Tag Archives: Writer Unboxed

My Favorite Fiction-Writing Blogs

Bloggers must spend time not only writing posts, but they must also read other fiction-writing blogs, Long before I created this blog in 2011, I followed other writing blogs sites. My introduction to fiction writing blog sites came when Writer’s Digest published its best 101 blog sites. I faithfully clicked on each and every site. I found most sites useful, but some have become “go to” sites for me.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Writer Unboxed. Started as a collaboration between budding novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, Writer Unboxed features a diverse number of writers who cover craft of fiction, inspiration, publishing, social media, and a host of other topics. It is by far my favorite blog site, in part because it is a warm and welcoming community of writers. Writer Unboxed held its first “Un-Conference” in November of 2014 and its Facebook group boasts 5,000 writers.

Rachelle Gardner. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner consistently offers solid, common-sense advice on publishing, working with agents, writing, and editing topics. Her site features a handy archive that allows readers to find posts by subject matter.

The Creative Penn. A leading expeert in self-publishing and marketing, Joanna Penn offers tremendous entrepreneurial advice to writers of all experience levels. She also makes available resources such as podcasts and her Author 2.0 Blueprint. She writes thrillers under the name JF Penn.

Nail Your Novel. Roz Morris is an author, editor, presenter, and writing coach. Author of a dozen novels as a ghost writer, Morris published two novels under her own name, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three. She also wrote the excellent craft of fiction book, Nail Your Novel. Her blog features helpful tips on a variety of craft of fiction topics.

Helping Authors Become Writers. KM Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction. She is also the author of bestselling craft books, Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. I personally recommend her craft of fiction books. Her blog offers useful advice on a variety of writing topics.

Porter Anderson. One of the foremost professional critics covering the publishing world, Porter Anderson blogs at several sites. His insights on books and publishing are worth reading on a regular basis. His work with The FutureBook in London focuses on developing an international community around publishing in the digital age. He blogs at Thought Catalog and on http://www.thebookseller.com as well as on Writer Unboxed.

JaneFriedman. The former publisher of Writer’s Digest, professor and author, Jane Friedman is as knowledgeable a source as you will find on writing and publishing. Check out her blog and also her archive of posts on marketing, publishing, e-books, digital media, writing advice and much more.

Nathan Bransford. Former literary agent and author Nathan Bransford offers excellent, clear-eyed advice on writing, publishing, agents, marketing, and more. Check out his Publishing Essential links on his blog page, as well as Popular Posts.

The Book Designer. Joel Friedlander’s blog focuses on “practical advice to help build better books.” Friedlander’s experience in book design, advertising, and graphic design position him well to offer sound guidance to writers. This is a “must read” site for authors. Check out his Start Here links on his blog.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are other excellent blogs that I have not mentioned here, but if you follow these sites, you won’t be disappointed.

What are your favorite blog sites?



Filed under Uncategorized

Story is Internal & More Wisdom from Lisa Cron

One of the many highlights of the recent Writer Unboxed Un-Conference was the “Wired for Story” workshop presented by Lisa Cron, writing instructor and author.

The workshop was based in large part on Cron’s excellent book, “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.”

One of the major points of Cron’s workshop was the focus on story as internal. The writer must identify the protagonist’s inner struggle by developing the character’s back story before she begins to put words on the page. This doesn’t mean the writer should draft a detailed biographical history of the character. It means the writer must know the main character’s internal goal and what will prevent her from reaching this goal, and how the main character will be transformed by overcoming challenges that stand in the way of achieving this goal.

Citing the techniques used by advertisers and preachers, Cron said every major decision people make is based on emotion. Emotion comes from feeling and feeling is a physical sensation, she said, a chemical reaction that the brain then translates into emotion. Writers must make the reader feel that emotion through the characters. “If the reader isn’t feeling what the protagonist feels in the moment on the page, as she’s struggling with the difficult decision she has to make, the reader’s not going to be reading on.”

She gave this excellent definition of story: “Story is how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result.” She broke down the definition. Story is how. What happens is the plot, but that’s not what the story is really about. Affects someone: the protagonist. This is the person whose skin the reader is in. Everything that is in the plot derives its meaning based on how it affects the protagonist in pursuit of a difficult goal, which is sometimes referred to as the quest or the story question. In pursuit of a difficult goal. Story is about change and all change is difficult. And how they change as a result. This is the key to a powerful story. And that is why the writer needs to know the protagonist’s back story before she begins to write.

Protagonists come into a story with two pre-existing conditions, Cron said, something they want and something they must overcome to get what they want. She described this in terms of a “misbelief,” something the main character clings to in difficult times and something that colors her view of the world. The writer must challenge the character and put this misbelief to the test because the transformative growth will force the character to confront and ultimately overcome this misbelief.

“We don’t come to story for the surface world. We live in it,” Cron said. “What we want to know is what goes on beneath the surface.”

There is a tendency among writers to come up with a plot first and then figure out the characters who will populate it. This approach, Cron argues, will give the reader a series of unconnected events with no story to give it meaning.

“Story is about an inner change,” she said. “And you can’t construct a plot that will force your protagonist to earn new eyes unless she begins seeing things through old eyes. She can’t see something for the first time with new eyes if you as the writer don’t know how she saw it to begin with.”

And that’s why the writer needs to know the character’s back story before beginning to write. The key elements the writer must know about the character’s past is the specific event that knocked the protagonist’s worldview out of alignment, creating the misbelief, and the event that triggered the protagonist’s desire to attain the goal and what gives it meaning for her. And once the writer has worked out these, she must put it in scene form.


Filed under Uncategorized

That Elusive Thing Called Motivation

Robin LaFevers wrote an excellent post on Writer Unboxed on the three stages of commitment to the writing craft that writers must go through to reach the goal of truly becoming a productive and fulfilled writer. LaFevers identified three progressive levels writers must reach to achieve an ideal state: discipline, dedication, and devotion.

“At its most positive, discipline is the building of new muscle stage,” she wrote. “Discipline is the axle grease we apply to our flighty, frivolous, perception of what is actually involved in learning how to create something.”
The next level is dedication. “Dedication implies a level of mastery. It is the point at which you no longer need to apply discipline because your creative work flows out of your own organic desire to do that work…”

The ultimate level a writer should want to reach is devotion. LaFevers wrote, “Devotion implies joy and zeal and ardent affection…It is a process oriented stage. It encompasses dedication and can appear from the outside to look a lot like discipline, but its origins are very different. When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend time with.”

At some point, LaFevers wrote, a writer’s internal motivation should shift from discipline to dedication. Ultimately the goal is to get to the devotion stage. “The story becomes the most important thing—the characters, the truth, the world—are all more important to you than your publishing contract.”

I wholeheartedly agree with LaFevers. However, while devotion is what I strive to achieve, I’m stuck in the discipline bucket. It’s not that I’m not trying to get to the next level, but external factors keep getting in the way. The biggest obstacles are time and competing priorities. This may seem like a copout, but work is busy and my personal life has suddenly gotten active, which is good for me but bad for my writing habit.

While I have limited time, I recognize I must make the time to write. I do it every year during National Novel Writing Month, which begins in less than a month. It’s hard to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. It’s incredibly hard. It takes 1,667 words per day, every day, for 30 days. And yet I’ve “won” the last two years. Will I get to 50,000 words this year? I don’t know, but I am going to try.

One of the best points Robin LaFevers made in her post was that the writer must get past the discipline part to reach the devotion stage. The writer must master and live the daily writing habit. That’s where I need to get back to in order to reach the highest level.

What about you? Where are you on the spectrum from discipline to devotion?


Filed under Uncategorized

Book Review: “Wired for Story,” by Lisa Cron

I never was much of a student in science. That was one of the reasons I became a journalism major and a writer. If you’re like me in that respect, don’t be turned off by the title of Lisa Cron’s outstanding craft of fiction book, “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.”

Craft of fiction books come and go, but this one’s a keeper. Cron’s premise (backed by neuroscience) is that human beings are hard-wired to read and appreciate stories. She doesn’t stop with that valuable insight, though. She digs deeper to explore the significance of emotion in giving the story meaning. She then shows the reader how to develop protagonists who have deep inner goals. Then she covers story development, stressing that specific details bring a story alive.

Following the chapters about developing protagonists and stories, Cron introduces the subject of conflict, the “agent of change.” Then she covers cause-and-effect. She explains the path from the set up to the payoff and follows that with a chapter on how to weave in back story and flashbacks. The book ends with a chapter about the lengthy amount of time it takes a writer to hone writing skills before she reaches the cognitive unconscious area of the brain.

The chapters begin with a cognitive secret and a story secret that set up the subject matter to follow. For example, Chapter 3, entitled, “I’ll Feel What He’s Feeling,” begins:

Cognitive Secret-Emotion determines the meaning of everything—if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious.

Story Secret-All story is emotion-based. If we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

Each chapter ends with a handy checklist that summarizes the major lessons.

In a July 30, 2012 interview on the popular blog Writer Unboxed, Cron discussed why the brain craves stories. “Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency, that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling, that seduces us into leaving the real world and surrendering to the world of story.”

The bottom-line is that writers should focus on story. It’s the story that will get the attention of an agent or a publisher. And story, Cron concludes, is how what happens affects the protagonists.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book that I could not begin to list them. It is written for writers at all levels, from beginner to seasoned pro. I highly recommend this book.


Filed under Uncategorized

Book Review: “Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling,” By Donald Maass

Someday soon, I will write a post listing my favorite books on the craft of fiction, but one that is near the top of my list is literary agent Donald Maass’s classic, Writing the Breakout Novel. Maass followed that up with The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. His latest work, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, focuses on what it takes to write high-impact fiction in today’s genre-driven age.

Maass decided to write the book after he noticed commercial, genre fiction dominated The New York Times’ best-seller list for hardcovers (as expected), but the trade paperback list featured literary fiction. His conclusion was that a new kind of fiction was emerging and that the best 21st Century fiction combined proven commercial story-telling techniques with high impact literary writing that exhibited powerful themes and emotions.

In an interview on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, Maass discussed what the book is about. “It’s about the death of genre, or more accurately the liberation from genre boxes—including the “literary” box. It’s about creating fiction that’s powerful, free and uniquely your own. It’s about how we change the world,” Maass said.

Read the Writer Unboxed Interview with Donald Maass

One of the major lessons Maass imparts to writers is the need to dig deep into their own emotions to create high-impact characters and stories. “The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff,” he writes. “Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

“Get out of the past. Get over trends. To write high-impact 21st century fiction, you must start by becoming highly personal. Find your voice, yes, but more than that, challenge yourself to be unafraid, independent, open, aware, and true to your own heart. You must become your most authentic self.”

Maass urges writers to consider carefully their characters’ inner and outer journeys. These journeys are different, but inter-connected. Each chapter ends with a series of questions and advice specific to character and story.

Action and tension are important to sustain the reader’s interest, but Maass urges writers to consider impact.  He writes, “Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. By the same token, a dutifully rendered reality (reviewers call such writing “closely observed”) may cause readers to catch their breath once in a while but the effect doesn’t last long. Not enough is happening, and when it does it feels underwhelming. How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? How can literary writers conjure events that give their work long-lasting effect?

“The answer in all cases is to create events of enormous impact. If an event is external, excavate its inner meaning. If a moment is internal, push it out the door and make it do something large, real, permanent, and hard to miss. Whatever your assignment, you won’t find it easy. It’s not natural to you, since your tendency is to hold back.”

If you are a novice writer, I recommend first reading, “Writing the Breakout Novel” before tackling this book. If you are an experienced writer, I highly recommend this book.


Filed under Uncategorized

Should You Get Inside Your Main Character’s Head?

My critique group constantly warns me about my habit of getting deep inside my main character’s head. And it’s not just my main character. I do it with all major point-of-view (POV) characters. It’s a popular technique in fiction writing, yet it’s fraught with potential problems when not done skillfully.

Why is this a potentially bad habit? Letting the reader in on the main character’s deepest thoughts violates a sacred rule in fiction: “show don’t tell.” The reader wants to find out what makes the main character tick on her own. The reader doesn’t want the author to tell her  the main character’s darkest secrets and greatest fears. Okay, I get all that, but I’ve been schooled through the years by exceptional writers who do just that. They delve into the main character’s psyche.

In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, noted editor Victoria Mixon wrote about the need to limit this type of exposition. In the comments section, I shared my dilemma with Victoria, adding that renowned authors like Michael Chabon get deep inside the main character’s head. Victoria responded with a long and insightful comment I want to share in part with readers of this blog.

“When we focus upon writing in scenes and save our exposition for certain, special lines, that throws the exposition into high relief, so it can serve its special function of a peek behind the curtains.

“However, when we ‘tell all,’ then we must have developed an enormously smooth and solid stylistic voice with which to carry the weight of all that exposition. Then the reader falls for the voice more than the story.

Those stylistic voices take years and years and years to develop properly, and they take line-editing by a professional editor like you simply would not believe… ”

“Head-hopping POV such as you described in Chabon’s novel is actually an intensely sophisticated technique. It’s so easy to lose reader investment in our protagonist(s) or, worse, confuse the reader about who the protagonist actually is when we keep switching perspective on them.

“It’s not that you can’t learn to do what Chabon does. Obviously he learned it.

“It’s that it takes a really long time and a ton of writerly dedication in order to learn the most sophisticated techniques of this craft. And it takes a knowledgeable mentor.”

I’m indebted to Victoria for her guidance on this question, but I’m still left with a dilemma. I love to read the deep third-person POV and I love to write in that style. I’ve tried consciously to limit the deep perspective by using it sparingly within the context of a scene or narrative or as a brief reaction to a line of dialogue.

The casual reader may say, ‘Who cares?’ but to me this is a crucial issue. I have to come to grips with it in my writing. I may go back, as Victoria suggests, and deconstruct scenes from my favorite writers to see how they did it–not so I can copy them, but so I can gain a greater understanding of the technique and how it’s best used.

 What about you: do you like to head-hop? Does it concern you? What do you do about it?


Filed under Uncategorized

Avoiding the Social Media Time Suck

Writers blog about it–the amount of time they spend on social media: monitoring blogs, writing blog posts, tweeting, facebooking, leaving comments on other blogs. It’s a huge time suck, and yet writers still do it. Guilty on all counts.

I’m still trying to figure out how to spend less time on social media time and more time on my passion–fiction writing. I don’t have the answer yet, but let me share what I’ve learned:

Be selective about the blogs you follow regularly. At first, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Every week I would discover a new writer’s blog and add it to my favorites. I spent hours on social media and my writing output suffered. Now, I follow a few blogs religiously: Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Kathryn Magendie, K.M. Weiland, Jody Hedlund, Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman. Well, I guess that’s more than a few, but you get the point.

Set aside time for social media and time for fiction writing. That’s an easy rule to set down and a much tougher one to obey. How many times have you said, “I’m just going to check my stats, respond to a few comments and check a couple of blogs and then I’ll start working on my work-in-progress?” Three hours later, you haven’t put a word on the page. It takes great discipline to treat these as separate activities, but the writer must.

Use technology to manage your blog feeds. There are a number of tools available. Subscribing to your favorite blogs through email is one that I find helpful. Getting your favorite blogs on Twitter is another useful way to keep up, while not impacting your writing time.

Devote large blocks of time to writing and use social media as a reward. I’m a binge writer. If I’m not feeling it, I will produce drivel, but when I’m on fire creatively, I can crank out 3,000 words in one sitting. OK, it might not be riveting prose, but in some cases I’ve done my best work while on such creative rolls. The trick is to tell yourself you are going to write for three hours, four hours, whatever, and stick to it. Then treat yourself to a couple of hours on social media.

Go someplace else to write. This is a sound strategy. Pick a place–your local coffee shop or the library. Find a quiet table. Sit down with your laptop, find some music that inspires you and plug in your ear buds, and write for two or three hours. Try it sometime. Do your social media at home or on a mobile device, but not at your writing place.

Is social media a time suck for you? How do you find the time to write?


Filed under Uncategorized

Guest Post on Writer Unboxed

It was an honor to be selected for a guest post on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed. My post was featured on July 7. Started by two writers, Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, who wanted to share their journey as they each wrote their first novel, Writer Unboxed features a diverse group of contributors, ranging from agent Donald Maass to former publisher Jane Friedman. Make Writer Unboxed one of your favorites. It is a fantastic blog. Check out my post on writer’s block:

Read my post on Writer Unboxed


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?




Filed under Uncategorized

Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?


Filed under Uncategorized