Monday, January 28, 2013

The Modern Girl’s Guide to Advice: Just Write It

By Kimberly Johnson
Often glib and sometimes risqué, but she made a good point. That’s how I define Dear Abby’s advice style. Straight, no chaser. That’s how I describe her writing style. I soaked in her column with zeal when it was featured in The State newspaper. She provided a forum for real talk. Here’s an example:
Dear Abby: My boyfriend is going to be 20 years old next month. I'd like to give him something nice for his birthday. What do you think he'd like? — CarolDear Carol: Never mind what he'd like, give him a tie.Dear Abby: I've been going with this girl for a year. How can I get her to say yes? — DonDear Don: What's the question?

Pauline Phillips, the lady behind the pen, died at the age 94 on January 16. Her career started in 1956 at the San Francisco Chronicle. Her pen name emerged from picking Abigail from the Bible and Van Buren from President Van Buren, according to lore. I was shocked to find out that her biggest competition was the Ann Landers column, written by her twin sister, Esther Lederer. I secretly admired the columnist because I wanted to write like that--quippy advice to women and men with succinct words. I figured it took real skills to develop a style and maintain a following of loyal readers. The Best of Dear Abby, a collection of her advice, retorts and insights was published in 1981.
Now that a legend has passed on, there's a new America’s Advice Queen on my reading shelf. It is E. Jean, the saucy advice guru for Elle magazine. The best way to characterize her is that she’s a disciple of Helen Gurley Brown and the grandmother of Sex In the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. Her advice is simple.

Dear E. Jean: I’ve been in an extremely satisfying relationship with my boyfriend for the past two years. Both our families love us as a couple. Since we moved in together six months ago, however, his mother insists on introducing me to her friends and relatives as her son’s fiancée—even though he hasn’t proposed yet! People invariably ask to see the ring (SHOCK—I have none) or ask how he proposed (GASP—he hasn’t yet), and his mom just stands there and smiles and smiles. How can I get her to stop doing this? The poor man hasn’t even had a chance to get down on one knee! —Frustrated and Flustered
Flustered, My Faun: Next time the lady—let’s call her Peggy—introduces you to her friends as her son’s fiancée, simply throw an arm around Peggy, clasp her warmly, and say to her pals, enthusiastically: “Peggy’s pregnant!” “No, I’m not!” she’ll cry. “You’re not?” you’ll say. “Well, your son hasn’t proposed, either. I guess we’ll both have to wait.” She’ll get the picture.
Abby and E. Jean are examples of columnists who used well organized, succinct writing techniques to dispense advice.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Finding Your Writing Influence

By Len Lawson   
It is a crucial benefit for writers to discover the authors who have had the most significant influence on their work. This revelation will help us to understand what type of writers we truly are and in what direction our writing can and should go. Without knowing who has influenced us, it remains difficult, especially for beginners, to understand how we write. However, we do not have to become the same authors as others who have influenced us. We should use this knowledge as a door to greater awareness of our individual craft.
For example, I first became interested in literature in high school. We read the classics like Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and others, but the one author we read who intrigued me most was Zora Neale Hurston. When we read her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was overwhelmed with Hurston's diction and dialogue.
Reading Hurston led me to my writing idol at the time Toni Morrison. However, when I made the decision to become a writer, my words came out similar to Morrison’s words with long sentences and many adjectives. When I first allowed others to read my writing, its density confused them. Moreover, I discovered that Morrison read much of William Faulkner’s and Virginia Woolf’s writing before writing her own. Her works are really a combination of both their styles.
I realized that if I were to become a serious writer, then I would have to develop my own style. Nonetheless, my influences instantly came out onto the pages because I had read so much of them. I channeled Hemingway’s use of dialogue in a matter-of-fact tone. I disseminated Hurston’s African American dialogue in some of my writing with Southern settings. Furthermore, yes, I did use what I learned from Morrison’s uniqueness yet sparingly so as not to confuse my readers. I incorporated the best of those authors fused with my own creativity and paradigm.
The result has been a style all my own. Critics might say that I am simply copying other writers and pasting them into my work. I say that without reading a variety of styles, writers cannot discover their own. I leave these tips for us to discover who our writing influences are and to discover who we are as writers:
  1. What writers do you enjoy reading? What is great about these writers and their works?
  2. What can you detect in your own writing that resembles what you see in other writers you have read?
  3. What else can you learn about these writers that can better influence your writing (i.e. their biography or autobiography, how they became writers, what writers influenced them)?
  4. Which of these writers’ works, if any, most resemble your own?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Django, Historical Buffoonery

By Bonnie Stanard

Anachronisms are the bane of serious historical fiction writers. If we rack up too many, our validity as researchers if not writers is called into question. For those of us who spend a lot of time figuring out things like whether alcoholic drinks were served with a straw in 1858, Leonardo Dicaprio had us choking on our popcorn in the movie Django Unchained. There he was on the screen, surrounded by his slaves and sipping a coconut daiquiri with a straw. Whatever the blood and gore, that straw was indefensible.

As improbable as the straw were some of the situations. Any black person, slave or free, who wore a pistol in 1858 wouldn’t have worn it long. Nor would he sit at a dinner table with white people. And since slaves were considered property worth from $500 to $1500, what owner would damage his own property? And there was a lot of damage here.

But wait a minute. Director Quentin Tarantino signals that the movie is unorthodox on the posters used for promotion. How can anybody take seriously a 19th Century cowboy wearing sunglasses? Obviously Django is not intended as a traditional Western.

In a review of Django, Stephanie Zacharek of NPR claims that if the movie “takes significant liberties with history … , it also faces certain historical truths head-on.” She doesn’t elaborate on these truths and I’m still wondering what they could be. She also says it isn’t a screed because “there’s too much joy in it.” Huh? Did she say “joy?” Amusement … maybe.

Those of us expecting a cowboy adventure of the more typical sort were twisting in our seats by the second half, hardly aware of the playfulness. Early on, I scoffed at the poor approximation of what was supposed to be cotton plants growing in a field. However, Tarantino had everything under control. He hadn’t been so stupid as to accidentally make cotton look like soy beans with blooming boles.

Anyway, director Quentin Tarantino is not easy to interpret. The historical inaccuracies are a way of messing with the concept of suspending disbelief. Even as we immerse ourselves in the story, we are kept out of Django’s world. The movie is a tongue-in-cheek offering that dares you to like it. It’s deliberately provocative.

It’s listed as an “Action” movie but begs for another label, one that will acknowledge the element of absurdity. It’s been well received by critics and has an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. If it weren’t for the violence, I’d watch the movie again with the hope of more insight into Tarantino’s unconventional talent.

For all Zacharek says about Tarantino, her comment about his use of the n-word prompted the most responses, some of them acrimonious ( There are critics who reduce Django to that one issue and would throw Tarantino under the bus for using the word. Several weeks ago on my WritePersona blog, I addressed this dilemma, one that haunts those of us who place our stories in the South in the 19th Century. ( -- scroll down to “Tough Words”)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Advice to Beginner Writers

At a recent workshop, our members were asked what would be their best advice to a new writer. Here are three selections.

You can’t wait until you are inspired to write. You have to write everyday. Recreate conversations you’ve had, write descriptions of places you’ve been, and record tidbits of stories people tell you. These are the makings of great writing.
Sarah Herlong

I learned the hard way that it is important for beginning writers to honor your original purpose when you are serious about writing something as long as a book. If something inspires you enough to take on such a complex task, be true to it  Along the way, you will be tempted to go off in other directions.  That's okay; you might produce all kinds of good material for other uses, but eventually you'll have to pare it down if you want to accomplish your original purpose cleanly and effectively.  Here's an example of what I mean:  I started to write a memoir about a period in my family life related to the Vietnam War, inspired by the issue of war today.  As I wrote about my family, my writer's group asked for more insight into my parents.  So I spent a lot of time working on that (which I don't regret).  But now I realize that the story of my struggles to understand my parents is another book altogether. Maybe I will write that book someday. I think so. But I have been at this book three years.  It won't get finished if I keep trying to write TWO stories into one work.  I'm not good enough, yet, to do that. And I won't get better if I insist on struggling on and on when I know in my heart I am over my head.       
Debbie Yoho

Advice:  Keep a notebook or legal pad of thoughts to use for future story ideas.  It is a great way to capture a fleeting thought and come back to it when you are ready to develop it.
Kimberly Johnson