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Visit us at WriterUnboxed.com, or click to join our FB page.

New This Month at WU

Muse Meet-Up?

If you are around and about Boston in early May, Grub Street is holding its annual writing conference, The Muse and the Marketplace. You'll see a number of WU contributors in the lineup, including Jael McHenry and Sharon Bially.

Take special note of the session Strength in Numbers: The Power of Online Communities (4:15pm-5:15pm on Sunday, May 5th). WU Blog Mama Therese Walsh and WU Facebook Mod Squad leader Vaughn Roycroft are loaning their expertise to the panel, along with Julie Wu and Priscille Sibley.

The blurb: "...Come hear how members of three important online communities -- the blogs Writer Unboxed (with almost 40,000 monthly visits) and Beyond the Margins (founded by Grubbies) and the Facebook group Book Pregnant have helped authors grow as writers and polish their craft, find the advice they’ve needed along the way, meet their agents and learn the nuts and bolts of marketing -- all the while having fun, making friends and giving back in a writerly way."

The WU Shuffle

We were verklempt when WU contributor, Nina Badzin, decided to focus on her freelance career and her personal blog. She will be missed. Fortunately, she helped pass the Twitter-maven torch to a woman already known to some of us. Watch for Annie Neugebauer's monthly posts beginning March 9th.

It was a tough job to fill Yuvi Zalkow's humorist position, but Bill Ferris turned out to be The Guy (one who comes with drawers full of pants, or so I'm told). Watch for his monthly Saturday slot beginning March 16th.

Would You Put Out the Fancy Guest Towels?

Alice Hoffman and Jane Porter in da house! Scroll down for their ideas on life-altering fiction and the writing process.

Don't Forget the Gap

You might have noticed from the subject line that the Writer Inboxed is switching to a bimonthly schedule, which prompts these critical questions: What will you do without us? Will you be bored? Do we continue to exist in your absence?

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If you find yourself wanting a WU "hit" in the long, echoey silence, please connect with us on the blog, our promo-free 2500-member-strong Facebook community page, or on Twitter (@WriterUnboxed). Until May, then, Unboxeders. Write on.

~Jan O'Hara, WU Newsletter Editor

When not contributing to Writer Unboxed, former family physician, Jan O'Hara, can be found at her citrusy blog, Tartitude.

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21st Century Tips

by Donald Maass

Who’s your most longstanding friend? That friend is nice to have around, wouldn’t you say? Someone who knows your good and bad, to whom you have to prove nothing, on whom you can count on for an honest answer.

Old friends are mirrors, reminders, anchors, ports in a storm, the wind in the trees to tell you that change is coming. Life is unimaginable without them. The town feels empty when they’re away. Holidays aren’t right unless celebrated with them. Their expression tells you in a second that something’s wrong.

The warm, well-developed world of a protagonist isn’t complete without an old friend. This may seem contrary to the directive to isolate your hero or heroine. That’s helpful for dramatic purposes but drawing readers into a story isn’t only about building plot. It’s also about building a world.

Here are some ways to use old friends:

What secret is the best friend keeping for your protagonist? Why? What could force out that secret?  Make it so.
What was the greatest bonding experience between your protagonist and his or her best friend? Reverse that experience in the present.
What’s the secret code between your protagonist and his or her best friend? Use it once to say help and once to say, baby have I got something to tell you!
Create a crisis for your protagonist’s best friend. Make your protagonist helpless to assist. What gesture nevertheless will convey, I’m here for you.
Your protagonist deserves an old friend, don’t you think? Don’t we all? Don’t stint. Be generous. Just like your own oldest, best friend.

Literary agent Donald Maass is the author of Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing 21st Century Fiction.

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Jane Porter

A Book That Changed My Life

by Jane Porter

Like me, my grandmother Lyle had a professor for a father, and she was surrounded by books. I loved her library and spent hours curled up on the guestroom bed at her house, reading one series after another.

My favorite, though, was Pollyanna, or “The Glad Books.” Pollyanna was an orphan, with a loving disposition and a cheerful outlook on life. Her cheerfulness was infectious, inspiring the people around her to be kinder, and more optimistic as well.

As a girl, I loved Pollyanna’s struggles, and adventures. I wanted to be positive like her. I wanted to be kind, hopeful, compassionate, forgiving.

As I grew older, literature became more complex, as well as darker. From high school lit classes to my graduate studies, bleak, grim themes abounded. The world appeared a dark place indeed, and I knew from my father’s death when I was fifteen, and my mother’s remarriage to an unstable individual, that yes, life was full of suffering. Pain was everywhere. Literature had it right. Oppressive, grim, hearts of darkness…

I’d been a reader my entire life and turned to books for solace, truth, answers. Yet literature was now telling me that there wasn’t much hope. Life was hard. Life was lonely. Life was essentially futile, with the self isolated…the self against society.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t like it much. I didn’t like reading anymore. I didn’t want more suffering or pain. Wasn’t interested in more grief or loneliness.

Ten years ago my grandmother gave me her childhood books for my own library, and I reread them all, and once again I was enchanted. I felt young and innocent and hopeful. Pollyanna’s sweet spirit touched me, inspired me. Her positive attitude made me more positive and I thought — this is at I want. This is what I need. And this is what I need to do.

Pollyanna

Yes, there is poverty and hunger, war and struggle. There is violence and aggression and suffering and desperation. But I don’t have to accept it, or embrace it. I can choose to be a light in the darkness. I can choose to answer anger and aggression with kindness. I can choose to be hopeful, and encouraging. Positive.

Glad.

Pollyanna’s ‘glad’ attitude shaped me. Today as a writer, I write both romance and women’s fiction and I write in both genres because the stories of women matter, and love matters, and courage and optimism matter, too. I don’t believe women have to be perfect, but I believe we have to care about others, as well as care about ourselves.

Which is why I can’t write a book that doesn’t have a Happy-Ever-After. I believe in them, and not just in novels and stories, but in real life. Why can’t real women grab for happiness and hope, and live with a sense of empowerment and optimism?

Pollyanna reflected what I wanted to feel --- happy, hopeful — and in my stories, I want to give that same warmth and joy back to my readers. I like feeling good. I like being inspired. And my readers do, too.

Bestselling novelist Jane Porter has been a four-time finalist for the prestigious RITA award. Jane's Flirting With Forty, picked by Redbook as its Red Hot Summer Read, went back for seven printings in six weeks before being made into a Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear. September 2012 brought the release of The Good Woman, the first of her Brennan Sisters trilogy, followed in February 2013 by The Good Daughter. Book three, The Good Wife, is slated for release in September 2013. A mother of three sons, Jane holds an MA in Writing from the University of San Francisco. You can learn more about Jane by visiting www.janeporter.com, or find her on Facebook, Twitter (@authorjanep), and Youtube.

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Ask Victoria

by A. Victoria Mixon

Question: To prologue or not to prologue? (First book and subsequent books.) — @CourtneyReese86

Short answer, Courtney?

Not.

Long answer: why not?

Because the purpose of a prologue is to either set the scene, create mood, or give the reader essential backstory. Once upon a time, writers experimented heavily with the first two and were still working out where to put the third. Nowadays, all that stuff has appropriate places within the body of the novel.

Set scene and create mood in your first chapter. Not only that, but do it on your first page. Not only that, but do it — if at all humanly possible — in your first sentence.

Readers have much shorter attention spans these days. There are more demands upon our time, more shiny, flashing lights competing for our eyeballs, more media crying out for our precious, limited attention. If you can't show us where we are and with whom, while giving us a sense of how you're approaching the situation, quick-quick chop-chop, we’ll turn to someone who can.

Feed us backstory in your second or third chapter.

Fortunately, backstory's been wedged in there for so long that readers are accustomed to it. Not only that, but our appetite for shiny, flashing yanks on our nose-rings is so intense that the repeated shocks of first being thrown into your story, then into backstory, then into story again feel terrific! And terrific is how you want your reader to feel.

What about series books?

Some publishers will let you use prologues in sequels. However, they are insisting now that you write each novel, even in a series, as a stand-alone. You can do it. And if your readers think, Geez, I wish I had a more in-depth window into backstory, hey, there’s new sales of your earlier novels!

3 Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction: On Thursday, April 11, at 1:00 pm EDT, join Victoria for the Writer's Digest webinar, in which she'll teach the three secrets of structure that make or break all stories. Even in today's advice-saturated writing world---these really are secrets!

Independent editor Victoria Mixon is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction and The Art & Craft of Story. Have a question for Victoria? E-mail her at askvictoria@victoriamixon.com or tweet her @VictoriaMixon using the hashtag #WU.

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Chuck Sambuchino

Ask Chuck

by Chuck Sambuchino

Q: When you're writing a nonfiction book proposal, how many pages should it be?

A: The reason that you hear so many different answers to this question comes down to how many sample chapters/pages you submit. One writer's sample chapters as part of the proposal may total 50 additional pages, while another may just have a few. That can make a big difference in the total size of the document.

The real number of pages we're discussing here is everything in the proposal that's not the sample chapters. This includes the overview, layout ideas, marketing plan, platform specifics, sequel possibilities, comparative titles, audience identification and table of contents. And to spell all that out properly, it usually takes 13-25 pages. Anything longer seems like you haven't done enough research. Anything longer is probably unnecessary.

Chuck Sambuchino is the editor of Guide to Literary Agents , and the author of How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack , Red Dog / Blue Dog and Create Your Writer Platform.

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Insider Confidential

Shares one anonymous author:

A few years ago, I started pitching my manuscript to agents at writing conferences. During one pitch session, an agent (let’s call her Agent X) noticed I had the first chapter of my manuscript with me. She asked if she could read it, and when she did, she asked me to send the whole manuscript ASAP.

Of course I obliged. After all, this was a popular agent from a highly respected agency. I also sent it to the other agents who had asked to see it. Agent X responded quickly, saying she loved the book but thought some parts needed an overhaul. Would I be interested in hearing her ideas via a phone call?

Um, YES!

On the phone, Agent X expressed considerable excitement about the manuscript. With the proper revisions, she was sure this was Newbery material. She explained her proposed changes, then asked if I would be willing to commit to her suggested revisions. Thrilled and flattered (but also overwhelmed by the potential overhaul), I explained that several other agents also had the manuscript; I wasn’t ready to commit to her revisions without hearing from them first.

Agent X seemed fine with this; and why not? Multiple submissions are common, and she had not made me an offer of representation.

Over the next few days, Agent X sent me comparable book titles and little reminders of why she loved my book. Her passion and excitement was flattering, but (I reminded her) the manuscript was out with other agents. Plus (I reminded myself) she had not even offered representation.

Later that week, I was thrilled to receive an offer from another fabulous agent. So I emailed Agent X and explained that while I was excited about this other agent’s offer, I was equally excited about her; I would hate to say "yes" to this other agent without first following up with her.

Agent X responded with a very cold, very angry email. She stated that she rarely spends so much time with an unsigned writer, and when she does, the writer always goes on to work with her. She concluded her email by stating that my manuscript had massive issues that were unsolvable.

I felt truly terrible. Had I led her on? Had I done or said something inappropriate? The agenting world was small; would she spread the word that I was a tease? Was I a tease?

I scoured my emails and replayed my phone calls; No. I had been honest with her. But her reaction still made me feel awful. Her reaction also made me realize that agents are human. They can get angry when they feel jilted. They can lash out when they realize they are competing with another agent.

I learned a good but difficult lesson: Agents are not immune to rejection. They don’t have a super-human ability to stifle their emotion, pride and fear as they carry out their professional duties.

They are, surprisingly, just as human as we writers.

Would you like to share a publishing story or tip that might help others? Send them to writerunboxed@writerunboxed.com. Our sources remain 100% anonymous.

Photo by Flickr's wheat_in_your_hair

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Kath & Teri

Unboxed Tips

by WU Mamas Therese Walsh & Kathleen Bolton

Writers know the power of having their drafts read out loud to help with editing. But what if your draft is at its most horrific stage and you cringe at letting another living soul see it, let alone read it? Microsoft Word users can use Speak, which is a free text-to-speech feature (TTS) that will play back written words as spoken.

The TTS feature needs to be enabled in order to appear on your Toolbar. Luckily, Microsoft has created an easy-to-follow guide that will walk you through installing it in less than 30 seconds HERE. The default language is English, but there are ways to customize with the Multilingual TTS feature.

The TTS feature isn’t perfect. The English language is tricky, therefore, the robot doesn’t recognize some tense changes. And the voice sounds far less human than, say, the Garmin robot. It won’t capture the rhythmic cadence of a human reading your work out loud. But it’s a quick solution, and best of all, it won’t hold your crummy writing against you.

Therese Walsh is the author of the novel The Last Will of Moira Leahy (Random House), and a professional freelance health writer.

Kathleen Bolton is the author of young adult novels Confessions of a First Daughter and Secrets of a First Daughter, under the pen name Cassidy Calloway (Harper Teen).

Both co-founded Writer Unboxed as an online community for writers to discuss the craft and business of fiction writing.

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Facebook Community Roundup: Writerly GPS

by Vaughn Roycroft

“To reach port we must sail—Sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Writing a novel is a complicated undertaking. It can be difficult enough to find your way to "The End," but it doesn’t necessarily get easier from there. The way forward can be unclear. Through revision and submission, editorial review and starting anew, it’s easy to stray off course.

We all have an inner compass. It’s what led us to put pen to paper, and guided us to our characters, stories, and themes. Whether I am befogged by discordant feedback or adrift in ambivalence, I gain course correction though the example and encouragement of my tribe mates.

This month’s links are intended to keep your writerly voyage on course.

We each have to make a start and develop a process, but routes charted by others can help us find our way. To that end, Maer Wilson happily shares The Method to her Madness.
It’s easy to forget that our inner compass led us to our characters, and only through them can the story be navigated. Amy Sue Nathan advises How To Get Out of Your Character’s Way.
Over the long haul there are bound to be dark days. M.L. Swift reminds us of the glorious summers upon the horizon, even if Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent.
In spite of our best intentions, some days the words just don’t flow, and we need a bit of inspiration. When D.D. Falvo’s writing stalls, she knows it’s time to Just Drive.

Need help gauging your writerly true north? Join the Writer Unboxed Facebook Group.

After twenty years battling trolls and warding off the curses of evil witches, Vaughn Roycroft left the business world to write epic fantasy.

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Alice Hoffman

Photo courtesy of Deborah Feingold

A Conversation with . . . Alice Hoffman

by Liz Michalski

Alice Hoffman is a prolific New York Times bestselling author whose books have been made into movies and translated into over 20 languages. Her most recent novel, The Dovekeepers, is set in ancient Israel and based on the siege of the Masada. Over five years in the writing, it's the story of four fierce and complicated women whose lives merge during the final days of the siege. Everyone from Wally Lamb to Toni Morrison has given it high praise. Pick it up, and you won't be able to put it down.

Alice Hoffman is one of my literary idols -- I've learned so much about character development, plot, and story from her novels. I'm beyond thrilled to be able to interview her here. (And if you like this snippet, please check out the Writer Unboxed website on April 7th for a longer interview with her.)

Liz: You are such a prolific writer -- by my count, you have written about 30 books -- and yet each of your stories is so unique and deep. How do you keep from getting burned out? What is your writing schedule like?

AH: I don't really have a schedule anymore. When I started, and I had a job and school, and later, small children, I woke at five so I could get two or three hours of writing in before facing the real world. Now I'm less disciplined, yet always in the book I'm writing.

You've written just about every type of book there is -- linked short stories (Blackbird House), YA fiction (Green Heart), more mainstream work (Practical Magic), and books loosely based around historical events (The Dovekeepers). Do you have a preference? And when you start a story, do you already know which genre it will fall under, or does it evolve during your writing process?

AH: I don't have a preference. I always feel I know if a story is YA, Adult, novel or short story, but sometimes that changes. The Red Garden began as a novel and became short stories. And often I wish I'd made a novel out of a short story. But they are what they are.

What are some books that inspire you, either in terms of story or structure?

AH: Wuthering Heights always inspires me, in terms of structure and psychological brilliance. Everything by Toni Morrison -- the voice, the pace, the depth of emotion and language. Faulkner inspired me when I was starting out, and the wonderful Grace Paley's short stories. Ray Bradbury inspired me hugely when I was young, and I still love his work. Fairytales still. I always begin by thinking, Once upon a time.

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Liz Michalski

For more on Alice Hoffman, visit her website at www.alicehoffman.com. You can also find her on Facebook.

Liz Michalski has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. Learn more about her and read the first chapter of her debut novel, Evenfall (Berkley/Penguin) at www.lizmichaski.com.

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BOUNDLESS: A Digital Publishing Roundup

by Erika Liodice

Never an industry to rest on its laurels, digital publishing continues to push the limits with new technologies and ways of doing business. Here's the latest...

What's Happening?

Apple introduces the Breakout Books section of its iBookstore to elevate indie works.

"After pondering how to increase the profile of the more talented (though largely unknown) authors of self-published work, Apple has launched a prominent stand-alone section on its iBookstore called Breakout Books." Read all about it at Digital Trends.

What's Hot?

A new augmented reality app is turning books and magazines into interactive storefronts.

"Layar’s technology can be used to 'extend a publication’s narrative online or link to videos, slides, or downloads' and more." Get the details at Publisher's Weekly.

What's on the Horizon?

Amazon's new patent could make selling used e-books the way of the future.
 
"The patent, which Amazon filed in 2009 and won on Jan. 29, imagines a digital resale marketplace where users can trade “digital objects” like e-books, songs, videos and apps." Learn more at The Washington Post.

Erika Liodice is the author of Empty Arms: A Novel and founder of the award-winning blog, Beyond the Gray.

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Let's take the long way home

Reader Unboxed Book Review: Let's Take the Long Way Home -- Gail Caldwell

by Suzanne Anderson

Book Description: (from Amazon.com) They met over their dogs. Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story) became best friends, talking about everything from their love of books and their shared history of a struggle with alcohol to their relationships with men. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with cancer. With her signature exquisite prose, Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion, and courage in this gorgeous memoir about treasuring a best friend, and coming of age in midlife.

I share three things with the Gail and Caroline: being a dog lover, a writer, and having experienced a struggle with alcohol. I was also drawn to this memoir of a friendship between adult women since my move to Colorado three years ago meant losing touch with a very dear friend from Florida.

Gail Caldwell has created a beautiful tribute to her friend Caroline who died of lung cancer in mid-life. But that part of the book only makes up the last quarter of this memoir. The other three quarters are devoted to the love these women shared for their dogs, for writing, and the care of their friendship.

Alcohol abuse is not a new disease among writers, and Gail does a commendable job of describing her own battle with the bottle and her decision to accept sobriety. Her honest portrayal resonated with me, especially her description of writing while drinking…and the delusional results. Like Gail, I recently made the decision that my evenings are better spent with a good book, than a stiff drink.

Surprisingly, the issue of professional jealousy or competition is not explored. I don’t know if this is because their writing territories did not overlap, or because they were accomplished in their respective fields of literature and non-fiction.

The strongest bond between these two women comes through their adoration of their dogs. They met daily for long dog walks through Cambridge, and took summer "dog-friendly" vacations. In fact, the most harrowing scene in the book involves a dog.

This moving memoir is highly recommended for its exploration of friendship, writing, alcoholism, and the special place pets have in our hearts.

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Suzanne Anderson is the author of Mrs. Tuesday's Departure. Her novel, God Loves You - Chester Blue, released in June 2012. Learn more about Suzanne on her blog, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

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