#AuthorToolboxBlogHop · story · writing

Playing Inside the Box #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

The Author Toolbox Blog Hop is “a monthly blog hop on the theme of resources/learning for authors: posts related to the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, blogging tips for authors, reviews of author-related products, anything that an author would find helpful.” Want to jump into the writing tool box? Search #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join via blog, click here.

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It’s not hard

When you commit and do,

Read a lot,

Write often,

Do your best with what you have,

Choose new challenges.


The writer/editor threw out a peculiar challenge to those writers brave and foolhardy enough to try.  The theme was Alone spring boarding off a quote from Cheryl Strayed.  The genre was poetry, in the form of shadorma.  {A shadorma is a poetic form originally from Spain, with one or more six-line stanzas with the meter of 3/5/3/3/7/5 for a total of 26 syllables.  Rhyme is not required.}

I respected the publication, wanted to be published in the next issue, so I sat down and played. I am a novelist, not a poet, although I do like to jot haiku as a warm-up to writing or compose them in my mind while I walk with my very old, very slow dog.

I did not know this form and struggled with it until I realized that 26 syllables are enough to tell a story, to sketch a scene and set readers wondering.  Again and again, my lines came up short or too long — and the complex words and expressions I most enjoy were too long, too cumbersome, so I had to draw upon new wells.  Ultimately, I did come up with something that pleased me — and the editor who published it and the readers who responded with stories of their own or happy praise.

For another publication, I started with a single word prompt:  Painting.  Easy, I thought.  I  don’t paint, but I have a heroine who did paint, who gave up her aspirations when her solid, earnest efforts did not meet her expectations nor what she believed was necessary to succeed in the elite art school she attended.

With deadline and prompt churning in my mind, I went for the pivotal moment, the time the heroine believes there is no hope for her as an artist and elects a different path in life, as a beautiful wife to a rich man.  In my novel, this moment does not appear within the story; it happened years earlier, so it’s really nothing much more than back story.

Or was it?

Here is how things went for the story:  I worked on that story, submitted it on time, was chagrined when it was not accepted.  Righteous and angry, I submitted it to other publications where it did do well, gaining reader approval and response.

Here is how things went for me as a writer: for the first time, I had a clear shot to the heart of a reticent, guarded character.  I knew what she was thinking, the precise and swift analysis that changed her strategy and shaped her life.  My heart pounded.  I couldn’t keep up with the flow of words, the torrent raging in the heart of a woman who was wrong about her talent, terribly ignorant of her potential as artist and creator.

This single bit of flash fiction gave me the essential foundation for a story that I have been working on for years, but without knowing enough about the elusive woman at its heart, devising and manipulating and yearning.  I had no idea that I needed it so badly, that work in another format for another purpose could contribute to a long-form, carefully developed piece.  What’s more, I’d become adept with a tool to use with other characters, other stories, a way to get at their innermost desires, yearning, and fear.

Last night, I started reading a murder mystery set in England at the conclusion of World War I.  It is well-enough written, but what staggers me is the way that the author makes each scene, every moment, each conversation contribute to the atmosphere, character motivation, the ticking clock, and the terrible events to come.  Things are getting worse — and there are fewer resources and ways out with every turn of the page.

Today, while working on another novel of my own that arrived fully formed and squalling in my mind last week, I realized that things were not bad enough for my heroine, that my story lacked the inevitable and terrible cavalcade of events that keep a reader engaged, enthralled, and committed to the story.  What’s more, the setting feels blah, like a tired and expected city scene.

This is not at all the story that arrived in my mind — and the powerful heroine who brought it to me begged me to make things worse for her because she is up to it — and also to make the prose sing, make it grab her by the throat and not let go.

While I work on craft and recommend anything by James Scott Bell, Jane Friedman, and Dirty Moore (The Story Cure is incredible, necessary, fabulous), I also play with different forms of poetry and read novels in genres different from my own.  I learn by studying and by practice, by enjoying the work of talented others, bringing it all together when I sit down to write my own story.

Read widely, study hard, and play often in different playgrounds — and bring it all to your own writing and see what happens.




19 thoughts on “Playing Inside the Box #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. I like the discipline of haiku–and the fact it has a defined end. I suspect shadorma has the same benefits – thanks for introducing me to it! Perhaps my heroine should take up writing haiku or shadorma. It might solve her lack of conflict problems.


  2. Writing poetry is a useful practice strategy for novelists. The limited number of words forces writers to be more selective with their choices. When every word must have impact, then the writing becomes more powerful.


  3. Love this. All writing is practice, right? And I love how the constraints you faced in answering the prompts from these publications also allowed other aspects of your writing to flourish. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!


  4. Thanks. I’d not been introduced to shadorma. It appears to me as much mathematical as creative. I wonder who established the meter. I appreciate your advice on reading widely and branching out. Plays well for everyone.


    1. Thank you for reading — and responding — Allen Ginsberg apparently has worked within the form — and it is hundreds of years old…imagine it worked for a certain type of folk song/music? Thanks for reading — and letting me know what you think.


    1. Thanks for reading — it did take gumption and not a little fury to send the piece out some more. While it is really hard to write the poetry, the discipline of powerful focus helps in all aspects of the novels I write.


  5. “Choose new challenge.” I love that!

    I’ve dabbled in writing haikus in the past. They are challenging but fun. Usually, mine are silly, not serious. Poetry writing is a great skill to have or to learn.


    1. Love that you see them as games — I do, too — which keeps me sane while walking ridiculously slow with my dog…or when characters are not behaving, it’s such a release to do something that I enjoy!


  6. I agree that poetry and other forms of writing only enhance the ability to write novels, as does reading in and out of your genre. I will definitely check out “The Story Cure.” Thanks for sharing your insight!

    Liked by 1 person

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