The biggest mystery behind Lisa Jones Johnson’s debut novel, A Dead Man Speaks (Genesis/Kensington Publishing; $12), the story of how a “fabulously wealthy” black investment banker comes back from the dead to find his killer, is how she wrote it. The CEO of Comedy Express TV, a new television network targeted at young adults, Johnson would seem to have little time for writing.
“I forced myself to write 10 pages per day and [after writing the tenth page] I would be like, wow,” says Johnson, “this is really interesting.”
The daughter of a diplomat, Johnson has lived in France, Haiti, and Brazil; she speaks French and Spanish and is a lover of British and Russian literature. With undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, she has worked in a variety of positions, including corporate attorney for CBS Television Network and law firm Debevoise and Plimpton; COO of Al Anwa, the largest owner of Ritz Carlton Hotels; and record producer and president of an independent record label. She was, however, continually drawn to writing.
Johnson moved to Los Angeles in 1994 to become a scriptwriter but hated the politics of the approval process. “You take three months to write a script, then it takes six months for your agent to read it, then another God-knows-how long for people to get back to you.” She was also frustrated by the demand for so-called ghetto stories. A novel, she thought, would provide her an outlet for total expression. In 1999, she decided to write one.
Johnson admits that penning her novel wasn’t easy, but she found a way to pursue her creative yearnings. She offers this advice.
Give in to the passion. Write first and worry about structure later. Focusing on the details before you write tends to block the creative process. Commit first to just telling your story.
Be diligent and persistent. It took Johnson only six months to finish her manuscript, but it took seven years to publish it. There were several rewrites as well as rejections from literary agents and publishing houses. Some agents doubted the book’s marketability because it wasn’t a typical murder mystery. Johnson made revisions to strengthen the story’s structure, but she held fast to her original idea.
Several books explain the process and challenges of novel writing. One of the best is How to Write a Damn Good Novel (St. Martin’s Press; $19.95) by James N. Frey.