Cody Klippenstein #004: Long sentences for description…

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          In the past three days, we’ve seen pathos, simplicity, soft sounds, euphony, hard sounds, cacophony, and connotation in Cody Klippenstein’s award-winning story, “Case Studies in Ascension.” Today, we’ll see another technique she makes use of that puts the reader THERE in the moment, visualizing what’s happening in the story. Here’s the example, first:

I trail after him through the rooms, speaking when he turns and appeals to me. Here, the kitchen, which he has already seen; here, a bathroom, with a small patch of bald concrete by the sink, where I once pried loose a stone, thinking it looked so much like a jewel; here, the study, with its antique desk and shelves of books—a pool table, too, for my father, though its green felt has long since been buried in a thick layer of dust.

The second sentence in that passage is sixty-nine words long. So much for short and simple. But what is she doing with that sentence? She’s taking us on a tour of the home, and in doing so, shows us not only the furniture and fixtures, but also a bit about herself and her father (and that a room her father used to use has not been touched since his disappearance likely). There’s a nice rule of 3 echo in there as well (Here . . . here. . . here. . . ), which really makes readers feel like they’re walking through the home themselves.

          Longer sentences can slow the pace down so the reader notices the details. She pried a stone loose because it seemed to be a jewel to her, and stones are indeed important to her family as we learn throughout the rest of the story. Her father’s room was left alone, showing the respect all had for him; he did not leave due to dishonour of any fashion. There is an antique desk and books—a respect for the past and for knowledge, for education. And the bald patch by the sink has been left alone too, making the reader wonder why. And thinking about things like these takes time, and a long sentence slows the pace just enough for us to get a head start on it.

Try this:

          Give a one-sentence description of at least two rooms in your own home where you spend the most time. Make it at least fifty words long, and through that description, show your readers a piece of your personality.

Coming tomorrow:  Our final day with CK–Cody Klippenstein #005: Personification in “Case Studies in Ascension.”

Cody Klippenstein #003: Connotation and cacophony!

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          Yesterday, we saw simplicity, softness, and single-syllable words in a romantic passage in Klippenstein’s “Case Studies in Ascension.” Today, we’re going to see the tougher side of this young, talented writer.

            While she may have used short, soft words to describe a loving moment, look what she does as we near the END of her story, and the action is at a climactic moment:

“I heard a crash,” he says, breathless.

The big sixteen-pane window is swinging violently on its hinge, smashing against the wall, echoes of glass breaking over and over again. I shuck the rocks from my feet and hurry toward the window, bracing myself against the sill. High above the house, a dark figure drifting, getting smaller.

          What creates voice here?

1. Connotation. Words like “crash,” “violently,” “smashing,” “glass breaking,” “shuck,” “bracing,” and “dark figure” create some shocking imagery.

2. Cacophony. Cacophony is the repetition of hard sounds in words, sounds like b, d, g (as in “good,” not “George”), k, p, and t. Now look at that passage again, this time, with the hard sounds highlighted:

“I heard a crash,” he says, breathless.

The big sixteen-pane window is swinging violently on its hinge, smashing against the wall, echoes of glass breaking over and over again. I shuck the rocks from my feet and hurry toward the window, bracing myself against the sill. High above the house, a dark figure drifting, getting smaller.

          Soft, when she needs soft. Hard, when she needs hard. Klippenstein is not a writer who has a certain “style” she conforms to; she uses the right tool for the right job—and  she’s quite the handywoman! It’s why you’ll find the voice so strong in many of her writings.

Try this:

          After a peaceful vacation, you return home to discover your house has been broken into, items have been stolen, and rooms have been ravaged, some completely destroyed. Describe the scene.

Coming tomorrow: Day #004 of Cody Klippenstein: The use of long sentences for description!

Cody Klippenstein #002: Simplicity, softness, and single-syllable words

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Before we get to today’s lesson, here are a few of the accolades for Cody Klippenstein and her work that I’m aware of:

2011 She’s a finalist for Malahat’s Open Season Awards

2011 She wins The Fiddlehead’s fiction contest

2011 She wins Prism International’s short story contest

2012 She wins Malahat’s Open Season Awards for short fiction

2012 She wins Zoetrope: All Story’s contest for short fiction

We are clearly talking about someone who is destined to win every major writing award for short fiction that exists (and who knows when the novels will start appearing?). Instantly, we think “literary,” “highbrow,” and “sophisticated language,” and while all of that may be in her toolbox, and while she DOES understand what “Nilotic landscapes” are (okay, confession, I had to look up the word “Nilotic”), there’s another secret to her success with voice:


She knows when to keep it simple when it NEEDS to be kept simple.

Here’s what I mean:

In yesterday’s examination of “Case Studies in Ascension,” we saw how Klippenstein uses pathos to create a feeling of awkwardness felt by both the protagonist and the readers. The anthropologist feels that he isn’t able to do anything right. But Klippenstein builds an attraction between the young girl and the man. Maybe the girl feels she may never grow up to have a normal, loving relationship; maybe he’s attracted to a younger girl attracted to him. For whatever reason, Klippenstein decides to show that passion in a few paragraphs. But think of it—does this love or lust NEED a deeper meaning? Hardly. She wants to show the raw emotions, the passion on the page. Here’s how she does it:

“You’re sure.” His breath on the back of my neck.

“Yes,” I say. Or try. My voice is airless, my lungs pressed upon.

I turn and catch his lower lip. For minutes we stand like this—his hands hovering above my still hips—then I wiggle my toes, and he fills my mouth with his tongue. He lifts me to the countertop, and I feel something in me rising. With his hands clamped around my thighs, boring into my skin, I let it rise right out of me.

88 words. That’s it. And the passion is clearly there for all to see. But let’s look at that passage in detail, and we’ll see where the voice comes from.

1. Softness. Euphony is the repetition of soft sounds like f, l, m, n, r, s, sh, v, and z. It’s how we notice words like (now say them aloud with me) “airless,” “hands hovering,” “fills my mouth with his tongue,” “something in me rising,” “my thighs,” and “rise.” We can even hear the internal rhyme in that last line between “thighs” and “rise,” the alliterations “his hands” and “rise right,” and the soft i assonance in “this,” his,” “still hips,” fills…with his,” and “lifts.” There’s clearly poetry present here.

2. Syllables. If you’re a bit obsessive about literature, you might actually count the syllables of the words in the passage above. Don’t. I’ve done it for you. It looks like this:

2 three-syllable words

11 two-syllable words

75 one-syllable words

Are you seeing what I’m seeing? We don’t need levels; we don’t need layers; we don’t need sophisticated language. All that passion pushes its way off the page with soft, simple, single-syllable words that get the feeling across QUICKLY to readers.

          Now I can almost see the eye-rolling. No, I’m not suggesting that Klippenstein consciously thought of these things when she wrote her story. She thought of her story. But remember that because she’s a READER, she picks up technique and is able to create some of her own as well. When she’s editing to make a passage like this one “sound right,” she’s writing and rewriting until it’s the way she wants it to be.

          The analysis is for me and for you, then, to see what’s here, what surfaces in a moment where flames need to flicker in the prose. I have no doubt that it’s largely unconscious on her part, but if we look at what’s here, we can at least try to approach the same effect.

Try this:

Create a loving moment, but instead of a romantic one, think of a child with a favourite pet. They’re spending time together, not noticing anything else in their environment. But Mother is watching from the doorway. Describe what she sees.

Coming tomorrow: Cody Klippenstein #003: Connotation and cacophony!

Cody Klippenstein #001 VOICE through pathos!

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    If you want to add VOICE to your writing, Cody Klippenstein is the one to turn to. She has won many major writing awards for her short fiction, including “Case Studies for Ascension,” which won the Zoetrope All-Story Short Fiction Contest. It’ll be our study text for this week and it’s up on Zoetrope’s site at CASE STUDIES IN ASCENSION

One of the first ways she gets readers emotionally involved is by quickly creating pathos for the protagonist. He’s an anthropologist who has clearly studied the “ways” of the unusual family he’s investigating, but also, clearly, he has not lived their life. When he first meets the young girl, he says,

“Wait–matte kudasai,” he says. “Do you speak English?”

She answers with “Is that a serious question?” showing that yes, her English is just fine, thank you very much, and he feels like he has insulted her in some way. Then, when she goes out to give his shoes a good shake on the porch, she comes back to discover…

“When I return Obaa-san is already in the kitchen, sitting in her usual chair at the head of the table, folded over….I can tell by the worry lines on the anthropologist’s brow that he did not make his introductions to Obaa-san in her native Japanese. This was a mistake.”

So he insults the young woman by assuming she doesn’t speak English, and he insults the grandmother by speaking English to her. It’s like he can’t win, no matter what he does.

Klippenstein adds to the discomfort later on:

“Wait,” he says. His hand is on my shoulder again. “I don’t think you’ve told me your name.”

I look down. Focus on my feet. “No.”

He waits for me to speak.

When I don’t, he lets me go.

and a third time, just to sink it home:

“Since what?” he wants to know, a cube of faded blue chalk resting in his palm.

“I don’t know. Since–” I point toward the ceiling and shrug. He waits for me to say more, but again I disappoint him.

          Just as the anthropologist wants to know more, we, the readers do as well. We’re put in his place and we experience the situation bit by bit, being held off the same way he is. It makes his awkwardness jump off the page, and we feel it too. In this way, pathos is one of the tools Klippenstein uses to create a strong voice, to create emotion from paper.

Try this:

Create a social situation that your protagonist FIRST believes she really wants to be a part of. Then, once she’s there, it’s NOT AT ALL what she expected, and yet she’s forced to spend time there, one embarrassing situation following another, like dominoes.

Coming tomorrow: Same story, different techniques. We’ll be going microscopic, looking at softness, simplicity, and syllable counts. Yes, syllable counts.

Golden Gloves to Wilder Soul

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          Ok, the symbolism task was NOT EASY yesterday, but one writer took the challenge head on and did a great job–connotation, symbolism, and allusion to show depth. The trouble is, I don’t know the NAME of this person, or where she’s from, but her (his?) pseudonym is…


It’s 15:23 and I am cold, and the pot of water is boiling faster on the stove.

Faster than I can run and stop it.

With a blow.

The steam dissipates

and my cup is empty, hollow,

and bone white

I pour the boiling liquid by the brimful

One for you

One for me

Taste of amber, on the tip of my tongue

Burning memories permanently over hazier sun-filled days

You wait for the steam to slow its roiling

and sip when almost cool…

Eyes setting below rim of your cup

beaming directly at me.

Drained, the cup is stained

with a glimmering reflection.

It’s 15:30 and it took a shorter time than I thought.


On the surface, in this poem, it’s a simple activity–making a cup of tea for two. But notice that only one cup is described as “empty, hollow, and bone white,” and that innocence and emptiness belongs to the speaker of the poem. “Boiling,” “blow,” “hollow,” “burning,” “burning,” and “drained,” in particular, have strong negative connotation; there’s a discomfort here, between the two people. “Sun-filled days” of the past are veiled by the present, and the steam here shows that.  One drinks the liquid hot, the taste of amber on the tongue, while the other waits for it to cool. It might be a comment on their relationship with each other as well. The eyes are disturbing here too, as is the final line of it taking “a shorter time than I thought.” It might not just be the tea time that’s ended early. Is it their relationship, or is it that one person has passed, and the speaker is pouring two cups of tea in order to remember past shared times together? It could be another reason why one cup is left to cool.

Now, Wilder Soul, I may have mucked the meaning of your poem, and if I did, I apologize, but what I love about your poetry is that the way you’ve described these simple images leaves room for some ambiguity and different interpretations. The discomfort clearly comes through, but we the readers are uncomfortable figuring out just what it is causing it. And each time I look back, I see another detail–sunrise vs. eyes setting, eyes below the rim of the cup, and the moment is over in an instant. If this person is alone, NOW what does she do with the rest of her day? That didn’t fill up much of the time…

Haunting, in a way. Disturbing. And worthy of a Golden Gloves Award!

Now, do we get a first name and country you’re from? (Update–we have a name… Anasera, also from New Zealand! Do they grow poets over there or what?)

Oh, and I almost forgot–here’s a link to Wilder Soul’s web site!

Poetry Week #005: Test Day!

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          Ok, it’s test day! The first task, if you haven’t done that already, is to read yesterday’s post about connotation, symbolism, and allusion in Lorna Crozier’s “Crossing Willow Bridge.” Your job today is to look at Karen Connelly’s  “From My Father’s Hand,” and see what you can find. Objects and items and symbols abound. What do YOU see?


In the pockets

I find horses’ hair,

the sleek fur of a pussy willow,

old keys.

I reach into that house

     and pull out the painful creak

     of the stairs.

I find a ruined painting on a water-stained wall,

     a photograph too old to be real.

In the bottom of a drawer

there is a poem by Alexander

     —All creatures great and small

          and finally I have to laugh at that.

All of these things

lie about you.

They mutter dreams to me,

words I never heard you say.

You shot the gray-hooved pony,

     axed away marsh willows.

Your keys always shone like polished copper,

          cold in my hands,

          bright as blood.

Can it be you spent

     your whole life

     killing what you didn’t mean to?

The romantic wind does not

     blow any truths into my hair.

     Nothing is that easy.

But if you did live

     by drawing death,

     who and what am I?

Only splinters of spruce and bone

     are left in my skin,

     slivers of the questions

     I carved in this house

          where you lived.

And here is one more, with my apologies

     tacked on like a crimson target:

          Why do I use the house, the dusty pocket,

          the past tense as if you were dead and I

          am suffering some warped sorrow?

You are there, in the field, walking home.

The red sun cuts over your head like a knife.

A clean rifle is slung over your shoulder

     and a doe rabbit hangs from your fist

          by thin silk ears.

Her blood touches your leg like a hand.

Try this:

Find the strong, connotative words, especially the negative ones. What’s going on here? Find objects that may be symbols. What’s going on here? Find an allusion or two. WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

Then write your own poem and fill it with creepy connotation, stirring symbolism, and alluring allusion.

Coming tomorrow: Cody Klippenstein’s work = strong, strong VOICE! We’ll be looking at five ways she makes it so strong in her writing over the next five days, by looking at an award-winning story of hers: “Case Studies in Ascension.”

Poetry week #004: Crozier and symbolism

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          First, read this poem by Lorna Crozier quickly:



On the farm a willow bridge

though this is Saltspring Island

not Japan. Sometimes it crosses

water, sometimes not. This morning

after rain the ground slides into mud.

My mother and I tread our way

to see the baby llama

in the far pasture. A black Lab

lopes up the path, doubles back.

All energy and muscle

and too much love, he bumps our legs.

He belongs here, the family pet.

This morning he has more to do

with time, how it runs ahead and keeps

returning, our smell on its muzzle,

along its back. I’m afraid

he’ll knock my mother over.

Suddenly this winter she’s unsteady

on her feet. He runs to her

with a stick, strikes her legs

as if he’s a monk and she

a stubborn student, seventy-six

this year. How little time

we have to love each other.

The black dog will not leave

though I shout No, bang him with my knee

when he jumps up. Our walk becomes

A journey, the dog,

the winter rains coming on.

My mother’s arm in mine, we turn back,

cross the willow bridge. Now

the dog swings round,

gathers everything he is

and flies toward us,

under our feet the water running,

willow branches bending at the sound.

          Sounds like a simple poem, right–a mother and daughter out for a walk with their pet on the family farm? But there is much, much more at work here, largely due to symbolism of different types: 

1. Connotation Connotation is the “feeling,” positive or negative, associated with certain words. For example, “skinny” is a bit negative, while “slender” is a bit positive. Both mean “thin.”

          On first reading, Crozier’s poem certainly doesn’t seem violent in any way…but look back at some of the words she uses: “mud,” “tread,” “bumps,” “unsteady,” “strikes,” and “bang.” When you bring these words closer together, you really see the fear in the daughter’s mind. She’s worried about her mother.

2. Symbols A symbol is usually something concrete (a color, an object) that represents something deeper (a feeling or quality).

          First of all, Crozier uses a dog here to represent time. It’s not a common symbol, so she TELLS us “This morning [the dog] has more to do with time.” But twice we are told the colour of that dog, “a black Lab” and “a black dog.” Black almost always symbolizes death, and here, their smell is on the muzzle of the black dog; it’s hunting them. Add this to the negative connotation we’ve seen in other words, and the poem takes on a more ominous feeling. The dog becomes the Grim Reaper who’s going after the mother. Who’s able to fight it off? The younger daughter.

          Of course the willow is a symbol itself. In the East, the willow is a sign of life, since it needs to be near a large water source and its branches shelter, provide protection. In North America, mention “willow,” and people think of one variety: “weeping willow.” Crying. So now we have life and death and violent attacks and crying. See where this simple poem is headed? But there’s more…

3. Allusion An allusion is a reference to a well-known person or event to describe something or someone not as well-known.

          Here, “crossing over” brings to mind “crossing the river Styx,” a bit of mythology that speaks of leaving this life for the next, for the “far pasture.” It, too speaks of death, as does winter, as in “the winter rains coming on.”

          Now, there is much, much more to this poem, but even what I’ve noted here adds up to a theme that Crozier states directly in the poem: “How little time we have to love each other.” Value the time you have together with loved ones; you never know when that time may come to an end. Maybe the daughter here is back for a visit or is back to help take care of her aging mother. She might be repairing a relationship as well, making use of the little time they have left together. All of a sudden, a simple poem becomes much deeper, largely through the use of symbolism.

Try this:

Start with a theme–even use the one Crozier mentions here if you like. Then think of any colour symbolism, connotative language (especially verbs!), or allusions you might use to create the mood you’re aiming for. A simple narrative will become much deeper. Give it a go and let me know what you come up with!

Coming tomorrow: Checkup on today with a new poem, “My Father’s Hand.”

Poetry week #003: How does that SOUND to you?

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          Important tools in the toolkit of any poet are devices involving SOUND. There are many to choose from, but let’s focus on a few today. I’ll get some quick definitions out of the way, then demonstrate what I mean by them with a poem.

Alliteration–repeating of beginning sounds: “buckets of baseballs; killer choir; ten tiny tigers”

Assonance–repetition of vowel sounds: “cool blue shoes in a canoe”

Consonance–repeated consonant sounds after different vowel sounds: “flip flop; sleep slip”

Euphony–repeated soft sounds, like f, l, m, n, s, sh, v, z: “falling leaves”

Cacophony–repeated hard sounds, like b, d, k, p, t, g (as in “good,” not “George”): “black cat cancer”

          I’ll highlight an example of each of these in the following poem to show you what I mean:



I’ve learned to keep my faith in place, and sing of streets,

warm hands cupped around coffee, fresh memories

steaming to the surface, fleeing the past on straight

rails, staying steps ahead, riding the present train

of thought. Inside my mind, the blur of bedsheets

twisted, tightly gripped, is left far behind by slim

fingers that unfurled when sleep was given the slip,

fingers that now find themselves curled around comfort.

The blur that fills my dirty window—that’s life, I think—

bright pictures painted on a dirty canvas, a moving

painting, a moving painting that allows no past of regret,

of nostalgia, of sorrow, of anything that may lead

to thoughts of twisted sheets of shattered glass

in picture frames. Dark faces from past lives.

Here, now, are straight lines and smooth glass,

driving forward, ever onward, fingers reaching

for a known destination, a familiar face,

for a place I sing of that can safely hold my faith.

          When I wrote “Skytrain Serenade,” I wanted a blend of hard and soft images because of what inspired the poem. I was on the skytrain, heading downtown to the Winter Olympics, and everyone was squeezed in but happy and cheerful and having fun, yet there was this one guy, off to the side, who seemed to be staring at the window and having a miserable time. I started to think about what his story might be. The skytrain was moving smoothly, but his life was not, I decided.

          I decided to control the line lengths and make them look like rails, sort of. Then I really paid attention to how the words sounded. I worked and reworked lines to get them sounding the way I wanted them to when read aloud. In the end, the blend of hard and soft was just what I was looking for.

Try this:

First, find other examples, if they’re in there, in “Skytrain Serenade” of the devices we examined. Then…

Think of a situation where there is emotional conflict. You feel two different ways about the same situation–your enemy going over the cliff in your brand new sports car–that type of thing. Use hard and soft sounds (and some of the devices) to show the mix.

Coming tomorrow: Symbolism and Lorna Crozier’s “Crossing Willow Bridge”

Tarina from New Zealand and her Cascade Poem

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          Our first Golden Gloves award goes to Tarina from New Zealand, who, on TODAY checked out what cascade poems are all about and wrote a GOOD one…TODAY!

Here’s her poem, and a link to her site: Golden Gloves Winner TARINA

the web

finding out everything you ever knew

everything you’d been told

it was all lies.

your mind could not take it


sitting behind the oak desk

I feel a stranger though your brother

reading through your journal

finding out everything you ever knew


you were confined

they kept you within their bounds, controlled

you couldn’t break free because of

everything you’d been told


so-called friends would reassure you

the world was still upright

you needn’t consider

it was all lies


finally, all their true intentions

when the web was revealed

you saw the world for what it was and

your mind could not take it

Poetry Week #002: Writing the Cascade Poem

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          First, in order for me to discuss what a cascade poem is, let me show you one. “Woman on a Swing: Lions Park” is one of three poems that helped me win the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) poetry prize in 2012. It’s one I quickly showed poet Patricia Young over dinner at another conference, and she told me to change the title (it was originally called “The Swing of Things”) and one part of the imagery. . . and it worked! Here it is; pay attention to what happens to the first four lines later on in the poem:


Clutching cold rusted chains, she’s breathing

in perfume of lilacs and honeysuckle,

standing far enough back to drop into memories.

Momentum can plunge her forward, drive her back,

but it starts with letting go.


When she does, a breeze kisses bare skin,

elastic limbs stretching forward, snapping back,

soaring for skies ever higher, heart pumping

faster than her legs, tense fingers

clutching cold rusted chains. She’s breathing


again, shoes stepping between the stars.

The backwards pull takes her by surprise,

and the locket flies, opens butterfly wings,

the memory suspended—herself, her daughter bathed

in perfume of lilacs and honeysuckle—


how she looked that summer: heaven’s child,

long blonde tresses trailing a comet’s path,

one of her own making. Her mother’s not there.

She’s racing out, camera in hand, capturing it all,

standing far enough back to drop into memories,


that scene, a moment waiting for a mother,

her daughter sky high, smiling wide, on top

of a world she is no longer in touch with.

Transformation, rebirth, like motherhood, the

momentum can plunge her forward, drive her back,


lead her forward to…a second child? She stares down

and all she sees is dirt and rock, the hardness of life

cut short. Heels dig in, earth erupts around her, and

she knows that she can escape the grime, rise above it,

but it starts with letting go.


Clutching a cold silver chain, she’s breathing. It starts with letting go.

          Notice that what happens with those first five lines in the first stanza is that they become ENDING lines for the next five stanzas. The lines “cascade” down, like a waterfall. It’s a beautiful effect if you can find the right images to do it with. While I’m not a huge fan of “form” poetry, this is one that produces an effect I like. I’m glad the judges liked it too.

Try this:

          Write a cascade poem of any length. Just be sure that you focus on the lines of your first stanza, since those are the ones that will “drop down” to the ends of later stanzas. (Also, connected to yesterday’s idea, notice how I’ve played with how the lines mirror the swing movement–not a huge shift, but a gentle swing back and forth. Remember that you can show things on paper that you can’t when reading a poem aloud.)

Coming tomorrow: It’s all about the SOUND…poetry week #003!

Poetry Week #001: Poem within a poem!

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          Time for some poetry! A poem can contain a great amount of meaning in a small space; it’s what separates us from the rest of the animals, someone once told me. And while I enjoy spoken word poetry, especially when it’s well done, there are some things you can do on a piece of paper that you just can’t show through spoken word. Take a look at my award-winning poem, “Silver Anniversary”:



Does the water wonder about us? It must—

the way it slides over stones,

an ancient memory smoothing rough edges


Over time


the tide tugs and releases our arms, like an impatient

child—not wild, just playful

and curious, the actions of one who needs to know


the secrets


the flow of feelings. A gull’s screech of surprise

startles the strangers who wade

into a world where even the weave of seaweed


can’t wall us away


As the water wanders about us—as it must—

we feel the ebb and flow

working overtime, pulling us from certain safety


to eddies that swirl below


The undertow doesn’t draw us down—we go

willingly, and answer the echo,

words waking between us, those waves of


memory, smoothing over time.

          One of the judges who gave that poem the $1000 prize in the SIWC poetry contest, Bernice Lever, said to me at the conference, “At first look, it seemed a simple poem with straightforward imagery. But then I looked and saw the poem within the poem, how those bolded lines made their own poem, and how they acted almost as mini-headlines for what came next to them.” In the contest booklet where it was published, she wrote “A lovely lyric with its sustaining and enriching metaphor of water and memory in simple images that mask its depth of knowledge….”

          You can see how the poem LOOKS on the page. There’s a symmetry inside the three-line stanzas–longer line, shorter line, longer line–and for the poem within a poem, the bolded lines get longer as the poem moves down the page:

Over time

the secrets

can’t wall us away

to eddies that swirl below

memory, smoothing over time.

                    There’s also a connection between the title, “SILVER ANNIVERSARY,” and the last line, “memory, smoothing over time.” You can see all this (and other connections) if you read and reread the poem on the page. It’s tough to do that with spoken word.

Try this:

     Write a five-line poem, a simple image like the one I wrote in bold. Then build a poem and an image AROUND those lines. See what you can come up with! It’s a fun experiment that lets you play with STRUCTURE.

Coming tomorrow: Have you ever heard of a CASCADE poem? I’ll show you how to write one tomorrow, on !

Gaiman #005: Explore a difference

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          As I’ve said before, contrast makes writing interesting. But in a longer work of fiction, it’s possible to REVISIT the same contrast in different ways. Here’s how Neil Gaiman does that in The Ocean at the End of the Lane:

  1. “Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between the fences. I was a child, which meant that I knew a dozen different ways of getting out of our property and into the lane, ways that would not involve walking down our drive.” (p. 56)
  2. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age.” (p. 112)
  3. “I did not know what to do when adults cried. It was something I had only seen twice before in my life: I had seen my grandparents cry, when my aunt had died, in hospital, and I had seen my mother cry. Adults should not weep, I knew. They did not have mothers who would comfort them.” (p. 123)

There are three instances in the book where Gaiman explores the difference between children and adults, and he does it in three different ways. One shows how children are more curious than adults; another illustrates how adults put on a show for other adults, but are really still children inside; and the third shows how children BELIEVE adults should deal with emotions.

Each time the comparison is made, it adds to, it fleshes out, the contrast. This layering is effective over the course of a longer work of fiction, like a novel, but I think it would work just as well in a short story–once near the beginning, once in the middle, and once near the end.

Try this:

Think of any contrast you can: wise and foolish, experienced and naive, sporty and nerdy–whatever comes to mind. Then think of THREE slightly different ways it could be shown. Imagine those three showing up at different places in a story and write the scenes. Who knows, if you “connect the dots,” you might come up with an entire story this way!

Coming tomorrow: Poetry week is coming. We’ll look at some poetic technique that can add a little extra oomph to your poems, starting with a poem within a poem idea…

Neil Gaiman #004: Hit ’em hard!

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          Take a look at how Neil Gaiman piles on the negatives at the beginning of chapter 7 of The Ocean at the End of the Lane:

The next day was bad.

My parents had both left the house before I woke.

It had turned cold, and the sky was a bleak and charmless gray.

The first three sentences all have a negative tone, so the foreshadowing is firmly in place: something bad is going to happen. But look how he does it… tell and show?

          The first line is a dead summary, 100% tell, something the “show don’t tell” people tell writers NOT to do. But then Gaiman gets more specific by showing the child alone with a nanny he fears as both parents are off to work. And there’s a bit of pathetic fallacy as well, as the weather seems to match the mood of the protagonist in the third line.

          So why does it work here? Because of the order. He moves from general to specific. The details move from general summary of a mood, to an action, to a specific description of the weather. Notice what it would lose if you reversed the order:

It had turned cold, and the sky was a bleak and charmless gray.

My parents had both left the house before I woke.

The day was bad.

See what it loses here? It feels like the energy is being sapped from the writing. The last line seems completely unnecessary here, since it’s already been shown. So what’s the lesson? If you want to use show and tell, put a short bit of general tell first to make people curious–why was the day so bad?–and then give the details.

Try this:

Start with a general sentence:

It was the happiest day of my life.

My brother is annoying.

Forget Mondays–Sundays are the worst day of the week.

Then move into showing specific details (at least two) that show WHY.


Coming tomorrow: Our final technique from Gaiman: Exploring a difference…


Neil Gaiman #003: The DOUBLE DELAY

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          Today, we’ll look at a very powerful technique Neil Gaiman makes use of in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s one I call the DOUBLE DELAY. Now, even kids know what a cliff-hanger is if they’ve ever read a Hardy Boys or Goosebumps book. The idea that you end a chapter at an interesting part that people want to know more about isn’t a new one.

          But Gaiman makes use of a DOUBLE DELAY at the end of one of his chapters. Here’s what I mean:

Every now and again, I tossed a hazelnut into the middle of the pond, the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called. . . It wasn’t the sea, was it?

That’s the first. We want to know what she called it. Three paragraphs later, he answers that question and brings up a new mystery at the end of the chapter:

. . . it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean. Lettie Hempstock’s ocean. I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.

She called the pond an ocean–we know that now, but we don’t know why (new mystery). Also, the narrator now remembers EVERYTHING, and we want to know what that is too (and it’s the rest of the story!).

          One thing I like about the delays here is that Gaiman understands it doesn’t have to be someone in a car that’s flipping off the road and over a cliff or a bomb about to explode–a cliffhanger, a delay, merely needs to be something readers will be curious to know more about.

Try this:

Either rework the ending of a chapter in a previous work of yours so that it includes a double delay, or, model the paragraphs above and write the ending of a chapter for a new work. Create a mystery; answer it; and in that answer, create a new mystery.

Coming tomorrow: Technique #004 from Gaiman: HIT ‘EM HARD!

Neil Gaiman #002: Use THE ECHO as a voice!

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          Let’s get right to it today and see an innovative way Neil Gaiman uses parentheses in The Ocean at the End of the Lane:

I would talk to people whose existence I had forgotten years before and they would ask me about my marriage (failed a decade ago, a relationship that had slowly frayed until eventually, as they always seem to, it broke) and whether I was seeing anyone (I wasn’t, I was not even sure that I could, not yet) and they would ask about my children (all grown up, they have their own lives, they wish they could be here today), work (doing fine, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.)

          I call this THE ECHO. It’s like he’s holding a conversation with himself, but really, he’s just relaying words he said earlier. He uses “tell” to list the questions people asked him, which are not really interesting questions, and he uses parentheses to reveal his answers, which in many cases are EXTREMELY interesting to us, the readers. Usually, parentheses are used to downplay extra information that seems tossed in, but here, it reveals important character details.

Try this:

Imagine a “prodigal son” character, someone who has left his family, left his town, and gotten involved in some activities that are less than admirable. Now, for whatever reason (you can make it a funeral if you like), he’s back in town, and when people ask him questions, there are two answers–the one he gives them, and the truth. Put the truth in parentheses and report the other answers in a straight “tell.”

Coming tomorrow: Neil Gaiman and THE DOUBLE DELAY…