Friday, August 31, 2012

My Verbs are Going Nowhere and Other Crimes of Syntax

"The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense." - from the Internet


 I constantly remind my students, “As a writer, your two new best friends are verbs and nouns.”

Verbs are the action words, they make your characters and settings move, and/or they create more clarity. But not all verbs are created equal, and some verb combinations do more harm. For example, the verb 'to be’ is the most overused verb in our language. (The critical reader will notice I used a form of it five times already in the title and passage. More on that later.)

To be clear, let’s conjugate ‘to be’:
Simple present :

I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are,
Simple past :

I was, you were. He /she/it was, we were, they were

(I know most of you know this already, but I once had a junior in my AP class insist ‘I am’ and ‘she was’ aren’t from the verb ‘to be.’)

Contemporary writing requires a more active tense of the verb: I have already discussed crimes of passive voice (). This relates, and goes a step further.

Let’s look at an example of a beige sentence.

He was sitting by the window and he noticed a girl who was running with her dog. They were frolicking in the yard.

Grammatically, the sentence is correct. But read it aloud and the words get stuck on your tongue. It suffers from too many auxiliary verbs. An occasional use of this form is okay, but when you load an entire paragraph with to be verbs, the writing suffers in many ways.

Was sitting, was running, were frolicking all use ‘to be’ as helping verbs. But the verbs don’t need help. If you rewrite the sentence by crisping the verbs, and using a non-essential clause, the sentence smoothes out:
He sat by the window and noticed a girl and her dog, running and frolicking in the yard.

The diction is cleaner and moves the reader into more important aspects of the manuscript. The non essential clause provides additional detail, but does not make the sentence more or less correct. Yes, again I used a form of to be. Sometimes it's necessary. Most of the time you can find a better verb or form.

Here is another example of bland prose:

He was sitting next to the TV. His dog was at his feet and he was sipping coffee. He was surprised at what came across the screen.

Is the dog drinking coffee or the mysterious He? And what was the dog doing at his feet? The reader is supposed to see the man is excited by the TV, but the action is too static from lack of tension and abstract, vague imagery.


Cal sat adjacent to the TV sipping a cup of coffee; his dog Max lounged at his feet. Cal just about dropped his coffee when he saw his wife's face come across the screen.

Notice how the reader becomes slightly more engaged by the activity and specific detail. The verbs are active. But do we care enough to keep reading?

Active verbs create tension. A good verb simplifies, clarifies, yet also provides more complex dimensions.

As Cal sipped his coffee in front of the TV and Max lay at his feet, his hands trembled when he saw his wife’s face on the screen.

In this case we get a mental movie of the action, and dramatic tension. The reader wonders why do his hands tremble?
something is not right with Cal’s wife’s appearance on TV.

Go through a beginning of one of your manuscripts and circle how many to be verbs you have. Try substituting a more specific verb, or rewrite the sentences to pare them down.

An easy way to find them using Word is to click on FIND and type in various forms of ‘to be’, (was, is, were, are,) Mark these on your hard copy of the draft so you can substitute better verbs.

Pay attention to your syntax.

For a detailed explanation of verb functions, see

Grammar Bytes, is phenomenal. Since the inception of a whole language approach to English, grammar is rarely taught in schools any more. Diagramming sentences resembles math problems, but if you want to appear as an intelligent life form, grammar is a necessary evil. This site provides crucial information and exercises to strengthen your syntax.

Happy Writing.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Spying on the World from the Inside Out

Today I bought another book on sentences (see previous blog post), a craft book,  and yet another thesaurus. Does that render me a nerd? Yeah. No doubt. But the thesaurus (The Concise Roget’s International Thesaurus) is divided into Categories and has a section on phrases. How cool is that? A steal at $7.99.

As my friend (and fellow nerd) Amy Gibson points out, “Nerds are the new COOL.”

I teach writing, so books on sentences are imperative. This one, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Howard Fish, is a slim volume that feels good in my hands, and contains poem excerpts in the epigraph. I have only read Chapter One, but already I am a fan. Fish quotes good sentences from books and movies, and even one from a child’s essay. “I was already on the second floor when I heard about the bat.” What a great opening sentence. It contains location, mystery, and a hint of danger. The reader wants to know what happens next.


Fish’s premise is that by analyzing good sentences one can learn to write well. At the end of the first chapter he provides a formula for analyzing, writing and reading sentences:

Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.

He e equates sentence analysis s with analyzing works of art. When one becomes closer to art, and analyzes it, one appreciates art at a deeper level.

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein

The above quote comes from the third book I bought today (recommended by Maria Popova of, which if you are not following her on twitter and Facebook, you should be.) It is called How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith. The book is placed in the arts section of the bookstore, yet many of the suggested explorations are easily transmitted into writing assignments, for example exploration # 2, Experience collection. Smith suggests keeping a log of things you notice on your travels and experiences.  As a writer and teacher, this gives me an idea to have students take brief filed notes during a set time period. What one notices creates “telling details” usable in writing.


Your exercise today is from Smith’s book: Sit in a chair and quickly, without censoring, write down ten things you notice around  you hadn’t seen when you first sat down. Use those ten things in a poem or story.


Happy Writing.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Your Job As a Writer Is Making Sentences

If you are on twitter and you don't follow Maria Popova, shame on you. Her feed, brain picker, is rife with essential information. Check her out.

Recently she posted a piece about a book called Several Short Sentences About Writing, by controversial New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg.

His premise is if you master writing good, concise sentences, you can write anything in any genre.

"Writing short sentences restores clarity."

As a writing teacher, I preach clarity as the number one goal in writing, so I am with him on that piece of advice.

"Know what each sentence says, what it doesn't say, and what it implies."

In this vein, using the precise word is crucial. The car moved down the street has an abstract implication. The clunker rattled down the street has a more specific image, and it implies the driver  might also have money problems.

There are innumerable ways to write badly,"  All I have to do is look through drafts of my own writing to confirm this.

"What you don't know about writing is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to grasp." This seems counterintuitive. But good writing is exploring what we don't know and applying what we do know. To write well you need to widen the lens beyond your familiar world. Explore unknown worlds. Take risks. I often give an assignment  where students are required to go outside their comfort zones. If you are afraid of heights, go ballooning, or if you hate crowds, go to Walmart on the first of the month. Observe, take notes. You will be a better and a more interesting person.

"The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you're making,"
 related to, " knowing what you've actually said is crucial."

Like Orwell ,Klinkenborg advises us to break the rules for the sake of the sentence, for rhythm . He also makes a case for there being no correlation between sentence length and intelligence on the part of the writer. An astute sentence can be written using simple diction.

Writing short sentences will help you write strong balanced sentences of any length." He asks the reader to recall early kid books where the language is compact, but not necessarily choppy. But the syntax was clear. Writing for children is deceptive; It's harder than you think because your audience is more discriminating. Younfg readers demand a rhythmic sound pattern to text.

"Read like a writer." Writers pay attention to the words, and the syntax. Writers also question the text, respond to it, (as I am doing now by HIS work).
 Read like a writer you can write in any form

My friends who teach Lit wil not agree, but Klinkenborg argues against trying to find meaning in sentences.Not to over analyze and intellectualize.

Know how to detect what interest you.
Second to clarity, another essential key to good wri9ting is passion. If you have no passion for your subject, be it poetry or prose, your writing will be beige.

We can all witness the same scene, but  each of us pulls out the details that interest us. For example, I am drawn to faces. If I were to witness a bank robbery, and the suspect is not wearing a mask, I would pay attention to the perps features, hair color, and expressions.  A fashionista might describe what he or she is wearing. A musician will pick up the tone and notes of the robbers voice, a podiatrist will notice how he walks, and a tattooist can describe the  body art.

Good Writing is layering good sentences or lines of poetry on top of one another. Consciously.

Essentially Klinkenborg is saying as writers we should suffer over the words.

I dont agree with everything Klinkenborg says in this book. He gets fuzzy when he reflects about You can start anywhere and there is no order, and The obsession with transition negates a basic truth about writing: you can get anywhere from anywhere. Only experienced writers can get by with taking weird tangents off the paths through a story or essay. I believe in transitions. Developing writers like high school and undergraduates still need a framework.

The book uses a meditative, mantra-like repetition that I find annoying, as if he has to remind me what I have already read. Makes me feel brainwashed.

Overall the book offers good advice, albeit in a repetitious, hypnotic, non- linear structure. He wisely advises possessing good grammar

 I agree that "good writing is significant everhwere,"

“Writing doesn’t prove anything, and it only rarely persuades. It does something much better. It attests. It witnesses. It shares your interest in what you’ve noticed.”

And speaking of sentences, check out these gems:

Try to write a worse sentence than one of these. Intentional bad wiring can be just as difficult as good wrong, but it's so much fun.

Here is an example I wrote waiting for the doctor in a cold exam room.

It was so cold, icicles formed on my fingernails, resembling glass shards from a windshield after a highway crash in the rain on a cloudy Friday afternoon during a thunderstorm following an endless heat wave of ninety plus degree temperatures where we all felt like melted cheese over fries.


Happy Writing.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

More Antioch Highlights: Poetry with Jim Daniels

Part of the Antioch week involves an afternoon workshop group where participants either create work or critique existing work. In my workshop with Jim Daniels, a well known poet who also writes screenplays and fiction, we submitted ten poems a month ahead.  These were posted on a private link to view and copy so we could be prepared to discuss one anothers poems.

On the first day Jim quotes a tweet from Megan Fox we live in a world where losing your phone is more dramatic than losing your virginity.

Jim discusses his expectations and goals for the week. Your packets are works in progress. You all need some help with the poems. His goal is to help improve poems. A residual effect of commenting on other peoples writing is that transfers to your own work. We are trying to help one another find a voice and do it better, not to rewrite each others poems in our own aesthetic.

Jim feels its important to have strangers look at your work. People who know you know what the poem is about, but we leave out details others need.

He believes Good critique is constructive and beneficial, and is not meant to discourage writing. . (Ive been to workshops where either one or more participant or the instructor makes you want to burn everything youve written.)

Try not to focus on technique, but focus on engaging discussion, Hh says. Participate, avoid passing judgment, and make specific suggestions for revision. It's not an in exact process. We all have biases. Jims bias is toward clarity.  He wants to feel something below the neck and have an emotional payoff at the end.

With ten participants, ten poems each and five days, we would not have time to discuss our complete packets. Jim had us pick two we felt needed the most work. In the end we had enough time to do here poems each.

While most of the week was spent work shopping poems,  Jim provides some insights, such  as the title is the doorway to a poem. It is a literal or tonal grounding, but not both. The poem Autumn Comes to Martins Ferry, Ohio, produces a physical grounding of time and place, whereas a poem entitled Pity for Blondes provides a tonal grounding.

A good title cannot do both.

In short poems there is more pressure on the title to provide grounding and contrast, which he terms the Zero Circle- where everything and nothingness compress together. He cites Robert Blys The Sea & The Honeycomb (a book of tiny poems) as an example for us to study.

Another interesting point I learned this week is the Sandwich Theory. Daniels claims in drafts we tend to begin and end with bread (My love of back-story!!!), burying the interesting stuff inside too much dry bread..

He recommends a book called Poetry is a Kind of Lying. This recommendation s made in context of a discussion around how you cant write about a subject in one poem. Get obsessed and stay obsessed. It may take many poems to express the idea.

While critiquing someones villanelle, I learned there is more pressure on the inside lines, non repeated lines. They illuminate the tension against the repeated lines.

If we're stuck sometimes point of view is the problem.Second person can work by  creating a kind of intimacy not found in third person, and is less self centered than first.

Daniels reinforced how Discovery and surprise is important in the poem..

He also points out how  pop culture references like Coke, movie stars, etc. are becoming more common.,

He recommends reading journals before submitting work. helps one browse literary magazines to see one’s work fits.

While we didnt do any exercises, Jim showed us some samples of a project he did with kids in Pittsburgh where they created Self portrait poems from objects in pockets.
Happy Writing.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mining Gold from Base Metals

Recently I crashed my good friend Elizabeth's MFA residency at Ashland University. I have had my MFA for more than a decade, yet I wish I had the time and money to go for another Degree. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a professional student..

One of the highlights of my two days as a stowaway is the craft talk presented by poet Ruth L. Schwartz. Her topic, entitled Ruth's Tips for writing Your Way out of the Paper Bag of Pain, describes ten aspects of effective writing. While she is a mentor in the poetry program, she reminds her audience the advice applies to all writing.

Each of us has shattering moments which drive us to write; the goal is to make transformative use of this pain.

This task includes a paradox:
1. No one else in the world has experienced what you have. The experience is unique
2. However, the is nothing you have experience Ed that has not been experienced by many other people in the same way.

Truth and Beauty exist in paradox. We are like kaleidoscopes, each of us fragmented in unique ways.

There only about 2-3 human stories. We want to write as if an event has never happened before, balancing the personal and the universal. Yet if we include too much personal detail, we run the risk of self pity and self indulgence. It's not about you.

Yet if we step too far away from the experience, we run the risk of being abstract.
In both cases, the writing is dull. Herein lies that paradox.

Adrienne Rich said, “the pain in the body is not the same as the pain in the sets. " We need to write where the edges blur between the self and the world.

Pain. Our instinct is to avoid it, back away. Let's agree to forget it.
Yet artists and writers must transform pain into art.

Our task is to take the base metals and turn them into gold, into powerful, effective writing that connects with the reader. Ruth quotes someone whose name I neglected to write down. “When you are in the depths of pain, it's hard to imagine how this could lead to beauty." (Ruth says she uses quotes because someone else has expressed this, and Ro ably better.)

Ruth's provides ten tips for Transforming pain into pleasure

1. Move the lens around. This means we need to focus our perspective with wide angle and macro lenses. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "the field cannot be well seen from within the field," or as Emily Dickinson writes, " tell the truth, but tell it slant."

2. Use the power of sensory experience. Details engage the reader so they can see, hear, smell, taste and touch the experience. This is especially important when writing about trauma.

3. Change disciplines. This advice reinforces it's not just about you: become and anthropologist , physicist, historian, etc. this is a means of moving the lens around by infusing facts . Like in an argument, this gives your poetry and prose credibility.

4. Expand and deepen your quality of vision and love. You must treat your subject, even pain, with love. She quotes [the great love of my life] Pablo Neruda, "you learn poetry moving step by step among things and beings, not isolating, but rather containing them all within a blind expansion of love."

5. Take calculated risks with emotionality. When writing about painful moments, we risk being overly sentimental, or "caring about something more than God does." we also risk detachment. She quotes poet Audre Lorde with, "the purpose of poetry[ or any writing] is to evoke feeling. To do that you have to be in contact with your own." a calculated risk is to stay as close to the emotional cliff as you can without falling off.

6. Self implicate- none of us is perfect, and it takes courage, yet it's necessary to own that.

7. Don't think you know too much. Writing is about finding what we don't know, not to show your audience you know everything. Francis Bacon sad, “the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery." Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai said, "We are all blind, but our poems are Seeing Eye dogs that lead us around."

8. Acknowledge complexity Robert Louis Stevenson said, " everything is true, only it's opposite is too, true; you must believe both equally, or be damned."

9. Remember what you write matters. - A lot. Each of our stories is a piece of the human story.

10. Strengthen your technical skills- word choice and syntax is crucial in poetry and prose alike. There is music in good writing. As Mark Twain said, " the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

An additional tip added after discussion is Do Not Judge. As writers we observe and report the experience, let the reader decide how he or she feels about it. Adding your own judgments weaken your authority. Remember 6 and 7.

At the end of her lecture she gives us an exercise.
She asks us to imagine. Photograph, and consider events around the moment the picture is taken. How old are you in the photo? She uses a photo of yourself at age 8.
Begin with the line

The best thing about being ..( age)

The worst thing was….

The best thing about the worst thing was….

In retrospect I would see ….

A social scientist might point out, or a mathematician would say( use some expert is something unlikely)….
An historian would say my family …

She asks us also to consider the history the year it s taken. What went on the year? Use quotes, or references to news stories

Between each line she gives us a minute or two to write.
Here is a DRAFT of my example. This is NOT a finished poem, so don’t judge me. And please don’t steal it.

[ still needs a title-Poem from Ruth Schwartz’s workshop]

The best thing about being thirteen is
I no longer have nightmares where the tiger hovers,
the moment before his teeth gnash my skin and I shriek awake.
The best thing about being thirteen is my long legs and slim waist.
I own the world and its inhabitants
Yet it is also the worst thing because my kingdom teeters
on stilettos when it still needs saddle shoes
It wears lipstick and a training bra
The world in my grasp but my hands are too big to fit inside my gloves
The best thing about the worst thing is my hands wear polish
Yet the worst thing was I didn't know

The gold would wear off
The polish cracked, exposed fragile layers
I didn’t know
the world was not minted by me
soldered to satisfy my precious planet.
Little did I know.
I was a speckle of dust, a measly spindle empty of thread.
Little did I know my mother would be dead in three years.

A social scientist might report that the self at that age is too selfish.
The geometry I created was a soft sided triangle,
the distance of my own importance greater than the sum of my years.
An historian would argue my train was due to be knocked off the tracks
In the year when college students demanded to ban the bomb and burn the bra
The tiger shredded me from the inside out.

Laura Moe

Bonus Exercise: Mark Strand gives an exercise that starts with the line "a train runs over me.......

Make some beauty from your own pain.
Happy Writing.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I May Not Be the Brightest Crayon in the Box, But I Know Enough To Color

I don’t know about you, but I have to have music plying when I write. Right now The Doors are performing Light My Fire (timeless and cool.)
but i digress....
Recently I posted about the indomitable Les Edgerton.(July 21) This blog is not supposed to be a Les Edgerton fan club page, but his book HOOKED has the writing gears turning..

Writing is a lot like dieting. We KNOW we need to eat less and move more in order to lose weight. As writers, we KNOW if our beginnings suck, the rest of the story suffers, even that heartbreaking stuff in the middle, and the tear jerking ending. Why? Because readers won’t have enough patience to slug through three pages of chaff to get to where the REAL story starts. Yet many of us, myself especially, craft these dawdling, elegant beginnings where we take the reader on a sluggish raft to the beginning of the story.

If there were prisons were writing crimes, my FBI poster would read, WORDINESS. : Addicted to back story, takes three pages to three chapters to get to the point at which the story begins. (That was a wordy sentence. See what I mean? What am I going to do with me? I could have just said, uses too many words.)

During my incarceration here in writer’s prison, for which there is no parole, I read Les Edgerton’s HOOKED: write fiction that grabs the reader at page one and never lets them go . It’s a book about beginnings.

Last year, if you recall, I attended the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop (OCCBWW,) and the critiques only focused on the first page. Each participants’’ first page projected in the room for all to see, naked, our flaws magnified.) See August 2011 postings for more highlights of the OCCBWW)
Here is my first page shredding

My drafts are always horrible. Sometimes it takes a year to look at a manuscript with fresh eyes. Even in its fine tuning and several drafts, my novel CHASING THE DRAGON, suffered by a tepid beginning. Les’s book helped me see the point of entry was wrong.( In an earlier draft, I had this three page prologue containing an incident a couple of years before the story begins, but at OCCBWW, I was advised to cut it and start with action.

In rewrite I had my protagonist, Kicker, walking into her house and get yelled at by her mother and stepfather. It was a three page scene. It was okay, but it lingered.

Les helped me ask, Where does the reader become engaged?
When Kicker has a flashback to her tattoo the night before. Duh! Put her in the tattoo parlor and start there.

The following is from my latest rewrite of the opening of CHASING THE DRAGON. Please don’t steal it.

Getting the tattoo hurt worse than she thought it would. Kicker Stevens pulled at the left sleeve of her plaid, flannel jacket to relieve the pressure on the one inch tall barbed wire tattoo around her left bicep

Kind of wordy and blah. With some tinkering, here is my rewrite:

Kicker rolled up her sleeve and studied the barbed wire on her left bicep, her skin swollen around the tattoo. Getting it turned out to be a bigger deal than she imagined, but there was no turning back. The ink etched her closer to becoming a full- fledged Flygirl.

I’m tempted to rewrite almost everything I have written, at least reexamine it. While the draft contains energy and passion, the real writing happens in rewrite.

Your assignment, besides reading Les’s book, is to reexamine the opening page(s) of a manuscript that you are having trouble selling. The flaw might be page one.

Happy Writing.