Neverending Story

As a rule, I don’t read reader reviews of my work. By the time a book hits the shelves, my work is complete and the reading experience no longer belongs to me. I do read trade reviews and those from sources I’ve actively sought out, such as book blogs. Occasionally, friends will send their thoughts to me directly, but I try not to ingest their words.

 

Why such caution?

 

I’ve been a member of Goodreads, the online reader review community—which now numbers in the millions of members—for nearly ten years. I’ve written hundreds of reviews and formed wonderful connections with book lovers around the world. Writing reviews, thinking carefully about the books I read, their construction, style, themes, and storytelling, became a vital part of my self-directed MFA. It’s what led me to seek out writing instruction and begin to craft stories of my own. There is no better way, in my opinion, to become a writer than to read deeply, broadly, and reflect deliberately on others’ writing. I saved $30,000 on tuition and fees, thank you so very much.

 

But people, because people are people, can be unspeakably cruel in a forum where relative anonymity is possible. Monstrous things are written about books for no reason other than spite and sheer nastiness. Even simple negative reviews, just plain old “this was crap”, make me cringe.

 

I decided a few years ago to cease publishing critical reviews of books. Not to be a Pollyanna, but because I came to understand that the negativity reflected on me and cost me far more than it did any possible good in the world. If a book does not capture me within the first pages, I set it aside. I don’t have time to waste and the only fair thing is to admit it’s not the read for me. Occasionally I will get all the way through and be frustrated, disappointed, resent the wasted time, but I’ll let the reading experience go with minimal to no comment.

 

I’d much rather exhale joy for something extraordinary. If I spend time writing a review, it’s because I want the world to know about this book.

Salt Creek, WA Copyright Julie Christine Johnson 2017

 

So that’s where I come from as a reader. As an author, I’ve come to accept that readers’ opinions are none of my business. I’m honored that anyone would spend time with my words. But hoping my intent will be understood or appreciated is futile. Readers come in with their expectations, hopes, and biases that have nothing to do with me or my words.

 

At the close of each writing workshop I lead, I read aloud Colum McCann’s gorgeous Letter to a Young Writer . It is a meditation on the power and purpose of writing for writers of any experience. I first read it months before the launch of In Another Life and it’s what made me decide that reviews were not mine to read.

 

Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Colum McCann

What is good. What is good? What is good is to keep my head down and write. To trust the editorial process and know that multiple eyes and brains have pored over and picked apart my work with the sole objective of making my story as true and strong and fearless and beautiful as possible. That it went to print when it was ready. My books will find their readers in their own time and own ways, but my work will not be for everyone.

 

So there. Now, scratch all that. Sometimes you run into yourself.

 

A few weeks ago I went into my Amazon Author Central profile to make some long-overdue updates to my bio. And front and center in the reviews of In Another Life was this comment: “… This was just a ripoff of Outlander. I couldn’t finish it. It was HORRIBLE. Skip it.”

 

Oh, the Outlander thing. I could write columns on how that comparison has haunted me. Not one I invited or welcomed, a delightful book that was not remotely an influence on my novel. This comment stung at first, but then I listened deeply. The needle entered, bit, and then disappeared. It’s okay. It’s not mine to own. Not my experience to worry about.

 

Minutes later, I hopped over to Amazon.co.uk. I didn’t realize that I had to claim a separate author profile over there; I assumed one common profile lived throughout the Amazon Universe. Crikey. How exhausting. But there is was. Front and center: “This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Well-plotted with great characterization.”

 

If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Colum McCann

 

Like opening a bag of pretzels, once I started, I couldn’t stop. And then I read something that sated me. This. This is enough. “It is a love story which involves reincarnation, it is not about time travel. Comparisons to Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ and Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, are misleading. ‘In Another Life’ reminded me in style of Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, though the stories are completely different.”

 

You beautiful reader. You were inside my head. In fact, I read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth years ago and that wonderful story sparked my imagination. I went in search of contemporary novels about the Cathars and couldn’t find any. I was so captivated by the history, the land, the potential for story that I decided to write my own.

 

Any writer who says they don’t care about validation, well, fine. But I don’t believe you. We care. We publish because we truly want readers to seek out our work. We want to be noticed, to build a readership, to engage with readers, to know that our words reach and touch and move and inspire and entertain. We write because we must. We seek publication because we believe we’ve done something worth sharing.

 

I’m so pleased to announce that In Another Life is a 2016 Foreword Indies finalist for Book of the Year, Fantasy.  Winners will be announced during the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago in June.

 

Further delight in sharing that In Another Life is a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association annual STAR award for Debut Novel. Finalists’ novels are now being read by a panel of librarians, and winners be announced at the WFWA annual September retreat.

 

A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Colum McCann

 

Loving the Questions

I settled into Virasana, tailbone sinking to the earth between my feet, wrists loose on folded thighs, spine straight, chest taking in more air than I’d breathed all day. I’d arrived to class several minutes early, unrolling my yoga mat in my favorite place before the west-facing window. After a long weekend of torrential rains and gusting winds, the day had been mild–warm really–for mid-October, and the early evening sun was an orb of burnished gold.

 

Suspended light wavered and caught hold of a web just outside the window, illuminating a gloriously fat spider at its center, her world shifting and shimmering in the soft breeze. She glided from the web’s bullseye to make slight adjustments to her woven marvel, returning to the center like a queen to her throne. For the next ninety minutes, as I rose and folded in salutation to the setting sun, I glanced at Spider when I could, until darkness descended in a blue curtain and I lost her to the night.

 

Spider’s commitment to her task, the faith she has in her own strength and purpose, the beauty and rightness of her creation, however temporary, moves me to my core.

 

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My life is in flux, with strands as shivery and delicate as Spider’s web, but no less connected to the Universe and just as strong for the determination and resolve with which they were spun. Massive changes of heart and mind, changes I have not yet shared here for they are too raw and new, complicated and bittersweet, private and yet rippling with aftershocks into lives tied to my own.

 

At the heart of it, at the heart of me, are my words. I’ve turned inward these past months, writing very little for public viewing. Publishing and then promoting a novel sucked me dry and I’ve had little desire to offer more beyond what’s already out there, or the energy to do more than hone and polish the next novel to meet the next deadlines. But I’ve filled pages and notebooks with private thoughts, all in preparation for  . . . and I cannot complete this sentence. Or perhaps it is already complete. All in preparation. 

 

One of those notebooks, nearly full, ripe and bursting with hope and sorrow and wordswordswords, was tucked in the front pocket of a suitcase, a suitcase that was stolen from a train on one of the many stops between Marseille and Nice a month ago. As maddening as it was to lose everything but the clothes on my back at the start of a three-week journey, the things were all replaceable (and if one is going to lose all her clothing, one should be happy one is in France. Shopping.).

 

My words, however, are not. I mourn the loss of my journal. All that work, gone in an instant, like a cruel hand or a gust of wind ripping apart the strands of Spider’s web. How frustrated she must feel to see her handiwork, her livelihood, torn asunder. But she never fails to start anew. It’s what she does. Spin or die.

 

The occasion of the loss of those words led directly to writing retreat during which I wrote more than I have in a year, since the months leading up to and following the publication of In Another Life and the preparation of The Crows of Beara for its upcoming launch. And every word I wrote was shared with a group of magnificent writers. The writing, the sharing, brought me back to my writer, my storyteller, the center of my web.

 

In his turn-of-the-20th-century Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke implores his friend to stop searching for the answers, to love instead the questions. I realize, as I let go of my losses and look ahead to what I have left and what I have gained, that writing through my private thoughts is a search for the answers. Telling stories is a celebration of the questions. I’ll always dance between the two, but I think I’m ready to live the questions now. And living means writing.

 

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Getting Ready to Exist

The human heart is never still. There is a divine restlessness in each of us which creates a continual state of longing. You are never quite at one with yourself, and the self is never fixed. There are always new thoughts and experiences emerging in your life; some moments delight and surprise you, others bring you to shaky ground. John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections On Our Yearning to Belong

 

I am on the edge, the edge where this peninsula meets a strait, straight line to the ocean. The water a dull green expanse like worn seaglass, except where it crashes ashore in brown breakers laced with white foam. The skim milk sky has a faintest bruise of blue underneath its watery skin. It is a battered day, spent and cold, seasonless, reasonless. One more soaking bluster to add to the wettest few months in Washington state history.

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My car faces the strait, windshield blurred by the weeping sky. Rain pelts the back window like a child hurling handfuls of gravel. I have had enough. This rain. This cold. This stasis.

 

Yet my life been anything but static for weeks on end. I lament the daily rollercoaster of praise and criticism that accompanies the public release of a very private effort. Routines disrupted, privacy jilted, my winter retreat from social media thwarted by the need to be present, responsive, accessible. And then, you know. Feeling like an asshole for even hinting that a dream realized could be fraught with stressors I wasn’t prepared for. The emotional tangle of being on, accountable.

 

I am filled, made complete, when I give of myself.  Because I have been receiving so much input, with too little output, a certain disquiet, an uneasy longing, has taken hold. A hole has opened inside. It is an emptiness in search of belonging.

 

“I’d woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.” – Fernando PessoaThe Book of Disquiet

 

I am not a joiner. Although I have causes vital to me, to which I donate time and resources, write letters to my elected officials, work to educate and inform my opinion, seek to acknowledge my own privilege and biases, mine is participation in solitude. Sure, I put in time during the growing and harvesting season at a community food bank garden, but even that is solitary: planting, weeding, watering, harvesting according to instructions left by the garden manager. The writing workshops I lead each week bring a certain calm joy that reminds me how much being a guide, a mentor, a teacher contributing to others’ creative process sustains my own.

 

But now, in this time of spotlight, what am I giving? How am I using my words, my voice, to create something beyond and greater than my own needs and ego?

 

Two weeks ago, the launch month of In Another Life culminated in an evening at a local bookstore, a celebration with my community. I took parts of the talk I normally give during author readings and tossed them together with a recounting of what led me to begin writing the novel in the first place: the miscarriage of a pregnancy in the final hours of my first writing conference in 2012:

 

‘This wasn’t the first loss, but I knew it would be the last. I was forty-three. After years of unexplained infertility, attempted adoptions, then the unexpected pregnancies, miscarriages, and surgeries, my body was battered and my soul couldn’t take any more. It was time to stop.

 

Those years of attempting to be a mother came to a definitive end at that writers’ conference. Yet something else sparked to life: a determination to find a way not only to cope with the despair, but to celebrate the life I did have, to create something beyond and greater than myself.

 

Two weeks after the conference, I typed the opening words to my first novel, the novel that became In Another Life. I didn’t set out to write about a woman recovering from grief, about the impermanence of death, the possibility of rebirth—of the body and the heart. In fact, I thought I had chosen the one story that would take me furthest from my own reality: a past-present adventure exploring a 13th century murder in southern France. Funny what the heart does when the head is distracted. It works to heal.”

 

These were the words I offered, to reveal how my personal grief ultimately led me on a very public journey.

 

Not long after this night, I received a message from someone who had been in attendance. She wrote, in part:

 

‘You did an incredible job tonight. You made standing in front of a full house and talking look easy. When I read the first pages of your book I feared you had experienced grief. The line “it had been so long since she had looked at her reflection in the mirror.” “It took someone else to make a decision about her life to propel Lia into finally making a few of her own.”  All feelings someone who has lived with grief would understand. I’m so so sorry for your losses. I think in your writing others will. . . encounter their own memories of grief & joys of finding love again. Your grief may turn into a gift you give your readers.’

 

The act of writing, which so often occurs in selfish solitude, is ultimately about finding a connection with readers. But most of us never really know what effect our words will have, if any; if the stories we tell resonate beyond a surface level that compels someone to keep turning pages. Just as I never expected that writing a romantic timeslip of a novel would bring me to my redemption, I never expected the finished story could speak to someone else’s mourning and healing process. With her words, this woman gave me a gift.

 

Be patient and without resentment and think that the least we can do is to make his becoming not more difficult for him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come. – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

I am so ready for spring to come. My divine restlessness, which sets my soul afloat on this dull, churning sea, pushes me ever forward, seeking beauty, questioning my longings, testing the shaky ground on which I stand. “Be patient,” I tell myself. “But get ready to exist.”

Divine Sparks

“Certain bodies… become luminous when heated. Their luminosity disappears after some time, but the capacity of becoming luminous afresh through heat is restored to them by the action of a spark, and also by the action of radium.” ~ Marie Curie

 

I’d been warned by authors who’ve launched many a book before me that the muse would flee in the weeks and months leading up to and following the release of In Another Life; all my energy would be taken up by the demands of supporting my book virtually and in person. It would need to be nudged along, out of the nest, set free to soar on its own, but I’d need to remain close by, watching, guiding, occasionally letting the book draft behind my lead.

 

And to be sure, these past weeks have been filled with a busyness bordering on frantic. There’s a sense that no matter what I do, it, it isn’t enough. And then there is a novel I’m on deadline to revise. So I carefully apportion my time and energy, reminding myself to focus, to breathe, not to skip yoga or a hike or making dinner or folding the laundry—the meditative, restorative, ya-ya releasing activities that take me out of mental chaos into the sweet comfort of routine.

 

Much of my time has been spent writing guest blog posts and responding to interview questions as part of an extensive blog tour to promote the novel (fifty blog spots and counting!). It’s extraordinary to be so warmly welcomed by these hosts, whose blogs exist simply, wonderfully, to celebrate books and those who write and read them.

 

One of the unintended consequences of writing/talking about my book’s subject matter, its themes, the research, characters, setting and inspiration, is to be enthralled again by the Cathars, Languedoc, the tangle of history and geography, the wonder of an afterlife that weaves reincarnation with redemption with angels with good and evil and all the layers in-between.

 

And somewhere in those layers, my imagination, my writer’s soul, continues to work, digging in, excavating, uncovering ideas and holding them in her hand, like tiny embers just waiting for the breath of words to burst into the flame of a story.

 

In this time, when my attention and energy is as far from the blank page as it’s been since I committed to a writer’s life, a torrent of sparks has burst into the air.  A character has risen—a bit wobbly and unformed, a slip of clay that needs other elements to take solid form—but she is there, complex, a little feverish with her own possibility.

 

And then came a scribble on scrap paper, an opening line of humor for my upcoming author readings. I pulled my pen away and laughed for a different reason. I’d just released an idea that I may love. A story idea crazywonderfulsparklethisisnutsbutiloveityesyesyes 

 

The Cathars regarded stars as divine sparks—angels if you will—created by one fallen angel from the crown of another who had dominion over the waters of the earth. From half the crown, the Fallen Angel made the light of the moon and from the other half he created starlight.

 

Somehow, that starlight-moonlight illuminated the parts of me gone dark in this rushed and anxious and excited time. Though I can’t pull away just yet to follow the tendrils of light, I no longer fear the luminosity will fade. I hold the divine spark in my hands.

 

A Goodreads Giveaway for In Another Life. Click to Enter!

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Chartres, France © 2016 Julie Christine Johnson

Letting Go

I’m about to hand off a manuscript to my agent—my novel Tui, set in New Zealand. It took me a long time to get to this story, as I sorted through and made some sort of peace—a poignant truce—with my time in Aotearoa. And yet the more I wrote, the more any of the “I” that may have been present in the story dissolved and became something utterly distinct from me and my experiences. That’s the magic of writing for me. That I, as the storyteller, really have no idea where a narrative road will lead, no matter my intended destination at the beginning.

 

A sense of melancholy accompanies the completion of a novel, that point when it’s time to set your story free from the shelter of your imagination and open it to the eyes and feedback of others. You’ll never again encounter these characters with the same sense of wonder and discovery. But this time, the wistfulness is paired with disquietude. When I press send and release these few hundred pages into the ether, I will be without a new novel to work on.

 

Oh, the ideas are there; the stories stand half-slumped against the wall, whistling softly, waiting for me to crook my finger and call them forth. But now is not the time.

 

The preliminary planning and first draft work are, for me, an all-encompassing commitment of energy and emotion. When I begin, it’s like being inside an empty dance studio: there’s some structure—four walls, a ceiling—but the room is vast-white-bright, filled with the natural light of possibility, creativity, echoing with the happy shouts of ideas. I can whirl and leap on the pages for hours a day, weeks or months on end as the work expands and grows, breath filling my lungs, blood filling my heart. It demands everything and I acquiesce with joy.

Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson
Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

But for the immediate future, that dance studio has become a recital hall, crowded with chairs, noisy with clinking glasses, tapping feet, voices rising and falling; a cacophonous celebration of the performance I’m preparing for: the launch of In Another Life. And in the quiet moments, my editor and I will put our heads together over revisions of The Crows of Beara. 

 

Three novels in three years. It’s time to channel all my energy into sending one off into the world and reshaping another, while letting the third go, for now. It’s time to sit with my disquietude and wistfulness, as the well I have emptied these past three years refills, until the moment comes when I can dance again in that great, empty, silent room.

 

There is writing when you are intending to, and this other, less frequent, sometimes more beautiful writing that just comes. ~ James Salter

Pencil, Meet Eraser

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966

 

When I received the production calendar for In Another Life last December I noted something called “2nd Pages”, scheduled for October. Caught up in the overwhelming excitement of IHAZBOOKCONTRACT I never thought to ask what it meant. Figured it would all come clear when the far-in-the-distance month of October rolled around.

 

Yeah, well. Roll around it surely did.

 

See, I thought I was finished with edits and proofreading. The hours spent combing through the ARC in June, curled in a wingback in a loft in a house in Ireland, the ticking of a mantle clock, rain on the skylights, the ack-acking of ducks in the back garden the only sounds as I read and reread all my sentences, fussing over a word here, a comma there, tsk-tsking at typos—I filled pages of edits on that round.

 

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Weary of Our Own Words

And then I thought, I never have to read this book again. 

 

Right. Well. For future reference, “2nd Pages” is yet another round of copy-edits and proofreading sent with a throat-closing series of in-line comments, known as queries. You are once again on deadline. Forced to deal with this thing, this creation of 368 pages, you swore you’d never look at again.

 

These people. This amazing team of copy-editor and proofreader who both broke my heart and earned my undying gratitude last spring when they tore open my manuscript and forced me to consider this phrase or that, questioning this word, that translation, pointing out that I had Lia crossing the wrong bridge from the Marais to Île-de-la-Cité, that the sun was shining in the wrong direction, or that people seemed to be traveling endlessly NORTH at the ends of scenes. These people.

 

They’re baaaaaack. 

 

The edits I’d submitted in June, after poring over the ARC, had been incorporated, but here were more: more questioning of word choices, more “Chicago Manual of Style says this, what do you want to do?”, more (oh my god) “WAIT, here it says April, but later on, it’s still March” (ohmygodohmygodohmygod).

 

It took an 8-hour non-stop day to go through each query one-by-one, to consider, amend, agree, or state my case as to why I wanted something left as is. Not too bad, really. And at each turn, I felt this warm flush—a combination of gratitude at the opportunity for this second pass and utter horror What if there were no 2nd Pages?

 

But I’m not done. Responses to the queries have been submitted, but in these days before deadline I am doing what I thought I would not, never, ever, do again: I am rereading In Another Life, baby, one more time.

 

It’s going to be okay.

 

After a three-month interval since I last read these pages my words are again fresh to me. I catch myself simply reading along, forgetting that I’m supposed to be sifting each sentence like a handful of uncooked rice in a sieve, looking for the tiny pebbles and flawed grains. That’s a delicious feeling—to get caught up in your own story, turning the page in smiling anticipation.

 

And loving these characters so fully, perhaps for the first time, with an understanding of the grace and joy they’ve brought to my life.

 

Delete. Change. Add. Move. Replace.

 

Two-thirds through this reread and I have a list of sixty-five edits—beyond the copyedit and proofreading queries I’ve already addressed—small things, vital things, things this writer now sees and understands that the writer I was a year or two or even six months ago did not, could not.

 

Can I just tell you how excited I am to share this novel with you?

 

And with all the irony I can muster, I invite you to subscribe to my occasional newsletter—your subscription enters you in a random drawing to receive one of my ARCs while they last (through the end of 2015). A Collector’s Item, right? Because the ARC version and the published version will have differences—dozens, shoot, well over a hundred—that tilt the book’s horizon just so. Once I run out of ARCs, I’ll be drawing for copies of books that have enchanted, moved, blown my mind—books I think everyone should read!

Julie Christine Johnson’s Author Newsletter

And then this happened

Three years ago next week, I attended my first writers conference: Chuckanut, in Bellingham. There, on the second day, during a session about storyboarding your novel, I settled on one of three ideas for a novel I’d had kicking around in my head for at least a year. I just knew. It was the right time. It was this story.

 

There, on the third day, in the break between sessions, the life I was carrying began to let go. It was in writing this blog post, The Scariest Thing a few days after the conference, that I realized how my universe had shifted.

 

Three weeks later, as I sought to heal from this round of anger and grief, I turned to the page. I couldn’t yet lift my head to look forward, but I found a way to create life in the moment. I began writing a novel. I’m so glad I marked that day in words: Today was the day

 

Last week, something else happened. This:

 

These are the ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) of my novel. The uncorrected proofs sent to book reviewers and bloggers, bookstores, and used for marketing and publicity purposes. They aren’t quite the real thing—official publication is February 2016— but damn if they aren’t real enough.

 

I’m giving away most of the copies in this box, details here: In Another Life ARC giveaway  The real deal is also available for pre-order on Amazon: In Another Life: Pre-order on Amazon  I’d be over the moon if you took the order details to your local bookstore and/or library to request they order the novel for their shelves. Booksellers & Merchandisers can contact Valerie Pierce valerie.pierce@sourcebooks.com from my publisher and she’d be happy to send them a galley.

 

This novel is the life I’ve created. Since that July day, I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t been able to. Another of those ideas I carried with me to the conference is becoming a novel: I’ll have a solid first draft by the end of this week or the next. In between, a second novel is now on submission. Other short stories and essays have found their way into their world, and still others I am letting rest, until it is their time to be polished and sent on their way.

 

But this. This thing that has happened.

 

I can’t believe it, really.

 

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold