By Jesse Schneider
From a very early age, Jesse J. Holland knew he wanted to be an author.
In 1994, while working as a full-time journalist at The Associated Press, he began searching for the right time to make his dream of writing a book a reality. What he found instead was a dose of reality. “Pro tip,” he deadpanned, “that time’s never coming.”
In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 that Holland decided instead to take a book leave from the AP. The result was “Black Men Built the Capitol,” the first of his four books.
In a session with Paul Miller fellows, Holland revealed how he balances the demands of full-time journalism with book-writing and offered tips on how to maximize free time.
Holland said it took him 10 years to learn how to work full-time and write a book, a schedule that included working through lunchtime to research his non-fiction projects during business hours, missing a Grand Canyon family vacation to make time to write and sleeping as little as four hours a night.
Holland stressed the importance of creating an outline for any project over 10,000 words. “Not only is it time management, it’s also planning,” he said. Holland waits to edit until after he has written all of the chapters and he doesn’t believe in writing a certain number of words every day, instead working as long as his body allows him to.
Holland also noted that a master’s degree of fine arts – while perhaps not the right path for everyone – was integral to his process, allowing him to “immerse himself in the business of being an author” and surrounding himself with fellow writers.
During the proposal phase, Holland recommends connecting with people who have already been through the process, such as professors, or taking a class on how to write book proposals. He used Elizabeth Lyon’s approach of submitting two sample chapters, a marketing proposal, an introduction and a brief author biography.
Finally, Holland shared how he made the leap from non-fiction to fiction, as well as some of the feedback he received during the editing process.
Holland’s second book, “The Invisibles,” chronicled the slaves that built – and lived in – the White House. This caught the attention of Lucasfilm. The company wanted Holland to write “Finn’s Story,” a young adult novel about a popular “Star Wars” character. Holland barely made the two-month deadline to turn in a first draft and “Finn’s Story” was published in September of 2016.
The very next month, Marvel called. They planned to release the movie “Black Panther” in February 2018 and needed an 85,000-word draft of an accompanying novel by February 2017. Although Holland was covering a presidential race and teaching part-time at the University of Arkansas, he managed to (almost) meet Marvel’s deadline. “It’s all about how badly you want to do something,” he said.
Holland was told to put more of himself in “Black Panther”; the result was a story infused with both African and African-American history, as well as a lot of Washington, D.C. He was also encouraged to take more risks, saying the only things he couldn’t do were kill off characters or chop off body parts. “I did not expect the creative freedom that Marvel gave me with Black Panther,” he said.