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Be a better reader to be a better writer

A simple writing truth is that to be a great writer, you must be a great reader. To fully absorb the author’s artistry, analyze the stories you read to understand how the writers crafted them. How did the author engage you as a reader? What was satisfying about the story? What craft elements stood out for you? What didn’t work?

As I read, I stay alert for sentences or paragraphs that cause a ping in my chest. Then I ask myself why I liked them and make a note.

Watch for these elements of writing craft as you read.

Metaphors. I assigned myself a project this week to make a note of metaphors that stand out in my reading. They don’t even have to be good. We can learn from something we read that doesn’t seem to work quite right. Note the metaphor and why you do or don’t like it. I’ll be doing a blog post in the future where I’ll share a list I’ve collected.

Description. When you read a distinctive description of a character or a setting, take notes about what makes it different so you can apply the ideas to your own work. Look for descriptions that are organic to the story. In the post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, he describes the world his father and son characters inhabit. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” Read more

Grab your reader with a good beginning

Good beginnings matter, whether you write poetry, memoir, novels, or short stories.

A compelling beginning hooks your reader’s attention, including agents and editors, who may hold the key to publishing. Imagine your readers walking around a bookstore and pulling books off the shelf to read the first page or downloading a sample to read online. Would your book capture their interest?

Check your story’s beginning against these three elements of a good beginning. Good stories should:

Raise a question. Create a sense of curiosity to draw readers into your story. At the heart of every good story is a question that must be answered. A protagonist wants something and the reader must read to the end for the answer.

Hint at what’s to come as your story unfolds. A beginning is an opportunity to set a tone and give clues to what’s in store. One of my favorite books and an example of how the author set a tone is “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.

Surprise the reader. How often are you surprised by the first paragraphs of a book? This book surprised me in the first line:
“The Winter War” by Philip Teir
“The first mistake that Max and Kateriina made that winter — and they would make many mistakes before their divorce — was to deep-freeze their grandchildren’s hamster.”

Check out these examples and see how they meet the criteria of good beginning.

“The Haunting of Hill House” is a ghost story by Shirley Jackson, who also wrote, “The Lottery.”
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Read more

The poem I’m carrying in my pocket today: A call to create

Today is Carry a Poem in Your Pocket Day in the United States — the day every April where people select a poem to carry in their pocket and share with others. It’s one more way to celebrate poetry during National Poetry Month.

I’ve been reading the work of Spanish poets recently and found a poem that struck me. “Throw Yourself Like Seed” by Miguel de Unamuno speaks to me about the low points that can affect all of us and the call to return to what makes us feel most alive — our work, which for me means writing.

“Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;” de Unamuno writes.

Ultimately, finding purpose through a creative pursuit builds strength and is the way to a full life. And the words we commit to the page will be a legacy long after we are gone.

“But to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
Is the work; start there, turn to the work.”

Read more

If you want to be a poetic writer, read and write poetry

Part of the pleasure of reading is discovering a word or an arrangement of words that resonate. Like any aspect of writing craft, injecting a poetic influence in your work requires practice. No matter what genre you write, poetry can influence your work.

In honor of National Poetry month, consider adding these reading and writing activities to your creative practice:

Write a poem a day. Several years ago, I decided to do a project where I would write a poem a day. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to write great poetry. I just set the intention. Some days I wrote poems I liked. Other days, I struggled and felt happy if I could write several images or lines that I could work with.

Keep a poem-a-day journal to write your poems and record observations. As you go about your daily life, watch and listen for things that spark your curiosity. My poetry practice had an interesting side effect: I found it enhanced my powers of observation. Read more about it in this post, including tips for starting your own poem-a-day practice.

Read a poem a day. Poetry can help you break through resistance that stalls your writing. If you want to write poetry or anything else poetically, read a poem every day to prime your writing practice. Read poems first all the way through and then read them again to analyze each line. Write in your notebook the lines and images that resonate. Read the poems aloud.

Sign up at Poets.org to receive a poem-a-day all year in your e-mail. For the month of April, Knopf Poetry will send out a poem a day. Visit the Knopf Doubleday website to sign up. (Click “newsletters” in the left sidebar, check the poetry box, and enter your e-mail.)

Writing poetry is not only a good way to become observant of the world around you. Writing and reading poetry make you conscious of words and their meanings and create a hyper awareness that spills over into all your writing.

For today’s inspiration, read the poem by Mark Strand featured on this year’s National Poetry Month poster, then go write your own poem:

Eating Poetry
Ink runs
from the corners
of my mouth.
there is no happiness
like mine.
I have been eating
poetry.

From Collected Poems by Mark Strand

Don’t know what to write about? Write about your obsessions

In all the writing classes I teach, this writing lament comes up at least once from a student: “I don’t know where to start.”

Maybe they’ve started something and it didn’t pan out. The story didn’t hold their interest. Or they have this need gnawing at them to write, but they haven’t figured out what to write about.

Most of us have moments of writer’s freeze. Most of us get stuck at some point because we get into a mindset of being too orderly. But the birth of a story or poem or essay is a messy, disorderly act and imposing too much order in the beginning doesn’t work so well when you’re capturing the energy of a first draft.

It begins with letting go of your analytical mind. Ultimately every writer has to find their own way into that well. But identifying your obsessions can be a powerful way to figure out what to write about.

The beauty of writing about your obsessions is that you will fully engage, feel completely alive, and have energy to write to the end. The passionate force of your obsessions turns your writing into a transformative act.

So how do you tap these obsessions? One sure way to open the well of words and ideas is by simply writing. It always starts with moving our fingers on the keys or notebook. And in that act, our deepest fears, desires, and obsessions come to light. Try these ideas: Read more

How one piece of writing can morph into something else

A few of my writing friends and I meet up occasionally to read our work and give each other feedback. One day, I read a poem I’d written about an encounter with a woman who had Alzheimer’s.

When I finished reading it, one of my friends said, “I really like that character. I want to know more about her. I think you should write a story about her.”

I’m not sure why, but when I get a writing idea, I usually know exactly what format it should take: poem, short story, novel, flash fiction. But I realized that one format CAN evolve into something else.

It really made me think. Maybe some of the writing we do is a warm up that can take us in a new direction. My poem still stood on its own as a complete poem, but my friend inspired me to learn more about my character and where I could take her story.

So I was especially interested in a blog post by Roz Morris, on her blog Nail Your Novel.com. Morris suggests that if you want to see if you can turn a short story into a novel, start by doing some planning. Whether you sketch out general ideas or a detailed outline, this plan will help you see the possibilities. Next, “climb in and explore” your story. See if and what you can enlarge in your story. For more excellent tips, read the whole blog post, How to turn a short story into a novel.

Roz also has a series of Nail Your Novel books that you can check out on her blog.

Exercise: Look at your body of writing. Do you have a piece that could be the beginning of something different? Write on.

 

Writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider, or how to get your creative juices flowing

Ok, I lied. This post isn’t really about writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider—more like life advice.

Hang with me for a moment. You’ll see what I mean.

After taking nearly a year off from writing poetry, I had an idea to kick start 2015 with the goal of writing two to three new poems a week for the month of January. But I wasn’t feeling very inspired. Some pretty heavy stuff was going on in my life, and I felt drained.

Then, a gift arrived in the mail.

My blogging partner Carly sent me The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, by Diane Lockward (I hadn’t even mentioned my goal to her…scary how we think alike, isn’t it?)

Now, I’m normally NOT a “prompt” person but being the good friend that I am, I felt I should at least flip through the book so I could extend my sincere gratitude to her. (Wink. Wink). Late one night, I dragged the book to bed with me and the strangest thing happened—the pages reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Hands down, best poetry craft and prompt book. Ever. Nine of the ten poems I’ve written so far this month were inspired by the book.

But what does this have to do with a Tasmanian cave spider? Read more

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