable things (building bombs, hacking computers, mapping the White House residential area). I’m pretty sure I’m on several watch lists at this point… But, all worth it, because the thrill of seeing my book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble is something I’ll never forget!
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
I wrote a lot before I actually started querying, so once I did, I kind of had this pile of manuscripts to work with. I basically queried in small batches, making note of what seemed to be working, what wasn’t, etc. (Excel spreadsheets are your friend, people!) I also researched like crazy and before I even started had a list of dream agents (with Sarah right at the top, I might add, so you can imagine my excitement when she called to offer representation! I might have hyperventilated, passed out, not sure…).
But my advice to anyone querying would be to really do your homework—look at every prospective agent’s client list, what type of books they represent, etc., and see how yours fits in. And follow their guidelines! Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions when you do get that offer (once you’re done hyperventilating, of course!). A good agent is your partner in your career as an author, and you want someone you are compatible and comfortable with, whose advice and counsel you trust (which is why I feel so incredibly fortunate to be represented by Sarah!).
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
My writing day typically kicks off once kid #2 has been safely deposited at school. Then I make myself a cup of coffee and some buttered toast, and I sit on the love seat in my family room (dog curled under my legs, laptop on lap), and I get to work!
Inspiration I find everywhere—I think writers are basically sponges, soaking up the world around them and saving the details for use later. I’m constantly thinking and observing—whether I’m out for a walk, getting groceries, at the gym. You really never know what will spark that little idea, that “what if?”, that gets your imagination running wild…
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
View becoming a published author as a career—not simply a “dream” or a hobby—and treat it like you would any other occupation. Study, practice, read, write… and most of all, understand it takes time to become good at what you do. Natural talent is not all that matters. An aspiring doctor can’t show up one day at the ER, scalpel in hand, and announce, “hey! I’ve always dreamed of removing an appendix! Ready the patient!” It takes years of medical school (and operating/making your mistakes on the cadavers) first. I don’t see a writing career any differently—go ahead and operate on those “drawer novels” first, understand they will likely not be the books to get published, and keep moving forward until you write the one that will!
Also, along the same lines as author-as-career — remember that every time you are on submission, it is like you are applying for a job. So be polite, be timely, and be someone that an agent or publisher would like to work with.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you've developed as an author?
* Learning to plot! I am a pantser by nature, but thanks to work I’ve done for a book packager, I’ve learned the value of having key plot points developed and outlined before you start writing. Of course nothing is set in stone (and characters have a funny way of changing direction mid-story)… but it’s important to understand plot structure, and how action should rise and fall to create the right amount of tension and keep readers turning the pages.
* The value of getting critiques. One of the great things about getting to know other writers has been finding trusted beta readers (*hi Tim!*). It always helps to have a second (third, fourth…) set of eyes review your work before hitting that “send” button, which leads me to…
* Not hitting that send button too soon! I’ve definitely been guilty of having itchy trigger-finger once I type The End on a manuscript. But I’ve learned that every single thing I’ve written, without fail, has benefitted from being set aside to breathe—even for a just few days. Walking away from something and then returning with fresh eyes has always resulted in new inspiration and discovering ways to make the story better.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? Which fictional character do you wish you'd invented?
This is hard! I have so many. Can I invite everyone? I guess that could get a little rowdy, so let’s see… Obviously, I’d have to invite my childhood hero, Judy Blume. And definitely Edith Wharton, because I was obsessed with THE AGE OF INNOCENCE as a teenager. (Actually, maybe we could set this dinner party in Edith Wharton’s New York City with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps and white-gloved waiters, because that would be awesome!) I also had a Hemingway obsession during my teen years, so I think I’d add him to the list (I guess this party might get rowdy anyway, oh well). And for modern writers, Gillian Flynn, because I’d love to know how she comes up with her twisted characters (though I’d probably make sure she wasn’t seated near any sharp cutlery, just in case… ). And I’d round things out with Carl Hiaasen, because I love a good laugh!
And who do I wish I’d invented? That would be a three-way tie between Severus Snape, Countess Olenska, and Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes). Perhaps I could invite all three to our party and give you a verdict afterwards? :)