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Writer UnBoxed UnConference Wrap-Up, Pt 1

This past November, about 120 of us gathered in Salem, Massachusetts for a week of craft workshops, ‘UnConference’ sessions and a big dose of IRL community. Because not everyone who was interested in the program could attend, we wanted to share some takeaways from our week together with you here on the blog. This required a mammoth effort–gathering notes from those who took and typed them up for sharing, then filtering through all of those notes to ultimately create a comprehensive summary. A big thank you to all UnCon-goers who shared notes, and especially to Jeannine Walls Thibodeau [1] for her time in spearheading this effort–gathering notes, editing, and distilling potent takeaways. (Learn more about Jeannine by visiting her website [1], and following her on Facebook [2] and Twitter [3].)

There is a lot of content here, so sharpen your pencils — or turn on your printer — and get ready for this virtual look-over-the-notes-of-the-best-student-in-the-class experience. Today we’ll feature part one of the recap, followed by part two tomorrow, and part three on Friday. Without further ado…

logo imagery by Kristy Condon

It’s difficult to say exactly what UnCon 2016 was to all who attended. But the consensus seems to revolve around the following: It was inspirational. It was motivational. It was a transformative experience. About 120 writers traveled from all over the U.S., Canada, and Australia to attend, and though many of us had met at the last UnCon, we were thrilled to meet new friends in real life.

But what exactly made UnCon 2016 like no other writing conference? Was it the focus on writing, rather than fevered elevator pitch sessions? Was it the way many of the workshops led to reflection and sharing? Was it because of the location—Salem, MA, formerly known for witch trials? For those who returned, was it the feeling of coming home again? For those who were new to the city, was it the feeling of instantly feeling at home? Was it the early morning and late night walks exploring Salem? Was it exploring cemeteries with those who shared a love of both the beauty and history? Was it the shared meals? Was it so many introverts in the group, along some gregarious extraverts, all realizing the true friendships we shared? Was it meeting with our heroes for both genre and story, and coming away with inspiration that we could, indeed, do it? Was it listening to Sean and Lance sing on a night fraught with expectation? Was it the morning after that night, when so many of us felt, well, shell-shocked? Was it writing with our best friends at the House of Seven Gables? Was it hanging outside, laughing hilariously along with the smokers, whether you were one or not? Was it drinking in taverns while discussing writing, philosophy, art, hope, despair, and everything in between? Was it seeing Laura Swanson’s tattoo, and feeling so proud that she’d done it? Was it getting ready for the Bowie party with so many friends? Was it really letting loose and dancing to Bowie? Was it “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Was it that moment when Don Maass told us we could change the world with our writing?

Yes. It was. It was all that.

Here’s a peek at individual sessions, with special thanks to Nancy Gardner, Kate Victory Hannisan, Tonia Marie Harris, Natalie Hart, Mary Incontro, Lara McKusky, Barbara Morrison, and Alisha Rohde for their tremendous help in offering their notes. This recap would not be possible without all of you!

The Questing Writer/Exploring Ideas and Sh*tty First Drafts:

Barbara O’Neal

Let’s begin with faith: begin believing you can do it, or pretending you believe you can do it. Believing in your art is a powerful act of faith. People look down on the choice to be an artist. You have to be the one to believe in yourself.

As writers we walk this strange line: You have to be arrogant enough to believe people will want to read and pay money for your story, but humble enough to realize it’s just a story.

An idea comes to you, saying: Here I am—enflesh me. Your job is to greet a new idea with curiosity and interest.

How does the work show up? First, get all those judge-y people out of your head. YOU are the artist, YOU are the writer, your only job is to look at the idea with curiosity and ask questions. Quit clinging to genre; don’t listen to your doubt.

Gut check: How much is it scaring me? If it’s not scary, it’s too safe and easy. You need challenges to scale.

How can you test an idea? What are your values? What do you care about? If there was one thing in the world you could change, what would it be? Who do you love and why?

What are some of the central issues in your life? Grief? Loss? Family? How would you describe yourself and the theme of your life? It doesn’t have to be serious stuff; it could be that you love dogs or travel. Not the cool thing, but the TRUE thing.

Do not try to write the best thing EVER; just be your small humble self. If you think that way, you might be ruining it as soon as you start writing. It’s never going to be as beautiful as your imagining.

Showing up: Consider setting routines rather than rules so that you develop habits around the writing. Habits that you don’t have to think about so you’re not expending willpower better used for writing: Eat the same thing for breakfast on writing days, do the same things in the same order before you start writing, same time of day, same space. Each thing will be a trigger for the writing. DON’T BREAK YOUR WORD TO YOURSELF, because if you do, the work doesn’t get to be.

The daily part is how it happens. What you do today matters today. It doesn’t matter how you do it: pants, plot, notecards, whatever works, just do it.

Today’s worst distracter is the internet. Turn it off, use an app, turn off notifications on your phone. Shut down email. If you need to research, put a note in the draft that more is to come/look up later.

If there’s a stall, there’s a reason. There’s a wrong turn and you have to figure out where that is and then go back and fix it.

Trust the process, too. A book that’s rough can be revised. A book that doesn’t exist just doesn’t exist.

We have to be willing to fail catastrophically, but that is the nature of the work. We have to be willing to fail and fail and fail. Serve the work. If you come back to that over and over, you will suffer a lot less anxiety.

Wrangling with Plot:

Anne Greenwood Brown

The hardest thing to do is to finish a novel. Use the process that works for you.

Plot is really about pacing, how to keep the reader engaged, including agents and editors. There are several basic plots, but new ways to write them. The challenge is to write a story that readers recognize, but surprises them.

A note on audience expectations: The pacing of novels by folks like Melville and Hawthorne were tailor-made for nineteenth-century readers. But times change and so do audience expectations about pacing.

Put your story in a framework that meets reader expectations.

Some useful tools:
Pinterest to put up pictures to keep your readers interested.

How to Write a Scene:

Lisa Cron

All novels are character-driven. Stories move on a cause-and-effect trajectory. If you can move scenes around at random, you just have a collection of random things that happen. You don’t have a story. Stories are one external problem that grows, escalates, and complicates from the first page to the last. The external problem is created to instigate an internal change for a character that predates the story starting.

Layers in the scene span the entire novel. Every scene must take four or five small steps in unison to move the story forward. Must create all these layers that spin off the main storyline and weave them together.

In every scene, every character has their own world in their head, and has an agenda already fully formed when they enter your story that comes from that character’s past. Content should be the focus of a scene. What happens in the scene matters because of what the agenda is, what it means to the character. The answer to the “Why” is always in the past of that particular character.

Story is not about pretty writing or dramatic events. We come to story for inside intelligence about how people really see the world, what makes them tick.

Alpha Point: The reason for the scene: Why is it there? What is that key reason? Why does that scene HAVE to be there? It can be concrete, or it can be conceptual.

What does each character expect to happen, starting with protagonist? How do you then know how expectations are broken if you don’t have an agenda? What do they want? What will have to happen in order for them to get what they want?

What it means to the protagonist IS the internal struggle. This is where your protagonist realizes something, and they and their agenda changes a little bit.

Subplots are the story lines of a secondary character. Lisa suggests changing the name to “agenda.” What is the secondary character trying to do to kick their agenda forward? What does that character expect to happen? Want to happen?

Your agenda defines the lens through which you see life/story. We make sense of things depending on our past experiences. It will be on every page in the form of flashbacks, backstory, what they’re doing.

What does it mean to write organically? If you know the past, the plot will move forward organically, driven by the past. We do not write straight through from page one to the end. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from? If you don’t know the past, you have things that happen, not a story.

Plot elements have to seem inevitable, as does emotion. You need to look at the past to know what emotion your character is feeling. Emotion is how a character is making sense of things. Their meaning comes from their emotion. Don’t throw in metaphors etc. to make it prettier; it’s organic from the emotion.

Plotting looks at what happens externally in story. But events should make internal changes based on motivations from past. Each scene is like one concrete slab on an overarching bridge. In itself it has no meaning; its meaning comes from the story it’s part of.

Stories are about what we’re really thinking, what we really want. Plot is easy—we can see what people do, but as novelists we can give reader what’s going inside. Don’t do it by having them thinking and ruminating; have it coming from the past. Use the difference between what we’re saying and what we really think.

Meaning comes from the character’s struggle to move their agenda forward, in every scene. Given what happened in this scene, what has to happen next? You can answer why it matters for every character in the scene. What are secondary characters doing when they aren’t in the scene? How will this affect them? Specifics beget specifics. Digging into the specific background populates the story with specifics.

The third rail is the inner struggle. Plot is what actually happens in the scene; third rail is what it means to the protagonist. It electrifies the entire story. Narrative arc is not the plot. Your character has to earn their way from one scene to the next—that’s how you get to the “A-ha!” moment at the end.

Write-Life Balance:

Cathy Yardley

The most important thing is knowing yourself, your process, and how you work.

For a week, track what you’re doing. Track your writing (or your not writing!); your perception of what you can be very different from what you actually do. Track word count, time spent, where you wrote, and how you felt before and after.

Process isn’t right or wrong; it’s either effective or ineffective. Know your own process.

Pre-writing: Plotting versus pantsing is a spectrum. Know how much structure you need, and try other methods.

Be aware you might be a research addict. Learn what’s necessary versus what’s resistance. Try doing a little less than you think you need. Alternately, set a timer.

Don’t spend a lot of time polishing a scene that you might end cutting later.

Revisions: Have a system, because they will take up all the time you allow them to.

View your life and time as a permaculture landscape—everything in it should serve at least one, but preferably multiple, purposes. Self-care is important. “I will do things for my writing that I will not do for myself.” Remember to eat/sleep right, so that you have the energy you need to write when you finally get to late in the day.

If you are burned out, you have nothing to give. Schedule self-care before you schedule writing. If you don’t have self-care, your writing is going to suck.

Have a support network of writers.

Realistic goals are important. Know your limitations. Establish the habit of meeting goals. Start small. Later, ramp it up to discomfort, but not to misery.

Tips for producing faster:

Writing True Characters:

Heather Webb, Barbara O’Neal, Therese Walsh

How to choose a protagonist: which character would have the most conflict? You can begin with a concept or a situation. But if you begin with a situation, you need to build character conflicts around it.

How are writers are like their protagonists? Every character has a center, a comfort zone, and a part of their daily life that’s not so comfortable. We need to push characters into uncharted territory, then over the edge into chaos. This makes for gripping storytelling. Identify the character’s comfort zone/center, and then their discomfort zone. It can be hard to push the discomfort, push to potential and edge.

If you’re not challenging your character, you’re not challenging your reader.

Backstory is what leads character to that moment of crisis, where the story starts. Your readers should continue to ask questions. They will not get all the answers right away. Backstory is everything—with a delicate hand, you spread in the moments from the past.

Though we know things about ourselves, there are things we do that surprise us. Our characters also have subconscious minds. Keep going deeper!

On using character questionnaires: Often, they lead to irrelevant details. Instead, ask better questions: What does your character regret doing? Ask your characters serious questions: What is your character afraid of? How will you make her face it throughout the story?

We all wish we were someone else—departures and defining moments add depth to the character’s emotional journey. Sometimes the reason for the character’s goal has changed.

Make characters relatable; your readers need to empathize with your character. A glimmer of self-awareness (for the character) goes a long way. In a weaker character, little moments of strength help.

To add depth and create layers, work in opposites: Highlight opposite points of a character’s personality. Your characters should have paradoxes like we do. There are surprises that come from seeing deeper into the character. How does the internal goal they have at the beginning go deeper and come out at the end?

Continue to ask why, why, why?

The Impact of Language on Storytelling:

Keith Cronin

This session was focused on new ways to think about language and to develop a more distinctive voice. From highly stylized prose down to transparent prose, you aren’t trying to draw attention to the prose.

Many don’t think of language and how it impacts humor. Actors who are in sitcoms are often stand-up comics or have been, and they write and work and polish it. The end result is effortless, but humor writing does take effort and work.

Two literary devices often used are metaphors and similes. A simile uses like or as, and is comparative. A metaphor describes one thing as another.

Here are examples of describing the word “dark”:

“As dark as pitch.”

“Dark as the caves in which earth’s thunders groan.”

“Dark as a Spaniard.”

“It was darker than a carload of assholes.”

When self-editing, the current thing is to remove the words “just,” “some,” and “very.” And there are plenty of places where these words are appropriate and add something to the writing.

One word that Keith hates is “verdant” because he feels like it is not a word used in conversation; it’s a “writing word.”

In self-publishing these days, there are people who write a book a month. They have learned to write fast and not all of it is bad—usually clean, spare prose that isn’t too dressed up but gets the point across.

Contractions are often used so the writer can write as they speak, used to create a conversational tone. Common contractions like “I’m” or “don’t” are fine because they are known.

Sometimes there can be confusion like between “dog’s” (possessive singular), “dogs’” (plural possessive), and “dog’s been” (dog has been, subject/verb contraction). ESL readers may have a hard time getting meaning across. Be careful using contractions.

Contractions of “have” are hard for people to read, not as common, and don’t help with comprehension or a better story. Often we create contractions in our heads while reading, so the recommendation is to leave off some contractions and let the readers do it automatically on their own.

AVOID double contractions like “I’d’ve” (I would have), “it’ll’ve” (it will have).

Some people really don’t like phonetically accurate dialect and might even get upset when someone who is not of the area tries to write a local dialect. “If you don’t do it well, don’t do it.” Sometimes it requires a lot of contractions and that can be hard to read and confusing.

And last: The unwriteable word! Using the construct “No, yeah, I know what you mean,” or “Yeah, no, that’s right.” can be very confusing.

Ultimate unspell-able word: the shortened version of “casual.” How do you spell that?

Turning Points:

Kathryn Craft

Story is emotional. Story is how a person changes; therefore, we need emotional turning points. The reader needs little moments of clear change throughout the novel that lead to the Big Change. Why? Because sustainable change happens slowly, even glacially—we have learned this is our own lives. Allow the pressures to build until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.

Try writing a synopsis, not as “this happens, then that, then that,” but tracking emotional changes: “She feels this way, and this happens….”

This session was more of a workshop. Kathryn passed around a series of changes and she had members write a scene of someone undergoing that change, just to practice seeing what it might take to push someone from point A to point B to achieve the turning point.

Women’s fiction especially has these emotional moments. The moment happens when you bring pressure to bear on the protagonist until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing. It’s the reason people are reading your story. It’s the payoff for them.

Coping with Writer’s Block:

Juliet Marillier and Kim Bullock

 A block may happen because you are writing in the wrong genre, despite a strong desire to do so. Blocks can also be an inability to complete a work, to get started on a new work, to get a work polished to an acceptable level (perfectionism).

There are many different theories on why you may be blocked:

laziness and poor work habits

real-life pressures

financial problems

inadequate work space

psychological pressures

lack of emotional space to work

low self-belief

fear of failure

too many self-distractions

tendency to forget self-care, lack of balance

anxiety, depression, etc.

Giving yourself permission to write can be hard when there is a lot going on in your life, and when your life is full of negatives. Juliet wrote her first book to put down a good story, part-time while she was a single mother and working full time, with no expectations of publication. She meets with a peer group every Saturday to write at the library; no reading aloud or critiquing or talking about their reading, just sitting together to write. When they are done, they go have coffee and talk about their writing. The peer group seems to be a great way to buoy up the people who have had psychological and emotional problems.

Her strategies include following your passion, writing the book of your heart, and not trying to cater to the market. Make the time and space you need by getting a babysitter; getting a professional consult; talking to others that are struggling with the same thing—a *supportive* writing group is very valuable. Reevaluate your priorities, even if you can only do 30 minutes a day. Try to get into a more relaxed state of mind for writing: meditation, exercise, self-care, good food, etc.

Writing exercises can be useful to get things flowing, as can changing the tools: Change your setting, or font or software, from computer to pen and paper, something to jump-start. Don’t spend too much time staring at the blank screen.

Take a break and work on something else, in a different genre even, fiction to poetry, to get a mental break

Exercise: Get off the keyboard, go for a walk or a swim or ride your bike. It’s really good for the brain.

Do a different creative exercise completely: garden/composting, bake/cook (this is very like writing story, combining ingredients to get a final product).

Make sure your deadlines are non-negotiable. Set a word count and absolutely do not do anything else until you hit 1,000 words a day or whatever your count is.

When you are feeling fragile, do not do critiques with people. These can crush you; but if you have a nurturing supportive group, that’s different. Sometimes you need to walk away. Don’t beat yourself up about it; just take the break.

Read a book you love that speaks to your creativity and your love of story. Read another book, especially another genre that is totally unlike what you are working on, let your brain work it out

Look for patterns in your blocks and try to anticipate problems and head them off.

Keep an artist’s notebook full of images that put you in your story; cut out magazines and photos. Create a soundtrack for your novel that can get you going, to set off a trigger.

Write a short story that does not have anything to do with your novel.

Let your story brain do its own work while you do something else.

The Hidden Novel:

Donald Maass

There’s a hidden story happening all around us every day, not necessarily our story, but something in our world—the story of our family, our family’s finances, faith, affair, song on the charts, etc.

Novels should have focus, but detours matter because novels tightly focused on protagonist and what’s happening to him seem small, don’t sweep us into a larger story, one that feels expansive, seems important to all of us. It needs the world.

Does your protagonist have a family, or a substitute family? How does this family change? How will things be different at the end? Who in the family will change the most and in what way? Who does not want to change? What is the biggest thing that that person can do to stop the change?

Does your protagonist welcome change, or find it hard to accept? If hard to accept, what does protagonist have to let go? Accept? When is change forced on protagonist, and who forces it?

In the orbit of the protagonist there are sidekicks, secondary characters, antagonists. Among these people, whose fortunes are changing? Who has a turn of luck, good or bad? When does it occur? When does it complement or contrast with how things are going with protagonist?

Who in the story other than the protagonist can fall in love or start an affair during the course of the story? It can be hidden, but if so, when can we find out about it? What are the consequences for protagonist or someone else?

Who in your story is angling for power or planning a coup? What is the worst time for that person to make a move, to try to gain respect or assume authority? How will this affect your protagonist? If it’s your protagonist doing it, who is opposing him? When is the most dramatic time and the most dramatic way this can happen?

Who in the story is quietly compassionate? Someone who is selfish but may see in others a need? Who may be planning to give a gift, perform an act of charity, generosity? When is the moment when this act of compassion would make characters and reader think I wish I’d done that, wish I’d seen that need?

Stories happen in the wider world, and the wider world has events that happen, that protagonist can’t control: natural disasters, politics. In what way can larger events come home to where your protagonist is and affect what she is doing?

Is there a story about someone else in your novel? Who in your protagonist’s orbit c can have a breakdown? Who can start a fire? Who can’t take it anymore? What kind of acting out can happen?

Who can grow or change in an unexpected way? Rise above circumstances and become someone different? Who can achieve stature? Accomplish a big goal? How does that change your story?

Who can arrive in your novel that you don’t expect to appear? Who is very different and unexpected? Incovenient or colorful? Who can bring a different POV?

Who can exit your novel in a spectacular way? What is that way and when will it happen? Exits can be the most powerful moments.

What’s the good thing that results at the end of your story? How can you make it so your protagonist and perhaps the reader are hoping for a different outcome? How can you redefine the goal at the beginning of story so that it’s different from the one the reader anticipates?

Readers’ expectations/hopes are part of the dynamic quality of the novel. That hope can change, can transform if you manipulate it.

In world of story, there’s something your protagonist knows to be true? What is a given in your story? What could happen that would prove that truth wrong?

What is one thing we know to be morally right? How can your protagonist or someone close to your protagonist believe something opposite to or different from it? Can your protagonist have that conviction?

Telling the hidden stories gives your novel depth and dimension, and makes for better connection to the reader. A tightly focused novel has one protagonist, one problem, but if you open up the world of the story to the hidden parts, you have more ways to connect with your reader. There are stories unfolding around your protagonist.

Come back tomorrow for part 2 of the Writer Unboxed UnConference recap!

About [34]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [35], or join our thriving Facebook community [36].