Sunday, June 29, 2008

FOUR GOOD BOOKS on WRITING

By Beth Cotten
Columbia II Writers Workshop

Most of the following books were written in the 1980s and 1990s; a paperback edition of The Weekend Novelist was released in April, 2005. No doubt there are newer books on the market, but I think you will find these to be useful and easy to read. I have read some chapters of each of them, but I still have yet to read them completely. I think my summer will be taken up by checking out these resources again. Enjoy!

Writing the Block Buster Novel: Author - Albert Zuckerman
Albert Zuckerman is a former novelist, TV writer, and teacher of playwriting at Yale and is the founder of Writers House. This book is a comprehensive look at all phases of writing a best-selling novel, from "Getting Started" to "Getting it Published and onto the best-seller lists." The book is excellent and should be read by anyone interested in publishing fiction. Currently available at Amazon.Com Be sure to check out the Writers House web site.

The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing: Edited by Tom Clark, William Brohaugh, Bruce Woods and Bill Strickland.
A compilation of 37 writings by 30 authors, agents, editors, teachers and publishers. All of the material first appeared in Writer’s Digest Magazine and were compiled into this book with permission. The book is excellent and is also available, new and used, at Amazon.Com.

Show Don’t Tell-A Writer’s Guide: Author - William Noble
For those of us who stray into lecturing our readers instead of entertaining them, this is another very useful book. Currently available in paperback at Amazon.Com. Noble has written other writing guides, Steal This Plot, “Shut Up!” He Explained, and Make That Scene. All are also available through Amazon.Com. Check under used or textbooks by title.

The Weekend Novelist: Author - Robert J. Ray.
This is an interesting book, in that it is a 52-week program designed to help a writer produce a finished novel in a year, one weekend at a time. Some of us are very busy and at least I am inclined to use the excuse of not having time to write. The author says you can become a "real writer" if you only have time on the weekends. In 1994, when this book was published, the author had very successfully published eight "highly acclaimed books." The book is touted as a step-by-step program, the one Ray uses himself to produce a book from "the blank page to a completed novel." The book is also available at Amazon.Com, as is his 1998 book The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

EXERCISES to JUMP START "Show Don't Tell"

By Lisa Lopez Snyder
Columbia II Writers Workshop

Lately I’ve been focusing on exercises to help me show rather than tell something about a character, conflict or anything else in a particular scene. Here are a couple ideas I found useful:

1. First, write a sentence or two that describes the scene (and use action verbs). The sentences should answer the question, “What’s happening in this scene?”

For example:
John discovers his wife is having an affair with his best friend.

Then write this scene with dialogue, description, etc., as if you were watching it on film. Visualize it. Write without stopping. Look it over, then revise and revise.

For example:
Joan looked up from her book as John entered.
He slammed the door behind him. “What’s this?” he demanded. His hand shook as he held up the crumpled letter, his face red and feverish.
Joan let the tattered book fall from her lap. She felt her body freeze. “I--I can explain.” Her voice was thick and slow.

2. Another idea: Visualize your scene, then, without stopping, write down all the visuals and textures that make up the scene.

For example: tattered curtain, blue couch, crumpled letter, face turning red, open door, light rain, dark clouds, narrow hallway, steamed dumplings, rusted teapot, etc.

Then write a scene that connects these elements with your characters, using action and dialogue, and see where it takes you. Don’t feel you need to use everything you wrote down.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

MAKE MISTAKES FASTER

By Janie Kronk
Columbia II Writers Workshop

It was the first time walking into a library ever made me feel afraid. The feeling was incongruous with the stillness, the patterned order of the shelves, the delicious book-smell. Still, my heart pounded. It wasn’t nerves exactly. There was another fear at work as I walked into the room where the writers’ group met and asked, “Can I just observe?”

See, I was not a writer, and I was certain I would be found out.

Although I wrote frequently, the bulk of this writing consisted of opening paragraphs of abandoned stories. Each time I started a piece, I quickly became disgusted with my flat characters, childish tone, eventless plots. I’d look at the paragraph, think, “Can’t I write better?” and lay it aside. I was afraid of the mess I would make if I continued.

I’d forgotten my writing professor, who always gave as his first assignment: “Write a crappy story.” i.e., Get over yourself and just write, or you’ll never get better. I also ignored such advice as, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—mistakes are how we learn.” Or, if important to learn quickly, “Make mistakes faster.”

The advice was sound, but thinking of joining a writers’ group and revealing my literary shortcomings gave me the willies. My concern was a grown up version of, “But what if the other kids are mean to me?” I expected frowns at my presence, and jeers at my audacity in wasting their time. In one of my nightmarish speculations, someone actually threw a tomato.

Fortunately, none of this occurred. At the meeting, I relaxed upon finding a group of talented, welcoming individuals. They didn’t seem to mind my coming. No one threw anything.

The next time I went, I would have to read. I assumed there were only so many times I could show up without any writing before my intentions were questioned. Spy from another workshop? Literary voyeur? Not wanting to appear suspicious, I compiled a pastiche of story-beginnings found on my hard drive. I hoped their juxtaposition would evoke some meaning, like images in a surrealist film.

This tactic proved unsuccessful. “It seems like a couple different stories,” someone said. “It’s interesting, but I’m wondering—where is it going?”

It took several more pastiches with similar feedback before it clicked: these weren’t problems with the pieces, but with my writing in general. I analyzed other things I had written. In all instances, my compositional structure was inexplicable, my plot lines often absent. Aha! How had I not seen the obvious? While I’d known the pieces were riddled with mistakes, the mistakes had been like shadows to me, impossible to pinpoint and wrestle with. With the groups’ feedback, I could suddenly see the bodies these shadows indicated. I had a goal.

Sharing work is intimidating, but also fulfilling when there are people interested in listening, and helping. It’s also necessary at times, getting us past current mistakes and on to the next—and the next, and the next. The good news about the process is twofold: we get better, and no tomatoes get thrown.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Laura Valtorta


Laura Puccia Valtorta works as an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina. She specializes in Social Security disability, employment law, and family law. Her books Family Meal and Start Your Own Law Practice are available through amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. She has published travel material for the Rough Guides, and short stories in Aethlon and The Distillery. Her husband, Marco, is a professor of computer science at the University of South Carolina. She has a daughter, Clara, and a son, Dante

Bonnie Stanard


When I was in college a professor encouraged me to write fiction, but I was so dense I didn’t realize it until years later. Career choices at the time didn’t include “writer.” Even today, I’m surprised at the number of colleges offering majors in creative writing. (How are those graduates supporting themselves?) I’ve been published in literary magazines for the last five years and have made $5.
There’s no rhyme or reason to my writing habits. On some days I’ll work at the computer for 10 hours. Other days I compose long emails, shop eBay, clean the garage, scan photos, and otherwise fizz away my time instead of writing.

The intellectual and emotional capacity of some writers inspires me with awe. How could Charles Dickens have a head big enough to hold all that information? Or more recently, Saul Bellow? Or Jeffrey Eugenides today? I like movies almost as much as books and admire well-written screenplays—Pan’s Labyrinth, Crash, Short Cuts, Miller’s Crossing, and Memento to name a few.

I’m working on an antebellum story inspired by Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, a book that illustrates how cultures can brutalize people.


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Leigh Stevenson


I have been writing long enough to recognize a cliché, but not as long as some of the other writers in Columbia II. When we are discussing a work, I take my time and try to make comments that will be helpful. There’s a quote by C. Day-Lewis that sums up why we write. “We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand.”

Lisa Lopez Snyder


From the Midwest to the Midlands

The smell of freshly-cut grass always evokes stark memories for me—mornings nudging thick brown earthworms with small sticks as they ooze their way across sidewalks after a hard summer rain, afternoons zipping around the neighborhood streets on my bike under the shady arms of red oak and maple sugar trees, evenings playing kickball in the cul-de-sac down the street from my house.


Those are some of the hallmarks of my Midwest childhood summers. But there is another one: it is my 12-year-old self sprawled on a creaky lawn chair on the back patio, notebook in lap, scrawling stories prompted by the tales of Tom Joad and his family as they loaded their meager possessions on a rickety car, leaving drought-stricken Oklahoma behind for the promise of jobs in California. Or writing poetry that mimics the same excitement that Robert Frost described when he passed the Mortenson's pasture – “Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb.”

Today what the smell of freshly-cut grass arouses is no different, except yes, the setting is different, and occasionally, it’s a notebook computer rather than the paper kind, in hand.

Bryce Smith


I’m writing a spy novel, rather rewriting. How many times do we have to rewrite before a story is ready to go? My plot is a complicated one. Sometimes the workshop tells me that I’ve explained too much. The next meeting, I hear that I haven’t explained enough. It’s not easy to figure out how much information has to be in the story.

Alex Raley


Alex is a retired educator living in Columbia, SC. He earned degrees from Troy University, University of South Carolina, and Columbia University. His wife, Arletta, shares his passion for family, friends, church, and literature.

Alex’s poem, “Boxes,” was selected as Best of Issue for Catfish Stew, 2006. His poem, “The Cocked Hat,” was published in The Petigru Review, 2007 “These Old Hands” in 2008 and “Expectation” and “The Encounter” in 2010. In 2010, his poem, “Choices,” received Honorable Mention in the Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Awards. His short stories have also been published in Catfish Stew and The Petigru Review.

Vikki Perry


If I didn’t write, I would probably be in a padded cell.


My name is Vikki Perry and I was seven the first time that I was bitten by the fiction bug. It was a short fiction, mystery story with a surprise ending involving red Kool-Aid instead of blood. I still remember the joy that I felt when I put that twist in at the end and I knew that I wanted to write more. From that moment on, characters, plots, and scenes have lived in my head and the only way to exorcise them is to put them on paper. I’ve done it with varying degrees of success, but hey, it beats the padded cell.

Ginny Padgett


I’m a 58-year-old South Carolina native, married with two grown sons and have a degree in advertising and public relations from USC. I’ve worked as a copywriter for a television station in Savannah, several ad agencies in South Carolina and Georgia, as well as doing some free-lance work here and there. Recently, I’ve done a little technical writing on a free-lance basis. I’ve taught piano lessons and worked as a pre-school teacher when my boys were small. The largest part of my adult life has been spent in the nurture of my children, the most important job I’ve ever had.

I wrote my first play when I was 12 years old. It received poor reviews from my cousins. “She’s dead in the garden!” is an infamous line from a scene that is still remembered at family reunions. I started a TV screenplay right after college, but I didn’t develop my idea. A few years later, I was astounded when The Golden Girls debuted. That was the premise of my screenplay. Over the years, I’ve started several novels and dismissed them as rubbish.

2010 was a big year for me. I had an essay read at "The Devine Art of Survival," a dance performance by UNBOUND Dance Company (seen in Columbia and in Charleston at the Piccolo Art Festival). I also had an essay and short story published in The Petigru Review.

George William Newport


I was born in Windsor, Vermont hospital on 15 July 1952
the place that I consider my home is my girlfriends house at 75 Truesdell Avenue
what I should do with my life is to complete some of the many things that I have started and not finished
my obsession has to be my writing
a story I'll never write has not occcured to me yet
what I believe is not clear there are many things that I believe in and it is not possible to list them all
worst/best sentence I ever read is not clear right now I have no idea if I have a worst and best sentence in mind
the best years of my life so far have been the two years that I have spent with my girlfriend Carol
a person who has influenced my writing would be Al Burke, my friend, an editor, and a warrior, who got me a long way down the literary highway. Choo Choo Chuck Lipe, my friend, an air force jet transport jockey, he cheered me on from the sidelines when others would not. Bill Cleveland and his good friend Kat, my friend, my dentist, the only one I will alllow to put implements of destruction inside my mouth, a warrior, and a writer, Bill tolerated my erratic ramblings that I committed to paper and kept me going mostly forward in my writings.

Mike Long


Mike Long is a former soldier with two tours in Vietnam as an advisor to South Vietnamese Army units. His awards include the Parachutist Badge and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. Since retiring from the Army in 1980, he has been a financial advisor with a major investment firm. Married in 1960, he and his wife have two married daughters and four grandchildren. He is a gun enthusiast, a life member of the NRA and the VFW, and is active in Sertoma. He is often found on Seabrook Island, SC. He admires storekeepers, and usually travels with one. His first novel is entitled “Dobey and the Boss,” and is a winding tale of violence and tolerance. In it, two hardbitten Confederate cavalrymen struggle home at the end of the war and through the post-war years as Texas Rangers and merchants. This rowdy historical fiction is filled with rich characters, both real and should-have-been. Mike is working with an editor and publisher on it, while working on the sequel, “What Goes Round.”

Meredith Kaiser


Writing is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m not a comedian, but sometimes when I bring my writing to the workshop, the group gets rowdy with laughter. We have to close the door to keep from disturbing others. To me that’s a highlight of being part of the group.

Doris Fields


I’ve written a novel about a Southern family that has two endings, neither of which is the right one. All my characters have secrets. What they don’t know about each other causes problems, but if they knew everything, there’d still be problems, just different ones.

DiAna DiAna



I published my first book, Curlers & Condoms . I am a cosmetologist and writer, therefore I write about funny things in my salon and the AIDS work that I did for 20 years. My next book will be a collection of strange stories, a non fiction this time. I love my writer's group, wonderful people with great stories to tell. Come join us.

Beth Cotten


My true name is Elizabeth Cotten. My pen name is Liza Spencer; derived from my first name and my husband’s first name. I was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but from the age of four I lived in California until I retired and moved to Columbia, South Carolina in January of 2003. I now consider Columbia my home. The best years of my life thus far were the 49 years I spent married to my husband who passed away in October of 2007. Approximately 17 of those years were spent as a defense investigator; 11 as a licensed private investigator and six as criminal investigator for the San Diego Public Defenders Department. I hold a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology that promoted my employment in the field. I found it to be a very rewarding career.

I was influenced to write because I have a love for the written word and because I have always been successful throughout my life with written assignments- in both my education and career. Writing my doctoral dissertation provided excellent experience in the areas of research and writing skill. From the time of my childhood, I have been an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction. My preferred choice of genre is the fictional novel, but I am also interested in learning about short story writing.

My weaknesses in writing include procrastination and discipline. I do not write daily, as many writers do and I seem to write more easily when I am under pressure and have a deadline to meet. I took a course in novel writing about 12 years ago which helped me to write the first three chapters of a novel. Life circumstances interrupted that endeavor and I now have the time and desire to pursue writing again.

Brian Butler



I've been editing and revising my dark, urban fantasy novel, D1SORD3R, for much longer than it took me to write it. The more I work on it, the more it haunts me. I'm reminded of what Winston Churchill once said about writing a novel: "To begin with, it was a toy, an amusement; then it became a mistress, then a master and then a tyrant."

And a tyrant it has become, occupying every spare moment of my life. To stay sane, I have taken small breaks to pen several short stories--although one has been growing into a novella on its own accord.

I also have another suspense novel, which I am smack dab in the middle of writing and hope to have complete by the end of the year. I have outlined eight more book ideas, so I don't see the madness ending anytime soon.

Ilmars Birznieks


Born by the Amber Sea, the Baltic, I still have a Latvian name, Ilmars Birznieks, although I am an American citizen and have lived in the States over sixty years. From early youth I was inspired by a Latvian writer, Alexanders Grins, whose long-sentenced, patriotic novels are imbued with elaborate fantasia.

I dabbled in art now and then, writing a poem or a short story or two in Latvian as a teenager. But since my ambition was to study medicine, I did not consider writing (particularly fiction) seriously. Only when my freshman English professor suggested that I should write stories, I considered it as a possibility.

Now after a long career in academia, not in medicine but languages (life has its surprises!), I finally turned to writing novels and short stories. I have published two novels, The Forgotten Promise and The Invisible Hand and have several novels and short stories lingering on the shelf. People who have read my work have found it interesting, "can't put it down" creations. But, alas, that is the opinion of common readers, not hundreds of agents and publishers.