On Learning the Craft and Finding Her Story
Julia Claiborne Johnson didn’t start writing her first novel till she was fifty years old, but she started learning how to do it decades before.
Working for Mademoiselle magazine in her twenties reading roughly 10,000 manuscript submissions per year, out of which “It was really hard to find twelve we could publish,” she learned that “beautiful prose but no story” wasn’t enough to sustain fiction.
Ten years of writing freelance and on staff for publications like Mademoiselle, Glamour, and Good Housekeeping taught her to work on deadline, be dependable, and write fast.
Wanting to learn to “recognize the patterns” of novel writing, and having read an anecdote about author Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road), who painstakingly typed out the entire text of The Great Gatsby to internalize how to write a novel, Julia analyzed three novels, writing down in a notebook every single event on every page of each story.
Among other things, the exercise taught her that “the last sentence and the first sentence of chapters had to really matter,” when she found herself staying up late into the night propelled from chapter to chapter.
She also identified what spoke to her as a reader, and what kind of stories she wanted to write: “I wanted people to laugh, and I wanted them to keep going, and then I wanted them to cry.” And she learned she disliked “boring books that take forever with nothing happening.”
Finally, after years of writing other people’s stories, Julia got the first glimmer of a story idea of her own that grew into her debut novel, Be Frank with Me.
Three years later she completed a first draft, writing only while her kids were in school. “My time was limited, but that was good b/c it focused my mind–I couldn’t waste time.”
In fact no sooner had she typed “the end” than she sent out her first query—to her dream agent, expecting not to hear back for six months, if at all, during which time she could polish the manuscript. Yet the very next morning she had a reply from the agent, wanting to see the rest.
A week later the agent offered representation and said she would start sending the manuscript out on submission the next day, telling Julia, “It’s going to sell in a week.”
But it didn’t sell.
If at First You Don’t Succeed…Revise
Julia dived into revisions on the story for the next two years (“because it was a first draft—I needed to work through the plot”), but finally she and her agent submitted again—and this time it did sell in a week, Be Frank with Me becoming an LA Times bestseller and an American Booksellers Association adult debut honor book.
Theoretically you’d think that would make the next book a piece of cake. But when Julia turned in her follow-up story—Better Luck Next Time, about a 1930s divorce ranch in Reno, based in part on real-life history in her family—her editor initially didn’t want to buy the book.
So Julia went back to the beginning and completely rewrote the story, and this time her editor loved it—or at least the prologue. “She hated the rest of it,” Julia says. “I also loved the prologue and hated the rest of it, so she wasn’t wrong.”
Julia went back to rewrite the book for a third time.
“It’s easier to start from six pages than to start from zero pages. That one I wrote in eight months because I knew the story so well by that time.”
Back in her magazine-writing days, Julia recalls reading novels she thought were terrible, and wondering how they got published. “And then one day I realized–oh, they finished it. That matters more than anything. If you don’t finish it, all the hard work you put into it up till the point you gave up on it, you’ve thrown away.”
On a Post-it note on her computer, she keeps the above Churchill quote. That philosophy helped her complete each of her novels, despite setbacks and major revisions and rewrites.
Inspired by her persistence, success, and the many iterations each of her novels has undergone before being published, I asked Julia if she’d share a bit about her editing and revision process, and boy, did she deliver.
For me, the hardest part of writing novels is keeping track of the progress of my story. So I hang a huge piece of cardboard from the door of my supply closet, and as I finish each chapter I pushpin a post-it note of each, boiled-down, onto it. Before a novelist friend introduced me to the pushpin system, the post-its had an alarming tendency to flutter away. Crisis!
That’s only the beginning. Then I have another column of tiny post-its that boil the action of each chapter down to one line. That way I can look at that one line take in whether whatever happened there has altered the situation significantly. If nothing has changed in the chapter, why is it there?
Just to be absolutely certain the story has moved forward, I have two more columns that list the first and last lines of each chapter. Those two lines are there to prove that forward motion to me. Not only can I study those lines and ask myself, “What’s changed?” I can look at them and think, “If I were reading this, would this sentence at the end of this chapter compel me to keep reading? And would glancing at the opening line of the next one seal the deal?” What I want is for the reader to look at the clock, and think, “Well, it’s midnight, sure, but I’ll just read this one more chapter.” And then the next thing they know, it’s five a.m. and they’ve finished the whole book.
But that’s not all! I have another set of post-its that list what my husband, a television writer, calls “sequences.” The larger arcs of the story, in other words, that may stretch over many chapters. My novel, Better Luck Next Time, for example, has twenty-six chapters but only seven sequences.
Oh, and of course, before I get started I have notebooks, and then post-it notes of ideas that may or may not go into each chapter. But that’s another story.
Here’s what my system looks like, in case you’re interested. Yellow chapters on cardboard; blue for sequences; yellow again for first and last lines; pink, each chapter boiled down to a line. Gathered around the edges all the random post-it ideas that I might or might not use.