On Riding Unicorns to Book Signings


March 16, 2012 by Ray Yanek

Sometimes I pretend I’m in Barnes and Noble, standing behind a table stacked with piles of my latest novel.  In front of me, people sit on folded chairs.  These people ask me questions:

“Who influenced you as a writer?” “Are your novels biographical?” “Will they ever convert your books into a Lifetime mini-series?” “What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” “Are you really banned from the Canary Islands?”

All the usual questions and I breeze through them.  Yet there is one question that gives me pause: “What has been your biggest struggle as a writer?”

I clear my throat, place my finger on my chin and ponder the artificial firmament glowing fluorescently overhead.  “You know,” I say.  “My biggest struggle was taking myself too seriously.’”

For a moment, the crowd is struck dumb by the import of my response.  Then, women swoon. Men pull up their cell phone internet and prepare to order male enhancement products.  The Dos Equis guy leans out from behind the self-help section and tips his glass towards me. 

Reality soon comes crashing down, however.  I find myself not in Barnes and Noble, but in Wal-Mart, standing at the check-out counter, behind high stacks of fiber supplements.

One such fall from fantasy recently occurred after reading a critique of my writing.  To sum it up, the reader commented that the writing was “thick and meaty”, almost “literary”.  The plot, she said, was “hypnotic”.

But (and there is always a ‘but’) those strengths also became weaknesses.  That thick and meaty prose, she said, lead to a dissonant read.

I closed the e-mail and  stared at the wall behind the monitor.

 After a bit, I asked Dos Equis man what ‘dissonance’ meant.   I obviously caught him on one of those rare occasions when he does drink beer, because he couldn’t form a coherent definition.  A quick trip to the dictionary though, informed me that “dissonance” is a combination of inharmonious, clashing elements or tones.   As a result, the words draw too much attention to themselves and never obtain that seamless quality of a good read.

I went back to staring at the wall and thought about strengths that turn into weaknesses.


What an apt word.  Dissonance does pervade some of my writing, because often there is a pervasive dissonance in my head.

And I think there’s a lot to learn from figuring out just why that is…

Sometimes I feel a physical change when I sit down to write.  My mind puts on its tweed jacket, my forehead scrunches, my body tightens, and I stroke the shit out of my goatee.  If I had a pipe, I’d smoke it.  Writing is serious business, you know.  Everyone says so. If I don’t flood sweat into my chair and end the day with a serious case of swamp-ass, I have not given my all. I have to open a vein and bleed on that paper.  Plus, I was an English major, for God’s sake! Even though I hope to write genre fiction, I must write something that matters, something that causes the reader to shudder with intellectual orgasms.

Look at Dennis Lehane, my mind opines.  He writes hard-boiled crime, but literary notes abound. That is what we must try to do!  You must strive to emulate that blending of the two forms so that you (and your work) will be taken seriously.

You must try to be taken seriously.

Then I squeeze all that so-called seriousness into my prose.  Sentences become complex. Images become dense and abstract.  I think the semi-colon is my soul mate.  The dash gets me all hot and bothered.

Wow.  I can’t believe I just admitted to thinking like that…

But it’s true.  It literally just happened again.   I’ve been writing this damn post for days now.  Draft after draft.  Revision after revision.  I’ve been trying like hell to figure out just exactly what I am trying to say, what point I am trying to make and I’ve got one wicked case of swamp-ass.

When I finally quit trying though, one I let myself unclench, I happened to notice one word that I wrote over and over: try.

Maybe I expend too much energy trying to stuff myself into that tweed jacket, rather than on telling and trusting in the story, on trying to say something rather than fashioning just a damn good read.

Maybe that dissonance in my heads reflects the struggle between my authentic voice and a voice I try too hard to create.  Maybe I focus too much on complexity rather than clarity…

Yeah, that’s sounds like me. Including all those ‘maybe’s’.

You know, perhaps I need to listen to that fantasy version of myself, that self that rides unicorns to his book signings, and just lighten up… and maybe, just maybe, I need to trust myself a little more.

Sounds like something I could do in other areas of my life too, actually.


4 thoughts on “On Riding Unicorns to Book Signings

  1. Gwen says:

    I’ve been reading your posts for a few months. This one made me laugh. Being a fledgling writer myserlf I feel your angst. I have what I term the “Joyce Carol Oates” syndrom. I think every word I write must be filled with deep meaning.

    Keep writing.

  2. Though I don’t doubt the value of your insight, I have to say that the descriptions of ‘thick and meaty’ and ‘hypnotic’ are excellent for your genre … even “dissonant’ isn’t a terrible characteristic in thrillers/mysteries.

    It’s all a matter of having a deft touch isn’t it?

  3. Pamela Liegl says:

    Ray, you make my day! What a way to start the first day of spring, with a great read by my fellow educator. Get back on the unicorn and stomp that dissonance, if one can “stomp dissonance”. Glad you looked it up as my dictionary is buried under a stack of “to be read” books on my bedroom floor. Currently, reading Nevada Barr, for the National Park locales, and rereading Hunger Games before going to the movie. I will check in with you after spring break about “swamp-ass”. Had a severe migraine the last couple of days, or maybe I “s-a” would have meaning. I will check the dictionary later…

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