Tuesday, April 24, 2018

PEP TALK

repost by Lynn


I remember one time I was visiting my father, Jim Griffith, and he leaned over, patted my leg and said, “Little Lynnie, the cheerleader.” He had a smile on his face and his voice was warm, even proud.

I was in my forties at the time.

“Dad,” I said, “That was more than twenty years ago!”

I didn’t say out loud what I was thinking, which was: Is that all you can say about me? Haven’t I done anything since high school worth noting?

Lynn, third from the left. Go Tigers!
I was a cheerleader at Niobrara County High School for two and a half years. But if you’re thinking of a Hollywood cheerleader with blond hair in a ponytail and a fluorescent-white smile, think again. This was Lusk. There were 42 students in my graduating class. (We’re great, we’re alive—we’re the Class of 75!) Those of you who went to small high schools know that kids there are involved in pretty much everything; there are so many spots to fill and so few students.

So, yeah, I was a cheerleader. I was also a National Honor Society member, played drums in the band, joined Spanish Club and FHA, played an old lady in the Junior Class Play and worked on the yearbook.

National Honor Society; Lynn in the middle,
focused on keeping her knees together
I tried out for cheerleading my sophomore year, but didn’t get a spot. Jeanie Oliver beat me out. I like to think it was because she was blond and shapely, and I was… not. But maybe I blew the try-outs. At any rate, mid-semester it was discovered that Jeanie’s grades had slipped, so I got the job after all.

I went after it whole-hog, catching up quickly. I studied the routines, practiced at home in front of the mirror and kept my uniforms spotless. I even learned how to do the splits, which was recently permitted since we had a new cheerleading sponsor. The previous sponsor, Mrs. Bramlet, forbade the splits—something to do with it not being “virginal.”

My senior year I was elected by the squad to be Head Cheerleader. I think it was because I could yell really loud. Everybody in the county knew what the cheer was going to be when I bellowed, “Two Bits!”

Cheerleaders can be pensive, on occasion.
Lately I’ve been wondering about Dad’s statement, “Little Lynnie, the cheerleader.”

It’s true that I like to cheer people on, especially my fellow writers. Just the other day I got an email from a writing buddy—let’s call her Ruth—who was struggling after a writing critique. She was wondering if she should give up on fiction, thinking maybe she didn’t know what the average person wants.

I sent her this response:

A CHAT WITH RUTH’S EGO

Lynn: What makes you think Ruth should be able to write a perfect novel, right out of the gate?

Ego: Well, if it were up to me, she wouldn't even try to write. Much too risky. She might get hurt!

Lynn: But she likes to write and she's good at it. Obviously, it enriches her life. When she gave it up for a while, she got really sad.

Ego: Yeah, but it's my job to remind her of the dangers. To tell her daily that she might fail, she might not do it perfectly. To point out that whatever genre she is currently working in is probably not the “right” one for her. That keeps her scrambling and ensures that she doesn't get much done. I'm sure she'll thank me some day for keeping her from failure.

Lynn: And from success too.

Ego: Well, yeah. I guess I just want her to keep from trying. Pretty much anything.

Lynn: That's so kind of you.

Ruth, darling, this has nothing—nada—zip to do with writing. Your problem is you let the numbnuts in your mind rule the show. You listen too much to the critic, the ego, the naysaying voice.

Get this: we ALL have reservations, questions, insecurities, negative voices in our heads. Sorry, you're not that special :-) It's just that most of us don't hand them the microphone and say,
"Tell me again how shitty my writing is."

Suggestion #1: Ignore those nasty voices and keep writing, wherever the juice is: poetry, nonfiction, fiction. The more you do that, the quieter the voices will get. They never go away entirely. You have to work on in spite of them.

Suggestion #2: Screw what "the average person wants in fiction"—since when were you even interested in the average person? You're quirky, oddball, one of a kind, and that's why people love you. Dampen that down for the sake of a story and I will give you a hiding you'll never forget. Damn! Don't talk to me about writing for the average person again. Ever. You've got a unique voice, a talent for sardonic wit, and an oh-my-God-that's-strange imagination. Write for people like THAT!

Suggestion #3: It's way too early to be seeking out feedback on your novel. Write it. Then let it sit. Then dive into revision. Complete drafts #2, #3, #4... and on. Learn more about the art of writing fiction. Yeah, that sounds like a lot of work, and requires a lot of patience. Develop it.

The analogy that arises for me in this whole situation is: Ruth grabs a tennis racket and takes a swing. Thinks she should be going to Wimbledon. Crumbles in despair when that doesn't work out for her.

Just write, my friend. Just keep writing.

~~ End of Pep Talk ~~

Ruth liked it. I think my urging helped. She gives me encouragement, too, usually by saying things like, "I love the way you put words together."



I also give myself pep talks, usually when I journal in the mornings:

The anthology editing is almost done. Finish strong, Lynn! 

Story rejected, so what? Submit again. Today! 

The critique said I need to tighten the story. I’m not sure what that means, exactly. Grab that book on revision and find out—Go! 

Dad and me

My father died in 2001, but I hear his voice often, offering counsel, giving encouragement, and, yes, saying...

“Little Lynnie, the cheerleader.”

Maybe he knew something about me I didn’t know about myself?


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Writing at the Ranch

Guest post by Gayle M. Irwin


The amber sun rises above the shadowy hillside. Standing on the wooden porch of the white-framed home, cup of steaming Costa Rican coffee in hand, I hear mourning doves greet the early spring morning. I’m about to start the first day of my self-imposed writing retreat – witnessing this tranquil sunrise is an inspiring way to start, and one reason I keep returning to this place.

Wyoming’s majestic landscapes spark my creativity, and at the JKL Ranch along the Powder River near Kaycee I find that inspirational ignition. Therefore, I take self-imposed writing retreats here each winter and spring. My friends, Judy and Kevin Lund, graciously open their guest house to me, and from this location I compose short stories, magazine articles, and pet-oriented books, including last year’s children’s work A Town Dog Named Mary Visits a Ranch.

Tranquility abounds at this semi-remote location. Daylight street noise and nighttime light pollution don’t exist. Cell service is limited, and internet isn’t an option here. Therefore, interruption from vehicles, door-to-door sales people, telephone, text, email, and social media are absent. I’m able to set aside hours for idea generation, writing manuscripts, and editing my works without noise or other disruptions.

Solace also comes from the land itself. The acreage sits amid bluffs above the river to the east; the Bighorn Mountains rise in the distance toward the west. These surroundings revive, restore, and reveal. Writing at my friends’ Wyoming ranch opens the windows of my senses and stirs my creativity.

Spring is especially vivid. Ripples of snow-melt water flow over the rocky river bed and splash along dirt-filled banks. Geese honk as they float the current, encouraging feathery friends to join the party. Tree leaves flutter with the breeze, while meadowlarks trill from fence posts. Sandhill cranes arrive to raise their young in the shelter of Russian olive hedges. These tall, gangly birds dance in the fields and trumpet their air travel over the acreage. Blooming wild iris and developing barley fields create fragrances as delicious as that of full-bodied wine. Red-tailed hawks and golden eagles soar through the azure sky. Woodpeckers drill their bills in large cottonwoods, and the occasional hen turkey with youngsters strut along the dirt driveway, pecking for bugs and seeds. White-tail and mule deer drink from the same river and often forage the guest house lawn as well as the nearby grain fields. Other animals, such as raccoons, bobcat, and coyote, live on or pass through the property, although usually only tracks and scat speak of their presence.

I observed my first owlets on the Lund’s property last spring. Three downy birds first confined to a large cottonwood cavity became fledglings perched on a nearby branch, their great-horned mother overseeing them a tree away.

Livestock also reside here, their scent often wrinkling my nose. Cattle roam the ranch, including a pasture abreast of the guest house. They trade grazing grounds with two llamas and two yaks. Various breeds of sheep also forage for food and drop their offspring every March. A donkey named Humphrey keeps vigil over the lambs and their parents.

While many writers find their muse at coffee shops or libraries, mine is enriched by nature and solitude. Each visit to the ranch refreshes my body and spirit and fuels my creativity. Writing ideas sprout, bloom, and flourish, including essays for WREN (Wyoming Rural Electric News) and books for children and adults. This year, I plan to complete my first novel, new chapters generated while visiting the ranch.

Nature’s beauty inspires me, and as spring approaches renewing the vast Wyoming landscape, I look forward to my next trip – writing at the ranch!

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Gayle M. Irwin writes inspirational pet books and stories for children and adults as well as serves as a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in seven Chicken Soup for the Soul books, including last year’s “The Dog Really Did That?” Last year she authored a children’s book based on being at the JKL Ranch titled A Town Dog Named Mary Visits a Ranch, which she’ll share with young audiences during Children’s Book Week in May. Gayle is a member of Wyoming Writers, Inc. Learn more about this Casper, Wyoming, writer at www.gaylemirwin.com.




Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Life-Altering Magic of Middle Grade Books

Guest post by Nanci Turner Steveson

One of my four brothers asked me a few years ago why I write literary fiction for the Middle Grade market, when authors who write Young Adult books make all the money and get movie deals. Good question, right?  I come from a family of six kids. Both parents, and my five siblings, all either graduated from Ivy League colleges, or UT Plan II (for the genius people). Not me. I didn’t go to college, so everything I know, I learned through grit, determination, a whole lot of reading, traveling, and studying on my own. Thank God for my insatiable curiosity.

My brother’s question is a fair one — although for me it came with that lifelong sense of not being quite up to snuff as the rest of my family. It is the rare, literary middle-grade novel that makes a big splash and earns an author a lot of money. It wasn’t even a writing “voice” that came naturally to me, as my editor at HarperCollins will attest. I had to work hard to move past my stuffy, overly-poetic prose to learn how to write for this age group. I read hundreds of books over many years to understand the specific voice that is comfortable and exciting to a middle-grade reader. Writing for a different market is certainly something I considered more than once — yet my commitment to upper elementary through middle school children remains strong and steady.

Here is the thing: If you are in a room with 100 people, and ask them all what their favorite book was as a child (“child” being an unspecified time period), 90% of them will remember a book they read when they were between 8-12. Charlotte’s Web. Anne of Green Gables. Walk Two Moons. My Side of the Mountain. The list goes on and on. And, when they answer you, they’re going to smile. Not only is this the prime age which determines whether a kid becomes a lifelong reader, but they are perched on the cusp of adolescence when they begin the arduous hike through oh-so-murky-waters, and stumble upon the trickiest paths of their young lives. The books they’ve read can give them better footing as they navigate their way toward adulthood. It is the age when we, as authors, can assure them, “You’re okay — now go forth and stumble.”

Sometimes I hear rumblings of criticism about a theme in one or another of my books. This always startles me. I believe it is our responsibility to offer youth a glimpse of what real-life looks like, outside the cocoon of their upbringing. Death happens. Anxiety happens. Difficult relationships between parent and child happen. Blended families happen. Moving happens. Divorce happens. And what safer place for children to explore these things than on the pages of a book?

Where else can a young child raised in a homogenous society develop empathy and understanding for those whose lives are very different than their own? I point to Linda Sue Park’s book, A Long Walk to Water; R.J. Palacio’s Wonder; and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. It is here where children can explore the ideas of bi-racial marriage; different cultures; same sex parents; adopted and foster kids; single moms; single dads; people with disabilities; kids with an incarcerated parent; or, as in my third book which comes out next January, kids who are experiencing homelessness.

This is often where children see families like theirs who are viewed as different, and the message is: You’re okay.

One of my favorite reviews was from the Center for Children’s Books at Johns Hopkins University about Georgia Rules. The reviewer wrote: “Steveson takes time to develop and round out each of her characters and their histories, resulting in a singular, intricately woven story of people’s complicated, rule-surpassing existences. This book gives young readers a useful perspective on the negotiation of power in their lives, and it sheds a soft light on the imperfections of adults, creating space for honest and open dialogue.”

What a beautiful thing: to allow a child to experience power, and to create space for open and honest dialogue when they discover that we, as adults, are fallible and flawed.

I admit, I did not start out writing for middle-grade readers with these noble concepts in mind. I didn’t struggle to learn how to write for this age group because I held such lofty ideas that my books might change lives. I decided this intentionally for two reasons: One, when I was nine and knew someday I would be an author, I constantly had my face buried in books that took me away from a rather complicated moment in my life. They gave me comfort when no one else could. Two, because I regret not going to college. I would have been a teacher, and writing for the Middle Grade market allows me the opportunity to go into schools now, to teach and inspire kids to read and write, and to let them know that whatever challenges life puts in front of them, if they want something badly enough, they can make it happen. I am living proof.

The understanding that my books could make a significant difference to a child came about by default. In my first book, Swing Sideways, I never use the words “anorexia” or “panic attacks,” but it is clear that the main character struggled with these in her recent past. About two months after Swing Sideways came out, I got an email from a librarian who wanted me to know the impact that story had on one of her young students. The girl was eleven, a dancer, and a voracious reader. After reading my book, she recognized something of herself in Annie’s story, and was able to find the courage to tell her parents she had been hiding her own anorexia for a long time.

At age eleven it is easy to not fully understand what it means that you can’t eat, and it’s equally easy to hide what is happening by wearing oversized clothes so no one notices you are shrinking. The effects of this girl’s anorexia were already so severe, she spent several months in the hospital and out-patient care. I spoke to her mother once and, with a wobbly voice, she said to me, “I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t read your book.”

Imagine how humbling those words were for me to hear. I don’t write books with a planned “message.” I write from that deep, dark well inside me, that place we should all visit from time-to-time whether we are authors or not. I write about once-in-a-lifetime friendships that happen in a place where the rules of the real world don’t apply. I write about love and laughter, forgiveness, rising up from the ashes, and overcoming the odds. What young person doesn’t need to experience that, whether in real-life, or through the magic of the perfect words?

There are many days when I struggle with that frightening blank page, but then I remember that little girl and the difference my words made at a time when she desperately needed to read them. That isn’t to say other genres can’t have an impact on readers, of course they do. But for me, as a person who found great solace in books, it is a wonderful thing to offer hope to a child who might just need to hear me say, “Yes, yes, you really are okay.”

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Shameless plug time: Nanci Turner Steveson is on the faculty of Wyoming Writers Inc.'s 44th annual conference coming up in Dubois June 1-3. We thought we'd let you get to know Nanci a little bit here, then pop on over and register for the conference to see more of her. You can also learn more about her on her website at www.nanciturnersteveson.com.

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Nanci Turner Steveson grew up with a book in one hand, the reins of a pony in the other. After her children were grown, she moved west with her horse, a golden retriever named Peach, and a mysterious box given to her by a ghost. Nanci now is Stage Manager for a professional theatre and lives in a historic, meadow cabin in the shadow of the Tetons. In addition to writing books for middle-grade age readers, her favorite thing is to inspire young writers by teaching in elementary and middle schools across the country. Nanci is on the Board of Directors of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, and mentors high school students through Writers Club!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD

post by Lynn

I remember a time, before we got married, when Mike and I were eating lunch and he asked, “What should we have for dinner?”

I told my sister about it.

“Oh, he’s gonna fit in with our family just fine,” she said.



Food is a big part of my life, and I make no apologies about it.

So I often wonder when writers leave out of their stories all the muffin crumbs, lemon zests and long, cheesy strands of life.




I concur with the Italian writer, Aldo Buzzi, who wrote, “The writer who never talks about eating, about appetite, hunger, food, about cooks and meals, arouses my suspicion as though some vital element were missing in him.”

Not including the growing, gathering, purchasing, preparation and consumption of food in your essays, stories and poems is, in my opinion, a lost opportunity.

A LOST OPPORTUNITY FOR…

Waxing philosophic:

“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” 
- Luciano Pavarotti 

Paying homage:

“When God sets the table for dinner, I would bet my grandma’s rolls are right next to the butter.”
- Susan Mark 

Expressing disdain:

“Cucumber should be well sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.”
 - Samuel Johnson 

Humor:

“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” 
- Calvin Trillin 

Portraying attitude:

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” 
- Sophia Loren 

Expressing the sublime:

“Strawberries are the angels of the earth, innocent and sweet with green leafy wings reaching heavenward.” 
- Terri Guillemets 

Characterization:

“Mariam’s right hand scoops peanut sauce and rice from the communal bowl. Her thumb nudges it into a ball, which she slips into her mouth using only her forefingers. Not a grain of rice is dropped."   - me 

Delivering a good insult:

“Americans will eat garbage provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup.”
 - Henry James 

REMEMBER?

Food is a portal, too, to memory.

What is evoked as I remember my father serving my sisters and me a dish he called “goop” (creamed tuna on toast--pretty much the only dish he knew how to cook, having learned it in the military) after my mother’s departure when I was eight years old?

Goop filled the hole in my stomach, but I missed my Mom’s tacos, how she used paper towels to  press all of the grease out of the hamburger for me, because I was a finicky eater, and couldn’t stand any kind of fat.

And in remembering my father’s dish I am whisked back to that time. I feel again the craving for my mother's tacos and I feel again the hole in my insides that no amount of food could fill.


There’s so, so much more to food than just the ingredients, the cooking, the eating. There’s a whole other world of sensation, impression and connection.
“I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.”  
                         -- M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me 

A WRITING PROMPT

In our writing group, we have an exercise called “Tag, You’re It.”

Between our monthly sessions, the person assigned to be the “tagger” selects a writing prompt and emails it to that month’s assigned “taggee.” The taggee writes to the prompt and at the next session, shares the results with the group. 

Mike recently tagged Susan with a writing prompt from Natalie Goldberg that encouraged Susan to write about a food memory.

“A Lemon Pie Worth the Work” was the result. Susan’s depiction of a scene in which she was performing her little-girl job of adding flour as her carpenter-father kneaded bread dough, told me all I need to know about how she reveres her father. The image stays with me like a note of music hanging in the air after the musician has set down the instrument.



So, all I’m saying today is don’t forget the food.

Let your characters argue over pickles in the potato salad. Resurrect the sound of your grandfather chewing his pot roast. Summon in your poem the taste of a single blackberry, just plucked from a bush in the shadow of the Tetons as you keep an eye out for bears.



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Poetry Can Open Space for the Imagination

Susan chimes in: April is National Poetry Month, a time to read, write, and celebrate poetry in all its forms. In Wyoming, WyoPoets marks National Poetry with their annual Spring Workshop. The 2018 event, "The Art and Craft of Poetry," will feature today's guest contributor, Art Elser. Learn more and register on the WyoPoets website.

Guest post by Art Elser

In these times of constant connection to the world, waves of information that daily inundate us, fears many have because of the recent events, is there room in our lives for poetry? Can we measure its cost effectiveness? Its effect to the bottom line? Its return on investment? Since April is National Poetry Month, perhaps we should properly ask: What value does poetry add to our lives?

As with all art, we have difficulty finding a use or value or price we can assign to poetry, no schema that sorts it into an economic priority list. Art finds its value not in utility, ROI, or cost savings but in feeding the imagination, in creating a room or space in the human soul where we can be encouraged, nourished, calmed, healed by it.

The ancients knew the value of poetry. It was first the vehicle by which fathers passed knowledge to sons, mothers to daughters, elders to new leaders. Poetry told the farmer when to plant, harvest, how to tend the crops. It told the healer which herbs healed illnesses and where to find them. Youngsters learned the social customs, laws, and taboos of their tribe, shamen passed on religion to novitiates. As cultures became more sophisticated poetry took the form of oral history and legend, for example, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf. More metaphorical forms emerged like the Psalms.

A friend recently sent me an article by the poet, Matthew Zapruder, "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis." In it Zapruder points out that prose often has a utilitarian purpose, to explain, to describe, to elucidate, to persuade, and successful prose stays the course to its conclusion, never wandering off on a tangent.

But poetry, Zapruder says, has no such discipline. The poet attempts to persuade you to take a course of action but is suddenly distracted by that field of wildflowers over there beyond that wooden fence. So we climb the fence with him and wander through the "bee-loud glade." We see the beauty of the lupine, mallow, fireweed, primrose, the iris by the stock pond. We smell their fragrance and feel the warmth of the sun on our face and arms. We hear the meadowlark singing on that mullein stalk over there near the cottonwoods, hear the wind whispering through the dry wheatgrass, the cottonwood leaves clicking in the breeze, the bees buzzing from lupine to lupine. We follow the poet over that fence and imagine ourselves in that flower-filled meadow, almost tasting the honey the bees are making.

Or we walk with the poet who is complaining about the busyness of her days and her lack of time to write because of a stack of laundry waiting to be ironed. She also mentions she has to take the dog to the vet and that suddenly reminds her of the homeless couple she saw on a street, their shopping cart stacked with their belongings. They treat each other with such love and respect that in spite of the stale-sweat smell around them, the beauty and dignity of their lives shines from their eyes through the dirt on their faces. And the love between them and their brown and white mongrel radiates in their faces and in its wagging tail as they share their meager lunch with it. The poet invites us open our imaginations to a world unknown to us. To imagine the humanity we have in common with that couple. Perhaps we suddenly find ourselves more open to empathy and compassion. We discover a reverence for all humanity.

Poetry then can open space in our minds, our imaginations, our souls, in which we can see, smell, taste, feel, hear, life's  beauty and joy as well as its pain, horrors, and disappointments. It helps us experience and better understand life happening around us. We learn to experience beauty and joy by just looking up from our smart phones and tablets long enough to see the smile on the baby coming toward us in the arms of a young mother whose face glows with joy. Or we look up from the screen filled with wonder at the beauty of the poet's imagery that has made us see or feel something we have never seen or felt before.

Poetry helps to imagine what others feel, their pain, their losses, the futility of their lives, and also to imagine the beauty and dignity of their lives despite their hardships. Poetry helps us become more sensitive to the of the world around us and to others no matter their color, status, religion, sexual preference, country of origin. We learn empathy and to treat others with love and compassion.

Perhaps in this age in which, by many accounts, attention spans are getting shorter, people are isolated, spending more time online, and many want to get away from the violence and horror in the world, poetry can open up ideas and feelings to help assuage the pain that seems to fill our world. A short, effective poem that fits nicely onto a small screen may be more apt to be read than an editorial or op-ed piece.  Poetry that feeds our imagination and opens spaces in our minds for beauty and joy and truth and empathy and compassion and reverence can heal our anxious souls and help us see our way back to our humanity.
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Art Elser is a poet and writer who has been published in many journals and anthologies. His latest book, As The Crow Flies, is a collection of 120 haiku selected from over 2,000 he has written. His other books include a memoir, What's It All About, Alfie?, and two books of poetry, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, and A Death at Tollgate Creek. Art lives in Denver with his wife, Kathy, and their pup, Walker.  He will be the presenter at the 2018 WyoPoets Spring Workshop, April 27-28 in Cheyenne, and was the juror for the soon-to-be-released 2018 WyoPoets chapbook, This Box for Dreams.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

KEEPING IT FRESH


guest post by William Kent Krueger

Lynn here: 

Kent Krueger is one of the stellar authors who will be on hand at the 44th Annual Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference this coming June 1 - 3 in lovely Dubois, Wyoming. (Turns out Kent has been to Dubois, doing research for his novel, Heaven's Keep.)  

During the conference, Kent will be the keynote speaker at the banquet. At his breakout sessions Kent will provide insight on finding the soul of the story, creating suspense and elevating setting and place. 

Little known fact: Kent was born in Torrington.

For more information on the conference, visit the Wyoming Writers, Inc. website. Registration is now open! 

Without further ado... here's Kent:

I’ve just completed revisions of the manuscript for the seventeenth novel in my Cork O’Connor series. Seventeen. That’s a number hard for me to believe. In 1998, when Iron Lake, my debut novel, was published, if you’d told me there were going to be sixteen more (and probably then some), I’d have wondered what you were smoking.

Of course, I’m thrilled, and one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is how I manage to keep the series fresh and maintain my enthusiasm. So, for anyone who has launched into the writing of a series or is contemplating that move, I offer a few suggestions from my own experience.

The most important decision I made when I started out was to create a protagonist who would not be static. What do I mean by that? I believe you have only two real choices when considering the essential, central character for your series. You will create a protagonist who is either static or dynamic. A static protagonist is someone who never changes, who is the same story after story.

Think Sherlock Holmes. You read one Sherlock Holmes tale, and he’s the same guy in every other Arthur Conan Doyle story you read. A dynamic protagonist, on the other hand, is someone who does change, who ages, someone for whom what happens in one story affects how he or she sees the world in the subsequent entries. When I began my series, Cork was a man just past forty. In Sulfur Springs, the most recent entry, he’s in his mid-fifties. He’s aged fifteen years. His children were young in the first book; now they’re grown and one of them has a child of her own.

What this choice has done is to help frame the series as a journey for the O’Connor clan. Each time I sit down to write a new story, I’m writing about slightly different people. Events and time have changed them. They see the world and themselves a little differently. They may relate to one another with different dynamics. Which means that the series is a journey for me as well, and I’m always discovering something new along the way.

Here’s another thing to consider when writing your mysteries: Try putting at the story’s center an issue about which you feel passionately. At one time, there was a kind of story often in literature referred to as the Social Novel, a fiction created around a very real, contemporary social issue that the author wished to bring to the attention of a larger audience. Think Dickens or Victor Hugo or Upton Sinclair or Theodore Dreiser. We don’t really have the Social Novel anymore. What’s taken its place? To a large extent, our genre has shouldered this responsibility. Many of our fine crime novels today hit hard at issues important in our society.

In my own series, I’ve dealt with the on-going battle here in Minnesota over Native hunting and fishing treaty rights, the influx of the drug and gang cultures on the reservation, the sexual trafficking of vulnerable Native women and children, the rape of the land by uncaring corporations, and most recently, the tragic situation involving refugees coming across our border with Mexico. When you construct a story around an issue you feel passionately about, it’s not hard to create a compelling narrative in which you can invest your heart and your artistic sensibilities fully.

Here's another suggestion: Educate your readers. Without being didactic or becoming pedantic, offer your readers information about an area they probably don’t know very well. Everyone likes to feel that, along with a good read, they’re learning something. Tony Hillerman informed a huge audience about the Navajo culture. When you read Nevada Barr, you get the inside scoop on so many of our national parks. From Keith McCafferty you might learn everything you need to about fly fishing and wilderness survival. It’s fun to show off what you know or what you’ve learned through research, as long as you do this judiciously.

In my own work, for example, I continue learning about the rich and complex culture of the Anishinaabeg. With each entry, I try to offer readers something I haven’t previously, a slightly different perspective. This means that I have to keep learning myself, and I find that I continue to grow in my appreciation of these fine people.

Finally, I offer this: Write because it’s what you love to do. If you’re following your passion, that’s going to be evident on every page. There’s nothing more compelling than a story that comes from the heart.

I told myself a long time ago that I would write the Cork O’Connor stories until I had no enthusiasm left for them. I’m at work in my head on number eighteen in the series and I even have a glimmer of what number nineteen might look like. At the moment, the energy still flows, I’m excited about the possibilities ahead, and I feel very blessed.

William Kent Krueger: Bio


Raised in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, William Kent Krueger—he goes by Kent—briefly attended Stanford University, before being kicked out for radical activities, a dubious honor which he continues to be unduly proud of.

Before becoming a writer fulltime, he worked in a number of manly enterprises, including logging and heavy construction. Kent writes the New York Times bestselling Cork O’Connor mystery series. 

His 2013 stand-alone novel Ordinary Grace was honored with several awards, including the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Desolation Mountain, the 17th entry in his series, will be released this August. He does all his writing in a couple of wonderfully funky coffee shops in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

HOW THE STUDY OF POETRY MAKES ME A BETTER PROSE WRITER

post by Lynn

If I’m cornered and asked that oh-so-annoying question, “What kind of writer are you?” I’ll usually answer that I’m an essayist and blogger.

So then why do I belong to the WyoPoets organization, and why am I going to their 2018 Spring Workshop in Cheyenne on April 28th?

Because sometimes I write poems.

Because I learn so much from the poets I meet.

Because I love the way poetry turns my brain upside down and helps me see new things while I’m all upside-down-ey.

So I am going to try to convince you that even if you are primarily a prose writer, like me, you should consider dabbling in poetry.

Starting with… 

1. Writing poetry helps you learn how to capture emotion on the page. 

“A poem begins as a lump in the throat… a homesickness.” 
- Robert Frost 

Wordsworth called poetry "the spontaneous overflow of feelings." If a prose writer is occasionally accused of stilted writing, studying poetry will help him/her to overcome that tendency. I have found that if I can’t figure out what an essay is really about—what is at the heart of it—writing a poem can help me zoom in on the emotional core of the story.

2. Writing poetry encourages you to write in sensory language

 … and that’s good for all forms of writing.


“Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t often use enough. Poetry keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your tongue, your hand.” 
- Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing 




Bad poetry is abstract and unclear. Good poetry encapsulates a single moment or image and presents it to the reader intact and pulsating with life.

We need more of that in all of our writing, don't you think?

3. Poetry experiments with form

… and that helps a writer learn to experiment with form in other styles of writing.

Ghazel, sestina, rhyming (and not), cinquain, acrostic, haiku or sonnet--poets have, through the centuries, come up with thousands of ways to stitch a poem together.

As writers, we can all get stuck in certain styles, formulas and formats. Poetry encourages me to break out and try new ways of organizing words. Because of poetry’s (usually) short form (not a huge investment of time in writing a first draft) I’m more apt to be playful and experimental.


4. Poetry encourages you to pay attention to rhythm, sound and pacing in a piece of writing

In linguistics it’s called “prosody” and in poetry we learn to use intonation, rhythm, the sounds of consonants and vowels, stressed and unstressed syllables in ways that enhance the meaning of the poem.

Poets learn to use punctuation and line breaks to control the pace at which a poem is read (out loud or in your head).

They use assonance (putting words with similar vowel sounds together) to produce a flowing, musical effect, or sharp consonance (repetition of similar consonants) to jar people awake.

These are all skills that can absolutely be transferred to prose… hallelujah, amen.

5. Poetry pushes you to focus and condense 

Poems don’t allow for long lead-ins, so they teacg a writer to jump right in where the story-image starts. What's more, learning how to edit and revise a poem is great training for editing and revising longer prose pieces. 

Poetry also encourages you to read close, and slow, and in this all-in-a-rush world, that’s a very good thing.

 6. Poetry encourages you to play with words and all their layers 

Poets geek out on things like connotation and denotation. (See a post on the topic at This Itch of Writing.)

Poets are aware that using long Latinate words, with a multitude of syllables, will tend to impart more formality to a piece of writing, while short ones that sound like how folks talk are more informal.

I think Samuel Taylor Choleridge nailed it when he said, "Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order."

A writing friend chimes in… 

Jim Littwin is a writer I “met” when he submitted a poem to Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology. Like me, he is a big fan of studying poetry to improve your writing overall.

I quote from his comments…

Because so much depends on word choice in poems, because by its very nature poetry is a more concentrated and condensed form of writing, because poetry is necessarily imagistic, and because poetry is expressed in narrative, lyrical, metaphysical, and surrealistic manners (to name just a few) and in a wide variety of traditional (rhyming and unrhyming) forms, as well as in free verse, organic poems, prose poems, and other “experiments,” poetry in itself is a veritable "art institute" of many galleries, each one offering experiences that can awe us, enrich us, inspire us, and teach us about life and writing in a relatively small space, each poem a “canvas” that we can get lost in, then emerge from, changed forever as both persons and writers. (Whew!) 
Yes, yes, poems, by their very nature, demonstrate effective writing strategies and skills.

Yeah... what he said.

We could go on and on about how poetry can make you a better prose writer, but let’s not.

My co-blogger Susan, reading her off-the-cuff poem
at last year's workshop
So how about it? Will you join me and others at the WyoPoets 2018 Spring Workshop?

For all the reasons above.

And also because the workshop is so damned reasonable ($50 before April 14th, a mere $55 after).

And because Art Elser is the workshop leader. (You won’t find a more delightful combination of sagacity, sly humor and humility in a single person, I guarantee.)

Here's that sly fella I mentioned who will guide us through the
 "Art and Craft of Poetry"
and as a bonus, share his experiences in
publishing his own poetry.
And because the folks involved with WyoPoets are such an eclectic, welcoming and word-loving bunch. Just the kind of people I like to hang out with.

For more information on WyoPoet’s Spring Workshop, “The Art and Craft of Poetry,” visit www.wyopoets.org.


POETRY AS A WRITING PROMPT

I often use poems as a writing prompt when it’s my turn to provide one to my writing group.

Try this poem/prompt and see where it leads you, and let's all say "Thanks!" to Jim Littwin for loaning us this fine poem.


Lost Gospel
by Jim Littwin

And at that time
Jesus broke away from us
and waded into weeds,
plastic bags,
and broken glass
under a billboard
and knelt beside
a drunken man
curled and cursing,
shivering in his own sickness.

There in the dirt
Jesus sat him up
and said words to him
we couldn't hear,
for we wouldn't go near.

And the man did not
stop drinking immediately
thereafter, but followed us
at a distance,
from that day.

And sometimes,
Jesus would wave us away
and turn to walk with that man,
to ask him questions,
then listen and listen.

--"Lost Gospel" was originally published in Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology

Prompt question:

What would you add as a "lost gospel"? Or what lost chapter, idea or element would you add to another work, such as the Chronicles of Narnia, The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment or another classic?