In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy interview bestselling author of 170 books, Elana Johnson, who also writes as Liz Isaacson, about her extensive experience writing Christmas-themed romance. Elana gives insightful, practical, and generous tips for Gracewriters who write on any topic.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
- Elana Johnson (Liz Isaacson), bestselling romance author
Topics covered in this episode:
- Understanding the market for Christmas-themed romance.
- How Elana learned to make 15-minute writing slots work for her in the midst of a busy life working full-time and caring for young children.
- Keeping track of large casts of characters across multiple fiction series.
- Writing ‘clean and wholesome’ romance that also appeals to the secular market.
More about Elana at elanajohnson.com
Elana’s other pen name Liz Isaacson
Connect with Elana on Facebook
Follow Elana on Instagram
Follow Elana on TikTok
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, publishing Christmas romance with Elana Johnson who also writes as Liz Isaacson.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my blogs, books and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood educator. I live in south-east Queensland with four young adult kids and I write romance under the pen name Alison Joy. You can find all my information on alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy and for the past 20 years I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and public speaking. And more recently to inspire my young adult urban fantasy series, Armour of Light. You can find out more about that and all my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Alison Joy: Elana Johnson is a USA Today bestselling author and one of Amazon’s top 100 most read authors with over 170 titles to her credit across several pen names. She writes beach romance, young adult contemporary romance, has penned self-help books for indie authors and shares her tips and experience on her Indie Inspirations Facebook page.
As Liz Isaacson, she writes inspirational western romance usually set in Texas or Montana. Today, we’re talking to her about writing Christmas themed stories.
Belinda Pollard: Welcome Elana.
Elana Johnson: Hi!
Donita Bundy: Welcome, again, Elana and Merry Christmas.
Elana Johnson: Yes. Almost there! Almost didn’t make it.
Donita Bundy: Just to help us to get to know you a little better we were wondering if you would be willing to answer our special Christmas edition rapid fire five.
Elana Johnson: Yes. I’m ready. Let’s do it!
Donita Bundy: Alright. Number one, when do you put up your Christmas tree?
Elana Johnson: We always put our Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving. So that Friday right after if we’re home, and we usually are because I don’t really like to go anywhere for the holidays.
Donita Bundy: Okay. And is it real or fake?
Elana Johnson: It’s fake. Fake all the way!
Donita Bundy: What is your go-to Christmas movie?
Elana Johnson: I really love Christmas Kiss. It’s a Hallmark movie. It’s one of their earlier ones and I just really love it.
Donita Bundy: Cool! Thank you. If you could only choose one Christmas carol to listen to, what would it be?
Elana Johnson: I’m going to go with, “Do you hear what I hear”. I really like that one.
Belinda Pollard: (singing) “Do you hear what I hear.”
Donita Bundy: Lovely. Thank you, Belinda! And what is the one food item that must be included in your Christmas menu?
Elana Johnson: We always have a candied ham every year, you know, with the glaze on it.
Donita Bundy: Yes.
Elana Johnson: Because it’s meat candy! Who doesn’t love meat candy?
Donita Bundy: Exactly! And what does a typical Christmas look like for you and your family?
Elana Johnson: So, my kids are old now so we don’t have to get up early which is really nice. I’ve got a son in college and my daughter is – well, she’ll be 17 very soon. Just right before Christmas. So, we don’t get up early but we do get up and open our presents. I make sure the dogs get all the things out of their stockings.
Donita Bundy: Yes.
Elana Johnson: And then I make breakfast. So, we always have a family breakfast together. It’s usually Belgian waffles. And we have the traditional stuff, butter and maple syrup but I always have strawberries and cream and then, of course, bacon because life is not complete without bacon!
Donita Bundy: Quite! Well, thank you very much and you’ve survived. I’m proud of you!
Elana Johnson: Good! Good!
Alison Joy: Elana, why do you think there’s such a market for Christmas stories particularly in the romance genre?
Elana Johnson: Okay. So, I think Christmas itself especially evokes this feeling of family and belonging to something that’s important. I know a lot of people travel a lot to go home. It’s about going home. Everybody wants to feel like they’re at home or with the people that they love. They’re in a group that loves and cares about them. I think that’s what Christmas is for me.
It’s about spending time, like real time, with the people that we just really want to be with and that accept us for who we are. And so, a Christmas romance encapsulates all of that where we take, sort of, single people, not sort of but actual single people, and we give them somebody to belong to. And somebody that they can be themselves with and somebody that will love them despite their flaws and I think that’s really beautiful.
Belinda Pollard: That’s nice.
Alison Joy: It is. So, you’ve been writing Christmas novels for a while now and I think you’ve got like 35 or something like that?
Elana Johnson: When I had to count them, I go, “Okay. Well, this is a whole series and so that’s 11. So that’s easy. I don’t have to count one by one! I do have some isolated Christmas novels in some of my series but a few years ago I decided to write entire series of only Christmas romances.
Alison Joy: Why did you decide to do that, Elana? Was it purely from a marketing point of view or was it because readers asked you to or because it’s something you enjoyed reading yourself?
Elana Johnson: I think maybe all three. So, I had included, like I said, at least usually one Christmas book in each of my series. It was usually the last book. Especially in my Liz Isaacson stuff it’s usually the last book and I’m like, “Oh well, throw in this Christmas book,” and it was just another trope. Like holiday romance is a trope to use.
But then I noticed that my readers really seemed to like them. And in my reader group I would have people saying how much they really enjoyed the Christmas traditions that were in the family by that point in the series. And so, I decided to go ahead and write an entire series of Christmas romances.
So, because readers seemed to like them. I really enjoy writing holiday romance or Christmas romance. I loved creating family traditions for the people in my books or just traditions in general. I think they’re really important and I think they bind people together. And so, to bind – that in my series I really like.
Alison Joy: I’ve noticed some of the books I’ve read, I’ve just loved some of the things that you’ve woven in. I’m just curious, have any of your family traditions made it into your books?
Elana Johnson: Food is always a huge tradition, right? I think that’s across all cultures. Wherever you’re born your family has some sort of tradition of food. And so, I do try really hard to do that and so maybe I put some Belgian waffles in somewhere.
Alison Joy: The one I’ve just read is one where the grandmother used to crochet ornaments and I wondered if that was something from your family.
Elana Johnson: Okay. So, my mother-in-law’s mother, so my grandmother-in-law, she crocheted a bunch of ornaments for her own Christmas tree. And so, they didn’t really mean the exact same thing that I made them mean in that series but she had crocheted them. They were all white. She used the liquid starch to form them. If there was any colour at all it was only red. And I did put a lot of her ornaments in the books.
So, my mother-in-law gave us some when we were a younger married couple that she had just saved and she split them up among her kids. And so, we didn’t have very many so we couldn’t decorate our whole tree with them but I think I put a birdcage with a Cardinal in there. The snowflakes, we always had tons of snowflakes. Things like that.
So, I do and did have crocheted ornaments from my grandmother-in-law that I did put into that book. So, that was semi real from my real life.
Alison Joy: There you go. Thank you.
Belinda Pollard: That’s beautiful. Now, you’re obviously prolific. We have worked that out. How long are the books and how often do you release them?
Elana Johnson: So, in the early days of Liz’s life and Elana, even. Elana used to write really short books but Liz writes mostly Christmas stuff so I’ll talk more about her.
I was writing 50-55,000-word books releasing them every month. And I started my Christmas only series – I had book six come out in July 2018. So, that was a Christmas book and at the end of a series. Then I started my Christmas only series in August 2018 and I’ve been releasing a Christmas romance every month, the first Tuesday of the month, since then.
Now, about 2019, so about a year later, I decided to make the books a little bit longer. I decided to make them more into a family saga because I was focusing so much on traditions. So much on families. So much on relationships outside of the core romance that I think they’re still romance novels, for sure, but there are other narrators that come in. There’s more generational things that you see and so I set a new goal for myself to make those 75,000 words. So, those books, it starts with my Seven Sons series, my Christmas at Whiskey Mountain Lodge and my Shiloh Ridge, those start at about 75,000. And then my last book in this Shiloh Ridge was book 11 and it was 125,000.
So, I can’t keep up with that schedule. It really killed me these last six/eight months. Well, that book came out way back in August but I haven’t released another Liz Isaacson book since August. I decided I can’t release one a month at 75,000 or more words per month so I’m going to be restructuring Liz to do things maybe every six/eight weeks.
I’ve been testing a series with her that’s actually not Christmas, every six months. So, yes. So, I haven’t had a Liz release for a few months now because I can’t keep up with that many words and that pace every month.
Belinda Pollard: Just one quick question, the Christmas stories, they’re selling all year round?
Elana Johnson: Yes. Yes, because they are more like a family saga, right. I just went through one of my books because I was getting ready to send it off to a translator for another language and I looked through it to kind of see how long it was, number one, because I’ve got to pay per work and all that. And I realised how many narrators there were. I think in that first book there’s only five or six. There’s not a whole bunch.
By the end of the series, I have the mothers narrating. So, there’s two matriarchs in the series and they’re in their seventies and maybe almost eighty. So, they get to narrate. And I just found that those sorts of generational stories they take place over time and I did notice in book one that it actually started in March and then ended in October. So, didn’t even make it to Christmas! But their main family tradition takes place on the last Sunday of October. That’s when they set up their angel tree with all the crocheted ornaments. And so that is a family event that they do to kick off the Christmas season and nobody misses it.
I tend to do one thing like that in all of my Christmas series that everybody does and you don’t miss it no matter what and it’s in every single book. So, in every book there’s an October because there’s an angel tree but there might not necessarily be a Christmas.
Yes! That first book didn’t even make it to Christmas so I only made it to October.
Belinda Pollard: Now, you’re saying that you’ve slowed it down a bit from the once a month to every six to eight weeks and nevertheless, there are a lot of Gracewriters out there listening to this who have fallen down in a dead faint because you’re writing 75,000 words in six to eight weeks and you’re writing under multiple names and multiple series so I’m assuming you’re actually writing more than 75,000 words in six to eight weeks.
What tips can you give us? How do you make that work while still living a life, having a family and staying conscious and breathing?
Elana Johnson: Yes, I know. I know! So, when I first started writing I taught elementary school. So, I worked fulltime. I can’t remember what year it was. Let me get it right. My son was 11. My daughter was four. Three. She was three. So, my son must have only been nine. I can math!
Anyway, they were little kids. Not like babies but little children and I learned how to do things in a very short amount of time. So, I learnt how to write in 15 minutes. So, if I was ready for work and my daughter was ready to go and I would need to drive her over to the babysitter and I had 15 minutes, I could write. I could do something.
I spent many, many years working in very, very small amounts of time. I got 30 minutes for lunch and I could eat in 15 and go to the bathroom and I could write for 15. That was what I did.
As my kids got older my daughter was in junior high and I’d have to go pick her up, I would get to the school about 20 minutes before she was done. So, I’d park in the pick-up line and I’d write for 20 minutes. I’ve got a steering wheel desk. I could write in my car while I waited for her.
So, I got really good at learning how to switch on and then switch off. Switch on and switch off. As soon as she opens the car door, I close the laptop. It’s in the back seat. We’re driving home to our next thing.
So, I learned how to do that. I wasn’t perfect at it in the beginning but I learnt how to do that. Where I just can pick up wherever I left off and I just go until I’m done. I mean, I can write a whole chapter, 2,000 words, in 30 to 40 minutes because I can just go for it.
Now, I can’t do that if I don’t outline. So, I do outline my books and I spend time outlining the series as well. So, I have future characters, the family created. I name every dog, horse, cat, best friend, restaurant before I start writing the books for the series. So, I do all of that work.
Belinda Pollard: That would save some brain time, wouldn’t it, when you’re working.
Elana Johnson: Yes. So, if I’m like, “Now, what’s the name of that lady’s cat?” I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got that in my family spreadsheet.”
I use a spreadsheet which I know freaks some people out. Whatever you want to use that works for you. Some people use planners. Some people use software. There’s some great software out there now for authors. I use an Excel spreadsheet. It’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years and that’s what I like. So, I do it.
But I do that. I outline in my 15-to-30-minute chunks. So, I’ll put on my to-do list ‘outlines’. So, I’ve been outlining my Coral Canyon Cowboys. I actually am done with Tex. Tex comes out next month. It’s book one but it’s going to be family saga romance so I have to know there’s eight books. I know that. Readers don’t know that but I know that. And I need to know who the brothers are. I need to know why they come back to town. I need to know who their love interest is going to be. So, I need to know who their mom and dad are, where they live, so that I can introduce all of those things in a book that is appropriate and makes sense to get people to read through.
I typically will introduce at least book two characters in book one. Sometimes book 3. Sometimes book 7. And then you have to wait until book 7 to get to those people. But I outline all of that in my series family sheet and then I do all the character work. So, I give them all their quirks. I describe them physically. I know their past relationship history. Their employment history. Their school history. The things they fear. I know all of that. I do it all in the spreadsheet so that I’m thinking about that book and that series for probably one to two months before I start writing it.
So, I started Tex in October and got him ready to write so that I could write him in November and then I do most of the editing and stuff for a January release in December. And so, he’s actually off with the art crew now.
Anyway, when it’s time to write I look at how many days I’ve scheduled for myself to write this book. Usually, I give myself 18 days. So, three weeks. I don’t write on Sundays. So, three weeks, 18 days.
If I have massive things going on in my calendar already, I’ll take those days out. So, say it’s down to 14 days and I go, “Okay, I need to do 75,000 words in 14 days.” Calculator comes out. Seventy-five divided by 14 and tells me how many words I have to write in order to get that done.
Usually, it’s about 6,000 words a day. That’s about what I’m aiming for which is two-and-a-half chapters. So, for me, it’s about two-and-a-half chapters. I’m writing 2,000 to 2,500, sometimes 3,000-word chapters. So, it’s about two-and-a-half chapters and like I said, if I know what’s coming and I know what I’m doing and I’ve outlined it and I’ve written a lot of books now, so it’s not my first one, I can do that in probably three hours.
And if that’s all I do that day, then that’s all I do that day is my three-hour day. And I’ve had a slipped disc and some health problems since April and that’s about what I work now. I work about four or five hours a day. The majority of that is drafting, other administrative things are maybe an hour to two and that’s it because that’s all I can physically do.
Belinda Pollard: Fantastic. I’m inspired. I’m overwhelmed and inspired!
Donita Bundy: My mind is just going, “Right, check, check. I must do that. Get onto that. That’s great. I’m keeping that.” Yes.
Belinda Pollard: It’s kind of like it’s a lot of planning and then it’s planned spontaneity.
Donita Bundy: Yes. I love it!
Belinda Pollard: Like you’re looking ahead to these moments that you can grab and you’re deliberately inserting them into your day, those times on the steering wheel.
Do you type or you handwrite or you dictate?
Elana Johnson: Nope. I do everything typed. I can’t dictate. I tried dictating and I found that it took me longer to clean up the dictating than it does for me to type it.
Donita Bundy: Yes.
Elana Johnson: So, I would just prefer to type. We’re down at our cabin right now. When we go home and he drives, I have a little AlphaSmart Neo that I work on in the car. So, I’ll probably write two chapters tomorrow on the way home and then I’m home and I’ve done my work and he’s driving and we’re together and it’s great!
Another thing I do that might be a tip for people is I never leave a writing session without knowing what my next three chapters are going to be because those are likely going to be the chapters I’m going to write tomorrow, right, or whenever I sit down to write again.
And so, I just look at it and I go, “Okay. This is where I am in this story,” and I have outlined but I only do 20 beats, sometimes only 1 5. So, I don’t have scenes outlined. I have mid-point kiss. At the mid-point they should kiss. That’s what I have outlined. Right.
So, I don’t have massive scenes outlined but I know that I’m getting close to the mid-point. I know what page it’s going to be on because that’s all on my spreadsheet. And so, I know that that usually comes in chapter 11, 12 or 13. So, if I’m coming to that chapter, I’ll be like, “Gretchen,” or I’ll name who is going to narrate that chapter. I’ll do, “Gretchen kiss here,” and then the next scene or whatever. Maybe she could be working in her candy shop.
And then the chapter after that will be whoever her love interest is. Will, and he’s going to be working on the farm and then break a date because they’re going to have to start to break up now that they’ve kissed. So, I kind of know that I never leave a writing session without looking ahead and I always try to have three. At some point in the book, usually about the time my mid-point kiss happens, I can see all the way to the end of the book.
For whatever reason, in my head, until that kiss happens and I almost always have it at the mid-point, I can’t see the rest of the book. And so, I just go a chapter at a time and it’s usually wrong and I usually don’t write what I said and I write something else and I’m like, “Shoot. You’ve still only written four days and you’re 30,000 words in.” And so, I’ll put in capital letters, ADVANCE SOME TIME! Working in this farm four weeks later or whatever. Like, make it out of the first week of this relationship.
And so, I do that and then usually about the time they kiss I can see all the way to the end and I will just go for it. I literally number all the chapters. Who’s going to narrate it. Basically, what will happen or ideas for what will happen so that when I sit down to write I’m not going, “Now, what did I do?” and, “Where was I?” and, “What was I thinking might be coming up?”
And if I’m really pressed for time, this is another tip that I used to do, I don’t do it as much anymore but I would literally set a timer, so say 30 minutes or 15 minutes at your lunchtime or break or you’re on the train or whatever, and I would force myself to stop in the middle of a sentence.
Donita Bundy: Yes.
Elana Johnson: And that’s it. I close the laptop and I don’t get to write any more that day. And when I come back tomorrow, I know where I am and I pick right up and I go. That way I trained myself not to go backward but to see where I was and move forward and really quickly so I wasn’t wasting any of my 15 minutes going, “Oh, I need to edit this chapter,” and then I didn’t get any words because I was editing or I was lost or I wasn’t sure where I was going to go next. And if I’m in the middle of the sentence, my natural human instinct is to finish that sentence and keep going.
So, that was a little trick I used to do when I had really short chunks of time to work in.
Donita Bundy: Thank you so much for that. I just know that all our listeners are going to be taking notes because we know that not everything works for everyone but there are definitely going to be some things there that are going to help everybody. So, thank you for that.
Elana, we were just wondering also are most of your readers Christian or do you find that there’s a crossover into the secular market with your books?
Elana Johnson: I think there’s quite a bit of crossover into that secular market and I think that’s mostly because of the way I promote. So, I’ll promote my books to anyone who likes contemporary romance. That’s a massive, huge umbrella. I don’t even get down to westerns. If you like contemporary romance, you’ll like my books.
When I advertise, I do try to stock westerns and like Christian or inspirational or the spiritual categories or the clean and wholesome category on Amazon. I start there but I don’t limit myself to that. I expand out and I try something else. I try Lauren Landish. She’s got a cowboy series and she writes really steamy romance. I’ve had her readers come over and read my books.
So, I think that my books will crossover. I think I’m writing a universal love story, family saga belonging story that is good content for people. They want to have that, they want to be able to feel like they belong to this amazing thing as well. And for me, in my books, that’s the family.
Of course, we’re going to be doing their food traditions, their cultural traditions, their religious traditions and so all of those things are included in the books and I think that they appeal to the secular market as well.
Donita Bundy: Yes, absolutely. At Gracewriters our slogan is changing popular culture. How does this challenge you with your writing and your books?
Elana Johnson: I think it is kind of a challenge to put Christian or clean content, inspirational, spiritual content into the world. Especially, because now that there’s all the streaming services that create all their own content, I have a very hard time myself finding something that’s not rated MA. Right, mature audiences. And I want to give people something that’s not rated MA because sometimes I’ll watch that, especially if it’s a true-to-life documentary, but a lot of times I don’t want my fiction to just be filled with things that require me to “be mature”.
I want to give people who’d like something with less graphic content, less graphic language, no violence or very little violence because I do write cowboys. So, they work on a ranch, right. There is some stuff that happens but I don’t need to include blood or death or anything really. Just give them that content that fills their life with something amazing. Something that they can give to their grandmother or their granddaughter or grandson or grandfather.
I’ve had emails from retired men, as well, particularly who have lost their wives who will email me and tell me how much they love my books because the hero falls in love with this woman that reminds them so much of their wife that they are missing.
And I’m not saying mature content isn’t “good people” but when you put out Christian content with “good people,” flawed people, doing their best, then real people like us who are flawed people trying to do our best, we relate to that. We relate to that content when we want it to be satisfying and remind us of what’s important to us. And so, what’s important to me is my family and my faith and being able to share things with them. So, I want to be able to share media with them without having to go, “Yeah, well there’s this thing that happens in chapter 12 or just skip over that one part in the movie.”
It is a challenge because I think sometimes, well, the world just wants mature content. They want the MA and so I should give it to them. But then I think, “No, I am constantly looking for something on Netflix or Hulu or Peacock or any of them that is not MA and I will watch it simply because it is not MA. Because I want to support the creation of those things.
It’s a goal of mine to create the non-MA and try to get it out there into people’s lives.
Donita Bundy: Thank you very much for your time this morning and meeting up with us all the way from America in Utah where it’s snowing – and it’s not here. We are melting.
Elana Johnson: I know! And I’m freezing to death but it’s okay! My husband’s going to build a fire later.
Belinda Pollard: We’re all gathered around the throne.
Elana Johnson: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: And how about I pray for you, Elana, and for the Gracewriters.
Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for all the things that you have taught Elana during her time as an author of romance and for her generosity in sharing that with us and all of our writers out there who are listening. Lord, we pray that you will continue to bless her. That you will bless her with good health, with strength, with opportunities and possibilities. That you will continue to guide her as to the sorts of things that you want her to be writing and how you want her to be reaching out to people in Jesus’ name. And we commit it to you and we ask for your encouragement for all the romance authors out there who are wanting to make a difference. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Elana Johnson: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Elana Johnson, thank you so much for all the wonderful things you’ve contributed for us today. Thank you, Alison Joy and Donita Bundy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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