I liked poetry in high school. Loved it, even. In that time and place, the only people who got enthusiastic about poetry were the English teachers, and even some of them weren’t keen. These were the days before being a nerd was cool. Kids my age were into popular music, popular culture, and football. I learned to keep my poetic inclinations to myself, none of my friends would have understood.
Except for one, Gretchen, who gave me A Treasury of the World’s Best-Loved Poems one year for Christmas. She wrote on the title page that I should read The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes first, which I did. Such a tragic and beautiful poem. The first lines of this poem about a haunted New England roadhouse pulled me in:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
Bess, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, shot herself to warn her rogue lover that an ambush of Red Coats awaited him. How wonderfully romantic! It broke my 15-year-old heart.
I’ve taken that volume of poetry everywhere I have lived in the world. It has always had pride of place on my bookshelf. Still, I never thought I could write poetry myself beyond the usually terrible limerick:
There once was a guy from the Rockies
Who liked to parade in his Jockeys.
He got quite a scare
From a wandering bear
Who was strutting around in his khakis.
Don’t give up my day job, I know, but that won’t stop me from reading poetry, and writing some, and using what I learn to improve my prose. In poetry, every word is essential. Learning how to use language effectively is part of how you can draw your reader in and train their attention on the things you want them to notice. It can influence their emotions as they read. It can make your writing so much better.
So even if you aren’t a poet, I encourage you to study poems. Take a class or attend a poetry session at the next writing conference. (Here’s a good one: https://northerncoloradowriters.com/Conference ). Fall in love with words again, your writing will improve. Poetry can make that happen.
How to Write a Poem: 8 Fundamentals for Writing Poetry That’s Meaningful
Poetry 101: Getting Started
36 Poetry Writing Tips
You are likely familiar with narrative arc (the path that characters take within a story's plot) and character arc (the changes characters undergo throughout the story). But you may not be familiar with symbolic arc—the evolving use of a recurring symbol in fiction.
I first encountered this important concept while reading Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry, a collection of short stories depicting the author's experiences during the Polish-Soviet war (1919-1921). Simple images like a burning candle are introduced in brightly lit night scenes with romantic fervor. By the book's end, candles are grimy, dim, and spent.
Brontë's Jane Eyre uses the changing meaning of symbolism to reflect relationship ambivalence. Birds are a metaphoric symbol of both captivity and freedom.
In my Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort (shameless plug: coming in July from Five Star), a Bowie knife takes on multiple meanings. Decker Brown introduces the blade as his father's prized possession, as evidenced by a ritual of sharpening, even when the knife goes unused. Though estranged from his father at the start of the war, Decker finds the weapon wrapped in his bundle after heading off to fight. As such, the blade becomes a symbol of unconditional love.
After the war, Decker (now running a business in Richmond) gives a Bowie knife to his foreman. It's not the same Bowie (his father's knife was lost at Shiloh). And Decker does nothing so evident as to think back to his father's knife (which would be a mild insult to the reader).
Though only five years have passed, the war has radically altered Decker—he now plays the father's role. The knife underscores the contentious relationship he has with the man to whom he gifts the blade. This echoes his relationship with his own father. And tells the reader what Decker could never bring himself to say out loud.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wasn't a master of subtlety on this one.
We all have our rituals. The first cup of coffee in the morning. And we have our icons. I have a dead bat in formaldehyde on my desk, gifted to me by a daughter with a shared sense of humor.
What are your character's rituals and icons? And how do those very human elements change as the story arc progresses? One more layer of resonance for your work in progress.
Connecting Themes with Symbolism
Symbolism And Subtlety
I'm about to jump into the querying trenches again. This time with a new novel and hundreds of writing hours under my belt on this recent work of magnificence. My last magnificent opus inched up the ladder of success until the ladder was unceremoniously yanked from under my feet. I'm second burn shy. Is it going to be easier this time around? It's possible, but unlikely.
At least my skin is thicker, and I know what to expect.
― Oscar Wilde
I had a plan, a schedule that my writing life would take:
William Shakespeare wrote 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and several works by collaboration, and was deemed "The Bard" of England. He was 52 when he died. I am 52.
[Note to self: consider deleting this section, so fewer readers think you are comparing yourself to Shakespeare, which you are definitely not!]
I may envy his word count, but not that hairline.
Of course, the average lifespan in the 16th century was 40. So that puts things into perspective.
[Note to self: maybe change the subhead, so fewer readers think I'm being cheesy and using a worn-out cliché from a Disney movie]
After all, much of what I wanted is out of my hands:
The one thing I absolutely control is writing, writing, writing, which I do. Am I a better writer since I was 30? You betcha.
Last year, in Forbes Magazine, Pia Silva made a gut-wrenching point. In today's world of self-publishing, too many people are focused on the fact they can publish a book rather than if they should.
That's not saying independently published books aren't worth the ink. Given the volatility of the publishing industry right now, I don't blame writers. But, there is no denying a market flooded with self-published books makes it hard to find those quality gems. And we all know of a self-published book or two that was wanton murder of a few trees.
While I'm working on the traditional route, the same question is valid. Just because I want to get my story published, doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen. Waaaaah!
But then I came across mention of eighty-year-old Roberta George, who took twenty years to finish her manuscript and find a publisher. I'm a spring chicken when you think about reaching eighty years old.
Eighty is the new forty. Robert George.
[Note to self: perhaps you should limit your glee, so you don't inadvertently insult those readers in their eighties because that is not the intent! Some of the most amazing people are in their eighties, like my father who is a talented writer]
This tidbit reminds me not to put too much credence in my schedule. And his prolific word count wasn't the only thing Shakespeare had going for him.
It is easier said than done when I reach each birthday. Will I let go of the things I can't control? Only if someone pries my fingers off the keyboard as I write query letter after query letter. Will I continue to try even if I'm in my 80s still striving to get my stories published?
Late Blooming Authors
Writers Who Started Later in Life
Debut Author at 64 Years Old
Character voices are one of a writer's greatest tools when trying to create lively and interesting characters. While an author's voice is about individual style of writing, characterization is the arrangement of a variety of trappings. These effects not only help distinguish a character's voice from the author's voice, but ideally create genuine personalities.
Careful composition of these voices can give characters authenticity saving a writer from cheese and trope.
Your character may have a dialect, but don’t force one by writing it phonetically. Your readers won’t delight at your vocal versatility so much as grumble at you for taking them out of the flow of your narrative. An occasional drop of enunciation or of the last syllable works for a reader.
Maybe a bit of Spanglish or the sporadic outburst in their native language can help a reader nail the sound of a characters voice without pounding them over the head.
Language is how our characters present themselves to the world. It’s a combination of the character’s nature, experience, values and drive erupting right out of a single imaginary larynx. Characters can be polite, abrupt, determined, or confused. All of these behaviors can be revealed by word choice or phrasing.
Shall we head out?
Come with me.
Yeah, let's stay here where we could be killed.
Maybe we should get moving.
We all do it. Those first drafts are full of information dumps. It is tempting to reformat all of that precious data into dialogue. We must consider if it feels natural as a conversation. If in doubt, read it aloud. Language that seems too flowery or formal is a flow killer.
Billy and Suzie have just darted into an abandoned alleyway clutching at their stomachs and gasping for breath. “Those mysterious agents in black suits and dark glasses nearly got us,” says Billy. “Who do you think they were?”
“I don’t know,” says Suzie, “If we hadn’t rushed into traffic, weaving around rushing cars at great risk to our personal health and then raced up a fire-escape, I am quite sure they would have caught us. I’ve never been so afraid since our parents died tragically in that roadrunner stampede exactly six years ago.”
“Ah, yes,” says Billy, “I remember the day. Let’s stop escaping certain danger for a moment and relive our tragic past for no particular reason. It was a sunny day. Beautiful and temperate in wild roadrunner country…”
Just as in the real world, characters must respond to events in the world you've built. Readers may or may not have access to the unfiltered inner voice depending on how you structure your story.
Writers are responsible for the silent thoughts that can provide characterization for readers. Dialogue is a single channel medium. Nonverbal communication travels across multiple channels. Not only the actions your character takes, but decisions and reactions play an important role in character development as well.
Billy and Suzie darted into the abandoned alleyway clutching at their stomachs and gasping for breath. “Who? Who were they?” asked Billy, leaning with wobbly legs against the stained brick wall.
Suzie braced herself against a dumpster. “I don’t know.”
“But why would they?” Billy asked. “Why?”
“I said I don’t know, Billy! Do you understand I don’t know!” Suzie turned to face him. “All I can say is we better not let them find us.”
Billy held back sobs and wiped the wetness from his eyes. “I’m just so scared, Suzie. I wish Mom and Dad were here.”
Suzie sat down next to him and cradled his head into her shoulder with one hand. “Yeah,” she said, “I know.”
The point of view we write from can also help us manifest our characters for our readers. This is narrative voice and using the different formats can influence a reader's feeling about a character. One of our favorite people, Chuck Wendig, works almost exclusively in third person, present tense. He does it extremely well and explains his choice on his blog.
We are communicators. It's why we write. We have a broad array of tools to strengthen the impact of our language. Let's use them.
Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.
--- William Faulkner
How many of us have heard this piece of advice? I know I had to the point it became just another item on my checklist. But then, I started to think about it a little deeper. Why are we told to do this? "To strengthen your skills. To look at how other authors use the same story elements."
All good things, sure. Do I walk over to the westerns and pick something up? Where should I start?
Look at your writing to help you decide. What areas of your manuscript need some sprucing up?
How's your pacing? Too fast? Pick up a classic of nearly any genre to slow down on the foggy moors. Not fast enough? Thrillers are known for slamming their foot on the gas and asking, "what brakes?".
Is your setting falling flat? Check out fantasy and sci-fi to add a little bit of wonder and flare. Stilted prose? Grab some poetry. Too wordy? Snatch up a short story. Are your characters doing the 2-D two-step? Literary fiction dives so deep into the character that it makes submarines jealous.
Historical fiction, young adult, romance, mystery, horror--each area has strengths and weaknesses. So, when you decide what to read, read for those.
Read a history book. Read a language manual. Read about business practices, knitting, and humor. (Seriously, do yourself a favor and pick up a humor book, we all need a laugh.)
Biographies could inspire your next character. History could reveal a new setting or an intriguing artifact to base a plot around. Can you kill someone with knitting needles? Also, who isn't a fan of witty banter?
Business executives need a lot of creative thinking to stay ahead in their fields, and they are exponentially more productive than I am, that's for sure.
Heck, even an SAT prep book can give you a plethora of random facts and a nice jolt to your vocabulary.
Don't think you need to stop with just reading outside your genre. Every art has something to offer and views the world differently than we do.
Movies are known for their dialogue. Actors take characterization to crazy levels that frequently make the news. Artists see the world in colors and lines, musicians in notes and rhythms, and chefs in flavors and textures.
JC Lynne pulls headlines for stories as well. The Esau Continuum
A Book That Started with Pictures
April J Moore discovered a box of photos that inspired a true crime tale. Folsom's 93
Jeffrey Eugenides And Tiresias
Jim Campain chooses history to frame his stories. Mysterious Miss Snoddy.
Miranda Birt frequently pretends to know what she’s doing; sometimes it even turns out to be true. She went and got a massage degree, dropped out of traditional college a few times, and owned a small business. After a lot of work and heartbreak, she decided none of it was for her and started over yet again.
Now she spends much of her time at a day job in an attempt to fund her writing habits. Also, to pay down her student loans. Oh, and bills. Because, you know, important things.
Miranda is currently working on a fantasy novel along with puzzling out how exactly one goes about writing these “short” stories.
Like many people, I love crossword puzzles. Lately, I’ve been wondering if it would be possible to make a living as a cruciverbalist, a crossword puzzle maker, so I did some digging to find out.
The short answer is: No.
But, a person could make a little extra money on the side and have a whole lot of fun in the process. Here’s how to get started:
Like everything else in the writing world, there are rules:
Use a standard grid size: 15x15, 17x17, 19x19, 21x21, or 23x23.
Your puzzle must have rotational symmetry, that is, whether you hold the puzzle right side up or upside down, the black spaces will be in the exact same pattern.
All characters must be used both horizontally and vertically.
No one or two-letter answers. Use three-letter solutions sparingly.
Isn't the symmetry beautiful?
Creating a crossword puzzle is like writing a sonnet. There are rigid rules, but within the accepted framework, you can write anything you want. The best cruciverbalists start with a theme. Figure out your theme entries first, then fill your grid in with shorter words.
A reliable technique is to have matching pairs of theme answers that can be placed symmetrically in the grid to satisfy rule number 2 above. For example, if your theme was the NCW conference, matching answers could be HANNAH (6) and AGENTS (6), two six-letter words.
You can use www.crosswordhobbyist.com to create your own puzzles.
Once you’ve got the answers, now write the questions. The thing that makes a cruciverbalist stand out from the crowd is the humorous way that she or he writes the clues.
Be clever! For example, for the answer “Thanksgiving,” you could write the question “November holiday.” Or you could be smart and write something like “eating pumpkin pie after this meal is worth putting up with your weird cousin Micky.”
Lots of newspapers and magazines have crossword puzzles and are potential clients. The larger ones might have in-house crossword compilers, but they still buy puzzles from freelancers.
Some puzzle agencies write crossword puzzles for selling to the publishing industry, such as Clarity Media and Tribune Content Agency.
The money you earn if your crossword is published depends upon the publication. For example, puzzles sold to The New York Times will make you more than other places for publication. A weekday puzzle for The New York Times will earn you $200, but the coveted Sunday puzzle is worth $1000.
The prices at other newspapers or magazines vary from $50 to $200 for 15x15 puzzles and from $150 to $300 for 21x21 puzzles. You can find submission instructions for American publications at http://www.cruciverb.com/ (look on the left for Publisher Specifications).
If you want to make money as a writer, sometimes you’ve got to think outside of the box. If you like crossword puzzles, try making one!
How Do You Make a Living, Puzzle Maker?
The New York Times Crossword: History, Facts, and Puzzle Answers
Crossword Puzzle Maker Career
Happy New Year. If you make resolutions, you probably have a writing goal. It’s officially deep enough into January for you to question that goal. You may even be wondering whether or not you should write.
Years ago, I took a Bob Ross painting class, having been assured that anyone could paint a picture worthy of hanging on the wall. I followed the instructor’s directions for over two hours, and at first, my painting looked all right (in a bought-it-from-the-dime-store sort of way).
Happy Little Clouds.
Near the end of the class, we had to add a bird to our skyscapes. My brush made an involuntary swoop, and for a moment, dinosaurs were reborn in the form of a one-winged pterodactyl. Horrified, I started to laugh. The instructor, who did not understand how close I was to tears, said, “Well, at least you have a sense of humor.”
I also play guitar and sing. I have a lovely custom, Fender Stratocaster, but I can’t play a clean chord. As for singing, imagine Bob Dylan gargling barbed wire.
My son Ryan likes to sew and draw. He’s a good cook. But the Thunderbolt of the Gods did not gift him with great artistic skill. A mutual friend of ours is job-searching, hoping to find something more emotionally satisfying. Ryan said, “I think even a dream job turns into a j-o-b after a while. If you want to be happy, you have to find other things to do.”
What this wise young man has discovered is the pure joy of art for art’s sake. He pursues different arts and crafts because it’s a fun way to build a life.
Did your New Year writing resolutions include success benchmarks? Mine did, until my discussion with Ryan. Instead, I’ve listed projects that I’d like to pursue solely out of enjoyment.
Tying this back to writing, some lucky souls derive deep, spiritual satisfaction from telling a story, whether or not the tale finds print.
In fact, writing is a beautiful pursuit at which to fail:
· No one is going to look at your flash drive and shake their head in amused dismay (like friends look at my Fender Strat) because writing is inexpensive. How much does a Big Chief tablet cost?
· Writing is quiet. I don’t have to wait for the house to empty to write. (Turning on my amplifier is a different matter.)
· Writing doesn’t smell. I know some artists love turpentine and linseed oil. Weirdos.
· Writers don’t have to share their work. If a cook makes dinner in a forest, did he really cook? Truth is, some things weren’t meant to be read (or tasted). I don’t make spaghetti anymore, and I have several novels that will never be read by anyone.
· Even a lousy writer can get away with murder. Ask the characters based on people you know who met an untimely end in your stories.
It is a wine and SIP class.
Every few months, I go to one of the wine-and-paint places. Two of my paintings hang in the entryway of my house. (The rest ended up in a landfill.) And I keep playing that Fender, and once in a great while, I sit back and think, wow! That didn’t suck!
Titled "Hideous" by Brian Kaufman. (JC thinks it needs to be renamed.)
If goals and expectations and despair have coalesced for you this January, take heart. Success is a small, relatively unimportant part of the formula. Write because you love it. Write because art can make your soul smile.
Paint And Wine Parties
Writing And Painting
Paint Versus Prose
It’s a new year. I’m trying to get excited about it. Just as I was trying to get into the spirit of the season, including gift-giving, house decorating, quality time with friends and family, overeating, celebrating, and planning for the year to come.
NaNoWriMo is over. Inspiration was sapped for the remainder of the year. You know how it goes. But for me, the holiday season comes with a lot of work travel and time with non-writers who look at me when I mention my passion for writing fiction as they would a platypus in a tank.
“Why would you spend countless hours writing a book when you could be watching Breaking Bad?”
You know you've watched some.
But what I’ve gotten lately is this: “They put out a lot of Hallmark movies during the holidays. You should try writing one. I hear they pay up to $30,000.”
Even Baby Yoda thinks that is whack. (Yes, TWB editor is obsessed with the BY. Deal with it.)
“It's not really what I write. My stuff is about murder and mayhem. I doubt the networks want something like that for a feel-good holiday story. People suck, animals suffer, and children die.”
“Oh, so your stories are more like Agatha Christie?”
“Um, no, not really.”
They pause, and reframe the suggestion, thinking maybe I misunderstood their good intentions. “So, you think you might try writing for the Hallmark Channel? Can’t be that hard.” They lower their voices and whisper conspiratorially, “You could quit your job and fly to Hollywood. It could be on TV next Christmas.”
It made me think. I write what I write. You write what you write. Because that’s what we enjoy. But maybe Hallmark would be interested in altering its successful formula.
There might be an audience for a family who takes their beloved cat on a road trip to visit Grandma. The cat jumps out of the car and disappears into the desert. The family goes to visit Grandma because she owns an Ayurvedic Clinic. They hope to heal their volatile marriage and cure their child, who has contracted a new strain of the bubonic plague.
The cat ends up bunking down in a barn owned by a single woman who loves being by herself. The cat finds its talent for ridding the barn of mice and rats. Thus preventing more children from catching the plague so they can go on living another year to celebrate Christmas with their loving families who thinks Pop Tarts are real breakfast food and sweatpants that say “Juicy” all over the butt are fine to wear out in public.
Too bitter? Just enough grit? Hey, the cat lives.
Hallmark might be keen on such a story. I’ll get right on that. After all, they pay $30,000.
What it's like to write for Hallmark.
Writing for Hallmark
How to Get Published with Hallmark
My December blog post tradition of re-writing a holiday classic from a writer’s perspective was a no-brainer this year. Deepest thanks to Angie Hodapp of Nelson Literary for inspiring this reimagining. And apologies to Mr. Haven Gillespie who wrote the original.
Forget cookies and milk, bring on the whisky! That sleigh is cold.
Oh! You better revise,
I don’t mean to pry,
You better format,
I’m telling you why
Agent Claus is coming to town
She’s reading your pitch,
She’s checking your comps,
She’ll get you a deal, whatever you want.
She sees you when you’re working,
She knows when you don’t write.
She knows when you procrastinate,
So get your word count done tonight!
Because why miss a chance at one more baby Yoda? What child is this?
So . . . You better revise,
Little contracts, and little rewrites.
Revisey-vise-vise and working-all-night.
Agent Claus is coming to town.
Book launch parties, all about you,
Dust jackets, bios and book signings, too.
The folks in your critique group
Will have a writing sprint,
They’re going to get their first drafts done,
To see who is first in print.
Ohh… You better revise,
Agent Claus is coming to town!
Meet The Agents Who Will Decline Your Novel
8 Myths about Agents
What Do Those Rejection Letters Mean
I give occasional seminars on self-publishing options. The very first thing I discuss is the writer’s purpose in writing. Not everyone sits down to a keyboard with a best-seller as their driving motivation.
For some, telling the one story they’ve carried inside and then seeing it in print is enough. Some want part-time income. Others want to build a writing career. And for some writers, writing for their family is enough.
Sometime after my father’s parents died, he and his sister decided to put together a book called Memories of Walt and Hazel. Dad wrote some essays. My aunt Bunny wrote some essays and poems. They gathered photos and made a book that has been a cherished keepsake.
Along the way, they made great choices, and mentioning those choices might help anyone who is similarly inclined.
First, the book is not organized chronologically. My father’s essays were topical. The order in which they were placed reminded me of an old Monty Python line, “And now, for something completely different.”
He bookended the content by opening with a family tree, followed by his own earliest childhood memories. He closed with three essays written by grandchildren. This loose (but logical) organization removed the tyranny of a fixed timeline, replaced by a casual, conversational approach.
My father’s essays were short, 300-700 words, each with a theme. Are You an Individual? These addressed my family’s quirks in a way that made them seem heroic (even when silly). What Do You Believe, and Why? These recounted family dinner discussions, where the only two sins were not having an opinion or having one without evidence.
Some of my father’s pieces were serious (A Depression Diet), and some were hilariously irreverent (Are You Saved?). If you compile a list of topics, look for a range of subjects and tones.
The writing is straight forward. My father wrote just like he talked. His voice lives in Memories of Walt and Hazel. If you tackle a project like this, try to sound like yourself. Don’t think you have to be flowery or literary. Be you.
My father’s essays took up more than half the book. Of course, there were plenty of other contributors. A memoir of this type has plenty of room for additional contributors.
Finally, my father and aunt added pieces of Walt and Hazel’s actual voices. Hazel wrote in a journal, and Walt was a published poet. A taste of each was a marvelous addition to the book.
Suppose you wrote your family’s stories? What topics would you cover? A great way to start is to compile a list of stories/topics/events that might deserve an article about the length of a blog entry.
We, humans, differentiate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom by our words. Writing about family captures the past in a way nothing else can, providing a framework and context for understanding. Your audience will be small but appreciative. We live in a print-on-demand world with plenty of low-cost options for putting a physical book into the hands of your loved ones.
A noble motivation for writing indeed!
Family History Books You Can't Put Down
Family Stories through Cooking
Powerful Family Histories
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