My first day in seventh grade, I learned I had Mr. ‘Dandruff’ Dan Hayden for second-period French and fourth-period English. Not good news—seeing as I was about as fluent in one language as the other and I couldn’t speak a sel lick worth of French. And, according to scuttlebutt, old Dandruff Dan wasn’t the understanding sort in any dialect.
During second period that day, I learned about my tante’s plume (aunt’s feather).
Okay. Maybe I could learn Francaise after all. But in fourth period I learned English wasn’t going to be such a walk in the parc.
We were barely fidgeting in our seats when Dandruff scanned us from over his Racing Form, sighed, shook his head, said, “Write a story about a door knob.” Then he went back to choosing losers. Heck, if he could choose winners, what the spittoon would he be doing at Roosevelt Junior High?
Story? Doorknob? Sixty-four eyes bulged and thirty-two twelve-year-old fly traps gaped open.
Without even looking up, Hayden said, “Times a-wastin’, maggots. Drop your papers up here when you’re done. We’ll discuss them tomorrow . . . when I’m good and hung-over.”
The next day, in second period, I learned French tantes write with feathers. Imagine that.
In fourth period, I learned I could write with a pen. Friggin’ imagine that.
The sound of the bell was still echoing down the long corridor when Dandruff said, “Which one of you maggots is Hill?”
Frig. I raised my hand about shoulder high, but tried to hide behind the fat kid in front of me.
Dandruff still found me. He stood and waved a paper.
“You write this, Shakespeare?”
My brain shifted into auto-defense.
“No. Yes. I dunno.” All of the above?
Dandruff walked toward me, very slowly.
“It’s got your name on it.”
I willed myself to vomit, but only managed to burp. The class erupted into laughter.
He ignored the commotion.
“The assignment was to write about a doorknob, right, Hill?”
I actually hiccupped. More laughter.
“I did it,” I pleaded.
He stopped in front of my desk. Dropped the paper on it. A sloppy red ‘A’ sprawled across the top.
“Yes, you did. But you also wrote about a counterfeiter cowering in his basement. You may not be as stupid as you look, Hill.” He turned and walked back toward his desk. “But I can’t say the same for the rest of you maggots.”
That was my introduction to writing prompts. And the beginning of a love affair with writing.
If you write, you’re familiar with prompts. Some maggots consider prompts a plebeian exercise. I, on the other hand, love them. The simple ones. Not the clever prompts that build a box, or telegraph a preferred genre. The best prompts, my friends, are those that provide an unfettered springboard for the imagination. The prompts that suggest something to work with, but give you nothing to work against.
Like . . . a doorknob suggests something on one side, something else on the other, but leaves everything else up to you. Hell, the knob doesn’t even have to be attached to a door, does it?
Or, a paper cup, which suggests nothing but impermanence. If I asked fifty real writers to pen a story based solely on a paper cup, I’d wind up fifty completely different stories, covering a wide range of genres.
What about something so universal as . . . breakfast? Are you up for The Breakfast Challenge?
N.K. Wagner has agreed to indulge me in this simple challenge. Send your 500 word (or less) Breakfast Challenge story here to Page & Spine by midnight EST, February 28, 2014. I will take my sweet time reviewing, but eventually I’ll declare a winner, at which time the story will be published here at normal P&S rates plus 5 bucks I generously kick in because, what the hell. Beyond that, N.K. Wagner and Page & Spine disavow all knowledge of my existence.
Lee's serious about this, writers. Send your entries to email@example.com subject line: Breakfast Challenge before 12:01 a.m. EST March 1, 2014. - N.K. Wagner
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging. more...
INTERVIEW...COFFEE HOUSE CHATTER...STORIES....POEMS....ESSAYS....CRUMBS
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
Contrary to popular belief, free verse poetry is not uninformed chaos, the equivalent of a two-year-old's crayon scribblings. Nor is it a format for the essayist who doesn’t want to learn punctuation. (N.K. wanted me to tell you that. She probably wanted it couched in diplomatic language, but if she requires diplomacy, she should have assigned this sit-down to Jade. Ol’ Em calles ‘em like she sees ‘em. And what she sees … let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.)
Y’see, free verse ain’t at the bottom of the poetry ladder. It’s at the wa-a-ay tippy-top. It’s not meant for the beginner. It’s for the trained, experienced, creative poet who no longer needs—and probably feels hemmed in by—formal structure. At least part of the time.
Hear that? Trained poet.
Whazzat? They’re the poets who’ve learned the rules, wielded the tools and won’t look like fools once their poem is in print.
Okay, you say with all due caution in case ol’ Em has been tipplin’ the toddy a tad before tea time, without devoting the 50 years I don’t have left to taking classes, how do I become a trained poet?
Well, you’re in luck. Remember Roses are red, / Violets are blue? Way back in kiddie-garden you were finishing up that little quatrain with inventive insults aimed at all your cute little friends. Oh! Now you remember! No point blushing. We all did it, whether we admit it or not. While most of us knew our way around nursery rhymes long before the Roses gig, this is where we learned to use the meter and rhyme we’d been hearing from infancy to create something of our own.
So what happened? Where did we go wrong?
I’ll tell you what and where. We began to take poetry seriously. Our teachers were there, demanding that we understand and copy the classical poets. And we tried. But suddenly something we did for giggles became work, loading us down with words we didn’t know about characters we had never heard of feeling and thinking things we knew nothing about.
It was a disaster! Incomprehensible verse was stuffed into our ears like disgusting medicine-soaked cotton balls because it was good for us. Oh, you are so lucky my Ode to Mr. Feathers (our first grade class’ parakeet who refused to talk and loved to peck fellow pet Henrietta Hamster’s tail) has long since crumbled to dust, or I’d show you what I mean.
To make matters worse, somewhere along the way we were forced to memorize terms like metaphor and simile and that one no one but a spelling bee champion can manage—onomatopoeia. And to use them even when they didn’t apply to what we wanted to say. Because no one cared what we had to say. They only cared about the form in which we said it. And so, most of us learned to hate poetry.
As it happens, eventually some of us figured out we had a knack for word games beyond Wheel of Fortune and crossword puzzles, and we ventured out on our own. We found real, live poets (rather than the dead ones celebrated in textbooks), who were willing to nurture our clumsy attempts to harness our thoughts and emotions and nudge them into one or another framework to help us along.
We weren’t writing for a grade or to impress a teacher. We were writing for us. And something magical happened. Poetry became fun again. And anything fun is worth getting better at, right? So we took some classes or ventured out onto the internet to learn more and began experimenting with new forms, new rules, new challenges. We frolicked in a world of foreign and ancient formats but with modern language and ideas. Along the way we cranked out the odd poem that someone we trusted said wasn’t half bad, and that’s all the encouragement we needed to go on learning and having fun.
As our competence grew, we began making adjustments in the formal templates we’d been using. We modified forms until they only sort-of resembled those we’d started with. We carefully chose from among our tools until the thing we created carried our personal stamp instead of someone else’s.
And when the sky didn’t fall and our mentors smiled instead of fainting dead away, we bent a few more rules, nudged aside a few more impediments to creativity. Began to invent our own frameworks and to pick and choose which poetic devices suited the needs of each particular work. Before we knew it, we’d crossed a line. Our beautiful imagery and unique phrasing wasn’t confined to a quatrain or sonnet or triolet. It was something as unique as our vision. Free verse.
And we looked up to discover time had passed. We were in charge. Words revealed the music of our souls, and we could use them to share that music with others. We had paid the necessary price of learning our craft: mastering structured poetry and all its elements.
Because free verse is freeing, but it isn’t free.
♦ Emily is Page & Spine's associate poetry editor
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
Formulas don’t exist when it comes to captivating a reader. As much depends on the reader’s point of reference and mindset as the quality of the writer’s presentation, but some fundamentals hold true in all stories. The elements of storytelling consist of setting, characters, conflict and resolution.
A good storyteller does not coax the reader to enter his world. Rarely is there a door-bell or a secret knock to signal admission. A good writer understands the reader is a willing participant in the seduction. Just like the young girl who primps and preens before the prom, the reader wants to fall in love. That is the ultimate goal of the date, the private tryst, the intimacy between the writer and the reader.
To accomplish this goal is to address the sensual nature of the stranger who is absorbing the writer’s words. A writer needs to ignite the triggers that will evoke emotion, alert the senses and allow the reader to willingly surrender and become the writer’s prey.
Often referred to as the ‘hook,'’ it is the early snag in a story that reels the reader into a mythical world. The ultimate goal is to instantaneously transport the reader from their existence moments previously into the writer’s dimension. If the story takes place in a garage, the smoky smell of burnt oil needs to waft through the reader’s nostrils. If a princess steps out of the castle, we need to feel the nap ovelvet on her gown and hear the rustle of silk as she walks towards her destiny.
Critics will often snap, "don’t tell -- show me,” but in actuality what really needs to happen is to make the reader ‘feel’ the scene using sight, smell and touch. Using common words available to everyone, what sets the storyteller apart is allowing the reader to live in the artificial world for a few minutes and believe it actually exists.
The emotional attachment of the reader to that scene is critical in accomplishing a suitable reaction. Often, the setting lulls a reader into a false sense of security by accessing identification with the ordinary, only to have the character scare the living ‘bejesus’ out of the reader as his internal motivation is revealed.
Adventurous authors may decide to start from scratch and transport their reader to a world of Hobbits or royal courts, but the fatal flaw in many writers who approach a surreal world is to imagine the reader is not familiar with his fantasy. To accept this drama, a reader needs to be a part of it. The flaw in many writers' stories is the awkward jostle between reality and fantasy. If I am the princess in a story, my point of reference is borne from experience -- not that of my reader’s drudgery in their existence beyond the castle moat. A writer can’t afford to allow a character to wander aimlessly between two worlds.
It occasionally helps to build a character resume, cataloguing their experiences and vision of the world. Knowing who the character is arms that personality with attitude and life experience. Expecting a princess to understand dumpster surfing is as discordant as an obese person describing hunger. Unless… Perhaps the contrast between a gluttonous person trying to fill up an empty emotional cavity is enhanced by this conflict with the physical emotion realities of his world. That works.
The crisis, or conflict, is the sole purpose of the story. Imagine the mechanic who spends most of his days doing oil changes or replacing brake pads who may suddenly have the car of his dreams break down in front of his garage or the princess who must kiss a frog to find true love. It is a turning point, a time when the main character must pull together all of their life experiences and make a decision -- one that often goes against the grain of their usual reaction.
If the mechanic replaces the fan belt and goes home for supper, then the story wasn’t worth telling. But, what if he decided in that one moment to steal Elvis’s pink Cadillac and take the car for a joy ride on Dead Man’s Curve?
Let’s assume the princess found the frog too repulsive for her royal lips. Her refusal to sully her regal smacker allows her to be seen by the reader as an accident of birth, born into aristocracy but with the presence of a cowardly peasant. In both cases a resolution takes place, the story winds down and the reader goes back to her mundane existence, but happy to do so, satisfied that for a brief moment she was allowed to escape into the writer’s world.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
Would Gone With the Wind have become a best seller if Margaret Mitchell had called it “The Spoiled Belle”? Would your English teacher have made you read “Becalmed” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge instead of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? What if Ernest Hemingway had called The Old Man and the Sea “Gone Fishing”?
Despite all the agonizing modern authors go through over cover designs, fonts, page layouts and illustrations, there are only two things routinely visible on the bookshelf, table of contents, or magazine cover—the author’s name and the title.
The author’s name is a brand—like DelMonte. If you’ve been around for a while and built a reputation for consistently superior writing, a reader of the non-relative persuasion may scoop up at your latest offering no matter what you name it. If you’re an unknown you can make that time-crunched browser want to investigate your work rather than the next one by giving it a great title.
Consider this: if Stephen King wasn’t a household name, would Cujo or Carrie be good titles? No. But King’s reputation for producing outstanding horror stories makes these titles mere differentiators between one assuredly great tale and another. In his case, you can tell if you’re getting a horror story by the simplicity of his title—and the fact that he is Stephen King.
But when King ventures away from straight horror, his titles become more intriguing. Stand By Me, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are non-horror fare. This is an author who knows it’s a good thing to differentiate his products.
In the universe beyond Stephen King, the title has only one purpose. It is the hook of all hooks. Tell the truth. Would you have even started reading this essay if I’d called it How To Name Your Story? I wouldn’t. Not even after I’d finished yawning.
So what makes a good title?
N.K. Wagner is publisher and executive editor of Page & Spine.
BIOGRAPHY ... INTERVIEW ... STORIES ... POEMS ... ESSAYS ... CRUMBS
I’m told that idle sketches on napkins and written blurbs, the doodles of some of the great artists of our time, fetch millions of dollars when put on the auction block. I sure hope J.K. Rowling has her stash of serviettes. The story goes that all her writing for Harry Potter started as bedtime stories for her child, and then graduated to napkins when she took the child to MacDonald’s for his happy meal.
When a thought strikes a writer their first instinct is to write it down, for fear of forgetting. I’d like to believe that someday my stack of shredded notes and stained envelops might turn into currency, but I fear that may never happen.
I always have tons on paper in my purse—shopping lists and bills—but the sad truth is that I never seem to have a pen. I’ve been known to destroy my eye-liner in an attempt to preserve what I’d just heard.
The reality is that should I ever be mowed down and be at the mercy of paramedics, as they search through my personal belongings in pursuit of a medical card, the likely opinion they might form is that my purse is a mess and I’m a slob.
You’d think that hoarding might translate into some great dialogue, but every five or ten years—without fail—when I face the mess, I’ll likely throw the entire contents into the trash without looking at the notes. My reality is that once I’ve written it down, I usually remember the words without a prompt. To admit this would signal critics that perhaps I’m not really saving these snippets for posterity. Perhaps there is no deeper meaning. Maybe my purse really has become a portable garbage can.
I’ll never forget the day I heard the words ‘synthetic sympathy.’ Forget the classic alliteration, the emotion those two simple words when strung together evoked an immediate emotional response in me.
Didn’t it describe to a T a person who feigns compassion, but truthfully couldn’t care less?
I didn’t have a pen. I was nowhere near a source where I could buy, borrow or steal a pencil or crayon.
I must have repeated those two words a hundred times, trying to will them into my memory bank. I needn’t have worried. The strength and the emotion the words created made them memorable.
There is nothing remarkable about either word. They’re simple, everyday words we hear and never pause. Common language, stylized to reflect a character’s personality or create a mood in a story, is far more effective than an author’s playful pastime flipping the pages of his thesaurus.
Writers who love language will often overwrite stories. They might impress themselves with their string of three and four syllable gems, but if the reader begins to trip over these treasures, it’s bad writing.
Unless the story flows, allows the reader to devour the paragraph wondering what comes next, one of two things has happened. Either the author has a weak plot with insipid characters or he has tripped the reader with his own ego.
It’s a healthy exercise to stop before posting or sending a submission to an editor and ask oneself, "Is this the way the character would speak if we were to have a conversation? When in third person, does the narrator’s voice reflect the times and the mood of the setting?" If it sounds phony or contrived, save yourself the public rejection. Time for a rewrite.
♦ After a thirty year career as a sales and marketing executive, Ingrid Thomson is a top-ranked author in a website writing community and a published short story author who is working on the final draft of her first novel.
STORIES ... ESSAYS
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.