L. Austen Johnson: “Let your writing be bad”

Let your writing be bad. Writing a lot is more important than writing well a lot. It’s very easy in any creative endeavor compare one’s idea-in-their-head or budding-words-in-a-first-draft to a best-seller or award-winner’s finished project. The time to be (constructively) self-critical is when you’re at the editing stage or when you’ve not gotten any bites […]

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Let your writing be bad. Writing a lot is more important than writing well a lot. It’s very easy in any creative endeavor compare one’s idea-in-their-head or budding-words-in-a-first-draft to a best-seller or award-winner’s finished project. The time to be (constructively) self-critical is when you’re at the editing stage or when you’ve not gotten any bites from agents in two dozen submissions. But while you’re creating, focus on the content you’re making and not, so much, its “goodness.”

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing L. Austen Johnson.

L. Austen Johnson is an award-winning writer and designer who studied English, Archaeology, and Astronomy in college. She holds a B.A from the University of Virginia and an M.A from the University of Chicago. She’s an avid reader, a sometimes songwriter, and an attempter of various art projects. Her poetry collection, Burning the Bacon, won Bronze in the 2020 Readers Favorite Awards. Her other works include the Romancing the Holidays Collection (including the #1 bestselling story, “Lucky Fall”) and the short story “True Loaf.”

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I have been writing almost all my life. I won my first writing award in eighth grade, for my poetry, and I had my poems in various books and journals throughout high school and college. But I didn’t think about releasing a collection of my own until later. My third year of college, I had to take time off because of my chronic illnesses. At that time, I started editing some of my old work more. I realized that I had enough poems of similar enough themes to have a collection, and I submitted to a few different publishers, eventually getting one and having the book release in 2018, while I was still in school. After that, I started working at a publisher myself and from my experience editing other writer’s work, I decided I wanted to expand into prose fiction.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

After GenZ Publishing picked up my poetry collection, Burning the Bacon, I ended up working for them as their Operations Manager. Because of that, I was able to form friendships with many of their other writers, doing bookstores events with GenZ Authors like Shane Wilson, for example. I believe one of the best side effects of being a writer is being able to join a community that thrives and supports its members, even during times where remote work and the internet take center stage.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Something I struggle with every day as a writer, and certainly did before I became an author, is that I never thought of myself as an author. I lacked a direction for my work. I feel into poetry because it was the natural expression of my adolescent self that served as a therapeutic medium. But I never set out to be a poet. And, even now, as I have a work of poetry, of fantasy, and of romance under my belt, you can see that I still do not seek to be one individual thing.

There are some who master a genre. Then, there are others who can weave within genres, within different arts, even, or different industries entirely.

I was never purposefully either. I think this makes it challenging to sell oneself to an agent or publisher. “What will your next work be?” They ask, wanting another of whatever the thing was that sold well, and if you don’t have an answer, or your answer varies wildly from year to year, it’s less easy to sell yourself as one distinct brand.

But I personally have enjoyed the dabbling. As someone who’s of the opinion that we get too focused on one mastery or specialization nowadays, I’ve had fun wending my way through genre. And, with my two works-in-progresses being fantasy, I can feel myself falling towards that genre, even as I stretch out, querying things like my picture book.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was first starting out, I’m not sure I fully realized all that went into making a book. Luckily, I think poetry tends to be more forgiving than prose fiction or non-fiction. I entered a lot of chapbook competitions in the beginning, without fully understanding the differences between academic poetry and popular poetry. I distinctly remember I was turned away from one press for being “too accessible.” At the time, it seemed like, “Too accessible? Shouldn’t published work be accessible?” While I still agree with that sentiment for my own work, I get what that press was getting at: some poetry, just like some novels, is meant to be more literary. Some isn’t meant to be accessible; it’s meant to challenge language itself or the reader’s mind.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now, I have a few works in progress that have been occupying me. I just finished typing up a Sir Gawain and the Green Knight inspired, gender-bent fantasy that explores grief and power. I’m also about halfway through a folkloric novel-in-verse about a bear that becomes human. I’ve also written a yet-unreleased picture book and screenplay double release about an orphan boy and his piano, which is out on submission.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Since my work is fiction, I don’t want to give too much away. However, one thing that I think readers of “True Loaf” will enjoy is that, while it’s quite a short story, I read many Balkan folk stories before writing and was very purposeful in which elements of folklore and fairytales I choose to implement. As a result, I think there is a lot that can be analyzed in relation to traditional folkloric tropes, despite the story’s brevity. I actually wrote about this on my website, for those interested in the more academic references in the work.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I don’t necessarily write for there to be a lesson. I think expecting the work to be somehow didactic is a trap a lot of people fall into when reading poetry. (Just like thinking all poetry is nonfiction, but that’s a different tangent.) Instead of teaching my readers, I hope, instead, that my words will bring them comfort or disquiet or questions or an ache of knowing. I hope my readers feel less alone when they read poems written about invisible illnesses and medical drama. I hope they forget about their troubles when they dive into my holiday romances. I hope my fantasy makes them want to curl up to the sound of rain and thoughts of distant (through time or space) lands. I want my works to be friend-like, support group-esque, impactful or a means of escape.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. The first thing you, potential author, should know is that no writer has the crystal ball for or ultimate insight into what will make every single person great. All rules can be broken in a good book (even if they exist as be useful tools in most situations, nonetheless). There are countless courses and books on how to write, and they have merit, but following any one single person’s rules is bound to be an experiment in frustration. What’s more important is to let you own voice guide you, with some mind to things like grammar, syntax, plot, pacing, and characterization.

2. If you’re serious about being an author, you should know, a great author is more than just the writing. Great authors are not only prolific (see, e.g., Nora Roberts), but they are also marketing and business machines (see, e.g., J. K. Rowling). Being a great author and not a great writer is about selling your work — to agents, to publishers, to readers — in addition to creating great work that’s easy to sell. It is nearly impossible to find a top-selling author these days that’s an aloof genius creating art in a secluded cabin. Instead, most are good at making deals or earning fans on social media or showing their passion for the work to agents. If you are going the indie route, this all especially crucial.

3. Let your writing be bad. Writing a lot is more important than writing well a lot. It’s very easy in any creative endeavor compare one’s idea-in-their-head or budding-words-in-a-first-draft to a best-seller or award-winner’s finished project. The time to be (constructively) self-critical is when you’re at the editing stage or when you’ve not gotten any bites from agents in two dozen submissions. But while you’re creating, focus on the content you’re making and not, so much, its “goodness.”

4. Read, a lot. Read in your genre. Read outside of your genre. Re-read your favorites with a critical eye to openings, closing, turns of phrases. Learning by example is one of the easiest (and, if you live near a library, cheapest) ways to see what the conventions of genre, plot, style, etc. are. And it’s almost certain to cost you less time and energy than writing a whole bunch of manuscripts that disregard convention or grammar entirely, which are almost certain to ultimately collect dust.

5. “Murder your darlings” is real. Arthur Quiller-Couch (or Faulkner, or Stephen King, or…take your pick of suspicious attribution) wasn’t just coining a phrase that sounded lovely, though one must appreciate the irony in that. What he meant when he wrote, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings” (“On Style”, 1914), and what scores of other people who said this phrase, is that writers are prone to creating things they like. All very well and good until a particularly poetic turn of phrase gets in the way of meaning, of plot, of the things that will make your work good. It’s basically saying, get rid of any lovely-sounding but empty things you may love in your work, the deletion of which will actually make your manuscript stronger.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study)? Can you share a story or example?

I think patience is the most important thing for an author to have. Patience with one’s self and one’s own art. Patience with the industry (this is especially useful for traditional publishing). Patience with one’s creations once they’re out into the world, to give them time to find readers.

With any creative endeavor, it can be very easy to be overly self-critical. And I think this is particularly harmful for one’s productivity. It can become a vicious cycle, and the easiest way I’ve found to fight it is to cultivate patience, to celebrate the little victories (and the big ones, if you have them).

In my own life, this has taken the form of lax writing deadlines. For some, that will just stress them out more, but I know if I’m dealing with a flare up or I’ve gotten more than one migraine in a week, then I’m going to be fatigued, and I will be bed-ridden sometimes and thus not hit crazy big word count goals. So I set my own goals and focus on the feeling of satisfaction I get when I hit them (and try not to focus so much on what everyone else in the industry is doing, how some people can finish a manuscript in a few weeks). It works most of the time, and when it doesn’t, well I try not be too hard on myself for being too hard on myself.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

My favorite genre to read is fantasy that’s inspired by magical realism or folklore. I think fantasy that feels almost real is a great genre in which to explore heavy-hitting topics like various trauma or grief, because the reality of fantasy is more flexible when it comes to what’s allowed. The result is generally a beautifully-written tale that explores the fundamental, inescapable realities of what it means to be human with a dose of magic, which somehow makes the characters and stories feel more real.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to abolish hustle culture. I understand the underpinnings — feed one’s family, keep a roof over one’s head, safety, comfort, all the good things of life — but I think the initial human needs that necessitate hard work got a bit perverted in “hustle culture.” Now, people show off how exhausted and work-weary they are on social media, to get fake (or sometimes real) accolades from other people who just get more stressed trying to be that 21st-century ideal of wasted creature who doesn’t have time to eat or sleep or do anything but make money. If making money is a hobby for you and brings you joy, that’s awesome, I just don’t think we need to glorify doing so in an unhealthy way. I’d love to make being stressed abnormal.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’d love to connect with readers! I’m on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter:

And I’ve also just started a book cover business called All About Book Covers. If you’re in the market for affordable premade or custom covers, I hope you’ll check it out.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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