Sunday, July 31, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

White writers who produce novels with black protagonists will find it near impossible to attract a publisher. This, according to author Carla Damron, who appeared at a book club meeting I recently attended. Her comment referenced the reaction to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which was criticized in the black community. For a response to the novel and movie, see the letter published as “A Critical Review of the novel The Help”.

When I was working on my novel Kedzie, Saint Helena IslandSlave, it came as a surprise to me that a black writer in my writers’ workshop claimed slavery as the literary prerogative of blacks. I have come to realize there is some public support for her view. That my novel’s dialogue contains the word nigger, which was commonly used in the antebellum South, put nails in the coffin. In one of my blog entries on “WritePersona” I describe my experience with two literary agents. I eventually self-published the book.

Freedom of expression has come into conflict with “safe places” (protection from ideas that make one uncomfortable), which some people perceive as a right just as important as free expression. College administrators, under the gun of the federal government, have ramped up enforcement of trigger warnings (warnings professors should issue if something in a course might elicit a strong emotional response).

It’s not uncommon to read reports that students at colleges such as Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers call for warnings for books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny and physical abuse); Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations); and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault).

Yale undergraduates petitioned to abolish the study of writers including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, saying that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors”. (The Guardian,June 1, 2016)

There are some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. And to a greater extent than ever, our culture is accommodating a wide swath of them. For example, an Indiana University student was found guilty of racial harassment for reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The cover picture of a Klan rally offended the student’sco-workers. He was eventually cleared of the charges.

Given today’s climate, some classics wouldn’t have made it past the query process much less have been published, books such as Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst; or Showboat by Edna Ferber.

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about literary censorship (Iran boycotted the 2015 Hamburg Book Fair because Rushdie was scheduled as guest speaker), has been quoted as saying that people claiming to stand for free speech have "demolished what they stand for."

Political correctness, used to suppress divergent voices, becomes a tool of oppression. How are we to engage in a genuine discussion about black lives (or Asian or Mexican or Southern) if censorship is used to eliminate whatever makes us uncomfortable? Despite the criticism, I make no apologies for telling the story of a slave girl named Kedzie. I would hope blacks would see in her the courage of some of their ancestors.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Characters Are Not People and Other Aaron Sorkin Gems

By Kasie Whitener 

I got sucked into an Aaron Sorkin YouTube video and spent 41 minutes listening to him talk about writing. The time wasn’t wasted. Not only did it inspire this blog post, it helped me get some clarity on writing.

Sorkin’s topic was character and he was very clear that character is two things: intention and obstacle. Once you have those two things, you can write all the other stuff you want to write. The fun stuff: Dialogue. Sex. Violence. Ferris Wheel rides and running down a dock and jumping off the end.

He also asserted that characters and people are not the same thing. We think they are, he said, because they look alike. But they’re not. They have nothing to do with one another.

People do not proceed through life in a series of triumphs and setbacks toward a stable, ever present goal. Life interrupts. People lose interest. Circumstances change.

Characters, however, are free to doggedly pursue their goals and to climb over or destroy or crawl under whatever stands between them and their desired outcome.

Sorkin’s right. (Not surprisingly)

Thinking through his statements, I realized that characters are free because the story began a little while ago and will end a little while hence. For people the story began at birth and will linger until death. For characters, the story is finite. It stretches the length of the pages or the film or the series. It begins and ends. It has dimensions that hold it in. It is bound.

People are unbound. Characters are bound.

This idea of closing off the edges, of determining what really matters to the story, is the work of revision. Though Sorkin suggests the intentions and obstacle are the skeleton of the story, sometimes getting to it means cutting away all of the fun stuff you’ve already layered on.

If you write like me, listening to the voices in your head, then there are dozens of extra scenes and conversations and events included in the draft. Revision is determining which of those scenes are part of 1) intention or 2) obstacle and then cutting the rest of them.

Exposition is a poor excuse for including the scenes that don’t drive action in the book. And a sequel, or a series, is a poor excuse to hang on to characters longer than you should. The character’s story is finite. It has a beginning and an end.

Decide which story you’re telling and tell it. Save the other parts for something else.

Taking Sorkin’s advice to my current work is both invigorating and depressing. How to determine what my main character wants and what stands between him and it is the real work of storytelling.

The words are just a means to an end. The things my character will do to get what he wants is what tells you what kind of person he is.

Not person. Character (vampire). Persons are real. Characters are not.

Got it, Sorkin, thanks.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

10 Tips for Web Writing

By Jodie Cain Smith

For novelists, making the transition from story creation to web content can be tricky. Fiction writing requires the author to paint descriptive pictures, create rich characters full of complex and perhaps contradictory traits, and even hide true meaning until the delicious last page. Web writing should never be that convoluted. Web writing must be scannable, concise, front-loaded, and on point.

If your blog posts are receiving no traffic and lack of marketing is not the problem, perhaps your content requires an overhaul.

Start with these basics of web writing.

·        Write clear, simple, and effective content. The content should be easily read. You are not writing for PhD candidates.
·         Front-load your text. Put the most important content in the first paragraph, so that readers scanning your pages will not miss your main idea.
·         Chunk your content. Cover only one topic per paragraph.
·         Be concise. Write short paragraphs and minimize unnecessary words.
·         Write in active voice instead of passive voice.
·         Choose lists over paragraphs. When possible use lists rather than paragraphs to make your content easier to scan.
Also, consider these 10 tips:

1. Write for your desired audience. Consider who will be reading and using your web content. What are they looking for and how will they use the content.

2. Keep sentences short. Remove words or descriptions that don’t add value to the content.

3.  Make content scannable. Readers scan web pages before they read. If they don’t recognize useful, relevant content immediately, they move on.

4.  Choose words for headers and sub-headers that clearly describe the content they introduce. Boring, useful words are better than clever, obtuse words.

5.  Limit paragraphs to 70 words. This will allow a shorter read-time (most blogs shoot for a read time of 2-3 minutes). Less is better.

6.  Use bulleted lists whenever possible. Bulleted lists are easier to scan and read than full paragraphs.

7.  Use active voice. Strunk and White said it best: "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive" (The Elements of Style, Third Edition).

8.  Be precise. Avoid vague words or phrases such as “There are…” and “It’s going to” and “in order to.” Good web writing leaves the audience with perfect understanding. "When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor” (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition).

9.  To be found online, use common language. It’s essential for SEO (search engine optimization) to use the same words and phrases your readers do. When creating page titles, headers, list items and links, choose keywords carefully. Additionally, be sure to use keywords consistently when creating web content. When used appropriately, this practice reinforces keyword relevancy for search engines, such as Google and your own internal search, thereby improving findability.

10.  Lastly, write on topic. If you want your blog to be a resource on squirrel hunting, then all posts must be on the topic of squirrel hunting without leading the reader down a weird tangent regarding landscape painting. Web-readers don’t like weird tangents.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Rex Hurst 
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. —Opening lines of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984).
The second person perspective, why is this not used more in writing? For those who have forgotten, or didn’t even know it existed, the second person perspective is when the protagonist of a story is defined by the use of the second-person personal pronoun, ie “you.”
While fiction is dominated by the first and third person perspectives, there are many respectable examples of this narrative type being used successfully.
The first example comes from my youth when I devoured every young adult book that I could grab. One of my particular obsessions was the Choose Your Own Adventure series where you are the main character and have to make a series of choices that affect the story.
“If you want to kill the dragon, turn to page 56. If you want to run away like a pathetic coward, turn to page 119.”
I ate these up, even though most of the endings resulted in you dying horribly. The use of second person really helped to immerse my adolescent brain in the story.
A few other notable examples are A Man Asleep by Georges Perec which follows a 25-year-old student who one day decides to be indifferent about the world. Ezekiel is a critically acclaimed short story by Segun Afolabi and The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella is a novel about a woman wrestler.
Many critics find the use of second person distracting and indicative of poor writing. It is true that use of this style does not allow any assumptions as to how the narrator felt or why he or she acted. It leaves no room for ambiguity on behalf of the narrator. If the main character is you, then you know exactly how you felt and the reasons for your action.
Using second person may be an opportunity to expand beyond the limitations of the standard narrative, to try new stories based on the absolute authority of second person.
Here is a challenge. Take one of your old stories and convert it to second person. You will obviously have to change some of the material to fit the style properly. Then reflect on the outcome.

How has it changed the theme of the story? Is it warped? Or is it improved? You might be surprised at the results. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Gotham Writers’ Workshop Screenwriting I Class

By Olga Agafonova

In an effort to put my writing life into higher gear, I spent some time looking at writers’ retreats for people who are just getting started. I could not find what I wanted: a quiet, small retreat by the ocean, preferably somewhere on the West Coast. So, I did the next best thing I could think of and signed up for an online screenwriting class with the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which operates out of New York City.

The current iteration of “Screenwriting I” runs from June the 14th to August the 23rd. It’s a cool $399, plus the $25 registration fee. Every week we have a reading and a relatively short assignment. Students exchange ideas on the bulletin board and there are two mini-projects that will be critiqued by both the instructor and the entire class of fifteen adults, most of whom have full-time jobs.

I don’t really have any idea of how to become a screenwriter: there is probably a canon of cinema that I’m supposed to revere and emulate but frankly I don’t give a damn. Instead, I’ve been reading scripts for movies that I like: Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, The Bourne Identity, One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest and on the more romantic side, Sleepless in Seattle.

The biggest challenge for my first script is going to be handling conflict and action: my story is about how one man deals with the loss of his fiancĂ©e after all the women in the world disappear. There is a lot of sci-fi stuff going on throughout the script but that’s not the point; this is, above all, a movie about a person coming to terms with his loss and finding a meaning in life. So far, I’ve been pretty good at the sci-fi bits and not so great about getting the internal drama across to the imaginary viewers.

I remember when I watched Gravity I was struck by the scene where Sandra Bullock’s character is alone in her space capsule, without any motivation to live and then she hears this baby over the radio transmission, a father who is trying to soothe the baby in some foreign language. I think this is before or maybe after she hallucinates George Clooney’s character explicitly telling her to keep on living but anyway, those few quiet minutes when she’s reflecting on her life and everything she’s lost, that’s powerful stuff and it’s at the core of that movie. Gravity isn’t as much about the dangers of space exploration as it is about life and death and how we handle both.

That’s the kind of movie I’d like to write a script for by the end of this summer. Here’s hoping I will reach that goal.