I was one of the hundred-plus members of the Writer Unboxed community lucky enough to travel to Salem, Massachusetts for the UnConference in early November. Now I’m back in my home base of Perth, Western Australia, sweltering in early summer heat and reading with interest, delight and not a little nostalgia the various posts attendees are writing about their UnCon experience.
For many, I know that experience was transformative. Participants went home feeling stronger and wiser, and for each one the week brought different insights. In the aftermath, some of the participants are launching into major revisions of their works in progress, perhaps based on Donald Maass’s challenging story questions or Lisa Cron’s insights into character. Some are experiencing bouts of intense creativity and achieving fabulous daily word counts. Many are counting down the days until UnCon 2018.
For me, the most vivid memories of that time in Salem are the visual ones. Where I live we don’t have a northern hemisphere-style autumn, so the walks beneath trees in their gorgeous golds and yellows, with leaves crisp underfoot and a chill in the air hinting at the coming winter were truly magical. I had to restrain myself from taking a zillion photos of characterful old wooden houses, picturesque water vistas and, of course, those beautiful trees. Instead, I kept those sensations mostly in my mind, where they will remain strong. The place will draw me back as powerfully as the event.
My breakthrough moment from UnCon came well after my return home, while I was still swimming my way out of terrible jet-lag. I heard the ghostly voice of Donald Maass whispering in my ear. Since this proposal has been so hard to write, ask yourself whether you are telling the right story.
To put this in context, I’ve been working on a proposal for a new historical fantasy series for far, far too long. Some people could have dashed off entire first drafts in time it took me to finish it. Or to think I’d finished it. Although I’m a multi-published author, this particular task seemed almost impossible to get right. Once over the hurdle of my own doubts, I then faced my agent’s reservations. I revised the proposal extensively on his advice. Then, a few days before arriving in Salem for the UnCon, I was told it still wasn’t saleable and I was asked to rework it again.
I was grappling with this news all through the week in Salem, and had to work hard to present a positive face. It felt like the death of my career as a writer. Maybe I’d been spoiled by success, I thought. Or perhaps I was too old, scribbling on past my use-by date with nobody quite prepared to break the bad news. Thank heavens for those lovely autumn days, the light on the water, the gentle strolls around the picturesque streets, and the delicious taste of clam chowder. The company of friends. The loyalty of readers. And, in the end, the way Don Maass’s story questions followed me home, demanding answers. Is this the right story? Is this the story you absolutely must tell?
Clearly it wasn’t, or that proposal would have been as quick to write as those I had crafted successfully for previous books. It took Don’s questions – those he asked in his workshops and those his ghostly presence conjured for me later – to open my eyes to something I’d really known all along. This story just wasn’t going to fly. I had to start again.
Bad news. I’d have to throw away the entire thing. All those hours of work, and even more hours of worrying about my lack of progress, had been for nothing.
But no. The news was painful, sure, but it was good news. It was indeed a breakthrough moment. I had to be brave and accept the story challenge. I had to craft the proposal, and then the book itself, in keeping with the wisdom of that inner voice. Then my story would be better, truer, and more honest. It would grip the reader’s imagination and not let go until the very end. It would grow its wings and fly.
Have you ever been given bad news on the writing front that ended up being good news? Something that felt like a slap in the face, but became instead a new door opening? A reversal that turned into a career rethink or an opportunity? I’d love to hear your stories.
Photo credit: author’s own picture of Salem Common