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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Author Epiphany: I Film-Track My Novels

Flickr Creative Commons: Insomnia Cured Here
Flickr Creative Commons: Insomnia Cured Here

Epiphany Part 1 arrived in my living room as my husband griped at another Turner Classic Movie marathon Friday night.

“But it’s Katharine Hepburn!” I balked. “One of the greatest character actors ever!”

I’m addicted to old movies. Black and whites make me swoon and don’t even get me started on Technicolor.

My husband merely shook his head. “I’ll never understand why you like these when it takes an act of God to get you to the theater for a new release.”

“Because these aren’t movies about surly Teddy bears or Tom Cruise sprinting from danger again,” I argued. “These are mini-time capsules. From the costumes and scenery to the plotlines and cultural messages— I’m gathering history details. Educational entertainment!”

And the second I said it, I realized, yes, that’s exactly it. It’s the same in my reading and writing. Not only am I a historical fiction devotee, but I also advocate for the past teaching us something in the present. My preference is for stories that make me think back about how it was, as a catalyst to change how it is. It’s why I write contemporary-historical dual narratives like my latest release The Mapmaker’s Children. I appreciate being entertained and educated without the didacticism of a classroom. I like feeling my time has been well invested in things that enrich my perspective and enable me to speak intelligently on a topic I may not have known prior.

This is why I yawn through Will Ferrell movies, despite liking him as an actor. And why I smuggle Venti Starbucks cups into the theater to make it through the latest Marvel Comics action-adventure. I need art to work a little harder than that for me to truly enjoy the experience. I know, I’m an awful demanding patron.

My imagination is much like my stomach. Everything I put into it influences its state of being. It craves hearty nutrition and aches at too much sugar. It has violent, allergic reactions to certain fare and appreciates recipes with a long tradition of excellence. Simply stated: I am what I put in me. And I prefer to put in Little Women with Katharine Hepburn.

Epiphany Part 2. While watching above mentioned classic film on my couch, I was multitasking: working on a requested playlist of songs related to The Mapmaker’s Children for a blog. I was struggling on compiling contemporary songs (i.e. I just kept humming “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). I don’t listen to music while I write. I’m one of those “black hole” writers. No music, no phones, no sound. So I can hear every heartbeat of my characters, every note they want to sing.

However, I realized then that something else had become a staple of my creative process: watching old films at night when my brain was too tired to wordsmith anymore. They are my soundtracks—my quasi-playlist of inspiration. In a snap, I had list of movies I watched multiple times over the three years of writing The Mapmaker’s Children. Without being conscious of it, I’d studied these films: the backdrops, the character portrayals, the cultural attitudes they sought to evoke, and the ones that permeated with and without intention. Even in my down time, I was information sponging.

Since the blog specifically requested songs, I thought I’d share my classic film-track for The Mapmaker’s Children with you, Unboxed Writer friends. I’m listing them by year because it’s impossible for me to order by preference. All are outstanding movies that I highly recommend. [Read more…]


Why Write?

writer2Part of my job description as an editor is to keep writers from getting discouraged as they struggle to publish and publish well.  It’s not easy, since it takes a lot of effort to learn the craft of writing, and once you break into print, your readership tends to build slowly.  Even writers who are prepared for these natural roadblocks often give up – I can think of several clients with promising first novels who I wish were still writing.

Maybe the answer is to change the focus, from writing to publish to just writing.

Of course, you want to publish.  You want to share the joy of your creation with other people.  It’s nice to have the marketplace affirm your skills.  And it would be even nicer to be paid for writing, if only because it gives you more time to do it.

But if all you’re interested in is making money, there are easier ways to do it.  I once had a potential client who said he didn’t want to spend money on having his book edited unless I could guarantee it would earn $100,000.  I don’t think I need to explain to Writer Unboxed readers why we parted ways.  So don’t lose sight of the other reasons for writing. [Read more…]


7 Secrets of Highly Persistent Writers

jordanrosenfeldPlease welcome Jordan Rosenfeld, author of five books and hundreds of articles published in places such as: AlterNet, the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Rumpus, Salon, the Washington Post, The Weeklings, and Writer’s Digest magazine. She is mom to a left-handed 6-year-old boy and a hand-talker fond of hyperbole.

I’m a poster child for persistence, having taken just about every circuitous route, side-alley and back door to publishing success you can imagine. My persistence led to the publication of my new book: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence (Writer’s Digest Books), which is both a love letter to writers and a gentle prod to keep at it.

Connect with Jordan on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

7 Secrets of Highly Persistent Writers

There are always going to be blockbuster writers who make success look easy, but comparison will leave you feeling empty and uncertain. And there are countless how-to books and many more online seminars that claim to have the bullet proof answer to publishing fame and fortune. But the only successful strategy I’ve ever seen work for writers to achieve their writing and publishing goals is persistence.

And what, precisely is persistence? Is it something you’re born with, a gene that switches on as soon as you take your first English class? Of course not. Persistence is an attitude of flexibility and curiosity, rooted in passion or love for your craft, bolstered by treating your entire writing journey as a practice. In a practice, you are working a little bit every day (and sometimes a lot), and you focus on the moment more than the end goal.

…The only successful strategy I’ve ever seen work for writers to achieve their writing and publishing goals is persistence. And what, precisely is persistence? Is it something you’re born with, a gene that switches on as soon as you take your first English class? Of course not.

Here are seven secrets of highly persistent writers that you can adopt too:

  • Forget About Success: The most persistent writers want success as much as anyone, but they treat it as an end goal and put their focus on doing the work itself. It’s easy to be lured by that siren song of potential fame and fortune our society dangles before anyone in the creative arts, but so few realize right away. Ironically, the most successful writers are often the ones who think the least about success and focus on the daily practice of pen (or keyboard) to page.
  • Never Wait in Vain: Waiting for a publication, a publisher, or agent to get back to you can be agonizing. Persistent writers don’t just wait; they keep writing and submitting in equal measure. The more your focus is on what you’re producing, and not checking the email or snail-mail box, the more good writing you’ll eventually get done.

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What Kids Have Taught Me About Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Vassilis
Flickr Creative Commons: Vassilis

As a writer, it can be remarkably helpful to spend time around kids. When I’m not doing my own writing I work with kids ages 8-18 on everything from short stories to college essays, and at least once a week something happens that takes my breath away.

Young kids—eight to eleven-year-olds— who love to write, REALLY love to write. “Writer’s block” is an unknown concept; they’re open about sharing their work; they delight in other’s work; they laugh a lot. Adolescents are trickier. Some are so shy they barely speak during workshop, but then they write vivid, bold, incredible stories. Others can’t wait to tell you how wonderful their writing is, but then their stories are tentative, stilted. They are all incredibly brave. You know how hard it is to share your writing as an adult? How vulnerable it makes you feel to have your soul there on display? Right. Imagine doing that as a 14-year-old.

Here are three of the best lessons I’ve learned about writing from kids:

Don’t be afraid to play. A big part of working with kids is playing writing games. Writopia, the non-profit creative writing organization I work with, has its own games, but you can easily search for “creative writing games” online and find dozens. Playing writing games pushes kids to write scenes and stories and characters outside their usual comfort zones, often with surprising results. I play every game along with the kids, and it’s pushed me outside my comfort zone, too. One student of mine wrote very serious, deeply philosophical fiction. (He’s 13 and reads Albert Camus “for fun.”) One day I had students write down a single “Aha!” moment that could happen to a character (I learned to tell the truth, I understood parents make mistakes) and then write a character and scene leading up to that moment of insight. But first I had the kids swap “Aha!” moments, so they had to write something based on another student’s idea. My very serious student had to create a story leading up to the insight “I stopped believing in Santa Claus,” and wrote a delightful, sharply funny piece about a little boy walking down the stairs expecting to meet “the Fat Man himself” only to run into his father. “This is nothing like what I usually write,” the student kept saying. And he smiled the entire time he was writing. [Read more…]