Politics in Fiction

By Janice McCaffrey

I attended the Virtual National Historical Novel Society Conference in June 2021 and had an Ah-ha! moment in the workshop given by Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan which they called Identifying the Politics in Your Writing. I’ve added and in your reading.

What are the politics they refer to? The online Oxford Dictionary says: Politics are the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power. (I added the bold). With that in mind the presenters asked, Who has the power? How did they get the power? How do they keep the power? Do they share it with anyone? If so, who? How do the people with power feel?

And on the other side of the coin. Who doesn’t have the power? Why don’t they have it? What can they do to get it? Why do they want it? How do they feel about not having it? If you can’t identify the person or group with the power, pay attention to the important resource they jealously guard—money, control, love, magic—and you’ll find that whoever owns that holds the power.

Power and who has it can be looked at from a macro perspective, for example who rules a country, society, organization. As well as, from a micro perspective between fewer people, clubs, congregations, families, and couples.

These concepts show up in all areas of our lives in all societies and groups. When you’re in a group of two or more sit back and observe how they interact. See if you can identify the power struggle(s) going on. Do the same when reading or writing a novel. To quote Rajaram and Callaghan, “Acknowledge and utilize the power dynamics [we see or live, and subtlety include them] in our writing.”

Another interesting workshop was called Sharpening the Blade with Julianne Douglas, Mariah Fredricks, and Karen Odden. Their handout asks, “What are the big events that all the characters will have in their collective consciousness that could cause widespread anxiety or excitement?” A couple examples would be a world war or New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Readers will be able to identify the emotions of the characters because we’ve all been introduced to wars and the big party. I recently read a novel that took place in 1941 Europe that had one Jewish character in it. As soon as I understood those three facts, I automatically became anxious and worried about the character, fearing, from my knowledge of that time and place, what the future might be for that person. It kept me reading.

These authors also asked us to perceive what political, economic, legal, educational, and social conditions would create or limit possibilities for our characters. As we write, but again, also as readers, look for these influences. And remember good writers don’t spell it out, they leave it for us readers to figure out. Which we’ll usually do through our emotional reactions that mirror those of the characters.

Both workshops gave me insight to put into action as a reader and a writer. To all five of you presenters, Thank you!

A Thanksgiving Wake-up Call

by Mary Frances Erler

In our modern world, we take so many things for granted.  A couple of weeks ago, the pump on our well stopped working.  All of a sudden, there was no water when I turned on the faucet.

A call to the well-driller brought the suggestion to shut it all down for an hour and then try to restart it.  So we did.  It worked, but then the same thing happened the next day!  Another attempt was made to reboot it with the hour-long shut off.

I realize our house is past ten years old, and nowadays that means things are going to break down.  Some of our appliances have already had to be replaced.  Not complaining.  It’s just life.

But this whole experience has made me realize how many things we do take for granted.  Like the water coming on every time we turn the faucet handle.  Or the lights coming on whenever I hit the switch.  Even my phone and my computer making it so much easier to do research and to write.

Many of us are old enough to remember the days of typewriters and rotary-dial phones.  (My first two books were originally typed on a manual typewriter!)  But I fear our numbers are dwindling.  What kind of things will our children and grandchildren never experience?  Kind of like how we (and often our parents) never experienced travel in a horse-drawn covered wagon, homes without indoor plumbing or electricity, and travel from Kalispell to Eureka taking days rather than under two hours.

Right now our well is working again, after the second reboot.  But I don’t take that water in my sink or shower for granted anymore.  I realize it could disappear any day now.

I think the timing of this wake-up call event was good, with Thanksgiving just around the corner.  I have a lot more things to be thankful for than I realized, and I hope to stop taking them for granted.

Speak Up to Get Read!

by Barbara Schiffman

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has been quoted as saying, “According to some studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death… This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”

If speaking in public feels worse than dying, it’s no wonder most writers hate to talk about their work or themselves. Writers prefer sharing their thoughts and stories on paper or electronic devices, over pitching to agents, editors, or producers, and being interviewed at book signings or conferences.

This used to be true for me, until I learned how essential it is to speak up to get read.

As a screenwriter and creative producer in Hollywood, I often needed to “pitch” one-liners or brief story synopses to agents, directors, or producers. I was also a panelist at writers conferences and was interviewed on podcasts about my personal development books.

To learn to Speak Up without a pounding heart and hoarse voice, I found support:

In the mid-1990s, I attended the entertainment career accelerator program Flash Forward. It included activities and tools for achieving a big career leap in only 4 weeks that would normally take a year. For me, this was getting my scripts optioned, which required getting them read by as many people as possible, a terror-provoking task. FYI, I produced a staged reading of one script and got a new agent who got it optioned!

In 2004, I joined the popular speaking education organization Toastmasters International. In 2006, I co-founded the first Toastmasters club specifically for creative writers; it’s still going strong and now open to non-LA writers via Zoom. I also recently found a new Zoom-only global Toastmasters club for writers (for info on either, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com).

Toastmasters is slanted towards business presentations but also offers support for storytellers. My favorite Toastmasters tool is their impromptu speaking exercise Table Topics. Designed to practice thinking and speaking on the spot, you get 2 minutes to speak about an unexpected topic without preparation. I find this fun and invigorating, and am now comfortable “making it up” as I speak.

Preparing speeches in advance and delivering them without notes is harder for me. But I’m in good company; Mark Twain, who sold his books via public speaking tours, said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

Prepping a pitch is easier with a template for structuring what you might say. I’ve taught multiple pitch formulas at writing workshops that can be customized. A good pitch, aka “logline,” is basically your story in 30 words or less. It’s best to tailor your pitch depending on whom you’re talking to, what type of script or book they seek, and how many minutes you have to interest them in reading yours.

The shortest pitch template is What if…”What if a boy discovers an extra-terrestrial whose spaceship crashed and can’t get home (the film “E.T.”)? What if a slick-talking lawyer vows to his son he’ll tell the truth for 24 hours to prove he can be trusted (the film “Liar Liar”)? What if your narcissistic wife mysteriously disappears on your anniversary and you’re suspected of killing her (the novel and film “Gone Girl”)?

Some pitch tips: Elaborate on your basic premise if more details are requested. Be prepared to share the beginning or “inciting incident,” how the stakes escalate as things go increasingly wrong, and how it all ends. Don’t make your listener guess the conclusion — this is annoying and implies you haven’t worked out the story’s trajectory.

Writers of all genres should also get comfortable speaking about themselves to agents, managers, book reviewers, and book signing audiences. One tool I learned in Flash Forward was having 3 “memorable things” about me ready to share. This helps you stand out from all other writers. It’s even better if your memorable things relate to what you’re writing or pitching (but not required).

One example: my husband Glenn is a specialist in Native American ceremonies; when we lived in Burbank CA we had a ceremonial tipi in our backyard. We also co-developed a feature film concept about a multi-cultural romantic triangle set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation during the 1890 Ghost Dance movement. (Sharing this personalizes our story-pitch and makes us memorable writers.)

So what’s your story — in 30 words or less? And what’s something memorable about you?

Ultimately, if you’ve prepared and practiced your brief story-pitch plus some memorable things about you, opportunities to Speak Up will arise and you’ll be ready to enjoy them!

**On Friday 10/8/21, get more templates and practice your pitch at my 90-minute workshop for writers and filmmakers at the Bigfork (MT) Independent Film Festival. For workshop or private logline and pitch coaching info, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com.

On the Shoulders of Giants

The first and last time I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, I was in college, in the early 1970s.  I loved it then, and now that I’ve just re-read it almost 50 years later, I still love and admire it.  

This science fiction classic is older than I am, but it still holds a wealth of truth and meaning, even though many outward things have changed in my lifetime.  When I was born, man hadn’t been beyond our planet’s atmosphere, there were no cordless phones, let alone cell phones.  Scientists were just beginning to understand the mysteries of the atom.  The stars were fuzzy shapes seen through earth’s atmosphere.  Computers were rooms full of reels, tubes, and wires.  The whole control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center hadn’t been developed yet, and when it was, it carried the same capacity that we can fit in our pockets now, or on our wrists.

So how can it be that books written before 1950 still have something to say to our modern age?  Because I believe Asimov in this series has dealt with the fundamentals of human thought and behavior.  And he’s done it the way only a very skillful and well-educated scientist/author can.

For me it boils down to the truth that human nature doesn’t really change.  We can be in a setting far in the past, such as The Clan of the Cave Bear, the less-distant past of the European Middle Ages, in books by Sharon K. Penman, the more contemporary settings of most modern fiction set in the twentieth century, or the far distant future that most sci-fi writers use.  Human beings, no matter when they are living, all have the same mental processes, emotions, foibles, faults, and all.

As an author of fiction (mostly science fiction, I confess), I am seeking in my own small way to emulate great thinkers and writers like Asimov.  Perhaps I’m hoping to catch a better glimpse of some far-off truth by attempting to stand on the shoulders of these giants who came before me.  (I know there’s a quote to that effect somewhere, but I can’t remember who said it.)  And I’ll keep on looking for this “Great Beyond” until my dying day, I suppose.

A New Venue – Amazon’s KDP Vella


Recently, KDP announced a new story platform, named Vella, for writers to reach mobile readers. The concept couples simplicity with ease of vetted publishing. It also allows the writer to experiment in unknown territories, gather in new audiences, and release some of those forgotten writing projects left for so long on a back burner.

Rules of Vella’s Platform

To take advantage of this interesting new opportunity, it’s easiest to read the rules. There aren’t that many.

  1.  All stories are episodic. Short bursts of story, published on a regular schedule until the story ends.
  2.  All episodes must range from no less than 600 to no more than 5000 words.
  3.  Fiction genres are all-inclusive. Non-fiction and creative non-fiction are also allowed.
  4.  It’s recommended that the writer have four to five episodes ready to go before uploading the first one. (I read this to mean that by doing so, the writer isn’t scrambling to have an episode ready on the next scheduled upload day.)
  5.  The writer chooses the publishing schedule that suits her//him. For instance, for my present story, “Devil’s in the Details”, I chose to upload an episode every other day. On my calendar, it means every odd-numbered day of the month.

I chose this knowing each episode would be short (600-1500 words on average). I didn’t want to give any reader too much time between episodes to find something different to read and forget mine.

  •  The number of episodes or length of story is at the writer’s discretion. Only the writer knows when a story is finished.
  •  A description of the story is required. One must choose keywords from the story and choose categories of genre for placement of story.
  •  An image possessing some relation to the story is highly-recommended in the development of the story’s platform profile. The writer will be asked to upload that image. Think of it as a visual bookmark, both for you when looking in your Vella library of stories, and for the mobile reader when she/he’s looking for your next episode on a mobile device.
  •  There is no rule that states a writer can only run one story at a time. If you want to run two or more stories simultaneously, I’ve found no rule that prohibits it. If one chooses to do that, know that your writing time must be rigorously monitored and scheduled for uploading. Otherwise, you’ll exhaust yourself unduly. (This is my advice—not stated in rules.)
  •  At the end of each episode is a space for author’s note. This is where you can talk directly to the reader. Share tid-bits about the story’s origin, a character’s backstory or provide a teaser about an upcoming episode. Ask for feedback and comments. What did the reader like/dislike? Did something confuse them? Whatever. Share a bit about yourself. It’s up to the author. You have only so much space to use, but it’s valuable acreage.
  • Also, if down the line you choose to edit an episode, you can do that. Feel free.
  • Not in rules but my own take on things. Use this opportunity to enlarge your existing audience and to engage a new one. Experiment. Have fun. While you will earn a bit of money with each episode downloaded, you gain much more in exposure and freedom of expression. Enjoy it. Tip: for all those memoirists out there. Here’s a platform for all those funny stories from your childhood that still crack you up. Surely you have at least ten or more of those. Plant one out there in Vella’s garden a couple times a week and see what grows.  Just a thought.

Payment and Reward

Payment is best described as interesting. Like all writing it depends on readership and downloads. Readers buy bundles of tokens. Each episode (after the compulsory first free three) is given a token price by Vella. All such values are based solely on word count. Token values and word count go through an algorithm which computes the royalty shared with the writer. The process is explained fully by the Learn More button.

Afterthoughts and Conclusions

Will you get rich? Well, that depends on things such as how many readers you can attract with your writing and how often you upload episodes.

I didn’t do this for money. I did it to rid myself of all those haunting stories lying fallow in the recesses of my hard drive. Now, I can share them, enjoy the process of getting them out, and make a few dollars from things left unread for too long.

That will satisfy me.

I hope everyone will at least look at the venue and gauge whether it will benefit them in some way. Advertising is advised. Me? I’m going to post to my website, my blog, my media outlets and all the write’s groups in which I’m a member.

For those who wish to discover more, here’s a link to the KDP Vella main page.


And if you’d like to check out my first episode, it’s free.   https://www.amazon.com/kindle-vella/product/B098XGD7VX

Happy writing, everyone.