My Twisted Writer Brain…

Author John Mavin Shares His Journey and His Five Brilliant Tips to Help You Become a Better Writer.

Writer John Mavin.

I met John at a writing conference a few years back. The first thing I noticed about him was how tall he is….He towered over everything in his wake but with a modest demeanor and gentle voice, the classroom settled quickly.

John knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to share with other writers. There’s a generosity of spirit where he ensures all are equal regardless of education, age, or level of experience.

It is with great thanks that I welcome John Mavin to My Twisted Writer Brain.

Q: Who is John Mavin? 

OMG, for me this is a hard question (and I’m not completely convinced I know the answer, yet).

Those times when I have to introduce myself (like when I’m teaching a first class or giving a presentation), I usually cheat and read my bio (I keep a hard copy with all my lesson plans for this very purpose).

(Okay, I didn’t know John was so shy so I’ll step in here and share John’s all the other fine stuff. …

John Mavin is the author of the dark literary collection Rage. He’s taught creative writing at Capilano University, Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, with New Shoots (through the Vancouver School Board), and at the Learning Exchange in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

John completed his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the University of British Columbia and graduated from The Writing Studio at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

He’s been nominated for both the Aurora Award and the Journey Prize, he teaches creative writing at colleges, universities, and special writing events.

He taught a fantastic workshop at Wine Country Writers’ Festival in September 2021.

And get this…John’s writing has been translated, studied , and published internationally. He’s an accomplished writer, teacher, and speaker…yup…that’s John.

Q: When did you write your first book? 

I wrote my first book (which will never be published) the summer after my undergrad. My in-laws (who were still my then girlfriend’s mom and dad) were generous enough to lend me their basement. I wrote every day I wasn’t working that summer in blissful peace and solitude.

My first published book was Rage, a collection of dark literary short fiction published by Thistledown Press in 2017. The stories follow a loosely interwoven group of people who confront the rage and sorrow of lives based on lies and abuse in their struggle to gain independence, dignity, and in some cases, revenge.

I’ve actually written four books. How many have I published? One. Of those three unpublished books, how many have I tried to publish? Zero.

I’ve written some truly cringe-worthy stuff as I was learning to write. Some of those never-to-be-published books have multiple drafts but I’ve abandoned them all for a reason (as it turns out, different reasons for each book). Hopefully, I’ll get to see the novel I’m working on now through to publication. Fingers crossed.

I love that you’ve written all that cringe worthy stuff. Writer’s often have this image of others sitting down and pumping out perfect manuscripts. Knowing others, such as yourself, have struggled is refreshing.

Q: Did you always know you were going to be a writer?

When I was younger, I wanted to work in archaeology (and in fact did for six years). Another dream was becoming a writer (and not just a technical writer, which I also did for six years).

But becoming a writer was something I’d dreamed of, not something I did much about until I had this scary experience with a Tarot reader in New Orleans.

The tarot card reader told me very sympathetically I was on a path for destruction and unless I changed my ways, I was going to die…

John Mavin after choosing his tarot cards.

Read on for John’s solution to evading certain death…

To save myself, I chose to interpret her warning to mean I should stop being a software developer (which I was at the time) and start making my dream of becoming a writer true. I hoped that by giving writing a real, honest, both-feet-in effort, I could avoid a future death-bed regret (I also remembering hoping I was right and this wasn’t a medical thing).

So, to stave off my impending destruction, I completely refocused my life.

I enrolled in some continuing education classes in creative writing and for the first time in a long while, felt like I was where I was supposed to be.

I wanted to be a writer and I’d already learned as much as I was able to on my own and I still wasn’t very good. To get better, I needed help from people who knew what they were talking about and UBC and SFU were the people I turned to.

The instructors were encouraging, my classmates were invested, and everyone took the writing thing seriously. I learned a lot.

Eventually, I got enough decent material together for a portfolio, which I used to apply to Simon Fraser University’s year-long program, The Writer’s Studio.

While at SFU, I got involved in the local literary community, met tons more interesting people, and learned an awful lot more.

Finally, I took my biggest leap and applied to the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia.

I’ve got to say when I got my acceptance letter from UBC, it precipitated the biggest happy dance of my life.

UBC was a tremendous experience for me, where, again, I met tons of interesting people, got involved in teaching creative writing, and learned even more.

Today, I’m glad I switched careers and am very happy with my present role. Hopefully, I’ve successfully ducked that Tarot bullet, although, now I think about, I did destroy my old life, so I guess I made the prophecy come true all on my own.

Did you experience a pivotal moment when your began to identify as a writer and all that it entails? 

I did have a pivotal moment, but it wasn’t meeting the Tarot reader in New Orleans–it happened during a non-fiction class I took with Daniel Wood. There were a few of us in the class who wanted to be writers, but were very tentative about feeling comfortable in even thinking of maybe calling ourselves that. When Daniel found out, he rolled his eyes, borrowed someone’s water bottle, and then good-naturedly sprinkled water on us and declared us all writers. That secular “baptism” helped me finally admit that, yeah, I wrote things so of course I was a writer. The memory still makes me smile today.

What else do you do to stay competitive, healthy, active, and engaged?

I write full time–both feet in–and teach creative writing on the side, read voraciously (both within and beyond my genres). I also play/work on a home-grown video role-playing game I’ve been developing for far too long (it’s based on Dungeons & Dragons).

I also hike a lot (it helps offset the damage I do to my body while sitting for long periods). In pre- (and hopefully post-) COVID times, my wife and I love to explore new people, places, and activities. We both miss traveling very much.

What challenges did you face in those early days of wanting to write? 

I had difficulty with speculative fiction–especially fantasy (a genre I’ve always loved) when I first started. Even as I was gaining some competence with literary fiction, I still found writing fantasy hard. 

The tone of my early stories (usually written in past tense from a third-person omniscient point of view) sounded pedantic, long-winded, and purple as all get out. 

Part of my problem–I think–was that I didn’t know how to subtly introduce my cultural touchstones. For instance, in a contemporary real-world story if I mention my protagonist’s favorite song is Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll,” readers will make different assumptions about her than if she prefers Carmina Burana by Carl Orff or “Poor Little Rich Boy” by Regina Spektor. 

In my second world fantasies, I don’t have any shared cultural touchstones with my readers–I’ve got to create them. Once I learned not to explain all the research or world-building I’ve done in a story (just what’s necessary), my stories began to get better. And once I started experimenting with different tenses and points of view, my unwitting tendency for pendantism thankfully fell away. 

I believe no one likes being lectured to. I also believe it’s important for authors to understand their readers are just as smart–if not smarter–than they are. No one is going to want to read a story when they feel as if they’re being talked down to by a self-important jackass.

How did you find and secure your first agent? publisher?

I don’t have an agent, so I’m afraid I’m no help in providing insights on that count.

Thistledown Press released Rage in October of 2017. In 2015, they’d put out an open call for literary manuscripts and I sent them three short stories (which were part of the collection) along with an outline for a collection and everything else they asked for in their submission guidelines.

At the start of 2016, Thistledown asked to see the full manuscript, and six months later, they asked if they could publish the book in the fall of 2017. After much happy dancing, I said yes, please, and we got to work on editing and getting the book ready to share with other people.

Are you familiar with Imposter Syndrome (persistent inability to believe one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s efforts and skills)? Have you ever felt this doubt within you? Any tricks to get past it? 

While I believe luck plays an uncomfortably large part in publishing success, I also think there are tactics authors can use to stack things in their favour.

Honestly and diligently working to improve my writing skills is a strategy I’ve used.

Although I’m still nowhere near where I want to be as an author, I’ve worked very hard to get where I am and to some extent that’s protected me from feeling the success I’ve had is undeserved.

However, while I’d love to be able to say I don’t suffer from Imposter Syndrome, it wouldn’t be the truth.

I once sat on a panel at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference with some rather famous authors (Hallie Ephron, Diana Gabaldon, and Denise Mina) and I felt woefully and intimidatingly out of my league (Hallie, Diana, and Denise did nothing to foster this feeling–they were all open and encouraging–this feeling came from me and my own anxieties).

In fact, my feelings of inadequacy didn’t go away until partway through the session when I was answering a question (and feeling quite nervous about it) and noticed out of the corner of my eye Hallie, Diana, and Denise were all nodding at what I was saying. That moment and their implicit agreement with the advice I was giving relaxed me and helped me realize I wasn’t an imposter.

So, my trick to getting past Imposter Syndrome is to

take your craft seriously

learn as much as you possibly can

and work your ass off.

Do you ever compare yourself to other writers? What are your thoughts on this?

No, I don’t compare, and in the past, that’s presented a few difficulties for me from a marketing perspective.

As I don’t compare. I just want to write my own stories. Commercially, I may be shooting my own foot, but I’m happier this way.

What is your advice to writers who’re just starting out? how about the ones who are still at it after lots of rejection etc?

If you truly want to be a writer, be one.

Keep learning and developing your craft, and never give up. Your stories are just that: YOUR stories. Tell them if you want to. Never give anyone the power to make you quit (you’re the only person who gets to make that call).

I honestly believe writing is a profession of attrition (if publication is your goal). I also believe all humans are inherently creative and anyone can be a creative writer. And I furthermore believe any writer who is diligent and approaches their education seriously can become a more competent writer.

Yes, writing is hard work.

No, writing cannot be learned all at once–it is a recursive, incremental art.

But in the end, I believe those who are serious in their intent to learn–those who stay committed in the face of rejection–(and with a bit of luck) will eventually succeed.

Do you have a tricks that keep you centered on your writing work and to keep going? 

My personal tricks to keep motivate are:

Guilt…

(about the time I take and the lack of income I provide)…

anxiety…

(about writing things people may never want to read)…

and an overactive imagination…

(which, always seems to come up with worse-case scenarios for everything I do).

I’m also lucky-as-fuck! I’m married to the most supportive person I’ve ever met.

Whenever my guilt, anxiety, or my imagination aren’t enough to keep my butt in my writing chair, my wife has this really cool encouraging way of not only nudging me back into making up stories, but also helps me believe my writing is worthwhile (and I’m not fooling myself with the whole author thing). She’s awesome.

What are you working on now and when does it hit the shelves?

My most recent story, “Restraint,” was published in the current issue of Speculative North (see the cover and make sure you’re ordering the right one).

It’s available on Amazon right now and tells the story of a werewolf desperately trying to keep her shit together.

If you read it–and I really hope you do–I feel it’s only fair to warn you “Restraint” should be flagged with an ADULT CONTENT WARNING (it’s intentionally twisted and morally questionable and gets into some icky territory I believe minors shouldn’t be exposed to).

John, is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes. Thank you so much for having me–I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about writing (which is very dear to my heart). Also, to those readers who’ve read this far–thank you for your time and patience. I hope what I’ve shared was helpful to you.

Five Epic Tips to Make You a Better Writer

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John Mavin teaching a class about dialogue.

John Mavin’s work is adult oriented, disturbing, thought provoking, and can also be gut wrenching as he tackles darker issues of existence.

I asked John to share five tips for all writers–here’s what he wrote.

About a year or so ago on Facebook, writers were tagging each other to share their five best writing tips. In anticipation of participating, I put together five tips in the hopes someone would tag me, but unfortunately, no one ever did. Now, thanks to you, I finally get the opportunity to play along.

I’ll start with my most contentious tip–the one I get the most pushback on, the one some of my students have shaken their heads at me in disbelief and sworn they would never do.

Do a Blank Page Rewrite

Here it is: at least once in my revision process, I believe very strongly in the value of setting my current draft aside, opening a new document file (or putting a blank page in my typewriter), and retyping my entire manuscript.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes, I realize it sounds more like an exercise in self-flagellation than an effective writing technique, but for me, it’s got a purpose.

By retelling my story from scratch (as opposed to modifying an existing document), I find I make changes which not only improve my manuscript, but I usually come up with new insights that deepen my stories as well (changes and insights I’d never make if I was simply cutting and pasting).

Now, I’m not advocating doing this from memory (I find it very helpful to have my previous draft open beside me), but even if I start out by simply retyping my previous draft, I find myself deviating fairly quickly. I discover better ways to say something, see clunky passages needing to be deleted, and make plot connections I’ve missed my previous go-round. I highly recommend giving the technique a try.

Understand That Story Trumps Craft

When I first made this realization, it shocked me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I take great care in choosing the right words for my stories.

However, for me (and I suspect many other readers as well), I’m more interested in a cool story that makes me go “wow” which I can’t stop thinking about rather than with something that’s written with perfect craft that makes me go “meh.”

In part, this was my own rationalization for bestsellers which I thought were written abysmally but still achieved great popular success (their stories had either a wow factor or an incredibly intriguing premise).

Now, I cynically believe there is more at work in the creation of commercial bestsellers than simply a good story, but at the end of the day, I’d much rather read something awesome that’s written only adequately than something written with meticulous style that’s boring.

Structure Your Stories to Emotionally Satisfy Your Readers

When I was first learning how to write, I was baffled at how to put a story together people would want to read.

I could come up with openings, and endings seems to be self-explanatory, but I had no idea what to put between them.

So, I studied structure in depth, looking at work from Aristotle to John L’Heureux (including Gustav Freytag, the Hero’s Journey and Three-Act Structure, as well as myriad models from the linear to the unconventional) and have since decided Freytag’s Pyramid (or at least my modified version of it) works best for me in creating stories which satisfy my readers emotionally (regardless of which emotion I’m trying to elicit).

(Hi–sorry to cut in on John’s list but I’ve added this graphic so that readers can see the Freytag’s Pyramid. Click here for more. As noted below, John uses his own version of this.)

Source: http://www.clearvoice.com

In a nutshell, my version of Freytag’s thoughts on story structure goes like this:

**Through conflict, complications arise which lead to a moment of choice, after which falling action brings about a resolution.

I believe every story carries these five (conflict, complications, moment of choice, falling action, and resolution) elements. Remember as an author you most certainly don’t have to present them in this order, and when I’m planning out new work, this model helps me tremendously.

This model tells me what to put in between my beginnings and my endings when creating stories I want to share.

Do Your Research

This tip comes from my seeing time and time again unrealistic elements (based on lazy or non-existent research) being perpetuated, whether in fiction or on film.

One example that always makes me indignant is the inaccurate use of silencers.

Silencers do not put a firearm into whisper-mode. Yes, they dampen the sound somewhat, but a firearm discharged with a silencer still sounds like a firearm, albeit just a slightly quieter one. You cannot get away with shooting someone and having people in the next room not notice.

Similarly, the use of stirrups in Roman period pieces takes me out of a story, too (to the best of my knowledge, the Romans never adapted the technology).

Or smothering someone with a pillow.

Or (for the most part) sound waves in space.

Every time I encounter something in a story I believe to be inaccurate, it takes me out of that story.

I encourage all authors to research the elements they use in their stories and get their facts as right as they can so their readers (who may have deeper subject knowledge than the author) stay immersed in their narratives.

Which leads me to my last tip…

Always Remember Your Reader Could be Having Sex

Never forget your reader (usually) doesn’t have to read your story–they could very easily be doing something else instead.

Like having sex. Or eating chocolate chip cookies. Or (if I’ve inadvertently offended you with the sex option and you can’t eat chocolate chip cookies for whatever reason) playing with puppies (which I hope is something we can universally agree is a pleasant thing to do).

As a writer, I feel it should be one of your goals to make your story so good, your readers never stop to realize they could be doing something else.

In other words, don’t put anything into your story which has the potential to break your readers’ immersion (like shoddy research or nonsensical plots or inconsistent characters or a boring story or technically cringe-worthy syntax).

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Thank you John Mavin for sharing these epic writing tips. The one thing as writers is that we’re always learning and moving forward in our craft.

Your generosity in sharing your story and writing tips is so appreciated.

To purchase RAGE by John Mavin go to INDIGO or AMAZON or AMAZON USA

WWW.JohnMavin.com

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