Sunday, November 17, 2019

What’s Old Is New Again

By Raegan Teller

Increasingly at book signings, I am asked if my books are available in audio format. I’ve said, “No, I’m sorry” so many times that I’ve been thinking about the recent resurgence in audiobooks. While this format still sells less than print or ebooks, audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of book sales according to multiple reader surveys.

Marketing experts will tell you this rise is due to one thing: multitasking. A reader can listen to a book while driving, doing the laundry, cooking, or just relaxing. Smart phones and tablets are all the equipment needed to listen anywhere. Audiobooks are especially popular with readers ages 25 to 34, a group known for its short attention span and proclivity to perform simultaneous tasks. While it’s hard to argue with market results, I’d like to respectfully challenge the notion that it’s all about multitasking.

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, storytelling is in our DNA. That assertion is backed by science and historians. And it all began with oral storytelling around 15,000 BCE. Stories were a way to entertain and to pass information along to others. For brevity, let’s fast forward from there to the 1930’s golden age of radio in the US. Listeners tuned in to hear soap operas, like The Guiding Light, crime dramas, like The Shadow, and science fiction, like The War of the Worlds, which was so realistic a panic was set off because listeners thought Martians had actually invaded earth.

Fast forward again to 2014: the podcast Serial was an investigative journalism story told over multiple episodes. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Adnan Syed. Was he guilty—or not? Serial podcasts helped rekindle the pleasure of having someone tell us a story. About a year later, audiobook sales began to surge. Coincidence?

Which brings me to another point: oral storytelling creates more of an emotional impact than reading. Research by the esteemed University College London summarized it this way: “The statistical evidence was very strong that audiobooks produced a stronger emotional and physiological response than visual storytelling mediums. This finding is consistent across different stories, and different participant ages and demographics.” Audible’s CEO and Founder, Don Katz proclaimed, “Audible was founded because we believe deeply in the impact that powerful listening experiences can have on hearts and minds.” In other words, the oldest storytelling format is new again.

But what does all this mean for writers? Some authors are now writing specifically for audio format, skipping print and ebooks altogether. Audiobook publishers like ACX and Findaway Voices are making entry into this field more accessible. However, hiring a good voice actor is not cheap. Acting a story, with different character voices and effective voice inflection, is an art unto itself. While most experts argue against authors reading their own material, I remember a few years back when they said, “don’t self-publish.” Since then there has been an explosion of successful, independently published books, so stay tuned and watch the audiobook trend. I know I will.

Sunday, November 10, 2019


By El Ochiis

Recently, some influential economists have made a case for why we still need English Majors.  Now that seems an odd request since English majors are down almost 26% since the Great Recession of 2008, according to data compiled by the National Center of Education Statistics.

So, why would there be more students studying code than Chaucer?  Well, the answer lies in a three-letter word: J-O-B, prospects, maybe?  Of course, the more important reason would be parents who have to foot the bill for four years of college at an average cost of about $55,000 per year.  The exception would be me; as a parent, I encouraged my offspring to major in whatever fueled his or her passion.  The fact that one of my English major/writing offspring is now in tech valley is no fault of mine, so stop judging me Misters Tolstoy and Baldwin.

“Don’t you want your children to earn a decent paycheck?” grilled a woman at high school graduation with two sons headed to MIT.  “I want them to wander the world like I did, with no direction home, completely alone, on their own.”  I resounded, feeling guiltily giddy.  “Oh, stop quoting Bob Dylan and get real,” repudiated their dad. 

But, I was serious; the world needs the humanities, and, most specifically, English/Journalism/Writing majors who use figures of speech to:

Teach a history of a culture/to entertain/educate
Endow morals and principles on young people
Distract or divert our attention from the tough realities of life
Intellectually stimulate/Inspire (as in innovation, social change, etc.)
Predict/shape the future/Shape and change social prejudices (end bigotry, promote tolerance, etc.)
Give our lives meaning; and, express beauty

One can learn and remember far more about the judicial system and legal proceedings from Bleak House, Twelve Angry Men, Inherit the Wind and To Kill a Mocking Bird than any law school. In fact, it is Nobel Prize winner, Robert Shiller, who states, in his new book: Narrative Economics, that a history class he took on the Great Depression, as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, was far more useful in understanding the period of economic and financial turmoil than anything he learned in his economic courses.  When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.” Philip Lowe, head of Australia’s central bank, urged his colleagues to spend a little less time on numbers and more time on being good storytellers. The whole point is, stories matter.
Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle chronicled the plight of Jurgis and Ona, Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago and the conditions of the workers in the meatpacking yards of Chicago.  After reading it, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned an investigation into Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Within a year, the Meat Inspection Act was passed, along with the Pure Food and Drug Act, which later paved the way for the Food and Drug Administration.

When Jacob Riis wanted to expose, to the upper class, who might not have known that a large group of people were living in squalid conditions in the slums of New York City, in 1890, he did so with photographs rather than words, in How the Other Half Lives – it was beautiful, heartbreaking, disturbing and groundbreaking.

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of a Life of Frederick Douglass became one of the best-selling slave narratives of the period and continues to be probably the most widely read, first hand account of the brutality, depravity and injustice of American slavery. He became an orator whose influence played a big hand in helping to end it.

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” Was how, reportedly, Abraham Lincoln greeted its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe on:  Uncle Tom’s cabin, the second-best selling book of the 19th century and the first to sell a million copies.

Storytelling is what connects us to our humanity. It is what links us to our past, and provides a glimpse into our future. Since humans first walked the earth, they have told stories, before even the written word or oral language.

It provides a shape, so that our own lives have a beginning, middle, and an end, and we can feel like we've meant something, and left our mark on the world. If just one person can tell just one iota of our life story, then we have a narrative, and are the protagonists in our own life story. This is why we create stories, and this is why we NEED storytellers. Off you go, writers in dark, silent rooms - write on – tell us a really good story.

Sunday, November 3, 2019


AY, NOVEMBER 9, 2014

This is a previous post from November 8, 2014, by a dear, departed member. Fred, you're never forgotten.

 By Fred Fields

To my mind, there are two types of writers, those who write for their own pleasure, and those who want to be read and to sell books.

This blog post is for the latter group.

When we were in school, our teachers had to read whatever we wrote. God bless them. That was probably true suffering, considering many of the essays they were forced to grade.

Nobody has to read what we write today. In fact, for us to be successful, our readers must find us, be spurred to interest, and be inspired to buy. That's right, they must be induced to pay for the privilege of reading what we have written.

For us to motivate a reader's investment, we should consider what people would like to read. What kind of fiction is selling? In whose biography might they be interested? What would they like to learn?

More than that, we must encourage the potential reader to believe that he or she will enjoy what we have written. This can be difficult. A book written by Stephen King offers some idea of its quality. A book written by Regina Farina, not so much. Nobody ever heard of Ms. Farina nor have they read any of her output.

My suggestions for getting people to buy your books:
          A. Pick a subject or a genre of interest to a large segment of the population.
          B. Title your epic with an attention grabbing-name.
         C. Write with a style that is easy to enjoy with good dialog, real movement of the story, and clever, intelligent, even funny stories and observations.
          D. Learn how to market your efforts to be found by the largest possible segment of the population.

Most important of all, know the specific audience you are targeting.

It's fine to write for your own enjoyment, but not necessarily profitable.

Sunday, October 27, 2019


By Sharon May

“Write what you know.” That’s maybe the most important and oft repeated advice for writers. Sounds easy, right?

While in graduate school, I tried to explain what it meant to be a woman in Appalachia to an acquaintance who was also born into an isolated, disenfranchised, impoverished minority. I gave examples of behaviors, and she responded that women from her culture were the same, no differences.  

I realized I had failed to find the words what distinguished Appalachians from other minorities. Basically, I didn’t know what I was supposed to know. After all, I’m an Appalachian woman, so I should know what it means to be one.

I had moved to Columbia the year prior to this discussion. Though I had been thinking about what being Appalachian meant for years, I had no perspective. I had not seen enough of the world, except through the media, to make comparisons and to help understand the complexity of my home.

Years in South Carolina have given me some perspective, but there is some overlap in Southern and Appalachian ways. I’m not moving away from Columbia, so I have to learn the distinctions via travel. Believe me, Peggy loves nothing better than traveling, which gives plenty of opportunities to explore the world beyond Appalachia and the South.

While seeing the world, I don’t act like a cultural anthropologist asking silly questions. I’m not writing a textbook. Obviously, the people I meet and the places I see give me ideas for characters and help with describing scenery. At times, I hear interesting phrases. All fodder for future works.

But to connect to my current work of Appalachian fiction, I need something beyond the obvious experiences associated with exploring new places. I need distance from my subject and time to reflect. I find the mountains relaxing but they are too much like home.

Like Herman Melville, I am more inspired by the sea. Unlimited free time to relax and pamper myself. I can reflect, take notes, read, write, and simply think. Best of all I can do this while staring at the water. It’s fine to take a few days at the beach to relax and come up with new ideas for writing.

But I discover much more about myself and what I know and what words to use to convey what I know when at sea on a ship with a waitstaff. I have no desire to actually work the seas as Melville did as a youth.

The open seas calm me even in rough weather. My mind can drift into the deep recesses of my memory, subconscious or unconscious. Imagination soars toward the unending horizons. My childhood home comes into focus, the tenor of Appalachian speech crystalizes, and I discover what I know. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019


By Kasie Whitener

Years ago, I went home to Northern Virginia over a school break and met my mom for lunch at Uno Pizzeria. It was on the corner of the most upscale shopping center in our area and it was one of my favorite places to eat.

I’d been away at college for a while and had been writing the novel that would become After December. I knew the story was about Brian Listo, a version of myself I felt confident sharing with others. He was arrogant, privileged, and good at everything he did. He also smoked and drank like it was his job and was kind of a slut.

I loved him. And he loved me back. Through the troubled years surrounding my parents’ divorce and the break-up of our family, when I moved away from Northern Virginia and only rarely went back, Brian was with me.

Imagine how it felt to see him walk into Uno Pizzeria.

As my mom continued talking to me, I watched Brian move through the bar area. Watched him greet his friends who did not resemble the other characters of the book. Watched him light a cigarette and take a deep drink from a tall beer. The afternoon sunlight played on the shades of dirty blonde and light brown in his hair. His grey gaze seared me from across the room.

Day drinking, flannel-wearing, ridiculously hot Brian stood just yards away.

Of course, it wasn’t him. Searing gaze aside, he was just some handsome college-aged guy that looked like he could have been Brian. To the one-raised eyebrow, he could have been him. But of course he wasn’t.

Neither was Josh, the actor who stood in my kitchen this week listening to me explain how Brian’s kind of an asshole. And how he’s trying not to be. You know, character arc and all that. Then Josh went upstairs, got in bed with Meli, and filmed the opening scene of the book for the trailer.

Being with an actor who is trying to learn more about Brian so he can accurately portray him was both terrifying and thrilling. Josh looks like Brian. Not as much as that guy in Uno 20 years ago, but a lot like him. And he’s handsome and he has a great smile. But as soon as he started talking, he sounded young. Like Millennial young, and I remembered the literary agent that asked me if After December had to be set in the 90s.

Yes, yes it does.

Josh is a good actor, he really is. Watching the filming of the trailer was awesome. Thanks to Fanatik Productions for putting it together.

Being in the same room with your characters is the ultimate thrill.

Next week we’ll be visiting those Northern Virginia locations where the book is set. Many, like Uno, are no longer in business. But I’ll go anyway. Be nostalgic for the 90s and hope I run into Brian Listo again. Of course, he’ll probably have his teenaged son with him.

Sunday, October 13, 2019


By El Ochiis
OK, I hate outlines, I would rather count sand in the Kalahari Desert, in lieu of sitting down and actually constructing one. 

“Think like an architect, a carpenter,” chided my English teacher. “Would you build a house without a plan?”  

“Yes, yes Mrs. Thronebush, I actually would,” I shouted without a thread of shame. With writing, I just jump right in and see where the story takes me. In the same vein, I’d build my house exactly the same way, buy the materials as I go along: art or writing studio space, area for sleeping, food preparation zone, a place to empty after eating and drinking, which may or may not be in the primary structure – one big room – a yurt. I could just add walls later, maybe. Then, I look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses. Seriously, Frank, you just had to go proving me wrong. And, don’t get me started with Frank Gehry, he’s like the Tolstoy of architectural prose.

I write from ideas and expand. Then, I go back and write the essentials that the persnickety ones have, probably, already done at the beginning. I am the backwards writer. This could explain my current lack of money producing, scribe status.  

But, lately, I have been paying more attention to the critics’ observations on two kinds of writers:  outliners and pantsers. Pantsers are individuals that would rather start a project without the slightest idea of how it’s going to go down, and Outliners like to have a clear image of their project before it starts.  If you haven’t guessed, I am, sort of, kind of, a pantser. I mean, I do begin projects without a clue of how they will progress, however, at some point, I stop and create a rough guideline, of sorts. I might be wrong, but this could explain why it takes more time than I have to complete said projects. My math teacher said my approach to logic was eccentric. I am sure it was just his polite way of calling me “weird”. You see, when I had to do math, I would use my left hand – to channel the side of my intellect that oversaw logic and analytic thinking – news flash: it did not increase my dismal geometry scores.   

Back to the outlining issue for which I began this piece. I have changed my point of view on the importance of outlining – “a change is gonna come.” Yes, me, the bohemian, plant-eating, non-conformist who once hitched a ride in a converted school bus from Oklahoma to a hippie commune in Tennessee – I think it was called the FarmFor all you pantser-scribes in arms, tie-dye wearing creative outcasts, here are some outlining tips from a bestselling writer, that even you should find rather easy to begin your novel:  
1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. (That trouble will mean something different depending on your genre. For a thriller, it might be life-threatening. For a romance, it might mean choosing between two suitors.)
2. Everything your character does to try to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.
3. Eventually things appear hopeless.
4. Finally, everything your character has learned through all that trouble gives him what he needs to personally conquer the opposition.
5. In summary:  Set the Stage, Organize the scenes (starting scenes – building scenes) and, troubleshoot your story outline.

This is a structure that will keep you and your reader engaged and insured against boredom. So, that’s how to outline a novel, whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.   

Sunday, October 6, 2019


By Ruth Saunders

My lighthearted creative nonfiction about growing up in rural, Lowcountry South Carolina describes experiences that have shaped me as a person with the hope others will find them entertaining. My goals are to put together a collection of stories for family and friends and to submit an electronic version to the Self-e Library Journal. This past year I have shared many of these pieces with participants in the Columbia II Writers Workshop and a manuscript consultant. The feedback and discussion have been beneficial and, in this blog, I share some of what I have learned.

· Reason 
Defining my purpose (why I am doing this), goal (what I am trying to do) and intended audience (who I am doing it for) serves as a guiding beacon that keeps me from getting lost on the long path to realizing the final product. I have also learned that the purpose, goal, and intended audience may evolve on the journey, and that is OK.

· Remember
What I write must be authentic to my memory and experience. Human memory enables us to carry the narratives of ourselves forward in time, helping create a sense of self. But our memories do not store an infallible record of factual events and not all memories are preserved. Those that are retained are malleable, revised over time with new experiences. My writing necessarily focuses on the memories I have kept and sculpted over time. Within these limitations, I do my best to stay true to my authentic experience.

· Research
I frequently request “memory assists” from my sister and brother, as we shared the setting and many experiences. My sister is also the family archivist, so she is my source on recorded family information such as names, dates, and other genealogical facts. I do internet searches to gather relevant background and historical information. I ask family and friends to read pieces to make sure the material rings true to them and to correct factual errors.

· Reflect 
I find it useful to reflect on memories, notes, flow charts, outlines, feedback, and early drafts. Taking time to think and to allow ideas to incubate increases the depth of the writing. I am beginning to identify and deliberately incorporate into my writing themes and images embedded in my experience. I enjoy this slow and exciting process of self-discovery.

· Review
By getting feedback from others I identify areas that need strengthening, rework the flow of the narrative, add detail and dialogue to make the piece believable and real, and work to make the stories entertaining to the reader.

· Write and Revise
Writing is not a series of ordered steps as listed above but is a cyclical process. I write and revise at every “step” and not necessarily in the order listed. “Steps” will be repeated as often as needed until I reach the final product. 

Sunday, September 29, 2019


By Bonnie Stanard

As I read Richard Edwards’s article “10 Words Editors Hate” I got an adrenaline rush. He affirms my view that some words have become frauds, and we writers are betrayed by using them.

It’s reassuring that I’m not the only person who cringes when I see the word soul, which heads the list. Why do I have the idea that writers who use this word are trying to reveal some deep and intense spirituality? By the way, I doubt that  intense spirituality comes out in words.

The word love is number three on the list. It’s a trouble maker. We cover a lot of emotional territory with that one word. What parents feel for their children may be something that nurtures, impedes, or even destroys. And what about a child’s reaction to a parent? A teenager’s crush? A debaucher’s wanton passion? In sentences, the subject love is promiscuous in selecting direct objects, which might be a book, a movie, Las Vegas, or the Dalai Lama. Love is a belly-fat cliché. When will we come up with precise words to replace it?

The concept of forever is inconceivable, as Edwards points out, so the word is given an impossible task. But that’s not what bothers me. It comes across as an immature effort to be emphatic. I picture the writer chewing gum and blowing bubbles as they type it.

Then there’s light, life, and death. Edwards says an editor will shut down at the sight of these words. Write about them but don’t write the words. I get it about life and death, but light? I’d put dark on the list ahead of light. And as I write this, I know I’ve written dark many times. Light too. I use these two words to express feelings, which by the way is another no-no, i.e., don’t write the word feeling. But stories without feeling are basically news reports, so he’s saying write about feelings without using the word.

Dianne Urban’s article, “43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately,” goes overboard. I’d put her word immediately in a list of words to avoid. She makes a good point about words like said, replied, and asked. She suggests we surround dialogue with action and leave out dialogue tags. This doesn’t always work, especially if there’s a quick exchange of comments.

Urban puts the word begin on her list and I applaud that. There are occasions when it might be needed but most of the time it’s like a preview to what is coming next. And who needs a preview when our writing is hot with action?

We once had a writer in our group who took issue with the word that (one of Urban’s 43 words). He marked every that in a paper. Now there are times when you need that. That’s a fact.

Many of Urban’s words are weaklings that undermine your writing, such as completely, then, just, literally, actually, somehow. But what’s wrong with breathe, shrug, nod, think?