- Reading out loud works for me. You can feel the rhythm of the words....
- Make your poems literal. Nothing wrong with that! Close observation of the world makes for excellent poetry!
- You can impose a type of exterior order on your poems by making each line the same length. (Counting syllables is a good way to do this--make each line 11 or 14 or whatever syllables long)....
- Nope. Little narrative poems generally work best for an assignment like this—but any theme you want....
- Well, what do you care about?
- If you don't care about what you're writing, your lack of care will come through.
- That said, "feelings" are usually kind of abstract and hard to write about. Personal experiences are good beginnings for a story, but they need to be better—that is, more story-like—than "real life."
- Social topics can work if you don't preach at people—put your character in a situation that illustrates something (like roommate tension during pandemic quarantine, for a very good example).
- Like my fave TV series. The Wire is the best show in tv history. (It streams on Amazon and HBO). It's cops chasing drug dealers, but it's really about people and the problems they have—funny, exciting, suspenseful, heartbreaking—and the society they live in. Covers social topics and doesn’t preach.
- Most of my poems are short stories that didn't work as short stories—I just keep whittling them down to about 14 lines or so....
- And—observations of the world. Something that catches my eye. It doesn't need to be much....
- I try very very hard not to get all philosophical.....
- Don’t overthink it. Poetry's not (necessarily) about making grand pronouncements on the Meaning of Life. It's about observing the world.
- Go look out your window. What do you see? That's your living poem.
- That's enough. That's plenty.
- As I said upthread, most of my poems are stories that didn't work as stories. They're narrative poems.
- Some of my poet friends write their poems in paragraphs—descriptions or stories. They get the sentences right, the punctuation right, and then they break it into a poem with line breaks.
- Try writing four or five sentences about something concrete you know about. (How to drive a car. How to tie your shoe. How to pour milk on cereal).
- Break it into lines—make each line more or less the same length by syllables.
- Elevate the language.
- Boom—a poem.
- Don't overthink it. Don' try and be profound.
- Just look to the world for inspiration and you'll be fine.
- Poems are usually written in sentences—so, just put the commas and periods and em-dashes where they would usually go in any sentence….
- (Maybe avoid semi-colons, which I’ve always seen as elitist punctuation).
- (That’s just a personal maybe, though).
- And, that said—punctuation is really important in poems. Poems are so short that the punctuation really draws attention to itself.
- (Unless, on occasion, you don’t use any punctuation at all).
- I write about the world I observe or remember....I stay as concrete and real as possible. (I hope you do, too!)
- Just describe it as it is. Later, when you revise, you can search for the right metaphor (and maybe you don't need one!)
- Obviousness can be the right thing!
- I might add on a technical issue that your secondary characters could become very important as they interact with the protagonist....
- Sure! Read a lot. That's part of the research. You want to see what's been done before, so that you can do it better!
- One of the odd things I noticed when I first started teaching creative writing was that student stories often went on just a bit too long. That the endings were over-explained. And that the easiest way to fix a story like this is to lop off the last sentence or paragraph or whatever. It's like a miracle!
- That said, happy endings have to be earned....
- And that said—it could and might well be that the problem in the ending lies earlier in the story.
- One of my fave writing quotes is by movie writer/director Billy Wilder: "If you have a problem in the third act, that means you have a problem in the first act."
- Keeping in mind that you're always writing a story about people, not about magic or science. People who engage in magic or science. (If your protagonist is a robot, it's an essential person).
- Why is a lot of dialogue a problem? Who says it's too much dialogue?
- Hemingway was the writer who changed my life, and he was big on dialogue. So, guess what? I've always been big on dialogue! Who's gonna stop me?
- That said—if you're a dialogue-heavy writer, your dialogue should be sharp and well-punctuated....
- Now I'm scared. Did I not warn everyone not to be literal about "hero sets off"? Like--it's a protagonist, a focal character. They don't have to be Achilles....unless you want them to be Achilles or whoever....
- But, anyway...Me? I don't worry about category when I'm pondering a story. Character first, then setting, then action. The category will emerge organically from the action as it develops.
- (Obviously, I'm not writing for a class where I have a cranky professor who's trying to nudge me into trying New Things).
- I've been reading a lot of detective/crime/noir fiction the past few years. And—Elizabeth Hand has a new Cass Neary novel out! And Tana French has a new novel out too! They're great--highly recommended....
- That's the function of the outline.
- I truly see the outline as the First Draft. I spend a lot of time on it before I start writing and update it often as I write.
- And—outlines for short stories don't have to be detailed--just a handful of bullet points will work. But it's good to have the from-here-to-there thought out, even if you change it as you write....
- Most published stories are about 12-20 pages--3000 to 5000 words. The trend is shorter and shorter. There's just not enough space for longer stories.
- We go six to eight pages in class because grading. But—don't stress! Make the story as long as you need it to be....
- (That said--if everyone in both classes went three pages over, I'd have an extra 108 pages to read. It adds up).
- I'm fond of all my characters. Even the villains.
- Tom Holt has been in three books--Professed, Normal School, and my current work in progress. So I apparently have lots to say about him.
- I'm very fond of Linda Smallwood in That Demon Life....
- I think this might happen more with freelance journalism than with fiction....
- But I think it would depend on how you approach it, what kind of limits you set between internal deadlines and external deadlines, and the pressures and stresses of whatever else is going on in your life....
- I think about my character a bit--who they are, how they got to be the way they are. Then play around with an outline. Then I get serious about the outline, etc.....
- Great idea!
- Novel or story? You probably don't need too many characters in a short story, so introducing new round characters late might be a problem. (A flat character might be easier, since they don't have to be People We Care About).
- Adding new characters late in a novel is usually not a problem unless they totally take over the narrative.
- (I'm looking at you, Alexander Solzhenitsyn).
- If you're with a major press and if the company is making lots of money off of you, they will take care of your publicity. If not—especially if you're an unknown writer—PR is up to you. Be on social media, send out review copies, hustle for interviews and bookstore appearances, etc.
- Okay, triggering incidents. Where do story ideas come from? Example—my story collection, The Messes We Make of Our Lives.
- Maybe three of these stories came from dreams—not the whole story, just an image or idea.
- (Do you keep a dream diary? You might want to).
- Most of the others have a triggering incident that more or less happened in "real life," something that I then applied imagination to and made better than real life.
- (Imagination is simple--it's merely looking at something an asking "What if?)
- The story "Quiet Sport," for example. I was once fishing the Shoshone River in Wyoming, sort of near a campground just outside Yellowstone. And I was doing my thing, and this kid, maybe 13 or 14, starts throwing rocks right by me! I was PISSED! And I thought—I'd like to throw that kid in the river. And so I wrote a story where the protagonist throws the kid in the river! Ha! Victory! The End.
- The story "It May Be a Day..." is also sort of based on something I saw. Back when I was your age, I was witness to a murder. But—when I wrote the story, I wrote it not from my puny witness POV, but from the POV of the murderer. Some months after the murder, a cop told me that the murderer got turned in by his sister. That was my "what if?" moment—I wondered what happened between them. (My first published story...).
- And so forth. Moral of this post: make your stories better than real life.
- Also a moral—your life is your most precious resource.
Leave a Reply.
Lowell Mick White
Author of the novels Normal School and Burnt House and Professed and That Demon Life and the story collections Long Time Ago Good and The Messes We Make of Our Lives.