From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

3 Tips to Avoid Cliche

We all know cliche is our enemy. It dulls our voice and makes us seem amateurish. But what are the specific tools we can use to fight it? Here are three I've come up with:

1-No Stealing. Never use a phrase or metaphor that you've seen or heard somewhere before. That keeps you from being genuine. Get at the heart of the metaphor and put it in a way that's truthful to you. Get specific. Details, details details, and ones from YOU and not anyone else.

2-Be Careful with "Dead" Words. Cliche goes beyond phrases and metaphors. There are single words that are used so often that they lose any real meaning. Words like smile, sigh, tear, laugh, beautiful. In fact, making a list is a good idea. These words aren't necessarily forbidden, they should just be used cautiously, and put in a context that will give back some real meaning to the word. What other "dead" words can you think of?

3-Be Observant. To really describe a faucet dripping, watch one drip. Other writers have their own way of describing a thing, but figure out your own way. See and smell and touch and hear for yourself, and pay attention. Then you have real life experience, and an understanding beyond the words someone else used to describe something.

What do you think? What else can we do to avoid cliche?

Sarah Allen

Monday, July 25, 2011

Barbra Streisand vs. Sarah McLachlan: Writing in Belt and Falsetto

As writers, we hear a lot about voice. We're told to make our voice genuine and interesting and unique, and that a stand-out voice can make all the difference. I agree.

Voice is a dynamic thing, though, and I think we can develop and enrich our own voice by learning from all the different voices around us, as well as tapping in to the range we've all got within ourselves. Today I want to look at it in a sort of spectrum, the power belty side represented by the queen of belt, Barbra Streisand, and the piercing falsetto side represented by the beautiful Sarah McLachlan.

When you write with your belty voice you don't hold back. In my mind this end of the spectrum focuses on power and emphasis. Characters and stories are strong and blatant. I think J.K. Rowling is a good belty writer. Her characters are very well defined, you know what they're thinking and feeling, and the story is powerful and clear.

One word for good falsetto writing is haunting. It sticks with you long afterwards, even if you're not sure why. Sometimes its just a feeling that they get you. The writing is subtle, but still very clear. If belty writing is like a punch in the face, falsetto is like a knife in the heart. Wallace Stegner does falsetto incredibly well. The voices of his characters are piercing and clear, and his language sweeps you softly and quietly off your feet.

Here are two videos from Barbra and Sarah to help illustrate my point. Both are clips from movies, because that helps bring this back to telling stories, and I also happily just realized that they're about somewhat the same topic. In both cases the characters have just been, in some sense, dumped.

My Man: Barbra Streisand

When Somebody Loved Me: Sarah McLachlan

This is not to say writers are one way or the other, and in fact my real point here is to try and get ideas from you about getting the best of both. Each side has dangers: belty might get brash, melodramatic or impersonal, and falsetto might get dull, sentimental or bland. But if we can add subtlety to the strong and excitement to the soft then each is benefited, as well as our voice as a whole. So how do we do that?

I think the key is emotional honesty. That's what makes Barbra's belty so haunting and piercing, and Sarah's falsetto so relatable and attention grabbing. That's where you have to start, at least, but technique-wise, what specifically can we do to create that good mix? What gauges can you think of to make sure our belt isn't brash and our falsetto isn't dull? Do we just have to rely on other readers to tell us? Which voice do you use most, do you think, and how do you use it most effectively?

Does any of this make sense?

Sarah Allen

Friday, July 22, 2011

Naked With My Editor: Guest post by Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon lives on Bit of Earth Farm with her family. She's a writer, book editor, non-violence educator, and barely useful farm wench. She's the author of Free Range Learning and has a collection of poetry coming out next year. Connect with her at her blog.


Naked With My Editor

I’m not well-behaved or well-dressed enough for most careers. That may be what led me to cobble together enough freelance gigs to call myself a writer. It doesn’t pay quickly or pay well. In fact, I earn less than in my former occupation, social work, and that’s saying something. But freelancing suits me.

Well, except for that episode of nudity with my editor.

Perhaps I should explain.

Years ago I secured a job writing a column for a newspaper. I worked after the kids were in bed and I e-mailed the first piece just before the midnight deadline.

The next morning was typical. I unloaded the dishwasher, explained long division, defended my right to listen to a CD of Tibetan throat singing, feigned patience while listening to a child’s original knock knock jokes, discussed the ethics of phone screening with my eight-year-old (who considered it a politeness violation to let it ring) and took photographs of my daughter dissecting a sheep eyeball for a biology project.

It was mid-morning before I had time to shower. Because I’m efficient (lazy) I wear whatever comes out of the dryer. It spares me the effort of putting away my own laundry. I don’t mind monotonous outfits in the service of convenience.

When I got out of the shower I grabbed a towel for my usual mad dash to the dryer and on the way was handed the phone by the eight-year-old. It was the newspaper editor. He wanted me to add a few sentences to my column. He expected me to do this off the top of my head, over the phone, immediately.

While he was telling me this I realized my 11-year-old son had opened the front door, inviting in his pubescent pals. They were chatting eagerly as they headed toward me on their way to the kitchen. There was no way I could get to our dryer, handily located on the first floor, unless I ran directly into these youths and knocked them over like baggy-pants’d bowling pins. I didn’t want to expose these poor youngsters to my not-supermodel flesh at their impressionable ages so I took the kindest course of action possible. I retreated down the basement steps, towel clutched in one hand and phone in the other.

Although I had no chance of sounding professional on the phone, I went on talking to my editor, giving him the lines he needed. He asked if he could edit them to fit. ”Sure,” I told him. He’s a writer too, I thought, it’ll be fine. He chatted away as if we were old friends—-he surely sitting in a comfortable chair at his desk, me a semi-naked freelancer huddled in the basement.

I stayed trapped in that basement long enough to meditate on the beauty of cobwebs and the interconnection of all life. Long enough to get really cold in my small wet towel.

When my column was published, I saw that my editor had rearranged my few sentences into a nonsensical word soup. It took a lot of self control to keep myself from going into a sheep eyeball tossing snit. But just then my check arrived in the mail. It was larger than I’d expected. I felt like dancing right out the door to celebrate, but I couldn’t. That’s because I’m a freelance writer and of course, I wasn’t dressed yet.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Awesome New Trick for Titles

I got this idea from my brother, and I think its awesome. He was using it to design album covers, but it totally works for book titles too.

First trick is to go to to the main page of Wikipedia and click "Random Article" in the top of the left sidebar. Then keep clicking random and see what comes up. Here are 5 title examples I've got from Wikipedia:

-Pas de Deux
-Sotos Point
-Crow-stepped (from crow-stepped gable)

The other cool trick is to use the random quotes page from What my brother does is use the last few words of the last quote on the page. Here are some examples:

-Whistle for Him
-A Bushel of Brains
-Room Temperature
-Devourer of All Things
-Hanged to a Lampost

Just keep refreshing and you get lots of cool things.

One last thing. To expand and further develop your title ideas, check out the 'Last 7 Days' page on Flickr, and then imagine the top right corner photo as your book cover. That way it gives you even more to work with, and helps you get more ideas. For example, lets take the title 'Devourer of All Things'. Pretty interesting title that calls to mind a lot of ideas. But let's put it with the top right corner picture from Flickr, which for me right now, is this:

The picture adds to the already interesting title. This picture gives us a character (nervous looking bride) and a situation (a wedding). So who's the "devourer"? The bride? The groom? A jealous rival?

Just a great way to get ideas flowing, and I thought I'd share. What do you think?

Sarah Allen

Monday, July 18, 2011

Being Patient With Yourself is Hard

I don't know about you, but as much as I love my WIP, I'm ready for it to be done. It feels like I've been working on it for a long time, which I have, and I still have more than half to go. It's still coming, better than I thought it would be at this point, actually, and it still excites me. But part of me feels almost upset with the rest of me that I have yet to complete a novel. Granted I am only 22, which I keep being reminded isn't that old, but it will still feel so utterly fantastic to be done.

But the key is to just keep writing, right? And as impatient as I am, I love what I'm doing. I love the writing process, and I'll be excited to go back and start editing. I love the marketing and networking that is becoming more and more a part of being a writer. I love reading and learning and observing, and writing everything down in the notebook I always have in my purse. It's fulfilling and fun. Still. Having a finished novel will make me feel like all of it is beginning to pay off.

Do you ever feel impatient with yourself and your projects? I'm sure I'm not the only one. I think the hard thing is wanting leaps and bounds of progress, when those leaps and bounds come from the work and little bits of progress that happen every day. Just remembering that, reminding myself that every word counts, helps. What do you do to help yourself be patient with the day to day growth?

Sarah Allen

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Harry Potter Countdown...2: Writing Lessons from the 4 Hogwarts Houses

It is a question fans have been asking since the books were first published; would I be Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin? Well, that's a hard question to answer, but I thought today we could look a little bit at what writers can learn from the typical traits of each house.


The Gryffindor writers love telling stories. They write action well, and write fast. They are brave writers, writing what they like and not worrying too much about so called "rules." They have a healthy confidence in their writing ability and don't weary easily. They have a natural and unintentional knack for writing towards what become trends. Typical genres might be thriller, action or romance. Gryffindor writers should watch out for slipping into sloppiness. They should remember that its okay to slow down, and take time to learn how to improve.
Possible example: Charles Dickens


A Ravenclaw writer is a beautiful writer. They take pains to make sure their language is exquisite, and in most cases it pays off. When they brake rules, they do so only because they know how to do it effectively. They are the most careful writers, and therefore often the slowest. But because they are so careful in their writing, a lot of wisdom and experience is distilled into every word. Typical Ravenclaw genres might be literary fiction and regular form poetry. They should beware of aloofness and appearing haughty. They should remember that the mass is who supports their career, and putting time and effort into networking and communicating with readers can pay off.
Possible example: Cormac McCarthy


Hufflepuff's are kind writers. The joy they find in writing comes from being able to use words to really connect with and understand other people and human nature in general. They are fiercely loyal to their fans, and most times that loyalty is returned. They like networking, and are particularly supportive of other writers. They may not write as quickly as a Gryffindor, but they are consistent. Typical genres might include adult mainstream, YA and free-form poetry. Hufflepuff's should beware of hinging their confidence too much on what someone may or may not have said in some online forum somewhere, and keep their personal reasons for writing strong and at the forefront.
Possible example: John Green


It goes without saying that Slytherin writers are ambitious. They enjoy the sway and influence that comes with being a well-known author. They work hard, and teach themselves whatever they can about craft and marketing. Like Ravenclaw's, they know all the rules and break them when it suits. They often have a tight-knit group of writers around them, who stick together and support each other. Typical Slytherin genres might be sci-fi or screenplay. They should beware of becoming too cliquey, and letting ambition get in the way of the simple joy of writing.
Possible example: Orson Scott Card

Obviously these are generalities, and no writer fits exactly in one category. But I think its fun to look at what each Hogwarts house might be like as a writer, and what lessons we can learn, both good and bad, from each.

What do you think? Which are you? Can you think of any other examples?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter Countdown...3: Favorite and least favorite Harry Potter characters

In honor of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part II which comes out on Friday, (I will be at the midnight showing. Of course.) I would like to do a sort of Harry Potter countdown. It is undeniable that this movie brings to pass the end of an era. Without Pottermore coming out in October, it might feel more like the end of the world instead of just the end of an era, but as it is, I don't feel that this event can pass without making a big deal of it here.

So then, here's the schedule for the next 3 days.
#3(Today): Favorite and least favorite Harry Potter characters.
#2(Tomorrow): Writing lessons from the 4 Hogwarts houses.
#1(Friday): Review of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part II.

Sound good? Good.

So. Favorite and least favorite Harry Potter characters. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will be extremely unsurprised at my favorite:

Severus Snape, of course! Why? I've said this before but I'll say it again. Snape is complex, layered, and human. He's a very interesting iceberg character, where the viewable tip is rude, unappealing and even, we think, treacherous. Then as time and pages go by, we see more and more of the iceberg, and see that he really isn't treacherous, and is in fact extremely loyal, intelligent, misunderstood, mistreated, and brave. We admire him for that loyalty and bravery, and feel sorry for the misunderstood, beaten little boy he is inside, who just wants to be accepted. That is something we can all relate to, and so he becomes a relatable character too. In my own writing, my goal with characters is to write them as complex and sympathetic as Rowling wrote Snape.

And now, least favorite:

Ok, so maybe saying Harry Potter is my least favorite character in Harry Potter isn't really allowed, and I'm not trying to say I don't like Harry, but let me explain. Of course there are HP characters that I would like much, much less as actual people. Umbridge for instance. Or, you know, Voldemort. Even Snape would probably be a less pleasant friend to have than Harry. But I'm talking character. Of course we all hate Umbridge and Voldemort, but its in a love-to-hate kind of way, isn't it? They're fantastic characters to read. Whereas with Harry, we're supposed to love him the whole way through, and we do, but at least for me, there are moments every once in a while (like book 5) where I feel like he gets annoying, preoccupied and kind of angsty. Almost, dare I say, flat as a character. Really, he isn't a flat character, my point is that all the characters around him are just more...interesting. Complex. Of course you may not agree, but I read Harry Potter more for Dumbledore and Hagrid and Lupin and Ron/Hermione (and of course Snape) then I do for Harry himself. The thing is, it totally works that way. It works for Harry to act as a sort of nucleus that the rest of the characters revolve around. It keeps the story going and cohesive. Those are my thoughts and opinions, anyway.

Now its your turn. Favorite? Least favorite? Why?

Sarah Allen

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why You Should Not Be Afraid to Submit

All of us have the Big Project we're working on, a novel that we expect to have to submit to someone at some point. An agent or editor, or maybe even just readers. I want to talk about smaller stuff today.

Those poems and short stories you wrote in college or in between novels. That are sitting in a file on your computer, waiting to see the light of day. The more writer type people I talk to, the more surprised I am at how few of them submit those poems and stories. I always kind of assumed that submitting was just what you did after you finished a piece, but it doesn't seem like everyone thinks that way.

Am I wrong? Maybe so, but still, there are for sure very talented writers not sending out their littler children into the world, for one reason or another. I'm not saying that you should send out everything you've ever written, but I definitely think its worth taking out some of those pieces, polishing them up, and sending them out.

Why not? Chances are you'll get rejected, but so what? Dory gives us a good mantra for the submission process..."just keep submitting, just keep submitting." Lit magazine rejection has absolutely no bearing on your self-worth or even your true talent as a writer, even though it can feel like it does. But seriously, what better way to get your work read? Isn't that the point? Maybe you do have reasons for not submitting, but please, don't let that reason be fear. Or laziness. Poetry and the short story are fantastic, beautiful forms to work in. Then submit, like you would a novel. I mean really...why not?

Next question, where to submit? Obviously that depends on the piece, but I can try and help you out here. I use Duotrope and New Pages, both directories of literary magazines, and they both do a great job of helping you find the right magazine to submit to.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree that submitting is just a natural part of the process? Do you have a system for submitting your work?

Sarah Allen

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Six Word Saturday

I did this a while ago and got some great stuff from all y'all, so I thought I'd give it another round.

Here is Hemingway's again, for good example purposes:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Here's my attempt for today:

Don't worry, Santa. Blitzen picks locks.

(You know the sad thing? This isn't the first story I've written featuring Blitzen) :)

Now its your turn again. What can you give me in six words?

Sarah Allen

Friday, July 8, 2011

Writing and Dreams: what's your craziest one?

[photo credit]

We've all heard the story from Stephanie Meyer: 'I had a dream about a girl in a field with a sparkly boy who loved her but also wanted to kill her so I wrote it down and the next thing I knew I was a famous millionaire best selling writer with a movie contract and a mob of thirteen year old girls at my feet.'

What are your thoughts on that? Ok, so I'm being a bit facetious, but I mean about the whole dream to novel thing? Has something like that ever happened for you, if on a smaller scale?

I can't say I've ever written a story based on a dream I've had. I wish I was better at remembering my dreams. I dream a lot, but remember it for only a few seconds in the morning unless I remember to write it down, which I'm usually too tired to do. Then every once in a while I'll have stunningly vivid dreams that I can't shake off for the whole next day. Sorry, rambling a bit, but I find dreams fascinating. What kind of dreamer are you?

Here's what I find writerly valuable about dreams--I've never actually been sliced in half in a school gym by a sword-fighting wolf; or driven through the Grand Canyon in a covered wagon being pulled by a pig; or been jumped in a dark alley by a group of scruffy, creepy men (yeah, that one was petrifying and horrifically real)--But, because of dreams, I have a better understanding of terror, the bizarre, and what it would be like to have my family turn into zombies. Dreams expand our emotional experience in a very real way, and that definitely translates into our writing.

What do you think about dreams and writing? And I'm very curious--what is the most bizarre, terrifying, or memorable dream you've ever had?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Poem a Day Keeps the Cliche Away

I don't know about you, but after a while of working on a piece, I start worrying that I'm becoming less and less original, and that I'm reverting to rote phrases and falling back on things I've heard people say before. I try to avoid it as much as possible, but sometimes it can be hard. Sometimes it takes more than prose to get true honesty and true beauty into your language, and that's where poetry comes in.

All good writing is poetic, in my opinion. I've decided to try and get in the habit of reading a bit of poetry every night, just a poem or two, maybe even trying to memorize the really good ones, and my hope is that doing this will get my language of out the rut of cliche, and imbue it with the spark and life that I sort of feel it missing.

Do any of you do this, and has it worked? Any recommendations for me?

The two collections I really like are the Poetry 180 books edited by Billy Collins, and the Good Poems series edited by Garrison Keilor. I know some people don't have the highest opinion of these ones, but I absolutely love them, and think they're easy to get into and fantastic poetry collections to start out with.

And with that, I'll leave you with two of my favorite poems of all time. One older, one newer, and both coincidentally about God. Not particularly trying to be religious with this post, but I LOVE how differently each poet approaches the same topic, and how successful they both are in completely different ways.
Pied Beauty, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

God Got a Dog, by Cynthia Rylant

He never meant to.
He liked dogs, He'd
liked them ever since He was a kid,
but He didn't think
He had time for a dog now.
He was always working
and dogs needed so
much attention.
God didn't know if He
could take being needed
by one more thing.
But He saw this dog
out by the tracks
and it was hungry
and cold
and lonely
and God realized
He'd made that dog
somehow He was responsible
though He knew logically
that He had only set the
world on its course.
He couldn't be blamed
for everything
But He saw this dog
and He felt bad
so He took it on home
and named it Ernie
and now God
has somebody
keeping His feet warm at night.


Ah, aren't those so great? (I hope I don't get in trouble for that second one, copyright issues and what-not, but I my intentions towards Ms. Rylant's work are completely honorable, and besides, I couldn't help myself. I think you should all go buy her God Went To Beauty School collection right now). Anyway, are you guys big poetry readers? Do you agree that reading it can be a huge help in our own work?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Learning about writing from everyone around you

I firmly believe that you can learn from everyone you come in contact with. Whether they are writers themselves or not, by really getting to know them you can expand your knowledge of human nature, which helps in all aspects of writing.

On that note, I have writing questions for you. You don't even have to answer every question, but (as many of you are probably aware) my life has been pretty unstable lately. Good, but unstable, and I'm trying to do everything I can to learn and resettle things. So basically, I could really use any advice or ideas you've got:

-Plotter or pantser? And how do you specifically go about doing your plotting/pantsing?

-What is your writing schedule like? Morning? Evening? 3:47-5:02 AM?

-Do you listen to music when you write? If yes, what music?

-Do you have a daily/weekly word count goal, and what is it?

-What character types are your favorite?

-Is it worth starting a Tumblr blog in addition to this blogger one? I'm leaning towards yes?

-When is the right time to start a Facebook fan page?

-What are your favorite ways to get out and meet people? Network with people online?

-Do you have any specific topics you want addressed on this blog, or blog suggestions in general?

Those are my questions for right now. I'm sorry I've been asking so many questions of you guys lately, and some of the same questions a lot too, but I really appreciate your support and ideas and it helps more than you know. Even just knowing people are out there sympathizing and dealing with the same things I'm dealing with helps too. And see, as I settle and learn, I'll be able to give back more and more, so it all comes back around to you, right? :)

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Friday, July 1, 2011

What is your literary Golden Age?

I just got back from Midnight in Paris. I know I'm a movie freak, but seriously, you have to see this movie.

In the movie, Owen Wilson (who is brilliant, by the way) plays a writer, disenchanted with his own time, who visits Paris with his fiance and happens to be taken back in time to the 1920's, where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picaso, Degas, and even has his manuscript read and critiqued by Gertrude Stein. I won't give too much away, but suffice it to say, 1920's Paris is definitely his literary Golden Age.

Obviously it got me thinking. I don't know if there is any other time or place when literary genius was so concentrated, at least as its been passed down to us. But you know, if we can go by period's and not just one year, I don't think that would be the period I would pick. I love Hemingway and Fitzgerald and and the crew, but I've always been a huge fan of our English friends across the pond.

For me, the literary golden era is definitely England in the early to mid 1800's. I know that's pretty general, but it's hard to pick just one year because Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte only overlap from 1816-1817, and George Eliot doesn't come around for a few years still. So if I can have a few years, then think about it. Besides those three indescribably genius women, you've got Dickens, Tennyson, Hopkins, Keats, the Brownings, and if you want to travel a bit, you've got Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in Russia and Victor Hugo over in France. Not a bad crowd, eh? So I'd want to be there early for my good friend Jane, and then stick around for a few decades or so for all the rest.

There are a ton of other good choices though. I mean, what about Lewis and Tolkien? Or you could pick Steven King, Amy Tan and Dave Barry and not even have to travel back in time. Then there's Plato and Aristotle, or Chaucer and Sir Gawain guy, or Shakespeare and Milton, or crazy weird people like Joyce, Pynchon and DeLillo.

So where would you go? When you look back on literary history, where, for you, does it shine?

Sarah Allen
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...