Sep 08
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"Stress Management for Poets": Light Verse Advice

Stress Management for Poets

by Christopher Scribner

If words do not exactly rhyme

there at the end of every . . . uh . . . line,

and lilting, light alliteration

forces wit’s obliteration,

poets’ coffers will be less full,

and writing verse becomes more stressful.
 
When poets start to feel depressed,

how might that mood best be addressed?

A quick shift in meter is clearly what’s needed –

a palpable change, almost tactile;

But don’t truncate your trochees or squeeze your spondees,

and, for heaven’s sake, don’t tear a dactyl!

Use some light tripping feet; make your stanzas replete

with the happy, care-free anapestic;

if that makes you feel worse,
then try writing free verse

and ignore the whole stressed-and-unstressed shtick.

(This poem was first published in
LIGHT: A Quarterly of Light Verse, #25, 1999. Reprinted with author permission.)
Sep 05
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Earning an M.F.A. Online

Growth in online education is healthy for creative writers. When I say I teach in Lindenwood University's online Master of Fine Arts in Writing program (just named by Wordfocus.com as one of the top ten in the nation), I am often asked:

How do you teach online? We have a dedicated course site open only to enrolled students, and the syllabus, assignments, and workshop discussions are posted there.

Do you ever meet with your students in person? No. But the consolation is that online courses attract students from everywhere: Virginia, Mississippi, California. This wakes up the locals who write "Billikens" or "Lambert" expecting all readers to know what those are.

How does an online workshop work? Students post the current drafts of their projects, and the instructor and all other students post constructive comments and discuss those too. I also personally email each student to discuss issues specific to his or her work.

What do you teach? Advanced Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay and Memoir, and Poetry Workshop. Other faculty teach fiction writing, prose poetry, narrative journalism, and more.

How good is online instruction? For creative writing, online instruction is excellent, because we communicate only in writing. We have a textbook and get into deep group discussions via a discussion board.

How good is an online M.F.A.?Lindenwood's online M.F.A. program is strictly monitored by an accrediting agency, our faculty is tops, and online courses require serious personal discipline; always good training for writers. Because an online class is open 24/7, students don't have to excuse themselves because their niece's birthday party is on a class night.

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Aug 18
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Why You Wanna Use Good Grammar

"Is it correct now to write, 'If a writer writes, then they--'?"

"No. It should be 'If a writer writes, then he or she--'."

"That's awkward. And that's not the way we talk."

"True. But it's the way we write."

"What if I use the second person instead? Like, 'If you write, then you--'"

"That's okay. But writers using the second person because they aren't sure of the rules of the language--that's a problem."

"You know, the rules are changing more toward the way people talk. I'm not writing a college paper. It's a casual article for a newsletter."

"Then your work will be read by an editor. Don't give an editor any reason to put his or her hot little hands on it and start marking up your article. If you want your work published as you wrote it, use good grammar."
Jul 21
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With No Way Out, I Find a Way Out

My back was against the wall: a beautifully conceived project, unique but entirely do-able, and do-able only by me (among all the people on earth) except there wasn't the money.

Because of a technicality -- they had my letters of rec but had lost my application and proposal -- I didn't get the $1500 fellowship I thought was a sure thing. (No academic should ever count on "a sure thing.") "Apply again next year," they said. Except I don't wait until next year for anything anymore.

That same evening I put my proposal up on Indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding site that's like the better-known Kickstarter. Understand that I never do things like this. But I was so annoyed, it was so unfair, and -- most of all -- the project was so important and it wouldn't get done unless I did it. Within 12 hours I was fully funded. By campaign's end, thanks to some very kind and believing people, I'd raised $500 more than my goal. Of course Indiegogo takes 9 percent, and taxes on the funding are around 20-25 percent, but there was enough money for lodging for eight working days. That's how long I think it'll take me to page through 696 letters and 158 books in the Sylvia Plath archive at the University of Indiana-Bloomington.

What am I doing there? The archive was purchased from Aurelia Plath in 1977. Aurelia of course kept all of Sylvia's letters, and her personal library, art projects, and more from 1940 until Sylvia left the U.S. for good in 1959. Aurelia, a professor of business in the College of Practical Arts and Letters at Boston University, knew and taught Gregg shorthand, and wrote Gregg shorthand notes on the letters and their envelopes, and in the books. I first visited the archive last fall and saw these markings, which the archive called "unreadable," although they weren't to anybody like me, who had been forced to learn shorthand before it became obsolete. Despite the hundreds of scholars who have dug into this archive, no one had ever transcribed the shorthand. I believe Aurelia's remarks might reveal new facts and patterns.  So I was determined to go there and do this systematically.

There's a prayer that simply says "Make a way." A way was made because this one time I wasn't ashamed to ask for something I needed. I would have been more ashamed to give up.
Jul 16
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I Can Never Remember What Exposition Is

    Fiction writers at writing workshops often hear, "Get rid of the exposition." "There's too much exposition in here." "Exposition" --it can be good, but in fiction class it was always bad, and I understood the concept from examples, but never had it explained to me in a convenient nutshell.

    As often happens, the word provides its own understanding. Think of the word as "Ex-position." "Ex" means "out." So the word means "out of position." Exposition is a capsule of description or dialogue that doesn't really fit in its time and place, or fit the character. Example:

    "She thinks she's Jane Austen. You know, the famous English writer born in 1775 who wrote Sense and Sensibility and then Pride and Prejudice, and then Northanger Abbey which spoofs the Gothic novels popular at that time?"

    That's fine information in that second sentence, and all true, but it doesn't belong there. It's out of place.

    Exposition doesn't have to be factual. It can be fictional. It's an authorial intrusion: background information that has been foregrounded in a place in the narrative where it doesn't fit. The author is unsure about a choice he made, so he patches up the narrative with further information, hoping for the best.

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    Jul 10
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    Exercise and the Writer

    Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud. Wittgenstein philosophized while walking. "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” wrote Thoreau. Virginia Woolf wrote “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” about her urban walks. Countless writers take regular walks, just to walk. There must be something to it.

    A google of “writers exercise” turned up only writing prompts. Writers sit and write. That’s what we do. But consider that science has proved that excessive sitting, as we do in our cubbyholes these days, not only generates health and mood problems but ruins what health you have. I could tell when a friend was doing heavy writing because his posture sagged, his neck sank into his shoulders, his gut softened and expanded and his butt took on female proportions. What you don’t want is to look like that all the time. Spinal X-rays taken in my 50s showed the lower end of a formerly perfectly good spine permanently curved to the left, and some compressed disks. Spines weren’t designed for sitting for 8, 12 or 18 hours. You have only one spine. Take care of it.

    In the absence of health insurance for writers, try a daily 20-minute or 30-minute walk or exercise break. Consider it your treat or sanity bubble. I honestly get a buzz from the oxygenation. Writers often meet for coffee or drinks. Try walking after the coffee or before the drinks. You can chat and commiserate just as much. Do you run and wonder why you're not greyhound-slim? Running burns off sugar, not fat. Walk.

    I walk 30 minutes daily, or, in crummy weather, ride a recumbent bike (spine cannot tolerate upright bikes anymore). Twice a week I lift weights to get my back and core muscles to compensate for the spinal damage and let me sleep so the next day I can write.

    Jun 16
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    From "Complaining is Like Bad Breath" to Bestselling Author

    This past week the St. Louis Publishers Association brought in best-selling self-help author Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister who started a 21-day "No Complaining" campaign at his church, handing out purple rubber bracelets. When the participants caught themselves complaining the bracelet had to switch arms. “Complaining is like bad breath,” he said. Word spread about this concept and before Bowen even wrote a book he'd been on Oprah Winfrey's show. Then he decided to write a book. He told us all about it.

    After being turned down by one agent and then sucked into the scam "New York Literary Agency," he contacted the agent he wanted and got him. The book, A Complaint-Free World, became a monster bestseller--especially in China. Chinese book piracy is rampant, but Bowen's publisher undercut the six pirated editions by pricing the genuine book for less than the pirates charged, and bundling the bracelet with the book. The Chinese publishers also broadcast a weekly cartoon starring an animated Will Bowen on various positivity adventures, and booked him for a fashion shoot (he’s trim, bald and wears an earring) for Asian Harper’s Bazaar. “Now, those people are creative,” he said. “Most U.S. publishers try pretty hard but they really have no idea how to do it [marketing].” He went to Toastmasters to learn to speak, and arranges his own speaking engagements: one church per week. His intention for his new book is to sell 2.6 million copies.

    Other things Will Bowen said:

    • The joke is that the Random House-Penguin merger will create a publisher called Random Penguin.
    • “Publishers want to build on the last big thing but are very conservative about the next big thing.”
    • Hard-copy books will become extinct.
    • “Everybody has doubts, but most people won’t face the doubts.”
    • “We judge a book by how well it’s edited. There is nothing more important.”
    • An author goes through three stages with an editor. 1) “I hate you.” 2) “You might have a point there.” 3) “Thank you.”
    • “The editor is always right.”
    • The formula for success: “Success equals consistency over time.”
    • He knew an author bent on making The New York Times bestseller list. This guy, who had money, went to every bookstore he could and bought up 25,000 copies of his own book, which got him on the bestseller list.


    Bowen believes in writing down his goals each day, writing daily, and having a wish board. He wanted Maya Angelou to write a foreword for one of his books, but she is reclusive and doesn't do favors. He pasted a photo of Angelou on his wish board and told everyone he met that he wanted to meet Maya Angelou. One day he told an actual friend of Maya’s who arranged the meeting. I guess they spoke about positivity. Bowen tape-recorded what Angelou said and asked if that might become the foreword to the book, and she agreed. Thus, "foreword by Maya Angelou." That's a heck of an endorsement.

    I’m skeptical about lists and wish boards, but they can’t hurt, and increasingly I’m becoming convinced that writing is becoming a spiritual rather than professional pursuit. I know I went home from Bowen’s talk inspired, and boldly did something I’d never imagined I’d do, which I’ll blog about next.

    Jun 03
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    The Chapbook Solution

    Former student and friend, artist Tony Renner, actually prepared pocket-sized booklets of poems and handed them out free on Poem in Your Pocket Day, April 18, when we are all supposed to carry a poem around and read it to people and discuss it. Cool idea, and perhaps the future of poetry.

    Those of you who've written many poems: Have you considered making of them and marketing a nice portable chapbook? Most every poet can winnow from his or her work at least 16 or 20 very good poems (usually a maximum of 24 actual pages), and it's all the better if they have a common theme. I did this recently for a client whose chapbook came in third in a national chapbook contest just three months after the chapbook was assembled. The poems came from his full-length manuscript. The chapbook poems share a theme and are all of excellent quality.

    Those of you with completed manuscripts you're trying to publish: It feels good to have two manuscripts circulating. If you publish the chapbook first you can use the poems in your full-length book. What you probably can't do, unless all rights belong to you, is winnow a chapbook out of an already-published volume. That's recycling, anyway. You can write a new chapbook: all you need is to create 16 to 20 good poems, maybe on a theme, or maybe a poetic "cycle." That could be fun. So often, poetry is not fun. A chapbook is!
    May 16
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    Last-Minute Edits

    Finally, from experience I've formulated a rule of thumb:

    Last-minute edits on a work that has been in progress for a long time, or a published work about to be republished, are mistakes.

    Last-minute edits on a work you have very recently completed are likely to be good edits.

    If one is "in the zone" of creation on a particular piece, ideas for revision rise from the same pool of thought, or, as they say, "are organic." After that work has been completed and set aside and another work commenced, that same zone simply never comes again. The author has changed or grown and can't step into the same work twice. I have longed to add a new insight to an old work, and did, and now that extra sentence in there jars me, and I am concerned that it might jar readers just as much.

    One's old stories and poems can be rewritten or refurbished and turn out very well, but not if rewriting or additions take place at the last minute; say, a few hours before a contest deadline. It's like sewing a new sleeve on an old shirt. It might fit but it will be a slightly darker shade or nap or texture, and even if no one else knows, the author does. Is it too small a thing to care about? Not if you care about craft.
    Apr 09
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    So You Want to Publish a Children's Book

    If you've already sent your children's book to several publishers and it's been rejected:

    • First, if you are sending right now, stop sending because you can't re-send the revised manuscript to publishers you've already tried. 
    • Publishers like to use their own illustrators. If your manuscript is already illustrated and you like it that way, you will probably have to self-publish.
    • If you've written the story in rhythm and rhyme, it had better be expertly done or you are better off writing plain prose.

    Next, contact a professional editor. The market for children's books is extremely competitive, because the majority of the book business is adults buying books for adults, and adults tend to buy for children the books they used to love: Make Way for Ducklings, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Little House on the Prairie. Having your work professionalized and perfected gives your manuscript an edge.

    An editor can give you:

    • feedback on your plot and characters and suggestions for any improvements
    • corrections of any grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors
    • feedback on rhythm, rhyme and vocabulary, and (with my master's degree in poetry) I can rewrite rhymes so they're professional quality
    • I will tell you whether the manuscripts are ready to publish or require revision
    • I will tell you whether the market is saturated with similar stories and you're better off writing some new stories more likely to sell
    • I will pinpoint the age range of your readership. You might think you have written a picture book for ages 2-5, but in fact the text might be accessible only to ages 8 and up. I once read a Wind in the Willows-type manuscript with many references to early 19th-century styles and culture that young children couldn't appreciate. The characters spoke in Hollywood-British dialect and vocabulary ("What ho! Who goes there? Show yourself, lackey!"). The book was really for adult readers who could see is cleverness.
    • advice on professional formatting, and I will format your manuscript if you want.
    • an assessment of your cover letter, if you want. If it's less than optimal I will rewrite it or make suggestions, as you choose. If you didn't send a cover letter, we can compose one of professional quality so at least your cover letter won't hold you back.
    • suggestions regarding potential publishers
    Mar 24
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    Fiction and Nonfiction Both Need Subplots

    A good short story, personal essay, poem, or memoir captures the texture of life. The most celebrated memoirs are those which tell more than one story. For example, in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life we read about the boy's education and conscience, but also about the bad second marriage his mother is trapped in, and how she is changing, doing things formerly out of character, like campaigning for JFK. These experiences happened during the same period. They were parallel.

    Wolff could easily have written the entire memoir about his youthful self and how he learned to lie and fight. He could have written a fine memoir just about his mother's life. Either one would probably have been swell. But these in reality were intertwined, and Wolff wrote them that way.

    What this appears to accomplish:

    1) More accurately depicts the boy's exterior reality (events, conversations, his stepfather's behavior, friends and schooling and lessons learned)

    2) More accurately depicts his interior reality. We all live more than one life at a time. In fact, at least two: the life that people can see and the one they don't. I've read (dull) stories and essays delving deep into an individual's emotional life that never indicate that this character or person has a job, or siblings, or a loan to pay off, or a best friend who isn't a dog, or a political opinion, or a goal.

    Fiction and nonfiction have this in common: To capture the texture of real life, the work needs a subplot or more than one narrative thread.

    You can see this on television, say, on The Simpsons, when the main story is about, for example, Homer, but a secondary story is woven in about two other characters. If you look for this, it is absolutely everywhere. That's because having two or more threads captures the texture of life.

    When your creative prose seems dull or flat or thin or like "weak tea," it's usually because it has only one facet or thread. A secondary or parallel story, or "subplot," is a lot of work for the writer and requires skill. It is a large part of what makes superior fiction and creative nonfiction. You can spend years in creative-writing courses and never once hear about subplotting, or why subplotting is as basic as the "main story." I have, however, heard a poet say, "A poem should always be about two things." Poets get it.

    Prose writing is a little different. After you have learned how to develop and play on one thread, attempt to add another to the piece you are working on. Don't worry about how well or poorly you do it at first. I said it's a skill and that it's not easy.

    Mar 21
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    Net Connections

    A writer must have a reliable ISP and it helps if it's a fast one. I used speedtest.net to test my upload and download speeds and so should you if you suspect that your speeds are slower than they were.

    My HughesNet satellite connection, although reliable, had become so slow I could do calisthenics or watch 5 minutes of TV while connecting, and there was no way it'd let both my computers work at once. This poor performance crept up on me over 3 years of service and I accepted it as the norm, the price one pays for living away from the big city. Then I heard about the Verizon JetPack. It will support up to 10 devices on the Verizon network, one of those being the ISP transmitter which uses their 4G network. They offer a two-week trial. So I got one.

    Joy! It was a simple compact thing that plugged in, needed a password and then began instantly to work. Still, though. . . I live in one of Verizon's "extended service" (read "fringe") areas and I could get online within a few seconds but couldn't stream "Gangnam Style" worth a darn. I speed-tested the JetPack. In this fringe area it scored about .8 mbps. The HughesNet actually did equal or better, in its best test scoring 1.35,  but the JetPack gave me that little edge -- seconds instead of minutes to get online, especially after 5 p.m.

    Now what? Back to PeoplePC and dialup? (There's no DSL out here.) I called HughesNet to cancel because the JetPack was better at firing up. But they offered me an upgrade for the same price and a 30-day trial. Installers came, and in an hour I had oh-wow downloads between 8 and 10 mbps and now can watch the nightly weather report online and get rid of my TV -- which had just begun charging $8 more a month for fewer channels. I didn't even get CNN anymore! I phoned and said, "I don't get to charge more for reduced service. Why do you?" and they trimmed $6 off my monthly bill because I complained.

    Why didn't I look into all this sooner? Your ISP is a crucial tool and should make you proud. If not, you have alternatives. Seek them out; don't waste the time you could be spending on writing, editing, attending webinars, or connecting with your writing community.