Tagged with "poetry"
Are you a poet and you didn't know it? Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers poetry

Some members of Writers Abroad write poetry. Some of us don’t. If I’m honest, I am always slightly uncomfortable critiquing a poem, since I don’t feel qualified in the technical aspects. I often read the winning poems in Writing Magazine competitions, but I skip over the accompanying critique.

The leader of our writing group suggested recently that we look at using poetry to sharpen our prose.

“Let’s all try writing a Haiku for homework,” she said.

I wondered if I could plead a prior engagement for our next meeting. I’ve heard of Haikus (Japanese poem of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 non-rhyming syllables), but this will be my first attempt at writing poetry since I was a child. And that was pretty turgid stuff.

When I read the material she circulated about using poetic techniques in writing prose, my interest was pricked. Poets use words to present an image or an idea, often in a very economical way. I learned that the first line of a poem is crucial in challenging or surprising the reader and setting up the idea. The last line is equally important in rounding off the theme. The two provide a unity that the lines in between develop. Try applying this to one of your favourite poems.

I tried this with John Donne, one of my poets of choice.

1st line: No man is an island entire of itself

Last line: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In between: development of the theme of our common humanity.

Sounds familiar? You can apply this to the first and last lines of a short story or a novel. Is the theme clear from the start? Have you taken the reader on a journey from a problem or a challenge to a destination? Does what happens in between develop that journey?

The use of individual words or phrases is also significant. To keep the reader’s interest, poets have to find new ways of presenting emotions or describing images without falling back into cliché. The novelist Helen Dunmore was a poet. The language in her novels shines. She sometimes used words that made you sit up, but when you thought about it, you knew they were exactly right.

Have a look at one of your works in progress, identify any clichéd language or emotion and try to come up with more original turns of phrase. Focus particularly on the first paragraph or two.

Now I am off to tackle the biggest writing challenge of the year so far: composing a Haiku.

Focusing on Theme Tags: writing fiction poetry non-fiction theme

Focusing on Theme

Since inspiration and fresh ideas seem to have flown off on holiday together – hopefully, only for a short break – I’ve been digging into the archives of my short stories. Some of them are unfinished, or finished but unpolished. Others have been unsuccessful in competitions. Rather too many! Reading over them, what struck me most was their lack of a clear theme. 

As a reader, when a story grabs me it’s because it leaves me pondering afterwards. I may have learned something that I hadn’t thought much about before, or at least can relate to. A strong theme is what makes the story memorable. I think I’m safe in saying poetry depends on theme too – poets will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong. Even non-fiction, in some cases, has a theme. In a novel, more than one theme is possible, and just as important. For me, anyway.

So what’s the best way to go about it as a writer? Let’s fast forward, as I’ve taken the easy way out via my best friend Google to find out what other writers thought.

Some thought it best to start with characters and plot and a theme would emerge organically. Lucky them. Preconceived themes often seem contrived. Stephen King apparently agrees. Certainly looking at one story I wrote, I saw that by choosing the theme first I had made it sound a bit preachy. Others say that theme has become a lost art in fiction, sometimes considered old-fashioned.

Other writers didn’t care about theme at all, preferring to just stick to plot-driven action. Of course, all our tastes are different. Thankfully. I can understand that the world-building qualities of science fiction might be as satisfying as theme, but I’ll leave opinion to the experts in that genre (you know who you are!)  

An Australian academic site suggested a theme was of great importance, but that it shoud be 'underlying’ and ‘subtle’ and then went on to explain how to develop this. As you’d expect, showing not telling came into play. At the same time, it did suggest beginning with a theme, although perhaps this was aimed more at novel writing.

Personally, I think a theme is important. What do you think? And how do you approach it?

When to Stop Editing
Category: Writing
Tags: editing fiction non-fiction poetry

When to stop Editing

Before setting off on my travels, I decided to polish up some previously shortlisted stories and send them off to competitions. I kept finding myself asking the same questions: ‘When is enough enough?’ 'When is it time to stop editing?'  

It has struck me recently how differently some of the literary greats present their work. Sometimes it can look as if it’s only a first draft, prime examples of which I read recently: ‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe, and ‘Shalimar the Clown’ by Salman Rushdie. Both these authors have won and been shortlisted for major literary prizes, and yet grammatically and punctuation-wise are often very suspect, even with my shaky grasp of the subject. And Stephen Fry – I’m told, but was put off reading it – wrote a memoir that read as if it was unedited, rambling all over the place and side-tracking at every turn.

And yet – this is the point –does it really doesn’t matter, as long as the end result is effective? It’s part of their style. These authors have a distinctive voice and going for commas and full stops, and a normal structure might spoil it (although perhaps Fry went over the top). Well, that’s what I think. You may disagree.

I do believe in learning all the rules first, as no doubt Rushdie and McCabe did too, then when we become pros – which some of you already are – we can break them. Do our own thing, like they do. Roll on the day when I can write a first draft and be proud of it.

I also worry about being intrusive when critiquing someone else’s work. It’s instinctive to tell them how I would edit it myself, but is that any help? Am I interfering with their individual style and voice? Pointing out the basics is one thing but rewording whole sentences is perhaps a step too far. Luckily, the members of our group know each other well enough to pick and choose which advice to follow and which to leave. Or so I hope.

There are obvious areas where editing has to be done – whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry – like over-use of adjectives and adverbs, clichées, repetition, continuity errors, punctuation and grammar etc., but when should we stop editing? Often, I’m about to submit my work and find myself going over it again, just… one… more… time. I change a few things, when the original was better, but it’s too late, I’ve pressed ‘submit’. I did this only three days ago with the last story I entered – and ruined a perfectly good ending!

Personally, I think I’ll stick to the basic rules, until I can portray a strong enough voice, probably always editing too much. Of course, when I become a celebrity I can do anything I like. Hmm. That’s about as likely as having the film rights of my best-seller sold to Hollywood. But I’m looking forward to having enough confidence to break the odd rule (If I live long enough) and write whatever, and however I want, without being too anxious about editing.

Since writing this, I’ve read in Writing Magazine that Tracy Chevalier, author of ‘The girl with the Pearl Earring’ writes six or seven drafts in longhand first. Ouch. Pass me a stiff drink.

So, can you edit too much? Or is that impossible? What do you think?


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