Sunday, July 16, 2017

Literary Serials: Marketing Gold with a Binge-worthy Twist

By Jodie Cain Smith

I first met Jolene Harris, a woman who “grew up knowing the real hair color of every woman in town,” in Michele Feltman Strider’s Home series. With witty, troubled characters, Strider dances the line between graceful, women’s fiction and comedic shenanigans. It was Jolene’s shenanigans that drew me to Strider’s new serial Homestyle (digital download available on Amazon). Now, I’m obsessed.

I mean, come on! If you don’t want to read about a woman who steals her boyfriend’s car then grinds the gears for four hours from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home to her mama in Bayou La Batre at 2am because the jerk visited a strip club, well, I have to wonder how much we really have in common. But, I digress as to not give too much away.

But, however much I am loving this serial (now on issue three), my obsession goes beyond my love of a character “raised on a hearty diet of gossip, hearsay, and hairspray,” and the author who created her. I am obsessed with the potential the resurgence of literary serials holds for small press and independent authors.

As authors and writers, why reinvent the wheel of book marketing when we could take a look from the way back seat? Way, way back.

Literary serials were born out of economic need. Dickens and others of his time understood the economic strain of their readers. Rarely, if ever, could the Dickensian Everyman afford to buy a whole novel. However, many could scrounge up a penny to devour the next installment of their favorite saga of the local paper.

The same could be said today of time. The busy reader, the commuter reader, or the read-while-in-the-carpool-line reader will find a work designed to be read in short snippets very appealing.

Marketing a serial builds a public.

Thou shall not fill thy friends’ walls with the same product over and again. Rather than risking the “unfollow,” a writer can promote new material as issues are released. Then, anticipation for the next issue builds, readers begin sharing ideas of the not-yet-released issues, and new readers find you because of the online chatter. More posting, especially of quality products, increases an online platform.

Who doesn’t love a box set?

For the author looking to boost Amazon sales, the best way to do this is to have multiple products to sell. Once all the issues of a literary serial are released, an author can “box” them together, thus creating a new product. From there, discounts for buying the entire set can be given, a paperback version of the collection can be offered (think special edition), and new promotions designed for each product, sale, or combo can be posted.

As we all know from waiting for the next episode of whatever TV serial we are obsessed with, the anticipation of the next, juicy installment is both torture and delight. Literary serials and the accompanying anticipation can create the same excitement. But, this time the excitement could be for your work!

In your future literary serial, who will your main character be? Share your spiciest idea in the comment section below!

If you would like to know more of Michele Feltman Strider and her writing, visit her at https://www.facebook.com/MicheleFeltmanStrider.



Sunday, July 9, 2017

Grab a Notebook

By Ginny Padgett

 I started a nonfiction book project in 2014 based on experiences and interviews with 15 people once a month for a year. I’m still not finished writing it. When I take excerpts of it to workshop for feedback, sometimes they are met with astonishment by some of the respondents (also from workshop). “How can you remember our conversations and the details of our meetings so accurately? You have a great memory!”

I was flattered by their accolades, but there is a simple, mundane explanation. As soon as I returned home from each encounter, I made strategic notes to jog my memory when I was ready to write. If something in our discussions struck me as important enough to me to use as a direct quote, I jotted down key words. Not only could I remember the quote I wanted, but that often provided enough spark to reconstruct the whole exchange, bolstering interest with dialogue while fleshing out the action. I don’t think I have a better than average memory. Notes, and perhaps practice from journalism school, were the trick.

As time elapsed, I came to see diarizing an event has personal benefits as well. While writing my manuscript, it occurred than more once that these notes and recorded dates jump-started memories I needed to calculate and navigate everyday life.

Mindfully now I record outings and appointments in my calendar with details…and don’t delete them as tasks accomplished. “What was the name of that movie we went to last month?” “Where did you find that tray?” “Where was that cute restaurant we stopped at on the way to Baltimore?” “When’s the last time I saw the dermatologist?” I can find the answer to these kinds of questions in a jiffy. It doesn’t make for world peace, but sometimes it does make my life easier, tidier or evokes a smile when I look back and find a happy time spent with friends and family.

Fortunately, notetaking is easier than ever since the smart phone in your pocket is packed with more technology that the 1960s space-race effort. Snap a photo. Use the voice recorder to make notes for yourself. Ask your companion or interviewee if you may record a chat about an interesting subject. Immediacy is primary to getting it down right for nonfiction.

I realized another plus. Keeping notes on events, behaviors and deportment, environment, conversations can be prompts for plots, characters, settings, and dialogue for fictional writing. Take notes and see where they lead.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Put Social Media to Work for You

By Kat Dodd 

Social Media: It isn’t just for volunteering your own privacy anymore. In many ways, social media has become synonymous with the internet itself. Without social media, you might as well be utilizing only a fraction of the internet. I think that you can agree that not using the internet to promote your work is all but impossible for anyone but the most established writers. After all, many writers are even skipping formal publishing and simply self-publishing online. More and more books are digital and many people would rather meet you online in the comfort of their homes rather than venture to events to meet you in person.

As writers, we can have a tendency to be a little introverted at times or “lost in our heads” so to speak. That isn’t to say that we are anti-social beings, but we can tend to over-analyze things in general and be a lot better at focusing on our craft than having the ability to promote our work to others. However, Social Media provides the perfect outlet to network without the pressure of trying to find people to share your work with out of thin air.

In a previous post in May, Rex Hurst described the importance of networking in general when it comes to being published and promoting your work, but I would emphasize the importance of social media in particular. Utilizing social media to promote yourself and your work is the most cost effective way to network.

Before I began writing fiction again, I simply wrote reviews and articles and promoted myself with Facebook, Twitter, and other sites such as Tumblr. I followed other people that wrote similar articles and got attention from them and their readers by commenting on and sharing their work, as well as gaining inspiration from their writing styles. Inevitably, I got noticed and had a following before I had really begun my own website. Once I had my website, I was able to use cost effective advertising on social media that was targeted towards those with similar interests and my notoriety flourished for a while.


Similarly, I would recommend that you begin using social media for your fiction in a similar way. Find similar writers on social media with Facebook groups and pages, pay sincere attention to them as well as their readers and watch yourself grow as a result. Promote yourself with your words and actions to them, more than by directly mentioning your work. Advertise your page separately and only volunteer knowledge of your page after you make those initial connections. Share some of your ideas freely, like samples of food at the Supermarket. People want to be freely interested in you before they make a true investment in your work.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Road Trips: The Ultimate Writer’s Block Cure




By Kasie Whitener

The return journey was 548 miles, nine hours, all interstate, and took the better part of a Monday with no other plans. Coming off a U2 concert in Philadelphia, Father’s Day spent with Dad and my sister, the distance was worth it.

Rain splattered the windshield and the radio sang U2 songs from the Greatest Hits album. The Jeep barreled along, 70- to 80-miles-per-hour, chewing up the distance and carrying us home. The Shenandoah mountains rolled around us like vibrant green waves undulating on a fresh, damp sea. Meadows laced with wire fences and dotted with rolled hay arched into the sunlight, pulling away from tree pocket borders of dark summer shade.

“I want to run,” sang the radio, “I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside. I want to reach out and touch the flame. Where the streets have no name.”

When I talk about how many miles I put on the Jeep, how long I spend behind the wheel on road trips, people marvel. For some, road travel is something to be dreaded: a necessary evil in the vacation plans, an alternative to pricey flights.

For me, road trips are freedom.

When life is muddied with details and obligations, a good road trip sets me free.

I love the churn of the miles, green paddles lining the road ticking of the distance, pushing mental math through me as I calculate time and speed.

I love the interplay of trucks and minivans and cruise control and passing lanes.

I love the sleepy exit towns with mom-and-pop lunch buffets and 1980s-era gas pumps.

I’ve been driving that route – I-77 through Charlotte to I-81 through Roanoke and Lexington and Harrisonburg to I-66 through Manassas – for more than 20 years. It’s aged with me. I know its turns and speed traps like it knows my moods and frustrations. When the truck traffic gets heavy south of Staunton, it breaks into a third lane to ease the pressure.

Road trips break open the nostalgia in me, let it bleed over the today-ness and tomorrow-plans that consume me. I remember family trips and Dad blaming his farts on passing trucks. I remember college trips and the ‘Songs to Bellow To’ mixed tape.

The road between where I am now and where I used to be is stacked with when-I-stopped-there stories and almost every mile of the journey from South Carolina to Northern Virginia has some perfect detail I should write down someday.

I get more from the road than I give it. The road answers questions for me.
What does the character want? To be valued.

What is the story missing? Raise the stakes.

Like a writing coach, the road talks me through the work I left on the laptop on the desk in the house far away. The road stretches out, teasing the details from the work, offering perspective, offering freedom, offering inspiration, until I return and create.

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.