The Power of No by J.A. Jance

When I was in second grade, I read the Oz books written by Frank Baum—not just the one with Dorothy and the ruby slippers, but all those other Oz books as well. Encountering those stories didn’t make me want to be either Dorothy or a wizard. No, reading them made me want to be Frank Baum, putting words on pages, and from that moment on, that’s what I wanted to be in life—a writer.

It wasn’t easy. I wasn’t allowed in a university-level Creative Writing class in 1964 because, as the professor pointed out, I was a girl. “Girls,” he told me, “become teachers or nurses. Boys become writers.” As a consequence, I ended up with a teaching degree and later a masters degree in Library Science. As icing on the cake, I married a man, a guy who was allowed in the Creative Writing class that had been closed to me. He told me in 1968 there was only going to be one writer in our family, and he was it. (For the record, he never published anything!) But because I wanted my marriage to work, I put my fiction writing ambitions aside and left them alone for the next fourteen years.

After spending two years as a high school English teacher and five as a school librarian, I then did another ten-year sting of selling life insurance. In actuality, selling life insurance was a wonderful preparation for becoming a writer because I learned the important skill of ignoring the word NO. Life Underwriting Training Council classes suggest that sales people should expect to be given ten NOs before getting appointments and another ten NOs during appointments before walking away with an application and a check. That’s exactly what I did exactly that for the next ten years. A side benefit to all that was meeting and talking to countless people. I heard all those folks’ stories, and squirreled many of them away for future reference.

By the early eighties, I was a divorced, single mom in my late thirties, living in Seattle and still selling life insurance. I decided to enroll in the Dale Carnegie course in order to improve my sales skills. Participants were required to give a series of talks, one of them focused on an experience along the way that changed the course of their lives. Mine was about how in 1970 my former husband and I had crossed paths with a serial killer. When the talk was over one of my classmates turned to me and said, “Someone should write a book about that!” And the thought that passed through my mind in that moment? I’m divorced. What have I got to lose?

That was on a Thursday night. In preparing for the presentation, I had realized that living through the sixty days between when we first came to grips with the idea that there had been a killer in our midst and the time he was taken into custody had changed me into someone I hadn’t been before. We lived in a solitary house on a small volcanic knoll at the time, seven miles from the nearest neighbor or telephone. For forty of those sixty days, I was on the hill by myself, carrying a loaded weapon and fully prepared to defend myself. Once those forty days were over, I was a different person from the one I had been before. I had gained a measure of independence no amount of bra burning can ever duplicate.

After that talk, I spent the next three days wondering if anyone would want to read a book about someone who has a life changing experience and finally gets a divorce ten years later? That just didn’t work. Finally in the wee hours of Sunday morning I figured it out—why not write a novel rather than telling the real story? Sunday after church, I took pen to paper and began writing my first novel which turned into a 1400 page opus, one that was never published even after an agent advised me to cut it in half. (By the way, the agent who didn’t sell my first book is still my agent fifty books later.)

Painful as the agent’s initial rejection seemed at the time, I did what she said and trimmed out literally half the book. By the way, writing that first unsold manuscript and reducing it by half was an invaluable process. It gave me on-the-job training in plotting, pacing, dialogue creation, and scene setting. By cutting it in half, I learned the value of accepting editorial advice. Believe me all of those skills are necessary ingredients for becoming a “real” writer.

For the two years following that Dale Carnegie event, I stood with a foot in both worlds, writing from 4 AM to 7 AM before getting my kids up for school and me ready to go sell life insurance. In 1984 when I finally had to make a choice between the two—selling insurance or writing—I chose writing. People thought I was nuts, and from a financial standpoint at the time, they weren’t wrong. When my first two Beaumont books sold in a two-book contract for $4000 total, that income came to only a fraction of what I’d been earning before. I kept on writing after exiting the insurance job, but I had to scramble to support my family. I did one stint of handling auditions for Family Feud and worked with a team selling season tickets for the Seattle Repertory Theater. 

In 1985 I had the good fortune of meeting the wonderful man who became my second husband. For the first several years of our marriage, he supported all of us—him, me, his kids, and mine. Then, in 1994, he was able to retire, and I began supporting him. I still do, by the way.

I began my publishing career in the low-brow world of original paperbacks. Naysayers around me told me that original paperback mysteries had a ninety-day shelf life. My first Beaumont book, Until Proven Guilty, was published in 1985. It is still in print today. That’s a whole lot of ninety days later and proof positive that the NO people aren’t always right! For book after book I chose to remain with the same publishing house rather than being lured away by the promise of higher up front advances, and that’s the primary reason my backlist catalog continues to grow.

My latest Ali Reynolds book, Unfinished Business, hit bookstores on June 1stof this year. That’s book number 64. I’m working on the Beaumont #25, Nothing to Lose, due out next year. That will make 65 published books. Not bad for a girl. If you add in novellas, the number is closer to seventy, but who’s counting? 

The point is, those books exist because I refused to take NO for an answer—not from the Creative Writing professor, not from my first husband, and not from the countless people who told me it was dumb to leave a sure thing of selling insurance in favor of the risky idea of becoming a writer. (By the way, it’s best to not make mystery writers mad. They have their ways of getting even. In my first hardback, Hour of the Hunter, the crazed killer turns out to be a former professor of Creative Writing from my alma mater, the University of Arizona. Too bad the professor was dead by then and never saw it.)

I recently received an email from one of my early naysayers, someone who knew me back in my life insurance days. She said, “When you said you were quitting insurance to become a writer, I never believed it would happen, but it did. I have now read every one of your books.” That one really made me smile.

For people launching off on the path of becoming writers, there will be all kinds of folks holding up STOP signs along the way and telling you it’ll never work. If you happen to be someone who’s easily discouraged, maybe you should avoid them as much as possible. But for me, the exact opposite was true. The more people told me no, it would never happen, the more I wanted to prove them wrong, and I believe I have.

And if you really want to have fun, one of these days write one of those doomsday don’t-go-there folks into one of your stories. Whether or not that work gets published, writing a little revenge fiction will make you feel better. 

As for me, at this point I’m grateful for all the naysayers in my life, the ones who told me my idea of becoming a writer would never work. I’m a whole lot like that Little Engine That Could. The more people told me it couldn’t be done, the more determined I was to make it happen. 

Yes, there’s power in the word NO, but there’s even more power in ignoring it. 

The most important bit of writing advice I ever received came when I bought my first computer in 1983. The guy who sold it to me fixed it so that, when I logged in at four AM each day, these are the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written TODAY!

Having written this little essay, I qualify as a writer for today, but now I need to get back to work on that next book. I have a deadline that’s actively ticking, and all those people out there who told me I was crazy are still shaking their heads in astonishment.

Thank you, Frank Baum. You helped make it happen.

J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, and the Joanna Brady series, as well as five interrelated Southwestern thrillers featuring the Walker family. Born in South Dakota and brought up in Bisbee, Arizona, Jance lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington. Visit her online at JAJance.com and listen to a recent interview with her at https://poisonedpen.podbean.com/e/j-a-jance/