Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Writing Poetry

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Persona poems are great because you’re not working with a blank canvas but rather, a page out of an adult coloring book. You have the bones—you just have to flesh them out. While this is not strictly a persona poem (mine is written in the third-person; personas are written in first-), it still works. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/01/26/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-337-theme-persona-poem/

Start a reading journal (this is best for poetry). Unlike a book review, which analyzes the text for deeper meanings, a poetry reading journal is about what the text means to you. Here are some interesting poems to get you started. https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/p180-list.html

A pantoum poem is like a puzzle where the pieces sometimes repeat themselves in unexpected ways. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/19/pantoum-poem-an-exercise-in-repetition/

Think about messages that might be written on a Post-It note, and find a way to repurpose them as poetry. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/09/01/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-365-theme-year-in-the-life/

Write long, edit short. Poetry writing isn’t just for poets; it can help your short stories become more poetic.

For three years, I participated in the Writer’s Digest Poem-a-Day challenges in April and November (as well as the Wednesday prompts the other months). Daily, I posted the poem to my blog, which gave me time to build up my regular feature posts (Micropoetry Mondays and Fiction Fridays). It may seem stressful to produce a whole piece a day, but that piece can be a three-line stanza poem (which are more likely to get read in their entirety than a 100-line narrative)—the length of a tweet. http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2017-april-pad-challenge-day-4.  

If you have an old shoebox full of letters or an inbox full of emails/private messages, you can write a “found poem.” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/found-poem-poetic-form

List poems are one of my favorite forms. Come up with a common theme or thread (i.e., that awkward moment, what if, I love it when . . , etc.), and knit a narrative that resonates. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/04/02/poem-a-day-2016-writers-digest-challenge-1-theme-foolish/

An apostrophe poem is talking to something (tangible or intangible, something you like or dislike) about how it’s affected your life. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/03/29/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-390-theme-title-of-the-poem-is-a-music-genre/

If your story doesn’t tell one, it just might be a poem.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Submitting

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If you want to get published, know your audience (and publishers). When I entered The Saturday Evening Post’s “Great American Fiction Contest” (in which my story placed Honorable Mention), one of the guidelines was to “Think local. The Post has historically played a role in defining what it means to be an American. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future.” I implemented items emblematic of “Americana,” like community college, Post-It notes, Starbucks, Wheel of Fortune, and the concept of being a “Pollyanna.” Knowing how much The Sat Eve Post loves limericks (they hold a monthly limerick contest), I ended my story with one (the title of my piece was “The Post-It Poet,” after all). The day after I entered this contest was the day I started working on next year’s entry.

Before submitting your book manuscript to an agent or publishing house, build up your author platform. (Think of it as an online audition.) Here are some tips to get you started. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/10/08/12-ways-to-build-your-writers-platform/

Don’t use the “kitchen-sink theory,” meaning that you’ll send a publisher whatever just to see if it’ll stick. (It won’t.) Whenever I’ve gotten published, it’s been because I’ve not only tailored the piece to fit their needs, but I’ve gotten a feel for what they’re looking for by reading what they publish. You learn by reading and doing. 

Have a submission schedule for the publications you write for regularly. For example, on the fifteenth of every month, I submit a poem to a certain publication I adore—one I’ve been published in before. Also, keep track of what you write. I have a master list of pieces I’ve written and where I have submitted each. I’ve written so much poetry, I’ve had to categorize them into Shutterfly anthologies. 

Writing opportunities are everywhere: some consider publication as payment and others require payment simply to be read. Pick your poison. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/01/31/a-publishers-market-not-a-writers-market/

Identifying your target audience is important as it helps paint a picture for the publisher on how to market your novel. For mine, I’d say my target audience is college-educated women between the ages of 25–45 who have been a part of the Mormon experience or are familiar with the religion. It’s also recommended to list a few books (published by well-known authors) your target audience might like.

Let your piece marinate at least a week before submitting (if time constraints allow). Edit on hardcopy and read aloud. You will catch more mistakes that way because you force yourself to listen rather than scan.

Query letters must capture the attention of editors and publishers as many won’t read your manuscript without one. Just think of it as another writing challenge. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/01/17/query-letter-to-missouri-life-magazine/

Plan for writing contests a year in advance, so you never miss a deadline, and you’re always submitting quality work.

Trying to write for a publication or contest because it pays well or the entry is free when you have no interest in the topic, theme, or publication will take more time than writing two pieces you are passionate about for a publication you read. For example, there was a national women’s magazine on which the topic was, “What is the bravest thing you have ever done?” When I saw the previous years’ winning entries—serving in Afghanistan and other equally courageous things (i.e., larger than life achievements), I realized the bravest thing I’d ever done was get my wisdom teeth pulled without being put under, so I passed.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Journalism

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Creative writers have the potential to be great journalists, but the newspaper’s needs come first, and that usually means previewing/covering events or profiling people/businesses. People want to know what’s going on rather than your opinion on what’s going on.

Always ensure names are spelled correctly. Ask how to spell their name, even if it is Ann Smith/Anne Smyth or John Davis/Jon Davis. Typos are one thing, but it is a cardinal sin to misspell someone’s name.

Never conduct interviews through email. Do the legwork! Sometimes, in asking one question, the answer will lead to another question you didn’t already dream up. An interview is supposed to be a conversation, not a questionnaire. (That is asking them to do the work. Not cool.) Plus, you are cheating yourself out of honing a valuable skill. Anyone can send an email but interviewing well (feeling comfortable talking to strangers as well as making them feel comfortable enough to talk to you) takes a special soft skill. Phone interviews work but only if meeting them in person is an absolute impossibility.

Following an interview, before you look at your notes or listen to your audio, free-write everything you can remember before you write the story. This will help you get a feel for how you want your story to flow.

Don’t just copy and paste but rather, rewrite what you learn in a way you can understand. If you ever decide to tutor someone in English or go into teaching, this will help you explain more complicated concepts.

Regarding college journalism, it is better to review an event on campus versus a review of something (e.g., a community play) someone else is already reviewing. The purpose of the campus newspaper is to get as many student names and faces in it as possible.

As a freelance reporter, I have learned it is just as important to have questions ready as it is to know when to let them keep talking; often, they will answer more than one of those questions. Your subject will not always stick to the script. This can help you become a better listener, for you’re not just thinking about what you’re going to ask next, but you’re focusing on what they are saying at that moment.

Caption photos (or at least compile the information) the same day you take the photos. Remember, the information you use for the captions doesn’t have to be pulled from the article, which makes captions a great way to use information you couldn’t fit into the article. A photo captures the moment; a caption adds context to that moment.

If you like current events, hard news articles are for you. If you like history, feature stories are for you. Both have their place in journalism. I’m always a week late and several dollars short, so the story behind the story is my cup of coffee.

It is said that a newspaper story lasts for a day, but a short story lasts long after the author has passed away. Here are two pieces that were originally published in a newspaper and have stood the test of Father Time.   https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2019/12/in-a-word-eight-er-nine-tiny-reindeer/ and https://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia/.

Sweet Little Nothings

Every moment matters chocolate (1)

She encapsulated the human interest
of everyday life
in 600 words or less
through her weekly column,
“They Do It Every Time”—
leaving behind a legacy of smiles
in the way that stand-up comics
left behind laughs.
She closed the last chapters of someone’s life–
with biographical narratives
that became reverse baby books
& treasured keepsakes by their descendants
rather than their ancestors.
When she closed the last chapter of her own life—
writing not her obituary
but a poem that was a celebration of her life–
she realized that even though her children
couldn’t tell her life story better than she could,
they could convey what she’d meant to them
better than she ever could.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Wordplay

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Play-on words are as fun to read as they are challenging to write: https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/02/writers-digest-poem-a-day-challenge/

Pick a noun and write every word you can think of associated with it. This exercise will sharpen your ability to play with play-on words. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/05/09/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-435-reserved/

I took a list of root operations (i.e., resection, extirpation, fragmentation, etc.) I learned from my medical coding classes and creating a series of poems that implement one of those processes and newspaper jargon. The results are fun and surprising. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/07/23/something-for-everyone-resecting-at-the-sunday-breakfast-table/

When I’m stuck, I come up with a list of opposites and how I can link them. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/07/micropoetry-monday-opposites/

Writing about our crazy language can be fun. Pick some words that vex you and explain why they do. For me, extraordinary would seem to mean its opposite—extra ordinary.

Know your craft, but play around with words. Have fun with language. (Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll did, among others.) You can still be literary without having to be literal. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/03/25/fun-with-words-lists-are-fun/

Noodling around with words germane to a certain subject be it math (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/10/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-10-theme-going-somewhere/) or English (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/13/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-13-theme-city/) can be a fun way to use old words in a new way or even learn new words, as every vocation or discipline has its vocabulary.

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/05/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-4-theme-whosoever-blank/

Dictionary.com has a Word of the Day, but sometimes those words, although fun to know, you will probably never use, as they are archaic (and would only come in handy if you are writing about that particular time and place). If you’re seeking more avant-garde terminology, try Urban Dictionary. Even if a word doesn’t have a place in your speaking, it might have a place in your writing. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/04/25/poem-a-day-april-2018-writers-digest-challenge-25-theme-intriguing-seldom-used-word/

Take a bunch of related words and see what you can cook up. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/04/18/poem-a-day-april-2018-writers-digest-challenge-18-theme-temptation/

Sweet Little Nothings

Write a letter chocolate

She hid horoscopes in bagel-sized
chocolate fortune cookies—
revealing the bright futures they’d allowed
to be buried by their dark pasts.
She left painted rocks in people’s gardens,
letting them believe they were messages
from the fairies in heaven on earth.
She hid love letters in library books
as a way of playing matchmaker—
by leading the finder to seek the keeper
of another’s heart.
All this,
she did behind the scenes,
for her reward was in knowing
that she had planted the seeds of love
by connecting them not only to others
but also to themselves.

When the World Became Separated

Peppers

When the world no longer had to worry about rude cashiers
or those just having a bad day,
they no longer met the ones who brightened their day
or the ones whose day they could brighten.
When the world no longer stopped for directions,
they didn’t accidentally end up
talking to someone they didn’t know
or question where they were going.
When the world no longer dined out,
there were no more idle conversations with the servers
who didn’t sing for their supper
but auditioned for their livelihood.
When the world no longer went to the movies,
there was no sharing the laughter,
no need for applause,
or even the opportunity to be collectively embarrassed
when something sexually explicit
reared its ugly head.
When the world learned how to make great coffee
and internet access was affordable to all,
coffee shop conversation,
like water cooler talk,
disappeared,
When the parents became the only teachers,
the only children became little adults,
and those with siblings did not learn how to make friends
beyond their bloodline;
for those who did venture into this brave new world
of shared spaces,
while covering their identity and keeping their distance,
saw others not as possible friends
but as carriers of the unseen
that could take their life.
When the world no longer needed to see the faces of those
who had not been filtered through their social media preferences,
they only saw the caricatures on TV—
the programming that had fomented a second civil war
based on the first.
When the bridal showers with sexy gifts
and the weddings with trite toasts
and the ultrasounds with fathers present
and the baby showers with silly games
and the events with boring speeches
and the birthday parties with other children
and the funerals with sad, funny stories of the departed
and the Thanksgiving dinners with heated political conversations
and the Christmas parties with annoying relatives
and the sermons that humanized Jesus
as much as they deified Him
made everyone realize how much they missed just being there
amongst it all,
for everything was no longer happenstance
but deliberate,
and there was a sameness to the days
that made them seem longer but lesser.
Those who could withstand the isolation because they were not alone
found a new appreciation for what and who they had at home,
but those who were alone and susceptible
pined for touch and smell and being present
in real-time
with real people.
When the world finally became unmasked
and love in the time of COVID
returned,
those who had been watching the summer of destruction
through it all
would never see the world
as it had once seemed to be.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Characters

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Describe your characters in such a way that the reader has a composite sketch of them but not a photograph. Give your reader enough room to fill in the blanks. However, describing a character as “Marilyn Monroe-esque” helps paint the picture immediately with a familiar reference and without bogging them down with too many details.

I already know what I think of myself and can only imagine what other people think of me. A great quote from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is when Mr. Toohey asks the idealistic architect, Howard Roark, “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us,” to which Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.” For this exercise, you must dig deep—remove yourself from your writing and step into the mind (if not the shoes) of someone who knows you fairly well. You are not looking in the mirror, but at yourself looking in the mirror. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/04/26/poem-a-day-april-2018-writers-digest-challenge-26-theme-relationship/

What people choose to display in their office can tell you a lot about them. The same goes for their Facebook page.

Will your story be one of redemption or contamination? I try to live the story I want to tell or the story I want someone to tell about me. https://ideas.ted.com/the-two-kinds-of-stories-we-tell-about-ourselves/

Describe a character’s bedroom in such a way your reader will feel they know that character without having met them yet.

There is the good, the bad, and the mediocre, but the films that keep me thinking about them, long after I’ve seen them, are the ones in which I see myself in one of the characters. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/08/09/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-448-chore/

Strunk and White are right but, if it is out of character for your character to say “simultaneously,” rather than “at the same time,” go for authenticity.

Every family has one of these. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/04/29/poem-a-day-2016-writers-digest-challenge-29-theme-haphazard/

You can turn your life (or someone else’s) into a fairy tale, a horror story, a dramedy, et cetera. It all depends on the perception you choose.

Humans often contradict themselves. We don’t always make sense or understand why we do the things we do. The interesting part is when the character (or reader) tries to figure out the “why.” https://sarahleastories.com/2015/11/24/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-21-theme-strange/