Share Your Earliest Literary Efforts

The young writer at workI’ve become quite nostalgic in recent years. But my interest in the past extends far beyond my own. I’m also fascinated by the pasts of other people – for example, I really enjoy seeing all those “Throwback Thursday” photos on Facebook each week. And in particular, I am deeply intrigued by glimpses into the mysterious pasts of artists whom I admire.

When did their gifts first surface? What inspirations awakened the artist inside the child? Did they always plan to become an artist, or fall into the life by accident?

In my case, I never expected to become a writer. A cowboy, yes. A movie stuntman, definitely. A milkman, briefly (long story). But a writer? Not so much.

It wasn’t until I turned 40 that I started getting serious about writing, making me one of many “late bloomers” in the writing game. But in examining my own past, I uncovered a few hints that maybe, just maybe, I had been destined to become a writer all along.

I was a poet and didn’t know it

Although I’ve long since lost the original work, I still remember a poem I wrote for an elementary school English class, at the ripe old age of seven or eight. It was an epic poem about a family of imaginary creatures called Grimble Bimbles, which were three-eyed monsters with very sharp teeth. I illustrated the poem myself, armed with a purple crayon and my own not inconsiderable sketching skills. Picture a three-eyed purple Pac-Man with stick-figure arms and legs, and you’re in the ballpark visually.

I have no idea why I can still remember this poem verbatim so many years later, but I can. And without patting myself on the back too hard, I think it’s safe to say that the poem shows traces of what would become my own hallmark style. (More on the whole “hallmark” thing in a moment…)

Submitted for your approval:

The Eleven Grimble Bimbles, by a very young Keith Cronin

There were eleven Grimbles.
Their last name was Bimble.
Once a Grimble yawned,
and saw through his eyes three
that in his mouth was flying
a giant bumblebee.
Now the Grimble’s dead.
The bee stung him in the head.
He’ll never budge again,
and now there’s only ten.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty proud of that closing line [Read more…]

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Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?

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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.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Turns out the number one positions on the various fiction bestseller lists were occupied by novels we’re already flogged. This novel was number three on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list for January 11, 2015. 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 manuscript lines of chapter one.

LOG ENTRY: SOL 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record… I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ’Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

Let’s see…where do I begin?

The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah. The Ares 1 crew did their thing and came back heroes. They got the parades and fame and love of the world.

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
[Read more…]

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Becoming a Stand-Up Writer

Up on your feet!

Welcome to 2015! For many of us, today is the first real workday of the new year. I always enjoy the “clean slate” feeling of starting a new year, and I’m usually eager to make some tweaks and changes to how I operate.

Some of those changes are simply about breaking some bad habits (e.g., no more chocolate-covered Pringles after 11PM), while others are about creating some new, better habits.

Getting butts *out* of chairs

As the svelte and savvy Porter Anderson observed in this excellent WU post, a popular health trend for writers in recent years is the standing desk. After all, with studies like this, this, and many others all pointing out the health risks inherent in sitting for prolonged periods of time, the age-old writer’s mantra of “butt in chair” can start to sound like a death sentence for some of us.

Case in point: I’m an admittedly sedentary person. I spend the majority of my day sitting at a keyboard, either working on my next Pretty Good American Novel, or trying to persuade my clients to avoid using terms like “incentivize” and “thought leadership” in the corporate speeches and presentations I write for them. As a result, it’s safe to say my chair and my butt have been getting more than enough quality time together. So I decided to do something to change that in 2015, and I’m happy to inform you that I’m typing this post at my new standing desk.

Fear of commitment

I held off on this move for a couple of years. For one thing, switching to a standing desk can be an intimidating commitment to ponder. I mean, what if I hated it? And most of the decent standing desks are pretty big, so where the heck would I put the thing if I actually took the plunge and ordered one? Plus, most of the options I was finding were awfully expensive, making this an even riskier venture to consider.

In keeping with my historic cheapskatedness (hey, it might be a word), I began looking for a workaround. After checking out some of the commercially available standing desks (focusing particularly on ones that go on top of your current regular desk), I started varying my search terms, and soon struck gold. For just 42 bucks, I found a solution that lets me try out this whole standing-desk thing with minimal investment of money or space. [Read more…]

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Happy Holidays!

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Photo courtesy Flickr’s Pink Sherbet Photography

Writer Unboxed will be back next week with a series of posts recapping the WU Un-Conference and returns to regularly scheduled programming on 1/1/15.

We have big plans for 2015, but we’d also like to hear from you about what you’d like to see here in the coming months. Have burning questions? A topic you’d love for us to cover? Let us know, and we’ll do our best to address those things.

In the meanwhile, we hope you have a great holiday season. Thanks for being a part of the WU community.

Write on!

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Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?

resized

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.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for December 7, 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 16 lines of Chapter 1.

THE PRISON LOOKED more like the campus of a community college than a place where men were kept in cells for ten years or longer for offenses committed while wearing the uniform of their country. There were no guard towers, but there were two staggered twelve-foot-tall security fences, armed patrols, and enough surveillance cameras to keep an electronic eye on virtually every millimeter of the place. Situated at the northern end of Fort Leavenworth, the United States Disciplinary Barracks sat next to the Missouri River on nearly forty rolling, forested Kansas acres, a mound of brick and razor wire cradled by a green hand . It was the only maximum-security military prison for males in the country.

America’s foremost military prison was called the USDB, or the DB for short. The Leavenworth federal penitentiary for civilians, one of three prisons on the grounds of Fort Leavenworth, was four miles to the south. Along with the Joint Regional Correctional Facility—also for military prisoners—there was a fourth privately operated prison in Leavenworth, which raised the total inmate population among the four prisons to about five thousand. The Leavenworth Tourism Bureau, apparently seeking to capitalize on any bit of notoriety to lure visitors to the area, had incorporated the prison angle into its promotional brochures with the phrase “Doin’ time in Leavenworth.”


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
[Read more…]

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