This past week, my students explored the wonderful use of personification in their writing. When not overused, this form of figurative language can enliven tired writing. The trick is knowing when to employ it.
December has been a month of writing exercises. We've written about who we are not and--with the assistance of Kobe Bryant--taken time to say goodbye to something in our lives.
This week, let's play around with personification (attribution of a personal quality or human characteristic to something nonhuman; representation of an abstract quality in human form).
As soon as my new crop of young writers turn in their permission to be published forms, I'll share their clever lines. In the meantime, it's your turn to try.
Before you tackle the usage in a current piece of writing, practice. Our parents and coaches told us "practice makes perfect," and they were right. Nearly. Practice makes the game easier. Perfection is a whole other story.
1. Have a seat in your favorite writing space with your favorite writing tools (pen and paper work well for this exercise).
2. Create a T-chart on your paper (or simply draw a dividing line down the middle).
3. Look around the room and select one object that's not alive (a book, clock, floor tile, painting, curtain, chair...).
4. Record that object at the top of one side of your T-chart.
5. Beneath it, list the item's traits and/or actions (one per line). For example, if you choose a clock, you might list: face, hands, quiet, numbers, glass, ticks, tocks, hangs.
6. On the other side of the T-chart, list human traits and actions--again, one per line. It helps to think of one person when you do this. For example, using myself, I might write: laugh, stand, cry, listen, ponder.
7. Now, consider the two lists, and find a trait from each side that complement each other. In my examples, I might pair face and ponder: The quiet clock listens to the children's conversation.
Some examples to get you started:
The tired leaves dropped to the ground.
The empty paged mocked me.
The angry sea tossed the boat.
Still stuck or want a challenge? Study the picture above and write your best personified line. Share it below.
Considering sharing your personification practice or other writing tips with us.
A few weeks ago, Laker phenom, Kobe Bryant, announced his retirement from basketball. While I was not a huge fan of the sport or even the player, I am now. Kobe wrote a lovely tribute to his passion in a goodbye poem published on a sports website. (Of course, he's not the first athlete to put pen to paper. Check out this book.)
I shared this poem with my writing students as they viewed highlights of his career. They were equally impressed with the man's words.
Then we wrote our own goodbyes to past-times, passions, or activities in our world that we will soon give up. For them: middle school, friendships, sports, hobbies, habits. A girl wrote goodbye to horse tournaments, another said so long to a K-pop musician, a quiet boy wrote a moving tribute to cross country.
This week, I continue a month of writing exercises. Today's is inspired by a professional athlete.
we part ways.
Time for a
You offer me
Once, we cried together
over MASH, the goodbye.
with the Wonder Years.
Sitting with my dad and Marlin Perkins
we marveled at
animals in the Wild Kingdom.
Now my time
Not with you.
Thanks for the memories.
What will you say goodbye to?
Share yours below.
“There is freedom in being a writer and writing. It is fulfilling your function. I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it.”
― Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
As I wind down my energy from the amped up NaNoWriMo writing sprints of November, I return to my usual routines. One of which includes my own writing exercises courtesy Natalie Goldberg's book, "Writing Down the Bones."
One of my favorite exercises in that book is one that has you focus on who you are not. I will be using this prompt with my new batch of creative writing students this week, so I thought I'd share the exercise with you as well.
Grab your writing notebook and favorite pen. Goldberg says the heart speaks best through a flowing pen rather than a computer. I often write on the computer because it's easier. Plus, I'm a messy writer. However, when it comes to writing exercises, I write freehand in my journal.
You have your notebook and pen. Now find a quiet space and set a timer for at least ten to twenty minutes. Get ready, set, write.
Who are you not?
Here's my unedited flow of words:
I'm not the kind of person to own a snake, ride a unicycle, be an astronaut when she grows up, order a burrito with extra hot sauce, dance naked in the street after midnight like my neighbor in college, wear orange tights, get a full sleeve tattoo (or any tattoo?), spank my child, not care what people think of me.
I'm not the the person who complains all the time, laughs when someone is hurt, or orders a different ice cream flavor every time she visits the ice cream shop. I am not loud or very quiet. I am not the smartest or dumbest person in the room. I am not sophisticated nor pedestrian.
I am not obscene or rude. I am not perfect or happy not being perfect. I am not the person you sit next to on the plane who talks nonstops or doesn't give you elbow room.
I am not likely to hurt myself, drive recklessly, or dive off a cliff. I am not likely to scale a building or walk a tightrope higher than one-foot off the ground, sky-dive, or learn to fly a plane.
Who I am not says as much about me as who I am.
Who are you not? Share with us.
The turn of weather is a great time to take your writing through a poetic carwash. Fall is my absolute favorite season, and I love the poetry inspired by the leaves' changing colors, the biting cold that whips through my hair, and the dulling sun in the late afternoon sky.
Take a moment to visit these sites, read some verse, and give your writing a seasonal lift.
Here are my go-to sites and a few seasonal writings that offer dimensional imagery and language to my writing.
1. The Poetry Foundation
Grace Paley's Autumn.
2. Academy of American Poets
Noah Falck's from "You are in Nearly Every Future"
3. The Poem Hunter
John Keats' Ode to Autumn (I recommend you mute the computer-generated narration)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's The Autumn
If you are participating in NaNoWriMo and need an infusion of color and life or if you simply wish to take in the beauty of this season, discover again the color of poetry and let it drench your prose with folly.
Share your whimsy here. Do you have a favorite verse or site you like? I'd love to know.
This is my first official year joining the throngs of crazies who attempt to write 50,000 words in November. Are you one of us?
First, some history...
Despite its Viking Helmet which suggests the phenomena began in Sweden or Denmark, NaNoWriMo started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999. The lyrical title stands for National Novel Writing Month. The fist one took place in July begun by founder Chris Baty. Starting in 2000, the event moved to the chilly hibernating month of November.
Now there's a whole team of people who run the website and support coffee-guzzling authors.
Writers are challenged to pump out 50,000 words in thirty days. That's about 1,667 words per day. There's even a challenge for young writers.
Yesterday, November 1, I managed 2100 words. That was a Sunday with that extra hour of sleep, no work, and no kids running around asking for anything.
We'll see what I manage during the work week.
Join in the maniacal fun, and be my buddy! Cheer me on, and let me cheer you on.
I look forward to connecting with you at NaNoWriMo. If you need help getting started, drop me a note below.
Five years ago, the middle school where I teach fell behind. We were placed in the nation's Program Improvement status.
We had four years to get out, each year the state would raise our goal by ten percent. Imagine struggling in a marathon because you twisted your ankle. All your competitors' ankles are fine. They quickly get around corners, grab water and power snacks. You limp along, too late for a snack, too uncoordinated to grab the water.
In addition, your competitors have had personal trainers, healthy diets, secure home environments. You have not. You struggle. They don't. You get left behind.
Now imagine that every lap you run is ten feet longer than the one before. Come on, you can do it.
No, you can't.
Problem is, all runners aren't alike.
Neither are all kids. That's why the Common Core is killing creativity in our children.
I teach Creative Writing. It's my one elective. It's the one point in the day where all of my students in the room move at their own pace. There are no benchmarks. There are no tests.
There is plenty of instruction and modeling by their teacher, but when it's time to write, it's all them. They have choice and voice in what they say, how they say it, how far they take it.
I accept all their work; they all pass.
This class is about taking the teacher's passion and nurturing it in our students. Every student in school takes this Fifth Period Elective. It's Pass/Fail. Nary a one fails. Nearly every kid says Fifth Period is their favorite class.
They learn chess, juggling, golf, coding, knitting, crafts, animal care, creative writing, and more.
Common Core is killing creativity, but we are bringing it back, one period at a time.
If you have a student in your house, find out what they're writing in class. Then ask them what they'd really like to write about.
If they're not journaling their own ideas, buy your child a journal (a simple composition book will do), and sit together at the end of each day and write.
Use Natalie Goldberg's rules of writing to get you started.
Creativity is not common; it needs to be nurtured.
Nurture your child's creativity before it dries to the core.
My copy editor noticed something about my stories: I like lists.
There's the list a character keeps in her phone on the Do's and Don't's of Shoplifting.
There's the list a grandmother keeps on her fridge for what not to feed the dog.
When my editor pointed out my habit, at first I thought: Oops, better stop that. Then I reconsidered. This could be a "thing" in my stories. Every writer needs some kind of trademark, why not lists?
Lists are practical, easy to read, and they can offer clues to the character or plot.
I also post numerous blogs here that are lists.
I like lists. In honor of their awesomeness, let me offer three ideas for using lists in your story.
1. Grocery lists. If I don't write down what I need, I will leave the store with things I'm hungry for now. When I get home, I will have to eat chocolate and mini peppers for dinner. This is not good. Lists help us remember the important stuff. What if your character had to go to the grocery store and forgot something on his list? He'd have to go back. Who might he run into?
2. Birthday lists. Thanks to Google, all my friends' birthdays show up on my calendar. A calendar is a great place for lists because it's all organized by a need to know. How might your character use a calendar in your story?
3. To Do lists. I don't know about you, but my "to do" lists are a mish-mash of so many things. "Make dentist appt; research Vitamin D; send my son a fan... I love "to do" lists because they have no category. It is merely a collection of all the random things that come to mind that must be done. What if your character found someone else's "To Do" list? What might be on it?
These are a few ideas for using lists in your writing. How do you employ a list in your stories? Please share your ideas with us.
What happens when you have nothing to say but you've committed yourself to saying something?
That's when you write crap.
That's when you need to write like you're at the edge of a cliff, like you're scared, like you're about to die, like you don't know what's going to happen next.
This isn't about writer's block. This isn't even about finding your muse. This is about unleashing your passion, firing up your writing, releasing that sludge of unimaginable creative juice clogging your critical writer's mind.
However you do it, whatever you call it, every artist--writer, poet, painter, sculptor, etc.--needs to find a way to stick his hand down his throat and withdraw that hairy, slimy, gritty clog of filth that's blocking the juice of his work.
Try it. Close your eyes. Shut out the world. Hide inside a closet. Drive to a remote patch of dirt far from lights, sounds, people, animals. Crawl inside a cave. Whatever you can manage. Get there. Go there. Now.
Are you there?
Did you bring a journal?
No. No. No. Where we're going, we don't need any journals.
Sit inside your proverbial cave, melt within the darkness, shut out the world. What do you most fear? See it. Smell it. Go further. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Go deeper. Get pissed. Fight for your life. Fight for your family. Fight for what you love. Curse, yell, scream, punch, spit.
Keep your eyes closed.
Unmelt. Find a light inside. Who is it? What is it? Feel its warmth. Offer your gratitude. Sense a peace. Let this love, warmth, and calm wrap around you. Feel yourself as whole.
Open your eyes.
Find your way back to your writing place. Tell your story to you. It may be a few sentences, a few paragraphs, a page or more. It may be a poem, scraps of sentences and words, or an essay. Structure and form are unimportant. This is for your eyes only.
Now go back to your project. Who wants this energy? Who needs it? Let your experience breathe new life into your writing. Don't judge. Don't expect. Let it have its own path.
Make this part of your writing ritual.
Share your journey.
If you've ever been part of an office, faculty, or team, you've participated in energizers. These are quick activities that motivate or bond members of group. Funny thing is, many of them can be used to help you build your characters.
Consider: Two Truths and a Lie.
In this activity, members write down three facts about themselves. One is a lie. During the course of a meeting, day, or term, members get to know each other. After time, they might be able to pick out each other's lies. It's also a way to bond. You learn about things you have in common, or you learn things you simply didn't know about each other.
In your story, you can play this with your characters. Every character has a lie he believes about himself.
I'm incapable of love.
I am not a good friend.
I am perfect.
I cause trouble wherever I go.
As you develop your characters, think about what are the truths and what are the lies. Give life to each. See where they take the story and character. Who believes the lies? Who can't believe the truths? This will help develop other characters.
Know your characters before the story begins. What kind of lies would this type of person need to believe in order for the plot to develop the way you want it to? This helps build a real arc that develops naturally alongside the plot.
Study other novels. What lies did your favorite characters believe until they learned their lesson? FIGHT CLUB is probably one of the best stories where a character carries his lie deep into the story.
Share your thoughts. What are you working on now, and what lie does your character believe?
This past week, I've been taking a fine tooth comb to my current manuscript, sorting through the fodder to uncover the gold. It is a tedious task.
It reminds me of something author Shannon Hale said: Working on a first draft is like "shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles."
I believe at the end of this process, I will need a stronger eyeglass prescription. However, my pain is your gain. Each go through of the manuscript brings me closer to the story I want. I hope these tips are useful.
Here are five important items on my editing checklist.
1. Three or more read-throughs to flesh out the story. You don't really know your story until you get to the end. Sometimes the REAL story doesn't show for several read-throughs. The plot is not the story. Listen to Martin Scorsese explain this.
2. Pluck out filter words (see, watch, look, seem, like, feel, just, that, so, then, etc.). I go through my manuscript once for each of these. I might seek out more than a dozen filter words. Utilize your software's find/replace. (I keep a list of filter words on Scrivener's Scratch Pad.)
3. Review each character for consistency in tone, physical features, word choice, background, and history. That's a read-through for each. This might be another ten or twelve reads of the story, depending on the number of characters. Each time I read with that character in mind, I consider her arc and backstory; I view her as the hero of her own story. This will strengthen the entire novel.
4. Observe the settings for consistency in descriptions, distance irregularities, and vivid portrayals. Consider Hemingway and Steinbeck. Their settings become characters in their stories.
5. Review use of language. Look for: overuse of idioms, use of clichés (yikes!), inappropriate synonyms, repeated words, useless words. (This might take three times, but this is the heart of your writing. If you can master use of language in your manuscripts, you will write prose that flows like silk.)
One more: Read your story as someone else. First, you'll need to put your manuscript away for a week or two (more if you can bear it). Next, consider your readers; who are they? what do they look like? Embody that reader, and enjoy your story for the first time. The best way to do this is by downloading a word document and emailing it to your Kindle App. Reading your story on an eReader highlights things you might never notice on your laptop or desktop. (Beta readers and critique partners are great here, too.)
If you've been counting, you'll see I read through my manuscript up to thirty or more times. I never get bored. If I do, I need to go back and fix that.
I would love to hear what you have on your editing checklist. Please share below.