News for the Newbies

rocket ship2Recently a friend asked me to write a short call to action for her high school English class, to help them break out of the arrogant insecurity of youth and into the freewheeling creative writing process that you and I know so well. Below you will find, more or less, what I shared with them. Can I prevail upon you to share it with young writers you know? Because after all, hey, why should we adults have all the fun?

The problem with high school writing, it seems to me, is that much of it is boring (The Lonely Voyage of Vasco da Gama) or lame (Why I Love Gravity in 500 to 750 words) or pointlessly self-evident (In the book THE TIME MACHINE, name the apparatus the hero invents). There’s so much more to writing than that.

Writing is a joy.

Writing is a thrill.

Writing is a big, exciting adventure!

Oops, but writing is also a big, scary problem.

Why? Because any time writers write, they face two tough challenges:

1) “I don’t know how to do this.”

B) “It might not be any good.”

And by the way, these problems are not limited to new writers or young writers. Every writer, from you to me to Charles Frickin’ Dickens, has at one time or another wondered, How can I make this work? and Gosh, what if I can’t? But what if you could enjoy the big, thrilling adventure without wiping out against the big, scary problem. What if…

A) You knew how to do stuff, and

2) You didn’t care if it was good?

Sounds impossible? Let’s find out – and let’s start really small. Continue Reading »

Letter to My Aspiring Writer Self

I posted this to A Writer Afoot a month or so ago, but I’m getting ready to to to the Romance Writers of America conference, thinking about all these things, and I thought many of you would enjoy, too.

Dear New, Young, Passionate, Painfully Aspiring Writer Self:

I am looking at you with great tenderness. Your passion for your craft, your hunger for publication, your commitment to continue to try makes my heart swell with pride. It is not easy, what you’re doing, writing, or rather, writing with the full intent to publish.  It’s easy to write if you are doing it only for yourself.  It’s only a joy, then, a secret pleasure, a tattoo on your inner thigh that you share only with your most intimate associates.

Writing for publication is a much more dangerous and challenging undertaking.  It means risking your ego and your standing in the community. People don’t understand your desire, even those you expect to understand, like reader friends and your librarian. Oh, I know how you’ve learned to dread that question at gatherings. You say you are a writer and someone says with excitement, “Are you published?”  You have to say no, and watch their eyes dim and their attention stray. Continue Reading »

How Being a Presumptuous Asshat Can Help Your Writing

A few weeks ago, I was in a pre-boarding airport line in Atlanta, to take a plane bound for Key West. Ahead of me in line was a group of people: two thirtyish men and a fiftyish couple. From their appearances, and the way they were all bantering in close quarters, I guessed that the men were the sons of the couple. The bantering was very loud, sauced with some ripe vulgarities. The younger men, both very buff and heavily tattooed, were wearing long shorts and tank tops with baseball caps turned backwards. The older man was wearing a stained t-shirt over his giant belly. He too had a baseball cap turned around backwards, long shorts and sunglasses.

All had strong Southern accents, a blessing of their Arkansas roots, the provenance of which came out later on the plane when the big older guy began a mild argument with a passenger behind him about Razorback football. He’d kept his sunglasses on when he boarded. The group was sitting a couple of rows ahead of me across the aisle, the younger men in one row and the older couple ahead of them. They continued to joke loudly with each other.

Call the Doctor (to Fix My Fixed Point of View)
Tom Bentley’s swift judgement? Rednecks. #Whycan’ttheloudhillbilliespipedown? I’d already decided they were obnoxious in the boarding line, and further cemented my judgement on the plane. Think no further on that matter, thoughtful Tom.

But as so often is the case with my presumption, and presumption in general, there was a deeper story.

But as so often is the case with my presumption, and presumption in general, there was a deeper story. That unfolded when someone up in first class had a medical incident. I never did find out what was wrong with him, but he ended up lying in the first-class aisle on his back, for at least forty-five minutes. Continue Reading »

Level 1 Experiment: Writer Unboxed Publishing. And the first guinea pig is ….

photo by Corey Holms

photo by Corey Holms

Greetings, lovely WU community. Kath here, back from the dead, with Therese. We invite you to gather ’round and let us tell you a story of endings, beginnings, and another WU experiment…

Prologue. The year is 2006. Kath is eagerly clicking open an email from her then-agent. She’s been working with said agent for a couple years now, shopping historical novels with a Gothic twist, but the traditional publishing world, awash in sexy dukes and vampires, with a voracious market looking for more of the same, isn’t interested.

But this, Kath thinks, this book is different. Written during a particularly dark time of her personal life, when a very close relative was sent to the Green Zone to serve during Operation Iraqi Freedom, she channeled her emotions into a fantasy novel that is by turns mordant, part steampunk, part fantasy, a romance against a backdrop of war. There’s some inappropriate humor laced in it. It’s her best work, she thinks, and lord she’d been at the writing game for some time now, honing her craft, absorbing the lessons of good storytelling. Surely, this time, it’ll catch.

The then-agent sent a polite, three sentence note. Paraphrase: WTF is this? I need a sexy vampire story, not this war crap. And, uh, I’ll pretend you never sent this to me, okay, and I won’t drop you.

And Kath gets it. Which shelf would this novel sit, if published? It’s genre fiction, but could only charitably be called a mongrel, borrowing from many genres. It’s a weird book. An unboxed book.

Sadly, the book goes in a drawer. Kath starts working as a writer-for-hire for book packagers, to see if she can gain bonafides in a market that is starting to implode under the strains of an economic crash and the digital transition. Slowly, she starts to lose the love she has for writing fiction. An intense day job takes up even more emotional energy. It gets so bad at one point, she stops writing altogether, and takes a step back from Writer Unboxed.

December, 2013.

Kath, with Therese, at a restaurant nursing tea and chocolate: Continue Reading »

Bringing a Strong Vision to Your Fiction


QQ Li (Flickr Creative Commons)

Please welcome Laura K. Cowan to Writer Unboxed. Laura writes imaginative stories that explore the connections between the spiritual and natural worlds. Laura’s debut novel The Little Seer was a Top 5 Kindle Bestseller for free titles in Christian Suspense and Occult/Supernatural, and it was hailed by reviewers and readers as “riveting” as well as “moving and lyrical.” Her second novel, a redemptive ghost story titled Music of Sacred Lakes, and her first short story collection, The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen, received rave reviews, and Music of Sacred Lakes also topped the Kindle free bestseller lists during its launch.

A combination of emotional abuse and multiple near-death experiences as a child, coupled with a highly intuitive personality that caused her to have dreams and visions of future events in her life even from a young age, led Dreaming Novelist Laura K. Cowan to the work of writing spiritual fantasy.

A combination of emotional abuse and multiple near-death experiences as a child, coupled with a highly intuitive personality that caused her to have dreams and visions of future events in her life even from a young age, led Dreaming Novelist Laura to the work of writing spiritual fantasy, in which she both explores paths to emotional healing and the supernatural nature of the world we live in, the places beyond it, and what happens when people step between them.

You can connect with Laura on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter, and find her at her blog.

Bringing A Strong Vision to Your Fiction

Spirituality in writing. It’s a hot topic. Too hot to handle, rather.

In the United States, where I live, there has been a slow devolving of public discourse on politics, spirituality, and other topics you should never discuss at the family reunion. But why is that? It’s not because they don’t matter to us anymore. It’s because they are so important to us, and so emotionally charged with histories of abuse and pain, that many of us can’t handle discussing them in a civilized way. Many writers take the hint and steer clear of these topics, particularly spirituality, which is somewhat out of fashion in fiction at the moment. But I never seem to be able to steer away from what is important to me. I steered right into it. And in the process I discovered something I think is important for all of us as writers: how to bring a strong vision to your work that will inspire people to see the world in a new way.

My fiction is technically magical realism or literary fantasy, and has been compared to fantasy sci-fi authors Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury. But it has a distinctly spiritual flavor because of its cosmological speculative elements about how the world might be knit together—portals between worlds, visions of what kinds of fantastic beings might be out there, that kind of thing. Even though I never aim to tell people what to think with my fiction, I did realize after a lot of reading and writing that I don’t like stories that don’t have some kind of depth to them, emotionally, spiritually, even intellectually. I now believe that artists need to bring some strong vision of the world to the page, or else why do we want to experience their view of things? Continue Reading »

The Aspiring Writer’s Dictionary

Hacks for Hacks: Sense of humor requiredThe complexities of the publishing industry can confuse new and aspiring writers. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, I present this handy lexicon to
show you all the terms you need to know as you start your literary career.

#amwriting (slang): Twitter hashtag that signals the arrival of a context-free non-sequitur. Designed to make the activity of sitting in front of a computer sound interesting.

Advance (n.): a sum of money offered to a writer prior to publication; invariably smaller than the advance given to that one author you hate.

Amazon (n.): the Great Beast slouching toward New York City via free Prime shipping. Hey, the UPS truck is here!

Comic Sans (n.): a whimsical typeface derived from Latin sans for “without” and comic for “dignity.”

Aspiring writer (n.): what authors refer to themselves as when they’re blogging instead of working on their manuscript.

Barnes & Noble (n.): america’s leading retailer of notebooks, pens, and coffee mugs.

Beta reader (n.): a reader who sees an almost-ready draft of your novel before you show it to your VHS readers.

Blogging (v.): authors sharing writing advice with their audience, who presumably consist only of other writers.

Borders (n.):

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “A vast and empty anchor store
Stands in the mall. Near it, across from Radio Shack,
Half junk, its shattered signage lies, taken down
Its boundless shelves, and kiosk of Starbucks coffee,
Tell that its manager knew what readers read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The buyers that mocked them and the cash that fed:
And on the endcap these words appear:
‘Welcome to Borders, bookstore of bookstores:
Look on our selection, ye Mighty, and save!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The empty parking lot stretched far away.”

Brand (n.): originally a marketing term to describe the signature features of a company or individual. In the social-media-marketing age, it now means pretty much whatever the hell you want it to.

Continue Reading »

Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down

Muscular male torso

Provocations in Poundage

Yeah, I know. Better I make fun of about 10 religious faiths at once, right?

We’re not supposed to mention the other f-word, it’s not PC at all. (I’ll just spell it so we don’t scare the chubby children: f-a-t.)

Somehow in the States, it’s considered better to “not say anything.” Rather than embarrass someone or “hurt their feelings,” we’re encouraged to allow our friends and loved ones to eat themselves to death. I’m still searching for the kindness in that. I mean is, “Darling, you look 15 pounds heavier than you did the last time I saw you” really that horrendous to say to someone you care about? Apparently.

Do I have statistical renderings here to demonstrate to you that, as a group, the writerly congregation may be pressuring the pews more this year than last? Are you kidding? We can’t even get an ISBN on every book out there.

But I’m at these conferences a lot, you know. Well, of course you know. And for a while I thought the meeting rooms were getting smaller. Then I figured it out. We’re getting bigger. We the People. We, the Writers Unweighed.

I had a particularly busy round of conference events in the first six months of this year, lots of time on the road, and found myself part of our expansionist movement. My exercise routine went south, young man, not west, and I’m now enjoying the special pleasures of reducing my weightier contributions to the field. And I couldn’t help but notice that I was hardly alone.

Do I have statistical renderings here to demonstrate to you that, as a group, the writerly congregation may be pressuring the pews more this year than last? Are you kidding? We can’t even get an ISBN on every book out there.

But I’ve got eyes, as my maternal grandmother used to say. (She did indeed have two of them, she was unassailable on the point.) And nobody knows the truckloads I’ve seen of what does not look like muscular development among our bookish brethren. Male and female, mind you, the scales jump for the just and the unjust.

I’m concerned about the issue on the wider range, meaning beyond publishing and in terms of our American experiment — which was not intended by the Founding People to be about face-stuffing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (yes, “Centers,” plural) can sober you right up with their Obesity and Overweight collection of facts and figures. Pear-shaped figures, as it were.

Among US adults 20 and older:

  • 35.1 percent are obese
  • 69 percent are rated as overweight

I’ll bet my Omron pocket pedometer that the writerly sector trends heavy. So I want you to at least think about it with me. Might burn a calorie or two in the cogitation. Even in this summer of our discontent (boy are we hearing from some hotter heads), let’s look at the pale and paleo realities, and think together about what we could do to avoid collapsing those podiums when we pick up our literary awards.

I’m going to give you one alternative and then I want you to share your best idea with us. Continue Reading »

Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?


Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Flog the first page of this bestselling author’s newest novel. Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—there are folks who reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for July 13. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Would this opening page be compelling if you picked it up to sample it in a bookstore? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.

This time I know it, I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.

This time, it’s too hot. This time, it’s too bright, there’s too much smoke.

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window, the only part of the bedroom still available. The enemy is cornering me, daring me, Go ahead, Emmy, go for the window, Emmy—

This is my last chance, and I know, but don’t want to think about, what happens if I fail— that I have to start preparing myself for the pain. It will just hurt for a few minutes, it will be teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony, but then the heat will shrivel off my nerve endings and I’ll feel (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Continue Reading »

What Sort of Books Do You Write?

Flickr Creative Commons: Daniel Go

Flickr Creative Commons: Daniel Go

There are precious few satisfying answers to the question above. I have gone to the trouble to list them for you here.

“Oh, I dabble in literary fiction, you may have heard my address at the Nobel Prize ceremony?”

“Joanne Rowling. Lovely to meet you.”

“Mainly plays.  Probably nothing you know.  Ah, you’ve read King Lear, have you?”

Or even: “Very few, actually. I’ve barely put pen to paper since dashing off Catcher in the Rye back in the 50s.”

What you don’t want to say is this:

“Well, I’m technically speaking a children’s writer, but not entirely, I mean, older children, some not children at all, many perfectly sentient adults, in fact, seem to like my books, which do, of course, feature adolescents, but often incorporate quite difficult themes, say, on the subject of life and death, so that about half of my UK readers are over thirty and many of my Finnish readers are over fifty…oh, and by the way, I’ve also written three or four picture books, and am kind of mulling over a middle grade series, just for a change of pace.”

And if you think it gets simpler, think again.  I’m just finishing up my new book, with a protagonist who has graduated from art school which makes him at least 22 — a good two or three years older than many of my past protagonists.

Imagine that for a radical departure.

The new book is called Duck Zoo, and my hero has the wrong job and the wrong girlfriend, and two dogs who are trying to sort his life out for him.  It’s pure Meg Rosoff territory, if you’ll allow me to refer to myself in the third person for a minute here (ala Gwyneth Paltrow).  It’s a comedy, kind of surreal, all about love and work with lots of dogs.

But it’s a whole new genre because technically speaking, Jonathan is not a young adult.

And all I can think is, oh dear god, won’t someone save me from marketing departments.

I wonder if anyone said, “Hey, Harper Lee, whaddaya mean you’re writing a book for grown-ups featuring a six-year-old protagonist?  What are you, nuts?  Who’s going to be interested in a six-year-old other than another six-year-old?”  Did anyone say, “Hey, Henry James, you know this What Maisie Knew book you’ve written, could you make Maisie thirty-six so your adult readers can identify with her more?” Continue Reading »

Newton’s Third Law of Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Geoff Ackling

Flickr Creative Commons: Geoff Ackling

Newton’s Third Law of Writing


For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.


Take a look at this passage from a workshop submission.  It’s set in the depths of the depression.  Mary Ruth and her family have just moved into a poor neighborhood, and she’s out walking past a home where two vicious dogs are tied outside:


     Mary Ruth slowed when she noticed a third rope tied around an old, leaning tree on the opposite side of the porch.   She started to move faster, fearing a third dog was loose.  She saw the rope around the tree move.  Slowly, very slowly the circle of rope moved from the back of the tree to the front, where she could see a shape attached. It was on four legs, crawling toward them. Mary Ruth stopped and took in slowly the figure of a young boy, naked, wearing only a collar of rope line. He stood up, his arms hanging in front of him. He stumbled toward her and the girls.

The boy’s mouth twisted. He was trying to speak. A guttural noise came from his throat like a bark.  Mary Ruth said, “Hello.”


What’s the problem here?  Continue Reading »

Unlocking the Story-Box

photo by Flickr's A♥

photo by Flickr’s A♥

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

It’s the classic question you nearly always get asked, as a writer, and there are always the classic answers to give back: something you’ve experienced, read about, observed; a place, a person, an overheard conversation, a newspaper report, a dream, an emotion, a picture, a fairy tale, a poem. These are my usual kinds of triggers, some happened on by chance, others more deliberately sought. But there are other kinds of triggers: objects, things that by their very presence seem to fire off the story-nerve. And they can be the most exciting triggers of all. That’s certainly been the case for me very recently.

I’m back in Europe at the moment and the other week, in London, on my way to the British Museum, I took a wrong (or right!) turn and came across an antique shop. In the window were trays of old coins, small figures, and old jewelry—very old jewelry, for as soon became clear, this was a shop specialising in objects from the ancient world, in particular Greece, Rome and Egypt. Some of the things were very expensive indeed, but a few were in the affordable range, so on a whim, I decided to go in and have a closer look. And there was the ring.

It is an Ancient Roman bronze ring, small and fairly plain, except for one unexpected feature, for it features a built-in key shank. Once, sometime in the 1st–3rd century AD, a Roman wore it on his or her (most likely her, given the size) finger, making sure it wasn’t lost. As soon as I saw that ring, I got a tingle, a prickle of story-nerve, and instantly a host of questions came to my mind. Questions, but also the beginnings of answers. Continue Reading »

Five Things Every Screenwriter Should Know About Writing A Novel

photo by Leo Reynolds

photo by Leo Reynolds

Today’s guest is author Abdi Nazemian. Abdi is the screenwriter of The Quiet, Celeste in the City, Beautiful Girl, and the short film Revolution, which he also directed.  He is an alumnus of the Sundance Writer’s Lab, a mentor at the Outfest Screenwriter’s Lab, and has taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension.  He lives in Los Angeles with his two children, and his dog Hedy Lamarr.

The Walk-In Closet is his first novel. It was chosen as the winner in the Gay and Lesbian Fiction category at the 2014 International Book Awards, and was named a finalist in the Best Mulicultural Fiction category at the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

What’s the book about?

Kara Walker has never found much glamour in her own life, especially not when compared to the life of her best friend, Bobby Ebadi. Bobby, along with his sophisticated parents Leila and Hossein, is everything Kara always wanted to be. The trio provides the perfect antidote to what Kara views as the more mundane problems of her girlfriends and her divorced parents. So when the Ebadis assume that Kara is Bobby’s girlfriend, she willingly steps into the role. She enjoys the perks of life in this closet, not only Leila’s designer hand-me-downs and free rent, but also the excitement of living life as an Ebadi. As Kara’s 30th birthday approaches, Leila and Hossein up the pressure. They are ready for Kara to assume the mantle of the next Mrs. Ebadi, and Bobby seems prepared to give them what they want: the illusion of a traditional home and grandchildren. How far will Kara be willing to go? And will she be willing to pull the Persian rug out from under them when she discovers that her own secret is just one of many lurking inside the Ebadi closet?

You can learn Abdi and The Walk-In Closet on his website, and by following him on Twitter and Facebook.

Five Things Every Screenwriter Should Know About Writing A Novel

During my very first book reading for my very first novel, The Walk-In Closet, I was asked how writing screenplays and writing novels were different. I wasn’t fully satisfied with my answer, so I thought I’d compose this list of the five crucial things every screenwriter should know about writing a novel.

  1. There is no software to guide the writing process. 

You know how screenplays sometimes feel like they’re writing themselves. That’s because Final Draft is an intuitive friend that often knows what you want to write before you do. Just press one letter, and suddenly Final Draft has magically written the name of your next speaking character. You haven’t written a word, but nevertheless there is a word on the page, and from there, it’s not so hard to write another. There is, sadly, no software that will intuitively write any portion of a novel for you, though I sure hope that someone in Silicon Valley is working on one.

  1. You can’t blame the director.

If anyone ever criticizes a film whose script you wrote, it’s quite easy to use the standard phrase, “It’s the director’s fault.” In fact, “It’s the director’s fault” is probably as common a phrase in Hollywood as, “Is this gluten free?” Unfortunately, there’s no one but yourself to blame if and when someone criticizes your novel. Every word is on you, unless you hired a ghostwriter, and even then they’re a ghost, so every word is still on you.

  1. You can’t fix it in post.

Continue Reading »