Friday, August 31, 2012

Lessons from the Storyman

Earlier this week, award-winning author Neal Shusterman visited the local Barnes & Noble for a reading, discussion and signing. Shusterman explained the story of Unwind and read three excerpts from his newest release, Unwholly, which I highly recommend. Throughout the discussion, I noted some important lessons for an aspiring author such as myself.



Be a Genre Breaker
Unwind and its sequel Unwholly can easily be classified as dystopian. When Shusterman was questioned about the genre and his opinion, he was visibly unfavorable. Not that he disapproves of the dystopian genre, but that he sees his books outside of a genre classification, and even outside of an age classification. Dystopian is currently a popular genre, but when it’s no longer on the forefront of public consciousness, the books within that genre might go by the wayside. Shusterman’s books are meant for not only those that enjoy dystopia but also those that enjoy adventure, science fiction, thrillers, teen and adult fiction. In essence, it’s a genre breaker. It’s not meant for just one classification, or just one set of people. So when writing, one shouldn’t strain to write within one genre, because sometimes the best books can’t be labeled.

Let the Character Lead
When Shusterman writes, he asks questions of his characters to discover their emotional paths. After formulating emotional arches for each character, then he begins putting words to paper. However, when writing, sometimes the character will react differently or more truthfully than they did in the original outline. If something no longer makes sense, if the character’s reaction is no longer genuine, then it’s time to adapt. Holding to the original outline can diminish your writing, as good ideas can fall to the page before the author realizes what’s happening. Don’t be afraid to adapt, and to let your characters lead.

Not taking sides can further your story
The concept of Unwind is based in the controversial issue of abortion. Years before the book takes place, the Second Civil War was fought between the pro-choice and pro-life camps. To end the war, a law was enacted which abolished abortion, but allowed parents to “unwind” children between 13 and 18 years of age. Since unwinding re-used nearly 100% of the body’s parts, it was not considered murder and therefore was legal. In Unwind, Shusterman does not take a stance on abortion, but merely tells a story of what happens in this futuristic fiction world. In not taking sides, he broadens the appeal and the reception of the book, and does not alienate readers. He shows the effects of such a law but does so through his characters stories. The author’s opinion is blissfully unknown, which makes the message—one concerning the fictional act of “unwinding” more so than abortion—resonate with readers.   

If you want to kill all your characters, it might be time to take a break
“And then everyone jumps off a cliff and falls to their death.” If you ever have the desire to write that on the next page of your story, then it’s likely that you are a little worn. And it’s probably time for you to take a break. When asked about his writing habits, Shusterman said that he can go back and forth to and from different projects, depending on what needs to be done and when he needs a break. Returning to a project a day, or week or even months later will bring a new perspective and renewed energy. So don’t be weary of setting a piece aside and return to it when the inspiration is flowing, or at least when you’re ready to make some (less homicidal) words appear on the screen again.


Thank you, Mr. Shusterman for visiting Indiana for the release of your outstanding sequel, Unwholly. Can’t wait for the third and final book in this trilogy!


DISCLAIMER: This post in an unofficial account of the event with Neal Shusterman on August 29, 2012 at the Barnes & Noble in Greenwood, IN. The views that I present in this article are my interpretations of the event. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of Neal Shusterman, Simon and Schuster or any affiliates.


  1. Great get! Looks like a good time was had by all. Must have been pretty exciting to meet a leading author in your favorite genre.

    A great post, too, by the way.

  2. Wonderfully transcribed! He gave excellent advice and his stories were captivating; his nickname, the Storyman, is well-deserved. He certainly gained at least one new fan that day.