Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Contests: Part 1, Getting Started

IMG-3562Back in April, I attended a submissions workshop put on by the James River Writers and led by Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in the same room as Ms. Isokawa was a pretty surreal privilege, but I probably do need to tell you what I learned, which why I’m writing this blog post, as well as a follow-up later this month.

Why Submit

Submitting your writing–particularly your poetry, which can be deeply personal and painstakingly crafted–is scary, to say the least. You’re sending your work (AKA your soul) out into the world for all to see, and it’s probably going to get ignored (best-case rejection scenario) or bludgeoned (worst-case rejection scenario) for years before it ever finds its publication home (if it ever finds its publication home). Despite the vulnerability submitting your writing entails, there are many compelling reasons to put on your big-girl pants and start submitting. Here are a few:

  • Submitting your work helps get your work and your name out there.
  • Submitting your writing helps it–and you–find an audience, and once you find one, you can work to keep it.
  • Sending your writing out into the world, while it may open it up to abuse, is also one of the best ways to support your writing. You’re putting your stamp of approval–your faith–in its merit, and if you don’t believe in it, who will?
  • One of the most effective ways to network and build a writing community is through sending your work off.
  • Submitting your work such as poetry, essays, short stories, or articles can help lead to the accomplishment of larger publishing goals you may set–such as a book deal.
  • Sending your writing to contests, journals, and magazines can help motivate you to write, revise, and keep writing. Contest and submission deadlines, as well as the sense of validation you’ll feel when one of your pieces does get accepted, are excellent motivators.

Knowing When a Piece is Ready

Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you of the worth of risking not only your ego, but also your sense of identity as a writer, in submitting your writing to publications. But how do you know when a piece is polished enough for potential publication? Here are some signs:

  • It has successfully undergone an editorial review
  • Other people–readers and fellow writers alike–have read it and liked it
  • You have set it aside for a while and you like it when you reread it–you impress yourself
  • Your sure your own skin is thick enough to handle potential rejection
  • You’re ready to share and prepared to have people read and react to it.

Finding the Right Journal or Contest for Your Writing

You can increase your chances of acceptance and decrease your chances of rejection by finding the right home for your writing before you send it off to knock on journal doors. Instead of just sending your writing off blindly, do some research first, and find the publications most likely to welcome your writing inside. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Know the publication. Be familiar with its style, layout/organization, types of work it tends to publish, sections, etc. Read it. Be familiar with its tone, voice, and subject matter. Make sure the work you plan to send aligns with these qualities in the publication.
  • Know your own genre, form, style, voice, and subject matter. Do they align?
  • Think categorically:
    • Consider your background as a writer and a person. Think about factors like your location, your career, or your religion, for example.
    • Look for publications that focus on specific themes or styles. For example, journals that focus on a certain place, on nature, on conservation, on sports or a particular sport, etc.
  • Consider your subject matter.
  • Submit to publications where you find writers you admire.
  • Consider your form (flash fiction, short story, poetry, long-form essay, etc.).
  • Consider your genre (sci-fi, speculative romance, crime, etc.).

Vetting Journals and Contests

While you may be eager for the sense of recognition, validation, and success an acceptance provides, don’t be so over-zealous that you miss important red flags. It’s best to avoid sending your work off if:

  • The contest of publication requires you to pay a high fee to submit your work
  • A high fee is required–and paired with comparatively low-value prize or award
  • The fee is over $10 and the contest of publication offers no payment
  • The contest or publication has no “about page” or masthead.

If the publications you are considering pass the above tests, there are still a few items to consider. Make sure, for example, that the promised prize is actually awarded consistently by checking past winners’ page.

While there are red lights, there are also green lights that should encourage your submission to a given publication. Here are a few:

  • Your read the publication and like it.
  • You admire the work it offers.
  • It promotes its writers.
  • Its entry fees for novels cost more than those for poems.
  • There is not more than a $10-$20 fee for prize of $1000 or more.
  • If you are submitting a book or manuscript, a $40 fee or less for a prize up to $10,000 is appropriate.

Next Steps

If all this talk of publiation has you rearing and ready to submit some writing (and I hope it does), The Avocet, an online literary journal of nature poems, is currently and actively seeking submission. See their guidelines and several opportunities below.

Time to share a Summer-themed poem

 Please read the guidelines before submitting

 Please take a minute to pick a poem of your choice and send it to us.

  Please send only one poem, per poet, per season.

 Let’s do Summer-themed poetry for The Weekly Avocet.

Please send your submission to angeldec24@hotmail.com

Please put (early or late) Summer/your last name in the subject line.

Please do not just send a poem, please write a few lines of hello.

Please do not have all caps in the title of your poem.

Please no more than 45 lines per poem.

Please use single spaced lines.

Please remember, we welcome previously published poems.

Please put your name, City/State, and email address under your poem.  If you do not, only your name will appear.  No Zip codes.

Please send your poem in the body of an email.  Please do not send in an attachment.

 We look forward to reading your Summer submissions…

 Let’s all take this Garden Challenge.

 Send us your 3 best poems of your love of gardening…

 Please no more than three, following the same guidelines as above.

 Please put Garden Challenge/your last name in the subject line of your email and send to angeldec24@hotmail.com 

 Please send Summer haiku

 

 

 

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The High Goal

Writing of her spiritual journey, Mary Baker Eddy explains that she “finds the path less difficult when she has the high goal always before her thoughts, than when she counts her footsteps in endeavoring to reach it. When the destination is desirable, expectation speeds our progress.” Her wise words can be applied not only to a spiritual search for salvation, but also to our writing goals. The guidance supplied in this quote can help us battle writer’s block, discouragement, rejection, and the temptation to quit, born of these ills.

My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur.

I find Mrs. Eddy’s words helpful whenever I feel myself succombing to the sense that my project isn’t worthwhile–no agent will want to represent it, no publisher will find it marketable, no reader will want to read it. We all face these insecurities. For me, they are as frequent as their opposites: I am writing the next Great Novel. It will become a best seller and a major motion picture. I have something valuable and worthwhile and unique to say. My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur. While it’s easy to keep writing when the latter thoughts fill my mind, perseverance in the face of such negative self-talk as the former thoughts proves a bit of a struggle.

But keeping Mrs. Eddy’s words in mind helps. For my writing, the “high goal” right now is seeing my novel published. The “high goal” is the satisfaction of knowing something I wrote is making people think and rethink, question and wonder, read and reread. The “high goal” is inspiring new ideas, even long after I’m gone. One current obstacle to this goal: My novel isn’t even finished. But step one is there: I have set the goal (and started writing the novel).

Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be.

Of course, setting a goal alone is no guarantee you’ll achieve it. We do have to take “footsteps in endeavoring to reach it.” I like to ask myself periodically what I have done for my writing recently–what have I done to support my high goal? Here are some possible answers:

  • written a chapter outline
  • enrolled in a novel-writing class
  • attended a conference
  • participated in a workshop
  • submitted poetry, stories, or essays to publications
  • written in my diary or journal
  • composed a blog post
  • read a book
  • asked someone to read something I’ve written and provide feedback
  • actually written a chapter of my manuscript
  • people watched
  • eavesdropped
  • taken inspiration from nature
  • listened to Podcasts or read articles relevant to my topic.

It can be easy to get bogged down in counting these steps, as Mrs. Eddy warns against. But when we find ourselves feeling buried by little things, it truly can be helpful to take a step back and remember the bigger picture, the higher goal. Instead of viewing revision as a chore, or dreading working on your project because you’re in the tight-fisted grip of writer’s block, remember that your “destination is desirable,” and the “expectation of good speeds our progress.” Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be. Remember that each revision, each belabored chapter rewrite, each late night writing and rewriting–they are all part of the process. Instead of dwelling on each difficulty, take pride in your progress. As long as you don’t lose sight of where you’re going–as long as you keep the high goal always before your thoughts–each footstep takes you a little closer to where you want to be.

The Effect of Recent Success: More Drive

If you’re a writer and you submit your work for publication with any sort of regularity, you’re probably pretty familiar with rejection. In fact, sometimes it feels like being a writer is synonymous with being really, really good at handling rejection. Our resiliency may make us seem like gluttons for punishment, constantly risking our art and our hearts only to be told it’s just not good enough–if not in kinder, more professional words. Fending off discouragement can be daunting, but if we’re lucky, our well-practiced resiliency allows us to persevere with a kind of cultivated optimism–that shoot- for-the-moon-even-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-among-the-stars hope we read on inspirational posters in our high school classrooms.

This spring, my perseverance paid off (as it does, every now and again–though not as often as I’d like). Typically, really exciting successes spread themselves out over rather vast expanses of time, but this spring, I experienced two back-to-back successes, one in March and one in April.

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I accept my award at the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association’s Annual Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In March, I was thrilled when the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA), a professional writing group I recently joined, recognized my piece, “Rescued bird teaches lesson on where to find home,” originally published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, with second place in the Outstanding Column category of the Excellence in Craft Contest. My parents and husband were able to celebrate with me on March 24, joining me at a lovely awards ceremony held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we were treated to a delicious lunch and several writing and photography presentations.

On April 28, two of my close friends, my parents, and I (my husband had to work) made the trip to Somerset, Virginia, to savor the beautiful scenery at The Market at Grenlen, the perfect setting for the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Contest Award Ceremony and Poetry Reading. I was so excited for my poem, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” to receive second place in the Nancy Byrd category of the contest. I was honored to be given the opportunity to share my poem with fellow poets, winners, and their families and friends, as well as breathtakingly impressed by the other winners’ poems. It was truly an inspirational, enlightening event, and I will be thrilled if I am ever invited back again, not only because it will mean another of my poems will have been recognized, but also because it will expose me to the stellar work of some of the most talented poets in the state.

Salem’s Indifferent Ox

I’ve stood in my pasture watching for days

as the townsmen with hammers, they pounded,

until from the ground a wooden platform was raised

and the drumroll, through the village sounded.

Then they fetched me—how could I be involved

in this mysterious venture of theirs?

But I plod through the town, no question resolved,

Wondering at their strange mumbled prayers.

The wagon is heavy, my cargo, it weeps

with the people standing by in the crowd.

I watch as they climb the handcrafted steps,

clinging to dignity, proud.

Then they clutch at the ropes—tighter and tighter—

and on my way home, my cargo is lighter.

To view the reading of my poem on April 28, 2018, click here.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I’ll admit it’s in part because I’m proud and excited and I wanted to brag. I mean share. But it’s more so because these two consecutive successes with mere weeks between them had an unexpected effect on me. Instead of

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I read my second-place poem at the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Award Luncheon.

stopping at pride and ecstasy and validation, these two experiences made me feel like I can’t just sit back and rest on my laurels;  I have to keep going. Instead of just basking in the warm sunshine of success, I feel the need to pursue more opportunities to achieve it. I think the only achievement that might satiate my hunger for further writing success would be holding my two manuscripts after they have been reborn as books.  Yes, the pressure is on to continue to perform at this level–even though I know what I am really asking for is more rejection with a few successes sprinkled in between.

 

Five Prompts to Vanquish Writer’s Block

Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:

“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”

It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.

Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.

1. Unlived Lives

Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?

2. Dear Future Self

For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?

3. To-Do List

Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.

4. Another’s View of You

Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.

5. Names

Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?

 The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.

Happy writing!

Nine Must-Reads for Writers

There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.

1. The Halfway House for Writers, Valley Haggard

The Halfway House for Writers by Valley Haggard is an inspirational book for anyone embarking on any sort of writing journey. It is conversational, honest, and motivational. It advocates for raw, fearless writing, presenting writing as a means of healing, learning, and growing, among other things. The author teaches various writing classes in the Richmond area, and maintains lifein10minutes.com, for which an anthology is due out next year. This book is perfect for anyone looking for encouragement or ideas–or both. Read my interview with the author regarding the book here.

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Valley Haggard’s book for writers, The Halfway House for Writers, takes an encouraging approach toward writing, having been written for “wounded writers.”

2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg

I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.

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Room to Write provides ample protection against writer’s block, offering almost 200 prompts.
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The pages of Room to Write include an introduction to each prompt, the actual prompt, and relevant quotes from recognizable writers.

3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser

My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.

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The conversational tone of this book makes it appealing and easy to read. I read it as a graduate student in a creative writing program, but even my high school students have benefitted from the lessons conveyed in this book.

4. 642 Things to Write About

As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.

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My husband, who clearly knows me well, gave this book to me as a Christmas gift. Like Room to Write, it furnishes writers with weapons against the dreaded writer’s block–642 of them, to be exact. Each page features between one and four prompts, and space on which to write your responses directly in the book.

5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick

This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.

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One of the most interesting aspects of my particular copy of the book was that is was used, and the previous reader had scrawled some very opinionated notes in the margins throughout. While reading, I had the benefit of not only forming my own take on the advice conveyed in the book, but also of comparing it to the takeways of whoever had this book before me. Our opinions often varied, but I found his (I imagine it was a man; I don’t know why) amusing in their cynicism and wit and enlightening in their insights.

6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)

This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter.  The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:

  1. Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
  2. In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
  3. From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject

The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.

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One of the example essays included in this book still influences my writing today.

7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer

This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.

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We all have a story to tell. This book helps us learn how to best tell it.

8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman

This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.

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I credit this book with one of the most revelatory experiences of my undergraduate academic career, as well as my reading and writing life.

9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with  “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.

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This book is logically organized, beginning with the first idea a writer might have for a piece (or the lack of ideas a writer might have for a piece) and ending with the process of revision, also touching on all the steps between.

 

 

 

 

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

Songs to Write to: Playlist

I recently realized that certain songs tend to get me in the mood–to write, that is. I decided to keep a list of these inspiring, creativity-inducing songs, and noticed a particular pattern: It seems I am most inspired by songs that include piano, and/or by mellow melodies rich with melancholy, and/or by heartbreaking lyrics I wish I had written myself. Here is my ever-lengthening Writing Playlist:

  1. Fine Frenzy, “Almost Lover”
  2. Coldplay, “The Scientist”
  3. Gary Jules, “Mad World”
  4. The entire soundtrack to the film Dances with Wolves
  5. Counting Crows, “Colorblind”
  6. Bob Dylan, “Boots of Spanish Leather”
  7. Adele, “Someone Like You”
  8. Ben Folds, “Fred Jones Part 2”
  9. Evanescence, “My Immortal”
  10. Rhett Miller, “Come Around”
  11. Straylight Run, “Existentialism on Prom Night”
  12. Dashboard Confessional, “So Long Sweet Summer”

What kind of music awakens your muse?

Lesson Plan: Recipe Poetry

The school year is winding down, and my students (and I!) are feeling a bit squirrely. We just took our last test of the school year on Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and there are a mere six regular school days left before final exams. So what do we do with this odd in-between that doesn’t allow enough time for another full unit, but is certainly too much time to descend into the pit of meaningless movie-watching day after day? The answer is: We write.

Now, tell that to most students, and they cringe. But I’m not talking about five-page-research-paper-in-the-MLA-format writing. I’m talking about fun writing. I know, I know. If my students remember what an oxymoron is, they’d apply it to the term “fun writing.” And of course, as a writer, I’m a bit biased; I think almost all writing is fun.

But I think my students did have fun writing today. Here is what we did:

Recipe Poetry

Time:

60-70 minutes

Objective:

Students will: analyze nonfiction writing; analyze authentic texts; review and identify verbs; write using strong, specific verbs; write creatively, informally, and for enjoyment; analyze the structure and elements of an authentic, nonfiction text; work cooperatively; engage in the creative process; think critically, creatively, and abstractly; share their written work aloud

Materials:

several sheets of notebook paper, composition book, or spiral notebook for every student

writing utensil for each student

several copies of cooking magazines or various copies of different recipes

Steps:

  1. Put students into groups of three or four.
  2. Pass out magazines or recipes, so that each group has two or three magazines, or at least six to ten individual recipes.
  3. Give students five minutes in their groups to look through the recipes together, and instruct them to write down all the strong, specific cooking  verbs they come across.
    IMG_6608-1
    Some of the verbs my students pulled from the recipes they used for inspiration

    Each student should keep his or her own list.

  4. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the verbs they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.
  5. Next, give students five minutes to start a new list. This time, they should write down all the units of measurement they see in the different ingredients lists.
  6. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the units they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.

    IMG_6609
    Some of the units of measurement my students noticed in the recipes they read. Note the more unique ones, like “sprig” and “stalk.”
  7. Next, give students three minutes to examine the structure and format of the recipes together. They should write down elements they notice most or all of the recipes share. This should include items such as: prep time, cooking time, ingredients list, steps/process/procedure, servings, etc.
  8. After three minutes, ask students what elements a recipe should have, and write the elements on the board for the class to see.
  9. Explain to students that in a few minutes, they will write a recipe poem. A recipe poem is a poem that explains how to “cook” something abstract, such as a certain type of person, a certain emotion, or an experience. Give them some examples: a recipe for success, a recipe for a best friend, a recipe for the worst day ever, etc.
  10. Give students five minutes to brainstorm together in their groups. They should write down experiences, types of people, and emotions they think they might want to describe by way of a recipe poem.
  11. After five minutes, ask students to call their ideas out, and write them on the board for the class to see.

    IMG_6607
    A few of the topics students volunteered to share with the class, about which they planned to write their recipe poems. I myself found “superhero” and “patriot” particularly intriguing.
  12. Remind students that their recipe poem should include all the elements of a recipe, and be formatted like a recipe. Instruct them to pick a topic, but not to tell anyone else in the class what their topic is.
  13. Give students about 15 minutes to write their recipe poem, allotting more time if needed.
  14. Once everyone has finished (or mostly finished) a recipe poem, instruct students to go around in their groups and read their recipe poems aloud to their group members, still withholding the subject. After each student reads, his group members should try to guess what his recipe is for. After each group member has guessed, the poet can reveal what his topic was.
  15. After each person in each group has had a chance to share her poem with her group, ask willing students to share their recipe poems aloud with the class.

My students really seemed to enjoy this activity–so much so, that we actually have to finish tomorrow because so many students were so eager to share their poems with the class. We ran out of time!

 

 

 

 

Got 10 Minutes? New Anthology Accepting Submissions

Want to write and maybe even see your work published, but don’t feel like you have the time? Well, good news: You do. That is, if you have ten minutes to spare, you do.

The Life in 10 Minutes method of writing encourages people to set a timer for ten minutes–that’s all–and just write. You can work from a prompt, or just write whatever comes out. The only thing that matters is that you write. For ten minutes. And then you stop. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over-edit it. Don’t apologize for it. Just write it.

In addition to providing you with a way to make sure you write each day, if only for ten minutes, Life in 10 Minutes offers workshops for writers of all levels, from all backgrounds, throughout the year. Over the winter months, I participated in one of these workshops, and I highly recommend it to any writers looking to work with like-minded people, channel their creativity, experiment, learn, and receive immediate and personalized feedback.

Life in 10 Minutes also provides a platform for writers to publish their 10s (pieces they wrote using the Life in 10 Minutes method described above) online. You can read samples of other writers’ 10s here. (Shameless self-promotion: You can find my 10 here.)

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The Life in 10 Minutes method encourages writers to write a short piece in just 10 minutes–and then submit it to their brand new anthology, due out in October. Submissions are due July 15.

The newest development in the Life in 10 Minutes world is the anthology, both digital and print, which has a publication goal of October 2016. Submissions are due by July 15, 2016, and guidelines can be found here. Here are the basics:

  1. Hand write one, two, or three 10s. Pieces between 100 and 600 words will be given priority.
  2. Type up your 10(s), editing (not butchering–be gentle; the piece should be raw and honest and organic) as you type.
  3. Submission can be published nowhere else, short of your own blog or lifein10minutes.com.
  4. To submit, click here.
  5. If your piece has been chosen for inclusion, you will be notified by August 1.

Happy writing, and best of luck!

 

Poetry Society of Virginia’s Annual Poetry Festival

If you’ve ever been to Richmond, Virginia, then you already know: We are a party city. We are the third most-tattoed city in the United States, just behind Miami and Las Vegas. We are fast becoming the craft beer capital of the world. And we throw a festival (or ten) almost every single weekend. This weekend alone, I attended Dominion Riverrock, an outdoor

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The skyline of Richmond, Virginia, on the shores of the James River, as seen from the suspension bridge to Belle Isle during a group hike organized as part of Dominion Riverrock.

festival celebrating Richmond’s active river life; Play Day at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, an open house with various arts and crafts workshops, from wood and metal working, to glass blowing, to pottery; and the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Poetry Festival and Conference. If you are reading this blog, you are likely a writer or a reader (or, most likely, both!), so this post will focus on the latter.

 

During my time at the festival, I was privileged to hear readings and lectures from Robert Arthur, the current Poetry Society of Virginia President; Nathan Richardson, a performance poet and workshop teacher for Hampton Roads Youth Poets; Gabriele Glang, a bilingual poet who teaches creative writing in Germany; and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, who was the Virginia Poet Laureate from 2006-2008. This post will provide take-aways from the lectures and workshops led by Mr. Richardson, as well as by Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda.

The Oral Tradition of Poetry, Nathan Richardson

The first lecture I heard focused on performance poetry, and was led by Nathan Richardson, himself a performance poet. One thing he said that struck me was this:

“Memory proved over the history of mankind to be the only fullproof [sic] method of safeguarding the thoughts, history, culture, literature, and law of the human race.”

How right he is, though it’s frightening, given how feeble our memories sometimes seem.

IMG_6424
Performance poet and writing teacher, Nathan Richardson, gives a lecture on the oral tradition of poetry at the Virginia Poetry Society’s Annual Poetry Festival and Conference on Friday, May 20.

But even more fallible are hard drives that can crash, flash drives that can break or become lost, papers that can tear or burn, ink that can smudge, lead that can be erased. Even pictures carved into rock will someday erode, smoothed out by the work of wind and water. For me, this was something of a wakeup call. I always feel like my creations are far more secure once written down on paper or typed up on the screen. But if I lose that paper, or if that flash drive fails me, I will wish I had committed my own lines to memory.

 

An additional lesson I took away from Mr. Richardson’s lecture was a definition of the musical genre of rap. I was unaware, as were, it seemed, all the other poets in attendance, that the term “rap” was born of the combination of “rhythm and poetry.” It’s essentially an acronym. I also learned that one “bar” of a “rap” piece is equivalent to one couplet in a poem.

His advice for poets was simple: “In poetry, leave space for the reader’s imagination.”

He also provided guidelines for poets who need to cultivate a poetic voice for poetry readings and slams. While the ratio does not necessarily need to follow this exact formula, Mr. Richardson advises that the poetic voice consists of 33.3% experience, 33.3% vocabulary, 33.3% passion, and .1% divine intervention. What does this imply for you if you want to become involved in performance poetry? It means first, that you must perform poetry–as much and as often as you can. Attend and perform at poetry slams and readings. Get the experience. It implies second that you must increase the number of words with which you are proficient–you must become more fluent in your own first language. Improve your vocabulary. It means also that you must love what you are doing–love what you are creating, love what you are saying. Be dedicated and passionate. Lastly, though, it means that a small percentage of what you are doing as a performance poet is out of your control. The words, the ideas, the rhymes will just come to you through some sort of divine intervention. You just have to do the leg work–the other 99.9%–first.

Ekphrastic and Collaborative Poetry, Gabriele Glang and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda

One of the foci of Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda’s workshop was the haiku. Before we began writing, Ms. Glang gave a few guidelines.

Haiku Guidelines

  • Do not mention the season about which you are writing. The image you convey with your words should make clear the season.
  • Always title your piece, and title it well. Think of a title as a free line with no syllabic restrictions.
  • Save syllables in the following ways:
    • avoid articles; use plural nouns instead
    • replace conjunctions with punctuation
      • the em dash can communicate change, epiphany, turning points
      • “ah!” can signify epiphany or surprise
IMG_6428
Gabriele Glang’s painting, “A Touch of Spring (Pink-Green),” served as inspiration for festival attendees to write haiku.

After providing us with these guidelines, Ms. Glang displayed a painting of her own creation, called “A Touch of Spring (Pink-Green),” pictured left, and we were given a few minutes to compose a haiku using the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 structure.

 

Ligne Donnee

The second exercise we completed in this workshop was writing a Ligne Donnee, or “given line” poem. We were paired up with another poet in the room and provided an art card that displayed one of Ms. Glang’s paintings. The art card my partner and I received is pictured below. Each of us then wrote just the first line of a poem, inspired by the art card. Then, we traded first lines with our partner. From there, we read our partner’s first line, and wrote a poem

FullSizeRender-7
For the Ligne Donnee (“given line”) poem, participants were paired up and given an art card to inspire their collaborative poems.

based on that initial line.

 

My first line was:

Quicksilver cold stealing sunlight from the sky, icy, metallic sheen

The first line my partner composed was:

More light than water, the lake

I followed with:

lapping up sunlight spilled

between clouds,

poured over black foliage,

dripping down leaflet, branch, and bud,

saturating the bibulous bank,

infusing the gray-turning,

pale-turning glass,

impersonal, thirsty,

with borrowed warmth.

At least until dark.

Kasen Renku Form

The final exercise we completed in Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda’s workshop was another type of collaborative poem, kasen renku. Within this form, the first poet composes a haiku (three lines in the traditional 5-7-5 format). The second poet reads it, and then composes two lines of seven syllables each. A third poet (or the first poet) reads the first five lines, and adds his or her own haiku. A fourth poet (or the second poet) reads what has so far been accomplished, and adds to it another two lines of seven syllables each. This process is repeated until the poem consists of thirty-six stanzas. This, along with the Ligne Donnee form, would make an excellent classroom activity for an English or creative writing class.

Conclusion

I so thoroughly enjoyed the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Poetry Festival and Conference, that I plan to attend future conferences, and am contemplating membership. Attendance allowed me to meet like-minded people, as well as produce a few new pieces of poetry. I also gained exposure to some very creative and productive poets. I learned about resources in my community, and came away with a few new lessons plans for my English classroom.