The Writing Life: Tim Johnston

Johnston_Tim_Author_LR - (c) Dave BoergerLike many authors, novelist Tim Johnston’s path to publication was rife with rejections. An earlier draft of the manuscript that would become his just-published novel Descent was turned down by eight different editors. Massive revisions followed, and when the new version came in to Algonquin editor Chuck Adams, it was immediately clear that this literary thriller was something truly special.

As a teacher in the creative writing program at the University of Memphis and an author who has endured the blood, sweat and tears himself, Tim offers this advice for other writers in the trenches.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve gotten?

“Write what you know.” Just about the first thing I show students is Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Don’t Write What You Know.”

How do you get yourself back on track if you get stuck in your writing?

My best advice is: Don’t get stuck. And, There is no blind alley. Just keep writing until you’re out of there. Ron Carlson calls this “staying in the room,” and he means it literally: Once you get up and go get coffee, or check the email, or play with the dog, it’s all over, man. Stay in the room.

How does a writer know when his book is ready to submit?

There’s no empirical way to know this. Therefore the writer should only submit after he has revised the book seven times, and then has had six very smart and non-biased readers read it and offer notes, and then has revised the book six more times, waited six onthehousemonths, and repeated the above. The biggest mistake writers make — young ones, especially — is being in such a big hurry to send out their work. I know it’s hard, but honestly, don’t be in such a big hurry. You generally only have one shot with agents and editors, and you want to give them your very best.

How does a writer know when to listen to feedback and when to be true to his/her own vision?

The writer knows to listen to feedback when that feedback serves, and does not contravene, her own vision. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I’m trying to do.” The voice the writer needs to learn to trust most is her own, and that just plain takes time. In the meantime, she needs to find readers who get what she’s trying to do and have the skills to help her do that thing more effectively.

What is something you always try to teach your students about writing?

For one thing, don’t over-think your story, don’t over-plan it. Just write. Writing is discovery. If you know too much about where your story is going, if you are never curious to see where it will go, nor surprised by where it does go, then chances are your readers won’t be either.

3 Comments On This Post:

January 22, 2015
4:38 pm
Heather Adams says...

I love his advice and I’m reading Descent now. Very impressed so far. You hear so much about “literary thrillers” and I often find that they’re not great on one side or the other. Descent seems to be a wonderful exception.

January 28, 2015
12:29 am
Leif Fearn says...

Teachers tell students to write what they know; writers don’t. Writers know perfectly well that writers write to what they care about, and they come to know what they write. How do we get nonwriting teachers the hell out of young writers’ writing lives?

February 12, 2015
11:25 am
Donna Nitz Muller says...

I find your story encouraging. I submitted too early and blew my one real chance though I continue to write. Thank you.

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