Sunday, December 25, 2016

Birthing a Blog

By Laura P. Valtorta

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to launch a blog about laws referred to often in the press but never fully referenced or explained. Title IX, the First Amendment, and Roe versus Wade are examples. The one I need to study more carefully is Dodd-Frank – the law enacted by President Obama to regulate banking and finance. Who is Dodd? Who is Frank? How does their law impact banking and investment?

The law swims through time like an amorphous amoeba. Figuring out how to research and explain it efficiently is difficult. I took a year to write the first edition of Social Security Disability Practice. Each new edition sucks up two weeks of work. With a blog, I won’t have that much time to mess around. The first steps will be to read the law and then listen to someone interpret it. With the First Amendment, the amendment itself is about six lines long, but the interpretive cases stretch on forever.

Wooo weee! The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, 12 U.S. Code 5301 et ff. is about 200 pages long. These pages are the single-spaced, two-column kind found in federal statutes. Every line opens itself up to interpretation, evasion and scamming. Thank goodness for Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short, that can help me understand the impetus for this law. Thank goodness for the holiday break.

At the onset, I plan to include these elements in each blog.

1.              REFERENCE TO THE STATUTE - Everybody writes “Dodd-Frank,” for example, but nobody writes 12 U.S. 5301 et ff. – which directs the researcher to the current wording of the statute.

2.              SUMMARY OF THE LAW – This part will be the trickiest to write. Dodd-Frank deals with banking practices and Wall Street trading. All of this affects the everyday lives of the average Jane. I don’t want my summary to exceed 300 words.

3.              WHAT THE LAW WAS INTENDED TO ACCOMPLISH – Writing about intent is always impossible, especially with something as old as the First Amendment. The blog needs to clarify that any description of intent is based on my own personal opinion as a citizen and a lawyer.

4.              SNARKY COMMENTS ABOUT HOW THE AMERICAN PEOPLE HAVE MESSED UP THE LAW – With something like Title IX, this will be my chance to rant about university life and sports. Comments about the importance of teamwork in scientific research may also fit in here. Once again, all will be my opinion, and clearly labeled as such unless I can point to reliable research and statistics.

Blogs allow us to express our opinions. They should never be read as news or fact. They can, however, aid us in interpreting the Wall Street Journal or National Public Radio.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Dystopian Writing

By Laura P. Valtorta

Margaret Atwood, who has written five dystopian novels, starts from a platform of modern civilization in first-world countries (people working, children being educated, women treated as $.68 citizens) before plunging into a future that looks both grim and strange. In the MaddAdam trilogy, her diving board is present-day corporate control from which she plunges into the soup of the future – a world where the environment has collapsed and big companies protect half of the population in sealed communities. She has a platform of values that she respects: love and camaraderie. The healing qualities of hard work such as gardening. But she attacks anyone who can’t think for herself. The books are hilarious.

Franklin Schneider has no such platform. His creative memoir, Canned, how I lost ten jobs in ten years and learned to love unemployment, begins with the premise that life stinks, all of it. He tells the reader why in an entertaining way. The reader may or may not agree, but the quality and funniness of the writing help to deliver his message. Because Schneider rejects everything (except sex and books), his insights are often deeper and more unexpected than those of other writers. He makes the reader question values that western society forces on us as given: family is desirable. Work is always good.

Donna Tartt, in The Secret Friend, starts from the premise that Mississippi life in the 1970s was terrible for everyone because of economic deprivation. Her central character, a young girl, hunts down a supposed killer who has not committed the murder. Nobody understands anybody else in Tartt’s world. The reader can see inside the minds of the main characters, but they hardly ever understand each other. In this way, she attacks some prejudices about the South and reinforces others. She does accept the conventional premise that people need money and ambition to make life work. The book is 95% funny and filled with snakes.

While writing my current novel about the barriers America has built around skin color, I am starting from the traditional notion that family can make a person strong. Friends are important in Doris & Carmen, but Americans, living in compartmentalized worlds, are never free to choose the friends they need. People who can break down the boxes are stronger than others. My main targets are the American legal system, greed, and lawyers.

Humor is what ties these writings together. Nobody wants to depress her readers, and human stupidity is an easy target. Laughter is what makes the message stick.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Wordtopia is Just One Way to Start

By Kasie Whitener

Jodie was right. NaNoWriMo is a crazy gluttony of wordtopia. Volunteers commit to producing 50,000 words in the month of November for what could be the first draft of a novel.

I’ve done it three times and have a lifetime achievement statistic of 155,363 words to show for it. This year’s entry, Interstate Butterflies, is a commercial fiction attempt: Maisy Diller returns to her hometown to escape her crumbling music career and wait out the cancer that’s killing her uncle.

What I love about NaNoWriMo is the purity of creation. There’s no room for revising in the word frenzy. I’m not someone who has ever written without stopping to correct spelling and grammar. I tend to edit-while-writing. No time for that in NaNo! Word count is all that matters. There’s no time for poring over the right word or the right construction of a sentence.

Just go! Blaze on! Word count is what matters.

There’s no chance to wonder if a scene has done what it needs to do, whether a character’s motivations have changed, or even what that character wants to accomplish in each scene. Just write! The rest will get worked out during revision.

I’ve always “pantsed” NaNoWriMo. It means writing-from-the-seat-of-your-pants. I just let the characters talk and meander through the story. I’ve basically taken the stream-of-consciousness approach for five first-person narrators, one of whom was a vampire.

But this year I “planned” which entails outlining the entire novel and waking up every morning with a “fill in the blank” approach to achieving my word count. Planning worked. By mid-month I had 25,000 words and I was on my way to winning NaNoWriMo.

Except I didn’t know anything about Maisy. Her voice sounded like an answering machine recording. I couldn’t figure out what the main conflict was. Which character was the antagonist?

Then I had surgery and went down for four days without a finger on the keyboard. In my anesthesia-induced fog, I asked the big questions:

What does Maisy want?
What happens if she doesn’t get it?
Who stands in her way?
What is she willing to do to achieve her goal?
What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to her?

And then she started talking. She said, “Listen, Kasie, this story is about my inability to see myself as anyone except the person the men in my life say I am. I want to be me in all my messy glory. Not Will’s best friend. Not Maddox’s talented niece. Not the band’s lead singer or Tyler’s ex-girlfriend. Not my father’s lost cause.”

Then, in a fit of 18,000 words, I crushed the last three days of NaNoWriMo and “finished” the novel. Except it’s not anywhere near done. It’s just 50,060 words of discovery. A lump of clay ready to be shaped into a compelling novel through revision. But it’s a start and that’s the whole point of NaNo: to start.

Now the real work begins.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

No More NaNoWriMo!

By Jodie Cain Smith

If I had my druthers, NaNoWriMo would find a tall cliff and plunge into the great hereafter. I have given it a try. Twice. And now I can claim two Novembers full of self-loathing and failure. Allow me to share my post-NaNo thoughts with you.

Who chose November?

Is this because whoever created this awful challenge wanted some cutesy alliteration? National Novel na na na. We get it. Adorable. No amount of alliteration will ever work for me.

Did the original NaNoWriMo-er not know that November is a really busy month, especially for those of us who already gave into the pressure of creating a Norman Rockwell version of the holidays? Which, by the way, start with trick-or-treating on Halloween. No more of this wait until after Thanksgiving. Nope. How can I be expected to write 50,000 words in the month that I am also supposed to avoid eating all my kid’s Halloween candy, tear down the cobwebs and witches, throw up a cornucopia, hay bale, and a sign that reads “So blessed” all in a mad dash before the day of gluttony? Then, I must figure out how to brine a turkey and do all of my Christmas shopping in one day that more resembles The Purge than holiday shopping. No, November will not do.

And, the cutesy doesn’t end with the name.

You must decide early on if you are a planner or a pantser, and be willing to fight to the death in defense of your chosen writing style. There are badges to be won, inspirational coaching to be bombarded with, and writing events. I can think of few experiences more awkward than sitting around a library table with ten strangers all with laptops and ear buds, all silently staring at each other when we collectively hit the writer’s block.

And, yes, I’m officially adding NaNoWriMo social media posters to my naughty list.

You finished your word count for the day? Congrats. You’re on thin ice in my Facebook friend list just for mentioning NaNoWriMo. Chapter 85 was really tough, but you suffered through it and exceeded your goal by 40,000 words but are going to have a really hard time cutting the manuscript back to a publishable length? Oh, my finger is itching to click that block button, humble bragger. You finished a week and a half early and decided to start another novel just for the fun of it? Blocked. Goodbye. You don’t deserve friends.

But, mostly, I hate NaNoWriMo because of what it revealed of me as a writer. I discovered I am a planner who really wants to pants it. I discovered I am weak in the face of distraction. I discovered that writing is a lonely road full of self-doubt. Thanks, NaNoWriMo, for revealing my faults and insecurities. Sometimes, I don’t want to know the truth.

To all of you who succeeded this November, my sincerest congratulations. You’ve done what many could not. Just don’t post it in my Facebook feed.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Script Rewrite

By Olga Agafonova

Back at the end of October, I got a professional screenwriter to review my first screenplay. The good news: the science-fiction elements are fresh and exciting and merit development. The bad news is that nearly all the dialogue has to go as does the entire second act. Also, the main character is too detached for the audience to care about him. Lots of work to be done.

And that’s what I’ve been up to in the last few weeks. I’ve read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain for sci-fi goodness, I’ve signed up for a structural writing class to address plot problems and I’m using Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing to bring my characters to life.

The Lajos technique asks the writer to describe each character’s physiology, sociology and psychology in detail. For example, my protagonist Ryan Callaghan is a 40-year old male with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins. His mother died when he was three, his father was never home; he was raised by his maternal aunt who encouraged him to study the sciences. He is an agnostic who doesn’t care about politics, a scientist who enjoys the company of other straightforward, talented people, a private man who recoils from violence and fanaticism.

The idea is that if you provide enough background for a character, he will begin to do certain things naturally in the play while avoiding others. In other words, the character will be true to himself. So, I can’t have my guy join a religious cult half-way through the play because that’s not in his nature. I can, however, have him behave in an arrogant and judgmental way because that’s one of the weaknesses I’ve built-in to his psychology.

In the structural writing class, we are being taught to chuck Syd Field’s three-act model and to instead use as many as nine acts, each escalating the conflict somehow. The point here is that using so many acts, each with its mini-escalations building up to the climax in Act VIII, makes for a more dynamic screenplay. So, if the play is about Joe Schmuck’s miserable life, in Act I an old lady backs up into his car, in Act II, he is passed over for a promotion, in Act III his house burns down, and so on until in Act VIII he’s ready to jump off a bridge but then something happens and it all works out in Act IX.

Having invested six months of effort and a bit of money into my screenplay, I really do hope all the work pays off and I get a better result in the second draft. I’d like to enter the play in a couple of competition next year and see what happens. The West Coast beckons and I’d like to heed its call.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Message Films

By Laura P. Valtorta

Before sitting down to write prose, paint a picture, or conceptualize a film, it’s important to understand the message that the art will deliver, whether it’s the juxtaposition of shapes and colors, or a philosophy about the meaning of life. These days, I’m writing a novel about diversity that I hope to translate into a film. My films are mainly about women’s rights and ordinary people who ought to be famous. Without a message, art is empty.

The films at the 25th annual St. Louis International Film Festival ( are helping me to retain my confidence in the United States. They celebrate diversity of every kind (language, age, skin color, gender identity, and cultural heritage). I was struck by the clear messages in each film, and how they inspired me to think. I’m proud that “The Art House” is being screened here.

The first film that struck me was “A House Without Snakes,” a short about the bush people of Botswana. Is it better to go away to engineering school in the United States or stay on the land that has sustained people for hundreds of thousands of years?

Even though I’m trying to pace myself, I saw two features and a block of shorts yesterday. The first feature was After the Storm, by Hirokazu Koreeda: a Japanese comedy about a has-been novelist who becomes addicted to gambling and neglects his family. Koreeda seems particularly worried about Japan’s aging population and the break-up of families. No diversity in sight in this Japan. Looks to me like they need some immigration and new blood.

Yesterday I also watched Rendezvous, a feature-length comedy/adventure by Amin Matalqa, a Jordanian-American man who grew up in Ohio. The story is straightforward and predictable; a doctor travels to Jordan to retrieve the body of her slain brother who was an archaeologist. She gets caught up in a plot to steal some ancient scrolls. There are plenty of car chases and funny mishaps. What’s unique about this adventure is that the doctor is a Jewish-American woman who falls in love with a Jordanian-American man. The villains are extremists of every sort – including Christian fundamentalists.

We can count on art to help us. Recently I’ve been reading Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment by Franklin Schneider. This Schneider guy is nuts, but I love him. In his depressing way, he has a lot to say about American society and our consumer-oriented values. This is definitely a message book, one that makes me laugh and ponder the world. That’s what good writing does.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What We Mean When We Talk About Craft

By Kasie Whitener

Anyone can tell a story. Seriously. It’s part of human DNA and unique to our species that we use stories to relate, learn, and teach. Granted, some of us are better storytellers than others. Some of us know which parts to emphasize and which details don’t matter. Some of us know which stories are appropriate to tell when.

But anyone can do it, given enough practice. Anyone can become a polished, entertaining storyteller.

So when writers talk about craft they’re not really talking about the storytelling itself. Since competence at that comes with practice, storytelling is just the surface work of writing. It’s just the reason to write.

The craft of writing is in how we use the story’s words to generate a specific experience.

For example, to increase the pace of a scene, use short sentences. Rapid-fire statements force the reader to progress as if an inner monologue of, “What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” drives him. Pace makes the reader desperate for resolution.

The craft of writing is also about getting better.

Studying craft means looking at the tools we have available to us and learning what each tool is meant to do. How does a lengthy character description earn readers’ affection? How does a short one lend mystery to the described person? How can a succinct passage of character interaction tell us everything we need to know?

When we talk about craft, we mean recognition that writing is not just speaking onto the page. Speaking is clumsy and unpolished. Writing is worked over, revised, rearranged, and tried again. While most people write their internal monologue first, craft recognizes those monologues as first drafts.

When we talk about craft, we mean that we’re all invested in revision as the most important part of the process.

It was gratifying to go to the SCWA Craft Builds Community conference and commune with other writers looking to improve their craft. We listened attentively as faculty members, all published authors and instructors, talked about specific questions and decisions writers use to improve the stories they tell.

Keynote speaker Michelle Buckman offered questions that create meaningful characters. Who are your heroes? What is your protagonist afraid of? Does that fear come true in the book? Answering these questions is working on the craft.

In her session on time in writing, Heather Marshall discussed her work that spans several centuries. She said she’s making choices about how to explain the passage of time from event-to-event. Making choices is craft. When does the story begin and why?

Even just learning that those questions and decisions exist is an evolution from storyteller and page-monologuer to writer.

When we talk about craft, we mean the step up from writing in a competent storytelling way, in the way that every person can achieve. Craft is creating compelling characters, telling nail-biting action scenes, and contextualizing all of that so that the reader gets more than the story, he gets the experience.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reading Autobiography

By Sharon May

As an Appalachian writer, I read lots of Appalachian fiction, and my favorite authors of this genre are Lee Smith, Silas House, and Ron Rash. Recently, I read two non-fiction books by two very different Appalachians – Lee Smith’s Dimestore: A Writer’s Life and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Neither book is a typical autobiography, but both resonate with this hillbilly.

Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio, but identifies as an Appalachian because his neighborhood was filled with Appalachians who had migrated north for jobs and because, on his visits to his family home in Jackson, Kentucky, he felt it was the only place he could be himself. His book reveals the dysfunction of his family in brutal, honest detail and the hope given to him by his Mamaw that he could rise above the despair to accomplish his dream of going to college.

A graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, Vance includes in his memoir sociological research on Appalachia to help him and his reader understand his life and culture. He concludes that, despite the Appalachian’s tendency to blame the government and other social institutions for the despair in their lives, it is time that Appalachians themselves take responsibility for their actions and fix their problems themselves so they can stop damaging the lives of their children.

Smith writes her autobiography in a series of essays spanning her childhood memories of her childhood in Grundy, Virginia at her father’s dime store to her meeting Eudora Welty in her creative writing class to her tribute to her late son, lost to the effects of medications taken to control his mental illness.

One of the more telling points Smith makes about modern Appalachian life is how progress for many people is measured by whether your town has a Walmart, and Smith discusses how such progress has changed the landscape of places like Grundy. Her essays on writing paint it as an act that can be rewarding as well as difficult at times, particularly when searching for an idea for the next book.   

While both books are organized linearly along the author’s life, they are not organized by event, but instead by theme. They have taught me that creative non-fiction can be merged with autobiography, and have given me permission to explore more options for revising my autobiography that I started years ago. I have written one very long introduction that includes several themes. Now I need to separate those themes into a series of essays that make the points I want readers to learn from my experiences.

Obviously a writer needs to read, not only for pleasure, but for instruction on how to improve one’s writing. A poet friend of mine argues that you can measure a writer by what he or she reads. I don’t know if I agree with him, but it does give me food for thought. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Learning to Revise

By Sharon May

My writing has taken two forms over the years -- academic essays and fiction. In pursing degrees in English and American Literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I’ve written at least fifty academic essays. At one point in my life, I was very good at writing them, winning writing awards at two graduate schools.

I was so proficient at writing academic essays, I didn’t have to revise to earn an A. I revised one 20-page paper when I was required to do a ten minute reading of it. Honestly, that was the only academic paper I ever revised.
So as an academic writer, I never really learned to revise my own words, which is ironic since as an instructor of writing, I help students revise their writing all the time. I can explain the concepts and steps in revision, but rarely applied that knowledge to my own writing.
For the past two summers, I have begun writing fiction again. During that time, I have had to learn how to revise. At first, I wasn’t sure where to start, and finally with one story, I decided to imagine I didn’t even have a draft and start a new version of the story. That kick-started my revising. As one can imagine, my writing has improved dramatically. Belonging to the writer’s workshop has given me ideas and guidance for revision so I look forward to the meetings.

One benefit of revising is that now when I’m drafting something new, I’m questioning myself as if I’m already revising. This has helped prevent mistakes I would have previously produced. So far, drafting this way has not interfered with the flow of ideas from brain to paper, and therefore I take this as positive growth in my writing process.

In my journey into revision, I started reading online articles about revising fiction.  While reading, I came across 12 Writing Fiction Checklists” on the website Fiction Notes. I have found these checklists useful to help me evaluate my writing, which leads to new possibilities.

Of all the quotes I’ve read online about revising, I think Colette (Casual Chance, 1964) reveals the power of revision best when she says, “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing Fiction: Reading My Idols

By Laura P. Valtorta
 Yesterday I watched an interview with Stephen King on PBS’s News Hour. He’s always a fun interview. King’s thrillers are page-turners, but the book of his I enjoyed most was his 2000 autobiography, On Writing.

During the television interview, King talked about learning how to write. Oftentimes, he said, writers read their favorite authors and emulate them.

One of my favorite authors is the Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. From Handmaid’s Tale to Blind Assassin to The Heart Goes Last, her accounts of women’s superiority, struggles, and triumphs never fail to be inspirational, entertaining, and funny. Each book is different. Right now I’m re-reading the dystopic trilogy – Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. I’m studying Atwood’s balance of description and dialogue, her use of complicated vocabulary and invented words, and how she employs humor to make a point.

No one can be better than Atwood, I think. And then I read Donna Tartt, whose writing is not as well-crafted as Atwood’s, but who makes me visualize situations I’ve never dreamed of. I agree with almost everything that Atwood writes. Tartt and I don’t agree on anything – and yet I adore her fiction.

A trait that Tartt and Atwood share is that they take great pains to describe the habits and appearances of their characters. I can see Atwood’s Oryx very clearly, and I know a lot about her childhood. Tartt’s character, Harriett, is a girl I could recognize racing past me on her bike, with her swingy black hair and sarcastic voice. Neither Oryx nor Harriett is a photograph.

Providing just the right description, while leaving the reader hungering for more, is a gift. I wish there were a word-scale I could use. A passage that sounds good when read aloud might not contain enough description.

This kind of research – reading my favorite fiction writers – is something I’ve immersed myself in since childhood. Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. For that, I have to thank my mother.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

They Open Their Mouths and Thrust Out Words

By Bonnie Stanard

The 1670s in France is the setting for a story I’m working on about a traveling troupe of actors. As soon as a conversation came up, I had to ask myself, how did people talk in Renaissance France? Obviously, the writing should remind the reader the story takes place over 300 years ago. And in France.

After much consideration, I’ve decided to signal the time with early English expressions and the place with a sprinkling of French words. Not ideal, I know. But what to do? If you’re thinking I should simply move the story to England, that introduces a different problem. In England, unlike France, acting was a male profession. The first recorded performance of a female playing a role on the English stage is December 1660, too close for comfort. And as far as I’m concerned, no women, no story.

Some writers can produce books with almost no dialogue. John Banville, Charles Frazier, and IsabelleAllende come to mind. For most of us, dialogue is a device whereby we advance the plot, elevate tension, or reveal motive. The conversations we give our characters differentiate their personalities. You can get more suggestions about how to write dialogue than you’ll ever need from workshops as well as online. I’ll only say that the writer of “How are you?” or “What’s up?” or “Hello” is digging a grave.

Carefully chosen dialect reminds readers about where and when the story is unfolding. In some cases it delineates social status. Some editors go to the extreme in warning us against using dialect. Obviously Anthony Burgess ignored them and wrote the best-selling A Clockwork Orange with a patois so dense some of us could only understand the audio version.

So, when to use dialect and how often? Too much and the story drags. Too little and it becomes generic contemporary writing. If you will, somewhere between “By my trowth, thou dost make the millstone seem as a feather what widst thy lard-bloated footfall” and “You are fat.”

Much of my time lately has been devoted to developing a lexicon of dated English words and expressions. Researching colloquial language is not as easy as getting other background information, such as the nature of housing, clothing, social circumstances, and political environment. This information can usually be found in recorded history. Most books of this sort are available fromAbe Books.

However, history books don’t reveal how people talked at the time. Shakespeare’s plays have probably demonstrated more about dated colloquial English than any other source. I have a flip-card booklet with Shakespeare’s insults, which makes for fun reading (Thou Spleeny Swag-Bellied Miscreant).

I’ve added a number of expressions to my lexicon from Margaret Butler’s historical fiction novel, Lion of England, which brings to life Henry II in the 12th Century. This book is a great example of how language makes a story real to its time. A good reference book, English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, gives you lists of words in use by the century of its appearance. Then there are online sources such as Elizabethan Slang and Elizabethan greetings.

They knew how to insult back then—milksop, dunderhead, whey face, toadeater, or rank-scented, lumpish prig. I can get so carried away with language that my lexicon grows at the expense of my story.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Go on and Binge Read. Everybody’s Doing It.

By Kasie Whitener

Admittedly, I am a binge kind of person. I’ve been known to watch 13 hours of football on a single Saturday and follow it with nine hours on Sunday. Everything I do from beer consumption to internet shopping meets the limits of “binge” as defined by the CDC.

So reading three books a week, two at the time, totaling 41 fiction and 8 nonfiction books so far this year with 12 weeks left is de rigueur for me. It’s expected I’ll ignore my family for an audio book, my Kindle, a freshly purchased paperback, or a beaten-up library loan.

‘Kasie-with-a-book-in-her-hand’ is my default setting. And every time I feel bad about it, I read another successful author say, “Read,” is the best advice they can give to aspiring writers. (Like Lev Grossman of The Magicians did recently on Quora.)

Reading for pleasure is a pastime I’d all but abandoned for years. Though in graduate school I regularly consumed two to four novels a week, it was work and afterward I went through a long reading drought. I came back to reading via Twilight. A fact I share with a lot of vampire fiction writers I know.

Both of my parents are avid readers. My father carries his iPad around with him and will break open whatever book he’s reading the minute the conversation lags. My mother borrows books from my shelves two and three at the time.

My reading habit is impacting my daughter, Hollie, who listened to a few of the books I consumed via Audible while we road-tripped this summer. She knows the Kindle estimation for how much longer I have in the chapter is a way to get more time watching a show or playing with her toys.

In our house, “Just let me finish this chapter,” is sometimes interchanged with “Three more football minutes,” or a solid half-hour.

I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it. Not when I ignore work, eschew social engagements, or turn off the TV. Especially not that last one. I’ve even made enablers out of my team. Each week, my consultants report what they’re reading as a means of promoting literacy and study in our company.

A good binge read inspires my own writing. This latest series has taught me to hope there’s a place for literary fantasy, despite several commercial agents trying to lump my Byron-era vampires into genre fiction. Reading the All Souls Trilogy has renewed my faith in my own work and given me a hint at an agency and publisher who might support it.

A good binge read puts things into perspective. When I raced through a series of poorly written NYT bestsellers, I felt reassured that my own rejections may only be a result of submitting to the wrong authorities.

So read up, junkies. No writer ever said they wished they’d read less. If you want to see what my team’s reading, go here. For more of my list, click here.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Diversity in Art and Audiences

By Laura P. Valtorta

Currently I am writing a novel about a black character and a white character that I plan to turn into a screenplay. I expect to make a lot of ugly mistakes.

While studying how to make these characters more genuine, I tell myself – “Woman – go forth and meet with artists and people in many different communities. Watch. Listen. Ask questions.”

An excellent place to do that was the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival, that I attended as a filmmaker on September 1-3, 2016. Here is an email I sent to my peeps:

Family, Friends, and Filmmakers: This weekend I attended the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival in Long Beach, California ( where "Queen of the Road" won best TV pilot against some formidable competitors from Hollywood!

This festival was special because the founder, Dr. Daniel Walker, shared with the group a vision like my own: to see diverse people creating and sharing art. Like me, Dr. Walker wants filmmakers to be diverse (more women, more African-Americans), and above all, he wants audiences to be diverse so that we can sit together, enjoy art together, and discuss what's important to us.

This festival (180 films and performances) and the artists were diverse in every way! Age, skin color, sex, disability, gender identity, nationality. I could go on. At the awards banquet, I sat next to a woman my age who had a film entry in the student filmmaker category! My table included a German director, a doctor who made music videos, and people from Australia.

This mix of people made for excellent talk-back sessions with directors after each film. I felt comfortable asking questions that were really on my mind about filmmaking and American society.  Some of my questions were obnoxious – but they were important to me.

For the first time I did not feel out of place being an older female director. There were other women, older than me, who were presenting awesome films.

Funny how more diversity makes us all feel more welcome.

When Dr. Daniel Walker spoke, it was refreshing and liberating to hear a man speak about something we both found important -- drawing people together through art. When I accepted the award, Dr. Walker told me that he knew about my work and thought I was doing some great things. This was a true compliment!

Dr. Walker teaches Latin American studies in Long Beach, which is said to be the most diverse town of its size (500,000) in the United States. The diversity extends to age, sex, gender identity, skin color, language, disability, and nationality – just like the participants in the festival itself. Heaven!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Opening Scene

By Olga Agafonova

At the beginning of September, I finished the first draft of my screenplay. My goal now is to revise and polish it until I am comfortable enough with the result to consider submitting it to various competitions. To that end, I have enrolled in a screenwriting class through the Academy of Film Writing.

The class focuses on the first thirty pages of a script, roughly the first act of the play. Our first assignment is to analyze the opening scene in several movies. What I saw in five movies I like is as follows:

Michael Clayton (2007)

We hear Arthur's manic monologue as the opening titles flash on the black screen, which forces us to pay close attention to what Arthur is saying. The first image is downtown wherever, the skyscraper offices of the law firm that Arthur and Michael work for. The tone is ominous, tense.

Up in the Air (2009)

Images of clouds and bird eye's view of various locations in the United States. Our protagonist is clearly going to be doing some traveling by plane. The mood is upbeat, so we expect this movie to have at least a few light-hearted moments.

Solaris (1972)

Underwater vegetation with a camera pan to a man standing by the pond. No soundtrack. Nothing so far suggests space travel or any science fiction theme.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Peaks of mountains covered by clouds. A voice talks about the rumors of a doomsday device being developed by the USSR.

Trading Places (1983)

Sequence of New Jersey images with classical music playing in the background. Most images are regular people going about their day. I'm guessing the music and the sequence is there to setup the contrast between Eddie Murphy's and Dan Aykroyd's characters.

Of all these, I find the opening for Michael Clayton the most effective because Arthur's monologue is so powerful and tells me everything I need to know about the law firm. The entire screenplay, written by Tony Gilroy, is taut, compact -- the dialogue is right where it needs to be in terms of content and length. This is definitely something I'll be shooting for in my second draft.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Sharon May was born in Appalachia, specifically Eastern Kentucky, the granddaughter of a coal miner. She attended the University of Kentucky for undergraduate degrees in English and English Education and later earned a Masters in English Literature from Marshall University and attended the University of South Carolina for Ph.D coursework.

In 1993, after two years as an adjunct for Midlands Technical College, May was hired full-time in the English Department, later transferring to the Developmental Studies Department to help under-prepared students qualify for college-level courses. She co-authored, along with four colleagues at MTC, a textbook Reading, Analyzing, and Writing for College Students published by Pearson for a developmental English class.

Her hobbies include owning four cats, following UK basketball, and  reading.

Sharon's first entry on this page follows.

My Summer Vacation

By Sharon May

I have set a retirement date for my job as an instructor of English at a local technical college, and my spouse demands I have a hobby or volunteer work before I retire. Apparently, a recliner and TV remote do not a retirement make. 
My life-long dream has been to write full-time, so I have chosen to devote my time in retirement to writing. I have also decided not to teach summer semesters again, and I have spent this summer writing. It has been exhilarating to have time to write. 
I have dipped in and out of writing since I was twelve, sitting down every ten years or so, serious each time, producing a few pages, maybe a short story, only to get bogged down in life’s demands, fear of failure, or lack of dedication. Life seemed to push aside any time to write. Relationships, education, jobs, and, of course, procrastination gave me many excuses. But this summer I had no excuses and a lot of time. 
One of my writing tasks was to organize the writings I have produced over the years. Examining this material led to many pleasant surprises. I found several attempts to start a novel I’ve been wanting to write since I was twenty-two and numerous short stories I had forgotten that I wrote as well as fragments of stories left unfinished. In all those pages of my life, I found some well-crafted sentences, paragraphs, and even pages, something to revive now.  
I also convinced myself join a writer’s workshop to force my writing from the eyes of a private circle of family and friends to those of the unattached and unrestrained public. This step has been beneficial as I have been given constructive and much needed advice and have learned to look at my writing from new perspectives. Among many lessons, I have learned how to focus my paragraphs, how to anticipate a reader’s needs and wishes, and most importantly how to truly revise. Joining the Columbia II writer’s workshop is one of the best decisions of the summer.     
The freedom of summer has ended, and I still feel the urge to write after being very productive over the past three months, writing and revising two short stories and finally figuring out how to write that novel. I wonder if I can maintain an acceptable level of productivity now that I’m teaching again. I believe the writer’s workshop will provide accountability and deadlines to keep me on track, maybe the most valuable aspects of joining the workshop.    
It’s easy to say that a writer should write every day; it’s quite difficult at times to make that a reality.  This summer I have learned that writing inspires more writing, and when not writing, thinking about writing will lead to putting words on paper.  

Now, I know a writer focuses intentionally on the task of writing, regardless of distractions. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Get Your Elevator Pitch Ready

By Ginny Padgett

When I went to my first writers’ conference in 2010, I learned about an Elevator Pitch, which is a one- to two-minute description of your manuscript that can be delivered during the span of an elevator ride and will capture the interest of an agent or publisher, if you were to find yourself in such a situation. I thought that scenario was not likely for me.

Nevertheless, by 2015, I had a project, manuscript, and Elevator Pitch in hopes of somehow becoming published. That spring I helped arrange a writers’ conference, and after it was over, I practiced my pitch on two regional agents who represented my genre. One was politely interested and gave me her card and said I could contact her; the other was mildly interested and said to take my time, polish my manuscript, make it the best it could be, and send it to her. I felt encouraged.

That fall, I organized a series of instructional webinars with industry professionals on varied subjects for the membership of South Carolina Writers’ Workshop. In October, our speaker was an agent of a friend of mine whose topic was “How to Get Published.” We logged on early to do a technical check, making sure all our equipment was working. After we were set to broadcast, we had 15 minutes before the webinar was to begin, and the agent asked, “What are you working on?”

I was astonished when my Elevator Pitch rolled off my tongue with no hesitation and with enthusiasm. When I was done she said, “When you’re finished writing, go to my website, follow the instructions carefully for submission, and send me your manuscript. I think I could sell it.”

Then I was dumbfounded. Who would have thought I could arrest the attention of a nationally recognized agent in Texas from my bedroom in Columbia, South Carolina? (Another writer-friend sold her work to a New York agent at a baby shower in Camden, South Carolina.) So get your Elevator Pitch ready. It’s true. You never know when you’ll need it.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Internalizing Conflict

By Laura P. Valtorta

A few weeks ago my granddaughter, Gioia (pronounced JOY-ah) was reluctant to give up her comfort can of Play Doh. Her mother, Clara, insisted, and Gioia ate a large glob of Play Doh (yum!) then made a face of disgust.

Gioia was illustrating one of the basic tenets of fiction writing. To write something real, you have to feel it inside. Gioia was angry. She did not want to relinquish the Fun Factory, but she needed to have a bath. She ate the emotion, and it tasted funny. She swallowed the Doh, and the emotion became part of her psyche.

Excellent writers like Donna Tartt may be writing fiction, but their novels illustrate the real, raw emotions they feel inside. When Donna writes in The Goldfinch “he’d never been able to stand kids or babies either, much less the whole doting-parent scene, dumbly-smiling women feeling up their own bellies and guys with infants bound to their chest,” she’s not kidding. I laughed my head off when I read that, and all of her other scathing comments about children. This woman apparently hates kids, and because she’s writing from the gut, writing what she feels, it comes across as true and hilarious.

There’s a lot about Donna Tartt’s philosophy I disagree with. In The Little Friend she makes it clear that she thinks a lot of Mississippians are inferior, not only because of economic disadvantage, but because they skewer their own opportunities. She comes across as classist and racist. She belittles Newton Knight – a Mississippian I happen to admire.

In The Secret History, one of the great classics of modern fiction, Tartt writes (as if in translation because characters often speak to each other in Classical Greek), “’The mother grieves. Not for her son’, he added hastily when he saw I was about to speak, ‘for she is a wicked woman, Rather she grieves for the shame which has fallen on her house.”” This passage says so much and is hilarious, because it comes across as an emotion of real hatred that Tartt has felt for a person in her own life. I love this writer, even though I rarely agree with her.

If I could have one wish as a writer, it would be to eat the emotion of my prose, taste it, and feel it every time, so that it always leaps from the page as truth.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Tale of Two Protagonists

By Kasie Whitener

A single character’s perspective limits the story. Motivations and realizations that occur for other characters must only be guessed at by the central Point of View (POV) character. Yet working within the limitation demonstrates the writer’s skill. It’s on the author to help us see all characters’ journeys through the main character’s perspective.

When the writer ignores the limitations of the single POV and exposes us to multiple characters’ experiences, our writers’ group calls it Head Hopping. We recognize that there are rules to sharing the POV with multiple characters.

Rule #1: Clearly distinguish the points of shift. Shifting during the scene confuses the reader. Our group allows spacers and chapter changes for the shift to logically occur.

Rule #2: Only give a point of view to a character if you need the audience to know something about that character that no one else can know. Some internal motivations and secrets have to stay hidden from the other characters until they create a pivot point for the story.

For example, if at the pivot point in the story you plan to have the character Sasha perform an illusion she learned while traveling with a carnival magician as a teenager, then that carnival experience needs to be part of what the reader knows about her. We cannot arrive at the pivot and think, “Since when does Sasha know magic?”

When people claim something happened out of nowhere in a novel, it’s because the knowledge, skills, or motivation to commit that action have not been disclosed.

In The League series of fantasy romance books I’m currently binge reading, the author frequently shifts point of view between the male and female leads. The habit seemed like poor writing in the first two books. By book three, though, I started to wonder if she was working with a dual protagonist.

In most stories the protagonist wants something and will do anything to get it and the antagonist stands in that person’s way. But in a romance, there are two main characters, the lovers. Can a novel have two protagonists?

The benefits of two protagonists include watching two unique plot arcs, seeing two characters grow and change, and enjoying the intermingling of the two whenever their actions interfere with one another. Even so, only skilled authors can keep two protagonists separate but equal. It’s a unique challenge to engage the reader with two (or more) main characters.

Two protagonists in one story is a literary no-no that has recently been challenged by some significant works such as All the Light We Cannot See, The Orphan Train, and the entire Game of Thrones series. Those books follow the rules stated above. They only give POV to characters we need to know more about and they shift on definitive lines.

As writers continue to experiment with multiple protagonists, to see if that experiment works, and to show others how it’s done, our literary rules are evolving. And as the craft evolves, the distinction between head-hopping and multiple protagonists may become a measure of skill.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Write, Rip, and Read!” You’re on the Air!

By Julia Rogers Hook

For most of my writing life, I have been a “rip and read” writer.

I’m a journalist and for many years I worked as a broadcast and newspaper reporter who covered a lot of breaking news. In getting the new developments out quickly, there isn’t much time to edit your words but you need to do enough editing to ensure your report is accurate. That can be daunting when facing a deadline and doubly so when you’re writing for broadcasting with updates going out every 15 minutes.

As I moved from an “at the scene” reporter to feature writing for magazines and newspapers and then on to column writing, I had much more time to reread my pieces and adjust them accordingly. But sometimes I do miss the urgency of being the “first” reporter out there with any new tidbit from the authorities or whomever I’m covering.

Elections could always go both ways. They could be extremely exciting, especially when there was a controversial bill or candidate on the table or they could seemingly last for decades, if whatever was on the table was a sure thing. Then it was just covering the candidate’s or the bill’s promoters continuously as they spewed out the same old “six-second-soundbites” repeatedly.

These days I sort of wish I were back out in the field and covering the 2016 elections. With the two most unpopular candidates that have ever run in my lifetime out there stumping, I think this would be an extremely interesting experience to cover either one of them.

Between Trump and his public rants and Clinton and her equally public missteps that have led even some of the most stalwart members of their own parties to distance themselves from the two of them, it seems like following either of them on the campaign trail could be a royal treat. But in the event that I was going from rally to rally with this not-so-dynamic duo, I would still be doing the rip-and read writing that I have always been most comfortable with.

I sometimes want to change that. I imagine myself telling a tale of utmost interest to everyone on the planet and somehow I will develop characters that will live long after my own demise. I want to create the Scout and Jem characters and bring them to life like Harper Lee did. I want to spin a story that will capture the hearts of people everywhere, no matter how they live or worship or whom they love. I want to make people feel! Feel everything…love, hate, remorse, forgiveness, sorrow and joy. I want them to laugh out loud and cry real tears when they read my words.

That’s what I want.

But until then….rip and read ain’t so bad.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Gold Medal Storytelling

By Kasie Whitener 

Everything I know about boxing I learned from the Rocky movies.

The gritty character of Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa is an American icon and the Rocky story is a classic American underdog tale. We love stories about an unknown, scrappy, determined kid whose heart and passion win him the big prize. Think Karate Kid, Annie, or Goonies; how about David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, or Cinderella?

According to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, rags-to-riches or underdog stories are so much a part of our shared storytelling experience that we actually take them for granted. 

NBC’s Olympics journalists are looking for underdog stories on every competitor in Rio. Americans want to cheer for underdogs. That’s our national character: the drive and gumption needed to succeed despite the odds. We believe if you work hard enough you can be a winner, a champion, a gold medalist.

In the telling of the athletes’ stories from Rio, a pattern has emerged. First, we’re told who the athlete is and we’re reminded how difficult the event he’s competing in will be. A flashback sequence follows full of grammar school photos of the athlete as a child meeting his idol or winning his first championship. Next, a major setback is described: an injury, a personal loss, a competitive loss, or a catastrophic diagnosis. Then the comeback is described: how the athlete found the inner strength to push through heartbreak and work even harder to achieve his dream. The final bit is always the tee-up moment, the athlete himself stating his goal.

“I’m just here to compete and maybe take home a medal.” Humble to the last.

We love these stories so much that sports journalism has developed a formula for them and nowhere is the formula more effective than the Olympics. Because yesterday we didn’t care about these people and next week we won’t care about them again. But today, right now, we care so much we’re shouting at the TV for Mara Abbott to maintain her lead on the bike, Katie Ledecky to shatter her own world record in the pool, and Kerri Walsh-Jennings to spike that ball into the sand like it’s her job.

Lots of genre fiction conforms to formula. Mysteries and romance each have patterns that genre writers freely admit to following. Sometimes it seems as though we really are recycling the same seven basic plots over and over again.

When storytelling has been such an essential part of the human experience for centuries, it really is hard to tell a new story.

As writers we can be discouraged by that knowledge; maybe we’re just renaming old heroines and spinning the same trite tales. Or maybe we can use the seven basic models to keep our own ideas balanced and familiar.

Then we can add a little magic like that classic underdog Harry Potter.

We can make old stories new and keep our audience cheering for our heroines until the last bell of the last round. There are 12 of them, according to Rocky.