Tuesday, March 27, 2012


by Jennifer Harlow

One of the most common questions as an author I'm asked, like every darn time, is what advice I would give to aspiring writers. There's the old standbys, "Read A LOT", "Write, write, write," and "Don't wear white shoes after Labor Day." They work! Especially that last one. But one thing that I don't often hear from other authors that really helped me, was take an acting class. Or six years of them like I did.

What? you may be asking. You, the gal who learned to sneeze silently so people wouldn't look at her for a split second, who goes out of her way to blend in so people leave her alone was an actor? Yep-a-roonie. From seventh grade through senior year I was always in drama club or class. I acted in two school plays, a friend's music video, a local PSA, and was even the VP of the club. I was no Meryl Streep (though I can do a Southern, Long Island, Valley Girl, Minnesota “Fargo”, and English accent on cue, not that I'm bragging) (Okay, I so am), but people told me I was pretty darn good. It was just fun. I got to put on a persona and pretend I was someone other than me for awhile. When high school ended, and I moved from SoCal to NoVa, my acting career ended as well. In an official capacity anyway.

What I especially loved about acting was getting lost in being another person. Thinking new thoughts, safely experiencing danger or love without the consequences. The skills I learned on stage translated to when I was writing. When I sit down with pen and paper I have to transform into the person whose story I'm telling, feel what they're feeling at the time so I can put into words that sensation. I have to be that person as if their soul were taking over my body, using my own emotions and memories just like I did onstage. Method acting without the performing, at least sometimes. Once or twice I have been looked at sideways in the library as I was mimicking facial expressions my characters would have. In those instances I'm so lost in my own world this one and Jennifer Harlow have vanished.

Besides the Method, Improv also helped hone my writing skills. I was never the best at it, I always felt like an idiot up there with no props or sets pretending to make a cake or whatever silly exercise my teachers had us do. But in the end me acting a fool helped me write, especially dialogue. When you're across from another actor with my script and minimal props and have to think on your feet while being someone else. You have to speak as them with no rehearsal and what you say has to be both entertaining and topical. While I'm writing I'm like a one woman improv troupe playing out all the other characters. Those sessions in class helped strengthen my wit sword so by senior year I had a witty comeback the moment the other person stopped talking. My sharp tongue is my greatest weapon, and from the letters I've received my greatest writing asset.

So to all you aspiring writers out there, I recommend you take an acting class or two. Not only are they a barrel of monkeys but they'll help you with dialogue and characterization. Acting!

P.S.-I just signed another deal with Midnight Ink! I've been wanting to tell y'all for months, but had to wait for contract negotiations to finish. The books will be stand alone spin-offs of the FREAKS, who will make a cameo in each, and the characters in those will make cameos in each others and the FREAKS books. They're sort of friends of the FREAKS, supplemental to the original series. The first, What's A Witch to Do? will be out 3/13.


Lois Winston said...

Jenna, first, congrats on the new contract!

As for using acting for writing, it's advice I've given when I teach novel writing classes and workshops. A tip I give my students is to sit back, close your eyes, and become the character. I call it method acting for writers. Once you envision yourself as the character, you better understand what that character would say and how she would act in the scene.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Interesting perspective! I can see the similarities. We all need/want to crawl inside a character's skin.

Congrats on the new deal!

Keith Raffel said...

Jenna, terrific post. And congrats on the new deal.

Linda Hull said...

Great post! Huge congrats on the contract!!!

Deborah Sharp said...

Yay ... what a cool deal for a new series, and a good post as well. Love that little tidbit ... you were the kind of shy reluctant to sneeze out loud for fear people would look. I admire you for conquering that to take acting classes. Great advice for other introverts (and aspiring authors) out there.

Jennifer Harlow said...

Thanks for all the well wishes.