Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Use A New Approach

Most popular tags for this image include: eyes

This little poster should serve to make you sit up and pay attention. There's something about looking into another's eyes, or maybe 'eye' in this case, that commands your presence. The reason I selected it today is that time and again, I see a call for submissions asking for an original look at at an already covered subject.

Editors receive so many submissions that make them heave a huge sigh and think This has been done over and over. Give me something fresh. How many times do we read a book review in which the reviewer tells us that the story is well-done but predictable? 

What a successful writer does to combat either of the above situations is to use an original approach, to write with fresh eyes like the poster advises us. Sounds so easy, doesn't it? Sad to say, it's far more difficult than most people realize. Especially readers. They're the ones wanting that more original slant but it's the writers who must come up with an entirely new approach.

Children's magazine editors often put out a plea for stories on holidays like Halloween and Christmas that offer somethng new. If it's been done before, they don't want it. New writers, in particular, tend to copycat stories they liked themselves as children. No, they aren't plagarizing, but those older stories stayed with them and they write what they may think of as a different approach. In reality, they're right back to Susie and Nellie and the creaky door in Grandma's house. Or whatever story they happened to like a lot when they were kids themselves. 

We tell new writers to avoid writing phrases that are cliches. That goes for whole stories as well. If it's a tried and true subject but has a fresh approach, an editor is going to sit up and give it a second look. It's the same with essays and articles. Magazines don't want to keep printing stories or articles that all run in the same vein. Maybe a subject is very popular and you run across an article on it in several magazines. The one with a new approach is going to capture your attention and make you read to the end, isn't it? 

As writers, we want to avoid the same old, same old in what we submit for publication. That old story about the editor who told a reporter that Dog bites man is not newsworthy, but man bites dog definitely is puts it in a few but important words.

Another thing to avoid is to try to write in the same style as an author you admire. Don't do it. Develop your own style. Be an original. 

Write something new. Write an original approach to an old story. Write with fresh eyes. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

September Morning Thoughts

September In The Forest
September Morning

Isn't this a peaceful picture? It seemed perfect to greet a new month and the Labor Day holiday that we celebrate today. September brings changes in the weather, in our daily routine, and sometimes in our mood. 

August has come to a close, we've turned the page on our calendars, and our minds have turned to autumn, even though it doesn't officially begin for another 3 weeks. I like turning the page on the calendar every month. A whole month lies before me. Some of it is already scheduled as I check the little daily squares with notes I make to myself on the days I have appointments or social functions. But much of the month is unknown on day one. I have a sense of anticipation on the first day of each new month.

How about you? What are your thoughts on this Labor Day Monday, the very first day of September 2014? Did you look at your calendar and feel overwhelmed with what the month holds? Or did you look at it as one more new beginning? Could it be a time you start a fresh writing project? Will this be the month you write chapter one of a novel? Is September the month you'll finally start putting your family stories down in black and white instead of just telling them at family dinners?

I have a major project to begin this month. One that I've put off for a long time. The problem with putting things off is that the longer you procrastinate, the easier it is to keep it on the shelf. It becomes a habit to think about it, then shove it aside in lieu of other things. I've made up my mind that the project will begin in September even though it may not be finished this month. Once I begin, I know I'll keep working on this writing assignment I've given myself.

Thirty days hath September....and they're all yours. What will you choose to do with them? 

Friday, August 29, 2014

More or Less? Is There A Magic Formula for Just Right?

I've been working on a poem ever since we got home from Germany and Prague. No, that's not entirely right. I've been working on it from the time we made a stop in a small village in the Czech Republic with our tour group. The place has haunted me ever since seeing it and hearing the history from our tour director. Words and phrases that fit the situation have swirled through my mind all the days since.

Last week, I finally got a first draft written and after letting it sit a couple days, I did a small bit of editing and sent it to my online critique group. The response from all who critted it was mostly positive and even very encouraging but a few who critiqued wanted to know more about what happened in that village. Questions abounded. Tell us more some said.

I've been thinking about it and I have a huge question mark regarding adding a lot more to the poem just to tell more of the story. First of all, I liked the fact that people were moved enough to want to know more. But is more going to take away from the poem? Is more going to dim a little of what's already there? Will adding to the poem really enrich it or will it make it sound mediocre and more like a nonfiction article than a poem?

These are all questions I've been contemplating. I may add a little more to the poem but not a lot. I want there to still be the bit of mystery that I felt when I visited the small community. I received bits and pieces not a whole story with all the answers and that is what I want the poem to portray, as well. There are few situations in life where we receive all the answers.

When you write a poem or a piece of prose, do you ever feel that you've overdone it? Or do you think you should swell the piece with more tidbits of information? What's the magic formula? How do we know when to add more or when to cut, cut, cut and end up with less than the amount of infomation in our original draft?

It's a little bit like the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears.  The porridge was too hot, too cold, and then--just right. The chairs were too hard, too soft, and then--just right. The beds were the same until Goldilocks found the one that was just right. I'm looking for that just right stage with the new poem.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Satisfying Read For A Summer Day--Or Even A Winter Night

9780553391879A friend called recently to tell me about a book she'd read and enjoyed, thought I might like to read it. So, I checked at our library and found The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan on the shelf.

The book is touted as being in the timeless tradition of Maeve Binchy. When I read that, I knew I'd be in for a book that focused on people and the twists and turns in their lives. Turned out to be right on.
The book centers on Mary McAllister, a woman who became a recluse after a tragic event in her teen years and a short marriage with a man who abused and physically maimed her. Though Mary lives in her marble mansion alone, she has one dedicated friend, Father O'Brien, who is her lifeline for many years. We see many of the people of the community, learn of their stories and relationship of any kind to the reclusive woman. Most have never even seen her but many have a tie of some sort.

The story is set in Mill River, Vermont which is a small village filled with people who all have their own story. Ms Chan weaves the stories together very well, makes us cheer for the good guys and hiss at the bad ones. This is not a literary masterpiece but it's a good story which stirred me emotionally. The story is somewhat predictable, but that's alright. Ms Chan develops her characters well, moves the story along with good pacing despite many sections that are flashbacks.

I found it interesting that the book was published by a British publisher called Sphere, which is part of Little, Brown in the UK. The author is an American, the book is set in America so why? I'm guessing that American publishers didn't make an offer and the UK group did. This is a debut novel and publishers are wary of first novels, rightly so as their success is a gamble.

In the Acknowledgements section, the author mentions the help her friends gave in using social media to promote the book. As a result of whatever marketing Sphere did and the social media thrust, the book has sold over 700,000 copies and hit the bestseller list last year. The second Mill River novel was released earlier this week. Its title is The Mill River Redemption.

The first novel has been described byvarious  readers as heartwarming, a sweet story, about family, friendship and love. So, if you like a feel-good kind of story, this one's for you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Travel With A Writer's Eye

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Writers take vacations like lots of other people, but they have a distinct advantage. A writer often gathers material to write something either on the spot or later after enjoying the away-from-work time. A writer is often inspired to write while visiting a particular landmark or seeing something out of the norm while traveling. Or something that is especially appealing or moving.

The picture above is one my husband took on our recent trip to Germany. The Brandenburg Gate, built in the nineteenth century, has been the backdrop for many a political speech including ones given by American presidents like Clinton, Reagan and most recently, Barack Obama. A famous structure, famous people and a foreign country--perfect material to write a personal essay or a nonfiction travel piece.

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

The famed 'Checkpoint Charlie' in a divided Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down. Today, it's a spot for travelers to take pictures. It begs a writer to pen a personal essay about the experience. 

The Palace At Potsdam

We toured this private home, termed a palace, in Potsdam where the famed Potsdam Conference was held with Stalin, Churchill and Truman as the principles involved. It was here that the three heads of state divided the defeated Germany in 1945. As a writer, I sensed many possible stories that might be written about this place--the family who owned the palace at that time, the three leaders who met together, the many other people that had to be a part of the conference, the beautiful grounds, the morality of the entire situation, human profiles of each of the three leaders, the interior of the home and more. When writers vacation, they enjoy and relax but they also see with the writer's eye. 

A mosaic tile picture in Dresden

Dresden is one of Germany's most beautiful cities as well as being a small miracle in in its own way. Almost totally destroyed in bombing raids toward the end of WWII, the city was rebuilt. Not only rebuilt but created to look exactly as it had before the destruction. The art work shown here is very long and on an outside wall in the city. Thousands of pieces of tiny tiles were put together to form the picture illustrating the nobles of yesteryear. A story on the creative arts of Germany would be easy enough to write after hearing the tour guides explanation and viewing the piece in its entirety. 

The suburban area of Hamburg

Not a famous place at all, this hilly area outside Hamburg told its own story. Many areas have no road that reaches the houses. Instead, inhabitants or visitors or delivery people must climb steep paths and steps to reach the destination house. It was here that we visited a coffeehouse that overlooked the Elbe River far below. Easy enough to write a personal travel essay about a place such as this which would include the terrain, the views, the climb, the out-of-this-world cherry kuchen we ate. 

One of the Blue Bears of Berlin

Ken took a picture of me with one of the many Blue Bears of Berlin that were all decorated a little differently and placed inside or outside various businesses. This one was at the entrance to our hotel. Berliners knew that any business that had a bear had also given a chunk of money to a charity. A whimsical poem or story might easily be written about these lovable blue bears. 

No matter where you go--overseas or an hour away to a favorite lake--for your vacation, you can find something to write about. Maybe not at the moment but soon after you return home. Don't wait too long or you'll lose some of the thoughts and feelings you had when you were on the scene. A few notes jotted down at the time might help bring much of it back to you. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How To Do A Picture Prompt Writing Exercise

Walk In The Gardens

We haven't had a picture prompt writing exercise for quite some time. It's a stormy morning in Manhattan, Kansas, where I live, so this picture of a lovely day appealed to me. We do need the rain so I'm not complaining. It's just that I so much prefer a day like the one above.

When you do a picture prompt, don't rush into the writing part. Take some time to study the picture before you begin writing. Look at shapes, color, inanimate objects, the people or animals, clues to the season it might be. Immerse yourself into the picture enough that you can hear what is going on, maybe you can smell something, or feel a light breeze or a sharp wind.

If there are people in the picture, as there are here, ask yourself what they are doing. Where are they going? Are they in a hurry or on a leisurely walk? Are they happy? Or are they vexed? Is someone following the woman holding a bag? Is she going to meet someone? Has she just come from seeing her doctor?

Play the What if...? game with the picture. Ask yourself What if the woman falls down? What if the man in front of her turns and points a gun at her with the intention of robbing her? What if a huge bird swoops down and attacks her? You can ask the What if...? question for a long time. But don't let it get away from your original intent which is to use the picture to inspire you to write.

Now, you're ready to start writing. So, what's it going to be? A few descriptive paragraphs that set a scene? Or will it be the start of a fiction piece? Will it be a horror story, romance, or murder mystery? It's all up to you. You're in the driver's seat. Take us wherever you want to go.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Meet A Fine Poet Who Knows What He's Talking About

I'm honored to have Roy Beckemeyer as my Guest Blogger today. I met Roy through the Kansas Authors Club and have come to admire and appreciate his poetry. He was selected as Kansas Authors Poet of the Year in 2013, a well deserved honor. Roy's post will help both writers and readers of poetry. I guarantee you'll learn something from this post. Leave a comment for Roy.

What About Writing Poetry?

I know that as a creative prose writer you have already heard about all those tools at your disposal: "Show more than you tell...Use sensory details...Open with a hook ... Characterization ... Use similes and metaphors ... Use strong verbs ... Vivid description" (I borrowed these from Nancy's Blog posting "What Do You Know About Creative Nonfiction?"). And each of these applies equally well to poetry writing.

So what is it that distinguishes prose and poetry? One difference is the use of line breaks. In prose our sentences go on  until they hit a margin, then continue on the next line. In poetry, lines can break wherever the poet wishes.

Why break a line in the middle of a sentence? Let's look at some examples (quoted poems are by the author unless otherwise attributed).

One reason is to encapsulate a string of words on one line to provide emphasis to a thought or image.

"Near midnight, the Milky Way crescendos"

Or the line may make a nice sounding sequence of words. Notice, in the line below, the repeat of the hard "c" sound in each phrase, the repetition of the double-l sound, the ending of each phrase with the same word, "moon," and how smoothly and pleasantly the line rolls off your tongue.

                        "the cotton-ball moon, the dollop of cream moon"

The line may entice us on to the next line. In the three lines below, the first two lead us on to the next line to see which leaf hasn't fallen, then the poet plays with us a bit by the let-down of the third line. He has led us on to a small disappointment.

"All the leaves
are down except
the ones that aren't..." - from "Verge" by James Schuyler

The line may end on a word that we want to emphasize, as in the first line below, where ending on the word "weight" seems to make the word itself feel heavier.

                        "Finally feel the full weight
                        of the sky on your shoulders"

Or the line may contain a rhythmic count of beats.

                        "At last the end of fence-mending is near"

The line length may have been chosen by the poet to make the reader slow down or speed up. The long line length for this next sequence of words supports the image being portrayed by enticing us to read on rapidly to its end, just as hail falls swiftly to the ground.

                        "like a hailstone hitting the sidewalk and shatter
                        its brittle brilliant self back up into the sky"

Or the lines may just look good on the page.  The short stanzas of the next poem make a pleasing shape on the page. The first two stanzas are shaped the same, and help to lead us into the poem in their regularity, with the longer line followed by a shorter one. Then the whole poem tapers as it comes to a close. The sequence of two-line stanzas makes the poem open and slows us down, lets us take the time to think on what it has to say.

                        "On these hard-edged mornings
                        of late winter

                        spring aches for its chance,
                        longs to swell

                        out of every bud,
                        to enclose the angular

                        bones of trees
                        in an arpeggio,

                        a green song
                        of grace notes."  

                        (From my poem, "Lent".)

Finally, the line endings also work like punctuation marks (e.g., the period, comma, and semicolon) in that they cause us to pause or hesitate as we read. But they are also more versatile: they can build suspense, or add emphasize in other ways to the content of the poem, as we have seen in the examples above.

The next time you read or write a poem, spend a few minutes looking at the layout of its lines. Notice how the lines affect how you read the poem, on the impression it makes on you. Try breaking the lines in different places. How did that affect the poem as you read it? As you spend more time doing this, you will become adept at using thoughtfully chosen line lengths to add to the impact of your own poems.

- Roy Beckemeyer

Roy Beckemeyer is vice president of the Kansas Authors Club and a poet.  His work has been published in a variety of literary journals, including Beecher's, The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas City Voices, The North Dakota Review, Straylight, Mikrokosmos, Coal City Review and The Bluest Aye. He was the Kansas Authors Club poet of the year for 2013,