Sunday, May 29, 2016

Rejecting the Life of Quiet Desperation

By Olga Agafanova

A story I heard on the radio the other day made me think about how many people have resigned themselves to muddling through life, some at a surprisingly young age.

I remembered meeting this stereotypically awkward programmer who shied away from nearly everything, unwilling or unable to change his habits, not taking the risk of inviting someone into his world.  His colleagues considered him to be very good at his job and very bad at living.

He made me wonder how things would play out for a guy like him in a setting other than a Southern suburb: what if he lived in some charming small European town, where old men while away the evenings playing checkers and couples stroll through generous public parks? Would he feel more at ease in another society where people are forced to interact with each other simply because there are more of them living together per square mile? Would Tokyo with its thirty-seven million dwellers in tiny apartments be too much but the island of Cozumel in Mexico, with a mere 100, 000 people living in tropical paradise, could be just right?

Or, perhaps it really is all in one’s head and the measure of success is to what extent we can squeeze the best of out what we get handed by fate. The rule ought to be that you’re better off taking a stab at something than not. Every day does not have to resemble an issue of National Geographic: it can be as simple as finally auditioning for that community theater troupe or joining a writing group such as the SCWW Columbia II. Some people are very physical and they express themselves by doing physical things. That’s not my life but I do admire those who have the inner drive to climb mountains and run triathlons.

Life is rarely spontaneously delightful: we have to make an effort to experience it, instead of just sleepwalking, stumbling from one decade into the next, until one day the end is near and the regrets kick in.

Another memory comes to mind: once, I observed this unhappy woman in a checkout lane. Her kid was nagging her, the supermarket was crowded and noisy – all mundane things -- but there was something about the expression on the woman’s face that caught my eye. She was not just tired or annoyed, she was defeated, not by an insignificant interaction with the cashier but by life itself.  Her eyes did not shine or twinkle: they were dull and dark, all joy having gone out of them a long time ago. The woman clearly was not looking forward to the next day or the next thirty years.

That, to me, is the life that is absolutely worth avoiding. So let us keep on writing and keep on trying to have an abundant, purposeful life.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The DIY Writers Conference

By Kasie Whitener 

“So there’s this fight scene,” Cayce says from across the table. “And I’m wondering if the sequence seems realistic.”

“Read it,” I reply.

We are holed up in a condo on the 16th floor of a Hilton resort in Myrtle Beach on a Saturday afternoon. We’re writing, revising, and workshopping our novels.

Cayce and I met at the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop annual conference in 2014 and since then have made it a point to get together several times a year. Both of us are fantasy writers and usually attend conferences. This weekend we decided on a writing-focus retreat. No official conference, just the two of us with plenty of time to work. Setting aside time to focus on writing was one of the best things I’ve done. We are novelists and need time to work.

Our conversations read like a list of workshop titles. We’ve been conferencing, just us, in Myrtle Beach. Throughout the weekend over drinks, meals, lounge chairs, and the condo’s kitchen table we discussed:
    Writers’ platforms and how to promote your work.
    Critique groups and the helpful and unhelpful aspects thereof.
    Revision versus editing and at what stage in the novel creation each should occur.
    Line edits and content edits and how the two contribute in different ways to the manuscript’s evolution.
    Blocking in action scenes.
    Character voice and using vocabulary to express the character’s emotions in a scene.
    Choosing an agent, a small press, or self-publishing and the merits of each.

We made it down to the beach three times. We ate some really good food. We heard bad karaoke. Mostly, though, we just enjoyed talking about our writing.

There are very few substitutions for being able to talk about how you found the story you’re writing and what you plan to do with it. It’s fun to be talking about your characters like they’re real people.

When Cayce describes her teenaged protagonist’s ability to transport and how the people teaching her to control it are actually plotting to use her, I ask those editorial questions: What does the character want? What’s at stake?

Then I describe the storytelling frame of my vampire novel and ask if maybe this is the wrong way to tell this part of the story. We brainstorm the different ways it could be done and talk over the advantages of each.

We feel like real, working novelists.

I got through 230 pages of version seven of the vampire novel and have enough notes to push into version eight. I also worked on new material (including this blog) and logged about 5000 words.

“Your character has to be between the final victim and the door,” I tell Cayce about the fight scene. “Otherwise he would just run while she’s killing the others.”
“Good point,” she says.

Then we both go back to our manuscripts, pencils in hand, making notes and corrections. Our own writers’ retreat workshop was perfect in its purpose and outcome.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

Lorrie Moore wrote an engaging article about the True Detective television series in the New York Review of Books last year that put me to thinking.

I haven’t watched the series but, according to Moore, the first and second seasons are poles apart. Moore says Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, as law enforcement agents, squabble and drink and have each other’s back to great appeal in season one.

Season two, with different actors, flounders, the dialogue a major problem (lines sounded “as if they’d been Google-translated from Farsi”). According to Moore, “comedy has to have its finger on the pulse of irreverence, something season one understood.”

From Moore’s article, I’ve assembled the following suggestions. The Potent list is from season one and Drivel from season two, though Moore’s wording has been altered.

Potent Dialogue
1. expound like a CEO of a nihilist fortune cookie company (ironic irreverence can hardly be overdone, especially by a character perceived as protecting society or promoting social order)
2. unhinge oracular soliloquies (make soliloquies unpredictable and destabilizing)
3. speak several minds (life is full of contradictions. give characters dialogue with cross purposes)
4. only amble if there’s rich consequences (without a pay-off, wandering and/or “wondering” enters a dead zone)
5. dredge up incarnations (bring up bizarre, outlandish people or events)
6. amuse with faux philosophy (promote unnatural theories or spiritual beliefs)
7. share a secret (bring in subtext, say something that means something else)

Drivel Dialogue
1. go vague or trite (“how are you?” is for the graveyard)
2. attempt to underscore seriousness (hinting at seriousness is adequate)
3. skirt subjects such as race (politically correct is boring)
4. dawdle nonstop about sex (the more talk, the less sensual)
5. sympathize wearily with the devil (sympathize enthusiastically if you must)
6. spout nonsense (you might think your philosophy of life is important, but think again)
7. spiritualize random sequences (if the dog barks three times, your dead sister is trying to talk to you...this is high school stuff)
8. sentimentalize dribble re children, the strength of women (you’re not writing a social tract)
9. summarize or rush to a close (this is tempting when you’ve been at a project and are tired of rewriting)

To sum up, Moore credits Director Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts with knowing “when reality is interesting, when reality is irrelevant, and when reality is no excuse.”

(From Lorrie Moore’s article “Sympathy for the Devil,” New York Review of Books Sept. 24, 2015)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What Book Promoters Are Looking For: The Author Press Kit

By Jodie Cain Smith

My first phone conversation with the Director of Public Relations for my local library system surprised me. I introduced myself, told her the title of my novel, and of my interest in scheduling author events with the local libraries. Instead of asking what my book was about, her first question was, “Do you have a press kit?” “Yes,” I told her, then asked, “Would you like me to email it or bring you a printed copy?” She chose the latter and a face-to-face meeting.

That one phone call brought a critical element of book marketing into the spotlight:  In order to sell books, we must sell ourselves. Readers buy into the worlds their favorite authors create, but promoters often use the author’s world to sell books. A press kit does that.

From site to site, author press kits vary, but the best, most interesting ones allow a promoter to see inside the author’s life. Several months ago, after consulting with my agent and scouring my favorite authors’ websites, I created my press kit, which includes:

  1.  All current contact information including all social media links. (Duh!)
  2.  Media clips and files. This may be a video or audio reading, an interview or author chat, a book trailer, links to online or PDF articles regarding you and your work, and/or any other media that brings you and your work to life.
  3. Photos. Include family photos, current and past project research photos, cover art, and photos that inspire you.
  4.  A look behind the curtain. Don’t just cut and paste the same bio you send to every publisher and media outlet in your universe. Include those interesting tidbits that make you unique. On my friend’s Shaun McCoy’s website, I learned that along with being a writer, he is a damn good chess player, a former Mixed Martial Arts fighter, and a professional pianist. Now, there is a complex individual who would surely bring something interesting to the fictitious conference I’m promoting.

Also, don’t forget to:
1. Prominently display your press kit on your website with a button labeled PRESS KIT.
2. Keep your press kit updated. Check contact information, bio, and links to ensure accuracy.
3. Maintain easy access to your website or Webmaster in order to make updates.

So, with my shiny press kit and two copies of my novel, I sat across the table from Ms. Public Relations and began my pitch. The meeting was a success. Events should be scheduled soon and my novel is being added to the library collection.

For most of us, the small press, indie, and self-published authors of the world, this is what success looks like:  Selling yourself and your work to one library, one bookstore, one media outlet at a time. A press kit will make the sale easier. And because no author actively promoting herself or her books has time to reinvent the wheel, check out mine at Use it as a template. Now, go forth and rule the literary world.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Alabama Shakes

By Laura P. Valtorta

There is so much to say about contemporary music that I’d love to write album reviews.  The problem is, you have to attend concerts to do that. I only venture to a concert when I’m really, really excited about a band, and then it usually ends in disaster.
In 2015, I was in Austin for South by Southwest, where there was a peripheral parking lot concert by the Malian band – Tinariwen. I am a huge fan of Tinariwen – their music, the beautiful varied colors of their skin, their soulful danceable sound, and the lyrics (which boil down to “Hey, we love the desert. The desert is great. All my friends live in the Sahara”) in some tribal language translated in the liner notes.

At SXSW, the concert was attended by a huge crowd of drunken people. Wait a minute – Tinariwen is a Muslim band. When do I get to enjoy one of the two facets of sharia law that I admire – the ban on alcohol? Apparently not at a concert in Austin. The audio was too loud and ear-splitting. The whole experience made me want to rumble. I actually shoved a couple of men out of my way. My children loved the entire experience.

Last Saturday the indie rock band Alabama Shakes came to Charleston. I love me some Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard is amazing, and when she screams, I jump up. I love the hairy style of Zac, who plays the bass. I own both their albums and listen to them regularly on the stereo and on Youtube. The story of their rise from Athens, Alabama to the world stage really inspires me.

But a concert? I broke down and purchased three tickets. Any review I wrote would need to focus on Brittany and not on the drugs and alcohol that seem to be ubiquitous in American music.
The people-watching at the Volvo stadium wasn’t much fun – a bunch of white people purchasing alcohol. Yes, the white people were of various ages – from teen to ancient – but staring at the vast audience gave me snow blindness. I counted 20 black people. This amazed me because Brittany Howard is part African-American.

With Marco and Dante shielding me, I vowed to ignore the drunkenness and enjoy the show. The performance did not disappoint. Brittany came out in a wonderful dress (natural hair!) and did her thing. She played the **** out of that turquoise guitar. She screamed and she sang. “Don’t wanna fight no more,” was a showstopper. “Dunes” killed me. I had a clear view of Zac. I was clapping and swaying.

After the show, I exited the stadium happy and suggested we walk to the car. The evening was limpid. Marco insisted we take the bus. “It will save time.” We had a long drive ahead of us to Columbia.

As soon as I sat on the bus, I put my hand down in a pool of vomit. Sigh.