Sunday, December 27, 2009

Less Than Sublime is an Almost Rhyme

By David Sennema

Call me crazy, eccentric, or an old fuddy-duddy if you want, but I've
got a problem with people who write verse or ads or songs that purport to rhyme but don't. I call them "almost rhymes" but nearly, faulty, flawed, defective, deficient or not quite, would do just as well.

Just listen closely the next time you hear someone singing a song
written in the last ten or twenty years and you'll see what I mean. Those turkeys are trying to pass off as rhyming all kinds of words that vaguely sound like each other. They contend, for instance, that comin' rhymes with gunnin', Atlanta with banana, hurt with work, cats with that, chill with build, and on and on.

Mr. Webster, who presumably still has some credibility as an expert in
the matter, tells us that a rhyme is "a piece of verse, or poem, in which
there is a regular recurrence of corresponding sounds, esp. at the ends of lines." I am here to declare that "th" and "st" are not corresponding sounds.

Of course there are those who fudge the rhyming by indulging in a practice, represented by the horrible word, “assonance,” which is defined as “a partial rhyme in which the stressed vowel sounds are alike but the consonant sounds are unlike, as in late and make." Partial rhyme indeed!

Woe is me, what a legacy we're losing. Think of some of the great
lyricists of the past and what they were able to do with words. Do you
remember the Gershwins and their wonderful, lovely, rhyming words?

Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you,
Embrace me, you irreplaceable you.

Or Cole Porter?

You're the top! You're the Colosseum,
You're the top! You're the Louvre Museum.

And then there was the poet Ogden Nash who won me over with this
little two-liner:

Candy is dandy,
But liquor is quicker.

The limerick is often looked down upon as the red-headed stepchild of
verse, but the writers, often anonymous, knew how to rhyme not only the first, second, and fifth lines with each other, but also the third line with the fourth.

A collegiate damsel named Breeze,
Weighed down by B.A.'s and Litt. D.'s,
Collapsed from the strain.
Alas, it was plain
She was killing herself by degrees.

Here's another example of rhyming-with-a-smile by Ogden Nash.

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good,
And that is why your cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.

Do me this little favor. If you're planning on doing some writing,
and that writing requires rhyming, let me urge you to stop by your local
bookstore and pick up a rhyming dictionary. It will make you a better person and save me a lot of grief.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

When Inspiration Fades to Intimidation

By Beth Cotten

Many years ago when I was in high school, I wrote a poem that was chosen to be published in an annual review of high school students throughout the city. The submissions varied and included poetry, essays, short stories, and other types of short literary works. The review itself was small and though I can’t recall with certainty, it seems there were less than fifty submissions that made it into the booklet. I believe the name of the booklet was "The Quill." All students whose work was selected were invited by the sponsoring association to an evening event to honor the participants and winners. We were asked to dress for the occasion, which translated into clothes you would wear to church. I was excited and proud to be included.

My English teacher had encouraged the students in my class to submit something. My poem was about a fawn, standing in a forest, alone on a misty morning. I can’t find a copy of the poem and can’t even recall the title of the poem, much less the poem itself. I do recall it rhymed and had about four stanzas. I kept it for many years in my hope chest with other "important" papers; one of which was the Certificate of Award for my poem.

Since I became of member of SCWW, I have thought occasionally of that poem. I have even put together random thoughts about "poetic" issues I might choose to write about. But after trying to put these ideas into a written format, and reflecting on some of the poetry which our members have written and read to us during our workshops, I feel a sense of hopelessness to even begin to tackle such an effort. We have some TERRIFIC poets in our midst! Look at those who have had their poetry published! Their writings are beautiful and sensitive and inspirational. As I listen to these works, my enthusiasm fades to hesitation and my inspiration to intimidation.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Latest Addition

Meet A New Writer


Kimberly Johnson, a former journalist, has written for newspapers with articles focusing on health care, and education. Currently, Kimberly pens book reviews and gardening articles for a local magazine. Kimberly’s writing background includes stints as a technical writer for a software company, marketing assistant for a nonprofit agency and food columnist for a weekly newspaper.

In the education field, Kimberly taught business courses, computer classes and career development seminars at a job training center. She helped adult learners answer the age-old question “How Do I Get a Job?” through career counseling. Kimberly is a past member of Toastmasters where she held leadership positions.

Future Goal: To create a writing lab to educate the community on basic writing skills

Theme songs: "Back In Black" by ACDC; "Ain’t Gonna Stop" by James Otto

Favorite Authors: Jonathan Kellerman, Lolita Files, Elmore Leonard, Stephen J. Cannell, Janet Evanovich, Kwei Quartey

Kimberly's first posting follows.

Finding Your Audience

By Kimberly Johnson

"Heck, I can’t find them. Am I doing something wrong?”

Finding an audience for your creative composition or your nonfiction narrative can be irritating. It’s like searching for matching socks in the laundry basket. At times, the writer avoids the chore of sorting through his basket and matching up the right reader with the right content.

So, the writer grabs the nearest socks and ties them together by musing, “My book is for the science fiction crowd.” “They understand my work.” “I don’t have to explain it.”

That’s a pretty large crowd. How do you appeal to all the science fiction readers…or match up the right socks.

Try these three steps:

Step 1: Ask the important questions.
• Who is your audience?
• What do you want them to know, believe, or feel after they read it?
• When and where will they read it?
• Why will they read it?
• What does your audience believe?
• How do you establish rapport with the audience?

Knowing your audience allows the writing process to become easier, according to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Education Center. This simplifies the decision when it comes to tone, setting, character development and dialogue. If you select a target audience, the reader can relate or even enjoy the different perspective. Keep in mind, if you do not have a target audience, you may miss your intention or message. Your reader will not have a stake or a “buy in.” Think about it….if the editor doesn’t get it; will the buying public get it?

Take note: Melissa Donovan of Writing Forward adds that agents and publishers depend on a well-defined audience. “Publication is the point where your art shifts into business mode. It’s the stage when you say, ‘I want to do this for a living and make money doing it.’ That means you’re going to have to sell and anytime you’re selling anything, you need to know to whom you’re selling it.”

Step 2: Don’t assume the reader understands your material.
The introduction is the place to cultivate your relationship with the reader. The introduction provides you a chance to introduce the reader to your style. The reader feels secure that you are being “up front” with him. He becomes familiar with your style, quirks and all. The reader can decide whether he or she wants to forge the relationship or…move on to another writer.

Step 3: Identify your target audience.
According to Karl Wallace at Hunter College’s Reading and Writing Center, the writer should create a profile list or database outlining the targeted reader. For example, ask yourself: What type of education, economic, or social background does your reader need to understand your text? Is your book focusing on senior citizens? How do you plan to keep loyalty if you have written other books?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Writer


I have always written bad poetry, reams of it. Lucky for us all, I discovered the joys and frequent frustrations of writing prose two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, I have been working on my first, and still untitled, novel. It is about the relationship between an expatriate returning to her homeland; a denizen who is trying to flee that same land; and the land itself. Conveniently this land is my homeland, Nigeria.

My other addictions include the Los Angeles Lakers and exotic cars.

When I am not a tights-wearing-metaphor-wielding-writing superhero, I am a senior consultant on a large software project in Columbia.

Mayo's first posting follows.

Sacrifice and Robotics

By Mayowa Atte

You have a story, a dollop of your inner pudding that you have decided to share with the world. You have outlines, notes, character bios, plot sketches and countless late night/early morning/during showers/during meals/during anything ponderings. More importantly, you have words -- a line or ten thousand of blessed prose that you are sure will destroy the reader’s world and make it anew. There is only one problem; you can’t seem to write enough, can’t make significant progress, can’t finish.

Why is it so hard to finish? Two dragons guard the road to writing productivity; the first is a lack of time to write. With day jobs, night jobs, families, friends, church, lovers and pets it’s a miracle that anyone ever finishes a draft. The other is the writer’s mental attitude; there is enough time to write but you don’t feel like writing. Maybe you are like me and your writing productivity mirrors your love life, or you want to spend your one free hour watching the Lakers. The truth is that there will always be something else, someone else, and someplace else that needs or demands your attention.

How do you finish then? How do you reach the half-naked pleasure of that last page? The answer lies in Sacrifice and Robotics. To slay the first dragon, you take one of the many other things that require or demand your attention and you sacrifice it. You wake up an hour earlier every day or stay in instead of going out with friends. You sacrifice a favorite TV show or order takeout instead of making dinner. Maybe you tell your boss that you absolutely have to reduce your overtime (please proceed along this path with caution).

To slay the second dragon, you find your best writing atmosphere (place, time, noise level, etc.) and you write in that atmosphere on an unbreakable schedule (using time carved out with your sacrifices). The goal is to make writing robotic, more than a habit, but an automatic, ingrained activity that you perform whether or not you are in the creative mood, regardless of the state of your love life, or how happy, restless, horny, sad, bored…anyhow you feel. Sacrifice and Robotics.

Why will you sacrifice the things and people that are dear to you? Why will you turn the writing you do for pleasure into another must-do task? The answer lies in another question, why are you writing? Why must you tell this story? Do you need to right a social wrong? Do you want your bodice ripper to be a national guilty pleasure? Do you want additional income or a cadre of adoring female MFA students? Whatever your reason, it has to be strong enough to make these sacrifices worthwhile.

It is impossible to make all these sacrifices or adopt every good writing habit but one or two is doable and will bring immense benefits. On most days in August, I left work on time, went straight to the same coffee shop and wrote for a few hours before going home. That month, I went way over my food budget, gained seven pounds (lost my gym time), frustrated my boss and alienated a few friends and romantic interests.

I wrote more in those 31 days than I had in the previous eight months.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Final Look at the 2009 SCWW Conference with a Treat

By Ilmars Birznieks

On the whole the conference was a resounding success. The Keynote Speaker, Mr. Berry was excellent, just the right balm for struggling writers. For me, two workshops were especially interesting and, I hope, rewarding.

Sessions with good pointers and advice:

• Rochelle Bailey - “I’m Done! Or Am I? (What Happens After You Finish The Novel: Rewrites and Revisions)”
• Karen Syed - “Editing Essentials”

A couple of suggestions for future conferences:
• More directions on site for workshops.
• Improvement of food would help - the high cost of meals just did not match their quality or taste.

To finish our month-long series on the annual SCWW Conference, we are pleased to present Bonnie's poem which took second place in the Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Award Competition. This was a highlight of the conference for all of us at Cola II. Congratulations, Bonnie.

By Bonnie Stanard

When I was a kid
we believers,
baptized in moccasin plagued river waters
and the glory of our own passion,

entered the second gate of heaven
in late August at homecoming,
a reunion attended by far-flung relatives
local disbelievers, nonbelievers
and even freeloaders.

The virtuous act of fasting
gnawed at our stomachs
which rumbled in concert
with the preacher’s booming voice.

We lusted after salvation,
everlasting life, and the patience
to wait for the amen
that would end our sacrifice
and free us to pursue the divine purpose
of picnic baskets, specifically, those packed in cars
parked outside in the shade.

The goodly preacher
did his best to separate us from our sin
and ended with a “Come to Jesus” song.
We streamed outside
to the sanctity of the yard
and tables of exaltation,
bowls of potato salad, butter beans,
okra and tomatoes, fried chicken and pickles.
In a state of grace we piled our plates
to vast and groaning heights.
In a fit of glory, we went back for seconds.
Hallelujah! Went back for coconut cake.
Yes, Brother! Cream puffs and banana pudding!
Praise the Lord! We been saved.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Conference Notes

By Suzanne Gwinner

My first SCWW conference was a blast! Not quite knowing what to expect, I left home with an open mind. After meeting writers who traveled from Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, Mississippi, and Arkansas to be there, I realized that this was a bigger deal than I had imagined. I asked one of them why she chose this conference, and she simply said, “It’s one of the best.” When I overheard some agents discussing how they’d like to come back next year, I realized this was a top notch conference.

On Sunday afternoon, after two and a half days of thinking about nothing but writing – no school work, no household chores – I drove home, satiated, feeling a little like one does after Thanksgiving dinner, full and thankful, recharged and blessed. Thanks to all of our members who produced this event.


Deciding which session to attend proved to be a dilemma at times. I listened to talks on Query Letters (Janet Reid, agent), Editing Essentials (Karen Syed, publisher), Point of View (Nikki Poppen, author, editor), Panel – Do I Need An Agent (Ahearn, Berry, and Nintzel), Panel – Young Adult and Children’s Market (Bailey and Root), Synopses (Stampfel-Volpe, agent). I found all sessions to be helpful, and as might be expected, some were more informative than others.

Personally I found it interesting to hear from the agents. It seems to me that they set the agenda for the market, but their words of wisdom – write for yourselves, not the market – were sincere. The highlight of the conference for me was when Janet Reid expressed interest in my “Ripley” story. Since she does not handle children’s literature, she referred me to Joanna Stampfel-Volpe. At this point Joanna is not looking for picture books, but she read the manuscript and suggested some revisions before I start submitting it. I was thrilled to have feedback from real agents!

An author/editor session that I found helpful was Nikki Poppen’s talk on point of view. Her tips for helping the reader identify point of view change were:
• use the new character’s name more frequently
• use the name in dialogue tags
• refer to the character’s actions, thoughts, feelings
• use spacers
• switch sparingly
• switch only twice per chapter

Critiques and pitch:

Jim Casada critiqued my essay “Pa’s Gun.” He was warm and friendly while reviewing his editorial comments, and I appreciated his professional, thorough critique of my work. I know this piece is difficult to pigeonhole, but he gave me some suggestions as to where I might send it when it is polished.

Rochelle Baily of Quake (the young adult division of Echelon Press) was scheduled to critique Jackie Writes, Ripley Writes. I learned in the session just prior to our appointment that she is not interested in picture books, but we still discussed the idea and she liked it. She suggested another southern publisher.

I can hardly wait until next year’s conference. Now that I know what to expect, I’m even more anxious to attend!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

SCWW 2009 Conference Notes

By Janie Kronk

Here are the positive aspects of 2009’s “The Method, The Market, and The Muse” that stand out in my mind, regarding everything from the conference’s setting, its set-up, and it’s sessions.

1. Setting: The Chance to Retreat--But Not Too Far!
What can I say, it’s great to get out of town for the weekend. Myrtle Beach is a short enough trip from Columbia, and since I am not “marketing” myself as a writer at this point, this is purely a fun, stress-free weekend for me--a chance to relax at the beach and learn a few things. I enjoyed sitting on my ocean view balcony with my guitar (the wind off the waves loud enough to drown out the fact I can’t actually play) almost as much as I enjoyed the conference itself.

2. Set-Up: Less Paper in the Bag
Ever concerned about the environment, I was glad to see there was much less superfluous material in the goodie bags this year. The conference guide has been pared down from a binder to a simple folder with only the essentials, which was easier to carry around as well as being easier on resources.

3. The Book Nook: An Adventure
I also always enjoy book shopping at the retreat. It’s not as if there aren’t book stores right down the street from my house, but something about the limited and careful pre-selection of titles available at the “Book Nook” leads me to discover a few reads I really enjoy that I never would have picked from the glut of everything available at a mega-bookstore. This year’s fun finds include A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Kinsella, and poetry collections from regional authors Maureen Sherbondy and Paul Allen.

4. Sessions: Just Get the Drift
Not having a clear agenda in terms of what I wanted to learn and get out of the conference this year, I did much more drifting between various sessions than I have in the past. Having done so, I would actually recommend this as an effective strategy at a conference for a neophyte interested in learning more about the industry. You pick up tips. Most importantly, you see that all the agents, editors and publishers don’t always agree--some say resubmitting to them after you’ve been rejected is the kiss of death, others say why not. Some publishing houses work only with agented authors, some will not deal with agents. Although you get less out of each session by drifting around, you get a great number of snapshots contributing to the larger picture. Another interesting controversy between several of the faculty was the topic of the e-book. Is it the wave of the future, or are new books never to be replaced?

5. My Favorite Thing: Poetry Open Mike Night
I did not participate, merely listened, but for me this stole the show over any of the sessions. There was an air of festivity to the event, with writers from all over in the region coming together to share and celebrate their work. Writers, young and old, new and experienced, came together to read work that was funny, serious, and, in one instance, sung. My favorite piece was by Maureen Sherbondy (one of the fun finds mentioned above), a poem from her chapbook After the Fairy Tale called “Alice in AA.” To me, this event gave the conference a new light, and really underscored that we aren’t ONLY seeking to become better writers and achieve the ultimate goal of publication through these conferences--we are also participating in a rich creative culture that is very much an end in itself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In Search of...

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

I’m always on the lookout for devices that help me move the story forward and create authentic characters. Two presenters at the 2009 SCWW Conference offered good suggestions for doing just that.

Science fiction writer David Weber gave tips on how to provide backstory without the “dreaded dump.” Not being a science fiction fan, I was put off by the fact that Weber used examples from his series (not a good idea for any presenter), but the tips he provided were helpful and could apply to any genre.

Here are the ones I’m already trying to put to use:

• Use dialogue between characters to explore something that happened in the past;
• Create a flashback where your character can describe his or her feelings or experience;
• Use your character’s motivations or weaknesses to explore the past; this might be done using internal thoughts, but take care to not go overboard;
• Find ways that action scenes can be used to insert backstory; and
• Spread the backstory throughout the book rather than all at once.

Karyn Marcus, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin, talked about how to spin a draft into gold, but the most interesting part of the discussion was how to find “your voice.” Her advice for voice is something we’ve probably all heard a number of times, but bears repeating: “Do freewrites and let go of your internal editor.” That’s the only way to let yourself explore what your voice is, she says. (I would add: Experiment and mimic various writers. I once mimicked a Joyce Carol Oates short story and really surprised myself.)

Marcus also noted some of her picks among various genres that have unique voices:

• Mystery: Any of the Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny (“She uses a blend of point of view,” says Marcus. “I really feel like I know her characters.”)
• Memoir: Darkness Visible, by William Styron
• Creative Nonfiction: Many of Joan Dideon’s articles (Her pieces “play with perspective,” Marcus says.)
• Fiction: The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

If you found these tips helpful, what are you waiting for?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

SCWW 2009 Conference

By Bonnie Stanard

At the SCWW Conference at Myrtle Beach last weekend I woke up each morning to sweeping views of the Atlantic. Breakfast was with writers talking about writing. Lunch and dinner I sat at tables of writers talking about writing. In the evening more talk about writing. Does it get any better than this?

There were four sessions on Saturday and one on Sunday. As many as nine different topics were offered for a single session. Generally speaking, you could choose from topics on craftsmanship, genres, and/or the publishing business. There were also different formats to choose from--lectures, panels, and slush fests. I don’t have the patience for panels and slush fests, but if I were a beginning writer, this is a great way to get started.

Of the faculty that I saw in action, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe (on synopses) and Nikki Poppen (on point of view) were especially well prepared. Rochelle Bailey (on revisions) and Janet Reid (on query letters) were also good. As with any conference, some presenters were interested in meeting writers and others had variant interests.

Dinner each night gave us an opportunity to meet faculty members, all of whom sat at different tables. On Friday I sat at the table with David Weber. Noise was a problem, not just at my table but in the entire room, which made conversation across the table virtually impossible. On Saturday night I sat beside Jenny Bent and the noise wasn’t the problem. Steve Berry gave us a rousing stick-with-it speech, not too long, not self-congratulatory, but genuine encouragement.

I hope that next year the presenters will use microphones. Some of us writers don’t like to sit on the front row, and unfortunately the sound in almost every conference room echoed, and often I couldn’t understand what was said. This also affected questions and answers, especially if a question was asked from the front of the room.

Good news from the critiques and pitches with agents! Several Columbia II writers including Ilmars, Laura, Lisa, and Suzanne had positive feedback and/or requests for sample copies. Though I struck out with my pitch, I was consoled by winning second place in the Carrie McCray poetry competition.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is It Art Yet?

By Ginny Padgett

Recently I saw a docu-drama based on the life of Georgia O’Keefe. Her Svengali cum husband, Alfred Stieglitz, delivered a line that stopped the action for me, complete with bells and red flags. He said, “It’s not art until someone rich pays a lot of money for it.” Of course this line was said tongue in cheek, but it started me thinking.

My thoughts went to writing and publishing. Is the same true with the literary arts? I was still mulling over this question when a week or so later at our workshop there was a discussion about this very subject.

The conversation went like this. Some modern writers have become millionaires from their book sales, but some of these books are like potato chips…not good for you but you can’t put them down. On the other hand Mayo mentioned he was reading Lolita. Although he found the subject matter distasteful, he relished the beauty of the written word and envied Nabokov’s mastery.

Of course, art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But after giving this is-it-art question some thought and listening to others, here’s where I stand.

I believe art happens when one has an idea that is meaningful to him and strives to convey the impact of that thought or feeling through his chosen medium. I also believe that when one creates art, our collective consciousness is enhanced, elevated, edified. Furthermore, when one practices his art in community with others, like we do at workshop, I believe we inspire each other, and our experience is greater than the sum of our parts. Because of this experience, we don’t need a multi-million dollar contract or even to be published in a small literary magazine to consider what we do as art.

I think this a high calling to which we have responded. We ply our art without an eye to a generous benefactor. We write because we love it; we have a point to make; we have something we want to get off our chests. For whatever reason, we use words as painters use colors on canvases. Perhaps there is no better art than the pursuit of it. So write on, comrades in ink. Let’s make some art!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Things I Learned at Pitch Practice

By Bonnie Stanard

Earlier this month six of us from Columbia II got together to critique our submissions to agents and/or publishers. Though we considered query letters and synopses, we spent more time on pitches. In advance, we decided to limit each pitch to ten minutes and to give scores of one to five to every presentation, five being the best score. In evaluating the pitches of others, we put away our writing sympathies and tried to listen as an agent would.

First of all, I found out that awarding a numerical score doesn’t work well for me. I didn’t remember the many implications attached to a single number. Did a “5” mean I’d publish the work without editing? Did a “1” mean I wouldn’t entertain a revision of the work? In the end, a number doesn’t say much and in my case, even less.

I arrived with notes and had a good idea what I was going to say, but no amount of writing is on par with looking into expectant and judgmental faces. Bottom line: open your mouth and entertain or die.

I discovered in the process of pitching my manuscript that, though I considered it completed, it wasn’t (how many more times am I going to find this out?). Since our practice session I have cut three more chapters.

PITCH SUGGESTIONS In listening to other pitches and comments about my own, I’ve arrived at advice for myself that I’ll share with you.

1) Provide basic information up front, including the genre. Suzanne began her pitch by describing the characters and plot. Maybe that would have been okay if she had been describing a main-stream adult book, but it was a children’s book. I was in a fog until she gave us that piece of information.

2) Stick to an arc in describing the plot. Try to get across the hook, development, and resolution of the single most important plot. I enjoyed describing details of my story that I thought were important, but my critics gave this as a reason for lowering my score.

3) Don’t shotgun the story with numerous names of characters and/or places. At the same time, give characters names that clearly indicate the gender. For instance, is “Ryan” a male or female? And if there’s romance with “Chase” is it heterosexual or homosexual?

By the way, it was a thrill to pretend to be a publisher and pass judgment on the work of others. However, it was also sobering. This is about money, not art. It wouldn’t surprise me if agents ask themselves one question as they listen to us, “Will this book make money?” ” I’m wondering if my pitch will have more success if I somehow connect art with sales.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Creating the Lyric Essay

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

I recently discovered the lyric essay, which, as The Seneca Review defined it in 1997, is a “sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem.” The lyric essay, according to The Review, takes “an allegiance to facts” and merges it with poetic metaphor to describe an object, person or moment that is quotidian. For example, you might focus on a particular type of flower, a piece of animal bone in the desert, or like writer Joni Tevis does in the example below, a fossil.

With lyric essay, you’re essentially thinking and writing by association—as with poetry—and observing a symbolic act or observation, or a moment of epiphany. Outside of that it doesn’t conform to any standards, which, in my opinion, makes it very liberating.

As a writer who focuses on mostly fiction and thinks in terms of conflict and story arc, I have to admit, the lyric essay initially left me feeling a little like I was walking down a flight of stairs without rails. Unsteady, I was wondering, “Where am I going with this?” “Is this right?”

But after giving this form a try and studying some of the writers best known for this genre, I’ve come to enjoy putting motifs, images and metaphors together in a way that signifies a larger image rather than organizing words or images that “spell it out.”

Okay, so here are some examples, a couple of my favorite excerpts. Now, keep in mind, I don’t think these excerpts do lyric essay full justice, for, at least in my opinion, this type of prose is sometimes best appreciated when read in full—and out loud or in a whisper:

A fern’s dark print on shale. Ribbed clamshells pressed into a cliff of pale limestone. The compliant trilobite in all its variations, every bump and ridge preserved these two hundred million years, yet still capable of revelation, like a pair of sneakers hanging from the power line, pedaling the silent air.

-- “Fossil,” from The Wet Collection, Joni Tevis

Dark. Dark, but alive. Energized, expectant. Turbo-charged darkness. When does the first note of precolor appear?…Flemish grays and now, almost, a blue, where two fat stars hang in the east—companions at the slow birth of day, midwives—I should know their names.

-- “July 9, 5 a.m.,” from Seven Notebooks, Campbell McGrath

Give it a try sometime, then check out Brevity ( and The Collagist (, which both accept this intriguing form of prose.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Writing Stories That Fly, Part II

By Celinda Barefield

Now you have a book on how to write. The question becomes, how do I apply it to my writing? This can be seen as a downer for most writers. If it wasn’t hard enough getting just the right book to fix your problem, now you have to actually read it and apply the written word to your work. This might seem a Herculean task, but with these three steps it is accomplishable.

1. Read the book. Yes, I know we like to focus on writing, but sometimes it can be helpful to take a break and read something by someone else, especially if it will ultimately improve what we are working on. I know, it sounds crazy, but it is possible other people can help us.

2. Highlight the parts that catch your interest. Maybe they relate to a problem area, or maybe they were just funny. It could be an exercise, a quick quote, or even a smart how- to tip. The point is that you looked for help and are enthusiastic about writing again.

3. Apply your newfound knowledge. That’s it. The big secret of writing. If you take the time to use what you learn, your writing will get better.

Now, go out and conquer!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Plot Line for Doubts, Hopes, Fears

By Bonnie Stanard

Point of view (POV), like other literary devices, changes fashion as the art of writing explores new territory. The omniscient POV, which prevailed in the 19th Century with authors like Dickens, Poe, and Hardy, has given way to first person POV popular today.

Many critics claim that first person POV began as interior monologue, historically used by playwrights (i.e., soliloquy) and poets. It came to the novel in a big way with James Joyce’s Ulysses, an entire book written as the stream of consciousness of the narrator. Not many novels today are as immersed in first person as Ulysses, in which the narrator’s ramblings fail to identify other characters or places, leaving the reader to pick and sort for himself.

I am reading The Zahir by Paulo Coelho, which is a first person narrative, further defined as stream of consciousness POV. It is heavily invested in one man’s ruminations. The plot simply sets up the situation that the main character meditates on at length. In fact, aside from minor activities as a novelist (the main character is an author), the only plot so far is his wife's leaving him. From that event, the writer ponders his relationships with his ex-wife and current lover, his own sense of worth, his future without his wife, etc. He has just met the man who stole his wife, and I'm hopeful that something will happen.

Not long ago, I read Shantaram by Gregory Roberts, a very different first person narrative. This book, given from the POV of a character named Lindsay, is plot-driven. We follow Lindsay as he arrives in the slums of Bombay where he falls in love, is imprisoned and rescued by a mafia don, and goes to work (and war) for him. The author introduces numerous other characters, and the interaction that results fashions the plot. Though we get some insight into Lindsay's thoughts, the book is driven by the events of his everyday life. Needless to say, this type of story can only succeed if the life is exciting.

Very close to the first person POV is third limited. This too is a popular device for delivering a story. In fact, the main difference between first person and third limited is the choice of pronouns for the narrator, whether “I” or “he/she.”

A number of contemporary writers are experimenting with POV. You can find books in which POV shifts from one character to another and from first to third person limited. Stef Penny, as an example, employs first person and third person limited POV in her novel The Tenderness of Wolves. What each POV character doesn’t know is revealed to the reader by other POV characters until the reader has more information and can solve the mystery before the “I” narrator who tells the story. Tension arises when the first person narrator makes mistakes because she doesn’t know what the reader knows.

The changes in POV technique are moving toward greater intimacy. The narrator is less likely to be the bard standing aloft his audience and describing the world as it is. He has morphed into a character in the story, one who experiences the plot and feels the bullets, if vicariously.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


By Laura P. Valtorta

It took me three readings to understand how Audrey Niffenegger took a vain protagonist (Claire Abshire) dropped her into a completely implausible situation (time travel backwards and forwards) and made a wonderful book out of it. The answer is depth.

The main character in The Time Traveler’s Wife, (2003) who also narrates the story along with her time-traveling husband, is a beautiful, charming redhead with a pencil thin mouth (she describes it “like a geisha” in order to make a thin mouth attractive) who sounds a lot like the author. Claire first meets her husband, Henry, when she is 6 and Henry is 36. Henry has time traveled backwards. He has no control over his chronological fits.

Claire comes from a wealthy family. Like Audrey, she earns her living as an artist. But Audrey Niffenegger the author is not married. Both main characters, Henry and Claire, are grossly good looking and nauseatingly sexy.

What makes this story readable and irresistible is that it contains meaningful questions about chaos, determinism, the effect of time on personality, Patty Hearst, picking locks, running from the law, love, art, music, and books. These questions form the heart of the book.

If I met Claire or Henry in real life, I would run the other way. The characters are slop and the story is ridiculous. The author, however, has something important to say.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Latest Addition

Meet A New Writer


Born in South Carolina, Shann Fountain Culo has been traveling all of her life. She studied abroad in both Spain and Germany and has visited 26 countries—many of them before age 21. She speaks Spanish, Croatian, and rapidly declining French.

After graduating from Sweet Briar College, Shann owned a multilingual staffing company, tried her hand at corporate gifts, and taught Spanish (with occasional travel sabbaticals in between) before becoming a writer. Now a full-time freelance writer, she is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler, and her articles have also appeared in Hemispheres, Four Seasons Hotels Magazine, and several other publications.

Shann is the author of Moon Croatia & Slovenia (Avalon Travel Publishing, 2009, and keeps her readers updated on the region on her Facebook page.

She also writes fiction and hopes to get published in that genre in the near future.

Shann's first posting follows.

Creating Setting

By Shann Fountain Culo

I suppose it’s my background as a travel writer but I love settings. I’ve also been known to love a movie mostly for its setting; films like Out of Africa, The Lover, and Children of Heaven are three that automatically come to mind. Done well, a setting can add to a story or a film, in addition to serving the purpose of grounding the reader in the story.

But without film or the luxury of nineteenth century writers to ramble for paragraphs about our setting, how do we convey a sense of place economically?

Travel writing has taught me a lot about techniques to convey a lot of feeling in a few words. Most of my assignments are short 150- to 200-word pieces where I have to describe a location, tell why the reader should go there, where they should have lunch, dinner, and stay the night, and give pertinent information (websites, phone numbers, names). I’d better be short.

When describing settings it’s important to use details a reader can resonate with. Most people haven’t lived in Mongolia but a boiling kettle over hot stones, dusty roads, and horses are all details your readers will relate to. Then you can add in a detail they don’t, like Airag, the national drink of Mongolia, describing its bitter, acrid taste.

It’s best to use a quick checklist of the senses when describing your setting. You don’t have to employ all of them, but maybe you never use taste or smell, for instance. Particularly useful are adjectives that employ a sense combined with an attribute like chocolate-box, gingerbread, sleepy, or buzzing.

Try using fresh methods for describing colors. We’ve all heard beet red or fire-engine red, but what about tin-roof red or crazy red. In one of the Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling describes green eyes as the color of “fresh pickled toad.” Amazing, I think. She not only uses an unexpected metaphor but one that adds to the character and theme of her book.

Using sound adjectives is helpful as well. We’ve all heard ‘the party was hopping’ but think about other sounds to describe a lively get-together. What about the vodka splashing against ice, the swish of a dancer’s hips, or the crackle of a stereo?

Foreign words can be tricky to use but quite effective under the right circumstances. An easy way to use them without being pretentious or confusing is to employ familiar words or words that can not be mistaken for their meaning by the average English-speaking reader. French words like fatale or succès or Italian words like bella or conforti come to mind.

Last but not least is to remember to use setting precisely and usually, sparingly. Exceptions to these rules would be when setting is integral to the plot (a terrible storm conceals a murder), the setting is important to reveal character, or the setting is a character itself.

Wherever you set your scene, have a journalist’s perception of the place. How would you describe it? What strikes you first? If you can see it in your mind, it’s likely the reader will as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Get Your Story Out the Door!

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

It’s easy to be daunted by the task of searching markets for your work. For sure, places such as Writer’s Digest offer great links to literary magazine Web sites, and there are probably more than a few services that you can pay to help you find a market to submit your work.

But if you’re looking for an economic alternative, let me suggest Listed among Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers” (, is a free, easy-to-use online submission tracker that I discovered through a writing friend. Check it out:

1. Go to You don’t need to sign up for an account to try it (but go ahead and sign up; it’s free, after all!).
2. Search for your market on the Home page: For example, if you’re writing historical fiction, in the Genre box you’ll click on Historical Fiction; if you want to search for literary markets, click on Literary, etc.
3. Go down and click through the options in the remaining dialogue boxes (eg., poem/short story, simultaneous submissions/submission via electronic or postal, etc.), or leave them empty if not applicable or you want to broaden your search. You can even search publications that accept submissions online, which saves trees, time and money, and who isn’t for that?
4. At the end, click Submit.

You’ll get a list of markets, along with titles and links to a page that summarizes the publication, along with links to the publication’s official Web site. Once you’ve signed up and submitted your work, you can log onto Duotrope and add the stories or poems you submitted to the various publications. Just click Add Submission. It tracks all your submissions, which you can review all sorts of ways, such as by story/poem title and date of submission.

Be sure to also sign up for the weekly newsletter (see link at top of web page) and you’ll get a weekly email update with new market listings and re-opened submissions and upcoming deadlines for publications that have themed issues. This email does on occasion ask for donations to help keep the site up and running (it’s operated by a few published writers and former editors—see the About and FAQs links at the bottom of the site). It’s optional, but after the rush of excitement you get from having your own submissions tracker page and, you’ll want to send these folks a donation.

There are other search functions in the database too numerous to discuss here, so the best way to find out is to simply pull up the Web site and check it out yourself.

What you won’t find on Duotrope, however, are contests, and I welcome any feedback on this blog from someone who knows of a contest submission tracker.

Happy submitting!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Male Writers

By Laura P. Valtorta

Men. What are they seeing? What are they feeling? Why is Woody Allen a sports fan? They act so bombastic and inscrutable that I must read their fiction to understand them. Here are three of my favorite writers:

RICHARD FORD. For the past 20 years he has led us through the life of character Frank Bascombe, the hero of the books The Sports Writer, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. He won the Pulitzer Prize. He also has written several short stories, some of them in collections. His latest short story appeared in The New Yorker magazine about a year ago.

When Richard Ford came to speak at USC as part of the Jeanette Turner Hospital program, I wondered if he would be snobby after so much success. He is a Louisiana native who writes about New Jersey, a child dying, two divorces, and growing old in the real estate business. Funny and poignant. I thought maybe he wrote about himself. Turns out, Frank Bascombe is not much like Richard Ford, who has been married to the same woman for many years, has no children, and divides his time among homes in Colorado, New Jersey, Ireland, and Louisiana. His talk was entertaining and never condescending. He seemed happy with himself and his life.

Richard Ford is short and compact, unlike his writing which is sprawling and unedited. He is about 60, has clear blue eyes and is part Native American. He talks to his fans; he talked to me! As the studio executive once said about Carole Lombard: “Me likee.”

HARUKI MURAKAMI (say it fast) is the master of existential fiction. I can’t get enough of him. Luckily, all of his novels and short stories have been translated from Japanese to English.

The best way to meet Haruki is through the short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Reading and re-reading the same stories. They draw the reader along. The characters are rich, the metaphors come to life. The intrigue is that these stories are difficult to understand. "The Poor Aunt" is a good place to start. The narrator doesn’t just feel like he has a poor aunt on his back. He actually does, which makes life cumbersome. I see the poor aunt as a metaphor for depression. The other stories are more complex. What happens in “Birthday Girl?” What does “The New York Mining Disaster” have to do with New York? Why the obsession with cats?

Haruki Murakami has written an autobiography called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which doesn’t shed much light on his stories but says a lot about being Japanese and loving jazz.

TOM PERROTTA. This writer is not someone I want to meet. He is too preppy and reminds me of the frat boys in college. He probably drinks beer and uses pick-up lines. He might think he’s good-looking. Maybe he is.

What strikes me about Perrotta’s writing (Election, Joe College, Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher) is that he has mastered the art of creating characters through alternating points of view. In The Abstinence Teacher, he writes from two minds: a woman, a sex education teacher, who wants to be able to teach freely about birth control in public schools, and a man who has been “saved” by a fundamentalist Christian Church. The characters clash. Perrotta makes them both likeable. How does he do this? He understands how women think. How? Maybe men and women are not so different after all.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Thing

By Brian Butler

How many times have you sat down to write with that blank receptacle before you and yet nothing to plug into it? A common occurrence for many of us, I am sure, yet the passion to write continues to lure us. The void stares back at you, emotionless and cold, but still begging for input, silently crying for existence. And you possess the power to grant it, to create something out of nothing. Much like mad scientists, we as writers are drawn by the ability to conceive our own Frankensteins, giving birth through our fingertips.

When words are put to the page, the creature begins to take on unique characteristics, traits only this monster owns. As days pass and it is fed more and more words, it begins to stand on its own. It grows from its barren space to a starving infant craving nourishment and attention. It feeds relentlessly. Spawned from the depths of our brain, it becomes one of our offspring, developing a distinct personality blended from our experiences and imagination. We start to care for this…thing.

The monster continues to grow and becomes its own entity, gorging on our time. Its greedy voice speaks to us on an unconscious level as it evolves. We respond with all the love such a child needs to develop into a healthy adult. But soon, it becomes too large to contain.

To retain command, we assign schedules and ration its intake to keep the beast from spinning out of control.

The creature rebels.

It is used to over-indulging, taking all we can give. It has had no set of laws to follow to this point. With a life of its own, the progeny stops communicating, punishment for the application of rules. Alone, we slump into a state of apathy. The roles have reversed, and now instead of us being the care-giver, we look to our creation to fulfill our needs. We look for it to give in return.

But it doesn’t. It won’t. It can’t.

It is up to us to continue the relationship, to reconnect and finish what we started. Without us, creations such as these will never reach maturity. They will sit dormant in drawers and in closets and in dead computer memories. They will become abandoned orphans whose creators were too cruel to put them out of their misery.

Be a good parent. Stay in touch with your brood. Feed them incessantly at birth to bring them to a healthy life. Then mold them with subtle refinements. Yes, rules are necessary, but do not let them confine you or condemn your offspring. Instead use them as guidelines to bring your creations to success, where they can survive on their own, and be introduced to the world, not as a monster, but as a beautiful work of art for all to adore.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A View Point on Point of View

By Alex Raley

Just when I think my brain has finally gotten a grip on writing, something jars the hold. Early in my writing attempts I heard repeatedly that writing in the first person, especially long pieces like a novel, was so difficult as to be avoided at all costs. You know the problems – how do we avoid portraying only one dimension of a situation? whose head are we in? how do we give the reader a glimpse into the feelings of the various characters?

While on vacation recently, I read five novels which were published within the last five years. All of them used the first person singular. In each case, there was a hint of memoir, but you knew that this was not the recounting of facts from someone’s life. There was a compelling story to be told and enjoyed. The story was filled with interesting descriptions of places and events. Most remarkably, “I” appeared just often enough to remind you of who was telling the story and, in at least one case, a principal character was not the narrating “I”.

At our state conference last year a reviewer told me that my short story was about the male character and not the female character. I had tried to make the female the main character. While the reviewer did not specifically tell me to let the male tell the story in first person, I said, “Umm.” The rewriting is going smoothly with the fearsome “I” occasionally presenting problems. Now if I can just write with a minimum of “I’s”, I may be able to make the story what I want it to be.

Another dictum for us as writers is to make sure that the reader knows who is your main character. That does not seem too complicated, but I have found myself trying to write a novel in which several characters are “main.” It was important to me that the reader know the feelings and thoughts of several people who were affected by the story. Letting the principals each have a section of the book in which they were portrayed seemed like a reasonable solution. I was well into the process of redirecting the novel, when I read Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital. In that wonderful book, Hospital even helps the reader by giving chapters the names of characters so that we know the seminal person or event.

We are always told that writers learn by reading. This summer I have reaffirmed that notion. Looking for help? Read, read, read.

Monday, August 10, 2009

First Impression (Why I Wish I Could Write My Life)

By Celinda Barefield

OK, I was originally going to write a follow up to my last article about how to integrate a good writing guide into your work, but in light of recent events, I’m changing my topic. I will do the follow-up at a later date. Instead, I’m going to write about meet-and-greets.

The big challenge here is: How do you get your main characters to meet? This is where setting, motive, and actions come into play. There are many types of meet-and-greets ranging from preplanned stalkerish to randomly weird and everything in between. Maybe one of the characters sets it up. Maybe it’s an act of fate. Sometimes it can be pure coincidence. It is up to the writer to decide. The point is that they eventually do have to meet.

My favorite type of meet-and-greet is the Meet Cute. If you are familiar with old romance comedies, you know what I’m talking about. In a Meet Cute, two people are looking for similar things. For example, a girl and a guy are in the men’s suit center. The girl only needs a jacket, the guy just needs a pair of trousers, but the clerk has to sell the set. They both blurt out their requests at him at the same time and realize that they can solve their problem together. This is a Meet Cute, a random act that leads two people to meet, and in most cases fall in love.

Another type is the Serendipity meeting. After spending a large amount of time almost side by side, two individuals finally encounter each other via a random act of fate, most often years later. An example is a guy and a girl live in the same apartment building but on different floors, they work in the same office building again on different floors, and they frequent the same deli for take-out but at different times. It is not until they are both on vacation in Maui that they run into each other waiting at a taxi stand in the middle of a thunderstorm. They fall in love and realize that they were close for years and never knew it.

As writers, we do not have to write a good first impression. Take Pride and Prejudice for example. Here we have a great meet-and-greet in which the two lovebirds get the totally wrong impression of each other. Mix-ups like this make or break some stories. So choose your first words with care. The thing to remember is until it’s published you can always write a new first impression unlike in real life when you’re stuck with the ones you make.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Latest Addition

Meet A New Writer

David Sennema

Dave was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, graduated from Albion College, and then spent the next two years at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, courtesy of the U.S. Army. He met his wife Marty on the stage of the Town Theater in Columbia, where he got his start in arts administration as the first director of the Columbia Music Festival Association.

He became the first director of the South Carolina Arts Commission in 1967, and in 1970, went to Washington, D.C. as associate director of the Federal/State Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1973, he was invited to Springfield, Illinois to become the founding director of the Community Arts Management Program at Sangamon State University, and later returned to Columbia as director of the South Carolina State Museum.

In his retirement years Mr. Sennema has taken up short story writing and was announced as one of twelve winners of the S.C. Fiction Project in June, 2009. His short story, “Harley Takes a Chance” will be published in The Charleston Post and Courier newspaper in September of 2009. Mr. Sennema and his wife Martha are also authors of the book, Columbia, South Carolina – A Postcard History, published by Arcadia Publishers in 1997, and can be found in bookstores in the Columbia area.

Dave's first blog entry follows.

Planning to Improvise

By David Sennema

As a barbershop quartet singer one of my favorite things to do is what barbershoppers call “woodshedding” a song. No printed music is used. The “lead” sings the melody, and the tenor, baritone and bass improvise in an effort to create four-part harmony.

Many years ago I played the trombone, and during my college days I jammed with a small ensemble. Jazz groups are known for improvisation and that’s what we were doing, although I must admit that it was at a very basic level.

And then there’s theater. One of the methods that drama teachers use in training actors is to give them a topic and have them improvise a scene.

So what does all this have to do with writing? I started writing short stories before having had any formal, or even informal, training. I just sat down at the computer with the grain of an idea and started typing. I was improvising and the computer keyboard was my instrument. I finished a few stories that way, but in the meantime I began to read about how one is supposed to write short stories.

“You must have a plan before you sit down at the computer,” I read. “I always write the ending first so I know where I’m going” some authors wrote. “It’s best to outline the entire story before proceeding,” others suggested.

Such pronouncements gradually wore me down, and I began to feel like an undisciplined clod, so I started following their advice. I made lists of characters that would appear in stories, noting some of their distinguishing features. Then I either made an outline or wrote a narrative summary of the entire story. And only then did I sit down and start writing.

I have been writing short stories for only about a year, and so I make no pretense of having any expertise whatsoever. I can only say that having tried two different approaches I prefer the “improv” method and I think I’ve had better results going that route. However, I am loathe to completely ignore the advice of proven authors, so as I move forward I will probably experiment, trying different combinations of the two approaches.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Writing as Catharsis

By Ginny Padgett

I think many writers benefit from the catharsis of writing. In fact, it’s probably a driving force for some. Recently, I made an interesting discovery about myself.

An upsetting incident presented itself to me; a dear family member was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. I couldn’t seem to tame the raw emotions that continued to wash over me. I hate being in that kind of emotional state and I wanted relief. My Muse spoke to me! Go write about it…in a POEM. I didn’t question the directive, but I was surprised because poetry is not my preferred writing genre.

I sat down at the computer and an hour later I had a poem I called “Elastic Love,” and I had left all the emotion on the page. I’m not saying how good it was, but it did the trick for me.

A few weeks later, another situation arose carrying the baggage of unpleasant emotion; a frustrating conversation with a friend who continually spouts a negative outlook. This time I didn’t hesitate. I felt a poem coming on. Again I had success…restored equilibrium and a poem I dubbed “Human Appliances.”

This is what surprises me. I don’t derive the same kind of catharsis from writing prose as I do poetry. I guess if I were to analyze this I could come up with a hypothesis to explain this phenomenon, but I don’t care. It works for me. I probably won’t submit these poems for publication, but I do enjoy reading them occasionally.

I am curious to know if you’ve discovered unexpected benefits from your own creative endeavors. Leave a comment.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What I've Learned So Far

By Deborah Wright Yoho

What goes through your mind, Gentle Reader, when I tell you that I teach adults to read? How can an adult not know how to read in this day and age, in this country? Oh, maybe she works with retards, or welfare mothers, or rednecks?

I became the director of a non-profit adult literacy program in 1994, after I left my job as the principal of a rural South Carolina high school - straight from three years of dealing with kids who lived on dirt roads and showed up in August barefoot or with lice. One student asked permission for dismissal at noon so he could pick cotton to earn a few dollars for his family. Another forgot to leave his loaded shotgun at home. He parked his truck, unlocked, on school grounds with the evil thing still mounted on a gun rack behind the front seat.

So when I accepted the job as an adult educator, I thought the guy at the “fillin’ station” on The Andy Griffith Show, Goober, probably represented the typical adult who struggles with reading. That is, until I met James Lazarus.

I had been on the job a week when a newspaper reporter with The State called me asking to interview an “adult illiterate” for a feature story about the United Way campaign. “Sure!" I answered, eager to grab the media spotlight. "I have someone here right now. If you have a close deadline, you can come right over."

"I'll be right there," Bill McDonald said, delighted to get this chore out of the way. I gave him directions and waited impatiently for him to arrive.

It never occurred to me to ask the adult learner and his tutor if they wanted to be interviewed. When Bill arrived, I escorted him to the classroom and introduced him. I also had to introduce myself. I had never met either James Lazarus or the lovely elderly lady who volunteered to tutor him. Luckily, James didn't care about my presumption or my rudeness.

Bill posed his first question. "Tell me, Mr. Lazarus, what do you do for a living?"

"Huh?" asked James.

"Your profession."

With immense dignity, this quiet middle-aged man stated, "Oh, I'm a pastor."

"A pastor?!" Bill's jaw dropped only slightly lower than mine.

"Yes, I have a congregation of about 300 souls just outside of town. Preaching is my profession. But I also work for the county painting playground equipment."

"What does your church think about their pastor not being able to read?"

"Well," said James. "They don't know." There was a pregnant pause as James drew a breath and then grinned. "But I guess they are about to find out!"

James Lazarus understood his secret was about to be divulged to the whole world while Bill and I never considered that he may not have wanted his face plastered six inches high on page one of the Metro section. But that is how his congregation found out their pastor couldn't read.

As for me, I learned something about stereotypes, dignity, patience, consideration for others, and plain good manners from a gentleman. To this day, I am very proud to call James Lazarus my friend.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Writing Stories That Fly, Part I

By Celinda Barefield

Lately as I have been in the middle of a writer’s block, one question has been plaguing my mind. How do you write something?

I know from my own experimentation in picking up a pen and putting something down on paper that it is not an easy task. Nor is it a straightforward one. Personally, I have read a number of self-help writing books to push me along towards the answer to this question. There are crazy amounts of these books, so the question then becomes, how do you pick a book from all the others? That’s what this post is about: types of writing books - genre specific, style specific, general self-help.

This is what I look for in a writing book. First, how old is it? If it is over 20 years old and isn’t in a second edition stay away from it. Writing, like any occupation, changes. It would be like picking up a 20-year-old science book and expecting it to be up to date. It might have some good tips, but most likely it will lead you in a bad overall direction.

Second, look at the topic; a number of these books are genre specific. They have multiple books for different genres. Therefore, if you want to get to know a certain genre, like science fiction, fantasy, romance, western, Christian, or others, there are books specifically dedicated to work with that area. Just make sure you really want to associate with a particular genre before going towards a genre-writing book.

Third, make sure you peruse the book before you commit yourself to reading it. Time is precious and so is money. You don’t want to invest in a book and find out afterwards that it doesn’t talk about point of view when all you needed was help on that topic. This is where you may run into problems with general self-help books. They might not give enough help on the subject you need. That is why style-specific point books are useful; identify what you’re really trying to correct and read before committing yourself to a 400-page horror.

Lastly, I’m going to leave you with a writing exercise. Many self-help books have them. They are meant to get us writers writing, and I’m hoping it works for me. Why don’t you give it a shot?

Try this. Choose a work that you have already started. Now, look at it again, and write a new beginning from a different point in the timeline, either before or after your original beginning.

How does the story change?

Look back at both beginnings. Which better fits your story? Why?

Next time you are stuck in your writing, think about the beginning. Maybe what you really need is to jump-start the front of your story, not the back.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Flashback or Not?

By Beth Cotten

A fellow writer, who admitted to being new at the game of novel writing, asked a group of our members how to go about properly using the writing technique known as the “flashback.” Several opinions were rendered by those present about whether flashbacks were the way to go. Of course there were varied opinions. One mentioned that it was probably not the best technique to use although many writers have used it and have been published. The conversation left me curious about what actually were the disadvantages, technically speaking, of using this method of writing.

I had purchased the book written by Chris Roerden Don’t Sabotage Your Submission: Save Your Manuscript From Turing Up D.O.A. and thought it might cover this subject. It does. Roerden dedicates eight pages to “Fatal Flashbacks.” Since the space available for this blog is much less, I will try to shrink that information to fit the requirement.

Correctly used, a flashback makes the present story clearer in a significant way. The technique is tempting, but the publishing gurus highly suggest that new writers stay away from using it as “even experienced writers have problems with it.” Why? Roerden gives eight objections to using flashbacks which I have paraphrased below.

1. A flashback requires the writer to make a shift in time which is challenging to every writer.
2. It not only stops the story’s forward motion, it actually reverses it which can be fatal to the storyline.
3. Often it inspires writers to include information that adds no value to the story.
4. Less history is needed by the reader than many writers think and can be presented in the current story in a less disruptive manner.
5. Longer flashbacks cause a greater risk of damaging the forward thrust of the plot.
6. A flashback from within a current scene is hard to segue into and then smoothly return to the action.
7. When some readers detect an impending flashback they simply jump ahead in their reading.
8. Many writers like to use flashbacks for their own convenience and not for its primary purpose.

Roerden goes on to explain in detail and through example the ways in which flashbacks and what are called mini-flashbacks can be used effectively. He cautions writers to avoid taking readers into the past if a way can be found to include “brief…selected highlights from the past” in the current action.

I highly recommend this book to anyone hoping to be published (aren’t we all?) and especially to a newbie like me.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Writer

Suzanne Gwinner

I have spent a career working with dyslexic students, students who learn differently, call them what you will. Whatever the label, they are bright students who have difficulty with our language – most commonly written language. One of my high school boys remarked recently that I must be crazy to enjoy writing!

I have written for pleasure since high school, but I have just recently gotten serious about attempting to write a book. As a newer member of the SCWW, I am finding the feedback and comments at our meetings most beneficial. I’m extremely excited about the conference in October!

As for my student’s comment – there are days when I consider him a most insightful young man!

Suzanne's first posting follows.

Summer's Gift

By Suzanne Gwinner

At the end of May I gleefully waved goodbye to my cherubs at school as they scrambled into an assortment of cars, SUVs, and minivans waiting to whisk them away to the beaches and mountains of our fair state and beyond. Don’t get me wrong. I love my work, but teaching bright dyslexic and ADHD children is an adventure not meant for the timid. Summer break is a well-deserved respite for a veteran teacher.

Early in June I spent ten days exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The summer crowds had not yet descended, cool weather prevailed, and wildlife roamed unperturbed. Attaining one of my life goals – observing wolves in the wild – made me tingle. On three separate occasions I watched different wolves interact, undisturbed by humans. My spirit rejoiced.

Now, school is out, vacation is tucked away in my mind’s eye, and summer has delivered her most precious gift – the gift of time.

Seated at my computer, refreshed and rested, I make plans for my gift.

The lack of it seems a constant theme in American life, but for the next eight weeks time will be my friend. I’m giddy at the prospect of unstructured time. This year I will put writing high on the priority list, schedule time for it instead of giving it the leftovers. In the past it has been buried under home improvement projects, golf, and travel. Like an artist molds clay, I can shape time into forms that appeal to me. Most likely I’ll carve it into big chunks. That’s the kind of time I like. I’m not good at doing a little here and a little there. Multitasking? Not my strong suit. When writing, I like to lose track of time. It’s a luxury, I know. Sometimes I skip meals, or work late into the night. I like that kind of time. I love the surprise when I turn off my study light to go to bed, and darkness envelops the entire house. Only then do I realize the late hour for the lamp timers have all clicked off. Even the dog has curled up in his bed to chase dream rabbits. That’s the kind of time I cherish. And it is to be cherished, for off in the distance I hear a little voice whispering, “Eight weeks! You only have eight weeks!”

I admire people who write books while they toil at demanding jobs; I just don’t know how they do it. Finding big chunks of time during the school year is almost impossible. So, now that summer has delivered her gift, I can work on another of my life goals - to write my book. My materials are in order, the outline is complete, and the story plays like a movie in my head.

All that’s left now is to put the words on paper.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Writer

Marissa Burt

I am an unabashed lover of all things book-related. Like most avid readers, I've tried my hand at writing. Short stories, poetry, novels - you name it, I've probably tried it. My most recent project: The Tale of Una Fairchild: The Beginning, the first book in a middle-grade fantasy trilogy, is currently on submission to publishing houses via the hard work of my agent Laura Langlie. Please visit my blog for more details.

When not writing, I enjoy time with my husband, two sons, and the clowder of cats that surround our house. I like to bake (mostly sweets), garden (any plant that survives my meddling), read (of course), and act (the more dramatic, the better). I'm thrilled to be a part of the Columbia Writers Workshop and appreciate the encouragement of such a great group of writers.

Marissa's first posting follows

Writing Like an Actor

By Marissa Burt

I recently saw an interview with a well known actor who described this approach to his film roles: for each take of a scene, he would adopt a fresh angle. The lines were the same. The setting was the same. But he always tweaked his delivery, just to see how it could be different. The end result was that he thoroughly explored his character and gave the director a whole slew of different options for the final film.

Are you stuck on a scene? Do your characters feel wooden? Or maybe something’s just not right, but you can’t put your finger on it. Try writing from a fresh angle. Play around with your characters. Give them a stance, a voice, or a motivation you haven’t seen before. Make adjustments to the setting. What would change if the scene took place in the middle of the night? During a busy workday? First thing in the morning? Or pick a side character – maybe someone who merely passes through a scene – and explore her backstory. Tweak her delivery, just to see how it could be different. You may be surprised by the end result.

Some writing friends I know have done this as a group. Everyone hands off a chunk of a current work in progress to someone else in the group. Then they each write the next scene of their partner’s work. It’s a challenging exercise for a writer. On the one hand, you must try to enter into another author’s world and continue the story. Writing in an unfamiliar voice, exploring a different genre, tackling the type of writing you might never do on your own – all of this is great practice. And, on the receiving end, you get fresh insight into your own work. Perhaps your partner will take the story in an unpredictable and interesting direction. Perhaps these new ideas will reveal the weak spots in your plot or setting. If nothing else, the combined effort should get your creative juices flowing.

As writers, we can often be so motivated to print off that fat draft of our manuscript that we focus primarily on productivity. Of course, this is important, or we’d be stuck in endless cycles of revisions. But sometimes it’s worth it to playfully rewrite our work in progress, even if it doesn’t seem very productive at the time. At the very least, our writing skills will improve, we will explore our characters in greater detail, and we will give ourselves a whole slew of different options for our final draft.

Untitled, Part I

By George Newport

Life consists of:
What you want.
What you need.
What you deserve.
What you end up with.
What you do with what you get.
I have been writing most of my life, I wrote stories in school and it seemed to be popular from the early grades, in our one room Vermont schoolhouse, with one teacher for all eight grades, on up to college, in college my classmates encouraged me to write more, I took more than one Creative Writing Class and you were only allowed one as I passed each one with a high grade, I wrote about my journal events, my dysfunctional and abusive childhood, the deaths of three of my younger siblings from abuse, I held Rhonda Jeans hand in the local emergency room as she bled to death internally from a beating, I tried to prevent Elaine Louises sexual abuse from one of the older adults and was unsuccessful, she ended up in a semi coma and died in her sleep one night, I saw William George run over, by Pop, because he would not stay out of the road on our little traveled, rural, backwoods, Vermont country road and Pop was trying to teach him or scare him to keep him out of the road, I drove, one at a time, four of my younger sisters over to New York state from Vermont, for abortions, from sexual abuse, as they were illegal in Vermont, these events were added to my daily journal, I drove tractor trailer coast to coast over the road, starting at age fourteen, for my Dad in his truck, a 1964 Mack cab-over with the largest turbo charged V-8 Mack engine and twenty speed transmission, when my Dad got me a license that said that I was ten tears older than I really was, I would drive the truck to high school on Friday and park in the school bus line, then I would try to get back for my classes on Monday morning, some of the girls in high school wanted to see my one stack Mack with the bedroom on the back, and some rode with me, more journal events of my life on the road,

To be continued next week

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Untitled, Part II

By George Newport

I enlisted in the Army, at seventeen, by getting my older brother and his wife to pose as my parents and sign the necessary Army paperwork, I volunteered for Airborne duty and went to Jump School in Fort Benning, Georgia, then I volunteered for Special Forces training and qualified as a Green Beret, I went to Viet Nam, to work for the Intelligence Agency in illegal and secret projects in Cambodia and Laos after our government signed agreements to keep our troops out of these countries, my time in combat was just like being at home with my abusive parents, I transferred to different units in Special Forces to stay in Viet Nam from 1969 to 1973, I earned a number of awards and decorations which look real pretty on my dress uniform but represent the deaths of some of my teammates that as combat veterans we formed a special bond that is closer than brother and sister or even husband and wife, when my war ended, I did two years of Prisoner Of War and Missing In Action recovery in Cambodia and Laos, I was captured by the Pathet Lao but the war was over so I was not a Prisoner Of War, I managed an escape as getting me out would have been an international incident, I spent a lot of time with Psychatrists working on my Borderline Personality Disorder and my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from my childhood abuse and my time in the military, I could pick out other abuse victims by watching them for a little bit and encouraging them to seek therapy for their childhood abuse and continued to council them about their abuse also, I continued to write about my life and the lives of the people around me, I changed the names to protect the guilty, I have a rather large manuscript that I have been trying to get published, the publishers want me to write a series and I do not think that I can do that so they refuse to publish my book as a single volume, so I continue to write about the dark side of life and death and maybe one of these days I will find a publisher who will work with me, I have belonged to a number of writers groups which has helped me immensely in my writing, e mail does not have a spell check, which I desperately want and need, the muse in me is constantly composing and I will sit down at the computer and write until I am done and then I have to go back and look at what I wrote to find out what it is about, that has been my writing style most of my life, I would not encourage anybody to set out to be a writer as it is a low paying job with little recognition with no future, go to medical school or law school, I was born handsome instead of rich, so I continue to fill pages with my writings and look for an outlet for my writing and hope that it is made into a movie some day as that is where the money is, my initial rough drafts are normally devoid of paragaphs and real puncuation and the first thing that I do is hit it with spell check, I should go back and edit this write, but I am going to send it off in its original format, as the ramblings of a muse inspired writer, then I will look at our writers group website to see what I have written, if it winds up in our blog

Sunday, May 31, 2009

10,000 Hours

By Janie Kronk

Need a new perspective on what all those hours at the keyboard mean? Check out Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers.

Although this is not a book about writing, I recommend it here for two reasons:

1) It’s good. For anyone interested in “big idea” books, this will be an entertaining and informative read. Well-written and full of stories illustrating the ideas it puts forth, Outliers turns the notion of the American Dream on its head while examining why some people are successful and others are not.
2) It shows that practice is important, which can be a hard thing for a writer to remember while slogging through that first draft—or second, or third. Gladwell includes an eclectic mix of success stories, including those of Bill Gates and Mozart. What is interesting is that while the book does not deny the genius of these individuals, it does not focus on genius as a reason for success. Instead it focuses on the set of circumstances that allowed these individuals an opportunity to PRACTICE the thing they would become known for. One study described in the book separated university level music students into three groups based on skill level. What was the only thing that separated those that could go on to become world class performers from the rest? The amount of time they had practiced over the course of their lives.

So maybe practice does make perfect. What great news! At least, it’s great news as long as we can keep finding those opportunities to practice.

According to Outliers, there is even a magic number of hours of practice one must go through before becoming an “expert” (i.e. on par with Bill Gates in the computer world, or a world-class violinist in the music world), which seems to hold true in any field: 10,000. This could seem discouraging when you do the math and realize that this number corresponds to approximately three hours a day for ten years—what about our jobs? What about the kids?

But then again, how long have you already been writing? Is it necessary to be a writing expert to pen a story that is beautiful, or entertaining, or just plain good? No, it’s not necessary. That’s why we workshop. That’s why we edit.

The important thing to know is that practice makes us better, and, as long as we keep grabbing those opportunities to practice, no matter how brief, we will get better.

How close are you to your 10,000 hours?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's Been Said Before and Better

By Bonnie Stanard

This criticism goes to the question of creativity, especially as it applies to fiction. How can we produce writing that departs from what has already been published? The challenge to poets can be seen in the desperation evident in some poems published today.

We write from our feelings, intellect, and experience, things that make us human. However, these very things are as old as humanity, and we’ve been writing about them for hundreds of years. The scenery may change, but there are no new plots or characters.

Our feelings are strong motivators. We’re tempted to turn our love life into a novel, but an affair, unique to us, becomes boy-meets-girl as a plot. The angst of puberty, loneliness of old age, and pride in battle are but a few examples of stories that have been retold many times.

Can our intellect save us from writing a rehash of what has already been written? It is possible to develop new concepts from our perceptions, as people like Freud, James Joyce, and Shakespeare bear out, but how many of us are in that league?

Surely each person experiences life differently from every other person. This may be analogous to saying nobody has my recipe for chili. The “ingredients” of life may mix, interact, and react differently, but we all have the same ingredients. You may say, “Nobody else can remember the time I cut my foot on a glass bottle while swinging on a vine.” That may be unique to you, but is it original? See what I mean?

The point here is that if we think we’re on the road less traveled, we may be unaware of the traffic backing up in our lane. One of the few ways we’ll discover derivative or mundane aspects of our work is from critics in our workshop. Our group is cautious with criticisms. Questions often mean the text being discussed is weak. If your manuscript gets hardly any reaction, it is either very good, very bad, or very long.

The advice I’ve heard at our SCWW conferences has devolved into my current writing strategy, which is to reach for the unexpected in characters and the unpredictable in plot. For instance, the guy sitting in a nearby seat just mailed a rattlesnake to his girlfriend. The little girl with him is not his daughter. If a character seems to be falling in love, the last place for the plot to go is the bedroom. The boss who promises his secretary a promotion is demoted himself. Screams in the night aren’t murder. They’re cat fights. A pizza delivery man knocks at the door, and he’s carrying...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Writing Groups

By Alex Raley

During our last writers group meeting, I realized that I am the oldest person in the group, by both years of age and by years in the group. You might ask why I am still in a writers group. Have I not learned to write? Oh well, I suppose passing a writing test is not beyond my abilities. But, the group is not about learning to write. Most of us write fairly well, thank you.

The writers group helps me make my writing more interesting. Group critiques are honest and to the point, the point being to truly communicate and hold the interest of a reader. There is a bountiful supply of diverse thinking in the group, so there is always someone who clicks immediately with what I write, but if just one person seems to miss what I intend to say that is a good reason to take another look at the writing.

The diversity of age in the group sometimes points you in a different direction, or supports what you have written. The group read a poem I had written about the regimentation we build into the lives of children. In naming such events in the poem, I asked what child needed a project on PowerPoint. One reader said that was too adult, but, before I could explain that my second- and fifth-grade grandsons had just completed PowerPoint assignments, the younger folks jumped in to say that children are indeed dealing with PowerPoint in school. And, of course, I love to hear the wise, calm voice of an elder in the group when the younger folks are railing for more action, more detail.

We recently had a new person visit us. He said that he had sent a manuscript to an editor, or agent, who responded that the story did not have a narrative curve, or some such name for the peak in a story, which usually occurs just before the writer pulls all threads of the narrative to a conclusion. I would say to that visitor that we may not be able to give you a well-written definition of the narrative curve, but, through the thoughtful and caring responses to your writing from our group members, you will develop your own narrative peaks and writing style.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What Are You Working on Now?

By Vikki Perry, moderator of Columbia II SCWW

Last month, I participated in a contest offered by The Knight Agency. The prize was a critique and possible representation by an agent. They asked participants to send a three sentence pitch about their novel to their submissions email box. After the contest was over, one of the agents posted that they had received 1200 submissions and that there were 20 winners. I was not one of them. It was an awesome exercise.

Why am I telling you about this? That's easy. I want us to do it too! Soooo, here is what I propose. In sixty words or less, pitch your novel or book-length writing work (memoir, creative non-fiction, non-fiction,etc.) If you are not writing book length fiction, tell us about your latest poem or short story. Just scroll to the end of my entry and click on "comment." A page will appear which contains a box to make comments. In this box, type your 60 words. Then complete the "word verification" by typing the letters you see above that box. Choose an identity and publish. If you are unable to publish your entry, email your copy to me at with a copy to Ginny at

To sweeten the pot and encourage participation, I will throw in a copy of Chris Riordan's Don't Sabotage Your Submission. This book will go to a commenter on this blog. The critique group will be judging the entries at the June 15th critique meeting and we will post a winner.

To get you started, I will share the pitch that I sent to to the Knight Agency. (Yes, I know this is more than sixty words.)

"Cursed World War II flyer, Seth Avery, is soul sworn to prevent an ancient magical dagger from falling into the wrong hands. When Mackenzie Russell, a modern historian, discovers the dagger’s hiding place, she incites a string of events that attracts the attention of a cult of ancients who desire the dagger’s magic for their own evil gain. Fighting the powerful and forbidden attraction that flares between them, Seth and Mackenzie must flee the ancients who will not hesitate to kill anyone in their path, and prevent the dagger's power from being unleashed on an unsuspecting world."

Now tell us yours! You have until June 10th to submit.

Thanks and good luck,

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Capturing Pictures or Voices?

By Deborah W. Yoho

How do you know when you are finished with a piece of writing? I can’t seem to figure this out. I was flabbergasted when my new friend Ilmars announced that he had “finished another novel”.

I had to ask, “You mean you are finished with the first draft? Did you write it straight through?”

“Yes,” he answered, “now I will go back and edit it.”

I wish I could do that, write straight through. I can’t compose a sentence without editing it as I go. (I just changed the last sentence to substitute compose for the word write. But I’m not at all sure the result is better.) Ilmars’s method seems much more efficient.

Fifteen years ago I wrote a short self-help book. At one point I decided I was finished with it. But when I pulled it out six months ago with the idea of actually publishing it myself, it was clearly not ready. Here I am now still fooling with it.

Is writing an art form, an activity suited to spontaneity and experimentation? Or is it more like a craft, the result of carefully honed skills perfected only by consistent practice? If it is an activity to be practiced, I have surely had plenty of that! Yet the more I practice, the more unsure I am about my ability to put two words together sensibly.

There is something profoundly visual about how I go about this activity. So often when writing, I stop, cock my head sideways, stare at the print, and ask myself, “Does that look right?” Look right, not sound right.

When I am reading, the words become sounds in my head. Authors speak to me, rather than write to me. I think I’ve got this all backward, or inside-out, or something.

So I’ve decided to tack into a new direction. I’ve bought a digital recorder, and I will try to speak my thoughts “straight through” before putting them to paper.

I’ll let you know whether or not this works. But I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. The written word is not the same thing as the spoken word. Many articulate speakers are not good writers.

Perhaps what I am after is to match my written words with the pictures in my head. What I see in my head, I think, is what motivates me to write. I want those thoughts to have life!

Hmmm, maybe writing is about visualization after all.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Games We Play

By Ginny Padgett

When our writer’s group gathers every few months for a social evening, three standards mark the meeting: 1) good food; 2) camaraderie; 3) a writing exercise.

At our most recent soiree we were asked to write an opening for a story. The prompt to that exercise follows in bold face; my paragraphs ensue.

This activity really massaged my creative muscle, so I challenge you to use the prompt and, as our host Alex Raley said to us, “…see where it leads.”

“Mr. Witherspoon, a Susan Matthews is on line one for you.”

“Okay, thank you.”

Bill closed the office door and pressed the line one button. “Susan, I told you never to call me at the office.”

“Bill, we have to talk. Can you meet me for lunch?”

Bill hesitated for a moment before responding, “I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes beside the dry cleaners on the corner two blocks from your office. We still need to be discreet.”

After returning the handset to the phone, Bill took a key from his briefcase and unlocked the bottom desk drawer. Retrieving a Sig-Sauer P232, he tucked it into the waistband at the back of his gray flannel pants. He donned the single-breasted jacket and went into his private bathroom.

The full-length mirror assured him his weapon didn’t disturb the svelte lines of his $2,000 suit. He leaned forward to study his face and then concentrated on relaxing the tense muscles that showed the stress from the last two weeks. Taking a cleansing breath, he tried on several smiles until he found one that would convey trustworthiness and compassion to Susan.

Locking his office door behind him and then turning toward his assistant’s desk, he said, “Elaine, please cancel all my appointments for the rest of the day. The assisted living facility where my mother lives just called. She’s suffered another stroke and I need to go to her right away.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Witherspoon. I’m so sorry. If I can do anything, just ask. Don’t worry about anything here.”

“Thanks, Elaine. I appreciate your concern,” he said as he strode toward the reception area and the elevators beyond.