Aspire to a Child’s Mind

People who get into animation tend to be kids. We don’t have to grow up. But also, animators are great observers, and there’s this childlike wonder and interest in the world, the observation of little things that happen in life. ~John Lasseter~

In yoga, the beginner mind is something even advanced yogis aspire to obtain. In writing, I wouldn’t want to go back to my skills as a beginner, but finding my way back to the Child’s Mind unlocks a whole new power and perspective in writing that can find its way around any writer’s block. Ever sat and just listened to children playing? At the park, in the grocery store, in your living room? They are incredibly adaptive and of course, creative. Ever argued with a toddler? There is nothing more embarrassing, but also instructive. There is never an answer that cannot be overcome.

When kids play they instantly adapt to new events as they collaboratively tell a story.

“MY guy can fly AND shoot lasers!”

“Well my guy is laser-proof and shoots jelly that can jam up your lasers anyway!”

“Okay, well but my guy will just jump and fly out of the way and shoot the ground under you and you will drop in a hole and his jelly gun can’t reach up here now!

“Well my jelly gun is also a bubble gun and it makes me float up out of the hole…”

It never ends. Until interrupted, that is.

Photo Credit: Melissa Heiselt

This practice is exactly what a novelist must do as they consider complications leading to the climax and ultimately the resolution of the story. Problem solve, throw in a wrench, problem solve, throw in a curveball… and somehow the protagonist comes out of it all. So the next time the children in your life want to play, give it a try! It will sharpen your writing skills as well as any prompt I’ve tried.

People who get into animation tend to be kids. We don’t have to grow up. But also, animators are great observers, and there’s this childlike wonder and interest in the world, the observation of little things that happen in life.

John Lasseter

This quote from John Lasseter really applies to all storytellers; whether they be the organic, real life storytellers in our lives, or actors and illustrators, and of course, writers of all kinds. Keeping a notebook of oddities said or done or seen in the world around us is a great practice, not just for the fact that it makes sure we have this incredible storehouse of vibrant detail for our work, but primarily because it keeps this Child’s Mind alive and active in our lives. In any art, learning to see is what makes all the difference.

Icicles cling to the edge on Building 321 on the Fort Myer portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall after a winter storm Jan. 22, 2014. Icicles are only one of many potential hazards to be avoided while working in the winter weather, according to JBM-HH safety officials. (Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall PAO Photo by Rachel Larue)

Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned illustrator and animator expounds on this process in his book, Starting Point, 1979-1996:

When people speak of a beautiful sunset, do they hurriedly riffle through a book of photographs of sunsets or go in search of a sunset? No, you speak about the sunset by drawing on the many sunsets stored inside you—feelings deeply etched in the folds of your consciousness of the sunset you saw while carried on your mother’s back so long ago that the memory is nearly a dream; or the sunset-washed landscape you saw when, for the first time in your life, you were enchanted by the scene around you; or the sunsets you witnessed that were wrapped in loneliness, anguish, or warmth.

Hayao Miyazaki

So record that sunset. Thoughts, emotions, colors, everything. Even if you don’t actively sort back through those notebooks, the act and practice of writing it down teaches your mind what is worth remembering. When you write a scene someday that requires that same depth of emotion and connection, it will be there waiting in your subconscious and ready to spill out onto the page.

Sabrina Pitorre
Totoro Corto Maltese
Water Color
Hommage à Hayao Miyazaki et Hugo Pratt

The final lesson we can learn from kids? Don’t filter. Particularly in the heat of the creative process, just let it all tumble out. There is no such thing as too silly, far-fetched, or random. As an anime aficionado, that is part of what makes some stories so endearing! Let all the ideas have their say. There is always time to edit later. When you are gathering material or working your way through a timeline, write first and think later. You will be well on your way to developing the coveted Child’s Mind.

Author Spotlight: Julie Bogart

The Original Brave Writer: Julie Bogart

Internationally acclaimed teacher of writers and author Julie Bogart is the mind behind Brave Writer, a fantastic resource for parents and students of writing. She has authored over 200 curricula teaching writing to various age groups, helping thousands gain a better understanding of the written word, and their own voice. Her podcast is also a fantastic support for homeschool families. The same warmth and insight found in her teaching style is evident as she chats with families about their challenges and helps them find ways through the rough. We were able to score an interview and are so pleased to be able to share with our readers her work and wisdom.

TLW: Thank you so much for agreeing to visit with me about your work and approach to writing! I saw this quote recently, and felt the truth of it regarding my own writing. Even as someone who loves to write, it sometimes takes a lot of guts to put myself out there; sometimes the sacrifices required to see your work through is tough, so this really hit home:

“There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain, and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life. 

That is the sort of bravery I must have now.” 

― Veronica Roth, Allegiant

Does this relate to your writing students?

JB: Courage in writing, in my view, has to do with showing up as yourself—your ideas, imagination, personal experience, opinions, thoughts. It takes courage to risk exposure of a self. We sometimes forget that it takes just as much courage to write a 4th grade report about dolphins as a poem—to make sure you have the right information in the best sequence, that you’ve shared it in a way you hope is compelling to read. So yes—that there are many ways to be brave resonates. What I notice is that not everyone recognizes the act of courage in writing. That’s my mission: to highlight that fact and help parents appreciate it.

TLW:  Tell me more about why you chose the name “Brave Writer” for your programs and materials.

JB: Both words matter.

“Brave”—because each of us has to be willing to be seen when we write. One of the reasons for the rampant experience of writer’s block is that everyone knows putting your thoughts into written form preserves them for scrutiny, judgment. When we talk, our words are ephemeral, easily revised and forgotten. Writing solidifies and preserves them—we must face our own shoddy thinking or incomplete understanding. The willingness to greet the blank page with openness and optimism often needs to be cultivated. Putting our words where they will be read is a brave act.

“Writer”—because we teach human beings (writers) not a subject (writing). The emphasis in our name is on the people taking the writing risks. Anyone who can externalize language is a writer—whether that person transcribes their own thoughts or gets someone else (secretary, parent, voice-to-text software) to do it. Writing doesn’t exist apart from the writer; writing lives inside the writer. Our task in Brave Writer is to help the writer discover their words within and then to coax those words forward with gentleness and optimism. Once we have the words on the page or screen, we can do lots of things with them—all of which can be shared in a friendly, warm way, which leads to power in writing.

TLW: That is so beautiful and powerful. How did you start your career in writing, and ultimately arrive at teaching writing?

JB: My mother (Karen O’Connor) is a professional author of over 70 books and countless magazine articles. I grew up writing as a natural birthright. As a young adult, I built a freelance writing career that included ghostwriting, magazine editing, and book editing. A homeschooling friend of mine shared her struggles teaching her children to write and asked for my help. When I looked at the materials she was using, I was floored. They were so out of step with everything I knew about the writing life. She then suggested I host a class for her and other home educators. We began with 15 parents and it grew over 7 weeks to 40 people. I discovered that what I taught felt brand new to most adults. That led me to realize that a book teaching parents how to be writing coaches and allies to their kids would be valuable.

Julie’s supplemental materials delve into more than just basic writing.

TLW:  You do have a very unique approach compared to most writing instructors for children. I love that you’ve set as a first priority helping writers find their voice. What advice do you have to writers still struggling in this area?

JB: More freedom, more space to write “badly.” One of the first ways I help kids who feel reluctant to write is to encourage them to focus only on their thoughts (not spelling, handwriting, or punctuation). Give complete attention to the ticker tape of ideas and words flowing through your mind and write down every single word—even words like, “I’m stuck” and “This is stupid; why do I have to write?” As the hand is trained to transcribe the mind, the blocks dissipate.

For especially stuck writers, I go one step further. I tell the young writer than no one (not even your parents) is allowed to read what you write. Set a timer for 3-5 minutes and write the whole time, anything you want to say, anything going through your mind, and share it with no one. Your writing is for your eyes only. Get used to seeing yourself show up on the page without the anxiety that someone will judge you for what you put there. Some kids need months of weekly writing just like this. To help create this space, I tell parents that they, too, must write for 3-5 minutes at the same time. Let’s all take the same writing risks—a democracy of writing.

TLW: We talk often about the bravery required for an aspiring writer to become a published author. What about the bravery required for teaching?

I homeschooled my five kids who are now all grown adults. I went through many of the struggles other homeschooling families face. I had one child with ADHD, another with dysgraphia, a daughter who didn’t read until she was almost 10. My family tested the ideas I share and lived with the challenges of education at home—and I learned so much. Our Brave Writer team has worked with over 100,000 families. Over the last 20 years, the one constant in all that work is this: a parent’s loving, warm relationship with the child is the key foundation for a healthy homeschool AND writing life. It takes courage as a parent to be relentlessly optimistic, to use your friendliest voice when identifying the missing capitalization yet again, to affirm the writing risk rather than to criticize the poorly developed content. It takes faith to believe that your children can arrive on the shores of adulthood ready to tackle their futures, even if their spelling skills are still “woefully behind” at age 13.

I wrote a new book called THE BRAVE LEARNER: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschooling, Learning, and Life that expands on this premise—the notion that parents create a context for the magic of learning to take place. Fortunately, these are skills that can be learned by the parents—if they are brave enough to trust themselves, their children, and the process. The book is available through online retailers and local bookstores. Check out the website for more information: https://thebravelearner.com

Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us, Julie! I’ve learned so much from your work and am so thrilled to share it with our readers.

Worth Every Sacrifice

Like most artists, the road to becoming a published author is unique for each individual traveling it. But anyone planning for success must also plan for one thing: sacrifice. Whether the path is long and arduous like it was for Michael J. Sullivan, or enviably short like Brandon Mull’s, there is no way forward without surrendering a few things.

It’s Time

The most obvious sacrifice necessary is of time. Regular, consistent, methodical, reliable, scheduled TIME. Many aspiring authors disappear into the ranks of the wistful wishful because they fail to dedicate the necessary time to see their vision through, push through the walls, and lulls in creativity between projects. If you are not committing to regular time for writing in your schedule, then you are not a writer. Even the aspiring kind.

Pride

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something” (The Princess Bride). “Get used to disappointment” (also The Princess Bride). Even some of the biggest best-selling novels in history were rejected many, many times. Harry Potter? 12. A Wrinkle in Time? 26. Kate DiCamillo received a staggering 473 rejection letters for various efforts before publishing Because of Winn-Dixie, arguably one of the most-read books in Middle School. To succeed in publication, one must sacrifice their pride, and recognize that even a well-written manuscript may not be picked up right away for publication. It’s also worth remembering that the quality of the manuscript is (obviously) not determined by how many rejection letters the author receives in the attempt to publish. It may be rejected because of that particular publisher’s goals, what kind of works they are currently interested in publishing, or because it’s just not well represented.

And Prejudice

You’ve just written the best thing you’ve ever attempted. The characters are alive and real to you, the story moves along at a good clip and has some exciting plot twists you’re excited for readers to discover. It’s perfect. With all due respect: nothing is perfect straight out of the gate. As the author you see and live the story in a way no one else can. And there’s the rub. No one else can. Which is why every published author has a favorite editor, and many a forward dedicates some space for gratitude toward their editor(s) for helping make the book the best it could be. The editor’s job is to help draw out your vision and trim back the weeds to bring into focus what the readers need to see to experience your work in the best way possible. Check your pride and author’s prejudice at the door, and let your baby grow up and move out into the world!

Worth It

To live is to sacrifice. Each moment of the day we are choosing how to spend that moment. We are giving up infinite possibilities to choose the one thing we are doing right this minute. If your goal is to be a published author, choose to leave behind whatever is holding you back from that reality. Check your pride at the door an acknowledge that rejection is just part of the process. Not everyone is going to love your work, or have room for it in their lives. That is not a value judgement, it just is. Set aside your personal preferences and listen to a good editor help you refine your work and prepare it for publication. Then get to work. And keep working.

Hygge Writing Prompts

As the winter solstice approaches and the nights lengthen to their darkest and most forbidding, I am inclined to go dormant along with the trees and squirrels. The Danish concept of Hygge (hoo-ge) has a way of embracing that desire to bring things down a notch, while remaining pleasantly productive throughout those dreary days of winter. It’s all about connecting with nature, friends, and all that nurtures the soul in the colder months. Here are four writing prompts inspired by this way of living that just might help you find joy in the beautiful coziness of our shortest days.

 

Winter Walk

A winter walk can be inspiring.

When temperatures drop, our human instinct tells us to stay as comfortable as possible at all times… which generally means we collectively become homebodies if we weren’t already. Less time outdoors means less daylight and vitamin D, which means lowered seratonin production, which encourages scroogey attitudes. Don’t let it affect your writing mojo!  Bundle up and head outside. Notice the changes of the plants in your area. Is it peacefully silent in your neck of the woods? Or busier than ever on your street with the impending holidays? Notice everything. Take notes. When you get someplace you can really write, flesh out vignettes of the places you went and the scenes that were most interesting. Was it that one tree stubbornly insisting on autumn with one vibrant leaf still clinging to a twig? Was it the stressed-out convo overheard? An act of kindness observed? Post your experience here or on our Facebook page!

 

Cozy Cups

Awaken your senses.

Hot drinks warm you up from the inside out and just feel right at this time of year. Prepare an assortment of hot drinks and some nibbles. Something familiar is nice, but be sure to include something you’ve never tasted before. Find a comfortable place to sip and write without distraction. Describe each tea, cocoa, or even soup, in detail. Finding the right words to accurately represent the complexity of flavor is the challenge! If it’s a hot toddy, how does the alcohol affect your senses? Include any memories that pop up in association with each concoction. This exercise is almost meditative as you learn to slowly savor each sip and decipher the language of your palate.

 

Friends and Food

Collaboration with friends.

One critical element of Hygge is self-care; understanding the need for kindness to ourselves. While many here are already paring back their meals in penance for the holiday feasting, the Danes embrace all that  brings comfort and joy, especially friends and good food. Gather some of your favorite people, prepare some of your favorite foods, and play some of these improv games. Thinking on your feet and collaborative storytelling encourage you to think outside the box in ways staring at a blank page just doesn’t.

  • One Word — Sit in a circle and tell a story together. If you’ve ever played “Fortunately but Unfortunately,” this is similar, but as you go around the circle each person contributes only the next single word to the sentence/story. Don’t overthink! Just say whatever pops out. The result is hilarious fun.
  • Telestrations — This is a game that can be purchased, or done simply with paper and pencils for the group. The first person writes a sentence, then folds the paper so that the sentence is covered, and passed to the left. The next person peeks at the sentence and illustrates it. If you are a horrible artist, no worries! It just makes the next part more fun. Fold that paper the other way, so your art AND the sentence are hidden, and pass it to the left. Now look at ONLY the illustration, and write a sentence to describe what you see. Repeat this process, passing the papers until you get your original paper back. Sharing and laughing together by firelight feeds the soul, and the whole shenanigan improves creativity.
  • Yes and No… with a twist– This message will self-destruct after you finish this page. Well, maybe not, but the game can really only be played once with any particular group of friends. Tell your friends it will be a storytelling game, where half of you will be creating a story, and they have to guess what it is asking only questions with yes and no answers; then send half the group out of the room.  The remaining half is told that they are actually NOT going to create the story, the guessers are. For every question that starts with a consonant will be a yes answer, vowels will be a no. When the other half returns, the incognito collaboration begins.

 

Luminaries

“There are two ways of spreading light:

to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.”

Edith Wharton

Hygge culture thrives by candlelight. So light a candle, find a cozy fireplace, and contemplate those who have given light, illumination, a brightness to your world of some kind. This can be someone you know very well, a child, an artist who has inspired you, a historical or religious figure who lit a figurative fire in some way; anyone who has been a luminary to you personally. Write a quick character sketch based on that person. What have been their biggest challenges and how did they overcome them? Write their biography from your limited perspective. Write them a letter thanking them for their influence in your life. This can be four writing opportunities in one if you let it.

 

Snuggle into the rhythms of winter. Writing practice can include creative collaborations and silent contemplations. Be kind to yourself, embrace friends and comforting traditions. And keep writing.

Strengthen your Character.

 

 

Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” So how do you create that depth of realism in your protagonist that makes you (or at least your readers) weep at their misfortunes? How much time should you devote to these exercises? I once attended a Brandon Sanderson book signing where he answered the question saying you need to know (at minimum) these 3 things about each and every character, no matter how minor:

 

  • Where did they come from?
  • What do they want?
  • What’s stopping them from getting it?

 

You will find endless lists online of questions to ask yourself/your characters to help define who they are and how they will function in your story, but I find myself returning to these core questions again and again. It doesn’t need to take long, but the more fully fleshed out these answers are, the more fully your people will live and breathe on every page.

It can be as simple as deciding that my gatekeeper from the village now works in the big city, and just wants to go home and see his visiting daughters for the evening, but this rough-looking traveler is getting in the way. It can be as complicated as detailing the religious beliefs of an political dissident who is plotting a major coup with multiple obstacles. Very versatile.

 

There are a variety of apps that can help as you seek to give your character depth and clarity. I’m not talking about those word processing apps (with a little spunk) like Scrivener or yWriter, I’m talking about dynamic organizational tools that will make your background work on character development and world building easy to find and integrate into your writing.

My very talented niece introduced me to Notebook.ai, a free online app that organizes all of your background information into four integrated categories: Universes, Characters, Locations, and Items. I find it to be a very efficient way of seeing all the pieces I need easily and directly. It includes relationship maps, and can be as simple or as detailed as you like. Its format does encourage you to be succinct, but doesn’t have a character limit that forces the issue.

Another fairly new option is StoryShop. This one is more comprehensive, there is a price tag, but could be worth it. While this one features a character development section, it also provides space for outlines, research, and a word processor so you can keep ALL the pieces in one box. (I will do a follow-up post reviewing these tools and others soon!)

So spend some time fleshing out the people in your stories. Make them live and breathe and desire. No matter their age, they have goals and fears, and something drives their decisions. What is it? Make sure you know.

 

A word of caution: Don’t let your time spend in character development or world building become so all-encompassing that it distracts you from your true goal: Completing that story! You NaNoWriMo soldiers get back to work!

Author Spotlight: James D. Taylor Jr.

James Taylor is a Renaissance man, delving into music, history, and writing in his decades long career. As a military veteran, composer, amateur astronomer, and historian, he brings a depth and breadth to his work that is priceless. His penchant for finding a good story in history and talent in finding true sources combine to create intelligent, engaging biographies that reveal his favorite aphorism: truth really is stranger than fiction. He has written four biographies detailing the lives of some of the lesser known Tudor royalty and two about the women behind the enduring Betty Boop. His fantasy novel, Checkmate, entwines Egyptian history with the lives of present-day researchers trying desperately to solve the puzzle that will save the world. You can check out his full list of publications at https://jamesdtaylorjr.com/literary.

 

What first attracted you to Tudor history?

I watched a movie about Lady Jane Grey, which fueled my curiosity… I encountered nothing but inconsistencies with everything I reviewed, such as the spelling of her name and her birth date, to mention a few. I realized that there should be a single unbiased reference available free from embellishments for researchers or just anyone interested in Lady Jane. This led to the following six books for the same reason.

How do you find the documents you use as the backbone for your histories?

Eighty percent of my research still involves reviewing material in libraries and private holdings, as many of the original documents and books are too fragile to be handled for digitalization. This may require traveling out of state. While accumulating material for Helen Kane, I located a single copy of the court trial transcript in New York. The day I was to leave, the copy disappeared. I was rather devastated as the trial transcript was to provide the foundation for the book, and it appeared the project would have to be cancelled. The library frantically searched for the missing copy, but it was never located. About three weeks passed when the librarian located another copy in a law library—that saved the project.

 

What a relief! That would have been disastrous. How do you even know where to look for these materials?

The Tudor era projects are perhaps a bit easier as there is a rather limited selection of published material through history, though sometimes scattered throughout the world. I lost a very dear friend, Dr. Charlene Berry, a research librarian at Madonna University who sometimes helped me with locating pre-1600 books. More often locating sources is like archaeology, but cleaner. I just kept digging and most of the time found nothing, but occasionally I did. I utilize Worldcat.org and Melcat for locating sources not found in local University libraries. The University of Michigan, by the way, has one of the finest libraries in the country.

Your work really brings alive the drama, intrigue, and excitement of people’s lives. How do you do it?

We too often imagine what a person’s life and times are like through the media’s portrayal, which is often very different. Pirates are a good example. Media presents them as dashing, swashbuckling Errol Flynn types instead of deadly, ruthless individuals who patrol the seas looking for easy prey. The Somali pirates we encountered off the coast of Vietnam when I served in the U.S. Navy killed two dozen refugees before we could save the remainder. Usually, fact is more interesting or even unbelievable than fiction. That is my driving motivation, to present the unembellished facts.

 

Tell me about your fascination with Betty Boop.

I felt that Mae Questel’s story had to be told, and the more research I conducted about Mae’s contributions to Betty Boop, the more untold elements I discovered about Betty Boop, which included Helen Kane. Betty Boop was and is an iconic figure known worldwide, but very little is known about her creation and the tragedy that followed. Some of her early (pre-Hayes code) cartoons are very dark even by today’s standards.

 

How on earth did you get celebrities like Woody Allen, Lou Hirsch, Doris Roberts, and Bob Newhart to discuss Mae Questel’s career with you?

I cold contacted all those who worked with Mrs. Questel based on who was still alive, and who would possibly respond; some by direct contact, through the studio, production faculty, or an agent. Constant diligence and persistence yielded those few who did respond. No one simple answer, as each individual warranted a different method. Many of the actors never met her on the set because of the scheduling of shooting times were different. Perhaps as high as eighty percent never responded. This includes family members.

 

That takes real tenacity. Any other tips for budding authors out there on how to research effectively?

Ask questions. Learn to decipher fact from fiction through persistent research. In a class I attended, a woman turned in a report based upon facts she obtained from Wikipedia. When the professor asked if her facts were true, she replied, “Yes, Wikipedia said they were.”

Oh wow. That is sad. You are quite the Renaissance man. Do you find your varied interests help when you sit down to write?

While serving in the military, I visited a dozen countries and had a chance to experience much that those cultures offered. These and life’s experiences have provided me with a valuable tool set allowing me to sometimes view things as others may not.

 

How do you organize your time for your work?

Writing biographies (to me anyway) is like patch-quilting. I will pick a pattern (subject), assemble the swatches (facts), lay them out and assemble them until the final result is something I am proud of. I maintain the discipline required to allocate time and it can vary from an hour to 14 hours a day and if travel is required, more.

 

How do you approach the editing phase of writing?

That is the most tedious aspect of any project in determining what remains or goes. Generally, if information is unclear or I am unable to validate or substantiate it, it is a time consuming decision as to the fate of that information. Depending on the complexity of the project, I will set it aside and re-review it at a later date to possibly gain a fresh perspective.

 

Thank you, James, for your time! It’s been wonderful getting to know you. I look forward to reading your upcoming publications!

Poetic Devices. Why Should I Care?

Let’s cover poetic devices! I can just hear the groaning in the back row. Alright, alright. Hear me out. In no way are these just for poets. Each one addresses unique ways writers of all kinds play with words to create more polished prose. Whether you are a news reporter or a novelist, mastering them can bring a subtle sophistication to your writing. We experience the effects of these devices all the time without realizing it. It’s what makes good literature feel musical and inviting. Think of some of your favorite passages of your favorite novel. Inspiring words, or a well-written article will certainly embrace them. You’ll find it in moving storytelling and clear expositions all over the place that just… sound better. So let me introduce you to your ten new best friends.

  • Alliteration.

Alliteration is rhyme’s mirrored twin. It’s when words begin with the same letter, rather than end. Aunt Annie’s Alligator from Dr. Seuss’s ABC book comes to mind. But we see it used to create emphasis, or a certain mood, all the time in literature. The Great Gatsby is the classic example, as F. Scott Fitzgerald seemed particularly fond of it.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly against the past.”

Keep an eye out for alliteration as you go about life, and notice what effect it has in its context. Does it slow things down? Does it add a punch of humor? Does it draw your attention in a certain way? Next time you’re warming up for writing, give it a try! The more you experiment and play with the sounds of words, the more you will be able to use it intentionally.

  • Assonance.

Assonance is when interior vowels echo each other every so often within a phrase. (See what I did there?) As with most of these devices, it creates emphasis and a certain mood, depending on the sound emphasized and the context.  A favorite example from literature is found in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan:

“Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.”

It’s also a great example of the next tool for your literary cabinet, and some others I am sure you will discover on your own.

  • Consonance.

As you may guess from the sound of it, this is a close cousin to assonance. It’s referring to consonant sounds that pop up with in a sentence or phrase. Depending on the consonant repeated, you can really amplify a mood with consonance. Hard /k/ sounds command your attention and might make a phrase more lively or harsh. Sibilant sounds tend to create a hushed mood. Great speech writers use this tool all the time to produce a lyrical  quality that makes you want to listen. Here’s an example from Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Alliteration, consonance, and assonance are all about playing with the interior sounds of words, and are well suited to all kinds of writing. Because they are surprisingly easy to incorporate and are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, their value goes far beyond poetry. They don’t make a stab at your attention the way overtly poetic phrases do, but give that certain je ne se quois to our favorite quotable quotes. Play around with them the next time you are dreading that blank screen.

  • Imagery.

Okay, so this one is pretty self-explanatory. Images are what make good writing come to life. But it’s about more than just the visual components. It’s engaging all the senses to tell your story. If readers feel as if they are experiencing the action, they will be drawn to your work. We read because we want to feel transported to another place, time, or reality, and good imagery is key in making that magic. E.B. White does this excellently in Once More to the Lake:

He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

Ouch. The boy feels it. The narrator feels it. We feel it. Experiment with this in areas of your work that just feel disconnected or bland. What experience can you craft for your reader that will show not tell?

  • Metaphor.

Every time I encounter this word, I think of the hilarious and poignant old Italian film, Il Postino. Metaphor is when we say one thing, but mean another. In a good way. It’s a key means of using imagery to convey more than what can be seen with the eye, or felt with our skin. I love Carl Sandburg’s poem, Landscape. It can mean so many things to different people at different times.

See the trees lean to the wind’s way of learning.
See the dirt of the hills shape to the water’s way of learning.
See the lift of it go the way the biggest
wind and the strongest water want it.

We use metaphor all the time in common idiomatic phrases and figures of speech. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A stitch in time saves nine. Music to my ears. The ball is in your court now. Consider this popular quote from Hellen Keller; made all the more significant because of her native blindness:

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.

We use metaphor all the time to convey a stronger, more intimate meaning than can be conveyed with simple factual description. Notice it in the literature you read every day, and consider when you might use it more effectively.

  • Meter.

This is, loosely speaking, used to describe the rhythmic combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in language. In poetry it can be a very specific set of patterns to follow; we typically think of very structured poetry examples such as Shakespeare’s famed use of iambic pentameter. But we aren’t going to be writing sonnets, generally speaking, so let’s look at this in other great works. Examine this excerpt from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address. Notice where the stresses fall in these lines:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-

Can you see the rhythm created in his word choice, emphasized in his delivery? Paying attention to where the stressed syllables fall in your most crucial concepts can lend that extra oomph to make your work stand out.

  • Onomatopoeia.

Clickety-clack. Pitter Patter. Squelch. Words that mimic the specific sounds they describe are abundant in English and can be playful or powerful. They help the reader really hear what is happening, making descriptions more vivid. Exploring onomatopoeia can be a fun writing warm up before your real writing assignment begins because it’s really all about appreciating the sounds of the words and the feelings evoked by them. The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes is full of great sounds that pull the reader into the action.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred…

I would argue that in this case, even the sounds of words like locked and barred lend to the delightful commotion and energy of this piece, even if they aren’t typically words we think of as onomatopoeia. I recommend giving it a read in its entirety! Then see if you can write some noise.

  • Personification.

Personification is when the author or speaker ascribes emotion to the inanimate. It’s in the whispering winds or angry clouds that bring alive the storm. It’s in the lonely road and forlorn shack that set the mood of a place. Edith Wharton demonstrates this beautifully here in an excerpt from The Mother’s Recompense:

“Hadn’t she known that something good was going to happen to her that morning – hadn’t she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair?”

  • Repetition.

Repetition is really the soul of many other devices on this list. Rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration are all about the repetition of various sounds. Meter is about the repetition of emphasis creating a repeated rhythm to the words. Here repetition refers to the reappearance of words or phrases throughout a sentence, paragraph, or even the entire text. Have you ever noticed that the funniest parts of any stand-up comedian’s act are when they cycle back to ideas you thought they’d abandoned? Watch a few Drybarcomedy shows and you will absolutely see it. It’s the same concept. It just adds a little candy for the brain. Some of the above quotes give great examples of this; as in FDR’s famous speech, three times just in that excerpt; throughout that short Sandburg poem; and in two other places, if you can find them. Comment below if you think you see it!

  • Rhyme.

Nope. This one isn’t just for poems either. Listen to this well-loved quote from the Buddha:

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

Does it sound overly rhymey and trite? Not really. Rhyme doesn’t have to be at the end of a line of poetry to be rhyme or to have impact. Ok smarty pants in the front row. So that last phrase spills over into consonance rather than rhyme, you’re right! That’s what makes it such a good example for use outside of strict poetry. Hear the pleasant echo of the “th” sound in each phrase … health, wealth, faithfulness? See how it bounces from the beginning of the line, to the end of the next, back to the beginning? It makes it memorable and underscores the importance of those words in his message. It goes back to the principle of repetition in fine art, whether visual, auditory, or written. Our brains like it. Whether it’s because it makes things easier to remember or because we like the familiar, it just feels good.

  • Simile.

This is basically a more explicit kind of metaphor that really calls out the comparison by name. The classic example is Robert Burns,’ “O my love’s like a red, red, rose…” It differs from metaphor in that it employs clue words to tip you off that a comparison is being made: like, as, shall I compare thee… you get the idea. Charles Dickens was fond of using simile, and did so with great success, adding vivid imagery and personality to his stories. Check out this quote from Great Expectations:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade.

He personifies the wet quality of the morning by comparing it to a sobbing, miserable goblin or a network of spiderwebs strewn about. No plainly visual description could achieve the same kind of creepy, foreboding mood at the same time as painting clearly the damp, wet landscape.

Alright. Now you try it. Keep noticing these poetic devices being used by good artists everywhere. Jot them down in your writer’s journal. You can hear it in the music on the radio, and that friend who’s a great storyteller. These tools are found in important, famous speeches and your favorite childhood books. If you want to dive right into it rather than waiting for opportunities to pop up along your path, I highly recommend reading Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in its entirety. He uses each and every poetic device to wonderful effect. Here’s just one stanza. See how many you can identify. Leave your answer in the comments section!

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is, and nothing more.

6 of the Most Commonly Misused Words in the English Language

We interact with the world in print as much as face to face in this, the Digital Age. We buy, sell, leave reviews, comment, text, and share our lives all through written language. Many who cross your way will know nothing about you aside from that indelible mark you leave on their page, or your own if you are a blogger, so make sure it reflects your intended image. Here are some of the more commonly misused words online. Say what you mean to say!

 

Breath vs. Breathe

The verb breathe means to inhale and exhale. “Just breathe in that fresh mountain air!”

The noun breath means the air that was expelled, or can be used to refer to life or vitality. “My grandkids are a breath of fresh air around this lonely apartment.”

 

Lose vs. Loose

Lose is always a verb meaning to find yourself without something, or to fail, as in the opposite of win. “I always lose at Mahjong, but at least I don’t lose my temper.”

Loose can be a verb meaning to release or let go, as in, “Loose the bloodhounds!” Or an adjective describing something not secure or put together, “I am just tying up all the loose ends.”

 

Affect vs. Effect

This one can be tricky, as both can be used as either a verb or a noun, and both can be used in multiple ways. The noun part is fairly easy, as affect is rarely used that way outside the field of psychology. Here’s a rule of thumb to help when you’re using one or the other as a verb:

Affect is more Active. The subject is doing something to cause a reaction. “Her mood affected the whole room.” “That cold snap really affected the my neighbor’s garden.”

Effect is more passive. It’s the result of something else. Or the power to produce results itself. “His speech had no effect on his audience. The video presentation finally produced the desired effect.”

 

Accept vs. Except

To accept means to agree or submit to receiving something, except means everything but that. “She gratefully accepted the award. She was ready for any outcome… except that!”

Side note: Expecially… what is this? It is not a word. Look up Mr. Rogers and his world of make believe inventor friend, Cornflake S. Pecially. I’ve always remembered this is an S not the X so many say because of that little rodent.

 

Hone in vs. Home in

To hone means to sharpen something, like an axe. Or your writing skills. To home, usually to home in on something, means to go home, or direct something to a precise point. Like a homing device. Or a pigeon. “He really homed in on their fears and created a panic.”

 

Defuse vs. Diffuse

I usually see this misused when trying to use the phrase “defuse the situation,” which refers to reducing the tension, or taking the sting out of an intense moment. To defuse is the one you want. Just like it looks, you want to de-fuse, or take away the potential catalyst for disaster. Just like defusing a bomb.

Diffuse means to disperse something widely. It can make sense when used in the phrase, “diffuse the situation,” but it means you are somehow spreading out the tension in the air or potential conflict rather than removing the threat through humor or some other strategy. It’s better used elsewhere.

 

Of vs. Have

Should have not should of, would have not would of. Could have not could of. Or should’ve, would’ve and could’ve work too!

 

 

Ten Minute Writing Prompts

Maybe it’s living in Michigan where the summers can be brief and the weather is unpredictable, but summers bring out the carpe diem in me. In addition to all the regular items on my to-do list, I am always snatching every chance I can to get outside in the sunshine, off to the lake, and into the woods. All this means that time is at a premium, but writing must happen regularly or I can’t call myself a writer anymore. So what’s an author to do? Even if it’s only ten minutes, if it is regular and thoughtful, it is better than nothing at all. So here are ten good ten minute prompts to get you thinking and working out your writing muscles, and still have time to enjoy summer!

  1. Find a beautiful scene, and describe it through action. Use as many verbs and adverbs as you can in ten minutes.  It’s best if you can actually go out and be present in the moment there, but a photo can work, too. Imagine or observe who or what lives there. How are its actions communicating the setting? If there is a child, are they laughing and splashing through the stream? Scowling after being scolded for her muddy escapades? If it’s a bird, is it singing joyfully, or warily watching the dog napping below its tree? Beautiful places are great. What happens there is what makes writing interesting.
  2. Spend ten minutes creating a character. You may or may never use this information later, but its excellent practice. Who are they? What drives them? Who/what is stopping them from getting what they want? What do they fear? What are their ideals? What are their flaws? You only have ten minutes, so don’t filter, do not edit. Just zip it on out. Try it every day for a week. You might come up with some  interesting and quirky side characters for your next story.
  3. Brainstorm as many plots as possible in ten minutes using the following format:  [blank] discovers [blank]. The cat discovers a crayfish. The Martian discovers ice cream. The toddler discovers the camera. Use these for further writing prompts later!
  4. Expand on your discoveries.  Take one of the possible plots from number three, and expand on it. Spend just ten minutes fleshing out a vignette describing each of the more promising discoveries.
  5. Imagine a vacation gone impossibly wrong.  Take the most perfectly planned vacation. A honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a celebration. Plan out the itinerary. Now sabotage it. At every step along the way, insert some disaster. The plane is ridiculously delayed. Or crash lands in the wrong climate. An obsessive ex happens to be staying in the hotel room next door. The bus breaks down. In drug lord territory. How bad can it get?
  6. Play the eternal optimist. Take the vacation gone impossibly wrong, and create some twists that turn each stab into a surprise win. The plane is ridiculously delayed, which means your travelers get to see an event they thought they’d miss. They crash land in the wrong climate, but that forces them to take a hilarious shopping spree. The ex next door hits it off with your new love and is finally able to let go. Get creative!
  7. Write a haiku. Or ten. Remember, five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last. Focus on one moment. The stark collection of images can tell a provocative story.

    Haiku by Richard Wright
  8. Ten minute tabloids. Tabloids take sensationalism to the extreme. Take a political view, extravagant lifestyle, or belief and push it to the most narrow, untempered boundary. What does that look like?
  9. Write up a tourist brochure for your hometown. What are the must-see locations? What’s the best restaurant in town? Best house to stay in if they offered it on VRBO? Places/people to avoid?
  10. Ghost Story Revamp. What was your favorite (or least favorite) campfire story as a kid? Take it and change the protagonist. Change the villain. See if you can give it a twist of humor or a shake of realism. See if you can come up with something even better than the original.

The Ruthless Side of Storytelling

Ira Glass is one of the most recognized voices in radio. He’s the man behind This American Life, which has landed no fewer than six Peabody Awards, among other accolades and nominations. Glass has spent the last 30 years of his career as reporter and host for numerous NPR programs and was nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming. He is known for his thoughtful, relatable stories and was acknowledged for setting the aesthetic standard for nonfiction programming in both radio and television when awarded the Edward R. Murrow award. What is it about Glass that captivates audiences so effectively? Let’s take a look at two undervalued bits of wisdom from this four-part interview shared on YouTube.

1.      Finding the Right Story

 

“Often the amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story… if someone wants to do creative work, you have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories.”

–Ira Glass

 

Did you hear that? Just as much time needs to be set aside for finding the story for TV or radio. Maybe not in exactly the same ratio, but this counsel is so relevant and necessary in the lives of so many writers, both fiction and nonfiction. It takes time to really find the right story to tell, and it’s important not to be discouraged every time you hit a dead end. That’s just the way this works! Ira admits, “between  half to one-third of everything we try, we go out, we get the tape, and then we kill it…I think that not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” I’d like to add that this time spent on odds and ends that don’t pan out is not time wasted. All of that work, every interview, paragraph, and character sketch is just making you better at what you do. It’s an essential part of the creative process.

 

“… failure is a big part of success… you’re going to run into a ton of stuff and it’s going to go nowhere, and you should be happy about that.”

–Ira Glass

 

Why would we be happy about that? Because it means we’re doing it right. You have this lightning bolt idea, but toss it around, do the research, spend some time on it, and ultimately realize there are some key flaws and it’s not going to take shape the way you need it to. It’s okay to let that idea die! There’s a reason the age-old adage, “kill your darlings,” never goes away. It’s just a fact of creating good art. The key is knowing when to quit. Stop shoving effort into a blah story. Be encouraged by those discarded scraps of Not Quite. They are freeing you up to pursue something much better. Just keep looking, keep showing up and doing the work and you will be on the road to creating something special.

 

“You will be fierce. You will be a warrior. And you will make things you know in your heart aren’t as good as you want them to be. And you will just make one after the other.”

–Ira Glass

 

2.     Ruthless Editing

 

“You have to be, like a killer about getting rid of the boring parts and getting right to the parts that are getting to your heart, and you have to be, you know, just ruthless if anything is going to be good.”

– Ira Glass

 

You’ve found the right story to tell? Fantastic! Don’t hang up your machete. The savage work has just begun. Create and stitch and solder together your anecdotes, reflections, and revelations. Then get brutal. You will have to make tough choices about what needs to be there, and what is a distraction.

 

“Things that are really good are good because people are being really, really tough, and you’re going to be really tough.”

–Ira Glass

 

Evaluate the purpose and power of each part of your manuscript, and if in doubt, cut it out. Read it again. Does something new stand out? It is surprising how much impact is made when you’ve left only what’s most meaningful. If it’s causing your work to lose focus or spin off kilter, it’s got to go. It can be hard to see your work objectively, which is why I recommend letting it rest before diving in with the carving knife. If despite all this you know you’ve got a story, you’ve cut what you could but still aren’t satisfied; consider hiring an editor to point out the areas that need work.

 

“You don’t want to be making mediocre stuff… that’s not why anyone gets into this. The only reason why you want to do this is because you want to make something that’s really memorable…”

–Ira Glass