Sunday, June 26, 2016

Swimmers Do It in the Water

By Kasie Whitener

In swimming, an IM’er is a well-rounded athlete. “IM” is Individual Medley and the event means the swimmer races all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle in succession. In a 400 IM, the swimmer races 4 lengths of the pool for each stroke. It’s crazy hard and considered one of the most daunting events. When I swam competitively I was a 200 IM’er. Now I’m mostly in the 100 IM range.

What an IM’er knows is that she doesn’t have to be great at one single stroke, she has to be competent at all four. There’s no use pulling ahead in butterfly just to have a dismal backstroke bring your competition to your heels.

As writers, we often specialize. We might be poets, or novelists, fiction writers or nonfiction writers. We may write plays or essays or blogs. In all of these specialties, we are still storytellers. The words are meant to move a reader from an existing condition to a desired one.

For me, poetry is like breaststroke. It’s slow and quiet, there’s a rhythm to it that is both visual and verbal. It may be the influence of the pastorals, but I always think of poetry as idyllic and just out-of-reach, kind of like that long breaststroke glide.

I am a terrible breaststroker. Though I’ve worked hard to develop a competent stroke, it is by far the slowest segment of my IM. I can do it, but I’m very slow. Likewise, I am a terrible poet. I can read and comprehend it, but I dare not compose. The effort would be disastrous.

I’m a fiction writer. I prefer long version, specifically novels; but when I first dedicated myself to the craft four years ago, I spent a lot of time in short stories. Short stories are how I practice the storytelling art. They require specific details and are intolerant of rambling description or unnecessary plot complications.

Short stories require powerful bursts of character, action, and emotion. In a short story, the writer doesn’t have time to lay in elaborate exposition or world building. The reader must be immediately brought up to speed with the character, the dilemma, the desire, and the obstacles. For me, short stories are like swimming butterfly.

I love butterfly. It’s exhausting whipping both arms around together, dolphin kicking in long, swift full-body waves. There’s a rhythm but unlike the languid glide of breaststroke, the butterfly rhythm is urgent and insistent. A good butterfly is satisfying: both beautiful to watch and gratifying to swim. Like swimming butterfly, I’m always trying to write that explosive, impactful scene.

I have always been an IM’er, albeit the shorter distance kind, with butterfly as my specialty. To be really good at one thing is valuable, but to be competent in many things is even more so. While I’ve let some breaststroke-like skills lapse over the years, I continue to practice in all four strokes. Storytellers know that proficiency in various forms only makes them more competitive.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stories from Italy

By Laura P. Valtorta

In Italy there are many funny situations, even though the Italian idea of humor is far removed from what Americans find comical. When I’m here, I laugh a lot.
Since this is election time, I’ve been watching political commercials on TV. My favorite is for the Pensioners’ Party. A lively/crazy old guy has a commercial where he shows a video clip of pensioners marching in protest. He says several times “Pensionati, all’attacco!” (Pensioners – charge!) and makes a chopping motion with his hand. This has become my personal battle cry.

Clara and I went to the old male hairdresser in Cavi Borgo to get our hair cut. I informed him that the best shampoo for curly hair in the U.S. is cleansing conditioner, like Wen. Grabbing his crotch, rapper style, he advised us to use douche (shampoo intimo) on our hair. Clara and I couldn’t stop laughing.

In front of the Italian stock exchange in Milan, at Piazza Affari, the government has erected a giant statue of a hand giving the finger. At first I thought it was a prank, but Dante did some research and found that it was a work of art commissioned in 2011.

To help my Italian, I usually look for an easy book to read. This time I found Cosa Pensano le Ragazze? (What do Girls Think?), written by the journalist Concita de Gregorio. I say “written” meaning that she is more of an editor. The review I read stated that she employed a number of researchers to interview the girls and young women. How much credit should Ms. De Gregorio be given for collecting the data and choosing which interviews to publish? I admire and follow the tradition established by Studs Terkel, who (I hope) interviewed all of his subjects face-to-face. Working is one of my favorite books, ever.

Ms. De Gregorio’s book is very “lite” and easy to read. The first interview, with two teenagers, advises choosing a man the same way you choose a puppy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Art or Craft: Does the Process Dictate the Outcome?

By Jodie Cain Smith

John Hughes wrote The Breakfast Club in two nights. July 4 – 5, 1982, must have been electric, caffeinated, perhaps whiskey-soaked days and nights. I have no basis to believe Hughes was intoxicated during this feat, but I know I would have to have been drunk as a monkey to deliver such a work in such a short time. Fear of the unknown would have sent me to the top shelf or to a fresh notebook yearning for an outline.

So, I pose the question, is art any less artful if carefully crafted?

The planner versus pants-er (writing by the seat of your pants) debate flares up frequently among those who attempt to write and then dare to make that writing public. I am counted among the ranks of planners and have the notecards, plot structure board, and binders full of research to prove it.

My best writer bud is a pants-er. I’ve seen the look of wild abandon in her eyes as she recalls a night when the words rushed from her brain through her fingers until click-by-click she had racked up 5,000 frenetic words in a single session. Her characters came to life, proclaimed their presence, and demanded she write their story right there and right then.

My characters perch gently on my shoulder as I map out chapters, asking questions such as, “Would I really do that?” or “What motivated me to say that?” Sometimes, they become a bit rude, declaring, “There is no way in Hell I would do THAT! Change it, woman!” However, the rude behavior never lasts long. Crisis averted, they settle down for a little nap while I lose hours on the Internet researching squirrel hunting or cholera or medicinal purposes of sage. Then, when I feel I know enough of their world and their lives, I wake them so the writing, the art, may begin.

But, oh to be a pants-er! To never fear the unknown. To write without wondering, “Where the heck is this thing going?” For one or two nights I want to be the cocky one, the love-em-and-leave-em-Joe rather than, “Can we talk? Before we go any further, I need to know where this relationship is going?”

Still, the most important lesson I have learned over the last five years since chucking my cushy salary for a life of writing is I must be true to the type of writer I am. I must develop my style, my process, and my story. I must defend all three and work toward perfection.

Twenty years ago my scenic design professor gave me the advice, “Let the audience see the art. Never let them see the craft.” I share this advice now so that I may follow it again myself. May our readers see our art, the beautiful, tragic, funny, fantastical stories we create, but keep the craft our own. Whether planner, pants-er, or something akin to the brilliance of John Hughes, may we all have the confidence to create and a craft that encourages invention.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

‘Bad’ Reviews

By Mike Long

I think ‘bad’ reviews fall into two distinctly different categories. What most non-writers think of as bad reviews are those which point out some book's lack of clarity, editing, fairness, entertainment, continuity, sense of place, character development, etc.

Such criticism can certainly hurt a writer, personally and professionally. No one enjoys having their shortcomings pointed out, especially publicly and in writing. But, if fairly and politely delivered, those reviews can help writers avoid similar future pain. They can learn from the experience, clean up their acts, and provide better products–or move on to endeavors for which they are better suited.

The second type of ‘bad’ review includes those which are badly done. They hurt as much as thoughtful reviews, but serve no constructive purpose. Some are thoughtless, some deeply stupid, some well-intended, some obviously mean-spirited; none help, except perhaps turn off potential readers. Some of these examples follow, with their Star Ratings.

One star: “One of the best of this genre I've read. I can't wait for more from this author.” (Didn't understand the rating system.)

One star: “I just couldn't get by the third chapter.” (?)

One star: “Just too much fighting and bloodshed; I couldn't finish it.” (This was a war book; she was provided a synopsis by a paid reviewing service, after which she asked to review the book.)

One star: “I like science fiction, and won't buy anything else by this author.” (He received it on a free download.)

Two stars: “I just don't like Westerns.” (And she bought it why?)

Two stars: “Very rambling and episodic; no real plot, but well-researched.” (Back cover warns it is an epic tale, which indicates episodic.)

Three stars: “Good book. Great historical detail.” (?)

The thing to remember about the less-than-constructive reviews (especially the mean ones) is that you should never engage the reviewers’ rebuttals. Some are mere idiots, but others are trolls with nothing better to do than to show their power by putting down more successful persons. I sincerely believe these folks lead meaningless lives and only feel creative when causing havoc. They will love to pull you into a cat fight, a war of words in which they aren't restricted by truth or scruples.

Ignore them, unless you are moved to pray for them, as I do (mine are not nice prayers). Just keep writing.