Writing takes discipline,  just ask the Hook’s famed contest judge John Grisham, who spends hours every single day at the keyboard, and has more than two dozen best sellers to his name.

The winners of  the HOOK’S 2013 Short Fiction Contest are further proof that putting in the time, day after day, year after year, can pay off.

Second place: Carolyn O’Neal

Second place winner Carolyn O’Neal found the inspiration for her story, “Silent Grace,”  last summer while reading an Esquire magazine article about the tar sands in Alberta, Canada.
“The oil that comes out of the Middle East is relatively clean,” she says. “The tar sands, they have to boil it down. You use a whole lot of fresh water. That means they’re diverting massive amounts of fresh water from everybody else.”

Her protagonist is a young First Nation girl whose life is affected by her family’s involvement in the tar sand operations, and O’Neal– who has honed her writing at WriterHouse under the tutelage of one-time Hook contest judge and 2009 second place contest winner David Ronka– hopes the topic will pique interest in the complexity and dangers of oil extraction, no matter where it takes place.

“Fiction can change the world,” she says. “That’s what I want to do– make people a little bit aware of what’s going on.”

O’Neal has also presented at the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book on the topic HOW TO CREATE A GREAT WRITING GROUP.   She is a member of BACCAliteray. com.

BACCA Literary at Virginia Festival of the Book 2013!

Come join the four members of BACCA Literary at this FREE event at Virginia Festival of the Book.

We’ll talk about Creating a Great Writing Group.

Before there is a book to publish, before the agent, before the copyeditor, there is the intense process of writing. This session is by writers-in-progress, for writers-in-progress, and focuses on the process of becoming a better writer within a supportive community. Learn from the four members of BACCA Literary, a Charlottesville, VA writer group, how to build your own. Co-sponsored by WriterHouse (Charlottesville), where the members of BACCA first met.

Claire Cameron PhDA M CarleyBethany Joy CarlsonCarolyn O’Neal.

Mark your calendar!

WHEN:  10am, Saturday 23 March 2013.

WHERE:  The Omni Hotel, on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA.
Look for the Preston Room, inside The Pointe restaurant (turn Right inside the lobby doors, if you enter from the Downtown Mall).

  • Want to create your own writing group, or find out how to improve the one you’re in now?

  • Want to learn how to get help with your writing project, in a smart, supportive, ongoing environment?

  • Want to spend some time with other writers at a free event on a Saturday morning in a comfortable, windowed room on Publication Day at the Omni in Downtown Charlottesville?

See you there!

Shape Shifters

You’ve played the game.  If you were an animal, what animal would you be?  When I was  asked, I was given three options:  A Lion.  A St. Bernard dog.   Or an Owl.  Iconic creatures.  Magnificent creatures.  All worthy of being spiritual guides.  All represent qualities worth emulating.  Leadership.  Loyalty.   Wisdom.   But the question remained, if I were an animal, which one would I be.   My answer was none.  None were my totem   None my spiritual animal guide.  I didn’t relate to any of these animals.

Born Leader

Born Leader


Loyal and Caring

Loyal and Caring




Then I stumbled upon a nature show on PBS  investigating cuttlefish.   Heard of  cuttlefish ?  They’re aquatic invertebrates, related to the squid and octopus.  Very intelligent creatures . . .  for invertebrates.

It’s me!

They have rudimentary problem solving capabilities and can change skin tone to camouflage into their backgrounds.  I saw a photo on the internet of a cuttlefish placed on a checkerboard.  It’s skin went from looking like sand to looking like it was covered with  black and white squares.  Very cool.

But the truly interesting thing about these creatures is that their skin colors seem to reflect their emotions.  Anger, lust, fear.   Their skin can change into one color to attract a mate, another color to scare an adversary.  The nature program showed a cuttlefish caught between a mate and a rival.  It visually split itself in half and looked like a handsome stud to the pretty girl and a tough guy to his rival.

That’s It!   That’s my animal . . .  The Cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish have all the qualities I admire:  Intelligence, adaptability, flashy when the mood is right, unseen when they need to hide. Master of disguise, king of camouflage, survivor extraordinaire.  Watch NOVA’s special KINGS OF CAMOUFLAGE  for more info.

The Cuttlefish

The Cuttlefish wearing pinstripes. Must be a formal occasion.

“Imagine an alien that can float through space, with a giant brain shaped like a doughnut, eight arms growing out of its head, and three hearts pumping blue blood. This alien lives right here on Earth. It’s called the cuttlefish, a flesh-eating predator who’s a master of illusion, changing its shape and color at will. It can hypnotize its prey or even become invisible.”

Cuttlefish are seen and unseen, real and unreal, of this earth yet alien.   The perfect description of a writer.

I’m an on-line cuttlefish.  In my blogs, my facebook page, my twitter feed.  My on-line presence reflects my emotions, not only in words, but also in colors.   I actually have two blogs.  One professional, the second personal.  My professional blog started out with muted colors, the way professional blogs are supposed to be.  White and tan and maybe a bit of light blue to jazz it up.  But then life got in the way and something would make me happy or sad or piss me off and –  BAM – just like a cuttlefish, my blog changed colors to reflect my emotion.  Yellow or blue or bright red. Actually the bright red background was a photo of me standing in front of a bar in Dublin with a red door but only the red door showed. Red.  That’s a pissed off color.  Then, I thought about presenting here at the Festival of the Book and decided my red Irish bar background was a little too wild so I pulled back and now the background to my professional blog is a calm, blue and green seascape.

In my blue phase

In my blue phase

My other blog is more personal. 

The background is a photo of the inside of a cathedral with a bit of stain glass color, peeking out like a ray of hope.   It’s mostly dark gray and black. That’s my cancer journal.    I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in December, had surgery in January, and am now undergoing radiation treatment at the amazing Emily Couric Cancer Center at UVA.  My prognosis is good but I’m not ready to change the dark gray background to something more cheerful.   Not yet.   Maybe after the radiation treatment is all over and I’ve been cancer free for a few years.    Maybe it will go to pink or yellow.  Something cheery.

I’m sharing all of this is just to point out the main advantage of being a writer.

The main advantage of being a writer is that for us, there’s no such thing as a bad experience.  Every experience informs our writing, whether positive or negative, whether speaking at the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book or being diagnosed with cancer.  Each experience brings depth to our writing.

When you join a writing group, you are giving someone else (strangers, friends)  access to your pain.  Whether you write fiction, nonfiction or memoir.  These women and men are going to peer into your heart.  They’re going to see you emotionally naked.  So finding the right group is important.   You need to be in a group that is going to give you honest feedback, but is also going to respect your journey as a person.  No one can reveal their soul if they fear gossip and ridicule.

Trust is the cornerstone of any great writing group.

How Fiction saved the world

Almost seventy years ago the first atomic bomb tests were conducted in New Mexico and, to the surprise of all, there still hasn’t been a nuclear war!  What saved us from a nuclear holocaust?   Was it our wise leaders?  Was it our basic instinct to survive?  Did angels intervene?  

Or was it something much simpler that saved us from nuclear war?

War Room from Dr. Strangelove

Option 1: Wisdom of our leaders.   Currently eight countries have nuclear weapons.  United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea.  All have violent histories, and several have instigated or participated in atrocities such as slavery, genocide, and the mass bombing of civilian targets.   The odds that the leaders of all of these countries (and possibly more) have the wisdom needed to prevent nuclear war are slim.

Option 2: Our basic instinct to survive. Since July, 1945, there have been more wars on this planet than I can count.  Brutal genocides haunt almost every continent: The Holocaust in Europe, the Killing Fields in Asia, and the Rwandan Genocide in Africa.  Humans beings show no hesitancy in their rush to kill human beings, so it’s unlikely that either morality or instinct prevented nuclear war.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Option 3: Angelic intervention.  Since angels are unverifiable, let’s put this option aside for now.

None of these three options adequately explain why all eight countries refrained from using the bomb.   None adequately explain why no world leader ever gave the order or pressed the button.  What if something else saved humanity from a nuclear holocaust?  Something so simple that Robert Oppenheimer and the other scientists involved in the 1945 tests would have thought impossible.

Option 4: Popular Fiction saved us!

Yes!   Books and movies about nuclear war and its aftermath saved our planet from “the radiance of a thousand suns” as Oppenheimer called the first atomic blasts, quoting The Bhagavad-Gita.

From Godzilla, King of the Monsters to the original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston to Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, books and movies have graphically portrayed the wretched horror of a post-apocalyptical world caused by nuclear war.

 Fear of ridicule is greater than fear of death.

Final scene in original Planet of the Apes

Moreover, books and movies illuminate the type of leader who might instigate a nuclear war.  Men like Greg Stillson, the psychotic Bible salesman who rises to the presidency in Stephen King’s THE DEAD ZONE .  Men like Jack D. Ripper, the idiotic general who wants to destroy the earth in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Fear of being labeled psychotic or idiotic not only by history, but also by friends and family undoubtedly had as much to do with why neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy hit the red button as did their leadership.  Maybe even more!  No one wants to go down in history as a President Stillson or General Ripper!

In conclusion, popular fiction alerted the public of the dangers of nuclear war and nudged the human consciousness away from thinking of nuclear weapons as a viable method of subduing an enemy.

Now, almost seventy years later, the threats facing the planet have changed.

Our endangered Oceans

Our endangered Oceans

Both politics and science have failed to convince the general population of the dangers of climate change.

Our leaders have done nothing to lessen the world’s addiction to carbon based fuels.  Quite the opposite, many actually encourage it.

Perhaps if books and movies turn a critical eye towards the causes of climate change, the world will follow and disaster can be averted once more.

The Fate of the Ocean


Our oceans are under attack, and approaching a point of no return.

Can we survive if the seas go silent?

Illustration: Yuko Shimizu

WE’RE IN FOR A WILD RIDE, say Oceanus’ 13-person crew, salts old and young, most of them Cape Codders with lifelong careers on the water. Consequently, many of the 12 members of the scientific team—oceanographers, science technicians, and graduate students, along with this observer—scatter across the ship’s three decks in the moments before we sail, seeking privacy for our last cell phone calls home, backs turned to the rain, shouting against the wind. At 177 feet and more than 1,000 tons, R/V (research vessel) Oceanus is the smallest ship in the long-range fleet of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and I suspect there’s not one of us aboard this morning who doesn’t wish we were sailing on one of the larger vessels.

Bad weather at sea is exponentially worse than bad weather ashore. The liquid world reacts in a pyrotechnical way to blowing air, exploding into the marine equivalent of a firestorm at winds that onshore might only make you button your coat. We’re headed into a Force 9 (strong gale) on the 12-point Beaufort scale. Before we make landfall, one week hence, we’ll have dabbled in Force 10 (storm) and skirted Force 11 (violent storm) conditions. Force 12 is a hurricane.

Outside of Buzzards Bay, we’re slammed with 20-foot seas ripped white by wind and careening unpredictably on the shallow waters of the continental shelf. The swell is abeam of us, and Oceanus wallows with the corkscrew motion sailors despise. One by one, those of us not on watch disappear below to set the storm rails on our bunks, wedge our life jackets under the edges of our mattresses, climb in, wait, and hope for intestinal fortitude and good seamanship from Captain Lawrence Bearse’s crew on the bridge. The only way to avoid being flung from our bunks by the violent motion is to hold on and hug the wall, which is essentially the outer skin of the vessel. It’s a strangely intimate experience, below waterline, feeling the ship bowing and flexing against our backs, and absorbing into our bones the deafening thunder of steel as the largest waves drive Oceanus nearly to a shuddering stop before her single propeller fights back with the power of 3,000 horses. I’m torn between staying awake and worried in a fascinated kind of way, or falling into oblivious sleep.

A cold front from the north, fueled by the remnants of Tropical Storm Tammy, and Subtropical Depression 22 are merging and birthing a midlatitude cyclonic monster destined to grow 1,100 miles in diameter. Twenty inches of rain have already fallen over parts of New England, the region’s weightiest rain event since 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. A day earlier, en route to Woods Hole and stuck in Chicago by weather so bad it closed down Boston’s Logan Airport, I called Ruth Curry, the expedition’s chief scientist, to ask what she made of the forecast. “Science doesn’t stop for the weather,” was her cheery reply.

Concerns about weather are part of what’s sending us to sea in the first place. By studying the ocean’s chemistry, which affects currents and, in turn, weather, Curry hopes to better understand how we humans might be affecting the critical elements of our own life-support system. Data from physical oceanography, marine biology, meteorology, fisheries science, glaciology, and other disciplines reveal that the ocean, for which our planet should be named, is changing in every parameter, in all dimensions, in every way we know how to measure it.

The 25 years I’ve spent at sea filming nature documentaries have provided a brief yet definitive window into these changes. Oceanic problems once encountered on a local scale have gone pandemic, and these pandemics now merge to birth new monsters. Tinkering with the atmosphere, we change the ocean’s chemistry radically enough to threaten life on earth as we know it. Making tens of thousands of chemical compounds each year, we poison marine creatures who sponge up plastics and PCBs, becoming toxic waste dumps in the process. Carrying everything from nuclear waste to running shoes across the world ocean, shipping fleets spew as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as the entire profligate United States. Protecting strawberry farmers and their pesticide methyl bromide, we guarantee that the ozone hole will persist at least until 2065, threatening the larval life of the sea. Fishing harder, faster, and more ruthlessly than ever before, we drive large predatory fish toward global extinction, even though fish is the primary source of protein for one in six people on earth. Filling, dredging, and polluting the coastal nurseries of the sea, we decimate coral reefs and kelp forests, while fostering dead zones.

I’m alarmed by what I’m seeing. Although we carry the ocean within ourselves, in our blood and in our eyes, so that we essentially see through seawater, we appear blind to its fate. Many scientists speak only to each other and studiously avoid educating the press. The media seems unwilling to report environmental news, and caters to a public stalled by sloth, fear, or greed and generally confused by science. Overall, we seem unable to recognize that the proofs so many politicians demand already exist in the form of hindsight. Written into the long history of our planet, in one form or another, is the record of what is coming our way.

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