Monday, May 28, 2012

A Plea to Storytellers: Never Forget!

By Shaun McCoy

If you're reading this, ironically, you're probably a writer. I've got to tell you, my brothers and sisters, we used to have it pretty good. Our historic predecessors were responsible for the creation of seminal cultural documents whose tales were regarded as indispensible for development of a person's character. We put out stone cold epics like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Illiad, the Aeneid, the elder and younger Eddas. Guys, people used to take our stuff pretty darn seriously. On certain ignoble occasions, we even got away with pretending our stories were written by gods (although to be fair, those were probably penned by the predecessors of editors, who even to this day labor under their delusions of divinity).

In those days a successful writer was one who was so influential to his culture that his work would be inflicted on high school students for all time, equipped with a neat little lesson plan that says: "You see this story? This is what it means to be an Ancient Sumerian/Greek/Roman/Norse dude with a pretty kewl spiked helmet."

Things have changed. These days a successful writer might be expected to pen such esteemed tomes as Twilight or Harry Potter.

Yeah, things have gone downhill for us in the last few thousand years. A modern day Herodotus would be torn apart by archaeologists. Scientists and skeptics would giggle at our attempts to explain why spiders spin webs and narcissus flowers think that they're hot stuff. But that doesn't mean it's over, and it sure as heck doesn't mean that we should forget what stories are for.

Nomadic cultures would use their legends as a type of map. A story whose narrative involved a stream would be told about this valley. A tale involving game, or fruits and nuts, might be told about this hill. In this way, even if no member of that tribe had been to a certain place for generations, by listening to the wisdom of their long lost elders a nomad could know where to go in case of drought or famine.

In modern times food and water aren't really all that precious. Wal-Marts are fairly ubiquitous and thanks to the niceties of indoor plumbing, we all literally have our own personal rivers that flow directly into our own homes. But that's not to say that people aren't still hungry and thirsty… not at all. We're just hungry and thirsty for different things.  

We literally live in a world chock full of Homeopathy and hatred. Where lies about living spread through the internet like a Texan wildfire. Where the tools for being connected with the entire world are the same tools that are used to create loneliness and isolation. 

Language was perhaps mankind's first and greatest invention. It lets us learn from the mistakes of others. I love those stories that try and teach wisdom. I love To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Diary of Ann Frank, and The Myth of Sisyphus. I love movies like Milk, Hotel Rwanda, and yes, even Rambo IV. 

So here's my plea: folks. Let's never forget what stories are for, and maybe as you pen your next little ditty you can share with the world your own small secret way of how to find water.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Defeating the Blank Page with Misty Berries, Webs, and Fading Outlines

By Amanda Simays

Some people can start typing the beginning of a story and write all the way through until the end. I am not one of those people. Blinking cursors on blank Word documents intimidate me. How do you turn an idea for a scene into a fully-written one? Everyone has to find their own system, but here are a few strategies that work for me:

1.      Warm up by playing with words

Here’s a carefully crafted poem revealing fundamental truths about the dichotomy between nature and civilization in modern society with lots of metaphors about mankind’s philosophical state of being:

Long went the afternoon banquets
Tasting nothing
Hanging the misty berries
Along our still-ensphered home
Cold, pretty eyelids
Underneath rivers of flame ribbons
Never there
Very real

I lied. There are no metaphors in that poem, and it doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just an exercise I do sometimes to get into the mode of writing. I flip open a random page of a random book on my shelf and write down the last word of every single line on the page. Then I play around with words, stringing as many of them together into a nonsense poem. There’s something fun and low-stress about putting words together in a way at first glance might deceive a fifteen-year-old editor of a high school literary journal into thinking that I’m saying something deep about the emotional turmoil inside my soul. But more importantly, it’s a warm-up—now the part of my brain that twists words and creates phrases is turned on.

2.      Brainstorm webs

I’m not a linear thinker, especially when it comes to creative exercises. Even an outline is too constraining of a medium for me to start out with. So instead, I open up a blank page in my notebook and make a web, jotting down phrases as they come to mind, connecting them with lines, letting my thoughts sprawl all over the page. It’s a lot easier for me to generate thoughts in this manner…there’s no pressure to start at the beginning and go through until the end. Only after I’m done this exercise do I turn my notes into a sequential outline. I try to fill up an entire page when I do this because 1) it pushes me to generate more raw material than I might otherwise do, and 2) filling up an entire page with notes like this aesthetically looks really cool. 

3.      Let the outline fade into a story

To me, this is the easiest way to solve the blank-page-anxiety problem—simply start with a page that isn’t blank. I take whatever outline or notes I have and copy and paste them into a new document. Then I flesh out my outline, adding in every detail that comes to mind, plugging every scrap of dialogue or piece of imagery into the appropriate spot. I keep doing this, adding and adding, until suddenly I’m not just writing phrases but sentence fragments…then whole sentences…and then eventually the outline starts to morph into properly-written scene. For me, this is the coolest part about writing. It’s like watching those “behind the scenes” DVD extras for an animated movie where they show a cartoon animal drawn in pencil morph into a full-color, smooth-lined animated sequence.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Put More Drama in Your Writing—Using Dialogue to Define Character and Set the Mood

By Chris Mathews

One important way to put more drama in your writing is to understand the language of drama, dialogue.  Fiction and non-fiction can be written without dialogue; drama cannot. We know the story of a play through what the characters say and do on stage.
In prose, the writer has the advantage of being able to describe the characters’ motivations, but this can also be a pitfall. Description can deaden writing when it usurps action or tells the reader too much. Dialogue has the advantage of actively engaging the auditor. There are no intermediaries with dialogue. In fact, the reader is the audience in any quality writing, actively supplying the missing pieces of the story. Stories in which the reader is told what happens but not allowed to experience the story first-hand can easily become literary dry-gulches. 

I based my one-act Gargoyles (published by Baker’s Plays in 2005) on an actual event, a high-school Halloween play banned by a school board in a small mountain town. A preacher in the town provided the major push to ban the play Bats in the Belfry, decrying Halloween as “a pagan ritual.” The actual play was a comedy, in my opinion about as innocuous as Bewitched, but deemed “satanic” because it contained a warlock. 

To tell this story, I decided to create characters that could comment on the play-within-the- play (which I renamed Raising Spirits) and lighten up this controversy. I chose gargoyles as my dual narrators because of their traditional role as guardians-of-the-Church. As I wrote I realized the gargoyles were becoming a kind of medieval Siskel and Ebert, speaking in Latin-sounding phrases. Through their banter, I was able to both create a gothic atmosphere and comic repartee. In the opening scene, the gargoyles define themselves, setting themselves up as observers of humankind.

Here is the opening dialogue of the play:

As the lights come up, two gargoyles are perched on a platform flanking a large, gothic door.  Ornate medieval music is playing.
FIRST GARGOYLE.   Stone silence…
SECOND GARGOYLE.    …Mocks mankind’s folly.
FIRST GARGOYLE.    Demons dwell in eaves…
SECOND GARGOYLE.     …Caught in granite guffaws
FIRST GARGOYLE.     We outlast your short time
SECOND GARGOYLE.    Withstand your orangutan rantings…
FIRST GARGOYLE.    …Your humanegomania.
SECOND GARGOYLE.   Your acid haze
FIRST GARGOYLE.    Corrodes our veins
SECOND GARGOYLE.    So permit us
FIRST GARGOYLE.    From our lofty perches
SECOND GARGOYLE.    To comment
FIRST GARGOYLE.      To criticize
FIRST GARGOYLE.    To view from afar
SECOND GARGOYLE.    To scrutinize with a looking-glass
FIRST GARGOYLE.    To provide comic relief
SECOND GARGOYLE.    Though these humans provide their own quite well.
FIRST GARGOYLE.   We will be their funhouse mirror.      
SECOND GARGOYLE.   –Grotesques.
FIRST GARGOYLE.    It takes a grotesque to know a grotesque.

 If your characters know what they want  and listen to each other(unless you want them to ignore each other), dialogue often writes itself.   In the next writing, I will look at how conflict works in dialogue.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

SCWW Conference, October 19-21, Hilton Myrtle Beach Resort, Save the Date!

By Ginny Padgett

This year I am the Conference Chair for the SCWW Conference. For those of you who don’t know, the SCWW Conference has a national reputation for excellence. It features a faculty of about 20 well-placed agents, editors, and authors from NYC and around the country. I’d like to invite you to take part and enhance your writing and marketing skills.

Friday sessions are three-hour intensives, an add-on to regular conference registration. Also on Friday, premium critique appointments are scheduled. This year Intensive topics include social networking, self publishing vs. traditional, breaking into the world of publishing, book pregnant – now you have a book deal, what do you do next? Some of these seminars will be led by SCWW’s own: Mike Long, JM Kelly, Fred Fields, Carrie McCullough, Hope Clark, Maureen Sherbondy, Brenda Remmes, to name a few.          

On Saturday, the day is filled with 45-minute sessions lead by faculty members; in addition, purchased Real Time Query and Pitch appointments are scheduled. A general SCWW membership meeting will be held during the lunch break. Saturday evening there is a booking-signing event during cocktail hour. At dinner, this year’s keynote speaker is PATTI CALLAHAN HENRY, NYT BEST-SELLING AUTHOR.

Each evening every dinner table is hosted by at least one member of the faculty; this is a great networking opportunity -- not to mention the cocktail hour on Friday and Saturday evenings. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and the faculty is approachable and receptive.

Sunday’s sessions end at noon. The Silent Auction (a lot of people do their holiday shopping here!) ends about 10:00.

Last year, the SCWW Conference was rated as the #1 in the country by at least one independent web search. Come see what the buzz is about. Registration opens June 1 at Take advantage of the Early-Bird registration rates, and make your room reservations by September 1 to insure a SCWW special room rate from the Hilton and help SCWW fill it’s room-block requirement for free meeting space.

If you have any questions, email me at

I hope to see you there