Wordsmith Wednesday–A Potpourri of Thoughts about Poetry

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While Wordsmith Wednesday tends to focus on fiction writing, from time-to-time I find it compelling to write an article about poetry. This is because many of the people who visit my blog are from the poetry communities I participate in, but even more so because poetry is the handmaiden of superb writing, whatever the genre.

For today’s post, I would like to reflect on a few reminders that can serve poets as well as fiction, or for that matter, non-fiction writers.

  • Don’t shy away from poetic forms. The discipline of adhering to prescribed forms such as those that define rhyme, meter and syllable count can serve as an aid when you run up against a brick wall. I turn to a haiku, an etheree, a quatrain, tercet or any number of “recipes” for writing when it seems as though my muse has gone into hibernation. This has never failed to help me jump-start my writing. There are a number of Internet references to teach you about form. Try Luke Prater’s Word Salad at http://lukepraterswordsalad.com/
  • Write quickly but revise with care. Poetry deserves the same careful attention as prose. Often, words and ideas rush in at you and it pays to jot them down as they come. First drafts of poems will often pour out in mere minutes. I’ve dragged myself out of bed in the middle of the night and jotted down almost-illegible epics that I don’t recognize in the morning. But then the work begins. I once read about a poet who excused himself from a writing conference because he had to revise a poem. He returned hours later and when asked how it had gone told his colleagues that he spent a few hours before deleting a comma and then, a few hours later, added it back in. I hope my days will be a bit more productive than that, but you get the point. I belong to an online poetry critique group and the advice I receive is invaluable. But, as with fiction, remember that you have the final say.
  • Sensory details make your writing come alive. Many beginning poets use their craft to probe emotion, to champion causes, and to express their opinions. Indeed, these are functions of poetry. But to be more effective, it behooves you to pepper your writing with devices such as metaphors or similes that employ those delicious sensory observations that you have picked up in the course of a day. I strongly suggest that you keep your senses, all of them, on high alert and then in the evening, take a few moments to jot down a dozen or so things you remember in your writing journal. You will be amazed at the inspiration you can cull from this exercise–for poetry or fiction.
  • Don’t quit your day job. Most likely you will not get rich selling poetry. You will not find an agent to represent your tome or make the NYT’s best seller list. You will find joy in the writing process. You’ll find that your prose takes on a literary quality whatever genre you dabble in and you can build up a platform for marketing your work if you engage in Internet poetry communities. There are a myriad of these that invite both seasoned and budding poets to post their work. A few of my favorites include Poetry Potluck: http://jinglepoetry.blogspot.com/; One Stop Poetry: http://onestoppoetry.com/ and Poetic Asides: http://blog.writersdigest.com/poeticasides/  All of these sites offer prompts and a forum to post or link your work. I also post a writing prompt on Monday morning which invites both poetry and short fiction.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Where to Start?

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If you’re a writer, I know you’re a reader. Or you better be. Think back on a recent trip to the bookstore or library or, perhaps, your initial foray into the sample you downloaded onto your Kindle. How do you choose a novel you want to buy?

One thing I look at, of course, is the cover. The art, the design, the overall attractiveness of the book’s presentation is a temptation that draws me to pull it off the shelf. Then I read the back cover and inside flaps. If it’s an author I know and already appreciate, that may be all it takes–but more often than not I turn to the opening chapter. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what is going to draw me, as a  reader into the story.

When I think back on the (literally) hundreds of rewrites I did on “Winter is Past,” 80% of them focused on the first fifty pages. I’m not talking edits here. I’m referring to total destruction of narrative already written. I’m alluding to using those little scissors on the tool bar of my computer or wadding up pages of manuscript and slam-dunking them into the wastebasket.

If a book doesn’t tantalize me in the opening chapters, I decide it’s not worth the however many years I have left from the perspective of the 60+ spectrum of my life span.

So what are some of the things that urge me to keep on turning pages?

  • I want to know who my protagonist is, what’s going on in his or her head, what kind of challenges is she going to allow me to share with her on her journey. I’m not talking about her blue eyes and blond hair. You can give me a physical description later on if you like, or you can allow me to conjure up my own image.
  • I’m looking for voice. What point of view has the author espoused? Is his character gentle, abrupt, victimized, crazy? Is she going to tell me about her or drag me into her psyche? Are there other POV characters I’ll get to meet?
  • Now, what about action? Are the opening pages wearisome with long paragraphs of description that don’t seem to lead me anywhere? How long do I have to wait for something to happen? Where’s the conflict? Even in character-driven novels, the conflict better come on pretty quickly or I’ll close the book, fall asleep and leave it unread.
  • And is the author going to just tell me what’s going on or is he going to allow me to immerse myself in the narrative by evoking my senses–smell, taste, touch, vision and hearing? Will I be able to suspend disbelief and identify with the protagonist? Please, please let me be a part of the story.

What other characteristics can you share that compel you to read on, to allow an author’s written word to become a part of your experience? What values do you expect to reap when you assent to spending your precious time with a book?

Wordsmith Wednesday–7 Things I’ve Learned So Far

For this weeks post, I’m going to share my article which was published on Sunday, August 29th on the Writer’s Digest blog hosted by Chuck Sambuchino:


1. Cultivate Beginner’s Mind. Whether you are a newbie or a seasoned writer, approach your work as though you were a novice. Read good writing in many genres. Subscribe to magazines such as Writer’s Digest. Devour books about the practice of writing. Reread classics and explore contemporary work. Give a book 50 pages then, if it isn’t working for you, put it aside. Never, ever become complacent. The day you believe you have arrived, you will cease to develop.

2. Refute the Myth of Writer’s Block. There are days when the last thing you want to do is face the ominous blank page—and sometimes that’s okay. But when one writing-free day leads to another and another, you are at risk of slipping into writer’s entropy. Devise a treatment plan that will free your creative muse from its self-imposed exile. Brainstorm with a friend; write a poem; revise a short story you’ve previously abandoned; take a walk in nature; pick random words from the dictionary and use all of them in a paragraph, poem or short, short story. Find a remedy that works for you.

3. Listen to Others, but Be True to Your Vision. Participation in critique groups and workshops is of immense value. Objective, balanced advice from fellow writers helps you develop your skills and improve your manuscript. Learn to listen to suggestions with an open mind and hone your ability to give feedback that is both constructive and encouraging. Take notes while your work is being reviewed. Soon after the session, correct typos, grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, but defer making changes related to plot or character until you have completed your first draft. Hold onto the reins of your story: the plot, story arc and characters belong to you at this point. Don’t do radical surgery until you are know it will improve the prognosis of your story.

4. Embrace the Process of Revision but Keep on Writing. I wrote my first novel in a little over a year and revised for eight years before it was accepted by an agent. Don’t be afraid of the hard work of writing. Take a break after you’ve completed the first draft—let your manuscript gestate. Be creative in the process of revising and editing: read your novel aloud; read it backwards, beginning with the last chapter, to discover unresolved story lines and inconsistencies in characters; read it with a focus on grammar, on active verbs, on tightening the narrative, eliminating unnecessary adverbs and adjectives; look for word echoes—you get the idea. But, in the meantime, move forward. Outline your next novel or book proposal. Write in a different genre. Try to balance your time between the new and the old. Finally, know when it’s time to give birth.

5. Query with Care. You will save yourself some of the heartbreak of rejection if you attend well to the process of submitting your work. Ask other writers for feedback on your query letter, synopsis and outline. Make them as succinct and compelling as possible and tailor your presentation to the agents or publishers to whom you are submitting. Do a thorough review of their websites to assure that you are meeting their requirements and that your masterpiece matches the type of work that they represent. Don’t send more than they request. And when you’ve accumulated your fair share of rejections, keep on trying—don’t give up. If you’re lucky enough to receive a personalized note of rejection, consider any advice that’s been offered and if necessary, be willing to take another look at your manuscript and, if needed, initiate CPR.

6. Manage Your Time and Organize Your Space. The creative process can be messy, even chaotic. Disorganization, however, can take over our lives and waste time. How can you maximize efficiency? Develop processes that work for you such as computer files, folders for research and document back-up systems. Decide whether you will work from an outline or if you prefer to let your characters lead the way. Before beginning to write, consider fleshing out character profiles and detailed setting descriptions. Avoid or limit time-busters such as computer games, surfing the Internet and other writing-avoidance gimmicks that have inched their way into your routine. Finally, design or discover a sacred space that invites you to unleash your creativity.

7. Adjust Your Definition of Success. Ask a writer how they define success. You will hear responses ranging from winning a Pulitzer to multiple weeks on the NYT Bestseller List. While I couldn’t argue with those answers, I’d like to think that, along the way, we achieve many smaller successes. From my agented-but-not-yet-published place on the continuum, I’d like to focus on some of the other achievements that have had meaning in my writing life: making the effort to show up at the blank page, publishing my first short stories and poems in small literary journals, completing those first drafts, finding the perfect word that expresses what I want to say, experiencing the zone outside myself when the writing just happens guided by the creative Spirit, receiving a complimentary rejection, knowing at the end of the day I’ve worked toward what I’m here on earth to accomplish. Celebrate success!

I strongly recommend this site, especially if you are looking for an agent. All of the Writer’s Digest blogs are well worth book-marking.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Revision and Outlining

Here’s a quick tip that I’ve found useful in revision. Whether or not you work from an outline, you know that as you write your story and characters lead you to unexpected places. When you’ve finished your first draft and allowed it a period of dormancy, a good way to begin revision is to ignore your first outline and revisit your story scene by scene, recreating an outline. This simple step allows you to identify story gaps, inconsistencies and any other unfinished business. In addition, if the agent or publisher you want to pursue requires an outline and/or proposal, you will have it ready to go. I have found it useful to ask a few questions when I’m in the process of completing this phase of revision:

  • What is the goal of this scene/chapter? What purpose does it serve?
  • What challenges do each of the characters face?
  • Does the scene move the story forward?
  • Does the scene occur when it should, or does it need to be moved somewhere else?
  • Does the ending of the scene propel the reader into the next chapter?

If you are able to answer these questions with clarity, you can feel more certain that the scene is a “go” and you will be ready to perfect the writing (grammar, syntax etc.) If not, well, it’s time to cut. I suggest that if you are really “in love” with it, paste it in a separate file so that you can cannibalize it for another story, another time. I’ve been able to use aborted paragraphs or descriptions in short stories or even poems.

Tomorrow I’m heading back to SoCal with the very real possibility of doing without an Internet connection until the 20th. As I said in a previous post, some things are more important than writing–caring for loved ones, for example. That being said, I’m sure I’ll find time and inspiration to write–but I don’t know if I’ll be able to post on my blog.

Enjoy your writing and the last few weeks of summer. Blessings to you.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Brainstorming

Sometimes you hit a deadend. The story line comes to a screeching halt and you have no idea how to get from point A to point B. Or in the revision process you have a glaring gap between scenes and you’re stuck for something to help in the transition. That’s happened to me often enough–just this week, in fact.

There are a couple of lifelines I rely on to help me move forward. One is “call a friend.” I find it essential to have a writing buddy or critique group that I can bounce ideas off of. Sit down together and brainstorm. Take a pencil and notebook and let the ideas flow. Maybe you won’t have an eye-opening experience during that session, but I guarantee you that 95% of the time, a golden nugget will emerge that will save you from creative bankruptcy.

Another technique you can use to help you brainstorm is to get out into nature or into a milieu that can transport you to another place. Let your senses take in whatever is happening around you. Listen to sounds and conversations, browse garage sales or bookstores, camp out at Starbucks, or just take a long walk. Give free rein to your mind and wait for the creative Spirit to take over.

And finally, just sleep on it. At bedtime, read a few pages surrounding or preceding  the black hole in your manuscript. Pray–ask to receive ideas that will inspire you to continue then see what happens in the morning. We are not alone in the writing process.

On Being True to Self–A Writer’s Voice

Photo: Victoria Ceretto-Slotto 2/10

My agent has forwarded me two letters of rejection from publishers–both of them complimentary. They mentioned “smooth writing,” “strong voice” etc. The reasons for both rejections stated something to the effect that there was overwhelming sadness in the story in spite of the hopeful ending.

My initial reaction was, “Well, I’ll do a rewrite and throw in some humor.” My close friend and writing buddy cautioned me against this and told me that it was probably more about not being a good match to the publisher’s list. This gave me reason to ponder–am I so anxious to be published that I will compromise the story I have to tell? I thought about literary fiction that I’ve read and appreciated dealing with painful subjects and reminded myself that my own life of working with death and dying predisposes me to deal with topics of loss, redemption, survival and hope.

The reason I’m indulging myself in this post is that it brings to mind the importance of being true to one’s inspiration and unique voice as a writer. We each have a sacred song to sing and I believe we are called to deliver our message to the best of our ability. My message in “Winter is Past” is that life is precious, live it fully and believe that the heart has room for love.

That being said, while being open to suggestions of an editor and willing to rewrite until I have calluses on my fingertips, I never want to be untrue to the song I have to sing.

A Few Tips for Editing–Part I

Here are a few suggestions to consider when editing your writing:

  • Set your manuscript aside for a while (weeks or months) before revision. The distance will give you better perspective when you return to what you have written.
  • Look for echos–that is to say noticable repetition of words or phrases. Sadness hung in the air like dense fog. I could see that she was sad, is an example of an echo.
  • Read your writing aloud to yourself and/or another. This process promotes the discovery of grammatical, syntactical and spelling errors.
  • If you choose to change point of view, make sure that you have provided the reader with a clear distinction between characters. Use spaces or chapter changes to shift point of view. Or use an omniciscent narrator.

I will return to this subject in future posts.