author jane johnson on boola bos on writer's block procrastination and rejection

How to be a prolific writer: tips on rejection, writer's block & procrastination

author interview procrastination rejection writer's block writing

Jane Johnson is publishing director at HarperCollins UK and has worked in the book industry for over thirty years.

For many years she was responsible for publishing the works of JRR Tolkien, and later worked on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, spending many months in New Zealand with cast and crew (she wrote the official visual companions to the films). The authors she publishes include creator of A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, as well as Dean Koontz and many more.

While on a research trip in Morocco in 2005, Johnson met a man named Abdellatif who is a Berber tribesman from a village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. The pair fell in love and soon after Johnson briefly returned to the UK to give up her office job in London, sell her apartment, and ship her belongings to Morocco. They were married later that year and now split their time between Cornwall and Morocco.

Johnson has written over twenty-five books. Her most recent, The Black Crescent, is lush and immersive historical fiction set in post-war Casablanca about a young man who must decide where his loyalties lie as the fight for Moroccan independence erupts.

Viggo Mortensen called the book "addictive reading," saying it is "rich and well-balanced—a perfect blend of history and culture in an engaging thriller full of finely-crafted characters." 

We caught up with the author to see what we could glean about persistence and procrastination; experiencing rejection as both a writer and editor, and why sometimes writers need to be a little bit arrogant.



BOOLA BOS: In The Black Crescent, Morocco in the 1950s comes alive. Can you tell us a little bit about how you conducted research? 

JANE JOHNSON: Having lived on and off in Morocco for eighteen years, I know my adoptive country well. Tiziane is a thinly disguised version of the village my husband, Abdel, comes from, and I spent a lot of time in Casablanca while we patiently untied all the bureaucratic knots in order for us to marry. Abdel worked in the city for over ten years, so was able to fill in any gaps. After that, it was book and online research, largely in French and Arabic (I can read the former, Abdel the latter), and talking to family and friends of family about their memories.

BB: You are George R.R. Martin and Dean Koontz's long-time editor, both of whom are extremely prolific. Are there certain traits or habits you see in prolific writers that you don't see in other writers?

JJ: Writing is five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent application. It's a tough, often grinding, job. You have to be very determined and focused to succeed, and to develop a thick skin, and a little arrogance, too, to have faith in yourself and your work to push through criticism and obstacles. Look at any bestselling writer who's been around for a long time and you’ll find an early history of toughness, determination, and belief.

BB: How do you ensure you have enough time to write amidst so many obligations competing for your time?

JJ: I can't tell you how difficult this can be! I went part-time as a publisher some years ago, but publishing is never a part-time job, it just means that I cram more into long hours in order to keep my three-day weekend as free as I can. I need a day between editing to clear my head enough to return to my own writing, and that can mean getting disconnected from the story and having to work your way back in; but sometimes that very frustration and need for discipline can be the force that drives me on. I know I can't afford to skip a weekend for fear of completely losing track of my story, so it's always there, hovering, and sometimes percolating away out of sight, ready to pour out as soon as I have free time.

BB: Do you ever experience writer's block, and if so, how do you overcome it?

JJ: I can't afford to, my time is so pressurized! In all honesty, I'm not sure there really is such a thing. All writers hit problems in their work, but it can take any number of methods to clear the roadblock. Just leaving it and writing something else may reveal the problem and a way to fix it; sometimes you realize you’re on the wrong track. Of course, sometimes life gets in the way, and certainly the pandemic has been difficult for many writers, occupying as it does so much headspace, anxiety, and need for vigilance: likewise world news. But those sensitivities are what make us writers: we have to be open to even the darkest thoughts, to consider and process them in order to write with any degree of authenticity, so in the end you just have to embrace all of human life and sift it. I find anger and sorrow can often drive my creative process.

BB: You have worked on both sides of publishing—as an author and an editor—and have presumably, like all writers and editors, experienced rejection. Has working on both sides made it easier to deal with rejection? How do you stop a rejection impeding your writing progress? 

JJ: Rejection is certainly part of the writer’s experience, but I don't think anyone ever takes it lightly, whatever they say. By definition, writers’ skins have to be thin, to let the world in, so although we can rationalize the reasons behind rejection and develop ways of handling it that maintain the necessary social niceties rather than turning into axe-wielding maniacs, it still hurts. But that can drive you on, too.

BB: How do you switch back into writing mode when you realize you've been procrastinating?

JJ: I am the Queen of Procrastination, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from the structure of my life, but when I am in the middle of problematic scenes, my house becomes absurdly clean and tidy, and my allotment garden gets ferociously weeded. Sometimes, those physical activities unlock my mind, though.



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Jane Johnson's The Black Crescent is on sale now from Simon & Schuster. You can grab a copy from our shop here.


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