Celebrate “Gift Offset Day” This Weekend

by Addie Boswell
Published on: January 24, 2014
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What do these things have in common? None of them were being used!

What do these things have in common? None of them were being used!

What is that?

“Gift Offset Day” is a little made up holiday my husband and I observe on a Sunday afternoon every January. The idea is to clear out the clutter that has accumulated all year long, and to make up for the influx of stuff the holidays tend to bring.

What do you do?

Find the number of items of your age. So, at 35, I need to find 35 items in my house that I no longer use or need to get rid of. You can choose how strict you are going to be with the definition of “item.” In our house one item = a pair of socks = a bunch of unused pens = a shirt = a recliner. We also allow vetos. (Hey! I saw the bottle opener first!) My items will likely come from the bathroom cabinet, the kitchen cupboards, the bedroom closet, and my studio, but if you have a serious clutter problem, you can choose one room (like the garage!) to cull from. Here are some simple rules.

1) Choose a day early in the year. Pick a time when the whole family has two or more hours to devote to the endeavor.

2) Give yourself a time limit. This is especially important if you have someone in the family who is prone to sentimentality and will get waylaid by the process. For kids, set a 30 minute limit and make it a race!  

3) Pile all your items in one place in the house — somewhere you are forced to deal with them immediately (like the kitchen table.) You might photograph your pile for posterity, before boxing and bagging to donate, recycle or trash.


If you’re getting excited about this holiday, you’ll have your own very-good-reason for participating. Think about this: how many new things enter your house every year in the normal business of living and shopping? And how many times every year do you go through the house and take things back out? If the answer is “never” or “almost never” you can imagine that someday you will walk into your basement and realize you have grown a monster. Gift offsets let you face down the monster on a smaller scale every year.

What if I can’t find 35 (or X) items?
This really can’t possibly be a problem for anyone in America. I promise you. Try harder.

What if I find 200 items? 

Yippee! Way to enter into the spirit of the holiday! Your age should work as the minimum, but there is no maximum.

And how does this relate to writing exactly?

Maybe it doesn’t. But if you’re like me, you can’t start on a new project, or a new year, in a messy space. I think old stories and drawings can have the same “cluttering” effect as actual stuff. So choose old drafts, dead pens, and that printer you’ve been meaning to sack. Sometimes clearing out your office is just what the editor ordered for getting back to business.

Beginning Again

by Addie Boswell
Published on: October 25, 2013
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imagesIt is around this time of year, when weather and work starts to wind down, that I start to jump ahead in my mind. To 2014’s clean slate, the sparkling, blank planner I get to buy, and the new set of goals I might just accomplish. It is a new year! The sky’s the limit! I love beginnings so much that it is often an uphill battle to finish things. (Starting to dream about a new manuscript is so much more fun than revising the old one for the 17th time…)

So, not to get ahead of myself, there are two more months in 2013. If your holidays knock out some of your productive time (as they do mine), you really might have only five or six weeks. Along with a last chance to knock tasks off the 2013 list, these weeks are a good time to sit down and reflect on all that you have accomplished and traversed this year. A good way to start is to browse through your planner or calendar, remembering all the appointments, deadlines, trips, celebrations, high points, and low points. Then, sit down with your journal and some open-ended questions like these (which I’ve picked up from various books and coaches.)

When I think about my business in 2013…

  1. What surprised me?
  2. What disappointed me?
  3. What worked?
  4. What didn’t work?
  5. Where did the business excel?
  6. Where did the business fall short?
  7. When was I happiest?
  8. What does this tell me about the next year?
  9. Looking at the disappointments, what do I want to turn around in the next year?
  10. Which means I have to change…..
  11. Looking at the successes, what do I want to continue doing next year?
  12. What do I remain sure about in my career?
  13. If I could accomplish only three things in 2014, what would they be?

If data makes you happy, you might also start compiling some numbers to make your accomplishments more tangible. Some possible categories: royalties made, copies sold, submissions sent, author visits scheduled, words typed.

Book vs. Baby

by Addie Boswell
Published on: September 24, 2013
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Expecting my first child, I have been thinking a lot about writing and motherhood, and how much I’ll have to give up of the first for the second. And then I think of how laborious writing a novel has been. Book versus Baby: which is harder? As far as gestation, a baby does take a mere 9 months as opposed to 1-10 years to write a novel. And those periods are similar: frustrating, delightful, insomnia-producing, tearful, surprising. Publishing your first novel, I assume, feels like sending the kid off to kindergarten or college.

Yet a novel, once published, leaves your hands and your heart and ventures forth into the world with near-complete independence. Children retain their grasp, even after their allotted 18 years. When I start to obsess about the (gasp) decades of child-rearing ahead of me, I try to think about the many successful writers and great parents I know and hear about. Here are some posts I’ve enjoyed on the balance of it all.

Writing and Mother: How I (sort of) do both, via Shannon Hale’s blog

How to be a Writer and Stay-at-home Parent, by Katherine Sparrow, via the Blabbermouth

Two (Sucked) Thumbs Up, by Jason McBride, for the New York Times.

And here are my favorite parenting books, from an ever-growing list of choices.

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How Goes the Writing?

by Addie Boswell
Published on: August 26, 2013
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It’s nice when friends ask about your latest novel. I mean it’s nice to know they are thinking about you and interested in your projects. But the question itself remains loaded. If the writing goes well, you want to stay inside your writerly bubble with a superstitious zeal. And if you’re struggling, or discouraged, or outright stuck… a lot of hemming and hawing ensues. This article in the Sunday New York Times captures the problem quite nicely.

Roman Muradov

Roman Muradov

Don’t Ask What I’m Writing


No stage of the writing process — not the editor’s first response to the manuscript, not the review gauntlet — is as fraught for writers as those first few months of uncertainty: that miserable time when we think, believe, know with absolute assurance that we’ve found the key to the novel in our heads, though maybe, probably, definitely not.

Want to lose a friend who’s a writer? Ask her, a month in, how it’s going. Better still, ask her to describe what she’s working on. She’ll try, because she has to (“Well, it’s about this friendship between these two, um, friends . . . ”) all the while listening to the magic leaking out of the balloon, and she’ll hate you for it.

If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately, because we’re writers, a k a bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.

Continue to full article


YA Recommendations from the NYT

by Addie Boswell
Published on: July 25, 2013
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School’s Out: 5 Great Summer Reads For Teens

by , posted in the New York Times, June 11, 2013 7:00 AM

An illustration of a young woman reading a book

Andrew Bannecker

I’m surrounded here at NPR Books by people with sophisticated, grown-up tastes — happy to dive into the latest Claire Messud or Daniel Alarcon or James Salter. Meanwhile, give me — any day — a book about teenagers (and preferably dragons). A good YA novel is a polished gem of solid storytelling, but more than that, it draws us back in time to the teenagers we once were — or never were, or wanted desperately to be. Here are five (well, really six) books that capture the roller coaster of adolescent experience: that delicate thump in the gut when you realize that suddenly a friendship is more than a friendship. Or the rock-solid conviction that YOU are the chosen one, the heroine of your own drama (whether or not you want to be). Or just that all-over twitchy feeling, lying on the living-room couch and staring out the window, of longing for your real life to begin.

Follow the full article, and the book recommendations here.

When Your Critique Group Disagrees…

by Addie Boswell
Published on: June 24, 2013
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thumbs-up-thumbs-down-hiGiven two versions of the same story, chances are your critique group will diverge. And though you’re lucky if the split is 80/20 and there is a majority opinion, you may still feel more confused than reassured by the process. A case in point:

Recently I asked the Scrivas to critique 4 versions of the first chapter of my YA novel. (Version 4 being the latest and greatest, Version 1 being the oldest and most polished.) I gave simple instructions to the Scrivas: choose which version works best and edit that one.

Ready for the feedback?
ScrivaOne: I like Version 4, but only if that new character is going to be in the novel more. Otherwise, I’ll take Version 1.
ScrivaTwo: I like Version 3, but can you add in the new character from Version 4?
ScrivaThree: I like Version 1, but want more sensory details
ScrivaFour: What if you combine Versions 3 and 4?
ScrivaFive: I like Version 3, but can you take out the flashback?

The only thing I know for sure at this point is that Version 2 gets cut. (Hooray!) Now, how do I make sense of the rest?

Keep Talking
The best part about critique disagreements is that they lead to longer and more complex discussions, and that discussion almost always leads back to the heart of the story. After more talk, I realized the Scriva preferences were based on a few things. For example, the prose is tighter and faster-paced in versions 1 and 3 and I could apply that to 4. And the questions about my new character made me reconsider how important he is to the story arc. While I left disappointed I didn’t get my ‘easy answer,’ after some reflection, the critiques all started to make sense.

So which version did I choose?

None, so far. The conversation made me realize that I need to finish my other major edits and then revisit the beginning. I put the comments on hold to continue the messy business of chapters 2-30. If only editing was as simple as sorting laundry. Or picking ripe strawberries. Or thumbs up/thumbs down.

Surfing Lessons

by Addie Boswell
Published on: May 26, 2013
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surfer-free-ocean-wallpapers-blirknetI find it harder to write in the summer. In Portland, the sun calls and the pace of life seems to pick up. There are great writing conferences to attend, not to mention arts fairs and music festivals, farmers markets and bike-in movies. The light lasts long, the kids are out of school, and nothing seems as important as sitting on the porch and simply enjoying life. And yet… writing must continue.

My critique group has taught me all manner of things about writing itself, but perhaps the more important lesson is how to “be a writer” in the larger sense. How to organize families and careers, deadlines and day jobs and dreams. And in seasoned authors, I sometimes glimpse a subtle and graceful equanimity that I yearn for, the same balance great surfers have. They seem to be rolling with the waves so fluidly it seems like they are actually in control of their destinies. How does one do that?

Develop your Creative Habit. The more creatives I meet, the more rituals I learn about. Writing in the morning vs. the night, 1000 words a day vs. six months on/six months off, a busy coffeeshop vs. a soundproof studio. One thing is always the same: successful authors have writing habits that they stick to, week in and week out.

Work with the Seasons. For many writers, that means winter is for for deep writing, and summer is for research and querying, short-term pursuits, or vacation. (While teacher-writers I know follow the opposite schedule.) I still feel guilty when I break from standard working hours, even though they never served my energy cycles very well. It takes constant reminding that a freelance life can be shaped to fit.

Cut loose things that aren’t working. It is difficult to leave an agent or critique group. Even harder, to put down a project you’ve invested months in. But saying NO may be the most powerful skill that I have learned yet. And when I think back on the great NO’s that my writer friends have made, I see how they have prospered by them in the end. As a career coach once asked, When you say NO to something, what does that allow you to say YES to?

Trust in Divine Timing. “Divine timing” is my favorite phrase personally, though you might think of it as serendipity or karma or market trend or just luck. Though i like to believe that a great story will always find its way, many parts of publishing are beyond mortal control. I have watched as books search for homes, languish for years, and get undermined by forces beyond their control. And then I’ve been amazed how those same books resurface, long after they’ve been given up for dead. The hardest answer may be the best: put the manuscript down and let fate go about its work. 

Essa Vida and Editing Class

by Addie Boswell
Published on: April 24, 2013
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clipart**This post contributed by guest blogger Tina Morgan, a student in PSU’s Graduate Publishing Program

I had edited exactly nothing of note until our entire editing class at Portland State read Addie Boswell’s YA manuscript, Essa Vida. For weeks we used Addie’s manuscript as a classroom text, culminating with the writing of individual developmental letters. It was an immersive and illuminating experience for us, and (I hope!) a useful one for Addie.

Our editing class didn’t focus exclusively on developmental editing. “Editing” contains multitudes, and we explored a little of everything: copyediting, editing marks and digital markup, acquisitions, rights and permissions, fact-checking. Our final assignment and long-term project for the class, however, was an exercise in what I think of as “real” editing: a big, broad, developmental edit of a fully-realized work.

We received Addie’s novel in increments. We saw her query letter and plot summary. We copyedited the first chapter, then the first three chapters. When we got the entire book, our assignment was to read it, discuss it in groups, and write a developmental letter to Addie. Our group had a rollicking, wide-ranging discussion of the book at a local bar. We talked about what we liked and what confused us, what was strong and what we thought could be stronger. We took copious notes. I can’t imagine that this is typical part of the process on the editorial side, but it was really valuable for us. It was a lot like the workshop process in a writing class or writers’ group: it made us aware of the strengths of our individual perspectives and equally aware of our blind spots. Some things that bothered me in the manuscript didn’t bother the rest of the group, and vice-versa. This didn’t always change my mind, but it was instructive. I think that as a rookie editor, you like to think of yourself as a representative for the reader, but often you are simply representing yourself, a reader. You notice the things that always bother you, and you love the things you always love. I imagine that as you become more seasoned, your perspective evolves and broadens, but since everyone involved was a first-time editor, having us meet as a group to discuss the book was a helpful exercise in discovering our own editing quirks and prejudices.

We had some guidelines about writing the developmental letter, but they boiled down to this: Be constructive, be specific, and don’t be mean (useful advice for approaching just about anything.) To this I would add: Begin with a sincere appreciation for the tremendous effort it takes to complete a novel. Picture how long it takes you to produce a few cogent sentences for the inside of a thank-you card and multiply it a thousand times. When you have stopped hyperventilating, begin.

I was impressed by how serious Addie was about her manuscript. Allowing a classroom full of students to read your work with the express purpose of critiquing it is the kind of nightmare I wake from in the dead of night, so I respected her willingness to take novice opinions seriously. It was also extremely generous of her, as she could have no guarantees about the quality of said critiques.

I enjoyed the process: the first reading, the group discussion, composing my individual analysis. Most satisfying was the final meeting with Addie, where the entire class discussed the manuscript and our developmental letters. We learned about her process and experience, and she was able to engage us individually and as a group about the issues that we mentioned in our letters. I think ultimately that’s what the process offered for Addie. Our developmental letters focused on different things, but by studying the places where they intersected, she was able to determine some of the “universal” strengths and weaknesses in the manuscript.

It was a great experience to edit collaboratively, during our group meetings and ultimately with Addie. In that final discussion, I asked Addie if she knew how she was going to tackle a particular issue with a character, and she said that she wasn’t sure yet. “Do you guys have any ideas?” she asked us, and the entire class was silent. I can’t speak for the group, but I had nothing. In the end, the writer does the heavy lifting. Thank goodness, I thought in that moment, I’m only an editor.


Goodbye, Facebook

by Addie Boswell
Published on: March 25, 2013
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I’m actually going to do it. images

Take the stand I’ve been wavering on for months. It was the book Quiet that finally gave me permission. Author Susan Cain quietly argues that we inhabit a world where extroverts make the social rules, and the rules don’t necessarily suit the introverts. This is an excellent, excellent book for writers, guaranteed to change the angle from which you see your world.

For example: for years, I’ve felt I need to “bite the bullet” and take more part in social media. But, in spite of the camraderie and enjoyment Facebook offers to millions of people (and most of my friends), it only makes me feel uncomfortable and uneasy. Like I’m standing at the side of a very large party where everyone is talking at once. There are various images flashing on a big screen and somehow, someone has pictures of me I didn’t know existed and I’m being invited to vote on a popularity contest while analyzing the characters of True Blood.

Yet I’ve remained standing here, not contributing to the party but unwilling to leave it completely. Why? Of course there is the adolescent fear that I’ll miss something cool. But more than that, I’ve been afraid that jumping off the bandwagon equals social and professional suicide. Especially, disobeying these two unspoken rules:

1) Writers must also be marketers. Publishing remains so difficult that authors are expected to build their own audiences as early as possible. Recent publishing successes have even convinced some that marketing is more important than the writing. (This echoes an idea in the book that America has shifted from a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality,” citing historian Warren Susman.) But let us not skip ahead of the true-er idea: What writers need to do first and most is to write. And to write, one needs the spaciousness of silence: not just a quiet room (as ScrivaLiz wrote about), but a quiet mind. For me, technology invades that at every chance. Even when I avoid it, I often feel that vague panic that I’ve missed doing something important, that somewhere in the world someone wants something from me, and if I don’t check my laptop right now, I might miss the opportunity or fail at my job or let someone down.

2) Social media is the only/best/most effective/socially acceptable form of communication. Twitter and Facebook may be the fastest way to relay information to the largest amount of people, absolutely. And that may be exactly what rock stars and politicians, and even average Joes, want to do. But I don’t think that speed and volume are my purpose. The books I write take years and maybe decades to finish. The conversations I love spill and meander over long meals. And the most interesting people I’ve met in the last ten years — they’ve been 3-D people, not their wittier avatars. Being perpetually interested and engaged by the world is not the same thing as being constantly at the party, chronically awake.

I have been awed and annoyed by social media, and mostly I have been waiting to see what happens. Maybe Facebook will police itself, maybe Smartphones will stop interrupting conversation, maybe cyberspace will learn to abide by certain humane boundaries. But probably not. I’m getting smarter myself these days, and I know the world will continue to clamor. The volume will not lessen, the pace will not slow. The party will not stop. The only thing that will change? I won’t be there. I didn’t even see the invitation. I was in my studio with my earplugs. Writing.

The ‘Silent Observation’ Method

by Addie Boswell
Published on: February 24, 2013
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1-looking-at-art-salvator-barkiWhen I teach my students to look at art, we start with the silent observation tool. It goes like this:

1) Observe the piece for at least one minute, and preferably two, in complete silence. Try to get your eyes to all parts of the canvas.

2) Describe what you see using art terms like line, shape, color. Use the phrases “I notice…” and “I see…”

3) Wonder about the meaning or intention of the artwork, using the phrase “I wonder…”

Besides the obvious benefit of getting kids to look deeper at art, this method also serves to withhold judgement. Imagine a similar scenario when you hold up a picture and say, “What do you think?” Likely comments will be “I like it” or “It’s weird.” And an opinion, once stated, is rigidly adhered to, or so the research goes.

Our job in critique is similar: to truly see a story and respond to it as openly as possible (regardless if we ‘like’ it or see a market for it). There is a form of critique that is similar to Silent Observation, and most writers I know try to follow it. I’ll call the writer’s version “the 2 Reads.”

1) Read the manuscript in silence. No line editing or blanket judgement. You are looking for the feel of the piece, for major threads and plots, and for the things that emotionally grab you.

2) Describe what you’ve read by jotting down notes on major issues like plot, character, pacing, and voice. Try those great words “I notice…” and “I see…”

3) For the second read, get down to the business of line edits or more detailed edits based on the themes you’ve noticed. When making suggestions, the phrase “I wonder…” is nice to use, as opposed to “I think you should …”

I sometimes skip the 2 Reads when I’m pressed for time, but I always feel a little guilty; reading only to critique is doing a disservice to the writing. Silent observation reminds me to truly look and to truly see, so that the story might be fully heard.



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