Sunday, July 27, 2008


By Ginny Padgett

Recently I was asked, “Who is your favorite writer?”

“William Faulkner,” was my quick, word-association answer. I do think that is always the most accurate answer.

Afterwards, I asked myself if that answer was really accurate. After a brief mental review I came up with my three favorite authors: William Faulkner, Lillian Hellman and John Cheever.

Then I asked myself if that list was accurate. (I guess I talk to myself quite a lot!) After all, it had been quite a while since I had read any of them. So I embarked on a reading adventure.

I began with what I thought to be my all-time favorite book by my all-time favorite writer, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Yes, it still tops my list. His writing and characters are as rich and fecund as the Mississippi land he immortalized.

I read The Sound and the Fury for the first time in my late teens. It was the experience that dropped me to my knees to worship at the feet of the novelist and his calling. The skill of transporting a reader through space and time to that of the writer’s choosing via a bit of ink and moldy paper seemed like alchemy. That first reading impelled me toward writing.

Next I read Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, by renowned playwright Lillian Hellman. Superb! Probably my all-time favorite passage comes from this book. It’s a description of what the word pentimento means, which is an artist’s alteration in a painting. If you’re not familiar with this beautiful language, I urge you to seek out this book to see for yourself what a prose poet Hellman is!

Then, I read all of John Cheever’s short stories, for which he is most famous. I began with a slim volume entitled Thirteen Uncollected Stories by John Cheever. I discovered the reason they had remained uncollected for so long! I next launched into The Stories of John Cheever, a 700-page tome of beautifully crafted, laser-sharp commentaries of post-WWII middle-class America.

The adage about the power of the pen is as true as ever. In my opinion, the exigency to write should be the eighth addition to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Seven Basic Needs. Man has been compelled to record his experiences and their impact on the world around him since prehistoric times. Writing is what makes us human; that’s why we have opposable thumbs, for goodness sake…to hold a writing tool!

Writers hold up a mirror for self-examination. Writers grind the lens to sharpen our myopic vision. Writers have the power to change lives. Writers are gods among mortals.

So, now I’ll ask the question of you, “Who is your favorite writer?”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Being a Hack

By Vikki Perry

I’m a hack: a writer of poorly formed sentences, underdeveloped characters, and plots that make very little, if any, sense. I admit it and accept it. This is a problem I face each time I put pen to paper or open a document on my laptop.

What does it mean to be a hack? I think being a hack is a little like being an addict--you can’t do anything about it until you admit you have a problem. Unfortunately, there are no “Hacks Anonymous” groups to help writers overcome this problem. The good news is that there are some things a writer can do to conquer this issue.

Write and revise. Accept yourself as you are, and let yourself write a really bad first draft. Spending a lot of time trying to write a perfect first draft is counterproductive for me. I find that I never complete anything if I worry about getting it right the first time around. Revision is the place where I fix the bad writing. I bet it will work for you, too.

Read books about craft. There are many books on craft out there and each one has a nugget or two of wisdom to impart. I’ve learned things from those books that I would have never learned on my own.

Join a professional organization. I joined RWA (Romance Writers of America) back in March, but if you’re not a romance writer, there is probably another organization out there for you. RWA offers online courses on craft and a monthly seminar at their meetings. I’m sure other professional organizations offer similar things.

Join a critique group. Last, but certainly not least, join a critique group like the South Carolina Writers Workshop. I have learned so much from bringing my work to be critiqued and from listening to others being critiqued. Everybody in the group brings something different to the table, and I’ve found the diverse opinions to be valuable when trying to improve my own writing.

What do you guys do to improve your writing?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Who Am I to Write Fiction?

By Mike Long
Columbia II Writers Workshop

I don't think I've ever felt that just anyone could write fiction. It seemed to me (still does) that a writer should have impeccable credentials to be taken seriously, either through training or experience. Therefore, an English professor running a creative writing course has a shot, but so does an ex-detective, even if he isn't as polished or articulate as the academician, and especially if he'd been involved in a few sensational cases.

Likewise, survivors of multiple marriages, shipwrecks, combat, and mind-altering drugs might be able to write well about love, hopelessness, fear and science fiction--not necessarily in that order. A twenty-five year old certified public accountant from East Bayonne, N.J., however, is probably going to struggle doing a bi-racial love triangle in Savannah in the 1870s, especially if he flunked U.S. history and never traveled. The same CPA easily could have a runaway hit on growing up on the fringe of The Mob. The lesson seems to be that drawing on one's own experiences is a step in the right direction.

That being the case, what the heck is a South Carolina stockbroker doing writing about Confederate soldiers going home to Texas? I'm not sure. Sometimes I feel like that CPA, and wonder if I will be taken seriously. On the other hand, I don't feel that I ever had much choice about writing this. You see, I'm a history buff, a gun collector, and I spent a couple of years in Vietnam. This started when I began to fantasize about what weapons I'd have carried if I'd lived in the 1860s, and then wondered what would have caused me to upgrade as the technology changed, and then figured how I could have afforded the upgrades. As possibilities presented themselves at all the wrong times, I found myself jotting down notes while driving, or at two in the morning, or, more often, at six a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. As it became more than a gun book, it really "cooked," and I finished it, 400 pages double-spaced, in about six months.

Afterward, I bought books on writing fiction, joined the South Carolina Writers Workshop, and have spent the last year polishing it and reading form reject letters from agents. One of the "How To" books suggested paying for a formal editorial review, so I contracted with an editor in Charleston, S.C. For about one penny per word, the editor allegedly cleans up your grammar/spelling and points up your manuscript's strengths and weaknesses. My review isn't finished, but in the meantime my editor has been hired as the acquisitions editor for a small publisher in Charleston. She's asked if she can "submit" my manuscript to the publisher for possible publication in 2009, and of course I agreed.

More recently, she said the publisher "loved the premise" but has not read the manuscript, and that if it's accepted, I'll need an agent (the publisher will help with that), and I'll have to agree to a book-signing tour.

So, I still don't know if I'm being taken seriously. That line, "loved the premise," appears in several form letter rejection notices.

Guess I'll keep my day job.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Few Words on Writing Them

By Meredith H. Kaiser
Columbia II Writers Workshop

One of my favorite books on writing is Parting the Curtains: Voices of the Great Southern Writers. Through Dannye Romine Powell's interviews with 22 writers, the rich variety of writing experience is revealed and celebrated. I read it every couple of years and underline newly recognized wisdom each time. Here are a few excerpts.

Shelby Foote, Civil War historian and novelist, recommended reading works of a great writer chronologically to watch him or her grow. He also said that writers who want to write better (who doesn't?) should read and reread the great writers of the past. "When you know where he's going, you can better perceive how he went about getting there. And that's what can teach you really about writing."

Novelist and short story writer Doris Betts said writers must be observant. "It's like being a child, because children can't tell what's important and what's unimportant, so they have to pay attention to everything. Well, writers are like that, I think. They are always just kind of -- I don't know -- watching and listening, and you just can't tell what you are going to use."

Essayist and novelist Walker Percy said, "The best thing about writing is to repeat the ordinary experience, and by putting that experience into language, it makes it available to the person who reads it in a way that hasn't been available before."

T. R. Pearson, author of humorous novels, said, "I don't have any inclination to hang around with people who write books. I know how I am, and I wouldn't want to hang around with me." He also said, "I'm sorry to say that I think writing is a semi-sick compulsion. An itch. It's not very healthy. I feel guilty when I don't write. I can remember, even as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, sitting down and writing, and I can't even begin to tell you why. There was no prospect that I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize when I was thirteen. I don't know what I was doing."

I love this book because I recognize myself in many of its passages. And if someone interviewed me -- a wild-eyed woman, breathing through labor pains as I birth my first novel (I'm sweaty and scared to push, though I know out is the only direction this thing can possibly go!) -- I would say this: Writing expands my heart and it terrifies me. It's like that relationship you know is good for you, but tests you in all the ways you've avoided for so long. I've decided to say yes to it. What choice do I have?