Sunday, February 28, 2010

Advice Is Where You Find It

By Alex Raley

I recently attended a lecture by Claudia Brinson, a senior lecturer in English at Columbia College. A journalist for 30 years, Brinson’s accomplishments include an O. Henry award for her short story “Einstein’s Daughter” and a Pulitzer Prize finalist with her State newspaper colleagues for Hurricane Hugo coverage. What I remember most clearly about Brinson’s writing as a journalist is that it read like a good story, perhaps even a section of a novel. Nevertheless, its purpose was to report.

As she talked of her approaches to journalism, I realized that she was giving advice for all writers without regard to purpose or genre. High on her list is to write for the readers. As you write, keep in mind what the readers would want to know. Put them in the center and help them see and know what you see and know. Also important is to do thorough homework. Know the facts and figures that surround what you are going to write about. I suspect that when we begin writing fiction we are too often guilty of beginning the writing without thorough preparation.

Brinson cautioned us to observe in detail the surroundings of an event. She told us of an interview with a well-known politician in his home. She observed that the room’s bookshelves were filled with religious books. She learned that many persons in his family died early deaths. He felt that he was living on borrowed time. This information from observations and questions gave her a unique insight as she pursued her story. You may ask how this relates to fiction writing, but I suggest that we might consider constructing in-depth knowledge of our characters before we begin writing our story. We might even do a scenario of the home or place of work of a character to give him a firm setting. This could help as we develop that character throughout our writing.

As Brinson read portions of her articles, we became well aware that the stories had an emotional impact on her, as well as the listeners. During the question period of the lecture, she was asked how she handled emotions during her writing. She admitted to us that she often had deep feelings about situations as she pursued her stories, but when she sat down to write, she put her emotions aside. In writing fiction, we often work with stories that are rooted in some specific event we have experienced. We should be careful to take Brinson’s advice and put our emotions aside as we write. Perhaps we do that best when we write what readers want to know rather than what we want to tell.

I did not attend Brinson’s lecture for a review of writing skills, and I suspect that she did not intend to give such a review, but there it was, clear as a bell. Have you had such an unexpected experience? They just happen, don’t they?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Writer


When Courtney Diles was seven years old, a teacher observed her imaginative tendencies and asked her mother to make sure she, the teacher, was invited to the girl’s first book signing. Her mother passed on the message, and soon Courtney set the bizarre goal of become a writer while she was still a kid.

At the age of fifteen, she completed the first draft of Sunrise - a young adult fantasy novel she designed by piecing together compelling dreams from throughout her childhood. Sunrise has since earned second place for the SWA Juvenile Writing Award and first place for the M. L. Brown Award for YA Lit. As a freshman at the University of South Carolina Honors College pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing, she still hopes to be on the shelf before her pre-frontal cerebral cortex completes its development.

Fun facts: She is a boy scout Venturer, a synesthete, and possibly a full quarter Native American. She has had three broken wrists resulting from incidents involving airports, tiny bikes, and plastic ninja swords. Her blog is

Courtney's first posting follows.

The Rules of Writing

By Courtney Diles

Do you ever sit down at the computer and open up the document you were working on until two in the morning last night, only to read something like the following?
The November snow was thin and slushy - almost as if the angels in heaven were brushing their teeth and dribbling toothpaste over the earth.
Mary Catherine Weir

Do you ever find yourself losing your audience?
The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn't heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn't reacting yet to let you know.
Patricia E. Presutti

Do you make the mistake of writing moments of horror while you’re hungry?
The corpse exuded the irresistible aroma of a piquant, ancho chili glaze enticingly enhanced with a hint of fresh cilantro as it lay before him, coyly garnished by a garland of variegated radicchio and caramelized onions, and impishly drizzled with glistening rivulets of vintage balsamic vinegar and roasted garlic oil; yes, as he surveyed the body of the slain food critic slumped on the floor of the cozy, but nearly empty, bistro, a quick inventory of his senses told corpulent Inspector Moreau that this was, in all likelihood, an inside job.
Bob Perry

Does an excessive Shakespearean influence pervade your love scenes?
O glorious pubes! The ultimate triangle, whose angles delve to hell but point to paradise.... The fig, the fanny, the cranny, the quim - I'd come close to it now, this sudden blush, this ancient avenue, the end of all odysseys and epic aim of life, pulling at my prick now, pulling like a lodestone.
Christopher Rush

Well, there is always hope! The Edward Bulwer-Lytton Award goes out to the worst first lines of novels submitted every year. Go to for details on submitting and also to visit a link to an article about the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Winners!

Okay, okay, enough with the advertising. What do we really learn from the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Award, “Where WWW means Wretched Writers Welcome?” That the industry is going to hell.

Wrong! It means there are no real rules! At several of our critique meetings, I have heard people remind us: “You don’t have to change anything." "We only offer suggestions." "In the end, your writing is your writing.”

And I think that’s just swell. We have so many genres. We need to be open-minded. It’s important. I’ve personally had to open my mind to several genres and writing styles.

This blog is also the script for a video that can be found at

Sunday, February 14, 2010


By Debbie Yoho

In the late '70s, I was lucky to participate in USC's First Draft of the Writing Project for teachers. The graduate course lasted only two weeks, but the Project met all day, every day. We learned by doing, striving to become better teachers by first developing our own writing skills, then stepping out of the process to track and discuss our personal journey. We learned how to transform writing instruction in our classrooms from a battlefield of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and bleeding red ink, to a nurturing laboratory for communication and self-expression.

Our work was noisy. When we weren't writing, we were paired up reading our stuff aloud to each other. We called this "conferencing."

Conferencing is the key! We learned that published authors always have at least one partner to reflect on the writing, so that the written word can coax two minds closer and closer together in the direction of an intimate, shared experience—writer and reader developing a mutual understanding of what the words mean.

Our Writing Workshop meetings offer one way for writers to conference with one another. However, I find that the bi-monthly meetings are not enough for me. So I have enlisted a friend. She reads my manuscript a few chapters at a time, and then meets with me once a week to talk about it.

We don’t discuss the challenges of point of view, continuity or the need for more dialog. Instead she re-tells the story back to me, reflecting what stands out to her, what conclusions she is drawing, what she "sees between the lines", what strikes her as unusual or confusing, contradictory or distracting.

I am free to ask questions to draw her out: "What picture do you have of the mother?" "How do you think the boyfriend felt?" "What do you think will happen next?" "Describe the interaction between these two characters."

If what she tells me matches what I meant to convey, I have crafted a piece of writing that achieves my purpose with at least one reader.

I chose my conferencing partner carefully. She is analytical, articulate, brutally honest but constructive, and she is interested in tracking and contributing to my growth as a writer. My friend functions as my writing teacher by communicating with me about her experience as a reader, a thrilling process.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Tools of the Trade

By David Sennema

What do you have within arms’ reach besides your computer keyboard as you sit down to start working on a short story, novel or essay? Rather than using the on-line version, I keep my Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (copyright 1972), within easy reach. My college days were well before 1972, so I suppose I picked it up at a garage sale. Next to it, and probably my most-used tool is a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. Again, it’s available on line, but while I’m writing I prefer to use the “real book” version rather than bouncing in and out of Windows.

Next in line is a book I picked up recently at yet another garage sale entitled The Writer’s Harbrace Handbook. It’s packed full of good stuff about writing, but I use it mostly for grammar and punctuation help. What can I tell you…when I should have been studying English in college I was out serenading the girls’ dorms with the Sigma Nu Quartet.

Then there’s a tiny book called Webster’s Instant Word Guide which is organized like a dictionary but without definitions. It’s really for spelling but does give helpful hints about such things as whether to use pare, pair, or pear.

Most of my stories seem to need names for characters and so I have a paperback at hand entitled 35,000+ Baby Names, which I use mostly for first names. For last names I tend to use the Columbia city telephone directory, although I don’t always use the names exactly as they appear. I also keep a notebook in which I jot down names with special flare that I pick up in the local obituary listings.

The last of my “easy reach” tools is the latest version of the paperback, Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market published by Writer’s Digest Books. Because of the way it’s organized it takes a lot reading to find just the right publisher or contest for my submissions, but it is 650 pages of good information all in one concise book ($27.99).

If I were writing poetry or verse I would keep a rhyming dictionary close at hand (I own two of them), but it’s not that often that I take a stab at something like the limerick with which I close...

Here in Columbia we
Are in love with the Palmetto Tree,
But if you expect
To find one erect,
You’ll have to drive down to the sea.