Sunday, October 16, 2016

They Open Their Mouths and Thrust Out Words

By Bonnie Stanard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 9, 2016

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

By Kasie Whitener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Diversity in Art and Audiences

By Laura P. Valtorta

Currently I am writing a novel about a black character and a white character that I plan to turn into a screenplay. I expect to make a lot of ugly mistakes.

While studying how to make these characters more genuine, I tell myself – “Woman – go forth and meet with artists and people in many different communities. Watch. Listen. Ask questions.”

An excellent place to do that was the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival, that I attended as a filmmaker on September 1-3, 2016. Here is an email I sent to my peeps:

Family, Friends, and Filmmakers: This weekend I attended the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival in Long Beach, California ( where "Queen of the Road" won best TV pilot against some formidable competitors from Hollywood!

This festival was special because the founder, Dr. Daniel Walker, shared with the group a vision like my own: to see diverse people creating and sharing art. Like me, Dr. Walker wants filmmakers to be diverse (more women, more African-Americans), and above all, he wants audiences to be diverse so that we can sit together, enjoy art together, and discuss what's important to us.

This festival (180 films and performances) and the artists were diverse in every way! Age, skin color, sex, disability, gender identity, nationality. I could go on. At the awards banquet, I sat next to a woman my age who had a film entry in the student filmmaker category! My table included a German director, a doctor who made music videos, and people from Australia.

This mix of people made for excellent talk-back sessions with directors after each film. I felt comfortable asking questions that were really on my mind about filmmaking and American society.  Some of my questions were obnoxious – but they were important to me.

For the first time I did not feel out of place being an older female director. There were other women, older than me, who were presenting awesome films.

Funny how more diversity makes us all feel more welcome.

When Dr. Daniel Walker spoke, it was refreshing and liberating to hear a man speak about something we both found important -- drawing people together through art. When I accepted the award, Dr. Walker told me that he knew about my work and thought I was doing some great things. This was a true compliment!

Dr. Walker teaches Latin American studies in Long Beach, which is said to be the most diverse town of its size (500,000) in the United States. The diversity extends to age, sex, gender identity, skin color, language, disability, and nationality – just like the participants in the festival itself. Heaven!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Opening Scene

By Olga Agafonova

At the beginning of September, I finished the first draft of my screenplay. My goal now is to revise and polish it until I am comfortable enough with the result to consider submitting it to various competitions. To that end, I have enrolled in a screenwriting class through the Academy of Film Writing.

The class focuses on the first thirty pages of a script, roughly the first act of the play. Our first assignment is to analyze the opening scene in several movies. What I saw in five movies I like is as follows:

Michael Clayton (2007)

We hear Arthur's manic monologue as the opening titles flash on the black screen, which forces us to pay close attention to what Arthur is saying. The first image is downtown wherever, the skyscraper offices of the law firm that Arthur and Michael work for. The tone is ominous, tense.

Up in the Air (2009)

Images of clouds and bird eye's view of various locations in the United States. Our protagonist is clearly going to be doing some traveling by plane. The mood is upbeat, so we expect this movie to have at least a few light-hearted moments.

Solaris (1972)

Underwater vegetation with a camera pan to a man standing by the pond. No soundtrack. Nothing so far suggests space travel or any science fiction theme.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Peaks of mountains covered by clouds. A voice talks about the rumors of a doomsday device being developed by the USSR.

Trading Places (1983)

Sequence of New Jersey images with classical music playing in the background. Most images are regular people going about their day. I'm guessing the music and the sequence is there to setup the contrast between Eddie Murphy's and Dan Aykroyd's characters.

Of all these, I find the opening for Michael Clayton the most effective because Arthur's monologue is so powerful and tells me everything I need to know about the law firm. The entire screenplay, written by Tony Gilroy, is taut, compact -- the dialogue is right where it needs to be in terms of content and length. This is definitely something I'll be shooting for in my second draft.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Sharon May was born in Appalachia, specifically Eastern Kentucky, the granddaughter of a coal miner. She attended the University of Kentucky for undergraduate degrees in English and English Education and later earned a Masters in English Literature from Marshall University and attended the University of South Carolina for Ph.D coursework.

In 1993, after two years as an adjunct for Midlands Technical College, May was hired full-time in the English Department, later transferring to the Developmental Studies Department to help under-prepared students qualify for college-level courses. She co-authored, along with four colleagues at MTC, a textbook Reading, Analyzing, and Writing for College Students published by Pearson for a developmental English class.

Her hobbies include owning four cats, following UK basketball, and  reading.

Sharon's first entry on this page follows.

My Summer Vacation

By Sharon May

I have set a retirement date for my job as an instructor of English at a local technical college, and my spouse demands I have a hobby or volunteer work before I retire. Apparently, a recliner and TV remote do not a retirement make. 
My life-long dream has been to write full-time, so I have chosen to devote my time in retirement to writing. I have also decided not to teach summer semesters again, and I have spent this summer writing. It has been exhilarating to have time to write. 
I have dipped in and out of writing since I was twelve, sitting down every ten years or so, serious each time, producing a few pages, maybe a short story, only to get bogged down in life’s demands, fear of failure, or lack of dedication. Life seemed to push aside any time to write. Relationships, education, jobs, and, of course, procrastination gave me many excuses. But this summer I had no excuses and a lot of time. 
One of my writing tasks was to organize the writings I have produced over the years. Examining this material led to many pleasant surprises. I found several attempts to start a novel I’ve been wanting to write since I was twenty-two and numerous short stories I had forgotten that I wrote as well as fragments of stories left unfinished. In all those pages of my life, I found some well-crafted sentences, paragraphs, and even pages, something to revive now.  
I also convinced myself join a writer’s workshop to force my writing from the eyes of a private circle of family and friends to those of the unattached and unrestrained public. This step has been beneficial as I have been given constructive and much needed advice and have learned to look at my writing from new perspectives. Among many lessons, I have learned how to focus my paragraphs, how to anticipate a reader’s needs and wishes, and most importantly how to truly revise. Joining the Columbia II writer’s workshop is one of the best decisions of the summer.     
The freedom of summer has ended, and I still feel the urge to write after being very productive over the past three months, writing and revising two short stories and finally figuring out how to write that novel. I wonder if I can maintain an acceptable level of productivity now that I’m teaching again. I believe the writer’s workshop will provide accountability and deadlines to keep me on track, maybe the most valuable aspects of joining the workshop.    
It’s easy to say that a writer should write every day; it’s quite difficult at times to make that a reality.  This summer I have learned that writing inspires more writing, and when not writing, thinking about writing will lead to putting words on paper.  

Now, I know a writer focuses intentionally on the task of writing, regardless of distractions. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Get Your Elevator Pitch Ready

By Ginny Padgett

When I went to my first writers’ conference in 2010, I learned about an Elevator Pitch, which is a one- to two-minute description of your manuscript that can be delivered during the span of an elevator ride and will capture the interest of an agent or publisher, if you were to find yourself in such a situation. I thought that scenario was not likely for me.

Nevertheless, by 2015, I had a project, manuscript, and Elevator Pitch in hopes of somehow becoming published. That spring I helped arrange a writers’ conference, and after it was over, I practiced my pitch on two regional agents who represented my genre. One was politely interested and gave me her card and said I could contact her; the other was mildly interested and said to take my time, polish my manuscript, make it the best it could be, and send it to her. I felt encouraged.

That fall, I organized a series of instructional webinars with industry professionals on varied subjects for the membership of South Carolina Writers’ Workshop. In October, our speaker was an agent of a friend of mine whose topic was “How to Get Published.” We logged on early to do a technical check, making sure all our equipment was working. After we were set to broadcast, we had 15 minutes before the webinar was to begin, and the agent asked, “What are you working on?”

I was astonished when my Elevator Pitch rolled off my tongue with no hesitation and with enthusiasm. When I was done she said, “When you’re finished writing, go to my website, follow the instructions carefully for submission, and send me your manuscript. I think I could sell it.”

Then I was dumbfounded. Who would have thought I could arrest the attention of a nationally recognized agent in Texas from my bedroom in Columbia, South Carolina? (Another writer-friend sold her work to a New York agent at a baby shower in Camden, South Carolina.) So get your Elevator Pitch ready. It’s true. You never know when you’ll need it.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Internalizing Conflict

By Laura P. Valtorta

A few weeks ago my granddaughter, Gioia (pronounced JOY-ah) was reluctant to give up her comfort can of Play Doh. Her mother, Clara, insisted, and Gioia ate a large glob of Play Doh (yum!) then made a face of disgust.

Gioia was illustrating one of the basic tenets of fiction writing. To write something real, you have to feel it inside. Gioia was angry. She did not want to relinquish the Fun Factory, but she needed to have a bath. She ate the emotion, and it tasted funny. She swallowed the Doh, and the emotion became part of her psyche.

Excellent writers like Donna Tartt may be writing fiction, but their novels illustrate the real, raw emotions they feel inside. When Donna writes in The Goldfinch “he’d never been able to stand kids or babies either, much less the whole doting-parent scene, dumbly-smiling women feeling up their own bellies and guys with infants bound to their chest,” she’s not kidding. I laughed my head off when I read that, and all of her other scathing comments about children. This woman apparently hates kids, and because she’s writing from the gut, writing what she feels, it comes across as true and hilarious.

There’s a lot about Donna Tartt’s philosophy I disagree with. In The Little Friend she makes it clear that she thinks a lot of Mississippians are inferior, not only because of economic disadvantage, but because they skewer their own opportunities. She comes across as classist and racist. She belittles Newton Knight – a Mississippian I happen to admire.

In The Secret History, one of the great classics of modern fiction, Tartt writes (as if in translation because characters often speak to each other in Classical Greek), “’The mother grieves. Not for her son’, he added hastily when he saw I was about to speak, ‘for she is a wicked woman, Rather she grieves for the shame which has fallen on her house.”” This passage says so much and is hilarious, because it comes across as an emotion of real hatred that Tartt has felt for a person in her own life. I love this writer, even though I rarely agree with her.

If I could have one wish as a writer, it would be to eat the emotion of my prose, taste it, and feel it every time, so that it always leaps from the page as truth.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Tale of Two Protagonists

By Kasie Whitener

A single character’s perspective limits the story. Motivations and realizations that occur for other characters must only be guessed at by the central Point of View (POV) character. Yet working within the limitation demonstrates the writer’s skill. It’s on the author to help us see all characters’ journeys through the main character’s perspective.

When the writer ignores the limitations of the single POV and exposes us to multiple characters’ experiences, our writers’ group calls it Head Hopping. We recognize that there are rules to sharing the POV with multiple characters.

Rule #1: Clearly distinguish the points of shift. Shifting during the scene confuses the reader. Our group allows spacers and chapter changes for the shift to logically occur.

Rule #2: Only give a point of view to a character if you need the audience to know something about that character that no one else can know. Some internal motivations and secrets have to stay hidden from the other characters until they create a pivot point for the story.

For example, if at the pivot point in the story you plan to have the character Sasha perform an illusion she learned while traveling with a carnival magician as a teenager, then that carnival experience needs to be part of what the reader knows about her. We cannot arrive at the pivot and think, “Since when does Sasha know magic?”

When people claim something happened out of nowhere in a novel, it’s because the knowledge, skills, or motivation to commit that action have not been disclosed.

In The League series of fantasy romance books I’m currently binge reading, the author frequently shifts point of view between the male and female leads. The habit seemed like poor writing in the first two books. By book three, though, I started to wonder if she was working with a dual protagonist.

In most stories the protagonist wants something and will do anything to get it and the antagonist stands in that person’s way. But in a romance, there are two main characters, the lovers. Can a novel have two protagonists?

The benefits of two protagonists include watching two unique plot arcs, seeing two characters grow and change, and enjoying the intermingling of the two whenever their actions interfere with one another. Even so, only skilled authors can keep two protagonists separate but equal. It’s a unique challenge to engage the reader with two (or more) main characters.

Two protagonists in one story is a literary no-no that has recently been challenged by some significant works such as All the Light We Cannot See, The Orphan Train, and the entire Game of Thrones series. Those books follow the rules stated above. They only give POV to characters we need to know more about and they shift on definitive lines.

As writers continue to experiment with multiple protagonists, to see if that experiment works, and to show others how it’s done, our literary rules are evolving. And as the craft evolves, the distinction between head-hopping and multiple protagonists may become a measure of skill.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Write, Rip, and Read!” You’re on the Air!

By Julia Rogers Hook

For most of my writing life, I have been a “rip and read” writer.

I’m a journalist and for many years I worked as a broadcast and newspaper reporter who covered a lot of breaking news. In getting the new developments out quickly, there isn’t much time to edit your words but you need to do enough editing to ensure your report is accurate. That can be daunting when facing a deadline and doubly so when you’re writing for broadcasting with updates going out every 15 minutes.

As I moved from an “at the scene” reporter to feature writing for magazines and newspapers and then on to column writing, I had much more time to reread my pieces and adjust them accordingly. But sometimes I do miss the urgency of being the “first” reporter out there with any new tidbit from the authorities or whomever I’m covering.

Elections could always go both ways. They could be extremely exciting, especially when there was a controversial bill or candidate on the table or they could seemingly last for decades, if whatever was on the table was a sure thing. Then it was just covering the candidate’s or the bill’s promoters continuously as they spewed out the same old “six-second-soundbites” repeatedly.

These days I sort of wish I were back out in the field and covering the 2016 elections. With the two most unpopular candidates that have ever run in my lifetime out there stumping, I think this would be an extremely interesting experience to cover either one of them.

Between Trump and his public rants and Clinton and her equally public missteps that have led even some of the most stalwart members of their own parties to distance themselves from the two of them, it seems like following either of them on the campaign trail could be a royal treat. But in the event that I was going from rally to rally with this not-so-dynamic duo, I would still be doing the rip-and read writing that I have always been most comfortable with.

I sometimes want to change that. I imagine myself telling a tale of utmost interest to everyone on the planet and somehow I will develop characters that will live long after my own demise. I want to create the Scout and Jem characters and bring them to life like Harper Lee did. I want to spin a story that will capture the hearts of people everywhere, no matter how they live or worship or whom they love. I want to make people feel! Feel everything…love, hate, remorse, forgiveness, sorrow and joy. I want them to laugh out loud and cry real tears when they read my words.

That’s what I want.

But until then….rip and read ain’t so bad.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Gold Medal Storytelling

By Kasie Whitener 

Everything I know about boxing I learned from the Rocky movies.

The gritty character of Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa is an American icon and the Rocky story is a classic American underdog tale. We love stories about an unknown, scrappy, determined kid whose heart and passion win him the big prize. Think Karate Kid, Annie, or Goonies; how about David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, or Cinderella?

According to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, rags-to-riches or underdog stories are so much a part of our shared storytelling experience that we actually take them for granted. 

NBC’s Olympics journalists are looking for underdog stories on every competitor in Rio. Americans want to cheer for underdogs. That’s our national character: the drive and gumption needed to succeed despite the odds. We believe if you work hard enough you can be a winner, a champion, a gold medalist.

In the telling of the athletes’ stories from Rio, a pattern has emerged. First, we’re told who the athlete is and we’re reminded how difficult the event he’s competing in will be. A flashback sequence follows full of grammar school photos of the athlete as a child meeting his idol or winning his first championship. Next, a major setback is described: an injury, a personal loss, a competitive loss, or a catastrophic diagnosis. Then the comeback is described: how the athlete found the inner strength to push through heartbreak and work even harder to achieve his dream. The final bit is always the tee-up moment, the athlete himself stating his goal.

“I’m just here to compete and maybe take home a medal.” Humble to the last.

We love these stories so much that sports journalism has developed a formula for them and nowhere is the formula more effective than the Olympics. Because yesterday we didn’t care about these people and next week we won’t care about them again. But today, right now, we care so much we’re shouting at the TV for Mara Abbott to maintain her lead on the bike, Katie Ledecky to shatter her own world record in the pool, and Kerri Walsh-Jennings to spike that ball into the sand like it’s her job.

Lots of genre fiction conforms to formula. Mysteries and romance each have patterns that genre writers freely admit to following. Sometimes it seems as though we really are recycling the same seven basic plots over and over again.

When storytelling has been such an essential part of the human experience for centuries, it really is hard to tell a new story.

As writers we can be discouraged by that knowledge; maybe we’re just renaming old heroines and spinning the same trite tales. Or maybe we can use the seven basic models to keep our own ideas balanced and familiar.

Then we can add a little magic like that classic underdog Harry Potter.

We can make old stories new and keep our audience cheering for our heroines until the last bell of the last round. There are 12 of them, according to Rocky.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Inspirational Tarot Garden

By Laura P. Valtorta

Our trip to the Tarot Garden in Capalbio, Italy reinforced the idea that art inspires art. Looking at modern art, and the huge, colorful, fantastic sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, helped me to write better.
Before visiting the Tarot Garden, it was important to read the sweet, chaotic, horrible story of Niki’s life. A recent article in The New Yorker allowed us to do that.

The giant tarot sculptures built by Niki and her friends and the people of Capalbio emphasized the sadness and the chaotic nature of life and love. “Death” is one of the most beautiful sculptures.  Another is “Justice” with an accompanying sculpture by Jean Tiguely, Niki’s second husband, inside.

Before building the garden, Niki had abandoned her young children to their father (the writer Henry Matthews) and spent time in an insane asylum. After her six-week stay in the asylum, Niki turned to art as a way to protest the conventions imposed by society on women. She was a performance artist and a successful sculptor. Her art is displayed throughout the world and in Paris in front of the Centre Georges Pompidou.

The sculptures in the Tarot Garden are made of ceramic and mirror tiles, reinforced by steel and cement. Niki lived alone inside the Empress for many years while building the 14-acre garden.

The poignancy of this garden comes from knowing about Niki’s sad, messy, creative life and seeing the joy she infused in the gigantic sculptures. On the side of the Impicciato sculpture is a love story in tiles with drawings that illustrate the first meeting, desire, love letters, breaking up, and remaining friends.

Any artist – writer, painter, sculptor, or musician – can benefit from walking through Niki’s garden. It took her seventeen years to create and shows how steadfast her passion for beauty was. The depth of emotion is what makes this garden meaningful.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

White writers who produce novels with black protagonists will find it near impossible to attract a publisher. This, according to author Carla Damron, who appeared at a book club meeting I recently attended. Her comment referenced the reaction to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which was criticized in the black community. For a response to the novel and movie, see the letter published as “A Critical Review of the novel The Help”.

When I was working on my novel Kedzie, Saint Helena IslandSlave, it came as a surprise to me that a black writer in my writers’ workshop claimed slavery as the literary prerogative of blacks. I have come to realize there is some public support for her view. That my novel’s dialogue contains the word nigger, which was commonly used in the antebellum South, put nails in the coffin. In one of my blog entries on “WritePersona” I describe my experience with two literary agents. I eventually self-published the book.

Freedom of expression has come into conflict with “safe places” (protection from ideas that make one uncomfortable), which some people perceive as a right just as important as free expression. College administrators, under the gun of the federal government, have ramped up enforcement of trigger warnings (warnings professors should issue if something in a course might elicit a strong emotional response).

It’s not uncommon to read reports that students at colleges such as Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers call for warnings for books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny and physical abuse); Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations); and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault).

Yale undergraduates petitioned to abolish the study of writers including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, saying that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors”. (The Guardian,June 1, 2016)

There are some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. And to a greater extent than ever, our culture is accommodating a wide swath of them. For example, an Indiana University student was found guilty of racial harassment for reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The cover picture of a Klan rally offended the student’sco-workers. He was eventually cleared of the charges.

Given today’s climate, some classics wouldn’t have made it past the query process much less have been published, books such as Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst; or Showboat by Edna Ferber.

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about literary censorship (Iran boycotted the 2015 Hamburg Book Fair because Rushdie was scheduled as guest speaker), has been quoted as saying that people claiming to stand for free speech have "demolished what they stand for."

Political correctness, used to suppress divergent voices, becomes a tool of oppression. How are we to engage in a genuine discussion about black lives (or Asian or Mexican or Southern) if censorship is used to eliminate whatever makes us uncomfortable? Despite the criticism, I make no apologies for telling the story of a slave girl named Kedzie. I would hope blacks would see in her the courage of some of their ancestors.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Characters Are Not People and Other Aaron Sorkin Gems

By Kasie Whitener 

I got sucked into an Aaron Sorkin YouTube video and spent 41 minutes listening to him talk about writing. The time wasn’t wasted. Not only did it inspire this blog post, it helped me get some clarity on writing.

Sorkin’s topic was character and he was very clear that character is two things: intention and obstacle. Once you have those two things, you can write all the other stuff you want to write. The fun stuff: Dialogue. Sex. Violence. Ferris Wheel rides and running down a dock and jumping off the end.

He also asserted that characters and people are not the same thing. We think they are, he said, because they look alike. But they’re not. They have nothing to do with one another.

People do not proceed through life in a series of triumphs and setbacks toward a stable, ever present goal. Life interrupts. People lose interest. Circumstances change.

Characters, however, are free to doggedly pursue their goals and to climb over or destroy or crawl under whatever stands between them and their desired outcome.

Sorkin’s right. (Not surprisingly)

Thinking through his statements, I realized that characters are free because the story began a little while ago and will end a little while hence. For people the story began at birth and will linger until death. For characters, the story is finite. It stretches the length of the pages or the film or the series. It begins and ends. It has dimensions that hold it in. It is bound.

People are unbound. Characters are bound.

This idea of closing off the edges, of determining what really matters to the story, is the work of revision. Though Sorkin suggests the intentions and obstacle are the skeleton of the story, sometimes getting to it means cutting away all of the fun stuff you’ve already layered on.

If you write like me, listening to the voices in your head, then there are dozens of extra scenes and conversations and events included in the draft. Revision is determining which of those scenes are part of 1) intention or 2) obstacle and then cutting the rest of them.

Exposition is a poor excuse for including the scenes that don’t drive action in the book. And a sequel, or a series, is a poor excuse to hang on to characters longer than you should. The character’s story is finite. It has a beginning and an end.

Decide which story you’re telling and tell it. Save the other parts for something else.

Taking Sorkin’s advice to my current work is both invigorating and depressing. How to determine what my main character wants and what stands between him and it is the real work of storytelling.

The words are just a means to an end. The things my character will do to get what he wants is what tells you what kind of person he is.

Not person. Character (vampire). Persons are real. Characters are not.

Got it, Sorkin, thanks.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

10 Tips for Web Writing

By Jodie Cain Smith

For novelists, making the transition from story creation to web content can be tricky. Fiction writing requires the author to paint descriptive pictures, create rich characters full of complex and perhaps contradictory traits, and even hide true meaning until the delicious last page. Web writing should never be that convoluted. Web writing must be scannable, concise, front-loaded, and on point.

If your blog posts are receiving no traffic and lack of marketing is not the problem, perhaps your content requires an overhaul.

Start with these basics of web writing.

·        Write clear, simple, and effective content. The content should be easily read. You are not writing for PhD candidates.
·         Front-load your text. Put the most important content in the first paragraph, so that readers scanning your pages will not miss your main idea.
·         Chunk your content. Cover only one topic per paragraph.
·         Be concise. Write short paragraphs and minimize unnecessary words.
·         Write in active voice instead of passive voice.
·         Choose lists over paragraphs. When possible use lists rather than paragraphs to make your content easier to scan.
Also, consider these 10 tips:

1. Write for your desired audience. Consider who will be reading and using your web content. What are they looking for and how will they use the content.

2. Keep sentences short. Remove words or descriptions that don’t add value to the content.

3.  Make content scannable. Readers scan web pages before they read. If they don’t recognize useful, relevant content immediately, they move on.

4.  Choose words for headers and sub-headers that clearly describe the content they introduce. Boring, useful words are better than clever, obtuse words.

5.  Limit paragraphs to 70 words. This will allow a shorter read-time (most blogs shoot for a read time of 2-3 minutes). Less is better.

6.  Use bulleted lists whenever possible. Bulleted lists are easier to scan and read than full paragraphs.

7.  Use active voice. Strunk and White said it best: "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive" (The Elements of Style, Third Edition).

8.  Be precise. Avoid vague words or phrases such as “There are…” and “It’s going to” and “in order to.” Good web writing leaves the audience with perfect understanding. "When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor” (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition).

9.  To be found online, use common language. It’s essential for SEO (search engine optimization) to use the same words and phrases your readers do. When creating page titles, headers, list items and links, choose keywords carefully. Additionally, be sure to use keywords consistently when creating web content. When used appropriately, this practice reinforces keyword relevancy for search engines, such as Google and your own internal search, thereby improving findability.

10.  Lastly, write on topic. If you want your blog to be a resource on squirrel hunting, then all posts must be on the topic of squirrel hunting without leading the reader down a weird tangent regarding landscape painting. Web-readers don’t like weird tangents.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Rex Hurst 
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. —Opening lines of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984).
The second person perspective, why is this not used more in writing? For those who have forgotten, or didn’t even know it existed, the second person perspective is when the protagonist of a story is defined by the use of the second-person personal pronoun, ie “you.”
While fiction is dominated by the first and third person perspectives, there are many respectable examples of this narrative type being used successfully.
The first example comes from my youth when I devoured every young adult book that I could grab. One of my particular obsessions was the Choose Your Own Adventure series where you are the main character and have to make a series of choices that affect the story.
“If you want to kill the dragon, turn to page 56. If you want to run away like a pathetic coward, turn to page 119.”
I ate these up, even though most of the endings resulted in you dying horribly. The use of second person really helped to immerse my adolescent brain in the story.
A few other notable examples are A Man Asleep by Georges Perec which follows a 25-year-old student who one day decides to be indifferent about the world. Ezekiel is a critically acclaimed short story by Segun Afolabi and The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella is a novel about a woman wrestler.
Many critics find the use of second person distracting and indicative of poor writing. It is true that use of this style does not allow any assumptions as to how the narrator felt or why he or she acted. It leaves no room for ambiguity on behalf of the narrator. If the main character is you, then you know exactly how you felt and the reasons for your action.
Using second person may be an opportunity to expand beyond the limitations of the standard narrative, to try new stories based on the absolute authority of second person.
Here is a challenge. Take one of your old stories and convert it to second person. You will obviously have to change some of the material to fit the style properly. Then reflect on the outcome.

How has it changed the theme of the story? Is it warped? Or is it improved? You might be surprised at the results. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Gotham Writers’ Workshop Screenwriting I Class

By Olga Agafonova

In an effort to put my writing life into higher gear, I spent some time looking at writers’ retreats for people who are just getting started. I could not find what I wanted: a quiet, small retreat by the ocean, preferably somewhere on the West Coast. So, I did the next best thing I could think of and signed up for an online screenwriting class with the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which operates out of New York City.

The current iteration of “Screenwriting I” runs from June the 14th to August the 23rd. It’s a cool $399, plus the $25 registration fee. Every week we have a reading and a relatively short assignment. Students exchange ideas on the bulletin board and there are two mini-projects that will be critiqued by both the instructor and the entire class of fifteen adults, most of whom have full-time jobs.

I don’t really have any idea of how to become a screenwriter: there is probably a canon of cinema that I’m supposed to revere and emulate but frankly I don’t give a damn. Instead, I’ve been reading scripts for movies that I like: Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, The Bourne Identity, One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest and on the more romantic side, Sleepless in Seattle.

The biggest challenge for my first script is going to be handling conflict and action: my story is about how one man deals with the loss of his fiancĂ©e after all the women in the world disappear. There is a lot of sci-fi stuff going on throughout the script but that’s not the point; this is, above all, a movie about a person coming to terms with his loss and finding a meaning in life. So far, I’ve been pretty good at the sci-fi bits and not so great about getting the internal drama across to the imaginary viewers.

I remember when I watched Gravity I was struck by the scene where Sandra Bullock’s character is alone in her space capsule, without any motivation to live and then she hears this baby over the radio transmission, a father who is trying to soothe the baby in some foreign language. I think this is before or maybe after she hallucinates George Clooney’s character explicitly telling her to keep on living but anyway, those few quiet minutes when she’s reflecting on her life and everything she’s lost, that’s powerful stuff and it’s at the core of that movie. Gravity isn’t as much about the dangers of space exploration as it is about life and death and how we handle both.

That’s the kind of movie I’d like to write a script for by the end of this summer. Here’s hoping I will reach that goal.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Swimmers Do It in the Water

By Kasie Whitener

In swimming, an IM’er is a well-rounded athlete. “IM” is Individual Medley and the event means the swimmer races all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle in succession. In a 400 IM, the swimmer races 4 lengths of the pool for each stroke. It’s crazy hard and considered one of the most daunting events. When I swam competitively I was a 200 IM’er. Now I’m mostly in the 100 IM range.

What an IM’er knows is that she doesn’t have to be great at one single stroke, she has to be competent at all four. There’s no use pulling ahead in butterfly just to have a dismal backstroke bring your competition to your heels.

As writers, we often specialize. We might be poets, or novelists, fiction writers or nonfiction writers. We may write plays or essays or blogs. In all of these specialties, we are still storytellers. The words are meant to move a reader from an existing condition to a desired one.

For me, poetry is like breaststroke. It’s slow and quiet, there’s a rhythm to it that is both visual and verbal. It may be the influence of the pastorals, but I always think of poetry as idyllic and just out-of-reach, kind of like that long breaststroke glide.

I am a terrible breaststroker. Though I’ve worked hard to develop a competent stroke, it is by far the slowest segment of my IM. I can do it, but I’m very slow. Likewise, I am a terrible poet. I can read and comprehend it, but I dare not compose. The effort would be disastrous.

I’m a fiction writer. I prefer long version, specifically novels; but when I first dedicated myself to the craft four years ago, I spent a lot of time in short stories. Short stories are how I practice the storytelling art. They require specific details and are intolerant of rambling description or unnecessary plot complications.

Short stories require powerful bursts of character, action, and emotion. In a short story, the writer doesn’t have time to lay in elaborate exposition or world building. The reader must be immediately brought up to speed with the character, the dilemma, the desire, and the obstacles. For me, short stories are like swimming butterfly.

I love butterfly. It’s exhausting whipping both arms around together, dolphin kicking in long, swift full-body waves. There’s a rhythm but unlike the languid glide of breaststroke, the butterfly rhythm is urgent and insistent. A good butterfly is satisfying: both beautiful to watch and gratifying to swim. Like swimming butterfly, I’m always trying to write that explosive, impactful scene.

I have always been an IM’er, albeit the shorter distance kind, with butterfly as my specialty. To be really good at one thing is valuable, but to be competent in many things is even more so. While I’ve let some breaststroke-like skills lapse over the years, I continue to practice in all four strokes. Storytellers know that proficiency in various forms only makes them more competitive.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stories from Italy

By Laura P. Valtorta

In Italy there are many funny situations, even though the Italian idea of humor is far removed from what Americans find comical. When I’m here, I laugh a lot.
Since this is election time, I’ve been watching political commercials on TV. My favorite is for the Pensioners’ Party. A lively/crazy old guy has a commercial where he shows a video clip of pensioners marching in protest. He says several times “Pensionati, all’attacco!” (Pensioners – charge!) and makes a chopping motion with his hand. This has become my personal battle cry.

Clara and I went to the old male hairdresser in Cavi Borgo to get our hair cut. I informed him that the best shampoo for curly hair in the U.S. is cleansing conditioner, like Wen. Grabbing his crotch, rapper style, he advised us to use douche (shampoo intimo) on our hair. Clara and I couldn’t stop laughing.

In front of the Italian stock exchange in Milan, at Piazza Affari, the government has erected a giant statue of a hand giving the finger. At first I thought it was a prank, but Dante did some research and found that it was a work of art commissioned in 2011.

To help my Italian, I usually look for an easy book to read. This time I found Cosa Pensano le Ragazze? (What do Girls Think?), written by the journalist Concita de Gregorio. I say “written” meaning that she is more of an editor. The review I read stated that she employed a number of researchers to interview the girls and young women. How much credit should Ms. De Gregorio be given for collecting the data and choosing which interviews to publish? I admire and follow the tradition established by Studs Terkel, who (I hope) interviewed all of his subjects face-to-face. Working is one of my favorite books, ever.

Ms. De Gregorio’s book is very “lite” and easy to read. The first interview, with two teenagers, advises choosing a man the same way you choose a puppy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Art or Craft: Does the Process Dictate the Outcome?

By Jodie Cain Smith

John Hughes wrote The Breakfast Club in two nights. July 4 – 5, 1982, must have been electric, caffeinated, perhaps whiskey-soaked days and nights. I have no basis to believe Hughes was intoxicated during this feat, but I know I would have to have been drunk as a monkey to deliver such a work in such a short time. Fear of the unknown would have sent me to the top shelf or to a fresh notebook yearning for an outline.

So, I pose the question, is art any less artful if carefully crafted?

The planner versus pants-er (writing by the seat of your pants) debate flares up frequently among those who attempt to write and then dare to make that writing public. I am counted among the ranks of planners and have the notecards, plot structure board, and binders full of research to prove it.

My best writer bud is a pants-er. I’ve seen the look of wild abandon in her eyes as she recalls a night when the words rushed from her brain through her fingers until click-by-click she had racked up 5,000 frenetic words in a single session. Her characters came to life, proclaimed their presence, and demanded she write their story right there and right then.

My characters perch gently on my shoulder as I map out chapters, asking questions such as, “Would I really do that?” or “What motivated me to say that?” Sometimes, they become a bit rude, declaring, “There is no way in Hell I would do THAT! Change it, woman!” However, the rude behavior never lasts long. Crisis averted, they settle down for a little nap while I lose hours on the Internet researching squirrel hunting or cholera or medicinal purposes of sage. Then, when I feel I know enough of their world and their lives, I wake them so the writing, the art, may begin.

But, oh to be a pants-er! To never fear the unknown. To write without wondering, “Where the heck is this thing going?” For one or two nights I want to be the cocky one, the love-em-and-leave-em-Joe rather than, “Can we talk? Before we go any further, I need to know where this relationship is going?”

Still, the most important lesson I have learned over the last five years since chucking my cushy salary for a life of writing is I must be true to the type of writer I am. I must develop my style, my process, and my story. I must defend all three and work toward perfection.

Twenty years ago my scenic design professor gave me the advice, “Let the audience see the art. Never let them see the craft.” I share this advice now so that I may follow it again myself. May our readers see our art, the beautiful, tragic, funny, fantastical stories we create, but keep the craft our own. Whether planner, pants-er, or something akin to the brilliance of John Hughes, may we all have the confidence to create and a craft that encourages invention.