Varian Johnson’s Code of Conduct (Or the rules of writing The Great Greene Heist)
The Great Greene Heist, my first middle grade novel, is unlike anything I’ve written before. Similarly, my writing process for this novel was very different than my process for my other works. Jackson Greene, the main character, has a code of conduct he usually lives by; likewise, I had my own set of rules for writing this novel. Now that The Great Greene Heist is out, I thought it might be interesting to look back at my writing process.
1) Outline, outline, outline.Then outline again. Unlike my other novels, The Great Greene Heist is extremely plot-driven. Before I had written the first real scene, I created an outline. And then another. And then another. Once I started writing scenes and chapters, I continually revisited my outline, tweaking as necessary, and sometimes starting all over again when the outline and the chapters didn’t match. My dedication to outlining resulted in a long, tedious writing process (the novel from inception to publication took about seven years), but now that it’s here, I think it was worth it.
2) Have fun! More than anything, I wanted the novel to be fun—fun for me to write, and fun for others to read. I took elements from a number of my favorite movies—Ocean’s 11, The Thomas Crown Affair, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—and incorporated those into the novel. I figured that if I was having fun and my characters were having fun, then my readers would be amused as well.
3) If you’re going to tell a heist story, know how to tell a heist story in style. I wanted a story with swagger and sophistication. More specifically, I wanted to show people of color with swagger and sophistication. So as I crafted Jackson’s crew—Gang Greene—I tried to reflect the diversity I saw in most of the middle and high schools I visited, and to celebrate it in a fun way that showcased the characters’ differences without being explicitly about those differences.
4) Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. The best caper movies are full of twists and turns, and are constructed to manipulate the viewer. I wanted The Great Greene Heist to do this as well. I wanted to trick the reader, but I didn’t want lie to the reader. I thought of it as a magic show—make a big gesture with my left hand so you don’t notice what’s happening with my right.
Given the amount of twist and turns and the large cast, I eventually realized that the best way to write the novel was in the omniscient point of view. I read, and re-read, and re-read again The Westing Game. I studied the mechanics of how author Ellen Raskin slipped in and out of each character’s head; how she used the narrator’s voice to play with the reader. Her use of omniscient perspective became the blueprint for the novel.
5) Time is on your side. As I said earlier, it took seven years for this novel to hit the shelves. And that’s okay. Every novel works on its own timeline; some take longer than others. And honestly, when I first started this novel, I wasn’t ready to write it. I wasn’t ready to tackle the omniscient point of view; I was scared to jump in and out of the heads of so many characters. I also didn’t think I could write a caper novel—it was a daunting task. But my need to write this novel eventually overcame everything else, and now here I am with a new book. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Varian Johnson is the author of four novels, including The Great Greene Heist, a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2014. His novels for older readers include My Life as a Rhombus, named to the Texas Library Association Tayshas High School Reading List and the New York Public Library “Stuff for the Teen Age” list, and Saving Maddie, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book.
Varian was born in Florence, South Carolina, and attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a BS in Civil Engineering. He later received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Varian now lives outside of Austin, TX with his family.