A song in your poem workshop

A poetry workshop for young adults. Using contemporary music as guide, workshop participants learn about rhythm, rhyme, and cadence. At the end of the session participants walk away with one polished poem.

Workshop title

A song in your poem

Genre

Poetry

Age group

8 to 14 years old

Duration

3 hours

Materials needed

  • Paper
  • Pen or pencil 
  • Whiteboard or chalkboard (for instructor) 

Lesson objectives

Participants will learn that songs (including their favorites from the radio) are poems set to music. They’ll learn about rhythm, rhyme, and cadence. Using this knowledge, they’ll craft their own poems using lyrics from their favorite songs. Participants will walk away with one completed poem. Options to hold a reading. 

Summary of tasks

  1. The history of poetry
    • Discuss poetry as one of the earliest art forms. It predates text and people would set the words to a particular rhythm or pattern so it was easier to remember and pass on. Eventually, people added instruments to the background and the poems became songs.
    • Optional: ask participants if they’ve ever had a song stuck in their head? Or if they ever feel happy when a certain song comes on? Point out that music helps cement memories and can boost mood. 
  2. Rhythm 
    • Rhythm is a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound
    • In music, this is the repeated pattern of sounds
    • In poetry, rhythm is the pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables
    • Activity
      • Write out 5 words with 2-3 syllables. Either as a large group or individually, ask participants to identify the stressed and unstressed syllables in each word. 
      • Optional: show participants the symbols for marking stressed and unstressed syllables in writing. Diagram below. 
  1. Rhyme
    • Rhyme is when words with corresponding sounds are close to one another in text or speech
    • In song and poetry, this is most often used at the end of the line
    • Rhymes most often happen on the last syllable. Example: cAT, bAT, sAT. Though rhymes can also occur in the beginning or middle of a word. This is an internal rhyme. Example: nAPping, rAPping, tAPing. 
    • Activity
      • In small groups (2-3 participants) have participants practice creating rhymes with each other. One participant says a word, and the other responds with a word that rhymes. Then switch roles. 
      • Encourage participants to try end rhymes and internal rhymes. 
  2. Cadence
    • Cadence is the flow of sounds in language or song
    • Cadence is used to describe how we speak our poems or songs. Whether that’s the pace, emphasizing certain words, or pausing for effect. 
    • Activity
      • Independent activity. Ask participants to write down one lyric from their favorite song. Once they have the lyric, they should read it aloud to themselves twice. Once as the way they hear it in the song and once as if they’re reading a newspaper article or textbook. 
      • Participants should write the differences they hear between the two readings. Which sounds better? Did the first one use a technique that made it sound better (pausing, pacing, emphasizing, etc.)? 
  3. Final activity 
    • Ask participants to write 5 lyrics from their favorite songs. Lyrics can be from the same song or different ones. 
    • Once they have all their lyrics, start with one as the first sentence of the poem. From there, continue writing the poem and weaving in the other lyrics. Participants can end on a lyric or with a line of their choice.
    • Remind participants to use their knowledge about rhythm and rhyme to construct their poems. 
    • After participants have their poems, split into small groups (2-4 participants) and ask them to share their poems and offer feedback to others. 
      • Remind participants that helpful feedback is something actionable for the writer. Also remind participants to be kind and sensitive when offering feedback. 
    • Participants then have 15-20 minutes to revise and polish their poem.
    • Optional: participants stand up and share their poems aloud. Remind participants to use their knowledge about cadence to enhance their performance. 

Post activity ideas (optional)

You can give these additional activities to participants at the end of the session or you can use them during the session if you need to use up time. 

  1. Write as many lyrics as you can from one song in order. If you’re near a computer, you can also look up the lyrics and write them down. Now look at the lyrics and identify places where: 
    • Rhythm is created with stressed and unstressed syllables
      • Notice any patterns?
    • Rhyme occurs 
    • There are pauses or breaks for emphasis 
  2. Write lyrics from two songs in different genres. For example, a holiday song and a hip-hop song. Or a country song and a rock song. Participants only need 4-6 lyrics in total. With those lyrics they should:
    • Borrow words or phrases to create a poem
    • Look for common themes between the two songs, and use them in their poem

Enjoyed this workshop lesson plan? Check out some of my other workshop ideas in the Teach category. Happy workshopping!

Check out this fun #poetry workshop for young adults from @glcubel_writes.

Writing lessons from Sunshine

Welcome to my new blog series–Read! Where I explore writing lessons learned from reading. This week features Sunshine by Robin McKinley.

Book title: Sunshine

Author: Robin McKinley

Genre: Fantasy

Point of view (POV): First person

Synopsis: Rae “Sunshine” Blaise is an ordinary woman working in her family’s coffee shop. One night, unhappy and not sure why, she drives out to her father’s old lake house to reflect. While admiring the lake, she’s kidnapped by a gang of vampires that chain her to a wall in an abandoned mansion. Next to another vampire. Using a childhood gift, she escapes and takes the captive vampire with her. But as the vampire points out, their escape means something. Now Sunshine battles against a vampire warlord, government agencies, and her own inner demons trying to get back to normal. 

Sunshine by Robin McKinley is one of my favorite books. I read it several times in high school and several times as an adult. It was even one of my book picks for my book podcast, Book & Bitch. 

This wasn’t my first Robin McKinley novel—before Sunshine was Beauty. A retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a twist—Beauty was unattractive. Instead of a beautiful woman that loved books, she was an awkward, gangly, plain woman that rolled up her sleeves when her family needed it. Oh, and loved books. Some parts of the old tale don’t change.

I fell in love with Beauty, the un-beautiful bookworm. She was the first example in my young literary life of a woman that didn’t have to beautiful to be important. So when Sunshine caught my eye on a Barnes and Noble end cap, I was eager to see if this heroine was the same. 

While the reader doesn’t know what Sunshine looks like, there are inferences (mostly from the protagonist herself) that she’s not the most attractive or even smartest woman around. But she is brave, kind, and loyal. She fights her inner demons with humor and self-depreciation in a way that’s relatable and authentic. Sunshine is a novel I can’t quit: a real woman (i.e., a messy woman) facing down the evil around her. On her own terms and with her own powers. 

Reading the book as a young adult, I was drawn to the first person point of view. Sunshine talked and thought like how I thought and talked. The prose was natural and wasn’t strip down to sound literary. Later, reading it as an adult with a Creative Writing degree, I cringed at the adverbs and long, rambling sentences. But I kept coming back to the story. Again and again and again. 

Then I figured it out. The narration uses repetition and adverbs with purpose to enhance the character. Not because McKinley didn’t feel like cleaning it up. Once I got off my high-writing-horse, I realized there were other lessons I could learn and apply to my own writing. 

If you’ve read Sunshine, you’ll probably recognize these lessons. If you haven’t read it, don’t worry, the lessons are relevant outside the context. 

Adverbs and rambling are okay (when used with purpose) 

“I took my tea and toast and Immortal Death (a favorite comfort book since under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight reading at the age of eleven or twelve) back to bed when I finally woke up at nearly noon, and even that really spartan scene when the heroine escapes the Dark Other who’s been pursuing her for three hundred pages by calling on her demon heritage (finally) and turning herself into a waterfall didn’t cheer me up.”

Sunshine, 16

You’ve probably heard the infamous Stephen King quote: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” It’s common writing law that adverbs weaken your work. We can’t think of a powerful verb and slip in an adverb to give our weaker one some oomph. I’ve even written a blog post about cutting adverbs from dialogue. 

Then there’s the writing advice (à la Hemingway) to keep your sentences tight and clean. If you can say it in ten words, don’t use twenty. So why is McKinley using adverbs and lengthy sentences, and why is it GOOD? 

It’s because she’s using them with intent. She’s not peppering them in like a chef trying to spice up a bland dish. Instead, she’s using them to build a rich character in the protagonist and narrator. The adverbs show us a character that is immature and unsure of herself. We think of the stereotypical teenager throwing in a really, seriously, definitely, completely, etc. into their sentences. The lack of directness (adverbs deflect direct statements) demonstrates the character is unsure of herself. 

Then there’s the long-winded sentences. That quote above? Seventy-two words before a period. But we’re hooked on it because it’s a window into Sunshine’s mind. It’s stream of conscious in a more grammatically correct format (looking at you Faulkner…). 

We can break rules. BUT (and this a huge but) make sure you know the rules and you’re breaking them on purpose. Purpose defined as enhancing your characters or story. Not because you’re stuck. 

First person madness is clutch

“I understood that I was crazy, crazy to be still alive, crazy to be doing what I was doing to stay alive, crazy to be trying to stay alive.”

Sunshine, 415

I’ve read my fair share of stories about people going crazy or thinking they’re crazy or with distorted perceptions. You can say I like a good story about a crazy person. You know what I love more? A story about someone going mad and told from first-person POV.

Instead of hearing second-hand (through another narrator) you witness the action in real-time. You experience the descent, the questions, and the anxiety without adulteration. Writing in first person narrative is an opportunity to examine and portray our characters on a deeper level. It’s a chance to write them as likable and relatable. To explore madness as a perception and not a condition. 

If you have a character that’s battling depression or believes they’re going insane, consider using a first person POV to delve deep into their mindset. It could offer an opportunity to create a well-rounded and interesting character. 

Complex romantic relationships are more interesting

“‘He’s lost his house keys anyway,’ I said glibly, ‘and we can call a locksmith from my house.’ 

‘He keep a fresh change of clothes at your house too?’ said Pat. ‘Does Mel know? I didn’t say that.’” 

Sunshine, 452

One of the other things I love about Sunshine is the complicated romantic relationships. Sunshine has a boyfriend she likes. But then there’s also this vampire. And she isn’t declaring for one or the other. As a young adult and adult reader, I enjoyed that Sunshine wasn’t some pure maiden waiting for her prince to show up. I liked that she was between two relationships and wasn’t spending her time trying to figure out which guy she wanted to be with. She had other shit to deal with.

Relationships in real life are messy. So it makes sense the ones in our stories should also be messy. This doesn’t mean your story shouldn’t have a romantic plot or subplot. This means can your romantic storyline operate outside of a perfect relationship to add complexity. For example, maybe the protagonist loves two different people, but neither loves the protagonist back. Or maybe the protagonist is married and having an affair and the neighbor knows. 

Adding complexity or interference to your character’s love lives offers an opportunity to develop a more interesting character. It reveals information about them; gives them a chance to overcome a challenge; and helps them grow into a different person. 

Next time you’re writing in a fairy tale ending for your protagonist, consider the advantage of writing in a messy romance. It could be what your character needs to progress. Or what your reader needs in order to relate.

Like this new blog series? What’s a book that’s changed your style of writing? Leave a comment below or drop me a line! I’d love to hear from you.

Citation:

McKinley, Robin. Sunshine. Jove Books, 2004.

What to do with writing scraps

As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. Here’s how to save those lovely scraps.

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet or Netflix in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of Marie Kondo and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If you haven’t, Marie Kondo is an organizational consultant and expert as well as the founder of KonMari, a lifestyle brand. There are many facets to the KonMari Method™ of tidying up, however the premise is to only keep items that “spark joy” to promote a more mindful and peaceful lifestyle. 

The simple premise is so effective, it’s been applied to almost every industry including phone apps, food, and work spaces

Now I know what you’re thinking: this is going to be a post about applying the KonMari Method™ to writing. Good guess! However, today I’m heading the opposite direction. While I’ve read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and could dedicate a whole post to how shedding the excess has enhanced my personal life, I feel the opposite about writing. I don’t believe in getting rid of writing that doesn’t “spark joy”. 

Instead, I adhere to the write often and keep everything philosophy. As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. 

So instead of deleting or shedding writing that doesn’t serve, try keeping it. Here are three ways to use your writing scraps. 

Add it to your story with a footnote

Write something that includes characters, settings, or plot points for a project you’re already working on? But not sure where in the timeline it fits? Or even if it fits at all? Instead of scrapping it, insert the piece into your project and include a footnote, highlight, different font color, comment–anything to distinguish that’s a TBD piece. Later, as you’re working through your editing phase you can decide if it stays, goes, or can be repurposed elsewhere. 

Bonus tip: if you’re working on Scrivener, you can always add the piece as a new document and then make a note in the title or on the corkboard that it’s TBD. 

Establish a Save for Later notebook

Like a good set of tupperware, consider creating a Save for Later or SFL notebook. This can be a paper or digital notebook–any place that can store a large amount of writing and is easily accessible. You can even get fancy and add tabs or sections to organize it by project, characters, setting, etc. Next time you’re looking for inspiration or that one sentence of dialogue is too good to leave behind, pull out your SFL notebook. 

Have a leftover night

Put that baked ziti away–I’m talking about word leftovers. Next time you’re staring at a blank page and not sure what to write, pull out your SFL notebook or other writing scraps and whip up a new recipe. Mix-and-match different scraps to create a new story; add something unexpected to a piece that’s flat; maybe edit and reheat something that’s almost there but not quite. It’s amazing how a little rearranging can bring a new dish…story to life. 

Have a collection of scraps and ready to dive into using them? Check out the Edit section for advice on revising and polishing. Go get your sparkle on.

KonMari Method™ is a trademark of KonMari Media Inc.

He said, she said: Writing powerful dialogue

Learn to write strong dialogue without using adverbs or verbs to modify said.

Several years ago, I participated in a Visiting Writers Series class at Butler University that focused on reading and analyzing the works of writers and poets visiting the school or local Indianapolis area. (The class name was very literal.) As part of the class, I had the honor of introducing Elmore Leonard during his lecture at Clowes Hall.

Myself and Elmore Leonard at Butler University

I could tell you some more about the introduction (it was terrifying and wonderful and I almost threw up) but the best part of the experience was the pre-lecture dinner where myself and a couple of other writers spent time with Mr. Leonard and learning about his craft. We went to the Naked Tchopstix in Broad Ripple and he told us about the tattoos he got while serving during World War II and the importance of writing every day. What stuck with me from that conversation was his advice to never use anything other than said in dialogue. No adverbs, no adjectives, no verbs. Nothing. Just he said, she said, they said, we said, I said.

At the time I nodded enthusiastically because who was I to disagree with a writing god? Later on, as I worked privately on my own prose I felt the advice didn’t work. How is the reader supposed to know my, the writer’s intent, if I don’t use sarcastically, quietly, loudly, scoffed, growled, etc. when writing dialogue? I couldn’t make them guess–that seemed cruel and unproductive. So I pocketed the advice and continued writing dialogue as I always had: peppered with clues about my intent.

Recently, I re-read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and came across the advice again.

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like…Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.”

(Strunk and White 75)

And it clicked. I, as the writer, am not supposed to tell my readers about the characters. The characters are supposed to tell the readers about themselves. HOLY HELL. This whole time I’ve been writing weak dialogue by using adverbs and verbs to forcefully drag my readers down a certain path of understanding.

Opening up the last chapter I worked on, I went through and cut every adverb and verb I could find. Which meant I was editing 95% of my dialogue. Confronted with so much slashing, I realized I was relying too heavily on the writing to tell the story instead of allowing the actions and dialogue to speak for themselves. Me, the writer, was interjecting in the story like an unwanted voiceover when I should have been an observer.

While burning and slashing all words ending in -ly or -ed it became clear I couldn’t just edit out adverbs and verbs to create good prose.

“This is good cake,” she said greedily, “I adore it.”

“Of course it is,” he said sneered, “I used to work in a Parisian bakery.”

Better without the adverbs and verbs but still not great. It took time and patience and lots of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-can-I-even-write-well? but I found some tactics to remove those life-draining adverbs and verbs to write drastically better dialogue. Here are my top three tips:

Connotation is your friend

If you’re not using adverbs to describe the way your character says something, then use the connotation of their words to convey their feelings. For example, “I like coffee” has a variety of meanings depending on how it’s said. The character could be ironic, sarcastic, enthusiastic, or anything. Instead of modifying the verb said try modifying the content of the dialogue.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I guess I like coffee.” She said.

Show don’t tell

Already modified the content of the dialogue as much as you can? Try describing what your character is doing before, during, or after they speak. Grinning, fidgeting fingers, or slamming a door are more telling than happily, nervously, or angrily ever were.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I like coffee,” she said, picking up the sugar dispenser and holding it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

Play off the other characters

Tapped out on using connotations and showing-not-telling? Want to mix it up? Try omitting said entirely and allow your characters to play off one another. Whether responding directly to each other’s tone or indicating it by their response. Just make sure to set up the scene beforehand so your reader knows who is speaking as they follow the back and forth.

Original:

“I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.
“You don’t like coffee,” he scoffed, “order a tea.”

Revised:

She picked up the up the sugar dispenser and held it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

“I like coffee.”

“Stop being difficult. You’ve never liked coffee. Order a tea.”

Learning to cut adverbs and verbs from my dialogue was difficult and painful process. To be honest, I still catch myself trying to sneak some adverbs or verbs in after said. But if I want strong dialogue and a strong story, I need to drop my ego at the page and let the characters speak directly to the reader. Writers are a vessel for their stories. They shouldn’t interject their thoughts anymore than the paper and ink do.

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

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.