Speaking Google’s search language

Speaking Google’s search language

Gwynn Scheltema

When I search Google with writer, the search engine returns 1.6 BILLION results. If I get more specific with creative writer, the search results are halved to just under 800 thousand. So it would seem that being more specific is one way to get better results. However, if I now enter Ontario creative writer, the opposite happens and the returned results climb to 1.7 billion—more than the original search.

If you know how to search in terms that Google understands, you can get quicker, more accurate results:

Quotation Marks

Using quotation marks is known as a string search. Quotes around a “string of words” tells Google to search titles and text for those specific terms appearing together, but not necessarily related to each other. The search is now reduced to less than 100 thousand.

 

Minus Sign

Often in a search a certain result that we don’t want shows up again and again, cluttering up the search. In our Ontario “creative writer” search, the first pagesof results were are all related to jobs and hiring. If we want to exclude all job related results, we add a minus sign in front of the word job:  –job  or –hire The search more than halves again to less than 40 thousand…

and all the results with job or hire are gone.

Specific sites

When I look at the results after applying my minus signs, I notice that most of the sites are .com or .ca. If I was specifically interested in results from educational institutions, I can tell Google that adding site:.edu  

You can even ask Google to search a specific URL the same way. Just leave out the http://www. part:

Search only titles/text

If I wanted to research articles that focus on a particular person, I might ask Google for results that feature that person’s name in the title: allintitle: “Gwynn Scheltema”. As well, you can search only the text, and exclude the titles, by using allintext:

 

 Search a date range

If you want results from a particular time period, enter the dates you want with two zeros in between such as 2010..2015

Search for terms near each other

One of the most frustrating things about searching with several terms is that many results appear somewhere on the page, but bear no relation to one another. However, you can ask Google to find terms near each other by using AROUND(1) between terms.

“Gwynn Scheltema” AROUND(3)  “editor” will find pages where the exact name Gwynn Scheltema appears within 3 words of the exact word “editor”.

Use an asterisk within quotes for unknown words
If you know part of a phrase only, such as lyrics or titles, use an asterisk to represent the unknown words: girl with * tattoo or  *before the lord of song*

Of course, these tips only scratch the surface, but mastering them will give you more relevant results in less time. And for busy writers, that’s worth something.

Digging up Archives Part 2

Digging up Archives Part 2

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Digging up Archives explored how to find archive repositories that might hold the material that is key to your research. But then what? What if the record exists on another continent? How do you know if the photos or maps they hold are the ones you need?

Since every archive is different in terms of size, staffing, regulations and collections, the first step is to find out what exactly what they hold. If they have a website, start there:

Catalogues and Databases

Do a topic search and find the relevant collections the repository holds. With luck the list of collections will have links to catalogues or databases similar to those in a library. Here you can search by subject, keyword, title, author, etc.  At Toronto University Archives I put in “Baffin Island.” The result showed 9 collections (3 of them digital). One that caught my eye was:

  • Al Purdy Papers: 28 tapes of Purdy reading his poetry (Cariboo horses; Pressed on sand). Typescripts and drafts of poems. Typescripts and mimeographs of articles and plays for television and radio.

Finding Aids:

Many catalogues and databases will then link you to finding aids. A finding aid (sometimes called inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) provides a description of the contents of a collection just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. Finding aids sometimes also give background information on the collection, like when and from where it was acquired as well as how the archival staff have ordered the materials in the collection, and their physical nature.

With luck, the finding aids will be viewable at the website, but if not, some archives have paper copies on site, or will provide copies on request.

The finding aid for the Al Purdy Papers was 5 pages long. Here’s a sample of page 1.

Digital Collections:

More and more, archives are digitizing materials (photographs, meeting minutes, reports, letters, audiovisual recordings, etc.) making them more easily accessible, but beware. Often digital documents represent only a fraction of the total repository. You will have to ask the archival staff for assistance in accessing non-digitized content.

Archival Staff

Which brings me to probably the most precious asset in any archive, the archival staff who curate the collections. After you have examined the catalogues, finding aids, and website of an archive, archival staff can point you toward resources you may have missed. Write down the titles, call numbers, or other identifications from the materials you have sourced before you call or email. If an archive does not have a website, contacting the staff will be your only option.

In either case, if you are able to visit in person, set up an appointment time first. This will give the archival staff time to access the records you need, as they may be in another building or shelved in the basement stacks. Letting them know the background and scope of your project will help them better find appropriate materials.

If you can’t visit

Policies differ archive to archive, but here are possibilities for access if you can’t visit in person.

  • interlibrary loan – some archives lend printed materials or microfilm, but seldom primary or original documents like letters or diaries
  • scans or photocopies – be prepared for fees and limits
  • retain a research assistant – archives may recommend assistants or even provide paid research services
  • ask the archival staff – archivists routinely answer reference questions for researchers. Obviously it cannot be a great volume of material and you need to have specific questions.

 For many of us, the research part of the writing process is the most fun, and a visit in person to your chosen archive can be a highlight in that process. In Ruth’s previous blog, Holding history in my hands, she tells of her trip to the National Library and Archives to find her great-great-great-grandfather’s book. Published in 1790, it was a tell-all about The Hudson’s Bay Company, and a bestseller in its day. Ruth shares some of the protocols she encountered at the archives. It was a visit she will always remember.

 

Fall writing reflections

Fall writing reflections

Gwynn Scheltema

Fall. I love fall for the harvest, for the colour, for the diffused light and a sky that’s a different blue. I’ve harvested my veggies, and put away the summer furniture, put up pickles and raked leaves. Fall is a time to reap what you’ve sown, to reflect, to clean up and set up stores for the winter. I think writing has a “fall” period too.

Reap what you sow

What good is writing a wonderful poem, a brilliant short story, an entire novel manuscript, only to leave them forgotten in the digital drawer? A big part of being a writer is submitting your work. Agreed, not everything you write should see the light of day, but you know in your heart which pieces should be sent out into the world. It’s hard, yes. It takes courage to expose yourself to possible rejection, but you can only enjoy success if you take this important step. So, this fall, dig out those finished pieces, brush them off, pretty them up and decide where they can find a home. Then—the important bit—actually send them out!

Reflect

As we near the end of the year, reflect on what you achieved in your writing life. Was it more or less than you hoped for? If, like me, you didn’t get as much done as you planned, don’t beat yourself up about it. Take action instead.

Reflect on what stopped you or got in your way: Did you give your writing what it needs to grow? Enough time? Enough discipline? Enough freedom from the internal editor? Permission to write a shitty draft?

Reflect on what you are writing. Does it excite you? Are you afraid to finish it? Should you be writing something else? Are you afraid to try something new? Do you need help from a workshop or mentor?

Clean up

I am terrible for starting projects and not finishing them. Are you? Is there even one project you could finish up and clean off your list before the end of the year? What about your writing space and daily habits? Are they “cleaned up” enough for you to feel creative, to have the time you need? Should you be throwing some habits out and replacing them with new?

 

Set up stores for the winter

Now is the time to plan a winter schedule for your writing. What project/s do you want to tackle? Are there courses you need to sign up for in 2019? Conferences or retreats you want to attend next year that you must register for or save for now. A writing residency? A grant application? A submission schedule?

 

As winter approaches, take advantage of fall. Curl up in front of the fire with a hot beverage and make those plans. Be specific; make them attainable. Plan on a reward for when you reach your goal.

Digging up archives for research

Digging up archives for research

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers got me thinking more about research, and in particular about how to locate archive materials.

Of course, you can always start with Google, but beyond that, you might try:

Bibliographies

Look in the bibliographies at the back of books that you are already consulting for research. Where did those authors go to get information? Even if you don’t read all the books they consulted, you can still check out what sources they used. Likewise with any essays you read. Even websites dedicated to your topic may list archives they used. Sometimes the dedications at the beginning of books also thank people who helped with research.

Experts

While I’m not suggesting you stalk big names in your field of interest, we often meet experts (and other novelists) at book readings, symposiums, conferences or casually at other events. Asking about their research and the collections they may have used is a good conversation opener, and you might just learn something. If you are interviewing them, make it one of your questions.

Libraries

Your local reference librarian is bound to be a treasure house of information, especially about local archives.

But beyond that, ask your local library about accessing the WorldCat database or Archive Grid, with close to a million listings for archival materials stored in libraries, archives and museums all over the world. Many of the libraries within that network offer inter-library loans. Your library may also have access to the subscription site Archive Finder which has over 22000 listings of historical collections of primary source material in American and British archives. For American publications, the Library of Congress  is America’s national library, and the world’s largest.

College and university archives
An 1864 photo from the collection

Apart from theses archiving, educational institutions often have “special collections”. University of Toronto, for instance, has a collection called “The Barren Lands: J.B. Tyrrell’s Expeditions for the Geological Survey of Canada, 1892-1894” which includes over 5,000 images from original field notebooks, correspondence, photographs, maps and published reports covering two exploratory surveys of the Barren Lands region west of Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the area now known as Nunavut.

Corporate archives
1936 Parade of Progress

Large corporations often have archives, like the General Motors Heritage Centre, that preserve the history of their corporations and industries. Collections of videos, photographs, and corporate records have varying degrees of public access depending on the company’s policies and archival staff availability.

Canadian archives

Our National Archives known as Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are housed in Ottawa. (read about Ruth’s research visit there). Among their collections are:

The Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), in partnership with LAC, maintains ArchivesCanada.ca which lists over 800 repositories across Canada and has links to databases by province.

Other web sites to check

Explore the Smithsonian Institution Archives , the record keeper of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

The American Historical Association sponsors Archives Wiki which gives information on (and links to) archives around the world from a researcher’s perspective.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)  looks after US Federal government materials, regional archives, and presidential libraries.

And then what????

Of course, locating the archive that holds the documents or other materials you need is only the beginning. Accessing that information and dealing with archival staff is the subject of another blog. Stay tuned.

Last Word

This twitter quote comes from this year’s author guest at Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2018 retreat in November, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpayper). And it’s so true!

The thing with research is you only know you’ve done enough research after having done way too much research.

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Gwynn Scheltema

If there’s a faster, easier way to do something I’m in. I love life hacks. Here are a few computer hacks I’ve collected  to make writing and researching easier. Try them. And if you have other hacks to share, tell us about them in the comments.

When writing or editing

  • Want to find an opposite, a rhyming word, a word for a phrase? Head to Wordhippo.com. They also have translations and pronunciation help.
  • Paste your finished prose into “Google Translate” and listen to it. Sometimes hearing sentences uncovers clunky bits and mistakes you might not notice by simply looking at it.
  • If you don’t have a grammar program, try Grammerly or Hemmingwayapp.com to help uncover passive voice, identify adverbs (so you can decide if you have overused them) and give you an overall reading level. (especially useful for non-fiction article writers).
  • Looking for a special font? Google.com/fonts is a collection of open source fonts, all optimized for the web.
  • When reviewing, change your font to something you don’t like. It will force you to slow down and read more critically.
Research hacks
  • Is your research article “Too Long Didn’t Read” or TLDR? Add Chrome’s TLDR free plugin to your browser screen to be one-click away from getting a condensed synopsis/summary view of news, blog posts, and other articles online. The plugin analyzes content and creates four different-length summaries.
  • Simple.wikipedia.org will condense the main points of any Wikipedia article
  • Does your Google search turn up too many options? Not sure which are most reliable? Search with scholar.google.com instead for more relevant choices.
  • When you copy from the net, use crtl + shift + V to paste it. This will prevent the text from formatting.
  • If you accidentally close a tab while researching, hit ctrl +shift+ t to reopen it.
  • Use the space bar to scroll down a webpage. Use shift + spacebar to scroll back up.
Keyboard magic
  • Instead of hitting the backspace key multiple times to erase a word., hit crtl + backspace to erase the whole word at once. It works the same for deleting a whole word with crtl + delete.
  • Although you can add symbols (like the copyright symbol ©) to your text using the insert tab, it is worth learning the shortcut keyboard codes for the ones you use most often. Note that these codes work only with a numeric keyboard, but on some laptops adding in the fn key allows them to work too. (e.g. alt + fn + 0169 = ©) You can look up the keyboard codes on the character map (insert tab; symbol; more symbols).
    Here are a few to get you started:
    • © Copyright symbol = alt +0169
    • ™ Trademark sign = alt + 0153
    • ° Degree symbol = alt + 0176
    • ¢ Cent sign = alt + 0162
    • £ English pound = alt + 0163
  • The control key also allows you to keyboard commands without stopping typing. Hold down the control key as you hit the shortcut. The keys themselves are also intuitive as they often stand for what you want to do. S for save. P for print, etc. The ones I use all the time are ctrl + f = find and crtl + z = undo.
    Here’s a full list:

.

There you go. Hack away, writer, and see if all this doesn’t make your writing and researching life easier.

Little Libraries

Little Libraries

Gwynn Scheltema

I love libraries. I even have a Pinterest board of book spaces and libraries. But I have a special fondness for little libraries; libraries that make the effort despite situational difficulties or lack of resources.

Perhaps it’s because during my childhood, there was but one small library in town, a long car ride from my rural home. Nonetheless, my parents made the weekly trek every Saturday morning, where I chose my six books for the week (the library max). It didn’t take long to exhaust all the books in the children’s section, so the librarian gave me special permission to borrow books from the adult floor. What a treat!

Little Libraries

I especially love “pop-up libraries” or “little libraries” on people’s front lawns. I love that people have taken the time to make them, to stock them with free books, and to trust that other book lovers will use them. This one at the end of my street is nestled in long grass and the sign inside suggests that you take a book, swap a book or donate a book.

This summer, on a visit to Stratford I noticed that there were several little libraries in one neighbourhood and a closer inspection revealed that they were all connected through LittleFreeLibrary.org and each had a “charter number”. Why an organization, I wondered. Were there rules? Expectations for what I thought were purely random, personal fixtures?

 

The Little Free Library organization

Turns out, there are no “rules”. The organization exists to spread the concept across the world and to support those who want to start a little library. They maintain a world map of registered Little Free Libraries to help people find and share books and donate Little Free Libraries to communities where books are scarce through their Impact Library Program.

If you want to create a Little Free Library, the organization offers free Library building instructions, access to free or discounted books through their partners, and an online store that offers Library kits and pre-built Library models.

A global movement

There are currently more than 75,000 registered Little Free Library book-sharing boxes in 88 countries worldwide.

This funky little mushroom-shaped kids Library is installed at Grant Place Reserve playground in Flinders Park, Australia. The builders of this library say, “Our ‘Reading Spots’ give a fun place for kids to read in an awesome playground! We did some fun community art with the kids when we launched the Library, and we put a fabulous sign up on the fence.”

 

 

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania teacher Johnny Buckley felt that abandoned pay phones could take on a new life of storytelling by transforming them into Little Free Libraries for pre-schoolers.

 

 

And across the pond in Oostakker, Belgium, the makers of this Little Library say, “The model fits our house perfectly, because our house is a hundred years old and has no straight walls, just like the Library. It has the charm of a place with a soul. It reminds us of our childhood, too, with all the colours.”

 

 

 Do it your way.

Of course there are many more unregistered Little Libraries everywhere. If you are considering making a Little Library, how you construct it, the books you stock it with, and whether you do it as an individual or in community doesn’t matter. What matters is that more books become available to more people everywhere.

If you prefer to simply use and enjoy Little Libraries, that’s fine too. Happy reading!

 

 

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2

Gwynn Scheltema

In Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1 we explored how Pinterest can help you as a writer while you are writing. But of course, there is the other side to writing: selling the book! Pinterest can help there too. (Note: If you are not sure what terminology like “boards” and “re-pinning” mean, please read Part 1 first.)

Why consider Pinterest for sales?

According to Omnicore Agency’s January 2018 report:

  • Monthly active Pinterest users numbered 175 million (75 million in the USA.)
  • 93% are women
  • 2 million shopping pins are saved daily
  • Millennials use Pinterest as much as Instagram
  • Pinterest drives more referral traffic to websites than Google+, LinkedIn and YouTube combined.
  • Nearly 85% of Pinterest searches happen on mobile devices

One of the reasons I prefer Pinterest is that what you post is always there, easily found and well-organized. You don’t spend time creating a post that disappears into a long news-feed and may never be seen, like on Facebook and Twitter.

Two kinds of Pinterest accounts

Pinterest offers registration as either a personal user or a business user. Both are free.

A personal account allows you to create boards and pin to them. You can also pin from other people’s boards and send to other people’s boards, social media accounts, and email.

If you have a business account, you can additionally:

  • place links on your website to take people to your page on Pinterest
  • get visitor analytics and what they’re looking at the most
  • use rich pins to let users do special stuff with the content on your website or Pinterest page, and add prices to your images.
The right Pinterest mindset

Pinterest is not a point of sale. It drives people to click through to your website or to Amazon or wherever your point of sale is. It’s great for building an author presence, (see how below) but never lose sight of the fact that your end goal is sales!

But, and it’s a BIG BUT, like all other social media platforms, avoid incessant self-promotion. The immediate goal is for vistors to pin and then to click through.

Pinterest is a quieter, more subtle platform where sales are made indirectly by building trust, loyalty and engagement. On Pinterest you express yourself through images. So if you want to showcase a review of your book you’ll have to make a visual for it.

Also remember that most pins are re-pins, so if you provide original content, pinners will happily spread it for you. Just give them a good visual with a few, repeat few, words that hook them and you’re on your way.

Become a Business Author

I’m a personal pinner and I have over 60 boards covering all my hobbies, dreams, and plans. Some are general: gardening; art; books I recommend. But there are also more personal boards: my daughter’s wedding; things I want to do with the grandkids; travel plans and of course, unpublished book boards.

When selling your book, you don’t want your efforts buried in clutter and you want to be accessible but stay professional.  The best way is to register as a separate author persona with a business account.  Use your name, and simple add “author”: Jane Doe, author. And just like Twitter and Facebook, a decent head shot and succinct profile that sells you and your products is a must. Notice in the author page below that Rachel Thompson has 6,000 followers and 22,100 monthly viewers. Wow!

What boards could I create?

You can still have multiple boards, but keep them associated with the book or you as an author. In a business account, Pinterest allows you to have “featured boards” and “latest pins” that show up when you first go to the Pinterest page.

Remember sales is the goal, so make sure to put links to your sales page/s whenever you can. You can put them in your profile, in the description portion of your images, and add the URL to images you create.

Here are a selection of boards to consider:

Boards about the book
  • The book/s.

Create a separate board for each book you want to sell. Pin pictures of the cover, back page blurb, reviews, and enticements to read excerpts. Link all the images to your sales page and where appropriate put prices on your images. In the image below, notice that Carla Laureano has 8 separate book boards. (She also has her website URL prominently displayed and a URL to a free book in her profile)

  • Behind the book/s

Glimpses into the book in the making: pictures or quotes that inspired your characters, settings etc. (all poached from your initial vision board.) Cover choices that didn’t make the cut. Characters and/or excerpts that didn’t make the book. Story boards, notes.

  • Special offers

Freebies, contests. New book ideas: Invite people to post pictures of what the villain could look like, or what kind of car the protagonist might drive. Give a free book to the winner when the book is done. In the board below, 75 authors collaborate on this board to offer giveaways. The board appears like this on each of their pages.

Boards about the author
  • About the author

You can get personal here or stay all business; it’s up to you. You can cover how you got started writing, your mentors, your writing resume, your future plans, your passions, causes you support, hobbies and views on life.

  • Events

Reading and signing events (use your photos and posters as the visual); conferences, guest posts, speaking engagements, workshops you’re giving; TV, print or radio interviews. Again add links in the description portion of the pin.

  • Fan club

More photos of happy fans holding your book; book club group shots; quotes from fans or fan letters. Tag people using the @ sign in your pin descriptions (tagging in Pinterest works similarly to Facebook.) Plus, other people can pin things to your page (if you allow them to become “contributors” to a particular board), which encourages more sharing and interaction.

  • Behind the scenes

Pictures of you writing, your cork board of favourite inspirational quotes etc,  your waste basket of discarded scenes, the view from your window, your cat lying on your keyboard. Let your public see you as the person behind the book.

Boards that support the content of your book/s
  • Topic boards

If your book features a mental health issue, have a board about that mental health issue; if your books are Georgian romance, boards of all things 18th century would be of interest to your readers.

  • Books you recommend

Can be in your genre only, or anything you recommend. Alternatively, have a board about “reading now” or “my to-be-read list.”

  • Related activities

If you have written a kids book, have companion boards for teachers or parents or libraries.

  • Any other book-related topics

Libraries you love. Book stores you recommend. Books you loved as a child. Quotes from writers ……..

And there’s more

Once you’ve created your Pinterest author account, don’t forget to grow your audience by adding a Pinterest Follow button on your website so people can follow your Pinterest account from your website.

You’ll also need to brush up on some of the technical stuff, all of which could warrant a separate blog post, but there’s plenty of help out there. Here are a few links to get you started.

Of course you can search on Pinterest yourself! Here are three pins I found in a search “selling books”.

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

Out of the box poetry

Out of the box poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

One way I free up my creative mind is to box it in. Sound contradictory? It is, but it works. Forcing my brain into constraints forces it to find new ways out, to connect things that are not normally connected and to reach for ways to use available concepts or images or ideas that aren’t the easy default but something deeper.

Using constraints is not a new concept, and it applies to all creativity, not just writing. Composer Igor Stravinsky described it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.”

Here are some constraints that I use to start poems. Notice, I say “to start”. Some of these tactics may produce a finished poem, but more often they simple set my mind in a new direction. After that I ignore the constraint and let the new idea lead me where it may.

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect. When the initial writing is done, you can remove the phrase and just work with the images and thoughts you’ve generated.

I find it good to pick a focus, like a place, time, person or experience and use phrases like “On Saturdays…” or “My Aunt Emily…” In London…” etc., as well as general introductions like “I remember…” or “I don’t remember”, I believe…”, “I want…” or “If I could…”

Joe Brainard wrote a book length poem about his life in the 1950s called I Remember. Here is an excerpt:

I remember a piece of old wood with termites running around all over it the termite men found under our front porch.

I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days. I remember, downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.

I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

Lipogram

A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. Here is a short poem by Daniel J Webster that excludes the most used letter in the English alphabet: “e”.

Most common of all marks from A to Z,
It’s tyrant to orthography, and smug
That not a thing of worth is said without
Our using it. . . .

Univocalism

A poem using only one vowel. Canadian poet Christian Bok is famous for his collection Eunoia, a collection of five univocal prose poems (which run into many pages each), one for each vowel.

Here is an excerpt from “A”

Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.

Opposites

Take a poem you find interesting (your own or someone else’s) and write a line opposite in meaning to each line in the poem. For a bigger stretch, keep to the same form and/or rhyme scheme.

Excerpt from PETALS
by Amy Lowell

Life is a stream
On which we strew
Petal by petal the flower of our heart;
The end lost in dream,
They float past our view,
We only watch their glad, early start.

STONES
by Gwynn Scheltema

Death is earth
On which we pile
Stone by stone the cairn of our mind;
The beginning found in birth
We build up all the while,
Only to miss their sad, final end.

Imitation

Imitate a poem, even incorporating phrases from the original poem. If you use this only as an opening up exercise to find your own thoughts, make sure you eliminate the original poet’s words in your poem. If you keep any of them make sure to acknowledge the original poet.

Excerpt from “PATTERNS” by Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

Imitation exercise:

PATTERNS REPEATED
After Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden-paths,
And all the peonies
Are full and showy, like happy children
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my husband’s shadow
With painted smile and high bred manner
I too am a rare
Pattern.  As I wander down
The garden-paths.

 Riffing off a concept

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in which each stanza is a mini-poem, but all of them refer to a blackbird in some way, to unite the whole. This is a great way to start writing a poem. Think of 13 (or 14 or 16 ) ways of looking at anything: sunsets; lovers; baking apple pie; train journeys…..

 

First and Last

Here, take two lines at random from any text. Make it truly random by getting someone else to pick them. One line becomes the first and one the last line of your poem. When you’re done, remove the borrowed lines.

Poet John Hewitt recommends this tactic because “…it gives you something to start from. If you know what your last line has to be, you start to think of ways that you can get there. If you know that you have to write a poem about the constellation Orion, you go out and stare at the stars. You are no longer dealing with a blank page. You know that at least one of those words is going to be “Orion”. That’s a place you can start from.”

And one more thing

It is important to realize a constraint is a tool. It helps bring focus to a poem. You won’t always want restraints, but when you are stuck, a constraint is a good way to get the words flowing again.

Last word

Gilbert Sorrentino, poet, novelist, critic and professor says “Generative Devices are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the “laws” set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”

 

 

 

18 Ways to Choose a Title

18 Ways to Choose a Title

Gwynn Scheltema

 

Your book title is the first impression your readers get of your novel. It’s the first chance to connect, to inform, to intrigue, and to firmly hook readers. A great title will help readers find, remember and buy your book.

You want your title to be representative of your story, to give an indication of content or theme or genre. You want it to be unique but not confusing. You want it to be memorable and easy to spell. If you are writing a series you’ll want something to tie them together.

On a practical level you need a title short enough to fit on the cover or spine, but long enough to not get lost among other titles in computer searches. Consider how it will fit in URLs, tweets and Pinterest posts, how it will read on digital devices. The current trend seems to be single word titles, but five words or less is a good length to aim for.

Because a title is such an important aspect of your book, choosing one can be tricky and even overwhelming. The choice isn’t necessarily one you need make when you are still drafting the manuscript. If you have one in mind when you begin, by all means make it your working title, but reconsider its suitability again when the book is finished.

 So let’s get started…

What is your story about?

  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A memorable image

  • Little House on the Prairie
  • In the Shadow of the Banyan
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 Character’s name

  • Carrie
  • Anna Karenina
  • Jane Eyre

 Characters role

  • The Golden Son
  • The Last Emperor
  • My Sister’s Keeper

 When the story happens

  • 1984
  • That Summer in Franklin
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

 Where the Story takes place

  • The Colonial Hotel
  • Treasure Island
  • Jurassic Park

 Genre

  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • Dracula

 Metaphors

  • All the Light We Cannot See
  • The Nightingale
  • Three Day Road

 A representative line from the text

  • Cutting for Stone
  • Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight
  • Sweetness in the Belly

 Questions

  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
  • Who Has Seen the Wind?
  • Are You My Mother?

 Go against expectation

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Blind Assassin
  • Slumdog Millionaire

 An important symbol or object in the story

  • The Golden Compass
  • The Book of Negroes
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 A Play on words: double meanings, puns

  • Living Underground
  • Lifting the Veil
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

 A twist on a known phrase

  • The Wife’s Tale
  • Elementary, She Read
  • By Book or by Crook

 Single words 

  • Divergent
  • Room
  • Silk

 Old titles reworked

  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  • Zen and the Art of Faking It
  • Gnomeo and Juliet

 The promise of a story

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Gone Girl

 Theme

  • Infidel
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Greener Grass

 

There is no ONE right way of choosing a good title. Brainstorm many possible titles, ask family and friends or readers which ones grab them. And when you sign a publishing contract make sure you know who gets to choose the final title.

DID YOU KNOW

When naming Writescape’s annual retreats we chose titles that had double meanings, were metaphors for the act of writing and which evoked a visual image: Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 on November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario. This all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with our guest, Andrew Pyper, about the writing life and an intense morning workshop with Andrew on Saturday. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.