Shag, Marry, Kill (Literary Edition)

ShagMarryKillI grew up on game shows. Jeopardy. Wheel of Fortune. Family Feud. The Dating Game. My favorites were the celebrity editions where we, Jane and John Does, sitting on our couches across America got to see famous people unscripted. To laugh alongside them like we were all a bunch of friends having pizza and soda round the game table. My husband and I still tune into Jeopardy, shouting out the answers before any of the players have buzzed. Game shows of every variety equalize the millionaire actor and the street vendor under the banner of “contestants.” A person’s past or even how they arrived on the show is inconsequential. All that matters is the present.

That accessibility to the masses and acceptance of the character game rules are attributes shared by literature. It’s why, as readers and writers, we get excited seeing a particular book we’ve read in the hands of a Hollywood star, political leader, or other esteemed person. We feel, “Me, too!” even if we don’t consciously think or say it.

So I went on a social media hunt for the current popular sport and found this all-inclusive gem: Shag, Marry, Kill. It seems everyone from superstar chefs to decorous journalists are being put on the spot to play. Well, I said to myself, why not authors in a literary edition—this is Writer Unboxed! I snagged three kind friends who were ready to get their game on.

(Ahem, stepping onto the game show hostess podium now.)

It is my pleasure to introduce brilliant writers and our distinguished contestants of the first Writer Unboxed Shag, Marry, Kill column:

Megan Abbott, Edgar-winning author of the novels Queenpin, The Song Is You, Die a Little, Bury Me Deep, The End of Everything, Dare Me, and her latest chosen as best book of 2014 by Amazon, The Fever.

Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife, Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Matthew Dicks, author of the critically-acclaimed novels Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Something Missing, Unexpectedly, Milo and the forthcoming The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs (September 2015).

The rules are simple: For each question, the contestant must designate which of the three persons he or she would rather shag, marry, and kill. It’s generally hard to say, I’ll shag X, marry Y, and kill Z without some kind of explanation and therein lies our entertainment. The story of why each “shag, marry and kill” were chosen.

[Read more…]


Everything I Need to Know About Plot, I Learned From Buffy

photo by Jaina

A couple of weeks ago, a client told me one of his beta readers had said his book read like a comic book.  I asked why that was a bad thing.

Granted, you don’t want your characters to be shallow caricatures or your plot to be mechanical or contrived, which is what many people mean by “reads like a comic book.”  But all of this client’s characters were fully rounded and plausibly human.  Even the psychopath who hunted people down in the woods had his vulnerable moments.  And while his plot had problems, contrivance wasn’t one of them.  I suspect his beta reader was complaining about the fact that his manuscript was an exciting adventure story.

Years ago, I stopped reading New Yorker fiction because I lost patience with beautifully written stories in which nothing much happens.  For the sake of this article (oh, the sacrifices I make.), I picked up a recent issue to try again.

Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees” tells the story of Rob, who has just returned to New York and is trying to get two character references so he can move into a co-op.  We meet a lot of Rob’s former friends and get a good idea of who he is and what kind of life he’s led.  He has a clear and engaging voice, and it’s hard not to like him despite his drawbacks.  The story makes good use of some advanced techniques, like present-tense narration and a highly unreliable narrator.  It also says some intriguing things about how we judge one another and ourselves.  But by the end of the story Rob still has only one reference, which he wrote himself, and we don’t know if he gets the apartment or not.  Maybe he’s changed by the experience.  Maybe he’s not.

In short, nothing happens.  It does it quite beautifully, but . . .

I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone.  But most readers need something more to keep them going.  They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about.  They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.

They want plot.

This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular.  The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon.  He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. [Read more…]


It’s a funny world.

cowflyingA lot of humorous novels build the comedy into the characters.  We watch two hapless lovers stumble toward each other in rom-coms or pull themselves out of increasingly bizarre situations in screwballs.  You can write this kind of humor with nothing more than insight into human nature and enough love for your characters to laugh at them.  But you need a different set of skills to create a book where the comedy is built into your fictional world, whether it’s the alternate aristocracy of Jeeves and Wooster or the physics-bending fantasy of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld.

A funny world has to be consistent, for instance.  Not in terms of its physics or metaphysics – in fact, the bafflegab  can be less plausible in parody worlds.  But place you create has to have a consistent comedic sense.  A cosmos in which spaceships travel by creating random whales in low earth orbit feels like the same sort of cosmos in which the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything is 42.

Some time ago I edited a book set in an alternate universe in which some fictional characters in our world – Sherlock Holmes, Romeo and Juliet, James Bond – had actually lived.  Some, but not all – Romeo and Juliet were real, but Hamlet was not.  In fact, it quickly becomes clear that fictional characters are only real in the alternate universe when it lets the writer get away with a gag.   The gags weren’t bad, but the ad hoc nature of the world made it harder to believe in, and thus harder to enjoy.

One way to keep your world consistent is to think of it as just another character, with its own sensibility and voice.  [Read more…]


Will Write For Chocolate: Old School Writing


I know some of you write by hand on a regular basis, but I’ve gotten very used to my keyboard. Just recently, however, I’ve started purposely writing in an old-fashioned paper notebook from time to time. I find that there’s something liberating about being able to brainstorm new story ideas on paper, plus it gives me freedom to scribble and doodle along the way. What about the rest of you? Do you do most of your writing on the computer? Do you keep a paper notebook?

For other Will Write For Chocolate strips, please see


12 Days Of Writer (Unboxed) Christmas


In case any of you can’t read the tiny text under “4 Lovely ARCS,” the covers are from Therese Walsh’s MOON SISTERS novel, which comes out in March, 2014. If you’ve been enjoying Writer Unboxed, I strongly encourage you to show your support by pre-ordering Therese’s book as well as marking it “Want To Read” on Goodreads. I’ve started reading Therese’s book and LOVE it so far; you can find out more about MOON SISTERS on Therese’s website as well as this Publishers Weekly review.

Other writers who have blogged or sung about the 12 Days Of Christmas (and from whom I have shamelessly stolen some of the ideas in the comic above): Julie Jarnagin: 12 Days Of Christmas For WritersA Writer’s 12 Days Of Christmas by GreatBigJar, The 12 Days Of A Writer’s Christmas by Jodi Milner, 1st Day Of Christmas by Katy Wyton and most recently, The 12 Days Of Christmas (Bookstore Style) by Sarah Brannen, Kristy Dempsey, Mike Jung, Arthur Levine, Emily Mitchell, Kim Norman, Anne Marie Pace, Yolanda Scott, and Deborah Underwood. Happy holidays to all, especially Writer Unboxed co-founders Kathleen Bolton and Therese Walsh!  — Debbie