Archive for August, 2008

What I am writing: sonnets

One of the units I am currently studying for my Master of Arts in Creative Writing is on writing poetry. One of the expectations is that we write at least one poem each week in preparation for the tutorial after each lecture.

The poem each week is usually in a different format. We are expected to print off enough copies for each of the students in the tutorial group. We then take it in turns to read out our poem and it is then workshopped – that is, the other students and the lecturer critique the poem or poems.

While this was a little threatening at first, as I have progressed through the course I have come to appreciate how useful such a process is in developing my poetic skills.

Last week we looked at several sonnets by such classical poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins. We then had to write our own sonnet using one of the traditional forms of sonnet, such as that used by Shakespeare for example.

For readers who are not familiar with the sonnet form I’m not going to explain it here. There are many more qualified people than me who have explained the various forms of sonnet on their websites or in books on poetry. All I will say is that I attempted to write a 14 line sonnet, all in iambic pentameter with the following rhyming pattern: abab cdcd efef gg.

I realised early in the week that this is one form of poetry I had never attempted before. It was going to be a challenge.  I am pleased that I managed to rise to the occasion and produce a poem that my lecturer suggested I send immediately to our major daily newspaper. The theme was very topical. So far it has not appeared, but the lecturer has also suggested I submit it to the college annual anthology for consideration.

I was so taken with my little piece of success that I immediately wrote another sonnet.

I think I’m in love with the form!

Good writing.

Counting words – and words that count

Do you count the words you write?

One technique I’ve used successfully with my writing is to keep a reasonably accurate count of the words I write each day. In some cases this is just an estimate. In most cases the count is quite accurate. I keep a record chart of the number of words I write each day, month and year. This process is a part of my goal setting with my writing. It helps to keep me on track and accountable to myself – no-one else is going to keep me on task.

It is my goal to write a thousand words a day. I am quite a bit shy of that goal this year because of my studies. I am part way through my Master of Arts in Creative writing. This course requires a large amount of reading which takes me away from actually writing words. I am willing to put up with this distraction while I am studying because all the reading is related to writing in some way. It is all part of improving my skills as a writer.

Do you count the words you write?

I would strongly recommend that you do. It is a good indicator of how you are going. It will tell you if you are making progress. Perhaps a thousand words a day is too ambitious for you, especially if you are studying (like me) or working full time or looking after a family of young children. Set a realistic goal. This may be only 100 or 200 words per day. Whatever your goal is – stick to it. By achieving this simple goal day after day that story, article, book or novel will get written. As you progress, make bigger goals. Stretch yourself as you develop as a writer.

Do you write words that count?

No – I am not talking in riddles here. Do not just count your words – make your words count. By that I mean – be ruthless when editing your writing. Cut out all unnecessary words. Keep your writing tight. Make every word count.

Good writing.

What I am reading: Australian Ballads

This semester at university I am doing a unit called Themes in Australian Literature. This unit is actually an English unit but I need to complete two units of English as a part of my Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Like the unit on English literature I studied last semester I am finding this unit very stimulating. It has been many years since I formally studied any Australian literature. Some of the texts and writers are completely new to me; I have heard of them but have not read any of their work. This is about to change.

The first topic we are looking at include the ballads. We looked at particular at the writing of early colonial writers like Henry Lawson and AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson. When refreshing my memory this week of the well known ballads of Paterson like The Man from Ironbark and The Man from Snowy River I just had to read them aloud. There is something special about these wonderful ballads that demands being read aloud.

One day I may even try writing a ballad.

Good writing.

Drafting poetry

Over the last five decades I have written many hundreds of poems. Several dozen of these have been performed in public or published in magazines and quite a few have been self-published here on this blog.

How do I go about writing my poetry?

Usually the idea for a poem comes to me in the form of either a striking image, a special word or phrase or even a whole line. I usually carry a notebook with me (so I can record the birds I see for writing about on my birding blog). This notebook will often contain a few notes on the image seen or the words that came to me. Sometimes the whole poem is scribbled out in this notebook. When I do not have a notebook handy (a rare occurrence) I will grab any convenient piece of paper and jot down a few words or ideas. This becomes the first draft of the poem.

Sometimes that is where the idea stops.

During the second and subsequent drafts I may use the same notebook or piece of paper or even start typing it on to my computer. Here it may go through many drafts before the finished poem is ready for the world. Many never reach this far and lie languishing in notebooks or on misplaced bits of paper or whatever; they may never be reworked and are essentially still-born.

Poetry notebook

This year, at the suggestion of my lecturer in poetry, I have changed my approach. I have purchased an A5 size spiral notebook that I carry with me everywhere, waiting for inspiration. Here I jot down ideas and drafts of poems, interesting images I come across and a record of any phrase, lines or sentences I may want to rework into a poem sometime. I also work through the editing process of each poem in this book. It is easy and convenient to go back through this notebook and see how each poem has changed and developed.

Final draft

It is only in the final draft that I type up the poem on my computer. This is in complete contrast with the method I use when writing stories and novels, as I explained yesterday. Interestingly, most of my poetry these days is written in pencil. I find the tactile approach works best for me and a pencil feels much better than a ball point pen.

I’d like to hear from my readers how you go about writing poetry. Leave your comments below.

Good writing.

Save all your draft writing

One of the things impressed upon me by the lecturers during my Master of Arts in Creative writing course is the importance of saving copies of all draft writing. I have never been very good at this. I guess that since much of my writing is now done using a word processor I have become a little lazy. As I edit or proofread or even rewrite I tend to do it all on the one copy. My original draft copy eventually becomes my final – and only – copy. I just keep on saving newer versions and replace older versions in the process.

Since starting my course I have starting saving multiple versions, or drafts, of the story I am writing. Saving word documents takes up so little space on the hard drive and is so easy to do that there are no arguments against this process. If you are printing out each draft that is another matter, but I tend not to do that until the last draft. I then check this draft in hard copy and then print the final copy.

It is so easy saving each draft as you go. I tend to use the title plus the draft number. For example, a story I started a few days ago is called Shifting Sand. My first draft was actually hand written. It was just several paragraphs done during a writing workshop. On typing this up I made a few subtle changes and named it Shifting Sand 2nd draft. The hand written copy is the first draft.

The next stage was to write the back story, that is, what happened before those first few paragraphs. This became Shifting Sand 3rd draft. I read it out aloud making a few alterations as I went and this became the 4th draft. I then took it to the lecture and presented it to my critique group in the workshop after the lecture. I will take some of the group’s suggestions – including a wonderful new ending – and do some more major rewriting and new writing. This will become the 5th draft.

During the coming weeks I will email the story to my lecturer for her comments and suggestions. This story may well go through four or five more drafts – perhaps as many as another ten drafts – before I am satisfied with it and submit it as one of my assignments for the Creative Writing: Prose Fiction unit I am studying.

Why save so many drafts? As you go through the writing process, you may get to the point where you have discarded sentences or even whole paragraphs and want to go back to them and use them because they were better than the newer versions after all. If they have been deleted it may not be easy or possible to rescue those words. You can also look back over earlier drafts and see the progress the story has made over the time you have been writing it.

Good writing.