Visual Poetry

Visual Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Coming out of an oral tradition, poetry leans heavily on sound and syntax to carry its message and to make it memorable. Poetry also paints word pictures through images, and creates sound patterns in your head through meter, rhyme and other sonic devices.

But how poetry is presented on the page plays a part too. Mass access to printed poetry on the page is fairly new in historical terms, but that transition opened up a whole new—or should I say additional— way of engaging with poetry and new visual forms.

Poetry in shapes

Most of us were introduced to concrete poetry in elementary school. We were asked to “make shapes” with the words on the page so that the shape gave a clue to the meaning.

Although the term “concrete poetry” is a modern term from the days of ee cummings and Ezra Pound, the concept of shaping the visual form of the poem to enhance the meaning goes way back.  In Alexandria copies survive from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Simmias of Rhodes wrote a poem in the shape of an egg, and Theocritus shaped his poem like panpipes. In 1633, George Herbert wrote (among others) “Easter Wings” in the shape of angel’s wings.

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Here a 1966 poem by John Hollander, “Swan and Shadow” shows how complex and rigid the form can be, and “My Lolipop” written by an elementary student shows how playful and free it can be.

Blackout poetry

Shape is also important as a statement when poetry and visual art collaborate. Blackout poetry is an example of this—and lots of fun to do.

In this form of “found poetry”, take an existing page of text, a newspaper article, a pamphlet, a performance program, a letter, the page of an old book, or even an existing poem. Identify anchor words within the text and then “blackout” the remaining words with a marker, leaving a new poetic message on the page. If the message can interact with the original text, all the better.

Of course, although the original redaction method popularized by Austin Kleon, involved using a black marker and literally blacking out text, the form has evolved now to a much wider collaboration of visual art and text. Who knows what might come next, especially in our animated digital world.

Erasure

This form of visual poetry is similar to blackout poetry, except that not just words, but even single letters are retained and left in their original place, but the rest is “erased”.

The result is a visually confusing form that forces the reader to piece the remnants together as they read and allows time to dwell on the message of the new poem. It plays with white space, allowing meaning to bubble up as much from the negative spaces as from the words. Like all found poetry, there are also endless deconstructive possibilities if the texts used are well-known or weighty in terms of issues or political or religious texts.

Haiga

Another form of poetry/visual art collaboration is the Japanese form “haiga”. In this form, a haiku interacts with a painting. The aim is not to present the same message, but to juxtapose or contradict, or create a synergy where one expands the other. Haiga enriches the already inherent aspect of the haiku tradition where the last line plays one idea or image against another.

Here is an example from the famous poet Matsuo Bashō with an image by Kawanabe Kyōsa :

on a withered branch
a crow is perched
an autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

The image was painted by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889) but Bashō’s poem was written in 1680, when he was living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry. How the painting interacts with the haiku is explained beautifully here.  

Graphic Poetry

In Western culture, poetry has often been illustrated, especially in children’s anthologies. Graphic poetry goes one step further, using visual images to bring the poem to life visually as an aid to understanding. Dr. Seuss immediately comes to mind.

This form is not limited to poetry for children, however. Several of Richard H. Fay’s poems in Abandoned Towers are good representatives of graphic poetry.

Motion Poems

For me, one of the most exciting new ways to present poems, is what is being called a “motion poem” These poetry films came out of a collaboration between filmmaker Angella Kassube and poet Todd Boss in 2008.  Their company Motionpoems, pairs video artists with poets to produces films, multimedia installations, pop-up programs, and television documentaries.  The process always beings with the poem.  Watch a sample at their website.

Last word

As someone who loves to dabble with visual art as much as write poetry, I hope the collaboration of poetry and all things visual will continue. I still cherish the experience of sitting quietly with a poem on the page, but opening other avenues for experiencing poetry can only be a good thing. A wider way of sharing the poetic word.

And to this end, I decided to give it a try. Here is my first feeble attempt at reading and illustrating one of my poems, titled Un/natural World.

Tasting Poetry

Tasting Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Taste is an involving sense, an immediate sense, a memory triggering sense, and because it revolves around something we all do—eat—we can use it in our writing to connect viscerally with the reader.

Everything Ruth talked about in last week’s post about taste applies to poetry as much as it does to fiction, so in this post, I’m going to share with you how some poets have used food and meals and the rituals around food to draw the reader into their poems.

Trigger emotions

We all have tastes we like and those we don’t: comfort tastes, bad tastes, tastes that make us fearful, tastes that remind us of childhood. Each of these has emotions attached: joy, fear, disgust, nostalgia, longing… The simple detail of food can concentrate the emotion in a poem.

In these two examples, notice the difference in emotions. “Edible Child” is full of love and gentleness; The excerpt from “Feast Days” is lonely and sad. Both draw on our knowledge of the foods mentioned and the state of that food. In the first poem, the tastes are good and sweet and fresh, like the child. In the second, the food is rotting and unappetizing.

EDIBLE CHILD
by Elisabeth Rowe

Sleeping child
I bend to breathe your
melon-scented infant skin,
I taste the soft bloom
on your plum-skin arms,
tickle my nose on the hairs
of your gooseberry legs,
nibble your fillet toes.

Edible child
once upon a time
I heard my mother’s hunger:

I love you so much
I could eat you all up.

Excerpt from FEAST DAYS
by
Annie Dillard

The apples in the cellar
are black, and dying inside their skins.
They pray all night in their bins,
but nobody listens;
they will be neither food nor trees.

Outside the norm

General opinion is often a fickle thing. People who don’t follow the norms tend to be noticed, sometimes mistrusted, or pitied or disliked: eating meat raw, dumpster diving or dumping a full plate of food. Images of baking apple pie or cooking Sunday roast point to family and security and love—unless you create a tension by turning that expectation on its head.

Excerpt from CHRISTMAS EVE: MY MOTHER DRESSING
By
Toi Derricotte

Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her;
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was
weighted and bound in its mask.

Excerpt from RETROSPECT IN THE KITCHEN
By
Maxine Kumin

After the funeral I pick
forty pounds of plums from your tree…
…stand at midnight…
putting some raveled things
unsaid between us into the boiling pot
of cloves, cinnamon, sugar:

Loves’s royal colour
The burst purple fruit bob up.

The sensory and the sensual

Ah yes! The senses and sex, an inevitable pairing. The hot and the cold.

HONEY
By Gwynn Scheltema

I want to dip you in honey
all stem and skin and juice
dripping
I want to press your flesh to my lips
feel you break in my mouth
like sun through rain

THIS IS JUST TO SAY
By
William Carlos Williams 

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Identity

Excerpt from I’M MEXICAN
By
J Arceo

I’m Mexican.

No, I’m not spicy. Or feisty. Or exotic.

I’m just not bland.

Because my culture is too rich.
Because my hips give in to the beats of a drum.
And my tongue rolls with passion.
Because I come from vibrant colours
And full skirts.
And intricate patterns in my gene pool…

…Because I come from women with rifles and food that
excites you. And the very hands that harvest the land,
hold the very hearts that harvested me.

Meals

Excerpt from EATING TOGETHER
By 
Li-Young Lee

In the steamer is the trout   
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.   
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,   
brothers, sister, my mother who will   
taste the sweetest meat of the head,   
holding it between her fingers   
deftly, the way my father did   
weeks ago.

MUTTON
By
Jonathan Swift

Gently stir and blow the fire,
Lay the mutton down to roast,
Dress it quickly, I desire,
In the dripping put a toast,
That I hunger may remove —
Mutton is the meat I love.
On the dresser see it lie;
Oh, the charming white and red;
Finer meat ne’er met the eye,
On the sweetest grass it fed:
Let the jack go swiftly round,
Let me have it nice and brown’d.
On the table spread the cloth,
Let the knives be sharp and clean,
Pickles get and salad both,
Let them each be fresh and green.
With small beer, good ale and wine,
Oh ye gods! how I shall dine.

Last Word

And to end, here is a fun poem calling you to action:

HOW TO EAT A POEM
by Eve Merriam

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that

may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

Rhyme Time

Rhyme Time

Gwynn Scheltema

So here we are in Poetry Month once again and Ruth is busy doing a series on the senses, so I thought I’d marry up with that and write a poetry-based blog that speaks to last week’s blog, Can you Hear Me?  Specifically I thought I’d speak to the often heard comment: “Why doesn’t poetry rhyme anymore?”

When someone says that, they are usually referencing the kind of recognizable rhyme we think of associated with Hallmark verse or Robert William Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.  [no disparaging here, just identification]. Of course, the debate over the merits of “traditional rhyming verse” versus “free verse” continues with no resolution in sight, but given the myriad aspects associated with poetry, it’s interesting that that debate usually centers around rhyme or the lack thereof.

The truth is, free verse is alive with rhyme. All kinds of different rhyme. Let’s take a look.

Traditional rhyme

Rhyme is based on an identity of sound between words or verse-lines, “sound echoes” if you will. Traditional verse relies largely on end rhyme or external rhyme – placing rhyming words at the end of a line:

Lets take the first few lines of Robert Frost‘s famous poem, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.”
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

In traditional verse forms, the end rhyme is usually organized into rhyme schemes. The rhyme scheme in excerpt above is ababcdcd.

Anything but end rhyme… 

Now compare that with these lines from a “free verse” poem, The Anniversary”, by American poet Ai:

…I’m not afraid of the blade ninja-877220_640
you’ve just pointed at my head.
If I were dead, you could take the boy, ….

There are no end rhymes here, but there is plenty of rhyme nonetheless.  In the first line we see an example (afraid; blade) of internal rhyme – rhyme that occurs within a verse line. As in a lot of free verse, rhyme also occurs from line to line, just not necessarily at the end. (head/dead).

Rhyme, rhyme rhyme….

These are perfect, strict, full, or pure rhymes– the last fully accentuated vowel and end consonant are identical. Be aware that we are talking sound here, not spelling. – cat/hat; tree/bee; fool/mule; tough/huff.

hands-1345059_640Perfect rhyme can be further divided: masculine rhyme, where one final stressed syllable rhymes (sang/rang), and feminine rhyme, where at least two syllables rhyme and the final syllable is not stressed (mo-ther/bro-ther; com-par-i-son/gar-ri-son).

Additionally, Ai’s poem contains slant rhyme (also known as off rhyme, near rhyme, imperfect rhyme or half rhyme) – words whose sounds are closely related but not identical. If the poet plays with consonants at the beginning of words, that’s alliteration; at the end of words, it is called consonance. If the poet plays with similar vowel sounds, it is known as assonance. Blade and head at the end of the first and second lines have the same end consonant sound, although they have different vowel sounds. Other slant rhymes would be bend/hand; home/same; trophy/daffy; fellow/fallow; kind/conned.

Rhyming choices don’t end there. Eye rhyme, for instance, plays with sight, not sound: two words that look like they ought to rhyme, but don’t. (love/move; lull/full; though/cough).

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool”, is chock full of rhyme and other sonic devices:graffiti-8391__180

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

I’m sure you’ve already found internal rhyme (thin/gin); and slant rhyme (real/cool). There’s also assonance (sing/sin), alliteration (lurk/late), and consonance (real/cool) and repetition (We). This piece also has para rhyme, or rich consonance, that uses consonant blends and the order of consonants to create sound echoes. (left/late; strike/straight; jazz/die-s).

Conventional verse was primarily rooted in the oral tradition, and rhyme helped us remember the lines. Free verse is largely a written medium, appreciated visually as well as through sound.

Rhyme creates emphasis and structural unity, and draws attention to the relationship between words and thoughts. In Brook’s poem, notice how the absence of repetition (We) in the last line emphasizes the thought that their lives will be truncated too. Good rhyme goes beyond the obvious.

I love rhyme, but end rhyme is my least favourite. In many ways I prefer to discover the patterns and links as I read. When used effectively, I believe rhyme adds to the sensory impact of poetry by creating a pleasing network of related “sound echoes”.

Take yourself on a date

Take yourself on a date

Gwynn Scheltema

When I read Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artists’s Way, she introduced me to the concept of an Artist’s Date: a block of time set aside to nurture your creative inner artist.

This is how Julia Cameron describes it:

The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.

Different times

In normal times, Artist Dates were small adventures pursued by yourself outside your normal environment: poking around in a thrift shop, visiting a museum or art gallery, or trying a new restaurant. COVID has changed our choices, but definitely not eliminated them. You just have to be imaginative and remember what is at the core: fun; new to you; sensory and solo.

Because our creative brain is a sensory brain, anything that stimulates the senses or fires up the imagination will work.  Have an adventure; push yourself out of your comfort zone. We all accept play is crucial for a child’s development, it is also beneficial for adults. Play can add joy to life, relieve stress, supercharge learning, and connect you to others and the world around you. Play can also make work more productive and pleasurable.

As a writer, be mindful and consider how you might describe what you experience in words. Notice physical details and the emotions that stir within you. Make notes of your discoveries to use later.

Listen and move

Try listening to music you don’t usually listen to or you’ve never listened to before. A new instrument, a new singer, a new cultural sound. a podcast that seems “too frivolous”. Spotify is your friend.

Or go down memory lane. Dig out old CDs that haven’t seen the light of day since your youth. Go online and find songs of a particular decade. Create a playlist of old favourites. Listen to your parents’ era music, or your children’s or your character’s.

Dance like no one’s watching. Sing like no one’s listening. Whistle.

Take a walk or a hike in a new place and listen for as many sounds as you can: birds, falling water, rustling leaves, chattering squirrels—or clang of garbage cans being collected, sirens, traffic, people, dogs…

Do something that involves physical movement that you’ve never tried or haven’t done in years: jump rope, whirl like a dervish, dig out the old hula hoop, do a new yoga sequence, balance-walk along a raised structure, make snow angels, go tobogganing, hug a tree.

Make something

Try a new dinner recipe, make a favourite soup from scratch, or bake bread. Get really adventurous and make yogurt or sauerkraut or preserves.

Attempt a simple carpentry project, try beading or macramé. Join an online paint night.

Play with LEGO or play dough or wax crayons. Make a blanket fort and read a book in it. How does that feel? Silly? Good!

Colour some pictures. What memories does that bring up?

Make a vision board, or an inspiration board, or a collage of the way you feel today. Try a craft, not because it has purpose, but because it’s fun.

Treat yourself

Do something, anything, that is usually considered a waste of time or an indulgence: lie on your back and watch clouds; take a bath with scented candles or scented soaps or exploding bath bombs or bubbles; re-read a favourite children’s book.

Pop open your favourite beverage or drink that third coffee without guilt. Mindfully cream your hands and feet or experiment with new hairstyles. Dress up in your favourite colour—all over, all in—just for a day. Dress down in your most favourite rattiest outfit with no judgement. Purge your closet. Guys, don’t bother shaving for the day.

Binge watch a new TV series or a movie you’ve been meaning to watch. Watch a movie you want to watch that you wouldn’t admit to anyone you wanted to watch it.

Have a tech-free afternoon. Sleep in a hammock. Snoop on virtual house tours on the real estate sites. Eat a whole bar of chocolate.

Expand your mind

Sign up for a course in a new genre or poetry or stamp collecting or genealogy. Randomly follow a writer in another genre on Twitter and engage to learn new perspectives, or join a group on Facebook that is totally new to you, like astronomy.

Make a list of 100 things that make you happy. Start a journal of the 50 things you want your grandchildren to know about you. Write a bucket list and illustrate it or scrapbook it.

Take virtual museum tours, watch virtual opera or ballet. Use apps to walk the Camino or Cabot’s trail.

Last words

Artist’s dates break the routine and unlock creativity and optimism. In these times they can give us a sense of fun to help fight the confinement many of us may be feeling. I did a quick count, and I’ve listed over 50 things you could try. You could no doubt come up with 50 more.

Artist Dates are not high art. They are meant to be fun. Ask yourself, “What sounds playful? What does my inner child want to do? What am I drawn to that others might label a waste of time, too silly, too frivolous?” Try doing that.

These three greats say it best:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung

On Chapbooks

On Chapbooks

Gwynn Scheltema

Covid messed with my creative mind back in April, bringing work on my mystery novel to a grinding halt. But the old adage of “when one window closes, another opens” proved to be creatively true for me. I dove back into poetry, which had been languishing somewhere in the back of the closet for some time.

Perhaps this short form was less overwhelming, or poetry was manageable in smaller chunks of time, but I suspect that it was more a case of emotions running higher than usual, and poetry being able to capture that state and be productive. Whatever the reason, the result is a file of 100 finished poems and a second file of about 60 poems in progress. Yay me!

My mission this year is to get an organized submission plan in play while I put together a full-length poetry collection ms. In my researching of current poetry markets, I was surprised at the number of presses that considered chapbooks. Hmmm… a chapbook would be quicker, but how would putting out a chapbook affect my ultimate goal of a full-length collection?

First Book Status

In poetry circles, you only get one “debut” book and there are contests and prizes that “debut” poetry collections qualify for. Fortunately, because chapbooks are considered not-quite-books by the publishing world, they don’t affect this status. Your first full -length collection is considered your debut book.

What makes a chapbook?

One Ticket Five Rides – anthology

Depending on the publisher, the general length runs from 15 to 30 pages of poems. Full manuscripts by comparison run on average between 40 to 80 pages of poems, but can be much longer. Full collections carry an ISBN and are marketed like any other trade book. Chapbooks can be trade books too, but often are part of the zine world, micro presses and self-published. As such, they seldom make it into the usual distribution channels.

Why publish a chapbook?

  • For the unpublished poet, it’s a chance to get publishing creds.
  • The process will prepare you for putting together a full collection.
  • A chapbook is a “safe” way to publish, because the work is not lost. You can publish it again in your collection.
  • You can take risks with a chapbook – give a chance to a new publisher, publish it yourself, create an artpiece.
  • A chapbook can keep you in the public eye in the time between publishing full poetry collections.
  • You need a home for perfectly good orphan poems that didn’t make it into a collection.

What goes into a chapbook?

If you think of a full collection as a bracelet of pea-sized red glass beads, a chapbook is not a ring-sized circle of miniature red beads; a chapbook is one magnificent red glass bead in all its glory, an orb of refracting light admired for its own beauty, whether or not it becomes part of a bracelet another time.

One poet friend embarked on a full-length collection project about a relationship in a particular Ontario locale. Although each poem stands alone, when read in order they tell the story of a summer and the growth and demise of the relationship. However, for a chapbook, she has extracted 15 poems that don’t focus on the relationship and don’t tell the relationship story, but which shed a spotlight on the geographic locale instead.

Another friend entered a chapbook suite in a contest and placed. Subsequently, he included the chapbook suite as one long poem in his full-length collection.

Yet another friend put together a chapbook of poems to raise money to help with her mother’s medical expenses. She wrote in her forward “I thought this chapbook was about my mom. It wasn’t until I put nearly everything together that I realized … it‘s about my experience of mourning the loss of my mother.”

A work of art

Given their small size and tight focus, chapbooks also lend themselves to becoming works of physical art. The chapbook I mentioned earlier about mourning the loss of a mother contained family photos, original artwork by the poet and was handstitched with red thread.

Container Books produce amazingly unique chapbooks that represent the contents: chapbooks as a View-Master reel and viewer toy, as a series of cross-stitch pillow kits, as tincture bottles with the text on the bottle labels. Other publishers offer special papers and bindings as varied and beautiful as the poems themselves.

Small but mighty

I’ve gained a new respect for chapbooks. I always thought of them as a trailer for the main event, but they are an event unto themselves. I think I’ll give it a try.

The Gifts of 2020

The Gifts of 2020

Gwynn Scheltema

As Ruth said in last week’s blog, I’m a master planner. I’ve always set goals, had a plan, been S.M.A.R.T. But I gave up writing New Year Resolution lists years back because, for me, they always seemed to be lists of my future failures, lists of not meeting my own expectations.

Instead, I switched to thinking positively about myself, mentally listing all the small and large achievements over the past year. I also began allowing myself to dream and visualize and imagine what I wanted to do—and not do. I learned to strive for balance in my writing life and life in general.

If there’s one thing that I have learned over this last year, it’s the importance of kindness and acceptance and the finding of joy and fulfilment in the unexpected, big and small. And part of that is the acceptance of self, flaws and all. 

So, in 2021 I’ve decided I am going to put kindness to myself first in any plans I make or goals I set and strive for participation and passion, not perfection.

Unexpected writing gifts

Someone once said that if you think your glass is always half empty, then pour it into a smaller glass and quit whining. I tried to take that approach in 2020 whenever new annoyances and problems arose, and realized that out of a seemingly all-bad year, a number of things did go well for me in my writing life.

I live out in the country, a good hour from all the people and events and activities I like to engage with. By May, a general acceptance of ZOOM and work-from-home meant I didn’t have to spend so much time travelling. That gave me more time for myself and my writing—a true gift.

And technologically, ZOOM was just the start. I gained a whole gift bag of new skills:  I learned how to make videos, how to work with MP4s sent to me from people’s phones and convert and edit them for podcasting. Ruth and I took a stab at giving online workshops, learning all about break-out rooms and gallery views and split screens and converting in-class learning materials to the screen. An arts group I volunteer with went virtual with Google Groups and Google Meet and is planning virtual arts activities I would never have imagined were even possible.  

I took part in virtual critique group meetings, online workshops and paint nights. I had time to read more. I enjoyed countless free offerings of art of all disciplines from around the world. So much to fill my creative well and give me new ideas. Another wonderful gift.

Being stuck at home allowed me to work on habits—breaking old bad habits and cultivating new good ones to replace them. On the writing front alone, I have been able to get back into journalling morning pages, into genuine regular creative time. I’ve had time to sort through years of journals and boxes of scraps of paper to find half-written poems and story ideas and put them into digital files where I can find them again. I’ve been able to spend quality time on putting together my poetry collection, so that in 2021 it may actually finally be done! The gift of moving forward even when everything seems static.

Of course, my 2020 gift list is much longer, full of good things that happened or that I came to appreciate, but you get the drift.

Moving forward

So now as I head into 2021, a big part of my plans and dreams and visions for the future is going to be influenced by what I learned in 2020:

  • Be kind to yourself and don’t expect perfection
  • Do more of what feeds your soul, your passions and your creativity
  • Do less of what others say you should be doing
  • Be flexible and willing to change direction and do it positively
  • Be present, mindful, grateful, and notice and appreciate
  • Go with the flow

Achieving writing goals is all very well, but if they are achieved at the expense of your health or your family relationships and other important aspects of life, then perhaps you need to reconsider. Take time to live.  Take time to grow. Take time to love.

Above all, be kind to yourself and others. Look for the good in everything. Enjoy the writing journey you’ve chosen for yourself. Enjoy life. Be positive and you’ll get there. Have a wonderful 2021.

Does Size Matter

Does Size Matter

Gwynn Scheltema

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on writing short fiction and in the comments, someone asked, “How short is short fiction?”

That’s a loaded question because, like poetic forms, short fiction comes in a host of forms and lengths and changes with the times.

This sample list of interesting short fiction forms and their word counts comes from a seminar I gave a few years ago at the Ontario Writers’ Conference:

Six word stories

Should provide a moment of conflict, action, and resolution that gives the sense of a complete story transpiring in a moment’s reading.

@twitterfiction

Fiction in 140 characters or less.

Expresso Stories – 25 words or less

A literary form for today’s frothed-up, on-the-hoof, want-it-all-now consumer lifestyle: complete stories that take no longer to read than an espresso takes to slurp.

Hint Fiction – 25 words or less

A hinting story, should do in twenty-five words what it could do in twenty-five hundred, that is, it “should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”

Trifextra – exactly 33 words

Stories written from prompts, and having something to with the number three.

Trifecta – no fewer than 33 and no more than 333 words.

A competition in which writers are given a one-word prompt, use the third given definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to write a story between 33 and 333 words.

Minisaga, mini saga or mini-saga – exactly 50 words [AKA ultra-shorts or microstory.]

Started by The Daily Telegraph and used in business as an educational tool to stimulate creativity. They are often funny or surprising and are described as “bite-sized lessons for life and business.”

Dribble Fiction – exactly 50 words

An offshoot of Drabble with the word count reduced to 50 words.

55 Fiction – 55 words

From the New Times short story contest. 55 Fiction has: a setting; one or more characters; conflict and resolution.

Postcard Fiction – usually 50 words or less but up to 250

Literary exploration, usually inspired by photographs and able to fit on a standard size postcard.

Micro fiction – under 100 words

A complete fictional story in a limited number of words in any genre.

Drabble Fiction – exactly 100 words

Originated in UK science fiction fandom in the 1980s. Drabble calls for brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.

Feghoot or Shaggy dog story – usually 100 to 250 words

Usually sci-fi, centers around or concludes with a pun, has a title character in a dangerous situation, any place in the galaxy, any past or future time. Can involve the travelling device with no name, represented as the “)(“.

Haibun – usually 100 to 1000 words.

English haibun is of one or more paragraphs of prose coupled with one or more haiku. It may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. Accompanying haiku has a direct or subtle relationship with the prose.

Short Story 1000 to 15000 words.

Word count varies with publication form: collections, anthologies, magazines, or journals; print or on-line; genre or not. Print costs for journals, magazines and anthologies usually keep the count between 2000 – 4000.Genre stories for anthology collections can go to 7500 words. Single author collections often have one longer story up to 15000 words coupled with shorter stories.

Novellette – 7500 to 17500

Novella – 17500 to 40,000, sometimes 50000

Bottom Line:

  • Write your story the length it needs to be without thinking about word limits. Decide afterwards if you want to edit it to fit a certain count.
  • If you hope to sell your story, figure out what magazines or anthologies would be the best fit for the content/genre/style of your story, then look up their submission guidelines.
  • For contests, don’t ever exceed the stated limit.
Thoughts on short fiction

Thoughts on short fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

With the shortest day of the year around the corner, I thought I would write today about short fiction. I began my writing journey writing short stories and poetry and in many ways , I think the two are alike.

Here are some of my random thoughts on writing short fiction. Interestingly, the same perspectives can be applied to writing poetry.

  • Short stories are like poems in that they steer the reader into reading the piece more than once, and the reader finds something new on each reading.
  • A “mainstream” short story can be about anything: a mood, a character, a setting, even a flashy writing style. A genre short story is about an idea. The fictional elements—character, plot, setting, etc.—are only there to dramatize the idea.
  • One idea is enough for a story. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language. For experimental writing choose everyday events. The stranger the idea, the more real the world must seem to be.
  • Know whose story it is, who is telling the story, and why.
  • The short story is a controlled release of information. Never rush or compact it. The fewer the words, the more air it needs to breathe.
  • Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click. Repetition is good for symmetry but must be used sparingly, like salt.
  • One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.
  • One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • Go easy on character descriptions. Nobody cares what your characters look like. They only need to be able to tell them apart.
  • Leave stuff out. It’s what’s left out that makes what’s left in do its work more effectively.
  • Withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. When the reader knows everything, the story is over.
Longlist Announcement

Longlist Announcement

Gwynn Scheltema

In May we invited writers to submit to a postcard story contest based on a visual picture of an interesting face in black and white. All just for fun, no monetary prizes. We’d like to thank all those writers who entered from Canada and abroad. We’d love to give you all a prize just for submitting because often that’s the hardest step, but of course we can’t.

Instead, today we announce our longlist. We originally planned on having five on the long list, but ended up with six.

Longlist (in alphabetical order):

Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Adam Conway

Deb Rankine

Lisa Reynolds

Ann Rocchi

Lori Twining

So now what?

Over the next three weeks we will feature the winning entry and two runners up with comments by the writers on what inspired them and from us on why we chose them.

But today let’s talk about the advantages of being on a longlist, a runner up or an honorable mention.

Potential

If your submission made it on to a longlist, it means your entry was among the cream that rose to the top. Even if it doesn’t ultimately win, the judges acknowledged that it had potential to be a winner.

Feedback

Sometimes you get feedback, and any judge or editor comment is worth the price of admission. You’re not obliged to take their advice, of course, but it answers that eternal question: why didn’t it win? In some cases, it’s good practical advice, and in some cases, it’s subjective, but at least you know where you stand.

Learning

If you don’t get feedback on your submission, take the time to read and analyze the winning entries. How are they different from yours? What did they do to really shine? Tighter story? Great voice? Interesting unique style? Dynamic dialogue?  Don’t get emotional or defensive. Instead, focus on learning what steps to take to put you on the road to success.

Confidence

Knowing that you made it into the top group of the entire entry body can be a huge boost to confidence especially for new writers or those who feel like they are in the doldrums. It’s recognition after all. Affirming recognition. When I was a new writer, my creative writing teacher had the class enter the Toronto Short Story contest as an assignment. I’m one of those don’t-share-till-I’m-sure kind of writers and sending in my entry felt like casting a delicate flower onto stormy waters. When I placed in the top 20 in a field of over 4000, I was ecstatic. I ran around the empty house telling every table and cupboard and drapery, then phoned all my writing buddies. Even though I didn’t win, I finally felt like a real writer.

Publishing credits

Some contests publish some or all of their longlist winners, and that counts for your writing resume. Even if it isn’t published, the fact that it made it onto the long list is resume worthy. One year I made it onto the Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2) longlist for their popular 2-day poetry contest  (again, didn’t win) but received a year’s subscription to the magazine as a reward. Now my longlist success sits proudly on my writing resume. Agents and publishers look for publishing credits, and longlist placings tell them that your work has been judged as worthy of winning.

When my Writescape partner Ruth entered the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2011, she was thrilled to be placed on the longlist. It meant her poem Gilt made it into the online longlist anthology, and became a proud item in her literary resume.

Exposure to the Industry

Ruth was equally chuffed when her short story entry received an honourable mention in Geist‘s Literal Literary Postcard Story contest. Then the icing on the contest cake: the prestigious U.S. quarterly, Utne Reader, asked for Ruth’s permission to reprint her story in their online magazine. So not winning top spot can give you inroads to places you didn’t foresee.

In our years as editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview Ruth and I were often asked to be judges and many times, deciding on final winners from the longlist was a painful process. All too often, a great story didn’t win but was eminently publishable. Knowing this, when we received submissions that could boast a longlist placing on the piece, it made it out of the slush pile pretty quickly.

Networking

With the ease of modern social media, making contact with your fellow longlist peers or others following the contest results can increase your writing network, and suggest possible writers for critique sharing or beta reading.

Motivation

Yes, it’s disappointing to be on a longlist and then not make it to the finish line, but the trick is to focus on the fact that the piece had enough merit to make it that far, and let that success propel you forward.  Take a second look, edit it or polish it and send it out again. If it’s that close, it will find a home.

So hearty congratulations to our longlist writers! Stay tuned for next week’s announcement and publication of our third place entry.

A new take on an old genre?

A new take on an old genre?

Gwynn Scheltema

So much dystopian literature is big on a military or quasi-military response from authorities to a global pandemic. Sheep-like broken people follow orders because of fear of the authorities and are hostile to anyone showing signs of infection.

But here we are in a global pandemic crisis and I’m learning that things can be very different and that there are many facets to consider. I don’t see people locking their doors and guarding their “territory” with a gun. I see instead so many kind and generous actions. I see cooperation and compassion. And I’m wondering if a new dystopian genre will (or should) reflect some of what I’m seeing.

The pace of change

If I had to name one thing about the COVID-19 crisis that really boggled my mind, it was the rapid pace of change. I remember doing the math around projected rates of spread at the beginning of March and rechecking my figures because I couldn’t believe the answers I was getting. What I knew yesterday is different today and who knows what tomorrow will bring– that’s a huge source of tension. Any story that mined and recreated that tension would keep me on the edge of my seat.

The hidden human consequences

I don’t see muscled men riding in jeeps brandishing sub-machine guns, or fenced off confinement areas full of people dressed in grey ragged clothes. I see very little of every-man-for-himself attitude (except around TP!!) But the virus aside, there are a host of dangers to be considered–just more subtle hidden consequences:

  • leaders who won’t heed the advice of experts
  • a lack of resources for frontline workers
  • the effects of isolation.

Yes, isolation is vital to stop the spread of the virus, but what dangers can bubble up:

  • women or children with abusers in the home
  • caregivers who get no respite
  • addicts with no access to their poison
  • street people forced inside
  • people living alone not having human contact for prolonged periods
  • mounting stress levels…

Currency

In this new take on the genre, will military, money and politics talk as loudly as before? Or will human interaction, village co-operative strength and simple needs become the top currency? Already dystopian literature often features barter rather than money as water and food resources become currency. In this revisionist genre will digital communications, farming and medical skills, and even art also play a part?

New sets of characters

In the cast of characters, I hope dystopian writers will give due weight to the “unseen” workers. I’m seeing grocery cashiers, fast-food servers, truckers, delivery people, the “unseen” hospital workers and so on, all being as vital to survival as first responders and lawmakers.

The change in attitudes

My observation has been that many people during the COVID-19 distancing have had very little trouble ditching the malls and stadiums and old “must haves”. Some of us quickly realized that we like the extra time with family, no commuting, less waste, less smog, and simpler expectations.

Shifts in values

I saw a post on Facebook that said “In the rush to return to normal, give great thought to what you want that normal to be.”

For dystopian writers— and indeed for all of us—will we find that more companies will allow work from home? Will retail shift from physical stores to online? Will we continue to take walks in the woods, be grateful for fresh produce, take better care of our planet? Will we take more time to connect with family and friends and be more grateful for what we have?