Sunday, October 25, 2020

THE DETAILS ARE IN THE DIALOGUE

By El Ochiis

When critics read my writing, they comment that it reads like a television or movie script.  Both genres use dialogue judiciously. What’s most interesting is that I didn’t have a television growing up – I did have an imagination that produced a lot of imaginary characters.  Though conversations between people appear to be a natural to me, I still rely on some key tools to write good dialogue:

1. Keep characters completely unenlightened

One book that every writer of fiction should read is Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. His advice equally applies to actors and writers.  Shurtleff observed that actors often play a scene as if they know the scene’s ending beforehand. For example, at the climax of one particular scene of a Tennessee Williams’ play, an insane person puts out a cigarette in the palm of the hand of the nurse who’s trying to help her.  But the nurse, according to Shurtleff, wrongly played the whole scene as if she didn’t like the patient.  Shurtleff told the actress: “If you treat the patient really nicely and kindly throughout the scene, and you show the audience you like her, and you’re trying to help her, it’s a thousand times more powerful if she then turns around and puts that cigarette out in your palm.”  That makes a lot of sense.  If you know the how the scene will end before you start to write it, don’t let your character act and speak as if they know where it’s going.  Preserve surprise and the scene will be much more efficacious.

         2. Become the Character

Amy Tan stated that her when she wrote dialogue, her technique was to stare at her shoes until she suddenly became the character.  I use a version of this; I pretend to be each of my characters whilst I drive – this is tricky because I wouldn’t want to be in the character of my villain when I order tea at Starbucks.

         3. Leave Transcripts for Court Reporters

Superb dialogue sometimes just happens, but most often, we have to sit there for a long time until we get exactly the right words we want.   At an audition, a director told me he’d deduct a hundred dollars from actors’ pay for each word they uttered that was not in the script.  As a writer, you aren’t in charge of getting down every single word the characters might say – you just have to report the dialogue that’s most important to the story.

         4. Make Every Word Count – Like You’re Being Charged for Them

Here’s the dialogue on the first page of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club:

[Mother:] “Auntie Lin cooked red bean soup for Joy Luck. I’m going to cook black bean sesame soup.”

[Daughter:] “Don’t show off.”

The daughter’s three little words tell us a lot about both characters:  1) the mother was trying to one-up Auntie Lin; 2) the relationship between mother and daughter is combative; and, 3) the nature of the daughter who’s hard - she isn’t always nice.  So, when the mother comes back with this retort: “It’s not showoff.”  We know the mother is hurt, we also know that the spelling means the speaker’s first language is not English – “showoff” instead of “show off”.  Use dialogue to provide the evidence of who your characters are and let the reader draw the conclusion.

         5. Read Your Dialogue Aloud, into a Tape Recorder

When you speak your own dialogue, you suddenly know which lines need attention and which lines are fine.

 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

BREAKING WRITER’S BLOCK


By Sharon May

Writer’s block is one’s inability to move to the next phase of the process. The writer is stuck. Is it a mental or emotional problem? Really doesn’t matter unless we believe deep analysis will fix it. By the way, it may help but it won’t cure us. Actions help us break though the block. 

Remember that job you hated? Did you ever get blocked while at work and unable to perform the next action regardless of what was going on in your mind? Probably not. We turn on auto-pilot and do our best. 

Auto-pilot and acting as a writer break a block. If you have a writing routine, you need to follow it, and if not, create one, at least temporarily. Routines are important because they train us to respond in a certain way. In this case, we start to write despite ourselves. 

Whether I produce words or not on a given day, I follow my routine. Hygiene, breakfast, set goals over a glass of unsweetened tea, go to the office, sit at the computer, and type. Something. It really doesn’t matter what during the first few attempts to break through to good writing. Just keep writing. If you can’t write at that moment, maybe it’s time to organize your pens. Any mindless task will help prepare for writing. 

Most writers try to avoid writing when they are blocked. That’s like trying to learn how to play the drums without ever touching the drums. Others wait on the muse to provide them with magical writing that doesn’t require revision, editing, or the hard work required for good writing. We all need and have a writer’s toolbox to rely on when the muse isn’t cooperating. The tools writers use include everything from reading to writing exercises to brainstorming with other writers. 

The longer writer’s block goes the more writers doubt their talent. This is when we need to separate skill from talent, and focus on practicing skills as you draft. Apply your talent in revision and editing. 

When stuck, writers want it to be a linear process. At times we have to think in other geometric forms – circles and spirals are good. Draft a character study. Plot out the end though you are miles away from it. Such plans are not set in stone. They are goals. Sometimes they get replaced by better plans along the way to the end. 

A key to overcoming a block is accepting what words do come. Maybe it’s an idea for a new story, not the novel you have been working on for years. Don’t fear, taking a respite from a project is good, giving the mind time to incubate and resolve issues. You will be re-energized to come back to the earlier project. 

The worst idea for curing writer’s block is to stop writing. Sometimes you have to spew garbage to purge the system. A block can lead to renewal if you don’t let it destroy you.  

 

 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

NOT a FLASH in the PAN

By Raegan Teller

The first time I read flash fiction, I immediately thought of my much-older brother, who was a professional photographer. When I was a young child, I watched him take shots with a large camera that used a flash bulb. It would light up the room and capture a brief, but meaningful, moment in time. That’s how I view flash fiction.

In recent years, short-short stories have been called micro fiction, sudden fiction, and other names. James Thomas titled his 1992 anthology, Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, because his editor said his stories were flash fiction that would fit on two facing pages of a literary magazine. Thomas is thus credited with the term that later became accepted usage. Of course, the form itself existed long before then. Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” was written in the 1920s on a dare to pen a story using as few words as possible. He insisted that using the minimum number of words was the way to achieve maximum effect.

Today’s flash fiction is typically 1000 words or less, although some say 1500 or even 2000 words is the cap. Flash fiction is having a moment now, so mediocre flash fiction abounds. Excellent flash fiction is scarcer because it’s difficult to write. As in poetry, every word must pull its load. Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” This is particularly true of flash fiction. An English professor once told me that the most important decision you’ll make writing short stories is where to begin. The literature technique “in medias res,” meaning to start in the middle of the action, is particularly relevant to flash fiction. You must also become comfortable with leaving things out. What you don’t say can be more powerful than what you do say. This approach engages readers to use their own imagination to fill in the gaps and is part of the appeal of flash fiction.

The discipline and skill required to write flash fiction is great training for new and experienced writers. George R. R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, recommends all writers begin with short fiction rather than jumping into a novel-length project.

Somehow, I missed Martin’s advice and began my fiction career writing mystery novels, although I did write a decent number of short stories in college. However, in the past few years, as a challenge to myself, I’ve been writing short stories and flash fiction to hone my skills. I can attest to the fact that writing in this brief format is a great way to learn or improve your craft.

Another plus for flash fiction is that it sells, although you probably won’t get rich. Keep in mind that your primary goal should be to build your writer’s brand and to showcase your skills with this unique form of storytelling that’s here to stay—not a flash in the pan.

 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

CRITICISMS THAT HAVE HELPED ME

 

By Bonnie Stanard

It’s been said that Virginia Wolfe couldn’t write a bad sentence. Good for her, but I’m talking about me and my writing. When I began to write, I eagerly showed up at workshop with expectations of glory. I was so pleased with what I had written that I expected praise. Needless to say, I was in for a rude awakening. Didn’t understand it? Vague? Confusing?

I left the workshop thinking my poem only needed to be understood, not improved. I took criticism as the fault of the critic. After I got to know the work of other writers in the workshop, it became obvious that I was a weed (and a green one at that) in a flower patch.

Not to give workshops all the credit, I’ve learned the importance of interpreting criticisms. Obviously you can’t and shouldn’t take to heart every suggestion in revising your work. At the same time that I listen to criticisms, I filter them. Therein lies the challenge of figuring out if you need to defend or rethink something you’ve written.

A good critique is honest and respectful. I like to think I can take even the most damaging comment as long as I believe the critic is trying to help me and in general has respect for my work.

 HELPFUL CRITICISM

Most importantly, it will address specific passages or words. I listen to these:

— Doesn’t ring true

— Repetitious

— Lacks suspense or lags

— Discrepancy in character or time or plot

— Derivative, unoriginal (been done before)

— Weak construction (passive voice/cliché/wordy)

 

UNHELPFUL CRITICISM

I do not want to provide a guide for responses. That’s why questions to me about the work I’ve submitted are unhelpful. I’m not in workshop to explain what I’ve written. I’m there to get reactions. These comments may be honestly delivered, but how will they help me improve my writing?

— Questions about my motive for writing it

— Generalities like “slow,” or “great!”

— Weak/poor concept

— Suggestions about how to fix it (don’t assume I’m going to)

“Just don’t get it” is unhelpful if referencing a story or poem, but it can be helpful if said about a sentence.

Worse than unhelpful criticism is no criticism. If the room falls silent after I’ve read, I have to think my work has generated so little interest nobody cares enough to find fault with it.

If you go home at the end of workshop thinking your writing needs no improvement, maybe you’re a Virginia Wolfe. Or maybe you weren’t listening. Or maybe the criticisms were weak. Some people think it’s kind to say only good things in workshop without realizing they’re doing their fellow writers a disservice. Some criticisms that have upset me in workshop have turned out to be good advice once I’ve had time to think about them.

I’m not inviting my fellow writers to take shots at my work at the next workshop, but I look forward to being there and to hearing what they have to say about whatever I’ve written.

 

 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

I HAVE an IDEA for a STORY!


By Sharon May
 

We hear (or say) that all the time. Just what we’ve been looking for. We savor the moment, and then realize someone else already used it. How can we put a twist on a common plot line and make a story like no other? Don’t want to waste ideas. Some writers say we can run out of ideas.

 Where do they come from? Some writers swear their muse takes care of that task. Others keep scraps of ideas stuck in books and corners of desks. Just in case the muse is on vacation, I like believing there are sources for us to mine.

The perceived world around us is one source. We hear bits of conversations and want the whole story. We see someone whose image sticks with us, and becomes a character. We smell Grandma’s house though it’s long gone. We touch a lover and remember others. We take a bite of an exquisite dessert and taste the individual ingredients.

 The imagination is the mind at work. We dream, create things that may or may not exist in the exterior world. We mull over and examine a thought or image from every angle. We toy with this and that until we can articulate an idea.

 The most amazing source is the soul, where ideas haunt us until they are through with us. The soul’s ideas that must be written and is often a story only we can tell. You know the one – it’s that novel that you spent most of your life writing.

Getting an idea is only the beginning. Ideas have to be expanded into plots, characters, settings, dialogue, conflicts, themes. The story has to be built the same way a house comes out of a design.

What happens when the idea grows away from us and we lose control? I wrote a 4-page story last year on an idea I got from a real-life incident of a package which contained a child’s gift being stolen out of a car and then given to the thief’s son for his birthday. I thought it finished but the idea wouldn’t be quiet.

I began revising it, filling in the gaps and discovering lots about the characters and their relationship. Suddenly the boy’s mom appeared. I had thought her long gone if not dead. At first, she led me to believe she would die from a drug overdose. She had plans of her own. Sixteen pages later, I’m still revising by letting the characters and plot evolve without my interference. The thief still gives the boy the stolen gift as in the original, but that’s the only similarity.

Sometimes when we are stymied, it may well be that we are trying to control the story and characters too much. We may have to give up micro-managing, and let the idea expand into the story it wants to tell.

 

 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

FACTS, NONFICTION, and CREATIVE NONFICTION


By Ruth P. Saunders

Creative nonfiction is factually based, and in contrast to other styles of nonfiction, should  engage the reader through description of the setting and use of a literary tone. “Pure” nonfiction, if it exists, presents only facts in a scholarly manner. Both entail research and do not invent, add, or deceive.

To make the distinction more concrete, below is an excerpt from one of my creative nonfiction stories, “Driven to Distraction.” It is about a family driving lesson I had in my teens.

Creative Nonfiction:

On that warm Sunday morning, I sat self-consciously behind the wheel. Daddy was in the passenger seat, and Momma was in the back with my brother and sister. Before the car was in motion, Daddy and Momma braced their bodies as though they were preparing for the impact of an imminent crash. My sister and brother were more relaxed and looking forward to some entertainment at the expense of their older sister on the way to church. I took a deep breath.

With rising pitch and sense of annoyance Daddy exclaimed, “Turn if you are going to turn. Get on the road!” A sibling echoed, “Yeah, don’t go so slow!”

I speeded up.

Momma pleaded, “Not so fast. Slow down!” A sibling repeated, “Yeah, slow down!”

I slowed down.

Momma: “Not that slow—you have to drive.” A sibling restated, “Yeah, go faster!”

 

Below the same information is written in an academic nonfiction form for this blog.

Nonfiction:

I sat in the driver’s seat, Daddy sat in the passenger seat, and Momma and my siblings were in the back. My parents, but not my siblings, appeared to be tense at the outset of the journey to church.

With obvious emotion in their voices, each member of the family provided often contradictory instructions for how I should drive.

 

The original is told in the tone of a story, includes contextual details revealing the perspective of the writer, and is designed to engage the reader. The second version uses an academic style, removes most contextual information, and is more likely to be described as “objective.” Both versions portray the same event. Facts were recalled from my memory, which is fallible, but were verified with my sister and brother, who shared the experience. So far, the first version follows creative nonfiction “rules.”

 

But what about “do not invent, add, or deceive?” There was no deception, and nothing was added to my recollection of the event, but the story dialog was invented because details of the conversation were lost from memory over time.

 

The standard guiding my writing was “to stay true to my authentic self and experiences.”  I believe this story meets that standard. But, having only fragments of memory to work with, I created the dialogue presented in this story. Does this invention violate a tenet of creative nonfiction? Or it a justifiable use of literary style to enhance readability?

 

 

Sources comparing nonfiction and creative nonfiction:

https://www.donnajanellbowman.com/2010/08/25/nonfiction-vs-creative-nonfiction-vs-historical-fiction/

https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/line-between-fact-and-fiction

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_nonfiction

Sunday, September 13, 2020

A SOLUTION TO WRITER’S BLOCK MIGHT BE FOUND IN THE POWER OF MUSIC


b
y El Ochiis

I had had a traumatic experience as a young college student, one that drastically impacted my writing life. For some time, I was unable to sit down at a typewriter or computer and write with the voraciousness that I had written throughout high school. Until, I discovered a piece of music that rekindled my creativity. I had always stood in veneration of: blues, opera, jazz, classical and blues rock. John Lee Hooker, Rosetta Thorpe and BB King helped me practice guitar licks; Vivaldi’s Four Seasons picked me up; Les McCain, Eddie Harris and Nina Simone infused a desire to travel - to Switzerland – just to see them on stage; Beethoven’s Concerto in D Major made me think; Pavarotti’s "Nessum Dorma" transported me to another galaxy.

 

That painful experience, which stifled my writing, was assuaged by Aretha Franklin’s gifted voice and astute piano virtuoso. Aretha sang a song called “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.”  When Aretha’s song ended, I had written the beginnings of a powerful, short story, based on that horrific incident; this piece of prose won several awards and I started writing, again, with avidity – thanks to a woman who could play and belt out despondency, redemption and hope, faster than keys on a keyboard could make an impression.   

 

You see, artists borrow from each other:  Chuck Berry’s pianist, Johnnie Johnson, took some of his inspirational chords from Rachmaninoff. Few took Chuck literally when he “told Beethoven to roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news” – he was hinting to his listeners about the origin of his and Johnnie’s chords – their way.

 

It’s also my opinion that Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873-1877) was influenced by Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). For Tolstoy and Flaubert, the high arts of literature and music stood in a curious relationship to one another, at once securely comfortable and deeply uneasy – rather like a long-term marriage. I’ve spent my efforts trying to copy the storytelling style of both men. But, it was James Baldwin whose prose that I longed to emulate; Baldwin could turn a phrase like James Brown could sing lyrics whilst doing complicated splits. If you’ve ever played an instrument and sang at the same time, you’d know why James Brown had to be an extraterrestrial to be able to sing, and, to perform the way he did – no human could accomplish that.

 

This got me to thinking about prominent writers and what they had to say about the power of music. Susan Sontag stated: “Music is the best means we have of digesting time.” Igor Stravinsky once remarked (one that’s often misattributed to W.H. Auden). “Music is the sound wave of the soul.” Kurt Vonnegut wrote that music, above all else, “made being alive almost worthwhile” for him. Friedrich Nietzsche declared: “Without music life would be a mistake.”  Aldous Huxley wrote, “After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” So, next time you find yourself stuck, feeling like you can’t write another word, sentence or paragraph, don’t stress, "just take those old records off the self and listen to them by yourself." Aretha can tell you a story about two sisters, named Mary and Martha – if you’re not moved with inspiration, check your pulse.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

THE MAGICAL DAY KNOWN as #PITMAD


By Kasie Whitener
 

This past Thursday was #PitMad. Not sure what language that is? It’s Twitter speak and the “#” is called a “hashtag.” When put before a word or phrase, the hashtag connects tweets from unrelated users into a single conversation.

 

When we use the hashtag in a tweet, we are making our tweet visible to anyone who looks at the hashtag. This is as close as Twitter comes to a magic wand. If you’re watching a football game and go to Twitter to read tweets with the hashtag #CLEMvsOSU you’ll find conversations (tweets) about the NCAA playoff football game last December between Clemson and Ohio State University.

 

In the writing world, hashtags are used for a few different purposes: 1) to organize an event such as #wschat or #LitChat, 2) to identify genre such as #YA or relevant character groups such as #LGBTQ, and 3) to create communities of writers such as #WritingCommunity and #amwriting.

 

Writers are all over Twitter and for the most part, they’re friendly, supportive, and enthusiastic. During events like #PitMad, writers are given the chance to bridge the divide between their own wild ambition and the gatekeepers. Agents read #PitMad. Publishers troll #PitMad, too. (Troll like in the boating use of the word, not the hideous online bullying.)

 

Sponsored by PitchWars.org, the #PitMad event is a single day during which writers are encouraged to tweet the pitch for their manuscript complete with comparable titles and relevant hashtags. A few examples:

 

@Lydia_Writing tweeted:

Dee can't stop talking to her dead ex-boyfriend, Cam. When Cam's siblings recruit her to help clean out his apartment, she fears that grief might just be driving all of them mad. Little do they know that a messy apartment isn't the only thing Cam left behind. #PitMad #WF

 

@EvelynHail tweeted:

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE + LOST IN TRANSLATION Two commuters. Two trains. Iris and Evan randomly see each other through the ups and downs of a year, misunderstanding the other's gestures. Still, a bond forms. Once they realize it, time is running out. #pitmad #A #R #RS #HA

 

Lydia received 14 “likes” and Evelyn earned 20 and this is where #PitMad works its magic. Those “likes” – signified by a reader clicking the heart icon on the tweet – are supposed to be from Agents. Those agents are saying they want the writer to send them a query. Sometimes people who don’t know what #PitMad is will like the tweet, so that might not be 14 agents asking Lydia for a query, but it might be.

 

The regular querying rules apply and writers should visit the agent’s site get that query letter instruction. But #PitMad opens the door. It’s yet another channel for writers to reach agents who might be able to shepherd their work to publication.

 

I didn’t participate in #PitMad this week but I learned a lot: what agents want, what people are writing, and what makes a good pitch. Query on!

Sunday, August 30, 2020

DO AUTHORS LOVE AMAZON?

 


By Bonnie Stanard

 

Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it. Is a great relationship going bad?

 

We writers, ignored by NYC’s legacy publishers, fell for Amazon in a big way. It seduced us with promises of newfound horizons, priceless connections, and a way to publish our manuscripts. We could forget the painful past. Didn’t matter that agents and publishers refused to accept our queries. Nor, as it has turned out, did it matter whether or not we could write. Amazon arrived on the scene and gave us the means to publish and sell our books.

 

Last week several organizations delivered a letter to the chairman of the US House Antitrust Subcommittee asking the government to look into Amazon’s unfair business practices, which have resulted in its controlling as much as 50% of all book distribution. The letter is signed by organizations representing booksellers (think independent bookstores), publishers (the big and little guys), and writers (Authors Guild).

 

They have accused Amazon of:

1) below-cost pricing of books to squash competition

2) refusing distribution unless the supplier purchases advertising

3) requiring publishers to offer Amazon similar (or better) terms as any competitor

4) requiring publishers to restrict price discounts to consumers

5) steering customers to illegal sellers of counterfeit/unauthorized books

6) manipulating discovery tools to make books hard to find without purchase of ads

7) steering consumers toward Amazon's own products

 

We might ask, “What does this have to do with me? I don’t publish books. I don’t own a bookstore. I haven’t written a best seller.. or second best or third best. So what?” Only the writer with no expectation of reaching an audience has nothing to lose.

 

We may be tempted to say this letter is just sour grapes from the losers. Amazon has taken on the competition and out produced and out distributed books. Now the losers are appealing to the government for help.

 

Should the government curtail Amazon? Let’s consider another question. Where do you buy quality books? Not at a local bookstore. We know what’s happened to them. Online alternatives to Amazon? Wordery, Barnes & Noble, Powell, companies struggling to stay alive or hoping Amazon will buy them. What has happened to retail booksellers?

 

Do we writers have viable options to Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon) for self-publishing? There’s Apple, but if you go there, you have to figure out how to sell the book once it’s published. Amazon cleverly unites publishing with selling, a move that puts a squeeze on other print-on-demand (POD) publishers. In other words, those publishers survive by making a deal to distribute with Amazon. Which is what IngramSpark and bookbaby have done. Does this sound like a bottleneck to commercial traffic?

 

Regardless of how much Amazon has done for us writers, to suppose it can do no wrong is naive. Its position in the marketplace should be secured by innovations, not suppression of the competition. I like Amazon, but I don’t want to be forced to like it, whether to publish a book or buy a screwdriver.

 

 


 

 

  

Sunday, August 23, 2020

THE RUSH to PUBLISH

By Sharon May

To learn about using social media as a writer, I started following some writing groups on Facebook and Instagram. On one group, I noticed many questions from group members that make me wonder about their critical thinking and decision-making skills. I try not to be judgmental, but some of the questions make me shake my head.


“Where or how do I start?” This is usually accompanied by “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” Reminds me of my students who think writing is a magical, yet formulaic task. There is no one, simple answer for such questions. “It depends…” is the only way to start an honest answer. And beginners don’t find that response satisfying, preferring a standard, fill-in-the-blanks recipe.

 

Respondents to beginner questions really don’t have much of a grasp on the nuances of writing either. Just this morning, one writer said he had completed a plot outline, but wasn’t sure what to do next. Most respondents advised him to start at the beginning. Maybe that will work, maybe not. Depends once again.

 

Most of these exchanges reveal that many writers haven’t yet honed the craft. Being from Appalachia, I grew up around storytellers and I am talented one, but I have to learn to be a writer. We all come to the profession with some talents and ambition, but the majority of us have to work hard to get a good product ready for publication. For some of us, that takes years. I’ve seen many comments bragging about how few days it took to write a book as if writing were simply a race to publication.   


One Facebook commenter said she had finished her novel, and asked if she “had to edit.” Really? For the love of writing, you should edit unless you plan to publish a draft, which brings me to my next point. There is too much trash being published because for many, the lure of money and the thrill of being published are more important than the quality of the writing.


Many writers don’t spend the time doing the hard work. Instead, they want the words to leap magically from brain to screen. Sometimes the words may come like that, but rarely for an entire book. And, what if it did come that quickly? I would think you’d still need to edit. I know the “magic stuff” I wrote during my earlier attempts to become a writer is quite horrible. 


To finish a work, writers must read and research (By research, I don’t mean asking Facebook pals.), write and write some more, then revise and edit repeatedly. Even after all that work, there is usually more to be done if we want to be respected authors. 


If you plan to publish, you need to devote time and energy to the craft and make every effort to produce the best writing you can. You owe the reader that much. 


 

 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

DO THE WORK: TWO STRATEGIES FOR IMPROVED WRITING

By Jerry D Pate

 

In his Fiction Writing Master Class, William Cane encourages new writers to copy the styles of various writers until they find their own voice. He notes the practice is common in music and art, so why not writing?

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he notes, began playing together in 1957 performing songs done by other artists until they perfected their own style and songs; and were suddenly discovered six years later. They did the work.

Painters are encouraged to study and copy the works of others until their skills are honed. Writers could do the same.

Cane’s point in all of this is keep working at it.

I thought, Do the work.

A few years back I sat in on a class an English professor/instructor at UofSC opened to the public. The professor read various passages from a book and made comments.

After one reading she observed, “Here the author is using this as a metaphor for…”

I thought, Metaphor? Writers use metaphors?

The next day I was in the gym on a treadmill next to Pat Conroy’s brother and was still puzzled about the professor’s comment. I asked him if Pat ever said he was looking for a metaphor to use in one of his books.

He gave me a strange look. “Metaphor? He never asked about metaphors. Hell, when Pat was working on a project he would write and write until he came out the room and said, ‘I got three pages done today’.”

I thought, Maybe you just have to write to be able to write?

My own creative process at times gets stymied by the don’ts, do’s, and you musts of punctuation, grammar, voice, etc. Perhaps getting the story down first and worrying about the format later, might help.

But only if I’m willing to do the work. Writing is a process, not an event.


Resource:

To master the fundamentals of writing, try emulating the work of great artists – William Cane, Fiction Writing Master Class, Writers Digest, 2009, 2015.

ISBN-13:978-1-59963-916-1

 


 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

WHAT WORDS MEAN

 

We huddled around the table, shoulders hunched, our faces hovering over heaping plates of pad thai and panang curry. It wasn’t just any awkward silence we suffered through, it was the worst kind of awkward silence. It was the peculiar flavor of awkward silence that can only happen on a first date—and not the kind which is pregnant with tension and possibility, either. Oh no. This was the kind that follows the moment when you both kind of know that there’s not going to be a second date.

 

And this during the plague times, when even meeting had been a risk. Really, how had we gotten each other so wrong? 

 

Well, because we met online of course.

 

Text—which until this very day had been our only method of communication—just didn’t convey everything we needed it to. There are acres of context in a hello, a thousand tiny character details in the way a person smiles, a Wheel-of-Time-novel-sized-backstory hidden in whether a person’s tone rises or falls at the end of a statement. All these things and a billion more are accessible to us when we meet in person, or when we’re experiencing a scene in person, or when we’re listening to dialogue in person. 

 

The silence was loud, not because silence can really be loud, but because by some auditory trick, things that were normally quiet were yelling at us. The wood of chopsticks as they tap a plate, the quiet chewing, the sound of the air conditioner cutting off.

               

“The food’s good,” she said.

 

And it was. The panang curry was sweet with coconut milk and spicy with the touch of chili powder and the essence of the sliced green peppers which had been soaking in it. It was warm. The jasmine rice was nice and sticky. 

               

Our eyes met for a moment, both of us somehow communicating to the other that we knew this date should never have happened. There wasn’t much we could do, though, other than attempt to enjoy the company of a perfect stranger, a person we’ll never see again, as we ate.

 

“The spring rolls particularly,” I said.

 

She grunted a little because she agreed but couldn’t say so while she was chewing.

 

Interesting, isn’t it, that here we were, eating together because we weren’t better writers. Because we couldn’t convey to each other what we were like in text. And that’s the moral of the story, as if written by Aesop himself. It’s important to take the time to make sure your words convey all you mean them too. But don’t worry. Sometimes, when you mess up, there’s still Thai food.

 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

A SIMPLE EXERCISE for PINPOINTING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND


By Kasie Whitener

 

The first question in the exercise is, “Who are you?” and while it’s only three words, the question is a really big one. As I get older, the answer gets clearer, but it’s always evolving. 


There’s a great scene in Moana when she has given up on her mission and on herself and her grandmother’s spirit comes to her and says, “Do you know who you are?” 


Is this not the greatest pursuit in storytelling? A protagonist discovering her passion, her proclivities, her personality are all part of the gift she is to the world around her. 


In this week’s episode of our radio show, Rex Hurst and I are discussing Author Branding. The idea came out of the Jane Friedman book, The Business of Being a Writer, which I’m using as the course text for my fall class at the University of South Carolina’s Honors College: The Business of Writing. 


I love the exercise: Who are you? How did you get here? What do you care about and why? 


Friedman suggests we answer these questions to look for our deeper purpose as writers, to understand why we write and what we have to offer through our work. She says our branding is emergent in our work; if we pay attention, we’ll see patterns and themes that point us toward the gift we are offering. 


My bio reads, “At her core is fantasy romance and not quite getting over the nineties,” and fantasy romance isn’t a genre, it’s the imagined relationships I bring out of my past and reanimate in my work. I write GenX fiction. My work has echoes of the 90s, a reluctance to forget the decade that shaped me. It’s about freedom and not being constrained by archaic rules. It’s about loss and forgiveness and love. 


Of my debut novel After December, Jonathan Haupt said the book, “questions just how far the bonds of platonic and romantic love can be stretched before breaking beyond any hope of mending. The answer is both redemptive and well worth discovering.” 


The exercise works for my characters, too. Who is Brian? How did he get here? What does he care about and why? Answering these questions for each of the people populating my imaginary worlds helps me to deliver authentically motivated characters. 


Moana sings that she is a girl who loves her island, and a girl who loves the sea. She does not think these things are mutually exclusive. Her dichotomy is what makes her a compelling character and her journey of discovery is the entire premise for the film. 


I want to write more of those stories: characters discovering who they are through a journey in pursuit of what they really care about for reasons that are clear to my readers. As I continue to write those GenXer experiences, not-quite-historical and sometimes mid-life-crisis-y, I remain true to my brand: Unapologetically X.

 

What is your author brand?