Tag Archives: poetry

Three Aliens Walk into a Writers Retreat

A guest post by Travis Heermann.

SotRCover-tinyOne of the aliens sounds like William Shakespeare having an argument with Sylvia Plath. Another speaks in long expositions resembling Montaigne and Thoreau. And the third speaks like Willy Loman in a Michael Bay action movie….

The fiction writers hunched over their scribing tools snort with derision and go back into their own little worlds.

Except for one writer with a curious ear. To her, these babbling aliens at first sound like they’re speaking gibberish, but then she feels their groove, slides into it, and considers going along for the ride. She joins them at the bar, orders a round of Jagermeister shots, and pretty soon, she finds her mind expanding, new thoughts she might write down, new skills with cadence and alliteration she can’t wait to try.

The other writers, crabbed and snarling over their opus works, snort again with derision, now toward her. She smiles at them and–after the Jagermeister hangover–returns to her work with renewed vigor.

Those aliens represent other genres of literature and creativity—poetry, creative non-fiction, and plays for stage and screen.

Let’s try another metaphor.

Any yoga instructor, personal trainer, or fitness expert will tell you that you’re better off building core strength and large muscle groups than overemphasizing a single muscle. Although writers generally do not grace the cover of Muscle Head and Yoga Goddess magazines and find the word svelte a curiosity rather than a self-description, we can benefit from similar advice.

There are few things more frustrating to fiction writers than having an idea in your head for a story and being unable to pull it off in a way that feels like you did justice to the idea. We often finish something and wonder if we have somehow come up short, whether it be in terms of sentence structure, diction, poetic lyricism, organization, characterization–or in other words, all the multitude of disparate but related tools that we need to be successful as artists. Maybe our tool box needs a few more things in it.

This post can be summed up thusly: studying any genre of writing can make you a better fiction writer. The more genres you master, the more options in your toolbox.

When I say genre, I don’t mean urban fantasy versus historical romance. I’m talking about fiction versus poetry, creative non-fiction, plays for stage and screen, etc.

All of these different genres bring some specific skills to the fiction-writing game.

Poetry. You don’t have to love it all, any more than you have to love all kinds of novels or short stories. You’re free to take what you want and leave the rest. But nothing will flex the word, rhythm, and symbolism muscles like poetry. Some of it will make you groan and shake your head. Some of it you will seize upon and savor and squish around on your tongue like a mouthful of blackberries. Absorb enough of it, and it will make your prose sing out from the page without any music; it will make its own. It will show you connections and metaphors and plumb the depths of pathos like nothing else can. It’s also a crash course in economy of language.

Creative Non-fiction. A catch-all term for memoir, personal essay, narrative non-fiction, and the like, creative non-fiction can open internal doors. If you’re like me, you may not know exactly how you feel about something until you write about it. We can look at our own lives, current events, people who touch us. Creative non-fiction lets us examine who we are, flex that internal dialogue muscle, the one that lets us “get at something.” It also comes in a variety of amusing and experimental, innovative forms, as evidenced by writers like David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace respectively. In the Writing Excuses podcast, Brandon Sanderson and Mette Ivie Harrison discuss this topic at length.

Stage and Screenplays. Both formats force writers to focus on character and dialogue in ways that fiction sometimes lets slide. In fiction, you can write a paragraph of character introspection. Scripts do not allow this, forcing you to write only what is said and what can be seen. There is also little time to dally with dialogue. Most films have a limit of 120 pages (at one minute per page), so it is critical that dialogue does double- or triple-duty—advancing action, conveying character, and revealing subtext all at the same time. Study the best dialogue, and you’ll see subtext in action.

Likewise, your fiction writing skill cross-pollinates with these other genres. General baseline skills with grammar and spelling only improve with practice, no matter the genre in which you’re writing. So, branch out! Fill your tool box with as many wrenches, whatsits, whirlibobs as you can. Try your hand at poetry, or a stage play, or essays. You may find your fiction taking some surprising quantum leaps.

Plus, isn’t it more fun to be one of the aliens?

Guest Writer Bio:
HeermannPhotoFreelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin TrilogyThe Wild Boysand Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Weird Tales, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online. He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.For interviews about the Writing Life, check out his Author Interview Series at the Ronin Writer: http://travisheermann.com/blog/

What Can a Poet Say to a Fiction Writer About Writing?

Guest Post by Bob Stallworthy

Bob stallworthyI can hear you all now, “What does a poet know about writing fiction?” At one time I might have agreed with you. However, I’ve begun to wonder whether the lines that divide fiction from poetry are more blurred than I thought they were.

Let’s start with the obvious: poets and fiction writers both use words to get their information, images, impressions, across to the reader. I have often heard fiction writers say, “Yes, a poet has to be so careful with word choice. Poetry is harder to write.”

American poet, essayist, non-fiction writer, Robert Bly, once told an audience of young writers that fiction entered the body through the ear and poetry entered through the heart. Before you stomp off in a huff, let’s think about this for a minute. How often have you read a poem or heard one read, and before you are really conscious of hearing it, you have reacted to it? As if something shadow soft had passed over and then through you. Then you begin to think about the words you heard. And, how often have you read a good piece of fiction and found yourself relishing the words and then the images and emotions they have created? My question then is, aren’t the fiction writers being just as careful about their word choices? If they aren’t they should be. Good fiction, just like good poetry, has a lot to do with using precisely the right word in the right place in the line. And, speaking of the right place in the line and in the right line, when we get this right we get the image we want that makes the reader say, “Wow! I never thought of it like that before.” Isn’t that what we, as writers, want?

Part of what will make the reader’s eyes go wide open and whisper that wished for line is an interesting use of rhythm. Oh sure, it is really important in poetry, you say. And, yes it is. I used to say that free verse poetry had no rhythm and no rhyme. I was only partially correct. It often has no rhyme. It does have rhythm – the rhythm of the language. It is there in fiction too.  As a fiction writer you can use that rhythm to your advantage.

Rhythm may be obvious in a poem and not so obvious when it comes to fiction. How do you hear the rhythm when Bob S 2writing fiction? The same way one does when writing poetry. Read the piece out loud. Get into the habit of doing this. Look for the ebb and flow. If you do, it will help to carry the reader away on your words. By the way, it will help you with your public performances.

Rhythm is just one component that goes into a poem or a piece of fiction. As a fiction writer you already know what the other elements are that must be in your fiction – plot, setting, character, crisis, resolution, etc. But, the question which comes at some point is, whether you write fiction or poetry, “Is this any good?”

First of all, I would like to suggest that the use of the terms good and bad, works or doesn’t work, get dropped from the vocabulary. These are value judgements which sidetrack the discussion into the realm of personal taste. You can spend a lot of time in that realm and get no useful information about the writing.

Years ago, I found a hierarchy created by American writer and critic, James Dickey. The hierarchy is based on his reaction as a reader to a piece of poetry. I suggest that these statements apply equally well to fiction:

Lowest level: This probably isn’t true and even if it is, I couldn’t care less.
Next level up: This is probably true, and therefore I react to it differently than I did the first level.

Third level: This is probably true, but so what –

Best level: Not only is this true, but it is with a truth I would not have reached on my own had I not read this piece of writing.

Some writers dislike the idea of a hierarchy when it comes to assessing writing. Perhaps you would prefer to consider a number of questions which are used to illicit the reaction of the reader. I encountered these questions as a member of a poetry group facilitated by poet, essayist, professor, Richard Harrison. The following questions are adapted from Writing with Power, Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process by Peter Elbow. Within our poetry group, the poet presents his/her poem and then asks the group members some or all of the following depending on what the poet wants to know:

–  what did you notice?
–  what connections did you make?
–  what questions were you left with after you finished reading?
–  were there places where you left? i.e. your mind wandered
–  where did you stop reading?
–  were there places where you agreed, disagreed, argued?

Bob S 4I can’t help wondering if these questions apply equally well to fiction. For example, “Where did you stop reading?” translates into “Where did you close the book and put it back on the shelf or in the box for the book sale?”

Whether you write fiction or poetry, there is always the pesky question of, “How do I know this is done?” I leave you with some thoughts that, again, I have learned in Harrison’s poetry group:

–  a poem is the dramatization of a single voice
–  a short story is the dramatization of a character
–  a novel is the dramatization of a world

If the above is so, then a poem is complete when the voice has said all there is to say that will add to the understanding of the reader/listener.

A short story and a novel are similarly finished when nothing is left that the reader/listener needs to know in order to understand the character or the world.

Can fiction writers and poets learn from one another? I certainly hope so. I have been doing so for most of my writing career. Thank you to Ace Jordyn for inviting me to put some of my thoughts together for this blog. I hope the ideas are of some help.


Bob Stallworthy has four books of poetry published and one non-fiction e-book, In Silhouette: Profiles of Alberta Writers,  which is hosted on the Frontenac House website. His latest book of poetry, Things that Matter Now, Frontenac House, 2009 is in its second printing.  Bob’s poetry has been short-listed for the W.O.Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize twice and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry once. He is co-recipient of the 2002 Calgary Freedom of Expression Award. He is also a Lifetime member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta.

Link on Frontenac House website: http://frontenachouse.com/?s=Stallworthy&submit=Search+Site

Rebecca Shelley: Facing the Blank Page

Guest Post by Rebecca Shelley

I went skydiving once. It was a thrilling experience, one I hope to get the chance to do again soon. Ever since then, one moment of the whole experience has stuck out in my mind, that is the moment I stepped up to the open door on the airplane and looked down at the ground so many thousands of feet below me.

 The wind whipped my face, stinging my cheeks, and my stomach dropped to my toes. I knew I had to jump, but every instinct screamed that I should not. My instinct for self preservation had kicked in, and if I had listened, I would have missed out on one of the most exciting adventures of my life.

Fortunately I was jumping in tandem with an instructor, which means our harnesses were hooked together. He didn’t hesitate, so I couldn’t hesitate either. Together, we thrust ourselves from the plane and fell.

If you’re a writer you’ve probably experienced something similar to that moment before I jumped out of the plane-the stomach-dropping moment of opening a new file and facing the blank page. Even if you’re an experienced writer like I am and have faced that same blank page every morning for thirty years, there is still that flash moment of uncertainty. The desire for self preservation that makes you hesitate, wondering am I good enough, can I put into words the story that is swirling in my mind, what will my readers think of this, what will the reviewers or the critics say?

I’m sorry to say this moment of consternation that comes with the blank page doesn’t go away over time, the more things you published even, the more this feeling can intensify. It feels like so much is at stake and it would take almost inhuman courage to just get writing. If you’re feeling this way, it may (or may not) help to know the feeling is normal. Here’s what I do to combat it.


 Jump. Stop staring at the blank page, stop taking in the dizzying height and jump. When you first open the blank page, jump into writing as fast as you can. When I first start writing in the morning, I put my hands on the keyboard and start typing whatever comes into my head, which usually turns out to be a selfish rant about everything bugging my in my life for example:

(My carpet is terrible, I need new carpet, and paint and furniture, my stove won’t even work. I don’t dare let people come to my house until I can get it all fixed up but I don’t have money for that because all the money goes to pay school fees and medical stuff and car repairs ack. I can’t even deal with the money issue right now and I really really hate my carpet.)

My initial jump onto the page completely ignores spelling and punctuation. All I’m doing is jumping, getting my hands moving on the computer keys.

Then gradually as I type I run out of things to rant about and can start typing my feelings and impressions about the book I’m working on or about to work on. Random ideas about character, things I think I need to go back and change, how I want the scene to go. Words I might want to use in describing the setting.

At this point I’ve already jumped out of the plane and experienced free fall. Now, I pull the chute and it opens, slowing my descent. By writing about the book or scene, I’m creating a parachute which I can control and steer toward the landing spot on the ground.

That landing spot, the place where my feet touch ground, is the point where I’m fully engaged in the point of view of the character in the scene I’m working on. I’ve left behind my real life and all its problems as I fell and worked my way into the life and problems of my character and am ready to live the book I’m writing.

So here’s my challenge to myself and everyone out there facing the blank page. Jump!

For those of you who take my challenge, I’m offering a free copy of my latest ebook Wings and the White Horse. Just email me at rebeccashelley at rebeccashelley dot com with your jump story, and I’ll give you a coupon code for the book.

Ode to a Blank Page

By Rebecca Shelley

So beautiful

Clean and White

Unsmudged by ink and its offenses

You stare at me

I stare at you

Eye to eye

Daring each other to blink

What muse would thrust the first stroke of words?

What writer would dare to pour heart-pumped blood onto the page?

Knowing that no critique can despise the empty white

No reviewer can chastise the unwritten word

I stand on the brink, trembling with uncertainty

And you, oh daunting nemesis, taunt me

Questioning my skill and courage

With the weight of Atlas on my fingers

I reach for the keyboard and strike


Rebecca Shelley is the author of over 27 books, including the best selling Smartboys Club series, and the beloved Dragonbound series. Her latest book, Wings and the White Horse, celebrates her love of flying.

Wings and the White Horse

After her father dies, Jolain Thomas must decide whether to pursue the career her father set out for her or follow her lifelong dream to become a professional pilot. Gathering her courage, she chooses her dream but falls into the clutches of a desperate kidnapper. Now she must battle her fears and fly through a dangerous storm if she is to survive and save the kidnapped baby.

Includes a bonus short story, “Magic Works,” in which a line of magical housecleaning products causes mayhem.