Friday, October 24, 2014

First Step, First Draft

I noted the quote and picture above posted on facebook today by Authors Publish. I am not endorsing them but take a look at the webisite if you have any interest. The quote here inspired me to write about first drafts today.

I've known beginning writers who have acted upon a good idea for a story that had them panting to get to the computer and write the whole thing. Gotta do it while it's fresh in our minds. Right? They get excited and write the story and send it to an editor the same day. Big mistake.

It's a rare writer who can call a first draft a publishable piece. It's you taking that idea that's been swirling in your head and putting it in black and white. It's your template--the pattern from which you'll continue to create a finished piece.

Have you ever had a story idea that keeps coming back to your mind over and over? If you have, you know you absolutely must start writing or the idea is going to consume your every waking moment. OK, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but close enough. You have to tell yourself the story before you can tell it to readers. 

It's a good idea to write the story from beginning to end without stopping. Don't consider any revisions at this point. Once the final paragraph is done, put it in a file. Don't even read it through, even though you'll be tempted. Go empty the dishwasher or out for a walk or make a phone call. Get away from what you've written. Go back the next day or even two or three days later and read it. 

You may have one of two reactions. You'll either be pleased as a cat lapping up a bowl of milk or as depressed as a man just turned down after a proposal. Either way, your next step is to start revising. Look at the piece as objectively as you can--and that's not always an easy task--and get to work. Check your overall impression and decide what major changes are needed. Then do a line by line edit and revision, cutting where needed and expanding on areas that might benefit. 

Few good writers do one rewrite and call it quits. One of the authors at the convention I attended earlier this month has a trilogy of historical novels that are quite good. In his workshop, he mentioned that he rewrote the first book in the series twelve times. Twelve times! That's an even dozen. Is the man a perfectionist? Possibly. Or he may have wanted to have the best novel he could write. 

The first draft is step one in writing a publishable piece. We all know that step one is the very best place to begin. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Avoid Cliches in your Writing

a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usuallyexpressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lostoriginality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser,or strong as an ox.(in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, characterdevelopment, use of color, musical expression, etc.

Time to confess. Are you guilty of using cliches in your writing? It's quite alright to admit it. If you do, you're in good company. Me included! Why do writers resort to a cliche when an original phrase would be so much better? 

They're convenient; they're ingrained in us from childhood; it's a lazy/easy way to write. We use them to make an interesting comparison but end up becoming just another writer instead of one who stands out.

I've been guilty of using cliches and have had it pointed out in critiques from members of my crit group many times. I do try to make amends when I rewrite but I don't always succeed. I'm working on it and trying to erase cliches from my stories. It's hard because they are so convenient; we can pluck them out of our memory bank in a flash.

I found an excellent article on the use of cliches that delves into the subject on a deeper scale. The author talks about phrases we use but also how cliches are seen within our story structure, too. Read the article and pay special attention to the section on story cliches.


Look at this list of cliches. Rewrite each one in a more original way. 

1. time will tell

2. fit as a fiddle

3. old as the hills

4. time heals all wounds

5. gut-wrenching pain

6. nerves of steel

7. nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof

8. brave as a lion

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Listen To Your Heart

A good many years ago, I submitted to a Chicken Soup for the Soul book for the first time. The story was a simple one, a childhood memory, that I thought might work for the Fathers and Daughters book. 

I hesitated to send it. Why? My pride told me it was impossible because rejection hurts a lot. Experience added that I hadn't been writing very long, and the Chicken Soup editors received hundreds, maybe even a thousand or more, submissions for each book. My chances were pretty slim. Reason stepped in and sneered at me as it told me it was pointless to send this story in. What would it matter to the rest of the world?

All three had ganged up on me, and then a funny thing happened. My heart whispered softly in my ear. Your story is something others can relate to. Go ahead and give it a try. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I pushed pride, experience and reason out the door. I liked what my heart told me. 

I sent the story and many months later, I received a notice that I had made it to the finals. My heart did a happy dance. I waited a few weeks longer before learning that the story would be included in the book. What a thrill to hold the published book in my hand a few months later. 

That story was "Love In A Box" which is all about a Valentine box my dad made for when I was in the second grade. At age seven, I suddenly realized that my hardworking father truly loved me. For a child, that revelation came as a startling discovery, one that left a life-long impression on me. Apparently, readers related to it and responded positively, so much so that the story has been published many times in English and some foreign languages.It's even appeared in two Chicken Soup books. You can read it here. 

What if I hadn't listened to my heart? What if I'd let those three bullies push me into a corner? This was the first of my fifteen Chicken Soup for the Soul stories that have been published. There are those who advise to use your head, not your heart. In many instances, that's good advice. Once in awhile, however, you should heed the advice your heart sends to you. It might be the smartest thing you ever did. And if not--there's always another chance. 

Here's a final call for submissions on a new Chicken Soup book. Deadline is only days away, so see what you have in your files that will work, do a little revison and send it in. That is, if your heart tells you so!

Hope and Miracles
Everyone has experienced events in their lives that cause wonder and astonishment and give them hope for a better future. Why did these things happen? Were they answered prayers? Did divine intervention have something to do with it? Share your inspirational true stories with us to remind us that each day holds hope and that a miracle can happen at any time. The deadline for story and poem submissions is October 30, 2014.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Do You Read Biographies?


My local library sent me a list of new biographies and memoirs this morning. At the top of the list, I found the one I wanted to read. Maeve Binchy has always been one of my favorite authors. Actually, I like to call her storyteller because she had a gift for doing just that. She died two years ago and her final book, A Week In Winter, was published posthumously. So yes, I definitely want to read Maeve Binchy The Biography.

I've always felt that Ms. Binchy drew from her own background when writing her novels, much the same as Catherine Cookson had done. Read more about this new biography at Amazon.

All this brings me to today's topic--reading biographies. Far too many readers avoid nonfiction. Instead, they want an entertaining, heart-thrilling novel in their hands. I like those, too, but biographies are fascinating. We read about the lives of people we either admire or find disgusting. Humans are a curious lot--we want to know what made a person the way he/she was. What happened to them early on that influenced their accomplishments later in life? Who were the people who had an impact on them? 

We also read biographies to learn life lessons through what others have done. Even in the middle grades of elementary school, teachers encouraged us to read biographies. I remember reading about Jane Adams who started a settlement house for the poor in Chicago at a time in history when women usually sat inside on a sunny afternoon and did needlework. They didn't become activists. The story of her life stayed with me for many years. I had an example of a strong woman. Her story may have encouraged many a young woman to work for a cause, stand up for a belief and help others. And it led me to read more biographies. Pretty easy to write a book report for English class on someone's life story. We also learned a great deal of history through that kind of book.

We don't want to read a biography that reads like a report. A biographer needs to put some zip into the life story he's telling. We don't want to read a list of dates and places as much as we want to read personal anecdotes that reveal the character traits of the person in the book. Like all authors, there are outstanding biographers and mediocre ones, as well.

You probably prefer reading a biography of a person you admire rather than one you don't. Unless it satisfies you to read about character flaws in the disliked person. Author, Kitty Kelley, made a lot of money writing unauthorized biographies. She dug up all the dirt she could find on a celebrity and wrote a book. They sold well. They're OK to read now and then, but don't take every bit of information as gospel truth. It may not be exactly as written; that's something the reader must sift and sort for themselves.

Autobiographies tend to have a narrower focus than a biography written by another person. They also give us a close glimpse into the person who is writing his/her own life story. If they don't fudge, it should be true because who would know the story better? 

If you haven't read a biography before, or haven't read one for a long time, take some time to check that section in your bookstore, local library or online. There's a wealth of treasure to choose from, something that should appeal to almost every reader. Take a look at the list at GoodReads.

I noted that there is one copy of the Maeve Binchy biography at my library. It is out but there were no other holds on the book. Guess who put in a request? I'm looking forward to curling up on the couch with a book I know I'll enjoy. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

What About Writing Poetry? ({Part 2)

Poet, Roy J. Beckemeyer, has a second guest blogger post for us on the topic of poetry. Roy explains the ins and outs of poetry in a reasonable and understandable way. I'm learning something from his posts and I bet you are, too. If you didn't read the first one, be sure to click on the link and do so. Roy leaves us with promise of another installment of your own personal poetry class. Here's Part 2:

Thanks to Nancy for asking me to pen another poetry-writing piece for her blog. In an earlier installment, we discussed line length as one feature that distinguished poems from prose.

Another difference between poetry and prose is the way the poem sounds when read (preferably aloud). Poetry probably had vocal origins, and the rhythmic pattern of poetry, the assonance, dissonance, alliteration, the richness or starkness of the spoken words all contribute to the poem's feel and message.

Let's discuss rhythm as an element that distinguishes prose and poetry. A traditional and once common rhythmic pattern in English language poetry is based on the iamb. This is a unit of measure in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. It is likely the most common form because it reminds us of our own heartbeat (da dum). It is also the pattern that became familiar to most of us because we heard it in nursery rhymes or when reading Shakespeare. The iamb is also called an iambic foot (a foot is a rhythmical unit of two or more syllables; various feet are combined to make up a line).  If you combine five iambs together to make a line, you get a form called iambic pentameter, a five-footed line in which each foot (or nearly each one) is an iamb.

Here's a commonly-used example, the opening line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 12:

                        "When I | do count | the clock | that tells | the time"

I have used a bold font to denote the stressed syllables and the vertical line to separate the feet. Notice that iambic pentameter sounds a bit "sing-song-y." Poets often change one of the iambs to another pattern to vary the rhythm a little. For example, here is a nursery rhyme in which three feet are used:

                        "Jack and Jill | went up | the hill
                        to fetch | a pail | of water"

Here the first foot of the first line has been changed to a three-a three-syllable one, with an unstressed syllable separating two
 stressed ones.  The second line ends with a tri-syllabic foot in which a stressed syllable separates two unstressed ones.

You can find many examples of rhymed poetry. Reading them, you will be able to decipher how the poet used various kinds of feet to provide the feel and richness of their particular poems. There is a nice summary of traditional formal poetry, and the other various feet and meters that are commonly used. You should look at that tip sheet to widen your understanding of the rhythms of formal poetry.

Blank verse is written in iambic pentameter, but the ends of the lines do not rhyme. Here is an example from Milton's Paradise Lost (Book 8: line 460):

                        "Mine eyes | he clos'd | but op | 'n left | the Cell
                        Of Fan | cie my | inter | nal sight, | by which
                        Abstract | as in | a transe | methought | I saw
                        Though sleep | ing, where | I lay | and saw | the shape..."

You might notice that the rhythmic structure of the examples we have used could be read to the cadence of a metronome. So it is likely no surprise that traditional rhythmic patterns are referred to as the meter of the poem.

Most of the poetry written these days is unrhymed and also does not use any of the traditional repetitive rhythmic patterns; it is therefore called Free Verse. But free does not imply the lack of rhythm. One way of viewing the rhythm of a free verse poem was stated by Ezra Pound, who said that it takes the form of "the sequence of a musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome." That is, the rhythmic structure of a free verse poem is more complex (its units are not feet, but in phrases or lines), and is generally not repetitive.

We will investigate the rhythms of free verse in a future installment. 

Some References

Cooper, G. Burns. 1998. Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse. Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA.

Flint, F. S. 1913. "Imagisme." Poetry Magazine. 1(6): 198-200.

Haskell, Dennis. 2002. Rhythm and Resonance in Poetry. Pp. 157-163 In Brenda Walker (ed), The Writer's Reader: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Poetry. Halstead Press. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Pound, Ezra. 1913. "A Few Don'ts by an Imagist." Poetry Magazine. 1(6): 200-206.

Friday, October 17, 2014

One of the Tools You Need To Be A Writer

One of the things I urged the attendees in the workshop I taught last weekend is to read about writing. Too many new writers plunge right in writing without arming themselves with the tools of the trade. It would be mighty nice if we could decide to write, then step right up to the batter's box and hit a homerun. (Sorry, but with the Royals in the World Series, baseball is on my mind!)

Artists and craftsmen need tools of some sort. For the writer, one that can be ongoing is to read as much as possible about writing. I suggested three books in that workshop that I particularly like. Here's a list of those three and two others for you. I've added links to their Amazon page so that you can scroll down the page and read the reviews and summary. Check your local library or purchase at your favorite bookstore, whether that is a local one or online.

1. On Writing by Stephen King The man knows what he's talking about. His long list of published books should tell us that immediately. Best part is that he writes about writing clearly and has some excellent information to give a new or intermediate writer.

2. Writing Alchemy--How To Write Fast and Deep by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett  Editors of a womens' memoir website, these two women have written an award winning book for writers. This is a memoir edition, but the lion's share pertains to all kinds of writing. It kept me occupied and interested on an overseas flight a couple of summers ago.

3. Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott  You may notice the publication date being a bit old on this one, but don't let that deter you. Anne LaMott is an entertaining writer with good advice.

4. Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress  I read this book a number of years ago, and I read it again a few years later. This newer edition will help the novelist, short story writer and those who write personal essays, memoirs and more. Part of the Writer's Digest series.

5. The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron  A highly acclaimed gift book to give to aspiring authors, this one has plenty for a writer to absorb about the writing life and the emotional side. Her famous Morning Pages section is worth a read all on its own.

There are so many others to choose from but these are a few that I especially liked. There are many that are geared to a certain genre. If you specialize in writing for kids, google to find a list of the many books on this subject. Do the same with whatever part of writing interests you most but also read the ones that are a more general all about writing refernce book.

I'll close today with a great poster I found on my facebook page.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sometimes Writers Have To Make Hard Choices

This woman looks perplexed. I have a writer friend who must be having the same expression on her face, even though she lives on the other side of the world from me. She recently had to face an unexpected tragedy in her extended family. She wrote about it and asked for feedback.

Those who read her personal essay were all of the same mind--it was powerful and needed to be submitted for publication somwhere. I agreed at the outset but a question from the wirter made me step back and think a bit more. The piece has names and points fingers to the writer's family members, but it is not done in a malicious way. It's seeing the situation for what it is. I think she wrote it as a beginning to a healing therapy for herself but it could be hurtful to others in her family.

The writer asked if she should change the names or if it should even be published at all.

Writing difficult things about family and friends creates a dilemma. Even if it is one of the best things you've ever written, should you risk alienating family members by publishing? Do you take the chance that they would probably never read it if it's published in a small magazine or an online website? Do you tell them that you have written an unflattering essay about the family and that you really meant no harm but wanted to tell the story as you saw it? Do you write the story and change the names even though they'd probably recognize themselves anyway?

Does she risk losing some members of her extended family? Should she keep her written therapy in a file to publish much later when the wounds are not so fresh?

I've been in a similar situation with a few of the family stories I've written. I grew up with a father who could be extremely difficult to live with but who also loved his family deeply. He hurt so many people and he left me with so many stories to be written as to the how and why. I chose to not write anything about the difficult times until after he, and also my mother, had passed on. I still loved him enough that I wouldn't risk hurting him by telling the world what I thought of him. Nor could I hurt my mother by doing so either.

I did write a poem while Dad was still living that allowed me to begin some personal therapy over some things that happened long, long ago. But I put it in a file and have never considered publication for what turned out to be a powerful piece of writing. That was my choice. My writer friend must make her own choice, even while considering the advice others might give her.

If you find yourself having to decide whether to publish a fine piece of writing and risk hurting or alienating family or friends, you'll waver back and forth before you decide. It's far from an easy choice. The list of pros and cons might be short but important. What's also important to consider is how much relationships with the people involved means to you. Others can give objective advice but no one can make the final decision but you.