7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Suzanne Johnson

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Suzanne Johnson, author of ROYAL STREET) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Suzanne is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: annabelle2024 won.)



Suzanne Johnson is the author of a new urban fantasy series
set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The first book, ROYAL STREET
(Tor), was released in April 2012. Books two and three are scheduled
for release in fall 2012 and spring 2013. A longtime New Orleans
resident now living in Auburn, Alabama, Suzanne can be found
online at suzanne-johnson.com.



1. Outline, outline, outline. I wrote ROYAL STREET front to back, beginning to end, with a lot of meandering in between. Said meandering bits got hacked through multiple revisions. Meandering wastes time. I learned quickly that if I’m going to hold down a full-time day job and expect to write multiple novels in a year, I have to be a plotter, not a pantser.

2. I don’t know as much as I thought I did. I’d spent many long years in journalism and thought I knew how to tell a story… until I began writing a novel. The difference between a 4,000-word feature article and a 94,000-word novel is as epic as it sounds. With all the writing workshops available online these days, there’s no excuse for not continually studying the craft and continuing to learn.

(Definitions of unusual literary terms & jargon you need to know.)

3. The “Track Change” function of MS Word is my friend. Sometime during my first book’s production cycle, I got all nostalgic and thought it might have been romantic to have done book revisions and copyedits back in the olden days of paper manuscripts. Until a production glitch on the second book provided me with three-hundred-plus pages bound with a rubber band, on which I was expected to manually make copyedits using colored pencils. Obviously, I had been delusional and had read Little Women too many times. There was nothing romantic about it. It sucked.

4. Go ahead and read the reviews, but don’t take them too seriously. Before the first book launched, everyone told me: Don’t read the reviews. Really? How can you not? But the days of obsessive checking Goodreads to see what the latest complete stranger is saying have passed. I still look but now I see those reviews as if they were a bus hurtling toward me—I’ll watch them pass, but roll out of the way so they won’t mow me down and flatten me into authorial roadkill. I’m neither as awesome or abysmal as those folks think.

5. Expect pushback from other authors, especially online. This was a hard and somewhat shocking lesson for me. I can’t count how many times over the past couple of years I’ve read about the demise of traditional publishing, about how there’s no longer a need for agents, about how I’m a “sellout” for going the traditional agent-publisher route, and about how “New York” (the catch-all term for the major print publishers) no longer signs and nurtures debut authors.

There’s a huge pushback in the online author community against not only traditional publishers but other authors who pursue a traditional career. All I know is I’m a newbie author who has gotten great support from my publisher from patient and thorough editing through production to marketing. It might be harder to break in these days, but it ain’t dead, folks.

(The term “platform” defined — learn how to sell more books.)

6. Space out deadlines. I’ve set book deadlines too close together, not allowing “wiggle room” to account for the sudden emergencies that seem to accompany the publishing process. Sure, the publisher might have had that manuscript on ice for nine months, but somehow, at the least convenient time, you’ll get back proofs or copyedits with a one-week turnaround. After dropping everything to handle this editorial emergency, you’ll find yourself with a half-finished other manuscript a week from deadline. This is not a good thing. It is not conducive to sanity. When you’re working on deadlines with your editor and/or agent, pick a reasonable date and add a few weeks for the unexpected.

7. Know thyself. Do you want to get published or be published? Because I’m learning it takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of discipline to get published and stay published. Most of the authors I meet have day jobs. Families. Kids and pets and houses that need cleaning and errands that need to be run. I can list a dozen names of really, really talented writers who have unfinished manuscripts languishing on their hard drives because I suspect that, at heart, they want to be published without making the sacrifices necessary to get published. It’s not easy. My house is a wreck. I spend more time with my laptop than my family. I’ve begun thinking of my day job as a time-suck. If you can’t make writing your priority, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you could, but don’t want to give up the Friday night movie or the Saturday house-cleaning, you just might not want it enough right now.

GIVEAWAY: Suzanne is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: annabelle2024 won.)


Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 4.12.53 PM

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36 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Suzanne Johnson

  1. justine_manzano

    Great article! I’ll admit, I’m scared to admit my plans to pursue a traditional publishing route when discussing it online. People seem to be so against traditional publishing there that I feel like some kind of traitor or that I’m doing the worst thing for myself. Thank you for reestablishing my faith in a good publisher. 🙂

  2. Suzanne_Johnson

    @PlumPointOh and @borntobeawriter…I have a system I developed for outlining that’s, in a nutshell, 1) Develop the “big idea.” 2) Write the “cover blurb,” which helps identify the themes and genre. 3) Do “dossiers” of the lead character(s) and determine POV. 4) Take each relationship in the story and determine where the characters are when they begin, and then where you want them to be at the end. 5) Fill in each of those “relationship arcs” with at least four or five key scenes. 6) Weave all the scenes together into an outline. This also, by the end of the process, usually gives me a pretty fair synopsis. I spend about a week outlining like this before I ever start writing. LOL. That really sounds more complicated than it is. Maybe I should do a blog post on outlining!

  3. borntobeawriter

    Great article!
    I would also like to know how you outline. I always just wing it, but lately, it doesn’t seem to work for me anymore.

    Congrats on this post!

    Tanya 🙂

  4. Suzanne_Johnson

    @JCrucy–LOL. I just finished revising my outline for the next book because of an idea that came to me in the middle of the night. I wish I could say it’s the first time that’s happened, but it’s pretty common 🙂

    @whynot1956. I really think some people are wired to work off outlines and others are not. We each have to figure out what works for us. I’m trying to write from two to three books a year on contract, plus hold down a full-time job, so it’s the only way I can keep myself from wandering too far afield. I’m kind of obsessive-compulsive, though, and outlines work for me. If “wing it” works for you, you should run with it (or fly with it)!

  5. whynot1956

    Thanks for the tips. I can’t seem to create an outline. When the spirit moves me to write, I go for it and any thoughts of outlining are gone. When the spirit doesn’t move me, there is no way even an outline will be created. Perhaps I just need discipline, but I have found I am short on discipline. I am a “wing it” kind of gal!

  6. JCrucy

    Thank you for the great advice particularly about outlining. I don’t feel so terrible now for changing my outline as I’m writing. About seventy pages in I decided I wanted to change the villain so I changed my whole outline. What you wrote about making sacrifices in order to write made sense. It may be hard to give up cleaning the house to write but I think I can do it. Lol.

  7. saintceleste

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I have always been intimidated by the idea of writing a novel (or anything longer than a blog post if we’re being honest), but you’ve given me hope. My dream is not dead! 🙂

  8. R.M. Prioleau

    Great tips! I pretty much do a lot of this already. Outlines are very helpful for me even though I deviate from it during the writing process. But it’s still nice to have a backup plan (outline) in case you get stuck.

  9. acoywriter

    The backlash comment is interesting. I found in writing groups those that were resistant to traditional publishing were resistent to anyone editing their work. I look forward to getting some good editors/publishers to polish any rough edges. I would think the success rate would go up as well.

  10. SarahNego

    I’ve just started using the Save the Cat beat sheet. I thought it would be confining, but it’s actually liberating not worrying about what my major plot points are going to be. I like that it has form, but leaves a lot of room for the discoveries that happen while writing.

  11. Suzanne_Johnson

    Thanks @clindahl and @aliciac!

    @rubyblueroses…I outline by thinking through each relationship in the story and how I want it to progress between the beginning and end, then weave all those pieces together. It’s worked so far 🙂

  12. rubyblueroses

    While outlines have never been anything I ever feel like considering, I know I do sit there when I have some “brilliant” epiphany that opens a story, and then I sit there thinking, “What next?” I will do what I can to try to do an outline in the near future.

  13. Jill Archer

    Hi Suzanne– Great article! Some of this I am already feeling, some I have yet to face. I always love hearing the thoughts of those who have bravely gone before me. 🙂 Congrats on your RT REDEMPTION review!

    1. Suzanne_Johnson

      David, that one came from a couple of my critique partners. They’re fabulous writers and one has almost 60K into a novel….and hasn’t written in over three months. I ask why not, and it’s always “laundry” or “dinner with friends.” And that’s okay–it’s where she is right now. She wants to be published but isn’t ready to buckle down and get published. Of course it’s always easy to give advice from the outside 🙂

  14. kapekalikarma

    I totally agree about starting with an outline. I used to refuse to make one when I wrote because I stubbornly thought that the story should develop naturally as I wrote. But having an outline — even if you change it as you write — saves a lot of time and headache. 🙂

  15. Teresa K

    Hi Suzanne,

    I like the tips you have given. It would make since to plot if you have multiple books to write. Thanks for always telling us where your going to be hanging out. Received my package today. Thank you.

    Teresa K.

  16. Suzanne_Johnson

    @dg_molly…The backlash has been from authors who, for various reasons, have decided to go the self-publishing route, which is the popular thing to do these days. It hasn’t been huge–most authors are wonderful and welcoming and very generous with time and advice–but I was surprised at the amount of negativity from a few.

    @annabelle2024…I couldn’t agree more!

  17. dg_molly

    I’m not an aspiring author, but this is really great insight of the publishing world. I never would’ve thought that a traditionally published author would receive backlash for going the agent route. I would’ve thought that the author community would welcome a newly published author with open arms no matter how they were published. It’s kind of sad that they don’t.


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