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Magical Poetry Workshop

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop. Grab your wands…pens, and join us for some magical poetry!

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop. As with any lesson plan, feel free to modify as needed to fit your intended audience. So grab your wands…pens, and join us for some magical poetry!

Writing Genre

Poetry

Age group

Middle School

Workshop Activities

Reading models, structured exercises, editing/revision period, and group readings

Supplies and Materials

Printed handouts, paper, pencils, pens, markers/colored pencils, stage

Objectives

Students walk away inspired by the extraordinary and able to define magical realism and fantasy. Students are also encouraged to incorporate magic or fantasy elements into their poems as metaphors for real life experiences.

Group discussion

What do we like about magic or fantasy?

  • What do you specifically like about your favorite fairy tale/fantasy story?
  • What types of magical elements do you think are cool?
  • How do you feel after reading/watching a story with magical elements?

Difference between Magical Realism and Fantasy

  • Magical realism = a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements.
  • Fantasy =  fiction set in a fictional universe, often without any locations, events, or people referencing the real world.

Exercises

The Witch Wife or Belief in Magic

  • Read the poem out loud and discuss how it embodies every day acts (making dinner, gardening,) and makes them magical
  • Class will brainstorm 2-3 everyday tasks and then students will write a poem that turns that every day task into something magical
  • If students are stuck, encourage them to break down the everyday task into steps and write about each step as if it were extraordinary. E.g., tying your shoes. These long sleek snakes that tangle themselves around a bow.

Fairy Tale Logic

  • Read the poem out loud and discuss how it uses classic Fairy Tale elements to highlight real struggles.
    • Point out that it’s in Sonnet form
  • Students will choose a fairytale/fantasy story (can be the one they said at the beginning of the class or a different one) and write a list of the magical elements
    • E.g., Beauty and the Beast. Rose, talking candlestick, beast, enchantress, magic mirror, etc.
  • Once we have our list of elements, on the other side of the page brainstorm some problems from everyday life
    • E.g., bullies, trouble with homework, getting lost, etc.
  • Craft a poem that incorporates 2-3 magic elements from the list and 1-2 problems from your other list.

The Witch Has Told You a Story

  • Discuss how the poem takes a fairy tale and retells it in a unique way. This is from the witch speaking. Discuss how telling a familiar story in a unique way leads to deeper insights.
  • Choose favorite story and retell it as a poem
    • Consider changing the point of view, adding new magical elements, setting it in a different place/time period, adding a new or different problem/resolution.

9 words you’ve been using wrong this whole time

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Check out these 9 grammar rules you may not be using.

“Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately.”

Strunk and White 77

Whether you’re an advanced content strategist or fledgling word nerd, it’s easy to forget about one of the primary building blocks of our craft: grammar. I recently re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and was surprised at how many grammar and style rules I broke on a daily basis.

While I’m working on cleaning up my style in the background, here’s 9 words that are commonly misused in modern writing.

1. And/Or

I am guilty of using this in nearly 80% of my work emails. It (seemed to) function so nicely as a catch-all for situations where things could include or exclude certain variables. But as Strunk and White point out, it’s a sloppy shortcut that damages the clarity of the sentence. Does it include both? Or one or the other? Pick and or or (say that 3x fast) and leave the backslash in the editing trash.

Original: The party may include wine and/or whiskey.

Improved: The party may include wine or whiskey or both.

Also improved: The party may include wine and whiskey.

2. Among vs. Between

It had never occurred to me that these two words weren’t interchangeable. Instead I relied on my ear to determine which one I would use when indicating how people or things were involved with one another. However, it turns out there is a difference!

Among is used when describing the connection of two or more persons or things. E.g., the coffee cups were divided amongst the four baristas.

Between is used when describing the connection of just two persons or things. E.g., the macchiato was split between the husband and wife.

3. Comprise

The definition of comprise is “to contain or include”. So it’s imperative that you pay attention to how it affects the noun before it. A coffee shop is comprised of (includes) writers but writers do not comprise (contain) a coffee shop.

4. Disinterested  

Okay, this one in particular jumped out at me because, ladies and gents, I’ve been using it incorrectly for years! Disinterested means impartial or unbiased. But in everyday speech we tend to use it to mean “uninterested”. It makes sense–the prefix dis- is means “not”. Dislike=don’t like. Discontent=not content.

But this is not the case and you should only use disinterested when you want to say impartial or unbiased.

5. Flammable vs. Inflammable

Here’s a curveball for you–these are synonyms. That’s right! Flammable and inflammable both mean “to catch on fire.” It gets confusing because the prefix in– typically means “in, on, or not”. However, the word inflammable doesn’t use this prefix. It derives from the Latin word inflammare–to flame. If you’re a word nerd like me, you can read more about the history of the word on Merriam-Webster.

Regardless of your word nerd status, if you’re trying to say “can’t easily catch on fire” try incombustible or nonflammable.

6. Less

Very similar to the above note on Among vs. Between, less is more precise than just “not as many as before”. You should use the word less when referring to quantity and use the word fewer when referring to a specific number.  Here’s an example for each:

Less: There were less doughnuts than last time.

Fewer: There were three fewer doughnuts than last time.

7. Nauseous. Nauseated. Nausea.

You may have heard this one before–it’s one of those grammar rules that gets touted as an example of how much everyday language can deviate from a strict definition. Whether you’re on #teamcolloquialism or #teamformal, it’s important (and interesting!) to know the difference. So let’s break it down:

Nauseous→ causing nausea or disgust

Nauseated→ to become affected with nausea  

Nausea→ a stomach distress with an urge to vomit

So when we say, “I’m nauseous” we’re actually saying “I’m causing nausea or repulsion”. Doesn’t quite work right? Unless you are in fact doing something to cause repulsion. Instead say or write, “I’m nauseated” or “I have nausea”.

8. One

This one is perhaps antiquated, however it does pop up every so often. When using the word one to mean “a person” don’t follow up with a pronoun. Instead substitute the pronoun for one again. Here’s an example to clarify:

Typical sentence: One must always order their coffee black

Better sentence: One must always order one’s coffee black

Best sentence: You should always order your coffee black

Side note: the best sentence in that set of examples is so named because it uses an active voice and is more direct.

9. People

As people, we use this word almost every day. But did you know it also has a more precise meaning than just “several humans”? The word people means a collection of humans typically bound by a common interest. In most cases it has political connotations such as The People’s Republic of China.

When you’re trying to express a certain number of humans, it’s best to use persons. Here’s a good visual from Strunk and White:

“If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many people are left? Answer: one people.”  (Strunk and White 56)

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Because sometimes our ears and common sense deceive us. And the above is not an exhaustive list. Grab Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and you’ll see the above is the only start. Happy writing!

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

Carried Away: Stream of Consciousness

Quick guide on using stream of consciousness in your writing.

Definition

noun; A literary style or technique in which a character’s thoughts are presented in a continuous manner uninterrupted by other characters, dialogue, or omnipotent observations. Typically devoid of standard punctuation.

Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash
Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash

Example

So they will have told you doubtless already how I told that Jones to take that mule which was not his around to the barn and harness it to our buggy while I put on my hat and shawl and locked the house. That was all I needed to do since they will have told you doubtless that I would have had no need for either trunk or bag since what clothing I possessed, now that the garments which I had been fortunate enough to inherit from my aunt’s kindness or haste or oversight were long since worn out, consisted of the ones which Ellen had remembered from time to time to give me and now Ellen these two years dead; that I had only to lock the house and take my place in the buggy and traverse those twelve miles which I had not done since Ellen died, beside that brute who until Ellen died was not even permitted to approach the house from the front…

–Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Pros vs. Cons

One very big pro of this style is to give insight to the inner psyche of your character. By giving them free reign of the narrative you convey how their inner mind works and allow the reader to draw connections between seemingly insignificant events and content to form a more developed picture. For instance, does your character’s overuse of the word “fabulous” reveal a superficiality about the things/events they find “fabulous”? Great way to subtly splice open your character and lay their bones and nerves on the table for the reader.

Major con to this style is that it’s straight up difficult. Difficult to craft and difficult to control. It’s easy to get carried down the stream without any real content. Just because your character has the ability to say or think anything, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. Your job as a writer is to choose what’s most important. Cut the rest.

Tips

If you’re exploring this style, try free writing for  a set amount of time (20-60 minutes will do it). Don’t censor yourself during this time–go with the flow. At the end of your set time, go back to the beginning and read. I recommend reading the whole piece through once (without editing), then answer these questions:

  • What’s the overall theme and feel to the piece? Is your character reflecting on a tragic/happy event? Are they worried, angry, nervous, exuberant, in love, etc.?
  • Next, what is the purpose of this section? What does it do for your story? Does it progress the action? Or provide necessary character insight?

With your questions answered, go back through a second time and start cutting anything that doesn’t fit the above answers. If your character is in love and reflecting on their current love triangle, it’s probably not the best time to mention how much they hate their neighbor for not sorting their recycling.

When in doubt as to whether or not something should stay, cut it. If you don’t immediately love it or feel like it fits, it has no place in your writing. Cut it. If you have a crush on it, save it for another piece. But if there’s no love it doesn’t belong. Better to have a succinct piece than something that causes your reader’s eyes to glaze over.

The Masters

The best way to learn anything is to study those who have perfected the skill. If you’re looking for inspiration or guidance, pick up one of these for your next read:

  • The Autumn of the Patriarch; Gabriel García Màrquez
  • The Sound and the Fury; William Faulkner
  • Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway; Virginia Woolf
  • Ulysses; James Joyce
  • On the Road; Jack Kerouac

Bibliography

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

The Great Oxford Comma Debate

Give me ALL the Oxford Commas

One time, my friend messaged me to ask if she should use an Oxford comma when listing out projects on a resume. As a student of journalism, she came of age in AP Style and that comma before the conjunction was a big faux pas. I spent the next 26 minutes composing a verbose, but well-meaning pontification on how an Oxford or serial comma should always be used. No matter what. A month later she got me this →

Which leads us to the question: is an Oxford comma necessary? Or was my spiel a little too extra?

If you’re new to the Oxford comma debate, an Oxford comma or serial comma is that final comma in a list right before the conjunction. Example:

I like coffee, yorkies, murder mysteries, and tacos.

Now, MLA, Chicago, Strunk and White, and various government and academic publications demand its use. On the flip side, AP and The New York Times oppose use of that last comma. The arguments for and against usually go like this:

#TeamOxfordComma#TeamNoOxfordComma
Promotes clarityUnnecessary if conjunctions are used properly
Offers efficiency in reading Takes up valuable space
Reaffirms the last two items in a list are separate entities Pretentious (i.e., too academic and not colloquial)

So to comma or not to comma? The answer is: it’s a stylistic preference. If you’re copywriter or a ghost writer, it’s important to stick to your employer’s preferred style guide to maintain brand consistency. If you’re writing for a personal project or your employer has no preference, the decision is all yours.

My take: if it’s within your discretion, you should always use an Oxford comma. Besides the reasons in the above #TeamOxfordComma column, an Oxford comma also promotes visual consistency and modernity.

As writers, we’re often more concerned with how a sentence sounds and communicates rather than how it looks. But in an age where Instagram and video rule the internet sphere, it’s important to have visually appealing work. A list without that last comma is unbalanced and distracting. Like an unresolved melody. Place that last comma my friend and resolve it.

Additionally, most writers, government agencies, academic institutions, and public in general support the use of an Oxford comma. Conformity in political and societal affairs = trouble. Conformity in spelling and grammar = understanding. If you want to connect with the general public, get with the times and add that comma!

At the end of the sentence, there’s no right or wrong way to use an Oxford comma. Language is a living breathing organism and “rules” are seldom hard and fast. It’s up to the brand, your employer, or your preference. Whichever way you swing, make sure you’re consistent in usage and everything will be just fine.

How do you feel about an Oxford comma? Pretentious? Necessary? Beautiful? Let it all out below!

Valuable Writing Lessons from Game of Thrones

As a GoT fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the bandwagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

Photo by Kylo on Unsplash
Photo by Kylo on Unsplash

It’s difficult to be a timely publication and not talk about Game of Thrones. Whether it’s conspiracy theories or actor interviews or fashion commentary–everyone wants in on the game. As a fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the wagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

The importance of flawed characters

Can you name one character in GoT that is completely honorable and unflawed? Even good ol’ Samwell Tarly has broken oaths and stolen books. That’s because George R. R. Martin and the writers at HBO have hit on an essential fact–stories with flawed characters are vastly more interesting and relatable.

We’re all in some way flawed and it’s much easier to identify with the character that spills coffee on herself vs. the character that prances through life saying and doing exactly the right things. So next time you’re developing a character, consider giving them a flaw. Whether a minor one like whistling at inappropriate moments or a major one like a compulsion to lie, flaws open up your characters to be authentic. Not to mention, a character flaw is the perfect opportunity to insert some conflict and context. That annoying whistling could reveal a character’s backstory or be the catalyst for their spouse to leave them…

No one likes a happy story

I can’t remember where I heard/read this, but someone at some point in my life advised that no one wants to read a story about someone else’s perfect life. #Preach. Think about it–no one likes inviting along that one friend who only talks about how perfect and great their life is. So why would you invite that one book to your bookshelf?

We enjoy stories about trials, sacrifices, and questions. We love these stories because they give us hope, encouragement, or maybe even real life warnings. And as writers, stories with hardships give our characters an opportunity and a reason to grow and change. Rather than staying static and perfect and boring for the remainder of the story.

So take a cue from Game of Thrones where almost everything goes wrong and some characters are literally pieces of their former selves–add some hardships. One good trick to introduce conflict is to identify your character’s greatest fear. Are they pinning all their hopes of socio-economic advancement on getting a promotion at work? Are they terrified of squirrels invading their house? Will they die of embarrassment if their crush finds out they don’t know how to correctly pronounce phớ? Once you have it, make that thing happen. Make it as dramatic or as subtle as you want and take us through how your character reacts and is molded by their worst fears.

There is such a thing as too much suspense

There’s no argument that suspension and tension are the motors that drive a story along. But let that motor run too long and you’ve driven your audience right off the story path. Take heed from George R. R. Martin, who is now 8 years behind the last Game of Thrones novel A Dance with Dragons. In fact, he’s left us in suspense for so long that HBO has commandeered the story.

Now I’m not saying that waiting too long to tell your story means someone else will tell it for you. But what I am saying is that if you keep your readers in suspense for too long, they’re going to drift away. Too much tension (with no climax) will leave your readers feeling unsatisfied and disappointed. Too little tension will leave your readers feeling bored.

So how do you find that perfect balance? Unfortunately there’s no magic formula. However you can try some of these techniques to help you pace the tension:

  • Add a time constraint (does this all happen in a week? A day? An hour?)
  • Up the ante by creating increasingly worse situations until the character is forced to deal with it
  • Create secondary sources of conflict that exacerbate the main source of conflict

So next Sunday, while you’re waiting to see how Dany and Jon take on Cersei, pay a little closer attention to the story. You might realize it’s a wealth of techniques you can use in your own work.

Interested in more tips for creating AND sustaining suspense in your story? Check out this great article from Writer’s Digest.