Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Too Many Choices, Part II

Located just off I-65 north of Rensselaer, Indiana, Fair Oaks Farms provides a tranquil setting for a writers’ conference. Its comfortable conference rooms allow attendees to relax, while the spellbinding presentations will keep them wake. But what are those presentations? Last week’s post discussed three of the breakout sessions, and this post covers three more.

Metaphors and Metaphoric Language

A good book is a dog that keeps you company at night. Feel free to groan at the terrible metaphor, then come to Vickie Weaver’s workshop and learn to write better ones. Using examples and exercises, she will show you how the words you choose can add texture and flavor to fiction and nonfiction alike.

Vickie’s first book, Billie Girl, won the 2009 Leapfrog Literary Contest. Her short stories have also received several awards, which include a Pushcart nomination. Learn more about her at

Words Fly Off the Page: Practical Pointers for Public Poetry Readings

Do you perform at poetry slams, read for family and friends, or present selections from your own works to promote your books? Would you like to? Patsy Asunction’s workshop will use guided discussion, hands-on practice sessions, and demonstrations to develop key skills for effective public reading. Although focused on poetry, this session will provide practical pointers for all genres.

To use her own words, Patsy’s poetry collection, Cut on the Bias, depicts her world slant as a biracial child raised by an immigrant father and WWII vet. Her works have also appeared in numerous online and print publications. An expert public reader, she is a female emcee and has thousands of YouTube views. To learn more, check out her website at

Weaving Words: A Braided Essay Workshop

Braided essays take several threads and weave them into a cohesive whole. It can be created by a single writer or done through collaboration, where each theme is composed by a different individual. In this workshop, Janine Harrison, Laura Madeline Wiseman, and Colleen Wells will discuss their experience collaborating on a braided essay and lead participants in writing exercises on braiding, followed by workshop discussion.

Janine Harrison teaches creative writing at Purdue Northwest and is the 2017 Highland Poet Laureate. Her publications include the poetry chapbook, If We Were Birds, and short works appearing in anthologies and other publications. You can find more information at

Laura Madeline Wiseman has authored 25 books and chapbooks, including the Nebraska Book Award 2015 Honor Book Intimates and Fools. She is the editor of Bared and Women Write Resistance, selected for the Nebraska 150 Booklist. Laura teaches writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and her website is found at

Colleen Wells’ work has appeared in various anthologies and journals, and she is a frequent contributor to The Ryder Magazine. In 2002, she earned an award from the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and she is currently working toward her credentials as a Certified Journal Facilitator. Her memoir, Dinner With Doppelgangers—A True Story of Madness and Recovery, was published in 2015. Learn more about Colleen at

These workshops give you three more reasons to attend the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference on October 28. Registration opens June 1. The registration link and other information on the conference will be posted at

Next week we’ll cover the final three breakout sessions.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Too Many Choices, Part I

When planning a writers’ conference, selecting and scheduling sessions is always a dilemma. How many choices should the conference offer? Either there are too few and you sit in on sessions that have little to offer you, or there are too many and you miss out on one or more interesting sessions because they conflict.

One of last year’s participants missed out on several sessions she wanted to attend, and she suggested on her evaluation form that we offer workshops more than once. We took her comment very seriously. After all, there’s a reason it’s called the Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference with an apostrophe after the s. The conference belongs to the writers who attend, not to IWC or the Conference Committee. Unfortunately, repeating sessions limits the number we can offer overall, and the Committee believes that most participants would rather have too many choices. So after careful consideration, that’s what the Committee opted to provide.

The 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference will have three blocks of time with three choices each, so you may miss something you want to hear. The actual schedule hasn’t been set yet, so these blog posts won’t tell you which ones conflict. But the next three weeks will describe each of the nine choices and give you the opportunity to rank them in advance.

Writing a Great American Romance Novel

Keynote speaker Catherine Lanigan will present a workshop called “Writing a Great American Romance Novel.” The session will cover both craft and business issues, and the business issues in particular apply across genres.

Catherine is the author of over forty fiction and nonfiction titles, including the novelizations of Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile. She is known primarily for her contemporary romance novels, such as the Shores of Indian Lake series for Harlequin Heartwarming. She has also written historical fiction, romantic suspense, true stories, books regarding angelic intervention in human life, a craft book, and a screenplay. You can learn more about her at

How to Build Suspense into Your Fiction

This session by mystery and suspense writer Libby Fischer Hellmann also transcends genre. Libby is a master at creating suspense in her award-winning books. In this interactive workshop, you will learn how to use tangible techniques to build suspense in your own work, regardless of what type of fiction you write or are considering.

After leaving the nation’s capital and a career in broadcast news 35 years ago, Libby moved to Chicago and has been writing gritty crime fiction ever since. Her nominations and awards are too numerous to mention here, but you can read about them and her many books on her website at 

Connecting to the Unconnected: Exploring the Novel-in-Stories

How can a writer combine stand-alone but related short stories into a novel? This workshop by Melissa Fraterrigo is for everyone who missed last year’s breakout session by Cathy Day or who attended that workshop but wants more.

Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the forthcoming novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press) as well as the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press). Her works, both fiction and nonfiction, have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies and have been nominated for awards on multiple occasions, including winning the Sam Adams/Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Contest. She teaches classes on the art and craft of writing at the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana. You can learn more about Melissa and the Lafayette Writers’ Studio at

These are just three of the many reasons to attend the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference on October 28. Join us at the conference center at Fair Oaks Farms just off I-65 near Rensselaer, Indiana.

Registration will open June 1, and the registration link will be posted at You can find additional information about the conference there, too.

Next week we’ll cover three more choices.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Smoothing Out Your Dialogue

Louis Martinez

People talk, and in a story, that takes the form of dialogue. There’s little we can do to get around it, especially when multiple characters are involved. And a story with but a single character may still have internal dialogue.
You can certainly write stories without it, but many stories, dare I say most, will probably have a decent amount of dialogue in them. Therefore, we must know how to handle such a delicate craft.
Everyone will develop their own personal dialogue style. This is part of what makes storytelling so special, the uniqueness of each individual tale. But, to help anyone who may be struggling to find what works for them, allow me to share what works for me. It may just nudge you in the direction you’ve been looking for.
However, first thing first. When it comes to conversations, new character equals new paragraph. When someone else starts speaking, it’s time to press Enter. Don’t put two different characters’ words into the same paragraph. This isn’t so much a personal preference as a rule of writing.
Now, when I write dialogue, I try to mix the character’s words into the same paragraph as their actions as much as possible. This helps alleviate overuse of “he said,” “she said.” It also sounds more mature, and less like the books we use to teach children how to talk.
An example of my style in use:
John opened the ominous barrel, greeting his nostrils to the most horrid stench the world had ever known. “Wow. That’s got quite a kick to it?”
The affront to sinuses everywhere reached Jane just as quick, and hit her just as hard. “Uck. What is that?” She tried to wave away the scent, but to no avail. It sunk into her lungs with a desperate, heavy grip.
“I don’t even want to know.”
“Close it.”
The first paragraph reveals the first speaker through his interaction with the word, as the next paragraph does for the second speaker, all the while avoiding “he said” and “she said.” After that, it’s clear who’s talking during their brief exchange that follows by the different paragraphs denoting different speakers, even though names are not mentioned.
Again, this is just how I like to write dialogue. My wonderful teachers introduced me to numerous methods, and this was the one I found the most satisfying and intuitive. Writing dialogue can be tricky, and it’s important to develop a style of your own that flows efficiently and is fun to read.
So, get out there and get typing. Find your style and make it shine. There are lots of stories that need telling, and you can’t finish before you start. It’s up to you to put those words on the page and get those characters talking.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Specialized Sources to Spark Your Story

Heather Augustyn

As a writer of biographies, I sometimes find myself more of a sleuth than an author. I follow leads down the rabbit hole, searching for a long-dead person or their family members in hopes of discovering their life story. I liken my work to a hydra—I cut off one head, and two grow back—answers provide more questions, research yields more to research. Vacations to tropical locations are spent, not on the beach with a fruity drink in hand, but instead in dusty library archives with bound volumes of crumbling yellowed newspapers. Entire summers are passed, spinning through spools of microfilm. And large phone bills to octogenarians in countries all over the world reveal the spoils of the quest.  But these methods of searching through old newspapers, magazines, interviews, microfilm, and out-of-print books can be useful for anyone who looks to tell a story, true or not, to anchor it firmly in authenticity. Here are a few ideas for how to utilize obscure sources to inform your own writing:

1.     Consider the primary source
Interviews with people who are either similar to the personality of your character, or have similar backgrounds as your character, can provide authentic dialog or inspire your creativity to develop that dialog. Steal their word choice, their thoughts and opinions, their patois or accent or way they stress a certain word. You can also discover their struggles, their hopes and wishes, their loves and desires, their vision for motivation, which can become the same as your character, or help remove a block you may have had in developing some aspect of your character or plot. Watch their mannerisms, their facial expressions. Look at their dress, their accoutrements, their home or their work. See what they reveal, and also what they conceal. This will give your character and story an accuracy that imagination may not be able to yield. It will also give it an authentic voice.

2.     Set the scene
If your story is a period piece, chances are you have read plenty of material from that time period to inform your story. But what about if you are telling a story that is less about a time period and more about something else? Still digging into material, whether historical or contemporary, can help inform that storytelling. Knowing the type of vegetation that grew in the character’s landscape, the style of car that was popular in their carpool line and the afterschool activities common with their children, the kinds of meals they ate, the decorations they used to adorn their homes, the brand of cigarettes they smoked, the way they dried their clothes—on a line or in a front-load dryer, the shoes they wore to the mill—all of these details that make a story real can be found in obscure places. Find magazines or even family photos from the era, either in libraries or purchase from ebay. Recreate that image. Recreate that feeling. Vacation slides can be treasure troves for the imagination and ebay frequently has lots of these (pun intended) for a few bucks.

3.     Look at the big picture
If you are writing a piece that takes place in California in the late 1960s, sure you have the scene and the events to create your character. But what about what else was going on in the world during this time that can turn a seemingly cliché view into a unique story? By knowing that in 1969, ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, relayed its first communications between UCLA and Stanford, this could possibly provide a unique angle or a direction for your story. Could your character have been aware of this technology or involved in this, rather than a hippie in Haight Ashbury like every other character during this time, as an example. If you are writing about a soul musician in Chicago in the 1970s, they likely would have known of Afro-pop in Nigeria during this same era. This can deepen your character and take them in directions that are more authentic. So look at world events, connect cultures, connect music and art, and connect through conversations with characters or plot.

I once wrote about a character in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, who sat beneath a large Bilbao tree on the campus of his school when he practiced his trombone. While combing through a magazine on Bilbao trees, I found a photograph of that exact tree. Unfortunately, it came after I had written the chapter, but had I discovered it earlier I could have used this photograph to provide detail to make the writing more vivid.

Actual photographs can help to describe more than mere appearance—they spark the writer’s imagination in a way that is rooted in reality. This photo of Jamaican trombonist Don Drummond helped me to describe my character’s mysterious mind.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Mark Twain on Speech Preparation

Mark Twain’s advice on speech preparation seems contradictory at first glance, but a closer look brings a different conclusion. The following quotes come from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010).

This first reminiscence comes from Twain’s early years on the lecture circuit. It emphasizes the importance of trying out your material on more forgiving audiences and making any necessary revisions before taking it to the big stage.

I began as a lecturer in 1866, in California and Nevada; in 1867 lectured in New York once and the Mississippi valley a few times; in 1868 made the whole western circuit; and in the two or three following seasons added the eastern circuit to my route. We had to bring out a new lecture every season . . . and expose it in the ”Star Course,” Boston, for a first verdict, before an audience of twenty-five hundred in the old Music Hall; for it was by that verdict that all the lyceums in the country determined the lecture’s commercialvalue. The campaign did not really begin in Boston, but in the towns around; we did not appear in Boston until we had rehearsed about a month in those towns and made all the necessary corrections and revisings.

* * *

But sometimes lecturers who were new to the business did not know the value of “trying it on a dog,” and these were apt to come to Music Hall with an untried product. There was one case of this kind which made some of us very anxious when we saw the advertisement. De Cordova—humorist—he was the man we were troubled about. . . . The audience were so sure that he was going to be funny that they took a dozen of his first utterances on trust and laughed cordially; so cordially, indeed, that it was very hard for us to bear, and we felt very much disheartened. Still I tried to believe he would fail, for I saw that he didn’t know how to read. Presently the laughter began to relax; then it began to shrink in area; and next to lose spontaneity; and next to show gaps between; the gaps widened; they widened more; more yet; still more. It was getting to be almost all gaps and silences, with that untrained and unlively voice droning through them. Then the house sat dead and emotionless for a whole ten minutes. We drew a deep sigh; it ought to have been a sigh of pity for a defeated fellow craftsman, but it was not—for we were mean and selfish, like all the human race, and it was a sigh of satisfaction to see our unoffending brother fail. [Pgs. 147-148.]

There is more to the story, but it is too long to print here. If you want to read it, you will have to track it down for yourself in the source material listed above.

These next musings come from closer to the end of Mark Twain’s speaking career and show how experience affects preparation.

I have to make several speeches within the next two or three months, and I have been obliged to make a few speeches during the last two months—and all of a sudden it is borne in upon me that people who go out that way to make speeches at gatherings of one kind or another, and at social banquets particularly, put themselves to an unnecessary amount of trouble, often, in the way of preparation.

* * *

The person who makes frequent speeches can’t afford much time for preparation, and he probably goes to that place empty, (just as I am in the habit of doing), purposing to gather texts from other unprepared people who are going to speak before he speaks. Now it is perfectly true that if you  can get yourself located along about number 3, and from that lower down on the program, it can be depended on with certainty that one or another of those previous speakers will furnish all the texts needed. If fact you are likely to have more texts than you do need, and so they can become an embarrassment. You would like to talk to all of those texts, and of course that is a dangerous thing. You should choose one of them and talk to that one—and it is a hundred to one that before you have been on your feet two minutes you will wish you had taken the other one. You will get away from the one you have chosen, because you will perceive that there was another one that was better. [Pgs. 254-255.]

Actually, there is another major difference between the two pieces of advice besides experience, and it’s an important one. The first refers to speeches that are given many times and to different audiences: there practice is imperative. The second involves after-dinner speakers at banquets given to honor particular persons or events: those speeches are unlikely to be repeated, so the busy speaker cannot afford the same amount of time to prepare.

Even so, Mark Twain’s advice can be summed up this way: if you are an inexpert speaker, try your speech out on a minor-league audience first; if you have years of practice, use what you already know to create a more spontaneous experience.


This picture of Mark Twain on the lecture circuit was drawn by Joseph Keppler and appeared on the back cover of PUCK on December 23, 1885. It is in the public domain because of its age.