writing advice

8 posts

Hugo’s Rules (of Thumb) for Poetry Writers


Rules. More rules. Sometimes rules are good, if they’re “of thumb,” I mean. Unlike compulsory ones, rules of thumb can be treated like Pied Pipers or given the Roman emperor’s thumb.

Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, features essays both memoir-ish and poetry advice-ish, making it catnip for poets at all levels.

Which brings us to “Hugo’s Rules of Thumb for Poetry Writing” (my term for them). Here are a few selected ones from his book. See what you think:

  • Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
  • Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is.
  • Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  • Put a typed copy on the wall and read it now and then. Often you know something is wrong but out of fear or laziness you try to ignore it, to delude yourself that the poem is done. If the poem is on the wall where you and possibly others can see it, you may feel pressure to work on it some more.
  • Use “love” only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years.
  • End more than half your lines and more than two-thirds your sentences on words of one syllable.
  • Don’t use the same subject in two consecutive sentences.
  • Don’t overuse the verb “to be.” (I do this myself.) It may force what would have been the active verb into the participle and weaken it.
  • Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.
  • No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
  • Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.
  • Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
  • Beware using “so” and “such” for emphasis. They’re often phony words, uttered. “He is so handsome.” “That was such a good dinner.” If “so” is used, it is better to have a consequence. 
  • The poem need not end on a dramatic note, but often the dramatic can be at the end with good effect.

Hugo provides examples and elaboration on some of these rules, but I just wanted to give you a flavor. Interesting, no? And in some cases, almost mathematical in their specificity.

Taking these to my poetry manuscript, you might find some good possibilities and some not-so-good ones. Not using the same subject two sentence in a row? What about anaphora? Maximum sentence length, seventeen words? How will you ever channel Allen Ginsberg? And make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it? In the immortal words of four Beatles I once knew, that’s a hard day’s night.

I do like the idea of posting a poem-in-progress where others can read it, though. On the refrigerator at work, for instance. That ought to get a lot of reads, between the “Whose hummus is this? It’s been here for two months!” and the “Who took my Noosa black raspberry yogurt?”

Still, The Triggering Town is an intriguing and at times humorous read. Hugo taught at the University of Montana (of all places!). And, sure as his rules seem to be, he is admirably self-deprecating. In Chapter the First, “Writing off the Subject,” he writes:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until your realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go.

Is there a better caveat than that? And so, all thumbs in, one thumb in, or none. As you like it. An advice take-it-or-leave-it guy can do little better than that….

Richard Russo’s Advice for Beginning Writers


James Salter once said, “As a writer, you aren’t anybody until you become somebody.” I can just hear you now: Tell me something I don’t know, fool, but Richard Russo includes the quote before his first essay in the collection, The Destiny Thief, for a reason: becoming somebody in writing is about as far-flung difficult as becoming a major-league athlete or an A-list Hollywood actor.

Why, then, are the numbers of wannabe writers legion? Part of the reason is that beginning writers are clueless. The problem with that obvious statement is, to become successful, you have to be. To an extent.

Here’s a relevant excerpt from Russo’s essay, “Getting Good”:

“In ‘The Getaway Car,’ Ann Patchett’s wonderful essay about becoming a writer, she observes that not many beginning cellists believe they’ll be playing Carnegie Hall anytime soon., whereas beginning writers (and I was one of these) will often send off early work to The New Yorker. It’s possible that musicians are just smarter than writers, but a more likely explanation is that playing the cello immediately announces itself as both difficult and foreign, whereas writing feels like an extension of speaking, something we’ve been doing almost since birth. For whatever the reason, aspiring writers are less gifted than cellists at judging how long it takes to get good. When the relatively short apprenticeship that beginning writers too often anticipate turns out to be a very long one, they become understandably frustrated and resentful. Had they gone to law school, they’d be lawyers by now. Indeed, had they chosen to do almost anything else, they’d be making money instead of hemorrhaging it.”

From here Russo launches into writing as a vocation vs. writing as a business. Self-publication, thanks to Amazon and other platforms, is a cinch nowadays. The trouble is, you shouldn’t pull that cinch unless you know something about the business aspect of writing.

Yes, you can make an end run around the slow powers-that-be (conventional publishers), but to what purpose? You climb one mountain (seeing your work in paperback form) only to see another that’s much larger–finding people to actually buy your book, then read it (uh, I mean someone other than Aunt Mae and your best friend who borrows stuff off you all the time and feels obligated).

Maddening, no? Like everything else in life, success in writing amounts to a medley of talent, self-discipline, and luck, with the only bar being that which separates the disciplined from the pretenders. But even among the disciplined, success isn’t guaranteed. There’s the luck part. And the who-you-know part. And the being in the right place at the right time part.

But not the excuses part, thank you. The one merit to the old guard is that wannabe writers were often rejected again and again and learned from that. They grew as humble and self-aware as an aspiring cellist. They studied and tried different things and made themselves better instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

But they surely didn’t schedule auditions with Carnegie Hall. And why? Because they had to show up personally, for one thing, and listen to themselves through other ears and not their own self-deceiving ones.

Meanwhile, writers still wet behind the ears continue to send stuff to The New Yorker because it’s easy and done through the internet and they’ll never know how much of the piece was actually read before being gonged into the form-rejection file. Mercifully, I might add.

The conclusion? Keep doing what you’re doing. Only don’t.

Ah, the writing trade. Don’t you just love it?



Poetry-Writing Advice–There’s No Shortage


As is true with most things in life, there’s no shortage of advice when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t consider the source, though. Advisors are seldom names you will find in the poetry aisle. (Well, if poetry even had an aisle, that is. It’s more likely wedged between Romance and Manga.)

In truth, books about writing are like the “self-help” aisle, which by now probably has a more euphemistic name like “pre-owned cars.” Think about it. The guy who writes a book called “How To Be a Millionaire” wouldn’t have to slog through the writing of a book if he heeded his own advice, no?

So, some advice I’ve heard over the years and my reactions:

  • Write every day. My first thought is, “Really?” But then I remember that people get distracted. For me, writing is more fun than talking and listening, those staples of the daily sensory diet, but maybe I am in the minority (again). Thus, this is preaching to the choir (though I promise not to sing).
  • Read every day. Hoo, boy. Stick it in Aisle Obvious. If you are not going to learn how to do it from the masters (or even how not to do it from the mess-ups), then get out of Dodge.
  • Keep a notebook. Easy. Check my shelves.
  • No, Fool. Carry a notebook, I mean. To write ideas as they come to you. Oh. These pearls for a guy who doesn’t even carry change or a wallet in his pockets? And what about those ideas in the shower? As for me, it’s during a run the ideas come. All that blood flow and jostling of gray matter stirs up ideas, but I can barely breathe, never mind jot notes. So I memorize the ideas like they’re already a poem. A Frost poem. A “Whose Ideas These Are, I Think I Know” poem.
  • Copy by hand the poems you love. The ones by the greats or the contemporaries you love. Wait. Aren’t there lawyers for this?
  • Take chances. Live outside the box. You can do better! Live outside the rhombus (you’ll no longer have to wait at the rhombus stop).
  • Let poems sit for awhile after you write them. I get a lot of help with this from poetry journal editors. They let my poems sit for six to ten months, then send form e-mails. By that time, I’m not so sold on the poems myself. Moral: Good advice, this.
  • Cut to the bone. As long as your knife is metaphorical, sound advice. Especially for wordy sorts who jay walk in the poetry zone each day without realizing it. By the way, I think this advice goes back to Emily Dickinson, who also talked about good poetry taking your head off. Ouch.
  • Never write a poem about dogs. It’s a four-legged cliché. Whenever I hear “never” followed by subject matter, it’s open season on writing about that subject matter. Never tell me never. I’m like a kid. Try reverse psychology or something. I’m easy to trick.
  • Marketing your poems is as important as writing them. And a logistical nightmare for some of us, too!
  • When some editor says, “Close call. Try us again,” try them again. See nightmare comma logistical above. Or get a secretary.

Anyone else have some gems to share? Though I don’t always take poetry-writing advice, I love to hear it!

Advice From 10 Who Made It to the Promised Land (Read: Publication)


I there’s one thing people can’t get enough of, it’s chocolate. (Wait. Did I say chocolate? I meant inspiration.) This is why I like Poet & Writers Inspiration issue the most. In the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue, we get surveys of ten poets who scored debut collections in 2019.

These ten are asked the same questions, answered under these categories: “How It Began,” “Inspiration,” “Writer’s Block Remedy,” “Advice,” “Age/Residence,” “Time Spent Writing the Book,” and “Time Spent Finding a Home for It.”

And while there’s a lot of interesting stuff here by people you can’t help but cheer for (they made it!), let’s focus on the advice, shall we? Because if there’s one thing people can’t get enough of, it’s advice. (Um. After they’re inspired and full of chocolate, I mean.)

  • Patty Crane (Bell I Wake To): “Believe in the work, be patient, persist. Quiet all the voices except the inner one. Less is more. If you’re not sure whether the poem belongs in the collection, it probably doesn’t. Make the book the final poem. Submit the manuscript to presses whose publications you love. Keep moving forward, thinking about poems for the next book.”
  • Camonghne Felix (Build Yourself a Boat): “You’ll never get another debut! Your first is your first. Fight for yourself, advocate for your project, and trust your community if they tell you it’s not ready.”
  • Jake Skeets (Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers): “Carry your manuscript everywhere with you.”
  • Yanyi (The Year of Blue Water): “I’ve found that it is more important to love your own book than getting it published. I mean the kind of nourishing love you feel when you read the poetry you admire. This is the love that will help you edit it. It will help you advocate for it and send it out again and maybe one day read it over and over as though it is still new to you. Because it should be. Become your own reader and someone else will read it too.”
  • Marwa Helal (Invasive Species): “Take your time—or, I am paraphrasing, ‘Time is your friend,’ which is what my teacher Sigrid Nunez once told me. Trust your path and your work. Talk about it; don’t be shy about sharing your dreams. You never know who is listening or willing to point you to the next step in your path.”
  • Maya C. Popa (American Faith): “Don’t worry about how much or how little you write. It’s judicious to practice some degree of self-discipline, assuming you’re serious about completing a project. But don’t compare your practice with that of others. Trust that as long as you’re paying the right sort of attention to your life and the world, there’s a lot going on in the brain that will allow for writing to happen later on.”
  • Sara Borjas (Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff): Write toward honesty, then really write toward honesty. Stop lying.”
  • Maya Phillips (Erou): “I’d probably say be bold. Experiment with your work, and don’t edit out all the fun and the strangeness and the wonder.”
  • Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes (The Inheritance of Haunting): “Writing an abstract that articulates what the collection is about can help to communicate your work to editors while allowing you to create a map for what else your manuscript is asking to become.”
  • Keith Wilson (Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love): “Being published is a call someone else makes. It’s hard to know what to do to please others, and it’s maybe contrary to the place your poetry comes from. But someone’s first book changed you. Know that there are people waiting for yours.”

Never Explain

Novelist and short story writer Tim O’Brien’s Dad’s Maybe Book, is an advice manual of sorts addressed to his two sons, Timmy and Tad. In it, he offers advice to the boys about life. Luckily for writers, he also offers the boys advice on writing. You never know, I figure he’s thinking, if genes will carry.

Below is an O’Brien riff on the writer’s trap known as explaining too much. And though O’Brien uses the words “fiction” and “stories,” you can bet the advice works as well for poetry, drama, and nonfiction. Here’s O’Brien:

“The essential object of fiction is not to explain. Explanation narrows. Explanation fixes. Explanation dissolves mystery. Explanation imposes artificial, arrogant order on human contradictions between fact and fact. The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable—who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.

“In a story, explanation is like joining a magician backstage. The mysterious becomes mechanical. The miracle becomes banal. Delight vanishes. Wonder vanishes. What was once surprising, even beautiful, devolves into tired causality. One might as well be washing dishes.

“Imagine, for instance, that Flannery O’Connor had devoted a few pages to explaining how the Misfit became the Misfit, how evil became evil: the Misfit was dyslexic as a boy; this led to that—bad grades in school, chips on his shoulder. Pile on the psychology. Even as explanation, and because it is explanation, there would be, for me, something both fishy and aesthetically ugly about this sort of thing, the stink of determinism, the stink of false certainty, the stink of a half- or a quarter-truth, the stink of hypocrisy, the stink of flimflam, the stink of pretending to have sorted out the secrets of the human heart. Moreover, Timmy and Tad, I want you to bear in mind that explanation doesn’t always explain. Few dyslexics end up butchering old ladies. Evil is. In the here-and-now presence of evil, evil always purely is, no matter how we might explain it. Ask the dead at My Lai. Ask the Misfit. ‘Nome,’ he says. ‘I ain’t a good man.’ In the pages of ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ Flannery O’Connor goes out of her way to satirize and even to ridicule such explanation. And for Hemingway, too, explanation is submerged below the waterline of his famous iceberg. In great stories, as in life, we are confronted with raw presence. Events don’t annotate themselves. Nightmares don’t diagnose themselves. With the first whiff of Zyklon B, with the first syllables of a Dear John letter, with the first ting-a-ling of a dreaded phone call, with the first glimpse of your own nervous oncologist, there is what purely is.”

10 Good Writing Habits from Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis has a new book out called Essays One, and in those pages is an essay called “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits.” I don’t have the book yet, but I do have the wisdom to keep Literary Hub on my Bookmarks list.

There you will find a lengthy excerpt from the book that covers only TEN of Davis’s recommendations. The thing is, she provides examples for most of the ten, so a serious writer might do well to wade through them.

Me? I especially like #3 quoted below. Why? Because I’m already doing it, meaning I can chalk one up without the least bit of effort. (Don’t you just love it when you “fall in” like that?) Here it is in Lydia Davis’s own words:

“#3: Be mostly self-taught.

There is a great deal to be learned from programs, courses, and teachers. But I suggest working equally hard, throughout your life, at learning new things on your own, from whatever sources seem most useful to you. I have found that pursuing my own interests in various directions and to various sources of information can take me on fantastic adventures: I have stayed up till the early hours of the morning poring over old phone books; or following genealogical lines back hundreds of years; or reading a book about what lies under a certain French city; or comparing early maps of Manhattan as I search for a particular farmhouse. These adventures become as gripping as a good novel.”

Of interest to poets especially will be #6. And before we part, I might suggest you find a physical notebook (if  you don’t have one already) to carry about for notes because you’ll be hard pressed to adopt much of her advice without one. It comes as no surprise that most all serious writers have one and use it religiously.

Plus, the idea of shopping for the right notebook and the right pen or pencil parallel parks itself right next to a curb called nirvana. What is it about “writerly objects” that so mesmerizes writers? Ours is not to ask so much as to buy and use.

You heard me: to use. Buying and shelving or otherwise neglecting is akin to one of those non-writers who goes to all the hip writer hangouts and talks a good game while writing a sum total of nothing.

Cue “The Pretender.”

Chekhov’s Secret: Not a Gun on the Wall

As is true with poetry, short stories are typically frowned upon by book publishers. To get a collection of short fiction accepted, you either have to be a well-known name or your stories have to be very, very (did I say “very”?) good.

This truth, as self-evident as Thomas Jefferson’s were supposed to be, struck me yesterday while reading Peter Orner’s collection, Maggie Brown and Other Stories. In one called “Ineffectual Tribute to Len,” Orner goes on an Anton Chekhov riff.

As I read parts of this story, I found myself replacing the word “story” with “poem” because, whether good old Chekhov knew it or not, a lot of his philosophy holds in both genres. In this particular story, the narrator wants to write about his friend, Len, and has had a novel in mind all along. Then suddenly, it strikes him. Len is a story-in-waiting, not a novel, and Chekhov is the key. Read along and see what I mean:

“All hail Chekhov. If done right, he tells us, a story never ends. A story: lurks. A story, a good story, is just out of reach, always. Wake up in an unfamiliar darkness, in a room you don’t seem to recognize. Flip on the light. Nothing there. It’s your room again. But didn’t you feel a presence in the dark? The presence of someone you once knew? Someone you once loved? All these years I’ve been deluding myself, carrying around this folder as if one day it would grow covers and a binding. So simple, Len’s a story.”

Then the narrator decides to write his publisher, Little, Brown and Company, about his revelation:

“You say stories don’t sell, and God knows I have no reason to doubt you (I’ve seen the numbers on my story collections and they aren’t pretty; I know I’m basically a charity case), but don’t you see? It’s what Chekhov teaches. The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon. It’s not about word count or pages. That’s a smothered way of thinking. We’re talking about the quest for infinity here. Horizons can’t ever be reached no matter how many words you lard on a novel. The attempt at closure is inherently dishonest. But a story! One that ends but doesn’t end, that’s infinity, immortality, right there…”

A short story master, Orner found inspiration in an earlier master. The master. And I love how he puts it here: “The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon.”

I love even better how changing “story” to “poem” should make would-be poets realize that a poem’s ending cannot be a “full stop,” either. It must be a “horizon,” one that causes its reader to feel a certain resonance bringing both satisfaction and yearning.

Note, too, how Orner follows “full stop” with a semi-colon instead of a period. I particularly liked that touch, the semi-colon not quite being a full stop itself. The punctuation echoes the sentiment.

So, yes. Chekhov can teach practitioners of short writing—be they stories or poems—a thing or three. Think about that challenge the next time you sit down to write.

Hell with the Chekhovian gun on the wall that must be fired by the end. It’s the horizon that matters.

“Murder Your Darlings”


Murder your darlings. Famous words in writing, where the judge (that’s writers like me) tends to grant words clemency a bit more often than advisable.

In reading famous editor Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life, I came across a small section that serves as wisdom not only for prose writers but for the non-prose sorts in his audience as well, the poets and the dreamers.

Let’s listen in:

“Avoid clichés like the plague, and no matter how amazing or incredible or unbelievable anything is, know how challenging it can be to raise the bar–even when you are writing about icons living in La La Land or Tinseltown or on the Left Coast.

“Likewise it is prudent to take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: ‘Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

“Think like Mark Twain: ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it.’

“‘Kill your darlings’ means cut anything precious, overly clever, or self-indulgent. It is a stark, brilliant prohibition attributed most often to William Faulkner but also to Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G. K. Chesterton, Anton Chekhov and Stephen King, who used the phrase in his effusive On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

“When the 2013 biopic of Allen Ginsberg, Kill Your Darlings, came out, Forrest Wickman on Slate tracked what is probably the best attribution to Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 Cambridge lecture ‘On Style.’ The prolific poet, novelist and critic railed against ‘extraneous Ornament’ and emphasized, ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

“Wickman’s research also brought him to an even more important rule for journalists: ‘Check your sources.'”

— p. 70 “Editcraft”