The Great Twitter Debate: Should You Follow Back?

photo by Gerry Balding

Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment, because if there’s one topic that could be considered controversial about the usage of Twitter, it’s this one. When someone new follows you, should you follow them back?

Some say yes, of course; it’s rude not to. Some say no, why should I? Twitter isn’t meant to be reciprocal. Others (like me) land somewhere in the middle. And still others are baffled, overwhelmed, or totally undecided.

Today I’m going to break down each school of thought in hopes of putting things in perspective, and maybe helping the undecided figure out where they stand. I am not – I repeat – I am not trying to convince anyone of one method over another. I’ve seen people use each of the options below to great success, so I suspect the answer lies less in “which is the best overall” and more in “which is the best fit for you.”

Team Followback

The plan: Follow back everyone who follows you, barring spambots. These people usually end up with a higher number of “following” than “followers.”

The goal: Build a high number of followers. Be inclusive. Maintain a wide pool of people to interact with.

The detractors: Many social media instructors teach that a “good ratio” is part of building a platform as a writer. If you follow everyone who follows you and then some, you look like a fan instead of someone to be a fan of.

The reasoning: This school of thought believes that following back is common courtesy. It costs you nothing, so there’s no reason not to. If you expect people to follow you, you have to be willing to return the favor.

Some supporters of this method also argue that it’s just smart to acknowledge fans/readers. If someone follows you and you follow back, it’s like a tip of the hat for their attention. Happy fans are good fans, after all.

Every Tweep for Him/Herself

The plan: Follow only people who offer you value – connections, prestige, information, entertainment, etc. These people usually end up with a lower number of “following” than “followers.”

Continue Reading »

Keep the Faucet on: Slow and Steady Fills the Ocean


By Steve Johnson (Flickr CC)

Louis L’Amour has a quote I love: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” I use this quote often in my classes. I even have this quote posted on the bulletin board in my office.

Why, then, why why why do I need to re-learn this at least once a year?

This fall has been an overwhelming, but exciting time for me. I combined households with the love of my life, not only moving but putting my old house up for sale and the relentless cross-one-thing-off-the-list-then-add-three-more insanity of that process, all while also starting a new venture in teaching online fiction courses…and attempting to finish the draft of my new novel.

What does this have to do with turning the faucet on, you might ask? Well, I do this thing, when life gets too frenetic, where I begin thinking things like, “Let me just go finish spackling and then I’ll come back to write,” or “I’ll be able to focus on the writing better if I just go ahead and unpack my office boxes,” and “I have to get everything ready for class tonight before I sink into the writing.”

Blah blah blah. I’ve been here before. I know better! But I fell into the trap again. Please tell me that some of you do the same thing and I’m not alone in this? And here’s what happens: with each passing day, it gets easier not to write. After a week, self-doubt creeps in and you begin to wonder if the project is even worth your time anyway. Two weeks out and you lose sight of what you were trying to do with the story at all. You begin to believe your stupid lie: “I’ll write again when I figure out where the book is going.”

What shamed me out of it was the “Inspiration & Motivation” class I was teaching. In that class, we spent half the time on prompts and exercises to help writers start (or finally finish) a project, and the other half on some aspect of the writing life…such as creating and defending a writing schedule (see where this is going?). Continue Reading »

On Reviews and How (Not) to Take Them

paper_birds_by_hoppipoppi.jpgI got the call from my husband two weeks ago, the one you never want to get. While at the park, our oldest daughter (age 7) had fallen and broken her arm. (My girl is something of a tree-climbing-roller-skating-bike-riding daredevil. Yet she managed to get a fairly spectacular compound fracture–her first–falling less than 4 feet off the toddler section of the playground. Really? Yup).

She was absolutely incredibly brave about the whole experience, from the ambulance ride to the hospital to the x-rays to the procedure to set the broken bone in a full-arm cast. Then she came home–and she was still brave. But she also had to face the kind of sucky reality that the whole ordeal of having a broken arm (her right arm, too) was really only just beginning. In a couple of months (a compound fracture means a loooong time in a cast) she’ll be fine, and she knows that and understands that she could have it so much worse, but it was still hard–especially in the first days when she was under orders to stay lying down with her arm elevated to keep the swelling down.

Now, my kids are always begging me to tell them stories, sometimes made-up ones, sometimes true stories from when I was their age.  So to cheer up my daughter and pass the time while she had to stay lying down, I told her that I’d make up a story just for her.  My girl loves witches and ghosts and all things spooky (spooky by 7 year old standards anyway), so I made up a story about a little-girl witch and her adventures.

Perfect, right?  And the rest of this post is going to be all about the healing power of stories during times of adversity, right?

Continue Reading »

The Meaning of Everything

Photo by Donald Maass

Photo by Donald Maass

It was my son’s seventh birthday.  We asked what he wanted.  He told us.  And so…

…we got a puppy.

A boy and his dog.  Growing up  together.  How sweet.  How classic.  Our son is adopted.  He comes from a hard place.  He has struggled to attach, a long process of pendulum swings from safety to fear and back again.  What a perfect gift for this boy we love so much: a puppy all his own to love too.

Trauma kids arrive with lacks, for instance eye contact, an understanding of cause and effect, and empathy.  Trauma kids test and reject you.  At the same time they cling with a choke hold.  Some days our son follows my wife around, talking nonstop.  One day she said, “Sweetheart, I really, really need to take a break.”  He said, “Can I come with you?”

We’ve made huge progress, we’re proud of that, but it’s a lifelong journey.  How excellent for this stage, we thought, to have a puppy.  The puppy will make eye contact with those big, sad puppy eyes.  Training the puppy will demonstrate cause and effect.  Caring for the puppy will build empathy.  All good, good, good.

Our puppy is a rescue.  (In our oppressively hip  neighborhood you will be lashed if you own a purebred.)  She’s sleek and black and wickedly smart.  She eats like a horse, has doubled in size, and we love her to pieces.

The trouble began with a corner of our baseboard molding.  It looked like a beaver had attacked it.  Of course it was Pup.  Chewing.  Everything.  You dog owners can stop laughing now.  It’s not funny.  Our place is trashed.  Carpets are rolled up and put away.  When we set the table for dinner the dishes are pushed to the center.  Pup also follows us everywhere.  She sits outside the bathroom door and barks.  She is needy, a bottomless bucket

There is so much we didn’t know or hadn’t considered.  We were willfully blind. Continue Reading »

Justifying Evil


Photographer Unknown

Photographer Unknown

No, this isn’t another post about the Amazon-Hachette imbroglio.

I recently took part (along with WU’s Donald Maas) in the Surrey International Writers Conference outside Vancouver, absolutely one of the best literary powwows I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to scads. (Sadly, I’m unable to attend the WU Un-conference beginning today. I have no doubt it’s even powwowier!)

One of the workshops I gave at the Surrey conference was titled Beyond Good and Evil: Using Moral Argument to Develop Plot & Character.

Moral argument as a structural device expands the thematic range of the conflict from a battle of individuals to a contest of moral visions. Each character is seen as seeking to create, maintain, or defend a way of life – an idea of what it means to live well among others – and if the conflict in the story is crafted well, these ways of life are ultimately antithetical.

This is what Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing) meant by the Unity of Opposites – a tightly woven conflict in which the protagonist and the opponent (or the problem/challenge the protagonist faces) are inextricably bound together, so that escape or compromise is impossible. Either the opponent must be defeated (or the problem solved, the challenge met), or the protagonist fails in a shattering, life-changing way – in a sense, she dies, if not physically then emotionally, morally, professionally.

But the stakes are also ultimate for the opponent – otherwise the protagonist’s victory or success is diminished. A hero who overcomes a facile, underdeveloped or unconvincing opponent – or solves an unimpressive problem, meets a humdrum challenge – will fail to engage the reader in a memorable way.

We need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance.

To stage conflict meaningfully the stakes have to be ultimate for all concerned, and this requires understanding the opponent’s perspective just as fully as the protagonist’s.

This requires that we justify – not judge – our opponent’s worldview. We can’t remain outside this character, feeling toward him but not for him. Stepping into his shoes is just the beginning. Sooner or later, we have to inhabit his heart and soul.

This often means we need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance. And this requires that we not just accept but champion, embrace — dare I say it, love — someone we consider fundamentally mistaken, hurtful, even evil.

I know. Writers have all the fun.

And yet… Continue Reading »

You’re Such a Character

Image by The Magic Tuba Pixie

Image by The Magic Tuba Pixie

As an author, especially one just starting out, you’re often told about the importance of your “brand.” You’re lectured that how you act on social media, what you talk about in interviews, and what you write should all be in keeping with whatever “brand” you choose.

But that can seem artificial or inauthentic. You’re a person, after all. You’re not a corporation. You’re not a product.

But you are, in a way, a character.

Think about it. The fictional characters we write are supposed to seem as real as people, yet we can’t possibly portray them with all the complexity and breadth as people. You may know what hospital your protagonist was born in and the color of the walls of her second-grade bedroom and the bitter tears she cried when her brother threw her favorite CD out the window of a moving car, never to be seen again, on the road between Casper and Cheyenne – but you’re not going to share these details with your readers, unless they’re relevant to the story. You don’t write a character with no interests or history whatsoever, of course, but sentences laden with exposition bring your fiction grinding to a halt.

And the same is true of us, as authors. Even if you do want to tell your readers alllllll about your life, they’re not likely to be interested. You’re going to be selecting details regardless. So it’s not too much of a stretch to give some thought to those details, and what you’re going to emphasize, and what’s going to fall by the wayside.

This has really hit home with me lately, as I prepare to launch my second debut — a new novel, this time under a pseudonym. Continue Reading »

The Un-Con Begins Tomorrow! (Plus, How to Un-Con on Your Own, Even If You Can’t Make It to Salem)


The first Writer Unboxed Un-Conference begins tomorrow! (Applause, shouts of joy, cheers, hugs, panicked rummaging through clothing when you realize you have nothing to wear.)

The Un-Con promises to be unlike other writing conferences. It focuses on the writing part of being writer—developing our craft, building our inner strength, and actually writing and telling stories. There will be networking, yes, but no pitching, no marketing lessons, no sliding copies of your manuscripts to agents under bathroom stall dividers. (Please, please, don’t do that.)

In other words, the Un-Con will be Un-Conventional. We’ll spend a week sharpening our literal and metaphoric pencils and deepening our writing skills. That might mean finally understanding a specific element like voice, or acquiring new writing-life skills, like strategies for how to write through difficult times. Or perhaps we’ll just soak up every word Donald Maass says, regardless of topic. No matter our approach, we should come away from Salem next weekend better writers than we are today—assuming we apply what we’ve learned.

But what if you can’t make it to the Un-Con in person? Don’t worry; you can Un-Con on your own. First, you can follow what’s happening at the conference in real time on Twitter by following the hashtag #WUUnCon throughout the week. Second, we’ll try to post recaps and materials from the conference here at Writer Unboxed later in the year.

Third, you don’t need to be at the Un-Con to shake up your writing practice and try something new. As the dark hours of the day grow longer and people retreat into their caves against the cold and the wind (at least that’s how it works where I live in northern New England), the timing is perfect to consider what new element you can introduce into your writing, or how you can experiment. How can you wake yourself up when the whole world—or at least the northern hemisphere—is about to curl into itself and go to sleep? Continue Reading »

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Writing the Story of Your Heart: Even When the Odds Aren’t in Your Favor


By Flickr’s Sergiu Bacioiu

Today’s guest is Aisha Saeed—an author, mama, lawyer, teacher, and maker and drinker of chai. She is also the Vice President of Strategy for We Need Diverse Books™. While Aisha loves writing about a variety of topics, her main passion lies in channeling her inner teen. Her debut YA novel Written in the Stars will be released in 2015 by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books. When Aisha isn’t writing or chasing her two little boys, you can find her reading, baking, doodling henna patterns, or daydreaming about eight consecutive hours of sleep.

As a member of We Need Diverse Books, and someone who grew up without diverse books that represented me this area is near and dear to my heart and that is why I am sharing it with Writer Unboxed. I wanted to write for Writer Unboxed because this space has been a great source of advice and information on the writing journey and it’s great to give back some of what I’ve learned along the way.

You can connect with Aisha at her website and blog or follow along on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or Tumblr.

Writing the Story of your Heart: Even When the Odds Aren’t in Your Favor

In the increasingly competitive world of publishing, it can be very stressful to wonder if you’ll ever see your book in print. It can be tempting to try to boost your odds at getting published by studying what worked well and which book sold millions and trying to emulate it. But as anyone will advise you, chasing trends doesn’t work. Trends come and go and by the time you identify a trend, the moment has passed and some new trend is likely already just around the bend.

There is one “trend” however that has yet to truly take off, and that is stories featuring diverse protagonists. Earlier this year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin made the shocking revelation that while the United States is growing increasingly diverse, children’s books are still anything but. In fact, of the over three-thousand books released in 2013, only 7.5 percent of those books contained any diversity at all.

The topic of diversity has received a lot of traction as of late from many organizations including one I’m proud to be a member of, We Need Diverse Books™, and while many are working to change how diverse books are perceived, the Continue Reading »

Protected: UnCon: Comic Toolbox

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Happy Halloween! Love, Salem

Ghoul in Salem webSince many of you will be joining us for the WU Un-conference in Salem this next week, and because I’ll be co-teaching a seminar called “Place as Character” with Liz Michalski, I thought I’d share the character chart for Salem that I created for my upcoming novel.

Salem, where I’m fortunate enough to live, has been a major character in all three of my novels, but the city’s character chart has changed from book to book. The first chart bears little resemblance to this new one. Either I’ve gotten to know the place better in the almost twenty years I’ve been back, or it has grown and changed as any character should. In a city where history casts such a long shadow, it’s refreshing to see change. I’ve watched Salem grow from aging historical/industrial, to tourist mecca, to real estate goldmine for escaping young Bostonians.

Before I begin a new novel, I write detailed biographies for my main characters, sometimes up to 30 pages. But in my first book, beyond mentioning that one character had red hair, the physical descriptions of characters were almost non- existent. This was due, in part, to the first person POV, the protagonist was so deeply burdened by her past that she barely noticed the world around her and spent little time interacting with other people, much less noticing how they looked. For that book, evading physical descriptions made sense. What was interesting in retrospect was that my readers weren’t aware of the omission. I visited a number of book clubs with that first book, and, since everyone knew that the film rights had been optioned, the clubs always got around to casting the movie. Arguments ensued, with physical descriptions that were so wildly opposing that it was difficult to believe the club members were all reading the same book. This repeated experience taught me a great deal about the collaborative process between writer and reader, and just how big a role the imagination of the reader can play.

For this third book, which takes place in three distinct time periods, not only was backstory extremely important, but so was physical description. My editor helped me put together a new chart, which, as you can see, still has some blank spaces I haven’t been able to fill. Most of the details in the chart do not appear in the novel, but they are still important for me to understand. The three most important questions are the final ones. I’ve asked them of each book, and, though I am writing about the same place, they always elicit different answers. This surprises me every time, but it shouldn’t. If place really is character, then that character should change and arc the same way any other would.

For those of you coming to Salem next week, let this serve as a quirky travel guide. For the rest, here’s my introduction to:

SALEM AS CHARACTER Continue Reading »

Introducing Myself


Hi. I’m Allison. I’m introducing myself. I’m a writer.

It’s an odd choice for the title of this blog and the intro because, well, I’ve been writing here for a while, and a few of you may know me. Also because this is actually my final post here on Writer Unboxed. But it’s also not so odd because this was the title of my very first post, written seven and a half years ago here on Writer Unboxed. Yes, after a very, very long time (ions in our industry), I’m hanging up my blogging hat. I’ve already done so on my website, and after much thought, I’m doing so here.

Why stop now?

Well, though it feels impossible, I’ve run out of things to say. These days, there are so many wise voices out there imparting excellent advice and experience that I trust that readers are in great hands. Since my first post here, I’ve written five books, published at three different houses, had four different editors, and ultimately, opted to self-publish. I’ve shared the roller-coaster and when I could, offered ways that readers could do as I had (or in a few cases, not do as I had!). But sometimes, as in all things in life, it’s best to know when it’s time to shut up and reflect, and I guess I’ve reached that point. That point where I’m ready to be a listener and apply this quiet space to my writing. I’d never have imagined it but the quiet space is comforting now: I gravitate less to Twitter, away from chatter and blogs and comment sections, totally content not to document every last thing. (When and why have we become a society who documents every last thing? As if we don’t document it, it didn’t actually happen.) To instead, save some of that for me. My characters. My writing. My home life.

Which is why I started this post with the same way that I started my very first post: introducing myself. Continue Reading »