As things wind down for Christmas, I’ve been having bit of fun creating a word cloud from my debut poetry collection, How to Lose Your Home & Save Your Life.
The idea came via Jo Bell – UK poet, Canal Laureate and creator of the poetry and writing blog ’52’ – who recently shared a word cloud of her forthcoming collection, ‘Kith’, on Facebook.
It’s a bit of fun but also a great way to get a fresh perspective on existing writing. The cloud allows me to see the entire collection in a snapshot – the more prominent words tell me if I’m hitting the mood and tone I’m looking for and also give me a sense of which words or literary devices I may rely on a little too heavily, eg. if the word ‘Like‘ features prominently, then it may be time to cut back on the use of simile. We all have a go-to writing toolbox and a good way to hit the refresh button on our work is to kick away a few of those verbal crutches!
What I didn’t expect – and am really enjoying – is discovering little mini poems in the juxtapositions of the cloud’s random arrangement:
– Think blue drumming words;
– Tree’s hands fold half-beat whispers;
– Old wind-eyes walk shadow morning;
– Ghost years ground skin, beginning bodies wings;
– Sea silence, speak yellow.
These conjour strange and curious images – perfect as idea prompts for new writing!
If you’d like to try this writing tip, check out word cloud creators Wordle and Tagxedo. I liked Tagxedo because it offers a choice of shapes and pretty colours PLUS whenever I changed the font, it created a completely different arrangement, with lots of new mini poems waiting to be found.
More writing tips today, this time from poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist, Margaret Atwood – one of my favourite writers. What I love about these lists is they give us a little peek into the minds of writers and what matters to them.
In this case, an in-flight writing trauma looms large – the muse, after all, can strike at any time – which makes me dearly wish all 10 of her writing tips were about covert creativity in constrained environments, or the relative advantages and disadvantages of writing across various modes of transport…
- Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
More advice to writers, this time from Hilary Mantel, double Booker Prize winning author of Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012), and the first woman to receive the award twice.
- Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
- Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
Great writing tips from author, Sarah Waters – although she talks about the rules of writing novels, most are equally true of poetry.
- Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. Which leads me to . . .
Have humility. Older/more experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.
Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.
Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
“Don’t bend; water it down; or make it logical; don’t edit your soul for fashion. Follow intense obsessions mercilessly.“
– Franz Kafka
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