Sunday, October 14, 2018

The FEAR of WRITING: Three tips to overcome the beast

By Jodie Cain Smith

I believe fear is healthy, for the most part. Fear prevents us from petting poisonous snakes, hugging sharks, and driving blindfolded over bridges. Fear tells us to read the expiration date on the milk carton and to put down the big, metal stick in the middle of a thunderstorm. Any fear that keeps me alive, physically intact, and free of food poisoning, I’m a’keepin’. However, one fear I must get rid of is the fear of writing.

What? Wait. Fear of writing? That’s dumb. Yes, yes it is, but it is an emotion I’ve experienced quite a bit recently.

My fear song plays out like this:  I get an awesome idea, a premise that sucks me in. For a couple of days I bask in my brilliance. I research the heck out of it, ensuring every detail is accurate, plausible. I imagine the cast of characters and setting. After all of this, there is only one thing left to do – write the story. This is when fear grips my throat and the lightning that is anxiety pulses through my veins. My idea is too complex. My writing game is subpar. If I attempt to write this and fail, my whole career is over. My fraud as a writer (yep, we all feel this at some point) will be revealed.

Over the course of the last three months, as I have pushed to finish two current projects, I’ve experienced this fear time and again. Through this experience, I was forced to design ways beyond it because, well, my fear of failure beats all other fears. So, if you find yourself in a secluded corner hiding under a blanket sure that the blank screen boogeyman is coming for you, here are a few defenses I have deployed to beat the monster that is performance anxiety. (Get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about writing, perv.)

1. Listen to your character even if that little tramp has ideas that in no way fit into your original plot scheme. It’s her story. Let her be a part of it. Let her tell it.

2. Just write. Everyday. (Well, at least Monday through Friday. Even creative genius needs a day off.) If the words are awful, write them anyway. Tomorrow is for fixing. Today we write!

3. Don’t be afraid to abandon a story and move on to a new one. They’re not all winners. Sometimes “killing your darlings” means abandoning the whole thing.

Now, don’t we all feel better? And, no one had to pay a therapist.

Sunday, October 7, 2018


By Kasie Whitener

This is a summary of my talk given at The Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Lowcountry Book Club Convention on October 6, 2018.

Voraciously. Inquisitively. Judgmentally. That’s how to read like a writer.

My first book addiction was VC Andrews. I read everything I could get my hands on and not from the library, either. Each fat paperback cost $4.95 at the grocery store. The covers were these haunting graphics of scared young women. They were gothic family drama novels and I couldn’t get enough of them.

Reading voraciously is part of being a writer. Exploring other worlds, savoring word choices, character builds, and plot arcs are all part of being addicted to storytelling. Just as professional athletes hit the gym daily and politicians are always campaigning, writers learn their craft by immersing themselves in it.

All this reading is an investigation. Like a detective in a mystery novel, I’m assembling the clues as to what makes a novel readable, bingeable, and ignore-my-family good.

I read genre fiction to learn the conventions and expectations of the genre. Genre novels satisfy their readers by playing out their story according to specific patterns. We talked extensively about this on Write On SC episode 12.

I read literary novels to see how the greats are playing with the form. Awards like National Book Award and Pulitzer and Man Booker identify writers working at the top of the craft.

Toni Morrison advised we write the book we want to read. In scholarship, this is called finding the gap in the knowledge. We know A and we know C but B is unknown, so we must investigate. For writers, this is the sense that although you enjoyed the book you’ve just finished, it could have been better. You would have done some things differently.

Investigation can mean identifying a specific theme and working through a list of books associated with it. For a while I read every World War II novel I could get my hands on which meant seeing the Great War in every theatre including Shanghai, Charleston, Paris, Massachusetts, England and England again, occupied France in this novel and again in this novel, even Australia.

Judge the novel. How did it begin? I picked up a book recently that began with a character on a plane (cliché) and just as I thought to forgive the author, she began the second chapter with a second character being woken up by an alarm (another cliché). If every man is devastatingly handsome and every woman has a tinge of self-doubt, if the personal conflict just happens to mirror the external conflict, if the dialogue is wasted on greetings like, “What’s up?” and “How’ve you been?” just close the book. Mark it as “never finished” on Goodreads. Give it back to the Kindle Unlimited library.

You can expect better. There are so many books out there, we can never read them all. So we don’t have to settle for the one that Book Bub or Amazon or a mailing list or even our local librarian foisted upon us. Know when to bail.

Sunday, September 30, 2018


By Raegan Teller

Let me begin with a confession. Until recently, I turned my nose up at short fiction. I admit it. I was a novel snob. The late actor Cary Grant once said, “Ah, beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of one's own past failings.”

My failure to appreciate the value of short fiction was founded in a misbelief that it takes a lot of words to tell a good story. Even though I had studied stories by Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and others in various college classes, I wasn’t sold on the unique value of short fiction. I still longed to be immersed in longer works.

Well, that was then. Now, my life is crazy and over-scheduled at times. I love to read, but I simply don’t have time to enjoy novels as much as I used to. So, I have re-introduced short fiction into my reading.

To address this no-time-to-read issue many of us have, the Richland Library and dozens of other places across the country have installed short-story kiosks. You press 1, 3, or 5 minutes to choose how much time you want to spend reading a story, and out spews a story, printed on a strip of eco-friendly paper about four inches wide. These kiosks are showing up in airports and other places all over the world in effort to encourage all of us to read more with less time.

As a writer, I have another confession: short stories are harder for me to write than a novel. It took me years to figure out my novel-writing process so I could arc appropriately, manage subplots, plant red herrings, develop characters, construct scenes, and then pull all those pieces together into a coherent mystery novel. Erroneously, I thought writing a short story would be a piece of cake.

What I’ve learned is that short fiction is truly an art form unto itself, not just a shorter, easier version of something else. On the bulletin board above my desk I’ve posted Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s a reminder of how powerful a few words can be and how difficult it is to wield that power artfully.

As another reminder of the significance of short stories, I recently read an article about the large number of movie scripts adapted from short stories. Here’s just a few: 2001: a space odyssey, Brokeback Mountain, The Shawshank Redemption, 3:10 to Yuma, and Minority Report. There are many more.

Now that I’ve had this epiphany about short fiction, what does that mean for me as a writer? For one thing, I’ll give as much attention to developing my short-story writing skills as I do to novel writing. That means I need to write more short fiction, seek critiques, and keep learning. And I’ll re-read some of the great stories and learn from the masters. Most importantly, I won’t ever turn my nose up at short fiction again.  Promise.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


Meet Another Columbia II Blogger


Travis graduated from White Knoll High School in 2007.  In college he studied Mechanical Engineering, Biology, Biochemistry, Architectural Engineering and briefly thought about trying to get into Pharmacy School.  However, after ten years of becoming familiar with different disciplines he ultimately learned that what he needed was a more traditional 9-to-5 job to make ends meet while he continues to pursue the things about which he’s most passionate.  He’s a bodybuilder, you may have seen him on a community theatre stage and now he is taking on writing.  Maybe you’ll see him in a publication one day.

Travis's first post on this page follows.


By Travis Page

I am only 29 years-old, but I’ve taken on many new endeavors over this past decade of my life: powerlifting, bodybuilding, mixed martial arts, acting, and blogging to name a few. The process of mastering a craft gives my life meaning and purpose. To me, the struggle of learning something new is very engaging, even when it’s frustrating. I’ve heard throughout the years that writing isn’t easy and as I begin pursuing this craft I understand how true that is. I feel it now. That’s also what makes me feel like a real writer and it’s exciting.

The arts can be taught to a degree, but there isn’t a formal way to develop an artist. There is no step-by-step method that can guarantee an idea “works.” You have to keep trying it in different ways. The process of etching out an idea intrigues me. I suppose I’ve never truly tried it before. Sure, I’ve written papers over the years for school assignments, I’ve acted some and put together my own videos for a YouTube channel, but you don’t often get useful feedback on the job you’re doing when you simply throw your creativity out there like that. How can you even be sure that your thoughts and ideas are being communicated? No one will tell you what they really think. That’s why I like workshop. You get a fair and unbiased sense of how your work is being received.

Writing is something that’s worth doing to me, therefore I feel obligated to do it well. For now, I’ll wear my jester’s hat while I figure out this next endeavor for myself. I’m really looking forward to what I can learn about the craft from everyone. I have a bunch of ideas. We’ll see what I can flesh out.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


By Kasie Whitener

The very best fantasy novels all have a faith structure.

The faith structure is the myths, legends, and religions of the world being created. When an author works out those things, he or she has developed a foundation for social morality and for characters’ aspirations.       
  •  A young girl may discover she has talent for magic but knowing there’s a possibility that she does comes from stories she’s been told: myths.
  • A knight might wish for glory in battle but believing he can achieve it comes from knowing others have done so: legends.
  • A character might ask a higher power to intervene, but the habit of doing so and the faith that the higher power will respond comes from training: religion.

Authors who work out the faith structure for their fantasy novels are imagining the world before their characters arrived and after their characters have gone. How was that world made? How will that world persist?

When I started reading a new vampire series recently and within 50 pages had not seen any evidence that this author had worked up the faith structure, I put the book down. While “vampires” and “faith” might seem mutually exclusive (the church has always campaigned against the evils of gothic horror), all conscious beings that persist must have a moral code and that code is established by a faith structure.

In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, we are introduced to a faith structure born of a lead prophet and his companions who settled this world, each of whom had a particular realm of humanity. Tribes of humans are associated with a particular companion and their professions, families, and customs are all part of that heritage. Carey’s faith structure is so complete, I find myself wanting to identify with one of the tribes. This is not unlike Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft sorting people into houses.

Many fantasy novels employ Ghost, Fae, Goblin, Trolls, Elf, or Wolf lineages and rely upon the already-established rules that govern these beings. For example Fair Folk, Fae, or Faeries cannot lie but they can deceive.

We know the lineage or heritage of a character will determine behavior and that competing lineages set up drama for a novel. But establishing a new faith structure takes time and creates a tremendous amount of exposition which must be carefully incorporated into the story. That’s why the best novels do it: because it takes time and craft and purpose.

When I decided to build a faith structure into my vampire novel, I researched the existing mythology: how vampires came into existence, what they worshipped, how they reconciled things like death and birth. I wanted something new, but something that paid homage to the craft of vampire storytelling, something that showed I’d done my due diligence.

A faith structure makes some things sacred and other things forbidden. It creates rules that govern individuals and communities. Without it, a vampire novel is just a new chapter of fiction in someone else’s fantasy.

Sunday, September 2, 2018


By Sharon May 

I assume that all writers try to be observant of the world around us. The more I write, the more I try to notice details of my surroundings. As a result, my ability to provide better descriptions and to capture realistic dialogue is improving.

Coming back from a family visit in Kentucky recently, I noticed the ram-shackle, blue and white truck plugging along US 23. Hard not to notice. Usually, I think of houses, not vehicles, fitting that description. I lingered before passing to absorb its appeal, to remember as many details as I could.

The Ford Ranger looked to be at least twenty years old – rusted in many places, so buckled that the cab and bed met in a V mere inches above the highway. Covering the bed was a self-designed, man-made top that made the truck seem about to tip over at any moment. No doubt the male driver was the builder of the contraption. No woman would take to the road in the truck since it was neither safe nor aesthetically pleasing.  

The top-heavy bed cover was one-and-a-half times the height of the truck. Its white plywood walls trapped what looked to be all of someone’s worldly belongings, which looked to have been quickly thrown in. The packer also tied some stuff to the edges of the contraption, one of which was a large gas can for those inevitable emergencies such a vehicle would have. Just as I got ready to pass, I imagined the driver’s appearance as well as the opinions, prejudices, and thoughts he might hold. He looked as I imagined – older, bent but not broken, and rather disheveled.   

In Amsterdam, Peggy and I found The Seafood Bar and ate the most incredible shellfish. The place is always packed. The owners of the restaurant have tried to accommodate the crowd by putting in as many tables as possible, which leads to a cramped environment.   

I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping, but there was no avoiding it. Since I was only a foot away from the tables to my left and right, I felt and tasted the tone of the other diners’ conversations as well as heard most of the words. The Asian couple to my left acted like young lovers until the food came. The male was so intent on his food, he forgot all about his date. To my right were two 30-ish, well-dressed women. Don’t know their relationship, but their food-play was rather seductive, and I imagined they were on a secret rendezvous.

Not only did I learn more about how people converse, I understand better what they don’t say, but still communicate. I am horrible at including body language in stories, so this experience made me realize how much is said in silence or in the slightest movement.

Awareness is essential for a writer. Often we are so busy getting from place to place, we are not attuned to our surroundings. Take the time to observe.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


By Olga Agafonova

Over the last year, I’ve used miscellaneous tools to keep in touch and work on a screenplay with my co-author and I’d like to share some observations about that experience.

First, I want to point out that Cheron and I met in person two years ago through a mutual friend. We would not have known about each other or be comfortable enough with one another without that real, physical connection. I have seen online invitations for screenwriters to work together remotely and that is too much of a shot in the dark for me. There is a lot we do when we begin getting to know someone: we appraise someone’s character and establish trust with that person.  With writing, of course we must also consider if our writing styles mesh well together.

This brings me to my second point: Cheron and I took time to discuss her vision for the screenplay and what she wanted the characters to be like. We negotiated the number of primary characters and then I briefly outlined what I thought each character was going to do throughout the film. This was sufficient to begin writing the first draft. 

We kept in touch every few weeks by email and via WhatsApp, which gives us more immediate access to each other throughout the day than email. Initially, we used different free programs to work on the screenplay but eventually converged on Final Draft. At $249.99 per license, this was expensive but since we both plan on writing screenplays in the future, it is worth the investment. Critically, Final Draft has a simultaneous collaboration feature where multiple authors can work on the same version of the draft in real time. The auto-formatting features for dialogue, action and other screenplay parts have been indispensable as well.

Would I have preferred a weekly get-together in a café to go over the details of our work? Absolutely. Listening to someone’s feedback, their tone of voice and the language they choose, being able to read their body language – all these things are important to good communication. By that standard, however, I could not have participated in this project. Cheron lives on the West Coast and flying out there regularly is of course out of question for financial reasons.

So, would I recommend writing with someone remotely? Yes, if you feel comfortable with that person and your ideas about the work are compatible. For me, that means meeting the person in the real world first and seeing what they are like. Others may be more adventurous but the bottom line is the same: you must be comfortable with one another as people to begin and sustain your collaboration. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018


By Laura P. Valtorta

We were editing a film last week when aliens took over the brain of my cinematographer, Lynn Cornfoot. She started to lean toward being the director and forgot that I wanted the footage of my film to be messy – not professionally perfect the way they taught her to do in the film department. But as the director I developed the concept and I wrote the script, which puts me in control. If I want the film to be messy, it will be crazy messy. My vision will govern the final product. That’s what it means to direct.

Tomorrow I will begin writing a book about writing and directing my current indie film “The Disease Detective Looks at Sarcoidosis.” I intend this memoir to be both a comment on the digital age and an exploration of how art helps me sort out the world.

Filmmaking, especially the independent kind, puts people on an even playing field. Because we’re all dealing with the same tools – scripts, cameras, lighting, sound, friends-as-actors, music – the hipsters and the grandmothers get along. Even men and women can work together on these projects if they can overcome the men-traveling-in-van-must-talk-about-sex-and-farting barrier. Women just want to get the job done. We don’t care about personal behavior in hotels, and we enjoy bawdy conversations in the van.

Last year I attended the Long Beach Indie Film and Music festival in Long Beach, California. They’ve shown my films for the past three years. I love this festival, because it highlights diversity in every way. At the first awards ceremony I attended (where “Queen of the Road” won the award for the best TV pilot), I sat next to a woman my age who had entered the student category because she was attending a film program at one of the universities in Long Beach. My excellent table also included a German filmmaker, a gynecologist who specialized in film music, and a career actor from Los Angeles.

At Long Beach I met 20-something director Martin Barshai who had two films entered at the festival. I saw them both and they were excellent.  “Light on Her Feet,” the story of a ballet dancer, is poignant and worth watching. Martin and I discussed music problems. He had scored one of his films with popular music and later had to re-score it. I explained to him that I always begin with local, original music. Finding music is the second step in making any indie film – after coming up with the concept.

Martin and I hit it off. Our meeting will be a highlight of my memoir.

Sunday, August 12, 2018


By Bonnie Stanard

Much of my reading is to research background for a story I’m writing so I joined a local book club to force myself into reading current fiction. It comes as no surprise that my taste in books is often at odds with that of many of the members. This is a rambling way to get to the point that the definition of a good book is as varied as there are people who read.

My husband would probably say a good book is one that keeps him guessing about “who done it” until the last page. My friend Miriam, who loves Harry Potter, might say a good book is one that sweeps her away to a world of suspense and wonder.

The variety of tastes can be somewhat organized by genres: sci-fi, romance, mystery, fantasy, etc. Wikipedia lists as many as 24 common fiction genres. From this list, I find two that I’d put at the top of my list—Historical Fiction and Realistic Fiction. However, this doesn’t mean I only like books that fall into these categories. (I loved Bridget Jones Diary.)

A good book is first of all entertaining. So what is entertaining? I can only answer from my perspective. With that caveat, I like strong, unpredictable characters. Good guys often sabotage a good plot, for seldom are they unpredictable. An exception to this is the nice guy in the novel Empire Falls by Richard Russo. From a writer’s perspective, I find it far more difficult to create an engaging story with an ordinary protagonist. Toibin’s Brooklyn seems a pedestrian tale, but it’s told with such grace and affection I couldn’t put it down.

If you Google popular novels, you may notice that many protagonists depend on abuse, illness, accidents, political oppression, drugs, or other crutches to gain our interest. Remove these issues and you’ll get a better idea of the strength of the writing.

A good book provides information about unfamiliar places or sheds light on human character. There are so many entertaining books that open our eyes to planet earth and our human condition, why spend time with those that reflect what we already know? Here is a sampling of books that have changed the way I think: Constellations of Vital Phenomena by A. Marra;  The English Patient by Ondaatie; The Known World by E. Jones; Memoirs of a Geisha by A. Golden; Middlesex by J. Eugenides; Palace Walk by N. Mahfouz; Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow; Shogun by J. Clavell: and Watership Down by Richard Adams.

I stop reading a novel upon encountering errors in word usage or grammar. However, I like books that send me to a dictionary occasionally to look up a definition. Complex sentences are fine as long as they aren’t as long as those of William Faulkner. “Simplistic” as a deliberate writing style can be entertaining, but not when done by a simpleton.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Using Actual Events in Writing.

By Rex Hurst

In my current writing project I am using a lot of history. Not ancient history, at least not to me, but a decade not that long ago, where the younger generation would have only the dimmest of memories- if any memories at all. The 1980s. The book is called Satanic Panic and deals with the hysteria epidemic dealing with Satanism and Satanic Ritual Abuse cases, which popped up all over the decade- from hypnotically recovering repressed memories, to “satanic” heavy metal music, to people receiving jail terms for “satanic” activities in day care centers.

In my investigation, I have come across actual murder cases and other forms of abuse that have been linked to a various “occult” activities such as a very real cult in Matamoros who indulged in cocaine trafficking. Now with this dynamite material, I am face with the quandary, how closely to the facts of these cases do I adhere to in the text?

While many of participants are dead- the drug ring in Mexico ended with a police shootout and a building catching on fire- there are many who still are alive and have been negatively affected by these events. One of the cases involving a murder of teenage girl took place in my hometown and I know members of her family. How much should I use?

Changing the names is the easiest part. The easiest way to avoid litigation, at least. But often enough, the events of the story are so close to reality that one cannot help but make connections. Thus how much do you want to change it? The second easiest method to distance text is to change location. 

While a move from one large city to another might, say, New York to San Francisco, might not make that big of a difference. If you change the local from the urban to a rural one (or vice versa) you might get surprisingly good results.

One odd thing I’ve run across is that often people will think events from real life sound “too fake”. That coincidence which actually occurred where too far out to actually happened. That dumb decisions a person made was far too stupid for a real person to make (Never underestimate the ability of people to make idiotic decisions under pressure). One thing that springs to mind is The Contest episode from Seinfeld, where the gang bets on how long they can go without committing the sin of onanism. While sounding completely ridiculous, it is apparently based on an actual contest that co-creator Larry David participated in.

This leads to my final though on the subject. Don’t let the actual facts prevent you from telling a good story. If everyone is telling you that a plot point sounds ridiculous, change it. Even if it actually happened. Don’t let reality keep you from writing a great tale.

Sunday, July 29, 2018


By Laura P. Valtorta

Without knowing much about Curtis Sittenfeld I began reading her novels and short stories: Eligible, The Man of My Dreams, You Think It, I’ll Say It and enjoying them very much. She uses intelligent heroines who work interesting jobs and have opinions about current issues. I assumed all the heroines were Curtis herself.

Then I read her novel American Wife. Here we have a public school librarian who comes from humble beginnings, kills a teenager accidentally in a car accident, has an abortion, and marries a silly, lovable rich guy who fails at business but becomes president of the United States. Wait, that’s Laura Bush!
How much of this story is meant to be fictitious?

While writing the script for my 13-minute documentary “Disaster Man” (coming out soon on Amazon Prime Video), I debated what to call the project – fact or fiction. The stories all come from Gene Feigley, the chaos-loving professor of environmental studies who came to lunch at Immaculate Consumption and regaled me with stories of personal disaster. Couple killed by feral dogs, summertime vacation catastrophes, pornographic forebodings of illness and death; each story was worse than the last. They made for entertaining lunches.

Gene wasn’t as comfortable talking on film. We shot two hours of interviews. The layout and editing process, which is where scriptwriting comes to play in a documentary, was tedious and exacting as we attempted to speed him up and get to the juicy parts. We added B-roll of a Peter Lenzo scary head sculpture and the funny zen-like music played during yoga classes.

When “Disaster Man” was finished, I didn’t know how to categorize it. The film was all Gene, but with my artistic spin on it. Luckily most film festivals have a category called “Experimental.” I ran with that. The hipsters loved it.

Every novel must have an element of fact in it. Every documentary is jigged in some way to deliver a message. The difficult part of writing a documentary is to stay true to the interviews and the physical background while transmitting a message. As I’m writing my current film project about an inexplicable disease, I ask myself every day – what messages am I trying to convey? The words of the patients and doctor become shaped by those messages.

Recently I watched a talk on the internet by Ms. Sittenfeld in which she describes her next book – a novel based on Hillary Clinton in which Hillary Rodham refuses to marry Bill. Will this be a novel or an essay about resistance? The barrier between the two has become very thin.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


By Sharon May

Everyone who knows I write said, upon hearing I was going to Europe, “You will get so many ideas.” Makes sense. New places, people, and experiences broaden one’s world. So I packed a notebook for my month-long journey, expecting inspiration. I was not disappointed.

When we reached Amsterdam, strangers began asking Peggy and me if we are sisters. Not sure why it matters, but apparently a lot of people care about that, though I was not the least concerned how they were related to their companions. Well, not enough to ask. I am sure there is a story in there.

Tour guides provided the lion’s share of ideas for characters, particularly since I met at least four a week. Our Russian guide held degrees in Arabic Studies but chose a 6-month gig as a guide so he could earn enough to travel the rest of the year. He taught us as much about art at the Hermitage as he did about Russian history and culture. Surprisingly, he freely spouted his opinions of Russian and Soviet politicians, none of which were glowing.

The cannabis-smoking, left-wing, former Punk Rocker/Songwriter, and former squatter in Amsterdam provided humor and political comment on the drive to and from The Hague and Kinderdijk. Just as entertaining was the ex-patriot who gave tours of Amsterdam’s coffeehouses after fleeing America with her disabled husband 7 months ago when they determined their finances were tenuous at best once the Affordable Healthcare Act was gutted.

I can’t forget the former East-Berliner who talked for 12 hours non-stop. She gave us a wonderful glimpse of Berlin and her experiences during the fall of the Wall, and then talked to the bus driver or on her cell phone during breaks. Never met anyone who could talk that much.

The one who put all to shame was the 19-year-old in Tallinn, Estonia, who already had worked three years as a guide. Her knowledge of the town and country was only surpassed by her poise and graciousness. She too had lots of negative opinions of the Soviets.

We also had the worst tour guide ever, who pointed out sites, but did not give any context or information about them. By afternoon, we were fed up and ran away to see Brussels on our own. On the three-hour trip back to Amsterdam, the guide never spoke except to ask for tips. Later, I realized he looked and acted like a younger version of the worst teacher I ever had.

I also solidified ideas for my creative non-fiction piece. That surprised me. I guess I expected stories about Northern Europe. Maybe I gained enough distance to put my past in perspective, or maybe I am bound to write what I know best, or maybe my European experiences have not yet incubated. Probably, I was just free and relaxed enough to hear myself think.

Obviously, I recommend travel for inspiration. Go away, if only for a day. Your writing will be better for it.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


By Kasie Whitener

I love talk radio. Like writing, my passion for talk radio is about storytelling and craft. I'm interested in the way a host can move through topics, keep people listening, and slide in-and-out of commercial breaks with poise.

My good friend Tzima Brown has been in talk radio for nearly two decades. When we shared the studio recently she told me, "You'll fall in love with it and you'll do anything to stay on the air."

Like launch a radio show all about books.

Make the Point Radio at 100.7 on the FM dial in Columbia, S.C. is a local radio station that showcases local people. With that in mind, programming includes local experts every day from 9 until 10 a.m. On Tuesdays the local experts are entrepreneurs on a show called “Start Something, Columbia!”

When I started Start “Something, Columbia! ”I meant for it to complement 1 Million Cups, the Wednesday 9 a.m. meet-up at the Richland Library for business owners. 1MC was doing a great job of building its crowd but not a great job of educating the people who showed up.

"Start Something, Columbia!” is like a book club for entrepreneurs. Each month we focus on a new text and bring in subject matter experts to discuss various entrepreneurial topics with the text as the foundation for the discussion. While discussing the format with some friends at the Richland Library, we wondered whether a radio book club could work.

I took the concept of “Write On SC” to the station owner, Keven Cohen, and he loved the idea of having local authors showcased on the radio. I set up a Patreon page to raise money for the venture and encouraged my SCWA chapter's published authors to consider advertising their work on the show.

The show's format is simple. Each week we'll discuss a new writing craft topic – things like dialogue, setting, character development – and have a guest writer on the show to promote his or her work. We'll also feature a weekly read as selected by the Richland Library staff and some Book Marketing Tips for self-published and self-promoting authors as well.

As a novice fiction writer (I don't have any published books but have published some short stories) and professional content creator (my company Clemson Road Creative is producing the show), I bring a specific expertise to show development. I've delivered workshops for conferences like Winter Wheat Festival at Bowling Green State University and the SC Book Festival. This Fall, I'm speaking at the Pat Conroy 2nd Annual Lowcountry Book Club Convention.

“Write On SC” guest hosts will all contribute their craft and industry expertise while promoting their own work. Our discussion of writing fundamentals and industry tricks should serve as weekly workshops on writing. The live show will also become a podcast after we've accumulated 6 episodes.

I hope “Write On SC” will fill a gap in South Carolina's writing scene. We lack a unifying platform for writers of all levels. To learn more or participate visit

Sunday, July 8, 2018


By Raegan Teller

About twenty years ago, I received an offer to try out MindJet, a mind mapping software. I downloaded the free trial and was hooked within minutes. Decades and many upgrades later, it is still my go-to writing tool for outlining, story plotting, and many other uses. Since Mindjet is now over $300, I’d recommend Scapple ($14.99) or some other free or inexpensive mind mapping applications you can find online. Or, you can simply draw your mind maps the old-fashioned way with paper and pen.

Tony Buzon, the author and education consultant who popularized mind maps, explained them as “a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain.” Remember those word association games? If I say “vacation,” you may think of “beach,” and then your mind jumps to whatever memories you have of your favorite beach trip . . . and so on. Over time, Western civilization has imposed left-brain, linear thinking into our psyches so that we apply logic, organize, and list before we explore and create. (That’s why traditional, linear outlines can kill a good story.) Since our minds don’t naturally function in linear mode, mind maps unlock our brains, as Buzon said.

When you’re starting a book, a short story, or even a scene, your mind may be filled with ideas bouncing around, with your synapses firing away. To tame this “monkey mind” jumble of thoughts, there’s nothing more effective than mind mapping. It allows you to get those thoughts out of your head and onto paper quickly without worrying about sequence or organization. And, if you enjoy brainstorming with yourself, as I do, mind maps can be your best friend.

By the time I sit down to write a book, bits and pieces of it have been bouncing around in my head for months. At that point, I don’t know the whole story, but I can imagine some of the beats: plot events that change the course of the story. They might be in the middle, at the end, or near the beginning. It doesn’t matter at this point, so I start with “Book” in the middle of the map and draw nodes or branches from that central idea for each of the beats. If I can map at least ten key beats, I know I’ve got a potential book.

Once I’ve mapped these beats, I move them around, connecting them in various ways and exploring how they relate to each other. Sometimes, it looks like they’re not related at all, but if I keep mapping, the story emerges. Later, I might map out a specific chapter or scene. Or I might map out a character profile to understand her better. The possibilities are endless.

Given the space limitations of this blog post, I can’t show you visual examples, but I urge you to do an online search (e.g., mind map + writing) and then give mind mapping a try. It could transform the way you write.

Sunday, July 1, 2018


By Jodie Cain Smith

She was defined by music. This is the phrase that occurred to me while driving on I-10 last week. On my way to pick up my three-year-old, I was belting out a Brandi Carlisle tune, enjoying my solitary confinement and the opportunity to sing as loudly as I chose before my son proclaims, as he always does, “Too loud, Monnie, too loud.”

She was defined by music. The phrase stuck. Like most of my works of fiction, I knew from the moment the phrase took up permanent residence in my head that a new story had begun. A “first secret” had been revealed. A new character had whispered, “Hi, there. Tell my story next.” I also knew that even though a new story would spin off this phrase, the phrase would not be the first line.

First lines are delicate monsters, demanding to be sculpted, carefully crafted, thoughtfully penned. And, typically, they do not appear in the first draft.

We all know how important that first line or first lines are to a work. They are make-or-break.  In a single phrase or paragraph, the writer must set the tone of the entire work and hook the reader. So, if so much rides on a few words, what do those words need to be?

Only the author can decide what words to choose, but here are a few questions to ask of your next first line:

          1.        Is the sentence alive in voice and imagery? Does it dance off the page or lay there? If it assumes the reader will forgive its laziness and keep reading anyway, keep crafting. You’re not there yet.
2.      Is it simple? Succinct first lines give readers a big, juicy piece of steak to chew on. No need to labor over a fancy seafood gratin if steak is available. First lines call for simple, impactful, fresh ingredients.
3.      Does the first line introduce the writer’s and narrator’s voice to the reader, and is that voice interesting? Yeah, if the voice is boring, the book gets shelved unfinished. Nobody has time for boring no matter how intriguing page forty and beyond may be.
4.      Does the first line offer a compelling mystery? One that will carry the reader through the entire work? A great first line will hint at the protagonist’s problem, an obstacle, or maybe an odd character trait. This is the first breadcrumb dropped, and it must be tasty.

Unfortunately, no formula for THE PERFECT FIRST LINE exists. If one did exist, we would all use the formula and never struggle with writing first lines again. So, above all else, listen to your gut and write the first line of your story your way. Only you know how the story must begin.

Now, get to it. Begin the begin.

I’m off to the kitchen. My gut is telling me it’s time to eat.

Sunday, June 24, 2018


By Sharon May

According to, “a symbol is literary device that contains several layers of meaning, often concealed at first sight, and is representative of several other aspects, concepts or traits than those that are visible in the literal translation alone.” Fancy words for something that means something else. Symbols show instead of tell, which is why we want symbols in our stories.

Sometimes symbols are subtle and only come to light during a close reading. I am reminded of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in which the sister’s stained underwear on display when she climbs a tree symbolizes her loss of innocence and growing sexuality that disgust her narrator brother. Obviously, a Freudian thing. Many readers may not think twice about her underwear unless they are thinking critically about symbolism.

Other symbols are obvious though the reader must still coax meaning out of them. In “Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck clearly intends the flowers to be a symbol for Elisa. When she discusses her prowess as a gardener with the traveling salesman, we see her blossom and grow strong. When she discovers the flowers lying discarded along the road, she then reflects their demise as she is described as “…crying – like an old woman.”

That’s how symbols work, but how do they get in the story? Constructing symbolism effectively is not as easy as plopping one into the text. Universal symbols, i.e. wedding rings and crosses, add meaning but their use may seem cliché. The best and most unique symbols grow organically, and sometimes the writer has no clue a symbol will appear until the story is written.

Consciously constructing symbols is partly paying attention to details. What colors and names do you use? What items or settings are associated with a character? Repetition is needed to establish these details as symbols.

You can also design motifs throughout the story. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the motif of incest along with Hamlet’s distrust of women to reveal both character and theme.

When to use symbols takes planning as they should appear in key moments in the story. In “A New England Nun,” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman uses the dog Caesar as symbolic of Laura’s life, known for her biting attitude, shut away from the world, and chained by her daily habits. Freeman introduces Caesar immediately after introducing Laura, and again devotes a paragraph to Caesar in the middle of the story when he is promised freedom if Laura marries her fiancé Joe Dagget. The concluding paragraph begins with Caesar forever chained to his dog house, reflective of Laura’s being “like an uncloistered nun” upon her decision not to marry Dagget.

Symbols are not necessary but they do add multiple levels of meaning and thus enrich a story. They serve as touchstones for the reader to remember long after the experience of reading the plot and getting to know the characters. Try using symbols if you don’t already. They can make your story more memorable.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

What Do Writers Have Against Sports?

By Kasie Whitener

This week I had two stories were rejected from two different journals.

In “Amy Runs,” the main character goes out for an early morning jog in a continuing effort to lose the weight she put on with her first child. The run is a renewal, a chance to recover from the frustrations she feels over what’s not going right in her life.

In the second story, “Yesterday, in Boston,”a runner is recovering from the Boston Marathon after the finish line was bombed. Though physically unharmed, the runner’s expectations of the event and the reality of the terrorist attack have her moving in a kind of post-traumatic daze.

But writers hate sports.

I’ve written stories featuring football games as settings and received comments that the game doesn’t seem to be important for the story. I’ve used sports metaphors and had them struck from final copy.

Maybe it’s because my first-ever paid writing gig was as a sports journalist and the working writers I know are all sports journalists, but I think writing about sports is cool. Better than talking about sports, playing sports, or watching sports, is writing about sports.

I once wrote a passage about a bull-riding event. The gyration of the animal, the stomping of the hooves, the arc of its thrusts, all provided the perfect back drop for the main character’s struggle with self-control.

In “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford created one of the most complex literary characters of all time. Frank Bascombe, who reappears in “Independence Day,” and again in “The Lay of the Land,” studies athletes in the same way Ford studies language. He’s curious and purposeful about it.

Frank muses, “If sportswriting teaches you anything … it is that for your life to be worth anything, you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret.”

That Ford uses sportswriting to examine the struggles of middle age, the recognition of one’s prime and the failure to meet expectations, all fascinates me.

In my own work, it’s the physical act of exertion that pushes the characters to change. Or it’s the meaning of the accomplishment that changes the meaning of the resistance. Or it’s the event as a large-scale metaphor for the smaller personal crisis.

In “Unrequited,” my character watches her football team lose the national championship game and feels a sense of loss over a relationship that didn’t evolve. The metaphor is about desire and achievement and timing.

And yet, the trouble I’ve had getting these stories into journals makes me wonder if other writers are less enamored with sports than I am. Or maybe I’ve pinned the stakes of the stories on the sports as a kind of cheat? Let the sports do the heavy lifting and let my characters off the hook? Maybe the stories just aren’t ready yet.

I’ll bring them back into the huddle, make some adjustments, and see if I can’t score in the next round of submissions.

Sunday, June 10, 2018


By Laura P. Valtorta
 “’She has a pretty racy past, and she loves talking about it. And you know how I love airline pilots and Italians.’”

Stephen McCauley writes a lot of light satire in My Ex-Life, the novel. Stuff like, “She’d met and eventually married Henry Bell, an investment advisor David had had the pleasure of never meeting.” The approach works.

McCauley makes the most fun of parents who had “fallen into the trap of telling their kids they could do anything…going to Harvard, retiring before ever working, giving an Oscar acceptance speech, and become the next Mark Zuckerberg, except hot.”

The zingers only work because McCauley also makes fun of his main character, David, who is gay and overweight and falls for impossible “boys” who are younger than 40. Self-deprecation seems to be the secret to keeping the narrator likeable enough to make fun of everyone.

It’s curious that McCauley’s villains, especially Renata, are not especially funny. Renata is a calculating real estate broker, living in San Francisco, who takes advantage of David in a way that makes the reader want to punch her. This works only because Renata does not live a desirable life. She subsists with her husband, the loathsome Leonard, and she thinks uncircumsized men are exotic.

As I write Tall Woman Orchestra, I try to infuse it with as much satire as possible without making the reader cringe. Most of this involves Floris, the mad scientist, who has a brilliant mind and a penchant for revenge. The reader must realize that Floris, outside of her basement laboratory, is an awkward social prick who cares nothing about appearances and seeks to bend people’s will to her own. Floris is no Hedy Lamarr; she’s better.

The beauty behind Floris is that appearances mean nothing, and she knows it. If she can control the world while wearing bedroom slippers, why not do it? The greater Floris’ power, the less she needs to fuss with her hair. Lamarr failed to understand this, which is why she died a recluse.

Skillful use of satire can get across more points more quickly than any historical treatise or legal essay.

Sunday, June 3, 2018


By Bonnie Stanard

Nobody asks Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates why they do what they do. Or Hillary Clinton or Michael Bloomberg. For that matter, nobody asks James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. So is it a matter of celebrity or wealth?

However, does anybody ask teachers why they teach? Or pilots why they fly? Waiters why they serve tables? Or farmers why they farm? Okay, so you’re not earning a living wage by writing, maybe that’s it.

On the other hand, does anybody ask you why you watch television? Or collect recipes or go fishing? Or do things we consider pastimes rather than professions? Well, can we say writing is not perceived as a pastime?

Then how do you explain your writing to yourself, much less anybody else? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are writers. Here are some of my ideas about why we write.

Uncertainty as a way of life.
No morning is like another. What we think on a given day never returns. The house we live in is temporary. The weather is different every day and we perceive it differently every day. Our beliefs change. So too our likes and dislikes. Friendships come and go. And we forget, unless we write.

Exactitude is not the truth.
The bank puts a number on your monthly statement but that is no truth. We know the hour and minute of every day. We know the cost of a gallon of gas; the address of our dentist; the speed of light; the depth of the ocean, and the distance to Mars. What we know as fact is not the truth. We write in search of the truth.

Limits of language to relate reality.
Language is our inheritance. Our words are tailor-made by our predecessors who would guide us in the path they found valuable. While our language benefits us, it limits us, may even bully us into extrinsic concepts. As writers we try our best to transcend the prison of words.

Instability of morality.
What is good and what is evil is decided by people, humans. And human fallibility affects our decisions. A hundred years ago people of good conscience enslaved other people; unwanted newborns were drowned; poverty led to imprisonment. Today you find people who believe a person is “good” if they obey a country’s laws. What is orthodox is praised even if dishonest. Amid this moral perplexity, we write to discover our beliefs.

Affirm our self-consciousness.
Writers such as Wolfe or Joyce showed us that much can be said about what goes on inside our heads. We write to get to know ourselves.  

In many of these instances, we are in conflict with either ourselves, our culture, or our human condition. What we see on television or in our neighborhood inspires us with feelings such as pride, suspicion, hatred, admiration. Then it’s time to sit down at the computer and start a story or poem.