Sunday, May 29, 2016

Rejecting the Life of Quiet Desperation

By Olga Agafanova

A story I heard on the radio the other day made me think about how many people have resigned themselves to muddling through life, some at a surprisingly young age.

I remembered meeting this stereotypically awkward programmer who shied away from nearly everything, unwilling or unable to change his habits, not taking the risk of inviting someone into his world.  His colleagues considered him to be very good at his job and very bad at living.

He made me wonder how things would play out for a guy like him in a setting other than a Southern suburb: what if he lived in some charming small European town, where old men while away the evenings playing checkers and couples stroll through generous public parks? Would he feel more at ease in another society where people are forced to interact with each other simply because there are more of them living together per square mile? Would Tokyo with its thirty-seven million dwellers in tiny apartments be too much but the island of Cozumel in Mexico, with a mere 100, 000 people living in tropical paradise, could be just right?

Or, perhaps it really is all in one’s head and the measure of success is to what extent we can squeeze the best of out what we get handed by fate. The rule ought to be that you’re better off taking a stab at something than not. Every day does not have to resemble an issue of National Geographic: it can be as simple as finally auditioning for that community theater troupe or joining a writing group such as the SCWW Columbia II. Some people are very physical and they express themselves by doing physical things. That’s not my life but I do admire those who have the inner drive to climb mountains and run triathlons.

Life is rarely spontaneously delightful: we have to make an effort to experience it, instead of just sleepwalking, stumbling from one decade into the next, until one day the end is near and the regrets kick in.

Another memory comes to mind: once, I observed this unhappy woman in a checkout lane. Her kid was nagging her, the supermarket was crowded and noisy – all mundane things -- but there was something about the expression on the woman’s face that caught my eye. She was not just tired or annoyed, she was defeated, not by an insignificant interaction with the cashier but by life itself.  Her eyes did not shine or twinkle: they were dull and dark, all joy having gone out of them a long time ago. The woman clearly was not looking forward to the next day or the next thirty years.

That, to me, is the life that is absolutely worth avoiding. So let us keep on writing and keep on trying to have an abundant, purposeful life.




Sunday, May 22, 2016

The DIY Writers Conference

By Kasie Whitener 

“So there’s this fight scene,” Cayce says from across the table. “And I’m wondering if the sequence seems realistic.”

“Read it,” I reply.

We are holed up in a condo on the 16th floor of a Hilton resort in Myrtle Beach on a Saturday afternoon. We’re writing, revising, and workshopping our novels.

Cayce and I met at the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop annual conference in 2014 and since then have made it a point to get together several times a year. Both of us are fantasy writers and usually attend conferences. This weekend we decided on a writing-focus retreat. No official conference, just the two of us with plenty of time to work. Setting aside time to focus on writing was one of the best things I’ve done. We are novelists and need time to work.

Our conversations read like a list of workshop titles. We’ve been conferencing, just us, in Myrtle Beach. Throughout the weekend over drinks, meals, lounge chairs, and the condo’s kitchen table we discussed:
    Writers’ platforms and how to promote your work.
    Critique groups and the helpful and unhelpful aspects thereof.
    Revision versus editing and at what stage in the novel creation each should occur.
    Line edits and content edits and how the two contribute in different ways to the manuscript’s evolution.
    Blocking in action scenes.
    Character voice and using vocabulary to express the character’s emotions in a scene.
    Choosing an agent, a small press, or self-publishing and the merits of each.

We made it down to the beach three times. We ate some really good food. We heard bad karaoke. Mostly, though, we just enjoyed talking about our writing.

There are very few substitutions for being able to talk about how you found the story you’re writing and what you plan to do with it. It’s fun to be talking about your characters like they’re real people.

When Cayce describes her teenaged protagonist’s ability to transport and how the people teaching her to control it are actually plotting to use her, I ask those editorial questions: What does the character want? What’s at stake?

Then I describe the storytelling frame of my vampire novel and ask if maybe this is the wrong way to tell this part of the story. We brainstorm the different ways it could be done and talk over the advantages of each.

We feel like real, working novelists.

I got through 230 pages of version seven of the vampire novel and have enough notes to push into version eight. I also worked on new material (including this blog) and logged about 5000 words.

“Your character has to be between the final victim and the door,” I tell Cayce about the fight scene. “Otherwise he would just run while she’s killing the others.”
“Good point,” she says.


Then we both go back to our manuscripts, pencils in hand, making notes and corrections. Our own writers’ retreat workshop was perfect in its purpose and outcome.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

SCRIPTWRITING COMEDY

By Bonnie Stanard

Lorrie Moore wrote an engaging article about the True Detective television series in the New York Review of Books last year that put me to thinking.

I haven’t watched the series but, according to Moore, the first and second seasons are poles apart. Moore says Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, as law enforcement agents, squabble and drink and have each other’s back to great appeal in season one.

Season two, with different actors, flounders, the dialogue a major problem (lines sounded “as if they’d been Google-translated from Farsi”). According to Moore, “comedy has to have its finger on the pulse of irreverence, something season one understood.”

From Moore’s article, I’ve assembled the following suggestions. The Potent list is from season one and Drivel from season two, though Moore’s wording has been altered.

Potent Dialogue
1. expound like a CEO of a nihilist fortune cookie company (ironic irreverence can hardly be overdone, especially by a character perceived as protecting society or promoting social order)
2. unhinge oracular soliloquies (make soliloquies unpredictable and destabilizing)
3. speak several minds (life is full of contradictions. give characters dialogue with cross purposes)
4. only amble if there’s rich consequences (without a pay-off, wandering and/or “wondering” enters a dead zone)
5. dredge up incarnations (bring up bizarre, outlandish people or events)
6. amuse with faux philosophy (promote unnatural theories or spiritual beliefs)
7. share a secret (bring in subtext, say something that means something else)

Drivel Dialogue
1. go vague or trite (“how are you?” is for the graveyard)
2. attempt to underscore seriousness (hinting at seriousness is adequate)
3. skirt subjects such as race (politically correct is boring)
4. dawdle nonstop about sex (the more talk, the less sensual)
5. sympathize wearily with the devil (sympathize enthusiastically if you must)
6. spout nonsense (you might think your philosophy of life is important, but think again)
7. spiritualize random sequences (if the dog barks three times, your dead sister is trying to talk to you...this is high school stuff)
8. sentimentalize dribble re children, the strength of women (you’re not writing a social tract)
9. summarize or rush to a close (this is tempting when you’ve been at a project and are tired of rewriting)

To sum up, Moore credits Director Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts with knowing “when reality is interesting, when reality is irrelevant, and when reality is no excuse.”

(From Lorrie Moore’s article “Sympathy for the Devil,” New York Review of Books Sept. 24, 2015)


Sunday, May 8, 2016

What Book Promoters Are Looking For: The Author Press Kit

By Jodie Cain Smith

My first phone conversation with the Director of Public Relations for my local library system surprised me. I introduced myself, told her the title of my novel, and of my interest in scheduling author events with the local libraries. Instead of asking what my book was about, her first question was, “Do you have a press kit?” “Yes,” I told her, then asked, “Would you like me to email it or bring you a printed copy?” She chose the latter and a face-to-face meeting.

That one phone call brought a critical element of book marketing into the spotlight:  In order to sell books, we must sell ourselves. Readers buy into the worlds their favorite authors create, but promoters often use the author’s world to sell books. A press kit does that.

From site to site, author press kits vary, but the best, most interesting ones allow a promoter to see inside the author’s life. Several months ago, after consulting with my agent and scouring my favorite authors’ websites, I created my press kit, which includes:

  1.  All current contact information including all social media links. (Duh!)
  2.  Media clips and files. This may be a video or audio reading, an interview or author chat, a book trailer, links to online or PDF articles regarding you and your work, and/or any other media that brings you and your work to life.
  3. Photos. Include family photos, current and past project research photos, cover art, and photos that inspire you.
  4.  A look behind the curtain. Don’t just cut and paste the same bio you send to every publisher and media outlet in your universe. Include those interesting tidbits that make you unique. On my friend’s Shaun McCoy’s website, I learned that along with being a writer, he is a damn good chess player, a former Mixed Martial Arts fighter, and a professional pianist. Now, there is a complex individual who would surely bring something interesting to the fictitious conference I’m promoting.

Also, don’t forget to:
1. Prominently display your press kit on your website with a button labeled PRESS KIT.
2. Keep your press kit updated. Check contact information, bio, and links to ensure accuracy.
3. Maintain easy access to your website or Webmaster in order to make updates.

So, with my shiny press kit and two copies of my novel, I sat across the table from Ms. Public Relations and began my pitch. The meeting was a success. Events should be scheduled soon and my novel is being added to the library collection.


For most of us, the small press, indie, and self-published authors of the world, this is what success looks like:  Selling yourself and your work to one library, one bookstore, one media outlet at a time. A press kit will make the sale easier. And because no author actively promoting herself or her books has time to reinvent the wheel, check out mine at www.jodiecainsmith.com. Use it as a template. Now, go forth and rule the literary world.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Alabama Shakes

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                     

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Intentional Incongruities

By Kasie Whitener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Playlist for Inspiration

By Olga Agafonova

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016

LET’S BE FRANK

By Mike Long


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

TABLE READINGS

By Laura P. Valtorta

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Flow and the Unexpected in Writing: A Personal Reflection

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Five Women Who Changed My Writing Life

By Kasie Whitener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Second Chances, New Value

By Jodie Cain Smith 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Underused Foil

By Rex Hurst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Changing Perspectives

By Kasie Whitener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Keeping Clabber Happy

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

CRITICISM

By Bonnie Stanard

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

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

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

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

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

LINKS (underlined)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Quill and Scroll, Please

Julia Rogers Hook


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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