Corrections Are Good: How to Take Critique Like a Dancer


Today’s guest is Kim Bullock whose novel-in-progress (working title The Oak Lovers) has already been receiving praise. Historical fiction author Stephanie Cowell says this, “I’ve seldom read a novel with such intense passion. I was unable to put down The Oak Lovers; this is a riveting book.”

The story, based on family member Carl Ahrens (Kim’s great-grandfather) is a compelling tale of art, love, and sacrifice. The artistic gene has been handed down through the generations. Kim’s oldest daughter inherited her grandfather’s artistic skill, and both her daughters are gifted dancers.

My thirteen-year-old daughter is a serious ballet dancer and I find it interesting how ‘corrections’ are interpreted as a positive thing in the dance world. It occurred to me that some of the lessons she has learned could easily be adapted to help writers not feel so overwhelmed when they receive feedback…

Kim, one of WU’s valued Admin Assistants, has an MA in English from Iowa State University, where she received the Pearl Hogrefe Grants-in-Aid for Creative Writing Award and also taught composition for a couple of years. In addition to contributing articles to historical publications in both the United States and Canada, she takes on freelance assignments for Living Magazine, a regional publication, and has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers.

Kim’s website for Carl Ahrens, a major character in her current novel, regularly attracts the attention of collectors and art historians, and she has given several keynote speeches on his life and place in art history. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and two daughters.

Connect with Kim on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Corrections Are Good: How to Take Critique Like a Dancer

My daughter, who had not known a plié from a tendu until age nine, was understandably terrified when she entered her first class at one of Dallas’ most prestigious classical ballet schools.

She had been the prima dancer during her one year at a beginner studio, performing front and center in the recital. “Work hard and you can go anywhere you want in the dance world,” her teacher had told her privately after ballet lesson number three. I was in the room at the time, and I watched that spark of a dream ignite in her eyes.

I feared her passion for dance might be snuffed out by trying to compete in a room full of girls who had been on tiptoe since toddlerhood, but my sensitive perfectionist emerged from class dry-eyed and grinning. She did chinés turns all the way back to the car, narrowly avoiding trash cans and hedges.

As she twirled, she rattled off an extensive list of things she had done wrong in class that day: everything from her hyper-extended elbows to her weak turnout and lazy fifth position. Her old teacher had apparently failed to correct her bad habits, so she would need to relearn everything

Though she did not seem upset in the least, I had to ask. “Did you receive any roses with all those thorns?”

“She didn’t name my butt. If it sticks out when you plié, she’ll give it an old man name,” my daughter explained. “The girl next to me was told to ‘put Fred away’ three times.”

Her beaming expression warned me that laughter would in some way lessen her tremendous accomplishment. I refrained, but the effort it took ranked somewhere between writing my Master’s thesis and childbirth.

If I were a ‘dance mom’ I’d have understood the reason for her joy that day, but my ballet experience had been limited to one year of reluctantly flitting around a studio pretending to be a butterfly. I knew even at six that elephants possessed more grace.

Corrections are a good thing, just one small rung under a compliment on the desirability ladder. Continue Reading »


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That Crazy Friend

Photo by Karol Franks

I have this GREAT story I want to tell you about, and … Oh darn. Can you hold on for a second? 

Okay, I’m back.  Where were we?  Right.  This GREAT story.  It has this amazing plot and you won’t believe… whoops.  Sorry.  Gotta go again. I’ll be right back.

Here I am. Sorry about that.  I’ve got this friend.  You probably know her.  She’s great — always around when I want to talk, the first to tell me interesting news, and when I need a laugh or advice, she’s right there.  But between you and me, the problem is, hanging with her makes it almost impossible to get anything else done. Like writing.  Or concentrating.  So, what were we talking about again?

Does this sound familiar to you?  If you replace the word ‘friend’ with ‘Facebook’ or ‘the Internet’ I’ll bet the answer is yes. 

A few weeks ago I was trying to write.  My email program kept dinging, reminding me I had new mail; I could hear Facebook burbling away on the posts I had followed; and one of my favorite authors had a new blog post up I couldn’t wait to read (so I did). 

Shortly thereafter I realized that if the Internet took human form, I could arrest it for stalking.

Seriously.  Most of us wouldn’t tolerate this type of interruption from real people — if a friend did this, calling us every fifteen minutes, constantly stopping by during time we’d set aside to work, we’d pull the plug on that relationship. But we’ll allow ourselves to be derailed by cute pet pictures, celebrity wedding photos, and memes telling us how important it is to stay focused.


I realized that if the Internet took human form, I could arrest it for stalking.

I think it is because writing is hard, and writers have always looked for an excuse to put off putting their butts in the chair.  Before the Internet, the excuses weren’t nearly as much fun, or as easily accessible.  Magazine or book reading eventually came to an end.  Friends, desperate to get their own work done, hung up the phone.  But with the Internet, the reading and chatting can go on forever, or at least as long as we have a connection. Continue Reading »


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Not Writing

2014 was a year of great upheaval in my life, death, family divorce, illnesses and hospitalizations, as well as a health challcolorful mandalaenge of my own, requiring a lengthy period of downtime. It happens to all of us. Things come in clusters. And this was a year for my family’s life to be in chaos–and of course because I love them, I showed up.

Here’s the weird thing: somehow, I still managed to write almost 250,000 finished words. That’s a lot, at least for me. Two novels, a novella, and a non-fiction book.

Right? That’s a lot.

I was honestly quite surprised when I tallied the numbers—it all felt hectic and unfocused–rushing here and there, trying to find information for a sick parent, a bereavement flight; trying to find time to just listen to the wounded ones on the phone. Because while work matters, people matter more. Showing up is everything.

I have little memory of doing those pages. What I do remember is going to England in cold, wet January and reading a lot on the planes and in the evenings when we were tired from packing my mother-in-law’s estate all day. I remember worrying about my beloved. I also remember reading five full, long novels on that trip. I didn’t write a word.

In the spring, I finished my Master Class book, but I don’t really remember writing that, either. I do remember driving back and forth to a city 50 miles away to help care for my mother after a fall landed her in the hospital for nearly a month. 

Not-writing, the reading and gardening and quiet hours flying or resting made it possible for me to write a lot

I remember redecorating a bedroom so she could be on the main floor, and clearing the fridge of food that had gone bad because I was afraid my dad might inadvertently eat the wrong thing. I had to stay overnight a few times and I didn’t do any writing, although I had my notebook with me. I read a lot, probably another few novels. Continue Reading »


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Editing, Uhh! What Is It Good For?


Mary probably needs to fly more [photo by Stuart Whitmore]


I’m closing in on finishing a book about how to see as a writer [note: wear glasses], and there’s a little section on editing in there, from which some of this is excerpted and massaged. (Porter, I feel the gorge rise: the horror! Another book about writing! But no, no, this one’s different: For the print version, the pages will be made of sloth tongue; for the ebook, every time you finish a section, a zephyr of electrons will tingle your nether parts.)

Because I’ve been an editor as long as I’ve been a writer, and that “long” is now measured by archeological tools, I feel my thoughts on editing have as much credibility [note: dubious] as those on writing, so, forthwith:

Let’s consider a nice serving of mashed potatoes, hot and buttery. Most cooks probably don’t think too much about preparing their potatoes, so it’s often a rote task, hurried through to get to the entree. But what if those potatoes were served with panache, with some kind of style point or spicy twist? Say you were served potatoes with a tiny derby hat on them. You’d remember those spuds, wouldn’t you?

You’d probably remember them even more, if under the tiny derby was a clump of hair. Wouldn’t that clump drag what was an interesting expression of creativity into an unappetizing corner? The reason I bring up potatoes, odd hats and unwanted hair is a point I want to make about editing. Competent editors are able to shape the standard serving of potatoes so that it’s without lumps, smooth and palatable. Good potatoes, but still just potatoes.

Better editors recognize when a piece of writing has a derby hat in it—they would never take that hat out, robbing the writer of a unique angle or voice. They’d find a way to allow the hat to fit snugly in its potato surroundings, fully expressive of its quirk and charm, without it seeming unnatural or foreign. And of course, a good editor would remove that hair—typos, kludgy expressions, dully passive voice, et al—posthaste. Continue Reading »


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Types, Archetypes, and the Occasional Human Being


What distinguishes Sergeant Bilko from Lord Voldemort, or Voldermort from Michael Clayton?

Virtually every writing guide worthy of being read emphasizes the importance of character in crafting a compelling story. So why are so many of these same writing guides so vague on what it takes to create interesting characters?

John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story—for my money, one of the best books on the writing craft available—emphasizes that the protagonist of any story must be “fascinating.” But he provides little practical guidance about how to create this capacity to fascinate. He instead discusses the protagonist (and all the other characters) in terms of their role in the story.

Is a compelling character really just the fulfillment of a role?

For centuries, this was exactly how characters — and human beings — were viewed. How did that start? When did it change?

The Evolution of Types

Aristotle equated change in a character with inconstancy, which he considered a form of moral weakness. Therefore, in a play, if a character changes, that change must be depicted as part of his essential character—as with Odysseus, for example, the quintessential deceiver and wearer of masks—otherwise the depiction is inconsistent.

Look no further than the website TV Tropes. The section titled “Characters as Device” is populated by contemporary Theophrastian characters: Always Second Best, Cop Boyfriend, Nazi Grandpa, Perky Goth.

Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, compiled an entire catalog of characters premised on moral type—the flatterer, the coward, the newsmonger, the backbiter, the braggart, et cetera—and these depictions were predictably rigid. A character didn’t wander from one temperament to another, but remained fundamentally true to his type.

This kind of classification helped form the comic characters of Theophrastus’s student Menander, and a century later those of Terence, but its influence didn’t stop there.

English writers especially found Theophrastian characters useful, all the way through the 19th century. Fielding, Smollett, Thackeray, and Dickens employed them—they suit nicely the satirical purposes these writers pursued—and one often finds hints of them in secondary or comedic characters even today.

Look no further than the website TV Tropes. The section titled “Characters as Device” is populated by contemporary Theophrastian characters: Always Second Best, Cop Boyfriend, Nazi Grandpa, Perky Goth.

As clever and nuanced as these formulations may be, they retain the rigidity of a type. The character’s behavior is largely predetermined. What they do is seen as a direct effect of who they are—their type.

This point isn’t lost on the creative minds behind TV Tropes. They note that such characters are “sometimes … just plot devices with lines”—or plot puppets, as they’re sometimes called.

“Mediocre writers will merely take one of the … labels and slap a name on it. By contrast, better writers start with a character and slap two or more of the following labels on it.”

But how does the better writer create that character to begin with? Continue Reading »


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Take 5: Heather Webb and RODIN’S LOVER

Cover 1- hdWe’re thrilled to have our own Heather Webb here today. A self-described writer, editor, blogger, foodie, and culture nut, she’s also the author of RODIN’S LOVER (Plume) out on January 27, 2015, as well as BECOMING JOSEPHINE.

Take 5: Heather Webb and RODIN’S LOVER

Q: What’s the premise of your new book?

In RODIN’S LOVER, Camille Claudel, collaborator, student, and lover to the famed Auguste Rodin, struggles against the male-dominated art world—and her burgeoning madness—in Belle Époque era Paris to make a name for herself.

Q: What would you like people to know about the story itself?

The story underscores several themes I enjoyed delving into, but one that really consumed me was the idea of zeal versus obsession and the fine lines between them, and how obsession may tip over into madness. I illustrate this theme in different layers through several of the book’s characters. Rodin is both obsessed with his art and his love for Camille. Paul (Camille’s playwright brother) becomes obsessed—possessed even—by his religion. And then there’s Camille, whose paranoia begins to eat away at her mind as she toils with the roller coaster of rejection and reviews, finally turning to full-blown schizophrenia.

Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenges do you set before them? Continue Reading »


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Doing the Work


Today’s guest is Robin Antalek author of The Grown Ups (William Morrow, 2015) and The Summer We Fell Apart (Harper Collins, 2010) which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book. Robin’s non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, and collected in the following anthologies: The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in Salon, 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. She has twice been a finalist in Glimmertrain Magazine, as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Connect with Robin on her blog and on Facebook.

 “Doing the work of writing is something I’m passionate about—educating would be writers on the commitment and compulsion you must have to get the words on the page. To be published is a goal—but to do the work to get there is something entirely different. It’s not movie magic, it’s hard work. Even the most accomplished writers have a drawerful of rejections and abandoned manuscripts.” – Robin Antalek

Doing the Work

I was walking the dog and a neighbor came rushing up to the fence that faced the sidewalk where my dog was sniffing a pile of dirt and leaves. Over the chain link he asked in rapid succession, “How did you get to be a writer? How did you get published? Do you need an MFA?”

His son had just completed an undergraduate English degree from a prestigious northeastern college and was presently living in his childhood bedroom sleeping way past noon and telling his confused parents that he couldn’t just go look for any job because he “wanted to be a writer.” But they hadn’t seen any evidence of writing happening. I think they had visions of their son watching Netflix until the sun came up and sleeping all day for the rest of their lives and it terrified them.

My fast answer is usually: “Butt in chair.” And I did say that—but I also asked him if his son just wanted to “be a writer” or did he really want to “write”? He shook his head. He didn’t understand the question.

Being a writer and writing are worlds apart. While fiction was my one true love, after college I took any job that would pay me. The writing gigs were few, but I didn’t turn anything down. I wrote ad copy, radio scripts, press releases and did a stint working for a business news network where I kept a massive tome of financial terms in my desk drawer. I didn’t have a clue about Wall Street but I learned to write thirty-second business briefs like I’d gone to Wharton. I wrote for pennies per word or for free just for experience and the byline. Nights and weekends were my time to write fiction and I trained myself to do just that. Butt in chair, whether I felt like it or not. Continue Reading »


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Why Email Newsletters? To Become an Enthusiastic Respite in the Lives of Your Readers

Last summer, I talked about why writers should consider creating an email newsletter to better engage with others. I proposed the following reasons:

  • Email is a less crowded channel
  • Email is a communication channel people actually check, and they’ve given you permission to communicate
  • Email is a proven sales tool

That post prompted some great questions in the comments, and I wanted to revisit the topic, adding another layer of detail.


Some people worry that email is too crowded a channel — recalling their frustration of waking up each day to an overflowing inbox, a reminder of all the things in life that we “fail” to manage effectively. Others argue that younger people don’t even use email these days.

It’s easy to be skeptical, not just about email but about social media, websites/blogs, and yes, even books. There are more books published today than ever. I remember a few years ago when people I know began admitting they could no longer keep up with blogs they love, just as they sheepishly admitted to recycling a pile of unread newspapers at the end of the week. Nowadays, I hear similar comments with regard to Twitter, which to many feels like a virtual fire hose.

This is exactly why I focus so much on a direct connection with your true fans. And email is one way to do so. It is a way to reduce the flow of of media out there and engage in meaningful communication.

Email, in its most basic form, is a letter from one person to another. Whether you write to a list of 10 people or 100,000, each person reads it alone, and reads your letter as if you wrote it just for them.

Continue Reading »


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Reaching My Reader

hippie chick

This month’s column was inspired by an email exchange between myself and fellow WUer Deb Lacativa, who has recently discovered my work and, it humbly pleases me to say, has become a fan. It’s the reason she’s become a fan that I’d like to focus on here. In a nutshell it’s because we’re so much alike. We’re nearly the same age and shared a ton of common experiences “back in the day” (back, that is, before they had the phrase “back in the day.”) We both understand that we came of age in the golden era between the advent of the Pill and the onset of AIDS; we know what a difference that made.

Here was Deb’s provocative question when she’d finished reading my novel of the 1960s, Lucy in the Sky:

“How does this fucking Zeitgeist thing actually work? Are our experiences so awfully common?  How could we both have characters named Jude and Ray? I know! “Hey Jude” and “You can call me Ray,” that’s how. Shit just gets into the gray matter grooves.  How did my mother’s friggin’ Chevelle come into play [in your story]? The list goes on, but you’d be bored unless you’d heard me squeal like a stricken goat each time I came across another parity. Were all our experiences that one year so compressed, focused? Did we all get the acid, one way or another? I’m beginning to believe it’s true.”

Deb, I’m beginning to believe it, too. We drank (smoked, snorted, swallowed) from the well of common experience, and as a consequence, our innocent little 1950s-born selves were torn down and rebuilt from scratch in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When people come from the same place and the same time, they shouldn’t be surprised to find that they think the same way.

What I am surprised about is how I have for so long overlooked this obvious reality, and its impact on my reach as an author. Continue Reading »


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Happy Blog-Birthday, Writer Unboxed!


photo by John Liu

Nine years ago today, we went live with our very first blog post here at WU. On a good day back in 2006, we might have seen seven visitors on our site. Fast forward to present day; WU attracted nearly 1 million visitors in 2014, and we put on our first conference!

We want to take this opportunity to thank our valued contributors:

Our sanity-saving Admin Assistants:

Our Twitter Team (@WriterUnboxed):

Our Mod Squad on Facebook (learn more):

Our Ad Guru (Inquiries):

And our many Guests.

We want to thank everyone who supported the idea of Writer Unboxed Publishing via the roll-out of Kathleen (Ani) Bolton’s Steel and Song.

We want to thank everyone who participated in our first Un-Conference, for trusting that we’d pull together something worth attending — and repeating, even if that can’t happen every year.

We want to thank the many who’ve helped with a small “subscribers”/repeat donation to WU via PayPal. Donations of as little as $1/month assist with WU’s continuing expenses. (Learn more.)

Our backers:

Robert W. Adams
Emily Reynolds Antonen
John Askins
Lisa Robinson Bailey
Deirdre Baird
V.R. Barkowski
Mari L. Barnes
Natasha Barnes
Sharon Bially and BookSavvy
Chris Blake
Deborah Boone
Anne Greenwood Brown
Flora Brown Associates
Kim Bullock
Sarah Callender
Lorena Cassady
Deborah Coonts
Allison S. Corser
Tom Corson-Knowles and TCK Publishing
Stephanie Cowell
Linda Davis
Frank Delgado
Shelly Dippel
Maria D’Marco/TigerXglobal
Georgia Erwin
Denise Falvo
Cynthia Fellowes
Meic Francis
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Tina Goodman
Andrew and Tonia Harris
Natalie Hart
Helen Hemphill
Maurene Janke
Stacy S. Jensen
Renae Jones
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Regina Kelly
Cindy Angell Keeling
Brian B. King
S.M. King
Neroli Lacey
Lindsey C. Lane
Bernadette Lincke
Stephen Lindenmayer
Frances Lyman
Kathryn Magendie
Claude McMillan
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Michael Molony
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Heather Reid
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Lynn Wiese Sneyd/LWS Literary Services
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Jacqueline White
Sheree Wood
Yuvi Zalkow
Gerald L Zeitlin
Helen Zimmermann


Finally, thank YOU for being a part of the WU community. We appreciate your visits and especially your comments, which help to create each post’s public record. If you’ve been lurking for a while, we hope 2015 is your year for de-lurking; we want to hear your voice.

We are humbled, awed, and grateful by all we’ve seen here, and by the way WU has grown over the course of nine years. A big slice of virtual cake for all of you. (And, yes, it is chocolate.)

Write on, WU’ers!


Forthwringing Tonguishness


A client recently asked me why English is so bizarre.  She was trying to explain its quirks to a precocious, bi-lingual eight-year-old, and not doing very well.  Not that I did much better – English is a genuinely freaky language, with random spelling rules, no particular sentence structure, and far more words than any reasonable language needs.  Part of the reason it’s so confused is that it’s perfectly happy to steal useful words from just about anywhere it can get them, from Hindi (“shampoo”) to Tshiluba, one of the languages of the Congo (“chimpanzee”).

But the root of English strangeness comes from the way it was formed when two sources of language flowed together.  Old English originally grew out of Anglo-Saxon, which is more-or-less Germanic.  Then Old English was conquered literally and figuratively by Norman French, which was still fairly close to Latin at the time.  As a result (outcome), English at its heart (essentially) has at least two words (expressions) for every concept (thought), one from each of its two mother streams (foundations) of language.

But while this hot mess of a history makes English hard to use, it does give writers a chance to control how their work feels just by picking which source they draw their language from.  Short, consonant-packed words grounded in Anglo-Saxon have strength and punch, while longer, vowel-infused Latinate derivatives feel more cerebral and anemic.  There’s a reason all of the most effective obscenities come from Old English.  Calling someone a coprophagous, copulating, progeny of a female canine just lacks . . . spunk. Continue Reading »


Should You Set Limits with Your Readers?

barbed wire
A few years ago, it seemed like you couldn’t swing a deceased feline without hitting an author in the grip of a meltdown. Even if the conflict was minor, once it became public, the internet’s retribution often turned malignant. Virtual mobs would descend upon the author’s blog, clotting the comment section with hostility. Their fiction was systematically targeted for one-star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. By committing acts which alienated readers, writing colleagues or the reviewing community, authors could decimate their platform and threaten their career within a matter of hours.

Small wonder, then, that many authors staged a quiet retreat from social media.

Some writers disappeared altogether. They preferred isolation to making a catastrophic mistake. Others abandoned all attempt at two-way conversation, effectively becoming broadcasters to their readers.

Still others looked for the magic formula which would allow them to maintain two-way, author-reader interaction. As consensus grew about what constituted best practices, they adopted them with a fervor that I might go so far as to term rigid. This included rules such as:

  1. One should never respond out of reactivity. (Or post while drunk, high, etc.)
  2. Stick with politically correct material.
  3. Treat your reader with the model touted by commerce: the customer is always right.
  4. Avoid engaging reviewers. Period.

With the exception of the Avoid Reactivity/Drunk-posting rule, I’d argue that there are problems with all these approaches.

It’s one thing to thoughtfully decide that you don’t enjoy social media or that, as Seth Godin says, it’s an overrated way to get attention for your books. It’s quite another to abandon it out of fear, if only because you’ll risk taking that sense of personal smallness into your fiction.

The one-way broadcasters may think they are safe, but they risk offending readers who’ve been trained to expect a conversation, and who see anything less as a hard sell.

Those who stick with politically safe material risk building a brand known for its bland.

If the customer is always right, to whom will you grant that status? “Reader” is a self-identifying descriptor and can be claimed by anyone who chooses, from the super fan who’s signed up for your street team and devoured your fiction (hi, Mom!) to the individual who skimmed a few blog posts and proclaimed you were derivative. Will you be equally devoted to both?

As for the decision to leave reviewers to their own devices, that’s nice in theory, but what if they won’t leave you alone? What if readers show up with negative reviews and post them on your blog or Facebook page? (The precipitating case of this post because Nora Roberts recently created a policy banning this practice, prompting mixed reactions on WU’s Facebook page.* For the record, I think her decision is brilliant.)

Further, if those rules are iron-clad, what explains the outliers?

I’m not saying you should try this at home—at least not without careful consideration—but some authors are rewarded when they talk about controversial subjects, mock commenters, or ban reviewers. How exactly does that work? Continue Reading »