Jessi Honard’s Unrelenting Approach to Writing
Jessi Honard recently joined CWC. She has been a regular participant in the Wednesday evening Berkeley Writers Circle since the pandemic began, and in that context, I’ve had the pleasure of reading her writing on many occasions. She writes intriguing, believable characters in fascinating and credible alternative realities. Sometimes those realities entail an extraordinary capability, or a strange aspect of an otherwise normal reality. At times those realities are in the future; often they’re in the same present we inhabit but highlight a feature of our world we may have overlooked. No matter the situation, her writing has the immediacy of characters facing high stakes with determination, intelligence, and humor.
Jessi is a generous and astute reader, offering critique that helps other writers bring their finest work to the page. Her feedback always points me toward ways to improve my writing. For all these reasons, I was delighted the learn that her debut novel, Unrelenting (co-authored with Marie Parks), is being released this month, and I was eager to interview Jessi about her writing process. My questions and Jessi’s responses have been lightly edited.
SB: I read about your writing practice with interest: because you are the principal of a small business, you write in the nooks and crannies of your days (and nights). As you put it, there are days when you can only manage to eke out a word or phrase; at that rate, a product is many years in the making. That takes incredible perseverance! I was intrigued by your use of productivity data to motivate you and build discipline into your process.
When did you first notice this perseverance and discipline in yourself? How old were you, and what was the context in which you first discovered these traits in yourself?
JH: Oh gosh, I feel like this has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. Elizabeth Gilbert has a wonderful talk about how, in life, some people are “jackhammers” and some people are “hummingbirds”. The jackhammers know what they want and just go at it, day in and day out, almost oblivious to the world around them. The hummingbirds flit from idea to idea, passion to passion. Both are valuable and necessary and beautiful, and neither is better than the other.
Using this metaphor, I’ve always been a jackhammer. It’s a part of who I am and who I’ve always been.
SB: I believe traits such as perseverance and discipline, even when innate, can be further developed. What has helped you strengthen these traits over the years?
JH: Practice certainly helps, along with the innate (sometimes bull-headed) desire to prove people wrong. I remember, as a kid, telling people that I wanted to be a writer, and they would smile and nod and remind me to have a “Plan B”.
I’ve never been a “Plan B’ sort of person, so I resolved to do whatever I could to reach my goals. I’m a deadline-driven person, so I’d set myself strategic, attainable goals, and work towards them systematically. I also love data, so I track everything, including how much time I spend on my fiction, and in what capacity (plotting, drafting, revising, etc.).
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also realized that pure perseverance and discipline can become a recipe for burnout. Just as important as perseverance itself are two other essentials: rest and community.
The pandemic brought with it a period of creative drought, and my focus shifted to keeping a small business afloat during an uncertain time. Instead of forcing myself to keep pushing forward, I found that the best thing I could do for myself was take a step back and rest. Instead of pushing at my goals, I used the time to connect with other writers and build relationships.
As a result, I was able to circle back to my goals feeling refreshed instead of worn down.
SB: How do these traits figure into your collaborative partnership with your co-author, Marie Parks?
JH: Marie and I call one another soul sisters. We complement each other in so many ways, which is how we’ve been able to co-own a business andco-write novels together. We remind one another when we’re pushing too hard, we trust each other implicitly, and sometimes it feels like we can read one another’s mind.
SB: I imagine that your protagonist, Bridget, also perseveres in the face of opposition and impediment. Tell us about the genesis of this character. To what extent is she an autobiographical character?
JH: To answer this question, I have to dig into my writing history with Marie a little. Long before we set out to co-write a novel, we began writing roleplay stories together, just for fun. This involved opening a blank Google Doc, assigning out characters we each controlled, and taking turns writing how those characters would interact in different situations.
Bridget came from one of these “just for fun” roleplays (as did the seeds for the entire world of Unrelenting), and she was initially Marie’s character. Once we decided to turn her story into a full-fledged novel, we both took on the responsibility of adapting her to the page. As a result, she’s in some ways an amalgamation of the two of us. There are certain ways in which she definitely represents me (Bridget is a “jackhammer”), and there are other ways in which she represents Marie (including her Southern roots).
SB: Without having read your novel, I have a hunch that “discipline” is not necessarily a strong suit for Bridget. She seems like a character governed by hunches and passions. How have these traits in yourselves supported your writing, and when have you had to rein them in?
JH: It’s interesting, because Bridget is a mix of both, in some ways. She is disciplined, but often her discipline is based on hunches and passions, which can lead her to make decisions that seem impulsive and may not always serve her.
Personally, I tend to think of myself as a logical person, but also someone who’s unafraid of risk. I like to check in with myself periodically, to tease out where my hunches come from, and to understand the why behind my passions. I think with that greater understanding, I’m able to make decisions that support my goals and my vision for the future.
SB: I’m intrigued by your co-authoring a novel. Tell us about the methods and process(es) that you and Marie use in working together long-distance? What traits in each of you helped forge your success?
JH: We’ve adapted our roleplaying technique to our co-writing technique, which has served us well. It’s an incredibly organic approach, and one that has evolved from years of writing together for fun and for our business.
Practically, this involves opening a Google Doc together, deciding on our goals for that session, and working in what I’ve come to think of as a “ladder technique”. One of us will begin writing, while the other revises behind them. When the writer runs out of steam, we’ll switch places.
It ends up looking rather chaotic! We do this in our business, too, and we acually filmed a video of what it looks like to an outsider, which you can watch here.
SB: I noticed that this is Book One of “The Grigori Cycle.” At what point did you realize you were writing a series, or did you conceptualize a sequel from the get-go?
JH: We knew from the beginning that we were creating an expansive world that could go much deeper than one book. We initially decided to try writing a novel that could be either a standalone or the beginning to a series, but about halfway through it we realized that the only way we could truly represent the breadth of our world and the depth of Bridget’s character arc was through multiple installments.
Currently we’re planning for three books in the main series. In addition, we’re hoping to publish novellas that allow the reader to dig more deeply into the backstories of the supporting characters.
SB: Congratulations on being a finalist in the Book Pipeline Contest for 2020. Tell us about the Book Pipeline Contest. What has that process been like for you?
JH: Thank you! We submitted Unrelenting to Book Pipeline on a total whim! It was the first year they hosted the Unpublished Manuscript competition, but the organization (Pipeline Media) had been working for years with scriptwriters and published authors. We decided to throw our hat in the ring because they seemed like good people who were genuinely interested in supporting emerging authors.
The prizes were also enticing. Finalists all received personal introductions to authors and publishers in the company’s digital rolodex, essentially giving them a leg up in the querying process.
To be completely honest, we actually forgot we applied to the competition. We applied in February 2020, and then… 2020 happened. Our attention shifted elsewhere, primarily to building up our community of writers.
Then, in October, we were attending a virtual writer’s conference (Surrey International Writers Conference), when we received the email that we were finalists. Since then, we’ve had a wonderful experience. The hosts of the competition have stayed in touch, even after introducing us to our publishers, and continue to support our work.
SB: Any words of wisdom for other writers?
Writing is often portrayed as a solitary act, where you scribble stories while squirreled away in a cabin in the woods. While these moments of peaceful isolation are wonderful, it’s also important to connect with other writers.
Building a robust network of writers who get it (and get you!) makes a world of difference. The communities I’m a part of commiserate together, celebrate together, discuss the changing industry together, and lift one another up.
Unrelenting, by Jessi Honard and Marie Parks, will be published on April 19, 2022, and is available now for pre-order. Buy your copy at Bookshop .
Please join us for the annual Book Launch event, June 18, 2022, 2:00-4:00 p.m. Save the Date with Google Calendar.
Originally from Philadelphia and now based in Berkeley, CA, I’m retired from a career in environmental education, community building, and nonprofit administration. I’m writing a memoir in which I view my life experiences through the lens of my relationship with my brother, who was living with my son and me when he died suddenly in 2007. Despite a standard-issue dysfunctional family of origin, my two brothers and I forged bonds that allowed us to build meaningful lives. That’s the story I want my memoir to tell.