Be Your Own Biggest Fan

Syncom, the First Geosynchronous SatelliteA few years back, author Joshilyn Jackson posted a story on her blog about meeting an author who was without a doubt his own biggest fan. I can’t find the post at the moment, but this author literally introduced himself with the words, “Hi, I’m award-winning author *name redacted*”. All that was missing to make it perfect, Joshilyn Jackson wrote, was for him to have said, “It’s such an honor for you to meet me.” Because she is hilarious and awesome.

My point, to be clear, is that that’s not the kind of own-biggest-fan I want to talk about today. Because honestly, I don’t think too many of us suffer from the kind of over-inflated ego of Joshilyn’s acquaintance. (And, really, who knows what kind of hidden insecurities the poor guy was trying to mask with all his posturing? I’d be willing to bet it was more than a few).

D.W. Winnicott famously wrote that, “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”

“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”

Not to go all tortured-artist on you, because as artists go, I’m not especially tortured, I’m really not. But that state of being– that tension between those two opposite extremes of communication and hiding– is a very vulnerable place to live. In my experience, all authors struggle to some degree or another with an internal critic, a nasty little voice hissing a litany of YOUSUCKYOUSUCKYOUSUCKYOUSUCK in your ears. I personally have never written a book where that nasty little voice didn’t rear it’s ugly head (yes, I know, that’s a hideously mixed metaphor). The difference, 19 books into my career, is that that voice has to be positively screaming a NOREALLYTHISBOOKHASASERIOUSPROBLEM kind of a warning on the sliding scale of you-suck-itude for me to pay it any attention at all.

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

When Your Scene is Dragging: 6 Ways to Add Tension

photo by Daniel Go
photo by Daniel Go

One of the very first books on craft I ever read, way back at the beginning of my writing career, was Writing the Breakout Novel, by our own Donald Maass. The book is full of excellent points on improving your craft (Don isn’t paying me to say that or anything; we’ve never met, and he has no idea even that I’m currently writing this post. Actually it’s kind of fan-girl trippy for me that I started out my writing career ordering a copy of his book, and now I actually get to be a fellow contributor of his here on WU), but for me the advice that I’ve undoubtedly turned to time and time again over the years has to do with tension. As in, it should fill every page of your story. Every. Single. Page.

That was something that I struggled with while writing my first (hideously bad) attempts at novels. I could identify the main conflict in my book– the major story problem facing my characters, sure. But how to create the kind of tension that permeates every paragraph on every single page . . . that was much harder to master. Luckily, 18 books later, it has gotten much easier. Micro and macro tension techniques are so much a part of my craft toolbox that they’re almost an instinctive reflex whenever I’m crafting a scene.

But it does occasionally still happen that I’ll be working on a chapter or a scene and realize that it suddenly feels . . . flat. Or just “off” somehow. Nine times out of ten, the problem is that I’ve forgotten the cardinal rule about making sure that tension is an integral part of every single page. That happened to me just this past week during a chapter of the current book I’m working on– and though I got that chapter (I hope– we shall see when it comes to final revisions) whipped into shape and revved up the tension, I wanted to put together this reminder list for myself and anyone else who might need it of possible go-to strategies for when you know your story is lacking tension but don’t know how to fix it.

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Your One Wild and Precious Life

Bird image
Pitta sordida – Sri Phang Nga by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

That quote from Mary Oliver has been ringing in my head this past week, ever since I got an e-mail from a writer friend– a very, very talented writer friend, who nevertheless is not writing. She’s in a dry spell, but it’s more than a “spell” really. She has written and published books before, but hasn’t written anything much or finished anything in the last five years. She wrote to me recently, frustrated by her inability to write, asking me how I do it. How do I juggle mothering and homeschooling and all the other responsibilities of real life and still produce any books.

That Mary Oliver quote is the first thing that sprang to mind when I thought about what to tell her. But first let me get one thing out of the way: I am so not an expert at any of this. I’m not sure I’m even especially good at any of this– not naturally so, anyway. Yes, I have all these children (3 at last count), yes I homeschool, yes, I write a lot of books. That doesn’t mean that I have things totally together the majority of the time. Or even the minority of the time. Anyone who doubts it can come an inspect the state of my kitchen floor. I’m not the organization queen who does it all and makes it look easy. Seriously. But maybe that’s a good thing, because it means that I can tell you what works for me, and add that if I can do this, pretty much anyone can.

So. I wish that I had some magic bullet secret to share. And I do, kind of, but it’s not the kind that allows you to rap three times on your keyboard and have a perfect book magically appear on the screen. My secret is this: [Read more…]

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

In Praise of Quitting

WLM14ES_-_Molinos_La_Mancha_-_Hugo_Díaz-RegañónIn our culture, being a quitter isn’t generally seen as a good thing.  We value determination, drive, commitment, and the willingness to carry a task through all the way to the end.  And rightly so.  Determination and commitment and all the rest are admirable qualities to have– and they’re essential to us as writers.  I’ve always felt that one of the deadly sins of the unpublished writer (ie the sins that will stop her from ever getting published) is to be a serial book-starter.  To start writing story after story, only to abandon the work in favor of some bright, shiny new idea when the going gets hard.

I still feel that way.  In my experience, every book hits a rough patch, a time when it would be easier to just shove the whole mess into a drawer and switch to something new.  But it’s kind of like parenting, in that you’re in it for the long haul.  You don’t trade in your kids just because they will not for the love of pete put their dirty socks in the laundry hamper (and my kids aren’t even teenagers yet).   You don’t give up on your book because the characters are stubbornly sitting with their arms folded, refusing to participate in the story you have laid out.  Or worse, raising their eyebrows at you and sarcastically asking, Really?  That’s your idea of a plot?

Determination is what carries you through those patches, and leads you to the miraculous moment when your book finally works, when your fingers can’t fly over the keys fast enough.

Except when it doesn’t.

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

On Reviews and How (Not) to Take Them

paper_birds_by_hoppipoppi.jpgI got the call from my husband two weeks ago, the one you never want to get. While at the park, our oldest daughter (age 7) had fallen and broken her arm. (My girl is something of a tree-climbing-roller-skating-bike-riding daredevil. Yet she managed to get a fairly spectacular compound fracture–her first–falling less than 4 feet off the toddler section of the playground. Really? Yup).

She was absolutely incredibly brave about the whole experience, from the ambulance ride to the hospital to the x-rays to the procedure to set the broken bone in a full-arm cast. Then she came home–and she was still brave. But she also had to face the kind of sucky reality that the whole ordeal of having a broken arm (her right arm, too) was really only just beginning. In a couple of months (a compound fracture means a loooong time in a cast) she’ll be fine, and she knows that and understands that she could have it so much worse, but it was still hard–especially in the first days when she was under orders to stay lying down with her arm elevated to keep the swelling down.

Now, my kids are always begging me to tell them stories, sometimes made-up ones, sometimes true stories from when I was their age.  So to cheer up my daughter and pass the time while she had to stay lying down, I told her that I’d make up a story just for her.  My girl loves witches and ghosts and all things spooky (spooky by 7 year old standards anyway), so I made up a story about a little-girl witch and her adventures.

Perfect, right?  And the rest of this post is going to be all about the healing power of stories during times of adversity, right?

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.