Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Don't Forget to Back 'Em Up Blues

Jessica Nelson

Smoke curls around small, intimate tables, each lit with a flickering candle. The house-lights are down, but the stage lights burn bright. A saxophone wails a mournful melody that gradually fades into silence as the performer takes the stage and straddles a spindly chair.

We hear it all the time.

The performer takes a puff of her cigarette and blows a plumb of smoke into the hazy air.

Save, save, save. Back up your files. OneDrive, Google Drive, external hard drive, jump drive. Whatever you do, save your work.

But sometimes that isn’t enough.

Another mournful wail of the sax and a heavy thump from the bass drum.

See, I always save my work. Three, four, five times over the course of a session. But always in the same document. I mean, who saves their work each time as a new document?

Cymbal crash.

Smart people. That’s who.

A few weeks ago, I was working on an edit. A long, time-consuming, brain-mangling edit. I’d easily put sixty-plus hours into this edit over the course of a few weeks. It was due on a Thursday—plenty of time for the client to review my suggestions and make changes before the he had to turn it in on a Monday.

Takes another long drag on her cigarette and releases the smoke slowly.

On Wednesday night, I’m finishing up a few things. Checking over my comments for silly errors and the like. After all, we can’t expect our clients to take our advice if we make mistakes. Anyway, I was working on the document late Wednesday night and decided to call it quits. So I saved my work, shut down my computer, and went to bed. All was well.

Thursday morning rolls around. All I have to do is review the last few pages of comments and write up the overview letter. Easy-peasy.

A single melancholy note plays over a building drumroll.

Except that when I try to open my work, “CORRUPTED FILE. CANNOT OPEN” fills my screen.

Drumroll crescendos and then cuts out with a final boom of the bass drum.

Corrupted?! I had it open no more than twelve hours ago! How could it be corrupted?

Microsoft Word tells me I can recover what’s left of my hours of hard work, so I do. At first, it all seems to be fine. The first four pages are perfectly intact. I breathe a sigh of relief.

Until I hit page five.

Cymbal crash.

There, where the comments I had painstakingly left for my client used to be, are blank bubbles. When I open each comment, there is nothing. Not even my name as the comment’s author.

I had lost over a hundred comments.

Six hours over the course of two days spent with the tech guy later, and the file still can’t be recovered. The only silver lining to this whole debacle is that most of my line edits survived.

The sax starts its mournful melody again.

Long story short, I spent Thursday finishing the letter so my client would have something to work with while I replaced all the comments. A little after midnight on Friday (technically Saturday morning), I finish the final comment and send the document.

The sax’s melody changes as a trumpet joins it. Not so sad now, but sassy.

Here’s the moral of the story. It’s not enough to just save your document. Especially not if you’re working with a large document. Every time you save, do a “save as.” You can number each new document, or label it a, b, c, etc. You can date it, time stamp it, whatever you want. You can go back later and delete all the other versions. Just do something.

I now save the document with the desired moniker, and each subsequent saved draft gets its own number. The last one—the one I’m going to use—gets labeled “FINAL,” all in caps. How you label yours doesn’t matter. Find a method that works for you and stick with it. Don’t get lazy. Do it every time.

That way if your file becomes mysteriously corrupted between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, you still have the next latest version to work from.

The trumpet breaks out in a solo, a punchy tune akin to a battlefield bugle.

Even if you save your files a dozen times a day, none of that is going to help if your computer crashes and the hard drive gets wiped. Back. Up. Your. Files.

We all have our preferred method.

Some people use cloud storage like Google Drive, One Drive, or Dropbox. Any of these will work just fine.

I prefer an old-fashioned USB drive. As long as I can remember which jump drive has the latest backup.

Cymbal crash.

Back it up, ladies and gentlemen.

Or you, too, can be singing the back-‘em-up blues.

The music crescendos as the stage lights dim. The performer struts off stage, blowing a smoke ring into the fading light like a kiss.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Recovering Pantser

Charlotte Firbank-King

Reposted from the author's blog with permission. The original post can be found here.

Don’t get caught with your pants down.

Hi, my name is Charl and I’m a Pantser.

(Hi Charl.)

I’ve been clean for sixty days.

(Enthusiastic round of applause)

Thanks. Tonight, I’m sharing my journey starting with that awful day, the last straw, you know. I was tired of living in denial, being caught with my pants down.

(Sympathetic nods)

I always prided myself in being a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-lace-panties sort of writer.

(A few giggles)

But I was becoming seriously unglued and couldn’t figure out why. My stories needed multiple revisions, which is as it should be, but not when you think the story is done and dusted and ready to go to the editor.

There’s not much worse than reading your manuscript one last time and finding the plot just doesn’t gel. Finding it doesn’t gel after you’ve published is worse.

(Mumbles of agreement)

I thought I was fine—you know how it goes. First, the story is conceived in your head. Then, the embryo grows, the ideas come as you spend time thinking about it. Next thing, it becomes an obsession to write—give birth to it. Off you go and find yourself pounding away at the keyboard furiously at four every morning!

(Knowing nods)

When I was writing The Bastard, all went well, the words were just flowing. Then I realized I had a genuine problem. At first it was ignorant bliss—you know, I just went for it and all was good. Then I hit a brick wall. I had no idea how to end the story. I mean, I knew I wanted a happy ending, but how to arrive there was another mountain to climb. I left it for a few weeks—no luck. Then I left it for six months—still no luck. A year later, then two years later, and I was no better off.

Writer’s block hit me big time. I couldn’t live in denial any more. I’d hit my rock bottom.

(Hushed silence)

Of course, there’s no such thing. I know that now. Writer’s block is just an excuse for bad planning. Sure, go ahead and draft an outline or synopsis, but STOP right there!


I was at my wits end. I jumped.


Yes. I jumped from one incomplete story to the next until my head spun. Then I panicked. Oh, God, I’m not a writer; I’m a failure.

(More sympathetic nods)

Then I discovered two books. How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

(Group leans forward in anticipation)

Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method starts with a one-line sentence—a logline—and expands from there.

Lisa Cron uses brain science. She showed me how to take advantage of the brain’s hardwired responses to stories to hook readers. Her take on how to plot a story is enlightening. Her advice is completely different from a lot of the other recovery methods out there, and trust me, I’ve been around the block!

(Knowing laughs)

So that’s basically how I got to sixty days. The Snowflake Method turned me away from the edge and Lisa Cron’s book started me on the road to recovery.

Of course, once the euphoria of early success wears off, the hard work begins. The temptation to go back to my old ways was powerful. All I have to say is, without these meetings, I wouldn’t have made it. You guys are my family.


It’s not easy going back to the drawing board when you think a novel is all but done. Oh, how I was tempted to just throw caution and my panties to the wind!

(All around chuckles)

Except, now I had an incentive! All those incomplete novels. When I got stuck, reality hit. Plot flaws popped up like little gremlins—everywhere! I hadn’t realized the extent of my problem. I had to learn that a story is like a journey—you can’t take a cross-country trip without a map!

There was a time I thought I wouldn’t make it, but I promise, use both these methods and you will be set free from pantser addiction.

Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to be rigid about planning. Take it one day at a time. Fake it till you make it, as they say. Just plan what you can and build your strength.

Thanks for listening guys. I still have a long way to go, but I’m on the road to recovery. Bring it on, ninety days!


Think of a story as a tapestry. First off, you would never start without a picture with the design and colors all mapped out—not even a freestyle tapestry. Then you need to tie off all the loose ends. Not that I do tapestry, but I can appreciate the work involved.

Writing a book is a hell of a lot of arduous work combined with ten percent talent. And it all starts with an idea. But don’t take the idea and wing it--plan! In the long run, planning makes for less hard work.


Charlotte writes historical mysteries with hot romances under the pen name C.F. King. You can find more information about her books and where to buy them here. And if you liked this article, you can find more of Charlotte's articles on her blog.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Found a New Writing Toy

Charlotte Firbank-King

 (Posted with the author's permission from her blog. Original article can be found here.)

I found a new writing toy, the voice. I've added a link below. Go about halfway down the website for step-by-step instructions for a PC. I have Microsoft Word 2010, but it works on earlier versions.

I love using this toy when I'm editing. It's like having an extra sense. Usually when you edit you rely on sight, or you read the words aloud, but even reading aloud you still read past mistakes. So, why are there still typos? Because your brain reads what it expects to see.

With this voice-over tool, it reads to me and I can instantly pick up where I forgot a period, need a comma, have too many commas, used a word twice, or the sentence just doesn't make sense. Often one will cut and paste stuff, then forget or get distracted and the sentence is gobbledygook.

The voice is pretty robotic which is a bit disconcerting at first, but if you read as the voice speaks it's fine and you get used to it.

There are some annoying things. If you abbreviate a name like Beatrice to Bea, the voice spells it out. If you use an em dash it sort of joins everything without a pause. If you have a character stutter, like "I--it can't." then it reads the first letter a I, as in "I, it can't.", but I can live with those little hiccups. I even get used to it.

I recently started converting my YA book, Akir the Warrior Boy to the Smashwords format. This book has been edited hundreds of times by me, beta readers and my editor Sandy Tritt from Inspiration For Writers Inc. and there were still typos--GGGRRR.

It's also great for editing academic works, which are usually dry as dust, just like the voice, but you will pick up typos.

I would strongly urge all writers to use this toy (tool) if you aren't already.

Here is the link:

About C.F. King (from her blog):

I had a fabulous childhood in Livingstone, Zambia. I spent my life exploring the bush. Now I live in Cape Town.

A life-long love affair with words and history made historical mystery romance a natural fit. I’ve explored southern Africa, and traveled to England and France to absorb their rich history.

I studied art and qualified at Pretoria Art College. Most of my works depict wildlife, marine creatures, or the ethnic people of Southern Africa. Writing took a backseat to my art for decades. Then I decided life was too short to stick to one thing. Despite success in the art field, I chose to concentrate on my writing.

I have three amazing children: two daughters and a son. They encourage and support everything I do. My second husband, my soulmate, was a cop. He was killed in a shooting. This tragedy drove me deeper into writing to escape grief.

I edit, ghostwrite and illustrate for a US company, Inspiration For Writers, Inc. The CEO, Sandy Tritt, is my friend, mentor and editor. Without her, I would never be where I am.

I've published four books on Amazon, and will soon publish on Smashwords to broaden my reach to readers.

Amazon link:

Monday, February 12, 2018

To Prologue or Not to Prologue?

Jessica Nelson

You’ve sat down at the computer, or with your pen and paper, and started to write. The scene is set in your mind and the words are flowing onto the page. After all that beautiful prose is complete, you realize that this is the beginning of your book—but it’s not where your story starts. So you slap the word “prologue” above what you’ve written and move on to chapter one.

Or, you’re getting ready to send your novel out to publishers, and you realize your first chapter is a little slow, so you pull out a scene from the middle or the end of your book—one filled with tension and action and suspense—and put it at the beginning to hook the reader and make them want to keep reading, and you call it the prologue.

But do you really need that prologue?

I remember reading a claim recently that most readers skip over the prologue and jump straight into chapter one. I tried to find verification for that claim, but couldn’t find anything official. What I did find was a pretty heated debate not only about whether people read the prologue, but also about whether prologues should even be used.

Let’s deal with the first question: Does anyone read the prologue?

There seems to be two diametrically opposed groups. One group insists that reading the prologue is essential. Why would the writer bother with the prologue if it wasn’t meant to be read?

The other group believes if the information in the prologue was important, then that information would appear in the meat of the story (chapter one or onward).

I personally always read the prologue. But I admit to being disappointed when the prologue is nothing more than a scene from later in the book meant to catch the reader’s attention. Especially when that scene is a word-for-word excerpt.

According to Sandy Tritt, “For the past several years, publishers and agents have shied away from prologues. They say readers don't read [prologues], so just start your book with chapter one and be done with it. The problem with many [prologues] is they simply don't capture our attention and hold it. Which is a killer for any book. So, my professional opinion is to avoid prologues (because agents and publishers have said so).”

However, Tritt acknowledges that sometimes a prologue is useful, and she has read well-done prologues and even used prologues herself.

So now we address the second question: When is a prologue effective?

An effective prologue . . .

1. . . . adds important contextual or historical background. In fantasy or science-fiction, a prologue may set up the culture and customs of the world so the forward action of the story isn’t bogged down by background information.1 In historical fiction, the prologue may introduce a particular historic event around with the story revolves or it may introduce the time period to give the rest of the story the appropriate context.2 Clive Cussler does an excellent job with this type of prologue. Cussler often includes a prologue that introduces a historical event that relates to the main conflict of the story. However, there is a fine line between effective and ineffective with this type of prologue. Tritt says, “If I wanted to give an information dump describing why my characters do what they do or to inform about an unusual setting, I would not use a prologue.”

2. . . . allows for narration from a point of view that won’t be used again. This is generally seen in mystery or crime fiction, where the prologue will be written from the point of view of the killer or the victim.3 Regarding viewpoint, Tritt says, “If you are using a full-circle plot, your first chapter and your last chapter should be in the viewpoint of the same character. Yet if something from the past and from a different character's viewpoint needs presented in real-time, then I would use a prologue to act out that scene. Alternately, if your story presents only one viewpoint throughout, yet something that happened previously in a different viewpoint needs acted out, then I would use a prologue for that scene.”

3. . . . is a scene that occurs before the starting action of the story. According to Tritt, “If the prologue contains a scene that happened prior to the main storyline of the book and it still has a bearing on the characters, and it is written with dialogue and action that holds the reader's attention, I don't have a problem with a prologue.” Sometimes this is the inciting event—the moment that sets the rest of the story in motion—but that event may occur months or years before the starting action of the story. A prologue allows the writer to introduce the inciting event without needing to add it later as a flashback or try to work it in to a revealing dialogue exchange.

An ineffective prologue . . .

1. . . . takes a scene word-for-word from somewhere else in the novel. This is usually an attempt to grab the reader’s attention when the writer isn’t confident their first chapter will capture and maintain the reader’s interest.4

2. . . . creates a general atmosphere but does not add any information about the world of the story and/or does not include any action that effects the narrative.5

3. . . . contains a background information that would be more effectively presented in pieces throughout the narrative. Tritt says, “If the background information is given in a flat and uninteresting way, I strongly suggest getting rid of the prologue and find another way to slowly give the reader the background information during the natural unwinding of the plot.”

4. . . . is boring. If the prologue isn’t interesting, then it’s only detracting from your prose.

Even if you’ve written an effective prologue, there’s a still a chance your reader won’t read it and will miss out on potentially important information. We have some alternatives to prologues:

1. Can your prologue be just as effective if you made it chapter one? This is relevant mostly to prologues that contain an inciting event or a historical milestone. Charlotte Firbank-King rarely uses prologues and instead uses subtitles in her chapters to indicate if significant time has passed from chapter one to chapter two. As Firbank-King writes, “I prefer to treat the prologue as chapter one with a subtitle or date—then one can hit chapter two with another subtitle or date, like ‘5 years later,’ or ‘1066’ in chapter one and ‘1944’ in chap two. In my YA fantasy book, I have a subtitle for each chapter and chapter one is ‘The beginning.’ Chapter two has two subtitles: ‘Attack’ and then one under that on the left that reads, ‘Six summers later.’ In adult books, I’ve used dates.”

2. If your prologue is a scene from later in the story, then maybe what you need is a more interesting chapter one. You can still use the scene or excerpt as your book blurb or as bonus before chapter one (not denoted as a prologue or as any official part of the story.) The Lifeguard by Deborah Blumenthal does this. She takes a high-tension scene from near the end of the book and includes it between the title page and chapter one, but it’s not marked as a prologue or anything else. It’s a teaser available to anyone who wants to read it, but it’s not necessary to start the book.

That said, you should always assume that your reader is starting at chapter one. If chapter one doesn’t catch and hold the reader’s interest, then maybe the story hasn’t started in the right place.

3. If the prologue contains primarily background information, then an alternative to having a prologue would be to incorporate that information throughout the text. Be careful to avoid info dumps, though.

To prologue or not to prologue? That remains the question. There is no hard-and-fast rule or a one-size-fits-all solution. It largely depends on the story and the way the prologue is written and utilized. We’ll end with some advice from Tritt: “Study what is selling, study the art of writing, and then make an informed decision about how to structure your book. There is never one-way-fits-all, so don't be afraid to buck trend if you have an intelligent and necessary reason for doing so. Good luck!”

Footnotes (additional information used as inspiration or paraphrased from other sources)
2 Daily Writing Tips
3 Daily Writing Tips
4 McAlister, Marg, “The Prologue”
5 Daily Writing Tips

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2018 Writing Resolutions

Happy New Year, everyone! We hope this is the year you accomplish all your writing goals. Here at Inspiration for Writers, Inc., we’ve put our yearly writing-related New Year’s resolutions in writing so we’re accountable. 

I’ve always believed we’re more likely to do things if we tell other people we’re going to do them. (Like when you tell someone to remind you to do something later, you’re more likely to remember it yourself.) So in that spirit, we’re sharing our resolutions with you. 

Jessica Nelson: My writing-related New Year's Resolution is to write for fun this year. It seems like since I started college, all the writing I've done is assigned—even the creative work. Now that I've graduated, I'm going to make it a point to go back to my passion projects and work on them just because I love the stories and the characters, not because I expect anything to come from them or because I have a deadline.

Geoffrey Fuller: I resolve to finish the damn book. (If you’re wondering what “damn book” he refers to, Geoff is working on a book about the 1970 WVU co-ed murders. You can check out the podcast about the project at 

Sandy Tritt: I resolve to devote one hour a day to my personal writing. Maybe that doesn't seem like a lot, but it's much more than I've done for a long time. And, who knows? Once I put in that first hour, I may find another hour or two to add to it. We'll see. For now, I'm going to just promise the one hour.

Charlotte Firbank-King: I don’t make New Year resolutions because I’m so busy keeping promises to other people that I don’t have the wherewithal to keep promises to myself. Besides, I hate having to flick the little devil off my shoulder all the time as it whispers, “Epic fail!” However, I am going to learn the art of promoting on the internet and be more diligent about doing blogs, etc.

Stacy Tritt: I want to write more often, but I also want to work on writing more creatively again, instead of just journaling and writing for work. I resolve to write one poem or short story per month in the new year.

Rhonda Browning-White: 
• Read and study more novels. I've spent the last several years studying short stories, and I've just finished my short-story collection (about a week ago!), so I want to shift my focus to novels. 
• Finish my novel. See above. ;) 
• Submit my short-story collection for publication. This starts in a few weeks. 
• Write more blog entries. 
• Live life more creatively (and everything that means)!

What are your writing-related New Year’s resolutions? Let us know in the comments!

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, successful 2018 from the IFW Family.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

C.F. King - Book Sale Spectacular!

Hello, everyone!

Our beloved Charlotte Firbank-King is having an end-of-year sale on her four books via Smashwords. From now until January 1st, two of her books are free and two are discounted.

You can visit her Smashwords page here to get your books and her author Facebook page here.

Free Books:

Breath of the Wild

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"Cape of Storms, 1872.
          A spoilt English girl with no clue about Africa or its many dangers, is never thwarted, until she meets her father’s taciturn wine estate manager.
          Dara, a headstrong English suffragette arrives in the Calvinistic Cape Colony like a whirlwind. She is a gifted photographer and finds trouble the moment she sets foot in Africa. Her outspoken opinions set her at odds with the hardworking, reclusive Oran, who manages her father’s two wine estates in Stellenbosch.
          Dara’s ailing father, in England, asked Oran to take her on a photographic safari. Oran readily agreed to his mentor’s request, until he met her. Not only is Dara irresistibly beautiful, but she’s contentious and a magnet for trouble. Claiming it’s inappropriate to spend months alone with Dara, Oran delays the trip for reasons that don’t suit her. Then events take an unexpected turn for both of them and Dara takes off with only her maid. She heads into the savage interior with no idea of how to survive the vast African wilderness. Oran chases after her from the Cape Colony to the Kimberly diamond fields, then to Zululand—a kingdom in turmoil as their new king, Cetshwayo, is crowned. Even here, Dara manages to find deadly trouble."

The Bohemian

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          "There is no way to control a truly fiery free-spirit, except to crush it or risk burning with desire in the flames.
          In the Victorian backdrop of Impressionism and the awakening of women’s rights, the na├»ve Calla is a free-spirited, wild artist. Orphaned as a child and reared by the aged but liberal Earl of Felton, Calla has never known restraint, social or otherwise—until he dies.
          Fire meets ice. Ryder is a lieutenant Colonel ruled by discipline. From infancy, he has never known anything except restraint. Forced to leave his military career to take on the responsibility of a title, Ryder chooses a worthy lady to marry, but he is unprepared for the added responsibility of a ward, much less the lovely, unruly Calla. Determined to see her subdued and suitably married off, Ryder’s ordered life unravels in his pursuit to control her."

Discount Books:

The Bastard -- $0.99 USD

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"Cape of Storms, Africa, 1853. A harsh society, not a good place or time to be born a bastard.
          One man takes Roark’s identity before birth. Those meant to nurture him, shroud his life in secrets, abuse his body and break his spirit, until pride and his love for Tavia are all that remain. Then they tear away his love. The only recourse of a baseborn child, now a dangerous man, is revenge."

Twilight Path -- $1.24 USD

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          "A man is so driven by revenge and righteous anger that the line between good and evil becomes blurred.
          Set in Hanoverian England, 1745, during the second Jacobite uprising.
          Marquis Blake de Montfort’s life is dark and his past violent. He is haunted by a murdered wife and child and obsessed with avenging their deaths. He ceases to care what separates good from evil as he walks his twilight path. Blake is the most powerful man at court, but his power is not vested in parliament, it’s more insidious. He’s a ruthless master spy, hated by men, desired by women and feared by all.
          Blake is forced to marry Tanisha Ashburn, who unwittingly draws him from his path of destruction, but she has no idea she’s surrendered her life to intrigue, the lusts of men, and finally, betrayal."

In order to get your desired book, go to C.F. King's Smashwords page and click on the title of the book you wish to purchase. You will be taken to the next page where you are asked to select what file type you'd like to download (for example, Kindle uses mobi files) and on the right hand side of the screen, you will be given a coupon code to use during checkout to get the book for the sale price. You must have a Smashwords account in order to download your books, but setting up an account is simple and can be done from the checkout page.

Happy reading and don't forget to leave a review!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Writer and the Storyteller

Susanna Connelly Holstein

“Once upon a time,” begins the storyteller, “there was a king.” She pauses and sweeps the audience with unblinking eyes. “He was a proud man, a big man.” The storyteller straightens her posture, lifts her chin, and crosses her arms on her chest. She frowns. Her voice drops to a lower key. “Now this king had a young daughter.” Her voice softens; she smiles, and her body relaxes. Her hand reaches out to indicate the princess’s height.

It takes less than a minute for the audience to see the big stern king and his young daughter. Only a few words were needed to describe the two characters.

“Once upon a time,” the author writes, “there was a king. He was a proud man who stood erect and seldom smiled. His hands were always clenched, as if ready for a fight, and he held his head high. He stood over six feet tall, and it took many yards of fabric to make his breeches.” Words paint a picture of the king, and more words will be needed to describe his gentle daughter.

I have been a professional storyteller for over 20 years, sharing stories across the United States at festivals, conferences, workshops, reunions, campfires, and many other events. For the last 15 years, I have been a writer and have often mused about the similarities and differences in these two crafts.

The word storytelling is used today to describe everything from artworks to plays, movies and TV commercials. Filmmaker Ken Burns is often called “America’s Storyteller” and few would argue with that appellation. The word is also used to describe written works, be it novels, creative nonfiction, or historical works. With such broad application, it seems the name of this most ancient art has become as commonplace as generic aspirin. And yet what oral storytellers do is unique, an art with its own tools of the trade.

So what separates storytelling from writing? Are they the same thing, really? Is the only difference the form of presentation, or is there something more? The two artforms certainly have much in common. Both seek a strong storyline, a tale that takes the reader or listener by the heart and leads them to a new place that yet resonates with known experience. Both work to create intriguing characters, dramatic scenes, and a tale that follows the story arc.

Both writers and storytellers usually draft a working outline; the storyteller may never commit a word to paper, but the same work takes place mentally as a story develops. Some storytellers write every story they tell, adding personal notes for gestures, tone, etc., and inserting laugh lines or emotional cues at specific intervals. Some draw their story on storyboards, finding pictorial representation an effective way to commit details to memory. Others learn the key points and scenes only, then tell the story within that loose framework.

Writers and tellers also use another common tool: speaking their work aloud during the creative process. What better way to find redundancy, errors, and ambiguity? Telling the story aloud, even if it is only to the cat or to a wall, helps find areas that need improvement.

Where oral storytelling and writing differ is in the methods each has available to tell a tale. The storyteller has, in many respects, an easier time of it than does the writer because the teller can use physicality and vocal cues: voice inflection, eye contact, gestures and movement, pauses, and other vocal techniques. She can sing, shout, whisper, growl, or coo. She can crouch, spread her arms wide, indicate size with hand gestures. She can hop, walk in place, or move in any other way that helps the listener visualize the story.

The writer must convey everything through one medium: words. Here is where the writer’s skill must blend with creativity to create a powerful story. Dialogue allows the writer to become, in a sense, the storyteller. Descriptions call on artistic ability to create scenes that are clear and compelling. A mantra many writers follow is “show, don’t tell.” An oral artist must show, through movement and voice, because most audiences would be bored to tears with too many descriptive phrases. A writer faces the same threat of being boring if descriptions are too long or complex. While the storyteller must consider and choose both the right action and the best words to describe a scene, situation or character, the writer has only words to work with to do the same task efficiently and effectively.

When telling a story orally, the storyteller can vary the vocabulary and the story’s length; she can build in definitions or use body language to explain something that might be unfamiliar to a particular group, and lengthen or shorten a story to fit time constraints. She can make frightening scenes less scary by smiling or using a softer voice and body language, add humor to lighten the atmosphere, and even engage in conversation with the audience in some settings. The writer is more constrained; when the story is written, it is in a sense carved in stone. It cannot be changed except by future printed revisions. For the storyteller, the tale is constantly evolving, growing, and changing with almost every telling.

I was a storyteller before I thought about trying my hand at writing, and I have seen over the years how each craft informs the other. Storytelling has taught me how to use words and pacing for dramatic effect, and how to discover the heart of the story, the universal truth that will make that tale resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds. Writing taught me to develop strong openings and endings and the importance of dialogue in moving a story forward.

Both writer and teller strive for the same goal: to draw the audience into the story so deeply that the actions, characters and scenes play like a mental video as they listen or read. In the end, the medium disappears; only the story remains.

Writer, poet, professional storyteller, and ballad-singer Susanna Connelly Holstein is from Jackson County, WV. In addition to frequent storytelling performances, she writes the online journal Granny Sue’s News and Reviews, the blog Mountain Poet, and has been a columnist for Two Lane Livin’ magazine for almost ten years. Her storytelling performances include Appalachian stories and ballads, family heritage and history, and tales from West Virginia’s weird and wonderful history. Holstein’s work has appeared in Fed From the Blade, Diner Stories, and Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart from Mountain State Press, These Haunted Hills and Easter Lilies among other titles from Jan-Carol Publishing, and in many other online and print journals and anthologies. She has produced three storytelling CDs and was a founding member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild. She holds a BS from West Virginia State College and a MLIS from the University of South Carolina. In 2015, Holstein was named a West Virginia History Hero. When not writing or storytelling, she spends her time gardening, putting up food, and selling antiques.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Working at Home Like the Professional You Are

Sandy Tritt and Roxanne Sutton

After almost 20 years of owning a small business with an office in my home, I’m starting to get it figured out. When I first started, I felt like I worked constantly, yet I didn’t get much accomplished. Of course, at that time I had three school-aged kids hanging around, which made life a bit more interesting, but even with the kids, I discovered some secrets that make working at home easier. To gain a younger and different perspective, I also asked my daughter, Roxanne Sutton, a communications manager who works at home on occasion, to weigh in. She has a toddler and one on the way, so her routine is a bit different from mine.

1.      Decide how many hours a week you want to work. Be realistic. If you have kids at home or other obligations, take that into consideration.

2.      Set office hours. Decide what hours you want to work and what days of the week you’re available. Then, create a schedule with your office hours clearly marked. This means that if your sister wants to go shopping during your office hours, you need to reschedule for a time you’re off duty. This also means that you’re not trying to work at 8 p.m. when the kids are going to bed.

3.      Find an office area in your home. It can be a desk in a corner, a spare room with all the trimmings, or a comfortable chair with a handy laptop. Have everything available you’re likely to need so you don’t have to get up and hunt for a pen.

4.      Treat your office area like a real office. If possible, get a separate phone line for your business so you’re not interrupted with personal calls during the day—and so you can walk away from the business phone when your day is over. If you can close a door, do so. The more you can sequester yourself, the better.

5.      Treat your office hours like a “real” job. Get out of bed, get dressed, go to your office, and “clock in” at the same time each day. Roxanne adds: Yes! Do your routine! It will set your mind for the day. Don’t just roll out of bed and go to work.

6.      If you have kids at home, hire a sitter at least a few hours a week to get the kids out of the house. Do NOT, however, allow TV or video games take the place of a person for your children. They deserve more than that. Roxanne adds: If your kids are young, definitely set up daycare or some other care. They need constant attention, and you won’t be good at parenting or working if you’re trying to do both.

7.      Protect your office hours. When you’re scheduled to work, work. Don’t take a long lunch with a friend or chat on the phone with your bestie for 45 minutes. And absolutely DO NOT check Facebook, the sales at your favorite store, or the latest popup ad proclaiming what the child movie star looks like ten years later. If you’re overly tempted to check such things, make a note with the link and check it during your off hours.

8.      Protect your non-office hours. When you’re scheduled off, don’t work. Resist the temptation to do “just a little” right now. This is one of the things that makes you feel like you’re constantly working. If you’re in the mood to work and have the time to do so, then time your working hours and deduct them from the next day’s (or Friday’s) schedule.

9.      Let your family and friends know your working schedule. Ask them to please plan all emergencies for when you’re not working. This will take a while for them to get used to, so when they call during working hours, say, “I’m working right now. Can I call you back when I get off at five?” After a while, they will get accustomed to your work schedule as well.

10.  Structure your work day. I begin each day by reviewing email and dealing with any that need dealt with. I then work on whatever is on my schedule to work on that day. I try to set goals for each project, whether it’s to finish a small project before lunch or to knock off 15 pages by end of day. I end each day by planning my activities for the next day so I’m ready to get started right away. Roxanne weighs in with a 30-year-younger perspective: To-do lists are key. My new favorite app for this is Todoist. It has a mobile app that syncs with your web app, and you can sort tasks by project, assign due dates, etc. I also see the value in a written list, but it’s nice to have an app handy so I can write a crazy to-do while in the grocery store and then get it off my mind until the next work day. When I’m really busy or coming down on a deadline, I supplement the online list with a more detailed written list for a project. Sandy adds: I sometimes wake up at three a.m. in a panic because I’ve forgotten to do something that must be done. I grab my smart phone and send myself an email. Sandy also adds: I set alarms on my smart phone if I have an appointment or meeting. That way, I don’t have to continually check the time—I can concentrate fully until the buzzer rings. I started doing this with an old windup alarm clock when my kids were in school—after I was so involved in a project one day I forgot to pick them up.

11.  Keep a note pad next to the computer. When I start working on a project, I write down the time and the page number. When I stop working for any reason (the phone rings, I have to go to the bathroom, etc.), I jot down the end time. If you are writing, track the number of words you write during each segment. This helps me to clearly see how many hours I’m actually working. It also helps me to stay focused, because I play games with myself, constantly trying to work for longer times without interruption or to complete more working minutes in a day.

12.  Know you can’t plan everything. No matter how hard you try, there will always be work emergencies that require extra effort or family emergencies that require taking time off. Don’t let this stress you out. Just know that you can’t plan everything, and get back on your schedule as soon as you can.

13.  Take care of your body. Eat regular meals. Schedule breaks—and take them. I take a mid-morning and a mid-afternoon break of 10-15 minutes. I either go for a quick walk or do some stretching exercises. This helps clear the head and keep the body from cramping. Also, if you’re sitting in the same position for hours every day, you’re asking for your muscles to complain (and mine are whinier than a roomful of two-year-olds). Find alternate ways/places to sit. Yoga is a great stress-buster and helps stretch out those problem areas. 

Bottom line: working from home is a great option in today’s busy world. For those of us who make a living writing and editing, it’s pretty much the standard. For those who work in traditional offices, it’s becoming more common and can be a win-win for both the employee and the employer. But understand that working from home still means working. Put in your time, get your work done without distractions, and then enjoy your free time.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What Solving Puzzles Can Teach You About Writing

Jessica Nelson

Lately, my family has been into jigsaw puzzles. It started in July on our annual family vacation. There were several rainy evenings, so we picked up a couple of puzzles from Boulineau’s to entertain ourselves when we couldn’t go out. And so began our puzzle-working addiction. We are now on our seventh puzzle since July, each one with more pieces than the previous.

As we’ve worked our way through the triumphs and the disappointments, I’ve realized that writers can learn a lot from solving puzzles. Here are some lessons I’ve learned.

1. There’s always that piece that almost fits. As you put together your puzzle, you inevitably find pieces that look like they should fit somewhere, but they don’t. They have the right shape and the right colors. Sometimes, the piece even appears to fit at first, but then you discover it’s in the wrong place when other pieces don’t fit around it. The same thing happens in storytelling when you have information important to the story, just not in the right place. This could be exposition or backstory or even a scene that you know has to fit into the big picture somewhere; it just doesn’t fit right there. It’s okay if whatever piece of the story doesn’t fit right away—don’t force it. Be patient, and eventually you’ll find the right placement.

2. Knowing when to move on. When you've been looking at that same section of puzzle for so long that you can't even see it anymore—like when you've been trying to figure out the same scene for days—it's time to move on to a different section. Or, in this case, a different scene or a different story altogether. We’ve all been there. In my house, while working on the puzzle, we periodically rotate positions or move onto a new section so we don’t get burnt out focusing on one place. Sometimes we get stubborn and refuse to move on to a different part of the puzzle, which just leaves us frustrated. As writers, we tend to do the same thing. We fixate on one scene or chapter or story and keep at it, even if we aren’t doing any productive work on it. Even when we are only driving ourselves crazy. Puzzle making has taught me to know when to move on and work on something else. Don’t worry, whatever is driving you up a wall will still be there later. In the meantime, take a step back, let your eyes readjust, let your brain clear and refocus, and go work on something else for a while.

3. How to see the big picture. Related to my first point, sometimes you’re convinced a piece has to go in a certain section because of its colors or patterns, so you spend hours trying to make it work in that part of the puzzle. But when you step back and look at the whole puzzle, you realize those same colors occur elsewhere, and that piece you’ve been trying to force for hours actually belongs somewhere else. Sometimes the same thing happens when you write. You try to fit a scene or a character into a story, but when you take a step back and look at the big picture, you realize it may not belong in that part of the story. Or maybe it doesn’t belong in the story at all. When you view the big picture, you can see what’s working and what isn’t. You can see what sections are complete and what needs to be developed.

I recommend breaking out a puzzle—even one of those hundred-piece puzzles that take less than a day to complete—and see what you can learn from puzzle working. And when you’re done (and your brain is refreshed), get back to writing! Once you get one story solved, you’ll be ready to take on the next. And the next. And the next.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Guest Post: Working the Storytelling Muscles by Trying Different Forms

Joey Madia

After 25 years as a professional in a variety of storytelling modes, I believe this is the most exciting time that there’s ever been for writers as far as opportunities and reach. While traditional publishing struggles to adjust to numerous factors, from the closing of brick and mortar bookstores to alternative avenues like Create Space, the market for other types of writing is increasing.

While my 20-year background is primarily in playwriting (a field also facing challenges due to shrinking audiences and a philosophical struggle within the community of how to make plays more diverse), I’ve recently landed numerous opportunities in four other forms—work-for-hire Screenplays, Audio Dramas, Escape Rooms, and Historical–Cultural Education. Each of these has increased my financial success and strengthened my skill sets when it comes to creating story well.

Make no mistake—no matter the medium of expression, what makes for a successful story applies across the boards—complex/compelling characters; a well-paced/well-structured plot with a clear arc and, when needed, efficiently implemented secondary and tertiary arcs; proper handling of exposition and tension; and a rich, enticing atmosphere.

And the tools that we have used to create story—the 3-Act Structure, The Hero’s Journey, carefully crafted Plot Points, the A–K Tension Map for Thrillers, etc.— are still our best chance for success no matter what type of story we tell.

How do these modes of storytelling differ? It is all in the EMPHASIS. Each has its primary emphasis. Audio Drama is all about SOUND. Everything must be conveyed through words, music, or sound effects. When I say words in Audio Drama, it is the SOUND of words—their sibilance and dissonance, their rhythms. Syntax and the pause become the punctuation that furthers the creation of atmosphere in conjunction with music and sound effects.

Then there is Screenwriting. Having written 20 produced plays, I thought Screenwriting would be the closest of all storytelling forms to playwriting. Turns out that Audio Drama is its closest cousin, especially if you are a playwright who is very conscious of the beats and rhythms of characters’ language. The thing about Screenwriting is that words are things that directors have to deal with, and many don’t know how, so they hire actors who are geniuses with words—think about Tom Hanks, Vince Vaughn, Katherine Hepburn, and Al Pacino. Screenwriting is all about the IMAGE. Words are not a necessity until the IMAGES make them so. Screenwriting is the art of saying as little as possible and letting the IMAGES—the compositions, the locales, the play of light and dark, the angles and camera placements—tell the story.

I hope some eyebrows rose when I mentioned Escape Rooms as a form of storytelling. For those who don’t know, Escape Rooms are an increasingly popular form of entertainment where 6–8 people in a confined space have one hour to solve puzzles to either unlock the room to “escape,” find a special item, or solve a mystery.

With 6,500 Escape Rooms in the US and dedicated gamers who travel to play 50, 75, or 100+ rooms, the stakes are getting higher and the field more competitive, so some designers are hiring storytellers for a more immersive and integrated experience. As part of my duties as Creative Director at Port City Tour Company in Beaufort, NC, I create storylines for our Escape Rooms and write dialogue for actors to be part of the immersion. The emphasis here is on puzzles, so how do you create “hooks” to hang puzzles on as you tell the story? How can you tell a story that is deep but not too wide (because of the confined timeframe), which delivers story in easily digestible bits that drive action? Solving these challenges makes you a better writer of character and better at mapping key plot points.

Play your local Escape Rooms and if they lack story and immersion, offer to help design their next ones. It has been an education I could not get in the finest of graduate writing programs.

Another of my duties at Port City is to write and direct our Living History/Cultural and Historical Education (CHE) programs, from one-man shows to walking tours to paranormal investigations (spirits/ghosts all have a story: tracking them and teasing out their arcs is a fascinating way to engage in storytelling). Here the emphasis is on facts and dates. Finding engaging ways to use “hard history” as anchor points or the skeleton on which you overlay the tissue, muscle, and bone of character and story arc is key. We are out among the public, with three-generational groups of 15 to 20 people on walking tours, so the stories must be succinct and immediately attention-getting; appeal to a wide range of attention spans and interests; and there must be all the right mini-arcs of tension and “the turn.”

Each of these storytelling modes could be its own blog; each is a long journey of education, trial and error, finding good mentors and collaborators, and immersion in the best of the medium. I watch lots of films and good TV; listen to hour upon hour of audio drama; exchange ideas and techniques with other storytellers through various groups for creatives online and locally; and watch interviews/videos on YouTube that break down the media in which I work. The feedback that comes with getting your stories into the world from industry professionals and, in the case of my work at Port City, guests and Trip Advisor/Facebook reviewers, is invaluable. Over time you learn to separate the chaff from the wheat and thicken your skin and open your heart and mind for optimum feedback value.

Take advantage of these growing markets. There are others in these fields experimenting with ways to make the experiences more immersive, all by focusing on how to infuse story into the specific emphases of each.

Experimentation and experience in these forms will make your primary mode of storytelling all the better.

Joey Madia is a screenwriter, audio dramatist, playwright, novelist, actor, and director. His poetry, essays, and short stories have been widely published and have earned him several awards. He has appeared in, directed, and written well over 100 plays and a dozen projects on camera, including the 2014 remake of White Zombie. His first film as writer/director received an Honorable Mention at the 2016 Indie Gathering International Film Festival (Cleveland, OH). His screenplay The Man at the Foot of the Bed (based on a true story by Josette Saginario) has been a two-time Official Selection, a Beverly Hills Film Festival invitee, and a quarterfinalist twice. He is Creative Director at Port City Tour Company in Beaufort, NC and Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company, Inc. (which celebrated its 13th anniversary in August 2017). He is Resident Playwright at Youth Stages, LLC. Although he has written several main stage musicals and dramas, he specializes in historical education theatre and participatory plays for youth. His 17 plays for young audiences have been produced across the United States ,and he has two plays in the Dramatic Publishing catalog. He is the author of four books on using theatre in the classroom (The Stage Learning Series, Accompany Publishing, 2007) and is working on a fifth book, Every Day is a Story All its Own, about the necessity of telling our personal stories and telling them well. He has written and performed pieces about Civil War captains Louis Emilio and Thomas Maulsby as a Chautauqua Scholar for Voices from the Earth, which does symposia and performances on the African American experience in the Civil War and he portrays six different Golden Age pirates in “Blackbeard and the Pirates of Carolina,” which he wrote exclusively for Port City Tour Co. He and his wife are the lead investigators for the Haunted Webb Memorial tour, also for Port City. As a teaching-artist he has taught and mentored thousands of students in both theatre and creative writing and has spoken at many schools and national conferences. He has worked with organizations including The Epilepsy Foundation of NJ and Camp NOVA to bring theatre to students with disabilities and has won three writing awards from Very Special Arts of NJ. His first novel, Jester-Knight, was published in February 2009 (New Mystics Enterprises). He is writing the sequel. His second novel, Minor Confessions of an Angel Falling Upward was published in September 2012 (Burning Bulb Publishing). Both are available on Amazon. He is a book and music reviewer and the founding editor of, a literary site he created in 2002 that now houses the work of over 70 writers and artists from around the world. His website is