Thoughts on Writing: Using Texts in Your Narrative

Thoughts on Writing: Using Texts in Your Narrative

I recently finished reading a novel that spent time on the New York Times bestseller list. It was a mystery, so I expected twists and turns in the plot. What I didn’t expect was to identify weakness in the writing.

One flaw was easy enough to spot that I’m surprised that none of the author’s editors picked up on it. Even in written communication, each character should have a distinct voice. This book wove text messages from multiple characters through the narrative. And every one read like it was written by the same person, despite the fact that these texts were supposed to be from people of different ages, genders, and educational backgrounds. Sorry, no. That fails the plausibility test.

Check your mobile phone and open to any text conversations that you are currently having. Do you phrase things in the exact same way as the other person? Probably not. People have distinct texting patterns. Often, we greet one another and sign off using different phrases. We each have our own unique way of abbreviating words. Some of us are sticklers for proper grammar; others use text-speak. Some folks overuse punctuation!!! Others favor certain emojis. 🤣😂 It all boils down to this:

Make sure your written communication is as unique as your dialogue.

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Supernatural Tanka

Recently, I saw a call-out for poetry based on the TV show Supernatural. Given that I am a fan of the Winchester brothers, I thought I’d try my hand at penning a few. Sadly, haiku were not eligible for this project, since the poems had to be at least five lines. (You can read some of my Supernatural haiku here.) So, I decided to write tanka (or, at least, modified tanka). Two of my poems are still under consideration for this book  – yay! – so I thought I’d post my rejected poems here. Only, let’s not call them rejected. How about under-appreciated?

ANOTHER DAY

beside a devil’s trap
painted with blood sigils
dusted in rock salt
the Winchester brothers
survive
and endure

FOR DEAN

If I could
I would bake you
a lattice-topped cherry pie –
pit-free, sweet, with no lingering aftertaste –
just the safety and comfort of home.

Have you written poetry based on a favorite book or TV show? Let me know in the comments!

Newly published in the Golden Triangle

Today, I received notice from the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District that one of my haiku placed as a runner up in their recent garden haiku poetry contest. 

daffodils —
freshly cut
bangs

This means that somwhere, in downtown D.C., my haiku is posted as a sign in a flower bed. How cool is that!


Ten Signs You Were Raised in the Desert

 A few years ago, I saw a call for haiku about the desert experience. Having been raised in California and Utah, I was eager to submit to this anthology. My poem appears in Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga (Dos Gatos Press, 2013):

thermals rising
all across the valley
prayers for rain

When I was working on the submission, I found myself slipping back into my childhood and I wrote up this list. If you are also a desert flower, I’m sure you’ll relate. 

Ten signs you were raised in the desert:

1) You don’t own a raincoat or umbrella, or if you do, you bought them for a special occasion.

2) When you step out of the shower, you expect to be dry before your hand hits the bath towel. Sometimes, you don’t even use a towel.

3) There was a cactus in your yard when you were growing up, or you knew someone who grew them.

4) Your mother worried that you would fall into the cactus and poke your eye out.

5) If you hear the weather forecast calling for any chance of rain, you expect to get damp, but never drenched.

6) You’ve lived through several rounds of water rationing.

7) It seems weird when servers bring out water at a restaurant without anyone asking for it.

8) You can tell the difference between smoke from a wildfire versus a fireplace by smell alone.

9) You’ve been evacuated during a wildfire or know someone who has. 

10) Every place in the U.S. east of Colorado looks too green.

If you can relate, like this post & share it! 

Evolution of the Poem: at the barre …

pia04937orig1Recently, I was combing through old poetry, and ran across an early draft of my scifaiku poem “at the barre …”, complete with a list of markets that had rejected it.

Now, I love the completed version of this poem, which reads:

at the barre
the graceful arms
of a spiral galaxy

— first appeared in Rattle‘s Issue 49, Fall 2015, Tribute to Scientists

And I was excited when this scifaiku won an award, placing second in the 2016 Dwarf Stars Award given by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

But the poem didn’t start out that way. In fact, the early versions were downright terrible.

My inspiration for this poem came from my daughter, who was taking dance class at the time. One of the ballet positions – fourth, if I’m remembering correctly – had one arm curved over her head and the other curled around her front. She reminded me of a spiral galaxy.

So, I began to research spiral galaxies, and discovered that their arm positions determine whether they are classified as spiral galaxies or barred spiral galaxies. The shape that reminded me most of my daughter was barred – an SBc.

I thought this was a nifty comparison, and conjured a row of little galaxies standing in front of a ballet barre. Such a lovely image should be easy to put into words, no?

This is an early draft of my poem (yes, I actually sent this out):

spiral galaxies —
intergalactic dance troupe
in “b” position

Um, yeah. It’s my poem, and it doesn’t even make sense to me.

But I knew I liked the concept, so I hung in there and kept editing. Barre was a lovely word to use because it both evoked the ballet and gave a nod to barred spiral galaxies. Once I put that word in there, I could take out the line about “b” position (the “b” stood for barred anyway), and I didn’t need to use the word dance. Elimating that clunky verbiage allowed the poem to flow from there.

So, please, my poet friends, hang on to your poems that speak to you, even if they start out rough. Haiku or scifaiku, in particular, can be deceptively tricky to write. Some short poems practically write themselves, but not this one. “At the barre …” needed distance, perspective, and research to come together.

Photo credit: That’s spiral galaxy Messier 81 above, as imaged by NASA/JPL/Caltech/University of Arizona/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Four Ways to Outwit Writer’s Block

The key to outwitting writer’s block is to attack when its back is turned. Ironically, when you lull yourself into a safe place in which you don’t expect to produce writing of value, you will make a breakthrough.

How do you accomplish this? It helps to know why you’re stuck. Here are four common types of writer’s block and ways to get around them:

1) You can’t write out of fear of failure.

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Shouldn’t writers be able to produce verbiage 24/7? Don’t worry; this happens to everyone.

Write in a different genre, try a new poetic form, scribble something just for fun. Give yourself permission to take your writing less seriously.

As an undergraduate, my professor stressed the importance of long, narrative poems. I became so obsessed with literary quality that I couldn’t write! I didn’t publish any new poetry for nearly ten years.

Instead, I switched to working on creative nonfiction and magazine articles. I started a family-friendly science blog. While researching topics for my blog, I stumbled onto scifaiku – a curious and oddly specific poetic form. Before my conscious mind could take over – and remind me that I couldn’t write poetry any more – I began to crank out scifaiku. It was so wildly different from narrative free verse that it slipped past my mental filters. That was eight years ago, and I am now a published short-form poet, with awards for both haiku and scifaiku.

2) You can’t write because you don’t know where to begin. You have too many ideas!

The best way to escape this block is to write outside of your comfort zone. Tailor your work to a specific market. Search for “poetry contest” or “fiction contest” on Twitter and hit up calls for submissions in places like NewPages.

I made my first speculative flash fiction sale (apart from microfiction) to Mad Scientist Journal, a publication that seeks stories about – you guessed it – mad scientists. I wrote about a sweat sock researcher who got arrested for hiding in a communal dryer. Quirky? Sure. But it helped me to get past my writer’s block AND I made a sale.

3) You’re out of ideas.

Take a writing break. Don’t write anything – not even a shopping list – for a few days. Muses hate to be ignored. Similar to not chasing after a promising date, running will scare your muse away. Ignoring them has a way of making them return to woo you with flowery words.

4) Your writing career has suffered a setback that causes you to doubt yourself.

If this is your situation, you have my sympathies. Writing is a solitary business and nothing is harder than facing a word shortage when you have doubts about your ability to produce quality work.

If steps 1-3 fail, start another creative endeavor, one entirely outside the field of writing.

In 2015, I finally broke into a paying poetry market that I had been trying to crack for months. But by the time my work was set for publication, the editor was embroiled in controversy and some poets boycotted the journal. I found the whole situation so uncomfortable that I couldn’t write poetry. Again!

So, I turned to crafting. Instead of writing small poems, I made tiny wreaths, hanging adornments instead of adjectives. It took a few months – and over 100 ornaments – but finally, the shock wore off and the lure of writing called again. Only now, I also have to keep track of an Etsy shop too!

Do you have a technique for outwitting writer’s block? Let’s talk about it. Tell me in the comments or tag me on Twitter (@MamaJoules).

Failure (or Why Crafting is Like Writing Fiction)


See this wreath? I made it yesterday. And then I deconstructed it and threw most of it away. As much as I hate to admit it, I failed at making this wreath. 

Failure gets a bad rap. Sure, it sucks to admit defeat. But studying failure can be quite instructive.

Why does this wreath fail to please the eye? First and foremost, it doesn’t transcend the space. That’s always my favorite part of crafting – when the piece I’m making stops looking like pieces – a bow, some ribbon, a few dots of glue – and become a wreath. If my wreath was a short story, you’d simply say, “This just isn’t working for me.”

Okay. Let’s break that down. One of the biggest problems with this wreath is the color. It really would look better in green. More Christmas-y. More wreath-like. Again, if this was a short story, I’d have to change the setting. Maybe alter the background.

Moving on to content – I like the bow. I saved that element. But there’s nothing else to catch your eye. Wreaths work best with “the rule of three” – groups of three items are pleasing to the eye. In a short story, you might say I have too many characters. No one element really stands out. 

Size and scale are problems too. I like working with small things – miniwreaths, micropoetry. Sometimes scaling up – moving up to a big wreath or a short story – is tough for me. This wreath didn’t scale well. Again, if I was writing a short story, I’d need to give my characters bigger problems and/or describe them in greater detail, really flesh them out.

Unfortunately, crafting isn’t quite as forgiving as writing, and I had to throw most of this wreath out because the hot glue (for once) actually held on with a death grip. And maybe that’s a writing lesson too – if a story is holding on to you so tightly that you are paralyzed with writer’s block, it’s time to admit defeat – it’s time to fail! – and move on.