Sunday, August 12, 2018

WHAT MAKES A GOOD NOVEL?


By Bonnie Stanard

Much of my reading is to research background for a story I’m writing so I joined a local book club to force myself into reading current fiction. It comes as no surprise that my taste in books is often at odds with that of many of the members. This is a rambling way to get to the point that the definition of a good book is as varied as there are people who read.

My husband would probably say a good book is one that keeps him guessing about “who done it” until the last page. My friend Miriam, who loves Harry Potter, might say a good book is one that sweeps her away to a world of suspense and wonder.

MY FAVORITE GENRES
The variety of tastes can be somewhat organized by genres: sci-fi, romance, mystery, fantasy, etc. Wikipedia lists as many as 24 common fiction genres. From this list, I find two that I’d put at the top of my list—Historical Fiction and Realistic Fiction. However, this doesn’t mean I only like books that fall into these categories. (I loved Bridget Jones Diary.)

SOARING PAST THE TITLE PAGE
A good book is first of all entertaining. So what is entertaining? I can only answer from my perspective. With that caveat, I like strong, unpredictable characters. Good guys often sabotage a good plot, for seldom are they unpredictable. An exception to this is the nice guy in the novel Empire Falls by Richard Russo. From a writer’s perspective, I find it far more difficult to create an engaging story with an ordinary protagonist. Toibin’s Brooklyn seems a pedestrian tale, but it’s told with such grace and affection I couldn’t put it down.

If you Google popular novels, you may notice that many protagonists depend on abuse, illness, accidents, political oppression, drugs, or other crutches to gain our interest. Remove these issues and you’ll get a better idea of the strength of the writing.

IS IT FUN BUT A WASTE OF TIME?
A good book provides information about unfamiliar places or sheds light on human character. There are so many entertaining books that open our eyes to planet earth and our human condition, why spend time with those that reflect what we already know? Here is a sampling of books that have changed the way I think: Constellations of Vital Phenomena by A. Marra;  The English Patient by Ondaatie; The Known World by E. Jones; Memoirs of a Geisha by A. Golden; Middlesex by J. Eugenides; Palace Walk by N. Mahfouz; Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow; Shogun by J. Clavell: and Watership Down by Richard Adams.

DOES THE AUTHOR KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EFFECT AND AFFECT?
I stop reading a novel upon encountering errors in word usage or grammar. However, I like books that send me to a dictionary occasionally to look up a definition. Complex sentences are fine as long as they aren’t as long as those of William Faulkner. “Simplistic” as a deliberate writing style can be entertaining, but not when done by a simpleton.



Monday, August 6, 2018

Using Actual Events in Writing.

By Rex Hurst


In my current writing project I am using a lot of history. Not ancient history, at least not to me, but a decade not that long ago, where the younger generation would have only the dimmest of memories- if any memories at all. The 1980s. The book is called Satanic Panic and deals with the hysteria epidemic dealing with Satanism and Satanic Ritual Abuse cases, which popped up all over the decade- from hypnotically recovering repressed memories, to “satanic” heavy metal music, to people receiving jail terms for “satanic” activities in day care centers.

In my investigation, I have come across actual murder cases and other forms of abuse that have been linked to a various “occult” activities such as a very real cult in Matamoros who indulged in cocaine trafficking. Now with this dynamite material, I am face with the quandary, how closely to the facts of these cases do I adhere to in the text?

While many of participants are dead- the drug ring in Mexico ended with a police shootout and a building catching on fire- there are many who still are alive and have been negatively affected by these events. One of the cases involving a murder of teenage girl took place in my hometown and I know members of her family. How much should I use?

Changing the names is the easiest part. The easiest way to avoid litigation, at least. But often enough, the events of the story are so close to reality that one cannot help but make connections. Thus how much do you want to change it? The second easiest method to distance text is to change location. 

While a move from one large city to another might, say, New York to San Francisco, might not make that big of a difference. If you change the local from the urban to a rural one (or vice versa) you might get surprisingly good results.

One odd thing I’ve run across is that often people will think events from real life sound “too fake”. That coincidence which actually occurred where too far out to actually happened. That dumb decisions a person made was far too stupid for a real person to make (Never underestimate the ability of people to make idiotic decisions under pressure). One thing that springs to mind is The Contest episode from Seinfeld, where the gang bets on how long they can go without committing the sin of onanism. While sounding completely ridiculous, it is apparently based on an actual contest that co-creator Larry David participated in.

This leads to my final though on the subject. Don’t let the actual facts prevent you from telling a good story. If everyone is telling you that a plot point sounds ridiculous, change it. Even if it actually happened. Don’t let reality keep you from writing a great tale.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

FACT IN FICTION AND DOCUMENTARIES


By Laura P. Valtorta
                                               

Without knowing much about Curtis Sittenfeld I began reading her novels and short stories: Eligible, The Man of My Dreams, You Think It, I’ll Say It and enjoying them very much. She uses intelligent heroines who work interesting jobs and have opinions about current issues. I assumed all the heroines were Curtis herself.

Then I read her novel American Wife. Here we have a public school librarian who comes from humble beginnings, kills a teenager accidentally in a car accident, has an abortion, and marries a silly, lovable rich guy who fails at business but becomes president of the United States. Wait, that’s Laura Bush!
           
How much of this story is meant to be fictitious?

While writing the script for my 13-minute documentary “Disaster Man” (coming out soon on Amazon Prime Video), I debated what to call the project – fact or fiction. The stories all come from Gene Feigley, the chaos-loving professor of environmental studies who came to lunch at Immaculate Consumption and regaled me with stories of personal disaster. Couple killed by feral dogs, summertime vacation catastrophes, pornographic forebodings of illness and death; each story was worse than the last. They made for entertaining lunches.

Gene wasn’t as comfortable talking on film. We shot two hours of interviews. The layout and editing process, which is where scriptwriting comes to play in a documentary, was tedious and exacting as we attempted to speed him up and get to the juicy parts. We added B-roll of a Peter Lenzo scary head sculpture and the funny zen-like music played during yoga classes.

When “Disaster Man” was finished, I didn’t know how to categorize it. The film was all Gene, but with my artistic spin on it. Luckily most film festivals have a category called “Experimental.” I ran with that. The hipsters loved it.

Every novel must have an element of fact in it. Every documentary is jigged in some way to deliver a message. The difficult part of writing a documentary is to stay true to the interviews and the physical background while transmitting a message. As I’m writing my current film project about an inexplicable disease, I ask myself every day – what messages am I trying to convey? The words of the patients and doctor become shaped by those messages.

Recently I watched a talk on the internet by Ms. Sittenfeld in which she describes her next book – a novel based on Hillary Clinton in which Hillary Rodham refuses to marry Bill. Will this be a novel or an essay about resistance? The barrier between the two has become very thin.





Sunday, July 22, 2018

INSPIRATION


By Sharon May

Everyone who knows I write said, upon hearing I was going to Europe, “You will get so many ideas.” Makes sense. New places, people, and experiences broaden one’s world. So I packed a notebook for my month-long journey, expecting inspiration. I was not disappointed.

When we reached Amsterdam, strangers began asking Peggy and me if we are sisters. Not sure why it matters, but apparently a lot of people care about that, though I was not the least concerned how they were related to their companions. Well, not enough to ask. I am sure there is a story in there.

Tour guides provided the lion’s share of ideas for characters, particularly since I met at least four a week. Our Russian guide held degrees in Arabic Studies but chose a 6-month gig as a guide so he could earn enough to travel the rest of the year. He taught us as much about art at the Hermitage as he did about Russian history and culture. Surprisingly, he freely spouted his opinions of Russian and Soviet politicians, none of which were glowing.

The cannabis-smoking, left-wing, former Punk Rocker/Songwriter, and former squatter in Amsterdam provided humor and political comment on the drive to and from The Hague and Kinderdijk. Just as entertaining was the ex-patriot who gave tours of Amsterdam’s coffeehouses after fleeing America with her disabled husband 7 months ago when they determined their finances were tenuous at best once the Affordable Healthcare Act was gutted.

I can’t forget the former East-Berliner who talked for 12 hours non-stop. She gave us a wonderful glimpse of Berlin and her experiences during the fall of the Wall, and then talked to the bus driver or on her cell phone during breaks. Never met anyone who could talk that much.

The one who put all to shame was the 19-year-old in Tallinn, Estonia, who already had worked three years as a guide. Her knowledge of the town and country was only surpassed by her poise and graciousness. She too had lots of negative opinions of the Soviets.

We also had the worst tour guide ever, who pointed out sites, but did not give any context or information about them. By afternoon, we were fed up and ran away to see Brussels on our own. On the three-hour trip back to Amsterdam, the guide never spoke except to ask for tips. Later, I realized he looked and acted like a younger version of the worst teacher I ever had.

I also solidified ideas for my creative non-fiction piece. That surprised me. I guess I expected stories about Northern Europe. Maybe I gained enough distance to put my past in perspective, or maybe I am bound to write what I know best, or maybe my European experiences have not yet incubated. Probably, I was just free and relaxed enough to hear myself think.

Obviously, I recommend travel for inspiration. Go away, if only for a day. Your writing will be better for it.



Sunday, July 15, 2018

JUST LAUNCHED: "WRITE ON SC"


By Kasie Whitener

I love talk radio. Like writing, my passion for talk radio is about storytelling and craft. I'm interested in the way a host can move through topics, keep people listening, and slide in-and-out of commercial breaks with poise.

My good friend Tzima Brown has been in talk radio for nearly two decades. When we shared the studio recently she told me, "You'll fall in love with it and you'll do anything to stay on the air."

Like launch a radio show all about books.

Make the Point Radio at 100.7 on the FM dial in Columbia, S.C. is a local radio station that showcases local people. With that in mind, programming includes local experts every day from 9 until 10 a.m. On Tuesdays the local experts are entrepreneurs on a show called “Start Something, Columbia!”

When I started Start “Something, Columbia! ”I meant for it to complement 1 Million Cups, the Wednesday 9 a.m. meet-up at the Richland Library for business owners. 1MC was doing a great job of building its crowd but not a great job of educating the people who showed up.

"Start Something, Columbia!” is like a book club for entrepreneurs. Each month we focus on a new text and bring in subject matter experts to discuss various entrepreneurial topics with the text as the foundation for the discussion. While discussing the format with some friends at the Richland Library, we wondered whether a radio book club could work.

I took the concept of “Write On SC” to the station owner, Keven Cohen, and he loved the idea of having local authors showcased on the radio. I set up a Patreon page to raise money for the venture and encouraged my SCWA chapter's published authors to consider advertising their work on the show.

The show's format is simple. Each week we'll discuss a new writing craft topic – things like dialogue, setting, character development – and have a guest writer on the show to promote his or her work. We'll also feature a weekly read as selected by the Richland Library staff and some Book Marketing Tips for self-published and self-promoting authors as well.

As a novice fiction writer (I don't have any published books but have published some short stories) and professional content creator (my company Clemson Road Creative is producing the show), I bring a specific expertise to show development. I've delivered workshops for conferences like Winter Wheat Festival at Bowling Green State University and the SC Book Festival. This Fall, I'm speaking at the Pat Conroy 2nd Annual Lowcountry Book Club Convention.

“Write On SC” guest hosts will all contribute their craft and industry expertise while promoting their own work. Our discussion of writing fundamentals and industry tricks should serve as weekly workshops on writing. The live show will also become a podcast after we've accumulated 6 episodes.

I hope “Write On SC” will fill a gap in South Carolina's writing scene. We lack a unifying platform for writers of all levels. To learn more or participate visit patreon.com/WriteOnSC.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

UNLOCK YOUR BRAIN WITH A MIND MAP

By Raegan Teller


About twenty years ago, I received an offer to try out MindJet, a mind mapping software. I downloaded the free trial and was hooked within minutes. Decades and many upgrades later, it is still my go-to writing tool for outlining, story plotting, and many other uses. Since Mindjet is now over $300, I’d recommend Scapple ($14.99) or some other free or inexpensive mind mapping applications you can find online. Or, you can simply draw your mind maps the old-fashioned way with paper and pen.

Tony Buzon, the author and education consultant who popularized mind maps, explained them as “a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain.” Remember those word association games? If I say “vacation,” you may think of “beach,” and then your mind jumps to whatever memories you have of your favorite beach trip . . . and so on. Over time, Western civilization has imposed left-brain, linear thinking into our psyches so that we apply logic, organize, and list before we explore and create. (That’s why traditional, linear outlines can kill a good story.) Since our minds don’t naturally function in linear mode, mind maps unlock our brains, as Buzon said.

When you’re starting a book, a short story, or even a scene, your mind may be filled with ideas bouncing around, with your synapses firing away. To tame this “monkey mind” jumble of thoughts, there’s nothing more effective than mind mapping. It allows you to get those thoughts out of your head and onto paper quickly without worrying about sequence or organization. And, if you enjoy brainstorming with yourself, as I do, mind maps can be your best friend.

By the time I sit down to write a book, bits and pieces of it have been bouncing around in my head for months. At that point, I don’t know the whole story, but I can imagine some of the beats: plot events that change the course of the story. They might be in the middle, at the end, or near the beginning. It doesn’t matter at this point, so I start with “Book” in the middle of the map and draw nodes or branches from that central idea for each of the beats. If I can map at least ten key beats, I know I’ve got a potential book.

Once I’ve mapped these beats, I move them around, connecting them in various ways and exploring how they relate to each other. Sometimes, it looks like they’re not related at all, but if I keep mapping, the story emerges. Later, I might map out a specific chapter or scene. Or I might map out a character profile to understand her better. The possibilities are endless.

Given the space limitations of this blog post, I can’t show you visual examples, but I urge you to do an online search (e.g., mind map + writing) and then give mind mapping a try. It could transform the way you write.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

FIRST LINES, FIRST BITES

By Jodie Cain Smith


She was defined by music. This is the phrase that occurred to me while driving on I-10 last week. On my way to pick up my three-year-old, I was belting out a Brandi Carlisle tune, enjoying my solitary confinement and the opportunity to sing as loudly as I chose before my son proclaims, as he always does, “Too loud, Monnie, too loud.”

She was defined by music. The phrase stuck. Like most of my works of fiction, I knew from the moment the phrase took up permanent residence in my head that a new story had begun. A “first secret” had been revealed. A new character had whispered, “Hi, there. Tell my story next.” I also knew that even though a new story would spin off this phrase, the phrase would not be the first line.

First lines are delicate monsters, demanding to be sculpted, carefully crafted, thoughtfully penned. And, typically, they do not appear in the first draft.

We all know how important that first line or first lines are to a work. They are make-or-break.  In a single phrase or paragraph, the writer must set the tone of the entire work and hook the reader. So, if so much rides on a few words, what do those words need to be?

Only the author can decide what words to choose, but here are a few questions to ask of your next first line:

          1.        Is the sentence alive in voice and imagery? Does it dance off the page or lay there? If it assumes the reader will forgive its laziness and keep reading anyway, keep crafting. You’re not there yet.
2.      Is it simple? Succinct first lines give readers a big, juicy piece of steak to chew on. No need to labor over a fancy seafood gratin if steak is available. First lines call for simple, impactful, fresh ingredients.
3.      Does the first line introduce the writer’s and narrator’s voice to the reader, and is that voice interesting? Yeah, if the voice is boring, the book gets shelved unfinished. Nobody has time for boring no matter how intriguing page forty and beyond may be.
4.      Does the first line offer a compelling mystery? One that will carry the reader through the entire work? A great first line will hint at the protagonist’s problem, an obstacle, or maybe an odd character trait. This is the first breadcrumb dropped, and it must be tasty.

Unfortunately, no formula for THE PERFECT FIRST LINE exists. If one did exist, we would all use the formula and never struggle with writing first lines again. So, above all else, listen to your gut and write the first line of your story your way. Only you know how the story must begin.

Now, get to it. Begin the begin.

I’m off to the kitchen. My gut is telling me it’s time to eat.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

WHY USE SYMBOLS?


By Sharon May

According to LiteraryTerms.com, “a symbol is literary device that contains several layers of meaning, often concealed at first sight, and is representative of several other aspects, concepts or traits than those that are visible in the literal translation alone.” Fancy words for something that means something else. Symbols show instead of tell, which is why we want symbols in our stories.

Sometimes symbols are subtle and only come to light during a close reading. I am reminded of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in which the sister’s stained underwear on display when she climbs a tree symbolizes her loss of innocence and growing sexuality that disgust her narrator brother. Obviously, a Freudian thing. Many readers may not think twice about her underwear unless they are thinking critically about symbolism.

Other symbols are obvious though the reader must still coax meaning out of them. In “Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck clearly intends the flowers to be a symbol for Elisa. When she discusses her prowess as a gardener with the traveling salesman, we see her blossom and grow strong. When she discovers the flowers lying discarded along the road, she then reflects their demise as she is described as “…crying – like an old woman.”

That’s how symbols work, but how do they get in the story? Constructing symbolism effectively is not as easy as plopping one into the text. Universal symbols, i.e. wedding rings and crosses, add meaning but their use may seem cliché. The best and most unique symbols grow organically, and sometimes the writer has no clue a symbol will appear until the story is written.

Consciously constructing symbols is partly paying attention to details. What colors and names do you use? What items or settings are associated with a character? Repetition is needed to establish these details as symbols.

You can also design motifs throughout the story. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the motif of incest along with Hamlet’s distrust of women to reveal both character and theme.

When to use symbols takes planning as they should appear in key moments in the story. In “A New England Nun,” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman uses the dog Caesar as symbolic of Laura’s life, known for her biting attitude, shut away from the world, and chained by her daily habits. Freeman introduces Caesar immediately after introducing Laura, and again devotes a paragraph to Caesar in the middle of the story when he is promised freedom if Laura marries her fiancé Joe Dagget. The concluding paragraph begins with Caesar forever chained to his dog house, reflective of Laura’s being “like an uncloistered nun” upon her decision not to marry Dagget.

Symbols are not necessary but they do add multiple levels of meaning and thus enrich a story. They serve as touchstones for the reader to remember long after the experience of reading the plot and getting to know the characters. Try using symbols if you don’t already. They can make your story more memorable.



Sunday, June 17, 2018

What Do Writers Have Against Sports?

By Kasie Whitener


This week I had two stories were rejected from two different journals.

In “Amy Runs,” the main character goes out for an early morning jog in a continuing effort to lose the weight she put on with her first child. The run is a renewal, a chance to recover from the frustrations she feels over what’s not going right in her life.

In the second story, “Yesterday, in Boston,”a runner is recovering from the Boston Marathon after the finish line was bombed. Though physically unharmed, the runner’s expectations of the event and the reality of the terrorist attack have her moving in a kind of post-traumatic daze.

But writers hate sports.

I’ve written stories featuring football games as settings and received comments that the game doesn’t seem to be important for the story. I’ve used sports metaphors and had them struck from final copy.

Maybe it’s because my first-ever paid writing gig was as a sports journalist and the working writers I know are all sports journalists, but I think writing about sports is cool. Better than talking about sports, playing sports, or watching sports, is writing about sports.

I once wrote a passage about a bull-riding event. The gyration of the animal, the stomping of the hooves, the arc of its thrusts, all provided the perfect back drop for the main character’s struggle with self-control.

In “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford created one of the most complex literary characters of all time. Frank Bascombe, who reappears in “Independence Day,” and again in “The Lay of the Land,” studies athletes in the same way Ford studies language. He’s curious and purposeful about it.

Frank muses, “If sportswriting teaches you anything … it is that for your life to be worth anything, you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret.”

That Ford uses sportswriting to examine the struggles of middle age, the recognition of one’s prime and the failure to meet expectations, all fascinates me.

In my own work, it’s the physical act of exertion that pushes the characters to change. Or it’s the meaning of the accomplishment that changes the meaning of the resistance. Or it’s the event as a large-scale metaphor for the smaller personal crisis.

In “Unrequited,” my character watches her football team lose the national championship game and feels a sense of loss over a relationship that didn’t evolve. The metaphor is about desire and achievement and timing.

And yet, the trouble I’ve had getting these stories into journals makes me wonder if other writers are less enamored with sports than I am. Or maybe I’ve pinned the stakes of the stories on the sports as a kind of cheat? Let the sports do the heavy lifting and let my characters off the hook? Maybe the stories just aren’t ready yet.

I’ll bring them back into the huddle, make some adjustments, and see if I can’t score in the next round of submissions.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

SATIRE


By Laura P. Valtorta
                                     
 “’She has a pretty racy past, and she loves talking about it. And you know how I love airline pilots and Italians.’”

Stephen McCauley writes a lot of light satire in My Ex-Life, the novel. Stuff like, “She’d met and eventually married Henry Bell, an investment advisor David had had the pleasure of never meeting.” The approach works.

McCauley makes the most fun of parents who had “fallen into the trap of telling their kids they could do anything…going to Harvard, retiring before ever working, giving an Oscar acceptance speech, and become the next Mark Zuckerberg, except hot.”

The zingers only work because McCauley also makes fun of his main character, David, who is gay and overweight and falls for impossible “boys” who are younger than 40. Self-deprecation seems to be the secret to keeping the narrator likeable enough to make fun of everyone.

It’s curious that McCauley’s villains, especially Renata, are not especially funny. Renata is a calculating real estate broker, living in San Francisco, who takes advantage of David in a way that makes the reader want to punch her. This works only because Renata does not live a desirable life. She subsists with her husband, the loathsome Leonard, and she thinks uncircumsized men are exotic.

As I write Tall Woman Orchestra, I try to infuse it with as much satire as possible without making the reader cringe. Most of this involves Floris, the mad scientist, who has a brilliant mind and a penchant for revenge. The reader must realize that Floris, outside of her basement laboratory, is an awkward social prick who cares nothing about appearances and seeks to bend people’s will to her own. Floris is no Hedy Lamarr; she’s better.

The beauty behind Floris is that appearances mean nothing, and she knows it. If she can control the world while wearing bedroom slippers, why not do it? The greater Floris’ power, the less she needs to fuss with her hair. Lamarr failed to understand this, which is why she died a recluse.

Skillful use of satire can get across more points more quickly than any historical treatise or legal essay.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

WHY DO YOU WRITE?


By Bonnie Stanard

Nobody asks Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates why they do what they do. Or Hillary Clinton or Michael Bloomberg. For that matter, nobody asks James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. So is it a matter of celebrity or wealth?

However, does anybody ask teachers why they teach? Or pilots why they fly? Waiters why they serve tables? Or farmers why they farm? Okay, so you’re not earning a living wage by writing, maybe that’s it.

On the other hand, does anybody ask you why you watch television? Or collect recipes or go fishing? Or do things we consider pastimes rather than professions? Well, can we say writing is not perceived as a pastime?

Then how do you explain your writing to yourself, much less anybody else? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are writers. Here are some of my ideas about why we write.

Uncertainty as a way of life.
No morning is like another. What we think on a given day never returns. The house we live in is temporary. The weather is different every day and we perceive it differently every day. Our beliefs change. So too our likes and dislikes. Friendships come and go. And we forget, unless we write.

Exactitude is not the truth.
The bank puts a number on your monthly statement but that is no truth. We know the hour and minute of every day. We know the cost of a gallon of gas; the address of our dentist; the speed of light; the depth of the ocean, and the distance to Mars. What we know as fact is not the truth. We write in search of the truth.

Limits of language to relate reality.
Language is our inheritance. Our words are tailor-made by our predecessors who would guide us in the path they found valuable. While our language benefits us, it limits us, may even bully us into extrinsic concepts. As writers we try our best to transcend the prison of words.

Instability of morality.
What is good and what is evil is decided by people, humans. And human fallibility affects our decisions. A hundred years ago people of good conscience enslaved other people; unwanted newborns were drowned; poverty led to imprisonment. Today you find people who believe a person is “good” if they obey a country’s laws. What is orthodox is praised even if dishonest. Amid this moral perplexity, we write to discover our beliefs.

Affirm our self-consciousness.
Writers such as Wolfe or Joyce showed us that much can be said about what goes on inside our heads. We write to get to know ourselves.  

In many of these instances, we are in conflict with either ourselves, our culture, or our human condition. What we see on television or in our neighborhood inspires us with feelings such as pride, suspicion, hatred, admiration. Then it’s time to sit down at the computer and start a story or poem.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

ON WRITING, FLOW AND COFFEE


By Olga Agafonova

If I have a muse, she kicks in at the same time caffeine is absorbed into my bloodstream. On occasion, I can be completely immersed in what I am writing and I would like to imagine I am getting closer to entering the state of flow. Flow, or “being in the zone,” is when good things happen – you are focused on what you are doing, you enjoy what they are doing and your environment is conducive to keeping you in that state.

Smart employers are helping their staff reach flow to boost productivity. Smart writers should reflect on how to achieve the state for the same reason. Flow won’t happen with multi-tasking: you should be focused on doing one thing. Flow won’t happen if you are bored because that means you are already disengaged. 

Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception and Oliver Sacks in Hallucinations experiment with psychedelics to transcend self. Of course, I am not going that far: I just want a mild kick from a legal substance to help prod the muse. What I have tried includes variations on Bulletproof coffee and coffee brewed in a Clover machine.

I did not like the Bulletrpoof recipe. Per instructions, I dutifully added fatty-acid-containing organic butter to brewed coffee, poured some patented coconut oil on top and let it swirl in a mixer. The coffee, no surprise, tasted like butter and whatever cognitive-enhancing effects it had were overshadowed by the butter. Just in case I did something wrong, I also bought ready-made butter-containing coffee at Whole Foods and still, I could only taste the butter.

The Clover machine-brewed coffee, available at Starbucks, was more promising. About thirty minutes after drinking a cup, I did feel a noticeable rise in my alertness level. I have been drinking mild coffee for years and it takes a lot to have any effect on me. The alertness did not involve jitters or nervousness – it did exactly what a good coffee beverage is supposed to do.

There is also mushroom coffee: a beverage made from medicinal mushrooms like Lion’s mane and chaga. (I have heard of chaga being used as a folk remedy for the prevention and treatment of cancer in Russia. The fact that it is catching on as a nootropic substance elsewhere in the world is interesting.) High-quality mushrooms are hard to get and there are subtle details about which parts of the mushrooms matter: the fruiting body vs. the mycelium, the spindly parts that are underground.  The drink is supposed to taste like burnt toast – not an appealing description but enthusiasts say it’s flavorful and delicious.

My plan is to continue to experiment with caffeine-containing concoctions and see what happens with the writing. I promise to report back with results.
           


Sunday, May 20, 2018

LEARNING WHAT NOT TO WRITE


By Raegan Teller

It took me three years to write my first mystery novel, Murder in Madden. During that time, I worked with several wonderful writing instructors. They taught me how to make the shift from business writing to fiction, which wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Much of my previous work focused on instructing readers on how to do something, so step-by-step details were important. But writing fiction was a different animal, as I quickly discovered. I found myself having to unlearn many of my coveted business writing skills. While I knew how to construct a sentence, where to put the commas, and how to apply the grammar rules, I often stumbled, especially during my first attempts. And then, over time, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, I learned how to write fiction.

When I began writing the second book, which only took eight months from the first word to a first draft, I realized I had to learn something else: what not to write. I’m not referring to merely avoiding ornate language or eliminating you-need-a-thesaurus words. Fortunately, my business background had taught me to write at an appropriate comprehension level and to stay within the maximum word count. But, on those occasions when I did get overly descriptive, I followed Elmore Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My form of overwriting came from something one of my instructors called “temporal linearity.” I tended to instruct the reader on how a character got from one place to another, in a linear fashion, just as I had provided comprehensive details in business writing. Of course, fiction readers need enough information to make logical assumptions, but they don’t need to be led by the hand.

For example, if one scene ends with “Sara” telling her boyfriend she’s going to the library, you can insert a break and begin the next scene in the library. Unless it’s germane to the story, the reader doesn’t need to know how she got in the car, backed out of the driveway, and drove down the street to get to the library where she had to drive around the block three times looking for a parking space. I wasn’t quite that bad, but I did overwrite some scene transitions in my first draft.

Mostly as a reminder to myself, I developed “Raegan’s Rules to Avoid Overwriting.”

1.      Trust your readers to figure out how Sara gets to the library.
2.      Practice writing six-word stories and other forms of micro fiction where you have to tell a story within a strict word limit: writers should spend words like gold.
3.      Read your work aloud. If it sounds boring, it is.
4.      Hire a good editor—listen and learn.
5.      Keep writing and eventually you’ll overcome inexperience.
6.      Continue to overwrite, and you risk arrogance.

Perhaps all I really needed to do was re-read Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

WHERE ARE WE?


By Sharon May

Imagine starting a story and having no clue as to where or when it takes place. You would feel as if you were floating in space. To make readers feel grounded we need a setting.

Most writers develop setting early in the work and expect the reader to be satisfied. But a skillful writer keeps the setting alive throughout the piece and lets it build organically. Silas House, in works like The Coal Tattoo, masterfully uses setting throughout his work.

It would be nice if we could establish setting in a sentence or two but the physical location and time of a story only scratch the surface. Instead, an author, to create an adequate setting, should develop what I call place, which builds the look and feel of a locale and era. Some authors use long descriptions to establish place, but details, a word or phrase here and there, can also build it piece by piece.

In my most recent short story, “The Birthday Gift,” the setting is rural Kentucky in the early 1960s. I could have said that in one sentence as I did here, but that would have been rather boring. Instead, the young narrator tells what he knows to demonstrate he is ready to start school, including his address and the president’s name. Not only does this information build place, it also reveals the narrator’s character. This helps me keep the story compact and short.

For my novel, setting is much more like a character so I provide lots of descriptions of the landscape, particularly of the mountains to capture how they sculpt where and how Appalachians live. If on a winding, narrow roadway, you can bet that the road is built along a river, and the houses or trailers, can only be found on wide spaces carved into the hillside. Small farms and towns fill bottom land between the hills. The mountains dictate this layout, and they mold the characters as well.

Patty Loveless, a Pikeville, Kentucky native, in her song, “You Will Never Leave Harlan Alive,” describes the mountains’ effect on the inhabitants as she describes the brevity of a day in a hollow, saying, “Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin’/ And the sun goes down about three in the day.” A poet friend of mine wants to leave Kentucky because he is tired of the grey winter days. That pretty much sums up why I had to escape the mountains as well. This darkness leads to the hillbilly’s attitude of hopelessness and sorrow. Of course, place helps create the mood of a story.

Place can’t be dashed off in just a paragraph or two early in a story, but should unfold as the story progresses from beginning to ending. Readers want to be enveloped by place and time, to feel, hear, taste, and smell as well as see where they are.



Sunday, May 6, 2018

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED BY SUBMITTING EVERY WEEK

By Kasie Whitener


In entrepreneurship, my other profession, business ventures evolve through iterations. A company tests an idea with customers, then adjusts it after feedback, and then issues another version for another test. The cycle is ongoing as the company iterates, builds, and prospers.

I decided this year to treat my writing life like entrepreneurship. The goals I set for 2018 were about creating iterative habits that would enable me to build my writing business.

Write every day.
Submit every week.
Revise one work per month.

These goals are about progress in small increments and about establishing habits. They have taught me things I didn’t know about myself and about establishing my dedication to this thing we call craft. This blog focuses on the second goal with a list of things I’ve learned:

Submissions mean rejections.

Better than writing in a cave, thinking my work is fantastic and polished and clever is submitting said work and getting the “no thanks” over and over. Why is that better? Because I know my work is not fantastic, it needs more polish, and cleverness is for bozos.

“Just tell the stories, Kasie,” these rejections tell me. “Don’t worry about us.”

Submissions are about finding the right amplifier.

I can share the story I wrote for my best friend Jessica with her via email. I have a few I’d like to send directly to the ex-boyfriends they’re about (but I won’t). I submit to journals and magazines because I want the stories to be amplified. Finding a place to share them means finding the right audience for them. So, I submit. And I get rejected. Because as much as I think by reading three or four pieces the journal has published that my work would fit there, the editors read everything they publish and they know better.

Rejections are about the work, not about me.

Editors who say, “No, thanks,” don’t know me. They don’t want to hurt my feelings, ruin my life, or keep me from writing another story about another ex-boyfriend. They just want to put together a collection of work that their readers will read, enjoy, and maybe even pay for. Editors who reject my work are rejecting the story. Not the storyteller.

Rejections shouldn’t be purchased.

I don’t pay for submissions anymore. Not even the really good journals like Missouri Review and Glimmer Train. I know the industry says getting my work in those journals would say something about how fantastic and polished and relevant it is. But, the free journals are more competitive. So, getting published by The Forge or The American Literary Review, or Apeiron Review would be better because they receive more submissions. Also, submitting every week at $3, $5, or $20 a week is crazy expensive.

So far, the iterations have taught me a lot about myself and this business. Learning is what iteration is all about and I’m definitely learning.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

IMAGINATION or INSANITY?

By Sharon May


One morning my spouse, Peggy, asked me if I thought Stephen King was insane. Not your typical morning coffee question. 
Apparently, a woman in her water aerobics class had just finished It and complained about its dark ending, which led her to throw the book at the nearest wall. She and her companions concluded King had to be insane if he could create such monsters and dark endings. Peggy wanted my take on the subject since I was a writer.

King may be insane. I have no clue as to his mental state. Many authors have been, depending on the definition of insane used. But my answer was that he has a vivid imagination, which all authors rely on. That is how we create fiction.

So how do we imagine what we don’t know? According to cognitive scientists, imagination is influenced by our environment, our memories, and what we know about how the world works. You may ask yourself what world horror writers live in, but an alternative world does not make them insane or evil, any more than the science fiction writer, romance writer, or mystery writer.  

Some people may think I had a dark childhood as I often write stories of child-abuse, sexual-abuse, violence, and murders. Nothing could be further from the truth. My childhood was the envy of others. Those horrible events I write about happened to others. I was just keenly aware of the world beyond me.

I don’t consider myself evil just because I can imagine evil. Imagination allows me to roam a world the victims and assailants might have lived in so I can capture what otherwise average people, some of whom I vaguely knew, experienced.

But entering alternative worlds through imagination can lead one to forget, at least for a while, the world around us. With both writing and reading, imagination can take us away for hours on end. One loses a sense of time and place. It can be likened to an out-of-body experience. When I write, I’m unaware of everything but the story. A poet friend says he goes so far away at times that he’s surprised he comes back.

So how close to insanity is this place we go while writing? What is the difference between a psychotic break and writing fiction? Awareness. The insane are not aware that the world they have gone to is made up, not real. Think of Jack in The Shining, who thinks his several hundred page manuscript is brilliant though it is one line typed over and over.

Writers, no matter how far we drift from the real world, will eventually hear the phone ring, finally realize the pain in our backs from sitting too long, or suddenly know it’s time for lunch. We may be frustrated we have to leave our imaginary world behind for such mundane and trivial matters, but we do come back. At least, until we write again.  


Sunday, April 22, 2018

WALTER MOSLEY


By Laura P. Valtorta
                                               

The most practical book about the mechanics of writing fiction that I’ve read is Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel. It’s more along the lines of a how-to book than Stephen King’s On Writing, or Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. King and Welty give us insights into their personal lives and stories about their childhoods. Mosley’s book doesn’t really do that. Mosley’s book resembles How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King because it’s a blueprint for finishing a piece of writing.

I read Mosley’s book partly looking for a description of his life. What was it like being a Jelack (that’s a term invented by Margaret Atwood) growing up in Los Angeles? No clues. Mosley adds a tough Jewish lawyer to his Easy Rawlins series, but the character is a woman. Most of his fiction (science fiction, detective stories, and literary fiction) describes the lives of black men with anthracite skin.

Mosley’s book on writing prescribes several habits. He believes writers need to write every day. The first draft, for him, takes three months. Then he advises reading the entire first draft, and making corrections, which becomes the second draft. The reading of the first draft could take an entire week. Many re-writes follow. He shows how to avoid repetition, create good dialogue, and edit away too much detail. He suggests reading poetry. He believes that writing in a journal can distract someone from writing fiction.

I believe that Mosley should have included more in his book about building a story arc. For me, that’s the toughest part of any writing.

From This Year You Write Your Novel, I gleaned a few details about Walter Mosley, the man. He studied writing at the City College of New York in Harlem. Like me, he enjoys listening to birdsong while writing. He often has antisocial feelings that he represses in life, but not in his writing. How?

I imagine Mosley living alone in a loft in New York City. High ceilings, big bed. Within walking distance of a café. I imagine him sitting at his writing desk next to a beautiful window that looks out on trees and birds, maybe a sidewalk below.

Reading Mosley’s fiction is what brings me closer to Walter, the man. Loving that fiction also brings me closer to John Grisham and Bill Clinton, both of whom profess to be fans of Mosley.

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?”