Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Write, Rip, and Read!” You’re on the Air!

By Julia Rogers Hook

For most of my writing life, I have been a “rip and read” writer.

I’m a journalist and for many years I worked as a broadcast and newspaper reporter who covered a lot of breaking news. In getting the new developments out quickly, there isn’t much time to edit your words but you need to do enough editing to ensure your report is accurate. That can be daunting when facing a deadline and doubly so when you’re writing for broadcasting with updates going out every 15 minutes.

As I moved from an “at the scene” reporter to feature writing for magazines and newspapers and then on to column writing, I had much more time to reread my pieces and adjust them accordingly. But sometimes I do miss the urgency of being the “first” reporter out there with any new tidbit from the authorities or whomever I’m covering.

Elections could always go both ways. They could be extremely exciting, especially when there was a controversial bill or candidate on the table or they could seemingly last for decades, if whatever was on the table was a sure thing. Then it was just covering the candidate’s or the bill’s promoters continuously as they spewed out the same old “six-second-soundbites” repeatedly.

These days I sort of wish I were back out in the field and covering the 2016 elections. With the two most unpopular candidates that have ever run in my lifetime out there stumping, I think this would be an extremely interesting experience to cover either one of them.

Between Trump and his public rants and Clinton and her equally public missteps that have led even some of the most stalwart members of their own parties to distance themselves from the two of them, it seems like following either of them on the campaign trail could be a royal treat. But in the event that I was going from rally to rally with this not-so-dynamic duo, I would still be doing the rip-and read writing that I have always been most comfortable with.

I sometimes want to change that. I imagine myself telling a tale of utmost interest to everyone on the planet and somehow I will develop characters that will live long after my own demise. I want to create the Scout and Jem characters and bring them to life like Harper Lee did. I want to spin a story that will capture the hearts of people everywhere, no matter how they live or worship or whom they love. I want to make people feel! Feel everything…love, hate, remorse, forgiveness, sorrow and joy. I want them to laugh out loud and cry real tears when they read my words.

That’s what I want.

But until then….rip and read ain’t so bad.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Gold Medal Storytelling

By Kasie Whitener 

Everything I know about boxing I learned from the Rocky movies.

The gritty character of Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa is an American icon and the Rocky story is a classic American underdog tale. We love stories about an unknown, scrappy, determined kid whose heart and passion win him the big prize. Think Karate Kid, Annie, or Goonies; how about David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, or Cinderella?

According to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, rags-to-riches or underdog stories are so much a part of our shared storytelling experience that we actually take them for granted. 

NBC’s Olympics journalists are looking for underdog stories on every competitor in Rio. Americans want to cheer for underdogs. That’s our national character: the drive and gumption needed to succeed despite the odds. We believe if you work hard enough you can be a winner, a champion, a gold medalist.

In the telling of the athletes’ stories from Rio, a pattern has emerged. First, we’re told who the athlete is and we’re reminded how difficult the event he’s competing in will be. A flashback sequence follows full of grammar school photos of the athlete as a child meeting his idol or winning his first championship. Next, a major setback is described: an injury, a personal loss, a competitive loss, or a catastrophic diagnosis. Then the comeback is described: how the athlete found the inner strength to push through heartbreak and work even harder to achieve his dream. The final bit is always the tee-up moment, the athlete himself stating his goal.

“I’m just here to compete and maybe take home a medal.” Humble to the last.

We love these stories so much that sports journalism has developed a formula for them and nowhere is the formula more effective than the Olympics. Because yesterday we didn’t care about these people and next week we won’t care about them again. But today, right now, we care so much we’re shouting at the TV for Mara Abbott to maintain her lead on the bike, Katie Ledecky to shatter her own world record in the pool, and Kerri Walsh-Jennings to spike that ball into the sand like it’s her job.

Lots of genre fiction conforms to formula. Mysteries and romance each have patterns that genre writers freely admit to following. Sometimes it seems as though we really are recycling the same seven basic plots over and over again.

When storytelling has been such an essential part of the human experience for centuries, it really is hard to tell a new story.

As writers we can be discouraged by that knowledge; maybe we’re just renaming old heroines and spinning the same trite tales. Or maybe we can use the seven basic models to keep our own ideas balanced and familiar.

Then we can add a little magic like that classic underdog Harry Potter.

We can make old stories new and keep our audience cheering for our heroines until the last bell of the last round. There are 12 of them, according to Rocky.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Inspirational Tarot Garden

By Laura P. Valtorta

Our trip to the Tarot Garden in Capalbio, Italy reinforced the idea that art inspires art. Looking at modern art, and the huge, colorful, fantastic sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, helped me to write better.
Before visiting the Tarot Garden, it was important to read the sweet, chaotic, horrible story of Niki’s life. A recent article in The New Yorker allowed us to do that.

The giant tarot sculptures built by Niki and her friends and the people of Capalbio emphasized the sadness and the chaotic nature of life and love. “Death” is one of the most beautiful sculptures.  Another is “Justice” with an accompanying sculpture by Jean Tiguely, Niki’s second husband, inside.

Before building the garden, Niki had abandoned her young children to their father (the writer Henry Matthews) and spent time in an insane asylum. After her six-week stay in the asylum, Niki turned to art as a way to protest the conventions imposed by society on women. She was a performance artist and a successful sculptor. Her art is displayed throughout the world and in Paris in front of the Centre Georges Pompidou.

The sculptures in the Tarot Garden are made of ceramic and mirror tiles, reinforced by steel and cement. Niki lived alone inside the Empress for many years while building the 14-acre garden.

The poignancy of this garden comes from knowing about Niki’s sad, messy, creative life and seeing the joy she infused in the gigantic sculptures. On the side of the Impicciato sculpture is a love story in tiles with drawings that illustrate the first meeting, desire, love letters, breaking up, and remaining friends.

Any artist – writer, painter, sculptor, or musician – can benefit from walking through Niki’s garden. It took her seventeen years to create and shows how steadfast her passion for beauty was. The depth of emotion is what makes this garden meaningful.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

White writers who produce novels with black protagonists will find it near impossible to attract a publisher. This, according to author Carla Damron, who appeared at a book club meeting I recently attended. Her comment referenced the reaction to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which was criticized in the black community. For a response to the novel and movie, see the letter published as “A Critical Review of the novel The Help”.

When I was working on my novel Kedzie, Saint Helena IslandSlave, it came as a surprise to me that a black writer in my writers’ workshop claimed slavery as the literary prerogative of blacks. I have come to realize there is some public support for her view. That my novel’s dialogue contains the word nigger, which was commonly used in the antebellum South, put nails in the coffin. In one of my blog entries on “WritePersona” I describe my experience with two literary agents. I eventually self-published the book.

Freedom of expression has come into conflict with “safe places” (protection from ideas that make one uncomfortable), which some people perceive as a right just as important as free expression. College administrators, under the gun of the federal government, have ramped up enforcement of trigger warnings (warnings professors should issue if something in a course might elicit a strong emotional response).

It’s not uncommon to read reports that students at colleges such as Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers call for warnings for books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny and physical abuse); Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations); and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault).

Yale undergraduates petitioned to abolish the study of writers including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, saying that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors”. (The Guardian,June 1, 2016)

There are some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. And to a greater extent than ever, our culture is accommodating a wide swath of them. For example, an Indiana University student was found guilty of racial harassment for reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The cover picture of a Klan rally offended the student’sco-workers. He was eventually cleared of the charges.

Given today’s climate, some classics wouldn’t have made it past the query process much less have been published, books such as Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst; or Showboat by Edna Ferber.

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about literary censorship (Iran boycotted the 2015 Hamburg Book Fair because Rushdie was scheduled as guest speaker), has been quoted as saying that people claiming to stand for free speech have "demolished what they stand for."

Political correctness, used to suppress divergent voices, becomes a tool of oppression. How are we to engage in a genuine discussion about black lives (or Asian or Mexican or Southern) if censorship is used to eliminate whatever makes us uncomfortable? Despite the criticism, I make no apologies for telling the story of a slave girl named Kedzie. I would hope blacks would see in her the courage of some of their ancestors.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Characters Are Not People and Other Aaron Sorkin Gems

By Kasie Whitener 

I got sucked into an Aaron Sorkin YouTube video and spent 41 minutes listening to him talk about writing. The time wasn’t wasted. Not only did it inspire this blog post, it helped me get some clarity on writing.

Sorkin’s topic was character and he was very clear that character is two things: intention and obstacle. Once you have those two things, you can write all the other stuff you want to write. The fun stuff: Dialogue. Sex. Violence. Ferris Wheel rides and running down a dock and jumping off the end.

He also asserted that characters and people are not the same thing. We think they are, he said, because they look alike. But they’re not. They have nothing to do with one another.

People do not proceed through life in a series of triumphs and setbacks toward a stable, ever present goal. Life interrupts. People lose interest. Circumstances change.

Characters, however, are free to doggedly pursue their goals and to climb over or destroy or crawl under whatever stands between them and their desired outcome.

Sorkin’s right. (Not surprisingly)

Thinking through his statements, I realized that characters are free because the story began a little while ago and will end a little while hence. For people the story began at birth and will linger until death. For characters, the story is finite. It stretches the length of the pages or the film or the series. It begins and ends. It has dimensions that hold it in. It is bound.

People are unbound. Characters are bound.

This idea of closing off the edges, of determining what really matters to the story, is the work of revision. Though Sorkin suggests the intentions and obstacle are the skeleton of the story, sometimes getting to it means cutting away all of the fun stuff you’ve already layered on.

If you write like me, listening to the voices in your head, then there are dozens of extra scenes and conversations and events included in the draft. Revision is determining which of those scenes are part of 1) intention or 2) obstacle and then cutting the rest of them.

Exposition is a poor excuse for including the scenes that don’t drive action in the book. And a sequel, or a series, is a poor excuse to hang on to characters longer than you should. The character’s story is finite. It has a beginning and an end.

Decide which story you’re telling and tell it. Save the other parts for something else.

Taking Sorkin’s advice to my current work is both invigorating and depressing. How to determine what my main character wants and what stands between him and it is the real work of storytelling.

The words are just a means to an end. The things my character will do to get what he wants is what tells you what kind of person he is.

Not person. Character (vampire). Persons are real. Characters are not.

Got it, Sorkin, thanks.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

10 Tips for Web Writing

By Jodie Cain Smith

For novelists, making the transition from story creation to web content can be tricky. Fiction writing requires the author to paint descriptive pictures, create rich characters full of complex and perhaps contradictory traits, and even hide true meaning until the delicious last page. Web writing should never be that convoluted. Web writing must be scannable, concise, front-loaded, and on point.

If your blog posts are receiving no traffic and lack of marketing is not the problem, perhaps your content requires an overhaul.

Start with these basics of web writing.

·        Write clear, simple, and effective content. The content should be easily read. You are not writing for PhD candidates.
·         Front-load your text. Put the most important content in the first paragraph, so that readers scanning your pages will not miss your main idea.
·         Chunk your content. Cover only one topic per paragraph.
·         Be concise. Write short paragraphs and minimize unnecessary words.
·         Write in active voice instead of passive voice.
·         Choose lists over paragraphs. When possible use lists rather than paragraphs to make your content easier to scan.
Also, consider these 10 tips:

1. Write for your desired audience. Consider who will be reading and using your web content. What are they looking for and how will they use the content.

2. Keep sentences short. Remove words or descriptions that don’t add value to the content.

3.  Make content scannable. Readers scan web pages before they read. If they don’t recognize useful, relevant content immediately, they move on.

4.  Choose words for headers and sub-headers that clearly describe the content they introduce. Boring, useful words are better than clever, obtuse words.

5.  Limit paragraphs to 70 words. This will allow a shorter read-time (most blogs shoot for a read time of 2-3 minutes). Less is better.

6.  Use bulleted lists whenever possible. Bulleted lists are easier to scan and read than full paragraphs.

7.  Use active voice. Strunk and White said it best: "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive" (The Elements of Style, Third Edition).

8.  Be precise. Avoid vague words or phrases such as “There are…” and “It’s going to” and “in order to.” Good web writing leaves the audience with perfect understanding. "When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor” (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition).

9.  To be found online, use common language. It’s essential for SEO (search engine optimization) to use the same words and phrases your readers do. When creating page titles, headers, list items and links, choose keywords carefully. Additionally, be sure to use keywords consistently when creating web content. When used appropriately, this practice reinforces keyword relevancy for search engines, such as Google and your own internal search, thereby improving findability.

10.  Lastly, write on topic. If you want your blog to be a resource on squirrel hunting, then all posts must be on the topic of squirrel hunting without leading the reader down a weird tangent regarding landscape painting. Web-readers don’t like weird tangents.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Rex Hurst 
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. —Opening lines of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984).
The second person perspective, why is this not used more in writing? For those who have forgotten, or didn’t even know it existed, the second person perspective is when the protagonist of a story is defined by the use of the second-person personal pronoun, ie “you.”
While fiction is dominated by the first and third person perspectives, there are many respectable examples of this narrative type being used successfully.
The first example comes from my youth when I devoured every young adult book that I could grab. One of my particular obsessions was the Choose Your Own Adventure series where you are the main character and have to make a series of choices that affect the story.
“If you want to kill the dragon, turn to page 56. If you want to run away like a pathetic coward, turn to page 119.”
I ate these up, even though most of the endings resulted in you dying horribly. The use of second person really helped to immerse my adolescent brain in the story.
A few other notable examples are A Man Asleep by Georges Perec which follows a 25-year-old student who one day decides to be indifferent about the world. Ezekiel is a critically acclaimed short story by Segun Afolabi and The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella is a novel about a woman wrestler.
Many critics find the use of second person distracting and indicative of poor writing. It is true that use of this style does not allow any assumptions as to how the narrator felt or why he or she acted. It leaves no room for ambiguity on behalf of the narrator. If the main character is you, then you know exactly how you felt and the reasons for your action.
Using second person may be an opportunity to expand beyond the limitations of the standard narrative, to try new stories based on the absolute authority of second person.
Here is a challenge. Take one of your old stories and convert it to second person. You will obviously have to change some of the material to fit the style properly. Then reflect on the outcome.

How has it changed the theme of the story? Is it warped? Or is it improved? You might be surprised at the results. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Gotham Writers’ Workshop Screenwriting I Class

By Olga Agafonova

In an effort to put my writing life into higher gear, I spent some time looking at writers’ retreats for people who are just getting started. I could not find what I wanted: a quiet, small retreat by the ocean, preferably somewhere on the West Coast. So, I did the next best thing I could think of and signed up for an online screenwriting class with the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which operates out of New York City.

The current iteration of “Screenwriting I” runs from June the 14th to August the 23rd. It’s a cool $399, plus the $25 registration fee. Every week we have a reading and a relatively short assignment. Students exchange ideas on the bulletin board and there are two mini-projects that will be critiqued by both the instructor and the entire class of fifteen adults, most of whom have full-time jobs.

I don’t really have any idea of how to become a screenwriter: there is probably a canon of cinema that I’m supposed to revere and emulate but frankly I don’t give a damn. Instead, I’ve been reading scripts for movies that I like: Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, The Bourne Identity, One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest and on the more romantic side, Sleepless in Seattle.

The biggest challenge for my first script is going to be handling conflict and action: my story is about how one man deals with the loss of his fiancĂ©e after all the women in the world disappear. There is a lot of sci-fi stuff going on throughout the script but that’s not the point; this is, above all, a movie about a person coming to terms with his loss and finding a meaning in life. So far, I’ve been pretty good at the sci-fi bits and not so great about getting the internal drama across to the imaginary viewers.

I remember when I watched Gravity I was struck by the scene where Sandra Bullock’s character is alone in her space capsule, without any motivation to live and then she hears this baby over the radio transmission, a father who is trying to soothe the baby in some foreign language. I think this is before or maybe after she hallucinates George Clooney’s character explicitly telling her to keep on living but anyway, those few quiet minutes when she’s reflecting on her life and everything she’s lost, that’s powerful stuff and it’s at the core of that movie. Gravity isn’t as much about the dangers of space exploration as it is about life and death and how we handle both.

That’s the kind of movie I’d like to write a script for by the end of this summer. Here’s hoping I will reach that goal.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Swimmers Do It in the Water

By Kasie Whitener

In swimming, an IM’er is a well-rounded athlete. “IM” is Individual Medley and the event means the swimmer races all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle in succession. In a 400 IM, the swimmer races 4 lengths of the pool for each stroke. It’s crazy hard and considered one of the most daunting events. When I swam competitively I was a 200 IM’er. Now I’m mostly in the 100 IM range.

What an IM’er knows is that she doesn’t have to be great at one single stroke, she has to be competent at all four. There’s no use pulling ahead in butterfly just to have a dismal backstroke bring your competition to your heels.

As writers, we often specialize. We might be poets, or novelists, fiction writers or nonfiction writers. We may write plays or essays or blogs. In all of these specialties, we are still storytellers. The words are meant to move a reader from an existing condition to a desired one.

For me, poetry is like breaststroke. It’s slow and quiet, there’s a rhythm to it that is both visual and verbal. It may be the influence of the pastorals, but I always think of poetry as idyllic and just out-of-reach, kind of like that long breaststroke glide.

I am a terrible breaststroker. Though I’ve worked hard to develop a competent stroke, it is by far the slowest segment of my IM. I can do it, but I’m very slow. Likewise, I am a terrible poet. I can read and comprehend it, but I dare not compose. The effort would be disastrous.

I’m a fiction writer. I prefer long version, specifically novels; but when I first dedicated myself to the craft four years ago, I spent a lot of time in short stories. Short stories are how I practice the storytelling art. They require specific details and are intolerant of rambling description or unnecessary plot complications.

Short stories require powerful bursts of character, action, and emotion. In a short story, the writer doesn’t have time to lay in elaborate exposition or world building. The reader must be immediately brought up to speed with the character, the dilemma, the desire, and the obstacles. For me, short stories are like swimming butterfly.

I love butterfly. It’s exhausting whipping both arms around together, dolphin kicking in long, swift full-body waves. There’s a rhythm but unlike the languid glide of breaststroke, the butterfly rhythm is urgent and insistent. A good butterfly is satisfying: both beautiful to watch and gratifying to swim. Like swimming butterfly, I’m always trying to write that explosive, impactful scene.

I have always been an IM’er, albeit the shorter distance kind, with butterfly as my specialty. To be really good at one thing is valuable, but to be competent in many things is even more so. While I’ve let some breaststroke-like skills lapse over the years, I continue to practice in all four strokes. Storytellers know that proficiency in various forms only makes them more competitive.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stories from Italy

By Laura P. Valtorta

In Italy there are many funny situations, even though the Italian idea of humor is far removed from what Americans find comical. When I’m here, I laugh a lot.
Since this is election time, I’ve been watching political commercials on TV. My favorite is for the Pensioners’ Party. A lively/crazy old guy has a commercial where he shows a video clip of pensioners marching in protest. He says several times “Pensionati, all’attacco!” (Pensioners – charge!) and makes a chopping motion with his hand. This has become my personal battle cry.

Clara and I went to the old male hairdresser in Cavi Borgo to get our hair cut. I informed him that the best shampoo for curly hair in the U.S. is cleansing conditioner, like Wen. Grabbing his crotch, rapper style, he advised us to use douche (shampoo intimo) on our hair. Clara and I couldn’t stop laughing.

In front of the Italian stock exchange in Milan, at Piazza Affari, the government has erected a giant statue of a hand giving the finger. At first I thought it was a prank, but Dante did some research and found that it was a work of art commissioned in 2011.

To help my Italian, I usually look for an easy book to read. This time I found Cosa Pensano le Ragazze? (What do Girls Think?), written by the journalist Concita de Gregorio. I say “written” meaning that she is more of an editor. The review I read stated that she employed a number of researchers to interview the girls and young women. How much credit should Ms. De Gregorio be given for collecting the data and choosing which interviews to publish? I admire and follow the tradition established by Studs Terkel, who (I hope) interviewed all of his subjects face-to-face. Working is one of my favorite books, ever.

Ms. De Gregorio’s book is very “lite” and easy to read. The first interview, with two teenagers, advises choosing a man the same way you choose a puppy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Art or Craft: Does the Process Dictate the Outcome?

By Jodie Cain Smith

John Hughes wrote The Breakfast Club in two nights. July 4 – 5, 1982, must have been electric, caffeinated, perhaps whiskey-soaked days and nights. I have no basis to believe Hughes was intoxicated during this feat, but I know I would have to have been drunk as a monkey to deliver such a work in such a short time. Fear of the unknown would have sent me to the top shelf or to a fresh notebook yearning for an outline.

So, I pose the question, is art any less artful if carefully crafted?

The planner versus pants-er (writing by the seat of your pants) debate flares up frequently among those who attempt to write and then dare to make that writing public. I am counted among the ranks of planners and have the notecards, plot structure board, and binders full of research to prove it.

My best writer bud is a pants-er. I’ve seen the look of wild abandon in her eyes as she recalls a night when the words rushed from her brain through her fingers until click-by-click she had racked up 5,000 frenetic words in a single session. Her characters came to life, proclaimed their presence, and demanded she write their story right there and right then.

My characters perch gently on my shoulder as I map out chapters, asking questions such as, “Would I really do that?” or “What motivated me to say that?” Sometimes, they become a bit rude, declaring, “There is no way in Hell I would do THAT! Change it, woman!” However, the rude behavior never lasts long. Crisis averted, they settle down for a little nap while I lose hours on the Internet researching squirrel hunting or cholera or medicinal purposes of sage. Then, when I feel I know enough of their world and their lives, I wake them so the writing, the art, may begin.

But, oh to be a pants-er! To never fear the unknown. To write without wondering, “Where the heck is this thing going?” For one or two nights I want to be the cocky one, the love-em-and-leave-em-Joe rather than, “Can we talk? Before we go any further, I need to know where this relationship is going?”

Still, the most important lesson I have learned over the last five years since chucking my cushy salary for a life of writing is I must be true to the type of writer I am. I must develop my style, my process, and my story. I must defend all three and work toward perfection.

Twenty years ago my scenic design professor gave me the advice, “Let the audience see the art. Never let them see the craft.” I share this advice now so that I may follow it again myself. May our readers see our art, the beautiful, tragic, funny, fantastical stories we create, but keep the craft our own. Whether planner, pants-er, or something akin to the brilliance of John Hughes, may we all have the confidence to create and a craft that encourages invention.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

‘Bad’ Reviews

By Mike Long

I think ‘bad’ reviews fall into two distinctly different categories. What most non-writers think of as bad reviews are those which point out some book's lack of clarity, editing, fairness, entertainment, continuity, sense of place, character development, etc.

Such criticism can certainly hurt a writer, personally and professionally. No one enjoys having their shortcomings pointed out, especially publicly and in writing. But, if fairly and politely delivered, those reviews can help writers avoid similar future pain. They can learn from the experience, clean up their acts, and provide better products–or move on to endeavors for which they are better suited.

The second type of ‘bad’ review includes those which are badly done. They hurt as much as thoughtful reviews, but serve no constructive purpose. Some are thoughtless, some deeply stupid, some well-intended, some obviously mean-spirited; none help, except perhaps turn off potential readers. Some of these examples follow, with their Star Ratings.

One star: “One of the best of this genre I've read. I can't wait for more from this author.” (Didn't understand the rating system.)

One star: “I just couldn't get by the third chapter.” (?)

One star: “Just too much fighting and bloodshed; I couldn't finish it.” (This was a war book; she was provided a synopsis by a paid reviewing service, after which she asked to review the book.)

One star: “I like science fiction, and won't buy anything else by this author.” (He received it on a free download.)

Two stars: “I just don't like Westerns.” (And she bought it why?)

Two stars: “Very rambling and episodic; no real plot, but well-researched.” (Back cover warns it is an epic tale, which indicates episodic.)

Three stars: “Good book. Great historical detail.” (?)

The thing to remember about the less-than-constructive reviews (especially the mean ones) is that you should never engage the reviewers’ rebuttals. Some are mere idiots, but others are trolls with nothing better to do than to show their power by putting down more successful persons. I sincerely believe these folks lead meaningless lives and only feel creative when causing havoc. They will love to pull you into a cat fight, a war of words in which they aren't restricted by truth or scruples.

Ignore them, unless you are moved to pray for them, as I do (mine are not nice prayers). Just keep writing.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Rejecting the Life of Quiet Desperation

By Olga Agafanova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The DIY Writers Conference

By Kasie Whitener 

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

“Read it,” I reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We feel like real, working novelists.

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What Book Promoters Are Looking For: The Author Press Kit

By Jodie Cain Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Alabama Shakes

By Laura P. Valtorta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Intentional Incongruities

By Kasie Whitener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Playlist for Inspiration

By Olga Agafonova

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016


By Mike Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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