Sunday, September 19, 2021

CUE THE CONFETTI


By Kasie Whitener

I don’t get nervous for Zoom events even when I’m hosting them. I pour a glass of wine and tuck my pajama’d legs underneath me and tune in like the meeting is a television program.

But last Monday night I was nervous. The Southeastern Writers Association was holding their awards event on Zoom and my novel, Being Blue, was a finalist. The entry was an unpublished manuscript and this one, up until now, had only been read by my critique group and a developmental editor.

In contrast, my first novel, After December, has been out since 2019 and has over 50 ratings on Amazon. My second novel, Before Pittsburgh, released last month and earned a dozen 5-star reviews from the vast world of #bookstagram. My short story “For the Win” was in the summer issue of The Showbear Family Circus and my story “The Shower” is set to be printed in Fall Lines. I blog weekly across multiple platforms. I have authored two textbooks at use in my classrooms.

I’m being read on the regular and not just by people who know me.

Entering the Hal Bernard Memorial Award for Novel with the Southeastern Writers Association also meant I’d joined the organization. Logging into the Zoom, I saw strangers’ faces, not my usual SCWA crowd. The nerves had begun much earlier in the day, though, when I thought about what it meant to be a finalist and what it would feel like to have to show one of those fake-Oscar smiles when they didn’t name me the winner.

Any other acceptance or win has come as an email or phone call notification. Congratulations, your book is a finalist in the Indie Excellence Awards. Congratulations, you’ve won the Broad River Prize for Prose.

I’ve applied and submitted and been refused and rejected. We’re sorry but your work does not fit our needs at this time.

I’ve queried and entered and been ignored and ghosted. My novel After December was in a first-novel contest for female authors and lost to a book about the experience of a young Latina immigrant. So, yeah, my white-privileged male protagonist never stood a chance.

Never have I minded the rejection. Putting my work out there means accepting defeat. And Monday night I wasn’t rehearsing my, “Good for you!” expression because I’ve been spoiled by the wins.

Buzz Bernard, who sponsored the award selected five entries to honor. Two received honorable mention and three took prizes.

The screen said, “Third Place – Being Blue by Kasie Whitener,” and I smiled and unmuted and said, “Thank you.” I thought of our bronze-medal winning athletes and the looks on their faces knowing they’ve come so close and come up just short. Then I finished my wine.

Bronze is hard because it’s not a win exactly, but it’s not a loss, either. It’s somewhere in between. Congratulations, your work is above average.

So, thank you. I might just stick with this writing thing. I have some work to do.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

MAKING MAGIC BELIEVABLE


By Bonnie Stanard

Magical realism (MR) incorporates the unbelievable into the world as we know it. In other words, we writers convince readers that magic is as ordinary as life. After recently reading The Erasers by AlainRobbe-Grillet, known for his ability to mix fact and fantasy, I took notes on how he did it.

TheErasers is a mystery novel about a murder. Descriptions wander with the perambulations of the protagonist—a police inspector named Wallas who has been called in to solve a murder. As he walks from the post office to the police station to what may or may-not be a murder scene, his gets lost, goes in circles, or in one case, ends where he began, which I admit, tests your patience. These geographic twists and turns are accompanied by a vague time line, though the entire story takes place in 24 hours.

Signals crop up suggesting there never was a murder. Witnesses provide vague answers to questions. The description of the murder suspect fits that of Wallas, the investigator. A clock stops at the beginning and starts up at the moment of a murder, which may or may not be the one being investigated. Ambiguity requires us readers to supply our own facts along with what is given. We think we know what's going on, but do we?

WRITING TECHNIQUES TO NORMALIZE THE FANTASTIC

Ideas I've taken from The Eraser that blur the lines of reality.

—Suppositions. As the inspector summarizes the situation to a police officer, we realize that his facts are actually presumptions. Nonetheless, the inspector takes action based on presumptions, though the question persists about what is real.
— Conditional verbs, e.g., could, may, might. In most fiction, these words are dead-weights that slow down the action, but in this instance, they add an element of unreliability.
—Recurring adjectives. To describe different people and/or places using similar adjectives allows a range of uncertainty. Doppelgangers are good.
— Unemotional narrative voice. In other words, when the tone is cool, calm, and collected, the reader tends to believe... even magic.
— Point of View. Without bending the rules too far, a careless approach to free indirect discourse POV allows different characters to provide biased views, deconstructing reality. The POV may blink, but not so much as to dislocate the narrative point of reference.
— Unclear antecedents. This is annoying, but I can see the point of it. There are times when I underlined the word “he” because it could reference either of two different persons. Lack of clarity sidetracks authority.
— Character ID. A close relative to the previous point is to delay referring to characters by their names in describing a given situation. Grillet uses terms like the man, character, customer, pedestrian. This adds fog to the scene, which launches doubt about the identity and/or nature of the character.

My favorite magical realism book is Life of Pi. Yann Martel's masterful writing will have you believing a boy on a raft after a shipwreck can survive with a tiger on board. (The book is better than the movie, which is also good.) Other MR books I've enjoyed are Love in the Time of Cholera; The House of Spirits; and Like Water for Chocolate.

An informative definition of magical realism can be found on Neil Gaiman's Master Class notes.





Sunday, September 5, 2021

REVISION: A NECESSARY EVIL


By Sharon May

“I’ve just finished my novel. Do I need to revise it?” asks one more person on an online writing forum. I know where the inquiry is coming from. You’ve written for weeks, months, or years to produce a first draft, sweating over each carefully chosen word, which could be confused with revising. You’re dead dog tired, and a little bored with the project. You think you’ve given everything you have in your mind and soul. What more can be done?

Actually, more than we can imagine after we first complete a draft. Revising is as necessary as drafting in its requirement to step back from the manuscript and out of ourselves so we can re-visit our work objectively. Revision is decorating the room we just built because without paint and furniture, it won’t be a finished nor enjoyable space.

It is not editing, which should be a final pass for grammar, mechanics, and punctuation at the sentence level. Revising entails some work with sentences, but good writers reconsider plot and sub-plots, character development, organization, structure, themes, voice, coherence, cohesiveness, continuity, etc. The list is endless, meaning that revising is a lot of work and could take as long, if not longer, than drafting took. Who wouldn’t prefer to skip this step?

Proud of our brilliant moments, we really don’t want to take a hard look at our less than brilliant writing. We carry around enough doubt and want to avoid more. Instead of doubting ourselves, we should be proud that we recognized our weaker words and ideas, and yes, even mistakes. Not everyone can objectify their own writing and grasp it from the reader’s perspective.

I don’t consider myself good at revision. A few years ago, I finished my first draft of a novel in progress, and was at a loss. I knew I wasn’t done writing but I just didn’t know what to do. So, I found a professional editor who had worked for a company I’d be proud to have publish my work and hired her to do a developmental edit. It was not cheap, but the help has been priceless like the MasterCard ad says.

The editor asked questions and made comments that piqued my creativity. My reactions to her reading made it possible for me to see what the work in progress could become, which is the point of revision.

With that experience as well as joining Cola II Writers Workshop, I am learning how to see my writing from outside myself, without all the emotional attachment to the words. They really are just words. They may create a wonderful and beautiful mosaic, but they can be tinkered with and improved.

Don’t sell your work short. Revise to discover the best of what you have to offer the reader.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

HERE ARE FOUR OF LITERATURE’S MOST POWERFUL INVENTIONS THAT YOU PROBABLY USE TO TELL STORIES, BUT DIDN’T REALIZE THE ACTUAL NEUROSCIENCE BEHIND THEM


B
y El Ochiis

I had an English professor who was considered an eccentric by New York standards; he collected shopping bags. His position was that each bag told a story about the store and the patrons who shopped there – that these containers for capitalism were a most interesting invention. Now this wouldn’t have been such an oddball thing save for the fact that he was as spendthrift as he was inimitable; he never shopped in these stores – merely using them to hold books he had checked out of The New York Public Library.

We waited each week for the bag and its contents therein. He never let us down with each introduction of something new in literature and writing. One week the professor brought a few books in his arms, sans a bag, and announced that he would be introducing us to literary inventions, through the ages, showing how writers have created technical breakthroughs—rivaling any scientific inventions—and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind
  1. Plot Twist - This literary invention is now so well-known that we often learn to identify it as children. But it thrilled Aristotle when he first discovered it, and for two reasons. First, it supported his hunch that literature’s inventions were constructed from story. And second, it confirmed that literary inventions could have potent psychological effects. Who hasn’t felt a burst of wonder—or as Aristotle called it, thaumazein—when a story pivots unexpectedly? That’s why holy scriptures brim with plot twists: David beating Goliath, parting the Sea of Reeds to escape an evil Pharaoh …

  1. The Hurt Delay - this invention’s blueprint is a plot that discloses to the audience that a character is going to get hurt—prior to the hurt actually arriving. The classic example is Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, where we learn before Oedipus that he’s about to undergo the horror of discovering that he’s killed his father and married his mother. But it occurs in a range of later literature, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to paperback bestsellers such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

  1. The Tale Told From Our Future - This invention was created simultaneously by many different global authors, among them the 13th-century West African griot poet who composed the Epic of Sundiata. Basically, a narrator uses a future-tense voice to address us in our present. As it goes in the Epic: “Listen to my words, you who want to know; by my mouth you will learn the history of Mali. By my mouth you will get to know the story. . .”

  1. The Almighty Heart - This invention is an anthropomorphic omniscient narrator—or, to be more colloquial, a story told by someone with a human heart and a god’s all-seeing eye. It was first devised by the ancient Greek poet Homer in The Iliad, but you can find it throughout more recent fiction. The invention works by tricking your brain into feeling like you’re chanting along with a greater human voice.


Sunday, August 22, 2021

THE LATEST ADDITION


Meet a New Columbia II Writer

LIS ANNA-LANGSTON 

Lis Anna-Langston was raised along the winding current of the Mississippi River on a steady diet of dog-eared books. She attended a Creative and Performing Arts School from middle school until graduation and went on to study Literature at Webster University. Her two novels, Gobbledy and Tupelo Honey have won the Parents’ Choice Gold, Moonbeam Book Award, Independent Press Award, Benjamin Franklin Book Award and NYC Big Book Awards. Twice nominated for the Pushcart award and Finalist in the Brighthorse Book Prize, William Faulkner Fiction Contest and Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award, her work has been published in The Literary Review, Emerson Review, The Merrimack Review, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Sand Hill Review, and dozens of other literary journals.

 She draws badly, sings loudly, loves ketchup, starry skies, and stories with happy aliens.

You can find her in the wilds of South Carolina plucking stories out of thin air.  

 www.lisannalangston.com


Lis's first post follows.


TRUST THE PROCESS


By Lis Anna-Langston


My third year at a Creative and Performing Arts School, I came to a crossroads. Home was chaotic and I took up study at a Buddhist Temple. It wasn’t a decision of faith but a simple response to my environment. With a fine combination of new athletic shoes, city buses, and catching rides, I set out to learn a lesson in commitment. It was a lot of work for anyone, especially a Sophomore in high school to get up at 4:30AM to catch a bus but I took up the reigns of my new choice with profound enthusiasm.

At the library I devoured ancient texts. I meditated on the meaning of nothingness, because, unlike the existential nothingness at home, I found something unique. I studied on buses and weekends, keeping up my pace. Making choices cleared my mind, gave me focus. In time I noticed my studies overlapped into my artistic work. What I learned from ancient texts applied to writing and being on stage. The same process I used to align myself with the universe was the same one I used in writing to go deeper into the material. The same path I took to a poem led to divine truths. These paths became interchangeable. Unique by design but more similar than I imagined. A magical place where art and philosophy intersected. An invisible border where commitment merged into trust.

There are few things more exciting than watching inspiration at work in your life. Seeing all that come alive made me even more excited about processes that required a lot of work on my part. There weren't a lot of things I could trust in my life, but I started to see through the cracks. I had to learn to trust. Trust myself to know what I wanted. Trust the art of allowing. Trust myself to get the idea onto the page. Trust myself to dive into the raw draft. Trust myself to show up to the work every day. Trust that the final draft would be completely different than the first. Trust that every way is the right way. Trust I’m serving the work in ways I couldn’t have defined yesterday or the day before. It’s a hard concept for people to grasp.

People want absolutes. They want to know. But art isn’t about knowing. Trust opens doors to beginnings and endings. It is the rope binding each part of the artistic process to the next. It’s the edge of the cliff, the beginning of an idea, the thing that lights our way, the thing that reflects back what we’re thinking and doing, the thing that catches us in midair. A paradox of paradoxes. Letting go of results shifts us into a position to trust. From inspiration to drafts to rewrites, trust becomes the key to open those doors. Write your truth is an empty phrase until you first learn to trust. I see now that commitment to writing practice shapes and hones art. Trust is a powerful tool for writers. The gateway from which all great ideas enter.







Sunday, August 15, 2021

SORRY, NOT SORRY


By Kasie Witener

I like the sex in the story.

I read romance novels almost exclusively and I’m not embarrassed to say I like the sex scenes.

The characters are important, of course, and the tension leading up to that point when they finally give in, but it’s the intimacy of the sex that keeps me reading.

I’ve been known to stay awake into the early hours of morning reading romance novels.

I’ve abandoned books that had terrible, awkward, or clinical sex scenes.

I’ve read entire series of books by authors who made dozens of sex scenes seem original every single time.

I’m not alone. Romance is the most popular genre on Amazon. It’s the single biggest genre of fiction accounting for 23% of the overall fiction market in 2016 and growing exponentially. While 83% of the readers are female, Romance Writers of America estimates 16% are male, with the average age between 35- and 39-years-old. I’m 44 and I’m not the oldest romance junkie I know.

Like most genre fiction, romance is governed by reader expectations, chief among them is the HEA (happily ever after) which is what separates the romance from a love story. Split into dozens of subgenres, Romance also meets readers where their desires are: contemporary, erotic, historical, dark, paranormal, “spiritual elements” or Christian romance, romantic suspense, sweet or “clean” romance, and young adult with teenaged or early-twenties characters.

Writers have also embraced the tropes: billionaire, boss, athlete, rock star, outlaw (motorcycle, mafia), and military. Like I said, they meet readers where they are.

What this teaches me, as a writer, because I don’t write romance, is to focus on those moments in the book that I want to become the reader’s favorite.

For example, in After December, my first-person male protagonist has a couple of really great moments. There’s the time he cold-cocks a former high school rival for calling his ex-girlfriend a slut. Then he takes the bartender home and … well, it’s a moment some readers have said made them throw the book across the room. Writing important moments—the scenes that will stick with the reader—that’s what I want to do. I don’t write romance, but I don’t back away from the sexuality of my characters, either.

My second novel, Before Pittsburgh, is out this week (August 17) and I have dozens of favorite moments. One of them is when Brian is teasing his ex-girlfriend with a cookie in his hotel room. It’s not sex, but it’s a sexy scene. One of dozens.

Revision, for me, focuses on solidifying those scenes. Making each moment impactful, meaningful, memorable. So, when my readers flip through the book, they’ll know what it was they loved about it.

Maybe it will be the sex. But I hope will be the vulnerability around Brian’s mental health, the deep forging of friendship bonds, forgiveness of his parents, or the delicate untangling of bad decisions.

Oh, who am I kidding? Of course it’s the sex. And I’m not even sorry about it.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Writing Someone Else's Story

 

By Sharon Ewing

Writing a historical fiction novel about a real or imagined person becomes a journey of telling someone else’s story.  I use the word journey because like many of my trips, it’s one filled with anticipated adventure and unexpected pitfalls.

If the character is a different gender from the writer, the challenge is to stay true to a male voice, and this is where I draw on the many stories I’ve read and movies I’ve viewed portraying strong male characters. Of course, the tone of the male voice depends on the strength of the male character himself.  The same applies to the female voices in the story. 

Another pitfall is keeping my story and my emotions from becoming too much a part of any character.  Like all writers, I possess a lifetime of experiences and those events determine how I view the world. Universal emotions of love, joy, sorrow and pain are part of every life and of every story I’ve read.  But each character in my story must provide and process their own set of emotions and the resulting lessons from the obstacles life throws into their path, thus I can create a diverse, interesting and even thought-provoking cast where no one character resembles me.

I love reading and writing about characters in places and time periods other than mine.  Doing this draws me into research, another of my favorite activities. But I’ve learned I must limit my enthusiasm for information, taking only what I need for the story, refuse to be drawn into the next interesting fact. It’s my Achilles heel, both an adventure I love and a pitfall where I can lose all sense of time.

A sense of place, of course, is critical.  I get some of this from reading, but to actually be there adds a dimension of experience that inspires me in a way just plain research can’t.  On a trip back to my birthplace I was recently driven to write a personal essay about the layers of history there. A set of historical maps also helps create a concrete sense of place.  I have a map of Philadelphia tacked on my wall where I write, the setting of my current story.  It helps me see the physical lay of the land which hasn’t changed since the city was developed, and I’m planning a trip soon to walk the streets and inhale all historical aspects.

Another important aspect must be the correct vernacular of the time, including accents, brogues, regional language, vocabulary and sentence structure.  Exploring the many ways the Irish used words to express their feelings, expound on their superstitions and religious phrases, has given me some moments of amusement and has solidified the time period of the story. 

The more I immerse myself in creating this historical fiction story, the richer my life becomes.  I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to learn everything I need to know to become a proficient writer, but the journey is well worth the effort.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

LIKES, SHARES, SMILES, AND SALES


By Jodie Cain Smith

Yes, this is a marketing post.

We all know that authors must market. The hustle is part of the job, but the marketing hustle is daunting. Questions: How do I begin? How do I market a book? Do I need a hook? Can’t I just post my book cover and all my adoring fans will buy it? Answers: Begin with yourself, build relationships, yes, and uh…no. 

Ye0s, start with yourself, especially on social media. You are the brand. Post about you. Readers want to know you, your personality, your interests other than your writing. Your friends and families really don’t want their feeds filled with only “Buy my book!” posts. That’s a sure-fire way to get snoozed on Facebook and unfollowed on the Gram. 

That brings us to building relationships. You’ve all heard that social media marketing is about building relationships, but I believe all marketing is about relationships. On social media, interact with your commenters. Comment back, comment on their posts, comment on posts that speak to you (keep the rage on low), spread the love. Even if you dedicate only 15 minutes a day to interacting on social media, it will pay off in increased followers and higher visibility for your posts. 

And, building relationships isn’t just online. Holding a book signing? Stand rather than sit. This is a much more welcoming, less intimidating posture than sitting behind the great barrier of the table, desperate not to look like a friendless loser with 100 unsold books in front of you. 

Make your book an experience. For upcoming events, I have made selfie props that play with the hook of my latest book. On the book table, a jar decorated to coordinate with my brand color palette holds the selfie props. Anyone who buys a book receives a magnetic bookmark with NO BRANDING on them (bought dirt cheap in bulk). Another jar holds stickers for kids who happen to approach the table. Yes, I am that person—lure the child to the table with a sticker, mom or dad will follow. 

I work with libraries, museums, and community centers offering workshops. For these events, I offer the organizers three 45-minute writing workshop options to choose from, depending on their patrons needs. Admission is free with the option to purchase a book. I have never failed to make sales at one of these events. At the last one I held for the launch of The Woods at Barlow Bend I sold out—40 copies to attendees and the last ten to the museum director for the gift shop. 

Now, for the hook of the book your promoting. For Bayou Cresting: The Wanting Women of Huet Pointe (July 31, 2021, Crowsnest Books), I created the social media campaign “Which Huet Pointe woman are you?” Each woman has a featured post with very brief description, picture, and call-to-action. These posts align with the selfie props and a poster collage of all the women displayed alongside the books at events. 

So, with these tips, get out there and market your work. Build your readership by building your community. Build this writerly community by sharing your marketing tips below in the comments.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

FEMALE PHILOSOPHERS WHO HELPED SHAPE MODERN THOUGHT


By El Ochiis

Some of the greatest literary writers wrote philosophical fiction. I took a philosophy course in Athens, in college; actually, the reason I had travelled to Greece was to study philosophy, but, I did not need to venture that far to learn any more about, Socrates, Plato or Aristotle. No, I journeyed there to find out about some of the most famous, or, should I have said, infamous philosophers that interested me:

“What - who are you talking about?” Demanded Professor Skoplitius, when I raised my hand to ask about Aspasia of Miletus’ influence on Plato. 

“Her house became a center for intellectuals in Athens,” I stated, breathlessly. 

“Are you a Moroccan, no, you couldn’t be, where are you from?” Mr. Skoplitius queried. 

“My passport and birth certificate officiated in the states,” I offered, uneasily, since anyone I had ever met in Europe considered me anything but American. I wasn’t sure if I should have been insulted that he had estimated that I couldn’t be from Morocco, however. 

“This is most strange, I, I never met no one who speak of this, for which you are so passionate, tell us more,” he challenged, pushing his glasses further down a nose that appeared as if it had been carved onto his face. 

“Ahem, well, there were three I find quite intriguing: Aspasia, Clea and Thecla, I rattled off from my notebook, barely pronouncing their names correctly."

I had written my final paper on the largely unknown female philosophers of Ancient Greece, it was that paper that got me nominated to take the trip to study in Athens. The professor at the university in New York was not happy about my choice of subject matter, however, he did not know enough about these women to add much pros or cons.

Professor Skopltius, on the other hand, tolerated my intrusion of his class in the classic males of Greek philosophy; He half-heartedly read to the class, in an acerbic monotone: 

"Aspasia was born in the Greek city of Miletus (today’s providence Aydin, Turkey). Her family must have been quite wealthy due to the excellent education the young woman received. It was uncertain just why she came to Athens – however, her house became a center for intellectuals in Athens. It was assumed that even Socrates spent much time discussing in her home and, that her teaching would have influenced Socrates, the most important of all Greek philosophers. Though little is known of her, she appears in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, of Miletus Xenophon and other Greek philosophers. 

Clea was the teacher of Pythagoras, the great philosopher-mathematician from Samos, who has been called the ‘father of philosopher’. It has been also claimed that Pythagoras may have derived his ethical doctrines from her. 

Thecla first appeared on the scene, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, leading a normal middle-class life, sequestered at home and about to make an advantageous marriage. But leaning out of her balcony, she hears the dynamic preaching of Paul and decides on a radically different path. As priestess at Delphi, she held a highly esteemed political and intellectual role in the ancient world – religious practitioners at the shrine received frequent requests from world leaders for divine advice about political matters. She found many opportunities for in-depth philosophical conversations with Plutarch, the most famous intellectual of his time.

There were a few more: Sosipatra; Macrina the Younger; Diotima of Mantinea; Hypatia of Alexandria; Leontion; Theano; Arignote; Arete of Cyrene; and, Perictione." 

As writers, we should be mindful of the women who shaped modern thought and who influenced the well-known philosophers – the next time you are quoting what you believe are male Greek philosophers, you may just be quoting a female: “I dream of a world where there are neither masters nor slave.” Arete of Cyrene.

 

 

 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

MORAL AMBIGUITY


By Bonnie Stanard
 

There are those of us who call ourselves writers based not on the number of books we have written or sold but on the hope that we will make a difference to some reader somewhere. But what sort of difference are we aspiring to? 

I can say that my books have made a difference to at least one person, and that’s me. Each book has been a learning experience. They have forced me to explore worlds of the antebellum South and Medieval France. As a result, I’ve learned to appreciate the adage that the past is a foreign country. 

As I sit at my desk and think about my surroundings, I ask myself, what have I contributed to this place where I find myself? Did I make the chair I’m sitting on? Did I sew the shirt I’m wearing? Build the room? The house? Did I hammer a nail or install electricity? Build a street? Did I make my iPhone, create the internet? What have I actually done to bring about virtually everything I encounter and use every day? 

The answer of course leads me to realize my debt to our forefathers. The sweat and anguish of many individuals who worked together for centuries produced the advancements that give me the comfort and safety I take for granted. Perhaps this realization is one reason historical fiction appeals to me. It gives us a peep-hole through the concrete that divides us from the past. 

I’ve noticed that we criticize our ancestors based on expectations of the present with little notion of the cultural and moral differences that separate us from them. Today, historic heroes lose status regardless of their good intentions if they don’t conform to the sensibilities of the 21st Century. They were products of a time when the meaning of good wouldn’t be found in a dictionary today. Our century is not just physically different from any other, it is emotionally different. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that our culture has been changed over time by gifted writers. Jane Austen pointed out that patriarchy is oppressive (it’s taking a long time to sink in). Charles Dickens told the world of child labor and the abuse of the poor. Dostoyevsky questioned our view of morality. Mark Twain, notably a humorist, took on politics. These writers have prompted us to look at ourselves critically. 

It takes genius to be as clever as canonic authors, but that’s not to say our writing doesn’t affect readers for better or worse. Even romance, sci-fi, mystery, or whatever the genre, has moral moments. It may be one sentence. It may be an inconspicuous tone. 

Our attitudes and values are daily shifting in directions based on what we see, hear, and read. In what direction are we going? We assume progress is positive, but the word is coveted as a marketing tool to sell good and bad ideas. “Improvement” may come at a cost that results in harm.

Will our novels throw light on destructive trends? Plots that exploit drugs, violence, erotica, and mayhem are exciting. However, without redeeming value, they impoverish our intellect and compromise our sense of right and wrong. 

I’m not talking about polemics as a plot, not about what we “ought” to do. I mean novels that surprise us with courage, honesty, and toleration. Will we give readers a reason to question what is going on with our world? 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

MEASURING ALL THE THINGS


By Kasie Whitener
 

When I joined the My Name is Not Bob Writers Platform Challenge in 2012, I had no idea what I would even tell people about myself. The purpose was to build a platform for your writing life – a digital platform primarily – and to put yourself into the writing community as a new voice. 

Fast forward to 2021 and I’ve been recognized as a Fresh Voice in the Humanities for South Carolina and I wrote this blog about the irony of being called “fresh.” Because, let’s be honest, I’ve done all the things. 

I started with blogging. I blogged weekly. Then monthly. Then sporadically. I guest blogged and I shared, liked, commented, and promoted blogs. I even gave people advice on how to write blogs and have served as the editor for this blog for several years. Currently my work appears on six different blog sites. 

Then came social media. I have Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. I like Twitter best and have been running a weekly tweet chat (#wschat) every Tuesday at 6 p.m. for eight years. I’m a reluctant Facebook user and they know it. My posts are buried in everyone’s feed because I don’t post often enough or show enough engagement. Did you know it does that? Facebook rewards you for being present by making what you post more visible to others. It’s a mysterious thing called an algorithm. 

I started the radio show Write On SC in 2018 and we’re going strong with over 150 episodes, several patrons, and a good listenership. Each week we discuss various topics around creation, craft, and publication. It led me to Wattpad, where I’ve been serializing a YA novel all summer. The Full Moon in Neverland is my third novel. The first two were published by Chrysalis Press. 

So, I did the writing. I wrote After December, took it through workshop and developmental edits, and got it with Chrysalis and published it. I built a marketing plan, leveraging my platform and reaching out to book clubs to adopt and evangelize the work. It’s found success. Forty-seven reviews so far and a four-star average. 

The follow-up, Before Pittsburgh, comes out in August and I’m working the platform now to promote it and get those pre-sales, reviews, and Want To Read adds on Goodreads. It’s amazing the things I’ve learned to measure since I joined the My Name is Not Bob platform challenge. 

I’ve done all the things. The profiles, the engagement, the presentations and appearances, the promotional work (giveaways, ads), and the book club visits. I’ve built my email list at the urging of my publisher and I’m building audience every day. And I’m still managing to write. 

But I’m exhausted.

Only reading the proof copy of Before Pittsburgh over the weekend has lightened the mood around here. Knowing it’s a good book. Being happy with the product. Glad to share it with the world. All those measurements—like smiles and hugs—are hard to quantify.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: WRITING TOOL OR THREAT?


By Raegan Teller

My introduction to artificial intelligence (AI) was the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the story, HAL is an AI computer that controls the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft and interacts with the ship's astronauts. At the time, it was mere science fiction.

Fast forward to 2021: AI is now a reality. Some applaud its evolution; others warn us. The late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said in 2014, "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." Strong words.

But I want to discuss the more immediate effect of AI on writers and editors. In 2019, the first AI-written textbook was published, Lithium-Ion Batteries, a machine-generated summary of current research. And in 2020, approximately 50 freelance news editors at MSN were dismissed and replaced by AI-driven robots that optimize content by rewriting headlines or adding better photographs or slide shows. Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, believes AI-generated writing represents “a real threat” to writers.

Since AI runs on algorithms, it can effectively produce non-fiction writing, especially formulaic news reporting or other data-driven content. But what about fiction writing? Or poetry and other creative writing?

Creative writers are driven by curiosity and imagination. We draw on our human traits—empathy, anger, love, and determination, to name a few. We look for deeper meaning and express ourselves through writing. A computer can’t do that . . . can it?

Experiments using AI to write novels and poetry demonstrate that AI pulls from existing text and expands on it. Most of these experiments begin by feeding a first line or first paragraph to AI and then it completes the writing using an algorithm. For example, AI can be programmed to associate love and joy, or death and sorrow. For now, at least, AI can’t start with a blank page and produce original, inspiring prose or poetry (a problem some human writers share).

In a 2021 New Yorker article, novelist and essayist Stephen Marche said, “Whatever field you are in, if it uses language, it is about to be transformed.” Also in that article, Amit Gupta, a former science fiction writer and co-founder of Sudowrite, an AI writing app, predicts writers will use AI to produce copy and then edit it to provide deeper meaning where needed.

Before you dismiss all of this as mere science fiction, consider this: commercial fiction is written using a story structure similar to an algorithm. Certain things must happen in the first act of the story, other things in the middle, and so forth. And if you’ve ever studied a story arc or a character arc, it’s basically an algorithm. Even the rhythm and patterns of freeform poetry can be learned and emulated by AI. The New Yorker article referenced above has an interesting example of an AI written poem.

So, is AI a threat or a tool for writers? It depends on whether we decide to jump on board, or in front of, this seemingly unstoppable train.                                                         

Sunday, June 27, 2021

HOW WRITING HAS IMPACTED MY READING


By Sharon Ewing

I’ve always been an avid reader beginning with picture books, illustrated classics, fairy tales, and even textbooks. As a youth I read compulsively, even the cereal boxes we sat on the breakfast table before school.  I wasn’t exactly a discriminating reader. My sister looked at me as though I’d lost my mind when I told her, as we walked to school, how excited I was to get my new textbooks. I just loved words. I loved learning about anything new.  In my teen years, dad and I would walk to the library and lug home an armload of books. I never thought about how a story was put together, or much about the person behind the words.

I’ve always liked books with tons of detail and words I’d never encountered. I’ve poured over Hawthorne, Cooper, Michener, Tolstoy and reveled in their marathon-like sentences, using punctuation I knew I could never hope to imitate.  I sat many summers with my head in books required for the next year.  I could choose a few.  I read them all.

 I continue to be a lover of detail and vocabulary, but now have a deeper understanding of the beauty of simple concise sentences as well. I understand better the need for sentence variety. Through new reading choices, I’ve developed an appreciation for different styles.

Now I’m not so much a compulsive reader. I’m much more likely to discard a book when the plot lags, the characters need a transfusion or the dialogue becomes redundant.  Before my transition from reader to writer, I often felt guilty when I didn’t finish a book.  If someone had asked me why I didn’t like the book, I would have likely have said that it had become boring; I’d lost interest.  Now when I discard a book or a story, I can usually detail the reason. 

I still carve time out of my day to read and enjoy many different genres, but I observe my story more, as I read. I have found authors who can satisfy my love of place through poetic description but also move the story and the reader more through action scenes and dialogue. I’ve studied their economy of words, and my writing has changed because of these stories.

I believe we all go through an evolution of reading styles and genres from cradle to grave.  But I don’t think I’d ever have become as engrossed in analyzing the elements of a great story along the way if I hadn’t chosen to try my hand at constructing my own stories.  We can never know, as we chose a path to explore, what lies ahead.  My adventure has just begun.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

THE ANATOMY OF A CHAPTER


By El Ochiis

Chapters tend to get little, if any, respect, yet, for most writers, they are a non-negotiable part of the novel-reading experience.  Unless you have a very good reason to not have chapters, you need them.  For me, as a writer, chapters and their titles are a necessity for creating structure within my novels and/or short stories. 

Your story may be fascinating and bewitching, but humans aren’t meant to consume an entire 200-plus page novel in one sitting. It’s just too much to process. Chapters give the reader a chance to think about what’s happened in the story thus far and anticipate what happens next - helping you tighten your storytelling so that the readers stay on the edge of their seats. Thematically relevant titles connect to the story and give cohesion to your novels and stories:

“He disagreed with something that ate him, chapter 14, Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming. 

“I Begin Life on My Own Account, And Don’t Like It,” chapter 11, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens. 

Writers tend to get confused between a chapter and a scene.  A scene happens when your characters interact with each other. The scene does not mean scenery. In other words, a scene is not the same thing as the setting or the location where the action takes place. The scene is the action. Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end.

A chapter, on the other hand, may contain one scene, or, it may contain multiple scenes. A chapter is not a scene. Rather, a chapter is a division in your book. It’s where you, the writer, decide to give the reader a chance to process what they’ve read while you rearrange stuff in the background: 

 “Nikki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name and I – perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past – insisted on an English one.” - A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro.  In only two sentences the narrator has hinted at tensions between past and present, mother and father, England and Japan.

“Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his 14th birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.” - Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin.  Deliciously clear language, yet, the content is about how brutal and controlling an inherited story can be, how the repeated words of others can predetermine the life of another. 

Here are some tips you can use when building out book chapters:

Start with action - try opening a chapter in the middle of a scene.  Shape around plot development an unresolved conflict between characters, a new crucial piece of information, or an actual cliff, keep the reader engaged. Approach each chapter with a specific goal - One chapter might be focused on a chase scene; The goal of another might be introducing the hero; Use chapter titling to distill your focus - Chapter titles can be a summary not only of where the story has come from, but where it plans to go next.  Consider pacingthe chance for your main character to recap all that’s happened and plan what he/she will do next.; show a different point of view - Each new chapter can allow different characters to take over as the main POV and chime in with their view of an unfolding event; seek balance - mark the passages that are scenes, leaving the passages that are dramatic narration unmarked. Is there an imbalance between the two types of narration? If so, add some dramatic narration into scenes or vice versa.

Above all, be sure to give each chapter a purpose that ties into the bigger story.

 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

INSPIRATION

By Sharon May

We all have those moments when a jolt of inspiration infuses our writing. A conversation had or overheard, a book read, a sunset seen, anything can inspire us and bring us closer to the spirit of the subjects we tackle. By spirit, I mean that essence of what we are trying to re-create in our writing, those qualities that make the subject different and noteworthy.

Eastern Kentucky mountain landscapes and the inhabitants usually give me that jolt. But trips to see family in 2020 were depressing, not inspirational. I felt the lifelines to my birthplace fading away, and just maybe the Appalachian ways of life were dying too.

The hollow where I visited grandparents and other family and friends no longer exists, having been bulldozed for a new road that will reduce drive time radically between McDowell and Pikeville area. For most of my life, family gatherings included upwards of 30 people. Last year with the pandemic and recent deaths and illnesses, we couldn’t get a foursome for Pinochle.

Last month, I was home to celebrate my dad’s birthday and decorate graves for Memorial Day (in the hills, we celebrate everyone who has died, not just those in military service). Traveling from my parents’ house on US 23 to the two cemeteries up Left Beaver, we moved from “civilization” (what I call the world of fast-food and Walmart) to the reality of Appalachia. Four-laned highways dwindled to one-and-a-half lanes that require someone pull off the road if you meet another car, which in turn become one lane that curls its way up mountains without the benefit of shoulders nor guard rails.

Deep in the mountains where crumbling shacks, some of which are inhabited, sit precariously on mountain sides or in flood plains, I find inspiration. There is beauty, even in those shacks, in the lush greens of summer, constant reminders of the poverty and hopelessness that prevail.

Appalachian people are simultaneously complex and stereotypical, providing me with wonderful characters. We are a quare folk, as we say when we refer to our strange ways and honor code. Imagine waking up from a nap, only to find a middle-aged stranger dressed in all black from cowboy boots to leather cowboy hat sitting in your parents’ dining room, chatting about smoking pot as if he’s known the family all his life. Turns out, he is the new companion of my widowed aunt, and from a family, my dad knows well, having worked his several of his relatives. “Who you kin to?” and “Where are you from?” establish our links to our pasts.

Appalachia has changed, like all of America, as a result of media and transportation, but it is still a unique part of America, a culture with a story to tell. Even as my family shrinks, the hills still stand, and I am inspired.



Sunday, June 6, 2021

WHITE AUTHOR, BLACK CHARACTERS


By Kasie Whitener

My characters are real to me and I think I’ve written them authentically. But how can I know for sure?

My own friendships have shaped all my characters and it’s from those relationships that I’ve written my main character Brian’s friends.

The topic of race is only briefly mentioned in After December but there are two scenes in Before Pittsburgh where Brian’s friend Chris is treated differently because he’s Black. The way Brian, Chris, Joel, and Jason navigate those experiences helps build their brotherhood.

In Before Pittsburgh, Brian needed his heart broken. Jada popped off the page for me. She was exactly who I wanted Brian to meet in grad school. She challenged him, confused him, and rejected him.

I had a beta reader, John, who grew up one of a few Black kids in his white suburb in the 90s, and he said the passages were all fine. But I sought my friend Len Lawson’s perspective after he made this observation to our SCWA diversity committee:

“Fictional characters of color, especially black characters, tend to fall either into two categories: in need of a white savior to rescue them or as the magical Negro savior to scaffold a white character’s enlightenment.”

I emailed him and asked if he’d be willing to have a conversation with me. It’s a difficult conversation to have. Even inviting John to read the piece and give me feedback was complicated. If the work was completely off base, insulting, or racist, they would say so. It’s hard to admit I may have written that. Hard to ask someone to tell me I had.

“Why did you make these characters Black?” Len asked.

“I didn’t. That’s just who they are.” Chris and Jada didn’t have to be Black. The novel could work with all white characters, but it wouldn’t be authentic for me or Brian.

Diversity and inclusivity are not a political climate. Asking for John and Len to review Before Pittsburgh and give feedback was not about virtue signaling or being woke. I asked them to review the work because I’m not Black.

I’m also not a lesbian. And since one of the characters in Before Pittsburgh is, I asked my friend Agata to read Abbie’s scenes and give me feedback. I’ve had white men read Brian and give me feedback on him because I’m female.

I genuinely want to get this right. My characters deserve my best work. My readers deserve my best work. Just as I’ve asked for help with dialogue, plot development, and dramatic tension, I asked for help with the characterization of characters whose experience is different than my own.

The scope of Brian’s relationships is what Before Pittsburgh is all about. The friendships he earns are what make him who he is. Just as my own friends have grown me up by sharing their lives with me. Experience is where authenticity comes from.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking input from diverse readers. We all have blind spots. It’s best to correct them before the book is published.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

IN PURSUIT of SHORT FICTION PERFECTION


By
Raegan Teller

\In a blog post I wrote nearly three years ago, “In Praise of Short Fiction,” I committed to honing my short fiction skills. While also publishing two more books in my Enid Blackwell series during this period, I diligently began studying this short form of writing. As a result, I’ve learned a lot and have been exposed to some wonderful short fiction writers and their stories.

Recently, I attended a virtual event hosted in Cork County, Ireland, “In Praise of the Short Story.” Three renowned Irish writers discussed the difference between writing novels and short fiction. I took pages of notes, but one nugget stuck with me: novels expand meaning; short stories concentrate meaning. But how does one achieve concentrated meaning? I wanted to learn more.

As a result, I began studying George Saunders. His story “Sticks” is the epitome of concentrated meaning. Last year, I read a collection of his stories, but the most valuable information on short fiction is in his latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Saunders is a professor at Syracuse University, and reading this book is like sitting in his classroom. He uses translated Russian short stories by Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and others to teach short fiction. Saunders instructs the reader on what makes each story work and how it’s done. All the stories have universal, timeless themes. But it is Saunders’ analysis of each story that makes this book worth reading.

One of the best chapters in his book is “The Heart of the Story,” which contains this quote by Saunders: “To write a story that works, that moves the reader, is difficult, and most of us can’t do it.” Later in the chapter, he goes on to discuss some of his earlier stories. “I had chosen what to write, but I couldn’t seem to make it live.” These comments reflect on his earlier struggles with the form and how he eventually found his short fiction voice. His comments were both sobering and inspiring.

In his chapter “The Wisdom of Omission,” Saunders quotes Anton Chevkov: “The secret in boring people lies in telling them everything.” Saunders reiterates that learning what not to include in your story is just as important as what you do include. It’s a lesson I revisit again each time I write short fiction.

Saunders’ book is not an easy read. In fact, I’ve read portions of it dozens of times to understand his teachings. Of one story, “Alyosha the Pot,” Saunders proclaims it “perfect.” Ironically, Tolstoy himself didn’t like the story, calling it unfinished. I can’t claim to know a perfect story when I read one, but I do know this: some stories stay with me long after reading them. Like all good short stories, this one brims with concentrated meaning, forcing the reader to keep processing it. If that means “perfect,” then I agree with Saunders.

As for me, I’ll likely never reach Saunders’ level of perfection. But I’ll keep trying.



Sunday, May 23, 2021

A PROFOUND PARAGRAPH IS A WORK OF ART

By El Ochiis

The great writers begin their stories with a killer hook which migrates into distinct blocks of text which section out a larger piece of writing – paragraph(s) —making it easier to read and understand. These blocks of text aid readability, setting the pace of the narrative, generating mood and helping to make characters three-dimensional.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

There are some major strategies that those writers used to create compelling opening paragraphs - They can help you too: Create a mystery; Describe the emotional landscape; Build characters; Bring the energy; Start with an unusual point of view; Dazzle with the last sentence and Set up the theme. Melville has used at least six of them in his prelude to Moby Dick.

A scene can be constructed in any number of ways – it is up to the writer to break it down to the most dramatic effect – managing content.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.” Albert Camus, The Stranger

How a writer’s narrator sounds and thinks affects the rhythm and even the design of the paragraph – amplifying voice:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

A paragraph can set mood; Ask yourself, is mine introspective and thoughtful, or hurried and staccato? The length and type of the paragraphs can maintain or change the mood in a scene:

The future is always changing, and we're all going to have to live there. Possibly as soon as next week.” Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide

It was a pleasure to burn.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

"Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice.”
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

A writer’s first line should open up a rib cage. It should reach in and twist the reader’s heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again. Then, remembering that paragraphing is more an element of individual style than of grammar, and, it’s you who’s in charge of what a paragraph should do or what shape it should take, think holistically: What preceded this moment, and what must happen next.

We know that we can’t write like Tolstoy, Bradbury, Adams, Bronte, Baldwin or many of the other prolific scribes, so, how can we learn to create great openings, transporting them into even greater paragraphs? Well, a piece of advice that I hold dear was that motivation runs out pretty soon once we get to the nuts and bolts of the grind, but discipline, on the other hand, is about doing the task no matter what. Read and listen to the masters, then sit yourself down and write every chance you get – because, as Jodi Picoult said, “you can edit a bad page but not a blank one.” How will you orchestrate your story, using the paragraphing techniques above?


Sunday, May 16, 2021

MEMOIRS ARE HOT


By Sharon May

Memoirs are hot as evidenced in the number being published. How to write one is an even hotter topic in writing communities as evidenced by the number of seminars, classes, and conference sessions offered to help us all cash in. I’m sure all of the presenters have excellent advice to offer, and for some of us, interaction with other writers motivates us to continue writing as well as improve what we have written.

But too often presenters or instructors, and their audiences, want to talk in “rules” or “steps” as if writing a memoir can be a simple task if we just do what is suggested. Now, a would-be memoir writer can buy a template online. The promises of fill-in-the-blank memoirs reminds me of textbooks designed for developmental or remedial composition students in which students would find lines labeled with each part of the essay designating the exact order of the ideas. The students loved them, but they don’t lead to creativity or individuality.

The rules are selected arbitrarily depending on what worked for the presenter. Yes, another writer might find something useful in the rules, but I’d bet an Alaskan goldmine that those rules will not work for every aspect of your writing task.

One rule I heard recently was in a memoir authors should not start with or discuss their birth as one would in an autobiography. This may be useful in many memoirs, but if the circumstances of one’s birth is crucial to understanding the author’s life or struggles, then important aspects of birth should be included.

Reflection on one’s life is essential in a memoir so it’s simply not autobiography. Some “how to” guides suggest that a certain percentage of the text should focus on reflections as if the book is like a pie to be divided up amongst the parts. I agree that reflection is crucial to give meaning to the events, but I don’t think the measurement of how much is included is nearly as important as the quality of the ideas and helping readers connect the experiences to their own lives.

Placement of reflection is often discussed in that many suggest that readers expect a thesis-like statement early in a section or chapter to reveal the point. It seems that the reflection could work well at the end of the section since many of us don’t discover the point until we have explored and written about the events. Yes, in revision, we can create a thesis statement to be included early, but I don’t think it’s always necessary to do that. Readers can follow the path of discovery along with the author as it builds to the end.

I do think guidance from others who have written memoirs is a vital way to learn, but sometimes the best memoirs break the rules and are formed organically in the author’s writing task.