All posts for the month August, 2012

The Poetic Power of Parallelism

Published August 28, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The exercise for this past week was to do a sentence inventory for either a paragraph by a favorite author or your own paragraph. I did both.

First, a paragraph by my favorite author: Ray Bradbury.

From Dandelion Wine:

“A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.”

First Words ———–Main Verb(s)———# of Words

A whole summer ———to cross off—————12

Like the goddess———saw, jump, pluck ——– 21

He————————-would be clothed———10

He————————-would freeze————– 9

He————————-would bake————— 11

I chose this paragraph because it showcases the rhythmic power of parallel construction (the repetition of the structure of the last three sentences and the use of three items in a series). Repetition causes the writing to “sing.”  Notice how even the number of words of the last three sentences is similar. All this repetition works because it’s used as a special poetic effect. I love it. (There are more cool things happening in this paragraph, of course.)

Here’s my paragraph:

Ioúna awoke before the break of dawn.  He lingered in his hamaca, listening to the last sweet notes of the little brown frogs and to his mother breathing to the rhythm of the ocean waves.  Stirred by the sea breeze, the sun-dried straw on the roof of their bohío swished and whispered.  He rubbed his sleepy eyes with the palms of his hands and –  careful not to wake his mother –  rolled out of his swinging bed, picked up the small spear he used for fishing, and tiptoed toward the beach.

First Words ———–Main Verb(s)———# of Words

Ioúna————————awoke———————– 6

He—————————lingered——————— 28

Stirred by the sea breeze—swished, whispered——– 18

He—————————rubbed, picked, tiptoed—– 38

The paragraph has variety and flow, but after analyzing Mr. Bradbury’s use of parallel construction, I think I’ll change the end of the last sentence to “rolled out of his swinging bed, picked up his fishing spear, and tiptoed toward the beach.” By repeating the pattern of “his swinging bed” in “his fishing spear,” the sentence sounds more musical. It also shortens the last sentence a bit, which helps to balance the paragraph.

I’m going to stick to this exercise for a couple more weeks to see what else I notice about the way my favorite writers construct their sentences. I’m going to add a fourth column and title it “Special Effects.”

I’ll post again next Monday.

The Sentence Inventory

Published August 20, 2012 by Elsa Pla

This past week’s exercise:

Go through your list of titles (refer to my post “The You List”), pick one, write a reflection piece on it, and see where the muse takes you. 

My earliest memory is of playing hide & seek with my mother at my grandmother’s creepy house. Here’s an excerpt from my reflection on “The Locked Desk”:

As a little girl, I was afraid of my grandmother’s house. It possessed an eerie quality that made me nervous. Perhaps its strangeness resulted from its ancient, unkept appearance and the fact that it was dreadfully out-of-place in the middle of the modern city. Perhaps because of the artifacts it contained: solemn columns, antique furniture, unusual objects, and obscure family portraits whose threatening eyes seemed to constantly glare at me. Whatever the reason for its weirdness, the house frightened me.

The eeriest piece of furniture in the house was my grandmother’s personal desk: a large and dark Spanish “Vargueño” intricately carved with fierce jungle animals and demon-like creatures. The front panel opened downward and doubled as a writing surface. When opened, the desk released a strong aroma of cedar and parchment and revealed dozens of small compartments and locked drawers. The desk was the heart of the house. The whole house — with its darkness, strong smells, many rooms, locked closets, and threatening “presences” — seemed to extend from it.

What did my grandmother keep locked up in her desk? Letters? Photographs? A diary? What sinister secrets does the desk conceal?

The point of the exercise is to wake up the muse. I love it.

This week I’m going to try an exercise I learned from a teacher who attended the Denver Writing Project Summer Institute:

The Sentence Inventory

1- Construct a chart that lists sentence beginnings, main verbs, and number of words (you could also list nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc).

2- Pick a paragraph from a manuscript you’re working on, and inventory the components of your sentences.

(Or, pick a paragraph from a work by a favorite author, and inventory the components of his or her sentences.)

3- Analyze the sentence structure, verb choice, and sentence length of the paragraph.

The point is to get a better picture of your writing style and reflect on possible changes.

(If you’re analyzing a favorite author’s paragraph, the point is to reflect on his or her style and learn something new.)


Sentence Inventory of the second paragraph of “The Locked Desk”:

First Words—————–Main Verb(s)———–# Words

The eeriest piece—————-was, carved——————29

The front panel—————opened, doubled—————11

When opened—————-released, revealed————–21

The desk—————————-was————————-8

The whole house—————–seemed———————20

Analysis: I notice that four of my five sentences start with “The.” I won’t change them, but I’ll keep this tendency in mind. I’m okay with the variety in sentence length. I’m not happy  with having two sentences with the verb “was.” I wonder if I should change the verb in the fifth sentence to “constituted.”

See how it works? This exercise is a great revision tool.

Try it! 🙂

I’ll post again next Monday.

Writing is Survival

Published August 13, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The new school year is quickly approaching, and there’s a ton of things I need to do. The luxury I’ve had of blogging Monday through Friday is over. From now on I intend to post on this blog only on Monday evenings. What I plan to do is present an exercise I’ll be working on during the week (and invite you to work on it, too), then share my attempt the following Monday, as well as introduce the next exercise.

I’ll be working on my middle school website/blog ( and my Juvenile/YA book reviews ( throughout the school year, and I’ll continue to post on my personal blog ( as well.

Here’s the schedule I intend to follow:

Sunday – Season of Butterflies blog

Monday – The Write Town blog

Tuesday – Thursday – Write Cook website/blog and writing projects

Friday – writing projects

Saturday – art projects

First week of the month – The Reading Café blog

The new schedule starts today.

The exercise I’ll be working on this week is the continuation of Friday’s exercise from Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury:

“I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.

“Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story.”

This, then, is the new exercise:

Go through your list of titles, pick one, write a reflection piece on it, and see where the muse takes you. 

I’ll share my attempt next Monday. Join me!

I’ll end today’s post with a bit more wisdom from Ray:

“What, you ask, does writing teach us?

“First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. […]

“So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.

“Second, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course is that.

“Not to write, for many of us, is to die.

“We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.

[…] [And what if we don’t?]

“What would happen is that the world would catch up with you and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

“For writing allows just the proper recipes of truth, life, reality as you are able to eat, drink, and digest without hyperventilating and flopping like a dead fish in your bed.”

Perhaps that’s your experience. I know it’s mine.

Talk to you next Monday! 🙂

The You List

Published August 10, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Here’s a fantastic exercise from Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.

“I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lists of nouns. These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

“The list went something like this:


“Where am I leading you? Well, if you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally discovered me.”

I love you, Ray!

Here’s the start of my list:


Now you try it! 🙂

I will post again next Monday. Enjoy the weekend!

Take Me to Your Homie

Published August 9, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Here’s a fun little exercise on dialogue and humor:

Compose a short scene that includes a humorous conversation.

Here’s my attempt:

An encounter between a middle-school student and an extraterrestrial being:

The spaceship’s door slid open, and an alien being that looked like a beet-red, fish-headed monkey wearing a green, super-hero outfit stepped out.

“Yo!” said the alien while lifting one of its four-finger paws. “Take me to your homie.”

“Is that you, Leroy?” I asked, rolling my eyes. “Don’t mess with me.”

The alien was quiet. We stared at each other for a few seconds. I heard a soft whirring, as if someone was re-winding a tape.

“Howdy, partner!” This time the alien pretended to salute me with what I presumed to be an invisible cowboy hat. “Is your boss at the ranch?”

“What? Leroy, take off that silly suit. I’m gonna tell your mama you’re playing that stupid Green Lantern game again.”

“¿Habla Español, señorita?” asked the alien.

“Very funny, Leroy, but you don’t fool me. You sound just like yourself.”

The alien made a sound that was a cross between a sigh and a burp. Then it turned around and started to step back into the spaceship.

“Wait up, Leroy! Just where you think you’re goin’? Don’t you remember we have a meeting with the principal?”

I grabbed a four-finger paw and marched off toward the school building, pulling the burping alien behind me. I grinned as I imagined the principal’s expression when she sees me walk into her office with an extraterrestrial, fish-headed monkey.

Silly, but fun!

Try it! 🙂

The Hole in the Lake

Published August 8, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Today’s exercise:

Describe an outdoors setting for a story. The setting must be a real place you have visited or lived in. Think about how the place made you feel (happy, sad, scared, etc), and try to capture that feeling in your description. The purpose of this exercise is to practice using setting to create mood.

Here’s my attempt from a story I’m working on:

The lake was the color of boiled plantain leaves. It lay captured between verdant hills teeming with tropical life, the lush vegetation interrupted here and there by the modern dwellings of the well-to-do residents of the area. I glimpsed the glistening green water between branches and leaves as I treaded – with difficulty – down the steep asphalt road that snaked through the gated community.

I searched for the wooden steps that led from the side of the road down the embankment to the communal dock. The steps were partly hidden by bamboo trunks, so it took me a few moments to find them. Going down the steps was tricky, for they were being taken over by the surrounding vegetation. Aggressively so, I realized, as I tripped on a root and almost went down on my behind the rest of the way. The bamboos swayed and creaked loudly. Maybe coming here wasn’t a good idea, even if it was broad daylight. I slowed my pace and held on gingerly to the wobbly railing until I had made it down safely.

I now stood on the sturdy, wooden planks of the dock. The surrounding bamboos provided a shady reprieve from the summer heat and, best of all, privacy. I breathed in and out the thick organic scent that enveloped the dock and admired the liquid-green expanse before me. The summer breeze shook the branches and rustled the leaves, creating groaning and swooshing sounds. It was as if the trees were complaining, resenting my presence.

I pulled up a grimy plastic chair, plopped down, and concentrated on slowing down my breathing.  Alone at last, thank God. The thought, of course, was ludicrous. This was a tropical island, and I was sitting among – at the very least – a thousand living things. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and tried to ignore the groaning trees plus the buzzing, chirping, scratching, pecking, plopping, gurgling, and scrabbling all around me. I was sufficiently far away from my mom, and that’s all that mattered. She was having one of her bad days, and if I stayed inside the house listening to her for too long, her craziness would start seeping into me, and I certainly didn’t want that. (I have enough of my own craziness, thank you very much.) So I had run away to the dock at the first chance I got.

Normally I wouldn’t have chosen to come down to the edge of the lake, but I was desperate for a bit of peace and solitude. And the lake offered both. I loved to gaze at it from a distance – it was lovely as a calendar picture – but I was reluctant to get too close, especially after one of my neighbors was found dead and bloated, floating face-down right behind our house, where our property reached the water.

The dock, as I had expected, was deserted. Now that I felt more relaxed, I opened my eyes and admired my surroundings. The day was so hot and hazy that the lake resembled a bowl of hot soup, but where I was sitting the temperature was pleasant.  Thank goodness for those creaky bamboos, otherwise lounging here would have been unbearable. I studied the tiny insects skimming the surface of the water and the fish bubbles that popped now and then. Dragonflies bobbed up and down in the hot, muggy air.

I imagined all manner of insects, spiders, centipedes, frogs, and lizards, perfectly hidden, quiet and hungry, acutely aware of my presence. Correction: I did not imagine them, I was as acutely aware of them as they were of me. A strange thought crossed my mind: if I were to drop dead on this dock, all those critters would greedily feast on my body. There you have it. Those are the kind of cheery thoughts that often creep into my brain.

I plucked the little predators out of my mind, and tried to focus on the pretty way the water rippled and glistened. But, as I glanced across the lake, I saw the hole. And my thoughts wandered in a different, darker direction.

Hopefully I’ve created a suspenseful mood. Now you try it! 🙂

The Haiku Moment

Published August 7, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Today’s exercise is deceptively easy.

Take a walk or go sit on the porch and contemplate the everyday world around you. Compose a haiku (or more than one) that describes your experience and how that moment “spoke” to you. The point of the exercise is to develop an awareness of our surroundings and to learn to translate a single moment’s experience into a simple descriptive image that contains layers of meaning. These simple layered images (usually metaphors) can add depth to our writing.

Traditional haiku consist of 17 syllables arranged in a sequence of 5-7-5. They commonly contain

1- a sensory experience (the what),

2- a sense of place (the where), and

3- a sense of time (the when).

“Though brief, [haiku] tell a story or paint a vivid picture, leaving it to the reader to draw out the meanings and complete them in the mind’s eye. Haiku often contain a hidden dualism (near and far, then and now, etc.) and have a seasonal tie-in, as well as specific word-images that reveal deeper layers in each poem.”

(From The Classic Tradition of Haiku — an Anthology, edited by Faubion Bowers)

By the way, the plural of haiku is haiku.

Here’s an example by the poet James Kirkup:

Haiku should be just

small stones dropping down a well

with a small splash

(A possible deeper layer of meaning: Should we strive to be like those small stones?)

“A fine haiku presents a crystalline moment of heightened awareness in simple imagery, traditionally using a kigo or season word from nature.” Patricia Donegan, Haiku Mind

My attempts:

Summer morning stroll —

the coyote on the road

turned and looked at me.

The noon sun ignites

the colors of the lily.

The petals blind me.

Such a hot summer!

Clusters of Black-eyed Susans

brighten the garden.

Now you try it! 🙂

It’s alive!

Published August 6, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Before today’s exercise, I want to reflect briefly on what I learned about my voice and style after completing last week’s task.

1- I’m drawn to clever, creative, and poetic use of language. That’s why Ray Bradbury is my favorite author. (Here are a couple of gorgeous lines from Something Wicked This Way Comes: “Sunlight minted a last few oak leaves all gold. But the sun vanished, the coins were spent, the air blew gray.” ) One of my goals as a writer is to continue to develop the use of rhetorical devices. I like to have fun with words, and I want that to be evident in my writing.

2- My writer’s voice is sometimes dark and somber and sometimes light and playful. It’s like a coin with two totally different sides.

3- I like well-crafted stories full of meaning and significance and having a happy or hopeful ending. The genres that appeal to me the most are magical realism, dark fantasy, whimsical fantasy, and imagist poetry. These preferences influence my voice and style.

That said, here’s today’s exercise.

Stretching the Imagination (a “what if” exercise):

Look at a picture of a sculpture or painting of an animal, monster, or mythical creature (or better yet, go look at it in person), and imagine that it comes to life. Compose a story scene or a narrative poem describing what would happen.

My attempt:

The Nature of the Beast

(or What One Writer Witnessed from the Second Floor of the Hyatt Regency)

On the last day of the writers’ convention in Denver,

hundreds of master wordsmiths, student hopefuls, and

just plain hope-fulls are crossing 14th and California

in a rush to get back to their homes and computers and

start crafting glorious new poems and tales.

Elated and inspired, they push on,

cell-phones pressed against ears or fired-up hearts,

mindless of traffic, the blinking red hand, and the little white man.

Suddenly, the big blue bear that for three days had been

peering at them through the green glass building

turns and attacks them.

Stomping down the sidewalk,

like an elephant with an agenda,

she squashes the literary pedestrians,

one by one, crunch, crunch, oh, oh,

and then proceeds to eat them,

gulping them down into her hollow belly.

Everyone is too stunned to hide,

including the little person on the orange scooter,

the X-large lady in the yellow sweater,

and Michael C. and his Pulitzer hair,

who mouths, “I see what you mean.”

Now the rest of the writers,

unable to resist the allure of the monster,

the hallucinatory nature of the experience,

and the sacredness of it all,

pour out of the safe, glass building

into the clutches of the giant bear.

Squash, crunch, gulp, oh.

The warm sweet & sour smell of fear and blood and open bodies

seeps through the cool April air.

On and on it goes,

with much screaming and wailing,

with much blood and gore,

until hundreds upon hundreds

(including a few musicians who hadn’t been sure

what they were doing there in the first place)

lay either splattered on the gray and (now) red concrete

or crumpled and compressed inside the big blue beast,

until all writers lay dead, all dead,

except, of course, the one

whose hyper-charged imagination

ignited the tremendous slaughter.

Finally all voices are silenced;

the big blue beast is appeased,

and from the triple mural by Bubba Gump,

Teddy Roosevelt – that good old lover of bears –

laughs and laughs with glee.

Openings and Voices 5

Published August 3, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The exercise I’ve been working on all this week:

Analyze and emulate the opening (first lines or paragraphs) of several stories or novels, each written by a different favorite author. This exercise will help you practice how to hook your reader, but most importantly, it will help you discover and develop your voice through the study of a favorite author’s voice. If you love the voice of an author, it’s probably because you identify with his/her voice; that is, your voices have something in common. This exercise will help you discover those commonalities.

Today’s author is Terry Pratchett and the book is The Wee Free Men.

Some things end before they begin.

It was a spring thunderstorm, the kind that should drop hail the size of golf balls and spawn tornadoes a mile wide, but it didn’t appear to know it. Perhaps the air was too dry; the clouds, too flimsy; perhaps the energy was flowing in the wrong direction. It sprinkled a few raindrops, made a bit of noise and light, and spit a couple of raggedy, harmless twisters. That was all the bluster it could muster.

Miss Penelope Pitt sat on a folding chair in the middle of her dried-out yard, studying the stillborn storm with a spyglass. She didn’t mind the rain or the wind. She was a witch, after all, impervious to all kinds of weather.

A tray table stood next to her and on it lay a few common items: a small, black notebook and a sturdy pencil, an over-sized pair of scissors, and an upholstery needle trailing a long strand of thick, cloud-gray thread. She placed the spyglass on the table, picked up the notebook and pen, and began scribbling rows of unintelligible calculations.

She stopped writing, studied her work, and scrunched her brow. The numbers dutifully rearranged themselves on the page.

“Yes,” she said quietly as raindrops swirled playfully around her hat. “There’s definitely something worrisome going on on The Other Side. I should probably go there. But first I’ll take a look.”

The witch stood up and grabbed the scissors. Quickly and deftly, she made a few cuts in the air in front her. She now had a view of a snowy hill and a starless night sky.

“Thunder and lightning! There’s already a witch there!”

She dropped the scissors, grabbed the needle and thread, and hurriedly mended the aperture.

That was a fun way to end the week. I”ll post again next Monday. 🙂

Openings and Voices 4

Published August 2, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The exercise I’m working on all this week:

Analyze and emulate the opening (first lines or paragraphs) of several stories or novels, each written by a different favorite author. This exercise will help you practice how to hook your reader, but most importantly, it will help you discover and develop your voice through the study of a favorite author’s voice. If you love the voice of an author, it’s probably because you identify with his/her voice; that is, your voices have something in common. This exercise will help you discover those commonalities.

No specific opening today, just a bit of edgy-YA-urban-fantasy fun in the style of Holly Black.

Once upon a time, not-so-long ago, a half-fairy girl with eyes the color of new leaves was born. She was the offspring of a noble and handsome human doctor from New York and a cruel and beautiful fairy queen from the Northern Realm. She was, of course, not a product of love, because — as you well know, and if you don’t, you should — fairies cannot love, and because the good doctor had not been in love with the fairy queen, but instead had been under the influence of magical fairy food and glamour when he had agreed to have sexual intercourse with her.

The child’s coming into the world had been a total surprise. One moment the fairy queen had been enjoying a decadent dinner in the company of two sexy satyrs, and the next she had found herself birthing a baby. The queen’s attendant quickly and discretely caught the newborn and slipped out of the soirée, but not quickly and discreetly enough. The shocked satyrs awkwardly excused themselves, and the embarrassed queen cursed New York doctors and condoms for weeks.