All posts for the month October, 2012

Dead Stars

Published October 29, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The exercise for the past week was to identify, analyze, and imitate some of the elements of horror in Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.

I chose to analyze the poem “Spirits of the Dead”:

Thy soul shall find itself alone 

‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;

Not one, of all the crowd, to pry

Into thine hour of secrecy.

Be silent in that solitude,

Which is not loneliness for then

The spirits of the dead, who stood

In life before thee, are again

In death around thee, and their will

Shall overshadow thee; be still.

The night, though clear, shall frown,

And the stars shall not look down

From their high thrones in the Heaven

With light like hope to mortals given,

But their red orbs, without beam,

To thy weariness shall seem

As a burning and a fever

Which would cling to thee for ever.

Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,

Now are visions ne’er to vanish;

From thy spirit shall they pass

No more, like dew-drop from the grass.

The breeze, the breath of God, is still,

And the mist upon the hill

Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,

Is a symbol and a token.

How it hangs upon the trees,

A mystery of mysteries!


Topic: Each of the five stanzas of the poem offers a different reflection on death.

The rhetorical devices:

1- rhyme (including internal rhyme) and rhythm (mostly iambic meter)

Examples: Notice the rhyming words at the end of lines and within lines (in bold).

2- consonance and assonance in most lines

Examples: Notice the words “soul” and “alone”and the “l” sounds in “Thy soul shall find itself alone,” and notice the “s,” “t,” and “d” sounds in “The spirits of the dead, who stood.”

3- alliteration

Examples: “silent in that solitude” “visions ne’er to vanish” “the breeze, the breath of God”

4- repetition

Examples: “In life before thee, are again//In death around thee, and their will//Shall overshadow thee; be still.” “Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken” A mystery of mysteries!”

5- personification

Examples: “The night, though clear, shall frown,//And the stars shall not look down”

6- simile and metaphor

Examples: “From thy spirit shall they pass//No more, like dew-drop from the grass.” “And the mist upon the hill//Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken//Is a symbol and a token.”

7- imagery – Each stanza presents an image that’s part of a whole scene described in the poem : 1- tomb-stones, 2- spirits of the dead, 3- a frowning, dark sky full of beam-less stars, 4- visions that torment the observer, 5- no breeze and a mist hanging from the trees.

Examples: “the grey tomb-stone” “be silent in that solitude” “the spirits of the dead again in death around thee” The night, though clear, shall frown” “their red orbs, without beam” “now are visions ne’er to vanish” “the breeze, the breath of God, is still” “the mist upon the hill shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken” “how it hangs upon the trees”

The mood: The scene described — which could be real, imagined, or metaphorical — is ghostly and oppressive, and it evokes feelings of melancholy, hopelessness, and tormented acceptance, but the final image fills the observer (and the reader) with wonder (the symbol/token of the mist hanging like a shroud upon the trees) and hope (death, after all, is a mystery).

The theme/message: Death is painful, terrible, and inevitable, but it’s also a wondrous mystery.

Elements of horror: The significant element of horror in this poem is imagery. The scene described evokes a mood of tormented hopelessness. The monster is death, and there’s no escaping it. The true moment of horror comes with the image of the beam-less (dead) stars. The stars offer light (hope) to the living, but for the dead (the observer) there is no light. The feeling of hopelessness brought about by the beam-less stars is likened to an eternal burning or fever — the poet’s version of hell.

What an amazing poem. My opinion is that you appreciate poetry so much more when you analyze it (especially the figurative language and the imagery), try to understand and imagine what the poet was thinking and feeling, and allow the poem to speak to you on a deep personal level.

Here’s my own dark October poem (using imagery as the element of horror) about aging and death:


I didn’t expect to open the door

just as that mischievous cold wind

began chasing the chittering

October leaves,

shoving them like a bully until

they no longer scuttled and scattered,

but whirled and stormed and


crashing into each other

in a crescendo of panic,

out of control like spooked

cattle or spilled marbles.

So I stood there shaking in the dark,

my hand to my chest

as they rumbled past me,

rattling and crumpling in protest,

scraping the rigid curb

of the road that lead them on

like a ghostly black river

from autumn into winter.

This week’s exercise will be to do a character analysis of a main character(s) in a favorite book and then of a main character(s) in a story or novel you’re working on.

Happy Halloween!

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” Edgar Allan Poe

The Writing Zone

Published October 23, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to write a reflection on our writing habits (the when, where, and how) and perhaps on how to improve them.

First, let’s look at what a few great authors have to say about the act of writing:

Stephen King compares writing fiction to a form of self-hypnosis and says that having a daily routine helps him fall into a trance:

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls that trance “the fictional dream”:

“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”

Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing describes it as a summoning of our subconscious creative muse:

What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse.”

“It is a wise writer who knows his own subconscious.”

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

“What we are trying to do is find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.”

I believe that the first step to developing a personal writing routine that allows us to access our creative muse is to identify and describe what’s happening in our minds when we write. For me, inspired creative writing occurs when I’m able to enter “the writing zone,” a term I’ve adopted from a fellow writing teacher. The experience is very similar to daydreaming, except that I’m not just imagining stuff, but also writing it down. When I enter the writing zone, I shut out everything around me, and I hyper-focus on the dream-world my subconscious is creating.

I tend to take an imagined scene and go over it and over it in my mind until it’s logical and pleasing to me. Because of that, I write slowly, constantly going back and changing things before I’m ready to move forward. (That’s why I’m not very good with quick-writes — my mind just doesn’t work that way.)

I talk to myself when I’m in this daydream state,  and I like to periodically read aloud what I’ve written — I find it helps me advance the story. I have the tendency to stay stuck — mesmerized — in a scene, but eventually I snap out of it. Because of these and other slightly embarrassing peculiarities (I’m sure all writers have their own), I work best when I’m totally alone.

I prefer to work in silence and by a window (I like to be able to look out at the trees and the sky). I may need a bit of background instrumental music to get me started, but once I’m in the zone, silence is best.

I get my best writing ideas when I’m showering or washing dishes, which is kind of weird. I also get ideas from dreams, but I forget them if I don’t write them down right away.

I’m a morning person; I work best in the morning (after sunrise) or in the early afternoon. My brain and my eyes are tired at night, and darkness makes me lazy.

As for process, my planning consists of lists of events (rising action, climax, resolution), character traits, and sensory details (I love lists). I also like to gather visuals to help me picture the setting and to get a feel for the mood. Then I work on the first draft (that’s when I enter the writing zone). I revise as I write, but I try not to get bogged down. When I’m done with the first draft, I start the revision/editing process. I read my paragraphs aloud, improve the sentence structure, choose better words, and add details and rhetorical devices. Then I go back, analyze what I’ve done, and take out the fluff. Once I’m satisfied with the product, I put the manuscript away for a few weeks. Then I bring it out and examine it critically (as a reader, not a writer). I get feedback from my #1 reader (my youngest daughter, who is also a writer) and revise/edit the manuscript one last time.

My one big problem is that I have the tendency to start stories and not finish them. In the past, the reason for this was not having enough time nor solitude nor mental fuel to finish the first draft. Now I have one day a week of alone time, which means that for several hours a week I’m able to enter the writing zone.

Here’s my weekly plan:

1- Guest-teach four days a week.

2- Revise manuscripts and work on website/blogs in the afternoons.

3- Read in the evenings.

4- Saturday: Focus on art and music.

5- Sunday: Spend time with family.

6- Non-guest-teaching day: Enter and stay in the writing zone for as long as I want to!

It would, of course, be wonderful if I could enter the writing zone 4-5 days a week, but that is not yet possible.

Halloween is coming up, so this week’s exercise will be dark. I’d like to identify, analyze, and imitate some of the elements of horror in Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.

Talk to you next week. 🙂

Beauty and Wonder

Published October 16, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to continue analyzing the rhetorical devices and the sentence fluency in notable picture books.

Having a clear purpose is important when writing a picture book. Is your purpose to entertain? Do you want to inspire? Do you want to educate? Do you have more than one purpose? “The best picture books are warm, humorous, and can be read again and again. There must be something new to take away each time you read it.  It has to hold up to multiple readings. There must be substance, depth, and layering.” (from

Great picture books should also contain beauty and wonder, both in the pictures and in the text. Consider Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. There is beauty and wonder on every page –in the lovely forest illustrations and also in the language.

Here’s the first paragraph:

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling. There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

Notice the way the sentences flow, the rhythm, the rhyme, the imagery, the alliteration, and the repetition. Notice also the mood created by the brief description. What could be more mysterious and wondrous than going “owling” with your father in the middle of a winter night?

And here’s a list of some of the imagery/figurative language in the story.

1- The trees stood still as giant statues.

2- A train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

3- They sang out, trains and dogs.

4- It was as quiet as a dream.

5- Our feet crunched over the crisp snow.

6- Little gray footprints followed us.

7- My short, round shadow bumped after me.

8- The moon made his face into a silver mask.

9- The snow below it was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl.

10- An echo came threading its way through the trees.

11- We watched silently with heat in our mouths, the heat of all those words we had not spoken.

12- The kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.

Beautiful and wondrous.

Finally, notice the three concluding statements that summarize the narrator’s unique experience.

1- If you go owling you have to be quiet and make your own heat.

2- When you go owling you have to be brave.

3- When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope.

Think of the layers of meaning: We could read this picture book for the experience of going “owling,” for the relationship between the child and the father, or for what the story symbolizes (hope and perseverance). Or we could find a different, deeper, personal meaning.

Now that I’ve been inspired by Jane Yolen, I’m going to go work on my picture books. 🙂

The exercise for this week is to write a reflection on your writing habits (the when, where, and how) and perhaps on how to improve them. Examining the writing habits of other writers will help.

Talk to you next week!

P.S. Here’s another link with useful information on Picture Books:

Let’s Get Wild!

Published October 8, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to analyze the rhetorical devices and the sentence fluency in a notable picture book.

First of all I want to say that if you think writing a picture book is easy — ha! — think again. It’s far more difficult than writing a complicated poem such as a sestina or a villanelle. You need to incorporate elements of poetry, an attention-grabbing story line, action with lots of visual possibilities, layers of meaning, and whimsical creativity within a limited word and page count. Plus you must appeal to young readers and their parents, and your message must not be didactic or condescending. A picture book writer has many balls to juggle!

The following two sites offer good information on the genre:

I chose Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak as the notable picture book I wanted to analyze because it contains all the elements I listed earlier. (And because it’s a awesome read.)

Here’s a fun reading of the book by Christopher Walken:

And here’s an interesting psychological analysis of the book:

Here are some of the rhetorical devices I noticed in the text:

1-examples of alliteration:

-wore his wolf suit and made mischief

-the walls became the world

2- examples of repetition

-a forest grew and grew – and grew

-they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

3- examples of internal rhyme

till Max said “BE STILL!”

-and made him king of all the wild things.

4- examples of assonance and consonance

night – kind

sent – bed

came – place

start – are

wolf – mischief

year – are

tumbled by

private boat

yellow eyes

5- examples of rhythm (all the sentences have rhythm)

-But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go —

we’ll eat you up — we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

6- examples of word play

-and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks

and almost over a year

to where the wild things are.

7- examples of figurative language

-an ocean tumbled by

-and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room

8- examples of onomatopoeia

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

And here’s a fabulous example of sentence fluency:

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!” And Max said, “No!”

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws, but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.

Maurice Sendak makes it seem so easy, doesn’t he?

The point of this exercise was to notice how rhetorical devices enhance the rhythm and flow of sentences, and then apply these strategies to our own work.

I’m revising a couple of picture books right now, so I’m going to stick to this exercise for one more week.

Talk to you next Monday! 🙂

Repetition, Repetition

Published October 2, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to search for powerful examples of repetition.

Here are a few examples from chapters 1-3 of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.”

So much Will said, excitedly. So much Jim agreed to, silently. So much the salesman, running before the storm, but poised here uncertainly, heard looking from face to face.”

Some folks draw lightning, suck it like cats suck babies’ breath. Some folks’ polarities are negative, some positive. Some glow in the dark. Some snuff out.”

Nobody won. Nobody wanted to win. It was in their friendship they just wanted to run forever, shadow and shadow. Their hands slapped library door handles together, their chests broke track tapes together, …”

“Dad winked at Will. Will winked back. They stood now, a boy with acorn-colored hair and a man with moon-white hair, a boy with a summer apple, a man with a winter-apple face. Dad, Dad, thought Will, why, why, he looks … like me in a smashed mirror!”

I love this next one. Try reading it aloud. It’s brilliant.

“What’s the answer, he wondered, walking through the library, putting out the lights, putting out the lights, putting out the lights, is it all in the whorls on our thumbs and fingers? Why are some people all grasshopper fiddlings, scrapings, all antennae shivering, one big ganglion eternally knotting, slip-knotting, square-knotting themselves?”

And here’s an example of repetition in my work:

Artie braced himself as he joined the streams of students entering the building on the first day of the school year. He peeked at the crowd from under his gray hoodie. Everyone was wearing their mask, as usual, except that today the personas were brighter and clearer than on any regular school day. Jock, cheerleader, goth, punk, homie, geek, nerd, dork, emo, bully, etc. Whatever mask you or someone else had decided best reflected your unique style or personality. Whatever best suited your agenda. First impressions could make or break you. The pecking order had to be established early on. It was Survival of the Fittest 101 at the Funny Farm. Peck, peck, peck.

Those were some of the thoughts running through Artie’s mind as he weaved his way through the crowd. What mask was he wearing? Misfit, for sure. And like any other misfit, he preferred to fly under the radar, but sometimes circumstances interfered with his cruise control. His looks didn’t help either. He was tall and gangly with freckled pale skin and bright orange hair. Too tall and too orange to be inconspicuous. He was also too serious for his age, too young for his grade, too clumsy for sports, too shy around girls, and too smart for his own good. Too many toos, which is why he was what he was: a misfit.

Whatever, he thought.

That was fun.

This week’s exercise is to analyze the rhetorical devices and the sentence fluency in a notable picture book. 🙂

I’ll post again next week.