The Tyranny of Motive

Desperation by Josh Sommers

The legendary coach Vince Lombardi used to greet his players at training camp by saying: “Within every man there is a burning flame of desperation. That is why you are here.”

I would include women in that, of course, and wouldn’t restrict the application to football. Or sports. Or Wisconsin.

This flame of desperation arises from some nameless place inside us, creating a profound sense of yearning that we often cannot define, but it is as intrinsic to our lives as more purely physical urges beyond our conscious control such as hunger, thirst, the sex drive, the need to breathe.

We long for something else, something better, something deeper and purer and truer, even if we have no clear idea what that might be, or how to go about naming it, let alone finding it.

And as writers we transmit that yearning to our characters.

This all came back to me as I was contemplating Donald Maass’s most recent post here (“Infused”), on the importance of recognizing your character’s core need, and my own most recent piece on pinpointing your character’s desire.

We long for something else, something better, something deeper and purer and truer

It seemed to me the beginning of a debate had started, with me saying that overcomplicating the matter was more often the result of confusion on the writer’s part than the character’s. But Donald made a very interesting comment that’s stayed with me. Troubled me. Nagged me.

The bastard (he muttered).

Here’s my attempt at a reply. Continue Reading »

Imagining Beyond One’s Own Experience, or What the Fiction Writer Calls “Going to Work”

writers_pen_nib_imagine_charm_necklace_by_jayelknight-d6povj0It’s not often that one hears a statement that is both undeniably true and contradictory to the nature of everything we do. But at a reception this past spring, I heard such a statement.

A small group of us were discussing the life of the author in whose honor the reception was being held. This author, who had written both a memoir and a novel, had been separated from his family at the age of twelve and forced to become a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

“My son is twelve,” I said. “I try to think of my own son in those shoes…” My voice trailed off as I began to conjure images of my American, middle-class, twelve-year-old son suddenly, violently, torn from me and the rest of our family, forced to survive in lawlessness, impelled to run for his life, left with no choice but to kill and to maim. The effort quickly formed a universe of horrific thoughts in my head that immediately made me want to leave the reception, go home to my son and hold him tightly to me.

“You can’t,” said a man in the group, taking advantage of my external silence.

I faced him. “I try to imagine–”

“You can’t. You can’t know what that’s like unless you’ve been through it. We can’t imagine what that feels like.”

True enough. I can’t. No one can know those acts, that life, for certain, without having been there. I would never presume to write that author’s story.


I can imagine something else. I can imagine another person, say, a twelve-year-old child who suffers a terrible loss—maybe she loses her parents in a car crash. Maybe her sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time in Gaza this month. Maybe her brother was a heroin addict and she herself is teetering on the brink, finding herself between “friends” and opportunities to take her life in directions she doesn’t even understand. Or maybe I am fascinated by an ancient culture I’ve heard about in some place I traveled, a native Central American people, and I’m willing to put in the effort to learn about that culture and develop characters. A young protagonist, perhaps, pushed by a traumatic event into a non-traditional role in her culture, challenged in her need to develop into something she’s not. I’m starting to see her already.

None of these specific circumstances have happened to me. But I have the tools to write them if I so desire. Continue Reading »

July Roundup: Hot Tweetables at #WU


The summer months–July in particular–are often quiet in the summer; industry folks are on vacation and many of the offices close by noon on Friday.  Not this year. July has brought a hotbed of activity with the continuation of the Amazon-Hachette debate and the rise of the unlimited book subscription. If you’d like to keep on top of all of the changes in the industry, how writers are coping, and engage in an intelligent discussion, (other than right here at Writer Unboxed) be sure to check out #FutureChat on Fridays at 11 a.m. EST with @PorterAnderson.  And now, for the month’s best links.







Continue Reading »

One Way to Connect DIRECTLY To Your Fans? *Yawn* Email. Boring Old Email.

There are so many entities that seem to put themselves between you and the folks who read your books: retailers, Amazon (they seem to be a special category all their own), publishers, agents, publicists, media, social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc), communities (Goodreads, Wattpad, etc), just to name some of the most obvious.

In other words, there is:

You, the author –> some other entity –> the reader/audience.

Now, for the most part, these entities add value. Loads of value. Twitter allows you to do things you couldn’t do on your own, as does a publisher, agent, Amazon, Goodreads, etc. And of course, you get to CHOOSE which of these PARTNERS you want to engage with. Because that is what they are, partners in your professional process of having a writing career. That choice is entirely up to you. (yay freedom!)

Today I want to explore one way to forge a DIRECT connection with your audience. One where there is no other entity creating a ruleset as to how and when you can connect with your audience. In other words, a connection where no one is changing an algorithm, or terms, or saying you can do X, as long as you follow our parameters and use our proprietary system.


I remember author Tim Ferriss describing how he spent thousands of dollars for marketing his first book: he pursued the least crowded channel: IN PERSON RELATIONSHIPS (he mentions it here). He spent his money on airfare to try to establish relationships with people he thought could help his book find an audience. He felt that shouting more messages into crowded channels wouldn’t differentiate himself, he knew that sitting face to face with someone is the least crowded channel.

Possible ‘least crowded channels’ for you connecting with someone?

  • Meeting up for coffee or a meal
  • A Skype video chat (or Google Hangout)
  • A phone call
  • An email thread
  • Other 1:1 conversations on social channels (@replies on Twitter, for instance)

Continue Reading »

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 »