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.



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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.
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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.

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Forget Heroes: Why Heroines Are Important

Photo by Tomás Peñalver

Photo by Tomás Peñalver

Today we’re thrilled to have Martha Conway with us. Her latest novel, THIEVING FOREST (Noontime Books), is the story of seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner, who watches as a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters from their cabin. With both her parents dead from Swamp Fever and all the other settlers out in their fields, Susanna makes the rash decision to pursue them herself. What follows is a young woman’s quest to find her sisters, and the parallel story of her sisters’ new lives. The book explores the transformation of all five sisters as they contend with starvation, slavery, betrayal, and love.

Martha’s first novel 12 Bliss Street was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has taught fiction at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she now lives with her family in San Francisco.

Martha tweets ten-minute writing prompts every morning on twitter (#10minprompt). Follow Martha on her website, her blog, Facebook, and twitter.

Forget Heroes: Why Heroines Are Important

There’s a joke I once heard that seems applicable to heroines: If the three wise men had been three wise women, they would have asked for directions, gotten to the stable on time, and helped with the birth.

I love that joke not only because it’s funny, but because it reminds me that you can get to work and get yourself dirty without losing your glow of distinction. The traditional hero tends to stand apart from the people he meets along the way, touching down only briefly on his way toward a larger goal. Heroines, however, can retain and even add to their luster by interacting with others; didn’t Princess Diana famously take off her white glove to shake hands with an AIDS patient? That gesture made her more human, but it also singled her out.

In the same way, female protagonists can offer a new dimension to adventure and quest novels, which is a personal connection to the people and communities they encounter. Although Susanna Quiner, the heroine I created for my quest novel, was a bit grudging when starting off on her journey (reluctance is common among heroes), I wanted to show her living with and learning from the communities she encountered. It was important to me not only that she became immersed in different cultures, but that each one gave her something she didn’t know she needed. I wanted her to be a character that developed and changed along the way—that’s the modern kind of hero or heroine. Elizabeth Bennett becomes a character who can love Mr. Darcy after family developments force her to let go of some of her own pride.

What surprised me, however, were my own prejudicial feelings that rose up every once in a while, which basically could be summed up as follows: “But a woman just wouldn’t do that then.” They wouldn’t leave the cabin, they wouldn’t embark on a journey without a man, they wouldn’t go anywhere without a gun. For some reason, the gun issue in particular plagued me. However, I was lucky that the story was set in a time when guns needed to be hand packed with powder and then lit (I still don’t get that), and if anything got wet, forget it. Since my novel takes place among rivers and swamps, in the end a gun seemed less useful than, say, a portable cooking pot.

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The Secrets to Writing the Best Holiday Stories Ever


Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

Have spooky decorations and giant grab-bags of candy put you in the mood to write a Halloween story? Or perhaps you’re skipping ahead to Christmas and writing a tale about the beloved Christmas icon, Krampus? No matter what you’re celebrating, holiday stories are a treat for readers and writers alike. You may feel like you’re throwing your best ideas away on a story that nobody would want to read for eleven-out-of-twelve months a year. However, during that short window when your story is seasonally appropriate, it’s like the feeling you get when you dig your box of leftover illegal fireworks out of your attic on July 1. Here’s everything you need to do to craft your own story for whatever holiday you want:

If you’re not writing a Valentine’s Day story in a candy-heart font, what are you even doing with your life?

  • Word choice: Use words like “spooktacular,” “Hanukkah-lamity,” and “equinoxious” to get into a holiday mood. These are a lot more versatile than you might think.
  • Font choice: Everyone knows that submission guidelines are relaxed for holiday submissions, meaning it’s cool to use Chiller for your Halloween ghost story. If you’re not writing a Valentine’s Day story in candy hearts, what are you even doing with your life?
  • Chow down: Halloween and Thanksgiving are food-based stories set during autumn, so make sure that all foods are candy, turkey, or pumpkin spiced. Combine them if possible.
  • More egg nog: Your characters should all be drinking egg nog because it’s delicious and good for the soul and every year it’s taken away far too soon. I don’t give a damn if you’re writing about Casimir Pulaski Day, no reader has ever said, “There’s too much egg nog in this story.”

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Between a Blog and a Hard News Cycle

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How Do You Know If You Can Say No to NaNo?

The Internet has mutated reasonable people into wannabe writers…We are blind to the harsh truth-light-radiating facts such as ‘half of self-published authors earn less than $500’, facts written about in newspapers by professional writers.

That’s Tom Mitchell (@tommycm on Twitter) writing an essay at Medium, War on #amwriting. I must thank my colleague in London, Sheila Bounford, for reminding me of it. It could have been lost in the Bavarian Ether: Mitchell’s article came out during our always intense Frankfurt Book Fair week in Germany.

Bounford joined us for Authoright’s half-day conference there for English-language authors. I moderated two of the panels during that afternoon at BuchMesse’s new Business Club — a true haven at a Book Fair that drew 270,000 people. Every one of them was in my train car from the Hauptbahnhof to the FestHalle/Messe, too.

The Internet on most days looks like a clothesline for all the dirty linen we once knew it was incorrect to display to the world.

And as our panelists took questions from the floor, I was struck, as I am time and time again, by how basic those inquiries were. So many members of the audience were asking what they should have known from their own research as would-be professionally productive writers (whether self-publishing or traditionally published). Of course, they weren’t doing any research. That was obvious. And that is the problem. We see it everywhere, in this world in which, per Mitchell, the Internet has “mutated reasonable people into wannabe writers.”

Everyone has decided that he or she has a book in them, right? Mitchell:

There’s lots of stuff we all have in us, a spleen for example, but decide not to share.

Mitchell won’t win, of course. We’re likely to see the spleens come out, too. The Internet on most days looks like a clothesline for all the dirty linen we once knew it was incorrect to display to the world. I was recently told by a regular reader and friend that it was great I seemed to be “sharing more personal stuff” about myself in my writing. I pulled back at once. I’m Southern. Bubbas don’t share. We’re better bred than that.

Grant Faulkner in his NaNoWriMo headgear

Grant Faulkner in his NaNoWriMo headgear

Mitchell’s special target in his essay is NaNoWriMo, which looms once more on the calendar’s horizon. I had dinner in Frankfurt with Grant Faulkner, executive director of NaNo, immensely likable guy. We enjoy talking. He didn’t wear his horned helmet at table, just to answer the question I know is eating you alive. He’s aware that I have my qualms about kamikaze writing efforts, although many writers I respect think the NaNo dive-bomb is a good one.

As I told Faulkner, my worry isn’t about the NaNoWriMo month of November. It’s December. Mitchell says it well:

NaNoWriMo must be the worst thing that’s happened to literary agents since alcoholic lunches fell out of fashion. I almost pity the bespectacled bastards, receiving thousands upon thousands of unedited manuscripts, their December inboxes overflowing like knackered toilets, the only merit to the majority of these ‘novels’ being that they were completed quite quickly.

It’s not NaNo’s or Faulkner’s fault that so many NaNoWriMo participants ignore the instructions saying for God’s sake don’t submit your NaNoWriMo draft for publication (or self-publish the thing) in December.

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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?

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—some 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 October 14, 2014. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first 17 lines of the prologue.


Los Angeles

The work van was a new Mercedes, white and high roofed, with the bloodred words TURNKEY LOCKSMITH hand-painted on its side.

At a little before 7 a.m., it was winding through the Hollywood Hills northwest of LA, the steady drone of its diesel engine briefly rising in pitch as it turned onto the long climb of Kirkwood Drive in Laurel Canyon. Two hundred feet below the intersection of Kirkwood and Oak, the van coasted to a crackling stop on the gravel shoulder of the secluded road and shut off its engine. A minute passed, then two. No one got out.

As the bald Hispanic driver flipped down the visor to get the sun out of his eyes, he spotted a mule deer nosing out through the steep hillside’s thick underbrush across the street.

Go for a lung shot, he thought as he imagined getting a bead on it with the new compound hunting bow his girlfriend had gotten him for his birthday. Track the blood trail down between the infinity pools and twenty-person funkadelic hot tubs before lashing it to the van’s front grille. See how that would go down with George Clooney and k. d. lang and the rest of the Laurel Canyon faithful.

He was feigning a bow draw when the elegant deer suddenly noticed him and bolted. The driver sighed, leaned slightly to his right, and depressed the intercom intercom button under the drink holder.

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
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Celebrate yourself

photo by Luca Moglia

photo by Luca Moglia

When I was in the midst of writing my first novel, I gave up. I’d never written fiction before. I had never even taken a class on how to write fiction. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew I would never get published. I explained all this to my husband.

“You know, even if you never get published,” he said, “It is a huge accomplishment just to finish an entire novel. How many people actually do that?”

And I thought, he’s right.

Sometimes in writing we can get so focused on what recognition and success look like in the world around us that we forget what success looks like to each of us, on our terms. Of course I want my books to be published; I want readers and reviewers to adore them and I want to sell a million copies. I’ve published three novels now, and pored over every review in every periodical and blog, compulsively checked my Amazon reviews and rankings, scrutinized my royalty statements, and done endless marketing and PR for my books, including once driving 1400 miles in seven days to visit 28 indie book stores.

But with each book I’ve gotten less and less invested in the outcome, because I realize that the only part of the whole process I can control is the writing. I have learned that there is great satisfaction in writing as well as I can every day, and in challenging myself to make each book better than the last, and in celebrating the accomplishments that matter to me.

Celebrating ourselves doesn’t come easily to many people, especially writers, who are often (stereotype alert!) smart, introspective, shy, and yes, insecure. All those adjectives fit me to a T. I am a nice Mid-western girl. I am polite. I often defer to authority (or at least I used to, before I became middle-aged and cranky). I am modest. Self-promotion makes me queasy, and I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention. But I have two daughters. I see how hard they work, and I see how eager they are to please. I want to show them that there is nothing wrong with cheering for yourself when you’ve earned it.

I sold my first novel when I was 47, on a day when I had such a bad head cold I couldn’t breathe. What I remember most about that week is going to the dress rehearsal for my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind competition, the day after returning from New York, where my agent had introduced me to several editors and publishers who, to my amazement, wanted my book. At that point I was so sick that all I wanted to do was sit propped up in bed with some Vicks’ Vapo-rub and a glass of orange juice. Instead, I had to go to the dress rehearsal, lugging cardboard scenery and a hot dog costume. When I arrived, my friend Steve pulled out a bottle of champagne. Continue Reading »

Interview: Ellen Edwards, Executive Editor at Penguin Random House

image001I have been with Ellen Edwards at New American Library, a division of Penguin Random House, since I became a traditionally published author. In an age where writers often lament that they do not get edited, I can firmly say that not only do I get edited, but Ellen’s sharp eye, brilliance, and insights have greatly enhanced my work. She is a master at finding the diamond in the rough, and like any great coach, she encourages me to grow and learn from each writing experience. My editorial relationship with Ellen has been one of the most positive aspects of my career, thus far.

I am honored that Ellen took time from her merciless editing cycle to answer some of my questions for those of you hoping to publish or already published with a traditional house. Even those of you who have gone an independent route, I think, will find some of her advice very helpful.


How many years have you been involved in publishing, and what were some of your titles?

I have been in publishing for 36 years, the last 16 of them at New American Library, a division of Penguin Random House. I specialized in romance for the first 20 years and am proud to have worked with Kathleen Woodiwiss, Catherine Anderson, Lisa Kleypas, Loretta Chase, and Laura Kinsale. Titles with NAL include WHISTLING IN THE DARK by Lesley Kagen, ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN by Mahbod Seraji, and FLIGHT OF THE SPARROW by Amy Belding Brown. Some current authors are: Monica McInerney, Jeff High, Stephanie Thornton, Simone St. James, Susan Meissner, Donna Thorland, Jeanne Mackin, C. S. Harris, Kate Carlisle, and of course Erika Robuck.

What changes over the years do see as positive for the industry? Continue Reading »