Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘acrostic’

I is for Inside the Covers

Book covers are important. They are the introduction to your book (This here cover may be a bit of visual schtick but you’re gonna love the actual performance – open up) and the invitation to your potential reader (The Author Invites You to Attend This Splendid Affair.) If you can’t do the art or photography yourself, find someone who can. Someone good – creative, imaginative, technically brilliant, and experienced. This post isn’t about book covers, however, but about what’s inside. If there’s something that really snags at a reader’s craw, it’s an intriguing book cover plastered over a story as feeble as dryer lint. Turns them off that author forever. (more…)

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H is for Hats Off for Helping Hands

Hat Off Monkey

Mom taught you to be gracious. She reminded you to say thank you and to write notes after birthday parties. Should you be so lucky, getting your book published is not the time to forget all the good habits she pounded into your head. Because let’s face it: your book did not get published without the generous attention of about a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other folks who dedicated their precious time to assisting you with your special project. Perhaps you slaved away in an ivory tower, unaware of the party outside your arched window as you struggled to tame and taunt your writing muse. Other folks traipsed up and down the narrow staircase, checking up on your progress, offering advice, reviewing your work until it was ready to be seen by the rest of the world. You got your book published because you created a masterpiece, but someone else out there in Writerland helped, and you know it. (more…)

G is for Gimme Something Good

I’m bartering commas, capital letters, and quotation marks – what’ll you give me in return? A better written story will do. Because if your name isn’t e.e. cummings, whose poetry famously forgot capital letters (and apparently, that ain’t even necessarily so,) or Michael Ondaatje, who eschews quotation marks round and about dialogue, or Alice Walker, whose The Color Purple revealed Celie’s emerging brilliance via her increasing grasp of written language, you’d better conform to common literary form. The road most traveled to publication is best paved with smooth asphalt and best lit with ordinary street lamps. In writing, we call these things everyday spelling, grammar, punctuation, and writing mechanics. I’m just saying: if a reader can’t find his way among the obstacle course of your creative constructions, maybe he’ll read something else. You know what they say then: “Oh darn.” (more…)

F is for Finding My Voice

Don’t know about you, but I’ve had a voice ever since I was born. A piercing sound box that I used to alert the armed forces that I was hungry or of other uncomfortable physical situations. I continued with that wail until I learned to speak, first with a decidedly New Jersey slur, not too dissimilar from the Southern drawl I later adopted the year I lived in Alabama and attended kindergarten. Even later I picked up a bit of pidgin from Hawaii when my family lived there for a few years. Finally I settled on California’s western twang after moving here on my 13th birthday and making it my permanent home except for three crazy years early in our marriage when we lived in Detroit. (Don’t ask, just don’t.)

My writer’s voice came in about as slowly and with as many distractions along the way as my baby and childish ones. I learned to speak and anticipate because I learned first to listen and observe. I even fidgeted when writing my first book with present tense versus simple past tense. Though this is not exactly the same thing, it does affect the writers’ voice. Fortunately I recognized that present tense is an awkward attempt to sound edgy and urgent while simple past covers content and character more comfortably. My developed writer’s voice sounds like my alter ego, notable for the realization that this is a desirable state and I should be so lucky to maintain my voice throughout my novels. Every writer reveals her voice in her work though the subject may be unique, book to book. It’s the way she observes landscape, the style of her sentence structure, and the grasp of dialogue.

Not a very specific strategy for defining the single most personality driven quality of our writing, is it? Confused? Shouldn’t be, because voice is as recognizable and distinct as other identifiable traits. After all, I’d know Beyoncé’s music from Taylor Swift’s even if they’re belting songs I’ve never heard. I can tell the difference between Beethoven’s rousing classical symphonies and the contemporary vernacular of Aaron Copeland’s ballets. I can distinguish impromptu jazz from free style rap no matter which I prefer (not telling you here.) I can look at a landscape painting of bold, thick oil strokes and declare it’s a Van Gogh, or at a delicate watercolor painting of an animal and know it’s by Albrecht Durer. Writing voice is not much different, though the characteristics of voice description are a bit more nebulous.  Maybe a bit harder to pinpoint, to fit into rigid templates, but still unique.

More important than being fluent at describing writing voice to comprehend the distinctions is being honest about presenting my voice in my writing. I learned early that I had to drop the pretense of mimicking Shakespeare, whose luminous and melodic voice I can’t assume on the best of my days, or Barbara Kingsolver, whose deft mind creates stories that stick with me years after I’ve read her books but whose masterful style eludes me. Still, I have begun to write with my own voice, a skill confirmed by readers in my critique group. It comes most vividly when I allow it to come most naturally, letting the material dictate my story and the way I present characters and plot.

Aspects of my writing style come to me from my crazy quilt background, not just the way I heard and adopted dialect when I was a kid, but the way I noted how people lived in different parts of the country, how they interacted with each other and conducted their lives. It came from the sights that lured me to explore the outdoors, from the smells that tempted me in the kitchen, from the various cultures across the country, and from my joy or distress over those experiences. I discovered that reading my WIP aloud gave me a sense of what was powerful: short sentences, driving hammer-like against steel nails. Or what was poetic: comparisons between unlikely subjects, forcing them to dance duets. Or what was insightful: drawing conclusions from mystery.

My voice is subjective, wet clay of my thoughts molded by my imagination. I hope my readers will love my voice. I’ll settle for them liking it, but I have to remain true to who I am or my story falls apart like broken pottery. My rhythm and syntax must engage my reader because let’s face it: as original as I try to be, as all writers try to be, there are only so many themes and plots out there. It’s the writer’s voice that seduces the reader. I mewled as an infant. Now I howl, I whisper, I recite, I shout, and I chant. Come read my work, come listen to the sound of my stories. Hear my voice.

C is for Critique Etiquette

You wrote an amazing book, absolutely the next great American novel that will be on every one of the Ivies’ freshman reading lists, and a blockbuster to boot. Everyone is gonna stand in line at Amazon check out to get their hands on the E version and download it onto their Kindle quick as Jack jumped over that candlestick and singed his tush. Every other writer is gonna burn red with envy and wonder why they didn’t write as magnificent a tome. It’s gonna set the world on fire, they’re gonna award you the Pulitzer in fiction, offer you a million bucks for the movie rights, and that’s just for starters. How do you know it’s so great? Because Mama done told you. Thanks, Mom. Always there for you.

Now get off that plastic star she hung in the backyard so you could always swing from something sparkly, and get that book of yours to a critique group. Let a bunch of raisin faced strangers have at your WIP and tell you what they really think of it. Because if you do submit to a crit group, they will tell you what’s what. And that’s a good thing, because your Mama, the sweet Georgia peach, needs glasses in more ways than one.

This isn’t an article about how a crit group might establish its bounds or how to start one or how sections are assigned to review. It’s to identify the etiquette of being in such a group of writing mentors, to take a minute to consider the rules of the crit playground. It’s to show you how to get the most out of joining in terms of participating and improving your writing. A group’s governing purpose is to bash the heck out of your efforts to point out the strengths and weaknesses of your work so you can improve it before you send it out to editor-land. It might keep your work out of the slush pile and get it slapped up on an agent’s desk. Yahoo!

Remember the other thing Mama always said: make good choices. Join for the right reasons. Crit groups aren’t for the overly sensitive; that kid will walk out sobbing, a drooling puddle of self righteousness, defending his mediocre work all the way to the rejection list. Groups aren’t counseling sessions; if you need to evaluate your life and justify bad decisions, sign up with a mental health group. If you write and want useful, honest feedback about your work, and are willing to provide the same for other members, that’s the reason for joining.

It’s a two way street at these meetings. You need to show up as a reviewer as well as a writer, putting as much effort into each activity. It’s your unwritten contract. You don’t get to be the star at every meeting. Most of the time you’ll be the laborer, putting in a lot of time pruning someone else’s work. Reading another person’s work lets you see the understructure of a WIP. The hidden benefit of this is that it will ultimately help you improve your own writing as you struggle to evaluate and then express your ideas. Listening to other reviewers discuss other stories is another opportunity to determine what people find commendable and what reads as clumsy. You’ll identify the errors you also make, giving you a chance to correct it before you ever present it to new readers. At the end of a session, you’ll have learned much even if your work wasn’t evaluated.

If your crit group submits work a week or a month in advance so everyone has time before the meeting to read it and prepare a crit, spend a reasonable amount of time doing just that. If work is presented at the meeting, two to five pages read aloud by the writer, listen attentively and take notes so you can offer valid advice. If you’ve joined an on-line group, you’ll have plenty of time to read and prep a review. These are three standard options and you’ll develop a preference for one or the other based on how much worthy information you’re able to glean.

As you make your evaluation of someone else’s work, consider the quality and determine how well the author achieved his goal. Think about everything you know about how to write and everything you enjoy when reading. You might write out your review, but don’t try to rewrite the work. It’s still the brain child of that other writer. Remember that his Mama also thought his work was genius so be polite and supportive. Couch your comments with a balance of what you found effective, creative, impressive, and what you THINK could be improved. It’s OK to point out grammar and spelling flaws, but know that these may be indications of some kind of dyslexia and are not a lack of intelligence. Modulate your voice and understand that the world won’t rotate on your evaluation. Be humble, truthful, compassionate, contributive, and honest. And this last is perhaps the most important: Mama didn’t come with you to the meeting, but her advice should have. If you don’t have anything nice to say – well, you know the rest. Be 100% absolutely sure that you say something nice, something positive and appreciative about the work you are critiquing. That’s a human being at the other end of your review, and that person has feelings as sensitive as yours.

Stay on the topic of reviewing the story at hand and refrain from wandering to other topics related only by the fact that something the writer wrote triggered a personal memory for you. Very nice, we’re all happy for you, but keep it to yourself. If you dislike the kind of meandering review that has little time to address the concerns of your story, know that other writers are just as frustrated under similar circumstances. If it isn’t your time to talk, remember another of Mom’s rules: be quiet.

When you’re on the hot seat and it’s your turn to present work for review, submit only your very best work, neatly presented, as perfect as possible, but note that readers are going to find flaws. As the group gives their crits of your work, listen politely and save the rolling eyes, the looks of disdain, the angry outbursts, the sputtering, and the tears for when you’re back in Mom’s kitchen. At the meeting, listen attentively and take notes. Don’t interrupt. These nice people spent two or three hours alone in a dark room with your WIP, trying to get it to stand up straight. That’s a big commitment for a kid that isn’t theirs. Being in a crit group is a reminder that it takes a village to raise a child – and to write a book.

There is certainly a social element to being part of a crit group. We writers spend long hours in front of our computers, composing our stories, creating our plots, imagining our worlds. It’s solitary work at the back of a dark closet. Having a chance to get together with a group of like-minded folk and talk about the subject that empowers and impassions you is like being prom queen – or class clown, take your pick. Whether an on-line group or an in-person one (my preference,) it’s a wonderful chance to chat with people who don’t think you’re crazy when they spot you tooling down the highway, practicing your presentation out loud. It gets you out of the house on a regular basis and gives your computer a chance to catch up on its email.

There’s a third part of the contract, the one you instigate when you get home. First, do what Mama says and wipe those stupid tears off your face. Then sit down and do your homework. The WIP wasn’t perfect – that’s the reason you went to the crit group, remember? Because Mama is always there to pat your back, but the crit group has your back in a different way. Review the entire experience, reading the notes you took at the meeting and the hard copies the “critters” gave you. Make the changes necessary to improve your book. This is a crucial part of the critique group process because if you disdainfully skip this, you just wasted not only the hours spent at the meeting, you also wasted all those hours the other members graciously worked on your behalf. It’s like the time you threw Mama’s hard work at raising you in her face by walking out the door looking and smelling like you lived in a rat’s nest at the end of the alley. Trust me, Mom didn’t forget that one.

You give, you get, and if there isn’t a relatively commensurate relationship in the group, look for another one. This post grew out of my participation in my writer’s critique group. I am still learning how to be a better critter and a better hot-seater, but the more than 10 years’ advice I’ve gleaned from that generous and tough group has exponentially helped me improve three WIP. I am deeply grateful for their sage advice and hope you are as fortunate in joining such an outstanding group. One last little bit of wisdom: when you finally get that WIP polished and ready for publication, remember the people in your crit group and acknowledge all the hours they spent with your unruly baby. Give them a shout out on the acknowledgement page and mention every single person by their full name, right after Mom’s.

In the end you’ll still be following Mama’s sage advice: Keep your mouth shut, have an open mind, and make the best of everything.

B is for Blog Newbie

Computer mouseI have the reputation of a coward. Among my family and friends who know me well, it’s understood that I don’t have the courage of a mouse on Meth. I’m not just afraid of the dark – I’m afraid of the tunnel with light glowing at its end. Some of my worst fears have to do with mechanical, technical, and digital tasks. Assign me one of those and I’m ready to sign any and all confessions, just don’t make me tackle that job. I fear the knobs and buttons that if wrongly pushed will drop me in the sinkhole below China, especially if the knobs and buttons are icons on a computer screen. Those things terrorize me the most. I might be forever drifting on an unsaved page or trapped in the netherworld of lost passwords.

I am what’s known as a Digital Immigrant, Ha Ha Ha. Ha Ha Ha is part of the title, like LLP might dangle after the business name, Simon and Green, Accountants, LLP. (For efficiency’s sake, I’ll refer to Digital Immigrant as DI.) After all, I was born in the last century. Don’t snort at my bad joke. You may have been born in the last century as well, but just think: everyone born since 2000 is a Digital Native, or DN. Thirteen-year-olds are likely more proficient with a computer than I will ever be. So you can imagine the loud guffaws from my wise family when I announced that I was going to create a writer’s blog.

DI uses the computer for the obvious purpose – it’s the virtual graphite on the end of the Dixon Ticonderoga HTTP, and she is a writer. DI launches her own blog (dreamer.) I wonder what happens if I click on that? Oh crap! DI crashes the computer. DI is on the prowl for computer help. I beg of you, please stop laughing and help me out here. The DN finds me an endless source of computer humor because I know little more than how to open a new document. Any teenagers in the house?

I’ve discovered that trying to manage my own blog site when I have the technical intuition of a newt is like sifting seaweed out of the ocean with a sieve. Barely doable, mostly a failure. WordPress is the management system for my blog. I function at its pleasure like a pop-eyed fan hoping for a sweaty shirt thrown from the stage during a concert.  Throw me a clue, WordPress, show me how to navigate your site. While other bloggers know what to click and what to double click, I’m a fumbler at every feature on the way to posting articles, comments, and images. Any successful post you read on my site – either my son or my good friend J uploaded them. I watched but the process is still not clear to me. I need lots of practice, like a novice heart surgeon needs a patient patient. Neither of us is likely to get a lot of volunteers.

So please be patient with me as I grow Ink Flare. My writing skills and insights are decent (so my mom says) but my computer technology is a work in process. You will see mistakes as I learn to post, edit, insert images, reply, attach, acknowledge contributors. Don’t hesitate to point out the errors. If you want to offer a solution, I’m all ears, eyes, and thumbs, eager to try harder. I won’t give up. My dreams are big and I’m positive light will shine at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve got a colander and I’m off to collect moonlight to light up my tunnel.

A is for Anticipating My First Year

Alphabet SoupHere begins The Alphabet of a New Blog with my first entry, A is for Anticipating My First Year.

A blog is short for “web log,” an individually driven discussion forum available on the World Wide Web where nearly everyone in the cosmos can tune in to a yak farmer in Outer Mongolia to learn the craft of making yak butter, or to an Inuit hunter on the North Slope of Alaska to admire a sled maneuvering over sea ice. The word individual suggests that anyone can instigate a blog, for any reason, and hope to reach the eyes and minds of everyone out there in Computer Land. That’s just about everyone everywhere except the aboriginal tribes of the rain forests of the Amazon. Them we should leave alone. If you own or can borrow a computer and an Internet connection, you can communicate regularly with people you don’t know and don’t owe any money to. In democratic fashion, even with people to whom you do owe money.

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