Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

Postcard bridge on Pennsylvania Turnpike 20_0810 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)

Good news and a poetry writing prompt: Pantoum

My poem “The Choice” has been published in the spring 2020 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum, an honor society magazine. Here are the poem’s first two stanzas:

                 “The Choice”
I would not wish you to pass.
I would press my hand into your palm
and hope my distress stirs you to choose.
Override the machines. Grab on or let go.

 

I would press my hand into your palm
and pray for a reflex, anything.
Override the ventilator. Grab on or let go.
Breathe or stop on your own.

 

The year after my father collapsed with respiratory failure I spent a lot of time, usually alone, in waiting rooms—surgery, ICU, radiology, and more. So many waiting rooms in three hospitals and five care facilities in two states.

PKP Forum 2020 springb

The high stakes, the uncertainties, the complications made fiction reading (my usual pastime) difficult. I turned to reading and writing poetry. One of the books I read was Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice, which introduced me to Indian poet Reetika Vazirani and her work.

Vazirani’s three-line poem “Lullaby” stuck with me. And I found myself using Vazirani’s poem as a model. I wrote of my father’s situation over and over, never finding the right words until I learned a poetry form called the pantoum.

The repetition and circling back of the pantoum’s form helped me synthesize the prayer poems I had drafted during my father’s eleven ventilator-dependent months. These months included three times when doctors recommended extubation—twice while my father was unconscious and once while he was awake and clearly not ready to die.

“The Choice,” in the form of a pantoum, helped me to work through this ultimate decision.

Writing exercise

I’ve been curious as to whether the writing process I used might work again with different subject matter (for example, the social isolation of sheltering in place).

  1. Write about your own subject/topic using Reetika Vazirani’s poem as a model for phrasing, line breaks, and so on. Keep writing and writing until you have multiple versions and approaches and angles and voices. Here’s Vazirani’s poem:
                      “Lullaby”
     I would not sing you to sleep.
     I would press my lips to your ear
     and hope the terror in my heart stirs you. 
                     —by Reetika Vazirani (1962–2003)
  1. From among your drafts, highlight the line or lines that “say it best.” Consider which one might work as the first line of your pantoum. Note: This will also become the last line of your pantoum.
  1. Continue working with material from your drafts within the pantoum structure. One interesting aspect of using this structure is that as you write a stanza, you are also writing two of the lines for your next stanza.
        Here’s the pantoum structure of four-line stanzas, notice the repeats:
A
B
C
D
B (a repeat)
E
D (a repeat)
F
E (a repeat)
G
F (a repeat)
H
G (a repeat)
I
H (a repeat)
A (line 1 repeats)

Pantoums aren’t limited to four stanzas, as my outline shows. They can be any length.

Note: When I worked through this process, I titled my “Lullaby”-based drafts. Some of the drafts were “Prayer,” “Meditation,” “Hope,” “Will,” and “No Words.” Ultimately, these titles helped me organize the different approaches and points of view. I encourage you to title your “Lullaby”-based drafts.

  1. Then, edit, review/peer review, revise, and repeat.

When you need more information or inspiration, it helps to search for and read pantoums on the Academy of American Poets website poets.org or on the Poetry Foundation website poetryfoundation.org. You’ll notice how some poets make slight adjustments in the repeats, while others are to-the-letter faithful in their repetitions.

If you try this writing exercise, I’d be interested to hear about what does or doesn’t work, including your resulting work. If you feel comfortable, please post a comment.

Play with your words: Poetry craft, reading & revision

Postcard Florida lily pond 19_0924b - Copy

Vintage postcard: A charming lily pool in the heart of Florida

When I was in grad school a few of the poetry students seemed to be more, er, playful. I remember a potluck dinner at a professor’s house where one of the poetry contributions was an 8½-by-11-inch pan of Jell-O with mini bottles of booze gelled into it. The liquor was plucked out and consumed. The blue gelatin, not so much.

Outside of parties, there seemed to be little overlap between students and faculty in the poetry track and those in the fiction track. In hindsight, I wish my program had required us to take workshops and literature classes in other genres. For me, the magical realism class taught by Alberto Ríos offered the most in terms of genre blending with topics ranging from Dadaist poetry and images to novels by Isabel Allende and others.

Post-MFA I felt ill-prepared when my first teaching gig included a creative writing class meant to cover both fiction and poetry. I had much more to offer students in the fiction unit. For the poetry segments of the course, I relied heavily on the textbook.

Reading about poetry

Through the years I worked to make up for this gap in both my reading and my work in poetry. A few books I return to time and again are:

  • Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch. The book collects his columns from Washington Post Book World and covers an array of poets and poetry styles. The individual columns offer platforms for further reading, “from ancient times to the present,” and for drafting.
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. With sections on “Subjects for Writing,” “The Poet’s Craft,” and “Twenty-minute Writing Exercises,” this book is geared for classes or self-study. Wondering how to structure a sestina or how to address death and grief in poetry? This book can help.
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and that’s what it was for me. This book helped me play with words and possibilities, even when I was writing about heavy topics.

Reading poetry itself

One of the usual prescriptions for writers is to read. Kooser’s book led me to subscribe to his column and others like it. Daily and weekly poems pop into my inbox from sources including:

  • American Life in Poetry—Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, sends out a weekly poetry column. Each column includes his introduction to the poem and some basics about the author of the week’s poem. Access the columns online at americanlifeinpoetry.org or subscribe (free) to receive the week’s poem in your inbox. The column’s supporters include The Poetry Foundation.
  • Poem-a-Day—The Academy of American Poets offers, both on their website or via free email subscription, a variety of poetry that includes pieces by contemporary writers, works in progress, and samples of centuries-old verse. Each Poem-a-Day email has a statement from the poet about the genesis of their work or a historical note, as well as a brief author bio.

Any of these inbox poems can lead to deeper dives into the poetry of individual writers. Reading a whole book from a particular poet can help you connect to their work in a way that a single poem often cannot.

NOTE: Content on the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets websites also cover the craft of poetry and are a useful accompaniment to the books mentioned earlier.

Seeing revision in progress

Another helpful area of reading has focused on revision. One book in particular made me feel like I’d observed a college poetry workshop in that it took student-level poems and offered critiques from an array of teacher/poets:

  • Poets Teaching: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner. This is an older book, published in 1980, that I rescued from a bin headed to the college Dumpsters. (Who knew that indexing books in online databases costs more than keeping the books on the library shelves? But that’s a matter for another day.) This book advanced my understanding of line, exposition, sound, and so much more.

Each student poem in the book received extensive comments (sometimes contradictory) from two or more of the thirty-plus teachers, among them David St. John, William Stafford, and Thomas Lux. Occasionally, the teachers offered line-level suggestions for the more advanced poems to show how handling lines in different ways led to different effects.

Some feedback in this book made me shudder. Individual teachers didn’t hold back from labeling writing as “boring.” One even said, “it may turn out her abilities do not lie in writing, but in some other direction entirely.” Yikes! Is this any indication of what goes on in college-level poetry workshops? Or is it just a few of these teacher/poets?

Play with your words

Beyond reading poetry, craft, and revision texts, I’ve learned you should play with your words. Let yourself do the writing equivalent of chilling mini-bar liquor bottles in a tray of blue Jell-O. You can always pluck them out, throw them out, consume them, or turn them (or the Jell-O) into something else entirely in the next draft.

Bully Love: An interview with poet Patricia Colleen Murphy

Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy book coverPatricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Bully Love (Press 53) won the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was published in 2019. Her book Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press) won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award, judged by Stephen Dunn, and the 2017 Milt Kessler Poetry Award. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, and has received awards from Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, among others. She lives in Phoenix.

How would you describe your poetry collection in 2-3 sentences (as a novelist or screenwriter might offer in an elevator speech)?

This book examines how location informs identity, loss, and love. With images drawn from a difficult childhood in Ohio, and a subsequent rebirth in the wildest areas of Arizona, Bully Love delivers a portrait of one woman’s struggle to make sense of disappointments caused by both people and places.

Which poem did you most enjoy writing? Why? Also, which poem gave you the most trouble, and why?

My favorite poem in the collection is “Plucked.” I enjoy the whimsy of the opening, which contrasts with the content later in the poem: the tragedy of my mother’s mental illness. I wrote this poem after a hike in the desert during which I was feeling very emotional. That is usually how a poem starts for me, with a strong emotion. The images in the poem presented themselves in order and on time. And that is a true blessing! Because so often that does not happen. The poem also served an important purpose in the collection as a whole, by showing a strong reason why I wanted to escape Ohio, and what the desert offered instead.

By far the hardest to write was the poem with the title in its last line: “Day Trip, Cave Creek Guided Tours.” The poem describes a ride my girlfriends and I took with a typical Cowboy Wrangler Outfitter. The activity is designed to delight tourists and let them dip into a culture few of them care about. The line in the poem that includes the title describes the horses as, “quietly suffering our pats of bully love.”

My editor, Tom Lombardo, nudged me to make that theme more clear and more relevant to the collection as a whole. I think I sent him something like six versions of the poem. I had such a hard time getting it right. But then one day I realized, my god I’m one of those horses. My mother used me as a means to an idealized end. She wanted me to be perfect, part of a package that suited her and others. I got next to no pats from her, and those I received were insincere.

You’re the founding editor of Superstition Review, an online literary magazine, and you’ve been a poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Could you share your insights on how the arena of literary magazines and publishing is evolving, especially for poetry?

It is my observation that many literary magazines are currently reaching for out-of-the-box content and forms. One way I measure this is by looking at Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. That’s pretty much the first thing I do each day is read the poem in the newsletter. This year new poets are curating each month, so it has been an interesting year getting to see what poets prefer—it is so instructive.

As an editor, I like to evaluate poems in terms of their craft, content, and composition. I’m finding that content has really changed—fewer pastoral poems and more political poems. Composition has changed dramatically. The shape of poems is no longer dictated by the limitations of the printed page.

Work is getting shorter and more punchy. If we’re looking for realism, we require the language to be tightly packed. We are used to word counts being so much more strict, which in some ways I find to be a good thing, although sometimes I miss more meditative wanderings.

What role did literary magazines (traditional, hybrid, or online) play in your book’s development and publication?

It is difficult (impossible?) to read every literary magazine in existence, but I have read a lot and published a lot. Before Internet publishing became acceptable, I used to sit in the ASU library and the Hayden’s Ferry archives and study back issues of magazines to glean editorial preferences. In those days Internet publications were not as esteemed. That has changed dramatically.

Part of this shift occurred as web design improved and online outlets gathered resources. I believe a big part of the acceptance and proliferation of online literary magazines came when academic poets were able to use them in promotion and tenure decisions. In the early days of online publishing, online mags were likely to disappear, and thus the publication credit with it. A CV with broken URL links to defunct magazines does little to help create a case for promotion.

This has led to a proliferation of online magazines, both independent and university affiliated. These days wandering the Bookfair at AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] has become an all-day affair. But, today’s writers can quickly drill down to what they find most important in a publication: format, frequency, design, previous contributors, previous publications. It’s easier than ever to research markets.

I published much of my work in literary magazines before collecting it in books. That is partly because the theme and structure of each book occurred separately from the composition of the poems themselves.

What is one of your favorite pieces of publishing advice?

This fall I’m teaching a graduate level class in literary publishing for our Masters of Narrative Studies program here at ASU. I will dole out all manner of advice in that class, much of which I hope will be useful. The most important note I would give to anyone poised to send work out is to make sure that the market fits. Read the most recent issue, the most recent book, the most recent bios. You can get a super good feel for editorial preferences by studying a publication or publisher.

Are you involved in a writers’ group? If so, could you describe your group and/or its format? How has your group influenced your writing, productivity, and so on?

Oh, I’m a huge fan of writers’ groups! I had a long-standing poetry group we called “Ten Poems.” We live all over—California, Omaha, Colorado, Arizona, etc.—and for a long while we shared work in Google Drive. What a wonderfully sustaining community that was. It helped not only with composing, but also with revising and editing. We have all moved into busy positions—mostly teaching at universities—so we haven’t had a “Ten Poem” session in a while. But we all keep in touch.

My current writers’ group consists of fiction and memoir writers. We all attended a Writing X Writers manuscript bootcamp in Tahoe this year, and we really connected. We have been meeting about once a month through video calls and exchanging small sections of writing.

What’s among the best/worst advice you’ve heard or followed about writing poetry or the writing process?

Absolutely the worst was that I needed more Instagram followers.

The best was this revision exercise: take the first and last stanza off the poem. See. Isn’t it better now?

Read more about Patricia Colleen Murphy and her work at the following sites:

Contests vs. general submissions for fiction, poetry, nonfiction: Economics & odds in publishing

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Vintage postcard: Federal building at night, Chicago World’s Fair 1933

I’ve rarely entered writing contests. At $20 to $30, most entry fees seem too high. Granted, some publications do ease the sting by sending you a copy of the issue containing the winning entries or a year’s subscription, but still…

When you could pay a $3 reading fee for 10 general submissions versus one $30 entry fee for a contest, the economics win. The return on investment for contest entries often seems too low.

Million-dollar contests

My view of contests was reinforced when I read about the Writer’s Digest contests in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. “When I worked for Writer’s Digest, the revenue from competition entry fees approached a million dollars a year,” writes Friedman. “The number of contests was a budgeted line item in the revenue forecast, and if the projected number was not achieved on time, the contest deadline was often extended to collect more entries.”

This gave me a new perspective on contests that announce they’ve extended their deadlines. Are they just trying to bring in a certain amount of money?

It also led me to do some math in my head—seldom a good thing—when an announcement for the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition popped into my inbox.

For this contest the regular entry fee is $30. I figured that to generate $1 million, the contest would need more than 33,000 entries distributed over the nine categories. Yes, the contest offers a $5,000 grand prize and several other higher-dollar prizes, but when I recently saw this year’s short story winner my first thought was, So that’s what a hundred-thousand-dollar story looks like (at least in terms of entry fees).

Here’s what I was thinking (mistakenly):

$1,000,000             (approximate entry fees)
             ÷  9             (the number of categories)
$111,111             (entry fees per category)

NOTE: This assumed that all categories received a ninth of the entries, or about 3,703 entries, at $30 apiece.

Okay, upon further examination, my math was really wrong because the Writer’s Digest competitions website also lists separate competitions for self-published books, popular fiction, short short stories, self-published ebooks, and poetry. These other contests must be part of the organization’s revenue projections, and I’ve only been looking at the Annual Writing Competition.

The one number I may be close to right on is that $1 million in contest revenue would require more than 33,000 submissions at $30 apiece, not counting expenses for prizes, administration, honorariums for judges, and so on. Nonetheless, the odds of winning or placing among 33,000-plus submissions doesn’t give me any sense that the odds may ever be in my favor, no matter how good or bad my writing is.

I apologize for picking on Writer’s Digest, but their contest just happens to be the one I read about recently. I don’t think their contests are alone in being a “profit center,” to quote Friedman again. I also doubt their odds are unusual among big contests.

Better odds in local and regional contests

When considering contests, I look for better odds. I’ve found this in local and regional contests, especially those held by nonprofits. These contests may attract a few hundred entries instead of thousands.

For example, the annual Wisconsin People & Ideas contests for fiction and poetry received 69 fiction entries and 585 poems in 2014 (the most recent year that I could find reported entry numbers for). The odds were much better for fiction (1 winner in 23), whereas the poetry odds were much tougher (1 winner in 195).

The regular entry fee is $20, and cash prizes range from $500 to $100 for the first- through third-place, respectively. While both the odds and the potential ROI for this contest seem more attractive, entries are limited to Wisconsin writers.

NOTE: In addition to cash awards, the Writer’s Digest contest offers introductions to agents and other benefits that are difficult to place a cash value on. Similarly, Wisconsin People & Ideas, a publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters, offers winners benefits such as a residency, publication in the journal, and a reading during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

Acceptance rates for general submissions

Acceptance rates of 1 to 2 percent seem common among many literary magazines, based on what I’ve read through the years.

In a 2016 Review Review article, “Is Duotrope Accurate? Ten Lit Mags Provide an Answer,” writer Jason Peck compared journal acceptance rates to what Duotrope users were reporting.

Here are a few of the acceptance rates literary magazines provided to Peck:

  • Colorado Review 1.06% acceptance rate
  • Flash Fiction Online 0.7% acceptance rate
  • Rattle 0.717% acceptance rate

Tahoma Literary Review regularly provides acceptance rates on a page titled “What We Pay (and how we do it).” For example, the fall/winter 2018 issue received 1,225 submissions, of which 25 were published, which is a 2% acceptance rate (if my math is correct). If you’re interested, the TLR website breaks the submissions down by category.

Final thoughts (for now)

In the end, contests may offer a bit more recognition, money, and perks, but their entry fees could quickly drain your budget for marketing your creative writing. On the plus side, contests offer a deadline, which may help push a project through to completion. Remember, however, that deadlines may be extended to attract more fee-paying competitors.