Sunday, November 19, 2017

Reclaiming Creativity, Rediscovering Self

By Jodie Cain Smith

Last April my family and I, all eighteen of us, spent a week together in a house in Destin, Florida, to commemorate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My sister Kellie is creating a photo book to commemorate the trip and my parents’ accomplishment of sticking together all those decades.

Kellie called me last night. “Jodie, I barely have any photos of you from Destin. Were you hiding from the camera?”

“Well, mostly, I was the photographer, but I’ll take a look at what I’ve got on my phone.” I hung up with her and turned back the clock seven months.

First, I saw what appears to be a collection of “before” pictures. Before my diagnosis. Before treatment. Before forty-two pounds and the most stressful year of my life melted away. Before I reclaimed creativity.

I hate every picture of myself from that trip. But, not for the reason you may think.

I hate those pictures because they show a woman I never want to be again.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) had robbed my body of its ability to use insulin and brought with it a nasty cocktail of anxiety and depression to poison my mind. Unknowingly, I had struggled with this for over two decades, but always had writing to depend on as my way to embrace the world or rage against it.

However, for the year leading up to my diagnosis and treatment, I feared I had lost that coping mechanism. Most days, I struggled to write at all, mush less anything worth publishing. I stopped listening to my instincts on writing, allowing others too much influence over my writing style, stories, and characters. Then, I just stopped writing at all.

I had lost my ability to be creative, authentic, and brave.

Then, a succession of miracles occurred.

First, a doctor listened to me and forced me to face the reality of anxiety and depression. She did this by asking me if I was still writing. I told her, “No.” She responded, “Jodie, that’s not good.” She also said the words PCOS and pre-diabetes. The latter was terrifying.

The second miracle was the treatment for my PCOS and insulin resistance. Within a week, I could feel the positive effects of the medication, healthy eating, and increased exercise. I felt hopeful. The constant fog in my brain began to lift. I began to like myself again. And, the scale began a nosedive.

The third miracle came via my husband and an overdue heart-to-heart. He told me to stop coddling him, worrying about him, trying to control him. Now, seven months later, I know this was the miracle I most needed.

By ditching my need to control everything and everyone around me, I freed my mind to write. One month into my new lifestyle of letting go, healthy eating, and rigorous exercise, I began a new work-in-progress, one I never thought I was capable of writing.

As for the “before” pictures, I printed one out, but it is not displayed where you might think. It’s not taped to my mirror or stuck on the fridge. It will now live on my desk as a constant reminder that if I continue to live healthily in body and mind, I can be my best creative self.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Here's a blast from the past : a previous post from Alex Raley, a member who's no longer with us. You're never forgotten, Alex.

By Alex Raley

                                             y                        We look for inspiration when we write. Often it comes out of the blue or from the pleasant and interesting things going on around us. A couple months ago, I found myself with my head against the wall waiting for the 911 folks to arrive and wondered why I had put myself in that situation. In the hospital and on my way to recovery, I began to think of all the experiences a hospital brings: some debilitating, some embarrassing, and some just downright nasty. With the right attitude they can be funny. I began to think poetry as soon as I settled down in hospital routine (meals to the minute, vital signs as soon as you fall asleep, the day’s date with nurse and nurse tech names, shift changes with new names, morning doctor visits. I imaged everything poetically, including the 911 activity. When not interrupted by hospital routine, I was constructing poems, poems much too bawdy for a blog but poems that will eventually see the light of day. Does that seem odd?

                                                                       Do not let experiences pass by you. Even the most unusual or gruesome can be an inspiration to write. I had never thought of gruesome as an inspiration, but I cannot tell you how my mind raced once I wandered into the groove. Now that I am at home I need to hit the computer and put those bawdy poems to paper.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Agents Can Be People, Too

By Kasie Whitener

We are all selling almost all the time. We sell our kids on bedtime and vegetables and our families on holiday gatherings. As writers, we sell our readers on a character’s motivations, a plot’s plausibility, and a story’s value.

When it comes to querying, we try to sell an agent that this story is one with which they will make money. We craft the perfect query letter to an agent’s design and attempt to convince them that this product we’ve created is worth their investment.

Agents are sales people, too. At the South Carolina Writers Association Big Dream Conference, an agent said she spends the better part of her day getting rejected by editors and publishers.

I am an entrepreneur. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of sales people look past me for someone better to talk to, check their phone for messages during my monologue, and scroll through their mental rolodex trying to remember my name. It is not hard to figure out when a sales person is truly interested in what you are saying and when they have already assessed you as zero value. I’m guilty of it, I know. I have been trapped in conversations with people who want something from me knowing full well I cannot or will not give it to them.

Conferences make it easy for literary agents; they take the hustle out of finding clients. An agent meets dozens of hungry would-be authors from which to choose. Any one of these could be the next breakout novel, memoir, or business book. So why does she look like she’d rather be anywhere else but here?

I know when the prospects are weak it can feel like the event is a waste of time. Literary conferences are full of wannabes. And wannabes can be exhausting. So many agents approach writers as if we are all the same: interchangeable dreamers with unrealistic expectations and limited knowledge of how the publishing industry works.

As a business owner, I recognize the signs of good networking and relationship building. When I interact with literary agents, I no longer think about whether they will like me or my book. (Last weekend I didn’t even tell anyone I wrote a book.) I watch how they listen to the stories people tell them, how they encourage and relate to the writers around them.

All industries’ bad habits are perpetuated by those who accept stereotypes, generalizations, and “the way things are.” Truly gifted entrepreneurs, agents, and sales people forge relationships that create meaningful connections with other human beings. Person-to-person, not Wish Granting Agent to Wannabe Writer, or Persistent Writer to Stubborn New York Agent. Just people telling stories, listening and connecting, and maybe doing business together.

It would be refreshing to meet an agent who didn’t have that fear in her eye that I might pitch her my book. Someone who just said, “Oh, you’re a writer? That’s great.” And then, “So where are you from?”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Conferences and Festivals

By Bonnie Stanard

This weekend our parent organization (SC Writers Association) is holding the “Big Dream” conference at Pawleys Island, SC. It is a revival of the annual conference we used to have at Myrtle Beach. Because of a schedule conflict (I’ll be signing books at the Lexington County Museum Friday night), I won’t be at the conference, but I hope this event will return in 2018 with opportunities for writers to network as well as improve their craft.

Writer conferences have begun to fill a growing need. They provide guidance for writers who increasingly do the work of publishing houses, from formatting books to promoting themselves. As writers self-publish in increasing numbers (790,000 books in 2016), one source of support on the road to professionalism is the collective advice of other writers as found in conferences. At the same time, small publishing houses use conferences to market their services and connect with possible clients.

Unlike writer conferences, these target the reading public and, at least in my experience, are less successful. The reading public doesn’t show up in numbers for festivals held in libraries or venues where authors sit at tables and hawk their novels. Even the most engaging display doesn’t translate into book sales.

If it’s true that authors sell books (not publishers), then I’d like to see book festivals do more to feature authors (and I don’t mean add more “readings.”) Why not put authors on a stage for three minutes of spotlight? Or broadcast interviews of authors? Or feature genre lunches with select visitors sitting with authors?

Numerous book festivals and writer conferences are within driving distance of Columbia. I hope I have excluded those that limit participation to select authors. As far as I can tell, these are annual events. If a 2018 date hasn’t been provided, the plans may still be in the making.

The Deckle Edge Literary Festival is relatively new to Columbia, SC and features events for “lovers of the written word.” It was held February 24-26, 2017. Hopes are high that it will fill the void left when the SC Book Festival closed down several years ago. The 2018 date hasn’t been posted, so check the website for updates.

Writing in Place has served writers for 16 years. Held in the summer on the campus of Wofford College (Spartanburg, SC), it draws prominent writers to lead workshops. Lodging is usually available in a Wofford College dormitory for $35 a night.


Carolina Mountains Literary Festival is scheduled for September 6-8, 2018. It’s home is Burnsville, NC, which is about 36 miles north of Asheville. Wish I had attended these presentations in 2017—Apocalypse Now; Finding Stories in Your Backyard; Merging of Literary and Genre Fiction.

NC Writers Network’s Fall Conference at Wrightsville Beach (215 miles from Columbia) November 3-5 is upon us. Events include the usual readings and genre workshops with manuscript critiques by editors or agents. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on this group, which has been producing three annual conferences.

The Writers’ Workshop of Asheville, NC offers a bi-annual writers retreat, the most recent one held at Folly Beach, SC on October 5-8, 2017. Though no events are currently listed, check the website for upcoming workshops. 

Book ‘Em North Carolina supports authors with presentations, writing workshops, and a sales venue. At its September 23, 2017 event at Robeson Community College in Lumberton, you could rent half a table for $50.


The Berry Fleming Book Festival is held at Augusta University in Georgia (75 miles from Columbia). I attended the September 23, 2017 Festival and found the presentations informative. There’s no cost unless you rent a table, and it’s open to the public.

Milton Literary Festival’s panel discussions and workshops will be held in a couple of weeks (Saturday, November 11) at Milton City Hall. I like its “Book an Author” event, described as a fast-paced session in which 15 authors will pitch their work for three-minutes. Milton is located 37 miles north of Atlanta, 232 miles from Columbia.

The Red Clay Writers Conference is also coming up in November (the 18th) at KSU Center in Kennesaw, Georgia (also located north of Atlanta, 242 miles from Columbia) It is organized by the Georgia Writers Association. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Science Fiction

By Laura P. Valtorta
Oryx and Crake, written by Margaret Atwood, is the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. The other books are The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. All of Atwood’s futuristic fiction, including The Handmaid’s Tale, is based on actual events, scientific discoveries, or articles in the newspaper. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on a religious cult in New England that was incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s. The women in the cult wore funny get-ups and were unusually subservient to men. The Heart Goes Last is a comedy based on a for-profit prison system, such as we often have in the U.S. and Canada.

I read Oryx and Crake aloud to Marco as we drove to Syracuse, NY last winter. One of the main scientific experiments gone wrong in that trilogy involves a group of animals – “pigoons” – used to create human organs. The altered pigs begin to take on human intelligence.

As we were driving, a biologist came on the radio explaining rapturously about his experiments to create human organs using pigs as the hosts. Marco and I looked at each other. We laughed. But how funny was this? I knew that Atwood read scientific journals as she was writing her fiction. Her father was a scientist.

Atwood’s purpose, as she explains in a recent New Yorker article, is not to sway the reader’s opinion about what is happening to the world, but to point out what is happening in science and modern economy. She says that the reader’s opinion is what counts. Yet her books (some of the best writing around) definitely express an opinion against the controlling nature of corporations. Her characters suffer because of environmental pollution. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the reason that some women are enslaved is that they are fertile; the falling birthrate, brought about by overwhelming levels of pollution, turns people against one another.

It’s difficult to read Oryx and Crake and not walk away with a hatred for large corporations. Atwood’s mistrust of them is obvious as she paints a world in which profit, and the levels of society controlled by corporations, become more important than human life and the health of the earth itself. MaddAddam, Oryx, and Crake are human beings, intelligent and exploited, who react to the evil around them. That evil comes from corporations. Atwood makes this clear.

Atwood is the god of her fictional universe, whether or not she cares to admit her power.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Lynda Maschek has had a lifelong dedication to promoting healthy lifestyles which fueled her decision to become a Licensed/Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist. She earned her Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Food and Nutrition from Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. Lynda is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well the American College of Sports Medicine. She has been recognized as a professional wellness practitioner for over 12 years. Now Lynda has begun writing articles for nutrition, yoga, exercise and wellness publications.

Lynda is married and has two adult children living in Charleston, SC.

Lynda's first post on this page follows.

Trust Your Gut to Get Out of Writer’s Block

By Lynda Maschek

I could fill a book with everything I do NOT know about writing. Methodology, creative license, and how to create compelling characters are all concepts I have yet to learn. 

There is one thing I DO know about writing: The dreaded Writer’s Block. I get writer’s block just writing a note to my paper boy. I have theories, though, on how to bust out of this depressing trough. We can take positive action to break through instead of wallowing and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for the next best idea, phrase or plot twist to magically appear.

The Ancients believed that our belly was our brain, where all thinking and guidance came from, hence the term “gut instinct.” In my experience, the solution to writer’s block does lie within our gut. Here are a few strategies that effectively mobilize this belly-brain connection:

1.      Physically activating abdominal muscles, will increase overall blood flow and circulation throughout the body, thereby sending additional oxygen to the brain. Oxygen to the brain increases mental acuity and alertness. If you are not ready to throw yourself on the floor and cop some crunches for your literary art, then stay in your chair and perform what is known as, isometric ab crunches. Do this by sitting up straight and focusing on the action of inwardly pulling the belly button to the spine, and then releasing. Pull the belly button in again, and release.  Do this about 20x. Or 200x.  Your brain will thank you.
 2.      Keep a strong core. In yoga philosophy, the belly region is regarded as the Driver, the Motivator, the “get-up-get-going-I-can-do-anything,” region of the body. The navel area is what drives us forward when we know we are on the right track and supplies the instinct we need to rethink or back off our set agenda. When our abdominal area is strong, we feel strong and in control with super confidence. If our core is under-active or under-used, we may become passive and indecisive about what should be the flow and direction of our writing.
 3.      Feed your gut with nutrients that will support your brain’s performance. Increasing foods that are rich in probiotics will enhance the quality and quantity of gut micro-biomes, (the good bacterium in our digestive tract,) which are essential for boosting brain power and mental endurance. An optimal diet, loaded with fruits and vegetables, has been shown to influence mental acuity as well as mental health. Improving the quality of our diet may reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression that can be associated to the frustration of writer’s block.
So Buckle-Up Buckaroos, because the unbridled awesomeness of your literary talent lies just behind your belt. Writers, authors and novelists who make an effort to tighten their core muscles and spend some time in the produce section at the grocer, will be the first horses out of the gates of Writers Block Hell. Bet on it.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Writing a Memoir

By Sharon May

Is it egotistical to write a memoir when I’ve done nothing to be famous for or nothing of importance for the world? I suppose it is. But all writers are egotistical in a way. We believe we have something important to say and can say it in a unique fashion.

Let’s be clear. I am not writing an autobiography. To me, that means the record of someone’s life from birth to the point of writing the autobiography in order to reveal something about himself or herself that the world should know in order to understand that person’s life and accomplishments. Famous and infamous people write autobiographies. defines a memoir as “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.” The memoir reveals the writer’s personal life but not all of his or her life, only those in the context of an event or series of events. These events reveal the universal struggles of humans through the personal struggles of the writer.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking focuses on the death of her husband but is about loss and one’s reaction to it. In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Stryon brings to light the struggles of depression and the road to recovery. Appalachian writer Lee Smith’s Dimestore: A Writer’s Life focuses on loss with the death of her son, Josh, who suffered from mental illness but died because of the medication he took, and with her struggles as a writer. 

So what do I hope to achieve in my memoir? A better understanding of growing up Appalachian, the despair of mental illness and challenges of finding the medications that control the disease, the despair of an unwanted pregnancy and the process of having an abortion, the power of family relationships that forever bind me to Appalachia. That may be a lot to introduce, but these events are so closely related that one cannot be fully understood without the others.

Until my mother has passed on, the memoir will be unpublished though I may try to have shorter pieces published. My mother has requested I not reveal the details surrounding my birth until she has died. I respect or fear my mother enough to keep that promise. In the meantime, I will share my memoir in workshop and among friends so that I may improve my craft.

We have all heard people who do not write say “I should write a book about my life.” We writers usually scoff at their pronouncement. I usually don’t scoff, but I do encourage them to find a writer to help them capture their story because I believe most people have a memoir in them even though they may be thinking of an autobiography.

What would your memoir reveal about you?  What universal truths would we find in your story?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Five Questions to Ask Before Writing a Funeral

By Kasie Whitener

The cemetery sloped. They dug the grave into the side of a hill and the apparatus that would lower Aunt Carolyn into the earth leaned left-to-right. The crooked casket held our straight-laced and tightly buttoned spinster aunt. She had a concert musician’s posture and a strict moral compass. Her faith had been true and unwavering for decades. But the site of her final ceremony had a slant like a crooked wig. The kind of hill you only notice if you’re pushing something up it or balancing a casket on it.

She had been sick for a while. Death was a relief. When we staggered toward the mortuary’s tent, we were not exactly grief stricken as much as gravity challenged.

Funerals are trite. The death ritual is a cultural standard, one that in its familiarity provides comfort and closure.

But fiction writers cannot afford to be trite. Each page in a novel or short story must have economy. It must move the plot forward, reveal characters’ intent, or complicate the hero’s journey.

Writers must build action into every scene. How are things different after the scene occurs? In that respect, funerals are easy. The action is inherent. Before the scene, someone was dead. After the scene, that person is buried.

The rituals of death make the scenery, props, costumes, and sounds predictable: outdoors or in a church, flowers and caskets, black suits and dresses, and sniffling mourners or contemplative hymns. Writing about funerals requires the writer to be even more creative because we already know what the scene will entail.

If there’s a funeral in your story, try answering five key questions:

First, does the funeral scene need to be told? If the story can survive on the before and after, then skip it. Many writers do just that.

Second, what details can be used to make the scene unique? High heeled shoes sink in cemetery soil, for example. Better to go with sensible flats or wedges graveside.

Third, how does the main character behave? People tend to behave the way they think they should at a funeral, not in their genuine character habits. Use the main character’s habits to add fresh action to the scene.

Fourth, what would disrupt the balance of the ritual? A drone flies overhead, its buzzing pulling people’s eyes, its camera curious and invasive like flying paparazzi.

Fifth, how have the relationships shifted because of the shared, or not shared, experience of the funeral? Did someone laugh? Who disrupted the dignity of the proceedings and how did the others respond?

Making trite scenes fresh takes intention. Write the boring, typical scene first and then, during revision, disrupt the scene with unexpected details and action. Let people be free in your fictional funeral; their unexpected absurdity will make the scene better.

A writer that finds contrasting details at a funeral makes it familiar and unique at the same time like the last slanted above-ground moments of our very straight Aunt Carolyn.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Writing Process

By Sharon May

Textbooks describe writing as both a linear yet recursive process. They give activities for researching, prewriting, planning, drafting, revising, editing, publishing, and proofreading. Of course, don’t forget to pay attention to audience, purpose, and style along the way. This looks like such a clean process, like a paint-by-numbers kit, but beginning writers learn quickly that the process often brings more chaos than direction. Writers do all of this even though textbooks don’t describe anyone’s actual process.

The classroom setting further makes the writing process unreal for beginners. Writers don’t sit in uncomfortable, undersized desks arranged in rows filled with other struggling writers. Teachers usually demand silence, although it is broken by pencil sharpeners, shuffling through book bags, crumpling of pieces of paper deemed useless, and the occasional sigh or groan.

Beginning writers want the process to be easy like the textbook describes. They envision “real” writers following these steps and producing the finished product in one sitting and in one draft. These beginning believe in their frustration that they aren’t real writers because they have to keep revising.

If they only believed me when I explain how many pages and versions the authors probably wrote to produce the textbook. If they only believed me when explain that they have to find a process that works for them using the toolkit provided. And many times that process will have steps no one else does.
Let’s admit it. All writers have quirks that drive their process. Some have favorite places to write – a coffee shop or library. One of my groups in a reading class produced their papers in a McDonalds. I knew a writer who sat in his car in a parking lot far from home because he had to be alone without the chance of interruption.

Some prefer the predawn dark, either because they’ve stayed up all night or just gotten up. This is the only productive time for many female writers with children. Some need background noise, which is why I let my beginning writers use their IPhones.  

Quirks get quirkier when trying to solve writing problems. I have a colleague who writes a sentence or two and then paces around the room until the next sentence comes. A poet friend shuts down his Mac, and rolls a sheet of paper into one of his many collected manual typewriters because he loves the clanking of the keys capturing his poem. Another colleague wrote her Masters’ thesis on sticky notes that decorated her walls for months. If I’m stuck, I leave the computer, lie down on the couch, stare at the ceiling, and concentrate on the characters and what they would say or do.

Take a few minutes to examine your process and quirks. Learn to appreciate them and be thankful you found what works as you weave your way through the chaos of trying to say what you think, feel, and imagine in ways never been written before. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

On Seeing People

By Olga Agafonova

Over the last couple of weeks, I spent some time reading about nuclear warfare – the escalation of tensions with North Korea first gave me anxiety and then an idea about a short story. I needed to know what happens in the first few minutes after the detonation of an A bomb.

Michie Hattori’s first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki is as harrowing as one would expect but it’s not the descriptions of death and suffering that struck me the most.  After the war ended, Michie studies English and ends up marrying an American attorney. Here is what she says about her relationship:

“ […] His work took him all over Texas and to surrounding states. I found myself more and more left at home when he traveled. His circle of American friends seldom included me.
One day, after seven years of matrimony, he presented me with divorce papers, saying our marriage had been a mistake. […] ”

Our marriage had been a mistake. After plucking out the girl from Japan and bringing her over to the U.S., half a world away from everything she knows, this guy decides it isn’t going to work out after all.  To me, this passage means that Michie’s husband never took the time to understand who Michie was. It’s deeply disturbing how commonplace this is – it is as if we collectively don’t care to get to know each other well enough to see the complexity of each other’s lives.

As writers, we don’t get to say that men are ultimately unknowable and leave it at that.  We try to get better at reading people so that we can create engaging, persuasive literature, fiction or non-fiction.

In 2012 Andrew Solomon released Far From The Tree, a book remarkable for its candor. He wrote about children who are different from their parents: some were gay, others disabled, yet others prodigies and so on.  I was surprised that Solomon managed to get to the essence of these relationships – the gifted children who resented their parents for their explicitly conditional love; the parents of severely disabled children who resented the kids for changing their lives forever.

Solomon took the time to listen to the stories that these people told. All of the narratives included in the book are multi-dimensional – not one descends into sentimentality and platitudes about overcoming challenges in the face of adversity. There is no “putting on a happy face” here: people tell Solomon what they think and feel and it is often not pretty.

I can’t think of another way to learn to see people for who they are except to talk to them. To talk to them about the stuff that matters: the fear of death or poverty, the loneliness of parenting, the unhappy marriages, the disappointing adult children. The effort we make in reaching out and understanding someone is bound to pay off not just in better writing but in being better humans.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Writing Film Reviews

By Laura P. Valtorta

Attending film festivals means watching films – a lot of films – some good, some terrible. Reviewing these films would be like riding a roller coaster, even if we were not subjected to “talk-backs” with the directors afterwards. Better not to meet them. These people can be jerks. Or the director of a stinky film can come across as pleasant. The personality of the artist is an inaccurate measure of the quality of art he or she produces.

Woody Allen is an excellent example. He’s made some major mistakes in his life.
Yet, Deconstructing Harry, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Annie Hall are some of the most influential and well-loved films ever.

This weekend, I watched several independent films at the Long Beach Indie Film & Music Festival ( and tried to jot down reviews.

Nowhere Michigan was a feature drama about cooking meth in a small town. Granted, the subject matter was old and overheated, but good acting and clever casting saved the day. I enjoyed the gross, funny caricatures among the meth dealers and the townspeople. Unfortunately, the director was a prick: very self-satisfied and congratulatory during the talk-back. If they keep that guy away from the public eye, his films might go somewhere.

“Naranja, the mini series” employed some rabid stereotypes to put across a couple of glaring messages: crime is oftentimes a set-up. Criminal suspects are unfairly profiled by police. Duh. The director, Martin Barshai, could have employed more subtlety, but his actors were talented.  Also, Martin came across as a nice guy, willing to listen – to a degree. He receives a semi-positive review.

Sometimes I got side-swiped by famous actors in the credits. “Ingenue-ish” was a short narrative comedy about an L.A. actor sleeping around in order to advance her career. It was light and cute. The running joke was that the main character was an “ethnic mystery” because she was Asian with freckles. Apparently, no female actor in Hollywood gets cast based on her talent. (But what about Brenda Blethyn and Meryl Streep?) When I realized that the director was John Stamos, I became more interested. This means I’m just as much of a sell-out as anybody in the film.

Films about sports included Touch Gloves about a boxing gym in Massachusetts. It was so much like my own film, White Rock Boxing, that I’m guessing the director must have seen my work, which came out in 2013 and appeared on public television. The director wasn’t present. Otherwise, I might have punched him.

The best film (besides my own, “Water Women,”) I saw was a complete surprise: Robert Shaw, Man of Many Talents, directed by Peter Miller. This was the biography of an unschooled orchestra conductor and choral leader who became very popular in the 1940s through the end of the century. He headed the Atlanta Orchestra and was instrumental in integrating orchestras and choruses. Loved the film. No director in sight to spoil the effect.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Thin Plot

By Bonnie Stanard

As I’ve been reading the novel Empire Falls, I wonder how author Richard Russo keeps me hooked on a story in which only ordinary characters go about their ordinary lives. Isn’t that a formula for a ho-hum book? The plot revolves around the manager of a diner in Empire Falls, an economically depressed town in Maine. You can read pages in which hardly anything happens but that’s not to say it’s boring. To the contrary, it’s engrossing. It reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another novel that showplaces the ordinary. In that case, I surprised myself by continuing to read it to the end.

If you Google “plot” you’ll get lists of the many types (as many as 36 listed by Jerry Flattum), but you won’t find a type such as “ordinary-day” or “slice-of-life.” However, this plot was proved viable in 1922 when James Joyce wrote the classic Ulysses (which lives up to Mark Twain’s definition of a classic). Essentially, Joyce wrote about an average day in the life of Leonard Bloom. How did Joyce recount mundane events in a way that created a significant novel?

Most of us live ordinary lives, but at times, a person or situation may affect us in such a way that we need to put our thoughts in writing. It’s not unusual for workshop writers to bring fictionalized accounts of events that impress them. I’ve written such stories myself, in an effort to recapture something meaningful to me. Or to pass along to others something I think is valuable. Even as I’ve read these stories in workshop, I’ve felt my own excitement, only to hear “ho-hum” from others.

Once I responded to an agent’s criticism with “But that’s the way it was.” My story was pure reality, delivered with my tears and laughter. And I thought it was worth telling. However the agent answered with, “Just because it’s true doesn’t make it interesting.” After reading manuscripts for years in our workshop, I understand. In fact, I’ve appropriated her comment in critiquing other writings.

A strong component of ordinary is predictable. That is to say, our everyday life, by its very nature, is predictable for the most part. And when we are formulating a slice-of-life story, predictability is already there, a toxic part of the plot. Even though Empire Falls is ordinary, it’s not predictable. Russo has an eye for the elusive, a way of seeing what the rest of us don’t.

I think another aspect of success with a slice-of-life plot is the author’s ability to convince us that we care about what happens. The writing of Jonathan Franzen is a good example. He is fascinated by his subjects. There is a tone, an author’s voice, that is nagging us on. Between the words, he’s telling us this is something we can’t miss. This is important.

Though Russo’s novel is short on plot, it is strong on characters. However, the central figure, Miles Roby, doesn’t provoke excitement in the usual sense, nor is he controversial. In fact, he’s a really nice guy, adores his daughter, tolerates an abusive father, and hopes for the best for his soon to be ex-wife. Now how does Russo make this milquetoast an engaging protagonist?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

First-Book Jitters

By Rex Hurst

As I’m sitting writing this blog entry, my first novel is being uploaded onto Amazon. Now this isn’t the first book I’ve sold, that one being a particularly foul epistle on a serial killer from the murderer’s point of view, but as the publisher has been reluctant to return my emails, I’m counting this as my first. And of course I’m thinking what next?

All of my energy and focus and drive went into creating a modern masterpiece of aliens shooting each other, I gave no thought (or very, very little thought to be accurate) as to what the hell I do next. As the late, great John Mortimer once wrote to me, (I’m paraphrasing here) “writing the book is the easy part, then you have to get people to want it.”

How do you do that?

Well, writing a great description for the back of the book is a good start. I have now written and rewritten it half a dozen times. How to make it interesting, but not generic. Unique, yet also fit into the category the reader is searching for.

“Time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions,” as T.S. Elliot put it.

“A forced-grown Gen-Human, only three months from his decanting bottle, is shanghaied by a sadistic pirate clan.”

How’s that for an opening line? Does it grab you?

And does the blurb matter? I’ve got a kick ass cover, put together by some very hungry Venezuelans. The cover, despite what anyone says, sells the book more than the blurb.  Am I wasting my time?

Then the practical bits. How do I advertise? Or, more importantly, where do I advertise? I’ve got cash for it, but I need to make sure that it doesn’t go down the tubes. Then there’s the process of buying the ISBN number, the bar code, registering the copyright claim, having a print run of the books, getting an author’s website up, going to conventions, having a banner made for myself, getting magnets and t-shirts and miscellaneous crapola all put together.

(I met an indie comic books artist recently who makes more on the fridge magnets and stickers of his comic than he does off of the book itself).

Still that’s neither here nor there.

All of these tensions, all of these potential problems, aren’t going to stop me from hitting that fateful button “publish.”

And here we go.