Finding Mr. Raymond (Writer Unboxed Redirect)

lotr-ballantine-set-jan-17I”m up on Writer Unboxed (always an honor!) with an essay that starts out with a search in the name of gratitude. If you’ve ever read any of my bios, I always mention how my writing journey began with my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Raymond. Well, we (my wife and I) went looking for Mr. Raymond in order to express my gratitude. I share how it turned out in the post, but it’s turned into a pretty cool life lesson. In response, several of the people I’ve shared the story with were inspired to reach out to a former teacher or mentor of their own. How knows? Maybe you’ll be inspired, too. And, as Mr. Raymond says, “we never know the impact we have on those we encounter each day, even those we meet just for a moment.”

I hope you get a chance to stop by and read the essay, and maybe join the conversation. But in any case, know that every small act of kindness you offer your fellows this week has the potential of resonating impact. Be kind, and pass it on.

Review of Author In Progress

author-in-progress-coverFirst, An Admission: I’ll come clean up front. This is a review of a book for which I am a contributor. Is that weird? Hope not.

In fairness, I’m one of fifty-four contributors. And fifty-plus of the others are best-selling authors, editors, teachers, or well-known publishing industry leaders, and no few are many of those things. Me? No, none of those (yet!). Yeah, I ended up in excellent company. How’d I get so lucky? (I pose the question rhetorically here, but the roots of my answer can actually be found in my essay in the book, Community Comfort).

The Book Itself: I’ve said from the very beginning that there is nothing like this book available. Most writing and publishing books are fairly segmented and/or focused on a particular aspect of the writing journey, or on the business of publishing. The scope of Author In Progress (AIP) is uniquely unprecedented. It covers everything from one’s first ideas and tentative steps into writing fiction, all the way through being published, and beyond.

AIP’s breakdown is easy to understand and follow. The parts are: Prepare; Write; Invite: Improve; Rewrite; Persevere; and Release. The segments beautifully correspond with the steps of most writing journeys (including mine), which allows one to home in on their own special interests and needs. But I must say, reading the book from front to back provides the best overview of the entire journey from conception to publication that I’ve seen. It’s one of those craft books you’ll want to keep close-to-hand in your work space. I’ve already reread certain essays that motivate or inspire me in a specific way. It’s very handy that way.

I’ve read Writer Unboxed almost daily for about eight years now, and I’ve got to say—boy-oh-boy did the contributors step up for AIP. Every single essay is strong—among the strongest ever offered by each individual contributor. I have a few favorites, but I’m not going to single them out, because each reader will find their own favorites. And because they’re all so wonderful.

If Only I’d Known! My wife and I were just talking about the days after I finished my first draft, in June of ‘09. “Man, remember how clueless you were?” she said, laughing. At the time she asked, “Now what?” I shrugged. “Send it to someone to read, I guess.” (My sister Marsha turned out to be the poor “someone” to struggle through—Thanks, Marsh!)

At the time I’d read almost nothing about the craft of writing fiction or the publishing industry. When writers mentioned the need to rewrite, I honestly had no idea what they were talking about. Did they mean actually writing the same story all over again? I couldn’t imagine it then. I honestly had no idea what I was in for. And it was a struggle. I’m not just talking about finding my way to getting a manuscript in shape, and finding my way through the submissions process. It was a struggle coming to terms with everything that being an artist who wants to make their work public entails. It’s about so much more than the work itself, or the industry. It’s about you, the artist.

Over the years, through all the sleepless nights, the days of allowing self-doubt to creep in and usurp my work time, I’ve often thought, “If only I’d known then what I know now.” I think the best gift AIP offers to someone new to writing is that knowledge—the awareness that you don’t just sit down and write till “The End,” send it in, and wait for the praise and paychecks to arrive. AIP demonstrates, better than any resource I know of, that the writer’s journey is more about the transformation of the writer than anything else. And I’m so pleased and proud to be a part of offering that gift to those just beginning the climb.

Hail to the (Editor-In-) Chief: As I mentioned, for this review I’m an inside player. So I’d like to take advantage of my unique perspective, and take a moment to praise the one person whose creative vision, energy, and personal magnetism made AIP the wonderful resource that it is. I’ve often said that Writer Unboxed’s Editorial Director Therese Walsh is the sun in the WU universe. She drew each of us into her orbit, and she provides WU’s warmth and light.

The importance of Therese’s vision for AIP, and her guidance to each of us, and her boundless energy in assembling it into a whole, cannot be discounted. I can only speak for my own experience, but T patiently guided me—through several complete do-overs, then to a transformed and polished version of my third or fourth concept—to what you see in the book. I’m guessing that others struggled less, but that her shepherding was critical to each and every one of us. Talk about a herculean effort!

Therese has done more for writers than anyone I know, and it starts with her personal dedication to empowerment. WU is what it is because of her. And the same goes for Author In Progress. She has my eternal gratitude, and she deserves the gratitude of everyone who appreciates WU and/or this book.

the-contributors-dinner-2016How Appropriate… that I should become a published author with this book. It’s so fitting. WU has made me who I am as a writer. And to be a part of that same journey for even one other writer is a privilege and an honor. In closing, as Mama T would say, Write On!

So, do you have your copy of AIP yet? If not, why not? Click here, and make it happen! (It also makes a fine Christmas gift for the writers in your life.)

Reaching or Digging? Writer Unboxed Redirect

Puppy Gidget's first trip to the beach, she didn't know whether to reach or dig, so she did both.

Puppy Gidget’s first trip to the beach, she didn’t know whether to reach or dig, so she did both.

I’m delighted to have another essay featured on Writer Unboxed today, and I’d love to have your input (here or there). I’ve recently been thinking about High Concept as it relates to the market versus exploring deep themes in my work. (I’ve been focused on the latter, hopefully not too much to the detriment of the former.) Can you think of favorite novels that would rightfully be called High Concept? I’m curious. Please stop by WU and see what it’s all about.

Sorry, I see how long it’s been since I’ve posted here with any regularity. I’m still focused on my current rewrite. But I expect I’ll have a lot to explore once I reach “The End” of that project. Thanks for sticking with me!

F-F-Finally! A New Post! Redirect to F-Word Essay on WU

F-Word 1Hello Blog. Sorry, it’s been a while, I know. But I promise, not without reason. I’ve been f-f-frantically working away on a rewrite of The Severing Son. I’m pleased with what’s developing, but it’s taking a large chunk of my admittedly limited focus and attentions span. But I did manage to write an essay for Writer Unboxed. Which, I always say, is an honor. And also it’s a challenge. No one f-f-phones in a post over on WU. And so, I dug deep, about a subject I have strong and evolving feelings for: the F-Word. Curious? Hope so. Please f-f-feel f-f-free to click on over. (Hint, it’s not the one you might be thinking.)

I do understand that it’s a busy week for most (particularly in the U.S.). In any case, thank you for your support. To my American friends, have a Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s to a safe and productive holiday season!

Flipping Perspectives – Writer Unboxed Redirect

MC-Escher-Hand-with-Reflecting-Sphere-1935The good news? I’ve published an essay (good news if you enjoy my essays, anyway). The better news? I have the honor of having this essay appear on Writer Unboxed. Yes, that’s made it a very good day, indeed. Think I can make things better still? I think I can. If you keep an open mind. You see, it’s all about the way we see things – even our problems. I recently went through the deliberate exercise of changing my outlook on my writerly circumstances, and I challenge you to do the same.

So please head over to WU and start the metamorphosis. And if you’re so moved, I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts, either over there or here if you’d prefer. I hope you end up feeling as changed as I do as we head into summer.

Thank you for your support!

O.P.B. – On Giving Critique: Writer Unboxed Redirect

Portrait of a Man Reading, by Joseph Wright of DerbyI’m so pleased to have contributed an essay to Writer Unboxed. I’ve said repeatedly that I consider it an honor, and I still feel that way. But I’m particularly pleased today because I haven’t read this essay in while ( I often write them and turn them in weeks in advance). When I wrote this one, I’d just finished critiquing a manuscript for a dear friend, who is so brilliantly talented. The experience had fired me on all cylinders, and I think my enthusiasm comes through. It’s sort of a Karmic coincidence that now, as the essay reappears, I’m in the final stages of readying my own WIP for others to read and critique. A wise mentor of mine said that the best thing we writers can do for one another is read and be read. And taking his advice to the next level, that to really stretch ourselves, we need to strive to earnestly offer and receive and process thoughtful critique.

I’d be honored to have you stop by Writer Unboxed and share your experiences with critiquing. Or feel free to do so here. Here’s to reading and being read!

Shedding Layers/Adding Layers—The Insights and Effects of UnCon

WU UnCon logoLife-Changing Experience: It’s been just over a week since I left Salem. I feel like I’m slowly emerging from the euphoric aftereffect the experience of UnCon produced. I can only now begin to analyze the insights gained and the effects produced.

For those who don’t know what an UnCon is (or was), it’s the brainchild of Writer Unboxed founder Therese Walsh—a five-day gathering of around 100 unboxed writers in Salem, Massachusetts. Not quite a writers’ conference, not quite a retreat, the WU UnConference was totally focused on the craft of writing. There have been some wonderful posts and statuses on the experience, and I identify with them all. Terms like “life-changing” and “transcendent” have been bandied, and not in a frivolous or crass way.

So I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been changed, and how my approach to my work has changed. I was struck by how layers were shed so that layers could be added. Allow me to explain.

Peeling Layers of Fear: One of my favorite posts about UnCon is by my friend Kim Bullock (read it here). Kim gets real about how UnCon and the people there managed to peel away her fears, about herself and about her work. She got me to thinking about my own layers of fear. Sometimes I feel like the little brother in Christmas Story, so bound up in layers I can hardly move ahead.Christmas Story kid bundled up But the experience of UnCon gives me insight as to how far I’ve come in shedding a few layers. I continue to gain freedom of movement to make progress on my journey. Going back to the beginning, to various degrees and at various times, here are some of the layers of fear I’ve been bound by:

*Admitting my writing aspiration—I told very few people when I started that I hoped to write a novel. I feared both that they’d think I’d never pull it off, and that they’d be right. I feared they’d think I was either nuts or a self-absorbed show-off. And I feared honestly asking myself if either of those was actually the case.

*Proclaiming myself a writer—Even after I finished a draft of my trilogy, I very rarely told those I met socially what I actually do (which is that I write fiction with a side of occasional carpentry). When I just said carpenter, it sometimes led to trouble. People would ask me to come and quote jobs for which I hadn’t the time or interest or desire. I finally realized it was easier just to say I was a writer—which also has its own set of obstacles, including dealing with the next item on this list.

*Admitting I’ve been writing for ten years and am still pursuing publication—We’ve all run into non-writers who don’t understand that successful novels aren’t written, but rewritten. Laymen think getting the thing down on the page—that’s the trick, right? Once those of us who are unpublished expose ourselves as writers to the non-writers in our lives, we must brace ourselves for the question: “So, how’s the book coming.” No matter how many manuscripts you’re working on, or how many essays, articles, or shorts you publish, they want to know about “the book.” And this could go on for years! Once I faced the fear and started coming clean, I found I could deal with the question in one of two ways: Smile, nod, and say, “The book is coming along.” Or enter into an explanation of the entire process and what I’m actually working on, and offer some explanation of why it all takes time. It’s a judgement call. Some are interested, some glaze over and/or change the subject. But it’s a layer of fear that you are forced to confront again and again. And the longer it takes, the more I imagine the laymen around me thinking, “Wow—his writing must really suck for this to be taking this long.”

*Telling people what I actually write—I spent many years avoiding telling people I write epic fantasy. I recall shortly after I started occasionally admitting that I write fiction, I met a woman at a party who asked me what I wrote. It was one of the first times I’d been asked by a new acquaintance. She surprised me into blurting, “Epic historical fantasy.” After a few nods and hums of feigned interest as I blathered about my chosen era, she interrupted me to ask: “So do you think you’ll ever write anything… you know, serious?” I honestly think she meant well. But the shock of it left me telling lies and half-truths for years afterward. “I write historical fiction,” or “I write fiction based in the ancient Roman era,” became my go-to answer to the question of what I write. I’m not sure when I overcame the fear of admitting it. I think I just got to a place of: “I don’t give a shit what you think of fantasy—it’s my genre; I’m a geek, and proud of it.” Funny that now, many years hence, I’m often immediately asked in response, “You mean like Game of Thrones?” My, how things change.

*Fear of being read/critiqued—I’ve written about my experiences with beta-readers and with being critiqued before. It’s never been easy for me to take criticism, but it’s certainly gotten easier over the years. It always takes me a day or so to absorb it and see it clearly. So I have never imagined myself taking critique well in a public setting, like a critique group that meets in real life. Despite my shortcomings, having great writer friends who’ve appreciated my work (as opposed to just friends and family) has been hugely encouraging and confidence-building. Even blogging has helped, but being read and critiqued is the ultimate and final layer of fear that I’ve struggled to peel away. And I know that it’s something I’ll have to continue to face, for the rest of my career. It only gets more extreme once your book is out there, being publically reviewed and discussed. (There was a hysterical and cathartic session at UnCon, led by the amazing and successful Erika Robuck, where she and other published author attendees shared their worst reviews. I can see having a sense of humor about my insecurity will help.)

UnCon—The Peel Sessions: Regarding my aforementioned fear of public critique, on day two of UnCon I was placed in a position by an admired mentor to face it. My favorite teacher of craft, Donald Maass, asked me if he could use the opening to my manuscript The Bonds of Blood during his session on micro-tension (a concept I’ve struggled to effectively master in my own work). I knew Don was going to ask the class to deconstruct my work, find its lacking, then together we would find our way to greater micro-tension in the scene. I supposed before arriving in Salem that this would be the most difficult trial I would face that week. To be honest, it was much easier than confronting the inner journey I would subsequently face. During the session, my fellow WUers were very kind and funny in the deconstruction process, and Don made it a fun exercise. I gained a better grasp on micro-tension than I’ve ever gotten from the books or posts (as good as they are). It was a gift. I consider that layer of fear truly and well peeled (for the moment).

So I’ve seen that some fears can be defeated. Some we can at least we can become inured to. But there are some we must face again and again if we are to grow. UnCon shined a light on one of the most important fears of all: Fear of revealing too much of myself—even to myself—through story. Sure, I’ve revealed parts of myself. There was self-revelation in my work before UnCon. But I’ve learned that I must delve deeper. I’ve learned that only through an honest and often difficult look at myself, and a willingness to infuse my work with what I’ve found, can I hope to truly connect in a genuine way.

Taken To Church: What Don asked of us in a later session took me to church. In his soothing voice, WU’s esteemed craft-guru asked us to look inside ourselves. At what we consider shameful, at our deepest truths; at what’s gone wrong in our lives, and at what’s gone right. He asked us to find a feeling we had never had before. Then he asked us to find the moments when our protagonist faces these things—feels these things. The session’s inner probing moved me to the point of filling my eyes with tears. A couple of times, in fact. I was peeled to my core, and I knew that what I’d found there was behind my writing journey. It wasn’t just there beneath the surface of my stories—it was at the root of what drove me to pick up a jobsite notebook and a carpenter’s pencil and write some cryptic notes about a Gothic chieftain’s son and his warrior-woman secret guardian.

From Thread-Bare to Well-Woven: Between the environment and being in the company of other willing souls, I found my way to stripping away the remnant layers. We were asked to dig as well as shed. Lisa Cron behooved us to find the foundations of our stories through backstory. She implored us to find specific moments that informed how our characters responded to the events of our ‘plots.’ “Specifics beget specifics!” was her refrain. For the story is not in what happens, but in how what happens affects our characters in the pursuit of a difficult goal!

So I came home, stripped of some of my longstanding fears, and started digging. The process is revealing the layers of depth that can be achieved. I can now see so far beyond what merely happens. I can see how much more deeply, how much more profoundly, my characters are affected by what happens. I more clearly see how it is all rooted in moments—some which are very specific—that have impacted me and left an impression on my psyche. It’s now clearer to me how my own deepest feelings are rooted in the stories I tell. If I can convey those feelings in a resonant fashion—if I can find my way to my truest self on the page—it’s certain to add richness to the weave of my stories.

Team WU at UnCon 14The UnCon Recipe: The UnCon was dedicated to elevating our shared craft. And through insight and a newfound grasp on the tools, my potential as a storyteller has been elevated. I’m not saying that my experience at UnCon will make my books successful. Success is a relative term. But the tools and insights gained there offer me a course to greater personal satisfaction. And if I remain true to what I’ve been shown, I will find my way to truer connection with readers. Now that’s a recipe for success.

The results in Salem seem magical, but they wouldn’t have come about without dedication and commitment that started at the top and permeated to all involved. So thank you, Therese Walsh. Thank you, Don Maass. Thank you Lisa Cron, Meg Rosoff, Brunonia Barry, Liz Michalski, and all of your fellow presenters and contributors. And thank you to my fellow UnCon attendees. Thank you for your willing commitment to the elevation of craft. Thank you all for being part of that wonderful recipe that resulted in the WU UnConference.

What about you? Are you comfy wearing layers? Or do you easily shed those I’ve remained bundled in? Do you struggle to dig deep for the threads that add richness to what you weave?