John Mavin has 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. He's a graduate of SFU's The Writer's Studio and also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC.
A past nominee for both the Aurora Award and the Journey Prize, his work has been translated, studied, and published internationally. Rage, his first book-length collection of dark literary short fiction, was published by Thistledown Press in the fall of 2017.
If anyone tells you that you're not really a writer ...
you probably have somewhere close to ten fingers, but you only need one to respond appropriately (a middle finger—either hand will suffice).
It's my belief that you are the ONLY person in the world who gets to decide whether you're a writer or not. No matter who tells you otherwise, if you really want to write, then do it. Anyone can write creatively and I believe any writer who is diligent and approaches their craft with the intent to improve can become a more competent writer. Yes, writing is hard work. No, writing can't be learned all at once—it's 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—will eventually succeed.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
About five minutes after I finished reading C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy. I think I was around seven or eight and I had enjoyed reading that story so much and wanted to have another adventure. However—I suspect because there was a lack of similar stories in my house at the time—I couldn't find anything else to read which looked to be quite as fun, so I decided I'd just have to do it myself.
To become a better writer, I had to...
go to school. I don't believe this is the approach everyone should take, but it worked for me. About fifteen years ago after getting nothing but rejections to the stories I'd been sending out, I realized I'd taken my writing as far as I could without outside help.
I sought that help first through Continuing Education programs at the then Capilano College and the University of British Columbia. After meeting other new writers—some of whom were very serious about learning how to write (and have been subsequently published)—I knew this was the right path for me (and I made my own first fiction sale, too).
When I got enough decent material together, I applied to The Writer's Studio, a year-long, part-time creative writing program offered by Simon Fraser University, where I met even more writers who were serious about learning their craft. After that year (where my cohort focused on writing fiction and I had a second story published), my next step was to apply to the Master of Fine Arts program at UBC, where I met even more people who treated writing seriously—very seriously.
I wrote my butt off at UBC, churning out a draft of a novel, a full-length stage play, a feature screenplay, and many, many shorter pieces in the time I was there. Aside from an intense focus in the genres I was studying (fiction, stage, screen, and YA) as well as learning how to critique and teach creative writing, I was also lucky enough to see some of my work either published or performed on stage. Without a doubt, these programs not only taught me how to be a better writer in a way I could never have figured out on my own, but they also gave me the confidence to realize I could actually do the writing thing for real.
Are you a plotter or do you write by the seat of your pants?
I'm a plotter, most definitely a plotter. I've tried both techniques and writing by the seat of my pants scares me because if I just let the words come pouring out I know I'll end up throwing the majority of them away.
Over the years I've learned I've got a blind spot when it comes to logic holes in my stories, and outlines are my security blanket which protect me from those holes. I figure by outlining the way I do, I save myself at least two or three complete drafts. Now that's not to say my second drafts look much like my first drafts (and my first drafts usually veer widely from my initial outlines), but I've come to accept this as my process.
I usually start with an idea and then flesh it out in a bulleted list (I've got this wonderful whiteboard in my office which is perfect for this), and keep expanding it until I've got a complete outline for a story transcribed into prose on my computer. I keep working with that outline until I'm either happy with it or abandon it as not worth further development (throwing out an outline hurts an awful lot less than throwing out a completed draft). But when I do get down to putting words into that first draft, I'm comfortable when new ideas come to me (and they always do). At that point I can either reign the story back to my outline, or (more likely) revamp my outline to incorporate those new ideas. It's what works for me.
Do you have any tips for revision?
OMG, yes. When I started studying writing it seemed everyone was focussed on workshopping early drafts and not many people were sharing what to do afterward. I did take a Continuing Ed course on editing as well as a day-long session on revision, but to be honest, that was about all I could find at the time. So, I went through the writing books on my shelf, talked to many writers, saw what worked (and what didn't) for me, and cobbled together a system for revision which has served me well (in fact, I built a six-week course around it). I call it (drum roll, please) The Recursive Revision Process.
In a nutshell, this process takes a first draft of a manuscript and revises it in successive passes, looking at issues in order from the most pressing to the least. My first step (after completing the first draft and letting it sit for about six weeks to gain some objectivity), is to write a summary of what I've got. Then, I write a summary of what I want the story to be (I don't think I've ever had these two documents be identical, but that's okay).
Whenever I make a big enough change to my story, I either slip in the change or else go back and rewrite the whole thing (I also suggest doing at least one blank page rewrite at some point in the process).
After I'm happy with my summary, I then decide on things like who my audience is, why I'm writing the story in the first place, what my statement of theme is (by that I mean a single declarative sentence for which I line up everything in my story–not the type of theme you may have learned in English class which goes something like "man vs. man" or "man vs. nature" which—aside from being myopically sexist—is of no help to a writer at all). Then comes any genre conventions I need to address, my plot (the chronological order of events), and then structure (how I present the plot to the reader, which doesn't have to be in chronological order at all).
After that, I look for elements that need further development, rewrite for clarity, trim the whole manuscript by 10%, look at my diction and my sentences, and lastly, focus on the mechanics of formatting, spelling, and punctuation. Whew.
After that (hang on, there's just a little more—I never said this was easy—it's not, it's a crap-tonne of work), I print out the entire story, pretend I'm the person I hate most in the world, and then read it. By doing this hostile read, I usually catch those things I'm unconsciously trying to get away with (but OMG, do NOT actually send your story to this awful person in real life—this is only a mental exercise designed to help you, not give ammunition to your worst enemy).
After this read (and making whatever changes come out of it), I let the manuscript sit for another six weeks (okay, these timeframes are for an ideal world—if you don't have six weeks to wait, give it as long as you can). Then, I open the manuscript and change the byline to the author I admire the most and read it again. By giving myself this new mental distance I check to see if this author has done good work and if the story is really ready to be shared. After this pass, I change the byline back to my name and destroy the manuscripts that aren't credited to me (no sense another author getting your credit, is there?). And then for me, it's time to approach my beta readers...
What is the best writing or publishing advice you've been given?
The best writing advice I've ever been given came to me indirectly from Ernest Hemingway (I never met him). Hemingway is often quoted as saying "the first draft of anything is shit."
When I discovered this quote it really resonated with me because my first drafts have never been share-worthy, and before I learned about effective revision I used to assume something was hopelessly wrong with me. I'd previously read about authors like Stephen King (I haven't met him, either) and his writing quota of ten pages a day and was in awe of a writer who could be so prolific (I was assuming King was writing finished pages—however, when I reread King's words later, I realized he never claimed to write ten polished pages a day, just ten pages or two thousand words when he's writing).
After hearing Hemingway's quote, I realized no one is writing ten polished pages a day from scratch—they're writing ten pages of crap, the same as me. And then the full import of Hemingway's idea hit me—when you're writing a first draft, it's supposed to be raw. If you sit down to a blank page with the intention of producing either a polished best-seller or major award-winner you'll cripple your creativity by trying to get everything perfect from the start, so don't even bother. Just write.
C.C. Humphreys once suggested to me a more positive refinement—rather than considering a first draft "shit," he prefers to label it an opportunity for better work down the track. For me, the purpose of a first draft is to get your ideas down on paper so you can never lose them. Yes, there'll be heaps of stuff in there you won't use, but that's completely cool—you'll rework whatever's in there later during your revision process. Readers usually don't ever see a story in any form except its final, polished version. But for writers, we know the work that's gone into revising a manuscript is the work that's made it the best it could possibly be.
How can readers help the authors they like?
Like most writers I know, I'm crap at self-promotion and just feel awkward when I try it.
My first answer would be a little flippant—buy their books, of course (either through a traditional bookstore or an online retailer). Also, many writers I know have at least one box of their own books in a closet somewhere and would probably jump at the chance to sell you a personalized autographed copy direct from that box (or maybe even a t-shirt or similar swag they may have on hand).
My second answer would be to please spread the word. Reviews on those online retailers' websites, through platforms such as Goodreads, or even your local library's online catalogue always help writers connect with new readers (and really, most writers I know would be very happy with the exposure). Even word-of-mouth—where you casually slip into conversation how good this book was and wow, you've just got to drop everything else and read it right now!—can do wonders for making writers happy.
Learn more about John at...
When our own darkness is mirrored in multi-faceted characters, do we look away in disgust or find the humanity within them and, by extension, ourselves? In his debut short fiction collection, John Mavin has slyly exposed hidden themes to the world with breathtaking potency, eloquence, and wit.
Rage follows a loosely interwoven group of people from the fictional town of Dolsens, Ontario. Archaeologists, mountain climbers, priests, musicians, psychics, soldiers, and teens all confront the rage and sorrow of lives based on lies and abuse as they struggle to gain their independence, their dignity, and in some cases, revenge.
When such content becomes overpowering, Mavin’s lyrical and controlled writing keeps the reader so enmeshed that we cannot look away. These are the stories that hold us close with their suspenseful conflicts and a nagging uncertainty of what a desperate or angry person might do. They are often as dark as they are enlightening
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