Butt In Chair: A Cautionary Tale

photo by Alice Popkorn
photo by Alice Popkorn

This is not the way I planned to do this. My idea was to simply slink quietly away for a few months, then just as quietly return to my monthly posting. But the Blog Mama decided a different approach was in order, and so here I am, announcing that I will be taking a temporary leave of absence from Writer Unboxed. Talking about it like this feels a wee bit personal, like I am oversharing or burdening you with TMI. But perhaps, instead, it can be a cautionary tale that will help keep you from following down a similar path. Let’s call it that, shall we? Or else I’ll never be able to hit the post button…

The truth is, it has been an amazing three years since I first posted on WU. They have been richer and fuller and brought more exhilarating experiences than I could ever have imagined. But they have also been demanding and exhausting in ways I never anticipated. I have talked before about how, although I consider myself a prolific writer, the deadlines for the assassin trilogy have been hard for me. It has been one grueling deadline after another for the last three years. Coupled with the fact that I had been on deadline nearly continuously for the three years PRIOR to that as I juggled two middle grade series. And while all of that has been hard on my muse, it has been even harder on my physical self. The truth is, all that butt-in-chair has driven my body into the ground and I have a number of ergonomic issues that are demanding my attention. They go far beyond remembering to wear my wrist guards to bed and do a few sets of crunches each morning.

This is not something I’m proud of. It makes me feel weak and stupid—weak for my body not holding up under the demands I made of it, and stupid for not having foreseen this and headed it off.

I know there are many, many writers who struggle with ergonomic issues and other physical hardships daily and still manage to produce lots of words and great work. But apparently I am not one of those writers. And maybe, just maybe, that’s part of this whole acquiring wisdom thing—learning where one’s own limits are and how to accept them.

I also suspect it is more than simply ergonomics at this point. [Read more…]

10+

About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Some Thoughts On Quiet Books, Timing, and the Ever Elusive Market

photo by afternoon_sunlight
photo by afternoon_sunlight

This is a tricky conversation we’re about to have. For years we’ve encouraged you to dig deep and tell your most personal, individual stories using your unique voice. But once you’ve honed your skills and excavated your most powerful voice—then what? What if you build it and nobody comes? What if the stories you’re driven to tell are quiet ones? Or don’t hit the current market sweet spot? Or have already been done a hundred times before?

Because sometimes the inescapable fact is, the things we love to write don’t sell. So then what?

Well, you can quit—which while a perfectly reasonable, legitimate life choice, is obviously not one we here at WU hope you make.

You can also self publish. And while this post isn’t about self publishing, the truth is, with the advent of self publishing you have the option—the luxury—of being able to tell your stories your way and still have them published and available to readers. Of course, the big question is—available to how many readers and how exactly will they discover your work? But that entire topic is the subject of a different post. I just wanted to acknowledge that was a very viable option once you have honed your craft.

Lastly, you can rework your stories to try and create a larger welcome mat, or you can polish your craft and skills so that your writing shines so brightly people will simply have to pay attention to it.

So this conversation we’re having is not about selling out your artistic vision to get a contract. Nor is it about watering down your artistic integrity in order to find readers. It’s about finding the largest, widest doorway into your story so that you can to draw in as many readers as possible, and then tell them exactly the core story you’re driven to tell.

A while back, Julia Baggott wrote a terrific piece about writing books of the heart versus more commercial books and pointed out that was a false dichotomy. Her point is a critical one (and if you haven’t read the piece take a moment and do so now)—we don’t have to choose one or the other. We can find ways to put pieces of our heart in more commercial ideas as well as find ways to make the books of our heart have a broader appeal.

There are a variety of things that allow a book to stand out and find a wide audience:
gripping plot
stunning reversals and sleight of hand
compelling characters
unique original voice
exquisite language
exploring the vulnerabilities and universal truths of the human heart

And of course, the best of the best often incorporate more than one of those elements.

If you write quiet books or books that go against current market conventions, that doesn’t mean all is lost. It simply means that some of these other aspects of your work will act as the wider doormat for your potential readers. And the good news is that widening that doormat does not have to radically alter the story you are hungry to tell. [Read more…]

1+

About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

The Things We Carry

photo by Alice Popkorn
photo by Alice Popkorn

Recently, as I was preparing for my Mortal Heart book tour, I found myself in a logistical flurry trying to pack ten days’ worth of clothes and personal items into one carry on. There was the big, obvious stuff;  four pairs of pants, eight shirts, ten pairs of socks, under duds, toiletries, iPad, reading material, pens, etc. However, there were also some rather unique items. Like the veritable cobbler’s bench worth of extra insoles, arch supports, moleskin and shoe enhancers that I might need for the two pairs of shoes I was taking—both brand new since my feet had suddenly grown half a size well past the time I expected my feet to do anymore growing. Or the old black t-shirt I’ve grown accustomed to draping over my eyes instead of an eye mask.

While those were admittedly odd, they weren’t nearly as discomfiting as the small medicine chest of ‘tools’ I was bringing along to ensure I could endure the strange, torture devices that the modern plane seat has evolved into; Advil, Aleve, arnica, muscle relaxants (in case things got really hairy) and maybe even a half a Xanax or two, in case it all got to be too much.

As I struggled to fit everything into that one piece of luggage, I was struck by the enormous load of invisible baggage I was carrying with me on this trip. My worries—about travel, my feet, whether or not anyone would show up at the events. My fears—of travel delays, wickedly uncomfortable plane seats, lost luggage, public speaking (mostly gone at this stage of my life but reappearing just often enough to keep me off balance.) My hopes—that I would meet reader expectations, book sales, and my own performance. And lastly, my conditioning, if you will—from my earliest, most damaging beliefs that I did not have a right to a voice, or was allowed to speak into the public conversation at large, to my more recent attempts to rewrite that programming—helped in large part by wildly enthusiastic and generous readers, booksellers, friends and family.

The thing is, my experience is not unique. Whenever any of us set out on a journey of any length, we not only have the physical supplies we carry with us, but an invisible backpack or suitcase packed full of our hopes and fears, expectations and programming.

These invisible backpacks are one of the most intimate, rich, unique and authentic things about us. They accompany us on a trip of ten days or a ten minute jaunt to the grocery store and everything in-between. Yes, even to work, and yes, even when we work in a home office.

As a writer, these invisible backpacks are one of our most powerful tools.

The thing is, if every story is about a character going on a journey, whether a physical or metaphorical one, then they, too, should have one of these invisible backpacks. If they don’t, the journey often feels flat and unimportant, uncompelling and lacking in urgency.

Unlike a regular suitcase, the weight of the invisible one is always there. It weighs down on even our most simple actions and decisions. It’s what turns a simple act—say reaching for a cup of coffee or opening a door or shutting a window—into a loaded, complex dramatic action. [Read more…]

0

About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Pre-Writing: Discovering Your Character’s Secrets

Alice Popkorn, Flickr Creative Commons
Alice Popkorn, Flickr Creative Commons

I know a lot of you out there are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, and while you’re not allowed to begin your story until November 1, you are allowed to do pre-writing on your project, and frankly, I think pre-writing is highly undervalued, so I thought I’d talk about it this month.

The reason I’m a big believer in pre-writing is because until I have a glimmer of understanding of my character’s emotional landscape and internal settings, I don’t know what sorts of story events will challenge them. I don’t understand what sorts of interaction will push them to their limits, make them question everything, make them dig deep or lay them bare.

In the pre-writing stage, we’re gathering the materials and ingredients we will use to build our story. Pre-writing is where we discover the character’s juiciness and crunch, their texture and heft.

I get that some people do this in early drafts, and I use to be one of them, but more and more I have begun to take the time to learn this in pre-writing and thus save myself a number of unfruitful drafts. The other thing that can happen is that if we don’t have enough knowledge of our characters so we can truly challenge them, we run the risk of the story petering out. My archives at home are full of stories that simply ran out of gas. One of the biggest reasons stories peter out is due to not enough conflict or depth. If you dig deep enough, there is conflict to be found in the recesses of your character’s psyche. Pre-writing can help figure that out early on to help avoid dead ends and running out of juice.

If the question is Why should the reader care? the answer is often hidden in the backstory.

Pre-writing is all about backstory, which informs the characters and story taking place just as surely as the contours of the earth’s crust influences its landscape.

The backstory is what clues the reader in to why THIS event is so cataclysmic for THIS character. Why this hurdle has the potential to flatten her. Why this relationship is so critical to her well being. Why this situation she finds herself in will force her to grow or change in terrifying new ways.

Of course, the challenging part is once we know all this backstory, how do we weave it into the unfolding story as seamlessly as possible. The key to this is through the way the characters view the world—if they are optimistic or pessimistic, trusting or cynical, driven or lazy. It shows up in how they react to and interact with others. It informs and colors all their relationships—both with the people and the world around them. For example, some people relish interpersonal conflict, others avoid it, while some placate or respond in a passive aggressive manner. Do you know how your character responds to interpersonal conflict? Do you know why she responds that way?

In the pre-writing stage, we’re getting to know the intimate contours of our characters and hauling up the ingredients we will use to build our story. Knowing these sorts of things can really help you avoid floundering as you write the first draft.

If you think about it, we all have traumas and wounds, some small and some large. We begin accruing these at an early age and some of them have the power to greatly color how we view ourselves and our place in the world. Just as a physical wound leaves scar tissue, so too do our psychological and emotional wounds.

So how did your character’s wounds and scar tissue skewer her belief about herself? Her role in the world? How others would always perceive her? Does she leap into the fray or hang back, needing to be pushed or nudged? If so, what does it take to push her?

[Read more…]

0

About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

The Surprising Importance of Doing Nothing

Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)
Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

Pop quiz! Studies have shown that creative people are known to:

A) Daydream. A lot.
B) They lose track of time.
C) Have wandering minds.
D) Stare at the wall. A lot.
E) All of the above

If you picked E, you are correct! Successful creatives spend much of their time so deeply immersed in their own internal worlds that, in the eyes of the world, it often appears that they’re doing nothing.

But of course, we know how very untrue that is. Our minds are busy working. Synapses are sparking, neural pathways firing, different corners of our brains coming together, making connections, leaping around seemingly unrelated topics, playing with ‘what if’ possibilities all the time.

The act of thinking used to be a respected one. It was understood that in order to have well-formed ideas and opinions—or even just make good decisions—we had to think about things. But that process doesn’t seem to be held in as much regard anymore. In our productivity-enamored, technology-driven, instantaneous response world, the act of thinking is often considered, at best—quaint, and at its least flattering, an indication of a slow mind. We’re expected to make snap decisions, instantaneous judgments (with or without all the facts, no less!) have ideas gush forth in brainstorming meetings or large, communal bull pit type offices. Then, once the idea has been decided upon, we’re expected to produce, produce, produce non stop in a straight, continuous line until a project is finished. Frankly, I’m exhausted simply writing that paragraph.

So what if your brain doesn’t work that way? Well, now you can take heart in the knowledge that many creative peoples’ don’t and in fact, if your brain doesn’t function that way, perhaps it is due to its creative nature.

For some writers, it takes time to peel off layers of ourselves and weave them into our work. It takes time to observe and study human nature, collecting and appropriating mannerisms, emotional dynamics, and dramas, and then incorporate them into our stories. [Read more…]

0

About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.