26 Apr

Setting Limits

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Prompt, Writing Exercises

Limitations can be liberating.  I know it sounds like a contradiction, but hear me out.  Sometimes having too many choices can be paralyzing and the best thing we can do for our writing is to set some limits.  To that end, here are a few exercises that help me keep those pesky choices in check.

Minus an “E”:  Inspired by Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E” in this exercise I challenge you to write for 15 minutes and the only limitation is you cannot use the letter “E.”  For variations on this assignment, choose a different vowel (no fair choosing “Y”) and write for 15 minutes without that vowel instead.

The idea here is that by limiting which vowels you can use, you have to stop and really think about each word you choose.  It exercises your brain in a way that regular writing doesn’t.  Sure, you might not produce a work of genius with this exercise, but it trains you to think about word choice and you’ll start seeing the results in your writing in general.

Single Syllables:  Another exercise I learned from a favorite writing teacher is to write for 15 minutes using only one-syllable words.  Not only does it make you stop and choose your words carefully, but by using only one-syllable words you’ll infuse your work with energy and punch that you don’t get from words with multiple syllables.

Sometimes when I feel like a piece I’m writing needs more punch, I’ll go back and rewrite a section, trying to use more one-syllable words.  The change in the energy never fails to amaze me.

What do you think?  Do you think you need to set some limits in your writing?  If so, what tricks have you used that work?


25 Apr

A Day for Poetry

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Poetry, Writing

April is National Poetry Month and today I’d like to take some time to enjoy that genre where words really count.  In poetry the wrong word–no matter how small or innocent-looking–can be the difference between pretty or pathetic, inspiring or insipid.  Words rule in poetry in a way that isn’t possible for any other genre.

I can already see some of you rolling your eyes.  “Here she goes… getting all ga-ga over poetry.  Gross.”  I promise I’ll keep my love of verse under control.  All I ask is this: before you click away, take 30 seconds to read the following poem.  Not because I told you (though that’s also a very nice reason), but because you’re a writer and you love words in all flavors.  Take these 30 seconds to recharge your inner muse and enjoy words for their own sake.  This poem by Billy Collins is about reading poetry, but it continually helps refresh my perspective on all literature, regardless of genre.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

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.

Homework: Today I’d like you to visit poets.org or break open an anthology and read one poem you’ve never read before.  It can be a poem with an interesting title, or a poem that you’ve been wanting to read but never got around to.  There are no requirements except that it be a poem.  Once you’ve read it, I’d love to hear about what you read.  Also, do you like poetry and read it for fun, or was this new for you?  If you love poetry, what about it speaks to you?  If you’re not a poetry-lover, what turns you off?


24 Apr

Words, Glorious Words!

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Process, Word Games, Writing Exercises

All writers–whether they write lofty literary fiction or spunky sparkly vampire stories–have one thing in common: an intrinsic love of words.  We can’t get enough of words.  We’re like Oliver, lifting up his bowl and saying: “Please, sir, I’d like some more.”

Today’s post is about glorious words that enrich our love of language.  One tool I’ve developed that helps me rekindle my love of words is the Word Box. 

The concept is simple, really; you just cut up a sheet of paper into lots of little slips and write a random word on each slip.  They can be words you love or hate, words that sound funny or that are fun to say aloud.  The point is that the words be random.  Once you’re done, put your word slips in a container (an envelope, bag, small box.  The only requirement is that it should be easy for you to reach in and pull out a few words at random.

How to Use the Word Box: Pull out 3-7 words at random.  Write for 15 minutes and use all the words.  Note: No fair using a random word in a way that doesn’t make sense or feels forced.  All the words have to feel like they belong in the piece.   Tips: (1) Start with with 3 words and work your way up to 7 with practice.  (2) Keep adding new words to your Word Box over time, to keep things fresh.

Homework: Start a Word Box of your own.  With a little help from friends, the task of finding random words can be easy.  Share some of your own word finds in the comments and borrow suggestions from each other!

Here are 20 words from my Word Box to get you started:

galaxy, gamble, fissure, scamper, flutter, flash, troll, manipulate, secret, nefarious, snarl, flinch, croak, glitz, arabesque, pirate, swirl, windswept, totem, no.

A note about DIY MFA Chat today, (5pm ET) I know it’s Easter so I wasn’t sure if any of you were still up for a chat.  Please tweet or comment if you’re still up for chatting and I’ll be there.  If enough people respond saying “yes I’ll be there” then we’ll proceed as always.  Watch the #diymfa thread for a twitter update on the status of the chat.  I’ll a couple of hours before and let you all know if the chat’s still on or if we’re taking the holiday off.  Sound good?


21 Apr

Mood Music

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Music, Writing

This past week we’ve discussed how to set the mood for writing through reading, collage, color theory and writing rituals.  Today I want to talk about music.

I’ve played the violin on and off since I was four years old, and music has been a central part of my life for even longer than that.  I love music that tells a story.  Here’s a list of the essentials in my music library.

  • The Four Seasons by Vivaldi.
    This classic piece of music sets the tone for each of the four seasons.  For a different take on this piece, check out the recording by Il Giardino Armonico, where the orchestra plays entirely on period instruments but give the piece a contemporary, edgy feel. 
  • The Planets by Holst.
    In this piece, each movement represents one of the planets.  The music captures the personality and sets the mood for each planet.  
  • Such Sweet Thunder by Duke Ellington.
    This jazz suite is based on various plays by William Shakespeare.  Each track represents one play or one set of characters from Shakespeare’s plays.  My favorite is “Up and Down” where the different pairs of instruments are supposed to depict the different couple pairings in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” by Beethoven
    In my opinion the most beautiful piece of music ever written, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony captures the mood of a day in the countryside, complete with waterfalls and streams, a country village and a thunderstorm.
  •  Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens
    A great piece–especially for introducing newcomers to classical music–the Carnival of the Animals captures the feeling of being in a carnival.  From the lion to the aquarium to the aviary, each movement of the piece represents one group of animals in the carnival.  A great recording of this is the one conducted and narrated by Bernstein where he explains each of the movements and what to listen for (a great recording for introducing kids to classical music).

If I had to limit my inspirational writing music to just five albums, these would be the ones I’d choose (and it would be a tough choice because I left off some of my absolute favorite pieces).  I chose these five because I feel like they give me the most mileage for my writing.

Homework: Today I’d like you to choose a piece of music and listen–really listen–for at least one track.  Try to hear the story being told in the music.  If you’re not sure of a piece to choose, feel free to borrow one of my selections above.  After listening, jot down a few notes so you remember the story you heard in the music.

Then tell me how it went.  What piece did you choose?  What did you hear in the music?  What story did it tell you?


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