Connecting To Poetry

When I read new poets, I often have a hard time connecting with the poem. Part of that is on me, part of that is on the poet. I think it can be hard to connect with a work if we’re looking at it critically. The more critically we look at something, the more we examine it under a microscope, and microscopic organisms never really give us the big picture. A single piece of a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle can’t tell us what the picture is.

So what can we do to prevent a disconnect with our readership? After all, most people who read poems are poets themselves. It’s just statistics at this point. That means that our main audience is going to be asking themselves “are they worthy” every time they read our literature. So what do we do?

As A Poet

As someone who is writing poetry, I think we can protect ourselves by passing a few tests each time we write a new poem. These all come up in the editing stages of writing, and I’ll go into more detail when I get into editing poems.

  • “You’re not the boss of me!”
    • Instruction: Read your poem like a moody angry person who is talking to their equal or subordinate. If, at any point, you can shout at your poem “You’re not my mom” or “You’re not my boss” then that area needs reworking.
    • Explanation: Whenever a reader feels like they’re being bossed around, readers tune out. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because someone’s saying “You must” or “You should always” or one of those other imperative, commanding phrases. Talking about the right thing to do with a little too much passion can annoy a person.
  • “Well, I don’t … !”
    • Instruction: Read your poem and look for places where you assume a universal truth or fallacy. If you have assumed a universal truth/fallacy such as anything with “always” or “never” then take those words out.
    • Explanation: The only time when a universal truth is a good thing to use is when you’re being contrary on purpose, such as sarcasm or satire. In these situations it works well, but otherwise, you’re likely to turn a reader off, or disconnect with them, by using what you perceive as a universal law.
  • “What?”
    • Instruction: Paraphrase your poem! Take each line or sentence, and write it in plain English. Don’t use fancy language. Don’t use difficult words. Make it as simple and short as you can.
    • Explanation: Sometimes we get so caught up in our flowery language that we forget the meaning of the sentence. It’s good to take a step back and read over your poem in layman’s terms to ensure the poem actually means something and it isn’t just a bunch of pretty pictures.

It is good to leave uniqueness in your poem, but if you overdo it, the poem can be bogged down like an inside joke, so finding that careful balance between writing a poem like you’re sharing with your best friend and a stranger is important. You want the openness of sharing with your best friend, but the explanations like you’re sharing with a stranger.

As A Reader

All of the work does not fall on the poet to create a connected reading experience. To enjoy the act of reading, it helps to step back and give the poet the benefit of the doubt. When a reader enters into a poem with an open mind, expecting the poem to meet their level of entertainment, it can be self-fulfilling. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help ensure we’re not hyper-critical.

  1. How does this relate to my life?
  2. What is the poet doing to make this poem imaginative?
  3. Why did the poet use [that word]?
  4. How would I translate [that] stanza into my own words?
  5. Where do I think this is taking place?
  6. When do I think this is happening in the speaker’s life?
  7. Who is the poet trying to connect with?
  8. What turn of phrase do I like the best?
  9. What is the poet trying to tell me?
  10. What would I tell the poet if I met them?
  11. What part do I really like? Why do I like it?

These questions can help keep us looking at the positive aspects of the poem rather than the negative, but it also leads to some good critiques. The best critiques of poems point out things that the writer did well and things that they can improve upon in your opinion.

If we look at questions 2, 4, 9, 11, and 12 we can see that each of these questions have the potential for being answered negatively. If the poet isn’t working very much on imaginative poetry, than 2 is a place to talk about that, and how to improve upon that. 4 is a chance to look at the clarity of the poem and if it makes sense to you. 9 is also looking at the clarity of the poem, but from a different perspective. Eleven helps the reader consider why the poem elicits a strong reaction. Instead of talking about a stanza or word, some of these questions ask about the big picture. Some others probe into questions about the style of the poem.

puzzle-1487340_1280.jpgPoetry is ultimately about our experiences as people, piecing together our own feelings, and it is best to approach poems with that in mind. How does the poem relate to me? What in the poem relates it to something in my life? If you feel an emotional reaction, something relates.

Once we feel that, we are more likely to read the poem with a kinder eye. If we have a personal experience called up in our minds, we can read the poem looking at that personal experience, and, from there, talk about what we liked and didn’t like and why. That makes us think and it might make us aware of some inner truth or demon we rarely bring out into the light.

Advertisements

Specifics in Poetry: Challenge

Starting out as a young poet, we are told to write about our experiences, but at the time, our experiences are things like “I got in the car today” and “I put my hair up in a pony tail for the first time” or things that are too general to really make a good poem.

I had a poet who came into my third grade class to encourage our poetic ingenuity, and she had us write a structured poem. It was an “I am …” poem. Here is what I learned from the experience.

  1. You are a lot more than you think you are.
  2. You don’t have to keep writing “I am” at the beginning of every line
  3. “I am” can be followed by verbs rather than noun phrases, like “on” or “at”

This became my first experience with the phrase “not specific enough” which I’ve come to use as a mantra for new poets I run into on sites like Young Writers Society and Poetry Soup. So what does it mean?

When something is not specific enough it means that the details the poet chose for their poem don’t explore something personal enough to make a good poem. It could be that the poem is about a romantic experience, but it could be about anyone’s romance, or it could be that the poem has nothing to do with any one person at all. It becomes a spectrum of “unrelatable” and “too easy to write” and your job as a poet is to find the happy medium.

What can you talk about that is relatable because of personal experience, but not too detailed and exclusionary?

Taking the Dive

I can’t say I’m good at “taking the dive” in the figurative or literal sense. If you put me on a diving board, I’ll just stand there and wonder why the stairs aren’t a better way to enter the water. I’m frozen by my fears. My flight or fight response is broken. When faced with something that terrifies me, I do not try to fight it, because I am sure I will lose, and I do not try to run from it, for fear it will chase me.

In this way, I’m always on a diving platform staring down at the water from above, waiting for someone to push me in so I can go without needing the courage to jump.

I would talk at nauseum about what recent jumps I’ve been forced to take, or those I’m still waiting on, but this is, at it’s heart, a blog about getting better at poetry from one person who’s gotten only 3 poems published to millions of people who aren’t listening, and a handful of you who are curious enough to humor me. So instead, I think it would be more interesting for us few in the wings of millions, to talk about language.

That’s what we’re here for after all.

Figurative language is the art of finding something physical or so well known that when you say an example, the example doesn’t need any explanation. Usually these are all very old examples, and we’ve come to know some phrases over time rather than remembering the example, but the results are the same.

“Take the plunge”, “take the dive”, “take the jump”, they’re all the same example, leaping off of something either with or without knowing the results, and doing it with your full body, putting death on the line. People use this expression to say “go for it” or “don’t fear the results, do it anyway” and for me this can be a powerful encouragement, or a reminder of what I was avoiding in the first place. So how can we use figurative language to support our poems?

Simple, make our own. The idea of “take the dive” is the trepidation which stops us from moving forward, it is the human inability to perform when being faced with a challenge greater than they think is worth the risks. The saying is meant to say that “I took a chance” and even though I didn’t like the risks, I did it anyway with all of my effort.

From there, now that we know what it means, we can come up with our own. Think of something that stops you in your tracks every time, and ask yourself what you are least likely to do with that situation. Be careful now, we don’t want people dead, so if you’re thinking “pet the lion” or “step on the tracks in front of a train” back it off a step or two.

For me, my non-deadly thing I don’t do is touch spiders. I am creeped out by them with their long legs and quick movements. Because of that, instead of saying “take the dive” I could say “touch the spider.” I stood petrified until I touched the spider, and now, everything is fine.

There are a few things to be careful with. First, you don’t want to confuse people. If it isn’t clear why it is something which matches with the original saying, then add in context clues. Second, if it doesn’t fit with the poem you’re writing, add in context clues. If you’re not sure what I mean by context clues, restate your intent in another way, or give the reader a chance to understand by what else is being said.

Now, if you want to take me up on it, write a short poem with an idiom or phrase you replaced, and comment, give me a link or how to find it, and I’ll give you a review!

I look forward to reading your work.

Sentence Capitalization

To continue from a month ago with my series on capitalization in poetry, sentence capitalization is next.

This style of writing is the most common today. The more you read, the more you’ll see it. The style is pretty basic. Write your poem like you would write your prose. If you would capitalize it normally, then you would capitalize it in this style. The one caveat to it is that you would capitalize it as if you were writing in a paragraph, not lines and stanzas. Here’s how it goes, if it’s the beginning of a sentence or a proper noun, you capitalize. Basically, you can write your poem as a paragraph, and then add in all of your stanzas and lines, and you’ll have your capitalization spot on in this style.

The nuances of this style really allow the writer to explore the different aspects of poetry. It’s got enough class to handle a poem that rhymes, and enough system to handle a poem that doesn’t.

One of the reasons this style is something that most poets write with is because it handles nearly everything you can throw at it. Villanelle? Sure. Haiku? Of course! Dramatic reenactment of World War II? Definitely! This style allows the poet to avoid thinking about how they want to capitalize, and when to hit those buttons, and just write. It’s already how we naturally do things in every other aspect of our lives, so it’s a smooth transition.

Writing poetry becomes a thing that’s not very different from writing in a journal, or on a blog, aside from the style of word choice, and how often you hit enter.

For me, as a writer of poetry, and a reviewer of poetry, I find this style the easiest to delve into the meaning and content of the poem. It’s accessible, and I don’t have to stop and wonder about a certain word being capitalized.

I don’t always want to see this style though, sometimes, a poem needs to shout and that’s where one of the other styles comes into play. This style doesn’t allow a question about what should be capitalized. It doesn’t give you leeway to capitalize “anger” because you’re really angry, or “love” because you want to express that it’s not puppy love, but the big, capital ‘L’ kind. Those nuances are left to another capitalization style.

This style makes it more about the words you chose on an internal level, unless you pair it with breath punctuation. Breath punctuation is when you punctuate according to how you read the poem, rather than how the poem should grammatically be punctuated.

This combination can be enthralling, because everything looks right on the surface, with the capitalization, but the breath, the pauses, the waiting, the speed you have to read some sentences at without stopping for just a moment before you get out the next line is all there and together and it can be beautiful, or just make you gasp. But these things are unique to the poem, and how you want to write it as a poet.

It’s your choice what you want your voice to become. Your voice, how you want to present your words to the reader, has a lot to do with your choice of capitalization style for particular poems. This type of capitalization doesn’t surprise anyone, so if you’re trying to really make a statement, then this capitalization might not do it. You’d be relying on other things, like word choice, structure, punctuation, syntax, connotation, metaphor, and so on.

Still, if you look at poetry books today, many of the literary magazines like this capitalization the best. They’ll get on kicks of poems that lack capitalization too, and sometimes they’ll even publish really cool poems that capitalize according to emotion, but this style is one of the most popular ones.

That says a lot about it’s value.

In summary, this is the go-to style for most poets who aren’t trying to rock the boat with their capitalization.

Poetry Critiques

Poetry is a type of artform that allows you to write it faster than read it sometimes because we always want a poem read twice. That makes it easy to spit out a poem and roll the dice that it’s going to be good, but hard to edit. Why edit, when you can just produce a new poem?

The problem with that logic is that editing is what makes a poem good in most cases. We as writers cannot make something perfect the first time around, editing is needed to give us space, perspective, and allow our thoughts to develop over time.

What I’ve found with websites like Young Writers Society is that when I get a critique on many of my poems, I have an easier time breaking away from the moment I wrote the poem and into looking at the poem from a critical eye. Other people’s opinions on what sounds poor, or what might improve, helps me develop a sense of what I want to say and where I need to change it.

Because of that, we oftentimes want to have people critique our poems without compensation. You critique mine and I’ll critique yours, but we never get around to it because we’re off writing more. If we’re honest to ourselves, we know when we sign up we’re not going to critique other people’s poems. But why?

Critiquing someone else’s work is good practice for identifying good and bad writing. Reading their work provides us with a basis for developing what is cliche, what has already been done, and engaging ourselves in the market. We should be writing poetry because we like poetry, not because someone told us to, and if we like poetry, then we should read it too.

If anyone is interested in starting a group to share and improve their poetry with me, please comment.

I think it could be a lot of fun to create a blog together with other people and critique like a writing circle.

 

 

Line Capitalization

I said I would go into details about each of the capitalization types, so here I am!

Line Capitalization is the original traditional way to capitalize poetry. It went out of fashion pretty quickly, around the time free verse started getting into the full swing of things, line capitalization went out of traditional style. It wasn’t mandatory any more, and people began to get very comfortable, very quickly, with the idea that our capitalization can match our prose writing. Poets such as William Carlos Williams were among those who challenged the traditionalist style of poetry.

It quickly became a matter of fashion whether you capitalized or not, sort of like wearing your favorite team’s colors on enemy territory. If you continued to capitalize your lines, you were standing up for tradition, for rhyme, for structure, and all the moral obligations holding to the past represented.

Meanwhile, if you capitalized some other way, typically by the sentence rather than the line, you were standing for the new free verse movement, the flow of a poem, the sounds of words on a page, and capturing the essence of nature rather than the essence of rhyme.

Today, line capitalization is a stark statement that what follows is a poem. It’s a way to declare a poem like screaming off a roof. Most reviewers don’t like it, and if you are a subscriber to a poetry magazine, it is a rare poem which actually gets published with this style of writing.

Today, it is mostly seen as the mark of a beginning writer, but that’s because it’s what poets are taught to see as poetry when they first approach the subject.

Our schools show us poetry and teach us “capitalize every letter at the beginning of a line” and “make it rhyme” as they tell us that a haiku is 7-5-7 and damage us for the rest of our lives into hating the structure and failing to see the nuances it presents.

So, when we eventually spread our wings again, and explore the crisis stage of our poetry careers, filled with navel gazing and Sylvia Plath style poetry, we’re naturally writing with the only style we know how, it has to rhyme, and it has to capitalize the first letter of every line.

The style itself is good for more than that.

It’s good when you want to create a traditional, classic feel, like putting on a suit with tails, all crisp and black and white. If you’re writing a poem honoring Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, or any other ancient deity of our kind, it’s best to suit up for the experience, and that’s where it really shines. You have to know your classics to do the style some real justice, but since so many don’t know their classics, it’s easy to slip by until you find another fanatic.

The style has its pitfalls too.

If you choose to write this way just because Microsoft Word is your platform, and it decides to capitalize the first letter of every line, you’re going to have analysts like me assuming you’re new to poetry and that has a plethora of disadvantages. Glancing down poems on WordPress, I’m disheartened to see so many classically structured poems just because of the word blobs “With sentences Like this Because It is A poem.”

But more on that next time. I’ll go into Sentence Capitalization and you might begin to see what I mean.

Too long, didn’t read:

Use line capitalization when you’re trying to be fancy and classical. Otherwise, avoid it because it makes people assume you’re a newb.

If you disagree with me, or just want to chat, I’d love to hear from you!

 

Commas In Poetry

Considering the general size of most other articles, I’m sizing mine down to single subjects.

Commas in poetry are a very useful thing. There are many ways to use a comma in a poem. Most readers see them as general breaks in speech and allow the reader a pause before continuing, such as a breath marker.

Some poets only will use commas in poetry to indicate when they want the reader to breathe. Others will use commas in grammatical fashions to indicate pauses in sentences, new items in a list, or subordinate clauses. Because poetry and grammar actually can go hand in hand, it’s not unusual to find grammar markers used in their traditional sense.

Some poems even use more grammar markers than prose would traditionally use in modern writing because people are more afraid of poems than grammar.

This is true with commas too.

If you look at a poem and see a bunch of commas, it makes more sense intuitively about where you need to pause, and where you should not pause. Take a look at this poem of mine in two different versions and I’ll walk you through the use of commas.

Both of the ways these commas will be used will be completely “legal” in sense of writing poetry.

I smile in my silent surrender,
dancing moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently now
than before the moonwalks began.

Now, it bounces when it would veer,
and we have a new moon swimming
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

In this case, I’m using standard punctuation. I’m not trying to deviate from any known standards, I’m not trying to use it to convey any hidden messages, and I’m not putting it at the end of each line to show a pause at the line’s end.

I smile, in my silent surrender
dancing, moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently, now
than before the moonwalks began.

Now, it bounces, when it would veer,
and we have a new moon, swimming
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

Here, I am using the commas to include syncopation for words and phrases that I want the reader to feel. Depending on how you like to read poetry, either one of these might be good for you to read. You also might only like a traditional style of poetry, such as the next one.

I smile in my silent surrender,
dancing moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently now,
than before the moonwalks began.

Now it bounces when it would veer,
and we have a new moon swimming,
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

Here, I am only using commas and punctuation at the very end of a line. This is another way in which commas and punctuation can be used to emulate the feeling that old poets used to have with what they wrote.

My personal favorite is a mix.

I smile, in my silent surrender
dancing moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently now
than before the moonwalks began.

Now, it bounces, when it would veer,
and we have a new moon swimming
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

What are your thoughts on commas in poetry? Do you have a preference for how you use them? 

Share your thoughts down below and let’s talk about it!

 

 

So you think you can Syllable?

Counting Syllables

Syllable counting is one of those things that poets are supposed to know how to do. Why? Well there are a lot of reasons. Having the same amount of syllables in multiple lines can help the flow of the lines and provide a reader with expectations for how long the next lines are going to be giving us a chance for surprise. The reason we can’t just do this with length is because syllables often vary in length on the page. For instance, “strength” is a single syllable.

The methods we usually have for learning this are pretty straightforward for some of the population that is more hearing-oriented, but no matter who you are, you can learn to identify syllables. You don’t have to be able to hear them.

That being said, the other methods of learning them, listed below, are somewhat complex ideas, so I need to over some basics first.

Linguistics is the study of language in general. It’s a descriptive study of language, meaning linguistics attempts to describe what is already going on in language, not create rules for people to follow as a whole. They have a way to think about syllables which I can pretty much guarantee, you’ve never run into before. It’s good stuff.

In Linguistics, there is an International Phonetic Alphabet which linguists use to indicate sounds without catering to a specific language. This IPA is used to indicate the difference between things like a hard I and a soft I or the difference between th and t, or z, and s. It’s broken up into sections according to where the sound is made, and covers all possible sounds humans as a species could conceivably make with the equipment we’re provided.

After that, I have a more prescriptive way outlined for those of us who just want to get right to the rules of what to do. This won’t always work however, because language is fluid. However, it will give you a place to start.

To start, I’m going to re-explain what you’ve probably already been frustrated with about how to count syllables and then we’ll move into the linguistics, then the rules.

Just Do It

For a lot of people what works best is to listen to how a word is pronounced and decide where the parts of those words are. For instance, where are the parts in the word “Strength?” Many people will answer that there aren’t any, because it’s one syllable, and when compared to a word like “Strengthen” it’s clear that there is a break in only “strengthen” and not “strength.”

How do we hear that? Strength-en is because we can hear the minute language change sort of like a pecking sound in the word. For instance, “pecking” has “peck” and “ing” however, it’s not always apparent where the language is split. “Apparent” is a three syllable word that can be hard to determine. “A-par-ent” is usually the way that it’s broken up, however, it’s potentially going to change for your own dialect and pronunciation.

For those of us less linguistically inclined, but still wanting to get this without rules, think about it like breaking up words into their base. From there, you’re going to have to decide if those parts sound like they’re separated at all or not. As long as you can get how many syllables a word has, it doesn’t really matter if you can break it up appropriately, so don’t fret so much about the were, so much as the how many.

Linguistics

So I actually did a bit of research to see how better to describe this to people who just aren’t getting the first method. Here’s what I’ve found: This is actually a result of how language is created. Syllables are parts of words that are stuffed together to make the complete idea. It’s sort of like when you have a card, you have the number/face and the color/suit, and then the individual suits in those colors. We can’t have individual cards with just 1-24 because that wouldn’t be much fun matching pairs, there wouldn’t be any! We create classifications so we don’t have to memorize so much and some of those groupings for words are syllables.

Here’s the best video I found on syllables. The symbols popping up in the part where he’s talking about sounds and the spellings of words are from the IPA spelling and sounds. Here is the IPA

Linguistics Video

A large part of structured poetry is based on your ability to count syllables. To get going, first, a syllable is a part of words. Each word is composed of syllables in any language. In every language, we compose our words with syllables which tend to follow similar patterns.

When we learn about syllables in school, they say to listen to what you’re saying, and group it according to breaks in language. This is because as we grow up, we start speaking by learning syllables. When babies engage in babble, they are actually practicing forming syllables. “Ba” for instance, is a syllable, same with “da” and “ga” and so on. As it is how we learned to speak in the first place, we often can already identify syllables, by accessing our intuition.

If you are not among those who can easily identify syllables, don’t worry! Linguistics has studied syllables and come up with ways to identify syllables in your language, whatever that might be.

Syllable Composition

A syllable is a part of speech, sure, but what is it made of? The quick answer is a vowel and consonants. Linguistics have called these parts the nucleus, onset, and coda. In other words, a syllable is composed of up to three sounds, the main sound, the sound before that sound, and the sound after it.

Nucleus

Syllables contain multiple parts because they’re bigger than just letters. One part of every syllable is the loudest/longest part, similar to the nucleus in an atom. Linguistics calls this the nucleus of a syllable. A hard fast rule you can cling to is that vowels can always make up the nucleus in syllables, always. However, other things can be the nucleus too, though not much.

The nucleus of a syllable is what is holding the sounds together. So when the sound is being held together, it needs a sound in the middle which has good air flow, such as mm, nn, or even rr, which makes up the center noise. Quieter noises, like those which aren’t vocalized, often can’t hold up to that weight, they’re sounds which circle noises which are stronger and louder.

When we’re looking to count syllables, we can immediately break away any vowels that are next to one another and not composing a single sound. For instance, if we’re looking at the following list of words, we can tell how many syllables they have by just counting the vowels.

ginger
2

foxy
2 (counting y)

barbeque
3 (e is silent)

trepidation
4 (io is acting as one sound)

As you can see, there are different exceptions to these rules, but they’re not so much exceptions, as looking at the word phonetically. Think about “foxy” phonetically, as it sounds. The word starts with a “ff”, then goes into “ah” “x” and “ee” at the end. This makes two vowel noises rather than just one. Same with barbeque, we don’t hear the “e” on the end, because in English, it is silent. That means the noise isn’t phonetically marked, and thus, is not a part of its own syllable.  Trepidation is harder. I put it on the list because “ion” is not “ee” and “aw” “nn” it’s closer to the word “in” or “on” depending on your accent. This is only one noise. As “ion” is a common suffix on words, it is always something that can be used as a syllable, usually with the attached onset of whatever consonant comes before it.

Basically, the nucleus is the noise which is the longest and loudest in the syllable. A nucleus is always made when there is a vowel sound. Vowels are a clear hallmark of a nucleus. In some cases, like “mountain” the phonetic noise of “tn” at the end won’t have a vowel though, and in these cases, noises which are long, and have moderate to good air flow such as “mm” and “nn” which are nasal vocalized sounds, can act as the nucleus instead of a vowel.

Around the nucleus are two different sections, the onset, which is the more important of the two, and the coda. The onset is whatever sound leads up to the nucleus of a sound, and the coda leads away from it. Both of these are completely optional, sort of like in sentences how subjects and predicates are up in the air, but you have to have a word. “Go.” is a perfectly valid sentence because of an implied subject. For syllables, the vowels can always be a syllable alone, but they can also have some clothes on, the onset and coda.

Onset

An onset is an optional part of a syllable, but between a coda and an onset, the onset is more likely to happen than the coda. This is because it is easier for us to hear/collect/recognize information coming before a nucleus than after it. Language is about communicating, so being able to identify what we hear is important. Because the nucleus is strong, it is easier to miss the end sounds, codas, than it is to miss sounds before it, onsets.

An onset will be any consonant sound. This could be anything like “th” all the way to “z” so they’re fairly important. Basically, any consonant noises before a nucleus can be an onset to that nucleus, however, it cannot be another nucleus. These are how we identify where to break up the actual syllables in our words. Let’s go back to our list and examine the onsets we have there.

ginger

foxy

barbeque

trepidation

All of the underlined letters are potential onsets to the bolded nucleus. In “ginger” we have “[g]i[ng]er” for instance. In this case, there’s some examining to do. Because we’ve got both n and g with the second onset, we have to determine if it is a viable word.

Every syllable should be able to start a word.

So, can “nge” start a word? Can you think of any words which start with “nge?” Personally I can’t, so because I cannot think of words which start with “nge” I know that the n has to be the coda, and the g has to be the onset alone. This is how you figure out syllables.

Every word you meet, determine the vowels which are actually heard when you say the word, then, determine the consonants surrounding those vowels. If you have more than one consonant before a vowel/nucleus, ask if it can start a word. If it can, then both/all noises are part of the onset, and if not, then that is where you divide the syllable. Let’s do the rest of the list.

Our next word is (f)o(x)y. This one is pretty quick because we only have two vowels and two onsets. Regardless of whether we break it up “fox-ee” or “fo-xy” we end up with two syllables. Personally I’ve never heard of a word that starts with Xy though, so I like “Fox-y” as the division.

The third word on our list is (b)a(rb)e(q)ue, we have three syllables here because we have three vowels. There’s nothing tricky at the end to make another vowel. Here, we see a clear use of codas again for that middle potential onsets. I don’t know of a word that starts with the syllable “Rbe” but “bar” is definitely a word, so I’m going to break this down into it’s parts of the word. “bar-be-que” because a “cue” ball sounds exactly like “que” anyways, also “be” is totally a word.

Lastly, (tr)e(p)i(d)a(t)ion. In this word, we actually have a consonant set that actually does start a word, and is together, but we also have tree, trim, trailer, and so forth as examples of “tr” starting words in English. As for the rest, it’s a break right before the consonant because the vowels like to be onsets rather than codas. To explain why they like to be onsets more than codas, I have to go into explaining codas, so here we go. If you don’t care to learn about codas and you’re just happy to know that you can break up vowels as they are, then go ahead and stop reading here, or skip down.

Codas

Codas are the ending sounds of a syllable because they are the sounds that come after the strong words. Basically, they’re the tail. Just like we can have prefixes, we can have suffixes in syllables too. In this case, these suffixes, or endings, are actually used as a sort of cap and are a part of the rhyme pair when rhyming.

All in all, because we find it easier to hear onsets rather than codas, just like we want the subject front and center, or our favorite dish first so we have fresh taste buds, we are more inclined to have onsets than codas. Anything can be a coda in language, however, we are more disposed to hearing them as onsets.

Think about it like seeing a pattern. You don’t look at a pattern like /-/-/-/- and break it up by saying Oh, every (-) is the end, so every (/) must be the beginning. We look at the first thing that’s there, and break it up because a (/) is next. /- /- /- /- that way when we end up with /-.- /-.- /-.- we don’t mess up.

In many ways, this is exactly how we break up syllables too. Instead of looking for codas, look for the nucleus and then any onsets. The codas, however, are good for rhyming.

The part of a word that sounds like a rhyme is actually the nucleus and the coda. This is because the coda alters the ending sound of the nucleus giving us more options for language. When we label something for a rhyme, the onsets don’t actually matter so much as the vowel and coda. Slant rhyme is rhyming just the vowel sound because of that very fact. Treat rhymes with feet because “eet” is the same in both of them, even though “f” and “tr” are different, and both are only a single syllable.

For rhyming purposes, codas are important, but in terms of identifying syllables, not so much.

Listening To Syllables

So what are we actually doing when we listen for syllables? We’re identifying the difference between a coda and an onset through our intuitive knowledge of how language works. Just like we don’t need to know that a verb needs a direct object because of a list that says what verbs require them, we often don’t need someone telling us that two specific consonants don’t get stuffed together to start a noise.

On top of that, when we use prefixes and suffixes, we are adding a complete syllable because we’re adding a noise, a full noise, to a pre-established word. This can get confusing with words like “words” because s is a suffix, but it’s not strong enough to stand on its own as a nucleus, so it’s stuffed on to the rest of the word and is left as a single syllable.

That being said, there are some quick rules you can follow to break up syllables if you don’t understand this whole nucleus thing or you’re not sure. You can find the list of rules here: Dividing Syllables

I’m going to go over them for a complex word and see how the two compare.

Break off suffixes and prefixes

Root words themselves already have syllables, so put the word back down to it’s root. This is helpful with words like disestablishmentarianism. All of our prefixes and suffixes are as follows. dis-establish-ment-arian-ism. From what we learned earlier, we can break it apart with our nuclei too.

d(i)s(e)st(a)bl(i)shm(e)nt(a)r(i)(a)n(i)sm

Here are all of our nuclei

Here are our potential onsets and why they are or are not onsets.

(d)i(s)e(st)a(bl)i(shm)e(nt)a(r)ia(n)ism

sta = star, stairs, etc.

bli = blithe, but that’s a hard I, not a soft i, so no

shme= shmuck is u not e, so no.

nta = none

the total results.

di-se-stab-lish-men-ta-ri-an-ism = 9 syllables. Above, breaking away the prefixes, we have five of these nine.

Personally, this is how I break up this word: dis-e-stab-lish-ment-ar-i-an-ism, which is still nine syllables. They only differ in “dis” and “ment” but that doesn’t change the syllable count.

The next step for rules of what to break and where helps us get closer to accurate.

Separate consecutive consonants

There is a caveat to this, Don’t separate consonants that are making a single sound such as sh, and th. Howwever, repeated consonants such as in little, break those apart. Let’s go back to our suffix/prefix split word above and add this rule.

dis-estab-lish-ment-arian-is-m

Did you notice a difference? The ism is broken up because m is able to hold the weight of a nucleus in a word. If you just look at vowels as a nucleus, you don’t notice “mm” and “nn”  which are trying to hold that weight. Now we’re up to 7 out of what should be 10 syllables.

Divide consonants that are surrounded by vowels

If it is a long vowel, then divide before the consonant, if it is a short, divide after. Long vowels are vowels which sound like their name such as “eye” being “i” and “ih” being short “i”

dis-estab-lish-ment-ar-ian-is-m

We actually have so few vowels in this that this rule only applies in one case “ari” and in this case, we have a hard/long “I”, so we divide after the “I.” Now we’re at 8 out of 10!

Divide “le”s

Basically we’re supposed to look at “le” endings now, but our word actually doesn’t have that. For this, they want us to divide after the k but before the l, so ck-le.

After “ckle” they want us to look for “le” at the end and see if the letter before “le” is a vowel. If it is, then leave it attached, if it’s not, pull it off with the consonant.

That means this method falls short, but how?

The simple answer: they didn’t count on a nucleus without an onset or coda. Here’s another rule you can add that should put you up to the right count.

Separate vowels into separate syllables

– If it has a consonant next to it, determine if that consonant, or consonants could start a word. e-stab-lish-ment

– Pair consonants at the front of vowels if the resulting group starts a word.

– If a vowel has vowels on either side, separate into its own syllable.

dis-e-stab-lish-ment-ar-i-an-is-m

And we got to 10! Depending on how you pronounce “ism” it may be 9 or 10.

When you’re using the other method, remember to check the end of your words and determine if mm or nn is the last sound. Chances are, the few times you run into this situation, you can use a syllable counter to determine what the standard norm for that word is anyway, and you won’t have an issue counting the syllables.

Please remember, syllable counters are computers trying to determine human language. They’re not always right! Oftentimes they don’t understand things like silent e and that messes up their counts.

In short, listen to how you speak and break it up according to when you hear changes in tone, with vowels and consonants together. If it has a short vowel, chances are it needs more consents. If it has a long vowel, it needs fewer consonants.

10 Ways to Develop a Writer’s Skin

Oftentimes when beginning to write seriously, it’s difficult to show off your work. I think this may be something experienced by everyone, but I know at least ten people who have experienced it, so I know it’s not just me. What I’m referring to so indirectly is the development of our ability to take criticism, also known by most of us as our “skin” which, for whatever reason, has been the best metaphor for a very long time.

There are some misgivings about the writer’s skin, first and foremost, that it is impenetrable with experience. That’s not true. While some people develop a tougher skin than others, the emotional trauma of negative criticism can still affect a writer. They just get better at hiding it. Another thing is that some people start with a stronger skin than others. I also think this is false.

Now, granted, I’m not doing years of research on the subject and I am by no means the ultimate authority, these are just my opinions, but with that being said, I’ll stop hedging my opinions with “I think” and get on with it.

The writer’s skin is developed over time, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but there are always going to be certain cracks in the armor.

The reason writers need a skin is something of a mystery, but I think it’s narrowed down to just a couple options. The main one comes from what I know about psychology. We, as individuals, have a need to have a positive self-image. It’s part of the matrix that one psychologist says makes us “whole” and “enlightened” but at the top. In order to climb the ladder however, we need to get beyond a negative self-image and develop our beliefs more resolutely.

When we receive criticism from people we value, and we innately value human life, we find our self-image depreciated. Some people who can do poorly at things and be told they do something poorly, can still have a weak skin when it comes to writing.

In Rhetoric, I learned why. English, as a language, when it developed school systems, developed a system for teaching writing which made it seem like you were a bad person if you were bad at writing. This isn’t because of the school system however, it was because, at the time, Rhetorical studies believed that the inability to write clearly and cleanly, without error actually meant you were an incompetent stupid person. They had a direct correlation between the level of someone’s intelligence and someone’s ability to write.

This meant that anyone who was foreign learning English seemed to become smarter as they assimilated to the language. They gained IQ in the eyes of the populous as they gained the ability to speak their language. This translated into the schools as the red pen mentality. This dogma was that in order for students to learn proper writing, they had to write a lot, and write it properly. Any errors found in the writing would be marked negatively, and that was the only way for them to teach. They had too many students to do much more, or develop the student’s abilities to argue or form a rhetorical statement or essay.

So what does this have to do with writer’s skin? Everything! As we developed beyond this state, and realized that smart people also have to learn how to write given time and development of the practice, we couldn’t shake the notion that only dumb people write poorly. Even today we discriminate against people for accents that “sound stupid” to us and praise those accents which “sound smart” which is evident in a pole from I don’t remember which showed that having a British accent helps with truthfulness in advertising. Have a Brit read anything and it is more likely to be trusted as true. In many ways this is because we think of British English as traditional and proper, which directly correlates with smarter in that old dogma.

So, when writers are asking for a critique on their writing, they can feel like they’re asking for a critique on their life value through their level of intelligence. If you say the writing is bad, you’re in turn saying that the writer is stupid.

One solution when you’re learning to write is to remember that it’s a skill that is developed over time, it’s not related to how smart you are. The smartest man in the world could be unable to form a cohesive novel, speech, poem, or essay. It’s not about how smart you are, and it’s not about how hard you try. You can’t just try harder and write better. It doesn’t work like that.

Writing takes time to develop, and analysis of what you read, and how you read. To get that time, to develop that ability, you have to remember to forgive yourself for mistakes and detach your self-worth from them. Treat writing like you treat other hobbies.

When you’re learning to knit, you knit a lot of wash cloths, and you learn how to fix your mistakes. You don’t feel like you’re a failure because you made them, but you also don’t ignore them. You knit with your hands, and it takes your eyes to see the mistake. Similarly, in writing, you are your hands, you are your writer, but you’re too close to see your own mistakes, so you’ve got to prepare to find them through other people reading your work critically, as your eyes.

This is just one of the many reasons why writers need skins, and why that skin can be fragile until it develops.

Among the others are the writer’s lack of self-confidence from other areas of their lives. If a writer starts out with a bad self-image they can develop a bad image about their writing, constantly belittling it and looking for problems that aren’t necessarily problems there. Taking the knitting example further, this is like looking for errors for hours, when your eyes don’t pick up on it, and when you find something, beating your hands with a stick for something you couldn’t even see.

Learning to forgive your mistakes is really only half the battle, because you have to find the mistakes in the first place. Writers who suffer from a low self-confidence to begin with can find it extremely hard to come to anyone for help, especially if their self-confidence issues stem from close to home. There are sites out there, such as Young Writers Society which allow writers to get consistent feedback whenever they post a work, and this can help them develop beyond the point of panic when they see they’ve gotten a review because it forces them into that situation.

Another resource for those afraid to even allow reviews is a place called Fiction Press which rarely gives reviews, but the writer will see how many people have read their work, or at least, viewed it. Whenever there is a review on Fiction Press, it tends to be pretty lackluster. It’s not an in-depth analysis of what the writer did ‘poorly’ and how to improve like it can become on YWS. Mostly it’s “I liked this story a lot, keep writing!” but occasionally flamers do show up and they will start screaming that they hate the story and why. The story has gotten pretty popular if one of them has found it though, so Congratulations!

Chances are, the more views a work has, the more people like that work, and if more than two people say the same thing about it, maybe there’s something to consider. In this era of technology, there’s no reason to interact with someone you can’t run away from, and that gives a lot of avenues for learning to take criticism for people who struggle with a low self-confidence driving them to hide their work.

This was going to be a 10 ways to improve your Writer’s Skin, so if you’ve gotten through all of that, here are my suggestions:

  1. Post Frequently on a site that provides feedback
  2. Read work in your field so you know if the feedback is accurate
  3. Develop a sense of personal style and modify from there
  4. Take advantage of the feedback and edit your work
  5. Try to think about the writing as someone else’s work when reading feedback
  6. Set emotional work aside until you can read it critically before posting it
  7. Write multiple drafts of the same emotional work before posting
  8. Don’t share things if you’d be offended if someone said “it sucked” yet, wait.
  9. When you are offended by feedback, ask for feedback from someone else
  10. Give feedback to other people.

My reasonings are as follows:

1. Post Frequently

The more comfortable you are hitting that submit button, wherever it is, the easier it will be for you to submit somewhere helpful. If you’re uncomfortable doing it at first, try a site like My Diary which provides you with the option of absolutely no one else seeing it, or everyone. Eventually click it over to that everyone button when you’re ready. Not only will this help you get over the fear of putting it out there, it’ll keep a log of your progress as you continue writing.

2. Read

If we want to judge whether our writing is good or bad, we have to have something to judge it against. The only other way we can actually judge the quality of our writing is against other people in our field. You can even read the reviews of popular books, or books you’ve read to see what criticism that person has gotten and even further develop your sense of the community you’re entering.

3. Style

Each writer is unique, and developing your unique style is important because you will get feedback that contradicts what you’re trying to do with a novel or a book. Developing a style isn’t just about developing a weird phrase, a planet, or a character quirk, it’s about developing what you want to do as a writer, and finding the best means for you to utilize your skills and do that. You need this so you know when the feedback you get doesn’t match your goal.

4. Edit

This is huge because you need to learn to fix your mistakes. You might not be able to find them right off the bat all alone, but as you learn what mistakes you’re making more frequently, you’ll develop an eye to see them on your own, and you’ll learn what to look for when you’re writing.

5. Death of the Author

This in particular helps writers actually read the feedback they receive, like actually get the courage to look at it. When you’ve finished writing a work, you’ve actually moved beyond that point in time, that knowledge you had, when you started. As living beings, aside from the whole life/soul/etc argument, we are an accumulation of our memories, knowledge, intent, and abilities.

The person who began reading this article is not the same person who finished it, why? Because I had an influence on your brain, even if it was just a “That’s totally bogus” response. It’s still an idea you have now that you didn’t have then. Your intent, your interests, your abilities, are constantly changing, so you can consider the person who wrote the story you’re editing, NOT you because you’re more developed than that younger self of you was.

You cannot remember your intent when you were writing every second of that work, and because of that, you cannot demand of yourself to stand up for the honor of your work. That just doesn’t make sense.

You don’t have to remember it either, because what matters is what you want now, so just because you wrote it for a certain reason, doesn’t mean you have to keep that reason. You’re changing, learning, and developing every second of your life, so let go of the problems you had, because right now, you have a chance to fix them. [see No. 4.]

6. Step Away

If you’re writing by “bleeding onto the page” as so often is suggested, then whenever you read your work, you’re going to trigger the same emotional responses that you felt while bleeding. It’s the memory of writing it that’s triggering this. Until that response goes away, you’re going to be defensive of your emotions, and vulnerable to criticism.

The simple fact of the matter is that as time goes on we collect more emotions, more memories, and those old memories, those old triggers, will deaden. As we read the damaging work repeatedly, we develop our ability to avoid violent emotional responses through beating a dead horse with a stick type mentality.

Give yourself time to get to that point before you ask someone for feedback because no matter if the feedback is good or bad, you’re going to have to handle this work as a third party when you want to analyze whether the feedback is something you agree with or not.

7. Rewrite

This goes hand in hand with No. 6 because it’s another way for us to get rid of emotional baggage attached to a certain piece quicker. This is mostly applicable to poetry, since it’s quicker to write, but you can also have multiple copies of love scenes, climaxes, and deaths. You don’t necessarily have to change the events that take place, just change the words you use to describe them.

When you’re done, and you’re no longer in an emotionally compromised state, read back all of the different versions and decide for yourself which one you consider best. That might not be the first one, but no matter what, it should help provide you the ability to look at your work critically, thus giving you a safer place from which to post it for feedback. All you have to do is find emotional distance from the work.

8. Emotional Distance

Speaking of, consider whether you’d be offended if someone told you all the things that are wrong with a piece before you post it. This isn’t to hold you up, but to give yourself a chance to develop that skin on something else. You can’t expect the person giving you feedback to know that you’ll be very upset if they say “I didn’t think x was realistic” because it’s a real life situation, just from reading the work. You can add author notes, but they might not get read. The best thing to do is find distance so that when you get that feedback, you can ask them “what feels unrealistic to you” rather than ranting about how it actually happened.

It doesn’t matter if it actually happened or not, what matters is how the reader feels/perceives the story. What you have to develop is the ability to make them feel that it is as real as it was.

9. Asking Around

Speaking of being offended by reviewers, it’s best not to get into an argument with them. They’re giving you their time and their thoughts, whether good or bad, so it’s best to not disrespect the time they’ve given you and make them regret giving it. You might find these harsh reviews you aren’t ready for are exactly what you needed to hear when you get the ability to analyze your work.

Until that time, make friends you can trust to give you feedback you can handle, and when you get bad feedback, ask them to see if they agree or disagree. This will give you someone who’s not emotionally charged to rely on when you’re, well, emotionally compromised.

10. Give Feedback

This is another huge one because it’ll do two things.

A) It will let you read work in your field and see how other people in that genre are developing their stories, and what’s currently out there

B) It’ll help you learn to analyze literature. That’s the huge part. Literary analysis means you’re taking apart how a writer wrote what they wrote, and why. What tools did they use, what word phrases did they develop, why did they put what chapters together, and so forth, to better understand those writers we like, and why we don’t like the writers we dislike.

Once you can analyze literature, you can try using those skills on your own work. From there, you’ve pretty much developed a skin because all a writer’s skin really is, is the ability to step away from thinking they suck when they get feedback, and see it from another perspective.