Sunday, August 30, 2015

IF YOU WANT to WRITE by Brenda Ueland: Book Review

By Chris Mathews

Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write, A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit, copyrighted first in 1938, inspires the reader not only to be a better writer, but also a more complete person. She makes the bold claim that the best writers are good people, and then convincingly makes her case, quoting from writers who have inspired her, some famous like Blake, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, some not so famous but every bit as truthful (her students among them). Ueland believes there is ‘genius’ in us all — “everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

After a long career as a writer, Ueland taught writing at the Minneapolis YWCA to a class of all ages and backgrounds. There she was able to help writers find the truth in their own writing. When students showed admiration for showy writing, she helped them see through it, encouraging them instead to write from a deep, heartfelt place. If one lives by the motto “be Bold, be Free, and be Truthful,” Ueland believes that anyone can write. Truthfulness, she says, will save the writer from “flamboyance and pretentiousness.”

If she weren’t able to write with such passion and tell such poignant stories of great artists and writers, you might brand her advice dreamy and impractical. But listen to her thoughts on Van Gogh from his letters on what his creative impulse was: “It was just this: he loved something —the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them.”
“… I hope to prove to you the importance of your working at writing, at some creative thing that you care about…only if I can make you feel that, will you do and persist in it… not only for the next few weeks! I want you to do it for years to come, all your life!”

Ueland writes these words in the chapter “Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man,” a quote from William Blake, the poet and artist. She revels in the joy with which Blake wrote and lived his life. He called his “Imagination” God. Only by doing what you love can you hope to experience this spirit (“the rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”). I will not soon forget Blake’s way of discerning what is good or bad: “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” A shocking thought, but she and Blake agree that we too often listen to the critics and the nay-sayers instead of our own authentic voices.

Unlike Ueland’s book, most books on writing give what I call ‘write-by-the-numbers’ advice. They offer step-by-step procedures that call like sirens to the aspiring writer. If you follow the advice, you might well create a well-structured, readable book, but the chances are you will leave out the most important element of good writing: you.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

I Hope This Blog Gets Sick

By Jodie Cain Smith

Yes, I hope this blog gets sick, contagious, viral. So, when looking to contaminate the Internet with my next stroke of genius, how do I encourage infection? I can write the most riveting content ever uploaded, but if the title stinks, no one will ever read my brilliance.

My recent post to the South Carolina Workshop Website blog soared to over 2,000 views in two days. (Nowhere near viral, but it was a strong showing. The average number of views of SCWW posts is between 150 and 500 per post.) As much as I would love to believe I have a gigantic online following and that my public clamors for every word I write, this is not true. The success of my recent post lies in the title.

When competing for online readers, keep these few, simple principles in mind when creating the title for your next post.

1.      Clarity is key. Tell the reader exactly what your post will address. Ambiguous titles such as “Inspiring Minds” or “Write or Wrong” may be clever, but they do not tell the reader anything about the post.
2.      Be honest. No one enjoys being lied to, so make sure your title reflects the content. Recently, a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook with a salacious title. It was juicy, real juicy. I clicked. I read. I realized the title was a lie. I did not click the share button. (I also knew the content of the article was in stark contrast to my friend’s personal view on the subject. I sent her a private message alerting her to the contrast. She posted the response, “Always read everything you share!” Palm to face.) 
3.      Keep it short. The title “These Ten Actions Will Make You Stop Being a Drag and Become a Good Person Today” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue and will probably fall subject to an ellipsis. Try instead, “Ten Acts to a Better You!” 
4.      Make it sexy. We are a scroll-and-click society. As creators, it is our job to make a reader stop scrolling and start reading. If trying to “sell” my thoughts on the craft of writing, I have to grab attention within one glance of a potential reader. Exciting, suggestive language does that. “Worst. Author Event. Ever” told my audience with an economy of words, “If you would like to read a snarky, emotional article on author book signings, click here.”

      Remember, ripples come from a splash. Go forth and jump into the pool, cannonball-style!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Three Deliberate Uses for Dialogue

By Kasie Whitener

My drafts are usually 85% dialogue. I get characters in a room, get them talking, and see what happens. During revision, I add the narrative stuff: action, setting, costumes, facial expressions. But initially, it’s just the conversation.

Dialogue is valuable for breaking up narration, adding texture and dynamics to the story. It’s also a great way to establish characters by letting the reader hear their voices. Here are three deliberate uses for dialogue that can be employed whenever you see a large hunk of narrative that is dragging the story down.

Deliver Exposition

My favorite teen TV show, The Vampire Diaries, is excellent at this one. The characters frequently recount what happened in previous episodes as if reminiscing.

“Like the time you killed your doppleganger by feeding her the cure for vampirism?”

When dialogue delivers exposition, it not only tells the reader what’s happened before the story began, it shows which of the characters are familiar with the exposition, too.

A writer can say, “Here’s what there is to know and who knows it,” by delivering exposition through dialogue.

Build Tension

This is one of those “show, don’t tell” skills. It’s easy enough for a writer to say of a main character: "He trembled with rage."

Using dialogue to build tension, the writer might say:

“Come closer.”

“Don’t hurt me.”

“It’s too late to avoid that.”

“But, you promised.”

"His voice so low she barely heard it, he repeated, 'Come closer.'”

After a scene builds with dialogue and two characters have reached a resolution, the scene needs narrative to give the reader a break. You know you’ve written too much tension into the dialogue when you read it aloud and run out of breath.

Change Direction

I call this pivot-point dialogue. It’s where the scene is building to a certain position, a particular outcome, until someone delivers a pivot via dialogue.

Narrative delivers pivot points by having the character do something unexpected. Maybe the villain falls to his knees and begs mercy, maybe he jumps off a cliff and soars into the ocean below. But dialogue pivot points are when a character says something unexpected.

My favorite happens in The Princess Bride when Westley and Prince Humperdinck are squaring off and the Prince says, “Surrender!” and Wesley says, “Death first!” and Buttercup shouts, “Will you promise not to hurt him?”

Both men look at her, stunned, comically responding with, “What was that?”

Readers know Buttercup has been making bargains to survive. It’s not surprising that she’d do what she could to protect Westley. But it surprises both of the men that she sees herself as having the ability to do so.

Characters cannot just say crazy things to change the direction of the story. Pivot dialogue points are the result of purposeful character development. The characters must have something to gain or they must be sacrificing something in order to prevent a particular outcome.

Let your characters speak and the story will tell itself.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dealing With a Personal Apocalypse

By Rex Hurst

In December of 1922 Ernest Hemingway was in Switzerland covering the Lausanne Peace Conference for a Canadian Newspaper. While there he met with an editor who liked his material and requested to see more. Hemingway cabled his wife in Paris to come immediately and bring all of his stories. With admirable thoroughness his wife complied, scooping up all of his work, including the carbon copies, and went down to the station to hop a train. She settled into a berth then, before the train left, went to buy a bottle of water on the platform. When she returned the suitcase was gone.

It was never recovered. The whole of his literary work went up in smoke. How did the world look to Hemingway when he found out? This is a personal apocalypse which is nearly impossible to put into words. Can you imagine? Can you relate?

Yes I can.

At the end of June I was on vacation. The plan was to go down to Florida for a little family reunion with my mom, brother, and his five kids - a direct flight from Charlotte to Florida. I had packed two bags for the trip. A big one, which contained all of my clothes, and a smaller carry-on in which I stowed a couple of books, some candy, personal toiletries, and the handwritten draft of the book I was working on. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

I woke up late and had to rush up to Charlotte, skipping breakfast. It took about an hour and a half. I opted to leave my car in one of the long-term lots and ran to a kiosk to wait for the airport shuttle. As I’m waiting, my phone rings, so I put my bags down to answer. It’s my mother, making sure that I had arrived on time. As I’m talking to her the shuttle arrives and I get on taking only the large bag. It wasn’t until I was physically getting onto the plane that I realized the smaller one was missing.

The material lost was about 140 pages, around 6 chapters, totaling 4 months work. I called the airport lost and found, but nothing had been turned in. During the entire vacation I had stress dreams about the bag. Like Tantalus’s grapes, it floated in front of me and zipped away when I tried to grab it. Once I realized that all hope was gone, depression crashed over me and I probably became the worst houseguest my brother had ever had, not wanting to do anything or even leave the bedroom.

So what does a person do? 1. I had to put aside all work on the book for now, I can’t even look at it without becoming depressed. 2. Store up the feelings and squirrel it away for use in some other work. Everything can be material. You never know when it might come in handy- such as in writing this blog.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Who Will Save Me?

By Laura P. Valtorta                                     

Who will save me from these loud-talking Italians? Will it be Hanya Yanagirhara (author of the excellent novel, A Little Life, now living in my reader)? Will it be a new Italian/French TV travel show – “Posso dormire da voi?” Or will it be Marco, whose head is now the color of a sour Ligurian cherry, after we swam three times in the Mediterranean today? (Sunscreen – ever heard of it?)

Of course the answer is Marco, because he is an Italian like no other. Marco is a citizen of the world.

I also rely on Hanya Yanagihara, whose brilliant novel gives me respite and escape in the hot apartment in Cavi, when we are not swimming (the cold water is the only place that brings relief) in the Mediterranean that was today flecked with yucky debris from the passing yachts. Or raw sewage.

We sweat. We walk to Bagni Aurelia and swim. We open our computers, we read, we drink cappuccini and spremute d’aranica. We gaze at the strange Italians, so loud and demonstrative with their children – kissing and kissing them (I approve of this). We get naked, and we swim.

Lunches are fish and salad at the local restaurants. Dinners are light and eaten at home. Tonight we had cherries, gorgonzola, Emmenthal cheese, chunks of bread and gelato (limone, fiordilatte, nutella, e fragola). Acqua frizzante.

The people at Bagni Aurelia, (where we have a cabin and an umbrella plus two chairs on the sand, where we eat lunch at the ristorante), are like comic book characters. There is Stefano, the sarcastic Sicilian proprietor and Silvia, his mousey wife. There is the stream of fogey neighbors who ask about Gioia, Clara, Ross, and Dante. There is the elegant, nut-brown barista girl, the self-conscious lifeguards (don’t I look great in my red T-shirt and tight shorts?) and the hairy men in small bathing suits and ugly sandaled feet.

On the beach, we see the topless women lying prone in the sun, and the coconut vendors – “Cocco. Cocco bello!” There are the Africans and Moroccans selling towels and sunglasses. One of the African women, wearing a long cotton dress, carries a basket of towels on her head.

At home I read A Little Life. I cry sometimes at Jude’s plight. I sleep on the sofa and sweat. Then we descend the steep driveway to the street. We walk under the train tracks. We emerge on the other side, walk past the comic book characters and swim.