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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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Pantaphobia: THAT’S IT!

Robin LaFevers writes: One of the hardest things about being a writer can be the sense of isolation we experience–the sense that we are the only ones to feel a certain way. Especially when those feelings are not happy or joyful ones. That’s why fellow writers’ honesty is such a gift. Today I am honored to share with you such a gift–a guest post by YA author Myra McEntire. It is a raw, honest look at some of the hardships of being a writer, and the unexpected places where we can find healing connections.

Myra is the author of the Hourglass trilogy, which was a RITA nominee as well as a nominee for the YALSA Teen Top Ten. She is also a contributor to MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, a collection of holiday short stories which has received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

For more of Myra’s humor and honesty, connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or her blog.

Pantaphobia: THAT’S IT!

I was diagnosed with major clinical depression last January. Big time med changes, counseling, the whole churro. With the help of family and friends, including Stephanie Perkins (who held me accountable for daily tasks like eating, showering, and teeth brushing), the extreme low only lasted for a couple of months.

But even the regular low is a real pain in the ass.

I spent a lot of time attempting to escape my pit of despair. I sat in front of my computer, trying to turn words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. I tried, and tried, and tried, but never made it to scenes or chapters. There were distractions – we moved, our kids changed schools, and then summer break rolled around. Summer break at our house is like a three-month Coachella Festival. My focus is solely on crowd control and keeping everyone alive. Next year I’m ordering myself a t-shirt that says “SECURITY” in hot pink, sequined letters. I’ve not ruled out a low voltage tazer, but there are some … legality issues I need to look into.

When I wasn’t serving as the family bouncer, I decorated, painted, gardened, and crafted, until there was nothing left to decorate, paint, garden, or craft. (Y’all, I Mod Podged so many things my cats got nervous. I think they thought they were next.) Finally, once school started. I could breathe. I had quiet time to be still and get honest with myself. I evaluated life, and what I wanted from it. I didn’t know if I could write for publication anymore.

I had multiple conversations with my husband – who understands chasing dreams, as he’s a former minor league baseball player. “Should I get a part time job? Finish my masters? Keep the house really clean and serve a home-cooked meal every night? Go to the gym regularly?” (THE GYM. REGULARLY.)

Thankfully, my husband is wise. “You won’t be happy,” he said. “That’s not you or your life.” The man turned down home cooked meals, and I’m a mighty fine cook, so he was not. messing. around. He gave me the courage I needed to keep questioning myself.

I talked to dear writer friends, who assured me they’d still love me if I weren’t “one of them.” That made me feel safe, but sad. I loved being “one of them”

I didn’t seek out online affirmation, so every note or tweet I got from a reader was a boon, a bolster, a blessing. They all reminded me of how it felt to emotionally touch a reader. That’s why I started writing in the first place. [Read more…]

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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. [Read more…]

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