Sunday, February 19, 2017

Newspaper Writing and Reading

By Ginny Padgett

I am a proud 1975 graduate of the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism. At that time, it was ranked as one of the five best journalism schools in the country. Today, I am unsure of its specific national ranking but know it continues to be recognized for its excellence.

Even though print journalism was not my chosen concentration, I learned how to craft a story for newsprint, conduct an interview and ask questions from the floor at real news events, know the laws and ethics concerning freedom of speech, and realize the responsibility of becoming a member of the Fourth Estate.

In recent years, due to instant news via electronic means, newspaper readership has fallen to a point of near extinction. News is always happening. Our world is shrinking. We demand the latest information. We have the technology to make that a reality.

TV, radio, and social media outlets embraced this demand and rose quickly to supply it. Commerce saw the trend and identified a vast money-making market. Now billion-dollar conglomerates present news more as entertainment. Their networks dole out 20-second sound bites and conveniently packaged segments that fit tidily between commercial breaks. We have 24-hour TV news channels, talk radio, Yahoo news, FaceBook news, independent webcasts, and entire channels that spin the news to line up with your point of view, just to name a few.

However, since November newspapers are experiencing a strong comeback. Some papers are citing nearly a 200% hike in subscriptions. In fact, I have subscribed to two national newspapers during the last three months; I access them on my laptop and smart phone – the best of both worlds.  This spike proves there is still a need for good old-fashion journalism.

To make sense of our rapidly changing world, we need solid reporting from trustworthy sources. We need in-depth coverage of stories that impact our lives. We need good investigative reporters who have a detective’s gut, a bulldog’s tenacity, and a knack for clear communication. This is the kind of reporting that is strong enough, valuable enough to be distilled for use on the air waves, as well as in regional and local newspapers.  

Subscribe to a reliable newspaper today. Keep serious journalism alive.  

Sunday, February 12, 2017


By Laura P. Valtorta

When writing anything the writer must choose between slapping the reader with suspense, death, rape, and explosions, and delivering some meaning. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn shocks the reader into turning the pages; rock singer Patti Smith’s memoir The M Train is a pleasant book that conveys meaning. Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train relies on the shock value of its story; The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is a quieter book.

Any good book can help the reader escape from the world, even a whodunit with the pejorative “girl” in the title. What matters are the lessons and images left when the book is finished. After reading Gone Girl, which I raced through, unable to lay it down, I could only think that the author, Ms. Flynn, is one strange human being. The Orchardist – a much more difficult read -- has a lot to say about solitude in the Wild West and vicissitudes of the human heart. Ms. Coplin is the better writer.

Recently I’ve been watching many independent films. The best one of the lot has been 20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills, starring Annette Bening and Billy Crudup. The weirdest is Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert. Elle does not disappoint.  It’s extremely French – a suspenseful story about rape that includes sexual assault in many forms and from different perspectives. Elle is not a film that’s easy to watch, but the viewer also can’t look away.

When I watch 20th Century Women, I get a distinct message: generations brought up in the first and second halves of the 20th century differ from one another in fundamental ways. Elle only shows me that Isabelle Huppert is fascinating and twisted, and so is the director – Paul Verhoeven. Maybe Elle also teaches me that sex is fundamentally twisted, but I’ve known this forever. Between these two films, 20th Century Women is more valuable, because it teaches me lessons I didn’t already know or shows them to me in a different light.

Shocking details can sell books; good writing can teach lessons. How a writer incorporates catastrophic events such as rape, death, duplicity, war, and betrayal determines the book’s value. Those events are always present in our lives. The question is what meaning they create for an existentialist like me.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Give Your Female Characters Agency

By Kasie Whitener

Did you know there’s a rape scene in Saturday Night Fever? In all the talk of the dancing and the music and the classic character Tony Manero wanting to climb out of his Brooklyn bleakness into stardom, no one ever mentions the rape.

Toward the end of the film, Annette, Tony’s adoring fan, is swept up by the guys as they’re leaving the club. In the backseat, Annette and one of Tony’s friends have sex. The other three friends are riding up front, heckling the couple throughout. At an intersection, the friend in the back switches places with a friend in the front and the second friend attacks Annette. She tells him no, but none of the guys bother to prevent it from happening. Tony even glances back during the act, sees tears dripping down her cheeks, and does nothing.

When we make the story about the male character, we can ignore the female character’s suffering.

My senior year in college, I directed a Tennessee Williams one-act play called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. In it, crooked businessman Silva violently takes Jake’s wife, Flora, as payment for lost cotton.

I doubt I fully understood the story I was telling. I can’t remember identifying with Flora’s helplessness. I remember being more focused on turning my friend Dennis, who played Silva, into a predator.

I watched a TEDx talk by a father imploring storytellers to show his son exactly how good men are supposed to behave. He said the old story of “hero battles evil alone and is given the girl as a prize,” sets boys up for failure. Tony ignores Annette’s rape and Jake allows his wife to be taken as payment.

When the story focuses on the male character, it is easy to dehumanize the females around him. We’re not required to make female supporting roles complex characters who have agency and purpose. We’re allowed to let them exist as props, victims, or trophies.

This recognition of women in relation to the men around them is the center conflict of my NaNoWriMo project and a lens I am using in almost all the art I experience.

I know I should do a better job with my supporting female characters. They should act on their own motives and desires. Their experiences should be valid and plot-affecting. My male characters should demonstrate acceptable treatment of their female counterparts. They should show compassion and tenderness, offer respect, and protect dignity.

Good male characters don’t need weak women to prop them up. Annette’s rape confirms what we knew about Tony: he only cares about himself. Jake’s willing acceptance of Silva’s terms further demeans Flora. Those stories are decades old, but the challenge of female agency still exists.

For every Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger there must be a Gayle and a Harry: men who see their female co-stars as teammates, who have expectations of the women and enable them to succeed. Equality on the page advances both female and male characters.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Creating Voice

By Sharon May

I have always been fascinated with the idea of voice in writing -- how one finds his or her own voice in non-fiction, but also how one develops various voices in fiction.

It’s a rare college freshman who has a voice, and it is a joy to find one midst all the academic writing I read. In fact, many of the students at the developmental level have no sense of audience yet and have not written enough to have developed a voice, and I usually have to spend so much time on audience that I rarely have a chance to discuss voice. On the rare occasions I have students who are developing their own voices, I point out what makes the writing uniquely theirs and praise them for being themselves.

Recently, I read a how-to book for fiction writers on voice and found it lacking in direction.  The book is filled with excellent quotations from various authors who have clearly established a voice, but the book was no real help on how I could develop such powerful voices. It seemed as if the author of the book was saying what I often hear my fellow college professors say about voice: “I know it when I read it.” These same professors are quite vague when asked how to teach voice.

Most advice on the Internet on finding one’s own voice basically emphasizes the need to read and write a lot as if given enough time, one will discover one’s own voice. But I don’t just want my own voice, I want to create a variety of voices that convey the characters’ souls.

More specific advice is available on the Internet on how to develop a character’s voice by focusing on the style of language, mannerisms, and dialect. In one of my searches on voice, I found the best description of voice by a writer named Kat who says, “Voice is the lens through which the reader sees the story.” That lens is created through the author’s word choices, which serves as a reminder that every word matters.
Of course, when one considers voice, one has to consider point of view. Perhaps the easiest to write is first person, but it limits what can be revealed about the other characters. Third person allows for more creativity and perspectives. However, whenever I imagine writing in third person, I remember reading Hawthorne with his morals and lessons from his authorial third person point of view. I’m afraid my inner Hawthorne will creep into my writing when I attempt third person narratives. Fear aside, I must tackle this point of view.

I guess practice will give me control over the narrative and produce more compelling voices. Maybe time and practice are after all the most important ingredients in developing voice.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Writing My Way Out

By Jodie Cain Smith

In Hamilton, the Musical, the ensemble accuses Alexander of writing “like he’s running out of time.” I’d give up my Mac to have that ability again.

But, my word count from the last several months is abysmal, practically zero. The husband, as I hem and haw, reminds me of my overly full plate of the last year:  a move across three states, taking on a second and third job, caring for a toddler, blah, blah, blah. To my mind those are all excuses, and I’ve never taken kindly to excuses. The husband’s support keeps our marriage on track but does nothing to fuel my writing.

If I am real with myself, examine my behavior, thoughts, and feelings closely, I know the problems. After all, what writing is any good if it lacks honesty? So, here is my daily dose of get-it-out-there-and-move-on.

Fear.  I fear I am a washout, a two-hit wonder, but will never become one of those writers who crank out brilliance time and again. What if my good ideas are gone?

Lack of inspiration. In the past, I dismissed those writers who wait for inspiration. Powering through was my go-to tactic with every part of my life. I wrote trite blogs packed with na├»ve methods of pushing past writer’s block. Now, I know I didn’t understand how powerful, how draining blocks could be. I didn’t know that sometimes waiting is the best course of action.

Lack of discipline, fortitude. Not writing proved to be a slippery slope. Armed with my list of excuses, I allowed my writing process to slide away. What used to be a disciplined three-hour per day habit, deteriorated on my own watch, because of my excuses. And, then I added lack of inspiration to that list.

This is where I found myself three weeks ago – looking back at 2016 with the realization I had allowed a year to go by with few words to show for it. I felt defeated, afraid, and fraudulent. I was losing my identity. As a friend of mine posted on Facebook recently, what do you call a writer who doesn’t write? I’ve no idea.

But, I’ve never been adept at accepting defeat. I’m unapologetically competitive, so to Hell with defeat. To paraphrase Hamilton, I will write my way out. The resolve to rebuild my writing life has been a struggle to maintain, but I will maintain it.

To do so, for the past three weeks, I have forced myself to write something, anything creative, everyday, Monday – Friday. It may be only 500 words of pure garbage, but it is on the page. I will decide what to do with those words later. For now, I will peel the Band-Aid of fear and loathing from my skin, bit by bit.

I hung a calendar on the wall near my desk and decided to place a green star on each day I write. Seeing a green streak has given me hope. Maybe good ideas are still there, waiting to be uncovered. I just have to live in my characters worlds long enough to reveal their secrets.

So, for now, I will just write. Through writing, I will re-learn this craft we love. My words will find purpose, and I will find my creative self once again.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Now That My Book Is Published

By Bonnie Stanard

Promoting a book is a challenge. I've discovered word-of-mouth doesn't work very well, unless you connect to a “mouth” such as Walter Edgar or Oprah.

Writers can’t count on friends reading their books. Some time ago prior to a Harry Potter book release, my friend Miriam could hardly wait to get her hands on a copy. Her enthusiasm prompted me to buy the book. I’m not sure I made it past page 25. Because I like Miriam (and we usually like the same things) you’d think she and I would have similar taste in books, but taste doesn’t add up like algebra equations.

Though I appreciate book signings hosted by independent book stores, the return on my signings has been minimal. As a professional courtesy, I’ve recommended the Beaufort Bookstore, McIntosh Book Shoppe, Indigo Books, and Fiction Addiction whenever the occasion permits. The advantage these stores have over Amazon and Barnes & Noble is that their inventory is vetted, and the staff is knowledgeable about their books.

Professional writer-advisors are unanimous—an internet presence is essential. I put together a website and opened Facebook and Twitter accounts. Inadvertently I set up two Facebook accounts and couldn’t get rid of one. And hashtag communication was inscrutable. I was in over my head and hired a media assistant. This time consuming and expensive effort had little if any effect on book sales.

At the recommendation of a friend, I committed $150 to an ad campaign with the website Goodreads. It’s an entertaining site for readers, but it was a waste of money and a frustrating experience for me. Because I found no “contact” menu option, it was impossible to get answers to questions or make a change to my ad copy.

I also peeled out a month’s rent to buy an Author Buzz bookclubbing package, which placed ads for my novel in several supposedly active websites for readers. As a promotion and part of the deal, I gave away over 25 copies of the book. If this generated activity, I missed the two or three extra sales.

Book festivals are fun, but the traffic is unpredictable. Book 'Em North Carolina was great two years ago, not so great last year (panel discussions can be good). The Cayce Festival of the Arts  was busy, but I sold less than ten books. On the bright side, most of these events are attended by readers and provide opportunities to meet other writers.

This is not to say these efforts have been a waste of time. As I’ve said to fellow writers in our workshop, it’s hard to get our manuscripts accepted for publication, but it’s really hard if we don’t make submissions. Forget about the rejections and keep committed and professional. It’s the first step to success, and we won’t know if we can get to step two if we don’t pass the starting line.

Next month I’ll be a participating author on February 18 at the Amelia Island Book Festival and have sent in applications to the Pee Dee Author Expo in Florence (Feb. 11) and the Local Author Showcase at the Richland County Library in Columbia (Feb. 26). Mast General Store hosts book signings, and I’ve submitted an application but haven’t had a response.

Ambition doesn’t necessarily lead to success. I agree with Bill Bradley who said, “Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

New Year, New Writing You

By Kasie Whitener

I love New Year’s. I love everything about it from watching Times Square packed with diaper-wearing drunk celebrants to staying up late, counting down, and kissing everyone in the party. I love the bowl games and the cocktail food. I love the next-day hangover and holding down my sister’s couch through the Tournament of Roses parade wondering how all those Californians manage to look so cheerful at 6 a.m.

But mostly I love New Year’s because I am a ridiculous optimist. I say ridiculous because no one can find the bright side of things faster than me. All things.

New Year’s is like the optimist’s holiday. It’s a chance to look out over a new year and say, “This year is going to be even better!”

For the last four years, I’ve made writing-related goals at New Year’s. Each year I’ve made some progress although I’ve never completely reached the goals I set.

Shoot for the moon. If you fail, you may land among the stars.

(Scientifically incorrect since the moon is closer and you’re more likely to land among the Earth’s atmosphere and be incinerated. Shut it, pessimist.)

My goals are Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Find an agent for the vampire novel. Find a publisher for the GenX novel. Write 10 new stories for submission during my friend Khara’s Submit-o-Rama challenge in October. Read 50 books.

In 2016, I submitted a short story and won an award for it. I got an editor and a small-press publisher interested in the GenX novel. The rejection feedback from an agent on the vampire novel led to amazing revisions. I read 61 books.

Turning my focus from fiction to my company, I scaled back, significantly, on the time I spent on vampires and GenX storytelling and blogging. Still, I finished NaNoWriMo with 50,000 new words and started a Neverland story. I took a weekend at Myrtle Beach for writing.  I kept up with my weekly Tuesday tweet chat with writers across the world (#wschat 6 and 9 p.m. EST) and attended a conference. I even read my published fiction in front of an audience for the first time ever.

There’s so much opportunity in every new year. Before it begins we can envision all the changes we’ll make to develop our skills, earn credibility, accumulate accolades, and gain traction for our work.

Meditate on 2017. Think about where your writing is now and where you’d like for it to be.

Do you struggle with Character? Plot? Dialogue? Set a goal to study and practice one element this year.

Do you leave work unfinished? Set a goal to finish a certain number of pieces this year.

Is it hard finding time to write? Set a goal to create writing time every day. Five minutes is all it takes.

The new year began last week, but it’s not too late to envision your writing life in 2017 and lay the plans to make that life a reality.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Resolution for the Present

By Kat Dodd

Celebrating the New Year is often about embracing the future and reflecting on the past. We either embrace the lessons learned from the past year or leave them behind happily while we happily go towards the possibilities the future brings. As writers, we often imagine the future and reflect on the past ourselves when we put put pen to paper or type our imaginations into written record. However, I believe some of the greatest stories and poems written focus on the present moment for the author or the present moment imagined by the author as you read along.

Yes, the future does bring hope along with it and the past helps us learn from our mistakes. In the same sense, writing about the potential future opens the imaginations of readers and the past helps us understand some of the present actions and situations in fiction. Yet, nothing can bring a better personal and environmental awareness than embracing the present moment fully both as a writer and an individual. We use our personal perspective within life itself in everything we imagine as writer, no matter what topic we are attempting to entertain the reader with. Therefore, finding inspiration when it seems to allude you can be as simple as taking the time to be mindful of your own life itself. This is how we not only focus on those introspective perceptions that form some of the best works of literature, but how we find inspiration even when it seems as though we lack great movement in our own lives or the world around us.

I am not a Buddhist even though I am telling you that mindfulness is the key to becoming a better writer and enjoying life more in general. However, the most meaningful times in our lives are the little moments we meditate on and our interactions with everyone we meet, not just the most important people to us. We do not have to meditate in the traditional sense or go into a trance to "smell the roses" so-to-speak or find something new everyday that just might inspire us in every way. If we can achieve this, there is no limit to the inspiration we can find in the now.

I think that the best thing we can do to embrace the New Year is not simply to reflect on the past and look forward to the future by attempting something traditional like a New Year's resolution after enjoying an indulgent party. Instead, we can embrace the idea to enjoy daily life to the fullest and absorb everything around us as writers. We still want to make a promise to ourselves to take advantage of the New Year but we want to look at that more as an opportunity to make the most out of life instead of correcting what we see as our past mistakes both as writers and individuals. In the present is where we truly find the future in ourselves and everything we do.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Birthing a Blog

By Laura P. Valtorta

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to launch a blog about laws referred to often in the press but never fully referenced or explained. Title IX, the First Amendment, and Roe versus Wade are examples. The one I need to study more carefully is Dodd-Frank – the law enacted by President Obama to regulate banking and finance. Who is Dodd? Who is Frank? How does their law impact banking and investment?

The law swims through time like an amorphous amoeba. Figuring out how to research and explain it efficiently is difficult. I took a year to write the first edition of Social Security Disability Practice. Each new edition sucks up two weeks of work. With a blog, I won’t have that much time to mess around. The first steps will be to read the law and then listen to someone interpret it. With the First Amendment, the amendment itself is about six lines long, but the interpretive cases stretch on forever.

Wooo weee! The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, 12 U.S. Code 5301 et ff. is about 200 pages long. These pages are the single-spaced, two-column kind found in federal statutes. Every line opens itself up to interpretation, evasion and scamming. Thank goodness for Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short, that can help me understand the impetus for this law. Thank goodness for the holiday break.

At the onset, I plan to include these elements in each blog.

1.              REFERENCE TO THE STATUTE - Everybody writes “Dodd-Frank,” for example, but nobody writes 12 U.S. 5301 et ff. – which directs the researcher to the current wording of the statute.

2.              SUMMARY OF THE LAW – This part will be the trickiest to write. Dodd-Frank deals with banking practices and Wall Street trading. All of this affects the everyday lives of the average Jane. I don’t want my summary to exceed 300 words.

3.              WHAT THE LAW WAS INTENDED TO ACCOMPLISH – Writing about intent is always impossible, especially with something as old as the First Amendment. The blog needs to clarify that any description of intent is based on my own personal opinion as a citizen and a lawyer.

4.              SNARKY COMMENTS ABOUT HOW THE AMERICAN PEOPLE HAVE MESSED UP THE LAW – With something like Title IX, this will be my chance to rant about university life and sports. Comments about the importance of teamwork in scientific research may also fit in here. Once again, all will be my opinion, and clearly labeled as such unless I can point to reliable research and statistics.

Blogs allow us to express our opinions. They should never be read as news or fact. They can, however, aid us in interpreting the Wall Street Journal or National Public Radio.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Dystopian Writing

By Laura P. Valtorta

Margaret Atwood, who has written five dystopian novels, starts from a platform of modern civilization in first-world countries (people working, children being educated, women treated as $.68 citizens) before plunging into a future that looks both grim and strange. In the MaddAdam trilogy, her diving board is present-day corporate control from which she plunges into the soup of the future – a world where the environment has collapsed and big companies protect half of the population in sealed communities. She has a platform of values that she respects: love and camaraderie. The healing qualities of hard work such as gardening. But she attacks anyone who can’t think for herself. The books are hilarious.

Franklin Schneider has no such platform. His creative memoir, Canned, how I lost ten jobs in ten years and learned to love unemployment, begins with the premise that life stinks, all of it. He tells the reader why in an entertaining way. The reader may or may not agree, but the quality and funniness of the writing help to deliver his message. Because Schneider rejects everything (except sex and books), his insights are often deeper and more unexpected than those of other writers. He makes the reader question values that western society forces on us as given: family is desirable. Work is always good.

Donna Tartt, in The Secret Friend, starts from the premise that Mississippi life in the 1970s was terrible for everyone because of economic deprivation. Her central character, a young girl, hunts down a supposed killer who has not committed the murder. Nobody understands anybody else in Tartt’s world. The reader can see inside the minds of the main characters, but they hardly ever understand each other. In this way, she attacks some prejudices about the South and reinforces others. She does accept the conventional premise that people need money and ambition to make life work. The book is 95% funny and filled with snakes.

While writing my current novel about the barriers America has built around skin color, I am starting from the traditional notion that family can make a person strong. Friends are important in Doris & Carmen, but Americans, living in compartmentalized worlds, are never free to choose the friends they need. People who can break down the boxes are stronger than others. My main targets are the American legal system, greed, and lawyers.

Humor is what ties these writings together. Nobody wants to depress her readers, and human stupidity is an easy target. Laughter is what makes the message stick.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Wordtopia is Just One Way to Start

By Kasie Whitener

Jodie was right. NaNoWriMo is a crazy gluttony of wordtopia. Volunteers commit to producing 50,000 words in the month of November for what could be the first draft of a novel.

I’ve done it three times and have a lifetime achievement statistic of 155,363 words to show for it. This year’s entry, Interstate Butterflies, is a commercial fiction attempt: Maisy Diller returns to her hometown to escape her crumbling music career and wait out the cancer that’s killing her uncle.

What I love about NaNoWriMo is the purity of creation. There’s no room for revising in the word frenzy. I’m not someone who has ever written without stopping to correct spelling and grammar. I tend to edit-while-writing. No time for that in NaNo! Word count is all that matters. There’s no time for poring over the right word or the right construction of a sentence.

Just go! Blaze on! Word count is what matters.

There’s no chance to wonder if a scene has done what it needs to do, whether a character’s motivations have changed, or even what that character wants to accomplish in each scene. Just write! The rest will get worked out during revision.

I’ve always “pantsed” NaNoWriMo. It means writing-from-the-seat-of-your-pants. I just let the characters talk and meander through the story. I’ve basically taken the stream-of-consciousness approach for five first-person narrators, one of whom was a vampire.

But this year I “planned” which entails outlining the entire novel and waking up every morning with a “fill in the blank” approach to achieving my word count. Planning worked. By mid-month I had 25,000 words and I was on my way to winning NaNoWriMo.

Except I didn’t know anything about Maisy. Her voice sounded like an answering machine recording. I couldn’t figure out what the main conflict was. Which character was the antagonist?

Then I had surgery and went down for four days without a finger on the keyboard. In my anesthesia-induced fog, I asked the big questions:

What does Maisy want?
What happens if she doesn’t get it?
Who stands in her way?
What is she willing to do to achieve her goal?
What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to her?

And then she started talking. She said, “Listen, Kasie, this story is about my inability to see myself as anyone except the person the men in my life say I am. I want to be me in all my messy glory. Not Will’s best friend. Not Maddox’s talented niece. Not the band’s lead singer or Tyler’s ex-girlfriend. Not my father’s lost cause.”

Then, in a fit of 18,000 words, I crushed the last three days of NaNoWriMo and “finished” the novel. Except it’s not anywhere near done. It’s just 50,060 words of discovery. A lump of clay ready to be shaped into a compelling novel through revision. But it’s a start and that’s the whole point of NaNo: to start.

Now the real work begins.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

No More NaNoWriMo!

By Jodie Cain Smith

If I had my druthers, NaNoWriMo would find a tall cliff and plunge into the great hereafter. I have given it a try. Twice. And now I can claim two Novembers full of self-loathing and failure. Allow me to share my post-NaNo thoughts with you.

Who chose November?

Is this because whoever created this awful challenge wanted some cutesy alliteration? National Novel na na na. We get it. Adorable. No amount of alliteration will ever work for me.

Did the original NaNoWriMo-er not know that November is a really busy month, especially for those of us who already gave into the pressure of creating a Norman Rockwell version of the holidays? Which, by the way, start with trick-or-treating on Halloween. No more of this wait until after Thanksgiving. Nope. How can I be expected to write 50,000 words in the month that I am also supposed to avoid eating all my kid’s Halloween candy, tear down the cobwebs and witches, throw up a cornucopia, hay bale, and a sign that reads “So blessed” all in a mad dash before the day of gluttony? Then, I must figure out how to brine a turkey and do all of my Christmas shopping in one day that more resembles The Purge than holiday shopping. No, November will not do.

And, the cutesy doesn’t end with the name.

You must decide early on if you are a planner or a pantser, and be willing to fight to the death in defense of your chosen writing style. There are badges to be won, inspirational coaching to be bombarded with, and writing events. I can think of few experiences more awkward than sitting around a library table with ten strangers all with laptops and ear buds, all silently staring at each other when we collectively hit the writer’s block.

And, yes, I’m officially adding NaNoWriMo social media posters to my naughty list.

You finished your word count for the day? Congrats. You’re on thin ice in my Facebook friend list just for mentioning NaNoWriMo. Chapter 85 was really tough, but you suffered through it and exceeded your goal by 40,000 words but are going to have a really hard time cutting the manuscript back to a publishable length? Oh, my finger is itching to click that block button, humble bragger. You finished a week and a half early and decided to start another novel just for the fun of it? Blocked. Goodbye. You don’t deserve friends.

But, mostly, I hate NaNoWriMo because of what it revealed of me as a writer. I discovered I am a planner who really wants to pants it. I discovered I am weak in the face of distraction. I discovered that writing is a lonely road full of self-doubt. Thanks, NaNoWriMo, for revealing my faults and insecurities. Sometimes, I don’t want to know the truth.

To all of you who succeeded this November, my sincerest congratulations. You’ve done what many could not. Just don’t post it in my Facebook feed.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Script Rewrite

By Olga Agafonova

Back at the end of October, I got a professional screenwriter to review my first screenplay. The good news: the science-fiction elements are fresh and exciting and merit development. The bad news is that nearly all the dialogue has to go as does the entire second act. Also, the main character is too detached for the audience to care about him. Lots of work to be done.

And that’s what I’ve been up to in the last few weeks. I’ve read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain for sci-fi goodness, I’ve signed up for a structural writing class to address plot problems and I’m using Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing to bring my characters to life.

The Lajos technique asks the writer to describe each character’s physiology, sociology and psychology in detail. For example, my protagonist Ryan Callaghan is a 40-year old male with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins. His mother died when he was three, his father was never home; he was raised by his maternal aunt who encouraged him to study the sciences. He is an agnostic who doesn’t care about politics, a scientist who enjoys the company of other straightforward, talented people, a private man who recoils from violence and fanaticism.

The idea is that if you provide enough background for a character, he will begin to do certain things naturally in the play while avoiding others. In other words, the character will be true to himself. So, I can’t have my guy join a religious cult half-way through the play because that’s not in his nature. I can, however, have him behave in an arrogant and judgmental way because that’s one of the weaknesses I’ve built-in to his psychology.

In the structural writing class, we are being taught to chuck Syd Field’s three-act model and to instead use as many as nine acts, each escalating the conflict somehow. The point here is that using so many acts, each with its mini-escalations building up to the climax in Act VIII, makes for a more dynamic screenplay. So, if the play is about Joe Schmuck’s miserable life, in Act I an old lady backs up into his car, in Act II, he is passed over for a promotion, in Act III his house burns down, and so on until in Act VIII he’s ready to jump off a bridge but then something happens and it all works out in Act IX.

Having invested six months of effort and a bit of money into my screenplay, I really do hope all the work pays off and I get a better result in the second draft. I’d like to enter the play in a couple of competition next year and see what happens. The West Coast beckons and I’d like to heed its call.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Message Films

By Laura P. Valtorta

Before sitting down to write prose, paint a picture, or conceptualize a film, it’s important to understand the message that the art will deliver, whether it’s the juxtaposition of shapes and colors, or a philosophy about the meaning of life. These days, I’m writing a novel about diversity that I hope to translate into a film. My films are mainly about women’s rights and ordinary people who ought to be famous. Without a message, art is empty.

The films at the 25th annual St. Louis International Film Festival ( are helping me to retain my confidence in the United States. They celebrate diversity of every kind (language, age, skin color, gender identity, and cultural heritage). I was struck by the clear messages in each film, and how they inspired me to think. I’m proud that “The Art House” is being screened here.

The first film that struck me was “A House Without Snakes,” a short about the bush people of Botswana. Is it better to go away to engineering school in the United States or stay on the land that has sustained people for hundreds of thousands of years?

Even though I’m trying to pace myself, I saw two features and a block of shorts yesterday. The first feature was After the Storm, by Hirokazu Koreeda: a Japanese comedy about a has-been novelist who becomes addicted to gambling and neglects his family. Koreeda seems particularly worried about Japan’s aging population and the break-up of families. No diversity in sight in this Japan. Looks to me like they need some immigration and new blood.

Yesterday I also watched Rendezvous, a feature-length comedy/adventure by Amin Matalqa, a Jordanian-American man who grew up in Ohio. The story is straightforward and predictable; a doctor travels to Jordan to retrieve the body of her slain brother who was an archaeologist. She gets caught up in a plot to steal some ancient scrolls. There are plenty of car chases and funny mishaps. What’s unique about this adventure is that the doctor is a Jewish-American woman who falls in love with a Jordanian-American man. The villains are extremists of every sort – including Christian fundamentalists.

We can count on art to help us. Recently I’ve been reading Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment by Franklin Schneider. This Schneider guy is nuts, but I love him. In his depressing way, he has a lot to say about American society and our consumer-oriented values. This is definitely a message book, one that makes me laugh and ponder the world. That’s what good writing does.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What We Mean When We Talk About Craft

By Kasie Whitener

Anyone can tell a story. Seriously. It’s part of human DNA and unique to our species that we use stories to relate, learn, and teach. Granted, some of us are better storytellers than others. Some of us know which parts to emphasize and which details don’t matter. Some of us know which stories are appropriate to tell when.

But anyone can do it, given enough practice. Anyone can become a polished, entertaining storyteller.

So when writers talk about craft they’re not really talking about the storytelling itself. Since competence at that comes with practice, storytelling is just the surface work of writing. It’s just the reason to write.

The craft of writing is in how we use the story’s words to generate a specific experience.

For example, to increase the pace of a scene, use short sentences. Rapid-fire statements force the reader to progress as if an inner monologue of, “What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” drives him. Pace makes the reader desperate for resolution.

The craft of writing is also about getting better.

Studying craft means looking at the tools we have available to us and learning what each tool is meant to do. How does a lengthy character description earn readers’ affection? How does a short one lend mystery to the described person? How can a succinct passage of character interaction tell us everything we need to know?

When we talk about craft, we mean recognition that writing is not just speaking onto the page. Speaking is clumsy and unpolished. Writing is worked over, revised, rearranged, and tried again. While most people write their internal monologue first, craft recognizes those monologues as first drafts.

When we talk about craft, we mean that we’re all invested in revision as the most important part of the process.

It was gratifying to go to the SCWA Craft Builds Community conference and commune with other writers looking to improve their craft. We listened attentively as faculty members, all published authors and instructors, talked about specific questions and decisions writers use to improve the stories they tell.

Keynote speaker Michelle Buckman offered questions that create meaningful characters. Who are your heroes? What is your protagonist afraid of? Does that fear come true in the book? Answering these questions is working on the craft.

In her session on time in writing, Heather Marshall discussed her work that spans several centuries. She said she’s making choices about how to explain the passage of time from event-to-event. Making choices is craft. When does the story begin and why?

Even just learning that those questions and decisions exist is an evolution from storyteller and page-monologuer to writer.

When we talk about craft, we mean the step up from writing in a competent storytelling way, in the way that every person can achieve. Craft is creating compelling characters, telling nail-biting action scenes, and contextualizing all of that so that the reader gets more than the story, he gets the experience.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reading Autobiography

By Sharon May

As an Appalachian writer, I read lots of Appalachian fiction, and my favorite authors of this genre are Lee Smith, Silas House, and Ron Rash. Recently, I read two non-fiction books by two very different Appalachians – Lee Smith’s Dimestore: A Writer’s Life and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Neither book is a typical autobiography, but both resonate with this hillbilly.

Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio, but identifies as an Appalachian because his neighborhood was filled with Appalachians who had migrated north for jobs and because, on his visits to his family home in Jackson, Kentucky, he felt it was the only place he could be himself. His book reveals the dysfunction of his family in brutal, honest detail and the hope given to him by his Mamaw that he could rise above the despair to accomplish his dream of going to college.

A graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, Vance includes in his memoir sociological research on Appalachia to help him and his reader understand his life and culture. He concludes that, despite the Appalachian’s tendency to blame the government and other social institutions for the despair in their lives, it is time that Appalachians themselves take responsibility for their actions and fix their problems themselves so they can stop damaging the lives of their children.

Smith writes her autobiography in a series of essays spanning her childhood memories of her childhood in Grundy, Virginia at her father’s dime store to her meeting Eudora Welty in her creative writing class to her tribute to her late son, lost to the effects of medications taken to control his mental illness.

One of the more telling points Smith makes about modern Appalachian life is how progress for many people is measured by whether your town has a Walmart, and Smith discusses how such progress has changed the landscape of places like Grundy. Her essays on writing paint it as an act that can be rewarding as well as difficult at times, particularly when searching for an idea for the next book.   

While both books are organized linearly along the author’s life, they are not organized by event, but instead by theme. They have taught me that creative non-fiction can be merged with autobiography, and have given me permission to explore more options for revising my autobiography that I started years ago. I have written one very long introduction that includes several themes. Now I need to separate those themes into a series of essays that make the points I want readers to learn from my experiences.

Obviously a writer needs to read, not only for pleasure, but for instruction on how to improve one’s writing. A poet friend of mine argues that you can measure a writer by what he or she reads. I don’t know if I agree with him, but it does give me food for thought. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Learning to Revise

By Sharon May

My writing has taken two forms over the years -- academic essays and fiction. In pursing degrees in English and American Literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I’ve written at least fifty academic essays. At one point in my life, I was very good at writing them, winning writing awards at two graduate schools.

I was so proficient at writing academic essays, I didn’t have to revise to earn an A. I revised one 20-page paper when I was required to do a ten minute reading of it. Honestly, that was the only academic paper I ever revised.
So as an academic writer, I never really learned to revise my own words, which is ironic since as an instructor of writing, I help students revise their writing all the time. I can explain the concepts and steps in revision, but rarely applied that knowledge to my own writing.
For the past two summers, I have begun writing fiction again. During that time, I have had to learn how to revise. At first, I wasn’t sure where to start, and finally with one story, I decided to imagine I didn’t even have a draft and start a new version of the story. That kick-started my revising. As one can imagine, my writing has improved dramatically. Belonging to the writer’s workshop has given me ideas and guidance for revision so I look forward to the meetings.

One benefit of revising is that now when I’m drafting something new, I’m questioning myself as if I’m already revising. This has helped prevent mistakes I would have previously produced. So far, drafting this way has not interfered with the flow of ideas from brain to paper, and therefore I take this as positive growth in my writing process.

In my journey into revision, I started reading online articles about revising fiction.  While reading, I came across 12 Writing Fiction Checklists” on the website Fiction Notes. I have found these checklists useful to help me evaluate my writing, which leads to new possibilities.

Of all the quotes I’ve read online about revising, I think Colette (Casual Chance, 1964) reveals the power of revision best when she says, “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing Fiction: Reading My Idols

By Laura P. Valtorta
 Yesterday I watched an interview with Stephen King on PBS’s News Hour. He’s always a fun interview. King’s thrillers are page-turners, but the book of his I enjoyed most was his 2000 autobiography, On Writing.

During the television interview, King talked about learning how to write. Oftentimes, he said, writers read their favorite authors and emulate them.

One of my favorite authors is the Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. From Handmaid’s Tale to Blind Assassin to The Heart Goes Last, her accounts of women’s superiority, struggles, and triumphs never fail to be inspirational, entertaining, and funny. Each book is different. Right now I’m re-reading the dystopic trilogy – Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. I’m studying Atwood’s balance of description and dialogue, her use of complicated vocabulary and invented words, and how she employs humor to make a point.

No one can be better than Atwood, I think. And then I read Donna Tartt, whose writing is not as well-crafted as Atwood’s, but who makes me visualize situations I’ve never dreamed of. I agree with almost everything that Atwood writes. Tartt and I don’t agree on anything – and yet I adore her fiction.

A trait that Tartt and Atwood share is that they take great pains to describe the habits and appearances of their characters. I can see Atwood’s Oryx very clearly, and I know a lot about her childhood. Tartt’s character, Harriett, is a girl I could recognize racing past me on her bike, with her swingy black hair and sarcastic voice. Neither Oryx nor Harriett is a photograph.

Providing just the right description, while leaving the reader hungering for more, is a gift. I wish there were a word-scale I could use. A passage that sounds good when read aloud might not contain enough description.

This kind of research – reading my favorite fiction writers – is something I’ve immersed myself in since childhood. Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. For that, I have to thank my mother.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

They Open Their Mouths and Thrust Out Words

By Bonnie Stanard

The 1670s in France is the setting for a story I’m working on about a traveling troupe of actors. As soon as a conversation came up, I had to ask myself, how did people talk in Renaissance France? Obviously, the writing should remind the reader the story takes place over 300 years ago. And in France.

After much consideration, I’ve decided to signal the time with early English expressions and the place with a sprinkling of French words. Not ideal, I know. But what to do? If you’re thinking I should simply move the story to England, that introduces a different problem. In England, unlike France, acting was a male profession. The first recorded performance of a female playing a role on the English stage is December 1660, too close for comfort. And as far as I’m concerned, no women, no story.

Some writers can produce books with almost no dialogue. John Banville, Charles Frazier, and IsabelleAllende come to mind. For most of us, dialogue is a device whereby we advance the plot, elevate tension, or reveal motive. The conversations we give our characters differentiate their personalities. You can get more suggestions about how to write dialogue than you’ll ever need from workshops as well as online. I’ll only say that the writer of “How are you?” or “What’s up?” or “Hello” is digging a grave.

Carefully chosen dialect reminds readers about where and when the story is unfolding. In some cases it delineates social status. Some editors go to the extreme in warning us against using dialect. Obviously Anthony Burgess ignored them and wrote the best-selling A Clockwork Orange with a patois so dense some of us could only understand the audio version.

So, when to use dialect and how often? Too much and the story drags. Too little and it becomes generic contemporary writing. If you will, somewhere between “By my trowth, thou dost make the millstone seem as a feather what widst thy lard-bloated footfall” and “You are fat.”

Much of my time lately has been devoted to developing a lexicon of dated English words and expressions. Researching colloquial language is not as easy as getting other background information, such as the nature of housing, clothing, social circumstances, and political environment. This information can usually be found in recorded history. Most books of this sort are available fromAbe Books.

However, history books don’t reveal how people talked at the time. Shakespeare’s plays have probably demonstrated more about dated colloquial English than any other source. I have a flip-card booklet with Shakespeare’s insults, which makes for fun reading (Thou Spleeny Swag-Bellied Miscreant).

I’ve added a number of expressions to my lexicon from Margaret Butler’s historical fiction novel, Lion of England, which brings to life Henry II in the 12th Century. This book is a great example of how language makes a story real to its time. A good reference book, English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, gives you lists of words in use by the century of its appearance. Then there are online sources such as Elizabethan Slang and Elizabethan greetings.

They knew how to insult back then—milksop, dunderhead, whey face, toadeater, or rank-scented, lumpish prig. I can get so carried away with language that my lexicon grows at the expense of my story.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Go on and Binge Read. Everybody’s Doing It.

By Kasie Whitener

Admittedly, I am a binge kind of person. I’ve been known to watch 13 hours of football on a single Saturday and follow it with nine hours on Sunday. Everything I do from beer consumption to internet shopping meets the limits of “binge” as defined by the CDC.

So reading three books a week, two at the time, totaling 41 fiction and 8 nonfiction books so far this year with 12 weeks left is de rigueur for me. It’s expected I’ll ignore my family for an audio book, my Kindle, a freshly purchased paperback, or a beaten-up library loan.

‘Kasie-with-a-book-in-her-hand’ is my default setting. And every time I feel bad about it, I read another successful author say, “Read,” is the best advice they can give to aspiring writers. (Like Lev Grossman of The Magicians did recently on Quora.)

Reading for pleasure is a pastime I’d all but abandoned for years. Though in graduate school I regularly consumed two to four novels a week, it was work and afterward I went through a long reading drought. I came back to reading via Twilight. A fact I share with a lot of vampire fiction writers I know.

Both of my parents are avid readers. My father carries his iPad around with him and will break open whatever book he’s reading the minute the conversation lags. My mother borrows books from my shelves two and three at the time.

My reading habit is impacting my daughter, Hollie, who listened to a few of the books I consumed via Audible while we road-tripped this summer. She knows the Kindle estimation for how much longer I have in the chapter is a way to get more time watching a show or playing with her toys.

In our house, “Just let me finish this chapter,” is sometimes interchanged with “Three more football minutes,” or a solid half-hour.

I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it. Not when I ignore work, eschew social engagements, or turn off the TV. Especially not that last one. I’ve even made enablers out of my team. Each week, my consultants report what they’re reading as a means of promoting literacy and study in our company.

A good binge read inspires my own writing. This latest series has taught me to hope there’s a place for literary fantasy, despite several commercial agents trying to lump my Byron-era vampires into genre fiction. Reading the All Souls Trilogy has renewed my faith in my own work and given me a hint at an agency and publisher who might support it.

A good binge read puts things into perspective. When I raced through a series of poorly written NYT bestsellers, I felt reassured that my own rejections may only be a result of submitting to the wrong authorities.

So read up, junkies. No writer ever said they wished they’d read less. If you want to see what my team’s reading, go here. For more of my list, click here.