Write Poetry Project

30 Poems in 30 Days

One of my mini writing goals for 2021 is to write poetry several days a week. I have always been intimidated by poetry—and reading it used to make me feel like the person who doesn’t get the joke. 

How to conquer one’s fears: dive in, do it, understand it.

I asked my poet friend Lisa Roullard (An Envelope Waiting) for good how-to books for beginning—and intimidated—wannabe poets. She recommended Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. I also bought books of each one’s poetry. I read at least one poem before bed—it’s a habit I plan to keep from now on.

Mary Oliver tackles the nuts and bolts—dactyls versus trochee. The terms still sound like dinosaur names to me. I relate more to Kooser’s practical advice—dive into close detail, write about something that means something. I kind of prefer Oliver’s poems though.

I’ve scrawled bad poems into my writing exercise notebook every week. And then I got an intriguing email from the Salt Lake Community Writing Center—Celebrate National Poetry Month by writing 30 poems in 30 days according to Instagram prompts. I paid my $5 to join the contest, knowing that any sort of accountability is good for writing one isn’t exactly driven to do. 

I hated some of the prompts. Turns out that only made things interesting as I stretched my creativity further to find an entry point into the prompt. I had to meditate and write. I clipped words from magazines and wrote. I wrote all 30 poems. I revised all 30 poems.

Four and a half months into my Write Poetry Project, I have learned that poetry needs to be revised like any other writing. Some things that I had wanted to write about for a long time seem to be particularly suited for poetry. Practice works! I have written some poems that aren’t too bad. I’m also determined to make the bad ones better! Reading is always a companion to writing—you absolutely must read what you want to write.

Mostly, I am learning to appreciate poetry in a new way. I might be starting to like it…

Rah-Rah Write!

A couple of nights ago, I had dinner with several writer friends, and we got to talking about Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about living a creative life. Different aspects of the book resonated with each of us.

I love the way she dismisses the notion that we should have to “suffer” for art.

My project this past year has been to put the fun back into my writing life. I joined a pen pal group with people all over the world. I’m working my way through a challenging writing exercise book. I’ve written a dozen short stories. Retreating a bit has reminded me why I write: I LOVE IT! (And I probably couldn’t stop if I wanted to.)

Big Magic is an easy-to-read, light-hearted, and accessible cheerleading book–sometimes we need to remember that the creative life should be a happy one!

If You Want To Be Creative…

If you want to be creative… be a 5th grader!

Tuesday night I conducted short writing workshops at Davis Reads Family Literacy Night. More students than ever attended the event (super exciting to get stuck in traffic for a literary event)!

I handed out paper and pens as the students entered the room, and we got to work quick. Fifteen minutes is a short time to talk about developing characters while doing a bit of writing and sharing. I presented different scenarios based on the age of the majority of my students. Elementary students got a bring your pet to school day mishap, while the teens worked with a public shaming situation. We hit on three main points: description (the easiest part), motivation (what the character wants), enemies (who or what is stopping the character from getting what he/she/it wants?)

Many students shared interesting ideas, characteristics, and unique responses to the situations, but the true out-of-the-box thinking came from 5th graders. Ten and eleven-year-olds possess solid skills, but they haven’t reached that point of self-consciousness that hits with puberty. That gives them such creative freedom! And, oh, they love to share and share and share.

The craziest idea of the night involved a hippo! The story worked!

Older teens don’t share much. The ones who show up for family literacy nights really, really want to write. They listen attentively, write furiously, but they don’t dare allow anyone to judge their work publicly, especially a room full of strangers. Teens stay after to privately ask important and deep questions.

I’ve noticed that the teens who do share in public often stick close to the established YA cannon when creating their work. A sameness often seeps into the work of students once they hit the age of twelve.

Many years ago I judged the PTA Reflections contest at a neighborhood elementary school. Wow! The fifth graders wrote amazing stories and poems–clever, personal, fresh. The 6th graders, on the other hand, wrote almost as one mind. Safe subjects, safe interpretations. I’ve observed this same split while teaching in the classroom. I have to push 6th graders to dare to be different, not to worry about what others will think.

That brings me to my own creative life. How many times do I secretly fret about what others will think about my writing? Do I dare write about              ? What will people say? Will my neighbors stop talking to me if it gets published? What will people say to my husband at work? What if people think that I’m like my characters?

I, too, could use a good dose of my inner 5th grader!

Dear Synopsis…

One of my absolute favorite writerly books is Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom edited by the lovely and gracious Leonard S. Marcus. Oh, how it makes me long for the days of handwriting and rushing to the mailbox, not the in-box.

I especially love a letter that she writes to Janette Sebring Lowry, about how she feels about authors with families. On page 191, Nordstrom writes about cooing at babies in strollers, “But any children or indeed any relatives–husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, who are connected in any way with “my” authors are MY ENEMIES.” Families interrupt an author’s work, delay deadlines, shift one’s focus, etc.

That’s what happened to my synopsis writing last week. I spent the first part of the week taking my oldest daughter to college interviews in California. I came home to my younger daughter’s soccer-injured ankle. So I spent the rest of the week hanging out and watching episode after episode of What Not To Wear on Netflix.

Could I have worked on my synopsis? Sure. But I felt guilty about not being there when my daughter got hurt and I knew she felt lonely while the rest of us were having fun (like a day at the beach) between college visits.

Some interesting things happened during my non-synopsis writing time. At the beach we watched a helicopter chase a shark away from the crowd of surfers. That’s not something I’m able to see from my window in suburban Utah. I also got a fun story idea from watching many makeovers. And I’ve been wanting to write some short stuff between my long projects.

Yeah, life interferes with writing time. But I sure don’t want to live only at my desk. Boring! And not too idea-producing. Besides, watching my senior in high school plan for life in another state reminds me that my daily parenting days are numbered.

Living a life filled with family members–and all the ensuing drama–makes my writing richer.

Info Dumping

Aah, chapter 40, now chapter 38, once 5 pages, now only half a page in-progress…

All through this story, I’ve been trying to squeeze in a particular subplot–not because it works organically with my story, but because it’s such a cool idea, and it makes me feel clever. So I’ve been adding lines here and there–lines that might as well be typed in red font because they flash like warning signs. Warning, warning–this doesn’t belong!

Did I delete those lines? No. I added more. I padded sentences and plot lines, building little nests around this subplot. Later in the story I dedicate two entire chapters to the subplot. I might as well run outside, yank down the stop sign on the corner and shove it into my manuscript.

What convinced me that I truly needed to abandon my ever-so-clever subplot? The huge info dump on pages 153-158. A minor character who only exists to service said subplot appears out of nowhere and says, “let me explain X to you.” And I let him talk for paragraphs. Oh, sure, I break up the dialogue with some lovely actions, etc. But I’m still doing an info dump–because the subplot simply doesn’t fit, naturally, organically, compellingly, or anything-ly into my story.

So today I’m finally deleting it. No more random lines here and there. No more minor character with no other purpose. Knock. Knock. I’m here to stop the flow of your story. No more extra chapters. And no more info dump!

Things that belong in stories have a way of weaving through the various plots with ease. Characters automatically want to talk about them, great action results from them, consequences flow easily from them… Watch those info dumps. Usually something more than poor writing is going on.

Writing Resolutions: Lessons Learned from the Past

I’ve always been a resolution-maker. Looking back in my writing notebooks, I found a few examples of past resolutions.

January 1, 2002: Win the Newberry. I had just finished my first novel-length manuscript. In my naïveté about the entire publishing process, I thought that I would easily find an editor, see my novel published a few months later, and win the coveted award, which I spelled wrong. So maybe I did win the Newberry–with two Rs–if it’s an award for sending a manuscript to publishers before it’s ready.

I’ve learned not to make goals that are outside of my control.

January 1, 2004: Write three middle-grade novels. I didn’t understand the importance of rest and revision (and revision and revision). I’ve written one middle-grade novel since making that resolution, preferring to write YA, and never completing more than one entirely new, completely polished manuscript in a year.

I’ve learned to honor my writing process.

January 1, 2005: Do writing exercises 5x a week, read 2 children’s novels a month, write 10 magazine pieces, write 2 novels (I listed 2 ideas), et cetera. I created a list of 10 resolutions–with an asterisk adding one more item at the end. Ultimately, I failed at each one of these very specific items.

I’ve learned that my writing cannot be reduced to numbers.

January 1, 2008: Revise with joy. I’m certain that I didn’t always feel particularly joyful while hammering away at my 2008 WIP, but I did work toward changing my attitude toward revision–and I really do enjoy that part of the writing process now. But it took time

I’ve learned that resolutions about changing my behavior or mindset are more successful.

January 1, 2013: Finish revising WIP. See? I’m starting my year off with joy!

Happy 2013 to you!!!

Making a Cheryl Klein Book Map

I’m attending Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein’s Master Class this coming Saturday, so this week I’m doing homework (I secretly love homework). We have to make a map of our book. I spent too much time yesterday trying to make a chart using Word–but I couldn’t get the little boxes big enough, yet small enough with margins large enough, and I know that some scenes are much shorter than others–I needed flexibility. So I went to the office supply store (I secretly love office supply stores) and bought legal sized paper and pens in fun colors.

Here’s my blank map:

The categories are: scene#, pages, total number of pages (I combined these into one little box); when the scene occurs; the setting; characters (I assigned my main characters colors and listed them by name); what do they want in this scene; the action in the scene; change that occurs in the scene; revision notes.

I’m going to box my map after I write what is needed for each scene so I won’t have to cramp complex scenes or take up too much space for short scenes.

Here are the first five scenes all mapped out:

Here’s what I’ve done so far–it’s one long document. Now I just have to finish writing those final few chapters. I’m SO close, but probably won’t quite finish the whole manuscript by Saturday.

As the sticky notes indicate, I’ve already targeted several parts of my story to strengthen during revision.   I also realized that I suffered a bit of Middle Fatigue, writing too-short, underdeveloped chapters in the middle of the book. Time to lengthen those too!

Can’t wait for the workshop. I’ve already learned a lot doing the homework.

I’m Having An Affair…

A few weeks ago, I started sneaking around, peeking at my ex-WIP, leaving my current WIP to wonder where I’d been all day. Why hadn’t I opened it’s file? Am I seeing someone else? Is that–lipstick?!?!!?

I’m having an affair with my abandoned manuscript.

Is it because things got tough with my new manuscript–like the day I realized that I’d need to rewrite 20,000 words because I’d rambled off in the wrong direction, following a whim? Yeah, that’s part of it. 80 pages is a lot of deleting. My ex-WIP is all mapped out, planned and plotted. Maybe it will be fun to write those last few chapters?

Also, my sixteen-year-old daughter keeps calling me a quitter for not finishing ex-WIP. She likes the story much more than I did while writing it. Because writing it was HARD for me. I eked out words, slowly, painfully. I doubted so much. But maybe it’s not so bad…

And it isn’t. I’ve never followed the writing advice, even when Stephen King said it in On Writing, of setting a manuscript aside before revising. Now I see the value of putting space between the emotion of drafting a challenging story (this is hard, so it must be bad) and reading it again months later (ooh, this part is good, but that part could be better).

I’m having fun, even sneaking off for a bit of revising on the weekends. I love my ex-WIP! Sorry, current WIP, you’re going to have to sit in the drawer for a little while longer. Maybe you could talk to one of Stephen King’s manuscripts and learn about being a bestseller?

Learning From Other Genres

People often say that if you want to write in a particular genre, read 100 books in that genre, and I really like that advice. But I also think there are advantages to breaking free from your genre and learning what another has to offer. 

Last weekend I took a class about writing Collage Memoir from Paisley Rekdal who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Utah. While I do write in a journal every night, I’m not quite sure why, since my life is usually pretty dull. I read, I write, I cook, less often I clean…I watch soccer, drive carpool, chat with friends, watch TV, bad Reality TV…
So it was interesting to discover that I do have interesting things to say as Paisley guided us through a series of readings, followed by writing exercises. Collage writing combines personal writing, poems, photography, art, fiction–or even “found language” from news articles, etc. 
I actually came up with a few essay ideas that I’d like to pursue. And I added several unusual books to my ongoing To-Read list–books I never would’ve heard of otherwise–like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud which provided the starting point for the class. Talk about a different genre! 
Best of all–I found myself jotting down note after note about ways I could use collage writing techniques to develop characters in my novel and move the story forward in unique ways. So, if you’re looking for a way to pump some energy into your writing, try taking a class outside of your comfort zone. It’ll spark your imagination for sure!
Thanks [email protected] for sponsoring the class!