Saturday, December 31, 2005


If I had to choose one poetry anthology to recommend to both poets and non-poets alike, it would be Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor. (I understand Keillor has a new one out entitled More Good Poems, but I haven't had a chance to read it.) A poet-friend and I have spent a great deal of time dissecting the poems in Good Poems, and we love how the poems are organized in practical sections and how each poem makes us feel something unexpected. So if you want to read some good poems (and then write them), check out Good Poems!

Friday, December 30, 2005


One of the things I love about being a writer is the excuse it gives me to travel. I mean, writers need material, right? Writers need to research. So I go a lot of places, and ask myself this question: where am I most who I am? Today, write something that answers that question.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


I recently had the opportunity to judge a poetry contest for an organization that wanted to make the contest more objective, so they attached an evaluation sheet to each poem. I was asked to rate the poems on factors such as fresh imagery, evocation of feeling, originality, use of language, and grammar/typos/punctuation. At first I was really resistant to the idea of using a form to evaluate a poem, but through the process I unearthed some of my own prejudices about writing: punctuation that slows a poem, poems that tie everything up in a neat little bow, tired language, and weak rhymes. And I found that the poems I liked the best by gut instinct were in fact the poems that received the highest scores according to the form. All this to say, it doesn't hurt to use a checklist to evaluate a poem. Today, examine one of your own pieces by the above standards. Know your prejudices, and be aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Have you ever had the experience of sitting down to write one thing but then wound up writing something entirely different than you had expected? Once I was given the challenge to write a poem about a photograph of a little girl with a big cast on her arm. It started out about the broken bone but evolved into a much deeper, more meaningful poem about a woman with emotional paralysis. Today, relinquish some control and let your Muse guide you.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


I've been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Early on in the book, the entire village falls victim to an insomnia plague, and the residents fear that their sleeplessness will make them forget what things are. So they decide to label everything by name: fork, chair, pillow. Then they decide to also write the purpose and function of the item, just in case the words, too, become meaningless. The passage reminded me of how important it is for us as writers to be precise in our writing - to call things by their proper name. Not just tree, but live oak, sycamore, cottonwood. Write so that your reader will know exactly what you mean. Write to remember.

Monday, December 26, 2005


The day after a big event, whether it be Christmas, a death, a diagnosis, a birth, the day after you left or he left, the day after you got something or didn''s all about transitions, and the in-between is a great place for writers. In fact, it has been said that all good stories begin with someone leaving home or coming back. Today use this in your own writing-- write about the day after.

Sunday, December 25, 2005


My favorite part of the New York Sun's response to Virginia O'Hanlon's question about Santa Claus is this: "Nobody can conceive of or imagine all the wonders that are unseen and unseeable in the world." It's true. But as writers, one of the ways we can make a difference in the world is to try to conceive and imagine those wonders and then share them with others. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Don't feel bad if during this busy season you are not getting words down on paper. The writer's brain is always writing. When you do return to your pen or computer, the words will be there. It just might take some time to unwrap them. Be patient with yourself.

Friday, December 23, 2005


Most writers start out writing about their own lives -- straightforward, narrative, autobiographical, "confessional" writing. This type of writing is important, but what we really want to see is what's underneath: For instance, are you an ocean, a river, a blade of grass? Step out of your everyday clothes and use metaphor to show us who you really are.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


It all comes down to word choice, and as writers we have often been admonished to "Show, Don't Tell." Did you know that in the book Jaws the word "shark" does not appear at all in the first chapter? (I learned that recently from an editor at a Southern Breeze conference.) Today, be inspired by that kind of writing. Write about something important to you, but never tell us what that something is. Show us.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


If family and friends know you're a writer, chances are that at some point this holiday season someone is going to ask you to share some of your writing. This year, instead of pulling up that Word file or unfolding that tired piece of paper you keep in your wallet, really wow 'em by reciting something! My friend Suzanne who is a performance poet as well as a page-poet says the trick to memorizing your own work is to record yourself on tape or CD, then listen to it about a billion times, and voila! you've got a poem ever-ready in your brain. Why not give it a shot?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


People often ask me what I'm reading. This week I'm finishing up the lovely, sensual Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson and also enjoying a book of poems entitled What Travels With Us by Darnell Arnoult. If you are a fan of Spoon River Anthology, you'll love Darnell's book as it captures the voices of the residents living in a textile mill community in 1900's Virginia. I'm a sucker for love poems, and there are several in this book that make me want to cuddle up and write. (Is there any greater compliment?) Today, read a good love poem. Then write one.

Monday, December 19, 2005


"Never start a large writing project on a Monday in December." So says Anne Lamott. 'Tis the season for a thousand things to do, and unfortunately writing is often the first thing to get the boot. But not to worry: January with its new number and white pages will soon be here. Now is the time to set some manageable, achievable writing goals. It helps if you can be realistic -- don't set a goal to write a 50,000 word novel in the next month if you work full time and have young kids. Perhaps commit to writing a short story a week? I am pretty sure one of the reasons I love writing poetry is because it is not so overwhelming as a novel and I can get something worthwhile on paper in a relatively short amount of time. It's really important to challenge yourself, but to also know your limits. Be the Little Engine that Could. You can do it!

Sunday, December 18, 2005


There are those writers among us who enjoy an audience, then there are those (like me) whose palms sweat, heart pounds, voice quivers whenever it comes time to get up in front of a group and read original work. It's a difficult thing to overcome. But in this business you are largely responsible for promoting yourself. If you want to be heard or sell books or do school visits, you have to get over it and learn how not to be shy. Take a public speaking course or acting class. Join Toastmasters. Buy the book Brag! by Peggy Klaus. Get over it!

Saturday, December 17, 2005


One of my favorite writing organizations is Southern Breeze, my region's branch of SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). A year and a half ago at a conference I heard editor and author Jaira Placide (now at Jump at the Sun, an imprint of Hyperion) advise authors to concentrate on two elements: character and premise. She said to spend less time worrying about plot and put your energy into creating unforgettable characters in unforgettable situations. Today, pull your characters out and look at them in a new light. Who are they? What makes them unique? What about them will make the reader want to be that character?

Friday, December 16, 2005


Every so often I like to flex my poetry muscles and challenge myself by writing a form poem. (See today's post at Mom and Apple Pie.) I have a strong preference for free verse, but I find forcing myself to adhere to a form helps me be more precise when I get back to my regular writing. Today, get out of the box and try writing something entirely different than what you usually write. You might be surprised by the results!

Thursday, December 15, 2005


Perhaps the one thing all writers have in common regardless of genre is a passion for words. Which is why, I suppose, most writers are also voracious readers. Everything you need to know about being a writer can be found in books you read for pleasure. Today, read something toward your writing inclinations AND against; learning what you don't want to write (and why) can prove an invaluable tool in your own writing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


My husband is fond of the saying, "99% of success is showing up." And it's true, we as writers have got to show up for our appointment with the pen or computer or dictaphone or whatever if we are to call ourselves writers. Start with just 15 minutes a day, if that's all your schedule will allow. Commit to 1 page or 1 paragraph or 1 rough draft of a poem. Make a date with your Muse and don't break it. Even if your Muse stands you up. No one else can tell your story. You've got to start somewhere.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


'Tis the season for overeating. So today, think about food and what it means to you -- What is your favorite holiday food? Your least favorite? What would you choose for your last meal? What was your first food? Your favorite food as a child? (Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird that she often asks her students to write about school lunches.) Today, feed your muse and write something about food.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Let's face it: for most of us writing is never going to pay the bills. But there is a way to earn a little money while you wait for your big break by entering writing contests. Many reputable organizations have conferences that also include contests with money there for the taking. Two I am personally associated with are Alabama Writers Conclave and Alabama State Poetry Society. It seems every state has something to offer. A word of caution, however: the internet is full of scams that ask you to pay then offer publication as the reward of the contest. This is not what I'm talking about! Stick with organizations you know are genuine and actual. Good luck!

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Okay, I admit it: I am a little afraid of writing dialogue. And not coincidentally, one of the criticisms my fiction manuscripts have received is, not enough dialogue. When I think about books I've read and enjoyed, I realize it's true, you can learn an awful lot about the characters from dialogue. AND dialogue keeps the novel moving at a nice pace whereas long passages of description serve more to slow a novel down. So today I vow to be brave and dive into dialogue. I hope you'll do the same!

Saturday, December 10, 2005


Snow whispering down
All day long, earth has vanished
Leaving only sky.
- Joso
I read in the paper about all the snow in the more northern parts of our country, and it reminded me of above haiku. Many writers are drawn to haiku because of its brevity and the simplicity of the syllable structure - 3 lines: 5,7,5 syllables. But haiku is actually more complex than counting syllables. Haiku usually is more suggestion than statement, the subject is typically nature, and haiku has two thoughts: the first is what the poet observes, and the second is the poet's personal feelings or interpretation of that observation. Give it a try!

Friday, December 9, 2005


A very good friend of mine has this plaque hanging on the wall of her laundry room: "A clean house is the sign of a dull woman." The same goes for writing. Today, overcome your perfectionistic tendencies and just write. Don't correct typos, don't go back to the line you just wrote, don't clean anything up. Just write. (I do this by closing my eyes while I type.) You have to make a mess before you can find the heart of your writing.

Thursday, December 8, 2005


So I am just back from Disney World where I made an attempt at the end of each day to salvage my adult brain cells by reading Anne Lamott's really excellent book bird by bird. At the end of her chapter on Plot, Ms. Lamott credits Alice Adams with a formula for writing short stories that goes ABDCE, a very similar formula to one I quoted here (of unknown origin) on November 30. In Alice Adams' formula, the letters stand for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending, which definitely seems to work. (The one I quoted was ABCDE for Action, Background, Conflict, Development, Ending.) Could be I was mistaken OR this is just an alternate version. Who knows? Do what works for you. The point is, just do it.

Saturday, December 3, 2005


Before I pack up the van with kids and husband and other theme park paraphenalia, I wanted to share some of the wisdom of George Orwell. Orwell said that there are four great motives for writing: 1. Sheer egoism, 2. Aesthetic enthusiasm, 3. Historical impulse, and 4. Political purpose. My friend and fellow poet J. B. Rowell said on her blog Mom and Apple Pie that her purpose is "to praise." I'm not exactly sure why I write, but I know it's something I can't not do. Today, think about why you write, and write down your answer. See you back here Friday, Dec. 9!

Friday, December 2, 2005


Today write something that attempts to answer an unanswerable question on a subject that matters to you. Think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee?" The one I like to fiddle with is "When does love begin?" Your question may have nothing whatever to do with love, of course. Make it your own.

Thursday, December 1, 2005


The same way silence is perhaps the musician's greatest tool, the white space on the page is the writer's. It's why we revise and revise, whittling away, paring down until only the necessary words are left. For a great example of a piece in which there appears to be no fat and every word seems to matter, read the play Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. It'll inspire you!