Thursday, December 6, 2018


By Rex Hurst

Now while this statement seems almost self-evident, it’s practically a tautology, I’ve noticed a current trend in the traditional genres of escapism (Fantasy, Superhero, & Science Fiction) have become more and more preachy, as if they’re using the medium to talk down and “educate” the idiot masses. Sometimes it’s a smug little quip about some “social justice” issue. More and more it’s been almost feature length “messages” horned into previously popular franchises.

For me the breaking point was a recent episode of Dr. Who. The new Doctor, in a female incarnation, meets Rosa Parks- not so bad in itself – but most of the episode, 55 minutes in length, was spent of lecturing the clueless companions (and through them, us the idiot audience) all about the Civil Rights era – a lot of which was incorrect or way too condensed. The actual “story” took up about fifteen minutes of time and revolved around some racist from the future coming back in time to knock Rosa Parks off before she could sit at the front of the bus. Not an alien who happened to be around at that time, maybe trying to get home, maybe dealing with similar issues on their own planet. No it was some cookie-cutter red-faced racist who wanted to destroy Rosa Parks. Why? Because he’s evil, that’s why. What more do you need to know, you racist! The entire endeavor was as subtle as a sledgehammer.

The purpose of these escapist genres was to allow the reader to cast their minds away from the nonsense of the world. For the reader to believe that the biggest evil in the world could be cured by throwing a magic ring into a volcano, that there was no problem too big for Superman to handle, that only a spaceship ride away was a world of adventure and beautiful green-skinned women. The escape from reality is why all of these genres became popular in the first place. People want to leave the world and have fun.

That isn’t to say, you cannot talk about social issues in your story. Take a look at any issue of the X-Men from the 1980s (the Claremont era for those in the know) and you will see a message of tolerance for those who are different from you. Somehow this straight, white, male author managed to place this message without disrupting the story or being preachy.

How did he do this? By putting the escapism and story first. If you are working in the fantasy, science fiction, horror, or superhero genre and the purpose of your tale is to push forward an ideological message, then you have a clunker on your hands. Stick to being outraged on Twitter. In escapist genres, the world, the oddity, the break from reality, has to come first. People don’t want a lecture, they want to see something beyond the norm. If you can’t deliver then, more onto a different type of writing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


By Raegan Teller
At a recent signing event, another author said to me, “Selling books is hard.” When he walked away, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Would I ever master the marketing skills I need? And then I remembered saying to myself about five years ago, “Will I ever master the skills I need to write a book?”

If you are writer, you know there’s a long list of skills you must have, whether you’re producing a book, short story, or poem. Even if you know how to write a decent sentence, you must learn structure, pacing, and storytelling, to name a few. The list of required writing skills is long, but that isn’t all.

Sometime after my first book was published, I realized that I’m expected to be two, totally different people: an accomplished writer and a marketing genius. On top of that, the skills and behaviors needed to master each role are opposites in many ways. Yen and Yang. How could I become proficient at both?

To confront my being-two-people dilemma, I recalled Martin Broadwell’s four stages of learning I had used often in my consulting practice. When I began writing my first novel, I was at the level of “unconscious incompetence”: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. After writing that book for the next three years, I reached the next level of learning: “conscious incompetence.” I was beginning to realize what I didn’t know—and it was scary. As they say, “Ignorance is bliss.”

While writing the next two books, I honed my writing skills through continuous studying and feedback. Now, I’m able to write at the level of “conscious competence.” But while I have the skills, writing is still hard work and requires a lot of mental energy.

But what about becoming the “other” person I mentioned earlier? Could I also become a marketing genius? Even now, I’m still at the lowest level of learning for those skills: unconscious incompetence. Every day, I learn something I didn’t even realize I was supposed to know. Things like learning how to navigate through the behemoth Amazon maze seems like learning to fly a fighter jet. Slowly, I’m beginning to figure out what I don’t know when it comes to marketing books. While I might be approaching conscious incompetence, I’m nowhere near the final level: unconscious competence. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve that level of mastery. I may not live long enough to see that day, but one can hope . . . and keep learning.

All of this is to say, yes, you can be two different people with different skills and behaviors. One role may be easier and more natural than the other. You’ll learn those skills quicker. But on a parallel learning track, it may take you a bit longer to acquire the skills and assume the behaviors you need to become the “other” person. That’s okay. Just remember, the learning process is the same: one level at a time.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


By Laura P. Valtorta

Three women presented memoirs at the November meeting of Dinah’s Writers’ Group: two were children’s books, and one was an outline of the writer’s life that could be turned into a complete autobiography.

Memoirs can take many forms. I appreciated hearing about the warmth of Dinah’s father and grandfather in a picture book designed for two-year-olds. The story had a surprising amount of depth.

Likewise, the autobiography was extremely poignant because it highlighted a lifetime of pain and the insight that came from overcoming mistreatment. Serious abuse can land a person in jail, or it can propel them to the top. The outcome depends on the stuff that person is made of.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to weave the peaks and valleys of my life into a manual for indie filmmakers. I think this is appropriate. Dinah’s group suggested I rename it Autobiography of a Filmmaker.

As writers, we don’t create stories out of nothing. Art stems from experiences, like a lunch in Newberry followed by an evening Durga Puja ceremony. A trip to Cuba.

I create art, both films and stories, in order to communicate a message that could be the color of a conversation or an outright lesson on decency. These messages come from my family life, my friends, and my work as an attorney.

Judges and courtrooms don’t matter. The day I quit enjoying my clients will be the day I quit practicing law. Their lives are art; their faces are beautiful. My sisters, parents, husband and children are what make life meaningful. Or extremely frustrating. I hope my autobiography will do them all justice.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

What I Learned at the 2018 SCWA Pawley’s Island Conference

By Kasie Whitener

I co-hosted the Open Mic on Saturday night at the Pawley’s Island Conference with my friend Mary Sturgill. What I learned was that people are skeptical of Peter Pan and ready for a new interpretation of him. Also that most writers don’t perform their work, they simply read it. And that an open mic should be fun and treated as such if you want people to stay.

For me, the open mic was the highlight of the conference: a chance for writers to come together and read and perform and listen and appreciate the work others put into the craft.

I’m a fiction writer, so I attended the sessions on character development and point of view. These were led by Dr. John Kessel and Therese Anne Fowler respectively. I enjoyed Kessel’s session although it was more lecture style and instructive than interactive and discussion-based. I like instructive because the session leaders are why I’m there. While amateur attendees’ opinions might be interesting, the session leader has the knowledge to apply to the discussion while many attendees’ have only experience or opinion.

What’s the difference?
 Leader (Kessel for example): lose the driver’s license descriptions – hair, eyes, weight
 Attendee (justifying his/her own work): you need to help the reader picture the character.
 Leader: you mean picture what you think the character looks like.
 Attendee: I created the character.
 Leader: then what role does the reader play in creating the character?

When the attendee doesn’t know how to answer, because the attendee (writer) hasn’t considered the reader’s position in the existence of the work, then I know we’re seeing a gulf between the literary folks (Kessel) and the storytellers-who-want-to-be-writers (attendee).

So I learned I’m still in between those. I’m trained as a literary person, meant to understand the nuance of giving vital stats of character (trust the reader to infer necessary character traits from the details I give) and the reader who enjoys a good tall, dark, and handsome protagonist.

Therese Anne Fowler talked about choosing a point of view as a matter of distance. How close does the reader need to be to understand and appreciate the story? How close is too close?

So I learned that the focus on the reader is a big deal. What is the reader’s experience? Is it the kind of experience people buy?

As a voracious reader, I can separate the experiences I’m willing to pay for from the ones I’d rather borrow from the library. And THAT is how you know you have the kind of book agents and publishers want.

Is this an experience the reader will pay for? Gladly?

In the open mic when I detailed Peter Pan getting aggressive with a mermaid, when I made it clear that he was entitled, selfish, and probably psychotic, I learned some people would pay to read that version of the boy who refused to grow up. So, yeah, let’s pitch that.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


By Bonnie Stanard

When I was in college I wrote a story in which a girl talked to the reader about her life in a vague and unexceptional manner. In the end, she saw a rat and scurried after it, intending to eat it, at which point the reader realizes the narrator is insane—my attempt at an unreliable narrator.

To get a better idea about the unreliable narrator, I looked it up in dictionaries.
1. A character whose story cannot be taken at face value.
2. A narrator who holds a distorted view which leads to an inaccurate telling of events.
3. A character who cannot be trusted, either from ignorance or self-interest.

First of all, a reminder that the narrator is the character who tells the story. An unreliable narrator, then, tells lies. (I was going to add partial lies, but I don’t believe in partial lies.) Oh, you say, that sounds simple enough. But wait. Who reads a paragraph in a novel, stops, and wonders: “this says it is raining, but I wonder if it really is raining”? Our assumption is that the character telling the story is laying it on the line, giving us the facts (and only the facts, even if it’s fiction) and usually they are.

Since it is the narrator experiencing the action who gives us a false interpretation of the events, the obvious choice of point of view (POV) is either first person or third person limited.

I always become suspicious of a story (or movie) that features a character who has lapses of consciousness for reasons such as fainting spells, memory loss, drug or alcohol abuse. These are easy tropes for establishing an unreliable narrator.

The narrator that is insane, deluded or impaired may give you a distorted picture. If you figure that out on the first page, the author is an amateur. A good writer will string you along for pages until you figure out that you’re reading a story told by a deluded or crazy person (the most extreme of unreliable).

In more subtle instances, a rational narrator puts forward a view that is corrupted by bias, hatred, or naïveté. You, as the reader, will only be able to pick up on this by comparing the given narration with other verifiable evidence, whether it be from other characters or reality itself.

The purpose of an unreliable narrator is to deceive the reader about a story’s actual facts. Given that our stories are fiction to begin with, this makes for a fiction within a fiction. The more shrewd the deception and the more mystifying the story, the more gratifying for us when we figure it out.

If that isn’t confusing enough, here’s a conundrum for you. One www source lists as an unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye). Because, says the source, Holden calls himself “the most terrific liar you ever saw.” When events prove he is honest in telling us he is untrustworthy, is he reliable or unreliable?

Sunday, October 28, 2018


By Rex Hurst

For the three of you who know who I am, then you also know that one of the two genres I write in is science fiction. Aliens, lasers, beehive hairdo’d women saying “Show me more of this Earth thing called kissing.” This is my playground. The problem? Well, I don’t actually know much about science and what I do know all tells me that the stuff I write about in “the future” is completely impossible, or unlikely, or ridiculous. One of those.

Of course, this might not be the impediment that it appears on the surface. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, science fiction is easier to write if you don’t  know any science. Then you aren’t limited by all sorts of nasty facts and figures, and are only hampered by a lack of imagination. Most writers aren’t big on hard science, and despite what some might claim, most science fiction readers just want to explore the fantastic without a trip back to their high school science class.

But if you want the illusion of hard science, there is a way to fake it. As science today is expanding at an incredible rate, imagine how much it will continue to do so in two to three hundred years from today. Therefore, it would be perfectly believable for new scientific terms, devices, and jargon to come into being. This is something I observed in old school episodes of Dr. Who. I’m talking about the good ones from the 1970s starring Tom Baker. In these they simply invented techo-babble to cover the fact that most of what they were doing (time travel not the least part) was preposterous. The entire series was rife with such talk and I drank it all in. If it's presented in a straightforward manner, people will instantly believe.

Science today tells us that most people’s organs would be liquified if they tried to accelerate out into the planetary orbit. Well good thing they invented the Corvala Anti-Gravity Pump or the Gravtic Analysier or the Spacio-Cotray Junction, all of which allows people to zip away into space. Try it out. Make up your own. If you get stuck, take a current product and make an anagram of that. You will surprise yourself with what you can come up with.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


By Sharon May

So you are interested in dialect. You must be one of those writer fellers, trying to figure people out so you can create a believable character. Using a dialect is a great tool for making characters different from each other. Writers often spell words phonetically to capture the pacing and cadence of a character’s speech or thinking. This is generally what we think of when we say dialect. But remember vocabulary builds dialect too.

The use of dialect by American authors primarily came out of the Realistic period, particularly the Regionalism movement in the late 19th century. Realists were dead set to record to the nth degree how a person spoke. At times, these writers were indeed making fun of the characters who were markedly different from themselves. “Funny” spellings and enunciation, miscommunications, and misunderstandings added humor. Think of the Northerner in the south in the 1800s.

I come from a region known for its mountain speech. Some folk say its roots are in Elizabethan English. That’s them people who believe it has some linguistic worth. Then there’s folks who make fun of hillbilly speech. “You talk funny,” “What’d you say?” or “Where you from?” are their usual responses when we open our mouths. They think we are dumb, stupid, ignorant, uneducated just because of our dialect. Ironically, we have lots to say about their dialect too, but they are so egotistical or ignorant they think they don’t have a dialect. Remember, everyone has one, some closer to Standard English than others. If you use the dialect of one character, why not depict the dialects of all characters?

Don’t use dialect in a way that insults a character. I write mostly in Appalachian dialect, particularly that of the hills of Eastern Kentucky. Yes, each region of Appalachia does have its own dialect. I don’t use phonetic spellings because they tend to dumb down the characters, making them appear less educated and less intelligent than they really are. I’ve known lots of very smart hillbillies who couldn’t come close to speaking the King’s English if they tried. If your point in using dialect is to dumb down a character, you might want to find another way to depict intelligence rather than risk insulting readers who speak that dialect too.

Also, make sure you actually understand the grammar of the dialect you are working with. If you don’t speak the dialect you plan to depict, then study it first. Additionally, you have to decide if it is important to be realistic with phonetic spellings even if they confuse your audience. Think James Joyce or William Faulkner.

Know the purpose of using a dialect before you start. Some writers of disenfranchised groups use dialect to mark separation from mainstream society and to explore their heritage. This use of dialect is related to theme, a purpose the reader can understand. Dialect for showmanship may be interesting, but may lead the writer down the primrose path.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The FEAR of WRITING: Three tips to overcome the beast

By Jodie Cain Smith

I believe fear is healthy, for the most part. Fear prevents us from petting poisonous snakes, hugging sharks, and driving blindfolded over bridges. Fear tells us to read the expiration date on the milk carton and to put down the big, metal stick in the middle of a thunderstorm. Any fear that keeps me alive, physically intact, and free of food poisoning, I’m a’keepin’. However, one fear I must get rid of is the fear of writing.

What? Wait. Fear of writing? That’s dumb. Yes, yes it is, but it is an emotion I’ve experienced quite a bit recently.

My fear song plays out like this:  I get an awesome idea, a premise that sucks me in. For a couple of days I bask in my brilliance. I research the heck out of it, ensuring every detail is accurate, plausible. I imagine the cast of characters and setting. After all of this, there is only one thing left to do – write the story. This is when fear grips my throat and the lightning that is anxiety pulses through my veins. My idea is too complex. My writing game is subpar. If I attempt to write this and fail, my whole career is over. My fraud as a writer (yep, we all feel this at some point) will be revealed.

Over the course of the last three months, as I have pushed to finish two current projects, I’ve experienced this fear time and again. Through this experience, I was forced to design ways beyond it because, well, my fear of failure beats all other fears. So, if you find yourself in a secluded corner hiding under a blanket sure that the blank screen boogeyman is coming for you, here are a few defenses I have deployed to beat the monster that is performance anxiety. (Get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about writing, perv.)

1. Listen to your character even if that little tramp has ideas that in no way fit into your original plot scheme. It’s her story. Let her be a part of it. Let her tell it.

2. Just write. Everyday. (Well, at least Monday through Friday. Even creative genius needs a day off.) If the words are awful, write them anyway. Tomorrow is for fixing. Today we write!

3. Don’t be afraid to abandon a story and move on to a new one. They’re not all winners. Sometimes “killing your darlings” means abandoning the whole thing.

Now, don’t we all feel better? And, no one had to pay a therapist.

Sunday, October 7, 2018


By Kasie Whitener

This is a summary of my talk given at The Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Lowcountry Book Club Convention on October 6, 2018.

Voraciously. Inquisitively. Judgmentally. That’s how to read like a writer.

My first book addiction was VC Andrews. I read everything I could get my hands on and not from the library, either. Each fat paperback cost $4.95 at the grocery store. The covers were these haunting graphics of scared young women. They were gothic family drama novels and I couldn’t get enough of them.

Reading voraciously is part of being a writer. Exploring other worlds, savoring word choices, character builds, and plot arcs are all part of being addicted to storytelling. Just as professional athletes hit the gym daily and politicians are always campaigning, writers learn their craft by immersing themselves in it.

All this reading is an investigation. Like a detective in a mystery novel, I’m assembling the clues as to what makes a novel readable, bingeable, and ignore-my-family good.

I read genre fiction to learn the conventions and expectations of the genre. Genre novels satisfy their readers by playing out their story according to specific patterns. We talked extensively about this on Write On SC episode 12.

I read literary novels to see how the greats are playing with the form. Awards like National Book Award and Pulitzer and Man Booker identify writers working at the top of the craft.

Toni Morrison advised we write the book we want to read. In scholarship, this is called finding the gap in the knowledge. We know A and we know C but B is unknown, so we must investigate. For writers, this is the sense that although you enjoyed the book you’ve just finished, it could have been better. You would have done some things differently.

Investigation can mean identifying a specific theme and working through a list of books associated with it. For a while I read every World War II novel I could get my hands on which meant seeing the Great War in every theatre including Shanghai, Charleston, Paris, Massachusetts, England and England again, occupied France in this novel and again in this novel, even Australia.

Judge the novel. How did it begin? I picked up a book recently that began with a character on a plane (cliché) and just as I thought to forgive the author, she began the second chapter with a second character being woken up by an alarm (another cliché). If every man is devastatingly handsome and every woman has a tinge of self-doubt, if the personal conflict just happens to mirror the external conflict, if the dialogue is wasted on greetings like, “What’s up?” and “How’ve you been?” just close the book. Mark it as “never finished” on Goodreads. Give it back to the Kindle Unlimited library.

You can expect better. There are so many books out there, we can never read them all. So we don’t have to settle for the one that Book Bub or Amazon or a mailing list or even our local librarian foisted upon us. Know when to bail.

Sunday, September 30, 2018


By Raegan Teller

Let me begin with a confession. Until recently, I turned my nose up at short fiction. I admit it. I was a novel snob. The late actor Cary Grant once said, “Ah, beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of one's own past failings.”

My failure to appreciate the value of short fiction was founded in a misbelief that it takes a lot of words to tell a good story. Even though I had studied stories by Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and others in various college classes, I wasn’t sold on the unique value of short fiction. I still longed to be immersed in longer works.

Well, that was then. Now, my life is crazy and over-scheduled at times. I love to read, but I simply don’t have time to enjoy novels as much as I used to. So, I have re-introduced short fiction into my reading.

To address this no-time-to-read issue many of us have, the Richland Library and dozens of other places across the country have installed short-story kiosks. You press 1, 3, or 5 minutes to choose how much time you want to spend reading a story, and out spews a story, printed on a strip of eco-friendly paper about four inches wide. These kiosks are showing up in airports and other places all over the world in effort to encourage all of us to read more with less time.

As a writer, I have another confession: short stories are harder for me to write than a novel. It took me years to figure out my novel-writing process so I could arc appropriately, manage subplots, plant red herrings, develop characters, construct scenes, and then pull all those pieces together into a coherent mystery novel. Erroneously, I thought writing a short story would be a piece of cake.

What I’ve learned is that short fiction is truly an art form unto itself, not just a shorter, easier version of something else. On the bulletin board above my desk I’ve posted Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s a reminder of how powerful a few words can be and how difficult it is to wield that power artfully.

As another reminder of the significance of short stories, I recently read an article about the large number of movie scripts adapted from short stories. Here’s just a few: 2001: a space odyssey, Brokeback Mountain, The Shawshank Redemption, 3:10 to Yuma, and Minority Report. There are many more.

Now that I’ve had this epiphany about short fiction, what does that mean for me as a writer? For one thing, I’ll give as much attention to developing my short-story writing skills as I do to novel writing. That means I need to write more short fiction, seek critiques, and keep learning. And I’ll re-read some of the great stories and learn from the masters. Most importantly, I won’t ever turn my nose up at short fiction again.  Promise.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


Meet Another Columbia II Blogger


Travis graduated from White Knoll High School in 2007.  In college he studied Mechanical Engineering, Biology, Biochemistry, Architectural Engineering and briefly thought about trying to get into Pharmacy School.  However, after ten years of becoming familiar with different disciplines he ultimately learned that what he needed was a more traditional 9-to-5 job to make ends meet while he continues to pursue the things about which he’s most passionate.  He’s a bodybuilder, you may have seen him on a community theatre stage and now he is taking on writing.  Maybe you’ll see him in a publication one day.

Travis's first post on this page follows.


By Travis Page

I am only 29 years-old, but I’ve taken on many new endeavors over this past decade of my life: powerlifting, bodybuilding, mixed martial arts, acting, and blogging to name a few. The process of mastering a craft gives my life meaning and purpose. To me, the struggle of learning something new is very engaging, even when it’s frustrating. I’ve heard throughout the years that writing isn’t easy and as I begin pursuing this craft I understand how true that is. I feel it now. That’s also what makes me feel like a real writer and it’s exciting.

The arts can be taught to a degree, but there isn’t a formal way to develop an artist. There is no step-by-step method that can guarantee an idea “works.” You have to keep trying it in different ways. The process of etching out an idea intrigues me. I suppose I’ve never truly tried it before. Sure, I’ve written papers over the years for school assignments, I’ve acted some and put together my own videos for a YouTube channel, but you don’t often get useful feedback on the job you’re doing when you simply throw your creativity out there like that. How can you even be sure that your thoughts and ideas are being communicated? No one will tell you what they really think. That’s why I like workshop. You get a fair and unbiased sense of how your work is being received.

Writing is something that’s worth doing to me, therefore I feel obligated to do it well. For now, I’ll wear my jester’s hat while I figure out this next endeavor for myself. I’m really looking forward to what I can learn about the craft from everyone. I have a bunch of ideas. We’ll see what I can flesh out.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


By Kasie Whitener

The very best fantasy novels all have a faith structure.

The faith structure is the myths, legends, and religions of the world being created. When an author works out those things, he or she has developed a foundation for social morality and for characters’ aspirations.       
  •  A young girl may discover she has talent for magic but knowing there’s a possibility that she does comes from stories she’s been told: myths.
  • A knight might wish for glory in battle but believing he can achieve it comes from knowing others have done so: legends.
  • A character might ask a higher power to intervene, but the habit of doing so and the faith that the higher power will respond comes from training: religion.

Authors who work out the faith structure for their fantasy novels are imagining the world before their characters arrived and after their characters have gone. How was that world made? How will that world persist?

When I started reading a new vampire series recently and within 50 pages had not seen any evidence that this author had worked up the faith structure, I put the book down. While “vampires” and “faith” might seem mutually exclusive (the church has always campaigned against the evils of gothic horror), all conscious beings that persist must have a moral code and that code is established by a faith structure.

In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, we are introduced to a faith structure born of a lead prophet and his companions who settled this world, each of whom had a particular realm of humanity. Tribes of humans are associated with a particular companion and their professions, families, and customs are all part of that heritage. Carey’s faith structure is so complete, I find myself wanting to identify with one of the tribes. This is not unlike Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft sorting people into houses.

Many fantasy novels employ Ghost, Fae, Goblin, Trolls, Elf, or Wolf lineages and rely upon the already-established rules that govern these beings. For example Fair Folk, Fae, or Faeries cannot lie but they can deceive.

We know the lineage or heritage of a character will determine behavior and that competing lineages set up drama for a novel. But establishing a new faith structure takes time and creates a tremendous amount of exposition which must be carefully incorporated into the story. That’s why the best novels do it: because it takes time and craft and purpose.

When I decided to build a faith structure into my vampire novel, I researched the existing mythology: how vampires came into existence, what they worshipped, how they reconciled things like death and birth. I wanted something new, but something that paid homage to the craft of vampire storytelling, something that showed I’d done my due diligence.

A faith structure makes some things sacred and other things forbidden. It creates rules that govern individuals and communities. Without it, a vampire novel is just a new chapter of fiction in someone else’s fantasy.

Sunday, September 2, 2018


By Sharon May 

I assume that all writers try to be observant of the world around us. The more I write, the more I try to notice details of my surroundings. As a result, my ability to provide better descriptions and to capture realistic dialogue is improving.

Coming back from a family visit in Kentucky recently, I noticed the ram-shackle, blue and white truck plugging along US 23. Hard not to notice. Usually, I think of houses, not vehicles, fitting that description. I lingered before passing to absorb its appeal, to remember as many details as I could.

The Ford Ranger looked to be at least twenty years old – rusted in many places, so buckled that the cab and bed met in a V mere inches above the highway. Covering the bed was a self-designed, man-made top that made the truck seem about to tip over at any moment. No doubt the male driver was the builder of the contraption. No woman would take to the road in the truck since it was neither safe nor aesthetically pleasing.  

The top-heavy bed cover was one-and-a-half times the height of the truck. Its white plywood walls trapped what looked to be all of someone’s worldly belongings, which looked to have been quickly thrown in. The packer also tied some stuff to the edges of the contraption, one of which was a large gas can for those inevitable emergencies such a vehicle would have. Just as I got ready to pass, I imagined the driver’s appearance as well as the opinions, prejudices, and thoughts he might hold. He looked as I imagined – older, bent but not broken, and rather disheveled.   

In Amsterdam, Peggy and I found The Seafood Bar and ate the most incredible shellfish. The place is always packed. The owners of the restaurant have tried to accommodate the crowd by putting in as many tables as possible, which leads to a cramped environment.   

I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping, but there was no avoiding it. Since I was only a foot away from the tables to my left and right, I felt and tasted the tone of the other diners’ conversations as well as heard most of the words. The Asian couple to my left acted like young lovers until the food came. The male was so intent on his food, he forgot all about his date. To my right were two 30-ish, well-dressed women. Don’t know their relationship, but their food-play was rather seductive, and I imagined they were on a secret rendezvous.

Not only did I learn more about how people converse, I understand better what they don’t say, but still communicate. I am horrible at including body language in stories, so this experience made me realize how much is said in silence or in the slightest movement.

Awareness is essential for a writer. Often we are so busy getting from place to place, we are not attuned to our surroundings. Take the time to observe.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


By Olga Agafonova

Over the last year, I’ve used miscellaneous tools to keep in touch and work on a screenplay with my co-author and I’d like to share some observations about that experience.

First, I want to point out that Cheron and I met in person two years ago through a mutual friend. We would not have known about each other or be comfortable enough with one another without that real, physical connection. I have seen online invitations for screenwriters to work together remotely and that is too much of a shot in the dark for me. There is a lot we do when we begin getting to know someone: we appraise someone’s character and establish trust with that person.  With writing, of course we must also consider if our writing styles mesh well together.

This brings me to my second point: Cheron and I took time to discuss her vision for the screenplay and what she wanted the characters to be like. We negotiated the number of primary characters and then I briefly outlined what I thought each character was going to do throughout the film. This was sufficient to begin writing the first draft. 

We kept in touch every few weeks by email and via WhatsApp, which gives us more immediate access to each other throughout the day than email. Initially, we used different free programs to work on the screenplay but eventually converged on Final Draft. At $249.99 per license, this was expensive but since we both plan on writing screenplays in the future, it is worth the investment. Critically, Final Draft has a simultaneous collaboration feature where multiple authors can work on the same version of the draft in real time. The auto-formatting features for dialogue, action and other screenplay parts have been indispensable as well.

Would I have preferred a weekly get-together in a café to go over the details of our work? Absolutely. Listening to someone’s feedback, their tone of voice and the language they choose, being able to read their body language – all these things are important to good communication. By that standard, however, I could not have participated in this project. Cheron lives on the West Coast and flying out there regularly is of course out of question for financial reasons.

So, would I recommend writing with someone remotely? Yes, if you feel comfortable with that person and your ideas about the work are compatible. For me, that means meeting the person in the real world first and seeing what they are like. Others may be more adventurous but the bottom line is the same: you must be comfortable with one another as people to begin and sustain your collaboration. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018


By Laura P. Valtorta

We were editing a film last week when aliens took over the brain of my cinematographer, Lynn Cornfoot. She started to lean toward being the director and forgot that I wanted the footage of my film to be messy – not professionally perfect the way they taught her to do in the film department. But as the director I developed the concept and I wrote the script, which puts me in control. If I want the film to be messy, it will be crazy messy. My vision will govern the final product. That’s what it means to direct.

Tomorrow I will begin writing a book about writing and directing my current indie film “The Disease Detective Looks at Sarcoidosis.” I intend this memoir to be both a comment on the digital age and an exploration of how art helps me sort out the world.

Filmmaking, especially the independent kind, puts people on an even playing field. Because we’re all dealing with the same tools – scripts, cameras, lighting, sound, friends-as-actors, music – the hipsters and the grandmothers get along. Even men and women can work together on these projects if they can overcome the men-traveling-in-van-must-talk-about-sex-and-farting barrier. Women just want to get the job done. We don’t care about personal behavior in hotels, and we enjoy bawdy conversations in the van.

Last year I attended the Long Beach Indie Film and Music festival in Long Beach, California. They’ve shown my films for the past three years. I love this festival, because it highlights diversity in every way. At the first awards ceremony I attended (where “Queen of the Road” won the award for the best TV pilot), I sat next to a woman my age who had entered the student category because she was attending a film program at one of the universities in Long Beach. My excellent table also included a German filmmaker, a gynecologist who specialized in film music, and a career actor from Los Angeles.

At Long Beach I met 20-something director Martin Barshai who had two films entered at the festival. I saw them both and they were excellent.  “Light on Her Feet,” the story of a ballet dancer, is poignant and worth watching. Martin and I discussed music problems. He had scored one of his films with popular music and later had to re-score it. I explained to him that I always begin with local, original music. Finding music is the second step in making any indie film – after coming up with the concept.

Martin and I hit it off. Our meeting will be a highlight of my memoir.

Sunday, August 12, 2018


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.

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.)

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.

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.

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


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


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.