Monday, June 4, 2012

Quickie, anyone? ;) How to keep writing in a busy life

This idea came to me in early spring, and so far it has worked well for making sure my writing projects get face time at least once a week, if not (ideally) daily.

Have you ever been sitting with seven to fifteen minutes to kill before work/yoga/meeting/store opens/bedtime and asked yourself, what could I be doing right now?

I propose to you, that you create a list of answers to this question; an inventory of quick-fixes you need to make in a take-your-pick fashion. I call them Quickies.

Say that you realized at the end of your last big writing chunk (however long ago it was) that there was a conflict in description, or you realized what a better line would have been for your furious character on her warpath, or thought of something else to add/change that begged the resigned after-thought, I'll do it later.

These tiny tasks can add up, and leave a lot of work and edits to be done that feel heavy and are easily procrastinated. But what is important to remember is that they are little things, Quickies, and keeping an inventory of them will give you small ways to feed and water your novel/memoir/epic poem, even when the universe is being a time Nazi.

Depending on your level of organizational needs, you could estimate time needed for each Quickie under columns. For example, you could have a <1 minute, 5ish minutes, and 10+ minutes space to identify each fix or addition you have, so you have more time (when the time comes) to pick one from the appropriate space and go!

The other great thing about a list taped to your cabinet/television/fridge/bathroom mirror, is that not only are you slowly chipping marble from the big masterpiece, but you are preventing your project from collecting dust, from sinking between the metal spirals of the back burner and creating a funny smell inside your life goals that sets off unhappiness smoke alarms. It keeps your characters and messages with you even when time isn't, and that way when you do have a larger chunk of time, your writing endeavors are likely to have more visible frantic hands waving over the top of Netflix/Pinterest/buying more jalapeno pretzels.

They don't have to make sense to anyone but you. Some items on my Quickie list:
Adventure rustling
The binoculars are red!
Lee's bedroom?
Marvin needs a face!

Make use of your time-holes! Make your Quickie lists and tell me all about them!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why Writers are Heroes

A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal. (Via

A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability. (Via

A person noted for special achievement in a particular field. (Via

Of course there are people who love books. There are people who love both reading and writing, who love stories and morals and symbolism, but how many people have stopped to consider writers as heroes?
  1. Bravery and Dedication
    For centuries, writers have been publishing truth in the face of controversy and control. They have done this in a journalistic fashion, the way Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis on the church door, and the unforgettable way that reporters today hunker down in battlefields and journalist-hating countries to help bring clarity to unaware readers. As the beloved banned book week many libraries celebrate will tell us, unwanted truths are written into fiction as well. These truths range from the underlying hatred and control that Arthur Miller spent his entire writing live trying to unveil, to the crude truths Holden Caufeild shows us about real people, and how they call prostitutes and use the F word. Writers have had their books banned, and put them selves in physical danger to share their thoughts and grievances. We may have come a long way from tar-and-feathering, but modern prosecution of a writer is still a noteworthy risk.

  1. Facilitating comfort, “Coming to the rescue”
    The biggest reason there is to love reading or writing is the security blanket we find in realizing how universal our problems and feelings are. Taking this fact into focus, have we ever thought about the mental power it takes to demonstrate how all of us, from accountants in Japan to Mounties in Canada to Hemp farmers in California, are all the same in so many deep and emotional ways? Good books have helped dry tears, offer fresh perspective, and have even saved lives. I once knew a girl with severe facial scars from an accident, who said that her self-loathing was unbearable until she found a character in literature with the same affliction, who reflected the same dark questions and brooding fears. She told me if it had not been for books showing her that everyone is as afraid as her, “I know I wouldn't have made it to college.”

  2. Book = Time capsule
    Historians may remember where general So-and-so lead the forces of Where-ever-ville, and anthropologists may remember how many molars the men fighting in the war were thought to have and what gods they prayed to at the bottom of their foxholes, but who remembers the people? Who thinks about what it was like reading expressions of terror on the faces of comrades, or what it feels like to find your ally full of holes, and suffering? It is the imagination and empathy of writers that preserves day-to-day culture. They sift through the historian's journals and the anthropological articles, and then connects that data with human spirit, and folklore. Literature and documents make the difference between re-watching humanity, and reliving it.

This post may be a little fluffy, but I bring all this up because I want writers who are in doubt about their stories, or who are afraid of the things they have to say, to realize where they are. There are many people who fear writing as equally as public speaking, and public speaking as much as death, and for viable reasons.

But in the words of Stephen King, “Do not come lightly to the blank page.” The work we carry on is in good and noble company, and provides something priceless. We are writers: purveyors of humanity, beacons of truth, and heroes.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Good uses for old books

Even when my father found boxes of old, musty books no one reads in storage, it made me sad when he threatened to burn them. Books hold a certain energy and magic to them before we even get to read them, especially when old fonts and elaborate hardcovers are involved, but if the fact of the matter is that your bookshelves are full and these old tomes are going unused, what are some good ways to keep them in our lives, or the lives of others?

  1. Donate them
      Whether to an old library for archives or a theater or portrait photographer for props, there are lots of places that may still value those books exactly as they are. Think about organizations or people in your community that could take the time to preserve them, or who would make use of them in their current condition.
  2. Writing prompts/writing games
      If the chapters inside are doomed to go unread, perhaps there is use to be made of the words. Roll a die and select words from that page to build a new scene. Create censorship poetry by blacking out certain lines/words and leaving others, so the pages say something new. Use them when you need a name or place quickly. Play with the language in them to enhance your own.
  3. Editing practice
      As many writing students may learn the hard way, writing that was considered great for its time is not always to be replicated today. Although ideas from older works were profound and universal, sentences have gotten tighter, and pages have gotten livelier. Perhaps the old fashioned pages in your attic could be a practice field for some good red-penning. How would you develop that character if it were your novel? How would you rewrite a beginning, or and ending, if you could? What can you learn about stronger language based on the wording in those books that may be hard to get through?
  4. Hollow them out
      You know I had to bring this up. How cool are the secret hiding places found in books? If this is the kind of sleuthy storage you've longed for, here are some links that explain the process:

  5. Crafting material
      Since we know that older books often have a more ornamental quality to them, why not reuse their beauty? Cut out old illustrations and paste them for homemade greeting cards, or bookmarks. Snip out words in graceful fonts to spell out your favorite quotes, or to write someone a friendly letter.
      Additionally, there is decoupage to consider. Why not recover old furniture, or any creative surface? It could give your home a more literary feel, or make some great gifts for your bookworm friends!
      Old paper products and candy wrappers have been used for some creative weaving as of late, to create products like handbags, or belts. Could there be a pretty penny to be made on your pretty texts?
      Literary pinatas for bookish parties are also a possibility. For a paper maché recipe, go there:
  6. Sculpture
      This kind of goes along with crafting, but is in a way, more elaborate. Sculpting with old books has been in the news lately due to Edinburgh's Library phantom: but this literary hero is not the first person to turn a work of writing, into visual art. Here are some other examples of this tedious and glorious art form you may enjoy:
  7. Become a Library Phantom
      And as long as you're fighting to keep books used and beautiful, why not make a statement with what you make? The library phantom is leaving presents in Scotland that stand for literature and finding of “words, stories, ideas..” and that simple anonymous drop is inspiring awe around the world. What can you make that will ignite awareness around what you love?
  8. At-home banking
      It was not uncommon in times of financial crisis for people to store their money between book pages, as a back up in case banks didn't pull through, or as a replacement for banks entirely. The hiding place is inconspicuous, and also hard to discover, as searching through every page is hard unless you already know where they are. Put a bill at every page with your favorite number, so you remember where you left your rainy day stash!
  9. Flower pressing
      Stacks of books are a common and even traditional tool for saving flowers you would otherwise see die. Pressed flowers can be used in jewelry, matted and framed, or made into book marks and other gifts. Pressing is also used for preserving/drying herbs for tea and medicine. For more tips, go here:
  10. Aesthetic
      As we've established, there is something about the presence of an old book that has power. If you can't bring yourself to cut up or scribble on them, why not bring them out of storage and let them hand around? Use them as door-stoppers, or a centerpiece, or to fill an otherwise dead/boring corner of your home. I hear they're nice housemates.
  11. Rock-it launcher (Fallout 3)
      For any of you familiar with gaming, specifically the post-apocalyptic Fallout Series, you know that the wasteland is covered in ruined or destroyed books that accomplish nothing. You can not read, sell, or even sculpt with them. You can, however, kick ass with them. The game offers the chance for you to build your own junk-weapons, one which propels junk into the faces of your adversaries. Whenever I build the rock-it launcher, I pick over old teddy bears and toasters, to always fight with literature. To see the famed gun in action, watch here:
  12. Read Them
      If all these solutions seem unacceptable, you may as well get busy reading them. It is, after all, the reason they were printed however many eons ago, and there is always something new to gain from them.

For more ideas on reusing old books, visit:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Writers for Writers: Alexander Chee's Writing Advice

Alexander Chee is author of the novels Edinburgh and Queen of the Night. He came to UMF in Spring of 2011 to give a reading and to meet with senior writing majors and gave us a lot of refreshing ideas about editing and self-doubt. Here are some of his insights.
For more about Chee, see:

Chee's Thoughts on Editing
1. Return to where you left off to go on
This sounds simple, but there's an explanation. Chee explained an interesting theory about the difference between writing by hand/typewriter, and writing on a computer. In the days of old when one had a paper copy of their novel on hand at all times, a writer would just press on from where the last line left off. But on a word processor, the electronic document always opens to the beginning, and you have to scroll to find where to go next. "I've seen writers murder their openings with these revisits," Chee told us, and it makes sense. We should be careful not to doubt what we have each time we go back to our work. If one isn't careful, their self-doubt could talk them into starting all over, or worse, into quitting, if they judge a first draft too harshly while trying to finish it. Best to zip immediately to the blinking cursor and write as if you hadn't just seen your beginning and its inevitable flaws.
2. Don't start to edit until you've drafted to the end
Have you ever embarked on a first paragraph, and then halfway through a second or third, gone back to read over what you have? Then, while re-reading, have you starting changing words around, and becoming frustrated with how unpolished your beginning looks? No one will find value in a perfect beginning if a beginning is all you have. Soldier through (on your intuition) and then edit the entire thing. This will also help to keep a consistent voice and to look at the big picture as you polish. 
3. Let the story be your editor, not your fears
This is something I know that we all know, but have not necessarily taken time to think about. The stories and characters we're working on normally have a logical procession, and to allow this to develop without worrying about judgement usually allows for a fuller piece we are happier for in the end. Are your doubts interfering with where your story needs to go?
4. "Intellect is for edits, intuition is for drafting"
This is somewhat of an elaboration of the above bullet. Once you get a sense for how much or little control you've been inflicting on your storyline, Chee's line is a useful motto to remember. When beginning a story, its good to just allow things to unfold without trying to mold them too much. Worry about what makes sense once everything has filled out, and you'll be able to progress much faster.
5. Save EVERYTHING that you cut
I normally do this out of paranoia, and was happy to hear it endorsed by another writer. Its a good idea to keep up a notepad document alongside your draft as you're editing, and to copy/paste paragraphs or pages into it as you're removing them from your story. This way if pieces were sliced out in a self-loathing rampage, this can be discerned and remedied later with little harm done. Also, you never know when a side-tracked idea that doesn't fit where it began, could become a useful seed for another endeavor. I could go on for a while about why you should save what you remove and perhaps this will be a larger post in the future, but let the base fact stand that it is rare where an idea created and then not needed in one place, would not be useful on a future date.
6. Keep a writer diary 
This may sound silly. In fact, some of my writer friends have raised eyebrows at me when I've told them that I do this. In the same way that talking about a conflict can untangle it better than thinking alone, writing not just your story, but about your story can help you realize a lot about your characters' motives or situation that you may not have actualized before. Chee also pointed out that it's handy for reminding you how you felt during your last writing session: "This way, I'm not so far away when I come back. Page 37, still horrible!" It's also a good place to keep a to-do list of things you meant to get back to, like moments where you meant to add research or tension.

7. Changing font and text sizes
Although all of Chee's advice was intuitive and helpful, I found this piece to be the most clever. We are all painfully aware, I'm sure, of how easily a typo or awkward sentence can be overlooked. The reason for this, Chee suggests, is because the text, as an image, becomes familiar to us. If we change the font or the sizing of our test to rearrange the way we've come to look at the lines and body shape, it will snap us out of skimming because everything will look new. Then once you've polished away all the rough pieces, feel free to return the text of your writing to your original graphic presence.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mentor Texts and their Uses

"Some books are dangerous to read while you're writing, because you'll start to sound like them."
~Alexander Chee

I have definitely had this happen to me before, where the things I write down can echo the latest things I read if I'm not careful. However, I also believe in the power of a mentor text.

Right now I am editing the manuscript of my first novel, and at the same time have been reading The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. She has this uncommon mastery over creating her sentences with absolutely no extra words. There are several sentences in her writing with only one or two words to them, usually barely more than a verb. Her writing has revealed to me exactly how wordy I can be, which is perfect while I'm in editing mode. Many sentences in my paper copy are squiggled-through as I'm realizing how redundant they are.

Being aware of the voice in what you're reading is clearly important to note while you are writing. Some habits if you were to pick them up may not be compatible with the way you write, while other writing may be useful to keep on your nightstand if one writer has a strength you were/are looking to incorporate.

Which writers do you use as mentor-texts? Which take you over, that you try to avoid?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Museum of Cliches

Recently I read through this article that targets what it considers are "cliches that should be banned from use,"
and it reminded me of a handout I made for the English classes I precepted, based on an Annie Dillard quote we read from an essay by Alexander Chee, "Annie Dillard and the Writing Life." He talked about his days as her non ficiton writing student, and listed off many of her concrete rules for strengthening language.

One of my favorites that I haunted my students with throughout the semester, was that one should avoid "the museum of clichés in [the] unconscious." I created a corresponding handout to this effect, affectionately called "The Museum of Cliches." With the Professor Elizabeth's blessing I handed them a triple-columned page, listing as many cliches as I could think of. Elizabeth has used this list in other classes since then, and plans to use it in classes to come. Because the above link only provided 12 phrases, and with an arguable level of overuse, here is the museum I paired together for my students.

The Museum of Clichés
“She is not angry, she threw her clothes out the window. Remember this.”
~Anne Dillard
Think you should word something more creatively?
If you can find your phrase here (and maybe if you can’t), the answer is yes!

A bone to pick
A glimmer of hope
A twinkle in her eye
Ace up her sleeve
Actions speak louder than words
Against the grain
All bets are off
All boils down to
All in a day’s work
All walks of life
An oldie but a goodie
Are a big part of my life
As (fast, loud, etc) as she could
As all get out
As luck would have it
As the day is long
At the end of the day
At the last minute
At the top of her voice
Back against the wall
Bark worse than her bite
Beat around the bush
Been there, done that
Beggars can’t be choosers
Behind her back
Behind the times
Being all ears
Bend over backwards
Bent out of shape
Better safe than sorry
Better than ever
Bite the bullet
Blew a gasket
Bored to tears
Bright and early
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed
Buck/Butt naked
Bump on a log
Bust your chops
Busy as a bee
Buy into
Call it a day
Call the shots
Chewed her out
Chomping at the bit
Clean your clock
Close call
Cool as a cucumber
Costs an arm and a leg
Couch potato
Cute as a button
Dealt a fatal blow
Dig yourself a hole
Dirt cheap
Down on your luck
Drawing a blank
Driving me crazy/up a wall
Easy as pie/taking candy from a baby
Even the odds
Everyday life
Fancy meeting you here
Forever and a day
Get worked up
Give a hoot/damn/crap
Give and Take
Glass half full/empty
Grasping at straws
Guns blazing
Had it up to here
Hang on every word
Hard to swallow
Have high hopes
Have made me who I am today
Have two left feet
Having a short fuse
Hell to pay/freezes over
Hit the hay/road/sack/deck
Hold/bite your tongue
Hook, Line, and Sinker
In the nick of time
In this day and age
In today’s society
Just in time
Just the tip of the iceberg
Keep on ticking
Kick the bucket
Last but not least
Let’s face it
Light as a feather
Like a knife through butter
Like Romeo and Juliet
Like there’s no tomorrow
Lose steam
Lost her marbles
Made her skin crawl
Made my blood boil
Memory like a goldfish
Memory like an elephant
Most people…
Necessary evil
Never a dull moment
No pain, no gain
No place like home
No time like the present
Not exactly rocket science
Now and again
Now and then
On tender hooks
On/In the same page/boat
One hundred and ten percent
One in a million
Push comes to shove
Push your buttons
Put your best foot forward
Raining cats and dogs
Read between the lines
Rhyme or reason
Rubbed me the wrong way
Seeing eye to eye
Since sliced bread
Slow as molasses
Stop on a dime
Stuck out like a sore thumb
Swallowed her pride
Tail between his legs
Take by storm
Take its toll
Tears of joy
The big cheese
The calm before the storm
The fact of the matter
Through thick and thin
Throw a curve ball
Tickles your fancy
To be fair/honest
Twenty four/seven
Twist of fate
Two-way street
Ugly as sin
Until the Bitter end
Until the cows come home
Wake-up call
What on earth
Whole nine yards
Wig out
Winds of change
With all of her heart
Work like a dog
World of trouble/hurt
Worry wart
You snooze, you lose
Young and foolish

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writers for Writers: Wes McNair's Rules for Poetry Line Breaks

Recently crowned with the title of Maine's Poet Laureate (What some argue is the only good decision made by governor Lepage), and who is also the founder of UMaine Farmington's BFA creative writing program, Wes Mcnair often meets with UMF students in his retired years in a workshop or one-shot lecture format to offer his sage advice.
This semester, Wes visited to discuss his new thinking, among other things, about why and how to select one's poetic line breaks. He eluded to having a longer list, but please enjoy the ten thoughts he shared with us.
For more about Wes McNair, see:

Rules for Line Breaking
1. Break to suggest central action and its unfolding, to create anticipation
Let words stick out of your lines that connect to the poem's heart. Also, let the lines create tension, as professor Jeff Thompson would put it. Make the reader chase you to the next line to find out what fell, or who chased her, or whatever have you.
2. Break for interplay between line and sentence; This is free verse's rhyme & meter equivalent
In other words, as Wes was once advised: The line is Buddha, the sentence is Socrates 
Buddha is content to be were he is, as he is, the way a line, on its own, its simple, perhaps pretty or cryptic, but calm. Socrates is always asking, wanting, and hungry. You follow the entire sentence line to line to find out what, who, or why, jumping from Buddha to Buddha until your questions are answered. When line breaking, be aware of how you answer Socrates's questions effectively, but also create graceful pauses in your lines, to enjoy the moment.  
3. To create a graph of feeling
Playing with jagged margins, or waves, or open space to illustrate a reflection of the poem's feeling. Using shorter lines for riddles and unknowns also plays with what isn't said.
4. Break to emphasize related sounds
Is there a song to your poem? Find the music. See if there is a sense of metronome, or words you can link together at the poem's pauses to create a resonance. This can be done with or without rhyme.  
5. The word at the end of the line is most important.
Use Nouns, verbs, and their describers. All sentences have and, the, or but. They are less important, only connectors. End on the words that need to stand out of the poem, let them linger with the reader on the end of the line before they continue through your poem, or follow them through their day after they put your poem down.
6. Break to show the stresses of meditation
Listen to people around you as they speak. It was Wes Mcnair's observation that people speak in line breaks as well as can write in them. People pause for thought, for continued meditation, at places in their sentences that are their own, and make their voice. He advises to play with this in our poetry.
7. When breaking, be aware of stanza form: Do you use regular, or irregular stanzas?
You'd better know, and have done it on purpose.
8. "Let me learn the rules so I can break them"
In the days of rhyme and meter, rhythm would be broken in choice places in order to bring attention to a message. This rule was not abandoned in the days of free verse. Create a theme, pattern, or message, and then obscure it. Play with capital letters or punctuation at the end of lines in a way that brings focus to a contrary feeling or ironic concept.  
9. Find the second story
It isn't really a secret of the trade that poems about waltzes, or red wheelbarrows, or horses at night, rarely stop at just creating those everyday images. There is always a "second story," or rather, a reason for why the initial object was worth writing about, a discovery that is made along the way.   

Additionally, putting this much though into how one writes their poetry makes you a stronger reader. You will pay more attention to these choices as they are made by other poets, and take this play into consideration when you absorb their work.