Struggling with Poetry

Something that I’ve heard recently is that writing poetry is “simple” and “easy.”  I can’t say that I agree.  Perhaps it it is for some people, but I find poetry often more difficult to write than any other kind of writing.  Trying to communicate a thought or idea in a tight, compact, form is more difficult to me than traditional prose.  Flash fiction and poetry are similar in that respect.

Perhaps that’s because I am truly a prose writer.  People say that a poem just pops into their head, the way dialogue pops into mine, or a songwriter like my sister hears music.  Should I be trying?  Should I just stick with prose?

But I like to write poetry.  It stretches my mind.  It actually feels like I’m using my brain in a different way than when I’m writing prose.  I think that it also strengthens my prose by building skills.

I do confess that… sometimes I just give up on a poem and let it go.  It wasn’t my best effort but I set it free.  I feel a bit like I’ve failed.  I have to let it go, let it find it’s own way in the world.  Most often though, people are more kind than I when they read those efforts.

I like to play with words.  Sometimes I mangle them, sometimes I outright destroy them, but sometimes, just sometimes, I feel like I got it right.  Here’s one such –

No Instructions

Life doesn’t provide

thick black lines to color within.

A blank sheet of paper is all you get,

with no instructions on where to begin.

Life is no paint by numbers

with lovely watercolors and a brush.

It’s a child’s toy requiring assembly;

instructions thrown away in the rush.

Book Trailers

My husband pointed out an interesting article to me the other day – How Scott Sigler Used Free Media to Become a Best-Selling Author.   The idea of a book trailer piqued my interest.  Sure, I’d heard of them, seen some even, but I’d never thought of making one of my own.  (Warning – the trailer for his book that is imbedded is rather horror genre gruesome, so don’t watch that if you’re not prepared.  The little video on how the trailer was made is not graphic but has some great music so definitely watch some of that.)

Anyway, most of us don’t have the ability to make our own animated book trailer and if you’re struggling to start a writing career, you don’t have the money to pay for it to be done either.   However, most of us have the ability to take a short film these days.  My little digital camera will take a short video and my husband has a Flip camera that will take extended videos.  Blair Witch Project here we come!

It’s simple, enlist family, friends (and anyone else you can get with free food) to do a very short scene from your story.  Create a Youtube account and make your very own book trailer!  Okay, maybe you don’t know anyone with enough acting skill to even make a really shoddy commercial.  You can still make one.

One of my writer’s group, G.H. Monroe, shared his first attempt at a book trailer for his collection of short stories, That’s My Story!  He used still images and a voice over with music to create a book trailer.  (A word of warning – just make sure the images are your own or in the public domain before you use them.)

There you have it!  DIY book trailers to help get people interested in your books.  I’m definitely going to be trying this myself.

Reading to Write

Someone recently asked me for advice in improving their writing skills – grammar, word choice and creativity, etcetera.  Obviously, the best way to improve your writing is simply to read as much as you can and write regularly. 

First off, we’ll take it as a given that you like to read.  Otherwise, why would you be here?  I have always believed that there is a book for every reader.  Some people enjoy horror writers like Stephen King while some like romance writers such as Jayne Ann Krentz, and some prefer fantasy writers like Terry Pratchett.  Some people don’t like books at all and instead prefer newspapers, magazines or blogs.  To each his own, just read.  I don’t think I’d ever have to recommend that to someone who likes to write.

That takes us to writing regularly.  It doesn’t have to be fiction.  You could pick a different relative every few days and write a real, old-fashioned letter, or even a chatty e-mail.  Older relatives who might not get out much would be particularly grateful to receive your letters.  Write letters to people in the military service overseas.  Start a journal, write down your memories from childhood or try your hand at essays about things in life that you are passionate about.  Start a blog about something like that and you may have the chance to meet people who are like minded.

The point is to write.  Writing regularly exercises your knowledge of the language.  Look up words when you’re not sure of the spelling, check the grammar when you’re unsure of that.  A wonderful little book to help you with all points of grammar usage, as it comes up, is A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker.  I have had one of these little spiral bound reference books since the early nineties and have found it indispensible for every type of writing. 

If you want to learn to write easily on any topic, try prompts.  Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and The Pocket Muse 2: Endless Inspiration for Writers by Monica Wood offer a wealth of prompts to get you writing.  Pick one every day and set yourself a time limit – 10, 20 or 30 minutes, and just write.  In the same vein, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron has been used by people in many disciplines to free up their creativity.  I used it one year as a twelve week course, reading a chapter each Sunday night, doing the assignments each week and writing the 3 pages of longhand “morning pages” every day.  I believe the morning pages did me the most good, simply allowing me to write three pages every morning that had no rules.  It taught me Anne Lamott’s concept of “shitty first drafts” before I ever read Bird by Bird, which we’ll get to a bit later.

One of the most widely read and praised basic, but indispensible, books on writing is the slim volume, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.  Only 92 pages long, including the index, the authors cover elementary rules of usage and principles of composition as well as words and expressions commonly misused, and also make simple recommendations on style.  You have to know the rules before you can know when to break them. 

Those books will pretty much cover improving your grammar, word choice and creativity.  If you’re already a writer and want to delve into books on honing your craft, or are just curious about what it takes to make a living at writing, there are two books have stood out for me so far.  Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell was one of the first books on writing that I read.  I understand this is now published as The Successful Novelist but I think the original title is more inviting to someone who really loves to write.  It is not only instructive, but entertaining.  Similiarly, part memoir and part writing instruction manual, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is very accessible and I identify with what she has to say.  I recognize myself in her memoir and her advice makes sense.  On Writing by Stephen King is definitely more entertaining than instructive.  It is subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft” and rightfully so.

Read and write, that’s the long and short of it, but also the pleasure.

Elmore Leonard and a writer’s leap of faith

Our writer’s group met last night, only five of us but we had a really good session.  It’s always fascinating to see what twists and turns everyone’s mind takes with a prompt.  I shared a poem that I needed help with editing and another member shared the first two chapters of a novel for feedback.

I also brought an interview that I had read recently on CNN, Grit on Wry: A Dinner with Elmore and Peter Leonard.  I used to be a huge fan of Elmore Leonard, partly because I love a good mystery but mostly because of the humor, I suspect.  My favorite books and movies tend to have a strong element of humor, whatever source it comes from.  It could be jokes with punchlines or simply the gentle humor that comes out of everyday life.  In the article, the author says of Elmore, “He thinks that crooks are dumb, and that dumb is funny.”  I also love the “snappy dialogue,”  what you might call snarky.

A couple other thoughts really stood out in the article for me.  The first was the idea that there are great ideas, strange things, happening every day in real life, just waiting to be worked into a story.  I’ve definitely found that to be true but my strange things don’t tend to run toward the criminal, the way they do for Elmore Leonard. 

The other interesting thought was that at some point, you’ve got to take a chance and make a leap of faith if you’re going to write for a living.  The problem, the way I see it, is that it’s a long leap.  It takes time to write that great American novel.  Then you’ve got to edit it and keep submitting it until someone agrees.  You’ve also got to keep writing in the meantime.  It take a focus and a singularity of purpose that is hard to pull off when you’ve got a family and work demanding your attention, plus needing to build your name for marketing online.  I feel like I need to carve a tiny bit of time out every day just for a novel.  We’ll see if I can do that this week.

In the meantime, I’m still writing for Yahoo! Voices.  Here’s a humorous poem I wrote for Easter based on an incident I’ve heard about many times over the years in our family, The Day the Chocolate Bunnies Died.