Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Quill and Scroll, Please

Julia Rogers Hook

There’s a new language out there in the world of writing these days and I can’t speak it.

Gone are the days of putting pen to paper, or quill to scroll or perhaps charcoal to bark in the candlelight of a very short candle, probably made from some sort of boiled down animal parts.

While the typewriters of yesteryear gather dust in our museums, even the “modern day” practice of sitting down at computers and typing one’s heart out as they create and construct their characters while they spin and swirl their stories and tales is becoming at best, a superfluous effort. After all, if the writer doesn’t understand the new technologies to get his/her work to its intended readers, isn’t it just an exercise?

If a writer writes and no one reads him/her, are they indeed a writer?

In addition to overcoming the normal authors’ maladies such as procrastination, fear of success or plain old “writers’ block,” now, once said author actually does have something to market, they must speak this strange new language that makes no sense to me.

They must blog. Or self-publish. Or E-publish. Or use a “vanity publishing company.” Or KDP. Or I-Books. Their book/short story/poetry/photos or whatever medium they’re marketing must be sent in a “jpg” or some other sort of cryptic method with no vowels.

The other day I was told about a class in screenwriting. I went to the site and looked it up. It said Students will need to be IT literate,” and “class materials will be delivered via an on-line forum. Students will be asked to use the screenwriting software.” There was also something about “DSLR.”

Does typing on a computer and using email qualify me for “IT literate” or is that something new? I’m just not sure. And DSLR? Not a clue.

In the days of the great William Shakespeare, paper itself was something that was relatively new. It is believed to be created by the Chinese sometime in the second century and it took its time meandering its way through the Arab world to the west but history tells us that paper was in England by the early 1500’s, just in time to be ready for the Bard of Avon.

Medieval paper was actually made from rags and went through a long process of being washed and dried and mixed with other things and washed and dried some more. It was thought to absorb ink better and was cheaper than parchment so it is believed that much of Shakespeare’s work was written on it, although many scribes in his time said it would never last.

I’m sure the same has been said of every invention since then and I’m sure as each new process or idea was introduced, it was met with the same reticence I’m feeling these days for all of this electronic mumbo-jumbo but some days a quill, an inkpot and a nice piece of parchment looks pretty good. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Doing the Work of a Seventh Revision

By Kasie Whitener 

I tell my writing students all the time that they need to draft long before the assignment is due. There is nothing that improves revision like time away from your writing.

I’ve been away from Being Blue for six weeks, having given it over to an editor. He’s now sending it back to me in chunks: So many corrections. So many suggested changes.

When the editor claims the narrator has no personality, I think, “Of course he does!” but after six weeks away, I read the edited draft and I can see what he meant.

So what do I do?

This revision process is new. Usually I’m looking at something that hasn’t yet been revised and the errors are so obvious, they’re easy to address. But this is the seventh version of Being Blue.

In previous revisions I answered the big, obvious questions:

What is the story, really?

Who is this person, the narrator?

To whom is he telling the story and why?

Revision is harder this time. Those questions are insufficient. They are macro questions, they deal with the novel as a whole, its entirety. In version seven, I have to look at the scenes, individually, and ask micro questions.

The last time I experienced this, I was working on the opening scene of After December, a book currently under consideration by a publisher. In the first scene, the main character is naked in bed with his girlfriend and answers the phone when his father calls.

During the seventh revision I asked, “Why would he answer the phone?”

Being Blue is a complex narrative with two concurrent stories, one in Geneva, Switzerland in 1816 and one in Ransom, Kansas, in 2002. I made a choice early on to call the narratives Geneva and Kansas - not the micro level city name and not the macro level country name, but in between - state and province.

Being in between is a precarious place.

My narrator sits there, everything in his life is “in between.” His narrative therefore is not detailed enough to be micro but not distant enough to be macro.

Every scene has to challenge Blue’s precarious balance: Between being a vampire and acting human, between being immortal and killing to sustain himself. Between protecting his sire’s wife and wanting her for himself. Between respecting his sire and wanting to kill him.

Blue spends the entire novel at crossroads, trying like hell to keep from choosing despite everyone around him forcing a choice. Why won’t he choose? Why does he think balance is so important?

Balance is safety. What could possibly be more difficult to balance than a time-traveling vampire?

As Blue focuses on balance, everyone else must challenge it. Establishing balance will require Blue to be aware of the imbalance and his narrative of that awareness should add more depth to his voice.

Align the micro details with the answers to the macro questions. Ensure every scene works within the overall concept. That’s the work of the seventh revision.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a new Columbia II Blogger


Amanda holds a Juris Doctorate and is a second year Ph.D. student of Public Law and Public Administration. Her research focuses on judicial decision-making both in American courts and abroad. Though the rigor of graduate school rarely affords time for fun, she has made it a priority to focus on her writing and to allow herself to indulge in a creative outlet. 

Amanda's first post on this page follows.

My First Day of Class

By Amanda Jones 

By the time my alarm began its obnoxious beeping I was already wide awake and aware of the all too familiar knot in my stomach. I always get nervous on the first day of classes.

As I lay in bed I mentally ran through my schedule. It was a bit different than usual this semester because it didn’t allow for my two guilty pleasures, spending Monday mornings at my favorite downtown hipster coffee shop and Wednesday evening happy hours. But, I thought that the classes outweighed the few activities that I’d have to forgo this semester.

After a few more minutes of thinking about what the day was going to bring, I got out from underneath the warm covers and headed for the bathroom to get ready. I’d planned my outfit days ago, light gray pants and my favorite yellow and blue argyle sweater. Mainly, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try on everything in my closet (which always ends up making me late for class).

After getting dressed and pouring myself a large cup of coffee, I gathered my things off the table and began packing my bag for the day: laptop, textbook, notebook, various colors of highlighters, and pens. As I threw my bag over one shoulder, the blinking light on the printer caught my eye. I walked over, reached down, grabbed the syllabus I’d printed the night before, and shoved it into a file folder.

Even with warm coffee in my stomach, the nervous knot had yet to subside. Hoping a little bit of food would calm my nerves, I stopped at Panera for a bagel.

Once I reached campus it was bustling with both new and returning students. Students who looked like they’d walked to class a hundred times, and some who looked like this was their very first trip across the horseshoe.

I stopped at a bench to check the room number of my class before I entered the tall square building, “006” I said out loud as I entered the building and looked for stairs to the basement.

Finally, after searching for a few minutes I found the room. As I walked through the doorway I could see that most of the seats were taken.

With a smile starting to creep across my face I walked to the front of the class, put down my bag, looked up into their faces and said, “Welcome to Constitutional Law, I’m Professor Jones.

One of my favorite things about writing, and teaching, is having the ability to create tension and plot twists. Whether I am setting my reader up to make erroneous assumptions about where my characters and plot are going, or leading my class down a rabbit hole by taking provocative stands on hot button legal controversies, when it comes to my work, and my lectures, nothing is ever as it seems.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Critique Circle: A Writer’s Outfit

By Jodie Cain Smith

I have a favorite outfit – skinny jeans, cream tunic, jacket, and tall, suede boots. It never fails me. Fat day? The slimming panel of the jeans, and flyaway chiffon of the tunic take care of that. Bad hair-day? I just sweep my uncooperative tresses up and let the stand-up collar of the blazer do its magic. Accidentally catch a glimpse of my ever-expanding rear end in a mirror? The wedge heel of the boots provide a nice lift. It may be big, but at least the boots make it appear as the big derriere of a younger woman. Take away any component of my favorite outfit, and it doesn’t work. Without these pieces I stand in my closet, lost in a sea of “This just won’t do.

Petty? Yes. Get over it. It’s a metaphor. Allow me to explain.

My critique circle is my favorite writing outfit. Each member who frequents the table every first and third Monday night provides critical feedback, influencing my writing every time my fingers tap away at my keyboard. The lessons have been plentiful over the past two-and-a-half years, but a few stand out as favorites:

      1.  Even in exposition to a larger work, include compelling action. Weave the narrative into the story so the reader is engaged from page one.
2.   Long, complex sentences drag the tempo down and often reveal the indecisiveness of the writer. Craft carefully with intent. No one cares that you aced Vocabulary for the College Bound Student in your AP English class senior year in high school. Readers care about characters, action, twists, and revelations.
3.   Beware redundancy. Betty did this. Betty did that. Betty started a sentence with the word Betty so many times in a row that Betty landed on the bottom of the slush pile. Poor Betty.
4.   Celebrate personal style. Just as my favorite outfit will not work on every woman, my writing style should not be imposed on every writer. My job, as I sit at the table, is to recognize the individual’s style and intent and offer helpful critique. Before opening my mouth I must ask myself, “Will my comment assist the writer tell his or her story or am I trying to force the writer to tell the story how I would tell it?” The latter is not stylish at all.
5.      Ego isn’t pretty. Fabulous clothes cannot hide an ugly soul. Above all else, my critique circle has taught me to open my mind and heart to criticism. Every person at the table is there because he or she loves to write. So, Jodie, (Yep, I’m talking to myself here) shed that darn ego already. Oftentimes, I alone cannot see the problem with an outfit because I’m staring at my shiny, fancy shoes. The same can be said for clinging to clever passages.

Sadly, I will be leaving my critique circle soon. Rather than wander aimlessly, alone and very afraid, feeling naked in my fictional worlds, I will wrap myself in my favorite lessons learned.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Olga Agafonova is a front-end developer who loves good books and smooth coffee. Professionally, she is interested in 3D modeling and animation.  Creatively, her background is in the visual arts and she is excited about learning to tell stories through fiction. 

Olga's first blog post for SCWW Columbia II follows.


By Olga Agafanova

Some years ago, I used to see a woman on a street corner who bore an uncanny resemblance to a former professor of mine.  The two had similar physical characteristics and they were close in age: it would have been difficult to tell them apart from a distance. It is unlikely, however, that they will ever cross paths: the professor was a promising scholar, a rising star in her field; the homeless woman had the absent gaze of someone with a profound mental illness. Without intervention from some entity willing to provide long-term care, this person is likely to spend her life shuttling between psychiatric emergency rooms and homeless shelters, never becoming stable for long enough to start rebuilding her life.

Pete Earley’s Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness is a good place to start exploring the plight of the mentally ill in America. The book is not academic in its approach: Earley gives us enough historical and contextual information so that we understand why things functions so poorly but his tone is intimate and his outrage is genuine.

For example, we discover the magnitude of the jail problem as he begins to visit the Miami-Dade detention center. While the jail has an entire floor dedicated to housing psychotic prisoners, we find out that they receive little treatment except for cheap alternatives to the drugs they are prescribed. If they refuse to take the medicine, the prisoners may spend months in isolation cells, often naked (ostensibly for their own good) and raving mad.  Although Early spends relatively little time discussing policy choices, we can understand exactly how the existing mental health system fails when Early shadows several men as they bounce to and from the streets and detention centers.

Early is at his most compelling when he talks about the hopes and dreams he had for his son and how he had to make adjustments to them when the scope of the son’s illness became clear.  Reading the perspectives from “the other side”, that is, the views of the police officers who confront mentally ill offenders and the attorneys who passionately argue for a crazy’s person right to remain crazy was illuminating.

 I find it interesting that as a society, we happily treat people with advanced dementia, even though they may claim they are feeling great, but equally delusional people with diagnoses like schizophrenia are left to struggle on their own. Both categories of illness are outside of an individual’s control and yet we draw a distinction between them in our mental health and justice systems.  If we could care enough to align our laws with the science of mental illness, we might be on our way to becoming a more compassionate society where people like the homeless woman on that street corner may get another shot at life.

Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness
By Pete Earley

384 pp. Berkley. $14. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Writer’s Week in Japan

By Brian Barr

Due to the hospitality of Japan’s International Cooperation Center (JICE) and my school, I was lucky enough to spend time in Japan for ‘Kakehashi,’ a project aimed at strengthening foreign relations of other countries with Japan. Along with two teachers and twenty-two other students, I visited Tokyo, including Chiba and Narita. We also spent time in Iwate Prefecture, mainly in Kuji City, near Northern coast of Japan.

While in Japan, I learned a great deal about the nation’s current events and problems. While I heard about the aging population epidemic (Japan has a large number of senior citizens and a lower than normal birth rate, which endangers the future of its population) and the demanding work life for employees in companies before I went to Japan, I also learned more about their political parties, the possibility of a new military force, class divisions, and notable economic decline in the recent decades.

My personal reasons for wanting to go to Japan were mixed with pedagogical interests as well as personal ones. Along with being a student and a teacher-in-training, I’m also a writer. I’ve been intrigued by Japan since I was a child, and I’ve written stories set in the country as well. With the research I’ve done on Japan, I’ve worked to make these specific stories as believable in dealing with Japanese culture as possible, even as a speculative writer who mainly writes in horror, science-fiction, and fantasy genres.

From Shion Sono films to Haruki Murakami’s novels, even to the great Akira classic written and drawn by Otomo Katsuhiro, I’ve seen how fictional authors from Japan have dealt with grave and important issues facing Japan. Shion Sono touched on the suicide rate and cults in his classic movie Jisatsu Circle, and the recently deceased Shigeru Mizuki, a WWII vet, challenged social and political issues in his comic books, from Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro to more personal biographical works. Like any other country, Japan is filled with its notable literary creators who investigate and question the world around them in fictional narratives.

As a writer, I set to do the same. From American social and political issues, to foreign dilemmas, I craft stories that are fictional yet have connections to the world we inhabit as human beings. I seek to question situations and understand problems, to create dialogue that may inspire people to solve or at least acknowledge problems. So far, with my Japan-based stories, that have explored technology, organized crime, pop culture, subculture, music, social and sexual politics in the country.

After returning from Japan for the first time, and experiencing the beauty and complexity of this amazing island nation first-hand, I’m inspired to craft more tales set in the land of the rising sun. I want to explore the aging population, business, and military debates of Japan further, along with other issues facing the island nation.

Japan has stolen my heart, and I anticipate my return, in fiction and reality.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


By Laura P. Valtorta
It took me ten days to write and perfect my two-minute pitch.

In Washington, D.C., I stayed at a hotel called the Windsor Inn that was the dumpiest hotel I’ve ever slept in. My room was underground. The so-called “window” looked out into a hallway. The television didn’t work.

I was the second pitcher to arrive at the venue. Soon all five of us were there, sitting around and twitching. Three pitchers were women, two were men.

One of the organizers came over to announce the order in which we would pitch. I was to go last. That meant an extra hour of sitting around and stewing.

We filed down to the auditorium to check out our video presentations.

How does my video look?” I asked Josh, the organizer.

YOU don’t have a video,” he snarked.

Yes, I do! I have a two-minute promo that I sent in last week. It’s an important part of my presentation.”

It’s not here. Do you have a copy with you?’

I rushed to my notebook and retrieved a jump drive. Luckily it uploaded quickly.

Things were ready to go, but I thought I would pass out from fear.

Meanwhile, the auditorium was filling up. I was glad to be seated on the aisle, and that I had memorized the route to the bathroom.  During the other people’s presentations, I got up twice and headed to the restroom.

None of the other presentations grabbed me, even though several presenters had great ideas. Great ideas were being wasted because of stage fright.

What the hell. I walked to the podium.

Hello, I’m Laura Valtorta,” I began. “Attorney turned filmmaker. My project is ‘Queen of the Road,’ a reality television series about commercial truck drivers.”

My first joke was “These drivers lead exciting, dangerous, and difficult lives, and that’s just trying to find a place to park!” The audience (starved for entertainment) roared with laughter.

I smiled into the camera and made my way a few minutes later to the second joke. “Donna the driver warns me she’s very conservative, but her wife, Carol, is much more liberal.” Big laughter.

The audience loved my video. Several audience members came up to speak to me afterwards.

The bad part was, I lost!

The winner was Ann Marie Dinardo, with her show called “Hostage Heroes,” a narrative re-creation of people taken hostage who talk down the shooter.

After the winner was announced, one of the panel members gave us detailed critiques. He grabbed the arms of me and the winner. “It was between these two,” he said. “They knew what their shows would be, from beginning to end.”

The panelists did not find my truck drivers compelling characters. Jeesh!  If my truck drivers are not entertaining women – I don’t know who can be.

Delivering the pitch was fun, and the cocktail party that evening was a blast.  I met Morgan Spurlock and a bunch of D.C. film people.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Writing A Novel: Dealing With A Time Thief

By Kimberly Johnson

Yesterday, I browsed the webpage of Writers Digest. Brian Klems’ article, How Long Does It Take To Write A Novel? piqued my curiosity. Mind you, I‘ve toyed with writing a novel, but I lack the discipline. I can write a blog. I can write a magazine article. I can even craft a brief for work. The whole frustrating thing reminds me of the 70s tune: How Long (Has This Been Going On) by Ace. 

After reading that article, I realized that writing a novel is like a Premier League soccer fan in a tattered East London pub. The mate can give you a black eye, if you’re not careful. I want to share some of my time poachers:

Thieves #1 - 2: Outlining and Drafting. It took me Sunday morning and afternoon just to create an outline and draft two chapters. Somebody told me to just write and worry about the grammar, the consistency and other stuff later. That sent me back to the keyboard.

Thief #3: Self-editing. How am I to replace every finely chosen word that I took all day to write? Well, I’m not. Well, maybe. Somebody told me to print out my draft and read it out loud. Hearing the mistakes is a good thing. Somebody also told me to hire an editor.

Thief #4: The 'experts' say a standard novel has 80,000 to 100,000 words. I don’t know if I have that in me. What I’m really saying is that I need to get organized. Carve out some time after work and focus. Somebody told me to write 1,000 words each day as a goal.

Thief #5: The 'experts' say the re-writing process varies: a few weeks to a couple of years. Really?! I guess I’m used to a deadline and then it’s over.  Somebody told me to not put added pressure on myself. If you do, you will rush the process and that’s not cool. Somebody also told me to reward myself each time I hit an “ah-ha” moment.

Thief #6: Listening to the 'experts'. I would typically write three to five pages and stop. Go online and read a few expert-related articles. Talk to some of my old newspaper friends. And get frustrated again. Somebody told me that I am a procrastinator. Set a deadline and stick with it.

Thief #7: Writer’s block. Again, I would type three to five pages and stop. I would watch CSI: Miami, Law & Order, or reruns of Friends. Nothing could get my fingers tapping on the keyboard. Somebody told me that there is no such thing as writer’s block. Somebody also told me to respect my writing skill and put in the hard work.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Cover Stories

By Kasie Whitener 

Several years ago, publishers sought texts that reimagined literary classics with new pop-culture elements in what Time Magazine called a literary land grab.” The frenzy was in choosing which classic texts to twist.

There are a million ways to tell the same story such as Marissa Meyer adopting Cinderella to cyborgs in the futuristic “Lunar Chronicles” (2012). Fairy tales are expected to be revived and re-told (think “Into the Woods”), but really good bent-classic fiction focuses on universal themes to achieve cohesion in the story.

Well ahead of the surge, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (1995) looked at the Wizard of Oz from a different perspective, examining tyranny and disenfranchisement. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2008) deftly made zombies as real a threat to Jane Austen’s characters as money, gender roles, and polite society.

Despite some authors’ lament that writers who use another’s work are unoriginal at best and plagiaristic at worst, I’m thrilled by the literary acrobatics of such work.

Recently one of my favorite musicians, Ryan Adams, re-created the Taylor Swift album 1989. This undertaking was remarkable for two reasons: 1) the original album was only recently released (2014) and Adams’ version followed only a year later and 2) he covered the entire album, every song.

A lot of musicians do cover songs. Colbie Callait did this mash-up of “Break Even” and “Fast Car” in 2011. Chris Cornell recently released a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song made famous by Sinead O’Connor in 1990. Many even do it better than the original. Stevie Wonder recorded “Higher Ground” in 1973 but the Red Hot Chili Peppers released the definitive work in 1989.

Musicians cover songs to pay homage to the original artists, to experience the emotions and complexity of the work, and to redefine the art itself. While Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” seems like a wild mismatch — the former being country music legend and the latter heavy-metal gothic rock band — the subject of addiction created a bridge between the artists and the two interpretations are equally haunting.

When writers interpret one another’s work, either through critique and discussion or analysis and debate, we elevate the art. By identifying and examining themes, we sew ourselves into the fabric of our craft. We are redefining old stories and paying homage to the work that came before ours.

It’s sometimes called ‘fan fiction’ and writers like Stephanie Barron (The Jane Austen Mystery series) have made a living at it. But it’s more than imitation, I think. It’s a way of covering another artist’s work and by doing so, elevating the entire artistic medium of storytelling.

I like the idea that all writers are part of the same quilt, wielders of the same needle and thread, blanketing the world in our stories. When we break out of strict marketing genres and mix styles and elements, we create a world where anything is possible. A fictional world.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Save the Cat

By Rex  Hurst

"Save the cat" is a term coined by the late Blake Snyder in manual of screenwriting of the same name. And while it was created for the purposes of screenwriting I feel that it works just as a well for a longer work of fiction.

The term is used to describe the scene where the audience (or reader) first meets the protagonist. The idea is that the character has to do something nice to make the hero like the character and begin to sympathize with them- that it is important to make the reader's first impression of the protagonist a positive one.

The term incidentally comes from the opening scene of Alien, where the hero Ridley saves a cat named Jones.

This technique also helps to insulate the character from backlash later on if that person makes a decision that is morally questionable, arrogant, or even downright evil. The initial impression is supposed to linger and the audience remembers that the protagonist is not all bad, because he saved the cat.

I recently did an experiment where I wrote two similar short pieces where the main character is attempting to escape from a sinking ship. In one I had him furiously attempting to escape as fast as he could. In the second the only difference was that I had him attempt to save the life of a person who was on the verge of death by carrying him, thus slowing him down.

Overwhelmingly people preferred the version where the hero saves the cat. I know this is just anecdotal evidence, but I'm convinced.

Saving the cat works!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nine Questions to Steal Your Writer-ly Heart

By Jodie Cain Smith

I admit it. I have a girl crush. And this flame has burned for two decades. So, what dazzling creature gained my unfaltering devotion? Uta Hagen. What has she done to make my heart a’twitter all these years? She created nine simple questions every fiction writer needs to know and answer. Oh, sure, she created the questions for actors, but I find Uta Hagen’s Nine Questions to be as helpful to novel writing as they are on a stage.

If you are staring at a blank screen or have fallen down a rabbit hole without a ladder, or a minor character has hijacked your novel, stop and ask your protagonist these nine questions. The answers are sure to get you back on track and may even fill in some nasty potholes.

1.  Who are you? The answer should include all the details that make your protagonist who he or she is, such as name, age, likes, dislikes, physical description, beliefs, hobbies, career, education, enemies, friends, and culture.

2.  What time is it? Decide the time period, season, time of day, and year. Then ask yourself the significance of that time. Why does your protagonist’s story need to be set in the time you chose? Could it be told in a different time?

3.  Where are you? Country, city, neighborhood, fantasy world with puffy pink clouds and lava for sidewalks are important, but so is the structure, i.e. type of house, size of room, area of room. All of these details will affect the action. And unless your 50,000+ words all take place in one room, you will need to answer this question for each location.

4.  What surrounds you? Inanimate and animate objects fill out a space and a scene.

5.  What are the given circumstances? The past, present, and future have distinct effects on your story and your main character. If they don’t, make bigger choices, raise the stakes. Everything in your story should affect the main character in some way. 

6.  What are your relationships? The relationships you give your protagonist to other characters, events, and setting will move the plot forward.  

7.  What do you want? If your protagonist doesn’t want something, stop writing. Just close your laptop and walk away. Yep, that’s how important goals are. Make sure to choose one big one that trumps all others. Whether or not he or she achieves that goal is the ending, and, for me, the fun part.

8.  What is in your way?  Okay, maybe this is the fun part. What is the point of creating fiction without obstacles, conflict, and twists and turns?

9.  What do you do to get what you want? The answer to this goes deeper than mere plot points and tactics. Ask your character what he or she is willing to do to win. The answer may surprise you. 

Nine Questions. It’s that simple. I heart Uta.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Finding X a Spot

By Kasie Whitener

I’ve been querying my GenX novel After December to small press publishers. I made the decision after doing an agent-pitch last spring.

The agent said nobody wants to read about the ’90s. It’s too recent to be considered historic and too long ago to be considered relevant.

To be honest, I don’t remember that much about the ’90s. We have Trivial Pursuit the ’90s Edition and it’s ridiculously hard.

In the “Tinkering With History” panel at Atoma-CON last weekend, the four writers disagreed that the ’90s wasn’t history. It’s pre-9/11 so the lens isn’t yet blurred by terrorism and war. It’s all dot-com hangover sliding toward reality TV.

They said the agent may not have been the right sales person for my work. Well, duh.

Agent: “Why can’t this guy just be 22 now?”
Me: “Like, a Millennial?”
Agent: “Yeah.”
Me: “But there’d be social media and a big part of the story is his detachment from his friends.”
Agent: “Maybe he’s just not into social media.”
Me: “A Millennial?”

I know some Millenials and they’re basically good kids. But come on. Their value system is very very different from mine. Stripping GenX from Brian Listo is like making Elizabeth Bennett a lesbian. While it might be a doable version of the story, it would be a very different story.

Agent: “Who would read this novel?”
Me: “Book clubs, you know, those GenX moms who drink wine and remember their high school boyfriends? Also possibly college kids now. My beta readers were college kids.”
Agent: “So Millenials are a target audience?”
Me: “Sure, I mean, I read Ethan Hawke’s college-kid-finds-love-and-loses-it novel The Hottest State when I was in college and it resonated.”
Agent: “So then the main character should be one of them.”
Me: (face palm)

You don’t have to make a book about the Millenials. They’ll make the book about themselves. For crying out loud, most of them think DiCaprio originated the role of Jay Gatsby.

The trouble with that agent wasn’t just that she didn’t get it. She couldn’t sell it. And if an agent doesn’t think she can sell your work, she isn’t going to try to rep it.

Industry insiders keep saying that agents reflect what the publishers say they want. So I need to find a publisher who wants to take a risk on a GenX novel.

Publisher: “This isn’t really the kind of work we normally print.”
Me: “I know. You’ll be the first ones in on this new trend.”
Publisher: “We like being first.”
Me: “Honda is putting Strawberry Shortcake and Skeletor in their minivan ads. Marketing to GenX will sell books.”
Publisher: “We like anything that sells.”

So I found a few publishers whose line card includes some edgy stuff and made a list. Now I just have to craft the perfect query and send them the work.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

It’s Getting Harder To Breathe: Writing A Music Review

By Kimberly Johnson

Truth be told, I have been looking for clever ways to add Adam Levine into my blog.  I found it—an entry that shatters my outlook about music review writing. Maroon 5’s front man is my newest crush (Sorry, Blake). Adam is a girl’s daydream: he’s good-looking; he’s on a hit tv show The Voice; and he’s has a breathtaking set of pipes. The song Sugar  is a never-ending vehicle of sensual swagger that drives any girl crazy. 
Your sugar, Yes, please, Won't you come and put it down on meI'm right here, 'cause I need, Little love and little sympathyYeah you show me good loving, Make it alrightNeed a little sweetness in my life, Your sugar, Yes, please, Won't you come and put it down on me

I believed writing a music review was pretentious—listen to a song, tell the reader that it was good, bad or ugly and then collect a check.  Not a bad gig if you could get it. Well I was wrong.  Structure is the basis of a well-reviewed piece. The reviewer employs the universal writing standards, along with the inverted pyramid style —lead sentence, facts, supporting details and a conclusion. The reviewer refrains from using “I” phrases and fanboy worship. The reviewer is an adept researcher, politician and predictor of the next biggest hit.  He investigates the artist’s success and failures on the Billboard charts.  He has to listen to the good, the bad and the ugly and provide an opinion that doesn’t affront the record producers and industry bigwigs.

I believed writing a music review was pretentious.  Now, I believe writing a music review is like
sugar; some sweet, and some not so sweet, yet still hard work.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


By Bonnie Stanard

For some time I thought that a sympathetic protagonist meant only likeable ones. And the advice I got from interviews with literary agents reinforced this misconception. However, I’ve come to realize that bad guys can make for good books. I’m not talking about picaresque rogues of high adventure and rascally wit such as Fielding’s Tom Jones or Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Let’s think about serious books such as Executioner’s Song; Palace Walk; Perfume; and Clockwork Orange.

It’s easier to write sympathetic, likeable POV characters and, given that they populate best-selling books, it’s obvious we enjoy reading about them. But there’s a place for bad guys, though they present a challenge to the writer.

How can you make a wrong-headed person sympathetic? Or at least engage the reader and hold his interest. Evil is interesting in the mainstream, as long as it’s embodied as the antagonist or foil to our hero. What does it take to put the antagonist in the spotlight? How can we arouse a reader’s passion for a sinner? Capable writers such as Norman Mailer, Naguib Mahfouz, Patrick Suskind, and Anthony Burgess have proved we can.

I’ve just finished reading A Place for Outlaws by Allen Weir, which ends with a murder committed by the main character, Cole, who is in love with a married woman. She convinces him that her jealous husband is dangerous, though there’s no evidence of this. Cole sneaks into the husband’s house with a .38 caliber pistol, presumably to shoot the husband though he isn’t at home. For a 40 year-old, divorced man, Cole displays a disconcerting lack of moral grounding despite a stable upbringing and loving parents. He doesn’t act very smart for a college professor, his given profession. If he were younger, I could believe he sees the world through a prism of hormones and is thereby so infatuated he loses his senses. In the end, it’s not the husband he kills but his mother’s lover in what seems a sudden attack of an Oedipus complex. So why do I question the character of Cole? What could make him more believable? Here are some ideas.

1.      A background with more clues to his dark side
2.      Rational behavior, even if it’s murder
3.      A connection between POV thought and act
4.      Boldness, even if in wrong-doing
5.      Justifiable motives
6.      A conscience, whether honest or deluded

I worried about the character of the male protagonist of my novel Master of Westfall Plantation because he’s not a good guy. Would the reader become absorbed in his adventures when it’s obvious he’s a cruel, demanding slave owner? In this case, the protagonist believes he is a good person. He is blinded to the harm he brings on his family and associates because he is the product of a destructive culture.

The Heart of the Matter
A successful evil protagonist is credible. He acts based on what he believes. Moral norms are distorted. A happy childhood is not a good starting point. Drugs can only explain so much. He can be creative about being destructive. At that, he has moments when he’s good.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Troubled POV That Cost Me $18

By Kasie Whitener

I was forty-five pages in before I finally realized what was wrong with Resurrection Impure. It’s one of the books on a list of vampire books I’m working through as part of my genre research (“The 10 Best Vampire Novels Nobody Has Read”).

I had the vague sense that something was off about this book. I noticed the chapters began with random poetry-like interludes that didn’t seem to make any sense. Whose voice is this? What information is being shared here? Why is this passage necessary?

The narrator was head-hopping, that novice-writer error wherein the narrative shifts the point of view from one character to another seemingly at random. One chapter began by telling us clearly what a particular character was thinking and later in the same chapter, killing that character off.

Even when George R. R. Martin kills off main characters, it’s not done in that character’s actual chapter. How could the narrative continue if the point of view was lost?

So what is Point of View (POV)?

In First Person the narrator uses “I” and cannot report what other characters are thinking or feeling unless those characters share that information.

In Third Person Limited the narrator uses “he” and “she” but focuses on one character’s inner thoughts and feelings and expresses the other character’s thoughts and feelings only when they volunteer that information. Otherwise, the POV character may speculate:

Eleanor guessed Pete felt left out and made eye contact with him, smiled, and winked.

The narrator doesn’t say “Pete felt left out” because that would be from Pete’s POV and the story is from Eleanor’s. Instead, the narrator tells us what Eleanor thinks Pete is feeling. The filter of what Eleanor thinks Pete feels is an important tension-building dimension in the story.

A Third Person Omniscient narrator uses “he” and “she” and provides insight to multiple characters’ POV. Inner thoughts and feelings are available to the reader though obscured from other characters.

But even with Third Person Omniscient, POV must be maintained for established periods. Martin uses an entire chapter with the character’s name. Other writers use spacers between passages when they change angles — like a camera changing its viewpoint.

The real problem with Resurrection Impure is that it couldn’t have been workshopped. Discerning readers pick up head-hopping and ask the important questions.

The most frequent question we ask in workshop is “Whose story is this?”

Knowing the answer can enable the writer to nail down the perspective. With Resurrection Impure, I don’t think the author knows whose story this truly is.

Characters must be compelling. The male leads here are, but the only female character is so two-dimensional and puny that Daenerys Targaryen would surely smite her on site.

Having abandoned Resurrection Impure, I’d really like to have my $17.95 back.

Workshop your fiction before you publish it. Get readers who will figure out what’s off about it and help you correct it. Do the work.