Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Script Rewrite

By Olga Agafonova

Back at the end of October, I got a professional screenwriter to review my first screenplay. The good news: the science-fiction elements are fresh and exciting and merit development. The bad news is that nearly all the dialogue has to go as does the entire second act. Also, the main character is too detached for the audience to care about him. Lots of work to be done.

And that’s what I’ve been up to in the last few weeks. I’ve read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain for sci-fi goodness, I’ve signed up for a structural writing class to address plot problems and I’m using Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing to bring my characters to life.

The Lajos technique asks the writer to describe each character’s physiology, sociology and psychology in detail. For example, my protagonist Ryan Callaghan is a 40-year old male with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins. His mother died when he was three, his father was never home; he was raised by his maternal aunt who encouraged him to study the sciences. He is an agnostic who doesn’t care about politics, a scientist who enjoys the company of other straightforward, talented people, a private man who recoils from violence and fanaticism.

The idea is that if you provide enough background for a character, he will begin to do certain things naturally in the play while avoiding others. In other words, the character will be true to himself. So, I can’t have my guy join a religious cult half-way through the play because that’s not in his nature. I can, however, have him behave in an arrogant and judgmental way because that’s one of the weaknesses I’ve built-in to his psychology.

In the structural writing class, we are being taught to chuck Syd Field’s three-act model and to instead use as many as nine acts, each escalating the conflict somehow. The point here is that using so many acts, each with its mini-escalations building up to the climax in Act VIII, makes for a more dynamic screenplay. So, if the play is about Joe Schmuck’s miserable life, in Act I an old lady backs up into his car, in Act II, he is passed over for a promotion, in Act III his house burns down, and so on until in Act VIII he’s ready to jump off a bridge but then something happens and it all works out in Act IX.

Having invested six months of effort and a bit of money into my screenplay, I really do hope all the work pays off and I get a better result in the second draft. I’d like to enter the play in a couple of competition next year and see what happens. The West Coast beckons and I’d like to heed its call.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Message Films

By Laura P. Valtorta

Before sitting down to write prose, paint a picture, or conceptualize a film, it’s important to understand the message that the art will deliver, whether it’s the juxtaposition of shapes and colors, or a philosophy about the meaning of life. These days, I’m writing a novel about diversity that I hope to translate into a film. My films are mainly about women’s rights and ordinary people who ought to be famous. Without a message, art is empty.

The films at the 25th annual St. Louis International Film Festival ( are helping me to retain my confidence in the United States. They celebrate diversity of every kind (language, age, skin color, gender identity, and cultural heritage). I was struck by the clear messages in each film, and how they inspired me to think. I’m proud that “The Art House” is being screened here.

The first film that struck me was “A House Without Snakes,” a short about the bush people of Botswana. Is it better to go away to engineering school in the United States or stay on the land that has sustained people for hundreds of thousands of years?

Even though I’m trying to pace myself, I saw two features and a block of shorts yesterday. The first feature was After the Storm, by Hirokazu Koreeda: a Japanese comedy about a has-been novelist who becomes addicted to gambling and neglects his family. Koreeda seems particularly worried about Japan’s aging population and the break-up of families. No diversity in sight in this Japan. Looks to me like they need some immigration and new blood.

Yesterday I also watched Rendezvous, a feature-length comedy/adventure by Amin Matalqa, a Jordanian-American man who grew up in Ohio. The story is straightforward and predictable; a doctor travels to Jordan to retrieve the body of her slain brother who was an archaeologist. She gets caught up in a plot to steal some ancient scrolls. There are plenty of car chases and funny mishaps. What’s unique about this adventure is that the doctor is a Jewish-American woman who falls in love with a Jordanian-American man. The villains are extremists of every sort – including Christian fundamentalists.

We can count on art to help us. Recently I’ve been reading Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment by Franklin Schneider. This Schneider guy is nuts, but I love him. In his depressing way, he has a lot to say about American society and our consumer-oriented values. This is definitely a message book, one that makes me laugh and ponder the world. That’s what good writing does.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What We Mean When We Talk About Craft

By Kasie Whitener

Anyone can tell a story. Seriously. It’s part of human DNA and unique to our species that we use stories to relate, learn, and teach. Granted, some of us are better storytellers than others. Some of us know which parts to emphasize and which details don’t matter. Some of us know which stories are appropriate to tell when.

But anyone can do it, given enough practice. Anyone can become a polished, entertaining storyteller.

So when writers talk about craft they’re not really talking about the storytelling itself. Since competence at that comes with practice, storytelling is just the surface work of writing. It’s just the reason to write.

The craft of writing is in how we use the story’s words to generate a specific experience.

For example, to increase the pace of a scene, use short sentences. Rapid-fire statements force the reader to progress as if an inner monologue of, “What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” drives him. Pace makes the reader desperate for resolution.

The craft of writing is also about getting better.

Studying craft means looking at the tools we have available to us and learning what each tool is meant to do. How does a lengthy character description earn readers’ affection? How does a short one lend mystery to the described person? How can a succinct passage of character interaction tell us everything we need to know?

When we talk about craft, we mean recognition that writing is not just speaking onto the page. Speaking is clumsy and unpolished. Writing is worked over, revised, rearranged, and tried again. While most people write their internal monologue first, craft recognizes those monologues as first drafts.

When we talk about craft, we mean that we’re all invested in revision as the most important part of the process.

It was gratifying to go to the SCWA Craft Builds Community conference and commune with other writers looking to improve their craft. We listened attentively as faculty members, all published authors and instructors, talked about specific questions and decisions writers use to improve the stories they tell.

Keynote speaker Michelle Buckman offered questions that create meaningful characters. Who are your heroes? What is your protagonist afraid of? Does that fear come true in the book? Answering these questions is working on the craft.

In her session on time in writing, Heather Marshall discussed her work that spans several centuries. She said she’s making choices about how to explain the passage of time from event-to-event. Making choices is craft. When does the story begin and why?

Even just learning that those questions and decisions exist is an evolution from storyteller and page-monologuer to writer.

When we talk about craft, we mean the step up from writing in a competent storytelling way, in the way that every person can achieve. Craft is creating compelling characters, telling nail-biting action scenes, and contextualizing all of that so that the reader gets more than the story, he gets the experience.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reading Autobiography

By Sharon May

As an Appalachian writer, I read lots of Appalachian fiction, and my favorite authors of this genre are Lee Smith, Silas House, and Ron Rash. Recently, I read two non-fiction books by two very different Appalachians – Lee Smith’s Dimestore: A Writer’s Life and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Neither book is a typical autobiography, but both resonate with this hillbilly.

Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio, but identifies as an Appalachian because his neighborhood was filled with Appalachians who had migrated north for jobs and because, on his visits to his family home in Jackson, Kentucky, he felt it was the only place he could be himself. His book reveals the dysfunction of his family in brutal, honest detail and the hope given to him by his Mamaw that he could rise above the despair to accomplish his dream of going to college.

A graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, Vance includes in his memoir sociological research on Appalachia to help him and his reader understand his life and culture. He concludes that, despite the Appalachian’s tendency to blame the government and other social institutions for the despair in their lives, it is time that Appalachians themselves take responsibility for their actions and fix their problems themselves so they can stop damaging the lives of their children.

Smith writes her autobiography in a series of essays spanning her childhood memories of her childhood in Grundy, Virginia at her father’s dime store to her meeting Eudora Welty in her creative writing class to her tribute to her late son, lost to the effects of medications taken to control his mental illness.

One of the more telling points Smith makes about modern Appalachian life is how progress for many people is measured by whether your town has a Walmart, and Smith discusses how such progress has changed the landscape of places like Grundy. Her essays on writing paint it as an act that can be rewarding as well as difficult at times, particularly when searching for an idea for the next book.   

While both books are organized linearly along the author’s life, they are not organized by event, but instead by theme. They have taught me that creative non-fiction can be merged with autobiography, and have given me permission to explore more options for revising my autobiography that I started years ago. I have written one very long introduction that includes several themes. Now I need to separate those themes into a series of essays that make the points I want readers to learn from my experiences.

Obviously a writer needs to read, not only for pleasure, but for instruction on how to improve one’s writing. A poet friend of mine argues that you can measure a writer by what he or she reads. I don’t know if I agree with him, but it does give me food for thought. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Learning to Revise

By Sharon May

My writing has taken two forms over the years -- academic essays and fiction. In pursing degrees in English and American Literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I’ve written at least fifty academic essays. At one point in my life, I was very good at writing them, winning writing awards at two graduate schools.

I was so proficient at writing academic essays, I didn’t have to revise to earn an A. I revised one 20-page paper when I was required to do a ten minute reading of it. Honestly, that was the only academic paper I ever revised.
So as an academic writer, I never really learned to revise my own words, which is ironic since as an instructor of writing, I help students revise their writing all the time. I can explain the concepts and steps in revision, but rarely applied that knowledge to my own writing.
For the past two summers, I have begun writing fiction again. During that time, I have had to learn how to revise. At first, I wasn’t sure where to start, and finally with one story, I decided to imagine I didn’t even have a draft and start a new version of the story. That kick-started my revising. As one can imagine, my writing has improved dramatically. Belonging to the writer’s workshop has given me ideas and guidance for revision so I look forward to the meetings.

One benefit of revising is that now when I’m drafting something new, I’m questioning myself as if I’m already revising. This has helped prevent mistakes I would have previously produced. So far, drafting this way has not interfered with the flow of ideas from brain to paper, and therefore I take this as positive growth in my writing process.

In my journey into revision, I started reading online articles about revising fiction.  While reading, I came across 12 Writing Fiction Checklists” on the website Fiction Notes. I have found these checklists useful to help me evaluate my writing, which leads to new possibilities.

Of all the quotes I’ve read online about revising, I think Colette (Casual Chance, 1964) reveals the power of revision best when she says, “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing Fiction: Reading My Idols

By Laura P. Valtorta
 Yesterday I watched an interview with Stephen King on PBS’s News Hour. He’s always a fun interview. King’s thrillers are page-turners, but the book of his I enjoyed most was his 2000 autobiography, On Writing.

During the television interview, King talked about learning how to write. Oftentimes, he said, writers read their favorite authors and emulate them.

One of my favorite authors is the Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. From Handmaid’s Tale to Blind Assassin to The Heart Goes Last, her accounts of women’s superiority, struggles, and triumphs never fail to be inspirational, entertaining, and funny. Each book is different. Right now I’m re-reading the dystopic trilogy – Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. I’m studying Atwood’s balance of description and dialogue, her use of complicated vocabulary and invented words, and how she employs humor to make a point.

No one can be better than Atwood, I think. And then I read Donna Tartt, whose writing is not as well-crafted as Atwood’s, but who makes me visualize situations I’ve never dreamed of. I agree with almost everything that Atwood writes. Tartt and I don’t agree on anything – and yet I adore her fiction.

A trait that Tartt and Atwood share is that they take great pains to describe the habits and appearances of their characters. I can see Atwood’s Oryx very clearly, and I know a lot about her childhood. Tartt’s character, Harriett, is a girl I could recognize racing past me on her bike, with her swingy black hair and sarcastic voice. Neither Oryx nor Harriett is a photograph.

Providing just the right description, while leaving the reader hungering for more, is a gift. I wish there were a word-scale I could use. A passage that sounds good when read aloud might not contain enough description.

This kind of research – reading my favorite fiction writers – is something I’ve immersed myself in since childhood. Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. For that, I have to thank my mother.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

They Open Their Mouths and Thrust Out Words

By Bonnie Stanard

The 1670s in France is the setting for a story I’m working on about a traveling troupe of actors. As soon as a conversation came up, I had to ask myself, how did people talk in Renaissance France? Obviously, the writing should remind the reader the story takes place over 300 years ago. And in France.

After much consideration, I’ve decided to signal the time with early English expressions and the place with a sprinkling of French words. Not ideal, I know. But what to do? If you’re thinking I should simply move the story to England, that introduces a different problem. In England, unlike France, acting was a male profession. The first recorded performance of a female playing a role on the English stage is December 1660, too close for comfort. And as far as I’m concerned, no women, no story.

Some writers can produce books with almost no dialogue. John Banville, Charles Frazier, and IsabelleAllende come to mind. For most of us, dialogue is a device whereby we advance the plot, elevate tension, or reveal motive. The conversations we give our characters differentiate their personalities. You can get more suggestions about how to write dialogue than you’ll ever need from workshops as well as online. I’ll only say that the writer of “How are you?” or “What’s up?” or “Hello” is digging a grave.

Carefully chosen dialect reminds readers about where and when the story is unfolding. In some cases it delineates social status. Some editors go to the extreme in warning us against using dialect. Obviously Anthony Burgess ignored them and wrote the best-selling A Clockwork Orange with a patois so dense some of us could only understand the audio version.

So, when to use dialect and how often? Too much and the story drags. Too little and it becomes generic contemporary writing. If you will, somewhere between “By my trowth, thou dost make the millstone seem as a feather what widst thy lard-bloated footfall” and “You are fat.”

Much of my time lately has been devoted to developing a lexicon of dated English words and expressions. Researching colloquial language is not as easy as getting other background information, such as the nature of housing, clothing, social circumstances, and political environment. This information can usually be found in recorded history. Most books of this sort are available fromAbe Books.

However, history books don’t reveal how people talked at the time. Shakespeare’s plays have probably demonstrated more about dated colloquial English than any other source. I have a flip-card booklet with Shakespeare’s insults, which makes for fun reading (Thou Spleeny Swag-Bellied Miscreant).

I’ve added a number of expressions to my lexicon from Margaret Butler’s historical fiction novel, Lion of England, which brings to life Henry II in the 12th Century. This book is a great example of how language makes a story real to its time. A good reference book, English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, gives you lists of words in use by the century of its appearance. Then there are online sources such as Elizabethan Slang and Elizabethan greetings.

They knew how to insult back then—milksop, dunderhead, whey face, toadeater, or rank-scented, lumpish prig. I can get so carried away with language that my lexicon grows at the expense of my story.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Go on and Binge Read. Everybody’s Doing It.

By Kasie Whitener

Admittedly, I am a binge kind of person. I’ve been known to watch 13 hours of football on a single Saturday and follow it with nine hours on Sunday. Everything I do from beer consumption to internet shopping meets the limits of “binge” as defined by the CDC.

So reading three books a week, two at the time, totaling 41 fiction and 8 nonfiction books so far this year with 12 weeks left is de rigueur for me. It’s expected I’ll ignore my family for an audio book, my Kindle, a freshly purchased paperback, or a beaten-up library loan.

‘Kasie-with-a-book-in-her-hand’ is my default setting. And every time I feel bad about it, I read another successful author say, “Read,” is the best advice they can give to aspiring writers. (Like Lev Grossman of The Magicians did recently on Quora.)

Reading for pleasure is a pastime I’d all but abandoned for years. Though in graduate school I regularly consumed two to four novels a week, it was work and afterward I went through a long reading drought. I came back to reading via Twilight. A fact I share with a lot of vampire fiction writers I know.

Both of my parents are avid readers. My father carries his iPad around with him and will break open whatever book he’s reading the minute the conversation lags. My mother borrows books from my shelves two and three at the time.

My reading habit is impacting my daughter, Hollie, who listened to a few of the books I consumed via Audible while we road-tripped this summer. She knows the Kindle estimation for how much longer I have in the chapter is a way to get more time watching a show or playing with her toys.

In our house, “Just let me finish this chapter,” is sometimes interchanged with “Three more football minutes,” or a solid half-hour.

I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it. Not when I ignore work, eschew social engagements, or turn off the TV. Especially not that last one. I’ve even made enablers out of my team. Each week, my consultants report what they’re reading as a means of promoting literacy and study in our company.

A good binge read inspires my own writing. This latest series has taught me to hope there’s a place for literary fantasy, despite several commercial agents trying to lump my Byron-era vampires into genre fiction. Reading the All Souls Trilogy has renewed my faith in my own work and given me a hint at an agency and publisher who might support it.

A good binge read puts things into perspective. When I raced through a series of poorly written NYT bestsellers, I felt reassured that my own rejections may only be a result of submitting to the wrong authorities.

So read up, junkies. No writer ever said they wished they’d read less. If you want to see what my team’s reading, go here. For more of my list, click here.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Diversity in Art and Audiences

By Laura P. Valtorta

Currently I am writing a novel about a black character and a white character that I plan to turn into a screenplay. I expect to make a lot of ugly mistakes.

While studying how to make these characters more genuine, I tell myself – “Woman – go forth and meet with artists and people in many different communities. Watch. Listen. Ask questions.”

An excellent place to do that was the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival, that I attended as a filmmaker on September 1-3, 2016. Here is an email I sent to my peeps:

Family, Friends, and Filmmakers: This weekend I attended the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival in Long Beach, California ( where "Queen of the Road" won best TV pilot against some formidable competitors from Hollywood!

This festival was special because the founder, Dr. Daniel Walker, shared with the group a vision like my own: to see diverse people creating and sharing art. Like me, Dr. Walker wants filmmakers to be diverse (more women, more African-Americans), and above all, he wants audiences to be diverse so that we can sit together, enjoy art together, and discuss what's important to us.

This festival (180 films and performances) and the artists were diverse in every way! Age, skin color, sex, disability, gender identity, nationality. I could go on. At the awards banquet, I sat next to a woman my age who had a film entry in the student filmmaker category! My table included a German director, a doctor who made music videos, and people from Australia.

This mix of people made for excellent talk-back sessions with directors after each film. I felt comfortable asking questions that were really on my mind about filmmaking and American society.  Some of my questions were obnoxious – but they were important to me.

For the first time I did not feel out of place being an older female director. There were other women, older than me, who were presenting awesome films.

Funny how more diversity makes us all feel more welcome.

When Dr. Daniel Walker spoke, it was refreshing and liberating to hear a man speak about something we both found important -- drawing people together through art. When I accepted the award, Dr. Walker told me that he knew about my work and thought I was doing some great things. This was a true compliment!

Dr. Walker teaches Latin American studies in Long Beach, which is said to be the most diverse town of its size (500,000) in the United States. The diversity extends to age, sex, gender identity, skin color, language, disability, and nationality – just like the participants in the festival itself. Heaven!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Opening Scene

By Olga Agafonova

At the beginning of September, I finished the first draft of my screenplay. My goal now is to revise and polish it until I am comfortable enough with the result to consider submitting it to various competitions. To that end, I have enrolled in a screenwriting class through the Academy of Film Writing.

The class focuses on the first thirty pages of a script, roughly the first act of the play. Our first assignment is to analyze the opening scene in several movies. What I saw in five movies I like is as follows:

Michael Clayton (2007)

We hear Arthur's manic monologue as the opening titles flash on the black screen, which forces us to pay close attention to what Arthur is saying. The first image is downtown wherever, the skyscraper offices of the law firm that Arthur and Michael work for. The tone is ominous, tense.

Up in the Air (2009)

Images of clouds and bird eye's view of various locations in the United States. Our protagonist is clearly going to be doing some traveling by plane. The mood is upbeat, so we expect this movie to have at least a few light-hearted moments.

Solaris (1972)

Underwater vegetation with a camera pan to a man standing by the pond. No soundtrack. Nothing so far suggests space travel or any science fiction theme.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Peaks of mountains covered by clouds. A voice talks about the rumors of a doomsday device being developed by the USSR.

Trading Places (1983)

Sequence of New Jersey images with classical music playing in the background. Most images are regular people going about their day. I'm guessing the music and the sequence is there to setup the contrast between Eddie Murphy's and Dan Aykroyd's characters.

Of all these, I find the opening for Michael Clayton the most effective because Arthur's monologue is so powerful and tells me everything I need to know about the law firm. The entire screenplay, written by Tony Gilroy, is taut, compact -- the dialogue is right where it needs to be in terms of content and length. This is definitely something I'll be shooting for in my second draft.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Sharon May was born in Appalachia, specifically Eastern Kentucky, the granddaughter of a coal miner. She attended the University of Kentucky for undergraduate degrees in English and English Education and later earned a Masters in English Literature from Marshall University and attended the University of South Carolina for Ph.D coursework.

In 1993, after two years as an adjunct for Midlands Technical College, May was hired full-time in the English Department, later transferring to the Developmental Studies Department to help under-prepared students qualify for college-level courses. She co-authored, along with four colleagues at MTC, a textbook Reading, Analyzing, and Writing for College Students published by Pearson for a developmental English class.

Her hobbies include owning four cats, following UK basketball, and  reading.

Sharon's first entry on this page follows.

My Summer Vacation

By Sharon May

I have set a retirement date for my job as an instructor of English at a local technical college, and my spouse demands I have a hobby or volunteer work before I retire. Apparently, a recliner and TV remote do not a retirement make. 
My life-long dream has been to write full-time, so I have chosen to devote my time in retirement to writing. I have also decided not to teach summer semesters again, and I have spent this summer writing. It has been exhilarating to have time to write. 
I have dipped in and out of writing since I was twelve, sitting down every ten years or so, serious each time, producing a few pages, maybe a short story, only to get bogged down in life’s demands, fear of failure, or lack of dedication. Life seemed to push aside any time to write. Relationships, education, jobs, and, of course, procrastination gave me many excuses. But this summer I had no excuses and a lot of time. 
One of my writing tasks was to organize the writings I have produced over the years. Examining this material led to many pleasant surprises. I found several attempts to start a novel I’ve been wanting to write since I was twenty-two and numerous short stories I had forgotten that I wrote as well as fragments of stories left unfinished. In all those pages of my life, I found some well-crafted sentences, paragraphs, and even pages, something to revive now.  
I also convinced myself join a writer’s workshop to force my writing from the eyes of a private circle of family and friends to those of the unattached and unrestrained public. This step has been beneficial as I have been given constructive and much needed advice and have learned to look at my writing from new perspectives. Among many lessons, I have learned how to focus my paragraphs, how to anticipate a reader’s needs and wishes, and most importantly how to truly revise. Joining the Columbia II writer’s workshop is one of the best decisions of the summer.     
The freedom of summer has ended, and I still feel the urge to write after being very productive over the past three months, writing and revising two short stories and finally figuring out how to write that novel. I wonder if I can maintain an acceptable level of productivity now that I’m teaching again. I believe the writer’s workshop will provide accountability and deadlines to keep me on track, maybe the most valuable aspects of joining the workshop.    
It’s easy to say that a writer should write every day; it’s quite difficult at times to make that a reality.  This summer I have learned that writing inspires more writing, and when not writing, thinking about writing will lead to putting words on paper.  

Now, I know a writer focuses intentionally on the task of writing, regardless of distractions. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Get Your Elevator Pitch Ready

By Ginny Padgett

When I went to my first writers’ conference in 2010, I learned about an Elevator Pitch, which is a one- to two-minute description of your manuscript that can be delivered during the span of an elevator ride and will capture the interest of an agent or publisher, if you were to find yourself in such a situation. I thought that scenario was not likely for me.

Nevertheless, by 2015, I had a project, manuscript, and Elevator Pitch in hopes of somehow becoming published. That spring I helped arrange a writers’ conference, and after it was over, I practiced my pitch on two regional agents who represented my genre. One was politely interested and gave me her card and said I could contact her; the other was mildly interested and said to take my time, polish my manuscript, make it the best it could be, and send it to her. I felt encouraged.

That fall, I organized a series of instructional webinars with industry professionals on varied subjects for the membership of South Carolina Writers’ Workshop. In October, our speaker was an agent of a friend of mine whose topic was “How to Get Published.” We logged on early to do a technical check, making sure all our equipment was working. After we were set to broadcast, we had 15 minutes before the webinar was to begin, and the agent asked, “What are you working on?”

I was astonished when my Elevator Pitch rolled off my tongue with no hesitation and with enthusiasm. When I was done she said, “When you’re finished writing, go to my website, follow the instructions carefully for submission, and send me your manuscript. I think I could sell it.”

Then I was dumbfounded. Who would have thought I could arrest the attention of a nationally recognized agent in Texas from my bedroom in Columbia, South Carolina? (Another writer-friend sold her work to a New York agent at a baby shower in Camden, South Carolina.) So get your Elevator Pitch ready. It’s true. You never know when you’ll need it.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Internalizing Conflict

By Laura P. Valtorta

A few weeks ago my granddaughter, Gioia (pronounced JOY-ah) was reluctant to give up her comfort can of Play Doh. Her mother, Clara, insisted, and Gioia ate a large glob of Play Doh (yum!) then made a face of disgust.

Gioia was illustrating one of the basic tenets of fiction writing. To write something real, you have to feel it inside. Gioia was angry. She did not want to relinquish the Fun Factory, but she needed to have a bath. She ate the emotion, and it tasted funny. She swallowed the Doh, and the emotion became part of her psyche.

Excellent writers like Donna Tartt may be writing fiction, but their novels illustrate the real, raw emotions they feel inside. When Donna writes in The Goldfinch “he’d never been able to stand kids or babies either, much less the whole doting-parent scene, dumbly-smiling women feeling up their own bellies and guys with infants bound to their chest,” she’s not kidding. I laughed my head off when I read that, and all of her other scathing comments about children. This woman apparently hates kids, and because she’s writing from the gut, writing what she feels, it comes across as true and hilarious.

There’s a lot about Donna Tartt’s philosophy I disagree with. In The Little Friend she makes it clear that she thinks a lot of Mississippians are inferior, not only because of economic disadvantage, but because they skewer their own opportunities. She comes across as classist and racist. She belittles Newton Knight – a Mississippian I happen to admire.

In The Secret History, one of the great classics of modern fiction, Tartt writes (as if in translation because characters often speak to each other in Classical Greek), “’The mother grieves. Not for her son’, he added hastily when he saw I was about to speak, ‘for she is a wicked woman, Rather she grieves for the shame which has fallen on her house.”” This passage says so much and is hilarious, because it comes across as an emotion of real hatred that Tartt has felt for a person in her own life. I love this writer, even though I rarely agree with her.

If I could have one wish as a writer, it would be to eat the emotion of my prose, taste it, and feel it every time, so that it always leaps from the page as truth.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Tale of Two Protagonists

By Kasie Whitener

A single character’s perspective limits the story. Motivations and realizations that occur for other characters must only be guessed at by the central Point of View (POV) character. Yet working within the limitation demonstrates the writer’s skill. It’s on the author to help us see all characters’ journeys through the main character’s perspective.

When the writer ignores the limitations of the single POV and exposes us to multiple characters’ experiences, our writers’ group calls it Head Hopping. We recognize that there are rules to sharing the POV with multiple characters.

Rule #1: Clearly distinguish the points of shift. Shifting during the scene confuses the reader. Our group allows spacers and chapter changes for the shift to logically occur.

Rule #2: Only give a point of view to a character if you need the audience to know something about that character that no one else can know. Some internal motivations and secrets have to stay hidden from the other characters until they create a pivot point for the story.

For example, if at the pivot point in the story you plan to have the character Sasha perform an illusion she learned while traveling with a carnival magician as a teenager, then that carnival experience needs to be part of what the reader knows about her. We cannot arrive at the pivot and think, “Since when does Sasha know magic?”

When people claim something happened out of nowhere in a novel, it’s because the knowledge, skills, or motivation to commit that action have not been disclosed.

In The League series of fantasy romance books I’m currently binge reading, the author frequently shifts point of view between the male and female leads. The habit seemed like poor writing in the first two books. By book three, though, I started to wonder if she was working with a dual protagonist.

In most stories the protagonist wants something and will do anything to get it and the antagonist stands in that person’s way. But in a romance, there are two main characters, the lovers. Can a novel have two protagonists?

The benefits of two protagonists include watching two unique plot arcs, seeing two characters grow and change, and enjoying the intermingling of the two whenever their actions interfere with one another. Even so, only skilled authors can keep two protagonists separate but equal. It’s a unique challenge to engage the reader with two (or more) main characters.

Two protagonists in one story is a literary no-no that has recently been challenged by some significant works such as All the Light We Cannot See, The Orphan Train, and the entire Game of Thrones series. Those books follow the rules stated above. They only give POV to characters we need to know more about and they shift on definitive lines.

As writers continue to experiment with multiple protagonists, to see if that experiment works, and to show others how it’s done, our literary rules are evolving. And as the craft evolves, the distinction between head-hopping and multiple protagonists may become a measure of skill.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Write, Rip, and Read!” You’re on the Air!

By Julia Rogers Hook

For most of my writing life, I have been a “rip and read” writer.

I’m a journalist and for many years I worked as a broadcast and newspaper reporter who covered a lot of breaking news. In getting the new developments out quickly, there isn’t much time to edit your words but you need to do enough editing to ensure your report is accurate. That can be daunting when facing a deadline and doubly so when you’re writing for broadcasting with updates going out every 15 minutes.

As I moved from an “at the scene” reporter to feature writing for magazines and newspapers and then on to column writing, I had much more time to reread my pieces and adjust them accordingly. But sometimes I do miss the urgency of being the “first” reporter out there with any new tidbit from the authorities or whomever I’m covering.

Elections could always go both ways. They could be extremely exciting, especially when there was a controversial bill or candidate on the table or they could seemingly last for decades, if whatever was on the table was a sure thing. Then it was just covering the candidate’s or the bill’s promoters continuously as they spewed out the same old “six-second-soundbites” repeatedly.

These days I sort of wish I were back out in the field and covering the 2016 elections. With the two most unpopular candidates that have ever run in my lifetime out there stumping, I think this would be an extremely interesting experience to cover either one of them.

Between Trump and his public rants and Clinton and her equally public missteps that have led even some of the most stalwart members of their own parties to distance themselves from the two of them, it seems like following either of them on the campaign trail could be a royal treat. But in the event that I was going from rally to rally with this not-so-dynamic duo, I would still be doing the rip-and read writing that I have always been most comfortable with.

I sometimes want to change that. I imagine myself telling a tale of utmost interest to everyone on the planet and somehow I will develop characters that will live long after my own demise. I want to create the Scout and Jem characters and bring them to life like Harper Lee did. I want to spin a story that will capture the hearts of people everywhere, no matter how they live or worship or whom they love. I want to make people feel! Feel everything…love, hate, remorse, forgiveness, sorrow and joy. I want them to laugh out loud and cry real tears when they read my words.

That’s what I want.

But until then….rip and read ain’t so bad.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Gold Medal Storytelling

By Kasie Whitener 

Everything I know about boxing I learned from the Rocky movies.

The gritty character of Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa is an American icon and the Rocky story is a classic American underdog tale. We love stories about an unknown, scrappy, determined kid whose heart and passion win him the big prize. Think Karate Kid, Annie, or Goonies; how about David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, or Cinderella?

According to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, rags-to-riches or underdog stories are so much a part of our shared storytelling experience that we actually take them for granted. 

NBC’s Olympics journalists are looking for underdog stories on every competitor in Rio. Americans want to cheer for underdogs. That’s our national character: the drive and gumption needed to succeed despite the odds. We believe if you work hard enough you can be a winner, a champion, a gold medalist.

In the telling of the athletes’ stories from Rio, a pattern has emerged. First, we’re told who the athlete is and we’re reminded how difficult the event he’s competing in will be. A flashback sequence follows full of grammar school photos of the athlete as a child meeting his idol or winning his first championship. Next, a major setback is described: an injury, a personal loss, a competitive loss, or a catastrophic diagnosis. Then the comeback is described: how the athlete found the inner strength to push through heartbreak and work even harder to achieve his dream. The final bit is always the tee-up moment, the athlete himself stating his goal.

“I’m just here to compete and maybe take home a medal.” Humble to the last.

We love these stories so much that sports journalism has developed a formula for them and nowhere is the formula more effective than the Olympics. Because yesterday we didn’t care about these people and next week we won’t care about them again. But today, right now, we care so much we’re shouting at the TV for Mara Abbott to maintain her lead on the bike, Katie Ledecky to shatter her own world record in the pool, and Kerri Walsh-Jennings to spike that ball into the sand like it’s her job.

Lots of genre fiction conforms to formula. Mysteries and romance each have patterns that genre writers freely admit to following. Sometimes it seems as though we really are recycling the same seven basic plots over and over again.

When storytelling has been such an essential part of the human experience for centuries, it really is hard to tell a new story.

As writers we can be discouraged by that knowledge; maybe we’re just renaming old heroines and spinning the same trite tales. Or maybe we can use the seven basic models to keep our own ideas balanced and familiar.

Then we can add a little magic like that classic underdog Harry Potter.

We can make old stories new and keep our audience cheering for our heroines until the last bell of the last round. There are 12 of them, according to Rocky.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Inspirational Tarot Garden

By Laura P. Valtorta

Our trip to the Tarot Garden in Capalbio, Italy reinforced the idea that art inspires art. Looking at modern art, and the huge, colorful, fantastic sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, helped me to write better.
Before visiting the Tarot Garden, it was important to read the sweet, chaotic, horrible story of Niki’s life. A recent article in The New Yorker allowed us to do that.

The giant tarot sculptures built by Niki and her friends and the people of Capalbio emphasized the sadness and the chaotic nature of life and love. “Death” is one of the most beautiful sculptures.  Another is “Justice” with an accompanying sculpture by Jean Tiguely, Niki’s second husband, inside.

Before building the garden, Niki had abandoned her young children to their father (the writer Henry Matthews) and spent time in an insane asylum. After her six-week stay in the asylum, Niki turned to art as a way to protest the conventions imposed by society on women. She was a performance artist and a successful sculptor. Her art is displayed throughout the world and in Paris in front of the Centre Georges Pompidou.

The sculptures in the Tarot Garden are made of ceramic and mirror tiles, reinforced by steel and cement. Niki lived alone inside the Empress for many years while building the 14-acre garden.

The poignancy of this garden comes from knowing about Niki’s sad, messy, creative life and seeing the joy she infused in the gigantic sculptures. On the side of the Impicciato sculpture is a love story in tiles with drawings that illustrate the first meeting, desire, love letters, breaking up, and remaining friends.

Any artist – writer, painter, sculptor, or musician – can benefit from walking through Niki’s garden. It took her seventeen years to create and shows how steadfast her passion for beauty was. The depth of emotion is what makes this garden meaningful.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

White writers who produce novels with black protagonists will find it near impossible to attract a publisher. This, according to author Carla Damron, who appeared at a book club meeting I recently attended. Her comment referenced the reaction to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which was criticized in the black community. For a response to the novel and movie, see the letter published as “A Critical Review of the novel The Help”.

When I was working on my novel Kedzie, Saint Helena IslandSlave, it came as a surprise to me that a black writer in my writers’ workshop claimed slavery as the literary prerogative of blacks. I have come to realize there is some public support for her view. That my novel’s dialogue contains the word nigger, which was commonly used in the antebellum South, put nails in the coffin. In one of my blog entries on “WritePersona” I describe my experience with two literary agents. I eventually self-published the book.

Freedom of expression has come into conflict with “safe places” (protection from ideas that make one uncomfortable), which some people perceive as a right just as important as free expression. College administrators, under the gun of the federal government, have ramped up enforcement of trigger warnings (warnings professors should issue if something in a course might elicit a strong emotional response).

It’s not uncommon to read reports that students at colleges such as Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers call for warnings for books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny and physical abuse); Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations); and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault).

Yale undergraduates petitioned to abolish the study of writers including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, saying that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors”. (The Guardian,June 1, 2016)

There are some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. And to a greater extent than ever, our culture is accommodating a wide swath of them. For example, an Indiana University student was found guilty of racial harassment for reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The cover picture of a Klan rally offended the student’sco-workers. He was eventually cleared of the charges.

Given today’s climate, some classics wouldn’t have made it past the query process much less have been published, books such as Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst; or Showboat by Edna Ferber.

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about literary censorship (Iran boycotted the 2015 Hamburg Book Fair because Rushdie was scheduled as guest speaker), has been quoted as saying that people claiming to stand for free speech have "demolished what they stand for."

Political correctness, used to suppress divergent voices, becomes a tool of oppression. How are we to engage in a genuine discussion about black lives (or Asian or Mexican or Southern) if censorship is used to eliminate whatever makes us uncomfortable? Despite the criticism, I make no apologies for telling the story of a slave girl named Kedzie. I would hope blacks would see in her the courage of some of their ancestors.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Characters Are Not People and Other Aaron Sorkin Gems

By Kasie Whitener 

I got sucked into an Aaron Sorkin YouTube video and spent 41 minutes listening to him talk about writing. The time wasn’t wasted. Not only did it inspire this blog post, it helped me get some clarity on writing.

Sorkin’s topic was character and he was very clear that character is two things: intention and obstacle. Once you have those two things, you can write all the other stuff you want to write. The fun stuff: Dialogue. Sex. Violence. Ferris Wheel rides and running down a dock and jumping off the end.

He also asserted that characters and people are not the same thing. We think they are, he said, because they look alike. But they’re not. They have nothing to do with one another.

People do not proceed through life in a series of triumphs and setbacks toward a stable, ever present goal. Life interrupts. People lose interest. Circumstances change.

Characters, however, are free to doggedly pursue their goals and to climb over or destroy or crawl under whatever stands between them and their desired outcome.

Sorkin’s right. (Not surprisingly)

Thinking through his statements, I realized that characters are free because the story began a little while ago and will end a little while hence. For people the story began at birth and will linger until death. For characters, the story is finite. It stretches the length of the pages or the film or the series. It begins and ends. It has dimensions that hold it in. It is bound.

People are unbound. Characters are bound.

This idea of closing off the edges, of determining what really matters to the story, is the work of revision. Though Sorkin suggests the intentions and obstacle are the skeleton of the story, sometimes getting to it means cutting away all of the fun stuff you’ve already layered on.

If you write like me, listening to the voices in your head, then there are dozens of extra scenes and conversations and events included in the draft. Revision is determining which of those scenes are part of 1) intention or 2) obstacle and then cutting the rest of them.

Exposition is a poor excuse for including the scenes that don’t drive action in the book. And a sequel, or a series, is a poor excuse to hang on to characters longer than you should. The character’s story is finite. It has a beginning and an end.

Decide which story you’re telling and tell it. Save the other parts for something else.

Taking Sorkin’s advice to my current work is both invigorating and depressing. How to determine what my main character wants and what stands between him and it is the real work of storytelling.

The words are just a means to an end. The things my character will do to get what he wants is what tells you what kind of person he is.

Not person. Character (vampire). Persons are real. Characters are not.

Got it, Sorkin, thanks.