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.

[Read more…]


One-Starred: The Importance of Criticism and Why You Should Take It

Flickr Creative Commons: Marco Ghitti
Flickr Creative Commons: Marco Ghitti

As some of those of you who attended the fabulous Un-conference last year know, I read all my Amazon reviews, positive and negative. And while this might sound like a bad idea—in fact, I’ve had many people tell me not to do it—there’s a method to my madness.

I admit, I began to do it because my scattergun approach to review reading wasn’t working. For instance, when my first novel, Spin, came out and I learned that my first major review was going to appear in The Globe and Mail, I had someone read it for me first to let me know if I should read it. I figuratively held my hands over my eyes until I got the thumbs up because if my book was going to be trashed in a national newspaper, I kind of didn’t want to know.

Then there were the reviews I read by accident. Well, not entirely by accident, but you read your Google alerts, don’t you? (Please, tell me I am not alone here.) Anywho, I got a couple of those, late at night it seems, when my capacity was diminished, and without thinking, clicked through to read them. And yeah, that didn’t always turn out so well. For instance, when a reviewer for the Montreal Gazette—my hometown newspaper—wrote that he thought my second novel, Arranged, was perfectly fine, “if you liked mindless pieces of fluff,” I was left pretty low, much more so than the praise the book had received from other quarters. It was like how a one-star rating needs a multiple of 5-star ratings to be overcome; the praise bounced off me, the negativity stuck.

So I felt like I had two choices: become a more disciplined person (fat chance), or find a way to deflect the bad reviews that I couldn’t help myself from looking at. And that’s when I started reading everything. Because if I read everything, I reasoned, no one review would have much of an effect. They would all cancel each other out, blunt their sharp edges by bumping against one another, and I would be immune.

If I read everything, I reasoned, no one review would have much of an effect. They would all cancel each other out, blunt their sharp edges by bumping against one another, and I would be immune.

That’s the theory anyway, and it mostly works. But an added benefit was that I learned things from reading my negative reviews, much more than from the positive ones. Seriously, I did. [Read more…]


The World’s Longest Book Tour

jennymilchmanToday please welcome return guest Jenny Milchman.” Jenny’s new novel, As Night Falls, will be released tomorrow. She is also the author of Cover of Snow, which won the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and Ruin Falls, an Indie Next Pick and a Top Ten of 2014 by Suspense Magazine. She is Vice President of Author Programming for International Thriller Writers, teaches for New York Writers Workshop, and is the founder and organizer of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually in all fifty states. Jenny lives with her family in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

In 2013, Shelf Awareness dubbed my book tour “the world’s longest.” Of the first two years I was a published author, eleven months were spent on the road, visiting bookstores, libraries, book clubs, schools. Now I’d like to help other writers add this kind of richness to their careers by getting out there face-to-face in an increasingly virtual world–oh, and you don’t have to rent out your house, trade in two cars for an SUV that can handle Denver in February, or “car-school” your children to do it.

** Special for Writer Unboxed Readers! Today is the last day of a giveaway for anyone who pre-orders Jenny’s forthcoming thriller, As Night Falls. You’ll be eligible to win a Writer’s Wish List, or give one away to an emerging writer in your life. Click HERE for details.

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

The World’s Longest Book Tour  

Or, Why I Rented Out My House, Traded in Two Cars for an SUV That Could Handle Denver in February, and Hit the Road With My Husband and Kids

When Therese graciously agreed to let me appear on WU, she asked two questions about my book touring. (I’ve spent 11 of the past 24 months on the road, putting 70,000 miles on the above mentioned SUV. Now with my third novel set to release, we are heading out again.)

Therese wanted to know whether I do it all myself. And, how I manage not to lose my mind.

Well, assuming she’s right about the not losing my mind part—and some would say that’s a reach—I do have some ideas as to how to keep a hold of your sanity on tour. But it might be better to talk first about why I do this, and whether a scaled down version could work for you. [Read more…]


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…]


Strange Bedfellows

Flickr Creative Commons: Vic
Flickr Creative Commons: Vic

I. Confidence

Consider the swaggering Ernest Hemingway. Even those who despise the man he was will credit him for introducing a vivid, muscular prose to the art of storytelling. You might hate the insulting misanthrope he could be but admire his keenly drawn characters, the emotional insights, the robust themes in his work. Here was a man with no shortage of confidence and a long list of accomplishments and a literary reputation that will live on well past our own lifetimes. This would seem to suggest that confidence = success. And perhaps great confidence = great success.

But most of us, no matter how expansive our egos, are not going to break new ground in the art of fiction. We are unlikely to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Few if any of us will see our novels adopted into the English canon. Schoolwork essays relating to our stories won’t be available for purchase on the Internet.

Still, every one of us who puts a story on the page and then submits that story for publication is able to send it out it only because we believe we’re pretty good at this writing thing. We might even be better than other aspiring authors—which, when we get published, becomes a self-evident truth, given the stiff competition. The thinking goes like this: Someone published me, ergo I am a talented writer. It only stands to reason, right? The same kind of logic applies to the successful self-published author: Gobs of people are buying my book, ergo I am a talented writer.

From that first success, we labor anew for months or years over the next project, continually moving toward a goal of being read again, and the bigger our imagined audience, the more confidence we have that the product of our effort is going to be worthy of that audience’s time and attention. Big ambitions = big ego. I don’t say this pejoratively. Ego is not in itself bad.

Big ambitions = big ego. I don’t say this pejoratively. Ego is not in itself bad.

II. Terror

When I began to draft this post, the proposal for what will be my fifth novel was on submission. My agent had been in love with it before I’d even written a word. When she read the first hundred pages, her response email began with “Wow!” Other early readers were similarly enthusiastic. Yet, the moment I turned in the final, polished materials—those hundred pages and a detailed outline for the rest—I was instantaneously certain that no one would love it, want it, publish it. On the day after my agent sent the materials to interested editors, I woke up feeling convinced that those editors who’d responded well to the pitch would have an opposite response to the materials, and now it was just a matter of waiting for my agent’s inevitable call explaining, gently, that this was one of those rare times she’d gotten it wrong. Just anxiety talking, you say? Maybe—but a version of this happened to me in early 2006. It began with excitement, then submission, then rejection, rejection, rejection… You really don’t ever know que sera.

But, all right, say your book is being published (traditionally). It stands to reason that it must be at least pretty good. A publisher picked it and paid you, after all. All is well, yes? Not so fast. Now it’s time to sweat the reviews. In traditional publishing, advance copies of the book are sent to the trade publications for review, i.e. in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus. These are supposed to be professional, objective assessments of a book, done with a view of its intended audience.

But. “Supposed to be” ≠ “are.” [Read more…]