Wednesday, November 16, 2011

25 WOW Wednesday: Johanna Harness on Writing Happiness

The fabulous Johanna Harness, this week's WOW guest, has put her bio in the post, so we will leave it at that. But I will add that if you don't follow the #amwriting hastag on twitter, you are missing OUT. Seriously. And follow Johanna there and on her blog. She's amazing.


By Johanna Harness

I am surprised by where I am in my writing career just now.

I've been writing every day for four years. I've written five novels and bunches of short stories, articles, and blog posts. I've had some of the short stuff published---enough of it that my heart doesn't thump wildly about it anymore.

I'm a writer of my time, still learning my craft. I blog, I tweet, I facebook, and I tumble. I created the #amwriting hashtag where I hang out with other writers. I brave the occasional podcast and youtube video. I have a circle of writer friends with whom I share my earliest drafts and I feel honored when they share theirs with me. I'm a member of three professional writing groups. I attend meetings and workshops and conferences. I can pitch my books in my sleep.

I signed with my agent almost a year ago, but it was not one of those OMG-Look-At-Her-Talent kind of signings. I met an agent at a conference. We hit it off. I sent my book. She gave it to her colleague. The colleague gave me honest, detailed notes about why she couldn't represent it--and she offered to talk with me. I jumped at the chance and we set up a phone call. I listened. Her suggestions required a whole new approach to the story.

I kid you not. The amount of work she suggested should have broken me. The amount of things wrong with my story should have reduced me to a little pool of tears formerly known as writer. Instead? Something freakishly weird happened: her advice made my brain light up in new ways. She read my characters and she loved them and she knew what I could do to make them better.

Yes. I'd finally found someone who loved my story.

To be clear, loving a story does not mean gushing over all the details and finding no fault. Loving the work means seeing the story as it is and feeling emotionally invested in making it all it can be. Finding a professional who shared my vision changed everything.

I did not put myself through that grueling revision because I thought I'd secure representation from a brilliant agent (although I hoped with all my heart I would). I revised because I saw clearly how my characters and my story could transcend that draft and become something better.

Revision, comments, another revision, lots of work, contract signing, and my book went out on a first round of subs. After a flurry of activity, we waited. It took eight months to hear back from that first round of publishers. In the meantime? I wrote another book.

The bad news: I don't have a sale yet.

The good news: we have enough interest for a second round of subs. And? I received some great feedback from really smart editors. And? My agent is willing to give me time to revise before we sub again. And? I wrote another book.

Honestly, I hoped beyond reason that the new book would be ready to go out on sub while I was busy preparing for Book One, Round Two. So I was disappointed when my agent wrote back and said it wasn't ready.

And then I read her comments. And my brain started lighting up in new patterns. Yes, it was the same thing again. I knew how to make the book better, so I no longer wanted to submit it as it was. But there was something more. Those last comments, combined with the editor comments, illuminated a pattern in my writing that I had never noticed before.

The feedback I received on my last book changes my revision of the first and the editor feedback I'm receiving on the first changes my revision of the last. The process is dynamic. One improvement makes way for another.

And that brings me back to where I started this post: I am really surprised by where I am in my writing career. I'm four years in. I've written five novels. None of them have been published yet. And I'm happy.

When people talk about writers paying their dues, learning their craft, putting in their years without getting paid, they never mention the thrill of forward progress. I know the external publishing world moves slowly, but the rate my brain cells light up matters more.

This happiness surprises me and the journey surprises me. I really love being a writer.


  1. "The thrill of forward progress" does matter.


  2. Way to stay positive and looking for the blessings in each stage! LOVE this post :-)

  3. Not only a wonderful perspective but an astute one as well. I cannot wait until I get to read one of your book babies - I've met your human ones and am positive your book babies will be as charming because like your other babies, you have imbued them with a part of yourself. Thank you for all you have done for me over these months/years. You are wonderful!

  4. As a beginning writer myself, this post really hit home with me. Love it!

  5. I appreciate and adore this post. I find myself in a similar position while querying. I've had five full requests in the past three months, which made my heart thump. While all have passed, I had one agent leave the door open for me--and she gave me some great advice for revising. I shouldn't be so excited about rejection, right? But it just took that one agent to ignite in me the writer's craft, and I look forward to making my story better.

  6. Teresa--Thank you! I often remind myself how bored I'd be with writing if I ever stopped growing. I love that there's always more to learn.

    Rachel--Yes. My published friends remind me that I have more time to perfect this book than I'll ever have in the future. It's good to enjoy where I am now rather than in retrospect.

    Kristina--I can't wait to read yours too! You're such a blessing in my life.

    Jennifer--Isn't it a great process?

    Sarah--Ooh! You should definitely follow up. No one leaves a door open without hope you'll come back.

  7. Johanna, what a wonderful, positive, inspiring post. The struggles, yes, but the happiness derived from the process--priceless! I love the line "my brain started lighting up in new patterns." For me that's what writing's all about, learning and growing and getting better. Good luck on all your writing, submissions, and future publication!

  8. Brilliant, thoughtful post. Except for the part about, "When people talk about writers paying their dues, learning their craft, putting in their years without getting paid, they never mention the thrill of forward progress."

    I do this in my work with writers every day and also in all of my books and articles. It's a primary theme in my new book, The Writer's Workout, as well.

    You are right, satisfaction and the innate sense that you are on the right track for your career is not spoken about enough.

    Some great, helpful work, Johanna. Thanks for sharing. :)

  9. A great post, and a wonderful reminder about what's important in this business: growing as writers. It's so easy to get caught up in publishing and forget that it all began with writing. And that it's still all about writing.

  10. Wow, excellent, and what a great attitude. You're right--it's forward progress. I DO have to remember that when I begin to get antsy in this long process. Like you, I see my book getting better and better with my agent, in ways I never dreamed of. :)

  11. Thanks for this honest and detailed insight into your writing journey. My fellow writers' critiques have made my first novel at least 60 times better in scene and story flow. They helped me nail my clues in my first Dog Leader Mystery.

    I'm truly loving using these new insights, knowledge and skills in my second and third novel drafts. I see myself writing and reading my way toward books that will be published, and hopefully, treasured by young readers.

  12. OMG, this was AWESOME! Yes, happiness in the journey. I love that attitude. Jonanna, you're happy where you are right now, which means happiness will follow you. And in my opinion, with that type of perspective, you've already won the game. Amazing.

  13. Hi Johanna I'm so happy you've shared your story with us. You are an inspiration and proven show of the growth of a writer.

  14. You hae a great perspective on the writing journey that we all need to have. Thanks so much for sharing your journey. Good luck with the next round of revisions.

  15. Great post. It's wonderful that you've found an agent to work with, and moreso, that you've found someone with the right balance of literary analysis/insight skills and constructive feedback skills to help take you to the next level in your writing.

    I don't want readers thinking that this is the only way to get that kind of support, though. That's exactly the same service that book doctors--folks like me, Stephen Parolini, Elizabeth Lyon, the whole gang at Girl Friday Productions, and many others--provide to their clients. Yeah, you have to pay for it up front rather than out of future advances and royalties (because, hey, book doctors have to eat too), but it is at least an avenue you can seek for in-depth, professional feedback on your work before you have an agent in hand.

  16. I too have found the value in being able to see my forward progress and use it as momentum in my writing. Some days it's enough to know that if I keep making strides, keep moving forward, one day I will reach my goals. So glad this attitude has worked for you!

  17. Kendra--Thank you! And yes--the opportunities to grow mean everything.

    Christina--I can't wait to read your new book. Yours is a message more writers need to hear.

    Kerry--Exactly. If we lose the joy of writing, we lose the soul of our dreams.

    Carol--Isn't it rewarding? I love that!

    Deborah--Aren't we lucky to have great critique partners? I wouldn't trade mine for anything.

    Julie--Yes! I am completely with you. And really? Life is too short to wait for happiness. Why not be happy along the way? :)

    LM--Thanks so much!

    Natalie--Thank you. I'll take all the luck I can get. :)

    Jason--very true. There are certainly other paths. I know you're great and I adore Elizabeth Lyon (quick plug for Manuscript Makeover, which is amazing). I'm sure Stephen and the Girl Friday group are great too. So much depends on story-smarts and good rapport.

    Bluestocking--Absolutely. It's so rewarding to see the story getting better.

  18. Yes, this is truly what it's all about, isn't? Thanks for the reminders... And best wishes.

  19. Oh wow Joanna you've put it so poignantly! I love the concept of forward progress :) Every little achievements help in making you a better writer.
    Thank you so much for this uplifting post :)

  20. I loved your post and find your happiness so inspirational. Such a healthy, and one that I'm sure only benefits your writing! Thanks for sharing.

  21. Great post, Johanna. I think you've shown the difference between loving what you've written and loving the process of writing. If you love the process and give yourself to it, it won't hurt when you have to change the product to make it better. (And the product will take care of itself.)

  22. Thank you, Johanna. Writing, rewriting, can be daunting. And tiring and frustrating and eveything. Your attitude is an inspiration! I always feel like my mss can be better, and just this week I received feedback from an editor that really started that frenxy for me. I was in a slump, but it has propelled me back to the keyboard!

  23. It has to be so great to have an agent give you detailed feedback like this -- it's the next level of critique we all hope for (after the critique partners, the fiction workshops, the beta readers). And a great reminder to be "in the moment" and treasure process. Thanks for this lovely post.

  24. Deb--It really is! Thank you. :)

    mariasmcdonald--And all the little achievements together turn into huge progress. It's really wonderful.

    anonymeet--I hadn't thought about my happiness as a writer influencing the content of my writing, but I think you're right. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Beth--You've encapsulated this so well. Yes! Loving the process of writing makes all the difference.

    Michele--Hooray! That kind of feedback is thrilling.

    Gail--Yes. I feel very lucky to be where I am right now.


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