Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Flow and the Unexpected in Writing: A Personal Reflection

By Brian Barr
Sometimes, the flow to write is so automatic for me. I can type until my fingers turn blue. This strong passion to get a story down on page, to craft characters, and to share my voice with others just comes out, and I want to knock out one narrative after another.
Then, there are moments when I don’t feel inspired to write at all.
Even when the motivation isn’t as strong, I write anyway. I try to get out, on a regular basis, at least 1,000 to 2,000 words a day. There are days that I don’t write, where I’m preoccupied, and I don’t beat myself up about it. It’s fine.

I’ve learned to just create, to enjoy writing, and accept that there are ebbs and flows. Sometimes, I’m in the movement, and at others, I’m not. Sometimes, I’ll love a story I’ve written, and sometimes, I’ll hate it.

Writing can be strange. At moments, I’ll write a story that I think is going to be my best work. I put it out there, and some people may critique it in ways I never imagined they would. I don’t mind, and I embrace the critiques, because they work to make my story better the second, third, or fourth time around.

There are also times that I’ll put another work out there, one that I thought wasn’t as good or didn’t hit the mark I usually aim for, and it’s shocking for me to find that people love it.

Being a writer for me has been a lot about self-discovery. Along the road, I’ve learned more about what works for me, what doesn’t, what I want to write, what I don’t. I have tons of ideas, many that I never moved beyond the brainstorming phase because I just don’t have the strong desire to write about them. These ideas seem good at the time that I concoct them, but they don’t motivate me enough to write them, at least at the moment, or stay dedicated to the tales until they’re one hundred percent done.

When I got into writing and sharing my work with the public, I made a personal commitment to stay true to myself in my writing, and not to be hard on myself when I don’t reach my goals. I knew I didn’t want to put out stories that I didn’t have my heart in, and I didn’t want to waste my time with genres or subject matters I could care less about just because they are popular or marketable. My stories are a reflection of my likes, my tastes, my fears and hatreds, as I think any real artist should look at their works. Writing is more than just producing something. Writing is about giving or sharing yourself with others. I hope to do that with every story I offer to anyone that chooses to read them.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Five Women Who Changed My Writing Life

By Kasie Whitener

It’s Women’s History Month which always feels sort of bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s great to spend time thinking about those women who forged new paths, set records, and left their marks on history. On the other, it’s frustrating that there are still so many women stifled by their social circumstances.

Inevitably in March, I’ll come across some lengthy dialogue about influential women. Writers will name other writers, feminists will identify lawmakers or suffragettes, moms will name their moms or grandmothers.

I’ll wonder who my most influential women are and try to make a list which will inevitably forget someone. Like a first-time nominee winning an Oscar, I’ll add “so many others I know I’ve forgotten,” to the end of the list.

As this is a writers’ blog, I’ll stick to the ladies that influenced my writing life.

Enya’s Shepard Moons album came out when I was in high school. I never knew a woman’s voice could be so ethereal. She’s magical and she inspired me to think of the world in magical terms. It might feel like a leap from Enya to vampires, but the mysticism is the same whenever you suspend the boundaries of reality in storytelling.

Virginia Woolf.
Her approach to the stream-of-consciousness writing that her contemporaries are given credit for pioneering was a revolution for me. Not only did Mrs. Woolf suggest letting the character guide the story, she followed the character through the messy twists and turns of mundane existence and hung in there until the character revealed the uniqueness of her experience. My characters all lead my stories. I’ve called it “pantsing” before: writing without a plan or an outline.

VC Andrews.
I couldn’t get enough of the VC Andrews books when I was in sixth and seventh grades. About the same time, I moved to California and began writing what ultimately became After December (the novel I’m querying). Andrews created such vivid, flawed characters and then she tortured them mercilessly. I aspired to writing the same compelling just-outside-of-realism fiction.

Katherine Sutherland.
My seventh grade English teacher encouraged my fiction writing. I can’t remember if I ever showed her any of it and I can’t imagine what she would have thought. The five spiral notebooks I filled with skateboarding stories and my crush Brian being heroic have long since perished but I carried them everywhere with me in seventh grade.

Jodie Cain Smith.
Since becoming fast friends two years ago, Jodie has been my constant writing companion. She’ll read anything I give her, offer thoughtful and constructive feedback, and get as excited as I do about the stories. She talks about my characters like they’re real people. When she leaves for Mobile in a couple of weeks, she’ll take with her my safe place to be a writer. Not just writing, but a Writer. I’m forever grateful to her.

I’m sure there are a million other artists, writers, teachers, and friends who have inspired and encouraged my writing. This month it’s all about the women and these five have definitely left their marks.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Second Chances, New Value

By Jodie Cain Smith 

With the onset of each year, I begin a new reading challenge. Last year, I promised to read and review one friend’s book each month. I admitted defeat by July. This year, I am off to a much better start. What was my challenge as I chose to accept it? Clear the shelf. In twelve short months I will read every abandoned book in my office.

The cast-offs get a second chance. Why not look for value in every book an agent, publisher, and editor chose to devote time and money? At some point in time, I assigned a value to each and coughed up the cash at the register only to allow it to collect dust. Most importantly, the author, possibly a first-timer as I was in 2014, felt that she or he had to write that particular story at that particular time in life and put his or her name in bold print on the cover.

With the image of my face, presumably crushed if someone were to look at me and say, “I started your book, but never finished it,” I began this year’s challenge. With nearly three abandoned books now in the “finished” pile, I declare their value.

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner: I have loved every novel in Ms. Weiner’s vast catalogue until now. This one proved I am not as sympathetic as I thought. The protagonist’s tale of a drug-addicted, suburban wife and mother left me thinking, “For God’s sake, wet blanket, get it together!” Her trials weren’t big enough for me to justify her actions. Along with gaining insight into personal shortcomings, the value I found was to apply the same critical eye to my own protagonists. Will future readers accuse mine of being wet blankets? Are their trials more than drivel and whining, their stakes high enough? Will the reader sympathize?

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire: This 563 page novel of tiny print and a vocabulary so immense I swear Maguire made up several words, provided new descriptors, inventive sentence structure, and complex storytelling, but I questioned MacGuire’s ending. Maguire’s ending fell flat and felt far too ambiguous for such a dramatic tale. After I turned the final page, a question formed. Should writers bring their stories to satisfying conclusions for the readers’ sakes or let their characters dictate endings no matter audience expectations? For me, I believe the answer lies in knowing and writing my characters so well that the story leads to one definitive conclusion.

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis: Purchased three years ago as research, I abandoned it after twenty pages because Lewis’ journal entries of the months following his wife’s death are so raw, I couldn’t handle his pain. Now, I’ve returned to it to ensure the grief I speak of in my current project is realistic and respectable of the process. I also feel that out of admiration for his talent, I must finish Lewis’ most personal work.

I challenge each of you to shop your own shelves. Let me know what value you find hidden between the dusty pages of your abandoned books.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Underused Foil

By Rex Hurst

In classic drama the term foil refers to a character which is created for the sole purpose of accenting a quality in a major character.

For example in Sophocles’ ancient drama Antigone, the titular character is supposed to be a strong willed individual, so to make sure that the audience understood this properly the character of her sister Ismene was written as a weak and meek person.

In later stories this function was often fulfilled by the hero’s sidekick. Tonto, Jimmy Olsen, Man Friday, Sancho Panza, Dr. Watson, Samwise Gamgee, etc. All of them were good, but not quite as good as the hero.

In my opinion, this is an underused tactic in books and films nowadays, where so many of the characters seem to be monotone. The strength of the protagonist is supposed to be what sets the hero apart, but if everyone acts just like him, how then does the character stand out?

And the foil does not simply have to limited to the protagonist.

It can be equally applied to the antagonist. In my current work, I have a villain who is working on a grand and sweeping master plan, something outrageous and beyond the ordinary. The character is a cut above the average crook, but I felt that I had to illustrate this a little better.

I created two foils, a pair of criminals from the bottom of society. Drunken villains with no foresight and a smash-and-grab mentality, who are incapable of making a plan beyond their next stolen meal. Compared to these two, the antagonist is a super-genius and was my intention.

Another good example is the character of Otis, the dimwitted subordinate to Lex Luthor in the original Superman.

Not only does the foil accent qualities of your heroes and villains, but it adds depth to the story. It is an easy way to make sure that not all of the characters sound the same, or are at a similar emotional level. As such the foil is an underused tool, which needs to be dusted off.