What It Really Takes

4722580008_7d28e80511_zThe other day, I was doing a quick skim of the September/October Poets and Writers, the subscription I never have time to truly savor because I am too busy (as most of us are) with the more insistent facets of my life: family, part-time teaching job, part-time curriculum writing job, part-time fiction writing job, full-time adventures with my mental health challenges, always-dirty toilets and dishes and clothes, kids’ carpools and music lessons.

But one article caught my eye, partly because it was short and partly because it had the word Perversity in the title. On my best days, I am 20-30% perverse.

In this article, Perversity of Spirit, Rufi Thorpe describes a young student and the question he asks her, with palpable desperation, over a cup of coffee: Do I have what it takes to be a writer?

As I read his earnest question, I recalled the intensity with which I, a newer writer, sought the answer to that same question. I wonder if you, too, have hoped someone would answer that question for you. I bet you have. I think most of us have.

But after sixteen years of practicing fiction, I now understand that no one can determine whether we have what it takes because most of us start out as really lousy writers. If we’re lucky enough to be gifted with a bit of natural talent, then we’re only semi-lousy. Every new writer resembles a yet-to-be inflated balloon, a stubby brown acorn, an unsharpened pencil. No “expert” can know, just by looking at our early writing, whether we have what it takes. No one can know and quantify our potential.

Still, back in the day, I was desperate for someone who would tell me to keep going, to keep writing. Someone who would assure me that I wasn’t like that weird and talentless magician or roller skater or yoga poet juggler who put himself on America’s Got Talent.

Except that I was like that weird yoga poet juggler. I cannot bear to even glance at my Early Work because it would make me armadillo myself into a tight little ball of shame and embarrassment. But I didn’t realize how bad I was because when I shared my first fiction-ish “story” with my dear friend, Dana, she didn’t tell me that my attempt was ridiculous. She didn’t point out my story’s storylessness. Instead, not knowing whether I had what it took, she urged me to keep going. What a gift.

Eight years later, with a complete manuscript under my belt, I forced myself to meet with a developmental editor at a writer’s conference. He read the first pages of my manuscript and said he was willing to work with me. While he lived in California and I in Seattle, I mentioned I would be visiting my parents who lived ten minutes from him. Would he care to review his editorial feedback in person? He was delighted.

A few bits of information: 1) I believed the manuscript needed only a few touch-ups before I could start querying agents. (You see where this is going.) 2) This fellow had worked with Toni Morrison. He wore an ascot. He had four+ decades of experience in the publishing industry. 3) Though I had nothing so impressive on my own resume, I thought, No matter! My manuscript is polished. 4) Did I mention I thought my manuscript was polished?

A few of his written comments via email: Continue Reading »

On the Quilting of One-Liners (and the Second Coming of Once-Dead Darlings)

Julianna post

photo (adapted) by jude hill

There are wire bins in my office, marked with the titles of different projects. One bin, however, is just labeled “Ideas.” Sometimes I throw plot lines in that bin. Sometimes I’ll write the title of a possible future novel — with nothing else because I don’t know anything else but the title.

Mostly, however, I toss in one-liners. I don’t put these one-liners in a word document because I like the physical reminder — they sit in bins on shelves in my peripheral vision. Physical space is important. It’s why I worry about e-readers. How many times have I been saved because I shoved myself back from my desk and gazed at my bookshelf. Invariably when I do this, my eyes land on a title, and I pull the book out, open it randomly, and find some footing. Some writer — with some random lines plucked from the middle of a book they wrote ages ago — throws me a life jacket across time and distance via language and image, and I’m thankful. I don’t claim to understand that process. I just know it works for me. I need the bins to be part of my terrarium.

The bins are also important because they remind me that I don’t just have a bunch of blank pages to fill. I have something to fill them with. I don’t have to create from nothing.

And so you might now be able to imagine the way I often work — a process of quilting, assemblage by way of parts. In fact, when I come to the end of a novel I’ve written, I can usually open the book, point to a line, and explain where it came from. It’s also how I like to judge a book I might want to read. I’ll take in the opening sentence and then flip through it, land on line, flip again, land on a line, flip again, land on a line, and then decide. Does the mystery of the gaps between the random lines hold my interest?

Here are a few one-liners from my recent novel — The Future for Curious People — co-written with Gregory Sherl. They aren’t all exact quotes from the novel, but close. Some of these lines are his, some mine, some a mix, and some may have started out as scrawl on a scrap and dropped in a bin. These are certainly the kinds of bits that fill my Ideas bin. Continue Reading »

On Stage: Talking about Writing

Sophie school visitSome time ago, at a literary festival, I was in the authors’ green room talking to a new writer whose first public appearance as an author was that very day. She was clearly very nervous, though trying hard to look as blasé as the rest of us more experienced speakers must have looked to her. (This of course was far from the truth—most of us still get stage fright to one extent or the other). Finally, she burst out with, ‘I wish I lived a hundred years ago, when writers didn’t have to do this performance thing!’

It wasn’t quite accurate, of course—talking about writing has a long history, with Charles Dickens and Mark Twain just two writers from the past who were greatly in demand as speakers—but many of us writers can understand her feeling.

It’s true enough that these days that talking in public is expected of every writer, and not just the famous ones. (The seriously famous ones can simply refuse to do it, thereby adding to their fame, ironically). Writers can’t just write any more. We can’t sit in our garrets away from the world creating marvelous worlds which will satisfy our readers; we can’t just expect our work to make an impact on its own. We are expected to show ourselves off. To go on stage, and not just to talk about our books or read from them as Dickens and Twain used to do, but to make ourselves known as personalities, and even as that dreaded word ‘brand’. It seems that the reading public can’t get enough of seeing and hearing writers in the flesh, whether that be at festivals, conferences, libraries, schools, bookshops, book clubs, community organisations, or writers’ groups. And the pressure is strong, to be articulate, entertaining and informative in public, in speech, and not just the written word. We’re expected, in fact, to be performers, and not just writers. But talking is different to writing. You might be a fluent word person on the page but words might fail you miserably in speech.

Now some of us, who are naturally comfortable with the stage, enjoy performing all the time. Many of us enjoy it at least some of the time. And some of us hate it nearly all the time. But each of us has to learn sooner or later ways of dealing with that expectation we will perform. One way of course is to refuse all invitations to speak. But for most authors, that’s not really a very helpful option. And not only because it’s not helpful in terms of your career—it would also mean you miss out on the positive sides of being on the book-talk circuit, which not only includes connecting directly with your audience, but also getting to know fellow writers. I’m not the only writer to have formed lasting friendships with fellow authors I first met when we spoke at the same event. And in our big country, there are many author friends I only ever catch up with when we are speaking at the same event. Of course, connecting directly with your audience can be a great pleasure and a great success—but even if an event turns out to be a fizzer in terms of connecting with audience or books sold, there is usually the compensation of meeting fellow-toilers in the author talk field. And the gossip’s usually pretty interesting too. :)

I’ve been speaking in public about writing for a couple of decades now. Mostly, I enjoy it, though, always, I have a certain amount of stage fright before it. (Indeed, I think if I didn’t, I wouldn’t give a good performance.) Mostly, too, I establish a good connection with audiences. I did a lot of drama as a child and teenager and it’s likely that early training helped, as did the fact that in my big, loud family, the ability to speak up and express yourself was pretty much a necessity if you didn’t want to be steamrollered flat. But I don’t naturally love being centre stage–there are times when rather than speak in public I would much rather hide in a corner and read a book, and I curse myself for ever having accepted that invitation. But once you’re there, you’re there, and you have to make the most of it.

So how to make the most out of it? Here are some things I’ve learned over the years. Continue Reading »

Why Every 1st Novel Should Be a Ghost Story

photo by Jesse Draper

photo by Jesse Draper

Today’s guest is author Siobhan Adcock. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University, and her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines. She has worked as a writer and editor for Epicurious, Gourmet.com, iVillage.com, and The Knot among other digital publishers.

Her debut novel, The Barter, is a ghost story and a love story about two deeply conflicted mothers—separated by 100 years—and the impossible barter that ultimately binds them. Set in Texas, in present day, and at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel is a riveting emotional tale that also explores work and feminism. 

We’re thrilled she’s with us today to talk about how the clear-cut steps for writing a ghost story can apply to other works as well.

Connect with Siobhan on her WebsiteFacebook, and Twitter.

Why Every First Novel Should Be a Ghost Story

Unsure what to write next? Not sure where the plot of your novel is headed? Tormented by writerly self-doubt? Please allow me to make a suggestion that might change your whole life: Try writing a ghost story.

As I found out for myself while writing my first novel, which also happens to be a ghost story, obeying the old “every page must advance the plot” adage becomes much easier when there’s a ghost or other spooky presence pushing things along—or chasing someone around. Ghost stories have a certain inexorable quality that can be particularly helpful for a first-time novel writer.

Why? Well, the basic plot of a ghost story goes something like this:

  1. A ghost shows up.
  2. The ghost gets scarier.
  3. The ghost gets even scarier.
  4. The ghost becomes truly horrifying.
  5. The protagonist figures out what to do about it.
  6. Denouement.

It’s not exactly that simple, of course, but it’s pretty close. For those of us who are familiar with the sensation of coming to a crossroads in our writing, or worse, a dead end, I’m here to tell you: Writing a ghost story pretty much eliminates the possibility of dead ends. If you aren’t sure what should happen next in your story, the solution is almost always “Write a scene where your ghost does something freaky.”

If the basic plot of a ghost story I’ve outlined above looks familiar, it’s not just because you’ve seen The Others. It’s because it also happens to be the basic plot of almost every story ever written: Setting, Conflict, Rising Action, Crisis, Falling Action, End. In this way writing a ghost story happens to be excellent target practice for writing a story of any persuasion, haunted or not. Your ghost will just spook you out of your writerly cul-de-sacs a little bit faster, and toward a clearer purpose. Continue Reading »

Dear Dwight: A Critique Letter

photo by Josh McGinn

photo by Josh McGinn

When we realized we had a gaping hole in the WU calendar for today, we asked a comic friend to write something up for us.

    “But I’m not a writer,” he said.
    “You are,” we said.
    “It won’t be right for your crowd,” he said.
    “C’mon,” we said. “Our crowd has a sense of humor, too. And it’s Saturday.”

He agreed. Though he insisted he remain anonymous.


Dear Dwight,

I recently finished the draft of your historical fiction manuscript and offer my critique and some suggestions below. We have certainly had some rocky patches over the years as critique partners, but, as your brother-in-law, I’m glad we have worked through them and come to a better understanding of one another’s styles. As I mentioned previously, I will make a concerted effort to be more open-minded and less blunt with my opinions. So I don’t forget, my wife, your sister, has been gracious enough to emphatically reinforce this with me on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Let’s start off with some positives! First of all, I really like the paper you used to print out your pages. Not too heavy, not too flimsy, and a slight ivory color that makes reading a real joy in both dim and bright light. Bravo on the paper selection!

I also think that changing the font from Haettenschweiler Condensed Frizzy Gothic Olde World to Times New Roman was an excellent choice. Far more readable and the page count went way down. I wonder if you might consider trimming your manuscript even further from its current 716 pages. I’m just thinking of marketing here. I’ve noticed that novels these days – as opposed to novels of the nineteenth century – seem to run a bit shorter; probably has something to do with Xbox and Facebook.

I have a few additional constructive comments that I feel may strengthen your work: Continue Reading »

I’d Know That Voice Anywhere

photo by Mike Bailey-Gates

photo by Mike Bailey-Gates

Please welcome Katrina Kittle to Writer Unboxed as a regular contributor. Katrina is the author of four novels for adults—Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, The Kindness of Strangers, and The Blessings of the Animals— and one novel for tweens, Reasons to Be Happy. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and is an experienced teacher of creative writing as well as a manuscript consultant. You can learn more about Katrina in her bio box at the end of this post. 


No matter if you’re writing in first person or third, it’s vital for our characters to have distinctive voices. Your characters should sound like individual people. I know that in my own first drafts, my characters all end up sounding like each other, which essentially means they sound like me.

Let’s talk about what creates a voice, then look at published samples of distinctive voices, then, finally, go through some simple exercises that will help us create these individual voices in our own stories.

What Creates a Voice?

Vocabulary is the most obvious ingredient, as are expressions, idioms, and favorite curse words. Voice is also shaped by the character’s gender, age, education, occupation, geography (Where do they live? What country? Urban or rural?), time period, class, attitude, vocal patterns, their use of figurative language, and essentially every single thing they’ve ever experienced in their life! I’m not kidding—everything that makes up your character’s real life informs the way she sees the world, and therefore informs the way she speaks.

As you can see, voice, then, is deeply connected to characterization. It’s so difficult to isolate one aspect of our craft from the others because they’re all so braided together. Clear voice is aided by knowing your character inside and out.


I know for me, it helps to see concrete examples, rather than talking about it in the abstract. In the following short excerpts, note how unique each voice is from the others. You would never mistake any of these characters for each other. Oh, and I want to point out that I adored all three of these novels and encourage you to read them!

The first is from Things We Didn’t Say by Kristina Riggle (William Morrow, 2011): Continue Reading »

Let it Go

BxboI have two daughters, ages 5 and 7, which means– as people with similarly aged daughters will probably tell you– that we like the movie Frozen in our house.  A lot.  We do not even have a television, and I have still heard the signature song Let it Go so many times that I click my teeth to it while folding laundry.  My husband absent-mindedly whistles it while writing computer code.  If my 8 mos. old opened his mouth and ‘let it go’ came out instead of the standard ‘ah-boo, ah- BOO’, I wouldn’t be surprised.  The incipient muscle-spasm in my right eye would develop into a full-blown twitch, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

However.  Sometime last month as I was putting on a Frozen-themed birthday party for my 5 year old and buying her a Queen Elsa snowglobe wand that plays . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . Let it Go (because apparently I am a masochist), I started listening to the song’s lyrics in a different light.  Listening and realizing that the words to the song actually offer some pretty solid advice about writing.

For your sanity and mine, I won’t recap the plot of the movie except to say that Elsa, the character who sings Let it Go, is for most of her life ruled by fear.  She’s afraid of her own magical powers– afraid what other people will think if they ever learn about her powers.  She spends her life hiding, for fear someone will discover the truth.  Let it Go is what she sings when she’s accidentally given herself away– when she realizes that she has nothing to lose, that she can’t hide anymore, and can finally  Let it Go.

As writers, I think there are so many times when it’s easy to be similarly ruled by fear.  It can be as simple (yet scary) as having to admit to others that we are writers.  Before I landed my first contract, I practically NEVER confessed to writing books.  Ever.  “I’m a free-lance editor,” I would say when people asked what I did.  It took my husband’s tough-love approach to break me of that one.  “This is my wife Anna,” he would say, whenever we met someone new.  “She’s an author.”  Of course people would then ask what kind of books I wrote, and I would feel totally stupid and always kind of want to stab myself with a rusty fork rather than answer– but of course I would (answer that is, not stab myself with a fork) in stammering, tongue-tied sentences.  But you know what?   Continue Reading »

Gems Vs. Necklaces


Flickr Creative Commons: Claude & Penny Cruz

I love necklaces.  No, I’m not a hippie.  I’m not a cross-dresser.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)  I just love the many ways in which women make themselves beautiful.  A French twist, a bare shoulder, smoky eyes, a pretty necklace.

Diamond necklaces are stunning.  Not that I see them except in the window at Tiffany’s, mind you.  But to be gorgeous a necklace doesn’t need to be made of rare gems.  More important are design factors like harmony, balance, proportion, movement, contrast and emphasis.

For instance, harmony is achieved by using similar elements in the composition of the necklace.  Wood and clay together evoke the Earth.  Turquoise and silver also are a natural combination, as you can see in jewelry shops all over Santa Fe.

Distribute the elements of a necklace evenly and you have balance, but as effective can be an asymmetrical composition, or one in which the visual expectation created on one side of the necklace is off-set or reversed on the other.

Contrast, such as alternating beads of onyx and opal, is visually interesting if not symbolically intriguing.  Complimentary color-wheel choices are like variations on a theme.  Textural contrasts also catch our eyes.  Movement is how a necklace visually directs your gaze, explaining why drop necklaces probably are my favorites.  Ahem.

In composing a necklace you can also work with proportion, for example making pearls larger as they descend toward the necklace’s nadir.  A point of emphasis also draws the eye but remember that the emphasis only emphasizes when it departs from its context.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  A single diamond solitaire on a woman’s left ring finger is a beautiful thing.  It’s symbolic and emotional.  I’m not against rings.  But for me an engagement ring and an artfully composed necklace do not compare.  One is simple and pure, understood with one look.  The other is complex and engaging, demanding that you look again.

A bride is a gem, no question, but a married woman is a necklace.  I’m sorry, should I have composed that metaphor the other way around?  Never mind.  The point is, what’s beautiful in necklaces are not gems themselves but the way in which you arrange them.

Which brings us to words. Continue Reading »

Announcing 2 Un-Conference Scholarships

confIf you’re interested in attending the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference but were held back by the cost of the event, this opportunity is for you. Because support for the event has been strong, we’re now able to offer two scholarships–one for a man, the other for a woman–to fully cover tuition for the Un-Conference. (Other expenses, including travel to Salem, MA, and cost of the hotel, will still be your responsibility.)

What’s so special about the Un-Conference?

Part symposium. Part networking affair. Part workshop. Part retreat. Our hybrid event will not focus on the business of writing; there will be zero (zip, nada) sessions on finding agents or writing query letters or building platform. Instead, our focus will be on drilled-down conversations, networking, and time to write.

How can you apply for the scholarship?

Tell us in 300-words or less why you’d like to attend. Send your essay with the subject line “Writer Unboxed Scholarship” to us at writerunboxed by September 12th.

Entries will be stripped of identifying information and judged blind by a panel of trusted WU’ers.

Questions? Contact us at writerunboxed.

(p.s. Interested in attending the Un-Con regardless of the scholarship? We’d love for you to step into one of the few remaining spots. Learn more HERE.)


Socks by lindseyy

Photo by lindseyy

In April of this year, I got a call from my agent that went something like this:

She:“I’ve been hearing from several editors that they’re looking for a book like X. They were wondering if I had anything to submit that would fit the bill. I don’t, but I do have an author who could write a book like that.”

Me:“You do?”

She:“Yeah. You. Can you get it done in twelve weeks?”

Which is about when a few annoying character traits of mine kicked in: (1) I find it impossible to say no; (2) I think I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it; and (3) I hate to let people down. The trouble is, I work full-time (and not at writing), plus I’ve got three kids who like to be occasionally fed.

As much as I put my mind to bending time and squeezing forty hours into twenty-four, I have not yet been able to pull that off. So here I was. I’d said yes to my agent, and now I was going to let her down. I wrote a synopsis, then sat down to cry when I realized how much work lay in front of me.

A few days later, a woman in my critique group mentioned how she thought it would be fun to co-write a book with me. The heavens parted.

So, we wrote that book, which was told from four points of view (2 major; 2 minor). We each took a major and minor character; thus, we each committed to writing 50% of the book. By the end, this equated to approximately 36,000 words each. Totally doable. We finished the project in not twelve weeks, but seven, and it is now edited and ready for submission.

As quickly as the process went for us, it wasn’t always easy and I learned some lessons along the way. If you’ve ever considered co-writing a book, these tips are for you.

Continue Reading »

Writer Unboxed Limited Edition T-Shirts — with profits going to a great cause

T Shirt pic When we learned that a group of writers were trying to raise ~$15,000 to cover expenses (for flights, childcare, hotel, and more) so that they might attend the WU Un-Conference, we were more than happy to help spread the word of their initiatives. Their first big fundraiser, the sale of a writing-resource bundle worth $200, ends today. (There is still time to check that out, HERE.)

Though the fundraiser has done well for them, they’ve raised only half of the money they had hoped they would.

Though the writers in question wish to remain anonymous, we want to be clear that no members of this group are WU contributors; rather, they are a part of the larger WU community. All profits from your purchase of a Limited-Edition WU T-shirt goes to benefit these writers.

Several WU’ers have created, or are in the process of creating, fundraisers to benefit the cause. WU community member Mike Swift created a Writer Unboxed hat fundraiser (check it out, HERE), which sparked the idea for us: Limited Edition WU T-shirts, with all profits going to the group trying to raise money.

A few obsessive days later, we landed on a design we love. Aren’t they gorgeous? We think so, anyway. The red shirt is sized for ladies, and the gray is a unisex fit.

This particular design will never be available again, so we hope you’ll order one while they are, through mid-September. At $23, the price is right, and the cause is more than worthy.


You can help, too, by sharing this post and spreading the word over social media. Thanks so much.

Write on!

Take Five: The Caller by Juliet Marillier


U.S. cover for The Caller

Congratulations to WU contributor Juliet Marillier on the upcoming U.S. release (Sept. 9th) of her latest novel, The Caller! We’re happy she’s with us today to answer a few questions in a WU Take Five interview.

We’re also pleased to tell you that Juliet will be giving away a hard-back copy of The Caller to a randomly chosen commenter for this post, to be shipped later in September to anywhere in the world.

Without further ado, our Take Five with Juliet.

Q: What’s the premise of your new book?

JM: The Caller is the third and final book in the Shadowfell series. The series is for young adults (14+) but is also a good read for adult lovers of folkloric fantasy. The books are set in Alban, an imagined version of ancient Scotland. Tyrannical King Keldec has held the throne for fifteen years, using fear to maintain control. Under his laws, interaction between humankind and the Good Folk, Alban’s uncanny inhabitants, is forbidden, as is the use of ‘canny gifts’, special talents possessed by certain humans. The central character, Neryn, has a canny gift as a Caller, one who can draw out the Good Folk from their places of hiding and win their cooperation. This has the potential to make all the difference in the planned rebellion against Keldec – but the risk to both Neryn herself and to the rebel movement is immense. The main theme of the Shadowfell books is rebellion: What is the true cost of standing up to be counted? Can a person justify carrying out acts of violence and terror in the pursuit of a long-lasting peace?

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