Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A New Crime Sistah in the House!

Author Lisa Jones Johnson has joined the Crime Sistahs Blog! Look for her posts each week on Thursdays. Please join us in welcoming Lisa to the blog! Here is Lisa's first post.



When the Crime Sistahs asked me if I’d like to do a weekly blog for their site, I was very flattered. Their site was well done, interesting and seemed to have a large and loyal following. So my first thought was of course to say, Yes! Then I realized that I didn’t have a clue what I would blog about. Probably because in my mind bloggers are wannabee journalists on their own personal soapboxes who really want to be on CNN. (Now if you’re one of those bloggers, please accept my apology, I’m sure this is a gross exaggeration, but it sounds good!).

But getting back to Crime Sistahs, and my blog. I decided that since this was a site by, about, and for writers, why not write about the process of writing, and specifically getting that book that’s in YOU published. Since my novel, A DEAD MAN SPEAKS was published last year, I’ve gone around the country doing book signings, book clubs and other speaking engagements. I’m always struck by the similarity of the questions that I’m asked, seemingly regardless of the location or the demographics of the audience. Black, white, male, female, all ages, the top questions are always: how did you decide to write your book and what was your writing process? And that’s how I decided to write a blog that would at least for the first few installments be about that process.

Since this is technically Week One of the Blog, let’s start at the beginning. When people asked me how I started to write my book, I think of that moment when I knew that I had the idea for a book. I’d been a screenwriter and so was used to coming up with story ideas, but this was different, at the moment that I had the idea, it was as if I saw the entire novel in front of me. I was passionate about the idea, excited and couldn’t stop writing down scenes. At this point, I should probably explain that since I’d been a screenwriter, I ultimately see chapters as “scenes” even though I’d be the first to admit that the process and manner of writing screen plays and novels are fundamentally different. (But that’s the subject of separate installment which will come later).

But suffice it to say, that the first thing that you need to have for the book is the BIG IDEA. And not just a general, vague idea of something. It needs to be an idea that you are totally consumed with, characters that come alive in your mind, where you hear their dialogue, see where they live, die, play, or whatever and in short are so consumed with, that you have no choice, but to write your book. Now, that may seem like a “tall order.” However, the reality is that since writing is truly re-writing (someone else said that, but I agree), if you’re not completely captivated by your IDEA, your characters and their lives, you probably won’t have the mental staying power to do the endless re-writes that face you once you finish the first draft. (After you mistakenly think that you’re done!) I call it the “Jaws” theory of writing. As in the movie, just when you thought it was safe to go in the water…..well you know the rest. The same with writing, just when you thought you were done, here comes another re-write. Ultimately, the re-writing is the writing, it’s just not obvious when you start.

So then the question may be, well how do you come up with that BIG IDEA. I can only speak from my personal experience because everyone has a different path, but in my case I had identified the genre for my novel. I had written screenplays that were murder mysteries and I liked that format. Probably because I’m a lawyer, and like most lawyers liked the rules, the minutiae and attention to detail, in short, kind of like briefing a case. I also knew that I wanted my book to have a theme that was spiritual in nature and about something bigger than the crime. The “Aha” moment for me came when I read an article in the LA Times that quoted a famous detective who had said that anytime crimes weren’t solved, the lives of the victims are restless, they remain with us. That sparked my imagination and literally, the entire story unfolded in my head.

When I’ve heard other writers talk about their process, people have discussed everything from being inspired by something that happened in their own lives or someone they knew, to stories drawn from a personal interest in a particular historical period, either real or imagined. I should probably stop here and talk for a moment about non-fiction, which I’ve written, but primarily as articles. The process, however, is still the same. You still have to come up with the BIG IDEA. The major difference is that generally it can’t be a random idea that interests you, such as Oh, I think I’d like to write a non-fiction book about the war in Iraq. I may be interested in that, but since (a) I’ve never been to Iraq (b) I’ve never studied about that, and (c) I have no other expertise in that area, it’s highly unlikely that I’d ever get that book published. For non-fiction, generally, you must demonstrate that you are an expert in whatever you’re writing about (even if that includes your own life as a dysfunctional celebrity).

You then do a book proposal where among other things you discuss in detail your expertise and why you are the person to write that book. The key is to figure out if there is anything that you could credibly call yourself an expert on and something that you’re also passionate about. Because in the end, passion is what counts. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, you’ve got to believe in your idea enough to create something that someone else wants to read. So to summarize, start out by identifying clearly your BIG IDEA. Then the process begins. Next week we’ll talk about how to take the BIG IDEA to the next step: STARTING TO WRITE.

For more information on Lisa Jones Johnson or her book A DEAD MAN SPEAKS check out or email her at


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