Sunday, August 13, 2017

Telling a True Story

By Kasie Whitener

My stories are always true and always fiction:
·         My friend’s high school sweetheart died in Afghanistan.
·         Thick sexual tension hung between me and the tattoo artist when I went for my cover up.
·         A derecho racked the resort at Wintergreen, ripping branches out of trees, one of which landed on a car.
I take that real thing that happened and fictionalize it for the story. Real life is messy and funny and sad and frustrating and it rarely fits inside 3000 words. In stories, real life is confined to a bounded space.

When fictionalizing real stories, ask yourself these five questions:

What is the most important moment?
Is it when someone discovers he’s been cuckolded or when his wife confesses? Isolate the most important moment of the series of events and then magnify it for the story. In the best stories, the author has magnified a moment that is unexpectedly poignant.

Richard Ford’s “Grand Central” focuses on two men, the husband and the lover, becoming aware of one another’s presence in a crowded place. The lover’s choice of whether to approach the husband is the drama of the story.

What are the stakes?
Find a pivot point. After that moment, the character’s life will go off into one of several possible trajectories. Even if the moment is small, like deciding to ignore a painful truth, that choice will impact the character’s life.

Why does this story need to be told?
I’m always encouraging my friend, Jodie Cain Smith, to write down the stories she tells. They are funny, unbelievable, and so beautifully told; it’s her gift. There are plenty of decent stories and then there are those that MUST be told.

When you fictionalize a real event, ask yourself why this story needs to be told? The answer to that question creates the sense of urgency that pulls readers in at the title and through the final punctuation.

Which character should tell the story?
Even if the story is in third person, it must have a central storyteller. That person can be witnessing the main conflict, experiencing the main conflict, or causing that main conflict.

Think of selecting a perspective like a film technique: putting the camera on each character’s shoulder to see what he or she sees. Which viewpoint is the most compelling?

In “Choose Life,” I deliberately chose the character who only witnessed the tragic loss of an ex-boyfriend, not the woman who actually lost him. I wanted the distance that creates perspective and grief would cloud that.

Where can you use creative license to make the story more compelling?
Anne Lamott said: tell your stories; if people wanted you to say nice things about them, they should have behaved better. The life you have led should be the trunk from which you pull your stories. Fictionalize them to make them compelling, more interesting, even more useful.


Real life is boring but the stories we write about it remind us of what it means to be human.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Writing a Documentary

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                               

Whenever I watch a documentary film, the credit for writing takes me by surprise. How can anyone write a documentary, since it’s a recording of real life, and unscripted experiences?

While making my sixth documentary, “Mehndi & Me” (completed today, July 27, 2017 – Yahoo!) I finally figured it out. I was the writer, because I was piecing together the “script”: a list of film clips typed up in the order they should appear in the final product. With “Mehndi & Me,” a portion of the draft script, with inexact times, looks like this:

                                                Mehndi & Me (short film)
                                                Summer 2017

Version 1 – 07.08.2017 Laura P. Valtorta
Clip #
Description
Beginning and end of clip (dialogue)
Music & special effects
Beginning and end (seconds)
GoPro 168
Six bare hands in circle

Laboni’s music, instrumental
0:00 to 0:07

(7 seconds)
GoPro 172
Hands in circle, painted

Laboni’s music, instrumental
0:12 to 0:25

(13 seconds)
Laura’s shot, outside of law office
Shaky shot proceeds from side of building to sign


9 seconds





MVI 134
Lynn’s shot
Laura introduces theme
“I’m just glad to be here in Columbia, SC; and I can get mehndi from a real artist from Bangladesh.”
First time this is said, NOT repeat
0:16 to 0:27

(11 seconds)
MVI 130
Lynn’s shot
Silent shot of Laboni

Laboni’s music with singing
0:11 to 0:21

(10 seconds)
MVI 122
Lynn’s shot
Dianne, Laboni, Laura, & Kimberly at table
“I would love it if you got 2 designs…more balanced”
No music
0:10 to 0:17

(7 seconds)


This is my personal version of a documentary script. Others might use a storyboard with pictures or drawings. Sometimes I begin with a storyboard after shooting and proceed to the written script. In any case, writing a script is the step taken before editing, when the film is actually cut.

Before putting together a script, the director must first shoot the film (the most joyous part of the process) and then review hours of clips, making a complete list of what’s going on in each clip. Reviewing the raw footage is tedious. The Editing Decision List (EDL) that results is a giant list of clips with times and descriptions. These are the ingredients used to assemble the script.

For a documentary, the middle process is something like this:

·         Plan the shoots
·         Shoot the film
·         Review the film clips and prepare Editing Decision Lists (EDLs) ugh!;
·         Choose elements from the EDLs to write a script;
·         Edit the film and promos; add music

Before all this, after conceiving an idea for a documentary, I secure the music and music rights. Music must be available during the editing process.


For me, making a film is teamwork. I could not make any of my films without the help of either Genesis Studio (owned by Cliff Springs), or the indomitable Lynn Cornfoot, who works at South Carolina ETV.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What’s Worth Seeing

By Olga Agafonova
Recently, I’ve been asked to contribute to an adaptation of a TV show script to a feature. I’ve never done anything like that before, so I began to think long and hard about what makes a good film.

What I’d like to write about is how life slips away and we don’t do the things we hoped to accomplish, about the big, good, beautiful dreams that end up being illusions. 

In the 2016 film The Founder, about the origins of the McDonald’s chain, the transformation of Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton, is engrossing, exactly the kind of writing and directing that transcends mere entertainment.

This is more than another story of a man corrupted by ambition. For Kroc, success is just out of reach, just another sale or two or twenty away. He craves something more than his nice home and nice – but not good enough – wife. Keaton’s facial expressions, his shifts in mood are central to the film. When Kroc tells his wife about the McDonald’s brothers’ fast-food assembly-line innovations and she dismisses this, you can tell just by the look on Keaton’s face that he will remember this slight and won’t let it go easily. Indeed, toward the end of the film, Kroc coolly tells his wife over dinner that he wants a divorce.  

Seeing these subtle shifts on the screen is not the same as writing them but I hope that being able to pay attention to these things will soon start translating into more compelling characters. I struggle with my characters. I know what I want them to be, I sometimes see a fuzzy image of them in my mind but I do not yet hear them and I certainly don’t hear them telling me how they’d like me to describe them.

The McDonald’s brothers dream of a restaurant that serves surprisingly high-quality burgers and fries turned into something grotesque. The franchise is now associated with poor nutrition, low pay, obesity and poverty. Happy healthy people don’t eat at McDonalds anymore– they’re being sold feel-good stories by Whole Foods, where business somehow shouldn’t feel like business.

Kroc did accomplish a lot, at the cost of defrauding the brothers of their invention and their royalties. Keaton, by the end of the film, looks confident and ruthless. Gone is the sugary-ness of a salesman who wants just one minute of someone’s time. Keaton is a less handsome Dorian Gray who rather enjoys what he’s become.

This complexity of character, the elevation of a story about the food industry into first-class drama – that’s a film worth writing and watching.

            

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Don’t I Know You?

By Kasie Whitener

In 2015, I presented a workshop for SCWA on plot arcs. My co-presenter had the subject of character development. She detailed a process she’d created that employed the Myers-Briggs personality tests to diagnose characters. I was stunned by the science of her methodology. It had never occurred to me to be so specific, so intentional about a character.

A year later when I started using Scrivner, a word processing software program for writers, I dallied with its Character templates that ask for the character’s physical description, personality, habits and mannerisms, background, internal conflicts, and external conflicts.

I write literary fiction which is: 1) a character-driven story, and 2) creative storytelling. Put another way: in literary fiction, who you tell a story about and how you tell the story are way more important that what the story is.

Suffice it to say, I should have intimate knowledge of my characters. They are 50% of the novel’s equation. So why don’t I put in the work of my Myers-Briggs-savvy co-presenter?

Anxiety over whether I have fully developed these characters used to haunt me. In every revision I would ask myself, “What does this character want?” In every scene, I would think, “Is this consistent with his personality?”

It drove me crazy.

Here’s the truth of it: my characters live with me. I see them, hear them, talk to them, commiserate with them, and love them. They start talking and I start writing. That’s why I write literary fiction.

My stories don’t begin with “there was a boat at sea and a storm came up…”

They begin, “Lord Byron tastes like opium.”

My characters are rich and textured because they’re imperfect and messy and undecided. They don’t fit templates; they change their minds and become better people and become worse people and apologize and then screw up again. My characters are real people.

And therein, writer friends, is my problem.

Aaron Sorkin tells us characters are not people. They must be finite, they exist only in the story.

So, my biggest chore in revision is exaggerating the relevant parts of a character’s personality and minimizing the irrelevant parts. This streamlining is especially needed in short stories where irrelevance can derail an entire story.

My entry in this year’s Carrie McCray Award contest is about a woman running into an old lover on her daughter’s first day of kindergarten. My workshop readers asked: Is she married? What kind of work does he do? Why didn’t they ever reconnect after that one hookup?

The story doesn’t need those answers. It doesn’t even use her name. She’s every GenX mom on the first day of kindergarten looking into the eyes of the hottest guy she’s ever had sex with. That’s the story.


Paring down real people into characters is hard. I’ve only recently discovered one of my main character’s primary internal conflicts and I’m on draft eight. Templates and methods and programs and suggestions are great. But they can’t compete with the voices in my head.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Literary Serials: Marketing Gold with a Binge-worthy Twist

By Jodie Cain Smith

I first met Jolene Harris, a woman who “grew up knowing the real hair color of every woman in town,” in Michele Feltman Strider’s Home series. With witty, troubled characters, Strider dances the line between graceful, women’s fiction and comedic shenanigans. It was Jolene’s shenanigans that drew me to Strider’s new serial Homestyle (digital download available on Amazon). Now, I’m obsessed.

I mean, come on! If you don’t want to read about a woman who steals her boyfriend’s car then grinds the gears for four hours from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home to her mama in Bayou La Batre at 2am because the jerk visited a strip club, well, I have to wonder how much we really have in common. But, I digress as to not give too much away.

But, however much I am loving this serial (now on issue three), my obsession goes beyond my love of a character “raised on a hearty diet of gossip, hearsay, and hairspray,” and the author who created her. I am obsessed with the potential the resurgence of literary serials holds for small press and independent authors.

As authors and writers, why reinvent the wheel of book marketing when we could take a look from the way back seat? Way, way back.

Literary serials were born out of economic need. Dickens and others of his time understood the economic strain of their readers. Rarely, if ever, could the Dickensian Everyman afford to buy a whole novel. However, many could scrounge up a penny to devour the next installment of their favorite saga of the local paper.

The same could be said today of time. The busy reader, the commuter reader, or the read-while-in-the-carpool-line reader will find a work designed to be read in short snippets very appealing.

Marketing a serial builds a public.

Thou shall not fill thy friends’ walls with the same product over and again. Rather than risking the “unfollow,” a writer can promote new material as issues are released. Then, anticipation for the next issue builds, readers begin sharing ideas of the not-yet-released issues, and new readers find you because of the online chatter. More posting, especially of quality products, increases an online platform.

Who doesn’t love a box set?

For the author looking to boost Amazon sales, the best way to do this is to have multiple products to sell. Once all the issues of a literary serial are released, an author can “box” them together, thus creating a new product. From there, discounts for buying the entire set can be given, a paperback version of the collection can be offered (think special edition), and new promotions designed for each product, sale, or combo can be posted.

As we all know from waiting for the next episode of whatever TV serial we are obsessed with, the anticipation of the next, juicy installment is both torture and delight. Literary serials and the accompanying anticipation can create the same excitement. But, this time the excitement could be for your work!

In your future literary serial, who will your main character be? Share your spiciest idea in the comment section below!

If you would like to know more of Michele Feltman Strider and her writing, visit her at https://www.facebook.com/MicheleFeltmanStrider.



Sunday, July 9, 2017

Grab a Notebook

By Ginny Padgett

 I started a nonfiction book project in 2014 based on experiences and interviews with 15 people once a month for a year. I’m still not finished writing it. When I take excerpts of it to workshop for feedback, sometimes they are met with astonishment by some of the respondents (also from workshop). “How can you remember our conversations and the details of our meetings so accurately? You have a great memory!”

I was flattered by their accolades, but there is a simple, mundane explanation. As soon as I returned home from each encounter, I made strategic notes to jog my memory when I was ready to write. If something in our discussions struck me as important enough to me to use as a direct quote, I jotted down key words. Not only could I remember the quote I wanted, but that often provided enough spark to reconstruct the whole exchange, bolstering interest with dialogue while fleshing out the action. I don’t think I have a better than average memory. Notes, and perhaps practice from journalism school, were the trick.

As time elapsed, I came to see diarizing an event has personal benefits as well. While writing my manuscript, it occurred than more once that these notes and recorded dates jump-started memories I needed to calculate and navigate everyday life.

Mindfully now I record outings and appointments in my calendar with details…and don’t delete them as tasks accomplished. “What was the name of that movie we went to last month?” “Where did you find that tray?” “Where was that cute restaurant we stopped at on the way to Baltimore?” “When’s the last time I saw the dermatologist?” I can find the answer to these kinds of questions in a jiffy. It doesn’t make for world peace, but sometimes it does make my life easier, tidier or evokes a smile when I look back and find a happy time spent with friends and family.

Fortunately, notetaking is easier than ever since the smart phone in your pocket is packed with more technology that the 1960s space-race effort. Snap a photo. Use the voice recorder to make notes for yourself. Ask your companion or interviewee if you may record a chat about an interesting subject. Immediacy is primary to getting it down right for nonfiction.

I realized another plus. Keeping notes on events, behaviors and deportment, environment, conversations can be prompts for plots, characters, settings, and dialogue for fictional writing. Take notes and see where they lead.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Put Social Media to Work for You

By Kat Dodd 

Social Media: It isn’t just for volunteering your own privacy anymore. In many ways, social media has become synonymous with the internet itself. Without social media, you might as well be utilizing only a fraction of the internet. I think that you can agree that not using the internet to promote your work is all but impossible for anyone but the most established writers. After all, many writers are even skipping formal publishing and simply self-publishing online. More and more books are digital and many people would rather meet you online in the comfort of their homes rather than venture to events to meet you in person.

As writers, we can have a tendency to be a little introverted at times or “lost in our heads” so to speak. That isn’t to say that we are anti-social beings, but we can tend to over-analyze things in general and be a lot better at focusing on our craft than having the ability to promote our work to others. However, Social Media provides the perfect outlet to network without the pressure of trying to find people to share your work with out of thin air.

In a previous post in May, Rex Hurst described the importance of networking in general when it comes to being published and promoting your work, but I would emphasize the importance of social media in particular. Utilizing social media to promote yourself and your work is the most cost effective way to network.

Before I began writing fiction again, I simply wrote reviews and articles and promoted myself with Facebook, Twitter, and other sites such as Tumblr. I followed other people that wrote similar articles and got attention from them and their readers by commenting on and sharing their work, as well as gaining inspiration from their writing styles. Inevitably, I got noticed and had a following before I had really begun my own website. Once I had my website, I was able to use cost effective advertising on social media that was targeted towards those with similar interests and my notoriety flourished for a while.


Similarly, I would recommend that you begin using social media for your fiction in a similar way. Find similar writers on social media with Facebook groups and pages, pay sincere attention to them as well as their readers and watch yourself grow as a result. Promote yourself with your words and actions to them, more than by directly mentioning your work. Advertise your page separately and only volunteer knowledge of your page after you make those initial connections. Share some of your ideas freely, like samples of food at the Supermarket. People want to be freely interested in you before they make a true investment in your work.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Road Trips: The Ultimate Writer’s Block Cure




By Kasie Whitener

The return journey was 548 miles, nine hours, all interstate, and took the better part of a Monday with no other plans. Coming off a U2 concert in Philadelphia, Father’s Day spent with Dad and my sister, the distance was worth it.

Rain splattered the windshield and the radio sang U2 songs from the Greatest Hits album. The Jeep barreled along, 70- to 80-miles-per-hour, chewing up the distance and carrying us home. The Shenandoah mountains rolled around us like vibrant green waves undulating on a fresh, damp sea. Meadows laced with wire fences and dotted with rolled hay arched into the sunlight, pulling away from tree pocket borders of dark summer shade.

“I want to run,” sang the radio, “I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside. I want to reach out and touch the flame. Where the streets have no name.”

When I talk about how many miles I put on the Jeep, how long I spend behind the wheel on road trips, people marvel. For some, road travel is something to be dreaded: a necessary evil in the vacation plans, an alternative to pricey flights.

For me, road trips are freedom.

When life is muddied with details and obligations, a good road trip sets me free.

I love the churn of the miles, green paddles lining the road ticking of the distance, pushing mental math through me as I calculate time and speed.

I love the interplay of trucks and minivans and cruise control and passing lanes.

I love the sleepy exit towns with mom-and-pop lunch buffets and 1980s-era gas pumps.

I’ve been driving that route – I-77 through Charlotte to I-81 through Roanoke and Lexington and Harrisonburg to I-66 through Manassas – for more than 20 years. It’s aged with me. I know its turns and speed traps like it knows my moods and frustrations. When the truck traffic gets heavy south of Staunton, it breaks into a third lane to ease the pressure.

Road trips break open the nostalgia in me, let it bleed over the today-ness and tomorrow-plans that consume me. I remember family trips and Dad blaming his farts on passing trucks. I remember college trips and the ‘Songs to Bellow To’ mixed tape.

The road between where I am now and where I used to be is stacked with when-I-stopped-there stories and almost every mile of the journey from South Carolina to Northern Virginia has some perfect detail I should write down someday.

I get more from the road than I give it. The road answers questions for me.
What does the character want? To be valued.

What is the story missing? Raise the stakes.

Like a writing coach, the road talks me through the work I left on the laptop on the desk in the house far away. The road stretches out, teasing the details from the work, offering perspective, offering freedom, offering inspiration, until I return and create.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

States of Mind

By Sharon May

Kurt Vonnegut said, “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

The main problem I have with this statement is that it reinforces the stereotype of the crazy artist who locks himself away from society in the name of art. It is a stereotype that many societies use to keep the writer at bay, out of the mainstream. Maybe there is a hint of madness in all of us as we respond to what drives us to write but to say only those who are depressed can produce serious and good works is extreme and just not true.

Second, what is “serious fiction?” I assume that Vonnegut is referring to what we now call literary fiction. By his standards, I’m sure that lots of genre fiction would be automatically be labeled as not serious. But all genres have works so well written they stand out from the crowd and are serious.

Third, does Vonnegut mean that one has to be depressed at the time of writing the fictional work, or simply be subject to depressive states of mind? Usually part of the definition of depression is a time period in which the person is usually not functioning well and probably is not capable of writing any fiction, serious or not. I think all writers have emotional struggles that give them opportunities to contemplate themselves and the society. These struggles do not have to lead to depression for one to be a serious writer.

Yes, we have Styron, Kafka, Woolf, Rowling, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Capote, and Baldwin as examples of writers with depressive personalities who produced serious fiction. But we could list even more writers who have never been depressed.

I am bipolar and have found during depressed moods that I am not productive enough to write anything, good or bad. I may be able to think about writing, but I can’t find the energy to put fingers to keyboard. Maybe others who are depressed can put words on a page. I just know I’m not one of them. But I am capable of writing when in a manic state, reams and reams very quickly. Unfortunately, quality is not in those reams even though they do provide good ideas to work on later. Only when I’m stable can I consistently produce words on paper that would be considered good.


Emotions can lead to a particular state of mind that can cause problems for the writer. Hopefully, you do not have to inhabit Vonnegut’s world as you write. Regardless of your state of mind, pay attention to your emotional struggles and observe those of others so you can learn about human nature, which will lead to interesting characters, dialogue, conflicts, and thus good writing.   

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Role of Narrator

By Bonnie Stanard

Most of us in workshop choose to narrate our stories either from first person or third person limited, but I’m attempting an omniscient point of view (POV) with an historical fiction story.

When we talk about an omniscient narrator, there’s quite a difference between writers of the 21st Century and those of the 19th century. It has to do with the distance the narrator establishes between himself and his story.

While omniscient narrators such as Dickens, Hardy, and Twain wrote with the confidence of a reporter, the progression has moved away from perceived “facts” and toward the articulation of our interior being. This approach to telling a story was ushered in by James Joyce’s groundbreaking Ulysses and was made accessible by Virginia Wolfe’s novels.

NARRATIVE DISTANCE
The closing of this distance between narrator and character evolved in tandem with a changing cultural climate. The unity of traditions of the 19th century has been eroded by the coming of modern science and technology, which have in turn brought into question parameters of every sort. Once we thought time and motion had exactitude, that the real world was stable. Since Einstein, we’ve discovered the fluidity of reality. Even things like age, sex, and morality have become relative. Readers are suspect of the facts of other people, be they artists, preachers, politicians or novelists.

As the complexity of daily life adds to our ambivalence, writers have pushed ever closer to the workings of human thought and consciousness. This includes narrators of omniscient, first person, and third limited POV.

An aside on POV: if a writer doesn’t understand the role of a narrator, it is obvious in his work. The most common error is “head hopping” which is blindly telling a story in buckshot fashion. That is to say, the writer doesn’t know who his narrator is.

CHAOS AND TECHNOLOGY
Two last thoughts on why narrators are changing. Over 80 per cent of Americans live in urban areas. The average reader no longer lives or works near nature. The urban experience has ushered in congestion and chaos, which have driven narrators to focus inward.

At the same time, the novelist’s portrayal of our physical surroundings has been usurped by ubiquitous visual media. Narrators of contemporary fiction who describe typical settings are competing with images we see on television and computers. You can guess where that leaves the writer.

Regardless of how beleaguered we are by our environment; or how much scenery we see on the screen; or how much dialogue we hear in movies and television, there’s little communication of the interior life of humans. This is where writers can be important.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Co-Writing a Screenplay, Part 1

By Laura P. Valtorta
                                     

Yesterday Marco and I went to see a reading of Anthony Lamarr’s stage play Calming the Man at the Richland County Public Library on Main Street. The actors were from New Life Productions, a group I worked with to put on my play, Bermuda. Once again I was struck by the talent of the actors we have in Columbia.

Sharn Hopkins is the head of New Life Productions, and I am proposing that we write a screenplay together. Both of us are hard-headed women, so I wonder how this can work. I’ve never sat down with someone else to work on a writing project. Producing a film takes a team of people, but writing is something personal.

Our first meeting about the screenplay is next Thursday. I’ve prepared by collecting a list of ideas for plots. How can we write about conflict between a so-called ‘black’ woman and a so-called ‘white’ woman and make it funny and real? There is only one human race, but we segregate ourselves in the United States based on skin color. This creates huge problems. Art can deal with the issue better than almost anything except a change in the law.

I wonder about toning down my bossiness. This project will only work if Sharn also shows up with a briefcase of ideas. I can count on her to have an opinion, which is what I need. Push-back is key. If my ideas are stupid, she needs to say so. And I need the freedom to be honest with her.

Other concepts besides skin color will enter into this. Religion – what role does it play? I’ve never run away from religion, but I am an agnostic. Sharn belongs to a local congregation. She does not believe in using curse words. My favorite radio show is Howard Stern.

Recently I traveled to Cuba, where there is no segregation based on skin color. Looking around the streets of Havana and Cienfuegos, it was difficult to see a couple or a husband and wife who shared the same skin color. You don’t often see two white people together or two black people at a market unless they are tourists. Cuban families are every shade of white-brown-black all within the same household. The relief is palpable. There is no color line. That’s the kind of screenplay I’m aiming for.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Raising the Stakes

By Kasie Whitener

We binge-watched three episodes of one of our favorite shows yesterday. Blindspot is an NBC program based on the premise that a tattooed amnesiac is helping the FBI rid the government of corruption. It’s super fake.

What I love most about Blindspot is how they continually raise the stakes. It’s a specific strategy TV writers use to keep you tuned in through the commercial break.

Dismantling a bomb? Great. But what if the clock jumps forward by half because you cut the wrong wire?

Hostage crisis? No problem. But what if there’s also a gas leak in the building?

Raising the stakes means forcing the characters to make a choice they may have otherwise waited out. In everyday life, we wait out choices. We don’t respond to invitations, ignore phone calls, and “wait and see” on just about everything.

Characters can’t afford to wait it out. The reader will put the book down and never pick it back up again. Characters need to move the plot forward to reach its conclusion.

To force the character to make a choice, the writer must raise the stakes. Make it impossible for the character to do nothing. Create the kind of urgency that forces the character to do something, anything, that pushes the plot arc.

One of the easiest ways to raise the stakes is to provide a time limit. Sports are great at this: the clock ticks down, the innings run out, there’s only so much time to make a play.

Another way to raise the stakes is to reveal information that complicates the choice. For example: the main character is refusing to surrender to the villain until the villain shows he’s got someone hostage; now the main character must do whatever she must to keep the hostage safe. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is expecting to become tribute; instead, her sister is selected and Katniss is forced to act in order to save Primrose.

A third way to raise the stakes is to challenge the hero with something he or she cannot do. Have the main character confronted with a puzzle, a challenge, or a seemingly impossible task. The Flash on the CW network does a great job with this. Everything is declared impossible until Barry finds a way to do it.

The best stakes involve the character compromising a bit of herself to get where she’s going. Every time she makes an exception to her values or morals, the audience is primed for her to make it up to them in another scene. She might have to team up with a known enemy, forgive a trespass, or even part with a valuable item. Raise the stakes by having the character put more skin in the game and the payoff will be twice as great when she finally triumphs.

Raising the stakes builds tension in your story, keeps the reader engaged, and shows what lengths your character is willing to go to in pursuit of her goal.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Secret to Selling a Book? Meet People.

By Rex Hurst
Having now sold two books and a number of short stories, I can honestly tell you that having the perfectly crafted cover letters and hunting for an agent to pass your work onto the “big publisher” is no strategic match for actually meeting people in the flesh, having a few drinks, and making a couple of jokes.

Networking! Networking! It’s all down to that.

Everything I sold is because I knew someone. Another author gave me a tip. A guy I knew became an editor. Another author gave me a recommendation. Like the mafia, you have to be vouched for before they let you in. If they can put a face to that name, get a sense that you’re a human, they’ll unconsciously associate your work with those good vibrations. It’s natural. 
It’s human.

The old cliché once again rings true, “it’s not what you know blah blah blah.”

At this point some may be thinking, “It shouldn’t be like this. I just want to write.”

With ten thousand other people in the same room, all screaming to get their work published, this is how you stand out. Go to the conventions, to the meetings, to the writer’s groups. Schmooze.

I’m not saying suck up, you’ll come across as desperate.


Ask advice of those writers attending the event. People love to expound and be the sage. And if you’re still having trouble, brush up your skills with a reread of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It might seem phony, but it works. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Describing Pain


By Olga Agafonova

Earlier this week I wrote a script for a five-minute film that I need to shoot by myself. Because of technical and financial limitations, almost everything associated with a movie set is absent – I am lucky to have found someone who has graciously agreed to play the main character.  

The script is a monologue by a woman that heard a voice in her head during a difficult time in her life. I didn’t want this film to be about someone’s descent into madness: a five-minute experimental short by a newbie film-maker is not the place to tackle that. What I did want to get across is the depth of the woman’s pain as she remembers how her marriage fell apart. 

About a year ago, I had an experience that I struggle to describe in the script: in response to someone’s words, I felt searing pain in my heart. I remember it taking my breath away and thinking that all that language about broken hearts might stem from the physical sensation of pain.  It was strange – the sounds in the room faded away and all I could focus on was the physiological response. There was a heaviness and a weakness, almost a dizziness even. I don’t know if the blood drained away from my face but I felt like it had. This range of symptoms is not in the script of course and I worry that the few words I have in there do not convey the intensity of the emotional experience my character is having.

I’ve read a fair number of depressing books over the years but I can’t say that I’ve picked up on the techniques that make it easier to portray emotional distress. My character is not hysterical or furious; she doesn’t implode or whimper or curl up in a ball of grief. I don’t have hundreds of pages of backstory to help me out either. All I would like to capture is a moment where time stops and the bad news sinks in. 

Having never worked with actors, I don’t know how much I need to say – I just hope that the person can somehow feel what I’ve just described and that she can re-enact it vividly.
           




Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Struggle Is Fiction

By Shaun McCoy

I wanted to take a brief time out to come clean here. Think of this as an intervention. You’ve invited all my close friends, family, and Aunt Sally (God knows why you invited her, but you did) to sit my lily butt down and have a talk with me. We’ve gotten past the introductions, the denials, the brief shouting matches,l and then I break down in tears and admit the truth:

I’ve been Writing While Happy.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t do it. Writing is supposed to be tough. The worse the pain, the better the writing. All you have to do is go to a typewriter and open up a vein, yadda yadda.

Well [expletive deleted] that, I say. I haven’t been miserable in nearly two years, and I’m not going back to fulfill some crappy Bohemian-writer stereotype.

I know, I know. I’ve betrayed the fundamental tenant of our craft. Let’s move on from this together.

PLOT TWIST: This is actually an intervention for you! Well, probably not you, you seem like a good reader. It’s for some other person reading this blog. Imagine them for a second. Try to make them vaguely unlikable.

Now, I get why people have this idea that wounds equal words. Just a couple years ago, my life was so utterly depressing I listened to the blues for a pick-me-up. If I got bad luck, I was happy I’d gotten any luck at all! When you’re hurting, you desperately need to reach out. You need to make meaningful connections in this world—even if those connections are only one way. Sometimes, especially when they’re one way. So yes, it was easy to write then. But guess what people? It’s easy to write now!

Communicating is something you should want to do even when you’re happy. Actually, you should want to do that especially when you’re happy. It’s passion that makes a writer write, whether they’re happy or sad, empty or fulfilled, lonely or awash in companionship (Quick aside here to the English language, can we please get a good antonym for lonely? That would be great, thanks. Sincerely, All of Us Writers). It’s those great extremes that make a work compelling. If a sad person can imagine being happy, then a happy person can imagine being sad. It does NOT mean you have to go there.
So this is to you, all you silly movies and stories with your suffering writers. You can shove it. I might write one of you, but I’m not living through you!

And this is for you, you-imaginary-hipster-would-be-writer-sitting-in-your-coffee-shop-clutching-desperately-to-the-small-town-malaise-which-once-invaded-your-life-and-filled-you-with-the-need-to-write—you’re being dramatic. Let it go. Get your dank emotions on the page there, muffin fluff, not on your life.

It’s the need to communicate that helps a person write, not the pain.

And you’re probably wondering (I can tell cause I’m psychic) “Shaun, now that your life’s not a repository of abject suffering, does that mean we’ll finally get a happy ending in one of your stories?”

No.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Writing About Death

Kasie Whitener

I’m new to death.

Early in my life, death was a peripheral thing: it happened to my friends’ grandparents and to classmates I didn’t know very well. Though my family buried two cousins, we were all young and their parents’ grief was obscure and diluted for me.

As an adult, I lost one grandmother with whom I’d had very little contact and then the other who had been a dear friend. In the past year, my father-in-law has lost two of his good friends and the son of one of those friends. And now his sister, our sweet Aunt Carolyn Sue, has passed.

I write through death. I write because it allows me to get perspective on the emotions running wild within me. When I write, I organize words and sentences and paragraphs into a particular rhythm and tone. When I write, I have purpose and focus.

I wrote for my Nana, tried to memorialize her. I wrote about the one-year-later feeling when life has gone on without the person we’ve lost. I wrote about the worst day of someone else’s life. I wrote for one friend when her Nana died and for another when his stepfather passed.

My first novel is about a twenty-two-year-old kid whose best friend commits suicide. In that book, I wrote about death when it is shocking and confusing.

When I write about death, it’s usually from an arm’s distance. I am observing the way others process their grief. When I write about death I don’t try to understand it or rationalize it. I simply record what I’m seeing and infer what others are feeling.

Writing can be cathartic. It can help the writer expunge herself of emotion; simply bleed on the page and the work will be authentic. But when I write about death, I feel more matter-of-fact than emotional. All things that live must die; I know this and take comfort in it. To everything there is a season, a purpose, and then it is over.

My latest short story is about a man whose four-year-old son has cancer. In that story, the threat of the child’s death is the antagonist. When I write death as a possibility, I’m reminded how grateful I am to be human. I write that gratitude into my characters. I refuse to let them take their lives for granted: be more, do more, say more, feel more.

Characters die. They are not people. Their deaths provide motivation, complicate relationships, and force choices. When real people die, motivations, relationships, and choices all still occur. Loss changes us all.

Writing about death means writing about change. I’m getting more acquainted with the process. I’m learning to prepare for loss, to make time before to share what I can with the people around me: Be more, do more, say more, feel more.


I’m learning to write about death without cliché or hysterics. Capturing change and dignity are my purpose and focus. I’m new to death but I’m learning.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Strange Brew and Romantic Comedy

By Laura P. Valtorta                                     

STRANGE BREW. My favorite music venue, in South Austin, allows me to hear the strings on the guitars and every stroke of the drum brush. I can see the Purgatory Players in front of me. I feel like we’re friends. Strange Brew – a place with the best acoustics in my life and hibiscus tea, I love you.

On Sunday morning I insisted on walking to Strange Brew from Clara and Ross’s house. That’s another good thing – we can walk there and then sit through the free concert. Order peanut butter cookies and tea. Hear some great singing and practically crawl inside the guitars. Wonder about the percussion people, who are introverts.

My body swayed involuntarily to the music. Shared a peanut butter cookie. Felt my eyeballs roll back with the pleasure of the beat. Then it was time to leave.

Sadness. This place is so pleasurable I fear that fate will drag it away. Usually when I like a restaurant this much, the place ends up closing. I hope that Strange Brew is the exception. It’s a sandwich bar/beer place/coffee shop/music paradise that pays big attention to SOUND.

STATESIDE AT THE PARAMOUNT THEATER. Every movie we’ve seen at the 20th Austin Film Festival has stood separate and apart from the others. We’ve seen four short documentaries and four full-length films. I can’t decide which was the best. Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley was the most moving. Girl on a Bicycle was the funniest.

Girl on a Bicycle is the story of an Italian tour guide in Paris who is affianced to a German stewardess but falls in love with a French woman with two kids. Jeremy Leven (writer-director) lives in France part of the time, but his French is admittedly not that good. Most of the story is in English. Girl feels like some of the modern lighthearted Italian comedies you see on the movie channel in Italy. Leven got financing from the people who produced the German masterpiece,The Lives of Others, a dark film about East Germany before the wall came down.

Girl made me laugh, and the story got funnier as the film progressed. Vincenzo Amato, as Paolo, the main character, captured the sweetness and funniness of Italian men.  He justifiably related everything in Paris to the Romans and to Italy. The funniest scene occurred when Paolo chased the girl on the bicycle through the narrow streets of Paris driving his double-decker tour bus. When he stopped the tourists ran away.

The movie really works because all of the main characters are from different countries. Greta (Nora Tschirner in a bad blond wig), is the best airline stewardess ever, especially when dealing with phone heads. My favorite character was Derek – played by Paddy Considine from England.  I enjoyed Louise Monot, who is a French model.

We need to get movies like Girl in wide distribution in the United States. People want to see funny comedies where kids are referred to as “small farts.” Was Leven listening to me?