Author Archives: Maria

About Maria

A communications professional, indexer, editor, dreamer, and planner. Oh, and she likes to write.

Tread gently: Some tips for critiquing poetry

photo-1429032021766-c6a53949594f“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
~ Robert Frost

The Restless Writers are a diverse bunch. Our interests range from children’s picture books and YA to memoir to spoken word. Recently, a few of our members have even ventured into poetry. And while we as a group are supportive of all our individual efforts–even if we haven’t had a lot of experience with a particular genre–we are not all confident in our ability to critique poetry.

I have a graduate degree in English literature, so you’d think I would have some skills when it comes to reading a poem and giving feedback to help the poet better express her idea. But my university years are well–well!–past, so I have been trying to find ways that I can offer feedback in a constructive way. Because with our writing group, it’s all about trying to make each other better writers.

Poetry doesn’t appeal to everyone, and you might not get or even appreciate each poem you read. But hopefully my approach to critiquing a poem will help you give positive and constructive feedback to the poet in your group.

Immediate impact: 
The first thing I reflect on when I read a poem is how it makes me feel when I read it for the first time. I try not to get bogged down in the structure or form of the poem at this stage–I let the words and rhythm carry me through. Does my mind delight in the poet’s language? Does she make me think about an object, an experience, a setting in a new way? Do I smile involuntarily because of the way she described a particular moment? Can I relate to the subject? Is it uniquely personal or oddly universal? How did her poem touch me, on an emotional or intellectual level?

Dig a little deeper:
Next, I think about how the poet achieved these impacts. How did she use language and metaphor to evoke a specific mood? How did she structure the poem? Did she employ a specific form, and was she true to the spirit of that form? Was she consistent in her use of meter and rhyme? How did structure and form help to emphasize different elements of her poem? Where could she have used such devices to better effect? How did she use words and sounds to jar, to charm, to tease, or to question? The important thing at this stage is to be honest but respectful, and tread gently.

Move forward:
To wrap up my critique, I provide suggestions regarding word usage, punctuation, and spelling. If I found some phrases to be a little clichéd, I try to help her come up with some fresher or more surprising options. If I really liked a particular stanza or rhyme, I let her know that too. I also like to find out what she wants to do with the poem. Is it a stand-alone piece that she wants to submit to a journal? Or will it be part of a larger work or series of works? Perhaps she wants to read it at an event or gathering, or keep it all to herself. Whatever she wants to achieve, I offer to do a second reading before she considers it done.

I always bring my own emotional state and life context to each poem I read. Different poems with different subjects will have different impacts on me, depending on what is happening in my life at the time of reading. But I think that’s one of the beautiful things about poetry–it can create an intimate connection between the poet and the reader, using language as a bridge. And for the Restless Writers, poetry is just another way we get to explore the ideas, themes, and words that keep us writing.

Happy critiquing!

Maria

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Filed under Group meetings, poetry

Chasing tales

Scary_roadMy feet tend to take me to dark places when I run. And not just because I run in the very early morning before the sun rises. The dark and quiet play games with my mind, and I have to talk myself out of my creepy thoughts.

I sometimes wonder if I should be running all by my lonesome when it’s so dark out. What happens if I sprain my ankle? What happens if I get hit by a car? What happens if that other runner over there turns out to be a serial killer?

My fellow early-morning runner raises a hand in greeting. Not a serial killer, as far as I can tell. I try to run with better form and less wheezing…at least until he’s out of sight. Soon it’s just me again.

There’s a rustle of leaves off to my right, and a rabbit darts across the street. What is that rabbit so scared of? Should I run a bit faster too?

My pace picks up a bit, until I manage to get my heart-rate back under control.

Good lord, is that a bear? No, it’s a hedge. A bear-shaped hedge.

A vaguely man-shaped figure appears out of the mist in the local park.

Sweet heavens, is that a zombie? No, that’s just an early-riser, taking his dog out to do its business. You say hello to him every morning. And everyone looks like a zombie before they’ve had their coffee.

“Morning!” I say. He says hello back. His dog hunches and watches balefully.

A few blocks further, a dark shape lurches towards me from the gutter. Gah, it’s a C.H.U.D.! Wait, nope, false alarm—it’s just a skunk.

Gah, it’s a skunk!

I pour on some speed and soon I’m at the half-way point of my run.

I glimpse the shadow of something gnarled and limb-like and sinister reaching across the sidewalk. My heart jumps into my throat once again—a gigantic spider!! Um, no. No gigantic spiders here. That’s a tree-branch. A tree-branch that someone really should move off the sidewalk.

Although, that tree-branch kind of looks man-made. Like machinery. Like maybe a drone, but one that short-circuited and then fell from the sky and smashed to pieces. Wait—did one of the drone’s appendages just move? No, it’s still just a branch, caught in a gust of wind.

Okay, maybe it’s not a drone today. But there could be drones here tomorrow, doing drone-y suburban tasks like delivering newspapers or surveying the golf course or baby-sitting small children. Soon they’ll be everywhere. Next thing you know, the drones become self-aware and demand better working conditions. Then there’s an uprising and a counter-revolution and the whole world goes to shit. That’s how Terminator happened.

My running route takes me through a stately suburban neighbourhood, where the biggest threat to public safety is kids riding their bikes too fast. Yet somewhere between minute 7 and minute 26 of my run, I’ve encountered enough beasts and ‘bots to populate a few new creepy short stories.

As I slow to a walk and approach my driveway, I wonder if this is how Russell T Davies gets his ideas.

And then I get writing.

Maria

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Filed under Inspiration, Motivation, Writing ideas

Road trip: Coping with the commute to feed my book habit

The walk to my bookstore was almost as nice as this.

The walk to my bookstore was almost as nice as this.

Growing up in downtown Burlington, I lived a 10-minute walk from my local independent bookstore. And I was there a lot. As a child, I enthusiastically browsed picture books on sunny Saturday afternoons. As a sullen and rebellious teen, I retreated with the bookstore cat to the upstairs poetry section on my lunch-break from high school. As an adult blissfully working in the same bookstore after university, I strolled to and from the store under a canopy of old-growth trees, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch of brie sandwiches from the local deli.

There is no chore less chore-like than walking to the bookstore.

Walking back home with the goods was almost as nice—less the thrill of anticipation of unknown pleasures; but with more contented looking-forward to perusing or giving away new purchases.

Where I live now, there is no bookstore within walking distance. If I want to buy a book—say, for Mother’s Day—I have to drive a good 20 minutes to find an independent bookstore or even a chain, and then pay for parking too. Biking there isn’t really an option either. Sometimes the hassle of getting to the bookstore casts a pall of irritability on what should be a pleasurable adventure.*

But, because I am nothing if not able to look on the bright side, I’ve learned to turn my car-aided book-buying trips into more pleasurable excursions. With the help of my trusty automobile, I get to:

  • Buy more books. I used to be limited by what I could carry in two hands. Now I can swipe my VISA with abandon, knowing I have a whole SUV to cart my purchases home.
  • Make it an afternoon. My favourite downtown bookstore is in a neighbourhood with plenty of pubs, coffee shops and other places to read. If I’m going, I might as well go for the long haul.
  • Or make it a quickie at lunch. I can buy a new book and still have time left over to nuke a Lean Cuisine before returning to the grind.
  • Bring a friend. Book-buying is more fun times two. And then you get to ogle each other’s purchases over lunch.
  • Browse in the rain. A stormy day doesn’t stop me from buying books.
  • Explore. If I have to get in a car anyway, why don’t I check out independent or second-hand bookstores in other cities?
  • Pass it on. In the same trip, and hopefully with a friend to help with the heavy lifting, I can bring boxes of books to donate to a charity book sale.

I hope one day to live within a short and pleasant walk of my local bookstore. That would involve a move or some brave soul opening up a new shop in my current neighbourhood. (Don’t look so pessimistic—booksellers have reason to be optimistic, even nowadays.) Time will tell. Until then, I’ll have to make do with getting there on four wheels.

What about you? Do you have a much-loved bookstore in your neighbourhood?

Maria

*True, my local library has a branch that’s a very easy five-minute walk from my house. But some days, I just want a bookstore. I want to browse, fondle, flip through, sniff, choose, discard, revisit and purchase books. I want to own books. I want to hoard them to an unhealthy degree. I want to give the second-best ones to friends and family. I want to dog-ear pages, scuff spines and highlight choice phrases with abandon and without fear of ruining the books for anyone else. I want the freedom to be able to buy a book and immediately chuck it in a puddle. (Not that I ever would—that’s shockingly disrespectful to the written word.) I’d just like to shop quietly and happily for books that I get to keep forever, thank you very much. And please don’t get me started with buying books online.
 

Photo credit: Crystal Palace by Ewan-M. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

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Filed under Books and stuff, Life and stuff

Getting to done: Applying writing advice to my life

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Seneca

to-doI’m having a problem focusing these days.

This comes as no surprise to my fellow Restless Writers, to whom I have been promising a fresh new blog post since the holidays.

The symptoms of my lack of focus are not limited to delayed blog posts. I’m also finding that I can’t read a whole book. I went from neglecting a new novel, to not being able to finish a short story, to skipping whole paragraphs in Globe & Mail articles. Even my Twitter feed has started to feel like too much pressure.

And it’s not just reading. I have a to-do list as long as a Canadian winter, enough Post-It Note reminders to wallpaper my guest bathroom, and so many evening appointments and meetings that I am thisclose to forgetting what the inside of my fridge looks like. The idea of replacing the light bulb in my kitchen seems overwhelming but I know I have to do it soon because it’s hard to make G&Ts  coffee in the dark. (Hard, but not impossible.)

Many of you know that my life has taken some turns over the past six months. I’m not surprised that all these changes have affected my day-to-day life in some way, but I didn’t expect that I would turn into a slack-jawed scatterbrain. I can’t seem to finish anything I start, and hunkering down to write seems impossible.

So what to do about it?

In my search for ways to tame my monkey-brain, I turned—of course—to other writers. Who better to advise on how to focus, since so many writers struggle with the fidgets and a perverse inability to just sit down and get ‘er done already.

Here are some of the best tips I’ve culled from the Interwebs about focusing on your writing. I’ve re-jigged them so they will help me focus on my to-do list and hopefully help me read (and eventually write) that book.

Block out time, not tasks: Getting to a word count goal can seem daunting, but telling yourself that you’ll write for an hour is manageable. Likewise, if I give myself an hour in which I can tackle, say, roaming around Home Depot, it might be easier than telling myself I have to choose the perfect light fixture today.

Be mindful of distractions: You can’t avoid distractions, whether you’re writing or trying to put together an IKEA shelf. The phone will ring, emails will keep coming in, and Rob Ford will inevitably do something stupid and burn up your feeds. Identify what distracts you the most. Is it Twitter? Indulge for five minutes, but then shut it down. Text messages? Put your phone in another room. Coffee craving? Keep a carafe full of hot tasty brew on your desk so you’re not forced to hit a local Starbucks.

Say “no”: This one’s hard. Writers are very protective of their time, and often have to employ drastic measures to make sure the world doesn’t keep them from their keyboard. These days, I am trying to fill my life with people and events, so saying “no” to an invitation gives me a bit of anxiety. I have to remember that saying “no” when I feel overwhelmed will help me save my energy for when I am ready to enjoy an activity or someone’s company. (Yes, this includes dates.)

Have an accountability partner: Writers share word counts and pages all the time. Maybe I’m doing the same thing by writing about my challenges and efforts to succeed right here. I may have to call on my sisters and friends to check in and make sure I’m chipping away at life.

Track the resistance: What is it about finding the perfect light fixture that’s so goddamned difficult? The parking lot? The bone-deep chill of winter? The crush of people? Whatever it is, I need to pay attention to where the barrier is, so I can figure out a way to get around it. It’s like with writer’s block—I need to figure out what’s keeping me from moving forward.

Treat yourself: Let’s say I do manage to find that perfect light fixture when I go to Home Depot on my lunch break. Just as when I finish a writing task (like finishing this blog post–yay!), checking that off my to-do list deserves a minor celebration, whether it’s a fancy coffee or a mini-iTunes shopping spree.

Do a little every day: I can’t do everything in one day—which pisses me off a bit—so I have to give my controlling self a break. I need to celebrate the little wins, keep checking things off my to-do list, and remember that things will get easier.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard that you can also apply to your life?

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Filed under Life and stuff, Organization, Trials and Tribulations

Get up close and personal with your character on a field trip

Baboons at the zooOne of the characters in my newest short story is mute. Not on purpose—it’s just that I don’t know enough about him to get him to say anything. So far, all I’ve got out of him is “yep,” “nope,” and a couple of nods and glares. And he’s kind of important. He’s a great, big, gaping cipher in the middle of my story, and I need to figure him out before I can move forward.

It shouldn’t be this hard, right? He’s an imaginary person, and I can pretty much get him to do or say what I want.

Whatever he does or says, it has to jive with the choices he makes within the story. His actions and the things he says have to be authentic and honest, even if they are all imaginary.

I recently re-read an interview with Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus. She said that she was bored with her original story and decided to send the characters to the circus to stir things up. I was inspired, and decided to see if sending my character on a field trip would help me figure him out.

Field trip # 1: The zoo

Okay, it’s a lot like the circus, so no points for originality–but it’s definitely a destination where almost anything can happen. I found out that my character is “that guy” who will jump into the baboon enclosure if someone dared him to and if there was an audience.

Field trip # 2: A job interview

Not exactly a walk in the park, but this helped get my character talking about himself and his past, and helped me understand how he would react under stress. I found out he’s a bit of a showman in an interview, and adept at highlighting his accomplishments. But he is stymied when questions about organization and prioritization come up. Maybe I should get him to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator next. Hmm…

Field trip # 3: A funeral

This was a bit of a downer, but it helped me get a grip on how well my character would mingle with other people in a more somber, emotional environment. It turns out he is uncomfortable with displays of emotion, and doesn’t want to be relied on to help other people manage their problems or their grief. He prefers to work through his own emotions by himself, and he expects other people to do the same. Sheesh. No wonder his girlfriend is on the fence.

So will any of this help? I think the exercise was valuable. As I continue to flesh out the scenes in my story, these tidbits about my character will help me figure out how he reacts to events, how he interacts with other people, and why he makes certain decisions. It might even change where my story ends up. And I hope that will help make my story better.

What about you? Where will you take your characters?

Maria

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Filed under Inspiration, Trials and Tribulations, Writing ideas

Call for submissions: Greater Hamilton Musician – Musicians Annual 2013

Musician with Guitar Jumping into AirHere’s a great opportunity for you writerly types in the Burlington/Hamilton area who are also connected to or interested in the local music scene.

Greater Hamilton Musician, a website and resource dedicated to promoting local musicians and connecting them with their community, is looking for submissions for its Musicians Annual, 2013 edition, which will be going to print at the end of November. It will be distributed around Hamilton and Burlington.

Greater Hamilton Musician is looking for stories, reviews or other articles that would interest musicians. They are looking for exclusive interviews with local artists and arts supporters/administrators/event-makers who exemplify quality, passion, and performance talent in the local music scene; articles with unique, unexpected angles and subjects that will remain fresh; writing that educates readers about new performance ideas, new opportunities to earn income, and new ways of using technology; and balanced critical reviews. Photographs are also being considered.

Does this opportunity sound pitch-perfect for you? You can read the detailed submission guidelines here. You can also read the Musicians Annual 2012 to get a taste of content and tone.

Queries (a one-page pitch in an email is ideal) can be sent to editor@ghmusician.com. No unsolicited submissions, simultaneous submissions or writing on spec will be accepted. Pieces selected for publication will be paid for.

Good luck.

Maria

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Hyperlocal: An interactive story map and competition from Canada Writes

Row housesCanada Writes, CBC’s online home for original writing, recently announced a national writing competition called Hyperlocal.

The competition focuses on what’s new and changing in your neighbourhood, and what those changes mean to you. They are looking for Canadians to submit their true, personal stories as text, photo essays, audio or raw video. The submission deadline is Friday, May 3, 2013. There is no cost to enter.

There are different ways to submit:

  • Text entry between 400-500 words (photo optional)
  • Photo essay and caption (3 photos + 50-100 word caption)
  • Video or audio (maximum length: 2 minutes) with a 50-100 word accompanying text

According to the Hyperlocal website, “Stories may touch on some of the big issues we face in a fragile economy, or may reflect small changes in a neighbourhood as it becomes gentrified, as the last post office closes, as a new restaurant opens with a fusion of cultures and cuisines, or as memorable characters move in or out.”

All stories will be posted online, and at the end of the month one winner will be selected by a jury panel. The grand prize is an interactive adaptation of the winning story by the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio and a laptop computer.

Throughout the project, you will hear from bloggers across Canada and featured writers—David Bezmozgis, Joseph Boyden, Esi Edugyan, Will Ferguson, Lisa Moore, Heather O’Neill and Miriam Toews—who will be sharing their own reflections on changes in their neighbourhoods.

In addition, the National Film Board will adapt five personal stories from the featured writers into interactive web-based story experiences. The full interactive experience can be viewed at www.nfb.ca, with each individual interactive story also displayed on the Hyperlocal interactive story map.

To explore the interactive story map, learn more about the competition, or submit your story, go to http://hyperlocal.cbc.ca/.

Bonne chance, all!

Maria

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