You know that feeling when your fingers are itching to pick up a pen, or rattle across the keyboard, pouring another creation onto the page? Ideas trip over themselves in your mind and words dance. You’ve carved out a generous slice of interruption-free time. Your favourite music plays in the background. You’ve plenty of water and, in case of a bad affliction of the munchies, you’re prepared with snacks; cashew nuts, Dairy Milk chocolate – if you’re on a health kick, carrot sticks. The blank page entices. You flex your writing muscles and step out into the realm of blank page. It feels great. You’re racing along, your mind is fizzing, your thoughts are fluent, emotive stream flowing onto the page. You capture everything you wanted to say, and bonus thoughts join the original ideas. You write with no hesitation, no awkward pauses searching for an elusive word, and the poem blooms.
First draft done, you take a break for a coffee. You know you’ll need to proofread and edit, to recraft a few lines here and there, and rethink a couple of weaker words. But you like to leave poems to marinate for a time. Nothing is ever pristine and polished the first time round, so you always make space for a redraft.
You drink your coffee, standing by the kitchen window. Outside, young waxeyes dart through the rose bush, and the sun lassoes their haze of feathers in a green corona. You frown, wondering if in the second verse you really managed to capture just how the sun casts its last light of the day. You remember Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Before you file the poem in your redrafts folder, you read it again. Aloud, to capture the pace, flow and rhythm.
Your tongue trips and jams on awkward cadences. Your heart doesn’t feel what your mind promised. And you wonder if, when you were distracted with coffee and waxeyes, some goblin snuck in and substituted a different version of your work. This stream of words is thin, flat. It grasps at big ideas, but where is the elemental punch? It says what you think, but where is the invitation to readers to feel, to care? Where is the poem you thought you had written? Where is the verve? The light, the broken glass?
This experience will be familiar to most writers. And even if it’s not so extreme, the writing, marinating, rewriting process is essential to creativity. But how do you capture the ‘glint of light on broken glass’ in writing? Just writing the light of the moon glinted on the broken glass is an improvement on the moon shone but it’s not the most riveting description.
Well, here is how. You fill your writing toolbox with a full set of tools to enhance your craft. Here are four simple tools to start with:
Choose strong, active verbs
Words that convey specific detail give clarity to your writing. If you are describing somebody walking, think how you want the character to appear: purposeful, slow, angry, shy etc. Avoid adverbs. While adverbs do sometimes have their place, they tend to slow the writing down without adding anything substantive. There is almost always a more precise and evocative active word you can choose. Instead of she walked purposefully, try she strode to the door, she arrowed towards her car… Instead of he walked slowly, try he strolled along the street, he wandered from door to door, he ambled up the hill... Instead of they walked angrily, try they stomped out of the room, they stamped downstairs, they marched away... Instead of we walked timidly try we tiptoed out of the shop, we crept through the house, we drifted away from the crowd…
Create Imagery using the Senses
The five senses are powerful facets of our experience and using them in your writing will add another dimension, helping your readers engage with your poem/story etc at a visceral level as well as intellectual. Avoid obvious structures like he felt, she heard, but suggest in a subtle way using relevant imagery.
Sight – from an unrequited love poem set in a Danish winter: I’m standing on solid water and it sings / beneath my feet. Here, sky meets land / in a fold of wedding-dress cloth.
Sound – from a poem of loss and remembering: I wish my ears were conch shells / to hold the breeze of her voice.
Smell – from a poem about being stranded overnight on a beach: They arrived at noon, smelling / of city dust and petrol fumes
Touch – from a poem about people trying to make you change yourself: He chiselled me into shape / and chamoised me to shine.
Taste – from a poem about an old lady reconnecting with an old friend after 30 years: But her pasted mouth never savoured an alphabet / of sweet stuff. Honey. Milk chocolate. Plums. / What tickles her tongue is oniony and raw.
Construct Similes and Metaphors
Make good friends with these two. They are simple, effective ways of leading the reader by their intuition and their heart. They will enrich your writing by making descriptions more emphatic and vivid. Well-constructed and judiciously applied (overuse of anything will soon make writing appear forced), they convey a fuller, more satisfying picture than a straight description such as the crowd was small or it was a hot summer. Use them to enhance the mood, meaning and theme of your writing.
Simile – makes a comparison of one thing to another of a different kind. From a poem I wrote, referring to the shrinking number of people attending Armistice Day services: Yet on the 11th of the 11th , / the crowd at the cenotaph / is as thin as a poppy petal.
Avoid cliches. They make your writing dull and lazy, and lose the attention of your readers.
Metaphor – suggests one thing as if it literally were another. From a poem about hunger stones appearing in parts of Europe due to the drought this summer: climate convulsions make summer / an abscess
Avoid mixed metaphors, e.g. in his mind’s eye, he heard the resonant notes of the piano fading away. This doesn’t make sense: mind’s eye suggests vision, not hearing and resonant means deep, clear sounds continuing to reverberate, not fading. Using a metaphor that contradicts itself is jarring.
Extended Metaphor – (sustained metaphor/conceit) metaphor developed over several lines, or an entire piece of writing. They allow a writer to develop a theme, digging deeper into similarities between the metaphor and the concept it compares.
Don’t forget, these tools are not just for poetic or literary writing. All writers need to capture the attention and keep the interest of readers. Showing the glint of light rather than announcing the moon is shining energises speeches, plays, articles etc. Next time you write, practice channeling Chekhov and see the difference.
Look out for more writing tips soon. Until then, here’s an old poem of mine using an extended metaphor:
Women Are Like Fruit
He likes his bananas sleepy,
the taste of bruised peach;
peels oranges with his teeth.
She prefers root vegetables,
the way they grow in the dark,
the excuse of onions.
His teeth are white and strong,
bite through the skin of an apple,
crunch down to the core.
Her mouth is spitting seeds,
she sweeps them up,
strings a necklace.
When the necklace is full,
she will leave.