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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Openings: Intrigue Versus Engagement

Mass-1024x698A great deal has been written about openings.  Without question they are important.  The opening is the first impression.  It creates a story promise.  It poses questions that need answers.  It pulls us into a story world.  It sets events in motion or at least establishes a mood.  We meet a voice, sense the story’s purpose, get a hint of its meaning and generally settle into the flow of something already moving.

In short, we are intrigued.  Indeed, most advice about openings is geared toward enhancing our curiosity.  Ray Rahmey’s first page checklist, posted here monthly, is an excellent yardstick for measuring what makes openings interesting.  Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages is a detailed discussion of what makes openings uninteresting, listing in order of importance the reasons why agents dismiss manuscripts and suggesting what you can do avoid that.   The term “narrative hook” has its own Wikipedia entry.

It’s pretty hard not to get the idea.  The first job of an opening is to intrigue.

Or is it?

Research psychology has some interesting things to tell us about why people seek out entertainment and what gets them involved in it.   To us it’s obvious why we need stories and why they appeal.  To scientists it’s a great puzzle.  Why do people get caught up in events which they know cannot be real?  What causes people to feel strongly about fictional characters, argue with them and even re-imagine their outcomes?

Yes, scientists really study this stuff.  Seeking out a story to experience shows to scientists what they call to “intentional motivation”.  The processing of a story then involves “sensory memory”, “working memory”, an “episode buffer” and finally retention in “long term memory” (LTM).  While we speak of hunts and campfires, scientists posit “Attribution Theory”, “Cognitive-Experiential Self Theory”, “Cultivation Theory”, “Social Judgment Theory” and “Thematic Compensation Hypothesis”.

Being caught up in a story excites scientists to terms like “transportation”, “anticipatory empathy” and “counterfactual thinking”.  Most significant of all is the reason that readers sink into a story at all: “Disposition Theory”.

I’ll save you some time.  Here’s what all that means… [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…]


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…]


Finding Your Mythic Theme

bruceholsingerToday’s guest is Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning fiction writer, critic, and literary scholar who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His debut historical novel, A Burnable Book, won the John Hurt Fisher Prize and was shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Best Crime Novel of 2014, while his scholarly work has been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship and other major awards. He has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, and other publications, and appears regularly on National Public Radio. His new novel, The Invention of Fire, imagines the beginnings of gun violence in the western world.

As a teacher of literature to university students, I often lecture about the power of myth, which shapes so many of our greatest stories, whether in ancient epics or contemporary fiction. Recognizing the mythic element of my own novel in progress a couple of years ago was a huge boost during revision, helping me see the book’s larger theme and the ways I might draw it out more effectively during final rewrites. I wanted to share this sense of “myth as craft” with the readers of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s been a great resource for me in recent years.

Connect with Bruce on Twitter and on Facebook.

Finding Your Mythic Theme

“Myth,” Italo Calvino wrote, “is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored.” Despite the ubiquity of myth in fiction of all varieties, most writers would likely have a hard time identifying the mythic narratives, devices, and archetypes informing our novels and stories. Fantasy literature, of course, is built on myth, yet these elements can be difficult to discern (let alone exploit) in other fiction genres, whether romance, mystery, or suspense.

In this post I want to talk about the potentially galvanizing effects of myth as an element of craft, and particularly of story and character. As a writer of realistic historical fiction, I work in a genre that seems naturally predisposed against myth. But the narrative structure and thematic power of myths shouldn’t be regarded as resources only for writers of fantasy or science fiction. The history of mythology contains enduring elements that can help writers in all genres shape their plots, identify their underlying themes, and infuse character arcs with the same sorts of aspirations, challenges, and dark twists found in the stories of Orpheus, Persephone, or Isis.

It’s no accident that Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, emphasizes myth as [Read more…]