10 Tips for Poets

1. Start in the middle. Your poem or story does not need an intro or a topic sentence. “The most amazing things can happen to a person.” Snore. “There’s a dog tied to my doorknob when I get home tonight.” Hmmm.

2. Tell what happened. Don’t explain why. “It jumps up to greet me, leaving pawmarks on my pants. I pat my pockets. My keys are inside my apartment. Again.” Action is more important than description and explanation. Action is dynamic. What happened next?

3. Easy on the as. Writers-in-progress love that word. “As I patted my pockets, I suddenly realized,…” In real life, lots of things happen all at once. In poetry and fiction, it’s better if they happen separately. In your writing use the word “as” once every six months. Suddenly, never.

4. “Follow the accident, fear the fixed plan - that is the rule.” --John Fowles. Probably this story/poem is not about a dog. If I want to tell about that crazy time I got locked out of my apartment, Fowles would suggest I write an essay, not a poem or story. When I write a poem or story, my goal is to surprise myself, to write something I did not expect to write.

5. “Make the subject of the sentence you are writing different from the subject of the sentence you just wrote.”—Richard Hugo. So my keys are inside my apartment. I could explain what happened, I could go back to the dog, but if I change the subject, that gives me something new to work with. “I hear music around the side of the building. Talking Heads, at 2:00 a.m.”

6. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”—Elmore Leonard. Especially when someone in your writing decides to speak, it better sound like talk, not writing. The dog’s not going anywhere. I slip to the edge of building, peek around the corner. Two people and a boom box. He says, “I never.” “Did to,” she says. “And for the third time, if memory serves me correctly.” If memory serves me correctly? Would she say that? Does she have to say that? “Did to,” she says. “Three times.” Talk is terse. Writing is globular. Make it terse.

7. Get three or four balls in the air. In a poem/story with only one subject, you’re never going to drop the ball. Accidents will not happen. Where’d that dog come from? How come this guy keeps forgetting his keys? Who are those two people, why are they arguing, and what did that guy do for the third time?

8. Be definite about a destination, where your poem/story is going. See if it works. I’m going to get inside that apartment. Those two cranky lovers listening to the Talking Heads are coming with me. That guy goes in through a window, opens the door for me, his girl, and the dog. I don’t want the dog. I want the girl...

9. It ain’t me, babe. The “I” I’ve been talking about is a character. It could be me, it might have been me, but it’s clearly someone else. I don’t really want the girl. I got one. The story is a fiction. The poem is a little fiction. Don’t write your life. Write a life.

10. Destination? Write to the end of it. Work fast. Writer’s block is bunk. If you suffer writer’s block, lower your standards. But get to the end of what you’re writing. Your writing is an experiment. Conduct the experiment, learn from it, and keep going.