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Monday, July 13, 2009


Has it really been THREE WEEKS since I blogged last?

But soft . . . I should explain where I have been. Or rather, where I AM, for I am still there, in the place where I am. I am in England. I’ve been here since the 24th of June. I come here a lot, as you may know if you have read this blog over time.

What have I been doing on this particular trip? Well, seeing a lot of people. There was the London Gathering. I’ve also been working on the SEQUEL TO 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES, and another project for AFTER that. I’ve been spending a lot of time doing research around London. And I will be going to Ireland later this week, if I ever get around to making the arrangements. I’ve also been watching Torchwood and have eaten some cookies and had some tea and got a tan in the hot English sun.

But I wasn’t always busy, friends. Which brings me to today’s question.

Kira902k asks: How do I survive this entire summer doing NOTHING?

Kira, I know your pain. When I was in high school, I had a few summers of such excruciating boredom that when I even think about them, my teeth begin to strike together and my shoes get too tight. It was horrible.

The reason for this was a complicated matrix of badness. Thusly:

- I went to school in the city, and thus, lived kind of far from my friends. (And I went to a girls’ school in a convent for the rest of the year.)

- I didn’t drive in high school. This was partially because I was kind of young, and because car insurance was expensive, and I generally wasn’t allowed to get it even though I wanted it more than I wanted anything. This was a great divide at Chez Johnson, one we don’t even talk about TO THIS DAY, and I am totally grown up and everything. Bottom line: I was never allowed to do ANYTHING.

- So I was totally stuck in my podunk suburb. This, remember, was BACK BEFORE THE INTERNET . . . or, at least, it was back before there was anything good to do on the internet. I am sure it was AROUND. So all I had was the phone and friends with cars who would rescue me as often as they could. Which wasn’t often enough.

- Compounding the problem was the fact that for my junior and senior years (from when I was 15 until I was 17), my father’s job transferred him around the country, first to Louisville, Kentucky (where we knew no one) to Houston, Texas (where we knew no one).

I will never forget my 15th summer, simply because it was so excruciatingly boring that it seemed to warp time and space. I sometimes wonder if that summer isn’t the reason I tend to write books about summers. Suite Scarlett, for instance, is about Scarlett’s 15th summer. Perhaps I am on permanent redo on that one.

That was the summer my dad was in Kentucky, and it was about 105 degrees every single day, with a heat index (that was the summer I learned what a “heat index” was—it means “how much you will actually suffer”) of about 115. We had to go visit my dad for six weeks, so I couldn’t plan to do anything else that summer, like get a job, or give myself up for medical research, or sell myself as a child bride. We flew to Kentucky, and we spent SIX WEEKS sitting around in my dad’s apartment. SIX WEEKS.

I could have been doing so many other, more useful things.

It was too hot to spend any time outside. Seriously. Your lungs would just explode. Not that we knew where to go, or had anyone to see. We were Philadelphia people, and this was a new, strange place. We had my dad’s car during the day, so my mom and I just went to bookstores, often used, where we would buy up huge piles of books, crank through them, and then resell them at the end of the week. I know I read a lot that summer . . . but for some reason the only books I clearly remember reading are the entire Fletch series up to Fletch and the Man Who. Somewhere in there, I also remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first of what would be about 200 times. So that was a summer romance that LASTED. And I think that’s probably when I read Roughing It by Mark Twain, to try to give my westward journey some exciting context. There were a lot of books, but a strange proportion of them seemed to be Fletch-related.

And I wrote. There was that.

When not reading, we baked cakes. One week, we baked a cake every day. We didn’t even want the cakes. We just baked them because it was something to do. I remember my mom saying, “I have never been so bored.” And my mom has 105 Cat’s Meow decorative houses, if this gives you any idea of what she can withstand.

Throughout it all, I missed my friends. To quell the pain, I would bake YET ANOTHER cake and put it with the others, which we lined up on the kitchen bar, using the same display method used in olden times, when countries used to line their architecture with the severed heads of their enemies to send a message. Our message was: we are bored.

What I’m saying, Kira, is that you have come to the right person. I understand. But you know what? It’s almost impossible to do NOTHING. I feel I came pretty much as close as I am (hopefully) ever going to come to doing nothing during that summer, and in retrospect, I was doing things. They just weren’t the things I necessarily wanted to be doing at the time. But all of that reading and writing . . . it paid off! There is something to be said for dealing with this nothing. Creative acts come out of the quiet—when you simply must make something.

What I am saying is, if you spend the summer doing nothing, you will end up EXACTLY LIKE ME! Think about that!

Badhandwroter asks: I have a lot of ideas for stories that I'm currently working on but I can't seem to buckle down and work on just one and fully develop it. What are some ways to keep my focus on just one idea?

We writers have a saying, Badhandwroter. Well, not a saying. More of a commonly accepted idea that has yet to be assembled into an easy-to-carry quote. I will attempt to correct this now: “There is nothing so appealing as the next thing you want to write.”

When you first start writing something, it is all sweetness and joy, because you are skimming those awesome ideas of the top of your brain—that delicious sweet cream. Sometimes it’s an idea for a first scene. Sometimes just one character. Sometimes you get a cluster of ideas: a location, a bit of dialogue. Some people ride high on just a title and a mental image of a cover.

Oh, it is a fine drug, this “first idea” stuff. The unwritten story or book is always SO GOOD. Sure, when you flip the pages in your mind, you can’t actually SEE ANY WORDS, but you know when you fill them in, they will be like NECTAR.

Thing is . . . once you actually start writing, you have to live up to that Shangri-La in your brain. So you sit down and start working, trying to produce that wonderful, shimmering stuff. And while it may go well for a while, you are probably going to reach a point where it DOES NOT, and you have NO IDEA what is supposed to come next, and you take a DIM VIEW of what you’ve done so far, and it’s all HOPELESS and you are TERRIBLE.

This is usually when the new shiny thing comes into your mind . . .

Your innner LOLcat comes out.

This is also where the writing BEGINS. This is precisely the point where you press on. You can jot down the note about the other shiny thing, but if you want to write, you keep going.

Now, you may ask, “But mj, don’t some ideas just die because they have no legs?”

Some ideas are maybe a little shaky. That’s true. But stories are like Cootie. Ever play Cootie? That game where you get the plastic body of a Cootie bug, and you have to keep playing until the thing has eyes and a mouth and antennae and legs to stand on? The more you work on a story—the more you press on—the more you’ll find that you get new parts. New ideas will grow.


But your question is: HOW? HOW do you keep focus and press forward?

My friend, I feel your pain. It’s hard. But the only way is JUST TO DO IT. The most useful technique, aside from flat-out discipline, is to be accountable to someone. Joining a writing group, for instance, where you have to produce a chapter by a certain date for the others to read. More hardcore people might chain themselves to their desk using a time lock or deny themselves showers or food until they have met their daily writing quota. These are also very effective methods.

And then, when you are done your story or book, you get to TAKE IT APART and MAKE IT COOLER. Because now that you’ve made it once, you can get a good look at the thing and see where improvements and changes are necessary. Then you enter into another time-honored writerly period, the opposite of your first problem: namely, the endless revision . . . which is sort of the literary equivalent of projectile barfing.

Trouble ahead and trouble behind, Badhandwroter! Happy writing!

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Blogger Kira902k said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:27 AM  
OpenID kira902k said...

Yay! You answered my question!
Well...if that's true and I will become EXACTLY LIKE YOU by doing nothing all summer, then I guess that's okay.
Seriously, if I could be anyone, I'd be you or Melissa Anelli. Actually, I'd rather be your best friend. Oh well.
So far I have read QUITE a few books this summer, so I guess that's okay. I've spent a very LARGE amount of time on the internet. (I don't know how you survived without the NETZ!)

Maybe I will survive. =]

Otherwise, good advice on the book-writing front.
And please please please write a blog about the London Gathering! I'd love to hear how that went. :)

Also...Scarlett Fever release date?

3:39 AM  
Blogger Callidora said...

I agree with Kira, being you, Melissa Anelli, or your best friend would be pretty jokes.

I think that I will take heed of your wise words and do nothing this summer, in between work if course. Sigh.

3:47 AM  
Anonymous Tamsin-Emillie said...

It seems this blog is too close to my life experiences...I make the best baked goods of well most people I know because I have spent endless summers alone in my house (mainly because I wanted to be somewhere else and wouldn't leave my house even when my friends tried) which caused me to bake...Similaly these hours alone caused me to nurse an amazingly epic (and possibly childlike) imagination...I thank the lord that I was a loner all through high school because if I wasn't I wouldn't have a path mapped out ahead of me which involved using my imagination...I am with you Maureen, you may think you did nothing but in the end you tend to create and cultivate the future you through doing these mundane boredom rituals. =)

3:50 AM  
Blogger Breanna said...

Haha I loved your boredom advice and your writing advice too actually. That happens to me all the time when I'm writing. I'll think of a new shiny thing and want to just start on that instead! It's highly annoying.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Brittany Ann said...

And last night I was just thinking I should skip onto to that shiny thing and leave my legless Cootie-bug story behind. *sigh* I guess I'll try to get some legs on the damn thing then...

...but it is so very shiny....

4:17 AM  
OpenID lafinjack said...


(and that you were a middle-aged pop singer)

4:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Maureen! My having nothing to do all summer, and no friends since they are all off having fun without me, is much better! I don't mind now since i know i will be like you!

4:47 AM  
Blogger angela said...

You are absolutely brilliant, you know that?
I can't wait for SF and sequel to 13LBE and for the upcoming&extremely shiny sekrit.
I have about four story ideas in my head that I think are going to be brill, but I know now I must buckle down and play Cootie. That's what you meant right?

5:01 AM  
Blogger Jayme Stinehart said...

Classic and inspiring, as always. Thanks MJ!

5:33 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

I have just been re-reading Harry Potter. But that only takes like a week.
I have also been watching Torchwood - which was amazing.

5:39 AM  
Anonymous Summer said...

my friend and I, who were in a creative writing class together, were talking about how we hadn't written ANYTHING all summer, so we decided that we would write a story and get together the next day and share them. it TOTALLY WORKED. I produced a three page story at three in the morning!! hooray!

6:28 AM  
Blogger Moka said...

Oh, Maureen, I just can't get enough of you. I love your posts & books & tweets.
If by doing nothing in 1 summer I end up being like you, then I might do nothing in like, a year, to have all your awesomeness.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Redcabbageispurple said...

I'm going to be annoying and post a comment that has nothing to do about your blog:
I just purchased "Girl at Sea" and started reading it yesterday.
I got about 100 pages in when I finally set it down next to my bed. On top of my teach-yourself-Japanese books and some of my many sketchbooks. Irony? It certainly wasn't planned out that way.
okay. on to my question. Have you actually read any manga? If so, what do you think? Any favorites?

6:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like Kira, this summer I have been doing absolutely NOTHING. Which! Is an upgrade from last summer in which i did absolutely POSITIVELY NOTHING. AND THEN...at the end of the summer... I discovered MAUREEN JOHNSON and I was SAVED. So I was wondering, how can i entertain myself without having to pay or drive anywhere? I'm desperate, I have already resorted to amusing myself with forks. Which, is sad. Though I'm proud to say I made a WHOLE tower using ONLY forks and one spoon, but that was because I ran out of forks... and I've had quite fun playing with shoelaces but that must be my inner LOLcat showing it's dark side. (LOLcats, can be dangerous things) And I've covered my door in sticky notes until my mom made me take them down a "waste of perfectly good sticky notes" she says. I've stood on the side of the rode with signs that say "honk if you love Fergie" I've sold lemonade, but the neighborhood kids told me to stop because i was "stealing all their business" and now I've ran out of options of what to do, so I hold many one-sided converstations with my cats and pretend that they are really respond when they nod off to sleep ("See look! They just nodded!") And now this comment is becoming a blog itself because I'm rambling...

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Haddy-la said...

I feel as though i am about to sound like a dumb n00b. Did she anouce who won the scarlet fever contest yet? Like on twitter or something?

10:38 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

Damnit... Suddenly having something to do this summer just isn't that exiting anymore. There goes my plan for being you when I grow up.
What am I supposed to do now?
*ogleling McDonalds*

11:03 AM  
Blogger Travis said...

Maureen, this has nothing to do with your blog, but I feel compelled to let you know anyway. I was going over the Great Bartlesville Book Banning of 2007 and decided to check and see if MY (public) Oklahoma library had a copy of The Bermudez Triangle. As it turns out, they did not, so I did what any respectable young adult with a library account would do -- I suggested that they purchase one. Lo and behold, I checked the catalog a few minutes ago, and a copy of Maureen Johnson's "The Bermudez Triangle" shows up as "on order"! "Bermudez" will, if my catalog search is correct, become the 16th YA book in the Pioneer Library System to deal with lesbianism. I love exercising my rights as a member of my local library! Thanks for inspiring me to do so, Maureen!

12:42 PM  
Blogger Travis said...

Grr... my hastiness in commenting angers me sometimes.

I had gone over the debate about a month ago, and put in the request then.

My library is the Pioneer Library System, serving McClain, Cleveland, and Pottawatomie Counties.

12:45 PM  
Blogger RKCharron said...

Hi :)
Excellent blog. I love how you compared writing to Cootie - and it TOTALLY works! I'm glad you are in the UK this summer. I, too, watched Torchwood and also punched the TV. Even if they do another season of it (which I doubt) everyone is dead or gone & Gwen is in another show so it won't be MY Torchwood. :)
Thank you for sharing.
Love from Canada

8:01 PM  
Blogger The Blazing Snow said...

Usually "hot English sun" would be an oxymoron, but you're kinda right this time around.

9:12 PM  
Anonymous shaylaluna said...

Although this has nothing to do with your post I HAVE VERY IMPORTANT PROOF OF ALAN RICKMANS IMPRIZONMENT!!!!!!

Alan Rickman learned a piece of information from JK Rowling that he was sworn to secrecy over. He refused to tell us no matter how much we begged him.(from mugglenet's review of info learned at HP premier.) He would definetly be able to learn information like this if he was locked in her basement.

And on mugglecast they were saying that Alan Rickman doesn't come to premiers. This is true, because he spends all of his time in JK Rowling's basement.

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

omg sequel to 13 Little Blue Envelopes! yaaaaaaya<333
i love ur blogs mj =]

12:43 AM  
Blogger Caitlyn said...

This is my 15th summer and I'm doing nothing except for now knowing that I'll end up exactly like you. I'd write a smiley face to show that that's not a bad thing but that might make me sound creepy.

1:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

brain crack! zefrank ftw

5:01 AM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Ha. I called it. 13LBE sequel, I knew it! Excuse me while I do my happy dance.


10:14 AM  
Blogger Taste Life Twice said...

Thanks for this! I'm always feeling like I can't finish a story to save my life. And I DID NOT think you would do a 13LBE sequel. I thought you wanted to just end it sort of ambiguously. I know it will be my one true literary love---at least for a while. I am SO GLAD there will be a sequel!

10:59 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

I laughed so hard about the 105 Cat's Meow decorative houses! I can totally relate - my mom has a bunch too and she used to have them lined up all over our house on top of the the doorways and her shaker pegs. I always thought that it was just an Ohio thing - I think they even used to have a Cat's Meow of my high school. What a nightmare....

10:55 PM  
Anonymous Emily said...

Bah. It is like, 107 in Austin right now and you know what I have been doing this entire f-ing week?! PLAYING OUTSIDE WITH VERY SMALL CHILDREN. CHILDREN WHO LOVE TO PLAY TAG. AND WHO DON'T WANT TO LISTEN TO STORIES. My legs are dead. Although I get to hang out with a hot guy, which makes up for the small children. Oh wait. NO IT DOESN'T. Just saying...

7:44 AM  
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