Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Liz Johnson's Writing Process and a Giveaway!

I'm loving having all these authors on here to talk about their writing process! I think it's so important for writers to be able to learn from each other.

Today our guest is Liz Johnson. After graduating from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a degree in public relations, Liz Johnson set out to work in the Christian publishing industry, which was her lifelong dream. In 2006 she got her wish when she accepted a publicity position at a major trade book publisher. While working as a publicist in the industry, she decided to pursue her other dream-being an author. Along the way to having her novel published, she wrote articles for several magazines and worked as a freelance editorial consultant.

Liz makes her home in Nashville, TN, where she enjoys exploring her new home, theater, and making frequent trips to Arizona to dote on her nephew and three nieces. She loves stories of true love with happy endings.

Liz is the author of Code of Justice, and has graciously agreed to giveaway a copy to one lucky commenter. To be entered, you must be a Go Teen Writer follower. You may either ask Liz a question or remark on something you find interesting about her process. (US Residents only.)

Enough of me talking. Onto Liz:

Pantser. SOTPer. Wild child.

There are lots of names for someone who writes a book without an outline in place first, but the generally agreed upon term is seat of the pants writer. And I used to be one. When I first started writing, I just dove into the story, not worrying about where I’d end up or how I’d get there. And I wasted a lot of time and energy fixing bad plots because I didn’t plan ahead.

As I’ve written more books, my process has changed in big ways. Here’s a sneak peek into the way my books come together.

Inciting idea: Every one of my books has an inciting idea that starts small and blossoms into an entire book. The ideas can come from a trip I’ve taken, a lesson that God is teaching me, or even an article I’ve read. Usually it takes the form of a “What if?”

For example, I recently wrote a novel based on the special bond between sisters. I began to wonder, what if two sisters shared a really close relationship that was severed.

Developing the idea and characters: Next I build around that question, giving the characters names and histories, exploring their fears and goals. In our example I discovered Heather, a tough FBI agent, who was the only survivor of a helicopter crash that stole her sister’s life. Heather’s quest for justice and struggle with vengeance became the heart of the book. I also knew she needed a sidekick, Jeremy, who turned into her love interest.

Picturing my characters: Once the characters are in place, I have to give them faces to picture them in my mind. So I begin a search on Google Images to find actors or well-known faces that match what I have in mind. For Heather I picked out Hilarie Burton from One Tree Hill. Jeremy went through several matches until I landed on Michael Trucco from Battlestar Gallactica, the perfect fit.

Plotting the key events: Next I write a summary of the key events. This usually ends up being a five to seven page outline highlighting the important events that lead to the characters achieving their goals … or not.

Actually writing: This is the hardest part for me—sitting in front of my computer and actually writing the whole story based on that summary. It’s months of being disciplined enough to have my seat in a chair and get the story down. All the way through. I hardly edit anything during this time.

Editing: First, I read through my story and fix those glaring problems before sending it off to friends to get their feedback. Then I read through it again, keeping those suggestions in mind. And I keep doing that until it’s time to submit it to either my agent or editor.

It’s not always easy … in fact, it can be downright painful to write a book. But it’s definitely worth it to hold that finished manuscript in your hand. So keep at it!


  1. Liz,

    I am an aspiring Christian fiction writer, but I always get stuck on my ideas. I've never thought about taking the "What if?" approach. Usually, I just try to think of an interesting topic, but it doesn't get much further than a few paragraphs.

    The "What if?" approach will be a new way for me to approach the material.

    Thank you for the suggestion, and I look forward to your future works!



  2. Aysha, good luck with your writing! I hope that the "What if?" approach helps you develop your story ideas. There are all sorts of "What ifs" to ask, and many books have more than one. If you answer one "What if?" ask yourself another one. For example, I'm working on a contemporary romance that begins with "What if my main character is disowned by her family?" Of course, then I have to explore why she's disowned, what type of family would disown their daughter, and what's she going to do about it. But once she figures out how she's going to move forward, she finds another other questions, like "What if the man who is supposed to be perfect for her isn't?" The "What ifs" build on each other, but be sure to explore all that the question implies. You don't have to completely answer one question before you move on to another one, but you do want to make sure that you answer all the questions at some point in your book.

    Keep working at it! All the best,

  3. When did you decide to plan ahead before writing a story? And do you think some stories are better written without an outline, and some with?


  4. Ariel, that's a GREAT question! Are some stories better written without an outline? I'd say not necessarily. But I do believe that some writers writer better without the constraints of a written outline. The need and use for an outline and advance plotting has much less to do with the story and more to do with storyteller. Some writers struggle with feeling too tied to their outline, afraid to deviate at all. I personally love having an outline now. But I often change things up when I have a creative idea or a burst of insight into my character.

    I first realized that I needed to outline my stories when I had to go back and fix huge plot holes in my first book. I realized that if I knew where I was going, I'd know where to drop clues and hints and red herrings to draw the reader off track. I'd automatically fill those plot holes if I knew where those events were leading.

    It takes practice to figure out what works best for you, as the writer. So keep writing! You'll figure out what works best for you.

  5. Whenever I write a story I think through the whole thing, well at least key events, then I write down the summary. Do you think through all your plot summary before you write it down? If so, how long does it usually take you to think through it all? How do you turn the beginning of a story into a "What if?" question? How do you write the whole summary without changing anything while you do it?

    Thank you for helping us teen writers!



  6. Emily - great questions!
    I do often think through the key events before I write down the summary. Sometimes it takes me several days, and sometimes it comes together quickly in my mind. Often I think about the "What if" and how I'm ultimately going to answer that question in the end. Then I decide how my main characters are going to get from the beginning to the end. And that's my summary.

    I don't usually think too much about turning the beginning of my story into a "What if?" I think more about turning the "What if" into a story. I'm constantly asking myself "What if" questions based on books I've read, buildings I've seen, places I've visited, etc. What if the character in my favorite book had done this instead of that? What if that bank building actually housed an underground railroad stop during the Civil War? What if someone someone fell in love with one of the actors in that play? What if my favorite character from my favorite book became real? What would she look and act like in "my" world? Any of these will get my brain going.

    And I always give myself permission to change my story as I write it. Maybe I have a better idea as I'm writing it then I did when I wrote the summary. Maybe I didn't fully understand my character's motivation while writing the summary. Change is okay. The point is just to keep writing. So keep at it!

  7. Has anyone in your real life influenced any of your characters?

    meredithfl at gmail dot com

  8. Liz,

    I loved how you talked about how you look up pictures of celebrities to picture your characters, I do that a lot too. Its so much fun and it gives me such a closer "relationship" if you wanna call it that, to my characters.

    Question; Do you ever come across a point in the books you write where you just think that its just not turning out right? If so, do you still finish the project?

    I come across this a lot... I have many unfinished books that have really honestly great ideas but they never get done. (partly do to boredom with the story, and partly do to procrasination)

  9. Oh and my email address...


  10. Meredith - I'm moving into a stage of writing where I find my friends making appearances in my novels. Mostly just in appearance. They're personalities are much different. But I did use my brother and brother-in-law as personality references for my first hero. They're great men of integrity and faith, and I thought of them as my hero made choices. Asking what would they do?

    Jazmine - It sounds to me like you're having the same problem many writers do. It's hard to finish a manuscript, even if the idea is great! That's where discipline comes into play. I hate getting my seat in the chair to write some days, but to help me get started, I found a friend who encouraged me every day to write. She became my accountability partner for my writing, asking if I wrote the night before. You might try something like that to keep you on track and moving forward even when you don't feel like it.

    Good luck to you both!

  11. I like your approach on the characters. I don't think I've ever intentionally went face hunting on the net to see how my characters would like,but I think I'll start now. Usually I just leave somethings open to the readers mind set, like hinting that he had green eyes, or that the lead character rocks a curly afro. I think I'll try that to help my readers visualize the characters.

  12. I like how you go about developing your characters. I never would have thought to look through Google and match faces to a written description. I would like to share some of your tips with a friend who teaches 7th grade, would this be okay? I think that this would break the story writing process into manageable chunks which is always better for kids.

    I am a follower and I would like to win this book. Thanks for the chance!

    nancyecdavis AT bellsouth DOT net

  13. I really like how you decided to develop your characters. Not only do you work on their personalities, but the idea of actually finding a real look that goes with those personalities is genius. As an aspiring writer, I am always trying to find ways to make my characters and plot believable. Hopefully, by using some of your tips my stories will come together better.

    I would love the chance to read some of your books.

  14. Just realized I never drew a winner for this. Ugh!

    Teddy-Chan is our winner. Congratulations!