Sunday, December 29, 2013

I Don’t Want a Niche

By Marion Aldridge

Current wisdom for writers and for many other professions is to find a niche market and focus. You can’t just write about travel. You have to write about gay travel or traveling as a handicapped person or travel in the Florida Keys or travel by dugout canoe. If you choose to specialize in travel by dugout canoes, you need to decide whether your canoe will be dug out of maple or cedar. Niche marketing.

My trouble is that I am curious about everything. Don’t limit me. I see a bumper sticker that says, “Eat Bertha’s Mussels,” and I wonder what that’s about. Who is Bertha? Where is Bertha? Can I get to Bertha’s by suppertime?

The world has always had a love/hate relationship with generalists. One of the first words I remember being taught in a classroom is the word “dilettante.” It describes, I was told, someone who is “a jack of all trades and master of none.” Apparently, to be labeled a dilettante is to be insulted. I prefer to think my interests are eclectic. I may read the biography of a baseball player one day, a financial analysis of “Tulip Mania” the next, a science fiction novel the next, a book about Buddhism the next and a Civil War history the next.

“Where the Pavement Ends” has been my attempt at writing a travel blog in the year since my retirement. I have written about New York City, Shreveport and Machu Picchu, but I have also written about football, colors, grief, friendship, patriotism, race relations and alternative medicines. Travel, it turns out, is too narrow a topic for my interests.

I admire people who have specific, marketable skills, who are expert in a particular area, those who can craft fine furniture, who can wire a house for electricity, who can play the flute, who can teach children in a classroom, who can perform surgery. Some people are brain surgeons, play the flute and make fine furniture. I am not one of them, but I am happy the world has people who cross disciplines. Too narrow a focus makes us less than we might be.

An old joke tells of St. Peter giving new residents a tour of heaven. As they pass certain sections, he shushes the recent arrivals, motioning for them to be quiet. Later someone asked, “Why did we need to be quiet back there?’

St. Peter responded, “Oh, that’s where the Baptists stay and they still think they’re the only ones here.”  

Retirement has been good for me because it freed me from many of the restrictions of my life that were employment based. Being restrained by others and limiting myself drives me nuts, but it is somewhat inevitable in the workaday world. Nowadays, every morning, I drink coffee from a cup that is inscribed, “Never affirm self-limitations.” When I begin my morning and the sun is rising, I want my ears sensitive to all that is happening around me and I want my eyes wide open. I want to see, taste, touch, hear and smell it all. Bring it on. No limits.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

New in 2014: One Writer’s Resolutions

 By Jodie Cain Smith

As 2013 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the last 12 months. I perfected the most flattering angle when taking a selfie. I learned the answer to a question I never thought to ask regarding what a fox might say and that I am completely unprepared for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. I was confused by men in skinny, high-water pants and prayed for the sagging trend to finally end. (My prayers were not answered.) To be truthful, I revel in the opportunity to leave narcissistic photos, annoying earworms, the compulsion to build a bunker, and strange fashion choices in the past.

However, 2013 wasn’t a complete bust. It provided so many writing lessons that I feel compelled to make a few New Year’s resolutions in order to capitalize on what I have learned. (Please note that as a realist with a fragile ego I try to avoid situations in which I set myself up for failure. Therefore, I rarely make resolutions. Is it fair for me to vow on December 31st to go to the gym five days a week knowing that I will fall off the fitness wagon by February? No. That just paves the road to self-loathing, which I detest.) Yes, failure is quite possible, but with all of you holding me accountable, I may succeed. So, in 2014, I resolve to:

1.      Stop being lazy. I recently learned that I used the word had 480 times in my novel, The Woods at Barlow Bend. Rather than choose a better, more descriptive verb, I remained faithful to had, using it every chance I got. Had been. Had seen. Had gone. Had had. The word lost all meaning by page 200. Thank goodness for editors.

2.      Get out of my lead characters’ minds. As fascinating as I believe my leads to be, after all I created them, perhaps their constant reflections and silent soliloquys are not the best way to tell a story. Can we get a little action on those pages, Jodie?

3.      Break up with adverbs. Seriously, I absolutely promise to only use adverbs sparingly in 2014.
4.      Be ever cognizant of perspective. This will be my hardest resolution to keep, as I prefer to write first person narratives and struggle with laziness (See #1). I fear that around March 2014 I will falter and begin creating character after character with psychic abilities and the superpower to read minds.

I challenge each of you to create your own list of writing resolutions for the New Year. Would you like to explore a new genre? Perhaps your goal is to submit more pieces for publication. Or, maybe your resolution is to write without fear, to destroy inhibitions with every sentence? Maybe, just maybe, we will become as brave and skilled with our writing as we are with the built-in camera of our cell phones. Now, should we discuss all those photos you’ve been posting?

Friday, December 20, 2013

MOMA – Love of Bove: NEW YORK CITY, Day Three (12/07/2013)

By Laura P. Valtorta                                     

Art begets art. Nothing speaks more profoundly to a writer than a modern art exhibit. I’ve seen some Picassos before, but the selection at the Museum of Modern Art is astounding – particularly “Girl Looking in a Mirror,” and “Dream of Undie,” or something like that. Brilliant mauves and yellows. Beautiful browns.Then there are the giant Matisses “The Dance.” “The Red Studio.” Marco took lots of photos.

Carol Bove’s sculpture “Equinox,” (a display that fills an entire room), was the most captivating piece I saw. The textures of driftwood, steel, painted piping, feathers, seashell, glittery curtain, and a decomposing mattress created surprises at every turn.

Sixth Street was an ant hive of tourists. This time I had Marco as a barging partner.  We ate at Pret a Manger. Sandwiches. Scarce wood benches.

We began the morning walking on the High Mile and thinking about James Barilla’s book My Backyard Jungle. There are some beautiful views of the water from that walk, as well as some astounding construction. Construction workers were hooked precariously to enormous bunches of steel “cages” where the concrete will be poured. It’s supposed to be a housing hi-rise by Spring 2014, right next to the High Mile.
Last night, the unnamed, pukey film festival featured a film by Jill McTwattlebum (not her real name) that spent a lot of time whining. “My mother punched me around, so I need to become a second rate boxer to get over it,” etcetera. Getting a job that pays money might be a better kind of therapy at 40.

What interested me was Jill’s prior career as a pole dancer. She wrote a stage play based on the gyrating dancers that got good reviews. Then she made this film about herself, PTSD and boxing. Jill did a pretty good job of extracting stories from female boxers – stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Unfortunately they all dealt with physical abuse. Jill’s husband had the best line – “I gave up Tai Kwan Do because after getting hit in the stomach a few times, I figured, I have an MBA, so I don’t need this.” Well said, Gary. Getting beaten up is a young person’s sport.

Writing the play allowed Jill McTwaddle to do a pretty good job of editing the film. Which shows once again that art produces art.

The trip to MOMA inspired me to work on my stage play, Bermuda while Marco is shopping at the stereo store in some kind of acoustical heaven.
Tomorrow – Broadway.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

New York City; Coen brothers film premiere SHADOW BOX FILM FESTIVAL Day One (12/05/2013)

By Laura P. Valtorta

On Wednesday in Harbison, SC I ate fish and chips at the Bulldog Café with Bonnie, Ginny, and Sarah as a last-meal type of thing. My flight to Newark went smoothly, Instead of dying, I ended up in New York City.

Sixth Avenue is weird. It took me 50 minutes to walk from the 700 block to the 1300 block to see a premiere (invitation, only) of the Coen brothers film – Inside Llewellyn Davis. The crowds were thick and multilingual, but I barged my way through. I missed Milanese Marco who knows how to part a crowd.

Upon arriving at 1350 Avenue of the Americas (a tall glass building), I could not find the Dolby 88 theater. The people in the bank were snooty. They did not know. I explored the side streets. Two women carrying a printout reminded me of movie-goers. I followed them into the bowels of the bank. A guard motioned me in, past some electronic barriers.

Two young men – hipster types with those black glasses and skinny pants -- found my name on a list and I was “in.”

The seats were plush and reclining. The room was about 120 degrees too hot. I barged into the center of the seats and plopped myself next to a bored New York couple (jeans, long hair, air of chic superiority) on one side and an older white British woman sharing M&Ms with a black British guy on my left. Neither side was up for conversation (with me, anyway) so I shut up.

We were all sweltering. An older New York man stood up behind me and bellowed – “Hey, turn on the air conditioning! We’re burning up in here!”

“Thank you!” I said to him. That’s what I like about New York. People are NOT afraid to speak up.

Six out of ten for the Coen brothers. The movie bumps along because you feel for the musician and want him to succeed. It’s frustrating because he does not. Why cast a guy who is not Italian and call him half Italian? It doesn’t work. We can see through all that. We can look at his body, and we can interpret the names of the cast.

I wanted Llewellyn to learn something. I wanted him to sign the correct contract and earn royalties. I wanted him to join the merchant marines. He did not.

As usual, Justin Timberlake saved the day with his acting and his hilarious song, “Mr. Kennedy, don’t send me into space.”
Now, off to the Shadow Box Film Festival.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


By Laura P. Valtorta                                                        

Marco and I had a grand time watching White Rock Boxing in the 269-seat movie theater at the beautiful School of the Visual Arts in New York City. Alone.

That’s right. We were the only ones who showed up. The flat-nosed boxing reporter who promised to show up (he was there to watch the Dutch documentary two hours earlier) decided to hang out with some boxers who attended the short films in the other theater.

White Rock Boxing looked brilliant on the big screen. Even the music sounded good. The colors were just right. One hundred percent of the audience was delighted with the film.

What I learned from this experience is that television rules. When White Rock Boxing aired on South Carolina Educational Television two times (count ‘em – two) we had a potential audience of four million viewers each time.  At least I like to believe that. South Carolina ETV rocks! It’s mentioned as an excellent venue in the book the Screenwriter’s Bible.

The venerable Cliff Springs (owner of Genesis Studios) and I are wrestling with the conundrum of distribution. How can independent films find the largest audience? Film festivals? Television? Streaming on demand? So far, television seems the best bet. We also have to try out streaming—but where? DVD sales. How? All ideas welcome.

For people trying to find work – here’s an idea. Cook up a plan to market independent films. Because the films are all so different (length, quality, subject matter), the service has to be tailored to each film. And find a way for producers to make some money. You will be a millionaire in no time.

The Sundance festival sucked in more than 12,000 entries. This gives some idea of how many independent films are being produced each year. My short was not chosen. But this sparks in me a desire to produce more films. I want to get better. I’m sure other writers and producers like me share the same passion.

New York is not a total bust. Marco is here! Next on the agenda: MOMA.  ;-)  ;-)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

My Fictional Past

By Sarah Herlong

When I was young and sensitive about critiques, I asked my mother to read my story. I wanted to know if the actions of my characters were realistic. She pointed out to me that putting gas cans full of gasoline in the trunk of a car was not a safe thing to do. I was crushed. The gas in the trunk was very important to my story…it was crucial!

I wanted to write stories that didn’t sound like a kid wrote them. Unfortunately I was maybe 10 years old. I decided to stop writing. I wanted to wait until I was older and knew more about the world.

I then turned my attention to art deciding to merely illustrate my friend’s book instead. We were 13. I pursued art through college. I wanted to take a creative writing course, but bottom line I was too chicken to take it. I wondered if I had anything to say that wouldn’t scream that I was only 20 years old. 

It was only after college that I started to write. A lot of writing was skewed and imprinted with depression. It wasn’t completely worthless, but was damn near close. I still have those writings to remind me of a place I don’t want to go back to.

Finally in my thirties I took a writing class. It was a fiction class and it was all about getting words on the page through prompts. We wrote during the class and at home. It blew my mind. I was in the midst of a mania induced creative period. I dreamed what every writer dreams, to quit my job in order to write. But that job inspired my writing.

Then I got laid off from that tyrannical job, worked for a funeral home and started writing again. This was the ultimate job to inspire writing. I did a comedy routine about it. Wrote stories about it. And put together and delivered a career-day presentation on the funeral business—for middle schoolers.

Then the depression returned and the writing stopped. It wasn’t until I met a little cat named Sparky that my inspiration returned. Three Sparky stories in and I think I’m safely entrenched in writing for the long haul. The irony is now I want to write children’s stories that have a realistic kid’s voice, instead of writing for my age.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Selfie, Hottie, and Twerking: My 8th Grade English Teacher Would Faint

By Kimberly Johnson

Who would’ve thunk it? A Disney alum would spark controversy and add a newfangled word into the American lexicon. Yeah, I’m talking about Twerking. It’s a verb. According to Oxford online dictionary it’s “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.” It’s a noun. According to my Google search, there are 195 videos on the subject. London’s Daily Mail announced last week the winner of the first Twerking championship.

Mrs. Taylor, my 8th grade English teacher , would take a nosedive in front of the chalkboard if she knew words like selfie and hottie entered the hallowed pages of the Oxford Dictionary. She was a taskmaster. Here’s a lady who insisted on diagraming sentences. BTW, selfie is the Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionary. 

Who am I to be judge, jury and executioner on which words meet some unwritten seal of approval? All I know is that these seemingly fad words are a good thing. They bridge the generational gap. A guy from the MTV Generation may embrace reading/writing and become the next John Steinbeck. What I find interesting is that these trendy terms are seductive enough to sneak into my vocabulary bank. While watching E! News, I blurted out actor Gerard Butler is such a hottie. (Sorry about that.) Here are some listed in my pocket phrasebook.

Hottie: an attractive guy or girl  
Selfie: self- portrait snapped on a smartphone
Bazinga: A catch phrase to accompany a prank, similar to “You’ve been punk’d”.
Swagger: To walk around being overly self-assured 
Gangnam Style: Similar to swagger
Friend me/Like me/Tweet me: To leave a message

Who would’ve thunk it? Miley Cyrus and Mrs. Taylor – in the same story. Whether it is a verb or a noun, trendsetting words are a part of the American vocabulary and maybe we should embrace a word or two.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What Would Jane Do?

By Leigh Stevenson

I had a huge realization. My return to the stage and the press surrounding it taught me something. Never has so much been written about so little. Really. The one-act play I did was funny, true. But articles in every publication in town, Facebook advertising, Twitter and then FRONT PAGE of the newspaper? Are you kidding me? Suddenly we were sold-out. The playwright, Robbie Robertson also our publicist/media guru, master of networking and blitzkrieg, was responsible.

I had heard for a while from professionals that getting your work out into the media, using all formats, is important. You create your own stir. I resisted this and basically ignored it. I thought, “Who would really read all the hype?” I guess I’m a throwback to Jane Austen. I just wanted to write. Not self-promote. Finally, a full year after a good friend said it was imperative, I created a blog. Slow study doesn’t quite cover it.

What Robbie taught me is, IT WORKS. However painful and makes me want-to-hide-under-the-bed-embarrassing, IT WORKS. If you create enough stir people will notice. I wish it was a different world. But it’s not.

Also, I wonder if the new technology intimidates anyone else. Is it just me? First, computers. That was a challenge, but I mastered the basics. Every time I talk with someone who knows more than I do (which isn’t hard), I pick their brain and take notes. In pencil. Remember pencil? By the way, do you notice that young people, I mean the ones that grew up with computers, are annoyed to show you how to do things on the computer? As if your ignorance wasn’t enough of a handicap, you feel dumb about being ignorant. I want to remind them; even they had to learn to read. We don’t spring from our mother’s loins with technology implanted. Or reading skills.

Next was email. I stuck a tentative toe in the water and then dove. I loved it. A fast, efficient way to correspond. Apparently it wasn’t fast or efficient enough. Then came (I’m not sure in what order, so don’t sue me) Websites for Everything and Everyone! Texting, Twitter, Blogging, Skype, Smartphones (what does that even mean?), Cloud technology, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and on and on. I’m sure I’m behind on even naming them.

The point is, I feel I have to be a magician to keep up. I’m trying, heaven knows. I’m not sure, however, with all of this corresponding and sharing of information… if people are still talking. How’s the art of conversation faring with the How r u’s and LOL’s? How about handwritten letters? I used to love letters. Even a greeting card makes me happy. Oh sure, I love to get them via email, but there is something about holding them in your hand. Books, too. I don’t want to be a dinosaur about it but it’s true, there are things to miss. Some traditions worth hanging on to. I still love Jane Austen. What on earth would she have done?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

I Can’t Find My Louboutins: Looking for a Fashion Writer Who Knows Where They Are

By Kimberly Johnson

I think I lost my shoes during NYC Fashion Week. Maybe if I put an all-points bulletin to the famous fashion bloggers and columnists I just might get them back in time for Christmas. For two days, I played Columbo and stumbled around the Internet. 

I Googled fashion writers. I learned that most editors want a niche writer with a proven track record. Start a blog to generate an audience is what the editors suggest. has over 937 K Twitter followers and 155K Facebook fans. Columnist Rachel Strugatz is legendary for her work for at Women’s Wear Daily and the Huffington Post. Here’s a sample highlighting jewelry worn by First Lady Michelle Obama.

“The one-of-a-kind Naeem Khan gown Michelle Obama donned for the state dinner stole the spotlight initially, but it was her show-stopping earrings that stole our hearts. The first lady borrowed the rose cut, amber, and tourmaline pear shaped earrings from Bochic, brainchild of New York-based David Aaron Joseph and Miriam Salat.”

John Jannuzzi, Jessica Quillin and Shala Monroque are prominent fashion writers-turned-editors that use Twitter and Facebook to maintain a strong social media presence. I located Olivia Fleming of London’s Daily Mail.  Maybe she can tell me where my shoes are. Fleming highlighted Louboutin in a November 11 article:

“Christian Louboutin is introducing a capsule collection of heels that promises to elongate your legs by matching the color of your skin. Five classic Louboutin styles have been re-imagined in five shades ranging from a fair blush to rich chestnut, which aim to 'closely match the color of a customer's skin tone'.”

 I Googled fashion writing. The result was a hodge podge of advice ranging from invest in a good dictionary to develop a tough hide to the quote “Writers are not born, they are created through hard work.”  Interestingly enough, a fashion writer internship popped up. 

“Want my job? Write a headline and 250 words on the person you would most like to interview in the fashion industry – it could be a designer, a show producer, a make-up artist, a hair stylist or a model. I want to know who inspires you and why.”  (from Rebecca Lowthrope, the fashion features director for Elle UK)

I think my shoes are truly lost. But I did find out that the fashion industry has creative writers in various genres. Fashion writers adhere to the same principles as a non-fiction writer, a memoirist, even a cookbook writer. The only thing different is the red carpet, the fabulous clothes, and the celebrities. Ok. I don’t really own a pair of Louboutins, but I do have a pair of Calvin Kleins.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

SCBWI Conference

By Sarah Herlong

Recently I went to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference.
Fortunately room service was great! The hotel was very nice too. I found their preparations beforehand very organized and helpful. Online they had 3 publications. One was a Conference Brochure. It contained a conference overview, hotel information, conference schedule, workshop descriptions and faculty bios. All handy anytime I needed to access it.

Then there was the downloadable Conference Information brochure. This contained all the guidelines and deadlines for manuscript critiques, portfolio reviews, first pages/ first impressions, red eye critiques and portfolio displays. This was very helpful to have all in one place. There was also a copy of the critique form used by the entire faculty. This form for manuscript critiques was very thorough. It was covered front and back with boxes for the editor/agent to fill. They had to list the positive aspects of the work and elements that needed improvements. They had to provide notes on character development, plot and structure, language diction, voice, and marketability. There was even a section for next steps and extra comments. I found this produced the best critiques I’ve ever gotten for my work, especially the editor’s comments. Their perspective is so different than an agent’s. Having this form in advance also helped me tailor my questions around what they would have already covered in their critique. It made me more professional as well as their critique more informative.

Then most interestingly was the Newcomer’s Guide. It contained helpful tips for those attending their first conference as well as anyone who wanted to make the most of their conference experience. It included all sorts of tips to make the most of my 15 minute critique and even icebreaker questions to help you make connections with other conference goers. Frankly I got more questions about my work from the room service personnel than from the conference goers, but I’m antisocial.

 One of the things that were very helpful was a little map of the lobby with the conference rooms all labeled. This meant there was no confusion as to where my critiques and workshops were being held. I was never late for anything.

Being neurotic I came up with three questions for the conference coordinator, and she responded within a few hours with answers to all my questions. This I found impressive.

Another great thing was that afterwards there was a computerized critique of the conference itself that included boxes to expand on answers for each question. They asked specifically about each workshop, if it was as good as expected. I took that opportunity to squeal on the agent who talked about music instead of middle grade fiction. Yes, that really happened.

All in all it was a great conference that expanded not only my knowledge of the children’s market, but music as well, unfortunately.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

23rd Annual SCWW Conference

 By Ginny Padgett

“Writing for Publication” was the theme of the one-day symposium hosted by SCWW on Saturday, October 26 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. There were about 65 attendees who enjoyed presentations from seven industry experts: Holly McClure, agent-author and owner of Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency LLC; Betsy Teter, founder of Hub City Writers Project; Cindi Boiter, author and Editor-Publisher of Jasper Magazine; Shari Stauch, marketing specialist and creator of Where Writers Win; Aurelia Sands of Deer Hawk Publications; along with our own McKendree Long and Fred Fields. Professional critiques were offered for purchase at the website. A dozen or so attendees and spouses gathered afterward at the Flying Saucer for author readings, door prizes, conversation and conviviality.

By all accounts it was a successful day even though it was a pared-down event. I heard words like “focused,” “informative,” enjoyable” and “professional.” We owe a round of applause to Kia Goins, 2013 SCWW Conference Chair, for organizing a day of sharing and expanding.

SCWW Columbia II won the Chapter Submission Challenge; Laura P Valtorta took Second Place in the Individual Category. The 2013 Petigru Review made its debut. The anthology is available at the website and soon to come to Kindle.

Save the date for next year’s conference: October 24-26, 2014, Hilton Myrtle Beach Resort. Beginning in January, keep an eye on the website for details:  


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Finding a Publishing Home

By Jodie Cain Smith

I was finished writing. Every word had been carefully crafted into my perfect 300-page newborn:  unspoiled and unpublished. However, I knew my bouncing baby manuscript would not be fully realized as a novel until I put it out into the world. Succeed or fail, I had to try.

But how? I have been asked this several times since finding a publisher for my baby. How did I do it?

First, I did my research. For weeks, I dug through websites such as Poet & Writers, Writer’s Market, and Publishers Weekly. I attended classes on the publishing industry. I purchased and read nearly every word of 2013 Writer’s Market:  Where and How to Sell What You Write.

Next, I put my gigantic, sometimes fragile ego in check. Had I written the next Pride & Prejudice? No. Had I written a story I believed in; one I wanted to share? Yes. Had I written a story with a great hook? Definitely. My baby was begging to be published, but which avenue should I choose?

Shelving my ego allowed my true publishing goal to emerge. I wanted the experience of working with a professional editor without coughing up the cash, so self-publishing was out. I had also learned aiming for the Big Six as an unrepresented author would be equivalent to flying to the moon. Let’s just say that NASA is not banging on my door.

I was left with one choice:  query agents or submit unsolicited to small presses? I decided to roll the dice with small press publishers rather than attaining an agent first. Sharing 10% of nothing didn’t appeal to me.

After compiling a list of over 100 small presses from around the country, I began eliminating those organizations deemed “a bad fit.” I removed all genre specific and nonfiction publishers from my list. My baby is mainstream fiction. Querying the we-pride-ourselves-in-scaring-the-piss-out-of-tweens publishers would be a waste of time, paper, and ink. I read offerings from several small presses, evaluating each for quality and parallels to my book. Yes, I was looking for novels similar to mine. My baby needed siblings, a family of books in which to belong.

After the elimination round, I knew I had a group of real contenders: twenty small presses who accepted simultaneous submissions from unheard-of authors. Most of the presses’ catalogs were comprised entirely of Southern authors writing mainstream fiction. As a woman of the South, I dreamed of being counted among them.

I spent the next month writing twenty query letters, infusing each with specific reasons why my baby would be the perfect addition to their family. I double-checked submission guidelines for each before licking the stamp or pressing send. I was a mother sending her baby off to college. Would she come back to me rejected from the cruel world or return triumphant with the hope of being molded into an even better version of herself? 

Nineteen presses tossed her aside. But one, one said, “Welcome home, baby.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Joys of Writing Instructions

By Sarah Herlong

For this latest trip to a writer’s conference, I wrote instructions for the sitters, two pages for the cats, and one page for mother. I put a lot of work into writing instructions and enjoy it as much as writing a story. Here I share my truncated page of cat instructions.

Ours is a merged feline household. A Brady Bunch of cats. That’s right we have 5 cats, but that’s still 20 less than an animal hoarder.

The Original Gangster
Mother’s cat showed up at a family reunion as a kitten, and got brought home as part of the family. That’s what happens when you crash someone else’s family reunion.SpookyCream-colored seal point with stunning blue eyes. He’s the only male. And this means my cats relentlessly chase him when they’re outside. Inside they’re civil.

The Kittens
Found under the compactor of our local dump. They are actually 2 years old now.
IsisShe’s the fat tabby cat. Her good quality is that she loves Grammy with all her heart. Her bad quality is she shreds important papers. She also likes to jump out and scare the other cats. As you can imagine this isn’t appreciated. Keep her out of my room.
Josephine: She is a fluffy black cat. Her eyes resemble an owl and she is a gentle soul. In a show of solidarity she hangs out with the other black cats in my room.

My Old Cats
Rescued shelter cat and failed foster kitten. They stay in my room.
Hortense: She’s a black and white tuxedo. She has no faults except pooping and peeing on my bedclothes when trapped in the room with no access to the bathroom. Learned that one the hard way with an inattentive pet sitter.
ZoeShe’s another fluffy black cat. She’s got a smoker’s meow and the temperament of a smoker kicking the habit. She looks like she’s missing hair around her neck and on her tail…and she is. To tell them apart, Josephine has an upbeat attitude and never meows. Zoe is sarcastic and only looks at you with the stink eye. She meows her smoker’s meow often. Whereas the other cats will move out of your way, she gets in your way and you have to step over her, even in the dark. She has not figured out that we humans can’t see in the dark or maybe she just doesn’t care. Zoe will cut you if you try to pick her up.

The three black cats segregate themselves into my set of rooms separated from the rest of the world by the kitchen pullout door. If this door is not treated correctly it is the portal to anarchy. Creepily Josephine and Isis can open the partition door so it is important to keep my bedroom door closed too.

My old cats exclusively come in and out of the house through the left window over the orange table in my room. This is where they eat. Being black you won’t see them in the window at night and will have to open it just to see if they’re there. They grew up free feeding, so they like little amounts of food throughout the day if they stay inside. The other cats get fed in the morning and then again around 4:00 pm which they interpret as between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm. Basically the feeding chair is magic to them. They sit in it, and food appears. I never said they were geniuses.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Importance of Storytelling

By Laura P. Valtorta
Stories are like cinnamon buns. They unfold into sweetness.

As I continue filming my third film (a documentary about water service) and planning my fourth (a dance film), the need for storytelling becomes clearer.

Before filming begins, the director needs to write a storyboard. A storyboard maps out the look and feel of the film so that shooting time is not wasted. A storyboard might include drawings of film angles, descriptions of dialogue, or notes about the action in a scene. Through storyboarding, the producer or director may be able to find the arc of the story – the beginning, middle, and end of the tale, or a progressive chain of events leading to a big climax!

As my musical colleague and I began brainstorming for our dance movie, we discovered the need for another story – a fable illustrated by the dance we want to create. What sort of message do we want our dancers to convey? Since I’m the writer in this mix, I decided to devise the story myself, based on what the music says to me and fables about our subject matter – an Australian bird.

The choreography will end up being the story within the story when our film is finished.

Some innovative filmmakers, such as Simon Tarr at the University of South Carolina, are able to make their films with no evident narrative. Tarr has a 2009 film called Giri Chit, recently shown at Tapp’s Art Gallery, that gives a clear picture of the look and feel of Tokyo in various locations around town, including a rooftop garden and colorfully-dressed teenagers. The film is the art form, and this 14-minute piece seems more like an abstract painting than a film. It features mysterious camera tricks. Tarr’s work is beautiful, but I don’t know how to manipulate the camera like that.

For now, my work must rely on storytelling.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

I Love Words

Marion D. Aldridge
 “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”—Mark Twain

The first time I remember being impressed by the “right word” was when, as a young man, I read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. In a letter to Beverly Axelrod, he wrote, “Your letters to me are living pieces—chunks—of you.” I still have the paperback where I underlined that sentence and made note of the descriptive word: “chunks.

No lightning bug there. Lightning!

Piano lessons cost money, so I never took a piano lesson.

Libraries, on the other hand, are free. So I read. Tom Sawyer. Swiss Family Robinson. The Mark of Zorro. I won the summer reading contest at the West End Free Library on Eve Street in Augusta, Georgia. I learned to love words.

Words do not have to be multi-syllable to be savored. Being incarcerated is no better than being jailed. The prisoner probably cannot tell the difference.

I’m pretty sure no one except doctoral students ever says “methodological parameters.” You can research the entire corpus of John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood and Alex Haley and never read that phrase. Simple and clear is almost always better.

Some words are loaded with meaning and continue to be fresh even though they have been around a while: grace, paradox, courage, wisdom, hope, curious, integrity.

Some words are fun. Persnickety. Brouhaha. Rambunctious. Imp. Skittish. Chartreuse. Slimy.

Plurals can be fascinating: A congregation of alligators. A flight of butterflies. A murder of crows. A pod of whales. How did people know this stuff before Google? A tower of giraffes. Is Google pulling our long legs? A scourge of mosquitoes. In South Carolina, that one is easy to believe. The best, of course, is an exaltation of larks.

I enjoy the dynamic nature of our language. Cookies and the cloud mean something different than just a few years ago. What’s not to value about a vocabulary that includes such words as: earworm, ringtone, Zen, diss, netiquette? I could probably live without twerking, kankles, sissification and incentivize, but with language, you take the ugly with the exquisite.

Word combinations can double the pleasure: mash up, extreme scrupulosity, password fatigue, and unintended consequences. I have a personal affection for pleasantly plump.

Maybe the best word of all for a writer: period.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Good Rejection, Bad Rejection

By Bonnie Stanard
Recently I had a good rejection for a short story, at least I thought it was a good one. And yes, there are good rejections—something other than a slip of paper the size of a classified ad returned in your self-addressed stamped envelope. I have a file of select rejections, those with handwritten comments like “”some really nice lines in here,” or “this was a tough call,” or “Submit again!”
The rejections that really annoy me begin with, “We are writers too and we know how it feels…” as if we’re neophytes with no rejection experience. Just give me a reason or say “no.” By the way, I don’t mind the short, photocopied notes, but one time I got a slice of 8.5 x 11 paper no wider than ½ inch. Now that’s getting close to disrespectful.
One year, after my manuscript for a novel wasn’t chosen for the University of Tennessee’s Peter Taylor Prize, Director Brian Griffin wrote me a nice letter. I’ve read that rejection letter a number of times.
Anyway, back to what I thought was a good rejection. The editor wrote that my story just wasn’t what she was looking for and advised me to style my writing after that of a particular writer’s work in Narrator, a literary journal. This sounded sincere. 
I looked up the website and found the article in the archive and read what was a nostalgic essay on the way things once were. It’s hard to figure out techniques for writing fiction from an essay. Maybe the editor was suggesting I get out of fiction and into nonfiction.
Being the cynic that I am, I’m beginning to wonder if even this “good” rejection was as generic as the four-line formulas. Maybe every rejected submission to that journal got this same response. Maybe the objective wasn’t to help me with my writing style but to increase the online traffic for a certain writer.
Looking ahead, the days of the rejection letter are numbered as editors and writers transition to the internet for submissions and communication. We’ve already seen the profusion of www magazines. Even elite print journals are adding online satellites. Whether online or print, most journals request or allow email submissions in which you either paste your manuscript in the body or attach it as a document. 
A number of journals employ online submission managers. I have accounts on several of these. This eliminates email. You simply upload the document containing your work. Decisions from the editors are posted in a grid space reserved for rejections and acceptances, which you access by signing in. There’s virtually no communication between writers and editors.

Though this is easier and faster, it has a downside. With letters (or slips of paper), you can trash all those rejections and forget about them. However, with the submission manager, every time you sign in, you see all the material you’ve submitted that has been declined. If you’re like me, one rejection at a time is manageable, but it’s disheartening to see a long list of them. And on the other hand, you don’t get those nice, hand-written comments either.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

You Don’t Need Blurred Lines to Write a Song

By Kimberly Johnson

Hey, Hey, Hey. Those three words are burning up the radio waves, especially on 104.7 FM. The intro line belongs to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. (Some old school listeners say Fat Albert needs to jump into this). The groovin’ chart topper got me thinking. I want to write a song without blurred lines, you know, something catchy, something that will sell and make millions. Ok. I didn’t major in Music in college. I didn’t play an instrument in high school and I am not acquainted with the formal definitions of harmony, rhythm, and chord progression. But, I pay attention to words and their arrangement in a composition—guess that comes from my newspaper writing training. Listen to the words in the title song from the 70s sitcom, Maude. Lyricists Dave Grusin and Andrew Bergman knew who the target audience was (women), found a universal theme (strong women who had conviction) and tapped into a catchy beat (search for it on YouTube).

Lady Godiva was freedom rider. She didn’t care if the whole world looked. Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her. She was a sister who really cooked.
Those are the elements needed to write a good story. And like any good journalist-turning-songwriter, I cranked up the Internet and came up with a hodge-podge of tips.

    *Keep a notebook handy and write down words, lines and verses that embody how you feel and think.

2: Be organized:
   *Get a central theme or subject. Outline what your message is to your target audience. Organize and       focus on what emotion you want the audience to take away from your song.

3: Keep Music 101 in mind and work through the technical stuff.
   *Write the chorus, first. It showcases the main idea in your song. Make it catchy.
   *Compose a melody, using a music scale “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti” .
    *Write one melody for the first line, and then use various types of melodies for subsequent lines in the     song.
   **Hint: “A traditional song has four to five verses of four lines. Writing at least five plus a chorus can really help to make the verse and melody happen, as these are the most important things of the song to a lyricist. Write two last verses. Even the most experienced song writers are waiting for the inspiration how to write song lyrics by them, because these are normally the hardest to write.”
Ok. I didn’t major in Music in college. Nevertheless, I did write for a living and I know what components make for a good story.  I need to take a music class and not get blurred lines when I start this songwriting gig.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Jodie Cain Smith spent her childhood exploring the shores of Mobile Bay with her three siblings.  As a teen in Mobile, AL, Jodie’s grandmother told her the gripping story of an adolescence spent in 1930’s rural Alabama, the rumors surrounding her parents, and the murder trial that would alter her life.  The tale took root in Jodie’s memory until at last it became The Woods at Barlow Bend, her debut novel to be released January 2015.

While attending the University of South Alabama, where Jodie earned a BFA in Theatre Arts, she met her husband Jay.  They began their life on the Army road in 2001 and have not stopped moving since.  As an Army Wife, she has lived in six different states from the extreme heat of Texas to the blizzards of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she earned a MAE in School Counseling at Northern Michigan University

No matter where she has lived, Jodie has been fortunate to hold on to two of her favorite passions:  tennis and live theatre.  Even in the smallest of towns, as she uses her childhood explorer skills, Jodie has been able to find a community theatre to play amongst the local artists and a tennis court for herself and her favorite opponent, her husband.

Jodie Cain Smith’s feature articles and columns have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Military Spouse's Soul, The Savannah Morning News, and the Fort Hood Sentinel.

To learn more about Jodie Cain Smith and her thoughts on ruling, renovating, and escaping her corner of the world visit her blog The Queendom at

Jodie's first blog at this site follows.

Army Action Planning: The Writer Surrenders

By Jodie Cain Smith

Recently, due to another Army-mandated move, I left my sixth job in 12 years. I knew well how to start again at the bottom and catapult up the ladder, but I didn’t want to. A hidden family tragedy had been bouncing around in my head for 20 years. So, I made a deal with my husband: give me one year to write a book. If I don’t, I will get a “real” job. But if I do…

After 12 months of research, writing, revising, and perfecting the manuscript and query letter, I submitted my work for publication. My heart broke with each rejection. Then, the unimaginable: a small press accepted my work.

“What now?” the husband asked.

“Well, I keep writing,” I told him, content with being a slave to the creativity gods.

“No. Not good enough,” he said. “You need a plan.”

Several weeks later, the husband reminded me of the plan. Boxes appeared for another move.

“Jodie, you still need a plan,” he said.

We unpacked the boxes. He grabbed a legal pad, a pen, and a six-pack. I surrendered, opened a beer, and the plan that will guide me through the next two years was born.

(Full disclosure: creating the plan required several six-packs over a few weeks. I often wanted to punch the husband in the throat for imparting his soldier stuff on my writing world, but I resisted. He is extremely supportive and incredibly useful. If I start punching him, he may stop being so cooperative.)

1. Identify the Lines of Effort

After much discussion, I identified what I want most: to sell my book, to establish myself as a writer, and to sustain a writing career.

With my action verbs identified, I wanted to jump over a few steps and brainstorm individual tasks. The husband forced me to cool my jets and follow the action-planning process. This was the first time I felt a tingling in my fists.

2. Define an Endstate for each Line of Effort

Specifically, what would each line of effort look like when accomplished? What is my sales goal? Describe an established writing career. How do I define sustainment?

After several hours, I answered these questions. But my head hurt. Possibly, it was the beer. More than likely, it was from thinking so hard.

3. Create the Task List

Finally, I used my squirrel-like attention span to write down every possible task having anything to do with accomplishing each line of effort. I pinged from sell to establish to sustain– on and on, the list grew. Each task was assigned to one line of effort.

4. Create the Calendar

Next, the husband drew a chart containing three rows (the lines of effort) and twenty-four columns (monthly blocks representing July 2013 through June 2015). The endstate for each line of effort was placed in the last month of each row. Working backwards from June 2015 to the present, I placed every individual task on the calendar; ensuring tasks were performed in the correct sequence. Backwards planning forced me to focus on the endstates.

5. Evaluate the Plan

My two-year calendar was complete, filled with tasks directly related to accomplishing my dream. My husband then leaned on the back of my chair and began to read the plan over my shoulder. He read each endstate and searched for tasks in the corresponding line of effort to accomplish that endstate.

“Are you checking my work?” I asked.

“I’m making sure we didn’t miss anything,” he said.

Oh. Smart. And he did say we. Uncurl your fists, Jodie.

6. Display the Plan!

Would I be able to resist the temptation of online shoe shopping if the plan is hidden in my desk drawer? No. So, I hung the action plan on the wall next to my desk. Now, when I walk into my office, the plan orders me to work, to move my wild dream forward. Now, my dream doesn’t seem quite so wild anymore.  

As for undertaking a project like this with your significant other, consider yourself warned. Your fists may start to tingle.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Where I Write

By Sarah Herlong

I’m lucky to have an entire room devoted to writing. In the Spring, I have a great view of the blooming dog wood tree, as well as the occasional bird that alights on the windowsill. This drives my cats crazy. Even the whip snake that coiled itself in the vines growing up the window caused quite a stir, amongst us all.

I sit in a somewhat raggedy yet comfortable oversized chair and roll my computer to me via a nifty little computer desk on wheels. When I’m finished writing for the day or night, I simply roll it away from me. Likewise I have a rolling table that holds stacks of important papers.  Everything at my finger tips just a roll away. I have a variety of children’s books to use as examples of age appropriate writing. Regrettably I have a small messy pile on the floor of magazines to read, books to read and some paperwork. This is material under the constant threat of Isis the cat, who shreds paper like she works for a shady politician.

I don’t have a name for my room. I rarely call it my writing room despite that being its primary purpose. I just call it my room.  It also contains my curio cabinet. Housing the stuffed alligator, large bird skull, the glow in the dark, collapsing skeleton, and the pink head that giggles. It’s creepy… trust me. I have a more regal skeleton in the corner wearing a silk ribbon around its head, and a pink necklace that my grandmother used to wear. It sits cross-legged in a chair around a green candle. He’s a yes man. Never gives good advice.

I try to write every day, sometimes broken up with doctor’s appointments for my mother, or having to assist her throughout the day. She allows me as much private time as I need for writing, but still gripes about it. She’s lonely despite having close friends, and a daughter as an attendant. I can’t do anything about her loneliness, but I can write about it in my room.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Vagrant Philosophers and Poets

By Bonnie Stanard

Perhaps I ask too much of poetry, but I want it to shed light on the big questions like: Who am I? What has meaning? Why are we here? This is not to say I want answers as such, but I’d like to gain some understanding about our existence. We’re not talking religious poems here, rather, ones that provide illumination, or a least ideas to stimulate reflection.

The grand masters of poetry didn’t shy away from the big questions. Their best poems encode concrete images with transcendent meaning. Transcendent meaning as used here embraces much that is unexplainable about poetry. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is one of my favorites. There are many others, but I especially like: Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break;” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall;” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening;” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Song in the Front Yard.” These poems say something profound in a way that seems effortless.

When a poem spells out a message that is too obvious, it runs the risk of becoming simplistic and limited to singular interpretation. From the following excerpt of John Berryman’s “The Ball Poem,” I hope you’ll see what I mean:

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball, 

What, what is he to do?...

No use to say 'O there are other balls… 

Now…He senses first responsibility 

In a world of possessions. People will take balls, 

Balls will be lost always…

Poetry has been trending away from obvious meaning for some time (and obvious form as well, but that’s another subject). It’s as if EB White’s advice, “Be obscure clearly” is being taught in every MFA course on writing poetry. As we’ve become more informed, we resist being spoon-fed somebody else’s version of truth. We want to discover our own truth. Ergo, poets try to engage the reader with carefully ordered images in the hope that meaning will emerge as the reader recognizes or identifies some insight, if not a truth.

You can see from today’s poems that writers are grappling with traditional material (concrete images) to produce meaningful obscurities … at least obscurities that lend themselves to interpretation by a body of readers. This has produced works that range from simple to inscrutable. Understated poems lean heavily on the reader’s imagination. Take a look at “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, which either says a lot on not much at all:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Some poems read like free association, as if we have been given a Rorschach test of written rather than visual images. These poems are more challenging, and there are academics who can provide the logic behind the images. The popular poet John Ashbery provides many such examples. Below is a verse from his poem “Elective Infinities.”

It was all over by morning. The village idiot
was surprised to see us. "...thought you were in Normandy."
Like all pendulums we were surprised,
then slightly miffed at what seemed to be happening
back in the bushes. Keep your ornaments,
if that's what they are. Return to sender, arse.

Lest you think the above lines become more explicit in the context of the poem, see the entire work at

The poet and philosopher John Koethe, describing poetry as an artful form of talking to yourself, said, “I’ve always thought of poetry as a kind of inner soliloquy, reflecting the capacity for self-consciousness that makes us human.” I guess that’s what poets are doing, and as time passes, the configuration of thought changes. We’re motivated to write from stimuli and experiences, and then we hope somebody will help us understand what we’ve said.