Sunday, April 15, 2018

TELLING STORIES: A HUMAN EXPERIENCE


By Raegan Teller

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about telling stories, which is natural, I guess, considering I’m an author. Recently, I began doing some research on this topic. Perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to take a break from writing, but I learned a lot, so I’ll share some key points in this short post.

Before I begin, however, I want to tell you why I think storytelling is critical to our humanity: we are nothing without our stories. Imagine that you lived in a world where there were only facts, with no emotional attachment to them—no stories to connect these facts to the human experience. We would all be like robots, processing information without asking ourselves what it means or why it’s important.

The evolution of storytelling is fascinating. Oral storytelling was a way for early mankind to share events and to make meaning of what happened. One of the oldest surviving stories is the epic Mesopotamian poem, “Gilgamesh,” a tale about mortality. It was believed to have been written around 2100 BCE and is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. Around 1300–1000 BCE, “Gilgamesh” was carved in stone tablets and widely shared, becoming the first known written story.

Just look around you. The most successful people in their fields are great storytellers. Attorneys who weave evidence into the best, most engaging stories win trials. Business leaders, like the late Steve Jobs, use stories to get employees and customers to buy into their visions. Walt Disney created an empire from stories.

Now, we have podcasts, video, films, photography, and social media that tell the stories of our lives. In French airports, kiosks dispense short fiction to entertain travelers. The technology and methods of storytelling will continue to evolve, but one thing is certain: Storytelling will always be a part of the human experience.

Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy writer, said, “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” When I read that quote, I thought of my own novels. In Murder in Madden, I invited readers to ask themselves how much personal risk they would take to learn the truth. In my second book, The Last Sale, I presented a different query: What would you do if someone you loved just disappeared? I began writing those books by asking myself: How would I answer those questions? How do my answers reflect my values and who I am as a person? And how might others react differently? In the process, I learned a lot about myself.

Good storytelling connects us and provides meaning. The next time you’re reading a story or watching a movie, consider what questions are being posed. Examine your own emotional responses. Ask yourself, “What meaning do I make of the experience and what does that say about me?”

Sunday, April 8, 2018

WRITING in SERVICE

By Kasie Whitener


A long time ago in a leadership camp, I completed an exercise called the Lion, the Owl, and the St Bernard. After answering a series of situational questions, each leader was diagnosed as one of the three animals. Each animal has its beneficial leadership traits and also its flaws.

Recently, I had the privilege of representing our Columbia II chapter of the South Carolina Writers Association at the Chapter Leaders’ summit. To a one, the board members who introduced themselves at the summit said they were no longer actively writing; board service takes up too much time.

When it was my turn to introduce myself, I said I’d been reluctant to serve the organization because I am focused on writing and submitting. To date, I’ve submitted 17 times this year, weekly and more, to literary journals, agents, and small presses. While I was only a substitute representing our chapter for our lead who couldn’t attend, I told the group I was there to serve in whatever capacity I could for the weekend and beyond as appropriate.

One phrase that came up again and again was “What are people getting for their membership fee?”

I think that’s the wrong question. When a volunteer-run organization focuses on the transaction of membership, it diminishes the spirit of service on which it must rely for participation, leadership, and engagement.

We join the SCWA because we want partners in this part-time pursuit of writing. We want an organization that supports us and promotes us, a place to learn and grow in the craft. We join the SCWA because we are learning how to be something different, something new.

We are being changed by our experience. That is worth the price of admission.

I blog monthly for our chapter not to promote my own work, but because doing so enhances our chapter’s web presence. And because doing so reminds me to practice the art more frequently. When I haven’t written anything in days, I will come to this blog and be creative and expressive, and supported.

SCWA members should want to serve. They should want to give of themselves because in doing so they enhance our community.

I suggested to our conference chair that we look inside our organization for faculty members. Our literary journal should recruit non-submitting members as readers. We could have regional half- and one-day events that focus on craft and are instructed by chapter members. The SCWA could sponsor webinars that provide tips and tricks, writing education at all levels. These sessions could be open to members and would-be members alike. None of these ideas can happen without process definition. In that capacity, I can serve.

Servant leadership has never been my style. I’ve been a lion – all bark and charge without hesitation or fear. I’ve been an owl – analytical and thoughtful, cautious and curious. I think I’m just now coming into my St. Bernard skill set – nurturing and compromise-seeking.

I’m being changed.

We all have gifts and knowledge to share. So, let’s share. Let’s serve.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

WHAT WORKS for ME in the NOT-SO-WILD-WEST


By Mike Long

I write Western Era historical fiction.

My first book was a self-published manuscript. The next two were picked up by small presses, and the fourth Western I wrote was purchased and published by Five Star Publishing.

Since 2010, I have sold over 11,000 copies of my four novels. Publishers sell some, but they can't give you much help unless you're a New York Times best-selling author.

Many of my sales have been consignment sales from Independent Booksellers (indie stores) and historical sites with a Western, military, or historical theme. These books sell at cover price with a typical 60/40 split in my favor. E-sales are steady but small.

I've also lost hundreds of dollars to failed bookstores. At one point I was in 242 stores, but one large chain failed and now I'm down to maybe 50 retail outlets. I'll do a store book signing if invited, but I've had little success in those.

Most of my success now is at events. I attend gun shows, rodeos, church bazaars, Spring/Fall Festivals, and other genre-relevant and thematic-appropriate events. I rent an 8-foot table which costs me about $60 for a Saturday and Sunday rental. Sometimes I take my own table, tent, and chairs. I display my books on half the table space and display some interesting period guns on the other half. I encourage folks to handle the artifacts as a way of stirring conversation about the period, the genre, and eventually, the books.

I have branded paper bags for buyers to store their purchases and offer complimentary book marks as they sometimes become e-book sales. I sell my three trade paperbacks for $8 each or all three for $20. I charge more for the hardcovers. Copy volume beats price for me: the more copies people have, the more they read and eventually purchase more books in the series.

I take payment with a Square card reader for credit card sales but charge an extra 3% for those to cover the Square 2.75% charge. On a slow weekend I'll sell 15 books. On a good weekend, I’ll be 25 books lighter on the ride home.

Moreover, at events, I meet a lot of nice people. Many of those people become readers and fans.



Sunday, March 25, 2018

WRITING GAY

By Sharon May


In the poem “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes asks “So will my page be colored that I write?” I can’t help but wonder if my writing will be gay. How much does our experience, our gender, our sexual preference, color our pages? 

Obviously, when I write lesbian characters I come to it from personal experience. I don’t know all lesbians but I have a first row seat into lesbian life. As a result, I should be able to create complex lesbian characters.

Despite that experience, I find writing lesbian characters difficult. I struggle to find Cindy’s voice; she is the young intern at the newspaper in the novel I am writing. Is it because she is too much like me that I can’t see her clearly? Or do I have too much material to choose from? Or does my memory of how young lesbians talk and act in the late 1970s escape me? I write female characters who are straight, and they are distinct in motivations, language, and conflicts. So it is something about lesbians I struggle with.

Ironically, I have always found male characters easier to write. It isn’t simply that I find them fascinating; I find women fascinating too. I can‘t say that I understand men or women any better than the other. I don’t identify with men more, though at 12, I had a lot more in common with them than I did my schoolgirl chums. I just can get into male characters quickly, and they are different from one another.

So what role does being a lesbian play in my writing? Am I supposed to write gay because I am gay? I am a lesbian, but I live in a world that is predominately straight, and extraordinarily male-centric in politics, literature, and power. So I walk in both worlds, my own private world and that of straight, male-centric society. I am the Other, just like the African American, Native American, and even the woman writer. As the Other, we usually are expected to normalize our world while capturing its flavor and uniqueness.

Preston has been called a stereotypical gay character by some straight readers as he hates sports, loves to cook, and is a mama’s boy. There are men, straight and gay, who fit this description. Am I stereotyping or capturing a reality?

I do wonder how the gay community will react to Preston as it prefers gays to be depicted as “normal,” like straight characters – if you can call them normal – concerned with daily life, work, and love, not drag shows, bars, and sexual hook ups. Not like Preston, who in the years just prior to AIDS/HIV, spends his time cruising and only looking for sex. He does settle down in the end, so maybe that will satisfy the uneasy reader.

I doubt “straight” writers wonder how their sexuality affects their depiction of their world. They probably don’t feel an obligation to the “straight” community to depict it fairly and justly.



Sunday, March 18, 2018

AUTOBIOGRAPGICAL INFLUENCES



Bonnie Stanard

In preparing for an appearance at the SC State Library, I asked myself if my novel What MissingMeans is autobiographical. Without thinking about it, my answer was “no.” The events that occur in the book didn’t happen. I didn’t base the characters on people I know. But after some consideration, the certainty of my “no” has wavered.

The novel takes place on a farm in the midlands of SC, which is where I grew up. Childhood details, such as chinaberry fights, throwing sandspurs, climbing trees, that sort of thing, parallel my youth, but they were typical of any youngster on a farm, so does that make it autobiographical?

We see the story of the Reinhart family through the eyes of 12 year-old Lily. She is not me, nor anybody I know. While working on the manuscript, I wasn’t conscious of writing about any person. But now that the book is published, two characters are familiar, though their plot lines are not. Grandma Angeline is like Grandma Eliza Shumpert. Her unmarried daughter, Aunt Theda, brings to mind Aunt Winnie. Mmmm....

One character is named “Uncle Freeman” and I had an Uncle Freeman; he died when I was three years old. I knew of him but I don’t remember him. Despite the common name, they’re not the same. And I consciously named Lily’s cousin Ina Marie as a tribute to my sister Ina Jean, who died at the age of three.

The floor plan of the house where the extended Reinhart family lives is similar to that of Grandma Eliza’s house. I added two bedrooms for Lily’s big family. Does that make the book autobiographical?

The atmosphere and tone of What Missing Means, despite my intentions, wanders into the autobiography camp. To be clear, the plot is purely fictional, but the story portrays rural life in the 1940s, a time familiar to my family, and by extension to me. Only after the fact and after thinking about it do I realize how much my past provided background for the story.

SPEAKER @ THE CENTER

My thoughts on autobiography came from my preparations for a talk at the SC State Library, which supports local writers and publishers, especially through their Speaker @ the Center programs. Each month, an author is given the spotlight in the intimate environment of their recently remodeled conference room.

The programs are scheduled at noon, usually on Thursdays, to allow Columbia’s business community to bring a sandwich and take a literary lunch break. Parking is available in a multi-level garage located behind the Library building at 1500 Senate Street.

In today’s world where media is produced by far-flung and well-heeled concerns, it’s a challenge for underfunded artists to get a toe-hold of attention from either the press or the public. This makes the Speaker @ the Center all the more appreciated by writers like me. Thanks to Anderson Cook and the SC State Library for this service.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Fostering an Addiction


By Kasie Whitener

Last week I quit a novel. Not one I’m writing, one I was reading. Ranking right up there with when I stopped calling myself a “girl,” learning I could quit a novel was a Grown-Up Moment.

I’m not sure at what age (40?) I first started quitting novels, probably right about the time I started getting thrown out of book clubs. At some point I just realized my time was too valuable to waste on the wrong-fit book.

I’m picky. I want to love the book I’m reading.

The books I love have me ignoring my family. If I’m going to create a rating system, I’ll make the highest rating “Ignore my family.”

While discussing the books I was reading with a friend, I told her how ashamed I am that my literary selections don’t keep me as engrossed as my commercial picks. For example, last year I read The Leavers which is an incredibly crafted, heartbreaking novel. But I wasn’t reading it at intersections.

When we wandered through Barnes & Noble last Saturday, I’d read almost all of the facing-front novels in the Literary Fiction shelves. But none of them had me staying up past my bedtime. I read Circling the Sun and Into the Water, The Aviator’s Wife and The Nightingale.

But I once hid in a conference room pretending to have meetings so I could read The Bronze Horseman. Last fall I packed my laptop in my checked luggage so I could read some T.M. Frazier books while traveling.

I read The Supreme Macaroni Company and Euphoria last year and they were excellent books, really. But I didn’t tell my husband to queue up “The Grand Tour” on Amazon Prime while I huddled in the corner of the couch to read them. I did that for all of Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass books.

When it comes down to it, the books that keep me engrossed are the ones I recommend. They aren’t usually deeply layered, literary works of genius. I confess I’ve never finished a David Foster Wallace anything. When I told my friend, a creative writing professor, that I was glad my Kindle hides the titles of the books that take me out of family time, driving, and TV watching, she laughed.

The ratings are: Ignore My Family, Read at Intersections, Stay Up Past Bedtime, Hide From Work, and Forget TV Exists.

“They should all be like that, shouldn’t they?” my friend asked.

Yes, all published books should be so amazingly good we can’t put them down. And they all are. For someone.

There is a reader out there who can’t get enough of the characters I’m writing and the story I’m telling. I just have to find that reader. And hope she’s also a literary agent. Or a publisher.

In the meantime, I’ll be taking notes on those things that keep me glued to the page and try to model my own work after the ones I love.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

I quit!

By Raegan Teller

Several years ago, I participated in a writing workshop with the late Jerry Cleaver, author of Immediate Fiction. At that time, I had started and stopped writing a couple of different mystery novels. I was frustrated, and his feedback, though fair and accurate, frustrated me even more. I can still hear him saying, “More conflict. You need more conflict in your story.” When I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to write a decent manuscript, he gave me some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever gotten: “Quit writing.”

I was stunned. There I was paying him good money to encourage me, coach me, help me write that elusive book. Yet, he told me to quit. I wasn’t sure whether to be mad or ecstatic. Mostly I was confused. When I finally got the courage to challenge his advice, he said, “Writers quit all the time, including me. But if you’re a real writer, you’ll have to start again. You cannot not write.

After letting his last comments sink in, I then became afraid. What if I quit and never wanted to write again? That would, according to Cleaver, mean I had never been a real writer anyway. Nonetheless, I did quit. I mean, I totally quit with the intention of never writing fiction again. I avoided anything related to writing and went about my life. At first, I was giddy with the lightness of not being a writer. No more worries about plots and characters—or conflict. I could enjoy reading a book without analyzing it. The freedom of not being a writer was intoxicating.

After a couple months of not writing, the impact of Cleaver’s message finally hit me: I needed to reevaluate why I was writing. As simple as that sounds, I had been focused on outlining, story structure, and all the other nuts-and-bolts of the craft. Was my goal to write the perfectly structured novel, worthy of an MFA thesis? While I wanted to write a quality novel, what I really craved was to write a novel that readers could connect with.

When I eventually returned to writing, I wrote the story I really wanted to tell. While I didn’t ignore all the workshop advice and education I had acquired over the years, this time, however, I began writing from my heart, not my head. I wrote for my readers, not for other writers.

About three years later, I published my first novel, Murder in Madden, which recently received Honorable Mention in the Writers’ Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And my second novel in the series, The Last Sale, will soon be out.

During the past year, I have enjoyed the book signings, festivals, book clubs, and other interactions with readers. I’ve never had so much fun. And each time a reader tells me about her favorite character, or someone says, “I couldn’t put it down,” I thank the writing gods that I found the courage to quit.

As a first-time blogger on this page, Raegan's bio follows.

The Latest Addition

Meet the Newest Columbia II Blogger

RAEGAN TELLER


Raegan Teller is an award-winning mystery author in Columbia, SC, where she lives with her husband and two cats. Her debut novel, Murder in Madden, received Honorable Mention in the 2017 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. Her second novel in the Enid Blackwell series is The Last Sale. Both books were inspired by real-life cold cases in her hometown. Before writing fiction, Raegan was a business writer and copy editor, executive coach, and insurance manager—among other things. While working her way through school, she even sold burial vaults at a cemetery. How apropos is that for a mystery writer!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Using Multiple Narrators

By Sharon May

When I started my novel, I didn’t know the story I wanted to tell. Was it the story of burying the bones or the story of finding the bones?  If it was the former, was the setting 1942 or 1978? Or both? If it was of finding the bones, was it the story of who buried the bones, or the story of the reporters who attempt to uncover the truth about the bones? I decided I wanted to tell the story of what happens in the lives of the characters once the bones are found. One narrator could not tell that story. So I began writing with two narrators, Lafe and Preston, two men who are as different as a Saint Bernard and a Chihuahua. I chose first person because of its immediacy and intimacy, but also because both narrators have secrets and live much of their lives alone.

At this point, I found it easy to meet the first rule of multiple narrators: the reader must be able to open the text at any place and immediately identify the narrator of that section. Narrators, like all characters, must be different in language, tone, and cadence. They must be true to themselves in what they say and how they say it.

I finished a draft with two narrators, but was not satisfied. With the help of an editor experienced with Appalachian literature, I realized two narrators told the story of the bones, but not the story of life in Appalachia so I began adding narrators.

This decision complicated the writing. Obviously, each narrator must sound different from the others. With two narrators, I could alter chapters. Now I have to determine the order of the narrators’ chapters to tell the story coherently and cohesively. There are lots of options of who speaks next. I don’t want repeated events, unless different perspectives on the events add to the readers’ understanding. Also, I have to decide who should tell what. Sometimes, only one narrator knows of an event, and the choice is logical. However, shared experiences creates choices, and it is difficult at times to know which narrator is the right one for a scene.
                                                                                                            
Now I have no idea how many narrators I will use to tell the story of small town life in Appalachia in 1978, a time of change and of what some call progress. With multiple narrators comes layers of complexity, conflict, and theme, I can’t help to think my story will be like an Apple Stack Cake, which has many layers (the thinner the better, the more the better), all separated by dried apples or applesauce. As the cake ages, the taste of apples seeps into the layers, creating one heavenly treat. A woman who makes this cake nowadays is a rare find. She, like a lot of my culture, is dying, and I would like to preserve at least some of my memories of that culture in a novel.





Sunday, February 18, 2018

Characters

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                               

Many writers talk about the character-acts-on-her-own phenomenon, where the author sits down to write about her Main Girl spying on people at the library, but who instead ends up tripping skaters at the ice rink. Why does this happen?

When I’m lucky, two-thirds of my waking life is spent in a fantasy world. To the outside world it may seem like “alone time,” (or just weirdness) but I’m really living in a perfect world with my fantasy friends. These friends all like to watch movies, walk on the beach, discuss books, and get coffee. If we talk about work, it’s interesting. If we live in the same house, we enjoy separate bathrooms and television sets. I love my fantasy friends; they cooperate with me and tolerate me. Sometimes they resemble Viggo Mortensen or Margaret Atwood.

Write those fantasies down, however, and the friends become autonomous. They turn into enemies. It’s never --- what would Jane do next? – but – how can I fit that into the story? Perhaps this is because a story must involve conflict, or it’s not a story. At least that’s what we learned in school. Woman versus man; woman versus nature; geek versus the bitch living inside him.

While my fantasy world is an endless round of breakfast pancakes, cycling, writing, and coffee shops in South Pasadena, my fantasy writing takes place in colder climates, such as Watertown, which is a town still struggling to overcome Urban Destruction from the 1970s. Set characters afloat in South Pasadena, and they become boringly, infinitely happy. Those same characters living in Watertown, New York face struggles and obstacles.


Maybe fantasy is all about place: in my mind, on the street, on the page, or on the big screen. My mind prefers to remain calm and cool. Spewing something forth onto the written page or onto the screen, however, implies that it’s a problem waiting to be solved. What is right and what is wrong for humanity? Problems can only be resolved by free agents: characters possessing knowledge and free will who make big mistakes and bad decisions. They must be able to boogie. Anything other than that spells writer’s block.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Getting Naked for My Art

By Kasie Whitener

For a long time I’ve answered the question, “What’s unique about you?” with “I write vampire fiction.”

Last week sitting on a panel for an entrepreneur summit, I used the same description of myself and for the first time thought, “Is that true?”

It is true I have a vampire novel. It’s the one I’m revising in February. I’ve written two, the first and the sequel, and I’m consumed by these characters and the possibilities of them.

But I don’t write vampire fiction. I don’t even read vampire fiction any more.

I write GenX fiction. I write about running into the guy you hooked up with when you were 19 on the first day of your daughter’s kindergarten class. I write about getting a tattoo fixed and having a crush on the much-younger artist because he (and the smell of the place) reminds you of your first time. I write about the class reunion where your ex-boyfriend finally told you he knows you slept with his brother all those years ago. Yep. He knows.

I write about life at 40 juxtaposing what it is with what I thought it would be. I write about being younger than I think I am but much older than I want to be.

Most of my stories take the real story and twist it into something more dramatic, more engaging, more entertaining. But they almost always start in a real story. That’s not vampire fiction. Vampire fiction is fantasy from beginning to end. Vampires are not real and the lives they lead cannot be real, either.

My attraction to realism was born as early as high school. I hated, hated Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison because it pretended to be real until the end when the main character leaps off a cliff and flies. (Spoiler alert)

If fiction is going to be real, be real. Be raw. Tell the truth.

My masters’ thesis was on Naked Realism. A 90’s Version of Dirty Realism, Naked Realism is as raw as the author can get, as close to making characters people as he can. Naked Realism confesses to picked noses and smelly underpants and a person’s proclivity to avoid making a decision. In Naked Realism characters don’t go charging about trying to obtain their burning desire. They turn away from the ambition of desire and settle for less than they’re worth.

I write Naked Realism.

My characters are trapped in the inertia of time. Plagued by regrets and obsessed with not regretting anything, wishing for something more but unwilling to take the risk of going after it. My characters are sometimes totally unaware of the baggage they carry. They let pivotal moments pass them by. They explain away their cowardice with the cultural complacency they inherited.

I write Naked Realism.


It’s sometimes raw and it’s sometimes painful and it sometimes means I’m telling my story to strangers. But someone once said writing is easy, all you have to do is bleed on the page.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Adventure of Writing

By Bonnie Stanard

Recently I had reason to consider how I go about writing, that is, the process of writing. What comes after the initial inspiration? How does an idea get from my head to the computer screen? Do I mainline uncensored thought? Do I edit as I go? What if there is no inspiration?

In the beginning is an idea. I talk to myself much of the time, in my head, I mean. What I say to myself comes from whatever event, person, or feeling I encounter in the moment. If an idea comes and goes for several days, I’ll get around to writing it down. That doesn’t mean I’ve started a story. Some ideas that thrill my imagination (I’ve got a great idea for a story!) fizzle out when transcribed.

So here I am, using words to corral what I’ve been thinking. Do I search my brain for the best words before my fingers find them on the keyboard? Or does the story itself call out in words for me to use? We writers are often told to just get the story down without a thought about word choice or sentence structure. This advice seems to assume that you know what you want to say. Despite my familiarity with a story in my head, what I want to say often develops as I write, in which case the choice of words is a matter of deciding what I want to say.

I write whether or not it is drudgery, but there are times when I bore myself with what I’ve written. When that happens, I research background material or choose poems from my files and submit to literary journals.

OUTLINE?
In short, no. I can’t seem to discipline my writing. My stories lead and I follow. I’ve tried an outline (once) and the story seemed to deliberately disregard it. I do get a sense of where stories will end. Sometimes this is a revelation and sometimes it’s a hoax.

VERSIONS OF THE TELLING
If I were writing in the 19th Century, deciding on a narrator would be a no-brainer. Authors described everything visible and commonly known that appertained to the plot. In other words, they wrote from the point of view (POV) known as omniscient.

But then James Joyce got inside the head of Leopold Bloom and wrote Ulysses. Authors have explored versions of narration ever since. We have four conventional POV options, but even those have developed subgroups, thanks to writers such as William Faulkner and, more recently, Hilary Mantel. I think third person limited POV allows more versatility.

When I finish a first draft, I feel like I’ve lost 20 pounds. Then come the revisions, and I feel heavier by 40 pounds.

I work alone in my office without a TV, but there’s no escaping the phone and email. The best way to get work done is to rent an apartment away from my friends and family.



Sunday, January 28, 2018

When Does It End?

By Sharon May

Since I have been losing weight this past month, I have been asked, “What’s your goal?” I answer by stating weights I’d be happy with, but add there is no goal because I don’t yet know how much I can lose. Not having a goal in mind reminds me of writing fiction or poetry. Unlike life, a literary work captures only a moment in time, starting and ending in medias res. The question is, “How do I know when I’ve reached the end?”

I have known how I wanted to end a story twice in my life, but had no idea where to start. So I wrote backwards, asking “What has to happen to make this the ending?”

Usually I have a first line, image, or character I want to explore and begin writing, discovering the ending when I get there. This organic method is my preference for the writing experience as it allows me to be as entertained and as surprised as the reader. But it does make me question whether the ending works. A friend says that he can tell when I discover the ending because I have a tendency to slap it on too early instead of letting the ending come at the end. I understand what he means and am trying to break that habit.

An ending should answer all the questions or themes introduced, resolve the conflicts, and satisfy the reader, according to how-to articles. But that doesn’t even come close to explaining how to know if you have the end that is meant to be.

A case in point is a poem I wrote recently in memory of my cousin who died last fall. In the first draft, I ended on a note that emphasizes his role in his death, and the resulting tone is bitter. I wanted to share the poem with my family, but knew their wounds were too fresh to deal with such an ending. I consulted a poet friend, and he wrote an alternative family-friendly ending. He used the same words for the majority of the poem, but changed the last three lines to create an ending meant to console.

It is hard to imagine that the exact same words could be used in two poems with dramatically different endings, themes, and tones, but they both work equally well and are satisfying to the reader. They are just different.

So there are no finite or definite endings. An ending can be swapped out for another, depending on the author’s intentions. Some post-modern works emphasize this by offering multiple endings, and the individual reader can choose the one he or she finds most satisfying.     

This can be unsettling for a writer who expects THE END. But in reality it never is that; it’s just an ending, a place to stop. 

I could conclude by offering advice on writing endings.  But as Bartleby the Scrivener says, “I prefer not to.”     



Sunday, January 21, 2018

Writing a Non-Fiction Proposal

By Laura P. Valtorta

Next week I have a meeting with a publisher. My goal is to pitch a non-fiction project about filmmaking. The publisher does not know me. I need him to sit up and take notice.

Aside from eccentric clothing and hair, my best bid for attention will be a non-fiction proposal that makes sense. In the publishing world, making sense means making money.

Everybody is a filmmaker these days. The ease of digital filmmaking means that there’s a lot of junk out there. On the bright side, artists are freer to express themselves. What makes my filmmaking different is that I have a message rooted in reality: change your community by praising it. When I see a modicum of strength, I pick it out of the surrounding pile of poop and blow it up into a film.

As an attorney with an exciting clientele (tough survivors), I have access to a smorgasbord of material. Illness, injury, psychosis, and reliance on family. Society can’t stop this train by throwing the passengers in jail. Brilliance and beauty are the results.

Sarcoidosis: a chronic illness will be the subject of next week’s proposal: how to make a film about it. Which doctors and researchers to bug. How to crack the organization of survivors in Orangeburg. Describing prejudicial assumptions about the disease that the folks in Orangeburg say are false. Interview subject, camera, sound check, action.

A synopsis, an outline, a sample chapter. These are the basic tools I plan to bring with me to the meeting next week.  The synopsis will state my premise, even though I seek interview subjects who may belie that premise. The outline will be detailed, even though I plan to veer away from it whenever necessary.

Only the sample chapter will describe my uncertainty. Can this project work? Can we raise production money? My cinematographer, Lynn Cornfoot, and I will get some raw video to send along with grant proposals. Can we get butts in the seat to view this film? That’s the ultimate question.


Illness can create strength: look at Dallas Buyers’ Club. This is the message I must convey to the publisher next week. Every human has an interest in that.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Getting Ideas for the Story

By Rex Hurst

Joseph Conrad as a seventeen-year-old sailor once heard the story of a man who had stolen, single-handedly, "a whole lighter-full of silver.” This story bounced around in his head for twenty-five years before emerging as one of his greatest novels, Nostromo. It is about a man who, while involved in a fictional South American revolution, stashes away a shipment of silver, only to be unable to reach it again.

One little story blossoms into a novel that has never gone out of print.

That’s why when I’m preparing to start on a new book, I never read fiction. For months I delve into non-fiction, watch documentaries, listen to old people. Then little by little the full story emerges. An idea here, some dialog there, a new character, bits of flesh and bone- all of it comes together.

If I don’t do this, what sparks my ideas? Other people’s work. And then I’m not producing my own, but copying another’s style.

Decades ago, when I was first starting to write seriously, I listened to a lecture by an author who told us, “If you’re going to go into writing, don’t be an English major, because then all you’ll have to write about is other people’s work. Do something that will give you ideas or things that other people will actually want to read about.”

That always stuck with me. And when I delve into the non-fiction world of material, I am always asking myself, “Can this be a good story? Have I heard it before? And if so, is it a story that has been played out? Done too many times?”

It’s incredible how a minor germ of an idea from an obscure place, can spark an entire novel.

My last book, The Foot Doctor Letters, came into being because I was reading about the life of Carl Panzram and I realized that most fictionalized books and films of serial killers never got them right. Thus, I set out to create a fictional serial killer that could have been authentic. Maybe I was too successful because a lot of people seemed turned off by it, but c’est la vie. What I had initially intended to be a two-page short story blossomed into a 267-page novel.

You never know where these ideas will take you. There is a wealth of ideas and new stories just waiting to be unearthed.

Go forth and find them.



Sunday, January 7, 2018

New Year, New Writing You – 2018 Installment

By Kasie Whitener

Last year, I had the first blog of 2017 and I used it to inspire myself to set some writing goals. This is the link to that post if you’d like to review it.

Here’s how I did on my writing goals:

  • Find an agent for the vampire novel. Nyet. The thing was a hot mess most of the year and I only just figured out what’s wrong with it. Not agent-ready.     
  • Find a publisher for the GenX novel. Nyet. I did get some valuable feedback and a semi-yes from a small press before the press closed its doors to new submissions. I also learned it stayed in consideration for a long time with a different small press before being rejected. Thanks for sending it to us and please submit again. 
  • Write ten new stories. Nyet. I wrote about half that and submitted even fewer.


I said at the time that these were “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals,” and they were absolutely career-changing, had they come about. How’s that for building in an escape clause?

What I did accomplish in 2017 was to present at a prestigious literary festival on the topic of funerals – a much-needed examination of a critical scene in the GenX novel. I also applied for and won a scholarship to the Big Dream Conference held by our parent organization, the South Carolina Writers’ Association. In my application, I said the conference could really move the needle on my writing life. And it did.

What I learned is that I’m at a new level in my writing career. Gone are the novice-writer needs like learning the publishing industry and learning to take feedback. I’m now in a middle plane of writer’s career where I know how to do the work and just have to do it.

My bestie, Jodie Cain Smith, offered advice on one of my stories this year that summed up my entire writing career right now. She said, “Be willing to dig deeper.”

It’s not enough to play at writing. If you want this, you have to dig deeper.

Here’s the 2018 strategy:
  • ·       Write every day. Something. Anything. Whether it’s for work, a blog, or fiction. Don’t let yourself go to bed without writing something. The more I write, the better I get. So, write more.
  • ·      Submit every week. Query an agent, send off to a publisher, enter a contest, submit a story to journal. Every week you have to put yourself out there. That’s 52 submissions this year. Something will get published.
  • ·         Revise one work per month. Focus revision on a single piece and work that piece until the month is over. At month end, done or not, move on to something else. You don’t have to finish revising all in one go. But you do have to focus.



In my writing life, it’s time to dig deeper and do the work. What will you do in your writing life in 2018?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Moment at Our Hands

Kat Dodd

Since we have just gotten through the holidays, I would like to reflect on one aspect of the holidays that people often avoid and complain about doing themselves, but enjoy all the same: Cooking. I hear people moaning and groaning around me about the effort that goes into cooking a great meal for themselves and their families/friends around the holidays. No matter how great the end product was for yourself or for others, cooking a great meal takes time, energy and even money. Similarly, writing is a chore to many people that have to do anyway whether it is for work or school. It can even be a chore to those who enjoy it the most, the aspirational writers like us, who fall into the trap of “writer’s block” or simply grow tired of laboring for the reward of completing a piece we have worked on.

I am one of those rare lovers of both cooking and writing, though even I have times in which I must force myself to do both. Right now, I cook for a living and I write as a hobby although I have the urge to create cooking on own terms quite often and it comes to me in creative bursts in the same way. Both of these activities are like a deep meditation for me, requiring complete focus and dedication in order to execute the end product to the best of your ability and create a sense of self-reflection that you can actually share with others. This is true of any art worth mentioning.  The best things in life are often not free as the cliché suggests, they require focus and sacrificing your time as well as your energy, which is a cost usually greater than money.


Because of this realization, I would suggest that the holidays are not only the time to appreciate what you already have and the power of giving to others. It is also a time to realize that the same effort that goes into the reward of the holidays, time and money, can be applied to your daily life as you ring in the new year. When you second guess the sacrifices you make to be a writer or to make others around yourself happy, think about how the world comes together to create the beauty at the end of the year and what contributed to that. Think about the actual end product of appreciating the present moment at hand.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Money Matters

By Jodie Cain Smith

On this Christmas Eve, you may expect me to write about the spiritual side of writing – bringing something new, joyful, even meaningful into the world. But, that’s not where my head is. Today, I am thinking about money.
            
Last Saturday, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel of authors to discuss the process of writing. During the discussion, a question regarding project selection and motivation was asked. I answered simply and, just in case Santa does exist, honestly, “I am a professional, fulltime writer. Therefore, half of my time goes to my clients and the work I am paid to do. The other goes to my passion projects, the writing I do for myself. That is how I select projects – what I am being paid to write and what I want to write for me. As for motivation, money drives my paid work, and my critique group pushes me forward with my passion projects.”

I may have ruffled a feather or two. A couple of audience members visibly flinched so much so that I need to challenge them to a little high-stakes poker. Another panel member dismissed my mention of money stating that he only writes what is in his heart and that money doesn’t have anything to do with it. I do not begrudge him his passion or love of craft. I also hope, because he writes in the inspirational realm, that his work remains sincere. However, I am left pondering why money is considered a lesser motivator in creative fields. Does money diminish art?
            
We have all been told that if money is your motivation to become an author, don’t write. I agree with this only because the money is, more often than not, slim. The chance of striking it rich off a book is poor in the too-crowded publishing hallways of today. But, shouldn’t a professional writer be paid according to the value of the skill involved? Shouldn’t I want to pay my bills with the skill I have cultivated over the last two decades?
            
I think it is time, today especially, for us all to be honest, to own the fact that we write and publish novels to get paid. Our work may include a powerful meaning, teach an important lesson, bring joy to the downtrodden, or expose injustice, but unless you are giving it away, every novel schlepped to book signings or placed on bookstore shelves has a price.
            
Expecting to be paid for writing, to make a living with words, and to give proper time and attention to paid work does not make me a creative Grinch. It does not blacken my teeny, tiny heart or frighten dogs who carry misplaced loyalty. But, pretending I have no interest in money because my writing is above that worldly evil while calling myself a professional writer would be sanctimonious and naïve.

            
So, Santa, hear me now. If I am on your nice list, and I pray I am, here is what I want for Christmas:  More paid work, please! I’ll change the world later. I promise. Right now, I just need to keep the lights on.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Coming Back to Writing

By Sharon May

6 a.m. I am sitting at the computer, staring at the first four of 64 ounces of water I will drink today. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to write in a while. The sudden illness, then death of my favorite cousin, followed by completing over two weeks of grading five classes in two days, surgery, and a short hospital stay have pulled me away from it. What better way to get back to the discipline of writing than to have a blog with a deadline?

I am very frustrated as a writer as I have lots to write about. During the past five weeks, a kernel of a story, a moment of tension, a striking line of dialogue, an interesting face to shape into a character, all came my way hour after hour. But I neither had the time nor the energy to take notes. Exchanges with others would have stifled by notetaking. Once alone, I lacked the physical energy to write. But I had lots of sleepless nights, so I cataloged ideas, words, and phrases in my brain, and this week I will start retrieving as much as I can. 

7 a.m. I sip a protein shake, chocolate of course, the first of three on the menu. I am afraid the sound of Old Regular Baptist Jimmy Hall’s cadence of his funeral sermon will fade away. The faces of twenty-five or more cousins I have not seen in over 20 years will merge into a generic “Lawson face,” while younger cousins I just met will be mere impressions, not memories. The pieces of family history never heard or stories long forgot will hide further in recesses of my brain.      

I do know I won’t forget the three times during the funeral when Willow, Billy’s fiancé’s three-year-old daughter, reached out toward his casket, and said, “Let me wake Billy up.”

8 a.m. Four more ounces of water. I know that those ideas and words stored in my mind will come to not resemble real life as they have merged and morphed. Characters will say things their inspirations would never say. Events will be merged into even better stories than I could have recorded at the time of hearing them. I guess that is one of the beautiful stages of writing – incubation, that time you think, ruminate, and toy with ideas and words but not write because you have to deal with what life requires. I repeatedly tell my students they miss the opportunity for incubation when they try to write an essay in one draft or wait to the last minute to start.

9 a.m. four ounces of diluted apple juice. This morning I moved from being frustrated to reconciled to albeit a long, emotional, and exhausting incubation period. That change of view is due to writing, and now I won’t doubt “the reality” of what I write. Instead, I will honor its truth.



Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Opportunities of a Love Triangle

By Kasie Whitener

I’ve been binge reading romance novels lately. Every year I begin my literary year with some high intentions: the National Book Award finalists, the Booker Prize finalists. Then we go to the beach in August and I pick up a courtly romance and I’m sucked back in.

In high school, I belonged to a book club that sent me four new regency romances a month. A regency romance is historical fiction that does not bother being accurate in its historical details. Think antebellum costumes without the complications of slavery, candles and oil lamps without the discomfort of outhouses. Regency romances forget how rarely people bathed and that few, if any, cleaned their teeth. It’s a polished version of old manners, old social norms, and the subtle sexiness of glamourous costumes.

Usually my August romance novel will spur a binge of genre novels for a few weeks before I return to my more sophisticated reading list. Last year, I was caught up in a series by Sherrilyn Kenyon that had me downloading each successive novel as soon as the previous one was finished. This year it was J.R. Ward then Sarah MacLean then J.T. Geissinger.

When I finally emerged from Geissinger’s series about shape shifters, I found a series by Mary E. Pearson that brought me deeper into my fantasy fiction habit. Beginning with A Kiss of Deception, Pearson has crafted a series around a compelling love triangle that has me completely obsessed.

Romance novels very rarely play with love triangles. If they do, the triangle is shallow and mostly a device to make one party jealous of another. But Pearson’s book relies upon the triangle for at least two books (I haven’t started the third) and I never got tired of it. A love triangle offers a unique view of characters. There is the sense that betrayal is lurking all the time, that secrets are knotting themselves deep in the fabric of the story, and that someone is going to end up losing.

Love triangles are common in Young Adult (YA) fiction like the The Remnant Chronicles by Pearson. The Twilight series made use of the Jacob-Bella-Edward triangle, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series stood on the Jace-Clary-Simon triangle and her Dark Artifices series is hinging on a new love triangle Julian-Emma-Mark.

How an author employs the triangle to test her heroine’s resolve is fascinating. Even the Ron-Hermione-Harry trio had its loyalty challenges through the Harry Potter series. A triangle provides the writer with opportunities to test the protagonist but also opportunities to get the reader to pick sides as well.

Pearson’s first book in The Remnant Chronicles series was a well-organized narrative that provided enough confusion for readers that I didn’t know which of the suitors I wanted Lia to choose. What I did know, though, was that I was fully invested in Lia and the choice she would inevitably have to make unless one of the boys made it for her.