Sunday, June 18, 2017

States of Mind

By Sharon May

Kurt Vonnegut said, “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

The main problem I have with this statement is that it reinforces the stereotype of the crazy artist who locks himself away from society in the name of art. It is a stereotype that many societies use to keep the writer at bay, out of the mainstream. Maybe there is a hint of madness in all of us as we respond to what drives us to write but to say only those who are depressed can produce serious and good works is extreme and just not true.

Second, what is “serious fiction?” I assume that Vonnegut is referring to what we now call literary fiction. By his standards, I’m sure that lots of genre fiction would be automatically be labeled as not serious. But all genres have works so well written they stand out from the crowd and are serious.

Third, does Vonnegut mean that one has to be depressed at the time of writing the fictional work, or simply be subject to depressive states of mind? Usually part of the definition of depression is a time period in which the person is usually not functioning well and probably is not capable of writing any fiction, serious or not. I think all writers have emotional struggles that give them opportunities to contemplate themselves and the society. These struggles do not have to lead to depression for one to be a serious writer.

Yes, we have Styron, Kafka, Woolf, Rowling, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Capote, and Baldwin as examples of writers with depressive personalities who produced serious fiction. But we could list even more writers who have never been depressed.

I am bipolar and have found during depressed moods that I am not productive enough to write anything, good or bad. I may be able to think about writing, but I can’t find the energy to put fingers to keyboard. Maybe others who are depressed can put words on a page. I just know I’m not one of them. But I am capable of writing when in a manic state, reams and reams very quickly. Unfortunately, quality is not in those reams even though they do provide good ideas to work on later. Only when I’m stable can I consistently produce words on paper that would be considered good.


Emotions can lead to a particular state of mind that can cause problems for the writer. Hopefully, you do not have to inhabit Vonnegut’s world as you write. Regardless of your state of mind, pay attention to your emotional struggles and observe those of others so you can learn about human nature, which will lead to interesting characters, dialogue, conflicts, and thus good writing.   

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Role of Narrator

By Bonnie Stanard

Most of us in workshop choose to narrate our stories either from first person or third person limited, but I’m attempting an omniscient point of view (POV) with an historical fiction story.

When we talk about an omniscient narrator, there’s quite a difference between writers of the 21st Century and those of the 19th century. It has to do with the distance the narrator establishes between himself and his story.

While omniscient narrators such as Dickens, Hardy, and Twain wrote with the confidence of a reporter, the progression has moved away from perceived “facts” and toward the articulation of our interior being. This approach to telling a story was ushered in by James Joyce’s groundbreaking Ulysses and was made accessible by Virginia Wolfe’s novels.

NARRATIVE DISTANCE
The closing of this distance between narrator and character evolved in tandem with a changing cultural climate. The unity of traditions of the 19th century has been eroded by the coming of modern science and technology, which have in turn brought into question parameters of every sort. Once we thought time and motion had exactitude, that the real world was stable. Since Einstein, we’ve discovered the fluidity of reality. Even things like age, sex, and morality have become relative. Readers are suspect of the facts of other people, be they artists, preachers, politicians or novelists.

As the complexity of daily life adds to our ambivalence, writers have pushed ever closer to the workings of human thought and consciousness. This includes narrators of omniscient, first person, and third limited POV.

An aside on POV: if a writer doesn’t understand the role of a narrator, it is obvious in his work. The most common error is “head hopping” which is blindly telling a story in buckshot fashion. That is to say, the writer doesn’t know who his narrator is.

CHAOS AND TECHNOLOGY
Two last thoughts on why narrators are changing. Over 80 per cent of Americans live in urban areas. The average reader no longer lives or works near nature. The urban experience has ushered in congestion and chaos, which have driven narrators to focus inward.

At the same time, the novelist’s portrayal of our physical surroundings has been usurped by ubiquitous visual media. Narrators of contemporary fiction who describe typical settings are competing with images we see on television and computers. You can guess where that leaves the writer.

Regardless of how beleaguered we are by our environment; or how much scenery we see on the screen; or how much dialogue we hear in movies and television, there’s little communication of the interior life of humans. This is where writers can be important.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Co-Writing a Screenplay, Part 1

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                     

Yesterday Marco and I went to see a reading of Anthony Lamarr’s stage play Calming the Man at the Richland County Public Library on Main Street. The actors were from New Life Productions, a group I worked with to put on my play, Bermuda. Once again I was struck by the talent of the actors we have in Columbia.

Sharn Hopkins is the head of New Life Productions, and I am proposing that we write a screenplay together. Both of us are hard-headed women, so I wonder how this can work. I’ve never sat down with someone else to work on a writing project. Producing a film takes a team of people, but writing is something personal.

Our first meeting about the screenplay is next Thursday. I’ve prepared by collecting a list of ideas for plots. How can we write about conflict between a so-called ‘black’ woman and a so-called ‘white’ woman and make it funny and real? There is only one human race, but we segregate ourselves in the United States based on skin color. This creates huge problems. Art can deal with the issue better than almost anything except a change in the law.

I wonder about toning down my bossiness. This project will only work if Sharn also shows up with a briefcase of ideas. I can count on her to have an opinion, which is what I need. Push-back is key. If my ideas are stupid, she needs to say so. And I need the freedom to be honest with her.

Other concepts besides skin color will enter into this. Religion – what role does it play? I’ve never run away from religion, but I am an agnostic. Sharn belongs to a local congregation. She does not believe in using curse words. My favorite radio show is Howard Stern.

Recently I traveled to Cuba, where there is no segregation based on skin color. Looking around the streets of Havana and Cienfuegos, it was difficult to see a couple or a husband and wife who shared the same skin color. You don’t often see two white people together or two black people at a market unless they are tourists. Cuban families are every shade of white-brown-black all within the same household. The relief is palpable. There is no color line. That’s the kind of screenplay I’m aiming for.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Raising the Stakes

By Kasie Whitener

We binge-watched three episodes of one of our favorite shows yesterday. Blindspot is an NBC program based on the premise that a tattooed amnesiac is helping the FBI rid the government of corruption. It’s super fake.

What I love most about Blindspot is how they continually raise the stakes. It’s a specific strategy TV writers use to keep you tuned in through the commercial break.

Dismantling a bomb? Great. But what if the clock jumps forward by half because you cut the wrong wire?

Hostage crisis? No problem. But what if there’s also a gas leak in the building?

Raising the stakes means forcing the characters to make a choice they may have otherwise waited out. In everyday life, we wait out choices. We don’t respond to invitations, ignore phone calls, and “wait and see” on just about everything.

Characters can’t afford to wait it out. The reader will put the book down and never pick it back up again. Characters need to move the plot forward to reach its conclusion.

To force the character to make a choice, the writer must raise the stakes. Make it impossible for the character to do nothing. Create the kind of urgency that forces the character to do something, anything, that pushes the plot arc.

One of the easiest ways to raise the stakes is to provide a time limit. Sports are great at this: the clock ticks down, the innings run out, there’s only so much time to make a play.

Another way to raise the stakes is to reveal information that complicates the choice. For example: the main character is refusing to surrender to the villain until the villain shows he’s got someone hostage; now the main character must do whatever she must to keep the hostage safe. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is expecting to become tribute; instead, her sister is selected and Katniss is forced to act in order to save Primrose.

A third way to raise the stakes is to challenge the hero with something he or she cannot do. Have the main character confronted with a puzzle, a challenge, or a seemingly impossible task. The Flash on the CW network does a great job with this. Everything is declared impossible until Barry finds a way to do it.

The best stakes involve the character compromising a bit of herself to get where she’s going. Every time she makes an exception to her values or morals, the audience is primed for her to make it up to them in another scene. She might have to team up with a known enemy, forgive a trespass, or even part with a valuable item. Raise the stakes by having the character put more skin in the game and the payoff will be twice as great when she finally triumphs.

Raising the stakes builds tension in your story, keeps the reader engaged, and shows what lengths your character is willing to go to in pursuit of her goal.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Secret to Selling a Book? Meet People.

By Rex Hurst
Having now sold two books and a number of short stories, I can honestly tell you that having the perfectly crafted cover letters and hunting for an agent to pass your work onto the “big publisher” is no strategic match for actually meeting people in the flesh, having a few drinks, and making a couple of jokes.

Networking! Networking! It’s all down to that.

Everything I sold is because I knew someone. Another author gave me a tip. A guy I knew became an editor. Another author gave me a recommendation. Like the mafia, you have to be vouched for before they let you in. If they can put a face to that name, get a sense that you’re a human, they’ll unconsciously associate your work with those good vibrations. It’s natural. 
It’s human.

The old cliché once again rings true, “it’s not what you know blah blah blah.”

At this point some may be thinking, “It shouldn’t be like this. I just want to write.”

With ten thousand other people in the same room, all screaming to get their work published, this is how you stand out. Go to the conventions, to the meetings, to the writer’s groups. Schmooze.

I’m not saying suck up, you’ll come across as desperate.


Ask advice of those writers attending the event. People love to expound and be the sage. And if you’re still having trouble, brush up your skills with a reread of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It might seem phony, but it works. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Describing Pain


By Olga Agafonova

Earlier this week I wrote a script for a five-minute film that I need to shoot by myself. Because of technical and financial limitations, almost everything associated with a movie set is absent – I am lucky to have found someone who has graciously agreed to play the main character.  

The script is a monologue by a woman that heard a voice in her head during a difficult time in her life. I didn’t want this film to be about someone’s descent into madness: a five-minute experimental short by a newbie film-maker is not the place to tackle that. What I did want to get across is the depth of the woman’s pain as she remembers how her marriage fell apart. 

About a year ago, I had an experience that I struggle to describe in the script: in response to someone’s words, I felt searing pain in my heart. I remember it taking my breath away and thinking that all that language about broken hearts might stem from the physical sensation of pain.  It was strange – the sounds in the room faded away and all I could focus on was the physiological response. There was a heaviness and a weakness, almost a dizziness even. I don’t know if the blood drained away from my face but I felt like it had. This range of symptoms is not in the script of course and I worry that the few words I have in there do not convey the intensity of the emotional experience my character is having.

I’ve read a fair number of depressing books over the years but I can’t say that I’ve picked up on the techniques that make it easier to portray emotional distress. My character is not hysterical or furious; she doesn’t implode or whimper or curl up in a ball of grief. I don’t have hundreds of pages of backstory to help me out either. All I would like to capture is a moment where time stops and the bad news sinks in. 

Having never worked with actors, I don’t know how much I need to say – I just hope that the person can somehow feel what I’ve just described and that she can re-enact it vividly.
           




Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Struggle Is Fiction

By Shaun McCoy

I wanted to take a brief time out to come clean here. Think of this as an intervention. You’ve invited all my close friends, family, and Aunt Sally (God knows why you invited her, but you did) to sit my lily butt down and have a talk with me. We’ve gotten past the introductions, the denials, the brief shouting matches,l and then I break down in tears and admit the truth:

I’ve been Writing While Happy.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t do it. Writing is supposed to be tough. The worse the pain, the better the writing. All you have to do is go to a typewriter and open up a vein, yadda yadda.

Well [expletive deleted] that, I say. I haven’t been miserable in nearly two years, and I’m not going back to fulfill some crappy Bohemian-writer stereotype.

I know, I know. I’ve betrayed the fundamental tenant of our craft. Let’s move on from this together.

PLOT TWIST: This is actually an intervention for you! Well, probably not you, you seem like a good reader. It’s for some other person reading this blog. Imagine them for a second. Try to make them vaguely unlikable.

Now, I get why people have this idea that wounds equal words. Just a couple years ago, my life was so utterly depressing I listened to the blues for a pick-me-up. If I got bad luck, I was happy I’d gotten any luck at all! When you’re hurting, you desperately need to reach out. You need to make meaningful connections in this world—even if those connections are only one way. Sometimes, especially when they’re one way. So yes, it was easy to write then. But guess what people? It’s easy to write now!

Communicating is something you should want to do even when you’re happy. Actually, you should want to do that especially when you’re happy. It’s passion that makes a writer write, whether they’re happy or sad, empty or fulfilled, lonely or awash in companionship (Quick aside here to the English language, can we please get a good antonym for lonely? That would be great, thanks. Sincerely, All of Us Writers). It’s those great extremes that make a work compelling. If a sad person can imagine being happy, then a happy person can imagine being sad. It does NOT mean you have to go there.
So this is to you, all you silly movies and stories with your suffering writers. You can shove it. I might write one of you, but I’m not living through you!

And this is for you, you-imaginary-hipster-would-be-writer-sitting-in-your-coffee-shop-clutching-desperately-to-the-small-town-malaise-which-once-invaded-your-life-and-filled-you-with-the-need-to-write—you’re being dramatic. Let it go. Get your dank emotions on the page there, muffin fluff, not on your life.

It’s the need to communicate that helps a person write, not the pain.

And you’re probably wondering (I can tell cause I’m psychic) “Shaun, now that your life’s not a repository of abject suffering, does that mean we’ll finally get a happy ending in one of your stories?”

No.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Writing About Death

Kasie Whitener

I’m new to death.

Early in my life, death was a peripheral thing: it happened to my friends’ grandparents and to classmates I didn’t know very well. Though my family buried two cousins, we were all young and their parents’ grief was obscure and diluted for me.

As an adult, I lost one grandmother with whom I’d had very little contact and then the other who had been a dear friend. In the past year, my father-in-law has lost two of his good friends and the son of one of those friends. And now his sister, our sweet Aunt Carolyn Sue, has passed.

I write through death. I write because it allows me to get perspective on the emotions running wild within me. When I write, I organize words and sentences and paragraphs into a particular rhythm and tone. When I write, I have purpose and focus.

I wrote for my Nana, tried to memorialize her. I wrote about the one-year-later feeling when life has gone on without the person we’ve lost. I wrote about the worst day of someone else’s life. I wrote for one friend when her Nana died and for another when his stepfather passed.

My first novel is about a twenty-two-year-old kid whose best friend commits suicide. In that book, I wrote about death when it is shocking and confusing.

When I write about death, it’s usually from an arm’s distance. I am observing the way others process their grief. When I write about death I don’t try to understand it or rationalize it. I simply record what I’m seeing and infer what others are feeling.

Writing can be cathartic. It can help the writer expunge herself of emotion; simply bleed on the page and the work will be authentic. But when I write about death, I feel more matter-of-fact than emotional. All things that live must die; I know this and take comfort in it. To everything there is a season, a purpose, and then it is over.

My latest short story is about a man whose four-year-old son has cancer. In that story, the threat of the child’s death is the antagonist. When I write death as a possibility, I’m reminded how grateful I am to be human. I write that gratitude into my characters. I refuse to let them take their lives for granted: be more, do more, say more, feel more.

Characters die. They are not people. Their deaths provide motivation, complicate relationships, and force choices. When real people die, motivations, relationships, and choices all still occur. Loss changes us all.

Writing about death means writing about change. I’m getting more acquainted with the process. I’m learning to prepare for loss, to make time before to share what I can with the people around me: Be more, do more, say more, feel more.


I’m learning to write about death without cliché or hysterics. Capturing change and dignity are my purpose and focus. I’m new to death but I’m learning.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Strange Brew and Romantic Comedy

By Laura P. Valtorta                                     

STRANGE BREW. My favorite music venue, in South Austin, allows me to hear the strings on the guitars and every stroke of the drum brush. I can see the Purgatory Players in front of me. I feel like we’re friends. Strange Brew – a place with the best acoustics in my life and hibiscus tea, I love you.

On Sunday morning I insisted on walking to Strange Brew from Clara and Ross’s house. That’s another good thing – we can walk there and then sit through the free concert. Order peanut butter cookies and tea. Hear some great singing and practically crawl inside the guitars. Wonder about the percussion people, who are introverts.

My body swayed involuntarily to the music. Shared a peanut butter cookie. Felt my eyeballs roll back with the pleasure of the beat. Then it was time to leave.

Sadness. This place is so pleasurable I fear that fate will drag it away. Usually when I like a restaurant this much, the place ends up closing. I hope that Strange Brew is the exception. It’s a sandwich bar/beer place/coffee shop/music paradise that pays big attention to SOUND.

STATESIDE AT THE PARAMOUNT THEATER. Every movie we’ve seen at the 20th Austin Film Festival has stood separate and apart from the others. We’ve seen four short documentaries and four full-length films. I can’t decide which was the best. Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley was the most moving. Girl on a Bicycle was the funniest.

Girl on a Bicycle is the story of an Italian tour guide in Paris who is affianced to a German stewardess but falls in love with a French woman with two kids. Jeremy Leven (writer-director) lives in France part of the time, but his French is admittedly not that good. Most of the story is in English. Girl feels like some of the modern lighthearted Italian comedies you see on the movie channel in Italy. Leven got financing from the people who produced the German masterpiece,The Lives of Others, a dark film about East Germany before the wall came down.

Girl made me laugh, and the story got funnier as the film progressed. Vincenzo Amato, as Paolo, the main character, captured the sweetness and funniness of Italian men.  He justifiably related everything in Paris to the Romans and to Italy. The funniest scene occurred when Paolo chased the girl on the bicycle through the narrow streets of Paris driving his double-decker tour bus. When he stopped the tourists ran away.

The movie really works because all of the main characters are from different countries. Greta (Nora Tschirner in a bad blond wig), is the best airline stewardess ever, especially when dealing with phone heads. My favorite character was Derek – played by Paddy Considine from England.  I enjoyed Louise Monot, who is a French model.

We need to get movies like Girl in wide distribution in the United States. People want to see funny comedies where kids are referred to as “small farts.” Was Leven listening to me?




Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dialogue Says It All

By Sharon May

If we do an internet search on how to write good dialogue, most sites have the same pointers – move action forward, reveal character, don’t make all the characters sound the same, come into the scene late and leave early, use simple dialogue tags and use them sparingly, and punctuate dialogue correctly. Good advice, but they don’t demonstrate how one writes good dialogue.

First, I would like to thank everyone in the Columbia II writer’s workshop for all the positive comments about my dialogue. I have always thought that I was horrible at it.  And, I had good reason to believe so. 

I took a theater class in college, and one of the options for the paper was to write a scene of a play. I shared my idea with my professor, and he seemed very excited that one of his freshmen was going to attempt the task. I’m sure he was quite bored with the typical papers he received. When I met with him to show him my feeble attempt, his disappointment was obvious. He didn’t say anything negative, but I knew he was thinking “how could such a great idea turn out like this?” Even I knew it was beyond horrible.

While I may now believe that my dialogue is pretty good, I still don’t think I can write a play. The stakes for dialogue are higher in a play; it must move action forward and reveal character without the help of narration. My dialogue is just not that strong.

What changed in forty years to improve my dialogue? Obviously, experience is a reason. But I think the real key is that now I know my characters well. I have met them along the roads of Appalachia. They were neighbors, family, friends, former classmates, and shoppers at the grocery store. We may have had various levels of interaction when I lived there, but now I spend my days and nights with them to learn what they will think and say. (I still need to spend more time with them to determine how they will act when they speak.)

I enter their minds when they converse with one another, leaving my reality behind. Through them, I gain experiences I will never have and say words I will never say. Hearing their responses, I drift further into their world, awaiting their next word. I am in awe of my characters as they interact, often surprised as the words reveal themselves and drive the story in unexpected directions.  

Knowledge of the characters is essential to knowing how they will speak and how they will react to others who are speaking. It’s not simply knowing their backgrounds and demographics, it’s about finding their souls, looking deep inside to find what motivates them. To write dialogue, just dive into a conversation with a couple of characters who are in conflict or who have an agenda. The better you know them, the better the dialogue.




Sunday, April 9, 2017

Revision: Examining Pace

By Jodie Cain Smith

In order to create the work I want, hooking the reader from page one all the way to the captivating last page, I designed a list of questions to be asked throughout revision. Revision is a daunting task, but my questions may help you when you’ve “The End” only to realize you must begin again.

Does the opening swiftly delve into the story while immediately revealing the lead character? Does the reader feel interested in the lead character from chapter one?

What I discovered with a read of my current work is that the use of a clever device distanced the reader from the lead character. For a more impactful opening, an active reveal of the character’s personality and main problem would be more effective and draw the reader into the story. In writing the rough draft, I had forgotten the reader is investing precious leisure time in my work. I must honor that time.

Have I prolonged outcomes?

Prolonged outcomes are why a reader will read to the end. It is my responsibility to create a problem complex enough to require 300+ pages. Then, I must reveal the solution to the problem over the entirety of the work. Every chapter, every page even, must move the story forward.

If I ramble on for 150 pages before revealing my lead character’s essence or struggle, the reader will feel abused and abandon the story. Leaving breadcrumbs and personality reveals throughout the story is far more compelling than a forty-page physics lesson (Angels and Demons), fifty pages on the construction difficulties of a library in Chicago (Devil in the White City), or 100 pages on the political landscape of Oz (Wicked).

(So, yes, I may be exaggerating a bit and have read every book in the Wicked series because Gregory Maguire is a genius, but you get the point:  Get to the story and make it last until the bitter end!)

Have I used an economy of words?

An economy of words in novel writing is not brevity. As I revise, I must examine every action scene to ensure that my character’s survival is all that is on the page. Short sentences and even fragments will move the character from terrifying event to death-defying feat. When running from a bear in real life, no one stops to think of the emotional impact of the bear tearing into flesh, so why would my character stop to ponder anything? She must RUN, RUN!

The same goes for annoying little pop-ups of every rough draft:  overuse of dialogue tags, adverbs, lazy verbs, and passive voice. Cut or revise these in order to speed the pace. Intentional sensory phrases and energetic verbs add punch. Long, cluttered paragraphs and linking verbs (would have, begin to walk, started thinking) weaken tension and slow the pace.


What other questions do you use to set the pace of your work? Share your knowledge here. Yep, I can use all the help I can get. Like I said, revision is hard.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Luxury of Wasted Time

By Kasie Whitener

Every now and then I have what I call a Bell Jar Day. I curl up on the couch and waste space for six or seven hours. My mom used to call them mental health days and I know I need them. I also know that they’re wasted time.

In stories, there is no wasted time. The only minutes that appear on the page are the minutes that relate to the story. It’s this economy of time that turns people into characters. Real people stumble over words, miss opportunities, and waste time in front of the television.

Characters are actors. They do things and say things to push and pull at the plot of their existence. They enact vengeance and seize power. Characters have no time to waste.

A typical Bell Jar Day begins with first breakfast and me queueing up whatever shows I have DVR’d from the last week. I crawl into my mermaid blanket and stretch out on the love seat facing the TV. I check my phone for any new emails. Nothing urgent.

If I’m a character, the email box has some urgent missive in it. Something to change the course of my day. Something that makes today different from any other day. But I’m not a character. I turn the phone face-down on the table and click play on Shadowhunters.

As the day progresses, hours gobbled up like white dots in Pac-Man, I realize there are things that need to be done that I’m not doing: Shower, library, grocery store.

If I’m a character, I’m well into some hard place now. I’ll have to make a choice that will have consequences. Others will be affected. It will determine how I spend the rest of my life, not just the rest of my day. But I’m not a character. I make second breakfast.

I often tell stories that juxtapose two different incidents; only after the second one occurs does the first find meaning. What was a passing conversation becomes a pivotal moment. My characters are haunted by that past moment in the present. Their actions now are informed by it, their urgency created by it. Will they make the same mistake they made before?

Toggling between the time periods is tricky. I sometimes use spacers and sometimes the past-perfect tense, depending on how close the incidents are – can they be confused for one another? I like an intentional confusion in certain places, being unsure as to when the character uttered a specific phrase.

Economizing the time characters spend in the story can be tricky, too. Editorial questions like, “How does this contribute?” and “Can this be learned another way?” tighten a story’s superfluous scenes into sharp, intentional interactions.


Short story characters aren’t permitted Bell Jar Days. In films and TV it’s a montage of laziness, light moving through a room as the character lays on the couch. But in stories, elapsed time is the spacer. It’s the blank space between sections of the story, referenced but not shown.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The First Novel

By Sharon May

A friend suggested I read Beth Hill’s The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Word into Story, a comprehensive guide to writing and editing. Hill is an editor, and she dives deeply into the editing necessary to produce a good novel. The book includes numerous checklists for every stage of writing and editing, and serves as a good guide to writing fiction.

However, I have to question one piece of Hill’s advice: “I am suggesting that project number three or four or five should become your first published book. As a first draft isn’t ready to be published, a first novel isn’t ready to be published. Unfortunately for the first novel, it’s likely never going to be ready, not unless you scrap most of what you’ve done and rewrite with only the basics in common with the first version” (569).

I’m sure Hill, as an editor of the best-selling as well as of the novice writer, has seen a number of bad first novels. Since the advent of self-publishing and internet publishing, I’m sure that number has grown astronomically. The world might be better with more revision and less publishing.

Does Hill’s admonishment against publishing the first novel squash the drive of the novice writer? Maybe the novice should just give up on revising the first, even second novel, and devote one’s time to the third, which can be published, according to Hill. I’m joking about skipping to the third since the learning experience that comes out of writing the first novel should be relished at every step of the journey.  I do realize that the writer of the third novel is probably a much better writer, but that writer could then revise the first novel and publish it.  

And, what about those successful first novels? I googled famous first novels, and was reminded of many literary masterpieces, including Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Well’s The Time Machine, and Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And, the list goes on and on.

I will take much of Hill’s advice seriously. But I do plan to finish a first novel and try to get it published. After years of writing my core idea, the current form is nothing like the first draft, and even as you read this, the current draft is morphing into something new. In the years to come, I expect it to grow into something worthy of publication. Otherwise, what’s the purpose of writing? I know it ultimately is to feed what calls us to write. However, at some level, most of us want to publish our creations, even the first one.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sham Words

By Bonnie Stanard

Some words are tricky. They delude you into thinking you’re making a concept stronger, but their “help” is unneeded and unwanted. Really is one of those. Very, to name another. Completely. If I’m describing a character as thin, and I want to stress the image, how does really thin compare to gaunt? Or really ugly with hideous. The website Proofreading Services provides alternatives for very.

“Then her lovely voice suddenly became even more beautiful.” Four words in that sentence make me cringe. They’re die-hard duds. Then and suddenly only pretend to have meaning. Who needs the categorical then? Given a linear past tense, everything that happens, happens then. As for suddenly, if a man falls off a bridge, we know it is sudden. Or if a bat flies out of the rafters. If we have to write suddenly, the rest of the sentence isn’t working. Lovely and beautiful are mundane floozies, and if you use them, you’ll fall into the same category.

It was a revelation when I discovered how many times I wrote the word begin (began). I’ve come to realize it is dead weight to the development of either plot or character. George begins to think about leaving his wife? Or a snake begins to traverse the road? Get to the point: George thinks...a snake traverses. There are few times when begin earns a right to be. Start is in the same category.

I’m not the only writer to be taken for a ride by would. Many a published novel has paragraphs muddied by this word—he would train his hound, I would pack a lunch, we would go hunting. Would is a lazy half-breed that supplants a pure breed—past tense. Next time you’re tempted to write would, try simple past tense.

Have you ever reached the point you want to scream, “OMG, not another said!”? When writing dialogue, some writers resort to even worse alternatives, such as asked, confessed, added, insisted, etc. Instead of he said-she said, denote a speaker with action tags. What are the characters doing as they talk? See examples on Diane Urban’s blog .

When a person says forever, much less writes it, I suspect there’s a small brain in his head. It bewilders me to see on our postage stamps the caption “USA Forever.” If you want to read a poem that puts forever in perspective, take a look at “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelly.

The following are words I personally dislike. Nothing wrong with them and they’re commonly used by pundits. However, I suggest they cast aspersions on the person using them. Here’s my take: the person using empower is dealing from a weak position; if he uses suffuse he wants you to know he reads poetry; if he says “I bonded with my coworkers,” he avoids emotion and doesn’t know it.


Obviously there are times when these words earn the right to be used. But I put them through the third degree first. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Books About Writing

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                     

It seems that every successful writer has written a short book about writing. Two of the most useful ones I’ve read are How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, by Viki King, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. These books are different from the others because they entertain as well as instruct. Murakami’s book also reveals his philosophy on living life well.

How to Write a Movie in 21 Days is written in short, choppy, ungrammatical sentences, like a movie script. King sets down a method for writing a screenplay that is neither the formula for a plot nor the necessary elements of a hit film, but, rather, how the writer can extract the movie’s story from within herself. She never proposes that a writer quit her day job. A screenplay, she says, will never pay the rent. She talks about honing a message and telling the difference between a play, a film, and a song lyric. (I would call that last one a poem).

The back of the book reveals that King writes for television and works as a script consultant.

Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, has a head-oscillating title but a simple premise: physical exercise helps him to write. The locale shifts from Tokyo to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Hawaii. He talks about American pop music and jazz. He used to own a jazz club. He runs marathons and triathlons. He eats a special diet. Sometimes we hear about his wife. But What I Talk About is essentially a book about writing and how exercise fuels the brain. It’s a book about happiness. I want to be Murakami.


Murakami’s short stories are existential masterpieces. My favorite, “Where I’m Likely to Find It,” is part of the excellent collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. A guy gets lost on his way down a staircase from his mother’s apartment to his own, where he lives with his wife, in Tokyo. Phenomenal. I think the story is about arranging your sock drawer and losing 15 pounds by giving up pancakes. It’s about the meaning of life. I want to know the person who wrote this story. I want to invade his mind. What I Talk About allows me to do that. It’s an homage to clean living. It’s a story about loving life.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Revision as Archaeology

By Kasie Whitener

Wouldn’t it be awesome if everything we created was perfect and polished and important in its first draft? Then we could avoid the drudgery of revision. No matter how many quick tips or proven strategies you employ, in the end you simply have to do the work.

Last week, on a field trip to Colonial Dorchester, SC, with my daughter’s class we had the chance to excavate a long-buried home. We found brick, broken pottery, curved glass, animal teeth, and burned wood all of which were clues to identifying the kitchen.

The excavation got me thinking about my current work in progress, the one I’ve revised eight times and still can’t manage to get quite right. I’ve gone chapter by chapter and line by line. I’ve gone scene by scene and character by character. I’ve reorganized the order of events and re-written pages and pages of dialogue.

It’s a slow and arduous process, getting my main character to reveal his true intentions. Once, while revising my first novel, I sat down in a quiet place and asked the main character to tell me the truth.

“What happened?” I said aloud and waited for him to explain himself.

When I recounted this story to my husband he thought I ought to have known what happened. I invented the character, after all; the voice in my head is still mine. Yet, unlike creation, when I just type recklessly everything the voice is saying, revision requires precision. The voice must stop its mindless chattering. It must be honest and succinct so I can identify what really matters to the story.

My vampire narrator is anxious; he is pushing his hands through his hair and hissing under his breath at me to get on with it.

“Let’s just tell the damn story,” he says.

“You have to be honest with me,” I reply. “You’ve been saying you want a family. Is that really what you want?”

And he stares at me, glaring, unwilling to admit it’s not true. Unwilling to say that because it’s not true, the entire premise of the novel is at risk. All those things I thought I was doing must come undone because of this new revelation.

In revision, we’re excavating the real value of the story and excavations take time. Like archaeologists, we brush away the dirt to reveal the structure buried beneath.

I think the hardest part of revision is waiting for my characters to come clean. Experience has taught me that my main character will be honest when he’s ready. Until then, my revision efforts will all be cosmetic. As much as I hate the way this excavation process takes so much time and effort, I have to believe the real story is worth the dig.

I don’t plan my novels and I’m not sure that, even if I did, the real story wouldn’t emerge through excavation and force me to accept it. Patience with the process is the real work of revision.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why I Don’t Blow Bubbles

By Olga Agafonova

I don’t do fluff. I don’t say it, I don’t write it, and I don’t like it when someone sends fluff in my direction. One of my professors once called the phenomenon “blowing bubbles.” As in, “Ellen was blowing bubbles at me the whole damn time and we didn’t get anywhere.”

Over the years there were plenty of people who thought I was rude. I don’t see it that way: rudeness is being crass or deliberately offensive. The refusal to blow bubbles means that I cut through the crap and tell it like it is so that we, whoever we may be, a) are on the same page and b) can see things for what they are instead of floating off into the wonderland of subtext and hidden meanings.

The farce and the tragedy that plays out when people don’t see what’s right in front of them is the basis for many movies.  Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a fine example: Jasmine is intentionally oblivious to the fraud that her husband Hal commits because Hal finances her expensive lifestyle until one day she discovers his extramarital affair, rats him out to the authorities and loses everything when the guy commits suicide in prison.

It’s hard not to think of all the people affected by the Madoff Ponzi scheme after watching that film – some no doubt had no idea and simply trusted Madoff with their money; others, notably his tech employees, did know what went on but chose to stay silent and comfortable until everything went to hell. [1] The Madoff family paid dearly for the failure to ask tough questions: one son committed suicide two years after the scandal broke open; the second son succumbed to a cancer relapse.

The 2015 movie Spotlight is about The Boston Globe’s investigation into the child molestation cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese. What Spotlight makes clear about the scandal is that it went on for decades in large part because nobody had the courage to dig in and say “Something’s not right.” The leadership of the diocese moved priests to different parishes, the faithful didn’t want to challenge the clerics because they wanted to believe these were good men, and law enforcement did not want to get involved in a religious community’s matters.

And so it goes. Financial fraud, child abuse, infidelity, corruption and lately, breath-taking political scandals – these things don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen because we’ve gotten comfortable with people blowing bubbles at us: we think that someone else will stand up and say the right thing, someone else will write that angry letter to a senator, someone else will pen a critical op-ed. But that’s not how reality works. And that’s why I’ve written more than a few letters to my elected representatives with exhortations against supporting recent executive orders. I can only hope that they are paying attention.




[1] Fishman, Steven . “Ponzi Supernova”. Audible. http://www.audible.com/mt/ponzisupernova. Last accessed on 23 February 2017. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Newspaper Writing and Reading

By Ginny Padgett

I am a proud 1975 graduate of the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism. At that time, it was ranked as one of the five best journalism schools in the country. Today, I am unsure of its specific national ranking but know it continues to be recognized for its excellence.

Even though print journalism was not my chosen concentration, I learned how to craft a story for newsprint, conduct an interview and ask questions from the floor at real news events, know the laws and ethics concerning freedom of speech, and realize the responsibility of becoming a member of the Fourth Estate.

In recent years, due to instant news via electronic means, newspaper readership has fallen to a point of near extinction. News is always happening. Our world is shrinking. We demand the latest information. We have the technology to make that a reality.

TV, radio, and social media outlets embraced this demand and rose quickly to supply it. Commerce saw the trend and identified a vast money-making market. Now billion-dollar conglomerates present news more as entertainment. Their networks dole out 20-second sound bites and conveniently packaged segments that fit tidily between commercial breaks. We have 24-hour TV news channels, talk radio, Yahoo news, FaceBook news, independent webcasts, and entire channels that spin the news to line up with your point of view, just to name a few.

However, since November newspapers are experiencing a strong comeback. Some papers are citing nearly a 200% hike in subscriptions. In fact, I have subscribed to two national newspapers during the last three months; I access them on my laptop and smart phone – the best of both worlds.  This spike proves there is still a need for good old-fashion journalism.

To make sense of our rapidly changing world, we need solid reporting from trustworthy sources. We need in-depth coverage of stories that impact our lives. We need good investigative reporters who have a detective’s gut, a bulldog’s tenacity, and a knack for clear communication. This is the kind of reporting that is strong enough, valuable enough to be distilled for use on the air waves, as well as in regional and local newspapers.  


Subscribe to a reliable newspaper today. Keep serious journalism alive.  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Shocking

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                     

When writing anything the writer must choose between slapping the reader with suspense, death, rape, and explosions, and delivering some meaning. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn shocks the reader into turning the pages; rock singer Patti Smith’s memoir The M Train is a pleasant book that conveys meaning. Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train relies on the shock value of its story; The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is a quieter book.

Any good book can help the reader escape from the world, even a whodunit with the pejorative “girl” in the title. What matters are the lessons and images left when the book is finished. After reading Gone Girl, which I raced through, unable to lay it down, I could only think that the author, Ms. Flynn, is one strange human being. The Orchardist – a much more difficult read -- has a lot to say about solitude in the Wild West and vicissitudes of the human heart. Ms. Coplin is the better writer.

Recently I’ve been watching many independent films. The best one of the lot has been 20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills, starring Annette Bening and Billy Crudup. The weirdest is Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert. Elle does not disappoint.  It’s extremely French – a suspenseful story about rape that includes sexual assault in many forms and from different perspectives. Elle is not a film that’s easy to watch, but the viewer also can’t look away.

When I watch 20th Century Women, I get a distinct message: generations brought up in the first and second halves of the 20th century differ from one another in fundamental ways. Elle only shows me that Isabelle Huppert is fascinating and twisted, and so is the director – Paul Verhoeven. Maybe Elle also teaches me that sex is fundamentally twisted, but I’ve known this forever. Between these two films, 20th Century Women is more valuable, because it teaches me lessons I didn’t already know or shows them to me in a different light.


Shocking details can sell books; good writing can teach lessons. How a writer incorporates catastrophic events such as rape, death, duplicity, war, and betrayal determines the book’s value. Those events are always present in our lives. The question is what meaning they create for an existentialist like me.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Give Your Female Characters Agency

By Kasie Whitener

Did you know there’s a rape scene in Saturday Night Fever? In all the talk of the dancing and the music and the classic character Tony Manero wanting to climb out of his Brooklyn bleakness into stardom, no one ever mentions the rape.

Toward the end of the film, Annette, Tony’s adoring fan, is swept up by the guys as they’re leaving the club. In the backseat, Annette and one of Tony’s friends have sex. The other three friends are riding up front, heckling the couple throughout. At an intersection, the friend in the back switches places with a friend in the front and the second friend attacks Annette. She tells him no, but none of the guys bother to prevent it from happening. Tony even glances back during the act, sees tears dripping down her cheeks, and does nothing.

When we make the story about the male character, we can ignore the female character’s suffering.

My senior year in college, I directed a Tennessee Williams one-act play called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. In it, crooked businessman Silva violently takes Jake’s wife, Flora, as payment for lost cotton.

I doubt I fully understood the story I was telling. I can’t remember identifying with Flora’s helplessness. I remember being more focused on turning my friend Dennis, who played Silva, into a predator.

I watched a TEDx talk by a father imploring storytellers to show his son exactly how good men are supposed to behave. He said the old story of “hero battles evil alone and is given the girl as a prize,” sets boys up for failure. Tony ignores Annette’s rape and Jake allows his wife to be taken as payment.

When the story focuses on the male character, it is easy to dehumanize the females around him. We’re not required to make female supporting roles complex characters who have agency and purpose. We’re allowed to let them exist as props, victims, or trophies.

This recognition of women in relation to the men around them is the center conflict of my NaNoWriMo project and a lens I am using in almost all the art I experience.

I know I should do a better job with my supporting female characters. They should act on their own motives and desires. Their experiences should be valid and plot-affecting. My male characters should demonstrate acceptable treatment of their female counterparts. They should show compassion and tenderness, offer respect, and protect dignity.

Good male characters don’t need weak women to prop them up. Annette’s rape confirms what we knew about Tony: he only cares about himself. Jake’s willing acceptance of Silva’s terms further demeans Flora. Those stories are decades old, but the challenge of female agency still exists.

For every Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger there must be a Gayle and a Harry: men who see their female co-stars as teammates, who have expectations of the women and enable them to succeed. Equality on the page advances both female and male characters.