Sunday, February 21, 2021

MAYBE THE RULES FOR WRITING FICTION IS TO IGNORE THE RULES

 

By El Ochiis

I once read an article about the “Ten Rules of Writing Fiction” and one of them was to never begin the story with the weather. What if the very thing you needed to write about was central to the story you are about to tell? I meant, if your character is stuck on a road in a remote part of the Yukon, in the dead of winter, weather will be central to the plot. And, a great opening would be: “It was one of those white-outs in Yukon Territory where the blizzard fought for dominance over the impending wind and freezing rain.” Would you not get a visible image of that scene – even if you lived in Bali?

Dorothy Parker once famously quipped, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Rarely is a Parker quip a compliment, but, speaking of the “Style” Bible, it’s been over one hundred years after the birth of E.B. White and good number of years after I first encountered his classic style guide (originally written by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 – but much expanded by White), it may be time to admit that it’s not all it is cracked up to be.

"Don’t use active voice, paragraphs should be more than one sentence, place yourself in the background, avoid foreign languages; stay clear of accents"... Nabokov’s novels are full of foreign languages, and if Nabokov did it, it can’t be that wrong.

Then, there is Rule Sixteen which implores the writer to “prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.” The book presents two examples, the first, in each, being “wrong:”

A period of unfavorable weather set in.
vs.
It rained every day for a week.

and

He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward.
vs.
He grinned as he pocketed the coin.


Excuse me, but I prefer “a period of unfavorable weather set in,” if only because it’s less usual and banal.

Recently, the New York Times attempted to explain Jane Austen’s enduring popularity by unpacking her word choices – what they discovered was that Austen had a propensity for words like: quite, really and very – the sort that writers are urged to avoid if they want muscular prose. So, writers are to avoid the very language that has made Jane one of the most beloved writers of all time?

Professional writers probably won’t be tied to any rule book, but, students will need to be taught that clarity is king – still, rules learned early on can be tough to shake, and most of us learned, at least a little, from Strunk & White. I understand that writing teachers know that most people need to master the rules before they can break them. But, as a reader, I prefer the offbeat to the standard – in word choice, in subject matter and in structure.

I think my greatest rule is that a piece of writing should follow a path – if readers don’t have a path to follow, they will get lost. Truth is paradox – in the greatest story ever told, the universe was created “as something out of nothing” – the first and most basic creation metaphor. Opposing ideas form the tension of its very premise. My point, there is no writing guide that can teach you style with any skill – it is in choosing which rules to learn and which to break – to what end – that you can begin to construct your own.



Sunday, February 14, 2021

BAD FICTION

By Bonnie Stanard

American Book Review has posted online Top Forty Bad Books.”  However, this is not a list. Rather, numerous college professors discuss what makes a book bad. They get beyond subjective opinions, at least in the sense that theirs are educated subjective opinions.

Does “badness” belong to the book, the reader, or the situation of reading? John Domini of Drake University asks, “Why isn’t bad in the eye of the beholder? Why should a reader go with anything other than their gut?” Readers should go with their gut, but when it comes to giving a book a reputation, one opinion’s not enough.

Terry Caesar wrote, “Can we conclude today that there are no more bad books, only bad readers? Such readers don’t know how to make even the worst books productive.” What? Blame the readers? I can’t buy that. It’s taken me a long time to overcome reader-inferiority. For most of my life, I’ve thought myself a bad (read that moronic) reader if I didn’t like critically acclaimed books.

Terry Caesar also says that Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is wondrously bad: stylistically precious, lavishly sentimental, ludicrous of characterization, and incoherent of theme. However, he excuses these problems with “Whether from the point of view of feminism or African American culture, Their Eyes is a damn good book.” Huh? Did the word bad just collide with political correctness and end up on the trash pile?

Though our workshop critiques sometimes get into technicalities, good or bad writing isn’t found in sentence structure or word choice. So what does make a book bad? These are samples drawn from the college professors.

  • Does not have inherent empathy.

  • Does not take risks. Is not curious.

  • Makes direct and obvious attempts to call forth an emotion.

  • Romanticizes two-dimensional, cutout characters.

  • Plot is obviously manipulated.

  • Its “message” remains obscure.

  • All story is all pointless. Emotions give the story meaning.

  • Makes mistakes in its representation of the material world (realistic fiction).

You could write a book on each of these weaknesses, which apply to concepts. It’s not the details they’re talking about. These mistakes originate with an author’s approach, even with their way of thinking. According to Christine Granados, “The novel is a blueprint into a writer’s soul. When I read what I consider to be a bad book, I notice that it is usually written by an arrogant person.” She explains with examples from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

Even books by celebrated authors have ended up on bad-books lists. For instance, novels by Kerouac, Hemingway, Jane Austen, and Milan Kundera are on Nicole Raney’s list, “14 Books We Give You Permission Not to Read.” 

Looking at the sampling of American Book Review’s list of fatal flaws, I see criticisms that suggest character goals for myself as a person. I need to have more empathy, curiosity, and subtleness. I need to be unbiased, spontaneous and audacious, principled, unafraid of emotions, and accurate in perceptions. Does this mean that if I improve myself, my writing will be better? Now let me see. Where to start?

Below are samples of books the professors dared to list as bad books.

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence - It’s like someone put a gun to Nietzsche’s head and made him write a Harlequin romance.

The Genius by Theodore Dreiser – Dreiser had a mind so crude any idea could violate it.

Pierre by Herman Melville - so extravagantly mannered as to be barely readable.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - protagonists’ tribulations attributed to their alcoholism.

The Great Gatsby - manipulates conventions in order to be a “charming” book.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – formulaic knock-off of fascistic conspiracy theories.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

GET BACK TO PLAY


By Kasie Whitener


I’m a swimmer. I started early, as a four-year-old on the six-and-under squad of my neighborhood team. When people ask, I say the only thing I’ve been doing longer than swimming is breathing.

I’m a writer. I started that early, too. In third grade I wrote stories about what happened at home after school that made my teacher chuckle and declare I’d be a fiction writer. In seventh grade I wrote my first novel on four spiral notebooks. When people ask, I say the only thing I’ve been doing longer than writing is swimming. And breathing.

I have left the pool for long stretches of time. Months, sometimes years, go by between me picking up the habit and slowly drifting out of it. When I return, I remember how fun it is to dolphin-kick through the deep end, to take that hard thrust off the wall and glide suspended in the quiet for just a moment.

Likewise, there were long periods of time when I didn’t write fiction. In graduate school I focused on literary criticism. My early career was spent developing marketing copy for print media. As a corporate trainer, I wrote process documentation. During my PhD program, I wrote weekly essays connecting ideas I’d read, demonstrating I was learning and understanding concepts. There was a decided purpose to my work, a destination for it, and I got used to writing being task oriented.

For years, stories bunny-hopped over meadowed pages in my mind, ducked behind trees in a sunlit wood, slipped in and out of shadows. The voices were there – Brian the spoiled college kid mourning his best friend’s suicide, Blue the vampire time-traveler falling for Lord Byron’s sister, Maisy Diller the aging rock star returning to her hometown, even Breezy and Sean circling one another like a pair of twin moons. The voices occupy me like permanent residents of a beach motel: ready to play in the sun whenever I am.

Once I began writing with purpose in 2012, I learned what needed to be done to become read-worthy, and the voices lined up dutifully to complete their tasks.

“Make us ready,” they said. “Share us with the world.”

And fiction writing became work. But that is only one frame through which I can see my writing life.

The other frame, shown to me by Derek Berry at last week’s SCWA Writing Conversations session, is: Writing is fun. Writing can be play.

Writing can be where I come, not to bleed on the page or forge a career for myself, but to explore ideas and fantasies and play with sound and smell and taste and feel.

I shouldn’t have to be reminded that I love to write. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. And yet the reminder to enjoy it, to play, was such a surprising relief that I couldn’t wait to get back to the page.

To type this blog and tell you about it.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

INTERVIEW with an 8-YEAR-OLD MAGAZINE PUBLISHER


Over the summer, a couple months into quarantine, 8-year-old Rin Windshadow had a great idea: a magazine with art and stories inspired by nature. Though she and her friends couldn't get together due to the pandemic, the magazine provided a way for them to share ideas and get creative with one another from a distance. Here is what the founding editor has to say about the publication:

"We have a magazine. It is called My Little Quarantine Magazine. We write stories, and we draw pictures.

"It was started at Sesquicentennial Park. The first issue was about nature. My mom and I worked on it. She drew a mustache and a hat on herself.

"We sent it to some friends. They started to write and draw too. We put it together, edited it, and sent it out virtually. It was published every week until school started. Now it does not have a specific time--just when we want to publish it. There have been twelve issues.

"We publish any stories and any pictures--magic, nature, once a picture for a video game. It is cool because there are pictures and writing and photos. I love seeing the drawings my friends make.


"My favorite stories to write were the stories where I collaborated with my mom. My favorite one was called
The Very Bad Witch & The Devil Pumpkin. It was about saving the night and day cycle in a village inhabited by pumpkins. My favorite thing to draw is anything."

Each issue features the work of 3-5 regular contributors and averages 15-20 pages.

For a sample of the work appearing in MLQM, please enjoy this excerpt from Windshadow's The Very Bad Witch & The Devil Pumpkin:

Once upon a time in the land of Pumpkin Town, the sun stopped shining. Without the sun, the population of pumpkins stopped growing.

Kyla got up and looked out her curtains, and saw darkness. She thought, "Oh no! I HAVE to do something!"

She went to her friend Devil Pumpkin to form a plan. Their plan was to go find a witch that could help them--the only witch in Pumpkin Town. She was greedy and sometimes mean, but she was very helpful with things like this.

They found her hut on the swamp at the edge of town. It sat up on stilts. Fog drifted all around. Kyla and Devil Pumpkin had to bounce from lily pad to lily pad to get to the hut. Kyla knocked on the door.

The witch answered. She was bald, with a hat. She had purple eyes, and smelly breath, and a green strap around the hat with a buckle. She wore a black robe and was holding a potion when she opened the door.

"Hunh. What do you want?" the witch snarled.

Devil Pumpkin, who knew the witch better than Kyla, said, "We need a potion to restore the night and day cycle."

The witch said, "First you must find the Soul Slime, and collect five droplets of slime. Bring them to me, and I will give you your potion. . ."



Sunday, January 24, 2021

HERE ARE the FOUR DESIRES DRIVING ALL HUMAN BEHAVIOR that YOU CAN USE to CREATE COMPELLING CHARACTERS


By El Ochiis


What is fueling your character’s desire?” Drilled Elias Dillard of The Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, in London, which specialized in theatre arts training, where I had been offered a non-paid position assisting in production. It was one of those dream jobs that sounded much better on paper than in real life.

I’m not sure what you mean?” I groaned, with timid insolence, looking down at my script for mercy.

One day, an understudy for a top actor was ill and, another duty got added to my list of unpaid responsibilities - I was asked to read. I read the line like I would have written it, not like the writer had intended. Though my action was met with consternation by the director, my version worked better and he became interested in my work. I was given permission to present to him one of my plays from a series called Splitting Seconds.

All human activity is prompted by passion - man differs from other animals in one very important respect, he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise.”

Um?” I choked, trying not to cry. I was young, I had no clue what he was referring to. Affecting the stance of an authoritative figure from one of Dickens’ novels, he gestured for me to follow him to his office, a place that housed leather-bound books that were older than the building itself. He had everything in alphabetical order. Pulling one from the “B” Section, he looked up, then down:

The great British philosophy, Sir Bertrand Arthur William Russell will help you there, my dear.” He offered, with a hint of condescension.

I had assumed all philosophers were French.” I acerbically responded, taking the book and spending the next week absorbing it like a sponge.

Bertrand Russell, as he is known, states that there are four infinite desires driving all human behavior:

  1. Acquisitiveness — the wish to possess as much as possible of goods, or the title to goods — is a motive which, I suppose, has its origin in a combination of fear with the desire for necessaries.

  2. Rivalry — he argues, is in turn upstaged by human narcissism - many men would cheerfully face impoverishment if they could thereby secure complete ruin for their rivals.

  3. Vanity — a motive of immense potency. Think, children who are constantly performing some antic, and saying “Look at me.”

  4. Love of power —the most potent of the four impulses, he would argue – is closely akin to vanity, but it is not by any means the same thing. What vanity needs for its satisfaction is glory, and it’s easy to have glory without power -Power, like vanity, is insatiable. Nothing short of omnipotence could satisfy it completely.

Which of these will you use to drive your character(s) – which two - or all four of them, if you dare?

Sunday, January 17, 2021

FRUSTRATION with WRITING


By Sharon May

I have had a tough time writing a blog. In fact, I wrote half of one and trashed it. Figure if I was bored writing it, you’d be bored reading. Instead, I decided to just spew forth my mixed feelings about writing and delve into why I am struggling to keep my butt in the seat.

I love to write. You know, the actual time and energy spent putting words on paper throughout the process, or even just thinking about the characters, plot twists and turns, nice turns of phrase, and spiffy dialogue. I find both great peace and renewal when I can concentrate on playing with language.

Since I am getting closer to finishing my novel, I decided to learn more about what I needed to do to get published. Unfortunately, what I learned was I hate the “business of writing,” which means everything I have to do to publish and sell my works.

Of course, I want to be published, sold, and enjoyed by readers. I don’t want to do what it takes to make that happen. Every time I find myself thinking of “fan base,” “Internet identity,” and “query letter,” my shoulders tense and I squirm in my chair.

It’s the same reason I didn’t get an MBA. Not the least bit interested in reading about business. I learned accounting at my father’s knee, and spent almost 20 years working in the field. I enjoyed it and stopped only because I knew my true calling was teaching composition.

While learning about publishing, I lost my motivation to write, especially for my long works in progress. I have written some shorter pieces so it’s not like all my drive is shot. But time is a-wasting, as people say in the hills of Kentucky.

But it’s not like I can ignore as aspects of the business of writing. Some work needs to be done in the late stages of writing a longer work to be positioned to publish and sell the work. That’s the
quandary. How do I do just enough of the business end without interfering with my writing?

Obviously, I need a staff to help with or even do those tasks, preferably who works pro bono or who will gamble on my future. Of course, I’ve considered having Peggy do more than be an early-draft reader, but she’s so busy I hate to ask more of her. However, her “politicking” should require less of her time. A millennial friend of mine needs to learn how to do what I need done on the Internet, and we are in negotiations.

Intellectually, I know what to do overcome my frustration. I have to write and ignore the future or there won’t be anything to publish. The advice to live in the moment can’t be overstated.

Write on!



Sunday, January 10, 2021

IS YOUR WRITING HUMANING?


By Bonnie Stanard

Yes, the word is humaning but it’s new and I may not know how to use it. Among end-of-the-year lists are those that document words making their first appearance. Humaning shows up on 2020 word lists.

It was coined by Mondelez International (think Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers), and it’s getting attention—called ad copy genius by some and tommyrot by others.

In a news release, Mondelez explains that humaning creates a unique approach with real human connections, and will uncover what unites us all. Could we say that is an objective we fiction writers are chasing after? Are our novels being upstaged by a company selling Oreo cookies?

More Mondelez: “We are no longer marketing to consumers, but creating connections with humans.” Mmmm. Quite an assertion for a company selling crackers. On the other hand, it makes sense if you’re selling a story.

Mark Ritson, in an article in Marketing Week calls it “the greatest marketing bullshit of all time,” and “its new approach/philosophy/word makes them look very foolish.” When it comes to crackers, I can see Ritson’s point.

Whatever the controversy, humaning has made its way into the urban dictionary with a definition of “to act in a way that can only be described as human.” So this separates those of us who don’t act like humans from those who do? Then what is the opposite of humaning? Animaling? Nooo. (After all, humans are animals.) So is it planting? Maybe non-humaning? Un-humaning? Please! Don’t accuse me of non-humaning!

Marketing companies use and abuse language to persuade us to buy things. The challenge to copywriters is to attract attention at any cost, well, at almost any cost. Most of us fiction writers use a stable of well-worn words everybody understands. But copywriters resort to flaming language. After all, a fire is noticeable. It’s no surprise that words they add are a blister breed of language.

Marketing language plumbs the depths of our materialistic longing while appealing to the shallowness of our introspection. Take the word masstige (mass + prestige), another new word from the marketing industry. It means targeting the masses with prestigious goods. For example, car companies, such as Mercedes-Benz, have used masstige to sell mid-luxury models.

How about listicle (list + article)? Copywriters discovered that lists and/or bullet points quicken interest in products. If you’re like me, your attention span is better suited to lists than paragraphs.

Or thumb-stopping? Meaning to stop surfers from scrolling. Used by Pinterest, Shutterstock, and Samsung. The idea is that these companies help create online material for mobile devices that is so dynamic surfers come to a standstill.

I didn’t know it, but cutting-edge is out and bleeding-edge is in. What next? Butchering-edge? Killing-edge?

Another new one is immersive experience. This reflects the growth of technology and the inroads it has made influencing our senses. For example, a fitness workout app that resembles a game and provides information about your body.

Two new expressions I find particularly annoying: 1) purpose-driven lifestyle brand, a term used by Blue Apron, Chipotle, Goop and Godiva to describe themselves. I don’t need a company brand to make my lifestyle purpose-driven, thank-you-very-much; and 2) core competency, which means the underlying strength of a company or a person. This suggests that some people do not have core competency, something I find demeaning.

You can catch up on the meanings of some fun words, such as awesomesauce, beardo, amirite, nothingburger, and puggle by checking out Juliana LaBianca’s 2020 word list

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Ink Reward


By Kasie Whitener
 

The buzz in this room isn’t the only one. Down the hall are two other artists, two more permanent works being stenciled in flesh and blood and ink. 

Are they getting something dark and sinister like skulls or horror movie characters? A naked Madonna standing by the side of the road with a cigarette hanging from her pouty lips like my friend Cory put on his deltoid in 2002? 

What are their stories? What story will I write? 

“I’ve never known anyone named Adam,” says the opening line of my Carrie McCray Award-winning short story "Cover Up." It fictionalizes the first visit to Adam, the artist now leaning over my arm, buzzing needle in hand. 

The narrator, a middle-aged mother and wife, visits a studio to have an old tattoo covered up. A midlife awakening occurs: the excavation of a younger version of herself spawned by the subtle sexuality of trusting someone not her husband in such intimate contact. 

Cover Up, was also part of my second visit with Adam. A year ago, some four years after our first encounter, I found him at a studio called 7 Sins, and asked for a monarch butterfly. 

“She wrote a story about you,” my sister told him. “And it won an award.” 

I emailed it to him. It’s more sexual than I remember. It’s also fiction. But it still made that visit awkward. 

On the inside of my right wrist, connected imagery to my first novel, After December, is a monarch butterfly. I’ve decided to get a series of butterflies from wrist to elbow, one for each published book. 

So here I am, a year later and two more books with ISBNs, marking myself again. Under Adam’s capable hand. His pale green eyes. His smile hidden by the pandemic mask. The intimacy of this encounter more about voices and stories and talking me through the excruciating pain. 

Tattoos hurt. 

“Do you do anything special when you finish a book?” Adam asks. He means a cigar, a good bottle of wine, a weekend vacay. But the answer is no, there’s nothing ritualistic in the writing of stories or the finishing thereof. Only in the publishing. And I’m doing it now. 

“I get tattoos,” I say and wince. “Doesn’t that qualify?” 

“But that’s after publication,” he says. 

In Cover Up, the excavation reminds the narrator about her own corporeal existence. She leaves the tattoo artist’s hands having recaptured a sense that she’s real. Breakable. Not an idea or a job or a title or the sum of her own aspirations. 

Real is being published. Others are buying the book. Reading the book. Taking what I’ve done and letting it change them.

Like a butterfly is a changed caterpillar, publishing is emerging. Existing in the way Word documents and ideas for stories never can. Legitimized not by the effort itself, but by the recognition of that effort as released. 

Two new butterflies joined the first one this year. Titles in flight. Inked and real.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED USING INTERESTING WORDS TO MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS SOUND MORE INTELLIGENT?


By El Ochiis

I was studying abroad when an opportunity to intern at a publishing house, presented itself in the form of a requirement from a professor who had a reputation for his dislike of foreign students – his position was that they suffered from an ignorance of intelligent language above common words. Shifting his cigarette from the right side of his mouth to the left, with a flick of his tongue, he would emphatically state that American writers wrote so relentlessly about themselves, it exhausted him. Rumor was if he liked your writing you got a letter from his spouse, a noted editor – a shoo-in for that internship. 

“I take offense to Professor Brodeur’s opinion. I need to pen an essay filled with such uncommonly smart words that it will greatly annoy him,” I announced to Julien, a former student who has gone on to achieve some writing success, offering him my first draft.

 “This is brilliant. He WILL send you to his wife – she is more torturous than he, but in fewer words,” Julien announced, making edits with a pencil he kept behind his right ear. “But, you can raise it to the height of greater intelligence with a few more unusual words."

I took the points Julien made, incorporated them, and, submitted the piece.

One week and a day later, I was summoned for an interview lunch at the Centre Pompidou by Madame Lilou-Arlette Brodeur.  

I arrived half an hour early; I was nervously anxious. Then, I saw her; she flitted through the passageway on black-tipped Chanel sling-backs, moving with the aloofness of a pedigree feline. Laying a leather-bound diary on my backpack, she summoned a waiter. The Centre Pompidou, at that time, was frequented by artist and writers who could barely afford a cup of coffee, wait staff would be a stretch.

My black, torn jeans with the Janis Joplin and John Coltrane patches, topped off with an even blacker Harley Davison tee-shirt and worn cowboy boots were in stark contrast to her couture.  

She placed some crisp francs into the hands of a man walking by, instructing him to purchase a café au lait, fixating her eyes over my head, at something more interesting, finally resting a momentary gaze on me:

“An agelast, apropos,” she spewed, with a French accent, scanning my essay, taking the steaming cup from the gentleman, pushing it towards me.

I thought I recognized some of the terms she was using as the ones Julien had added, but she spoke them with such a precise French accent; I wasn’t sure – this was interesting and scary.  

“I Conspuer a bioviate.” she reasoned, flicking her cigarette in the saucer of the still warm café, opening her book in a manner that let me know I was either being dismissed or she was departing. 

I tried to give the impression that I wasn’t completely dumbfounded by smiling and nodding – I wrote stuff down in the pretense of astute notetaking. Her faint smile told me she wasn’t displeased. But, were those interview questions or stark criticism of my writing?  

 “Hiraeth, logophilic, n'est-ce pas?” she affirmed, rising, checking her watch before retrieving a piece of paper from her diary, scribbling an address and phone number, pushing it at me. Then, she sauntered off. 

I ran all the way to Julien. I breathlessly retold him everything that happened.   

“I think I got the internship, but I couldn’t understand how she was using some of the words you added – the woman is odd.” I exclaimed, holding out the notes I’d taken.

 Julien perused my badly scribbled handwriting. 

“She was saying that you’re a person who rarely laughs (agelast) - she suspects it’s because you only wear black (atrate). She spits in contempt (conspeur) at people who are long-winded with little to say (biovate) – she feels that the essence of your piece was about the homesickness of a place that you can never return to, or never really existed (hiraeth) - you have a gift for words (logophile),” Julien surmised with the confidence of a cryptographer. 

“How do you know this?” I asked, incredulously. 

“I read one of her favorite books – the words I added to your piece were from a book she edited entitled Interesting Words You Should Slip Into Your Writing To Make Your Characters Sound Much More Intelligent – it’s great that she didn’t quiz you,” Julien chortle. 

Can you, as a writer, write a scene for a novel, short story or an essay using words that have no English translation, or interesting words that would help your characters sound smarter in any conversation? Here is a place to start: https://www.dictionary.com/e/keep-classy-fancy-words-listicle/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

AT the CROSSROADS of COVID and WRITING


By Shaun McCoy

Perhaps the single most fabulous piece of advice, and simultaneously the worst advice, I’ve ever gotten about writing is that “a good short story exists at the crossroads between two other stories.”

What makes this advice so dang good is that it is absolutely a fabulous way to rescue that initial inspiration you get for a short story, but which just falls a step short. But, one has to admit, what makes this advice so friggin’ bad is just how vague it is.

With a little creative plotting, one can describe about ANY story, no matter how singular in focus, to be at the locus point between two narratives. So, this crossroads idea is like a Schrodinger’s cat. It’s both alive and dead, in a state of literary superposition, until one of us tries to use the dang thing. At that point, we end up with either a fabulously adorable kitten mewling with all the delight of a cutesy internet meme, or find ourselves in dire need of both a shovel and a good plot of land safely away from the prying eyes of whatever darling child owned that feline.

I couldn’t help but think of this crossroads advice as, during my recent Covid scare. I started scrolling through the symptoms. Some of them weren’t very story-worthy at all.

· Dry cough

· Diarrhea

· Fever

I mean, they’re certainly were story-worthy to me. I’m me. If I’m walking down a tunnel toward the light, I want to hear about it. But it wouldn’t really be a good story to you. In that way it is directly analogous to my last piece of failed writing. It’s my baby, so I love it. To you, though, it’s probably about as bland as watching snail race. (Okay, terrible analogy. That would be pretty riveting.)

But then this bad boy of a symptom came up.

· New confusion

Now that’s a story. It leaps out of you with all the exciting context of the now infamous warning label on curling irons: “don’t put in contact with eye.” Of course I shouldn’t put it on my eye, but the very existence of the label means that someone, at some point, did. Or at least, we think they did. Maybe they were murdering a hitchhiker, and that’s how they got their eye wound, and this whole curling iron thing was only the best excuse they could come up with during their police interrogation.

New confusion. What was the old confusion? When struck with this plague, how am I supposed to tell the old confusion from the new? How can the reader? Can the reader know before I do?

But fortunately this won’t ever be a story. The test came back negative. For me, there will only ever be the old confusion—caught right there, smack dab in the middle of the crossroads between covid and writing.

 

 

 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

HOW “REAL” SHOULD FICTION BE?


By Raegan Teller

A conversation circulating among writers lately is whether to mention the pandemic in their stories set in current times. Since Covid-19 has unquestionably altered our lives, should writers ignore it by creating a fictitious, alternate universe where it does not exist? Or should we be “real” about it, even in fiction?

Recently, I watched a virtual panel of writers, and the question was posed as to whether they would include the pandemic in their current era works. One writer responded that we have no idea what 2021 will look like. For example, will the vaccine return us to something close to normal next year? Will people even take the vaccine? Will the vaccine be only a speed bump and not a stop sign? Of course, no one knows the answer to these questions until we get there. This writer also pointed out that fiction is “escapism.” Making our stories too real might be a turn-off to readers. On the other hand, another writer said he would adhere to “the truth” even in fiction and include references to the pandemic in his novel coming out in 2021.

Another author on the panel mentioned he was writing a book that would be edited next year, so he would adjust his story then, depending on the state of the pandemic at that time. Another writer suggested setting stories in 2019: perhaps our last remembrance of “normalcy.”

What everyone agrees on is that while 9/11, earthquakes and major storms have had a profound effect on many people, nothing has altered our everyday lives like Covid-19. So, what’s a writer to do?

My protagonist is a newspaper reporter and often meets with people in restaurants while pursuing a story. If I acknowledged the existence of the pandemic, would she be considered irresponsible if I failed to say she had a mask on?

And, of course, forget writing phrases like, “She recognized him immediately by his smile. It was what she remembered most about him.” Who can tell if anyone is smiling with a mask on? Although, for mystery writers like me, perhaps that added mystique of a hidden face might come in handy. And while we’re being totally honest, our fictious characters would occasionally have to turn around and drive back home for a forgotten mask, perhaps encountering a person or event that alters the story line completely.

But then how you handle the pandemic in your writing also depends on the age bracket of your target readers. Younger readers would be more likely to expect characters to go about their business as usual, whereas older readers may react differently.

I’ve asked several of my readers their thoughts on including the pandemic in my fifth novel, which will be set in 2021. Surprisingly, most said, “don’t mention it” or “I don’t want to be reminded of the pandemic.” I think I’ll take their advice. As one of my reader’s said, “It is fiction, after all. Don’t be too real.”

Sunday, December 6, 2020

WRITING the NEXT LINE



By Sharon May
 

Imagine me with one joint recovering from surgery and another one prepping for surgery. My right arm braced in Velcro and Neoprene from fingers to pert nigh the elbow after breaking my arm just above the wrist. Left foot in a funky pair of shoes made of more Velcro and Neoprene, rendered even more attractive by a yellow caution sock given as a thanks by the hospital. “Might come in handy,” my frugal wife said as we packed. I am a poster child for orthopedics. 

While laid up, I, like a Nathaniel Hawthorne character, mulled over my life to determine what I had done wrong to require so many surgeries. Then I considered the lessons from these experiences. I decided the gods are determined I become left handed and master speech recognition software. My introduction to Dragon occurred a couple of years ago when I first had my dominant wrist fused. I learned the basics and managed to put a few pages out, but abandoned it as soon as I healed. It will be useful in emergencies, I thought, not imagining having further damage to my hand. 

When really bored or avoiding writing, I will pick up my copy of “Dragon for Dummies” to explore what I don’t know. Facing the computer, all that reading proves useless as learning anything related to computers requires hands-on experiences for me. So I muddle through. 

Speaking to the computer is not the same as typing. The brain, at least my brain, functions differently with the two tasks. 

I think faster when typing. Part of the problem is that the program and I don’t yet communicate well. My wife has complained for years I mumble, and now I have a computer agreeing with her. At this point, about 80% of my words are transcribed correctly on paper. Dialect drives the Dragon to produce words nowhere near what I said.   

Now I’m so paranoid that I’m not enunciating correctly, I concentrate on the screen more than about what comes next. So, I correct at least a fifth of the page in the process. Who knows how many thoughts I’ve lost during that time? 

Oddly, after hours of putting words on paper by speaking, I don’t feel like I’ve written anything. There’s no energy nor renewal that I usually get while typing my words. Used to be the fingers were tired, cramped up, and needing a break. Now I’m just thirsty. 

Usually, I can play with language and sentence patterns. Now, my mind becomes sluggish. I end up frustrated, which further interferes with writing. Time may solve this, or I may have to become a one-handed typist. I hope the brain is soon free again to explore words and create worlds as if on a space ship speeding through time and space. 

 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

A GOOD PLACE to BE FROM


By Kasie Whitener

 

Hello, again, from my November madness. I’ve been NaNoWriMo-ing since the start of the month when I wrote this cheerful, optimistic blog about what a wonderful waste of time and effort this month will be. 

National Novel Writing Month or the bold attempt to write a full 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days is that delightful annual insanity that, like a military academy, is not a good place to be, but a good place to be from. 

“Follow me on this metaphor, will ya?” she asked, her voice muffled by the closed door. 

In the beginning, you’re thrilled at the possibilities. New characters! New settings! New drama and details! Hooray! 

As the novel swells and the crushing requirement of discipline is realized, you begin to doubt the merits of the idea. Not just the NaNo experience, but the novel itself. Is the premise strong enough to make it 50,000 words? Will people grow tired of my protagonist? Where is this plot even going? 

Toward the end, that period of systemically induced fatigue when you just want it to be over, when graduation is within view, but the pillowcases stained with tears and callused-over blisters hardly seem worth it, you bear down harder. 

“You’re the only one here,” she whispered. “You must help us escape.” 

Stephen King said to write the first draft behind closed doors and maybe that’s why I love NaNoWriMo. It’s the perfect excuse to lock myself in the asylum… er… institute. 

For over a year, I have struggled with writing my second novel, Before Pittsburgh, because I brought each scene as it was written to my writing group. Loving, supportive people though they are, the full novel was not envisioned let alone finished. Today, I’m ninety days from publication and Before Pittsburgh still feels broken and in need of serious repair. 

But the NaNo projects, all six of them, feel like five-dollar bills stuffed in the pockets of winter coats. They are all drafts and the beauty of a draft is that it can wait forever for its turn at revision. 

I love the frenzy of NaNo specifically because I know what I’m building doesn’t have to make any sense, or ever even see the light of day. My fingers fly over the keyboard crafting smallish scenes – 1200 to 2000 words at the time, meeting a daily word count goal and moving characters like strategic troop alignments. 

At the end of November, I’m a different kind of writer. One that perseveres. That that revels in creation but is scientific about revision. And revision comes later. Much later if my NaNo history is to be believed. 

In these last few days, when I’ve fallen so far behind in my wordcount as to need a serious effort (or a miracle) to complete the challenge, I know NaNoWriMo isn’t a great place to be, but it’s a great place to be from. Having generated, in that uncalculated frenzy, the first draft. Another winner. 

“And the fifth-in-line for revision,” she says, peeking out of her padded cell. “Queue ‘Taps’.”

  

Sunday, November 22, 2020

THE LATEST ADDITION

Meet a New Columbia II Writer


SHARON A EWING

Sharon A. Ewing is a retired teacher with 30 years of experience, mostly in the elementary and middle school grades. Also she’s taught Language Arts skills at the high school level, as well as technical and junior college and worked as a library assistant in both public and college libraries.

In 2015, she wrote the text for The Historical Stained Glass Windows of St. Peter’s Catholic Church. In 2017, she contributed an article to The Word Among Us. She is currently working on her first historical novel based on her great-great grandmother’s experience of immigrating to America.

Sharon’s  family includes a son, a daughter and 5 beautiful grandchildren. She and her husband love to travel. Her other passions include sewing, gardening, refinishing furniture and, reading, especially anything to do with history.


Sharon's first post on this page follows.