Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December Hiatus

What is it about this time of the year?  Maybe it's the ten bazillion things going on.  I am taking vacation after Christmas, and I have so much going on before Christmas, and I realized I have missed the last nine days' worth of posts...sigh.  So, I am officially declaring December a hiatus month.  I'll start posting again on January 5th.  I hope everyone has a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 8, 2014


Image courtesy of foto76 at
Ah, the haiku.  Doubtless, you’ve all heard of it in your English classes, whether that was yesterday or years ago.  In its Anglicized form, it is a poem consisting of three lines.  The first and third lines are five syllables each, and the second line is seven syllables.  Katya Sabaroff Taylor offers a really great into to haiku on her website, Creative Arts and Healing:

“Each Haiku is a tiny world of its own. Whether the poem is about a flower opening its petals to the sun, a woman looking in the mirror, or a cat playing with an old garden hose, Haiku often offers an “aha” moment to both writer and reader, as we become “one” with the image and its levels of meaning.

Haiku Structure:

This is a haiku                   5
in seventeen syllables        7
one revelation                    5         

Haiku can be lighthearted, bittersweet, philosophical or joyous."

On writing haiku, she says:

"Let yourself tune in closely to nature and the seasons, to city streets, to a pot of rice sending out its fragrance from the stove. You have a kindred relationship to animals, trees, people, the stars, moon, and rain. Look around you, what do you see? What holds meaning for you, at this moment now?"

It’s all pretty philosophical and deep, right?  This can make haiku seem kind of intimidating.  Haiku doesn’t have to be, though.  My introduction to haiku was actually a funny humor website that my sister found when I was younger.  Haiku about Spam.  Not email spam, but SPAM Spam.  You know, that weird stuff that nobody eats but everybody still sells it? 

Here are a couple of the gems from that.  Sadly, I don’t know who wrote these.

Twist, pull the sharp lid
Jerks and cuts me deeply but
Spam, aah, my poultice

Clad in metal, proud
No mere salt-curing for you
You are not bacon

And who dares mock Spam?
You? You? You are not worthy
Of one rich pink fleck.

To this day, these still make me laugh.  Really, haiku can be about anything.  If you want to deepen your understanding and appreciation of haiku, write about something fun and familiar.  Here are some more awesome examples of haiku – I like these, since they are Lord of the Rings based.  Many years ago this website called The BarrowDowns had a haiku contest.  This one by Alan Lensink was my favorite:

If Sam kept the ring,
Barad-dur would have flowers,
Mount Doom, potatoes.

I like it because it’s funny, but at the same time, it’s a wonderful exposition of Sam’s character.

The reason haiku is so good for poetic expression is that you are forced to choose your words wisely.  You have to condense your entire thought for a poem into seventeen syllables.  This means that each word must be packed with meaning. 

Maybe a demonstration will be helpful.

The most important part of writing a haiku is understanding the thought you want to communicate.  If you have a thought in mind, that’s great.  If you don’t, then allow yourself to draw from the moment.  My haiku was drawn from a project I was working on today.  I was having trouble figuring out this post, and so I worked on another project instead: rendering tallow.  I didn’t expect to find poetic inspiration doing this, but I did. 

That’s the thing about poetic inspiration.  Sometimes it’s intentional, other times, accidental.

So why was I rendering tallow? I make soap, and tallow just happens to be one of the best fats for a hard, high-lather bar.  Also, tallow is usually free.  You go to your local butcher to find it.  It sort of goes like this:
You: Hi, can I have a massive lump of nasty cow fat?
Butcher: Sure! I was gonna throw it away anyway.
You: Awesome! I now have a chunk of fat bigger than my head!
As you might imagine, it’s a very messy process.  You have to chop up this solid chunk of fat and cook it slowly until all of it is liquefied but the gristle and nasty sinewy stuff.  The result is this golden brown liquid that’s actually kind of pretty.  When it cools down, it’s solid and creamy white in color, sort of like shortening. It’s glossy and fairly attractive, as far as fat goes.

Anything is pretty compared to raw tallow, though.

I found myself thinking, “It’s really neat how this ugly, horrific junk turns into this pretty gold color, then makes such lovely soap.  Who thought something so disgusting could make something so awesome?”

That was when I realized that I needed to write a haiku. 

Yes, about cow fat.

But remember that haiku can be about anything.  Some of the best poetry takes something seemingly insignificant and captures its essence through the power of the written word.

So, my central thought for the haiku was, “this gross fat turns into something awesome.”  I ran through several possibilities.  There were many aspects I could focus on: the messy fat turns into something I can use to clean, or the changing process itself.  I bounced around a few words in my head – impermanence, which is related to change, but I rejected it as it didn’t really fit. I played with short phrases – hard white fat, shimmering golden oil, ugly fat – and I liked all of them.

This is the difficult part: condensing the essence of your thoughts into seventeen syllables while still using poetic language.

Slowly, the first draft congealed.
Ugly, hard white fat
Shimmering golden liquid
Something to clean with.
It didn’t feel right, plus, I really wanted to emphasize the change.  This worked especially well with the word ‘golden,’ since the old alchemists were always trying to figure out how to transform lead into gold. After counting the syllables of various combinations, I tried this: 
What transformation!
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Something that will clean.
I didn’t like it.  I liked the idea of the second line, as it really highlighted the contrast. I did not like the word ‘something.’  It was far too weak and ate up two whole syllables. I realized that the bit about cleaning a) was too ambiguous and b) didn’t really fit the overall concept.  I was trying to combine the thoughts of messy stuff making something that cleans with the thoughts of the changing process. 

Haiku only has room for one thought at a time.

So, I needed to change that last line.  I tried this:
What transformation!
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Into bubbly soap.
The concept was better, but the whole thing didn’t really flow.  I also wasn’t sure I liked ‘bubbly’ as the descriptor for ‘soap.’  I also thought that rather than saying “what transformation,” I wanted emphasize how dramatic the change was.  I swapped ‘such’ for ‘what,’ and changed the exclamation point into a colon.  This made it clear that the first line was, “Hey, the following is a really big transformation, so pay attention.”
Such transformation:
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Into lovely soap.
This still didn’t work for me.  The first line was great, and the second line was great, but the third line was ‘meh.’  Also, it didn’t really have any kind of syntactic flow.  I toyed around with adding ‘then’ to the second line, but realized I’d be a syllable over. So, I changed ‘liquid’ into ‘oil.’

‘Oil’ is only one syllable, despite the fact that it might sound like two.  This is because ‘l’ is a “liquid” consonant.  Imagine the same word but with a “stop” consonant, like ‘t,’ and you can tell that it is only one syllable.  Also, I checked the dictionary, and it said that ‘oil’ is only one syllable. So, you know, that settles it.

Anyway, linguistic debates aside, I now had one extra syllable in line two to work with.  I realized that ‘then’ didn’t really work so well, since the hard white fat was transforming to golden oil, then into lovely soap.                                                                                                     
Such transformation:
Hard white fat to golden oil
Then to lovely soap.
I knew I was close now.  But it still needed tweaking. ‘Lovely’ wasn’t working for me.  I decided to use alliteration for poetic effect – alliteration is when two or more words in the same phrase start with the same consonant sound.  I chose ‘sudsy’ instead because of this.  That, and ‘sudsy’ seems mellifluous to me.  Then, there were the grammatical considerations.  I felt that the phrase really needed a pause, so I added a comma to the end of the second line.  I also un-capitalized the first word of the second and third lines.  This is a personal choice.  Some prefer to capitalize every line of poetry; others capitalize only where grammatically necessary.  Some don’t capitalize at all.  It all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve.  Since I wanted to emphasize that this was all one connected sentence, I decided to un-capitalize ‘hard’ and ‘then.’ Normally, I would add a title to a poem, but since this is a haiku, it doesn’t really work.  A title has the power to color the whole meaning of a poem, and that’s basically an extra few words in haiku.  It’s cheating.  You have seventeen syllables, and that’s it.

The final result:

Such transformation:
hard white fat to golden oil,
then to sudsy soap.

This took me less than forty-five minutes to compose.  It wasn’t a huge effort.  It’s simple, really.  Nothing grandiose.  But haiku isn’t about the grandiose.  It’s about the moment, the single fleeting thought.  Remember that haiku is Japanese in origin, and a lot of Japanese (and Eastern in general) philosophy focuses on the impermanence of things. It’s fitting then, that the haiku is brief and momentary.

Now, there remains the question of how to read haiku.  Do you pause at the end of every line?

Not necessarily.  As in reading all punctuated poetry, you pause where the punctuation indicates it, just as if you were reading a sentence.  When you read it out loud, inflect it (inflection is the tone of voice you use) like you would normal speech.  Before a comma, raise the pitch of your voice ever-so-slightly.  At a period, drop the pitch, just like when you speak normally.  

Some poetry, including haiku, does not use any punctuation, in which case the end of a line is as good a place to pause as any. Without punctuation, however, you as the reader have the freedom to decide where to pause.  What flows naturally?  Try reading the poem with different inflections and caesuras (a caesura is a poetic pause) and see what you like best.  You might even notice that the way you read it out loud changes your interpretation of the poem’s meaning.

Haiku is very open to interpretation in general.  If you didn’t have the context of my tallow haiku, would you have known what I was talking about?  If you had never eaten Spam, would you interpret those silly haikus the same way as someone who has?  Or if you never read or watched The Lord of the Rings, would you ‘get’ the haiku about Sam?

Remember: fleeting, impermanent thoughts.  That’s what you should be thinking when you approach haiku. This was the essence of a moment in the poet’s mind. Not all of our moments are fancy.  They range from silly, like the Spam haiku, to very serious. When you read haiku, try to understand the essence of the moment being presented. 

Share your thoughts on haiku in the comments.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

It's About Time

Image courtesy of digitalart at
When it comes to being a writer, you have to deal with time management issues a lot.

If you’re a younger writer, in high school or college, you already have a lot of demands on your time.  Classes, homework, and extracurricular activities occupy a significant amount of your attention. Then, if you live at home, there are the chores that your parents insist you help out with.  If you’re at college, eventually you will have to deal with the fact that your dorm room is so messy that you couldn’t swear in a court of law that Jimmy Hoffa is not buried under your pile of junk. Plus, you probably have some friends or family who want to spend time with you, or your favorite show is on, or you want to catch up with all of the latest posts on lolcats or FunnyorDie.

If you’re an older writer, you probably have a full time job. You might be working on a post-graduate degree.  Possibly, you have kids.  You are solely responsible for taking care of your residence (unless you have a significant other or kids, but they make almost as much work as they help out with).  You have to do all or some of the shopping.  If you have a family or a significant other, there’s good chance that they’ll want to spend time with you, or your favorite show is on, or you want to catch up with all of the latest posts on lolcats or FunnyorDie, or, if you’re really sophisticated, you want to read the news.

Then, there are all the other things you want to do or might already be doing.  Say you want to get into an exercise routine.  Well, that’s at least another 30 – 45 minutes out of your day, or an hour if you’re taking some kind of class.  Maybe you want to pick up a musical instrument.  That’s an additional 30 minutes per day, if you really want to put practice into it.  Maybe you want to spend more time reading. If you want to get through a book in any decent amount of time, that’s going to be at least an hour a day, and maybe three or four hours on the weekend.

All of this in sixteen hours a day.  That’s already pretty stressful.

And you want to be writing on top of all of that?

When it comes to writing, I think that I and several of the writers that I know allow our writing to fall by the wayside before anything else.  Writing isn’t necessarily a priority, and even some of things we have to do are easy by comparison.  Exercising can be difficult, but you sure don’t have to concentrate as much while you’re doing it.  If you’re in school or work, you spend close to eight hours working your buns off on things that require a lot of concentration.  That can leave you drained.  What are you going to choose after that? Writing, or lolcats?

Probably lolcats, if that’s your thing.

Clearly, writing is difficult to make time for, at least once the thrill of a new project has worn off.  Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m speaking from my own personal experience and nobody else deals with this.  But I’m operating on a pretty strong hunch that I’m not the only one.

So how do you make time for writing? The same way you make time for anything else.  This requires planning ahead (something I’m not terribly good at). 

First, set a goal of how many hours per week you’d like to work on your writing. The most important thing here is to be realistic.  If you have forty hours worth of school, work, or whatever, don’t set a goal of twenty hours a week on writing.  Depending on how busy you are, ten hours might still be too much. But if you can swing it, five hours will still get you quite a long way.  Try to budget some time every day, but if you have a specific day where you have more free time, plan to do the bulk of your work that day.

For example, let’s say that you have a lot of time on Saturday mornings, most of which you spend sleeping in.  Get up earlier (but still later than you wake the rest of the time) and put in two hours of writing between when you wake up and noon.  If your goal is five hours a week, now you only have to divide 3 hours between the other six days. That’s only thirty minutes a day. How much time do you spend dinking around on the internet?  Probably more than thirty minutes.  If you normally spend an hour on the internet, cut that down to 30 minutes and use the other 30 minutes for writing.

It’s not about abandoning other activities in favor of writing.  It’s about balancing out the other ‘time wasters’ like video games, internet browsing, or whatever your favorite time-suck activity is.  As the old saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  You don’t want to take away your favorite activities, or writing will not be fun anymore.  But if you cut down on some of your favorite things to make room for writing, you will still be able to have fun and you’ll be more likely to actually write instead of putting it off.

Now, five hours is not a magic number.  The truth is that ten minutes of writing a day is better than no writing.  (I’m always trying to convince my guitar students of this when it comes to practicing their instrument.)  If you can only swing 60 minutes for the whole week, that’s better than none.  It will take you much longer to get projects finished, but if you hadn’t been writing at all, 60 minutes is in fact infinitely more.  One minute a week would be infinitely more.  Math is fun like that.

If you want to make more time for writing, it can be done.  It’s not about finding time for it, it’s about making time for it.  And no amount of time is too small, unless that time is zero.

You will eventually finish something in ten minutes per week.

It is impossible to finish something in zero minutes per week.

On the other hand, if your schedule varies, you might put in no minutes one week and 10 hours the next.  This is okay.  Nevertheless, you need to plan ahead.  Planning ahead can be a pain, but won’t it be worth it in the end?

Develop these skills now, while you’re young.  You won’t regret it.

How would you describe your current time management skills?  What would be a realistic goal for you to set, and how could you divide that based on your current schedule?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Word of the Week: Mellifluous

Sometime yesterday evening, I became aware of the day of the week. "Oh," I thought. "Well, so much for Word-Craft Wednesday."  I'm still getting back into the swing of things after NaNoWriMo, so sorry about that.  Anyway, I definitely didn't miss Word of the Week Thursday. For the curious: somebody used this word on one of my favorite shows, and I had to go look it up.  Then I thought, "Huh.  This is definitely going to be a Word of the Week!" So, here you go!

Word: mellifluous

How you say it: [muh-lif-loo-uhs]

What it is: adjective

What it means: 1.) sweetly or smoothly flowing; sweet-sounding:
a mellifluous voice; mellifluous tones. 2.) flowing with honey; sweetened with or as if with honey. (Definition courtesy of

[Side note: the second definition of the word is far less common, and you should consider whether it is really appropriate for your writing or speech before you use it. Check out this post for more on using vocabulary words well.]

Use it three times and it's yours! Using a word three times can help it stick in your memory.

The professor's speech was so mellifluous that everyone listened to sound of it rather than paying attention to the words.

Everybody loved Peggy's yeasty, mellifluous bread.

The choir's mellifluous singing sent chills down Sara's spine. 

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Monday, December 1, 2014

...and I Feel Fine

"Apocalypse" courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at
Well, NaNoWriMo is over, and I came in with 43,039 words.  

In other words, I didn't make it to my goal of 50,000.  In the end, I chose not to do the final push. At the beginning of November, imagining this scenario would have caused me to react like it was the impending apocalypse.

However, I had my reasons for throwing in the towel.  It had gotten to the point where my writing had deteriorated.  I was just putting words on the page to be on the page. My characters were offering snarky commentary on the plot, had lapsed into modern vernacular, and nearly every word that I wrote offered nothing to contribute to the story.

I had reached maximum creative capacity.

I think that it is important for a creative artist to recognize one's limitations. For me, I certainly could have finished it out, but I knew that at this point, I wouldn't be able to get back into the creative groove.

I didn't want to have words on the paper that added absolutely no value whatsoever.  Up until the end, what I had been writing was of questionable quality, but was definitely of value to the story. It was in fact editable.  What I had started writing toward the end?  Not so much.  It was editable in the sense that I could highlight it and delete it. In my mind, that's not worth putting down in the first place.

Nevertheless, I did succeed in writing out the plot of my story, covering all the points on my outline (though the last part was not very detail heavy). Of my 43,039 words, I have about 42,000 that are editable and rewritable.

At the end of October, I had none.  That's a pretty incredible accomplishment.  A week ago, the thought of not finishing was really depressing.  I basically felt like not finishing was the end of the world as we know it.

But I didn't finish.  And I feel fine.  In fact, I feel great. I'm proud of myself.  I learned a lot of lessons about my writing life that I think will really aid me in the future.  I will be able to apply them on a much smaller, less extreme scale.

Did you participate in NaNo? Did you reach your goal?  If you didn't, did you still get something valuable out of it, and why or why not? Also, 10 points to anyone who gets the "and I feel fine" reference.  Share your thoughts in the comments.