Semi-finalist in Mary Ballard Chapbook Contest (Casey Shay Press)

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          Ok, for the past month I’ve been vacationing in Southeast Asia–Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore–and I just got back to Vancouver last night and already I had some good news waiting for me…

          I made the SEMI-FINALS for the Mary Ballard Poetry Chapbook Prize, put on by Casey Shay Press! This is a BIG deal for me because…

          1. The contest itself is free, so they get MANY entries. All of those were narrowed down to 161 books in the quarter-finals, and now, in the semi-finals, the list has shrunk again to the top 41! It’s getting super exciting and three finalists will be chosen from those in the next two weeks or so. Then… gulp… ONE winner!

          2. Their chapbooks are beautifully printed. Seven Times to Leave and Uncommon Clay, their winners from the past two years, have a high quality of poetry and gorgeous covers, too.

          3. The winner gets his or her book printed, and I’m really hoping to have a collection of poetry I can have on offer for my readers. Family, friends, tweeps, Writing 12 aficionados, students past and present, and colleagues have been very supportive. After winning both the SIWC and PNWA poetry contests,  I feel the quality of my poetry is now ready for book publication. This would be a collection I would be more than happy to let people know about!

          While I would be doing-backflips-through-flaming hoops excited (!) to win this one, I also want to encourage other poets to keep this contest on their “submit to” list. I know it’ll make the contest even more difficult to win in future years, but I do feel that the fine folks at Casey Shay deserve the shout out for what they’re doing. The story behind the ORIGINS of the contest is also inspiring, and you can find it here: The Story of Mary Ballard

          Well, it’s 5:06 a. m. here, so, I think I’ll sign off for now. Please keep your fingers, toes–anything really–crossed for me as they select their three finalists in the coming few weeks! Love always, from

ace baker

micro POETRY: It’s anything but…

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          Want to sharpen up your writing skills? Give micro-poetry a try.

          People slam Twitter, but the truth is, it’s very difficult to put a lot of meaning into a very short space, and Tweeps can be very creative in how they do it. 140 characters is not a lot when it comes to crafting a poem.

          I write a lot of poetry, most of it highbrow and literary, aimed at some university journal or other. But here’s what Twitter does for me daily that my other writing cannot:

1. It gives me immediate feedback, something I just don’t get anywhere else. Immediate comments, especially from those who DON’T follow you (yet) can be encouraging. Of course, when you write a poem and NO ONE responds, you know it landed short.

2. You can play OFF other people’s poems, have poetry exchanges, like this one I recently had with Nocturne @AmaranthEyes:

Nocturne:

An empty room, I’m empty too

And everything reminds me of you.

Ace @WriterAceBaker:

Nothing speaks your name

and yet

everything shouts

it, when I visit empty

spaces

that used to be filled

with the two of us.

3. Give your editor the boot, for a moment or two. These kinds of exchanges happen fairly quickly–you don’t want 500 tweets in between to let the opportunity die, after all–so you’re forced to leave that editor inside your brain alone, and just get some words down. I’ve had back-and-forth exchanges that involved ten poems or more, and within that space, there are definitely some lines that came to mind that will spark other work too.

4. Play within a short form. I’ve had haiku exchanges, six-word challenges, five-line forms, and everything in between. If you want rules, you can impose rules on the 140 characters and make it even MORE challenging!

Try this:

If you’re looking for a way to start, first sign up for a Twitter account (if you don’t already have one) and then look at what some micro-poet wordcrafters do. Here’s a PARTIAL list of people to check out to get an idea of the depth:

@AmaranthEyes * @CarolTurner5 * @poetofbedford * @ShePlaysLoud * @PSuzieqR * @LittleJadeBird * @_megankay_ * @Magenta_Nero * @Jacqueline_Czel * @perlygates @ * @elle0quent_lady * @_Valkyria_ * @beezknez * @catherin03 * @twigsandhearts * @NiluferYM * @allforgiving2

…and many, many others. My apologies to those I’ve missed mentioning.

Find a micro-poem that someone has written, one that speaks to you, and don’t think about it–respond to it with a short poem of your own!

Title Generator #002: More titles for your poetry and prose !

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          Yesterday, I mentioned a mashup method for creating unique titles. Here’s a second, and I’ll use the same book as my resource as an example (Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia). You, of course, can use any anthology that might be sitting on your bookshelf.

          Purely on a whim, and since the book contained 77 female poets, I decided to pick a seventh word from a poem from every writer. Each writer had more than one poem, so I could easily avoid dead words like a, an, the, that, and so on.

          Here’s a partial list of the words I found:

* still * mind * dark * rivers * eyes * skin * beneath * desperate * curse * bedroom * hiss * lying * watching * falls * bridge * underworld * branch * flood * rhapsody * horizon * good-bye* paper * stare * hooded * lovely * gallows * . . .

          Then, just like I did yesterday, I search for interesting mashups or pairings:

STILL MINDS ; DARK DESPERATION; DARK MINDS; THE RIVER’S EYES; PAPER CURSES; BENEATH THE BRIDGE . . .

          These are a few titles that sparked from about 1/3 of the words I pulled from that book. Imagine the combinations that are possible with all of them!

Try this:

          Find a short story, essay, or poetry anthology, and choose every Nth (pick your favorite number) word from a variety of them. See what surprising combinations you can come up with!

Title generator #001: Great titles for your poetry or prose!

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          One way to jolt your creativity is to come up with a list of new titles for pieces you HAVEN’T written yet. One way to do that is to make a mashup of OTHER titles. For instance, I recently bought a copy of Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia. Here’s a bit of the math I did with some of the titles, to give you an idea:

East Side Diary + Visit to My Mother’s Grave = DIARY FROM THE GRAVE

Something Lost + Recipe for a Sidewalk = SOMETHING FOR A SIDEWALK or RECIPE for GETTING LOST

Schizophrenic + First Love = SCHIZOPHRENIC LOVE

Here’s a list of some other titles I created yesterday, using this approach. See something you like?

Red Earth * Gift in Exile * Mechanical Man * When I Have My Accident * Body God * Ladder Hunting * Seven Lines About Sex * Long Explanations * Midnight Sculptor * Beware of the Bottom * Found Dog * The Blue Song * Secret Machine * Sin Rituals * Tourist Omens * Singing at the Dumpster * Death Spa * At the Edge of Two * Pinhole Paths * A Notion of Flow * Secrets of Glass

What I appreciate about this approach is that it brings together words I might not normally THINK of combining, which leads to unique ideas about the stories they might tell or the poems they may inspire.

Try this:

Two things to try today:

1. Choose one of the titles in red above and come up with a poem or the beginning of a piece of prose that might have that as its header.

2. Find an anthology and do a mashup of titles of your own. Aim to come up with at least ten!

Coming tomorrow: Another strange technique for generating title ideas!

8 ways to connect to your creativity , from The Portable MFA

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          The following 8 ways to connect to your creativity come from The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, by The New York Writers Workshop (pp. 204-205):

1. Read a newspaper and free-write about something you find there.

2. Write a letter to an old lover. (Don’t send it.)

3. Do a physical activity you’ve never tried before.

4. Say no to plans with someone who bores the heck out of you.

5. Read one of your favorite poems aloud five times, choose one phrase from it, and use it as a springboard for free-writing.

6. Look at family photographs. Imagine the photo that was never taken. What might it have revealed? Write about it.

7. Use persona as a writing tool. Choose either a stranger you saw during the course of the day or someone you know well. Make up (or remember) a childhood event in that person’s life. Imagine how he would tell it. Write it down.

8. Write about what makes you uncomfortable.

Try this:

Challenge yourself to do at least two of the eight suggestions above (but hey, the more the merrier!). Here’s hoping it sparks some ideas for you!

Starter for you and your writing: Take it from here!

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           Ok, I’ve had a marvelous time in Phuket, Thailand, and soon I’ll be off to Malacca, Malaysia. In the meantime, it’s time to get back to the writing. Here’s a starter to get us going this week…

First, read this beginning from “River of Toys,” by Edward Allen:

I love to walk with my eyes closed. At night, coming back to my apartment from work, there are almost no cars on the road, and I can walk and walk until I hear a car coming up behind me, or until I see through my closed eyelids the light of one coming toward me. . .

Try this:

Continue the scene, showing what MAKES him open his eyes THIS time!

 

 

 

 

Nonfiction openings #005: Life bites back!

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          First, read the following opening:

KILLING MY BODY TO SAVE MY MIND, by Lauren Slater, from Elle

My blood is in a blender. It’s just about the only bit of brightness in this drab office of a life insurance company that, before betting on my body, wants to sample its various fluids. First, it was urine in a tiny pleated cup, and now in some sort of centrifuge, my blood. It begins circling slowly, before picking up speed and whipping around until, at last, the lipids separate from the fresh red liquid and rise to the top. That’s cholesterol I’m seeing, a custardy yellow substance that reminds me of the pudding my mother used to make. Damn my mother! It’s her cakes and tarts and tortes that have put me in this position, which is precisely…what? I’m a forty-plus fatso with a penchant for Belgian waffles. In truth, though, it’s neither my mother nor the waffles that are responsible for my body’s breakdown….

“Do you think they’ll insure me?” I ask the phlebotomist as we both peer at my spinning blood and the lipids lining its surface.

 Effective opening, yes?  Here’s why:

1.      Strong opening.  The first sentence contains two strong words we don’t normally see together: “blood” and “blender.”

2.      PATHOS. Even though the woman doesn’t seem to have any self-control, and even though she tries putting the blame on her mother for a brief moment, we still care for her. She’s having a personal battle with food, and the stakes are so high that she may not even be allowed to buy life insurance because of her current state of health. Life insurance isn’t for her—it’s for her family in case she passes away early—some money to make sure they’re taken care of, at least for a little while, after their main income-earner has passed away.

Try this:

Keep in mind that the passage above is nonfiction. It’s a sad state when your life and your future are in other people’s hands. For today, create another scenario, a completely different situation, where that exact thing happens.

Coming tomorrow: Traveling. I’m unsure if I’ll have Internet access for the next four days or not…stay tuned!

Nonfiction beginnings #004: When reality hits hard!

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First, read…

THE BITCH IS BACK, by Sandra Tsing Loh, from The Atlantic

During menopause, a woman can feel like the only way she can continue to exist for ten more seconds inside her crawling, burning skin is to walk screaming into the sea—grandly, epically, and terrifyingly, like a fifteen-foot-tall Greek tragic figure wearing a giant, pop-eyed wooden mask. Or she may remain in the kitchen and begin hurling objects at her family: telephones, coffee cups, plates. Or, as my mother did in the 1970s, she may just eerily disappear into her bedroom, like a tide washing out—curtains drawn, door locked, dead to the world, for days, weeks, months (some moms went silent for years). Oh, for a tribal cauldron to dive into, a harvest moon to howl at, or even an online service that provides—here’s an idea!—demon gypsy lovers.

But no, this is twenty-first-century America, so there is no ancient womyn’s magic for us but rather, as usual for female passages, a stack of medically themed self-help books.

 

In Loh’s opening above, notice all the imagery and concrete details she uses. She doesn’t only want us to UNDERSTAND or have pathos for menopausal women, she wants us to EXPERIENCE the same feelings ourselves, even if we’re male! “Crawling, burning skin,” “walk screaming into the sea,” and even “eerily disappear” put us directly into the situation. We know the person doesn’t know how or if she can deal with it for even a minute more, and, not wanting contact with others, she disappears into the bedroom, “like a tide washing out.” She’s washed out by the intense physical, psychological and emotional pressure she’s been surviving (so far).

Try this:

Take an extreme emotion and think of an activity or situation that may cause it. Then PILE in the images making the readers feel those intense moments themselves…

Coming tomorrow: Our final day, 5 of 5, of nonfiction openings that can give you ideas for your fiction and narrative poetry…

Nonfiction beginnings #003: Sarcasm to the ultimate!

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          In the following passage, watch how Mark Edmundson creates a long buildup, lulls us into what we expect to hear–and then snaps us out of it in an instant!

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? by Mark Edmundson, in The Oxford American

Welcome and congratulations: getting to the first day of college is a major achievement. You’re to be commended, and not just you, but the parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts who helped get you here.

It’s been said that raising a child effectively takes a village: well, as you may have noticed, our American village is not in very good shape. We’ve got guns, drugs, two wars, fanatical religions, a slime-based popular culture, and some politicians who—a little restraint here—aren’t what they might be. To merely survive in this American village and to win a place in the entering class has taken a lot of grit on your part. So yes, congratulations to all.

You now may think that you’ve about got it made. Amidst the impressive college buildings, in company with a high-powered faculty, surrounded by the best of your generation, all you need is to keep doing what you’ve done before: work hard, get good grades, listen to your teachers, get along with the people around you, and you’ll emerge in four years as an educated young man or woman. Ready for life.

Do not believe it. It is not true. If you want to get a real education in America, you’re going to have to fight—and I don’t mean just fight against the drugs and the violence and against the slime-based culture that is still going to surround you. I mean something a little more disturbing. To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be.

Try this:

Notice how the writer starts with cliché speeches almost all teens and young adults have heard at one time or another. Then he challenges these commonly held beliefs.

Write the beginning for a piece about what parents THINK they know about teenagers, and then make the challenge…!

Coming tomorrow: Day 4 (of 5) of nonfiction openings: when reality hits hard!

Nonfiction openings #002: “The Good Short Life” by Dudley Clendinen

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As you read the following introduction, keep in mind that it is NONFICTION:

THE GOOD SHORT LIFE, by Dudley Clendinen, from The New York Times Sunday Review

I have wonderful friends. In this last year, one took me to Istanbul. One gave me a box of handcrafted chocolates. Fifteen of them held two rousing, pre-posthumous wakes for me. Several wrote large checks. Two sent me a boxed set of all the Bach sacred cantatas. And one, from Texas, put a hand on my thinning shoulder, and appeared to study the ground where we were standing. He had flown in to see me.

“We need to go buy a pistol, don’t we?” he asked quietly. He meant to shoot myself with.

“Yes, Sweet Thing,” I said, with a smile. “We do.”

I loved him for that.

 

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what the rest of the article is about and how it will all end? Clendinen doesn’t hold back anything here, and neither should you…

Try this:

For today, continue writing the story above. Of course, yours will be fiction, but try to keep the same energy that Clendinen has created in his prose. Tomorrow, I’ll give you another paragraph so you can see what was going on here, but for today, WRITE THAT SCENE!

Coming tomorrow: Day three of nonfiction beginnings to inspire your writing!

Nonfiction openings #001: “You Owe Me,” by Miah Arnold

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I’ll begin this week’s look at nonfiction openings with a tear-jerker from Miah Arnold:

YOU OWE ME, by Miah, Arnold, from Michigan Quarterly Review

The children I write with die, no matter how much I love them, no matter how creative they are, no matter how many poems they have written or how much they want to live. They die of diseases with unpronounceable names, of rhabdomyosarcoma or pilocytic astrocytoma, of cancers rarely heard of in the world at large, of cancers that are often cured once, but then turn up again somewhere else: in their lungs, their stomachs, their sinuses, their bones, their brains. While undergoing their own treatments, my students watch one friend after another lose legs, cough up blood, and enter a hospital room they never come out of again.

            Effective opening, yes?  Here’s why:

1.      Strong opening words that get attention. Note the first six words: “The children I write with die.” There are two words we never want to see together: “children” and “die.” She has us after that sixth word. We’re going to keep reading.

2.      PATHOS. Pathos is the sympathetic or empathetic feeling readers have for the character or person they’re reading about. Unless you are the most unfeeling human being on the planet, Miah Arnold has you caring about these children and caring about her too before the end of the opening paragraph. We know how challenging it must be to work or live in that kind of environment.

Try this:

Try to imitate the style of the paragraph above, but write as if you are a coach or a physical education instructor, and you’re working with children who have severe physical challenges—birth defects, amputations, blindness—not a lot of trophies in the cabinet, exactly (but what DO you have?).

Coming tomorrow: A shocker of an opening by Dudley Clendinen…

Horror week #005: “What are you afraid of?” Michael Slade

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8+ FEARS TO THINK ABOUT

          In October, 2005,  I attended a session given by Jay Clarke, aka Michael Slade, horror/thriller novelist. The subject of the workshop was FEAR. Here’s a few of the notes I took:

“No one ever lost money by offering readers a good ride to hell.” –Michael Slade

–“Fear is the fuel that fires up our fight or flight response.”

–“Put the hook—IN THE READER’S CHEEK—right on the very first page.”

 

WHAT ARE PEOPLE AFRAID OF?

Fear of deformity, something that takes pieces off your form—our sense of self-preservation kicks in. (Connection? His novel, Headhunter.)

Fear of the dark—what’s out there? Something that might get us—takes us back to cave man days when some ferocious creature might be waiting outside to make us its dinner…

Fear of closed in spaces. (Connection? Ghoul, his second novel).

Fear of creatures, both natural and supernatural—human monsters, subhuman monsters, cyclopean (HUGE) monsters, rats, snakes, shifting shapes, invaders, the spawn of hell, ghosts, horrid children…! (Connection? Oscar Cook’s short story, “The      Caterpillar” and Ray Bradbury’s story, “Small Assassin.”)

Fear of squishy things, like brains and a blob. (Although, “CSI has desensitized many people to squishy things.”)

Fear of “homemade people”—body doubles (doppelgangers), ventriloquist dummies, dolls, clowns—they put our very existence into question. (William Goldman’s book, Magic)

Paranoia—the world is out to get me. Psychological fear—monster in the dark, killer on the loose—someone or something is out to get me. (Fatal Attraction)

Fear of yourself—schizophrenia, dementia…afraid you’re going insane. Am I losing my mind?

Eight things to fear…but because I know you can never get enough, here are a few more he mentioned . . .

Fear of bad things happening to your eyes. Mom’s warning—“Don’t run with scissors!” (his novel, Cutthroat)

Fear of authority figures—police, secret government officials—CIA, CSIS.

Fear of public humiliation…loneliness…does my life mean anything?

Fear of death.

 

“It’s important to start with the fear and then work outwards from that. Enthrall and repulse the reader simultaneously, with the very first line. Remember that fear often comes from being frightened in a safe place. Don’t make the reader a voyeur; make him share the experience!”–Clarke

 

Try this:

Choose one of the fears above and write the first page (at least!) of a horror novel.

Coming tomorrow: We’re back to beginnings, but these techniques come from nonfiction. Use them for your fiction and narrative poetry as well…

 

 

Horror week #004: VOICES make your horror fiction unsettling…

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          As writers, we all have those little voices in our heads; they’re called characters. But voices in the head of your character can be downright creepy. Look at how Ronald Kelly makes it even worse by making an INTERNAL voice EXTERNAL in his novel, Blood Kin:

Dudley Craven stared at the piece of wood protruding from the skeleton’s chest.

Go on…pull it out. It won’t do no harm.

The voice seemed to fill his head, numbing his brain with an odd coldness.

Yes! it urged, as he grabbed hold of the stake. Do it!

Dud braced himself and pulled. There was a brittle pop as the stake came free.

He was about to take a step backward when he heard the rattle of bones and felt a tug at the leg of his britches. Dud looked down and was shocked to see what had him.

It was the right hand of a skeleton. From the tiny pores of the bones seeped a clear red fluid. It ran along the fingers and joints, coating them, thickening into a deep, greasy crimson. He watched as the stringy texture of raw muscle and ligaments formed, covering the hand, hiding the bones underneath. Then, almost as quickly, a thin layer of skin appeared.

“No,” mumbled Dud. “No, it ain’t happening.”

“Oh, but it is,” said the voice.

But this time it didn’t come from Dud’s brain.

Instead, it came from the casket.

Try this:

          Go all “Son of Sam” on this one. Create a character who is battling a voice inside his head that is tempting him to do something he really doesn’t want to do. Have the voice get stronger and stronger until the character finally caves and takes action.

Coming tomorrow: Our final day of horror. A “Standing 8 Count” brought to you by master horror writer, Michael Slade, the Stephen King of Canada!

Horror week #003: Exaggerate in your writing to grab your readers!

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          Exaggeration (hyperbole and understatement) is a tool often used in horror fiction. Stating that things are the absolute worst (hyperbole) sends a clear message to the reader: this character doesn’t want to be here right now–and neither would YOU! Look at how Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie use it immediately in the very first sentence of Spellbound:

The whole world was on fire. Trees exploded in showers of sparks, and bits of burning leaves fluttered toward the ground. They landed on Amanda Anderson’s shoulders as she ran, and she did not have time to snuff them out. She could smell her hair burning, but she could not stop. She was being run to ground just like a wild animal, and she felt as small and insignificant as the squirrel that raced past her and shot up a tree, fleeing the smoke and the flames.

Behind her, unearthly screams pierced the night, howls of pain that could have come from either beast or man. She didn’t turn around. People were dying, and she could not save them.

The “whole world” being on fire speaks of a desperate situation. But did you notice how the character herself is described? By using understatement–comparing this human to a squirrel. Amanda feels small with the greatest of problems weighing down on her. We feel the desperation in two ways.

Try this:

Today’s “Try this” is simple: use the tools–hyperbole AND understatement, to create a character we’ll instantly care about. Write that opening scene!

Coming tomorrow: If you’re a writer, you hear other VOICES, but hopefully, not like these!

Horror writing #002: Miss you…!

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          If you want to create some mystery, right out of the gate, then have something missing that really ought to be there. Look at how horror writer Patricia Windsor manages that in The Blooding:

They were found in the woods, curiously and awkwardly lying in the first leaves of autumn. The girl had fallen on top of the man’s back; her chin rested on his shoulder. The man’s head was twisted slightly, as if he had tried to say some final word to her before he died.

The man had been shot between the eyes, the girl over her right ear….

Both were completely nude and without shoes. There were no clothes in the near vicinity; yet neither were there any signs of a struggle to suggest they had been forcibly disrobed…

          A very strange situation, wouldn’t you agree? Killers don’t usually steal their victims’ clothes–they could be used as evidence to tie them to the killing. It’s a weird twist, something you don’t usually see. The clothes should be there, or at least, nearby. What happened to the clothes???

Try this:

          Think of a setting that people know well. Now, in your description of that place, work in a detail of something everyone would expect to see there that is now missing.

Coming tomorrow: a bit of hyperbole to add drama in your horror fiction!