What Your Writer’s Resume Says About Your Chances for Recognition

career-path-300x240Lately, a new mantra has caught on: “There’s no better time to be a writer.” Not only has self-publishing helped open the doors to so many aspiring authors, but the online world has created more opportunities than ever before to build a platform, network and self-promote.

From a schmoozing and promotion perspective, anything seems possible.  We can have conversations with Jodi Picoult on Twitter, send Facebook messages to Paulo Coehlo and mingle with top agents and editors right here on Writer Unboxed.

All of which is wonderfully democratic and very much in the spirit of the camaraderie and connectedness that defines our times. But it has also created a whole new realm for potential missteps and frustration.

Along with the sense that anything’s possible has come – for lack of a better term – a sense of entitlement. With the perceived level playing field the digital age has created, the notion that having written and published a book, any book, means we’re eligible to be considered by any and all gatekeepers to widespread recognition, from Oprah to the The New York Times.

Although we long for this to be true, and perhaps it should be, it simply isn’t. Take a look, for example, at this painfully eye-opening article by Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles called, “No, I Do Not Want to Read Your Self-Published Book.” (Ouch!)

What is true, at least for the most part, is that while most books sent in to the venerable gatekeepers of recognition will indeed wind up in the shredder Continue Reading »

5 Writing Lessons from a Vocal Coach

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By Boris Mann

Our guest today is Kathryn Craft. Kathryn is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling (book trailer) and The Far End of Happy, due May 2015. Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing. Kathryn says, “I come to writing from a multi-arts perspective and appreciate the way that specifics from one creative endeavor can spark new awarenesses within another.”

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Connect with her on her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

5 Writing Lessons from a Vocal Coach

During the years I was first learning fiction craft, my son was studying to be a classical vocalist. Since I came to my writing through dance I was already attuned to a multi-arts perspective, so as I sat in on years of his lessons—no doubt looking to his teachers like I was hard at work on a novel—I scribbled notes that allowed me to see my writing anew. Here I share some of the comments overheard from his vocal coaches and my favorite writing takeaways.

  1. Singing is powered by the breath—by an inspiration—but don’t give it all away. Take a deep breath and try to hold it in as long as possible while still using it to power the voice. Singing is a little bit “yes,” a little bit “no.”

At the time I first heard this I was trying to wow the reader by cramming too many great ideas into the opening of my practice novel. This quote suggested I feed out my story with greater patience, keeping some in reserve. Your reader isn’t looking to understand your whole story in its opening pages. She only wants to gain orientation to the story world and its main character while discovering a story question on which to hang her curiosity. Many backstory scenes, reversals, and emotional turning points are better saved until your reader knows your protagonist better.

I come to writing from a multi-arts perspective and appreciate the way that specifics from one creative endeavor can spark new awarenesses within another.”

Added fun: The musicality in this quote is a wonderful example of how to use sentence structure to support meaning. The quick breaths built into the first sentence, the deeper breath needed to get through the second, and the push and pull of the third all help underscore the coach’s point.

  1. When taking a breath, you are not really thinking about taking in air, but expanding the ribcage and dropping the diaphragm to create a vacuum that the air will fill.

This continues a useful metaphor about raising story questions. A question is like a vacuum that pulls the reader in. So rather than stuffing your story with events that may or may not add up to a cohesive whole, think about creating the questions that your story will fill. Keep raising questions, keep drawing the reader in. When all the questions are answered Continue Reading »

What Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About Story Conflict

photo by Benny Mazur

photo by Benny Mazur

Today’s guest is aspiring novelist Lancelot Schaubert. Lance has sold work to markets like McSweeney’s, Poker Pro, Scars, Encounter, Brink, and many others. He wrote, produced, and directed Cold Brewed which reinvented the photonovel. Currently, he’s finishing his first novel in between large batches of various soups (today’s soup, for the curious among us, is white chili).

His essay for WU, which draws comparisons between conflict in novels and in the roll-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, will speak to your “inner geek.” (Don’t pretend you don’t have one.) And if you really are questioning why D&D? Consider this: D&D is all about story and conflict.

You can learn more about Lance at lanceschaubert.org and on Twitter, or join the guild of renegade imaginations receiving his updates.

What Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About Story Conflict

Confession: I spent way too much money on comic books, D&D dice, and video games in high school. Lucky for me, some of it came in handy for my career as a writer. Actually most of it came in handy, but this isn’t an apologetic for geek stores. It’s an article about conflict.

And conflict is strange. Really strange.

We literary types use the word “conflict” like business people use “synergy” and churchy people use “missional” and politicians use “foreign policy.” We use it so often, we have almost no freaking clue what it means anymore. I know I didn’t at first.

The first time someone told me, “Your story needs more conflict,” I wrote a battle scene into a non-battle story. Think: Matrix-meets-Sleepless-in-Seattle. Frustrated, they tried again to explain what they meant. I didn’t get it.

It’s because conflict has become our nonsensical buzzword. And we’re actually kind of proud of it, even if we’re clueless as to its true meaning. You might think it would be good to try another word, but we’re stuck with the word “conflict.” Dispute limits the topic to arguments. Sexual tension only works for erotica and certain scenes of romance. Fight sounds broader but still only includes interpersonal conflict and some forms of external conflict. Negotiation keeps us in the verbal and economic spheres but limits us where violence, pacifism, and forces of nature are concerned. Voyage takes care of the nature part, but limits us concerning still, small voices.

We’re stuck with the word, so I figured I might as well get to know it.

Robert McKee’s section on conflict in STORY helped me a bit:

Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music… The music of story is conflict…. Writers who cannot grasp the truth of our transitory existence, who have been mislead by the counterfeit comforts of the modern world, who believe that life is easy once you know how to play the game, give conflict a false inflection. Their [stories] fail for one of two reasons: either a glut of meaninglessness and absurdly violent conflict, or a vacancy of meaningful and honestly expressed conflict.

I started to understand and then I remembered how conflicting dice rolls work in D&D. Now if you’re a women’s lit writer, hang with me – this will apply to you too, I promise. Continue Reading »

The Trouble with Frosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting Confession: This is a recycled post. I wrote this in 2006 — the first year of WU’s existence, before my debut novel was finished, picked up by an agent, and sold. Before my second novel was even imagined. But recently the dangers of polishing a manuscript prematurely came up in conversation, and I thought it might be time to revisit this spin. And this photo.

Also: GIVEAWAY

In honor of The Moon Sisters being named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and also by BookRiot, I’d like to offer up a signed copy. If you’re interested in winning, please leave a note in comments saying as much. I’ll choose randomly from the interested commenters next week, and get a copy out the door in time for holiday gift-giving–or reading.

Now for the main course.

Frosting as I’m going to use it here doesn’t refer to anything involving confectioner’s sugar, however it’s just as important to an author interested in presentation and consumption as it is to a baker. Frosting isn’t anything central to your story; it will never appear in an outline. Frosting refers to things like chapter titles, poignant lines, funny quips, clever innuendo, even the arrangement of scenes in some cases. With this analogy, the cake itself is your core story—the plot, the characters, the voice.

If you’re like most people, you like frosting—as an eater and a reader—but as a writer we must be careful of it. Writing a draft that’s too pretty, too perfected with its minutiae, can make it painfully difficult later to edit. You may be at risk for this problem if you often find yourself charmed with details of your own writing, because when it’s time to make necessary edits, you may unconsciously (or even consciously) warp your scenes in order to keep those sculpted sugar-flower words and colorful arrangements. “But they’re sooo sweet, sooo pretty,” you may whine to yourself, struggling to have your cake and frosting too.

Truth is, you should never make a decision about a scene based on frosting; story details cannot hold sway over the story itself when it’s time to edit. Sometimes it works out and you may find a way to keep your favorite bits in a way that doesn’t seem forced, but other times you will have to pick up your editorial knife and scrape your artistic work away completely.

Your best bet? Know when to frost a scene to prevent the painful “unfrosting” process. Here’s how: Continue Reading »

Deadline Craziness

20141130_161430 (360x640)OK, I confess, this month I am not posting a well-thought-out piece of wisdom on the writer’s craft. Instead I’m flailing around the night before my post is due, trying to string together something meaningful. I thought of asking Harry to write this for me, as he’s provided a WU post before on the vexed topic of deadlines, and how the life of a writer’s dog becomes less comfortable the closer they get. But for reasons given below, Harry isn’t up to the job right now.

My manuscript, a historical fantasy/mystery, is due for submission in January.  It’s progressing well but I have a sizeable percentage of it still to write, and I’m not speedy. Usually I have time to finish the novel, set it aside for a while, then polish further and submit before the deadline. This time around, there’s a lot left to write and just over a month remaining.

Yes, I’m an experienced pro. And I’ll get it done. But I’m not happy about my poor time management on this particular novel. I need to learn from the experience and make sure I don’t let it happen again. Some things I can avoid next time; some, sadly, I will need to build into future plans.

Side projects: When I’m asked to contribute a piece to an anthology, or to present a workshop or attend a writers’ event, I find it hard to say no. This year I wrote a short story for an anthology about strong women in history; it was a project I was thrilled and excited to be part of. My story about Hildegard of Bingen was only 5000 words, but it took a long time to craft – distilling Hildegard’s extraordinary life into so few words was a challenge, and I wrote several versions before I felt I’d got it right. I also presented some talks and workshops, though I managed to say no to a couple, knowing how much preparation I generally need to do.

Learning: next year, say no more often. Only take on the projects you can’t bear to let pass by.

Work-related travel and appearances: Continue Reading »

Plotting the Non-Plot-Driven Novel

Mass-1024x698Have you ever grown impatient with a novel?  Have you ever restlessly flipped ahead wishing that something would happen?  Of course.  It’s a common feeling.  Put politely, you feel frustrated.  Put plainly, you’re bored.

Perhaps your own current manuscript has also had you feeling, at times, impatient.  Have you struggled to find a way to make things happen?  Do you sense that the inner state of your main character is significant, but that it isn’t turning into events dramatic enough?  Do you secretly worry that your beautiful words won’t be enough to captivate your readers for four hundred pages?

If you answered yes then I have bad news for you: Your readers are going to feel impatient too.  Not enough is happening.   But what can you do about that?  In particular, how can you “plot” a novel that inherently lacks one?  Even more, how can you work alchemy when your process is exploratory, the opposite of applying a formula?

As a non-plot driven novelist your frustration can deepen when you consider classics and contemporary literary successes.  To the LighthouseThe Bell JarThe Remains of the DayWhite Teeth.  I mean, come on.  What really happens in these novels?  Almost nothing, and yet somehow it feels like everything.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about the human condition.  It’s okay to examine characters who are stuck.  You could say that about Holden Caulfield, John Yossarian, Jay Gatsby and even Scarlett O’Hara, all characters who are not getting what they want.  Yet writers like Salinger, Heller, Fitzgerald and Mitchell make it look easy.  It’s not, that’s how it feels anyway.

Fortunately there are ways to “plot” the non-plot driven novel.  It doesn’t mean creating an outline.  It doesn’t depend on the gimmicky formulae of quest, save-the-world, whodunit or love conquers all.  It does, however, require taking a break from writing pages and asking yourself questions about your main character.

First, recognize that what holds a non-plot novel together and what gives it propulsive force every step of the way are two different issues.  Tackling each involves similar questions but applied in two different contexts: in the macro-text and in individual scenes.

Second, let’s generalize.  If your novel doesn’t, and cannot, have a plot as such then you are in some way or other working with a character who is blocked, frozen, hamstrung, bewildered, wandering, lost or in some other way unable to become whole and happy.  There can be a range of reasons for that: internal, circumstantial, past or some combo of things.

It doesn’t matter why your main character is stuck.  It’s okay with me if he or she is.  Heck, we’re all stuck at times, even you.  What makes your manuscript a novel is that which ultimately causes your character to become unstuck.  The human condition by itself isn’t a story.  Change is. Continue Reading »

Are There Any Original Stories Left?

Therese here to officially introduce you to our newest regular contributor: Cathy Yardley! Cathy is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin’s and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She’s also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Please join me in welcoming her to WU!

 “Everything’s been done already. Why am I even bothering?”

Are there any original stories left?

Photo by Scott Liddell

I hear this from writers all the time. This seems especially true for genre novelists, who worry that their story idea isn’t original, or worse, that nothing is original these days.

Does the world really need another swords-and-sorcery Tolkien knock-off? Why in the world would they want yet another billionaire’s secret baby?  And haven’t we seen the hard-boiled P.I. or cheerfully dotty amateur sleuth more than enough?

They’re asking the wrong question.

They’re examining the “problem” as writers — not as readers.

The better question is: why are these genres, tropes and archetypes still popular?

Fairy tales. Fables. Myths. Archetypes. They’ve been twisted, tweaked, and tailored to fit audiences for centuries, right up to today.

Writers don’t need to write something so unique it’s unrecognizable. Instead, we can address the emotional needs served by these so-called “unoriginal” tales — and create something that serves those needs in a new way.

And now for something completely different.

To understand why “nothing new under the sun” is not a death knell, we’re going to examine…

Football.

Specifically, The Superbowl.

(If you’re not a huge American football fan, neither am I. Please bear with me.)

The Superbowl first started in 1967. In all that time, the rules have remained fairly static.

The outcome is also predictable: one team will win, one team will lose. It cannot end in a tie.

Nor will it end unexpectedly with the teams breaking into interpretive dance around a painted yak in the third quarter.  “Originality” is not the point here.

It’s the same game every year. Only the players are different. So why do so many people tune in every year? Continue Reading »

Social Media the Second Time Around

image by Steven Depolo

image by Steven Depolo

As I’ve mentioned here before, my next book is coming out under a pseudonym — which is energizing and daunting in equal measure. One area where the chickens are really coming home to roost (or going elsewhere to roost, I guess) is in social media.

Because Jael McHenry has her own online world that she’s been building ever since online became a thing, but Pseudonym Me — let’s call her P.M. for short — had to start completely from scratch.

Daunting, yes, but also great. Because starting clean on social media means you get to learn from your mistakes. And haven’t we all made a few?

So here are some do’s and don’ts:

Don’t just replicate exactly what you did the first time around. Don’t follow all the same people on Twitter or draft all the same friends on Facebook. Heck, maybe P.M. would rather focus all her efforts on Instagram. If you focus on doing the same things you did before, you’ll come up short. Take the opportunity to spread your wings. For example, my real Facebook page is a mix of personal and professional information, so I never feel comfortable “friending” people I don’t know personally (though of course I know there are ways to manage privacy settings.) I’ve set it up differently this time around.

Do make deliberate decisions. I love Twitter, and I knew it would be useful for P.M. in all sorts of ways, so that was one of the first accounts I grabbed. But @jaelmchenry follows more than 2000 people, and there is a whole heck of a lot of noise in that number. I built P.M.’s list slowly over time, author-friends here and there, a favorite bookstore or two, the famous authors in my new genre, and so on and so forth. I love food and cooking — as is very evident from my @jaelmchenry feed — but that isn’t a major part of P.M.’s activity, so I’m not following anyone in that area. She’s got her own thing going on. Continue Reading »

Literary Hypochondria

night_sky_by_petr28It is daunting to be an unpublished writer amidst the stellar cast of this blog site’s regular contributors. It is even more so when in their actual presence. At the UnConference in Salem I recently had the pleasure of meeting a number of the regular blog contributors, and of hearing their insight, wisdom, and practical guidance for writing good fiction. Each of the sessions was valuable, each had a takeaway, each was enjoyable, and each was top notch. And yet, processing the sum total of all that input proved a challenge I was not quite ready for. By the middle of the conference, the sneaking thought in the back of my mind that had been plaguing me for months was becoming less sneaky. Should I give up trying to be a writer? Would I be better if I stopped?

The first days of the conference were exhilarating. I went to numerous sessions and I left each one jazzed about the new strategies for curing my ailing manuscript. I stole time in the evenings to apply the recommended literary treatments. I reworked the first page, to give it story questions and draw the reader in. I looked for the story underlying the plot as a means of better focusing the scenes. I strengthened the inciting incident in my protagonist’s past, which kept him from getting what he desired in the present. I made sure each page had microtension. I analyzed my deepest fears to find the place where my voice would come from and tried to focus that onto the page.

By the third day of this inundation I went to sleep believing that all I had to do was continue to apply the proper dosage of the various literary ‘treatments’ and my story would soon be glowing in healthiness. My manuscript would be cured. I woke up in the middle of that night and knew, with the absolute terrified certainty that only comes with three a.m., that in fact I wasn’t curing my manuscript. I was treating it, yes, but in a manner that looked only at individual symptoms and not at the bigger picture.

I had become a literary hypochondriac. Continue Reading »

Take Five: Juliet Marillier on her latest novel, Dreamer’s Pool + GIVEAWAY

Cover art: Arantza Sestayo

Cover art: Arantza Sestayo

We’re so glad to have Juliet Marillier with us today to tell us a bit about her latest novel, Dreamer’s Pool — the first book in a new series for adult readers.

Juliet is also happy to be able to offer three codes for audiobook downloads of Dreamer’s Pool from audible.com. (This is an international offer; no restrictions.) To enter, just leave a comment on this post. Winners will be chosen in one week. Good luck!

Q: What’s the premise of Dreamer’s Pool?

JM: Dreamer’s Pool is the first novel in the Blackthorn & Grim series, set in early medieval Ireland. Each book in the series features the embittered healer, Blackthorn, and her hulking sidekick, Grim.  As well as the historical, fantastic and romantic elements readers have come to expect in my novels, each Blackthorn & Grim story includes a mystery to be solved. Running through the whole series is the tangled, intense personal story of the two protagonists.

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

JM: Dreamer’s Pool opens with Blackthorn incarcerated and awaiting execution. She’s given a lifeline by a mysterious fey benefactor, but only on the proviso that she adheres to certain codes of behavior for seven years. This includes not seeking vengeance against her arch enemy, the man responsible for destroying all she held dear. Blackthorn has little confidence in her ability to last that long, but she and Grim head north as instructed and settle in Dalriada, near the eerie Dreamer’s Wood, to make a new life.

Meanwhile Prince Oran of Dalriada is eagerly awaiting the arrival of his new bride, Flidais. On the strength of her portrait and letters, he believes he has found his perfect match. But letters can lie; and when Flidais arrives, Oran finds himself trapped in an impossible situation. To help him, Blackthorn and Grim will need courage, ingenuity and a patience that does not come easily to either. More than that: this tangle cannot be unravelled without a touch of magic.

Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?

JM: For Blackthorn, it’s a struggle with herself – she’s eaten up by anger, and the only thing she cares about is bringing her old enemy to justice. She gets a choice: either die, or suppress that fury for seven years while doing good in the community. She’s a clever, resourceful person, but the past has damaged her almost beyond repair, so she’s often a bit like a bomb waiting to go off. Grim is also a victim of past trauma and has lost faith in himself. The two of them must find a way to work together and get through those seven years without breaking the rules Blackthorn has been set. Oran, a hopeless romantic, must continue to be a good leader while facing what seems to be the loss of his dreams. There are plenty of plot challenges in Dreamer’s Pool, but the biggest challenge for each of these three protagonists lies within.

Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?

JM: The Blackthorn & Grim series is a departure for me in several ways. I haven’t tackled a mystery before. Also, the protagonists are older and more damaged than those in my previous books. Blackthorn and Grim are not easy to love, though I love them all the more for their faults, and I hope readers will warm to them. Then there’s the technical challenge I set myself – to tell the story in three first person voices. Blackthorn, Grim and Oran take chapters in turn. It was an fascinating exercise finding just the right voice for each protagonist and keeping it consistent throughout the book. Blackthorn has a massive chip on her shoulder, can’t tolerate her fellow human beings, and has this constant anger simmering inside – it’s as if two parts of her nature are constantly at war. Grim is a man of immense physical strength, limited education and low self-esteem, but there is more to him than meets the eye. And Oran, who will one day be a king, is a scholarly young man, a poet and dreamer, who tries to do the right things but is sometimes a victim of his own nature.

Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

JM: Exploring new territory as a writer, and being happy with the results! Creating characters whose future journeys will be deeply satisfying to write.

You can learn more about Dreamer’s Pool on Juliet’s website.

And don’t forget there is an international giveaway offer for audiobook downloads of Dreamer’s Pool from audible.com. To enter, just leave a comment on this post. Good luck!

Introducing Writer Unboxed Twitter Chats

Uncaged-Writer-Unboxed-1024x465

After the wonderful Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, many writers in the community who could not attend, thanked me and the other avid tweeters for sharing juicy tidbits on the conference hashtag. Well, it got Therese and I (among others) thinking. Why not host a monthly chat in real time where we can check in with each other, discuss our writing practices, talk about the industry, and send out encouragement on a regular basis? Sound like a fabulous idea? We thought so, too. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce an exciting new concept here at Writer Unboxed:  the #WUChat!

Here are the deets–

WHEN:  Every First of the month, (December 1st is our kick-off!), at 1 p.m. EST.

WHERE:  On the  #WUChat hashtag.

WHO:  Anyone in the Writer Unboxed community  (or anyone on Twitter can engage for that matter)

HOW:  Each session will begin with a topic question or two related to discussion items circulating at Writer Unboxed about anything from publishing to craft. Yours truly (@msheatherwebb) will host right from the Writer Unboxed Twitter account (@WriterUnboxed).

TIPS:  Have trouble blocking out all the other noise on Twitter? Try using TweetChat. All you do is type Tweetchat.com into your browser window. Type #WUChat into the search bar. It will prompt you to allow your Twitter account to access it. Say yes. VOILA! You will then be in what appears as a private chat room. Basically, this app gives you a clean screen with only tweets and information regarding this particular chat. In addition, it has the hashtag already added for you so you don’t have to keep counting your characters, etc.  If you use Tweetdeck, just add a new column for #WUChat to your screen.

 

For December 1st, our opening prompts will be:

Checking In: Where are you in your works in progress? What are your next steps?

If you attended the Un-Conference, how is it helping to shape your writing, your attitudes toward your works, or the craft as a whole?

 

I look forward to seeing you all there!

Adding More White Space To Your Life

I take a nap every day.

That seems like something of a confession, because I find that there is a strange fixation in our culture of a certain kind of productivity. One where you have to be “always on,” always “crushing it,” always stressed, always available, always buried by email.

Too often, this creates the expectation that “overwhelmed” is the only reasonable state of being. That, if you aren’t overwhelmed, that somehow, you aren’t doing it right; if you aren’t overwhelmed, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.

Yet, I find the following to be true:

  • Sleep matters. (Seriously)
  • Unscheduled time matters.
  • Time with family or loved ones matters.
  • Alone time matters.
  • Seeking broad experiences outside of your profession or niche matters (maybe this is travel, reading outside your genre, experiencing different kinds of art, learning a new craft, etc.)

I work with a lot of writers, and in a recent course I teach, 30+ writers were sharing their short/mid/long term goals. One writer mentioned a short-term goal of writing four books per year. A few others had similar goals. This goal – write four books next year – was amidst a list of many other responsibilities, both personal and professional.

When I pointed out how bold this goal seemed, the writer explained how within their genre, writing/publishing four books per year was the expectation.

Now, if you want to write 4 books next year, that is awesome. I support you in that.

BUT…

If you are doing it because it is “what is expected,” that’s simply not healthy. It is no more healthy than corporations that expect their workers to pull 12 hour shifts everyday… to give up weekends… to work on Thanksgiving Day… to spend time away from family… to cut their maternity leave to the bare minimum… or to diminish the value of personal health by adding on more hours, more responsibly, more pressure.

Continue Reading »