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From Journalist to Fiction Writer: Novelist Janelle Brown ‘91

Developing her niche as early as first grade, Janelle Brown captivates readers

This is the 38th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni.

Developing her niche for writing as early as first grade, five-time New York Times bestselling author Janelle Brown has captivated countless readers with her thriller novels including “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything”, “Pretty Things”, and “I’ll Be You”. “I always loved reading, and I loved writing, it was just my passion,” she said.

Zines–self-published magazines–were a key part of Brown’s young adulthood. “High school and college were the era of zines. I was a big fan of Platypuss and Planaria Racer, ran by M-A students. I always loved one of Cal’s, the Heuristic Squelch. My classmates were distributing their own on different pop culture topics and subcultures and they were all over bookstores.” Brown said, “Zines pushed me to want to write and invent new ideas myself. They pushed me towards doing journalism when I was in college.”

At M-A, Brown recalled, “Shannon Griscom [AP English Language teacher] was a really influential teacher to me. She always encouraged my writing and has come to some of my book events. I loved all my English classes and teachers, and also had fun in social studies and the arts program. I even remember doing typing classes on a typewriter.”

Brown’s Senior Portrait.

After M-A, Brown attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she joined local journalism. She said, “During college, I interned at Surface, Club Life, and other magazines and papers. I took a course about hypertext and digital cinema with Alex Cohen, where I learned all about the Internet and made my first website.” Brown went on to create her own zine, published online, called Maxi. It was one of the first-ever Webzines for women.

After Brown graduated, she began her career as a writer in the midst of the .com era. “I got a job at Wired and then at Salon and worked for online newspapers and magazines from the end of the 90s through most of the 2000s. I was writing about what I would describe as digital culture–how technology was changing our lives–whether that was the digital music movement or other cultures that the internet was influencing,” she said.

Eventually,  Brown found herself burnt out on journalism. “While I liked journalism and being part of a team making something important, part of me had a love for made-up stories.” She said, “I hadn’t really had a chance to pursue fiction writing while I was working for these newspapers and magazines, as it was difficult to find time to explore on my own.”

In the mid-2000s, Brown quit her job and began working on her first fiction novel as a freelance author. She said, “[My fiction writing] comes from bits and pieces of my own lived experiences and the world I know.” She added, “I also spent lots of time in fiction writing workshops. I met plenty of people over the years that encouraged me and gave me good feedback to help guide me and hone my craft.”

Brown at an Author’s Night, 2009 for her first novel, “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.”

While writing a novel may seem daunting at first, Brown approaches the process with a simple idea. She said, “I come up with an idea I’m excited about, and I sit on it for six months to a year until it becomes a story. But even then, I only have a general idea of how it will go. Then, I sit down, start writing, and figure it out.”

“I’m not someone who writes big, long, detailed outlines. I write a small, loose outline and then feel my way through it as I’m writing. I let my characters come alive and speak to me so I can get to know them and they start doing things I didn’t anticipate.”

Brown said her favorite part of her job is finishing. “I love the moment when I write the end and all the excitement and potential that comes with it being out in the world. I also love going to book events and connecting with readers and fans who tell me about the impact my books have had on them.” Brown also loves “embracing my inner fangirl when meeting authors I admire.”

Brown’s fourth novel, “Pretty Things,” which is currently being adapted as a television series.

Brown said, “Even though I’m kind of used to it now, there’s still a certain thrill when someone comes up to me and tells me they read something that I wrote. All the words I scraped out of my brain and put on a page are being read in places that I have no control over. I have no idea who’s reading it and where they are, and it’s exciting to realize how far words can go.” 

“Some days are easier than others in the writing process,” Brown said. “I’m working on a new novel and today is one of those days where every word seems like a challenge to pull out. But when it’s out into the world, every single word that’s written can have an impact, whether it came easily or was hard to write.”

Brown’s most recent novel, “I‘ll Be You.”

.Brown’s advice to M-A’s current students: “You don’t have to figure it all out now. Spend time figuring out who you are and what excites you. I didn’t become a novelist until my late 20s and I had a whole different career before then. It took me that long to realize that being a journalist wasn’t really what I loved, and that I wanted to write fiction instead. You don’t have to figure it out in the first year of college. Give yourself space to learn who you want to be.”

Brown’s advice to M-A’s future writers: “Find a group of people who also want to be writers. Get together, read each other’s pages, give each other feedback, and encourage each other. It can be really helpful to have peers who are doing the same thing as you when you’re first starting out and trying to learn.”

Celeste is a junior in her second year of journalism. She loves to write feature stories, including the column Bears Doing Big Things, and hopes to write more in depth pieces about local issues. In her free time, you can find her rowing, listening to music, or hanging out with her friends.

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