Sunday, August 30, 2015

IF YOU WANT to WRITE by Brenda Ueland: Book Review

By Chris Mathews

Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write, A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit, copyrighted first in 1938, inspires the reader not only to be a better writer, but also a more complete person. She makes the bold claim that the best writers are good people, and then convincingly makes her case, quoting from writers who have inspired her, some famous like Blake, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, some not so famous but every bit as truthful (her students among them). Ueland believes there is ‘genius’ in us all — “everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

After a long career as a writer, Ueland taught writing at the Minneapolis YWCA to a class of all ages and backgrounds. There she was able to help writers find the truth in their own writing. When students showed admiration for showy writing, she helped them see through it, encouraging them instead to write from a deep, heartfelt place. If one lives by the motto “be Bold, be Free, and be Truthful,” Ueland believes that anyone can write. Truthfulness, she says, will save the writer from “flamboyance and pretentiousness.”

If she weren’t able to write with such passion and tell such poignant stories of great artists and writers, you might brand her advice dreamy and impractical. But listen to her thoughts on Van Gogh from his letters on what his creative impulse was: “It was just this: he loved something —the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them.”
“… I hope to prove to you the importance of your working at writing, at some creative thing that you care about…only if I can make you feel that, will you do and persist in it… not only for the next few weeks! I want you to do it for years to come, all your life!”

Ueland writes these words in the chapter “Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man,” a quote from William Blake, the poet and artist. She revels in the joy with which Blake wrote and lived his life. He called his “Imagination” God. Only by doing what you love can you hope to experience this spirit (“the rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”). I will not soon forget Blake’s way of discerning what is good or bad: “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” A shocking thought, but she and Blake agree that we too often listen to the critics and the nay-sayers instead of our own authentic voices.

Unlike Ueland’s book, most books on writing give what I call ‘write-by-the-numbers’ advice. They offer step-by-step procedures that call like sirens to the aspiring writer. If you follow the advice, you might well create a well-structured, readable book, but the chances are you will leave out the most important element of good writing: you.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

I Hope This Blog Gets Sick

By Jodie Cain Smith

Yes, I hope this blog gets sick, contagious, viral. So, when looking to contaminate the Internet with my next stroke of genius, how do I encourage infection? I can write the most riveting content ever uploaded, but if the title stinks, no one will ever read my brilliance.

My recent post to the South Carolina Workshop Website blog soared to over 2,000 views in two days. (Nowhere near viral, but it was a strong showing. The average number of views of SCWW posts is between 150 and 500 per post.) As much as I would love to believe I have a gigantic online following and that my public clamors for every word I write, this is not true. The success of my recent post lies in the title.

When competing for online readers, keep these few, simple principles in mind when creating the title for your next post.

1.      Clarity is key. Tell the reader exactly what your post will address. Ambiguous titles such as “Inspiring Minds” or “Write or Wrong” may be clever, but they do not tell the reader anything about the post.
2.      Be honest. No one enjoys being lied to, so make sure your title reflects the content. Recently, a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook with a salacious title. It was juicy, real juicy. I clicked. I read. I realized the title was a lie. I did not click the share button. (I also knew the content of the article was in stark contrast to my friend’s personal view on the subject. I sent her a private message alerting her to the contrast. She posted the response, “Always read everything you share!” Palm to face.) 
3.      Keep it short. The title “These Ten Actions Will Make You Stop Being a Drag and Become a Good Person Today” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue and will probably fall subject to an ellipsis. Try instead, “Ten Acts to a Better You!” 
4.      Make it sexy. We are a scroll-and-click society. As creators, it is our job to make a reader stop scrolling and start reading. If trying to “sell” my thoughts on the craft of writing, I have to grab attention within one glance of a potential reader. Exciting, suggestive language does that. “Worst. Author Event. Ever” told my audience with an economy of words, “If you would like to read a snarky, emotional article on author book signings, click here.”

      Remember, ripples come from a splash. Go forth and jump into the pool, cannonball-style!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Three Deliberate Uses for Dialogue

By Kasie Whitener

My drafts are usually 85% dialogue. I get characters in a room, get them talking, and see what happens. During revision, I add the narrative stuff: action, setting, costumes, facial expressions. But initially, it’s just the conversation.

Dialogue is valuable for breaking up narration, adding texture and dynamics to the story. It’s also a great way to establish characters by letting the reader hear their voices. Here are three deliberate uses for dialogue that can be employed whenever you see a large hunk of narrative that is dragging the story down.

Deliver Exposition

My favorite teen TV show, The Vampire Diaries, is excellent at this one. The characters frequently recount what happened in previous episodes as if reminiscing.

“Like the time you killed your doppleganger by feeding her the cure for vampirism?”

When dialogue delivers exposition, it not only tells the reader what’s happened before the story began, it shows which of the characters are familiar with the exposition, too.

A writer can say, “Here’s what there is to know and who knows it,” by delivering exposition through dialogue.

Build Tension

This is one of those “show, don’t tell” skills. It’s easy enough for a writer to say of a main character: "He trembled with rage."

Using dialogue to build tension, the writer might say:

“Come closer.”

“Don’t hurt me.”

“It’s too late to avoid that.”

“But, you promised.”

"His voice so low she barely heard it, he repeated, 'Come closer.'”

After a scene builds with dialogue and two characters have reached a resolution, the scene needs narrative to give the reader a break. You know you’ve written too much tension into the dialogue when you read it aloud and run out of breath.

Change Direction

I call this pivot-point dialogue. It’s where the scene is building to a certain position, a particular outcome, until someone delivers a pivot via dialogue.

Narrative delivers pivot points by having the character do something unexpected. Maybe the villain falls to his knees and begs mercy, maybe he jumps off a cliff and soars into the ocean below. But dialogue pivot points are when a character says something unexpected.

My favorite happens in The Princess Bride when Westley and Prince Humperdinck are squaring off and the Prince says, “Surrender!” and Wesley says, “Death first!” and Buttercup shouts, “Will you promise not to hurt him?”

Both men look at her, stunned, comically responding with, “What was that?”

Readers know Buttercup has been making bargains to survive. It’s not surprising that she’d do what she could to protect Westley. But it surprises both of the men that she sees herself as having the ability to do so.

Characters cannot just say crazy things to change the direction of the story. Pivot dialogue points are the result of purposeful character development. The characters must have something to gain or they must be sacrificing something in order to prevent a particular outcome.

Let your characters speak and the story will tell itself.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dealing With a Personal Apocalypse

By Rex Hurst

In December of 1922 Ernest Hemingway was in Switzerland covering the Lausanne Peace Conference for a Canadian Newspaper. While there he met with an editor who liked his material and requested to see more. Hemingway cabled his wife in Paris to come immediately and bring all of his stories. With admirable thoroughness his wife complied, scooping up all of his work, including the carbon copies, and went down to the station to hop a train. She settled into a berth then, before the train left, went to buy a bottle of water on the platform. When she returned the suitcase was gone.

It was never recovered. The whole of his literary work went up in smoke. How did the world look to Hemingway when he found out? This is a personal apocalypse which is nearly impossible to put into words. Can you imagine? Can you relate?

Yes I can.

At the end of June I was on vacation. The plan was to go down to Florida for a little family reunion with my mom, brother, and his five kids - a direct flight from Charlotte to Florida. I had packed two bags for the trip. A big one, which contained all of my clothes, and a smaller carry-on in which I stowed a couple of books, some candy, personal toiletries, and the handwritten draft of the book I was working on. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

I woke up late and had to rush up to Charlotte, skipping breakfast. It took about an hour and a half. I opted to leave my car in one of the long-term lots and ran to a kiosk to wait for the airport shuttle. As I’m waiting, my phone rings, so I put my bags down to answer. It’s my mother, making sure that I had arrived on time. As I’m talking to her the shuttle arrives and I get on taking only the large bag. It wasn’t until I was physically getting onto the plane that I realized the smaller one was missing.

The material lost was about 140 pages, around 6 chapters, totaling 4 months work. I called the airport lost and found, but nothing had been turned in. During the entire vacation I had stress dreams about the bag. Like Tantalus’s grapes, it floated in front of me and zipped away when I tried to grab it. Once I realized that all hope was gone, depression crashed over me and I probably became the worst houseguest my brother had ever had, not wanting to do anything or even leave the bedroom.

So what does a person do? 1. I had to put aside all work on the book for now, I can’t even look at it without becoming depressed. 2. Store up the feelings and squirrel it away for use in some other work. Everything can be material. You never know when it might come in handy- such as in writing this blog.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Who Will Save Me?

By Laura P. Valtorta                                     

Who will save me from these loud-talking Italians? Will it be Hanya Yanagirhara (author of the excellent novel, A Little Life, now living in my reader)? Will it be a new Italian/French TV travel show – “Posso dormire da voi?” Or will it be Marco, whose head is now the color of a sour Ligurian cherry, after we swam three times in the Mediterranean today? (Sunscreen – ever heard of it?)

Of course the answer is Marco, because he is an Italian like no other. Marco is a citizen of the world.

I also rely on Hanya Yanagihara, whose brilliant novel gives me respite and escape in the hot apartment in Cavi, when we are not swimming (the cold water is the only place that brings relief) in the Mediterranean that was today flecked with yucky debris from the passing yachts. Or raw sewage.

We sweat. We walk to Bagni Aurelia and swim. We open our computers, we read, we drink cappuccini and spremute d’aranica. We gaze at the strange Italians, so loud and demonstrative with their children – kissing and kissing them (I approve of this). We get naked, and we swim.

Lunches are fish and salad at the local restaurants. Dinners are light and eaten at home. Tonight we had cherries, gorgonzola, Emmenthal cheese, chunks of bread and gelato (limone, fiordilatte, nutella, e fragola). Acqua frizzante.

The people at Bagni Aurelia, (where we have a cabin and an umbrella plus two chairs on the sand, where we eat lunch at the ristorante), are like comic book characters. There is Stefano, the sarcastic Sicilian proprietor and Silvia, his mousey wife. There is the stream of fogey neighbors who ask about Gioia, Clara, Ross, and Dante. There is the elegant, nut-brown barista girl, the self-conscious lifeguards (don’t I look great in my red T-shirt and tight shorts?) and the hairy men in small bathing suits and ugly sandaled feet.

On the beach, we see the topless women lying prone in the sun, and the coconut vendors – “Cocco. Cocco bello!” There are the Africans and Moroccans selling towels and sunglasses. One of the African women, wearing a long cotton dress, carries a basket of towels on her head.

At home I read A Little Life. I cry sometimes at Jude’s plight. I sleep on the sofa and sweat. Then we descend the steep driveway to the street. We walk under the train tracks. We emerge on the other side, walk past the comic book characters and swim.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Worst. Author Event. Ever.

By Jodie Cain Smith

As an author who wants to sell books, I occasionally deal with the public.  At a recent signing, attendance was so poor the “public” I dealt with for most of my allotted time was made up of the other two authors present. We shared a table so I couldn’t run away, even as some of the dumbest comments on publishing ever flew from their mouths. Nope, I’m not as sweet as I look, but at least my filter works.

Author 1:  “I double-spaced my book. It’s been a hit with the senior set.”

My silent response as I thumb through the pages of the “Christian Thriller” in question:  I have never read or heard anyone in the publishing industry recommend double-spacing a novel. Large print is an option, but costly, and the line lead varies from book to book and publisher to publisher, but this thing is printed in 16pt font and double-spaced. It’s gigantic! I could render someone unconscious with a book this thick. And what the heck is a “Christian Thriller?” Smile and nod, Jodie. Smile and nod. (If you are unaware as I was, Christian Thriller is an actual sub-genre on Amazon. Thank you, Google.)

Author 2:  “Why did you use a traditional publisher? I don’t want to share my money.”

I responded, “Because I wanted to, and I couldn’t afford to hire an editor.” My inner diva begged me to say, “Watch that tone, Lady. And what’s with the snarl? I hope your face sticks that way.”

Author 1, joining in:  “Oh, I didn’t use an editor. I wanted to see what I could do by myself. Sure, there are mistakes and quirks, but that’s what makes my book unique.”

My inner monologue:  Don’t laugh. Don’t bang my face against the table. Don’t pick up this guy’s “Christian Thriller” and bonk him on the head with it.

Instead I said, simply, “I love editors.”

Author 2, later:  “According to my publishing agreement, I had to buy 1,000 copies of my book, so now I have a good stock of books in my garage. You really should consider self-publishing.”

More smiling. More nodding. More screaming from my inner diva:  Are you kidding me? You didn’t self-publish. You vanity published! And who on Earth is going to buy 1,000 copies of your book out of your garage? Good job with that whole not-sharing-your-money thing.

Toward the end of our time together, I asked my tablemates if they are members of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop. They both nodded “no.” Then Mr. Double-space proposed the following question:

“I mean, what could a writer’s group actually do for me?”

“My chapter, Columbia II, makes me a better writer,” I told him. “They are my first-line defense against bad writing.”

“That wouldn’t work for me. I don’t need other people judging my stuff,” Author 1 told me while straightening his unsold stack of books.

I smiled. I nodded. Then I turned forward in my seat and stared at my own untouched stack. No more talkie-talkie. Let’s play the quiet game.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Just the Facts Please...

By Julia Rogers Hook

It’s been quite a summer for news in South Carolina lately. We’ve had the tragic Charleston massacre and then the ensuing controversial demands for taking down the Confederate flag that flew on the State House grounds. Before the deaths of the nine black worshippers at a Bible study in June by an accused white racist at Emmanuel AME Church, a white police officer was seen on video firing shots at and ultimately killing a retreating black man he had pulled over for a traffic stop.

While across the nation there were riots over similar incidents that also entailed looting and the burning of buildings, in our state the tragedies seemed to unite the people as opposed to dividing them. As a resident, I am deeply proud of my state but as a journalist, I faced some hard questions.

It’s obvious that unless we’re writing an editorial, no journalists’ opinions should enter our work. We are there to “report the news” and not to “comment” on it. We are supposed to deliver the facts and simply tell the story. We are never supposed to become part of the story if we are giving a fair and balanced account of events.

With the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capital grounds, there was a lot of gray area and it was not always a clear cut story.

One side said the flag was representing Southern heritage and history. The other said it glorified the days of slavery and racism.

How does a “fair and balanced” story come out of such a wide gulf? How, when a reporter is allotted only so much space, does he tell both sides and do it fairly?

Can it even be done?

I believe it can be done but it’s tricky because, no matter how fair a reporter tries to be in the delivery of the news, reports could be tainted by past life experiences such as upbringing, religion or politics. The news giver could lean one way or the other and with a few small changes in wording, change an entire meaning of a sentence.

For instance, if we take the police shooting in Charleston earlier this year, if the reporter said that “the officer said the suspect was going for his taser when he pulled out his gun,” that gives the officer some credibility.

But, if that reporter said that “the officer claimed that the suspect was going for his taser when he pulled out his gun,” that throws doubt on the officer’s statement.

With the flag controversy being all about opinions, I tried to find at least one appealing point of view from each side of the argument and then attempted to deliver that viewpoint to my readers as clearly and succinctly as possible. I wanted to give them information, not my personal feelings.

My goal is that what they hear from me will be the truth…unvarnished and simple.

Then I’m doing my job.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What to Do with Beta Reader Feedback

By Kasie Whitener

Three of my four beta readers have reported back and their comments have disappointed me.

Two had trouble staying engaged and the third didn’t understand the purpose of a crucial scene. None of them liked the protagonist, a first person narrator.

Despite the frustration I feel with negative feedback, I understand the important role beta readers play. Giving work to readers with distance from the piece and from me is a crucial part of the revision process.

So what do we do when their response is mostly frowns?

I have an initial response which sounds more like a petulant child (“They just don’t understand.”) but I swiftly push that aside. It took a while to take it less personally.

I use questions about my beta readers to put their comments in perspective. Once I’ve done that, I can revise the work using the beta reader criticism as a starting point.

Who is the target audience for this book and are my beta readers in it?
The target audience for After December is women in their thirties and forties, generation X, or book-club, soccer-mom types. My beta readers were two college-aged women and two grandmother-aged women. So not the ideal readers. That said, the millennials are the age of the protagonist so they may have at least related with his primary conflict. And they did.

What does the protagonist want and did the beta readers recognize that?
I’ve had trouble with this question all along. Only one of the beta readers mentioned it.

Were there common complaints about the work?
They all disliked the main character.

What specific scenes or relationships were mentioned?
One failed to understand a pivotal scene in the book. Others mentioned scenes where the story dragged. One had concerns about the supporting characters and their development.

What parts did the beta readers like?
The younger readers said the characters were relatable. The older ones liked the conflict with his parents. They all loved the prose.

Armed with an analysis of my readers’ feedback, I approach this revision like a surgeon:
I know I need to make the protagonist more likable. I should develop personality traits like compassion.

I know a particular scene’s gravity needs to be better. Think of this like a film director: is the camera angle changing the meaning of the scene? If so, shoot from another angle.

I know I need to take a look at the supporting characters and define their desires better. I’ll need a tool of some kind like a chart or a table to sort those competing desires out.

Mostly I’ve just needed some space. Some time away from the work, to forget what my intentions were so that I can see if for what it really is. Looking at it through the lens of beta readers helps, too.

I’m excited to polish it even more. How have beta readers help you gain perspective on your work?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Read the Bad Stuff

By Rex Hurst

I try to hone my writing skills by reading a lot and observing how others writers put their words together. I do this quite regularly, to the point where I often have to reread a page because I spent so much time analyzing the structure that I didn’t pay attention to the actual meaning.

When one chooses literature, it is natural to gravitate to the great writers in history. Ones that we all hope to emulate and, perhaps, join the ranks of. We dip through Dickens’ characterization or untangle Faulkner’s impossibly long sentences, trying to fill our souls and pens with the joy of the best literature in the world.

But, in my opinion, it is just as important to read bad writers and bad literature, as it is to absorb the good stuff. The reason is simple: to see what not to do. It is good to have a reminder to not indulge in clichés, to see what an awkward sentence looks like, or to avoid using the same damn word over and over again (Word has a thesaurus function, probably one of the best new tools for aspiring writers).

Let me give you an example from a bad book, recently turned into a worse film, 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. It is a book I eventually gave in and read after all of my students kept telling me it was “wonderful.” They and I obviously employ different definitions of the word.

“I line up the white ball and with a swift clean stroke, hit the center ball of the triangle square on with such force that a striped ball spins and plunges into the top right pocket. I’ve scattered the rest of the balls.”

Pardon me I think my eyes have melted. Here’s a fun little exercise, see if you can rewrite that passage in ten words or less and actually improve its clarity. It’s surprisingly easy.

Another example:

“And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain—probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells—comes the thought: He's here to see you."

A tiny part of my brain rejoices that I’ve learned not to overfill my sentences with extraneous adjectives. The other part has shut down with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people scarfed this book down and loved it.

Still the passage above, and many like it have served to remind me about what I do not want my writing to be like. I don’t regret reading 50 Shades of Grey because by analyzing its awfulness, it has perversely helped to make me a better writer.

My advice is to study these writings. The bad plots churned out for a paycheck. The twisted sentences and flat characters. Analyze these missteps of literature, these forgettable tomes, these purple prose troubadours, and remind yourself how not to follow in their footsteps.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Denissa: She’s Got a Mouth on Her

By Kimberly Johnson

Denissa is a friend of a friend. She has, umm, an unusual vocabulary. While eating from the riblet basket at Applebee’s, fantabolous floated from her sauce-ridden lips. Guess she was really hungry. Suffice it to say, I never heard that word before. Dino-riffic-ness. That one sprang to life after we left the late night viewing of Jurassic World. Needless to say, I didn’t see that word in Webster’s.  Frump-pah-lee. That one tickled the eardrums when she described an off-the-rack haute couture design that Kim Kardashian paraded around in at some event, somewhere in La La Land.  Not quite the word I would have used to describe the outfit. Denissa possesses a loosey-goosey lexicon that gets the point across to her listeners. Isn’t that what words are supposed to do? I found an article by Deborah Grayson Riegel, president of Elevated Training Inc., a communication skills training and coaching company. Riegel showcases the P.R.E.P. method, a way for “plain talkers” and “protracted talkers” to communicate to the rest of the world. I thought it was a reliable template for writers. (It could reduce the drafts and hair-pulling when writing the next American Novel.)
In this four-step process, you get to figure out where you tend to go long, where you fall short, how to organize your ideas, how to make a complete case, and how to keep from getting lost in your thoughts. As long as you remember which letter you’re up to (there are only four), you’ll always know what’s supposed to come next.”P:  Make your point. Make it clear, clean, and concise. It can include a point of view—brief doesn’t have to mean neutral.
R:  Reason. Justify your point. I think one robust reason is excellent, two solid reasons are good, and three are the maximum. After that you start to lose your listener, your ground, and your train of thought.E: Example (or Evidence, or Experience.) Bring it to life, and bring your life to it.P: Point. Restate your point. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Awesome Writers

By Bonnie Stanard

After reading Seize the Day years ago, I could hardly put together a sentence until I got over its effect. Saul Bellow’s novel is so insightful and culturally savvy, its impact on writers is a two-edged sword. Some are inspired to try harder. Others become disheartened and feel like throwing in the towel.

This is about vocabulary and language aptitude as well as the ability to construct meaningful associations from life experiences. Bellow had the ability to observe common phenomena we don’t notice ourselves and, by some stroke of magic, crystallize them into truths.

Ian McEwan is another author I read at the risk of becoming so intimidated my own work seems a waste of energy. At his best, he puts into words concepts that make us see ourselves in a different light. Several novelists come to mind whose talents have, at one time or another, poked holes in my ambition to write—Truman Capote, Annie Proulx, and Zadie Smith.

My failing in this situation is that I lose faith in myself. Faced with awesome novels, I forget that I am writing, not to be perfect, but to grow mentally and to try to understand people and the world we live in. At the same time, getting better at the game is vital to me. I write this knowing that the ambition to “get it right” thwarts what should be an adventure and constrains the exploration.

This category of “awesome writers” that I’ve made up for myself is a lofty cast. There are aspects of writing other than plucking truths out of daily life. Excellence takes a variety of forms. Sometimes it’s a well-written sentence. Or sharp dialogue. A captivating voice. And then there are the different genres that require altogether different expertise. As a professional, I need to recognize and value the quality of diverse skills.  

To a lesser degree and in a different respect, Don DeLillo’s White Noise gave me writer’s block. I feverishly underlined the explosive language of the first fifty pages. After a while, the plot sagged and the book became more about word acrobatics than substance. Likewise with the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire. As well as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. These writers have a command of idiom and word technique that I can only dream of. On the other hand, in spite of the excellent wordplay I didn’t finish reading any of these books.

It takes courage to believe in ourselves. To take on the competition. Courage to submit our creations to the public. Courage to persevere in the face of rejections. Jessamyn West said it: “Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely necessary.”

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Achieving Catharsis in Our Stories

By Kasie Whitener
After seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, my husband and I sat in a restaurant quietly staring into space.

The film emptied us completely of anything we might have had to say.

From the opening scene to the credit roll, Joss Whedon delivers the highest form of art cleverly disguised as a multi-million dollar blockbuster superhero film.

Action scenes? Check.

Compelling characters? Check.

Computer-generated special effects? Check.

Loud. So loud.

Big. So big.


Why is a writer writing about a film on a writers’ blog? Because Age of Ultron reminded me what great art is really about.


Aristotle says catharsis in drama purges us of our own fear and pity. Cathartic art relieves us of what we were burdened by.

One of my favorite novels, Monsters of Templeton, provides catharsis through what David Coe calls the “Aha! Of course!” moment. When we finally learn who the narrator’s birth father is, we realize we knew it all along. When we finally learn the truth behind the mysterious lake monster that preoccupied the town, we realize the metaphor has been teasing us through the entire book
I believe really good storytellers deliver catharsis on accident. They know the character so well, the events unfold so naturally, and the story moves so beautifully that suddenly we feel satisfied and we’re not sure why. It feels like magic. Unintentional enlightenment.

Books that fail to deliver catharsis typically suffer from the stakes being too low. What really happens if this character doesn’t get what she wants?

The question, “What’s at stake?” is how we recognize the character’s commitment to the story. And when a character is totally committed, as in the stakes are as high as they can possibly be, then catharsis is imminent. Either the character will fail in a spectacular way and we’ll feel the pity Aristotle predicts. Or the character will succeed and we’ll rejoice in the triumph. But we don’t get to the edge of our seats unintentionally. A writer brought us there. There is intention in setting the stakes. Catharsis is simply the payoff. For the writer and the reader.

Can we plan such it? We don’t really know how people will connect with or respond to our character’s journey. We don’t know if people will give a fig that the character has achieved his goal.
We must make them care. The character must experience some kind of transformation as a result of the story. The end point for our characters provides the catharsis for our readers.

If we create the circumstances for high stakes and deep personal change, we’re likely to deliver catharsis. The Age of Ultron delivers catharsis because it keeps us looking, learning, and feeling for the full length of the film. It wears us out. Afterwards we are spent.

Good art provides catharsis. All storytellers have an opportunity to take viewers and readers on an emotional journey and leave them stunned into silence at the end.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Rex Hurst is a writer and a university instructor orginally from Buffalo, NY. After 30 years of attempting to write stories, he feels his talent has finally hit the right pitch to attempt to sell it. He also is trying to discover if one can grow wheat in a pot sitting by the window.

Waiting for Inspiration

By Rex Hurst

I often talk to my students or other aspiring authors about producing material. They ask me what I’m working on and I ask them about their routine; about how they go about the physical act of writing. I am one of those people who thinks best with a pencil, thus I write out everything longhand first. Many people seem to regard this as slowing the process down immensely. I see it as another level in the revision process, one where I take all the undigested bits of ideas and start to put them into a coherent form. A lot just want to dive right in. Nothing wrong with that, each writer has their own way of creating material. As long as you produce, there is no bad way.

That being said there is one phrase that I hear over and over again which almost guarantees failure: “I wait until I’m inspired before I write.” As anyone who has written a novel knows, a person’s enthusiasm tends to wane the more you have to work on a story. It ebbs away bit by bit, until you hit that 10,000 word wall and everything you’ve put together seems terrible. You question every single character, every plot point, every noun and verb, your ability as a writer, your very place in the universe! This is the precise moment when the joy of writing slips away and it becomes work. But that’s a fact you have to deal with if you want to finish a story.

There was a lady I knew who relied entirely on inspiration to spur her into action. She’d come up with an idea, then she’d talk about it, and talk about it, and talk about it some more, then, in a burst of passion, feverishly clack away on the keyboard. Gradually the passion would fade and her typing slowed down, eventually stopping altogether. She’d save it and print a single copy to store away until she gained the inspiration to continue.

I looked at that file once. There must have been at least 50 stories in there, some very promising, none finished. All of that work for nothing, because she didn’t want to put in the effort to stay with a story until its conclusion.

We all get inspired to write. An idea strikes us, bells ring in our heads, and the words flood out. It is an excellent way to begin. But waiting for inspiration to finish a piece is folly. Once the initial excitement is over, writing is work, an honest to God job. Anyone can write when they’re inspired. The professional writes when they aren’t.

So write! No matter what! Set a daily pace for yourself and stick with it. Even when your head is clogged with confusion. Even when the pen is being a beast. Even if every syllable is torture. Write! Write! Write! Force yourself. Because that’s the only way to get the job done. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Art Responds to Black Lives Matter Movement

By Len Lawson 

Photo by Sumter County Gallery of Art

Ekphrastic poetry is poetry based on works of art. I recently gave an ekphrastic poetry reading at Sumter County Gallery of Art based on art by Antoine Williams. One of his works is an installation called “What It Look Like”. It includes elements such as tires, police caution tape, and flowers.

In my opinion, it’s like a juxtaposition of our diverse emotions in our bodies. Zora Neale Hurston said it this way in her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.”

 But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a    wall in company with other bags, white, red, and yellow…On the ground before you is    the jumble it held—so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all  might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content any  greatly.

Every emotion in our brown bags has no business sharing space in the same body: love, fear, anger, hate, depression, disappointment, excitement, apathy. In the Black Lives Matter movement, every black body has purpose. Some may not appear as civilized or Americanized as others. Some seem barbaric and savage, but what else can be expected growing up in concrete jungles around our nation: environments where men in uniforms and suits relegate black bodies to fractions of a soul?

When the emotions from the brown bag become volatile from being caged by preconceived notions of blackness or even humanity, black bodies become known as thugs. The word thug originated as gangster terminology similar to the word goon, or hired criminal. Not every angry black body fits this description.

Perhaps if blacks were the ones who enslaved whites for centuries, then our culture would be the benchmark for an already fractured society. However, it already is now the benchmark. Black culture and rebellion is a cliché that white children mock as well as embrace. White children borrow from black bodies because they feel theirs is not enough. Having every opportunity as a dominant race is not enough to them.

How could they possibly believe this? It is because although black bodies have been crushed and cramped into thin sheets by the thousands in ghettos, prisons, and even classrooms, black bodies still bear a smile on the walls of their brown bags. Black bodies dance, sing, and laugh, yet on the inside, the contents within the bags decay in silence. They see blacks’ resolve and covet blacks’ resilience. Their parents call it uncivilized. Blacks call it culture and heritage. That is how a gifted black man can take what they call trash from the essence of himself and call it art.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tiffany’s Got The Writing Bug

By Kimberly Johnson

This won’t take too long. My cousin Tiffany has a summer reading independent book report and she wants me to help her with it. That’s saying a lot from someone who counts Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Zendaya as her social media buddies. Let me back up. 

Tiffany’s mom teaches 8th grade Language Arts-slash-English-slash-Writing. She wants Tiffany ahead of the curve so this is where the independent comes in. Tiffany has to read “The Classics” before entering the sixth grade. OMG—I remember that. It’s my job to help Tiffany organize her thoughts and notes. Best thing is, Tiffany likes to put pen to paper. She submitted articles for her class newsletter, she helped her mom with lesson plans, she even thought about writing an online letter to The State newspaper. 

Heck, with all that texting and tweeting, who knew she could compose complete sentences. I like this move Tiffany’s making. I believe that young people can become awesome writers. It opens the doors to critical thinking and creativity which will make them a valuable asset in whatever endeavor they seek out.

When I was her age and even younger, I liked to compose short stories and bind the loose leaf sheets with construction paper. I too completed those pesky summer reading reports. That started my writing bug.  I scratched the itch while writing for the high school newspaper; took a hiatus in college; and jumped back in with my first job after college. I worked for the Newberry Observer. From there, I continued feeding the writing bug with freelance opportunities.

Sorry, I need to leave you guys…Tiffany’s writing bug is biting.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Basic Novel Map

By Kasie Whitener

Most writing teachers suggest plotting your story by asking yourself, "What does this character want?"

If you're like me, you back into these analyses. I'm a pantser. I just write the story as it comes to me. Only afterward am I able to discern what exactly the character wants and what he's willing to do to get it.

So if that's the case, if you're not going to be able to answer those two crucial questions until the 4th draft (like me) then how do you plot the story without knowing the desired outcome?

You can use a basic map:

The Introduction sets the scene. Who is our protagonist and what are her current circumstances? What is different about right now in this person's life? Why didn't we start reading about her three days ago?

Turning Point 1 is the inciting incident. Maybe she's a reporter and she's just received an anonymous tip. What is the tip? Why was she chosen? What does she have to do now that she knows this tip information?

Turning Point 2 complicates the protagonist's journey. She's been in pursuit of something but now the stakes are higher. Maybe following this tip has put her at a conflict with her employer. Maybe she realizes she cannot trust her boss or his advice.

Turning Point 3 is the point of no return. It's here that our character either has the courage to plow ahead regardless of the consequences or where she tries to back track and undo what's already been done. Nothing can be the same after this point and some of the most engaging stories are where the protagonist realizes this too late.

The Climax is where the protagonist must make a permanent change in herself in order to move forward. She must choose either change and victory or cowardice and defeat. Characters who give up, drop out, or refuse to complete their quest are frustrating but they're real. It does not lessen the drama for the character to fail.

Finally, the Aftermath of our protagonist's choice. What fall out is expected and what actually occurs? Is there a happily-ever-after to be lived?

Plot is like a roller coaster that saves the biggest thrill for last.

Begin with a small hill, a small turn, maybe an upside-down or a corkscrew, but then a climb, always a climb, and a freefall to the bottom. Out of control and exhilarating, the plunge should feel like a payoff.

As a reader, if you've hung with this character through turning point choices, you are invested in the outcome. As a writer, reward your readers for hanging in there with an aftermath that satisfies.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Distractions or Inspiration?

By Jodie Cain Smith

My writing to-do list is long. A new novel needs to be revised and edited. The marketing plan for my first novel is incomplete. Short story ideas fill notebooks. A script begs daily for my attention, and novel number three wants to be started, but my writing distraction takes priority.

My distraction weighs fourteen pounds and five ounces. With big eyes and a wide grin that would melt the most heinous villain into a puddle of baby talk, Baby Boy beckons. When I lift him from his crib, he nestles his face into my neck, and his eyelashes tickle my skin. Time to write goes the way of the lullaby, disappearing gently into the stillness around me.

Anyone reading this may respond, “Of course, Jodie. He is a baby. He has to be your priority right now.” So, why did I, for weeks after giving birth, feel the pull of my laptop? Why was this pull so strong that I often felt guilty for holding Baby Boy while he slept in my arms rather than placing him in his crib so that I could write? The guilt came because I am a writer, and, must write. Everyday. Or do I?

Over the last four years since I stepped out of the government employee meat grinder in order to write fulltime, I have had plenty of distractions. Theatre rehearsals, social engagements, and weekend getaways with the hubby took me away from my laptop. Two weeks spent moving from one home to another left my laptop untouched other than to research new restaurants, gym hours, audition notices, and a much needed writers’ group, but I was not left with guilt from these distractions. I recently asked myself why not?

Then I remembered a conversation I had with a peer last summer. We discussed a mutual friend of ours. He is young, really young, in that way that people in their late thirties view college kids. So young. He’ll learn. I can hear my own inflated sense-of-self casting judgment. His writing skills are there. What he needs is life experience, my peer and I agreed.

Yes, I do believe having a rich, life experience to draw on is important to every writer. After nearly forty years on Earth, I am still trying to understand and fully capture in words the human experience. I look back to my childhood, adolescence, and burgeoning adulthood for inspiration. So, why did I forget that distractions are beneficial and that from distractions new inspiration will come?

Because I never knew until becoming a mother that some distractions are quiet, with only the tiny sound of two brand new lungs doing their job. Some distractions snuggle into the crook of an arm and coo as they drift off to sleep. And some distractions get pretty angry, if after Baby Boy has fallen asleep in my arms, I try to sneak him into his crib for his afternoon nap and tiptoe to my office.

Thankfully, and just in time for Mother’s Day, I have remembered that our distractions are what we actually write about. Without them, what stories do we have to tell? From the looks of the angel smiling at me from his swing, I will be distracted and inspired for years to come. I hope your distractions inspire you to write as well.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Predicament of Procrastination

By Julia Rogers Hook

If Shakespeare had had social media we might have never known Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet or even the ever-charming MacBeths.

Email during the time of Dickens would have left the miserly Scrooge and sweet Tiny Tim buried forever with dear Charlie.

I just imagine such greats as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne scribbling by candlelight with their quills and ink pots and wonder what they would think of today’s fledgling writers like myself who are so easily distracted with posting photos of vacations or cute little pet tricks.

Today with the most modern techniques for writing at our fingertips, I can’t imagine how the scribes of yesteryear did it. With no electricity, no copy and paste and…oh merciful heavens, no spell check, these authors of classics sat in their drafty homes creating treasured stories with nothing more than a candle and their imaginations.

And yet I seem to always find myself procrastinating when it comes to writing.

I’m always in awe of my colleagues as they doggedly do whatever it takes to get their work out there and get their pieces published. I’m always happy for them, overjoyed, even. But I can’t help wondering how they do it when I seem to have so much trouble getting myself to “buckle down” and really concentrate on my writing.

“WHERE do they find the time,” I think to myself.

Do they get up early? Go to bed later? Write in the middle of the night? Go to coffee shops? Perhaps lock themselves away in a tower? These are published authors but they aren’t hermits. They have spouses and children and jobs.

They must know something that I don’t.

Are they perhaps members of a big underground club that I’ve not been invited to join?
Maybe there’s a secret formula or even a covert password or clandestine handshake that grants them passage into some writers’ version of a VIP lounge?

But I know the truth.

They simply make their writing a priority in their lives. They, as the shoe company says, “just do it.”

And they do it one page at a time or probably even sometimes one sentence at a time.

They write.

And review it and edit it and then rewrite it.

If we have 12-step programs for alcohol, drugs, gambling and even over-eaters, maybe we should come up with something for procrastinating writers. I’d be one of the charter members and even get there early to start the coffee and bring the cookies. I can see us all sitting in our circle of chairs and each person “shares” their tales of why they can’t get started on their book.

Of course…we could also all use that time to stay home and write instead of moaning about why we aren’t working couldn’t we?


“Hello…my name is Julia and I’m a procrastinator.”

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Writing with Clabber

By Laura P. Valtorta

The best thing about filmmaking is the collaboration it requires. Shooting a scene correctly requires an experienced crew – director, cinematographer, lighting specialist, and sound person. Without those elements, the production values suffer. The audience notices distracting mistakes.

Screenwriting is also a team effort. “Workshopping” a screenplay can help, but the best thing is to write with a partner. Clabber and I work well together on screenwriting because we are so different. He has solid ideas. Mine are crazy. He prefers a polished effect. I like to take risks. The differences between us never end.

Clabber worships GOD and DOG. I’m an atheist who can’t abide animals in the house.

Clabber is short; I’m tall.

Clabber loves horror films; I can barely deal with Alfred Hitchcock.

Clabber takes five years to write his horror scripts. I take five months.

Recently Clabber and I sat down to make changes to Quiet on the Set. We only had 90 minutes. Everybody is busy. And Clabber had brought in a co-worker to give a third perspective on the script. Or maybe John was there to protect us from killing each other.

Either way, the meeting went well. I sat back and listened to Clabber’s specific ideas and John’s general thoughts on changing the script. Before that meeting, I was convinced the screenplay was finished. Now I realize that I need to edit. The polishing may take some time.

We’re headed in the right direction.