Sunday, May 1, 2016

Alabama Shakes

By Laura P. Valtorta

There is so much to say about contemporary music that I’d love to write album reviews.  The problem is, you have to attend concerts to do that. I only venture to a concert when I’m really, really excited about a band, and then it usually ends in disaster.
In 2015, I was in Austin for South by Southwest, where there was a peripheral parking lot concert by the Malian band – Tinariwen. I am a huge fan of Tinariwen – their music, the beautiful varied colors of their skin, their soulful danceable sound, and the lyrics (which boil down to “Hey, we love the desert. The desert is great. All my friends live in the Sahara”) in some tribal language translated in the liner notes.

At SXSW, the concert was attended by a huge crowd of drunken people. Wait a minute – Tinariwen is a Muslim band. When do I get to enjoy one of the two facets of sharia law that I admire – the ban on alcohol? Apparently not at a concert in Austin. The audio was too loud and ear-splitting. The whole experience made me want to rumble. I actually shoved a couple of men out of my way. My children loved the entire experience.

Last Saturday the indie rock band Alabama Shakes came to Charleston. I love me some Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard is amazing, and when she screams, I jump up. I love the hairy style of Zac, who plays the bass. I own both their albums and listen to them regularly on the stereo and on Youtube. The story of their rise from Athens, Alabama to the world stage really inspires me.

But a concert? I broke down and purchased three tickets. Any review I wrote would need to focus on Brittany and not on the drugs and alcohol that seem to be ubiquitous in American music.
The people-watching at the Volvo stadium wasn’t much fun – a bunch of white people purchasing alcohol. Yes, the white people were of various ages – from teen to ancient – but staring at the vast audience gave me snow blindness. I counted 20 black people. This amazed me because Brittany Howard is part African-American.

With Marco and Dante shielding me, I vowed to ignore the drunkenness and enjoy the show. The performance did not disappoint. Brittany came out in a wonderful dress (natural hair!) and did her thing. She played the **** out of that turquoise guitar. She screamed and she sang. “Don’t wanna fight no more,” was a showstopper. “Dunes” killed me. I had a clear view of Zac. I was clapping and swaying.

After the show, I exited the stadium happy and suggested we walk to the car. The evening was limpid. Marco insisted we take the bus. “It will save time.” We had a long drive ahead of us to Columbia.

As soon as I sat on the bus, I put my hand down in a pool of vomit. Sigh. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Intentional Incongruities

By Kasie Whitener

I hate magical realism. It’s deceptive. It uses modernisms like cars and airports and government incompetence to make you feel like the story is real.

Then a horse flies (Winter’s Tale). Or the main character leaps off a cliff and sprouts wings (Song of Solomon).

Magical realism gets to a point in the story where the reader believes all of this could happen and then says, “I’ve got some oceanfront property in Arizona, too.”

Wait, what? If I’m reading fantasy, I want to know as early as the first page. Do not trick me.

Trust between reader and writer is a fiction writing tenet. It’s one of the things the professors in MFA programs tell you is sacrosanct. To betray a reader’s trust is to produce terrible fiction.

So what about historical fantasy? We accept that fantasy fiction will have mythical creatures like werewolves and witches and that historical fiction will have limited technology (horse-drawn carriages are ever present).

What are the conventions of historical fantasy when we know historical fiction should be accurate but fantasy fiction is more permissive?

In my current work in progress, my vampires are time travelers. Although the vampire narrator was born in California in the 1970’s, he’s been able to travel back in time to 1816 and earn Lord Byron’s friendship. What kinds of conventions must I observe in the telling of this cross-genre story?

I don’t want it to be magical realism. I don’t want to trick my readers into believing this is a historical fiction novel and then suddenly my narrator bites Mary Shelley.

So I’m honest about the character’s abilities and his purpose in 1816. But he’s not from that era; his values and expectations are more modern.

The biggest challenge has been managing the incongruities between modern vampires and the historical setting. In some ways, I have adapted my character to 1816. His narrator voice is a formal, Jane Austen-style voice. But he smokes cigarettes which did not exist in 1816.

Incongruities are a valuable story-telling tool. They are used to foreshadow (Why is the second story window open?) and to sow doubt (That traveling salesman doesn’t have any samples of his product?). Incongruity isn’t meant to trick or befuddle, it’s meant to provide that subtle nudge toward the writer’s vision.

While magical realism responds to a reader’s confusion with, “Because magic,” subtle incongruity can provide valuable contrasts between characters and create the very circumstances the protagonist must overcome.

Incongruities have proved troublesome for some of my beta readers. Time travel is a complex fantasy genre. It’s a type of uchronia, or a re-imagining of history. It requires suspension of disbelief. To avoid the arbitrariness of magical realism, historical fantasy must use its incongruities purposefully.

As I work through revision, I am mindful of the incongruities that indicate displaced persons. The hints I’m giving as to the characters’ adjustment in their environments should not be too distracting. It is not my intention to trick the reader.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Playlist for Inspiration

By Olga Agafonova

Certain kinds of music conjure up entire cinematic sequences in my mind and I’d like to share a few of these compositions with you along with some comments.

“Loud Places” by Jamie XX from the album “In Colour” (2015)
This understated, soft and yet vivid song brings to mind a relationship that blossomed in a remote cityscape, two lives intertwined in London, New York, Singapore. There is that one apartment light in a city of a million lights and I watch the couple, her making him a part of her life and him experiencing things he never had before. Then it all falls apart one day and she is there all alone at a bar at the top of a skyscraper looking for him in a crowd and finally spotting him arm-in-arm with a stranger.

This is a gospel song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927 and covered since then by numerous artists, including Josh White, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan. Led Zeppelin’s version is exploding with almost too much energy for a song about a man contemplating his end but I do like the repeating “Oh my Jesus” and the “I can hear the angels signin’ ” at the end. I don’t hear the angels signing yet but I do like the idea of going out with that kind of fearlessness. 

“The Four Seasons: Spring” by Max Richter from “Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons” (2012)
I like the entire album. Richter’s variations on Vivaldi are exquisite: he brings enough of himself into the music to make it startlingly new and raw.  A thousand stories can bloom on this fertile soil – after all, this is classical music, abstract enough to project whatever we want onto it.

“Endless” by Dave Gahan from “Hourglass (Studio Sessions)” (2007)

I’ve been listening to Depeche Mode and Dave Gahan for over a decade now. Their albums from the 80’s have an excess synth-pop sugar for my taste but starting from the mid - 90’s onward, their music has matured into something deeper. The acoustic version of “Endless” brings forth images of hovering above the Earth at night, being drawn to the stars and then being in the back of a taxi, going together with someone special in some other world, some other life where things work out the way exactly the way we want them.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


By Mike Long

Actually, let’s NOT be Frank, at least not until we’re forced to.  See, Frank is my closest friend, and Frank is fighting Parkinson ’s disease.  Frank is almost 85 now and is my latest excuse for not working on my fifth novel.

A few months back I went to pick up Frank for our weekly lunch date” and found him on the kitchen floor, after his wife left for Bible study.  I called 911, and Frank has been in the Memory Care Unit of NHC since then.

Parkinsonism is also called Shaking Palsy.  The shaking can often be lessened or eliminated by medication, but the medication can lead to confusion and delusions.  At Frank’s age it is hard to differentiate between this disease and Dementia. 

Frank is happily married but this horrible affliction has stressed his wife and family to near breaking points.  She is here, but the rest of his family is scattered.  They have been real troopers, but they all work.

His wife visits him once or twice a day except when she’s sick.  Another close friend, Gale, goes by at least two or three times weekly. I live closest to the facility, so I go by four or five days a week.  We sit in the courtyard or walk in the hallway (he uses a walker), or we take him out to lunch.  Sometimes we have to help him with his food, but only sometimes.

He sees people who aren’t there and sometimes he talks to them.  Occasionally he thinks the nursing home is a cruise ship; it does have long corridors, a cafeteria, good food, attentive caring staff, and lots of nice cabins.” He worries it will sail without his wife.

He is always happy to see us and really likes it when we bring Blueberry Donut Holes, Yogurt-Coated Pretzels, or Rum Raisin Ice Cream.

Sometimes, though, he asks me, If the medicine isn’t making me better, why do I have to stay here?”

Then I cannot take the easy way and pretend I see the man in that tree” or someone long dead, when Frank does see them.

I say, Frank, this is your home now.  You are a big man, and you’re often confused.  You see things.  You’re starting to have accidents, and your wife can no longer dress or clean you.  This is home, and it’s a nice one.”

He’ll give me a sad smile and say, Oh.  Of course you’re right.  Do you see the man in that tree?”

If I say no, he’ll respond, Sometimes I see things that aren’t real.  I have to touch them to tell.  Last week I saw my father, but he’s been dead a long time.  I always shake your hand when you visit to make sure it’s you.”

Tonight, Mary and I are meeting Frank and his wife for dinner.  We’ll have great conversation about cruises we’ve done and watch him pick up an imaginary glass, sip from it, put it down carefully and then dab his lip with his napkin.

And we’re going to keep fighting this incurable nightmare with him, as long as we’re able. For now my fiction writing will take a back seat to real-life drama.

Sunday, April 3, 2016


By Laura P. Valtorta

My writers’ group (SCWW Columbia II) is filled with a bunch of solipsistic pseudo-intellectuals who think they know more than the next guy – especially the guy sitting next to them at the writers’ group. It’s horrifying. Even the African-American members seem too White. A meeting is likely to give you mental snow blindness.

But the group is fun, and I fit in. I love eating at Casa Linda with these clowns.

Another good thing that happens is when I bring in ten pages of a screenplay and other writers take on the various roles of my characters. Reading your own stuff aloud is helpful. You grow a third ear. When somebody else reads your stuff to the group, your errors shine bright like Swedish fish jellybeans.

I think we should mix things up. Once a season, exchange pages with each other at the beginning of the meeting and prevent each writer from reading aloud her own work. I’d love to hear Rex pound out some of Bonnie’s poetry in that sarcastic staccato of his. Let Bonnie tackle the corpses piled “as high as a house,” and Rex read about wrestling with religion in the New South. It would be fun to hear Kasie shoot everyone in sight in post-Civil-War Texas and Mike lecture us about death-defying vampires. I’d like to listen to Ginny read about golf and Fred tell us stories about living with a disability. Just once.

Writing a stage play or a screenplay is miraculous because, eventually, others read your words. Like the experience of the Marquis de Sade in the movie Quills, hearing the mentally ill read your work and change it – consciously or unconsciously— often improves the writing. We are, after all, writing for others. The purpose is to convey a message. However solipsistic we might be, we are attempting to communicate what makes us human.

On April 9, 2016, a group of actors (experienced and new) will be reading my stage play, Bermuda, at Tapp’s 1644 Main Street). The show starts at 6 p.m. Everyone is invited; it’s an absurd comedy filled with messages.

I am no actor. Although I want to read with more expression, I still need to practice and learn. Right now, I hear myself sounding like dry oatmeal. Listening to my play being read by professionals is a learning experience. The same could be true of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Flow and the Unexpected in Writing: A Personal Reflection

By Brian Barr
Sometimes, the flow to write is so automatic for me. I can type until my fingers turn blue. This strong passion to get a story down on page, to craft characters, and to share my voice with others just comes out, and I want to knock out one narrative after another.
Then, there are moments when I don’t feel inspired to write at all.
Even when the motivation isn’t as strong, I write anyway. I try to get out, on a regular basis, at least 1,000 to 2,000 words a day. There are days that I don’t write, where I’m preoccupied, and I don’t beat myself up about it. It’s fine.

I’ve learned to just create, to enjoy writing, and accept that there are ebbs and flows. Sometimes, I’m in the movement, and at others, I’m not. Sometimes, I’ll love a story I’ve written, and sometimes, I’ll hate it.

Writing can be strange. At moments, I’ll write a story that I think is going to be my best work. I put it out there, and some people may critique it in ways I never imagined they would. I don’t mind, and I embrace the critiques, because they work to make my story better the second, third, or fourth time around.

There are also times that I’ll put another work out there, one that I thought wasn’t as good or didn’t hit the mark I usually aim for, and it’s shocking for me to find that people love it.

Being a writer for me has been a lot about self-discovery. Along the road, I’ve learned more about what works for me, what doesn’t, what I want to write, what I don’t. I have tons of ideas, many that I never moved beyond the brainstorming phase because I just don’t have the strong desire to write about them. These ideas seem good at the time that I concoct them, but they don’t motivate me enough to write them, at least at the moment, or stay dedicated to the tales until they’re one hundred percent done.

When I got into writing and sharing my work with the public, I made a personal commitment to stay true to myself in my writing, and not to be hard on myself when I don’t reach my goals. I knew I didn’t want to put out stories that I didn’t have my heart in, and I didn’t want to waste my time with genres or subject matters I could care less about just because they are popular or marketable. My stories are a reflection of my likes, my tastes, my fears and hatreds, as I think any real artist should look at their works. Writing is more than just producing something. Writing is about giving or sharing yourself with others. I hope to do that with every story I offer to anyone that chooses to read them.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Five Women Who Changed My Writing Life

By Kasie Whitener

It’s Women’s History Month which always feels sort of bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s great to spend time thinking about those women who forged new paths, set records, and left their marks on history. On the other, it’s frustrating that there are still so many women stifled by their social circumstances.

Inevitably in March, I’ll come across some lengthy dialogue about influential women. Writers will name other writers, feminists will identify lawmakers or suffragettes, moms will name their moms or grandmothers.

I’ll wonder who my most influential women are and try to make a list which will inevitably forget someone. Like a first-time nominee winning an Oscar, I’ll add “so many others I know I’ve forgotten,” to the end of the list.

As this is a writers’ blog, I’ll stick to the ladies that influenced my writing life.

Enya’s Shepard Moons album came out when I was in high school. I never knew a woman’s voice could be so ethereal. She’s magical and she inspired me to think of the world in magical terms. It might feel like a leap from Enya to vampires, but the mysticism is the same whenever you suspend the boundaries of reality in storytelling.

Virginia Woolf.
Her approach to the stream-of-consciousness writing that her contemporaries are given credit for pioneering was a revolution for me. Not only did Mrs. Woolf suggest letting the character guide the story, she followed the character through the messy twists and turns of mundane existence and hung in there until the character revealed the uniqueness of her experience. My characters all lead my stories. I’ve called it “pantsing” before: writing without a plan or an outline.

VC Andrews.
I couldn’t get enough of the VC Andrews books when I was in sixth and seventh grades. About the same time, I moved to California and began writing what ultimately became After December (the novel I’m querying). Andrews created such vivid, flawed characters and then she tortured them mercilessly. I aspired to writing the same compelling just-outside-of-realism fiction.

Katherine Sutherland.
My seventh grade English teacher encouraged my fiction writing. I can’t remember if I ever showed her any of it and I can’t imagine what she would have thought. The five spiral notebooks I filled with skateboarding stories and my crush Brian being heroic have long since perished but I carried them everywhere with me in seventh grade.

Jodie Cain Smith.
Since becoming fast friends two years ago, Jodie has been my constant writing companion. She’ll read anything I give her, offer thoughtful and constructive feedback, and get as excited as I do about the stories. She talks about my characters like they’re real people. When she leaves for Mobile in a couple of weeks, she’ll take with her my safe place to be a writer. Not just writing, but a Writer. I’m forever grateful to her.

I’m sure there are a million other artists, writers, teachers, and friends who have inspired and encouraged my writing. This month it’s all about the women and these five have definitely left their marks.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Second Chances, New Value

By Jodie Cain Smith 

With the onset of each year, I begin a new reading challenge. Last year, I promised to read and review one friend’s book each month. I admitted defeat by July. This year, I am off to a much better start. What was my challenge as I chose to accept it? Clear the shelf. In twelve short months I will read every abandoned book in my office.

The cast-offs get a second chance. Why not look for value in every book an agent, publisher, and editor chose to devote time and money? At some point in time, I assigned a value to each and coughed up the cash at the register only to allow it to collect dust. Most importantly, the author, possibly a first-timer as I was in 2014, felt that she or he had to write that particular story at that particular time in life and put his or her name in bold print on the cover.

With the image of my face, presumably crushed if someone were to look at me and say, “I started your book, but never finished it,” I began this year’s challenge. With nearly three abandoned books now in the “finished” pile, I declare their value.

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner: I have loved every novel in Ms. Weiner’s vast catalogue until now. This one proved I am not as sympathetic as I thought. The protagonist’s tale of a drug-addicted, suburban wife and mother left me thinking, “For God’s sake, wet blanket, get it together!” Her trials weren’t big enough for me to justify her actions. Along with gaining insight into personal shortcomings, the value I found was to apply the same critical eye to my own protagonists. Will future readers accuse mine of being wet blankets? Are their trials more than drivel and whining, their stakes high enough? Will the reader sympathize?

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire: This 563 page novel of tiny print and a vocabulary so immense I swear Maguire made up several words, provided new descriptors, inventive sentence structure, and complex storytelling, but I questioned MacGuire’s ending. Maguire’s ending fell flat and felt far too ambiguous for such a dramatic tale. After I turned the final page, a question formed. Should writers bring their stories to satisfying conclusions for the readers’ sakes or let their characters dictate endings no matter audience expectations? For me, I believe the answer lies in knowing and writing my characters so well that the story leads to one definitive conclusion.

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis: Purchased three years ago as research, I abandoned it after twenty pages because Lewis’ journal entries of the months following his wife’s death are so raw, I couldn’t handle his pain. Now, I’ve returned to it to ensure the grief I speak of in my current project is realistic and respectable of the process. I also feel that out of admiration for his talent, I must finish Lewis’ most personal work.

I challenge each of you to shop your own shelves. Let me know what value you find hidden between the dusty pages of your abandoned books.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Underused Foil

By Rex Hurst

In classic drama the term foil refers to a character which is created for the sole purpose of accenting a quality in a major character.

For example in Sophocles’ ancient drama Antigone, the titular character is supposed to be a strong willed individual, so to make sure that the audience understood this properly the character of her sister Ismene was written as a weak and meek person.

In later stories this function was often fulfilled by the hero’s sidekick. Tonto, Jimmy Olsen, Man Friday, Sancho Panza, Dr. Watson, Samwise Gamgee, etc. All of them were good, but not quite as good as the hero.

In my opinion, this is an underused tactic in books and films nowadays, where so many of the characters seem to be monotone. The strength of the protagonist is supposed to be what sets the hero apart, but if everyone acts just like him, how then does the character stand out?

And the foil does not simply have to limited to the protagonist.

It can be equally applied to the antagonist. In my current work, I have a villain who is working on a grand and sweeping master plan, something outrageous and beyond the ordinary. The character is a cut above the average crook, but I felt that I had to illustrate this a little better.

I created two foils, a pair of criminals from the bottom of society. Drunken villains with no foresight and a smash-and-grab mentality, who are incapable of making a plan beyond their next stolen meal. Compared to these two, the antagonist is a super-genius and was my intention.

Another good example is the character of Otis, the dimwitted subordinate to Lex Luthor in the original Superman.

Not only does the foil accent qualities of your heroes and villains, but it adds depth to the story. It is an easy way to make sure that not all of the characters sound the same, or are at a similar emotional level. As such the foil is an underused tool, which needs to be dusted off.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Changing Perspectives

By Kasie Whitener

First-person point of view comes most naturally to me. Most of what I write is a character inside me trying to break out. I just let his (or her) voice flow and some 50,000 words later, I have a novel.

Recently, I shifted a first-person narrative to third-person point of view with great results. The advantages of third person are numerous:
    You can describe what the main character looks like.
    You can balance the scene between participants instead of leaning heavily to one perspective.
    You can tell what happened without the bias of a first-person narrator’s motives.

The third person approach infused new life to a tired scene. It’s one I’ve written a dozen times, one that is necessary to delivery exposition to the novel, one I can’t live without but was never really fond of. Switching to third person gave the scene new energy.

One question that came from my critique group (mentioned two weeks ago by my writing buddy Bonnie) was, “Who is telling this?”

Even though the narrator is outside of the scene, there’s still a storyteller. I’ve written about perspective before. Some definitions:
    Third-person close is a third-person point of view with insight into a single character’s thoughts.
    Third-person omniscient gives insight to multiple characters’ thoughts. Omniscient is a dated style used by Henry James but generally considered false today. When writers use omniscience today, they typically shift between “close” characters by chapter (think Game of Thrones).
    The scene I read was third-person-distant. It provided the perspective of one character, but not the thoughts or feelings intimate enough to be considered “close.”

I like the distance of the third-person narrator. I don’t want the reader to know the characters’ thoughts; the action should reveal motivations and desires.

But without insight to a character, how will the reader connect with the story? Third-person-distant is a challenging perspective, one I’m not entirely sure I can pull off.

The novel I’m currently reading is a third-person omniscient that shifts perspectives depending on the chapter. Some segments are close to the husband character, some to the wife, and others to the prostitute that comes between them. This shift occurs after page breaks and chapter changes, but sometimes inside the chapter, the narrator slips and gives us both the wife and the husband in “close” narration.

Our critique group would never put up with that. We always identify where a story has shifted perspective. Maybe it’s our unique pet peeve. Our group won’t let a narrator head-hop.

Shifting from first- to third-person narration is more than just exchanging pronouns. It’s a complicated revision that re-imagines the entire storytelling experience. Likewise, shifting from third- to first-person narration might bring a reader closer to a story. It’s a worthwhile exercise to change narrative point of view. Even if you ultimately switch back.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Keeping Clabber Happy

By Laura P. Valtorta

I’m revising a screenplay, and Clabber has to like it because it’s about him, his film studio, and his employees. Also, he will be the cinematographer for the narrative feature film we hope to produce this year. I threw a Jodie person in the story for some gritty Southern charm, but mainly the characters in Quiet on the Set are me, my husband, and Clabber’s crew.
Clabber and I had a meeting in November to discuss the making of this film. “We have to cut costs,” said Clabber. “Actors cost a lot of money. And I have an idea – let’s make a film about a table read.”

It pains me to admit that Clabber had a good idea. If the film were about a table read, I could eliminate some of the characters, including the older mentor, Lindsay, who Clabber said “gave him the creeps.” Even though Lindsay was an accurate portrait of Clabber’s best friend, I erased him.

During December, January, and my visit to Texas in February, I re-wrote my screenplay. This ended up being a worthwhile exercise, requiring thought. During the table read, I could allow my characters to stop and ridicule the story. The approach added another layer to the story and became a film about creating comedy.

On the Thursday before Valentine’s Day, I met with Clabber and his right-hand man, John, to discuss the state of the screenplay. Only 60 pages were re-written, but they showed the Genesis people where I was going.

“I can see you’ve taken my advice,” said Clabber, “and you’re moving in the right direction.”

I told them I was “workshopping” the script, and it helped to read various pages aloud at SCWW meetings.
“You’ve got to come up with an actor to play yourself,” I told Clabber. “Somebody you like. A good actor. What about the fellow who starred in your first horror short?”
Clabber seemed embarrassed. “That guy is a handsome leading man,” he said.

“I only noticed that he was a decent actor.” And this was the truth. The actor wasn’t my cup of tea, beauty-wise. But since I need to keep Clabber happy, it doesn’t hurt that I suggested his doppelgänger be someone he believes is a potential movie star.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

Learning how to take and give criticism has been a journey for me. In my early years of writing, I attended a workshop in the Chicago area near my home and had the good fortune to meet Eloise Fink, who was the moderator. Much of what I understand and practice today I learned from her.

She wasn’t a push-over by any means, that is to say, her regard for good poetry wouldn’t allow her to give a dishonest criticism even to personal friends. One of her workshops was attended by an editor from TriQuarterly, a literary journal published by Northwestern University. I can’t remember much of his criticism of the poem I read aloud, but what I do remember is that I began to tremble with his first words. This is not verbatim, but close to what he said: “It reads like you put every hyperbole and placebo you could find together and called it a poem.” I was humiliated and embarrassed before writers I admired. I didn’t write, much less return to the workshop, for several months. I hope I have never pronounced such a criticism on anybody’s work.

From my conversations with writers, I’ve heard of other such criticisms, most of them from professional editors, publishers, and agents. A writer I met at NimrodHall, a retreat in the Virginia mountains, had such a demoralizing review of her manuscript she was discouraged from seeking publication. Those of us at Nimrod loved her work. All of this to say, writers who persist in communicating with agents and editors will sooner of later meet one who has such a high opinion of his own opinion that he slices to pieces work he doesn’t understand or appreciate, and it may be yours. It is up to us to get over it.

Workshops have personalities. The ones conducted by prominent authors have glamor appeal, but they often focus on the author rather than the work of fledgling writers. I have seen workshops become so dominated by a local writer that others in the group suffer as a consequence. More common are workshops I label “fan” clubs. And there are lots of them, some I can name in Columbia. It seems that the purpose of these workshops is to pamper writers and applaud their work, irrespective of the quality. They work well for beginning writers emotionally invested in their work and lacking confidence. However, if the only feedback a workshop provides is “That’s great!” how can we improve our writing? Another type of workshop is the “social club,” and as you might guess, writing technique takes a backseat to discussions about personal experiences.

At the Columbia II Workshop, you’ll hear honest appraisals of work, usually presented in a diplomatic fashion. We’re not only capable of applauding work but quite often do. At the same time, we point out what we consider weaknesses. It’s discouraging to hear negative comments, but let’s face it, if we’re serious about writing, we write a lot and some of it is second-rate if not trite. That’s where honest criticism becomes indispensible.

LINKS (underlined)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Quill and Scroll, Please

Julia Rogers Hook

There’s a new language out there in the world of writing these days and I can’t speak it.

Gone are the days of putting pen to paper, or quill to scroll or perhaps charcoal to bark in the candlelight of a very short candle, probably made from some sort of boiled down animal parts.

While the typewriters of yesteryear gather dust in our museums, even the “modern day” practice of sitting down at computers and typing one’s heart out as they create and construct their characters while they spin and swirl their stories and tales is becoming at best, a superfluous effort. After all, if the writer doesn’t understand the new technologies to get his/her work to its intended readers, isn’t it just an exercise?

If a writer writes and no one reads him/her, are they indeed a writer?

In addition to overcoming the normal authors’ maladies such as procrastination, fear of success or plain old “writers’ block,” now, once said author actually does have something to market, they must speak this strange new language that makes no sense to me.

They must blog. Or self-publish. Or E-publish. Or use a “vanity publishing company.” Or KDP. Or I-Books. Their book/short story/poetry/photos or whatever medium they’re marketing must be sent in a “jpg” or some other sort of cryptic method with no vowels.

The other day I was told about a class in screenwriting. I went to the site and looked it up. It said Students will need to be IT literate,” and “class materials will be delivered via an on-line forum. Students will be asked to use the screenwriting software.” There was also something about “DSLR.”

Does typing on a computer and using email qualify me for “IT literate” or is that something new? I’m just not sure. And DSLR? Not a clue.

In the days of the great William Shakespeare, paper itself was something that was relatively new. It is believed to be created by the Chinese sometime in the second century and it took its time meandering its way through the Arab world to the west but history tells us that paper was in England by the early 1500’s, just in time to be ready for the Bard of Avon.

Medieval paper was actually made from rags and went through a long process of being washed and dried and mixed with other things and washed and dried some more. It was thought to absorb ink better and was cheaper than parchment so it is believed that much of Shakespeare’s work was written on it, although many scribes in his time said it would never last.

I’m sure the same has been said of every invention since then and I’m sure as each new process or idea was introduced, it was met with the same reticence I’m feeling these days for all of this electronic mumbo-jumbo but some days a quill, an inkpot and a nice piece of parchment looks pretty good. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Doing the Work of a Seventh Revision

By Kasie Whitener 

I tell my writing students all the time that they need to draft long before the assignment is due. There is nothing that improves revision like time away from your writing.

I’ve been away from Being Blue for six weeks, having given it over to an editor. He’s now sending it back to me in chunks: So many corrections. So many suggested changes.

When the editor claims the narrator has no personality, I think, “Of course he does!” but after six weeks away, I read the edited draft and I can see what he meant.

So what do I do?

This revision process is new. Usually I’m looking at something that hasn’t yet been revised and the errors are so obvious, they’re easy to address. But this is the seventh version of Being Blue.

In previous revisions I answered the big, obvious questions:

What is the story, really?

Who is this person, the narrator?

To whom is he telling the story and why?

Revision is harder this time. Those questions are insufficient. They are macro questions, they deal with the novel as a whole, its entirety. In version seven, I have to look at the scenes, individually, and ask micro questions.

The last time I experienced this, I was working on the opening scene of After December, a book currently under consideration by a publisher. In the first scene, the main character is naked in bed with his girlfriend and answers the phone when his father calls.

During the seventh revision I asked, “Why would he answer the phone?”

Being Blue is a complex narrative with two concurrent stories, one in Geneva, Switzerland in 1816 and one in Ransom, Kansas, in 2002. I made a choice early on to call the narratives Geneva and Kansas - not the micro level city name and not the macro level country name, but in between - state and province.

Being in between is a precarious place.

My narrator sits there, everything in his life is “in between.” His narrative therefore is not detailed enough to be micro but not distant enough to be macro.

Every scene has to challenge Blue’s precarious balance: Between being a vampire and acting human, between being immortal and killing to sustain himself. Between protecting his sire’s wife and wanting her for himself. Between respecting his sire and wanting to kill him.

Blue spends the entire novel at crossroads, trying like hell to keep from choosing despite everyone around him forcing a choice. Why won’t he choose? Why does he think balance is so important?

Balance is safety. What could possibly be more difficult to balance than a time-traveling vampire?

As Blue focuses on balance, everyone else must challenge it. Establishing balance will require Blue to be aware of the imbalance and his narrative of that awareness should add more depth to his voice.

Align the micro details with the answers to the macro questions. Ensure every scene works within the overall concept. That’s the work of the seventh revision.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a new Columbia II Blogger


Amanda holds a Juris Doctorate and is a second year Ph.D. student of Public Law and Public Administration. Her research focuses on judicial decision-making both in American courts and abroad. Though the rigor of graduate school rarely affords time for fun, she has made it a priority to focus on her writing and to allow herself to indulge in a creative outlet. 

Amanda's first post on this page follows.

My First Day of Class

By Amanda Jones 

By the time my alarm began its obnoxious beeping I was already wide awake and aware of the all too familiar knot in my stomach. I always get nervous on the first day of classes.

As I lay in bed I mentally ran through my schedule. It was a bit different than usual this semester because it didn’t allow for my two guilty pleasures, spending Monday mornings at my favorite downtown hipster coffee shop and Wednesday evening happy hours. But, I thought that the classes outweighed the few activities that I’d have to forgo this semester.

After a few more minutes of thinking about what the day was going to bring, I got out from underneath the warm covers and headed for the bathroom to get ready. I’d planned my outfit days ago, light gray pants and my favorite yellow and blue argyle sweater. Mainly, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try on everything in my closet (which always ends up making me late for class).

After getting dressed and pouring myself a large cup of coffee, I gathered my things off the table and began packing my bag for the day: laptop, textbook, notebook, various colors of highlighters, and pens. As I threw my bag over one shoulder, the blinking light on the printer caught my eye. I walked over, reached down, grabbed the syllabus I’d printed the night before, and shoved it into a file folder.

Even with warm coffee in my stomach, the nervous knot had yet to subside. Hoping a little bit of food would calm my nerves, I stopped at Panera for a bagel.

Once I reached campus it was bustling with both new and returning students. Students who looked like they’d walked to class a hundred times, and some who looked like this was their very first trip across the horseshoe.

I stopped at a bench to check the room number of my class before I entered the tall square building, “006” I said out loud as I entered the building and looked for stairs to the basement.

Finally, after searching for a few minutes I found the room. As I walked through the doorway I could see that most of the seats were taken.

With a smile starting to creep across my face I walked to the front of the class, put down my bag, looked up into their faces and said, “Welcome to Constitutional Law, I’m Professor Jones.

One of my favorite things about writing, and teaching, is having the ability to create tension and plot twists. Whether I am setting my reader up to make erroneous assumptions about where my characters and plot are going, or leading my class down a rabbit hole by taking provocative stands on hot button legal controversies, when it comes to my work, and my lectures, nothing is ever as it seems.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Critique Circle: A Writer’s Outfit

By Jodie Cain Smith

I have a favorite outfit – skinny jeans, cream tunic, jacket, and tall, suede boots. It never fails me. Fat day? The slimming panel of the jeans, and flyaway chiffon of the tunic take care of that. Bad hair-day? I just sweep my uncooperative tresses up and let the stand-up collar of the blazer do its magic. Accidentally catch a glimpse of my ever-expanding rear end in a mirror? The wedge heel of the boots provide a nice lift. It may be big, but at least the boots make it appear as the big derriere of a younger woman. Take away any component of my favorite outfit, and it doesn’t work. Without these pieces I stand in my closet, lost in a sea of “This just won’t do.

Petty? Yes. Get over it. It’s a metaphor. Allow me to explain.

My critique circle is my favorite writing outfit. Each member who frequents the table every first and third Monday night provides critical feedback, influencing my writing every time my fingers tap away at my keyboard. The lessons have been plentiful over the past two-and-a-half years, but a few stand out as favorites:

      1.  Even in exposition to a larger work, include compelling action. Weave the narrative into the story so the reader is engaged from page one.
2.   Long, complex sentences drag the tempo down and often reveal the indecisiveness of the writer. Craft carefully with intent. No one cares that you aced Vocabulary for the College Bound Student in your AP English class senior year in high school. Readers care about characters, action, twists, and revelations.
3.   Beware redundancy. Betty did this. Betty did that. Betty started a sentence with the word Betty so many times in a row that Betty landed on the bottom of the slush pile. Poor Betty.
4.   Celebrate personal style. Just as my favorite outfit will not work on every woman, my writing style should not be imposed on every writer. My job, as I sit at the table, is to recognize the individual’s style and intent and offer helpful critique. Before opening my mouth I must ask myself, “Will my comment assist the writer tell his or her story or am I trying to force the writer to tell the story how I would tell it?” The latter is not stylish at all.
5.      Ego isn’t pretty. Fabulous clothes cannot hide an ugly soul. Above all else, my critique circle has taught me to open my mind and heart to criticism. Every person at the table is there because he or she loves to write. So, Jodie, (Yep, I’m talking to myself here) shed that darn ego already. Oftentimes, I alone cannot see the problem with an outfit because I’m staring at my shiny, fancy shoes. The same can be said for clinging to clever passages.

Sadly, I will be leaving my critique circle soon. Rather than wander aimlessly, alone and very afraid, feeling naked in my fictional worlds, I will wrap myself in my favorite lessons learned.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Olga Agafonova is a front-end developer who loves good books and smooth coffee. Professionally, she is interested in 3D modeling and animation.  Creatively, her background is in the visual arts and she is excited about learning to tell stories through fiction. 

Olga's first blog post for SCWW Columbia II follows.


By Olga Agafanova

Some years ago, I used to see a woman on a street corner who bore an uncanny resemblance to a former professor of mine.  The two had similar physical characteristics and they were close in age: it would have been difficult to tell them apart from a distance. It is unlikely, however, that they will ever cross paths: the professor was a promising scholar, a rising star in her field; the homeless woman had the absent gaze of someone with a profound mental illness. Without intervention from some entity willing to provide long-term care, this person is likely to spend her life shuttling between psychiatric emergency rooms and homeless shelters, never becoming stable for long enough to start rebuilding her life.

Pete Earley’s Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness is a good place to start exploring the plight of the mentally ill in America. The book is not academic in its approach: Earley gives us enough historical and contextual information so that we understand why things functions so poorly but his tone is intimate and his outrage is genuine.

For example, we discover the magnitude of the jail problem as he begins to visit the Miami-Dade detention center. While the jail has an entire floor dedicated to housing psychotic prisoners, we find out that they receive little treatment except for cheap alternatives to the drugs they are prescribed. If they refuse to take the medicine, the prisoners may spend months in isolation cells, often naked (ostensibly for their own good) and raving mad.  Although Early spends relatively little time discussing policy choices, we can understand exactly how the existing mental health system fails when Early shadows several men as they bounce to and from the streets and detention centers.

Early is at his most compelling when he talks about the hopes and dreams he had for his son and how he had to make adjustments to them when the scope of the son’s illness became clear.  Reading the perspectives from “the other side”, that is, the views of the police officers who confront mentally ill offenders and the attorneys who passionately argue for a crazy’s person right to remain crazy was illuminating.

 I find it interesting that as a society, we happily treat people with advanced dementia, even though they may claim they are feeling great, but equally delusional people with diagnoses like schizophrenia are left to struggle on their own. Both categories of illness are outside of an individual’s control and yet we draw a distinction between them in our mental health and justice systems.  If we could care enough to align our laws with the science of mental illness, we might be on our way to becoming a more compassionate society where people like the homeless woman on that street corner may get another shot at life.

Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness
By Pete Earley

384 pp. Berkley. $14.