Julia Claiborne Johnson: On the Challenges of Writing the Second Book

Bestselling author Julia Claiborne Johnson shares the secret to how books get published, what surprised her the most about getting a second book published, how to handle holes in research for historical novels, and so much more.
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Julia Claiborne Johnson grew up on a farm in Tennessee, attended the University of Virginia, and studied creative writing at Boston University. She worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines before moving to Los Angeles with her comedy writer husband. They have two children. 

Julia Claiborne Johnson (photo credit Genevieve Whittell)

Julia Claiborne Johnson (photo credit Genevieve Whittell)

(21 authors share one piece of advice for writers.)

Her first novel, Be Frank with Me, a national bestseller, was selected by the American Bookseller's Association as one of six finalists for best debut of the year.

In this post, Johnson shares the secret to how books get published, what surprised her the most about getting a second book published, how to handle holes in research for historical novels, and much more!

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Historical Fiction

Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel.

Click to continue.

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Name: Julia Claiborne Johnson
Literary agent: Lisa Bankoff of Bankoff Collaborative
Book title: Better Luck Next Time
Publisher: Custom House
Release date: January 5, 2021
Genre: Humorous Historical Fiction
Previous titles: Be Frank With Me

Elevator pitch for the book: It's 1938 and formerly-rich college boy, Ward Bennett, drops out of school and takes a job as a pretend cowboy on a divorce ranch outside Reno to support his now-impoverished parents back home in Tennessee. Think Remains of the Day meets True Grit, with overtones of a gender-upended Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Better Luck Next Time_Cover

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What prompted you to write this book?

In real life, during the Depression my charismatic, handsome, and somewhat-vain-about-his-many-charms father worked as a cowboy on a divorce ranch outside of Reno. I have to think that's where he landed his fantastically-wealthy first wife, who then kicked him to the curb before they'd been married very long. Wife Number One went on to have six husbands—Daddy was two of six. 

I suspect it hurt his pride that his first wife didn't fully appreciate that he, Alsey Johnson, was the catch of his small hometown in West Tennessee. That I can't say for sure. What I do know is that I should have asked more questions while I had the chance. Alas, by the time I was old enough to appreciate how interesting this tidbit of paternal history was, my father was long dead. 

(Telling our family stories.)

I can tell you now, however, that the best way to find out more than you ever need to know about any topic is to research it for a book. What's more, if you write that book as a novel, you can invent whatever you don't know for sure to plug the holes in your narrative as long as it's true to the spirit of story you're trying to tell.

PS I'm glad that fantastically-rich lady didn't recognize my father as the jewel he was. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here writing this today.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

The Reno story had been bubbling in my brain for something like forever. In real world terms, though, from first sentence to bookstore shelves? 

Between four and five years.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I've been to this rodeo once before, so I shouldn't have been surprised by how long it can take from an editor's yes to your book showing up on bookstore shelves. It may have taken eight or nine months the first time. Honestly, I can't remember now, though I do remember that at the time it seemed like forever. 

(25 publishing FAQs for writers.)

My second novel took a year from accepted final draft to publication. For all things there is a proper season, I know, I know. But after what was for me a long and painful gestation I wanted my second novel out. 

I fantasized that my novel would see print by, say, March of 2020. Lots of my dearest author friends had books coming out then, and I'd imagined us hanging out together at various literary events, swilling champagne and exchanging bon mots and whatnot. Yes. I dodged a bullet there. Yet another reason to be grateful for having the editor I do, even though none of us could have predicted what was coming for us then.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Aside from Covid? That I had to write this book three times before I got it right. My first novel, Be Frank with Me, was a pretty easy birth as these things go. That one was in first person, so for Better Luck Next Time I thought I'd I try third person on for size. My editor did not like it. "You're all voice and throwaway jokes," she said. "Third person isn't doing you any favors." 

(Jennifer Givhan: The Symbols of Loss and Hope.)

After this literary version of "I don't think a macramé bikini is such a good look for you," I hung that first effort up and started over. Of my second try, she said essentially, though way more tactfully, "I love the prologue. I hate the rest of it."

Better luck next time indeed, I thought bitterly. Maybe I should have chosen another title for the second book and, while I was at it, not written a first novel about a novelist who's having a hard time writing a second novel.

But listen, my editor was so right. I don't remember much about that second iteration aside from that prologue now, so it's pretty obvious that the chapters that came after were forgettable. But the prologue was a winner! Instead of wallowing in despair, I chose to seize that lifeline. Trust me. It's easier to start a novel from a springboard of six pages than it is to start from nothing.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Two things: How much of the happiness in our lives depends on luck. Also how little chance anybody has at winning at the game of life if they aren't willing to pull a chair up to the table and ask to be dealt in.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I'd written a novel of my own, if I read a book I didn't care for, instead of thinking, "This story is not for me," I'd sniff and say, "What a lousy book! How did that get published?" One day as I was pondering this conundrum, the answer struck me upside the head. How did that book get published? The author finished it! So, step one, finish the book! Otherwise the exquisite prose of that Great American novel you're writing or, as is so often the case, just talking about writing will never see the light of day.

(How I stopped sabotaging my writing goals)

Believe me, I know now how hard it is to set down and write a novel. I didn't get around to starting my first one until I was 50 years old. Now I absolutely understand what a monumental achievement it is to write a book, whether it's one I'll end up liking or not. 

So if you're willing to put in the hours and suffering required to get it done, kudos! Every book is not for every reader. If you love the one you've written and believe in it, chances are that somebody else will fall in love with it as well.

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