Sunday, September 17, 2017

On Seeing People

By Olga Agafonova

Over the last couple of weeks, I spent some time reading about nuclear warfare – the escalation of tensions with North Korea first gave me anxiety and then an idea about a short story. I needed to know what happens in the first few minutes after the detonation of an A bomb.

Michie Hattori’s first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki is as harrowing as one would expect but it’s not the descriptions of death and suffering that struck me the most.  After the war ended, Michie studies English and ends up marrying an American attorney. Here is what she says about her relationship:

“ […] His work took him all over Texas and to surrounding states. I found myself more and more left at home when he traveled. His circle of American friends seldom included me.
One day, after seven years of matrimony, he presented me with divorce papers, saying our marriage had been a mistake. […] ”

Our marriage had been a mistake. After plucking out the girl from Japan and bringing her over to the U.S., half a world away from everything she knows, this guy decides it isn’t going to work out after all.  To me, this passage means that Michie’s husband never took the time to understand who Michie was. It’s deeply disturbing how commonplace this is – it is as if we collectively don’t care to get to know each other well enough to see the complexity of each other’s lives.

As writers, we don’t get to say that men are ultimately unknowable and leave it at that.  We try to get better at reading people so that we can create engaging, persuasive literature, fiction or non-fiction.

In 2012 Andrew Solomon released Far From The Tree, a book remarkable for its candor. He wrote about children who are different from their parents: some were gay, others disabled, yet others prodigies and so on.  I was surprised that Solomon managed to get to the essence of these relationships – the gifted children who resented their parents for their explicitly conditional love; the parents of severely disabled children who resented the kids for changing their lives forever.

Solomon took the time to listen to the stories that these people told. All of the narratives included in the book are multi-dimensional – not one descends into sentimentality and platitudes about overcoming challenges in the face of adversity. There is no “putting on a happy face” here: people tell Solomon what they think and feel and it is often not pretty.

I can’t think of another way to learn to see people for who they are except to talk to them. To talk to them about the stuff that matters: the fear of death or poverty, the loneliness of parenting, the unhappy marriages, the disappointing adult children. The effort we make in reaching out and understanding someone is bound to pay off not just in better writing but in being better humans.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Writing Film Reviews

By Laura P. Valtorta

Attending film festivals means watching films – a lot of films – some good, some terrible. Reviewing these films would be like riding a roller coaster, even if we were not subjected to “talk-backs” with the directors afterwards. Better not to meet them. These people can be jerks. Or the director of a stinky film can come across as pleasant. The personality of the artist is an inaccurate measure of the quality of art he or she produces.

Woody Allen is an excellent example. He’s made some major mistakes in his life.
Yet, Deconstructing Harry, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Annie Hall are some of the most influential and well-loved films ever.

This weekend, I watched several independent films at the Long Beach Indie Film & Music Festival ( and tried to jot down reviews.

Nowhere Michigan was a feature drama about cooking meth in a small town. Granted, the subject matter was old and overheated, but good acting and clever casting saved the day. I enjoyed the gross, funny caricatures among the meth dealers and the townspeople. Unfortunately, the director was a prick: very self-satisfied and congratulatory during the talk-back. If they keep that guy away from the public eye, his films might go somewhere.

“Naranja, the mini series” employed some rabid stereotypes to put across a couple of glaring messages: crime is oftentimes a set-up. Criminal suspects are unfairly profiled by police. Duh. The director, Martin Barshai, could have employed more subtlety, but his actors were talented.  Also, Martin came across as a nice guy, willing to listen – to a degree. He receives a semi-positive review.

Sometimes I got side-swiped by famous actors in the credits. “Ingenue-ish” was a short narrative comedy about an L.A. actor sleeping around in order to advance her career. It was light and cute. The running joke was that the main character was an “ethnic mystery” because she was Asian with freckles. Apparently, no female actor in Hollywood gets cast based on her talent. (But what about Brenda Blethyn and Meryl Streep?) When I realized that the director was John Stamos, I became more interested. This means I’m just as much of a sell-out as anybody in the film.

Films about sports included Touch Gloves about a boxing gym in Massachusetts. It was so much like my own film, White Rock Boxing, that I’m guessing the director must have seen my work, which came out in 2013 and appeared on public television. The director wasn’t present. Otherwise, I might have punched him.

The best film (besides my own, “Water Women,”) I saw was a complete surprise: Robert Shaw, Man of Many Talents, directed by Peter Miller. This was the biography of an unschooled orchestra conductor and choral leader who became very popular in the 1940s through the end of the century. He headed the Atlanta Orchestra and was instrumental in integrating orchestras and choruses. Loved the film. No director in sight to spoil the effect.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Thin Plot

By Bonnie Stanard

As I’ve been reading the novel Empire Falls, I wonder how author Richard Russo keeps me hooked on a story in which only ordinary characters go about their ordinary lives. Isn’t that a formula for a ho-hum book? The plot revolves around the manager of a diner in Empire Falls, an economically depressed town in Maine. You can read pages in which hardly anything happens but that’s not to say it’s boring. To the contrary, it’s engrossing. It reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another novel that showplaces the ordinary. In that case, I surprised myself by continuing to read it to the end.

If you Google “plot” you’ll get lists of the many types (as many as 36 listed by Jerry Flattum), but you won’t find a type such as “ordinary-day” or “slice-of-life.” However, this plot was proved viable in 1922 when James Joyce wrote the classic Ulysses (which lives up to Mark Twain’s definition of a classic). Essentially, Joyce wrote about an average day in the life of Leonard Bloom. How did Joyce recount mundane events in a way that created a significant novel?

Most of us live ordinary lives, but at times, a person or situation may affect us in such a way that we need to put our thoughts in writing. It’s not unusual for workshop writers to bring fictionalized accounts of events that impress them. I’ve written such stories myself, in an effort to recapture something meaningful to me. Or to pass along to others something I think is valuable. Even as I’ve read these stories in workshop, I’ve felt my own excitement, only to hear “ho-hum” from others.

Once I responded to an agent’s criticism with “But that’s the way it was.” My story was pure reality, delivered with my tears and laughter. And I thought it was worth telling. However the agent answered with, “Just because it’s true doesn’t make it interesting.” After reading manuscripts for years in our workshop, I understand. In fact, I’ve appropriated her comment in critiquing other writings.

A strong component of ordinary is predictable. That is to say, our everyday life, by its very nature, is predictable for the most part. And when we are formulating a slice-of-life story, predictability is already there, a toxic part of the plot. Even though Empire Falls is ordinary, it’s not predictable. Russo has an eye for the elusive, a way of seeing what the rest of us don’t.

I think another aspect of success with a slice-of-life plot is the author’s ability to convince us that we care about what happens. The writing of Jonathan Franzen is a good example. He is fascinated by his subjects. There is a tone, an author’s voice, that is nagging us on. Between the words, he’s telling us this is something we can’t miss. This is important.

Though Russo’s novel is short on plot, it is strong on characters. However, the central figure, Miles Roby, doesn’t provoke excitement in the usual sense, nor is he controversial. In fact, he’s a really nice guy, adores his daughter, tolerates an abusive father, and hopes for the best for his soon to be ex-wife. Now how does Russo make this milquetoast an engaging protagonist?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

First-Book Jitters

By Rex Hurst

As I’m sitting writing this blog entry, my first novel is being uploaded onto Amazon. Now this isn’t the first book I’ve sold, that one being a particularly foul epistle on a serial killer from the murderer’s point of view, but as the publisher has been reluctant to return my emails, I’m counting this as my first. And of course I’m thinking what next?

All of my energy and focus and drive went into creating a modern masterpiece of aliens shooting each other, I gave no thought (or very, very little thought to be accurate) as to what the hell I do next. As the late, great John Mortimer once wrote to me, (I’m paraphrasing here) “writing the book is the easy part, then you have to get people to want it.”

How do you do that?

Well, writing a great description for the back of the book is a good start. I have now written and rewritten it half a dozen times. How to make it interesting, but not generic. Unique, yet also fit into the category the reader is searching for.

“Time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions,” as T.S. Elliot put it.

“A forced-grown Gen-Human, only three months from his decanting bottle, is shanghaied by a sadistic pirate clan.”

How’s that for an opening line? Does it grab you?

And does the blurb matter? I’ve got a kick ass cover, put together by some very hungry Venezuelans. The cover, despite what anyone says, sells the book more than the blurb.  Am I wasting my time?

Then the practical bits. How do I advertise? Or, more importantly, where do I advertise? I’ve got cash for it, but I need to make sure that it doesn’t go down the tubes. Then there’s the process of buying the ISBN number, the bar code, registering the copyright claim, having a print run of the books, getting an author’s website up, going to conventions, having a banner made for myself, getting magnets and t-shirts and miscellaneous crapola all put together.

(I met an indie comic books artist recently who makes more on the fridge magnets and stickers of his comic than he does off of the book itself).

Still that’s neither here nor there.

All of these tensions, all of these potential problems, aren’t going to stop me from hitting that fateful button “publish.”

And here we go.  

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pondering Idiolect and the Word Choices of a Madman

By Jodie Cain Smith

My writer-nerd-out moments occasionally come from unexpected sources.

Recently, while watching my new summer obsession Manhunt: Unabomber, I became gripped by the field of forensic linguistics and the concept of an individual’s idiolect. I watched episode three of the limited series so engrossed that I even stopped scrolling social media and crushing candy, an occurrence that only happens if what’s on the telly is riveting.

As FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald analyzed every word of Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, the concept of an individual’s idiolect unfolded, and I began pondering how idiolect, the speech habits peculiar to a particular person, could be applied to creative writing.

In Manhunt: Unabomber, Fitzgerald zeroed in on words in Kaczynski’s writing including broad, chick, and negro as words rarely used in 1995. From these words, he was able to estimate what decade the Unabomber was born in, thus identifying an age range. Fitzgerald was also able to determine an education level and geographic region for the Unabomber due to rare alternative spellings (analyse instead of analyze, wilfully versus willfully, etc.) and phrase choices such as including a “Corrections” page rather than an “Errata” page with his madman dissertation. With each unique word choice Kaczynski made, he might as well have been leaving his DNA all over the pages.

My first thought was to apply this concept in creating accurate characters in fiction and nonfiction work. Just as Fitzgerald flushed out Kaczynski’s profile of the Unabomber by deciphering specific words used in the notorious letters, I should flush out my own characters by choosing words indicative of the time period, region, and education level, especially when writing dialogue. Then, I realized I already did. Every time we as writers select words for our characters such as yonder, Frigidaire, or say, coolio, we are placing a time stamp on that character.

Upon further thought, I discovered that idiolects would help color the characters in my current work-in-progress, which is set in a fictionalized version of my hometown. Toward the end of episode three of Manhunt, my Paw Paw’s voice came to my mind. I could hear him saying “Purnt” instead of point and “Urnion” instead of onion. I’ve never heard these pronunciations outside of the small fishing villages that line the western coast of Mobile Bay.

Why haven’t I added this flavor into my WIP? Because I had forgotten how much idiolect, the unique words and pronunciations a person uses, matters in creative writing. If what I want to do is create authentic, relatable characters for my readers then I must make sure that every word each character utters is authentically that character.

My nerding-out over forensic linguistics and idiolects is likely to continue for a while longer, at least through five more episodes. If you’d like to join me, Manhunt: Unabomber airs on the Discovery Channel. Don’t ask me when because I DVR it, which will surely become indicative of my age when future generations decide to study the awesomeness of my idiolect through the use of forensic linguistics.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Telling a True Story

By Kasie Whitener

My stories are always true and always fiction:
·         My friend’s high school sweetheart died in Afghanistan.
·         Thick sexual tension hung between me and the tattoo artist when I went for my cover up.
·         A derecho racked the resort at Wintergreen, ripping branches out of trees, one of which landed on a car.
I take that real thing that happened and fictionalize it for the story. Real life is messy and funny and sad and frustrating and it rarely fits inside 3000 words. In stories, real life is confined to a bounded space.

When fictionalizing real stories, ask yourself these five questions:

What is the most important moment?
Is it when someone discovers he’s been cuckolded or when his wife confesses? Isolate the most important moment of the series of events and then magnify it for the story. In the best stories, the author has magnified a moment that is unexpectedly poignant.

Richard Ford’s “Grand Central” focuses on two men, the husband and the lover, becoming aware of one another’s presence in a crowded place. The lover’s choice of whether to approach the husband is the drama of the story.

What are the stakes?
Find a pivot point. After that moment, the character’s life will go off into one of several possible trajectories. Even if the moment is small, like deciding to ignore a painful truth, that choice will impact the character’s life.

Why does this story need to be told?
I’m always encouraging my friend, Jodie Cain Smith, to write down the stories she tells. They are funny, unbelievable, and so beautifully told; it’s her gift. There are plenty of decent stories and then there are those that MUST be told.

When you fictionalize a real event, ask yourself why this story needs to be told? The answer to that question creates the sense of urgency that pulls readers in at the title and through the final punctuation.

Which character should tell the story?
Even if the story is in third person, it must have a central storyteller. That person can be witnessing the main conflict, experiencing the main conflict, or causing that main conflict.

Think of selecting a perspective like a film technique: putting the camera on each character’s shoulder to see what he or she sees. Which viewpoint is the most compelling?

In “Choose Life,” I deliberately chose the character who only witnessed the tragic loss of an ex-boyfriend, not the woman who actually lost him. I wanted the distance that creates perspective and grief would cloud that.

Where can you use creative license to make the story more compelling?
Anne Lamott said: tell your stories; if people wanted you to say nice things about them, they should have behaved better. The life you have led should be the trunk from which you pull your stories. Fictionalize them to make them compelling, more interesting, even more useful.

Real life is boring but the stories we write about it remind us of what it means to be human.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Writing a Documentary

By Laura P. Valtorta

Whenever I watch a documentary film, the credit for writing takes me by surprise. How can anyone write a documentary, since it’s a recording of real life, and unscripted experiences?

While making my sixth documentary, “Mehndi & Me” (completed today, July 27, 2017 – Yahoo!) I finally figured it out. I was the writer, because I was piecing together the “script”: a list of film clips typed up in the order they should appear in the final product. With “Mehndi & Me,” a portion of the draft script, with inexact times, looks like this:

                                                Mehndi & Me (short film)
                                                Summer 2017

Version 1 – 07.08.2017 Laura P. Valtorta
Clip #
Beginning and end of clip (dialogue)
Music & special effects
Beginning and end (seconds)
GoPro 168
Six bare hands in circle

Laboni’s music, instrumental
0:00 to 0:07

(7 seconds)
GoPro 172
Hands in circle, painted

Laboni’s music, instrumental
0:12 to 0:25

(13 seconds)
Laura’s shot, outside of law office
Shaky shot proceeds from side of building to sign

9 seconds

MVI 134
Lynn’s shot
Laura introduces theme
“I’m just glad to be here in Columbia, SC; and I can get mehndi from a real artist from Bangladesh.”
First time this is said, NOT repeat
0:16 to 0:27

(11 seconds)
MVI 130
Lynn’s shot
Silent shot of Laboni

Laboni’s music with singing
0:11 to 0:21

(10 seconds)
MVI 122
Lynn’s shot
Dianne, Laboni, Laura, & Kimberly at table
“I would love it if you got 2 designs…more balanced”
No music
0:10 to 0:17

(7 seconds)

This is my personal version of a documentary script. Others might use a storyboard with pictures or drawings. Sometimes I begin with a storyboard after shooting and proceed to the written script. In any case, writing a script is the step taken before editing, when the film is actually cut.

Before putting together a script, the director must first shoot the film (the most joyous part of the process) and then review hours of clips, making a complete list of what’s going on in each clip. Reviewing the raw footage is tedious. The Editing Decision List (EDL) that results is a giant list of clips with times and descriptions. These are the ingredients used to assemble the script.

For a documentary, the middle process is something like this:

·         Plan the shoots
·         Shoot the film
·         Review the film clips and prepare Editing Decision Lists (EDLs) ugh!;
·         Choose elements from the EDLs to write a script;
·         Edit the film and promos; add music

Before all this, after conceiving an idea for a documentary, I secure the music and music rights. Music must be available during the editing process.

For me, making a film is teamwork. I could not make any of my films without the help of either Genesis Studio (owned by Cliff Springs), or the indomitable Lynn Cornfoot, who works at South Carolina ETV.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What’s Worth Seeing

By Olga Agafonova
Recently, I’ve been asked to contribute to an adaptation of a TV show script to a feature. I’ve never done anything like that before, so I began to think long and hard about what makes a good film.

What I’d like to write about is how life slips away and we don’t do the things we hoped to accomplish, about the big, good, beautiful dreams that end up being illusions. 

In the 2016 film The Founder, about the origins of the McDonald’s chain, the transformation of Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton, is engrossing, exactly the kind of writing and directing that transcends mere entertainment.

This is more than another story of a man corrupted by ambition. For Kroc, success is just out of reach, just another sale or two or twenty away. He craves something more than his nice home and nice – but not good enough – wife. Keaton’s facial expressions, his shifts in mood are central to the film. When Kroc tells his wife about the McDonald’s brothers’ fast-food assembly-line innovations and she dismisses this, you can tell just by the look on Keaton’s face that he will remember this slight and won’t let it go easily. Indeed, toward the end of the film, Kroc coolly tells his wife over dinner that he wants a divorce.  

Seeing these subtle shifts on the screen is not the same as writing them but I hope that being able to pay attention to these things will soon start translating into more compelling characters. I struggle with my characters. I know what I want them to be, I sometimes see a fuzzy image of them in my mind but I do not yet hear them and I certainly don’t hear them telling me how they’d like me to describe them.

The McDonald’s brothers dream of a restaurant that serves surprisingly high-quality burgers and fries turned into something grotesque. The franchise is now associated with poor nutrition, low pay, obesity and poverty. Happy healthy people don’t eat at McDonalds anymore– they’re being sold feel-good stories by Whole Foods, where business somehow shouldn’t feel like business.

Kroc did accomplish a lot, at the cost of defrauding the brothers of their invention and their royalties. Keaton, by the end of the film, looks confident and ruthless. Gone is the sugary-ness of a salesman who wants just one minute of someone’s time. Keaton is a less handsome Dorian Gray who rather enjoys what he’s become.

This complexity of character, the elevation of a story about the food industry into first-class drama – that’s a film worth writing and watching.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Don’t I Know You?

By Kasie Whitener

In 2015, I presented a workshop for SCWA on plot arcs. My co-presenter had the subject of character development. She detailed a process she’d created that employed the Myers-Briggs personality tests to diagnose characters. I was stunned by the science of her methodology. It had never occurred to me to be so specific, so intentional about a character.

A year later when I started using Scrivner, a word processing software program for writers, I dallied with its Character templates that ask for the character’s physical description, personality, habits and mannerisms, background, internal conflicts, and external conflicts.

I write literary fiction which is: 1) a character-driven story, and 2) creative storytelling. Put another way: in literary fiction, who you tell a story about and how you tell the story are way more important that what the story is.

Suffice it to say, I should have intimate knowledge of my characters. They are 50% of the novel’s equation. So why don’t I put in the work of my Myers-Briggs-savvy co-presenter?

Anxiety over whether I have fully developed these characters used to haunt me. In every revision I would ask myself, “What does this character want?” In every scene, I would think, “Is this consistent with his personality?”

It drove me crazy.

Here’s the truth of it: my characters live with me. I see them, hear them, talk to them, commiserate with them, and love them. They start talking and I start writing. That’s why I write literary fiction.

My stories don’t begin with “there was a boat at sea and a storm came up…”

They begin, “Lord Byron tastes like opium.”

My characters are rich and textured because they’re imperfect and messy and undecided. They don’t fit templates; they change their minds and become better people and become worse people and apologize and then screw up again. My characters are real people.

And therein, writer friends, is my problem.

Aaron Sorkin tells us characters are not people. They must be finite, they exist only in the story.

So, my biggest chore in revision is exaggerating the relevant parts of a character’s personality and minimizing the irrelevant parts. This streamlining is especially needed in short stories where irrelevance can derail an entire story.

My entry in this year’s Carrie McCray Award contest is about a woman running into an old lover on her daughter’s first day of kindergarten. My workshop readers asked: Is she married? What kind of work does he do? Why didn’t they ever reconnect after that one hookup?

The story doesn’t need those answers. It doesn’t even use her name. She’s every GenX mom on the first day of kindergarten looking into the eyes of the hottest guy she’s ever had sex with. That’s the story.

Paring down real people into characters is hard. I’ve only recently discovered one of my main character’s primary internal conflicts and I’m on draft eight. Templates and methods and programs and suggestions are great. But they can’t compete with the voices in my head.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Literary Serials: Marketing Gold with a Binge-worthy Twist

By Jodie Cain Smith

I first met Jolene Harris, a woman who “grew up knowing the real hair color of every woman in town,” in Michele Feltman Strider’s Home series. With witty, troubled characters, Strider dances the line between graceful, women’s fiction and comedic shenanigans. It was Jolene’s shenanigans that drew me to Strider’s new serial Homestyle (digital download available on Amazon). Now, I’m obsessed.

I mean, come on! If you don’t want to read about a woman who steals her boyfriend’s car then grinds the gears for four hours from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home to her mama in Bayou La Batre at 2am because the jerk visited a strip club, well, I have to wonder how much we really have in common. But, I digress as to not give too much away.

But, however much I am loving this serial (now on issue three), my obsession goes beyond my love of a character “raised on a hearty diet of gossip, hearsay, and hairspray,” and the author who created her. I am obsessed with the potential the resurgence of literary serials holds for small press and independent authors.

As authors and writers, why reinvent the wheel of book marketing when we could take a look from the way back seat? Way, way back.

Literary serials were born out of economic need. Dickens and others of his time understood the economic strain of their readers. Rarely, if ever, could the Dickensian Everyman afford to buy a whole novel. However, many could scrounge up a penny to devour the next installment of their favorite saga of the local paper.

The same could be said today of time. The busy reader, the commuter reader, or the read-while-in-the-carpool-line reader will find a work designed to be read in short snippets very appealing.

Marketing a serial builds a public.

Thou shall not fill thy friends’ walls with the same product over and again. Rather than risking the “unfollow,” a writer can promote new material as issues are released. Then, anticipation for the next issue builds, readers begin sharing ideas of the not-yet-released issues, and new readers find you because of the online chatter. More posting, especially of quality products, increases an online platform.

Who doesn’t love a box set?

For the author looking to boost Amazon sales, the best way to do this is to have multiple products to sell. Once all the issues of a literary serial are released, an author can “box” them together, thus creating a new product. From there, discounts for buying the entire set can be given, a paperback version of the collection can be offered (think special edition), and new promotions designed for each product, sale, or combo can be posted.

As we all know from waiting for the next episode of whatever TV serial we are obsessed with, the anticipation of the next, juicy installment is both torture and delight. Literary serials and the accompanying anticipation can create the same excitement. But, this time the excitement could be for your work!

In your future literary serial, who will your main character be? Share your spiciest idea in the comment section below!

If you would like to know more of Michele Feltman Strider and her writing, visit her at

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Grab a Notebook

By Ginny Padgett

 I started a nonfiction book project in 2014 based on experiences and interviews with 15 people once a month for a year. I’m still not finished writing it. When I take excerpts of it to workshop for feedback, sometimes they are met with astonishment by some of the respondents (also from workshop). “How can you remember our conversations and the details of our meetings so accurately? You have a great memory!”

I was flattered by their accolades, but there is a simple, mundane explanation. As soon as I returned home from each encounter, I made strategic notes to jog my memory when I was ready to write. If something in our discussions struck me as important enough to me to use as a direct quote, I jotted down key words. Not only could I remember the quote I wanted, but that often provided enough spark to reconstruct the whole exchange, bolstering interest with dialogue while fleshing out the action. I don’t think I have a better than average memory. Notes, and perhaps practice from journalism school, were the trick.

As time elapsed, I came to see diarizing an event has personal benefits as well. While writing my manuscript, it occurred than more once that these notes and recorded dates jump-started memories I needed to calculate and navigate everyday life.

Mindfully now I record outings and appointments in my calendar with details…and don’t delete them as tasks accomplished. “What was the name of that movie we went to last month?” “Where did you find that tray?” “Where was that cute restaurant we stopped at on the way to Baltimore?” “When’s the last time I saw the dermatologist?” I can find the answer to these kinds of questions in a jiffy. It doesn’t make for world peace, but sometimes it does make my life easier, tidier or evokes a smile when I look back and find a happy time spent with friends and family.

Fortunately, notetaking is easier than ever since the smart phone in your pocket is packed with more technology that the 1960s space-race effort. Snap a photo. Use the voice recorder to make notes for yourself. Ask your companion or interviewee if you may record a chat about an interesting subject. Immediacy is primary to getting it down right for nonfiction.

I realized another plus. Keeping notes on events, behaviors and deportment, environment, conversations can be prompts for plots, characters, settings, and dialogue for fictional writing. Take notes and see where they lead.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Put Social Media to Work for You

By Kat Dodd 

Social Media: It isn’t just for volunteering your own privacy anymore. In many ways, social media has become synonymous with the internet itself. Without social media, you might as well be utilizing only a fraction of the internet. I think that you can agree that not using the internet to promote your work is all but impossible for anyone but the most established writers. After all, many writers are even skipping formal publishing and simply self-publishing online. More and more books are digital and many people would rather meet you online in the comfort of their homes rather than venture to events to meet you in person.

As writers, we can have a tendency to be a little introverted at times or “lost in our heads” so to speak. That isn’t to say that we are anti-social beings, but we can tend to over-analyze things in general and be a lot better at focusing on our craft than having the ability to promote our work to others. However, Social Media provides the perfect outlet to network without the pressure of trying to find people to share your work with out of thin air.

In a previous post in May, Rex Hurst described the importance of networking in general when it comes to being published and promoting your work, but I would emphasize the importance of social media in particular. Utilizing social media to promote yourself and your work is the most cost effective way to network.

Before I began writing fiction again, I simply wrote reviews and articles and promoted myself with Facebook, Twitter, and other sites such as Tumblr. I followed other people that wrote similar articles and got attention from them and their readers by commenting on and sharing their work, as well as gaining inspiration from their writing styles. Inevitably, I got noticed and had a following before I had really begun my own website. Once I had my website, I was able to use cost effective advertising on social media that was targeted towards those with similar interests and my notoriety flourished for a while.

Similarly, I would recommend that you begin using social media for your fiction in a similar way. Find similar writers on social media with Facebook groups and pages, pay sincere attention to them as well as their readers and watch yourself grow as a result. Promote yourself with your words and actions to them, more than by directly mentioning your work. Advertise your page separately and only volunteer knowledge of your page after you make those initial connections. Share some of your ideas freely, like samples of food at the Supermarket. People want to be freely interested in you before they make a true investment in your work.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Road Trips: The Ultimate Writer’s Block Cure

By Kasie Whitener

The return journey was 548 miles, nine hours, all interstate, and took the better part of a Monday with no other plans. Coming off a U2 concert in Philadelphia, Father’s Day spent with Dad and my sister, the distance was worth it.

Rain splattered the windshield and the radio sang U2 songs from the Greatest Hits album. The Jeep barreled along, 70- to 80-miles-per-hour, chewing up the distance and carrying us home. The Shenandoah mountains rolled around us like vibrant green waves undulating on a fresh, damp sea. Meadows laced with wire fences and dotted with rolled hay arched into the sunlight, pulling away from tree pocket borders of dark summer shade.

“I want to run,” sang the radio, “I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside. I want to reach out and touch the flame. Where the streets have no name.”

When I talk about how many miles I put on the Jeep, how long I spend behind the wheel on road trips, people marvel. For some, road travel is something to be dreaded: a necessary evil in the vacation plans, an alternative to pricey flights.

For me, road trips are freedom.

When life is muddied with details and obligations, a good road trip sets me free.

I love the churn of the miles, green paddles lining the road ticking of the distance, pushing mental math through me as I calculate time and speed.

I love the interplay of trucks and minivans and cruise control and passing lanes.

I love the sleepy exit towns with mom-and-pop lunch buffets and 1980s-era gas pumps.

I’ve been driving that route – I-77 through Charlotte to I-81 through Roanoke and Lexington and Harrisonburg to I-66 through Manassas – for more than 20 years. It’s aged with me. I know its turns and speed traps like it knows my moods and frustrations. When the truck traffic gets heavy south of Staunton, it breaks into a third lane to ease the pressure.

Road trips break open the nostalgia in me, let it bleed over the today-ness and tomorrow-plans that consume me. I remember family trips and Dad blaming his farts on passing trucks. I remember college trips and the ‘Songs to Bellow To’ mixed tape.

The road between where I am now and where I used to be is stacked with when-I-stopped-there stories and almost every mile of the journey from South Carolina to Northern Virginia has some perfect detail I should write down someday.

I get more from the road than I give it. The road answers questions for me.
What does the character want? To be valued.

What is the story missing? Raise the stakes.

Like a writing coach, the road talks me through the work I left on the laptop on the desk in the house far away. The road stretches out, teasing the details from the work, offering perspective, offering freedom, offering inspiration, until I return and create.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

States of Mind

By Sharon May

Kurt Vonnegut said, “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

The main problem I have with this statement is that it reinforces the stereotype of the crazy artist who locks himself away from society in the name of art. It is a stereotype that many societies use to keep the writer at bay, out of the mainstream. Maybe there is a hint of madness in all of us as we respond to what drives us to write but to say only those who are depressed can produce serious and good works is extreme and just not true.

Second, what is “serious fiction?” I assume that Vonnegut is referring to what we now call literary fiction. By his standards, I’m sure that lots of genre fiction would be automatically be labeled as not serious. But all genres have works so well written they stand out from the crowd and are serious.

Third, does Vonnegut mean that one has to be depressed at the time of writing the fictional work, or simply be subject to depressive states of mind? Usually part of the definition of depression is a time period in which the person is usually not functioning well and probably is not capable of writing any fiction, serious or not. I think all writers have emotional struggles that give them opportunities to contemplate themselves and the society. These struggles do not have to lead to depression for one to be a serious writer.

Yes, we have Styron, Kafka, Woolf, Rowling, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Capote, and Baldwin as examples of writers with depressive personalities who produced serious fiction. But we could list even more writers who have never been depressed.

I am bipolar and have found during depressed moods that I am not productive enough to write anything, good or bad. I may be able to think about writing, but I can’t find the energy to put fingers to keyboard. Maybe others who are depressed can put words on a page. I just know I’m not one of them. But I am capable of writing when in a manic state, reams and reams very quickly. Unfortunately, quality is not in those reams even though they do provide good ideas to work on later. Only when I’m stable can I consistently produce words on paper that would be considered good.

Emotions can lead to a particular state of mind that can cause problems for the writer. Hopefully, you do not have to inhabit Vonnegut’s world as you write. Regardless of your state of mind, pay attention to your emotional struggles and observe those of others so you can learn about human nature, which will lead to interesting characters, dialogue, conflicts, and thus good writing.   

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Role of Narrator

By Bonnie Stanard

Most of us in workshop choose to narrate our stories either from first person or third person limited, but I’m attempting an omniscient point of view (POV) with an historical fiction story.

When we talk about an omniscient narrator, there’s quite a difference between writers of the 21st Century and those of the 19th century. It has to do with the distance the narrator establishes between himself and his story.

While omniscient narrators such as Dickens, Hardy, and Twain wrote with the confidence of a reporter, the progression has moved away from perceived “facts” and toward the articulation of our interior being. This approach to telling a story was ushered in by James Joyce’s groundbreaking Ulysses and was made accessible by Virginia Wolfe’s novels.

The closing of this distance between narrator and character evolved in tandem with a changing cultural climate. The unity of traditions of the 19th century has been eroded by the coming of modern science and technology, which have in turn brought into question parameters of every sort. Once we thought time and motion had exactitude, that the real world was stable. Since Einstein, we’ve discovered the fluidity of reality. Even things like age, sex, and morality have become relative. Readers are suspect of the facts of other people, be they artists, preachers, politicians or novelists.

As the complexity of daily life adds to our ambivalence, writers have pushed ever closer to the workings of human thought and consciousness. This includes narrators of omniscient, first person, and third limited POV.

An aside on POV: if a writer doesn’t understand the role of a narrator, it is obvious in his work. The most common error is “head hopping” which is blindly telling a story in buckshot fashion. That is to say, the writer doesn’t know who his narrator is.

Two last thoughts on why narrators are changing. Over 80 per cent of Americans live in urban areas. The average reader no longer lives or works near nature. The urban experience has ushered in congestion and chaos, which have driven narrators to focus inward.

At the same time, the novelist’s portrayal of our physical surroundings has been usurped by ubiquitous visual media. Narrators of contemporary fiction who describe typical settings are competing with images we see on television and computers. You can guess where that leaves the writer.

Regardless of how beleaguered we are by our environment; or how much scenery we see on the screen; or how much dialogue we hear in movies and television, there’s little communication of the interior life of humans. This is where writers can be important.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Co-Writing a Screenplay, Part 1

By Laura P. Valtorta

Yesterday Marco and I went to see a reading of Anthony Lamarr’s stage play Calming the Man at the Richland County Public Library on Main Street. The actors were from New Life Productions, a group I worked with to put on my play, Bermuda. Once again I was struck by the talent of the actors we have in Columbia.

Sharn Hopkins is the head of New Life Productions, and I am proposing that we write a screenplay together. Both of us are hard-headed women, so I wonder how this can work. I’ve never sat down with someone else to work on a writing project. Producing a film takes a team of people, but writing is something personal.

Our first meeting about the screenplay is next Thursday. I’ve prepared by collecting a list of ideas for plots. How can we write about conflict between a so-called ‘black’ woman and a so-called ‘white’ woman and make it funny and real? There is only one human race, but we segregate ourselves in the United States based on skin color. This creates huge problems. Art can deal with the issue better than almost anything except a change in the law.

I wonder about toning down my bossiness. This project will only work if Sharn also shows up with a briefcase of ideas. I can count on her to have an opinion, which is what I need. Push-back is key. If my ideas are stupid, she needs to say so. And I need the freedom to be honest with her.

Other concepts besides skin color will enter into this. Religion – what role does it play? I’ve never run away from religion, but I am an agnostic. Sharn belongs to a local congregation. She does not believe in using curse words. My favorite radio show is Howard Stern.

Recently I traveled to Cuba, where there is no segregation based on skin color. Looking around the streets of Havana and Cienfuegos, it was difficult to see a couple or a husband and wife who shared the same skin color. You don’t often see two white people together or two black people at a market unless they are tourists. Cuban families are every shade of white-brown-black all within the same household. The relief is palpable. There is no color line. That’s the kind of screenplay I’m aiming for.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Raising the Stakes

By Kasie Whitener

We binge-watched three episodes of one of our favorite shows yesterday. Blindspot is an NBC program based on the premise that a tattooed amnesiac is helping the FBI rid the government of corruption. It’s super fake.

What I love most about Blindspot is how they continually raise the stakes. It’s a specific strategy TV writers use to keep you tuned in through the commercial break.

Dismantling a bomb? Great. But what if the clock jumps forward by half because you cut the wrong wire?

Hostage crisis? No problem. But what if there’s also a gas leak in the building?

Raising the stakes means forcing the characters to make a choice they may have otherwise waited out. In everyday life, we wait out choices. We don’t respond to invitations, ignore phone calls, and “wait and see” on just about everything.

Characters can’t afford to wait it out. The reader will put the book down and never pick it back up again. Characters need to move the plot forward to reach its conclusion.

To force the character to make a choice, the writer must raise the stakes. Make it impossible for the character to do nothing. Create the kind of urgency that forces the character to do something, anything, that pushes the plot arc.

One of the easiest ways to raise the stakes is to provide a time limit. Sports are great at this: the clock ticks down, the innings run out, there’s only so much time to make a play.

Another way to raise the stakes is to reveal information that complicates the choice. For example: the main character is refusing to surrender to the villain until the villain shows he’s got someone hostage; now the main character must do whatever she must to keep the hostage safe. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is expecting to become tribute; instead, her sister is selected and Katniss is forced to act in order to save Primrose.

A third way to raise the stakes is to challenge the hero with something he or she cannot do. Have the main character confronted with a puzzle, a challenge, or a seemingly impossible task. The Flash on the CW network does a great job with this. Everything is declared impossible until Barry finds a way to do it.

The best stakes involve the character compromising a bit of herself to get where she’s going. Every time she makes an exception to her values or morals, the audience is primed for her to make it up to them in another scene. She might have to team up with a known enemy, forgive a trespass, or even part with a valuable item. Raise the stakes by having the character put more skin in the game and the payoff will be twice as great when she finally triumphs.

Raising the stakes builds tension in your story, keeps the reader engaged, and shows what lengths your character is willing to go to in pursuit of her goal.