29 Sep

Guest Post: "For All the Haters" by Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA, Poetry, Writing

 Today we have a guest post by the lovely Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz.  Elizabeth was a classmate of mine during the MFA and writes beautiful poetry as well as heartbreaking teen literature.  She is also poetry editor of Verbal Pyrotechnics, a literary magazine dedicated exclusively to teen literature.  So if you have poetry that appeals to a teen audience, feel free to check out the submissions page and send it her way.  For more about Elizabeth, visit her blog at: A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’.  And now here’s Elizabeth’s take on why people hate on poetry.

Some people are scared of sharks, others of heights, an intruder in the night. Sure, a fearfulness of all of these things make sense; each could kill you after all. But why, then, are so many writers of fiction afraid of poetry? What has a poem ever done to you? Huh?

Okay, maybe it’s bored you, confused you, made you feel something you weren’t prepared to feel, but it certainly has not killed you! In fact, I’d argue that some poems are more scared of you than you are of them. Like this one, called “Poem that Begs for Reassurance”, by Peter Davis*:

My experience with the world around me is that I either feel it’s awful, or I feel that it is great. Right now I feel like this poem is awful. I feel like I am awful. I feel like an outcast in the literary world. Nobody reviews my work. As far as I can tell, nobody really talks about me. They do, but it’s never enough. I’m not besieged with e-mails soliciting my poetry. I keep waiting for something to happen. I mean, this is a good poem. Other people seem to have so much going on. I read their bio notes and think, “Well, jeez, how do they all do it?” I say to my wife, “Honey, I always feel a few steps behind. How can I do all of that in this poem?” Some of them maintain blogs with numerous links and a lot of daily hits. Others don’t even have blogs! All around me poets are winning prizes and being included in anthologies like The Best American Poetry. Some at very young ages. Some of these people, if they don’t already have tenure-line teaching positions, are very strong candidates for tenure-line teaching positions.

    Now, before that familiar fear bubbles to the surface, turns itself into rage and makes you shout What? That’s not even a poem! Stop, and breathe. And try and keep in mind that a poem is simply compressed language used to express emotion or ideas.

Perhaps in high school some archaic, convoluted, and important poem was paraded in front of you so that you–in a role of simple spectator–could analyze it, elucidate its virtues and confirm its place in the canon. The teacher didn’t ask you to get in there and walk around with the poem, hold its hand, listen to its secrets and share yours in return. No, you were just supposed to coolly observe it, as if it were the other, then write a five paragraph essay, sans  the word “I”.  Maybe it was then that you decided that poetry, like AP Calculus or showering in the locker room, was just not for you.

Billy Collins, America’s Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, created Poetry 180, a collection of poems to be read aloud, one a day for all 180 days of the school year, in an attempt to demystify, de-stress-ify, de-analyze-ify poetry and help us all simply experience and, perhaps even, appreciate poems. The first poem in this series is his, and, fittingly, it is called “Introduction to Poetry” and I think it is awesome.  He writes:

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

We have been conditioned to think there is a right and a wrong response to a poem, that it can only mean one thing, when in fact that is not true at all.  When the pressure of analysis is removed, I think many of us who claim to dislike Poetry-with-a-capital-P are actually surprised to find that many poems are you know, quite likeable. 

I find that reading a few poems in a variety of styles before I sit down to write can help me generate ideas and approach my language differently. Poetry compresses ideas, emotions, and images into very few words and this is a skill that all writers can benefit from.  Look at this poem by Jane Kenyon:


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

In it she compresses a life into a few short images. The first introduces us to a character, a domestic setting, and, through the use of one key word, “strong”, indicates that she is grateful for her current health. Her use of repetition emphasizes the idea that we all make choices about how to live life. The slight modification to the repeated sentence powerfully implies that the speaker appreciates the choices she has made and the life that she leads as a result of those choices.

The content of this poem could have been the subject of a short story or novel, but Kenyon seems to want the reader to focus on the simple moments of a life and so she uses simple diction and sentence structure. The moments she describes, just like the poem itself, are quick and could be easily overlooked, but she is asking the reader to be attentive to the simple moments that make up a life. This poem illustrates that the structure is the message too.

As you approach your own work it is important to ask your self if your container is the right size for your content and if it’s not, adjust accordingly. You would never pack your son’s sandwich in a suitcase and send him off to school, now would you?

Another reason to read poetry is the playfulness with which many poets approach language.  Not to say that a poem is any less literary when it employs whimsy, simply that it is important to remember that language is not just about ideas, but is just as much about sound.  Take this line from Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “Presidential Blackness”, a serious poem about race and language, “…a new infinite alphabet pours from the pores of the poor…”. The cleverness of the wordplay is going to make this line jump out. It will stick with the reader because, well, it sounds good and it is fun to say. I encourage you to read your work aloud or ask a friend to read it aloud to you; consider revising anytime you need to take a breath or your friend stumbles. Listen for interesting juxtapositions and pay attention to your sentence structure. Just like my mother always said, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.”

*I’d imagine that Peter Davis and this poem are presently feeling reassured, as he was just in town to launch the Best American Poetry 2010, in which he has four (wonderful) poems.


22 Sep

Technical Tips for Writing Dialogue

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA

Hi everyone, today we’re going interactive again.  Below is a piece of dialogue between iggi and me and your job is to find all the things that are wrong with the dialogue and make it NOT work.  When you think you have your answer, scroll down and read about some technical tips on how to make dialogue soar.

Here’s the dialogue sample.

“iggi, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” Gabi said.
“What is it, Gabi?” iggi replied questioningly.
“Well, iggi, you know I’ve been working on this DIY MFA thing for some time, and I thought we should do a post about dialogue.” Gabi explained patiently.
“Gee, Gabi, that’s a great idea!!!!” iggi exclaimed eloquenty.
“So, what sorts of things do you think we should include in our post?”
“Hmmm…” iggi pondered.  “Maybe we could do an example of what NOT to do in dialogue, and let our readers try to guess.”
“Hey, that’s good!  I like it!” Gabi cried out.
“Let’s start writing, right away!”
And iggi and Gabi ran off to the computer to write the post.

All right everybody, now it’s your turn.  There are at least 7 different major types of dialogue problems in the above passage, though each problem may occur several times.  Once you think you’ve guessed all seven, scroll down to read the explanations.

1)  Name-calling:  Very rarely do people call each other by name when they’re speaking, but you’ll see it happen in written dialogue, especially if written by beginning writers.  The reason of course, is that using names in dialogue makes it very easy for the reader to figure out who’s saying what, especially if you’re writing a scene with more than two people speaking.  But this is not realistic, nor does it make for good dialogue, so cut out the name-calling.

2)  Exposition:  We’ve all seen those movies where the good guy faces off with the villain and the villain starts to monologue, explaining all the ins and outs of his diabolical plan.  That kind of exposition in dialogue rarely works because, again, people don’t talk that way.  If the information has to go in the scene so the reader can follow what’s going on, take the exposition out of the dialogue and just give it to the reader as straight exposition.  Here’s a hint: if a character says “as you know…” or “remember how…” or something to that effect, that’s a good tip that exposition is coming and you need to rework it.

3)  Fussy Tags:  Sometimes writers start getting all fancy with their dialogue tags, using words like “muttered” “cajoled” or “jeered” but these verbs do nothing more than call attention to themselves.  Sure, in general, writing thrives on strong verbs, but when writing dialogue tags, these fussy verbs just distract from what’s actually being said.  I prefer to keep my dialogue as mostly he said/she said with “asked” and “replied” tucked in there now and again.

4)  Ugh, Those Adverbs:  Seriously, writers need to stop adding adverbs to their dialogue tags.  Period.  Adverbs are bad enough in exposition, where they’re camouflaged by imagery and metaphor, but when they’re used in dialogue tags to express the speaker’s emotion, they stick out.  Granted, the adverbs in the above passage are a bit excessive even for an example of what not to do, but I made them especially bad to drive the point home of how awful these adverbs sound in dialogue tags.

5)  Dialogue Zits:  Words like “well” “so” “gee”  “ugh” and the like are what I call dialogue zits.  The description is exactly as it sounds.  These words blemish the complexion that is your dialogue and should be eradicated.  The only situation I think where these dialogue zits might suit a purpose is if they help establish a character’s verbal quirks in some way.  If your character really does use “like” every other word, then sprinkle it in now and again.  Remember: a little zit goes a long way.

6)  Talking Head Syndrome:  Some writers can get away with writing all dialogue, with no tags or stage directions.  These writers are the greats and they get away with it because they slip stage directions in with such subtlety that you barely realize they’re there.  The rest of us, must use stage directions in order to avoid having our characters come across as talking heads.  Stage directions are your friends.  If a character says “don’t worry about me, I’m fine” and then throws the remote control at the TV, we know right away that something is going on.  Use stage directions to create subtext and give your dialogue a context.

7)  Punk.  Choo.  Ay.  Shun.  Here it is for the record: how to punctuate standard dialogue.  Learn it, love it, live it.

“My name is Gabi,” she said.

When using a dialogue tag, a comma goes after “Gabi” but before the closed quote.  “She said” is not capitalized.  Period at the end of the tag.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

The same rule holds true when the piece of dialogue ends with a question mark.

“My name is Gabi.”  She ran her hand through her hair.

When including only a stage direction without a tag, put a period after “Gabi” and “She” is capitalized because it is the beginning of a new sentence.

For more information: visit Nathan Bransford’s recent post about writing dialogue.  I focused more on technical stuff here, but he gives some great insight into the big picture stuff, so go check it out.

Today’s Task:  Found any other problems with the above dialogue?  Seriously, there’s got to be more than just seven… Please share with everyone in the comments.


15 Sep

Moving Right Along: The Ins and Outs of Plot

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA, Plot

John Gardner once said that there are two types of stories in literature:

(1) Man goes on a journey.
(2) Stranger comes to town.

While it might seem simplistic to think that all stories in literature boil down to these two categories, but let’s look a little closer, shall we?


  • Odyssey (Homer) – clearly (1), as the story revolves around Odysseus’ journey but also (2) when you consider all that happens when he shows up back in Ithaca.
  • Feed (M.T. Anderson)- definitely fits category (2), but we can also view the book as a journey into understanding the feed (1).
  • The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) – again, it appears on the surface to be about a journey (1) but if we look more closely, we realize that it also fits category (2), in that Dorothy is the stranger that comes to the “town” of Oz and shakes things up.

So if we have all these examples where books fit both of Gardner’s categories, how can we define plot?  Are all stories about both going on journeys and strangers coming to town?

The thing is, stories aren’t just about people going out into the world or facing a hostile environment.  Stories are about people facing other people and that is where a lot of the conflict arises that drives the story.  And the minute we start talking about conflict, the issue of power comes up.

The way I see it, narratives break down into three categories of conflict:
   (A) Protagonist must confront an entity with more power.
   (B) Protagonist must confront an entity with equal power.
   (C) Protagonist must confront herself.

Notice how there is no category for the protagonist to confront an entity of lesser power.  This is because if the protagonist faces off with someone or something that is easily overcome, there is no conflict.  Remember: conflict drives the story.

Let’s take a look at some plot archetypes that fall into these categories.

(A) is the classic Underdog Story.  Some archetypes in this category are:

  • Fish Out of Water – The protagonist is confronted with a foreign environment where he/she feels like an outsider.  Note that the protagonist can already be in this environment to begin with and events transpire that make the environment hostile.  In this case, the environment is the entity with power.
  • Cinderella Narrative – In a “Rags-to-Riches” story, a character of lower status (Cinderella) must convince a character of higher status (Prince) to recognize qualities of value in her.  Notice also that this story fits the “Fish Out of Water” scenario where Cinderella must pretend to be someone she is not in order to be accepted by the prince.
  • David & Goliath – The underdog (David) is faced with a character much more powerful than he, but because of his innate qualities, he manages to vanquish his powerful opponent.  This is the ultimate underdog story.
  • Come-Back Story – The protagonist used to have power but now has none and must turn his fate around to resume his position of power.  Revenge stories fall under this category because in this case the character resumes power by exacting revenge.
  • Pygmalion – A powerful character “creates” a less powerful one, intending to use him, but the “creation” develops enough power to take on a life of its own and causes trouble. (Ex: Frankenstein)
  • Secrets – The protagonist discovers a secret that threatens a powerful person or institution.  The central conflict then is whether the protagonist will be able to unlock the full secret while the entity in power tries to stop him.  (Ex: Da Vinci Code.)
  • Knight (or Hobbit) in Shining Armor – There is an antagonist–a great force or opponent–and the protagonist is the only one who can stop it.  In many cases, this protagonist is not a powerful knight, but a humble character who gets pulled into the adventure.  (Ex: Fellowship of the Ring)

(B) is a Narrative of Connections story.  Some archetypes here are:

  • Submission to Love – Love blinds the protagonists causing them to do things that lead them into more and more trouble.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers – A couple wants to be together but they are being kept apart by some outside force.  This is a subset of the Submission to Love story.
  • Lost Twin – Two characters (often enemies) are thrown together and discover a kinship or likeness between them.  (Ex: the movie The Parent Trap is a literal example)

Note: This analysis of story structure and some of these examples have been adapted  from a lecture given by Perry Brass in April 2007.

(C) Finally we have an Introspective Narrative in which the protagonist confronts herself.  Here, the protagonist has some great inner conflict that must be resolved.  This type of narrative rarely occurs on its own; after all, 300 pages of introspective monologue would be seriously boring.  Usually (C) occurs as a parallel thread to a story structure that falls under one of the above categories.

Notice that in all of these plot archetypes we have a character who wants something (to fit in, to get revenge, to find love) but that want is thwarted by some entity of either equal or greater power.  The power struggle is part of what creates the conflict and conflict is what plot is all about.

Today’s Task: Examine the power in your story by answering the following questions.

1. What does your character want?
2. What’s standing in his/her way?
3. What specific obstacles prevent him/her from obtaining this goal?
4. Outcome: does the character obtain the goal? What are the implications of this outcome?

Additional Resources

  • The Plot Whisperer (Martha Alderson) has put together a series of podcasts that talk about plotting a story.  She also has a blog that discusses all things plot-related.
  • Antonette Hornsby (AKA Ant) recently write a post about the LOCK method in developing a plot.


08 Sep

A Question of Character

Posted in Character, Craft, DIY MFA, Writing Exercises

Today is our first day of the Craft component of DIY MFA and I’ll begin with a caveat.  Craft is a HUGE topic and there’s no way I’d be able to cover every detail in just four posts.  Think of these Craftivity posts each as an “amuse bouche” to whet your palette, teasers to spark further study.

Today’s topic is character.  One of the things I often have trouble with when developing characters is keeping track of all of their traits and details.  Here are two tricks I’ve come up with to help keep tabs on my characters.

Character Compass

I’m sure most of you have heard the adage: Show, Don’t Tell.  Well according to Writing Fiction (Gotham Writers’ Workshop), there’s not one, not two, but four ways you can show your character’s traits.  These are: Thought, Appearance, Dialogue, Action (or as I like to call it, TADA!).  I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble juggling one aspect of my character at a time, much less four of them simultaneously.  This is why I devised a tool called the Character Compass.

Here’s how it works.  You draw a circle with two perpendicular axes (see example above).  Label each axis with the TADA techniques.  Now draw a dot on that line to indicate how much of each you used for that character in a given scene (the closer the dot is to the circle’s edge, the more of that technique you used.)  Connect the dots and you get a visual representation of how you showed that character.

Now I can guess what you’ll say next.  Do you really have to use the same amount of all four TADA techniques?  No.  The point of the Character Compass is to highlight what your tendencies are.  For example, using the Character Compass on a WIP, I learned that I rely a lot on dialogue and actions to show characters’ traits but I rarely use appearance and I’m terrified of using thought.  This exercise was a wake-up call for me because it showed me areas of my characters that I had been neglecting.  I realized that in order to be a versatile writer it’s important that I be comfortable in using all of the TADA techniques, not just one or two.

Acrostic “At-A-Glance” Bio

Another trick I picked up is what I call the Acrostic “At-A-Glance” Bio for my characters.  I’m sure many of you can relate when I tell you that I write these long, extensive bios for my characters.  Trouble is, I forget half of the information when I actually sit down to write.  I got frustrated paging through long documents to look up details about my characters so I devised this method of creating “At-A-Glance” Bios.  These character bios are so small, I can write them each on one index card and tuck them in my notebook.  Here’s how it works.  (This technique was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll.)

Step 1: Write the character’s name vertically on the page so that each letter gets one line.
Step 2: For each letter of the character’s name write a trait or important detail about the character.

Example: Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

His grin stays behind
Says “we’re all mad here…”
Hides out in Wonderland
Invisible at times
Reappears gradually, sometimes not completely
Exceedingly mad

Croquet with the Queen
Appears and disappears
Talks in riddles

These acrostic bios are tricky but they force you to think of your character in terms of specific, concrete details.  In the end, I haven’t abandoned regular character bios completely, I just use these acrostic bios as a way to keep the most essential traits of my characters on the tip of my mind.

Today’s Task: try your hand at one of today’s techniques.  Or, if you prefer, share another tip or trick you’ve used that relates to developing characters.


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