Writing Routines

Karen Jennings’ Writing Routine: “I knew I wanted to be a writer, and for a long time that was enough.”

Karen Jennings is a South African author, best-known for her novels Finding Soutbek (2013), and An Island, which was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

There is no one defining moment that I can put my finger on and say, “Yes, this was it.” It is simply a fact that has always been there, even when it wasn’t something that I was actively working at. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and for a long time that was enough.

There is no dignity in being a writer | Karen Jennings

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The idea for Karen Jennings 2020 novel, An Island, came to her in a dream. She was working on her novel Upturned Earth at a writer’s residency in Denmark during 2015, around the same time when there was a lot of news about the Syrian refugee crisis.

One night as she was sleeping, she dreamt of an island with a lighthouse on it, with visions of an old, African man frowning and alone. “I sat up at once and said, ‘That’s my next book,’” she recalled in an interview with Text Publishing.

Jennings began working on the novel almost immediately after her dream. She was fortunate enough to receive a Miles Morland scholarship, a financial scholarship awarded to a number of African writers each year, and spent 12 months writing the story. She finished The Island in 2017 but struggled to find a publisher for a few years, until indie press Holland House came along and printed off a mere 500 copies in 2020.

“When I did finally get a small publisher in the UK and a small publisher in South Africa to co-publish, they couldn’t get anyone to review the book,” Jennings told The Guardian. “We couldn’t get people to write endorsement quotes, or blurbs.”

“I felt very ashamed of myself,” she continued. “Because my publishers had put a lot of faith and time and, obviously, money into it. And it’s not that I personally was expecting fame or fortune or anything, but I felt that I had disappointed them.”

But then on 1 August, The Island was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. The book that only received a print run of 500 copies was suddenly competing alongside established authors like Damon Galgut, Richard Powers, Maggie Shipstead, Kazuo Ishiguro and others.

With the Booker Prize nomination and her name placed alongside famed authors, Jennings’ publisher had to do another print run — this time it was over 5,000 copies — in addition to the novel’s international rights being sold to foreign publishers.

You know, it seems trite to say that it came as a complete surprise to me, but of course that was absolutely the case. The book had received barely any notice at all. Barely sold any copies. Then to suddenly be longlisted for this prestigious award! I didn’t quite believe that it was possible.

There is no dignity in being a writer | Karen Jennings

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Karen Jennings’ daily writing routine

Jennings felt confident when she started writing her first novel. She had always been told she was a good writer so she thought the words would flow easily. As she would quickly discover, it didn’t matter how great of a writer you were, starting a new novel is always a mountainous undertaking.

“You start from scratch, with new plots and characters and flow and style to navigate,” she explained. “There is no map or guiding star. It doesn’t get easier, nor should it, in my opinion.”

On a typical writing day, the South African author is up early to write during the undisturbed hours of the morning. She described an example daily writing routine in an interview with Now Novel.

When I am writing, I get up and start working at 4am. I am a morning person, luckily, so this is pleasurable for me to do. It is good to have two hours of quiet, uninterrupted time. After that the day can go in any direction, depending on my commitments. If I have no other commitments, I will go back to my desk at around 9am and try to work again until lunch. This is when I must be strict. If I feel like I’d rather be doing something else, I tell myself to sit there until I’ve written 250 words, or I set an alarm for twenty minutes, then I can get up and cuddle the dog or eat a biscuit or anything I like. Then I come back and do it again. I am certainly not glued to my desk from 9 to 5.

Author Interview: Karen Jennings on An Island | Now Novel

As she’s continued to evolve as a writer, Jennings has stopped spending countless hours trying to perfect her sentences and get the right words on the page. Instead, her strategy now is to crank out an entire first draft with no rewrites until it’s done.

“It doesn’t matter if I forget a character’s name, or I change the plot or tense, or if it is all a gigantic mess,” she revealed. “The most important thing is to get it on paper. Only then do I go back to the beginning and work my way through the entire thing again, no turning back. Then again and again, until I am satisfied.”

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