Happy Halloween! Love, Salem

Ghoul in Salem webSince many of you will be joining us for the WU Un-conference in Salem this next week, and because I’ll be co-teaching a seminar called “Place as Character” with Liz Michalski, I thought I’d share the character chart for Salem that I created for my upcoming novel.

Salem, where I’m fortunate enough to live, has been a major character in all three of my novels, but the city’s character chart has changed from book to book. The first chart bears little resemblance to this new one. Either I’ve gotten to know the place better in the almost twenty years I’ve been back, or it has grown and changed as any character should. In a city where history casts such a long shadow, it’s refreshing to see change. I’ve watched Salem grow from aging historical/industrial, to tourist mecca, to real estate goldmine for escaping young Bostonians.

Before I begin a new novel, I write detailed biographies for my main characters, sometimes up to 30 pages. But in my first book, beyond mentioning that one character had red hair, the physical descriptions of characters were almost non- existent. This was due, in part, to the first person POV, the protagonist was so deeply burdened by her past that she barely noticed the world around her and spent little time interacting with other people, much less noticing how they looked. For that book, evading physical descriptions made sense. What was interesting in retrospect was that my readers weren’t aware of the omission. I visited a number of book clubs with that first book, and, since everyone knew that the film rights had been optioned, the clubs always got around to casting the movie. Arguments ensued, with physical descriptions that were so wildly opposing that it was difficult to believe the club members were all reading the same book. This repeated experience taught me a great deal about the collaborative process between writer and reader, and just how big a role the imagination of the reader can play.

For this third book, which takes place in three distinct time periods, not only was backstory extremely important, but so was physical description. My editor helped me put together a new chart, which, as you can see, still has some blank spaces I haven’t been able to fill. Most of the details in the chart do not appear in the novel, but they are still important for me to understand. The three most important questions are the final ones. I’ve asked them of each book, and, though I am writing about the same place, they always elicit different answers. This surprises me every time, but it shouldn’t. If place really is character, then that character should change and arc the same way any other would.

For those of you coming to Salem next week, let this serve as a quirky travel guide. For the rest, here’s my introduction to:

SALEM AS CHARACTER Continue Reading »

Introducing Myself


Hi. I’m Allison. I’m introducing myself. I’m a writer.

It’s an odd choice for the title of this blog and the intro because, well, I’ve been writing here for a while, and a few of you may know me. Also because this is actually my final post here on Writer Unboxed. But it’s also not so odd because this was the title of my very first post, written seven and a half years ago here on Writer Unboxed. Yes, after a very, very long time (ions in our industry), I’m hanging up my blogging hat. I’ve already done so on my website, and after much thought, I’m doing so here.

Why stop now?

Well, though it feels impossible, I’ve run out of things to say. These days, there are so many wise voices out there imparting excellent advice and experience that I trust that readers are in great hands. Since my first post here, I’ve written five books, published at three different houses, had four different editors, and ultimately, opted to self-publish. I’ve shared the roller-coaster and when I could, offered ways that readers could do as I had (or in a few cases, not do as I had!). But sometimes, as in all things in life, it’s best to know when it’s time to shut up and reflect, and I guess I’ve reached that point. That point where I’m ready to be a listener and apply this quiet space to my writing. I’d never have imagined it but the quiet space is comforting now: I gravitate less to Twitter, away from chatter and blogs and comment sections, totally content not to document every last thing. (When and why have we become a society who documents every last thing? As if we don’t document it, it didn’t actually happen.) To instead, save some of that for me. My characters. My writing. My home life.

Which is why I started this post with the same way that I started my very first post: introducing myself. Continue Reading »

KAPOW!  Cutting Scenes Like a Superhero

Incredible Bokeh by JD Hancock

Incredible Bokeh by JD Hancock

There’s a scene in my novel-in-progress that I absolutely love. It has magic, romance, and the flavor of a fairy tale — everything I’ve tried to accomplish in this book. When I reread it, I don’t get that ‘Oh good God, who am I kidding” feeling that comes from most of my draft work.  I’ve lovingly polished this scene until every single word shines, and the beta readers I’ve shown it to agree — it’s pretty awesome.

And next week, when I start revising my novel, I’m planning to kill the whole chapter.

Blame The Incredibles and Brad Bird.

The Incredibles, for those of you not graced with nine-year-old boys, is the Pixar movie that on the surface is about a family of superheroes forced by social circumstances to live undercover and hide their gifts.  But it’s also the story of a marriage that may be in trouble, of dreams deferred, of the sacrifices you make as an adult for family and what happens when you get a chance to take those dreams out to play again.  We watch it ALL THE TIME at my house, and all of us, not just the nine-year-old, can quote it. (You should hear me deliver the lines “Greater good? I’m the greatest *good* you are ever gonna get!”) 

But somehow I’d never managed to watch the extras included with the DVD until last month.

Last family movie night, the kids were angling to stay up later, as kids do, and after the movie we popped in the extras DVD, cruised through the shorts and were about to declare bedtime when my son punched the deleted scenes arrow.  Suddenly, producer Brad Bird was talking about why these scenes didn’t make the cut.

Bird and his team eliminated scenes for all kinds of reasons — to cut screen time, to amp up tension, to give other characters more impact.  Every single one of those deleted scenes was a tiny jewel, and it’s obvious it pained Bird to cut them.  In one take, you can hear the wistfulness in his voice. “When we lost it, we lost one of my favorite scenes in the movie. .. In my ideal version, I would have that scene back.”

But wait, you say!  Bird is the director!  And the writer!  Surely, if it is his favorite scene, it should make the cut, right?!  He’s the boss, and he carried the story in his head for at least 10 years before starting work on it. And cutting isn’t a decision he takes lightly:

“In the editing room, when you want something but know you’ve got no leg to stand on, it’s the worst.  Like expelling a kidney stone emotionally.”

“In the editing room, when you want something but know you’ve got no leg to stand on, it’s the worst.  Like expelling a kidney stone emotionally.”

So why, if it is so painful, the scene is his favorite AND Bird has the power NOT to cut it, would he do so?

Continue Reading »

Story Mapmakers (No GPS Required)

StoryMapmakersMy husband can testify I am a horrible road trip wing woman. Put a contemporary map in my hand, and I’ll turn it topsy-turvy before I can decipher anything of travel assistance. The road names, byways, mile markers, and intersections all blend into a flurry of ‘huh?’ God forbid he ask me where the nearest gas station or fast-food joint might be. My traditional response: “Get off the interstate and we’ll look around.” We had a tent revival halleluiah when we got our first GPS system. But this isn’t to say I don’t like maps. Quite the contrary. I’m obsessed with them. They tickle my brain to think hard—harder.

I love that you can take a road map, strip it of boundaries, concrete highways, interstates, and exit numbers; show me the topography of the land, the rivers and streams, mountain ranges and valleys, and suddenly, the world rises up off the page in vivid sensations: rocky, wet, and smelling of basin swamps and mountain air. It unspools —north, south, east, west. Each compass needle pointing to a story.

I’m particularly drawn to old maps. Visual atlases of how things were and are no more. The major road once connecting A to B is now gone. The major river once separating communities dried up fifty years back. Hilltops are laid low by our human wear and tear. Chunks of the earth are apportioned into territories/countries/states then divided further. Wars shred the landscape, bearing something new—not worse or better necessarily. Just changed. 

And all the secret understanding is tucked into the mapmaker’s key (also called the ‘mapmaker’s legend’) at the bottom of the page, outside the plotted world; so if the journeyman is confused by the exact distance, surface, or body of water out of sight, the key will provide meaning. It’s a skill and an art: mapmaking. Continue Reading »

Writer Unboxed Un-Conference Closes to Registrants in 4 Days!

confIf you’ve been waiting to register for the WU Un-Conference — hoping to clear your work schedule or land a great price through your favorite airline — heads up: We’ll be closing our Eventbrite page a few days early, on Halloween. We still have a few coupon codes left, and we’d love to have you join us.

If you can’t make it, and — as one writer recently told me — you’re witch green with envy over it all, never fear. We’ll have a recap of events for you that will go up over the winter break. We’ll be trying something new in terms of gathering details during and after the event, too, which we hope will make the Un-Un-Con experience rich in its own virtual way.


We do still have a few spots, and we do still have a few days, and we really would love to have you join us.

Some additional details we hope will tip you over the edge in our direction — our session summaries:

Can’t make the WU Un-Conference? Don’t despair. We’ll have recaps coming to you in December, and we intend to keep Twitter hopping with info from Salem. Please do watch for our hashtag: #WUUnCon.

WIRED FOR STORY: Every writer wants to tell a story that hooks readers and never lets them go, and to find a way to accomplish that without going through the long slog of writing draft after draft. This workshop with UCLA writing instructor Lisa Cron presents actionable ways to meet both goals, with five steps you can take before you start writing that can save you months (or years) of work. Learn what your readers’ brains crave.

THROUGHNESS — Writing From A Deep Place: Everyone talks about “the zone” as the source of authentic writing, but where is it and how do you get there? This session is all about adventures in the unconscious mind, and what award-winning author Meg Rosoff learned from taking up Dressage at age 50. Continue Reading »

Update on Steel and Song — and Our WU Publishing Experiment

photo by Corey Holms

photo by Corey Holms

As many may recall, in July, after a few years watching independent publishing go from vanity press to a viable path to publication, and after kicking the idea around, we took the plunge and decided to experiment with a project we are calling Writer Unboxed Publishing. We had no idea how the project would evolve – we needed a guinea pig! I offered up my novel Steel and Song: The Aileron Chronicles Book 1, to gauge the feasibility of such a venture.

Since then we’ve gathered valuable metrics. We’re still in the discovery phase of WU Publishing, but one thing is clear: the response of the WU community to both the proposed venture and to Steel and Song has impacted our thinking in unexpected ways. An engaged, active population is one of the strengths of the WU brand, and while we anticipated WU would be supportive in general, we were blown away by the magnitude of support and enthusiasm. I want to thank everyone who bought a copy, tweeted, Facebooked, blogged, left a review, and were in general amazing. We could not have asked for a better launch.

If we move ahead with this project, we’d like for WU Publishing to be more than an independent publisher. Because the strengths of WU are unique (and awesome), we would want WU Publishing to align with WU’s culture and leverage those strengths to both the benefit of the authors who are considering publishing under the WU imprint, and readers who are looking for unboxed books.

How we leverage those strengths to produce successful books is what we are currently focused on. Those strengths are: Continue Reading »

October Roundup: Hot Tweetbles at #WU


October is a busy month in publishing. From the Frankfurt Book Fair, to book festivals across the U.S., and literary prize announcements, there was loads happening. Believe it or not, that’s just the beginning. Take a look at the hottest links below or browse Writer Unboxed’s hashtags at Twitter.



Continue Reading »

The Attention You Give; The Experience You Create

Photo by Toby Oxborrow

Photo by Toby Oxborrow

Many people bemoan the self-involved writer on social media, the one who is constantly vying for attention and over-promoting their own work. This puts other writers (you, perhaps?) into a conundrum: you WANT attention for your work, but only in an elegant manner. Self-promotion, with grace.

This week, I read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. He tells stories about people managing complex situations, where thousands of small actions mean the difference between life and death for those around them. The most compelling stories in the book revolve around surgeries where a patient’s life was dangling on the line, or flights where something goes horribly wrong and hundreds of people’s lives are in jeopardy.

Giving (Not Getting) Attention

The author posits that in cases of extreme complexity (air travel, modern surgery, massive construction projects), the individuals responsible for them needed to strike a balance between simple automated actions that helps prevent mistakes (checklists), and the nimble self-direction that a top surgeon, pilot, or construction manager have earned as experts.

The author made the case for simplicity and established process amidst great complexity.

This had me considering where I put my attention. Gawande made a compelling argument about how simple mistakes are overlooked in a surgery, resulting in the patient dying over something that should have been routine.

When I consider the goals and challenges of the writers I work with, it had me thinking more about how we give attention, and less about how we get attention.


Most people I meet are overwhelmed in some way. The complexity of their lives seems to have hit a breaking point whereby the common refrain is “there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

As I sit here and write this, I just glanced at the cover of The Checklist Manifesto and noticed the subtitle: “How to Get Things Right.” This seems almost like a backhanded reference to the famous “Getting Things Done” concept – where we don’t just worry about “done,” we worry about “correct.”

A qualitative difference.

This definitely seems to resonate with the worldview of writers I know: less interested in ‘anything’ that works, and more interested in grace during the process.
Continue Reading »

How to Rock a Writers Conference

hello2For those of you attending the Writer Unboxed Un-Con – especially the newbies among us – it may be useful to give some thought to how to get the most out of your upcoming writers conference experience. For those of you not attending UnCon, it may be useful to store these tips in a cool, dry place, against the day when you next wander down the conference trail. And for those of you with long experience of writers conferences, it might be useful to ignore everything that follows – but chip in with your own tips at the end.

First and foremost, campers, SET THE RIGHT GOAL. If you head into UnCon (or any con) with the goal of hitting some prized target (like landing an agent or a book deal, or whatever your ticket to heaven might be), you risk disappointment if that doesn’t happen. Worse, you’ll put all this stress on yourself to make it happen. Instead try this: Have fun. That’s a goal you can easily achieve, just by showing up and hanging out. I’m not saying don’t make the most of your networking opportunities. I’m just saying don’t obsess about it. As they say in poker (whence, let’s face it, all wisdom springs), “Let the game come to you.” What this is really about is setting your expectations. High expectations = buzz kill. Low expectations = fun!

Next order of business, SITUATE YOUR EGO. Take a few minutes to think about yourself, your sense of self, and where your insecurities lie. Then take all that self-consciousness, box it up, wrap it neatly with a bow – and leave it at home. A con is supposed to be a place to relax, meet friends, make friends, learn shit, renew your passion, and soak up energy like a sponge. It’s not a place to fret about whether you’re shining in others’ eyes. That’ll just make you try too hard. News flash: you don’t have to be momentous; you just have to be you. And if you’re really worried that people are judging you in some sense or any sense, remember this sardonic observation that Dr. Phil takes credit for, but really it’s from Eleanor Roosevelt, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

It usually works to buy drinks.

With that in mind, MEET EVERYONE (which you now can easily do, since you’ve A) lowered your expectations and 2) left your ego at home). If you have trouble breaking the ice, here’s time-tested wisdom handed down from Ascended Stairmasters of yore: “It usually works to buy drinks. Alternatively, reference this column. Just say to anyone you meet, “You know, that wannabe Stairmaster John Vorhaus recommends meeting everyone I can at these things, so this is me meeting you now.” (Especially use that line if you and I meet; we will find it hilarious.) And here’s an inner-game tip for you whose memory is as bad as mine. If you collect a lot of business cards and then can’t remember who gave them to you, just have them hold it and take their picture. It’s a little mug-shotty, but a reliable way to put names to faces later, plus fun (see above: icebreaker.)

Also please remember that COMPARISONS ARE ODIOUS. Continue Reading »

The Despair and Wonder in Every Moment

The perfect day in my world

One exquisite moment

On Sunday morning, I drove through town to have coffee with a friend. It was one of those exquisite fall days that sometimes arrive just before winter settles in—the aspens and cottonwoods are all bright yellow clouds of leaves contrasted against the cloudless blue sky and blue mountains—just dusted with snow—in the background. I had the same thought over and over, “It is such a beautiful fall day! I love the way that hillside looks! Look at the tree!” And my eyes were soaking in the sight of this line of trees and that ridge and the scatters of aspen groves I could see on the sides of the mountains. Over and over I thought, “It is so beautiful. This is the perfect day of this autumn. The PERFECT day.”

In the afternoon, I went to a friend’s house, and I finally pulled the car over to take a picture with my phone. It was the kind of amazing shot that makes you laugh, right, like this can’t even be real beautiful, and of course I posted it to Instagram, which posted to my Facebook page and to Twitter. Because that’s how life is right now.

Right now.

Right now, right now, right now. I thumb through my Instagram feed, looking at the moments taken from the lives of friends and strangers. There’s a photo of the beautiful potatoes from last night’s dinner, and a cat smiling and two girls dancing in tutus. Here is a photo of a tree, moody against the horizon, and my cat’s socked feet and the hundredth photo of the other cat lying on his back with his paws over his eyes because I think it is so danged cute. He has bandit stripes and it looks like he’s playing peek-a-boo. My beloved asked, “How many pictures are you going to take of this cat doing that?”

I dunno. A million more, maybe.

Because we document things now, don’t we? Everything, everything, everything. Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and Tumblr, photos and moments of all varieties. It begins to seem like a crazy jumble, and maybe it is. Maybe all of those moments begin to seem like noise, and nullify each other.

But as writers, this is what we always do—measure moments, capture moments, present moments. Continue Reading »

Everything I Need to Know About Plot, I Learned From Buffy


photo by Jaina

A couple of weeks ago, a client told me one of his beta readers had said his book read like a comic book.  I asked why that was a bad thing.

Granted, you don’t want your characters to be shallow caricatures or your plot to be mechanical or contrived, which is what many people mean by “reads like a comic book.”  But all of this client’s characters were fully rounded and plausibly human.  Even the psychopath who hunted people down in the woods had his vulnerable moments.  And while his plot had problems, contrivance wasn’t one of them.  I suspect his beta reader was complaining about the fact that his manuscript was an exciting adventure story.

Years ago, I stopped reading New Yorker fiction because I lost patience with beautifully written stories in which nothing much happens.  For the sake of this article (oh, the sacrifices I make.), I picked up a recent issue to try again.

Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees” tells the story of Rob, who has just returned to New York and is trying to get two character references so he can move into a co-op.  We meet a lot of Rob’s former friends and get a good idea of who he is and what kind of life he’s led.  He has a clear and engaging voice, and it’s hard not to like him despite his drawbacks.  The story makes good use of some advanced techniques, like present-tense narration and a highly unreliable narrator.  It also says some intriguing things about how we judge one another and ourselves.  But by the end of the story Rob still has only one reference, which he wrote himself, and we don’t know if he gets the apartment or not.  Maybe he’s changed by the experience.  Maybe he’s not.

In short, nothing happens.  It does it quite beautifully, but . . .

I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone.  But most readers need something more to keep them going.  They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about.  They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.

They want plot.

This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular.  The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon.  He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Continue Reading »

Deconstructing Micro-Tension


If you had to guess, what portion of the hundred-thousand-mile journey to basic fiction-writing competence would belong to the pursuit and mastery of micro-tension? Ten percent? Thirty? I personally don’t have a clue, yet I’ve been persuaded of its necessity since first being introduced to the concept by WU’s Donald Maass. Accordingly, I’ve done my best to read everything he’s had to say on the subject, several times. I’ve picked apart books that demonstrate micro-tension. (How about that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has sold a reported 6.5 million copies due to unsettling lines like this opener? When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.)

Despite this, my understanding still feels distant and intellectual. I’m like a medical student who can quote chapter and verse on state-of-the-art brain surgery, yet who walks into the OR and forgets her booties and mask.

Is there a solution for people like me? Maybe. As I was writing this article, I thought of what I already knew about tension at the experiential level and tried a reverse engineering exercise. It helped. The proof will be in my future writing, of course, but micro-tension seems closer, attainable. Care to see if the procedure works for you?

When we’re done, I’m hoping Don and/or you other craft nerds will have time to chime in with your thoughts on the process and conclusions.

First, here are a few quotes from Don to make sure we’re on the same page.

Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen-not in the story, but in the next few seconds. ~ Donald Maass from The Fire in Fiction

Tension” sounds drastic, but it can be simmering under the surface, it can be questions raised or false confidence, it can be so many different things. The Fire in Fiction contains an entire discussion (Chapter 8) on building tension and how it works — how a writer can make a riveting passage when absolutely nothing is happening. ~ from an interview with Pikes Peak Writers blog

Next, think back to a time in your life when you were on the edge of your seat throughout a relatively commonplace, ostensibly non-threatening activity — the more ordinary, the better. Have you got your example? Have any preliminary ideas about what made the situation so fraught?

Though I experienced an alphabet soup of emotions during my time as a family doctor, including grief and terror, I can honestly describe this “scene” as one of the tensest of my career.

Continue Reading »