Be Your Own Hero

If you’ve been a writer for more than five minutes, no doubt you’ve been introduced to Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (If not, consider this your introduction. You’re welcome.) Campbell combines psychology with mythology to uncover the connections between folk tales told in different cultures across human history.

Through his research, Campbell found a standard set of archetypes in myths told around the world. In short, stories unfold in similar ways, no matter where they originated, because humans find these story structures the most satisfying. Storytellers have used these techniques for millennia.

So we writers often follow the Hero’s Journey for our characters, but what about ourselves? From time to time, we find ourselves mired in doubt and fear; we second guess; we lose our way. It can be difficult to summon the courage to keep typing, and it is sooo much easier to settle down to a Gilmore Girls marathon on Netflix with a bowl of chips and guacamole. (I’m just guessing.)

32964445A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend a talk by author, editor, and coach Kendra Levin. She knows a thing or two about helping writers be confident and stay calm. In her new book, The Hero Is You, Kendra suggests that we can embark on the Hero’s Journey by placing ourselves as the hero of our own story. I’ve never thought about myself as the hero of my own story. Have you?

How can I apply this to my writing life? Heroes protect, serve, and sacrifice.

  • Protect: My time, my ideas.
  • Serve: The greater purpose, what I am trying to say to the world through my writing.
  • Sacrifice: Gilmore Girls may have to wait.

It helps to create a realistic framework for how heroes do this.

  • Goals:
    • Track your progress. For me, this could mean meeting a certain word count each day or simply ensuring I work on my writing projects daily.
    • Break your journey into manageable chunks. It’s daunting to look at my WIP and think about how many pages I have yet to write. Having a separate document for each chapter makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.
    • Reward yourself for each milestone. Maybe I’ll watch the first episode of Gilmore Girls.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses:
    • Strength: I’m a morning person. Get up early, get words on the page.
    • Weakness: Oh, there is something called Gilmore Girls on Netflix?
  • Allies:
    • Find your tribe. Frodo had Samwise, Luke Skywalker had Han Solo, and Lorelai had Rory. I have a dedicated and intrepid writing group. (They are terrific, and I’m not just saying that in case they read this.)

 

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At the end of her talk, Kendra asked us two questions:

  1. What is one small step you can make in the next week to work toward your goal?
  2. What step could make the biggest impact?

I really didn’t do Kendra’s book justice in this small space. The Hero Is you: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be delves into the different archetypes of  the Hero’s Journey and how that relates to your writing journey. You’ll find lots of encouragement and camaraderie within the pages. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

Seventh Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions from books I enjoyed this year.

 

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik BlackmanFor the curmudgeon in your life: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Blackman. A charming book about a sourpuss who will win your heart! The author, Fredrik Blackman, has the ability to take serious subjects (death, suicide, OCD) and relate them in such a matter-of-fact way that they are not off-putting or used for shock value. Backman treats the issues and the characters with kindness. I was rooting for Ove from page one. A Man Called Ove redefines family and shows us the power of connection. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Fredrik Blackman. Any suggestions on which one to pick up next?

 

The Gentleman, by Forrest LeoFor anyone who likes P.G. Wodehouse sprinkled with a little Noel Coward: The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo. Even if you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, just know that this one is a fun, hilarious farce. The basic premise: Lionel Savage, a poet and once-wealthy nobleman, finds himself short on cash and decides to marry Vivien Lancaster for her money. A few months into his marriage, he is disenchanted with Vivien and horrified to learn the poetry muse has left him…so he makes a deal with the devil. His ever-vigilant butler, Simmons, is there to help Lionel extricate himself from the steady stream of problems he creates.

 

 

Before the Fall, by Noah HawleyFor those who want a page-turner: Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.  A small plane crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and only two survive: a down-on-his-luck painter and a boy, the son of a wealthy television network executive. Did the plane crash by chance? Or was there something more sinister at work? It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving away any surprises. The author did a solid job of dropping hints so that you are sure any number of characters could have been responsible for the plane crash. The story alternates between each character’s point of view so you can see how desperate each person is to hold onto the ideas he or she values most. Sometimes it was downright frustrating and agonizing to witness the lengths to which some characters were willing to twist a tragedy into their own personal gain. A great page-turner!

 

Lab Girl, by Hope JahrenFor those who love to dig in the dirt or read about people who do: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. After reading Lab Girl, I will never look at trees the same way again. Respected scientist Hope Jahren gave me a new appreciation of these silent but knowing inhabitants of our planet. She has dedicated her professional (and one could argue her personal) life to furthering our understanding of the flora that is crucial to life as we know it. But this book isn’t all about trees. It’s also about Jahren’s life as a scientist, which can be a difficult road for a woman leading her own lab. I liked the structure of this memoir—personal reflections interspersed with informative science. Jahren does a lovely job of putting words to her emotions as in this one memorable passage: “I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it’s more than people want to see.” While this memoir is ostensibly about the path to becoming a scientist, it’s really about finding your tribe (even if that is only one other person), perseverance, and following your curiosity—universal desires to which many of us can relate.

 

Atlas ObscuraFor those who have wanderlust in the weird: Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, Dylan Thuras. “Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 600 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.” Yes, please! This book revels in the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the hidden, and the mysterious. From the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand to eccentric bone museums in Italy, every page expands your sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is.Just flipping through this book was a delight. The compelling descriptions! The illustrations! The photos! The charts! I’m using a lot of exclamation points because this book is that cool! I can’t think of a better gift for a creative person to be inspired.

 

Becoming Wise, by Krista TippettFor those who want a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity: Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. Krista Tippett is an accomplished conversationalist. She has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time, but her gift is knowing how to listen and expand the dialogue. From conversations with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to poet Naomi Shihab Nye to Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek, she aims to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.I came away from this book with a feeling of resilience and redemption, two words that seem to define her perspective. The book, like her podcast, is a master class in living in the 21st century. And if you haven’t yet listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” do yourself a favor and go through the archives now.

 

Stories of Your Life, by Ted ChiangFor those who like character-driven science fiction: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Disclaimer: I’m not an avid science fiction reader, but I loved this collection of short stories for the way Ted Chiang is able to use science to explore deeper questions about human nature. He asks the question every good writer (and perhaps scientist) asks: what if… What if men built a tower from earth to heaven—and broke through to heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? And as with any good story, the answers are never cut and dried. I was often left wondering about the phrase “perception is reality.”  One of the stories is the basis for the new movie “Arrival.”

 

Siracusa, by Delia EphronFor those who demand compelling, if not entirely likable characters: Siracusa, by Delia Ephron. Siracusa is the story of what happens to two couples on vacation in Italy. By the end of their short stay, events have occurred which will change their relationships forever—but maybe not in the way that you might expect.  Delia Ephron does a marvelous job in drawing well-rounded and believable characters. The four main characters (with each chapter alternating in first person among them) are crafted with precision. Their flaws and blind spots are apparent immediately. I feel I know them better than they know themselves. Have you ever felt conflicted about a novel even months after finishing it? I found it difficult to root for any of the  characters, mired as they were in their own shameless self-contemplation (and often self-congratulation). The very fact that I wanted to finish the book despite not finding any redeeming qualities in the characters is a testament to Delia Ephron’s skill as a writer. I’d be very interested to hear if you feel the same about Finn, Taylor, Lizzie, and Michael.

 

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer AckermanFor the nature lover: The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. After reading this book, you’ll never use the term “bird brain” again—unless you’re using it as a compliment!  There’s the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later, and the New Caledonian crow, the chimpanzee of the bird world, that makes its own tools. While some birds may not have traditional “book smarts,” they have “street smarts” in that they are able to negotiate complex social networks. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They share. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. All of these cool and interesting facts would have just floated by me if it were not for Jennifer Ackerman’s excellent storytelling abilities. She writes about avian intelligence in a clear, conversational style that kept me engaged to the last page.

 

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 20152014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Share in comments. 

The Dreaded B-word: Backstory

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar given by author and story consultant Lisa Cron. You may know her from her popular column at Writer Unboxed, her TEDx Talk, or her book Wired for Story

Her approach to writing fiction is a bit unconventional. She says that everything we have been taught about writing is wrong. (A bold statement!) “The conventions of writing—voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it—are the handmaiden of story…” In other words, focus on the story first and worry about crafting beautiful metaphors later.

But even those diligently outlining their plot with the Hero’s Journey firmly in mind may still forget the critical questions. Stories are not “a bunch of things that happen.” As she reminded us over and over, your story hinges on what those things mean to your protagonist.

Most authors (I’m looking at myself here!) get well into their novels and hit a wall. It’s usually because the events of the story are not connected to the decisions the protagonist makes. Lisa wants you to set aside your outline and stop filling out that character questionnaire. Instead, know your protagonist.

She suggests you ask yourself these five questions before page one:

1.What is yStory Geniusour point? Why do you care about it?  (Not, what is your theme? Let’s get rid of the word theme, she advises.)

There is something you want readers to take away from your story, something with implications for human nature. It may sound a bit cliche at first (It’s better to have loved and lost…), but that’s okay. This is just something to ground you in why you’re writing this story in the first place. Answering this question and returning to it will help you through the difficult times when you want to throw in the towel.

2.What does your character enter the story wanting? What would need to happen for your protagonist to get what she wants and be happy?  Whether or not the character is right about what would her happy or cannot articulate it (for example, a child), there is something she thinks would solve all her problems.

Here, the more specific the better. Winning the lottery is not specific. Picture, in detail, what that would look like for your character. Now you know what getting it would mean to her.

3. What is the misbelief that is holding your character back? This was a big one for me. This smells like the dreaded B-word: backstory. Backstory is the kiss of death, right? Wrong, Lisa says! Often the thing your character thinks is protecting her is actually hurting her. Dig to find the origin of this misbelief. Where did it come from, and why does she believe it?

It is key to understand your character’s misbeliefs as they relate to the problems she is going to face. Pinpointing this in detail will give the reader a sense of urgency and something to be curious about.

4. What is the plot problem that will force your character to struggle with this misbelief? The story problem “grows, escalates, and complicates.” Does this story problem have the power to force the protagonist to face her misbelief?

Most characters will struggle mightily to hold onto their misbelief. It is what has protected them all these years—until now, that is.

5. What is your protagonist’s a-ha moment? This is where the story makes its point. (See question 1, above.) It can come before your character has to do that really hard thing, right in the middle, or just after.

Maybe your protagonist gets what she wants, maybe she doesn’t, but readers can only care if they know what it means to her.
The huge payoff of attending Lisa’s talk was overcoming my apprehension about backstory. (That would be my misbelief!) But, as she pointed out, your protagonist had a life before page one. She didn’t step out of a bubble and into the framework of the novel. To disregard what came before eliminates what made her her. This post just scrapes the surface of Lisa’s new book Story Genius

If you feel stuck and need some guidance in generating story ideas, please consider signing up for my new online class The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity. This class will be a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there! 

As a writer or a reader, how do you feel about backstory?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

Judging a Book by Its Cover

It’s hard not to, isn’t it?  Judge a book by its cover, I mean. First impressions matter. Often there is a subtle reaction playing out on a subconscious level. I have shied away from books because I didn’t find the cover appealing. But what makes a book cover appealing? I assumed the answers are as varied as there are readers. Then I attended a publishing industry seminar about cover design, and I realized that personal taste is only one small part of the bigger picture.

Book covers have to tell their own stories, but they are “in service to another piece of art,” says Chip Kidd, the art director at Knopf.

We attendees were divided into the decision-making groups as you might find in a publishing house:

  • Publisher: Responsible for the commercial success of the book. Wants the cover to have maximum consumer appeal across all platforms.
  • Associate publisher: Ensures the book reaches its target consumer so the cover needs to speak to a specific audience.
  • Editor: Makes sure the cover speaks to the content of the book.
  • Publicity: Wants the cover to have an impact no matter where it appears: Amazon, a banner ad on Goodreads, or this blog post.
  • Author: Yes, the author has a say-so, though some authors have more say-so than others.

A designer will often provide five to seven completely different mock-ups of each cover and circulate them for feedback from the aforementioned groups. The designs are narrowed down and tweaked before showing one or two to the author. In the seminar, we reviewed each mock-up and considered the following questions (among others):

 

1. What category does this book fall into? As many of you know, book categories have gotten very specific in recent years! Contemporary women’s psychological thriller? Humorous performing arts memoir? Coming-of-age dystopian fiction? The cover design should suggest the genre.

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This book is nonfiction, but it’s going to be humorous. The mouth illustration is whimsical. The title is placed on the tongue and the subtitle playfully follows the curve.

 

 

 

2. Who is the specific audience? “We’re looking to reach readers who liked The Girl on the Train.” What does that mean? A cover that has abstract elements that evoke mystery.

3. Is the cover trying too hard? The cover design should convey the heart of the story. Without a doubt, my group gravitated toward striking images.

mustache-shenanigans

This cartoonish outline speaks to the author and the silly nature of the movie (the inspiration for this behind-the-scenes book) without trying to incorporate all of the elements of the movie.

 

 

 

4. How will this cover look as a thumbnail? A book jacket needs to look good on store shelves and as an image attached to an email newsletter. There were several sample covers we saw that used a script too difficult to read when scaled down.

 

Some other takeaways:

  • Don’t forget about typography. As someone who admits to having used ComicSans, I was often surprised by my different reactions to the mock-up covers based solely on a change of font.
  • Clarity versus mystery. Should the cover be sincere or intriguing?

The Vacationers

Every time I look at this cover, I want to find a pool and take a dip. The background color, the spot of red on the girl’s bathing suit, and the clean, white type give me a hint about the story. (Read my review of The Vacationers over at Great New Books.)

 

 

 

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This cover gives the reader nothing. No information, no intrigue, no hints. If it hadn’t been written by Ann Patchett, I would have never read the book.

 

 

 

 

  • Negative space can be your friend. We overwhelmingly felt frustrated by covers that were cluttered with images.

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No worries about clutter here. Even if you didn’t know who David Rakoff was, you might be interested enough to give this essay collection a chance. You know it’s nonfiction rather than fiction because “Fraud” is written over the author’s name.

 

 

  • Give the reader credit.  Readers need enough information to grasp the gist of the story, but give them the credit for the knowledge they already have about this subject/author/book.

 

What book covers do you love? Hate? 

Plug for my new online class! The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity offers guided exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity. Consider this class a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there! 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

Authorial Intrusion: Fear of Success

Have you ever daydreamed of writing a series that has touched as many people as Harry Potter? Or writing a memoir as successful as Eat, Pray, Love? I close my eyes and think about how wonderful that would be. For a moment I smile, and then something weird happens. I can actually feel the anxiety rise in my gut. My heart starts beating faster. It doesn’t feel good at all.

Not to worry, right? I’m certainly not at work on a series of high-fantasy novels titled Larry Botter. So why does just thinking about being in J.K. Rowling’s shoes cause me to twitch?

The Fault in Our Stars

Then I saw this video from John Green, author of the very successful YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. When that book was published, he was already at work on a new manuscript. “I started to feel this intense pressure, like people were watching over my shoulder as I was writing.” He ditched that story and reimagined it, but after 100 pages that too was abandoned. “I was elated and grateful that The Fault in Our Stars had reached so many readers, but at the same time I was terrified because I felt like I could never follow it up.”

 

 

Again, this is a problem of scale that I clearly don’t have, but something in the honesty of his video made me see the universality of the fear behind his words. I’ve read similar posts and articles by writers with more commonplace levels of success, and I realize the fear is the same. The fear is the same if you’ve sold 10,000 copies or 1 million copies. And the question is the same, what next?

In her TedX Talk, Jemele Hill, a host on the ESPN2 network, suggests that we fear success because it creates expectations and stakes and accountability. Success feels more complicated than failure. It’s more demanding. That “what next” feeling is always lurking, whether you’re publishing your first story or a book that has achieved phenomenal success.

That word phenomenal made me think of an interview Oprah did with J.K. Rowling in 2011 as the last Harry Potter movie was being released.

Winfrey: But I read something recently. It was the story of Michael Jackson in the making of Thriller and in that story the writer said Michael Jackson never realized that Thriller was a phenomenon that, it being the number-one selling album of all times, is a phenomenon. That what happened when that album came out and people all over the world doing that dance and listening to every song and that he spent his life chasing the phenomenon and therefore was never satisfied.

Rowling: I read it and that really resonated with me.

Winfrey: And it really resonated with me, too and I thought “I don’t want to be that.”

Rowling: Exactly.

Winfrey: I don’t want to be chasing the phenomenon that I know –

Rowling: I have to do it again. I have to do it again.

The fear of success stems from the pressure that we or others place on us to “do it again.”  In fact Rowling goes on to say, “People say to me, ‘Well, you must just think how on earth am I going to top that?’” It can be paralyzing.

 

Elizabeth Gilbert knows what it’s like to come off a resounding success:

…that whole Eat, Pray, Love thing was a huge break for me. But it also left me in a really tricky position moving forward as an author trying to figure out how in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody, because I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love.

 

This all makes me sweat just a little bit. Is it possible to feel anxiety about what comes next even before there is a before? What to do? Aim for mediocrity?

Here’s Elizabeth Gilbert again:

…you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service…your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.

 

That, I think I can do.

Have you experienced fear of success?

Have a great weekend, everyone!