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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Our friend won

Today was more than a little enjoyable. My friend, Mavis Jarrell (writer of poetry and prose) and I helped celebrate a writing award garnered by another friend and fellow writer, Hazel (Polly) Pope.

Polly's short story, "Fall Picnic on the Hay Wagon," won First Place in the Gulf Coast Writers "Let's Write" contest (read it on Yay, congratulations, Polly!

Short stories are notoriously hard to write, especially those with a 2000-word limit. Every word must move the story forward to its conclusion. Polly had, I think, a more difficult task. She had originally written her story as a kind of flash fiction piece with 500 words. Her task for this contest was to increase the word count to 2000 words without destroying her beautiful story with a lot of extraneous words. (The line-through editing is intentional.) Her accomplishment was duly appreciated, awarded and applauded at the organization's annual meeting in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

It was an exciting evening for all the winners of the contest's genres, and I am still aglow at being able to share in Polly's celebration.

How about all you writers out there? If you have good news to share, let us know. Lyrical Pens would be happy to applaud you as well. 

You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to do the same. 


On this Memorial Day, and every day, I remember with gratitude those who served and sacrificed to make our  freedoms possible. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Nolan White - Creating Unique Characters

Nolan White, a native Southerner from Alabama, joins us today and gives writers tips to the creation of unique characters. Nolan is the editor of Great Days Outdoors magazine and composes a three-page section of news snippets as well as writing feature articles for the monthly magazine. He is active in numerous local activities and reaches out to those in need. In 2011, his concern for the poor led him to launch Alabama Hunger Relief, a nonprofit and made it a family affair. His brother, Alan White, runs fishing tournament to raise fund for needy families through local area food banks.

Nolan, former owner of a huge marketing firm, knows many local people and taps them to assist with some of his local projects. He served as the president of Baldwin Writers Group three times, including his current presidency. He’s won several short story contests and written two novels about behavior genetics, the first is due out in November 2014. His talents include drawing and he is currently illustrating a children’s book for a local writer. An avid believer in supporting authors, he founded a critique group in 2012 to help serious writers perfect their craft.

Preternatural Proclivities
J. Nolan White

At age twelve I read a passage from The Black Stallion to my mother as she finished placing her famous layered jelly cake in the oven. A trucker in the story was trying to load horses into his trailer in Chicago. I pronounced the city as Chick-a-go. Being a substitute teacher, mom smiled and patiently corrected me.

It later dawned on me that butchered words strike people as funny. But it wasn’t until I wrote my first novel that one of my secondary characters, a quirky actress whose role ditzy humor, began to twist words as if they were pretzels.

Even a simple retort in dialogue such as, “Does a duck float?” becomes “Does a fluck dote?”

Another character has a mischievous streak. On impulse, she changes road signs. A sign reading Silver Queen Corn is now Silver Queer Corn.

Readers love unique characters who are memorable. To create them, why not assign unique traits to some? For example, a character in Messiah’s Proxy is often emphatic. Her words are often followed by jabbing a forefinger into the male protagonist’s chest. Her favorite expression is, “Good happens.”
Like a chameleon, she can change to a more sultry voice if needed.

Unusual traits help to differentiate a character from others in your story. Suppose a character, wanting to upstage someone, uses what she thinks is a hifalutin (that’s show off for you non Southerners) word? And what if she misuses that word? If she uses the word preternatural to describe her boss, not knowing it means existing outside of nature, what effect will it have on her highbrow colleagues? Fun-nee!

 Such traits enrich your story by showing rather than telling the reader something important about the character. So, venture out and take risks. After all, it’s your story.

Tell us about some of your favorite quirky characters and their unique traits. Have you created one in your writing?   Mahala

Monday, May 12, 2014

What is needed

A new day on the Gulf Coast
In addition to the usual writerly things an author does during any given year (critiques, writing short stories, attending a conference or two, entering contests), my plans for 2014 include revising a romantic suspense/mystery, completing the first book in a detective series, and thinking through (is that called outlining?) a young adult fantasy. Several months into these projects, the dust is settling around me, and I wonder how much of this ambitious schedule is wishful thinking.

I completed my final edit (I thought) of the romantic suspense/mystery a couple of years ago, but it turned out that the theme became too close to a real-life tragedy…I didn’t feel I could send it out “as is.” Ergo, I’m doing a major revision. I will have to touch EVERY chapter and make sure the old plot threads are totally destroyed, and the new plot threads are connected from chapter one to novel ending. It’s a bit overwhelming right now, looking at touching every line of 400 pages, so I’m procrastinating.

I really like the protagonist in the new detective story that I want to turn into a series. There is a neat supporting cast as well. Jannecka Konner—“It’s pronounced Yahn-ecka, but my friends call me Jake.”—is a Yankee transplanted to the deep South. She is learning her way around Mobile, Alabama, at the same time she’s launching her career as a private detective. There’s infidelity, a murder with an unexpected twist, and a young boy in danger of being sucked into the foster care system. Jake’s sassy repartee with the lawyer who wants to be her lover is going to be fun to write.

The young adult fantasy I’m attempting is five chapters long, but it is now sitting on the proverbial back burner. Focus group review (six teenagers, most of them writers-in-training) persuaded me that I should rethink this story. The concept is good, they said, but the action needs to be beefed up. The story is written with a PG rating in mind, so I’m reading other PG YA novels for direction, dialogue, and development of characters. One novel I read was the first of John Grisham’s kid lawyer efforts. As expected, Mr. Grisham expertly develops the protagonist and the setting (time, and place), but I agree with another young reader . . . as a YA novel, it falls short. There isn’t enough action and there’s a lot of telling instead of showing. The reader also pointed out, and he is right, that some character threads were left hanging when the story reaches its denouement. Unanswered questions at the end of a novel (“hooks”) might be a perfectly acceptable method for most adult series but not for young readers. I was, however, able to analyze how Mr. Grisham develops a likeable character and appreciated the learning moments (how a trial works).

How much of my grand plan for 2014 is achievable?  All of it, I believe, if I set my derriere down in front of my computer for more than an hour a day. What is needed is discipline. Tell you what, instead of wishing me luck on completing my to-do-list, would you drop me a line and wish me discipline instead?

You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I’ll try to do the same.


Photo by Jeff D. Johnston

Friday, May 9, 2014

Character Profiling: Sociological

 For today's Friday Forum, I visit creating believable characters again. This part of the profiling deals with the sociological parts of our lives and how those impact on who we become.

All Living Things React to Their Surroundings

It may be a subtle, yet powerful, change as in Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or dramatic as Flannery O’Connor’s characters in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Woolf’s book details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society woman in post-World War I England. Clarissa is giving an annual party that is a tradition. That fine morning, as she walks through London, a skywriting plane captures her attention—the perfect metaphor for the loopy-de-loop day Clarissa is about to have. Those whose lives brush and disrupt her good mood during the day include: a man she spurned years ago who dumps his confidences and criticisms, her daughter’s angry teacher, a war-shocked man sinking into madness, her husband’s invitation to a luncheon and her conjectures as to why she was purposefully excluded. The outside world bleeds into hers and threatens to overwhelm her. With stiff upper lip, and all that, she marches on, but her marriage is permanently wounded and her mind-set about the relationships between women and women and women and men suffers (a significant change).

In O’Connor’s story, a selfish, conniving grandmother goes to great lengths to hide her racism and elitism under a blanket of politeness only to find that her ingratiating behavior won’t save her. She is shot and killed—a significant change—by a serial killer, which O’Connor went to a great deal of trouble to create with a warped history and philosophy to explain his motivation to murder.

Transformation plots primarily examine how a character’s sociological influences affect them. Eliza in Pygmalion and the movie Kramer vs. Kramer are good examples. Both show physical, psychological, and sociological changes in the primary characters. Eliza changes the way she looks, speaks, acts, dresses, and views the world. The two Kramers change their look, their vision of what is important, and how they world sees them.

Strong Belief Systems:  Examples of starting with one strong belief system, having it deflated, and then reconnecting with those core beliefs strongly is indicative of many plot styles. In The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, Andrea takes a job as the lackey for a powerful and bitchy magazine mogul and discovers who she is and what she wants to do with the rest of her life, and ditches the cheating boyfriend.

On the TV show Happy Days Mr. Cunningham, who owns a hardware store is the steady force in the weekly plot line. When he decides—in a moment of mid-life crisis—to run away to Tahiti, the Fonz helps him get his head on straight. Mr. Cunningham has come to believe that his pre-held beliefs are old-fashioned and life has passed him by. At the moment of truth with Fonzie, he makes a decision about his future. This show frequently used the differences in sociological groups to reveal the universal truths of all man. Fonz, the biker dude and Lothario, taught truths to the Cunninghams as well as their friends and they taught him in return.

Pygmalion: Eliza is upset when she is first “kidnapped” into the professor’s home, but she grows to love the more posh environment, then shifts back when she sees the professor’s indifference to her as a real person, then shifts back again when she visits with his mother, and finally, she has a decision to make. 2013 women might chafe at her final decision; I prefer to think, she had him whipped into shape in no time.

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter weaves an intense intrigue about a group of people who have all arrived at the altar of their careers and acquired their cherished career More serious forms of the Doolittle character changes are when core beliefs are tromped and goals—partnerships, professorships, judgeships—and look around at the angry, empty waters to realize they have arrived with nothing. What do they do with the rest of their wretched lives reveals character change and growth of one sort or another. 

People are an amalgam of physical, psychological, and sociological input, some involuntary but most voluntary. 

Spend a lot of time getting to know your characters in all three ways. While most of what we should know about our characters will never directly hit the page, 99% of it will infuse the pages with characters so believable, they resonate with readers permanently. 

How many times have you been in a class or read in a book on the art of writing a reference to a famous book? How many of those times did the setting or plot leap into your mind first? Probably close to none. Characters. It's all about the characters.

Who are some of your favorites?


Saturday, May 3, 2014

P. T. Paul, Poet of the Year

Congratulations to P.T. Paul, Alabama poet, who was chosen as 2013-2014 Poet of the Year by the Alabama State Poetry Society and won several prizes in the 2014 Spring Poetry Competition, including first place in Contest #1, Alabama State Poetry Society Contest. The contest was limited to members of ASPS. She is also completing her sixth year as President of The Pensters, a writing group in Fairhope, Alabama.

 We welcome P.T. to Lyrical Pens again. Her following insights into poetry and Shakespeare are good fodder for a discussion, and we hope you will give her feedback.

She received her B.A. in English from the University of Montevallo, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of South Alabama. Her thesis, “Southerner” was chosen to represent the University of South Alabama in the Coastal States Graduate Schools Master’s Thesis Competition, and won the USA University-wide competition.

“Southerner” was published as “To Live & Write in Dixie” by Negative Capability Press, and is available at and

Busy as always, she is scheduled to teach a poetry writing class titled “Finding the Poet Within” at Faulkner State Community College in Fairhope, beginning in the Fall semester, registration for which can be made by phone with the Center for Professional Development at (251) 990-0445 or online at

And if all the above isn't enough, she is a featured poet on "Culturally Speaking with Tod Jonson, Man About Town, on WABF-AM 1220 in Fairhope, which airs each Thursday from 10:30am to 11:00am.

Why We Don’t Speak Poetry
(An observation.)
P.T. Paul

            Imagine that you are a peasant in London in 1603, and you’re standing in the mud of the Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames River, listening to actors disguised as various characters declare their undying love or hate or envy for each other. You’re called a “Groundling” and you have paid a penny to stand in “the pit” and stare up in wide wonder at the pageantry playing out on the stage above you. Did I mention that you - and all the other peasants standing in the mud - are unable to read or write? Did I point out that there was no public school system, no standardized method of instruction, no public libraries, no inexpensive system of mass reproduction and distribution of printed materials, and that only the wealthy and privileged might ever learn to even sign their own names? Did I mention that there might have been only one handwritten copy of this particular play, which the actors had to share to memorize their parts? Oh, and finally, did I mention that the entire play was probably written in rhyme and iambic pentameter?
            So, why would Shakespeare write entire plays as poetry? Was poetry the accepted method of communication? Did the entire population walk around greeting each other in rhyming couplets? Did customers in restaurants order in sonnet form? Were court cases and weddings – as portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays – actually conducted in meter and rhyme?
            No. The accepted method of communication then – as now – was prose.
            Then, as now, one of the first things we humans are taught is to communicate verbally – to speak – by repeating what we hear. From the moment we enter school, the first priority is to expand on those verbal skills to learn to read and write. We learn to recognize written words, then to write them, we are taught to fit the written words together to form sentences, to fit the sentences together to form paragraphs, each step building upon the previous one until we can effectively communicate, from the shortest note to the longest novel. This standardization of written - and spoken - language places us, literally, on the same communication page. And although the average person standing in the mud of the Globe Theatre may never have progressed beyond learning basic verbal skills, just like the well educated, they spoke prose.
            So, why would Shakespeare disregard prose – the accepted method of communication – and write his plays as poetry?
            Simply put, to help his actors – and his audience – remember what was said.       
            Consider the meter Shakespeare typically used: iambic pentameter. The most important aspects of iambic pentameter are that the length of a line is roughly the length of a breath, and that the rhythm mimics the beat of a human heart. By using this length and this meter, Shakespeare was giving his actors enough words in a line, written in a comfortable, familiar rhythm, to allow them to speak naturally. By using rhyme, he was helping them remember what came next. And, in a society where the town crier, not the Press Register, announces everything from merchants’ advertisements to notice of tax increases to obituaries of notable citizens, every memory aid is appreciated.
So, how effective were Shakespeare’s methods, and how popular were his plays?
            In the absence of radio, television, and film, Shakespeare’s plays were the hot ticket in entertainment. And, to his everlasting credit, Shakespeare wrote them in English, at a time when this “common language” was generally considered too vulgar for such an exalted art as poetry. Because of this, peasants and gentry alike walked away quoting lines they had just heard on the stage. Many of his coined words and phrases actually became part of the spoken language and are still in common use. He was, simply, one of the most influential writers of his day – or any day.
            So, why aren’t we all speaking poetry?
            Ease and efficiency, not entertainment, are still the goals of basic communication. Prose, for the most part, is unambiguous and can be as simple or complex as the situation requires. Point in fact, you are reading this in prose right now.
            But, that does not explain the continued popularity of poetry. Nor does it explain the fact that Shakespeare’s plays, written in meter and rhyme, are still being performed all over the world. However, even the illiterate Groundlings crowded into the pit of the Globe theatre in 1603 realized, from the moment the curtain was raised, that they were in the presence of something extraordinary, and the poetry they heard lifted them – if only metaphorically – above the mud of their everyday existence. So, yes, we speak prose for basic communication – but to express the magical, the memorable, the uncommon within us, we speak poetry.
             And, like the Groundlings, we even occasionally speak Shakespeare.

To Be or Not? What do you think?  Mahala