What Cannot Be Said in Words: Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Yesterday the world learned of the passing of literary giant Ursula K. Le Guin. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt so deeply upset by the death of someone I never actually met. But then, few individuals have had such a profound impact on me with their words alone.

When I was about thirteen, I read A Wizard of Earthsea. It was quite different from any piece of fiction I’d encountered before: epic but focused, mythic yet personal, with a fascinating take on magic and the power of words; and it flipped the script on the common fantasy trope of pale civilized folk and brown barbarians, revealing and rejecting the white supremacist undercurrent I hadn’t even realized was present in the genre. Eager for more, I nabbed the sequel, The Tombs of Atuan, and settled into my faux-denim beanbag chair to continue my journey through Earthsea.

Wizard was wonderful and eye-opening, but The Tombs of Atuan was a revelation. It changed how I thought about fiction, challenging and overturning my fundamental assumptions about what made good fantasy.

Sometime in the preceding year or so, I had declared anathema all books that had “slow parts.” Tombs was all “slow parts.” There was little action, and almost no magic, at least not in the flashy, overt sense I was accustomed to. The magic of Tombs was personal and interpersonal; it was empathy, and reclaiming lost identity, and freedom, and choice. It was beautiful, and restrained, and by my own standards of the time I should have been bored and done with it by page 2. But I loved every word.

Afterwards, I was unable to express why this book had drawn me in and consumed me so thoroughly. It showed me that compelling storytelling didn’t have to come barreling in with a loud bang. Sometimes the most powerful stories come softly, creeping up on you unawares.

I’m still not sure I could explain how Le Guin did what she did, how she got an adolescent boy raised on explosion-filled Saturday morning cartoons to invest himself in a young girl’s quiet coming of age. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit The Tombs of Atuan, time to return to the world of Earthsea, and explore it once again with fresh eyes.

I wish I had some bit of wisdom or a pithy quote to end with, but there are entire books filled with Le Guin’s words and wisdom (go forth and read them, for the first time, or the fiftieth time) and I can offer none of my own. Because right now, I’m back to being that kid in the beanbag chair, failing to find the words for what I’m feeling.

Goodbye, Ms. Le Guin. We will miss you.

No More Games: My Writing in 2017, and What’s Next

So. It’s coming up on 11 months since I last posted, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back on my writing endeavors in 2017, and a little of what I’m planning for the future. The past year has been rough on a lot of people, myself included, but I won’t go into that. Suffice to say that the political climate hasn’t helped my creative focus.

2017 started out pretty solid for writing. I spent January revising a long short story/short novelette. I participated in my online writing group’s February intensive, and in April I got a good 14,000 words or so deep into a novella before a sinus infection knocked me down for the count. (I later realized the story is probably two novelettes anyway.)

I’d hoped to pour my efforts into finishing that story, along with expanding and revising a couple other stories in the same series, so they fit into a coherent whole but could still be read independent of each other. Instead I spent the summer plagued with writer’s block while wrestling with a different story. My own impatience and failure to respect my writing process only dragged things out, leading to frustration and frequent retreats into computer games. It made for a disappointingly unproductive summer.

Then I went to Japan for three weeks. And it was amazing. It rained the whole time, and even so, it was quite possibly the best trip I’ve ever been on.

Between preparing for the trip, the trip itself, and various distractions in its aftermath, I went for a month or two without really writing, reading fiction, or playing computer games. I decided to resume the first two, but not the third, and see how long I could keep up my “no computer games” streak. I started writing a novel, and dug into my reading backlog (also novels). And it turned out, life without computer games was pretty nice. Even if I wasn’t writing more than I had been, reading more novels felt like a much better use of my time than mucking about with digital distractions.

So I gave up computer games.

20 years ago, this would have been unthinkable. As a lad, I considered myself a pretty serious computer gamer. But starting late in high school, computer games and I stopped clicking the way we used to, and we’ve been growing apart ever since. My computer gaming has been sporadic for years. In 2016 I built a computer (because we needed a new one) with the idea I’d play games on it, but mostly my wife uses it to surf the internet and watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. (I consider this a worthy use of the hardware, as both my wife and Miss Fisher are awesome ladies.)

I won’t go as far as to say I’ve permanently cut computer games out of my life. But any forays will be in brief intervals, and even fewer and farther between than they already were. I’ll also be limiting myself to games I can play through once and be done with. Nothing open-world or open-ended that might suck me in and interfere with writing time, like they did over the summer. I’ll stick to games that are more like my favorite kind of novel: self-contained, with potential for sequels or rereads (replays), but not requiring either.

Oh, yeah, and I got into an Odyssey Online course, taught by Beneath Ceaseless Skies editor Scott H. Andrews. So, that’s awesome. BCS is one of my favorite fantasy short fiction market — I listen to every podcast episode — and I’m honored and excited to have the opportunity to learn from Scott.

In the coming year, I plan to: finish a novel (maybe even start shopping it around to agents), finally finish that novella/novelette series I mentioned above, participate in a flash fiction challenge and thus write more flash pieces, participate in the Odyssey Online class (in January and February), participate in the third year of my online writing group’s February intensive, make my first appearance at Capricon (also in February(!)) where I am scheduled to be on and even moderate several panels(!), attend Windycon as per usual, and hopefully get around to revising some other odds and ends I wrote this past year; not necessarily in that order. (Really hoping February doesn’t kill me.)

I didn’t sell a single story this year, but that’s at least partially due to my poor writing output. I hope, and even expect, that 2018 will be different.

Review: The Orphan Fleet, Volume 1 by Brendan Detzner

I’ve been telling myself that I’d start writing some book reviews, and I decided to to stop procrastinating.

The Orphan Fleet, Volume 1 is a print omnibus of two YA fantasy e-novellas by Brendan Detzner. The first follows the adventures of an airship dockworker named Jiaire, and the second focuses on an aristocratic refugee named Amber.

Disclaimer: I know Brendan Detzner personally, but have endeavored to give an impartial review.

The Orphan Fleet

The first story in the duology is set on the Mountain, a mysteriously warm port in an otherwise frozen mountain range, where airships can stop to thaw and their crews and passengers can take a breather on their tramontane journey. Detzner spends a decent chunk of the story setting up the world, showing us a diverse society of orphans and outcasts who have made their home in the clouds, catering to the needs and wants of travelers bound to other parts of the world. One major feature of this society is the Show, a kind of swashbuckling pro wrestling carnival that has an almost religious draw.

The prose is sparse and quick-paced, reflective of the bright and agile but straightforward and uneducated mind of the protagonist, Jiaire. This style will be familiar to anyone who’s read Detzner’s other work, but may be jarring to those expecting a more typical fantasy with exhaustive layers of description. The tight prose also makes the aforementioned worldbuilding move along at an easy clip.

Overall, The Orphan Fleet was a lot of fun and had some truly great elements, but it didn’t blow me away. The main plot hook came a bit late, but the interesting setting and superbly likable characters kept me reading until the action really picked up; and once it did, it was all the high-skies swashbuckling adventure anyone could ask for. Recommended, not just for itself, but because it serves as a great prequel for the next story. Which brings me to…

The Hidden Lands

Unlike its predecessor, The Hidden Lands takes about a page and a half to introduce itself before jumping into the action. Amber, who played an important if largely off-page role in The Orphan Fleet, is escaping the fallout of that role by seeking asylum in the Hidden Lands. Rather than a fantasy adventure, the story unfolds as a much more quiet thriller, full of doubts, questions, and assassinations, as Amber wonders who she can trust, and just how far she can trust them. The prose is on point: more descriptive than in The Orphan Fleet, but still clean; it may appeal more to fantasy traditionalists.

The Embassy District, where much of the story is set, continues the motif of a society of outcasts. While less fantastical than the Mountain, the Embassy District presents a subtler mystery. The people of the Hidden Lands clearly view themselves as far superior to outsiders, to the point that they’ll barely speak to and won’t even look at Amber or the other asylum-seekers. And yet they maintain the Embassy District at their own expense, as a kind of preserve of foreigners, and engage these inferior foreigners to display the arts of their various cultures at the Salon — this book’s answer to the Show, a less flamboyant but no less captivating spectacle.

I think the story really hits its stride with this second book. I found The Hidden Lands to be a great, compelling read, with dynamic and interesting characters inhabiting a vibrant world. Highly recommended.

You can get the print omnibus here or here, or the individual e-books here and here.

Story Seeds: November Flash Challenge Week 4

It’s time for the 4th and final week of the November Flash Challenge! If you don’t know what this is by now, look back through some of the previous Story Seed posts.

Story Seed #7

“Music for my eyes” by NekroXIII

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): Who is this woman? IS it a woman? Why is she crying? IS she crying? What is that helmet-thing she’s wearing, where is she, what is she doing, feeling, thinking? WHY?

Story Seed #8

“The Farmers” by ISignRob, aka Roberto Gomes

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): What is happening in this scene? What are those robots? ARE they robots? What are they doing, thinking (can they think?) feeling (can they feel?)? What threatens them, what protects them? WHY?

And that’s it for the November Flash Challenge. Good writing!

Story Seeds: November Flash Challenge Week 3

Welcome to week 3 of the November Flash Challenge. A quick recap of the aim: take one or both of the following images as inspiration and write a story. Feel free to adhere as close or deviate as far from the inspiring image(s) as works for you. (Same goes for the length guidelines — this is intended as a flash fiction challenge, but you need not use it as such.)

Story Seed #5

“?:?” by pchelag, aka Krzysztof

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): What is happening in this scene? Who/what is in the foreground? Who/what is in the background? What do the people (beings?) in this scene want, where are they going, where have they been? WHY?

Story Seed #6

“The Queen of the Night” by SnowSkadi

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): What’s with all those candles? Who is this woman? What is she thinking, feeling, doing? What does she want? Where is she? Is anyone with her? Who? WHY?

That’s it for this week. Good writing!

Windycon 43 Postmortem

This past weekend was Windycon, and I had a blast.

I’ve been going to Windycon every year for the past four and always had a great time. This year was the first time I signed up to be on panels, and it definitely made for a different — and even better — experience.

After work on Friday, I did my best to put the recent election out of mind and headed over to the con to catch a few panels (ones I wasn’t on). I sat in on my buddy Brendan Detzner‘s reading and got to hear some excerpts from his new novella, The Hidden Lands, followed non-sequitur by a Q&A session with Eric Flint.

Saturday was my first panel, “We Live in the Future.” I wasn’t scheduled to moderate this one, but got suckered into it anyway. Despite being unprepared for that role, not to mention the fact that this was my first time as a panelist ever, and notwithstanding a slight digression into the pharmaceuticals market, I think it went pretty well. We discussed many emerging technologies, like ectogenesis (what Lois McMaster Bujold calls “uterine replicators”), lab grown meat (what LMB calls “vat meat”), and self-driving cars, as well as post-scarcity economics and the how we may be seeing the leading edge of the jobless future, widespread technological unemployment as human tasks are increasingly automated and performed by machines. We barely got to touch on augmented reality or AI, but I guess fifty minutes just isn’t enough time to fill with all the ways our modern world looks like science-fiction.

Sunday morning I was scheduled to give a reading, and much as I’d expected given the timing, no one showed up. I did get to meet author guest of honor Adam Selzer, who was reading right after me. Using the wonders of technology, Adam live-streamed both our readings to Facebook, so we’d have a bit of an audience. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down the video of me reading just yet. If I do, I might post a link, depending on how cringe-worthy my presentation is.

Sunday afternoon I moderated my second panel, “Where Did That Word Come From?” I’d been expecting to moderate this one, so I was a bit more prepared, and I think it went pretty well. Everyone involved seemed to enjoy the discussion and I think each person in the room, myself included, learned at least one thing we hadn’t known when we walked in. I’m no etymologist by any stretch, but I was personally delighted to inform a gathering of twenty-odd people about the root components of the term cyberpunkcyber, short for cybernetic, from the Ancient Greek kubernetikos, meaning “good at steering” or “good pilot;” and punk, originating in some past century (19th?) as a slang term for a prostitute. So, a cyberpunk is a prostitute who’s a good pilot. Awesome.

Allergies were kicking my but all week and didn’t let up for Windycon, so I was mighty weary and didn’t stick around into the wee hours schmoozing with fellow writers — in fact, I barely got to say more than a brief hello to friends passed in the hallway — but nonetheless I think it was a weekend well spent.

Story Seeds: November Flash Challenge Week 2

Here are the story seeds for week 2 of the November Flash Challenge I launched last week. Take one or both of the following images as inspiration and write a story! It doesn’t matter how closely you adhere or how far you stray from the original image(s), nor should you worry about length — this is intended as a flash challenge, but you’re not obligated to use it as such. You could use it as a poem prompt if you want. The only aim is to get you writing!

Story Seed #3

“Wind Towers” by gregmks, aka Gregory Fromenteau

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): What is this place? WHEN is this place? Who lives here, how do they live, what do they want, what do they fear? WHY?

Seed #4
“Cosmos room” by dnb-nOise, aka Mario Iliev

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): What is this place? What are those planetoids? ARE they planetoids? Who are the people below? ARE they below? ARE they people? What are they doing here, what do they want, what do they love, what do they hate? WHY?

That’s it for today! Good writing!

Story Seeds: November Flash Challenge Week 1

For those of us who don’t have the time to do NaNoWriMo this month but still want to get in on the writing action, I’ve decided to kick-off a November Flash Challenge. This is also the start of a “Story Seeds” blog series I’ve had percolating in my backbrain for awhile now, so I’ll likely continue with something similar after November as well, thanks to the massive amount of narrative-inspiring art that my wife has collected on the Cloud over the years.

For the month of November, at least once a week I’ll be posting a number (typically a pair) of “image prompts” or “story seeds.” I’ll also probably Tweet the pictures out individually from @AlexeiCollier.

Your job, dear writer, is to use one (or both!) of the images I present as the “seed” for a flash story. (Flash fiction is typically 500-1000 words long, but don’t beat yourself up if you go over that length.) Remember, these are only story SEEDS, to plant ideas in your brain, so feel free let your imagination carry you off in whichever direction it sees fit, no matter how far it takes your from the original seed.

I may throw in a text prompt or two on occasion, and will also include some “questions to consider” re: the image prompts, in case you find yourself staring at the purty pictures and coming up blank.

So, here are this week’s story seeds.

Story Seed #1

“Chicago – Drummers” by MumblingIdiot, aka Luke Pearson

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): Who are the people in this image? ARE they people? What do they have, what do they need, what do they want? What are the ghost-like figures? ARE they ghosts? What do THEY want? WHY?

Story Seed #2

“Brain Tower” by Almacan, aka Kazuhiko Nakamura

Questions to Consider (Don’t read these if you don’t want your imagination polluted by my vile words): What is this building? IS it a building? Who lives here, who is arriving here, who is leaving here, who is seeing this scene? Who is the man wearing the building as a hat? IS it a man? IS it a hat? WHY?

That’s it for installment 1! Keep an eye out for a BONUS installment later this week. (Maybe.)

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. In this installment I dig down into some theory and practice (my own personal theory and practice, anyway). Click here for Part 1. Or click here for Part 2.

With Passion: Words to Build Worlds

I’ve always been a lover of words. (That’s common among writers, of course.) I think of words in connotation, in shades of meaning. For me, there are no precise synonyms, only imperfect ones, words that are almost-but-not-quite the same. I love learning interesting new words, and I encourage any and every writer to be an avid word-hoarder.

When I’m writing, I often have a tab or two open to an online thesaurus, searching for the exact right word — the one on the tip of my mind that I can’t quite put a neural finger on. Recently I got up to about twelve thesaurus tabs at once, which is a record for me. What I’m trying to say is, if you want to build a good product, know your materials and tools, and use the right ones for the job. Words are your tools, your building blocks, but words are also living things, and you should choose them, and use them, with care.

You also need to pay attention to where your words fall in the sentence, of course. In the case of the Day of the Twelve Tabs, I discovered that rearranging the sentence was the solution, and when I did the word I’d wanted to use finally fit. Taking the care to choose the right words, in the right places, with the right punctuation, can make all the difference. I know that sounds kind of fundamental, even vague, but bear with me here. Because I think — or rather, I feel, and have virtually no expertise to back this up — that there are three levels or “layers” of prose composition, or of prose revision anyway, and it’s the second two layers where you should focus your passion.

Many experienced authors will advise you to do one prose-focused revision pass on any given piece of writing, usually as a third or fourth draft revision after you’ve addressed any larger-scale problems with the story. This is good advice. I don’t follow it strictly, because I can’t resist the urge to revise as I go. If you can resist that urge, then I recommend saving all your prose polish for last, or close to last, so that you don’t spend time polishing a part of the story that you’ll later have to cut, change, or rearrange.

When you’re doing your prose polish — assuming you do one; if you don’t, because your words come out perfect the first time, what are you doing reading this? Go win a Pulitzer or something — you’ll be working in three distinct “layers” of prose. (Or that’s how I see it anyway.) Different sentences will need attention in different layers. Some sentences may even need attention on two, or even all three layers. The top layer of prose revision isn’t much more than aggressive copyediting: cleaning up sentences and punctuation, fixing grammar, and reinforcing clarity on the most basic level, using the everyday rules of the English language as your tools.

Keep in mind, grammar rules exist to serve clarity, not some arbitrary standard. For instance, no matter what anyone tells you, there is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. “To boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds more natural than “To go boldly…” and loses nothing in clarity. And for those who think it’s never okay to end a sentence with a preposition, well, that’s the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!

The second layer of prose revision is where clarity meets style, where function meets form, and you break out your writer’s toolbox: varying sentence lengths to aid pacing and story rhythm, fixing weak or awkward constructions, cutting back on adverbs (“walked angrily” becomes “stalked” or “stomped”), eliminating filtering (“He saw a ghost appear in front of him” becomes “A ghost appeared in front of him”); strengthening your prose.

The third layer is where you ask yourself: How could I construct this differently, to use words and rhythm to better effect, to make a stronger impression in the reader’s mind? How can I say this better? It may be a matter of changing a single word, or a whole paragraph — or nothing at all. Often, I’ll dig down to this third layer when I see problems in the top two layers, because making improvements here, in addition to being an end in itself, can solve a lot of problems in the layers above. This is the layer that this blog post is all about. This is where your inner poet and inner word-lover go to work.

A few pitfalls to avoid: don’t use bigger or more obscure words just because you can, and don’t overelaborate or purple your prose. Make the words and punctuation serve the story. Like the title of Part 2 said: you still need to think like a storyteller, and not let your poetic diction overwhelm your story’s direction. Words are tools; sure they’re the tools you use to paint a picture, but they’re still tools, just like a brush and palette. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring your upper-layer tools down the mineshaft with you. You don’t want your work in Layer Three to destabilize the layers above, or they’ll collapse and your carefully excavated prose will end up buried under a mountain of passive voice and dangling modifiers.

I’ll use a small example, from my earlier twelve-tab anecdote. I started with “brief and intense,” which is a bit of a stock phrase, and “intense” just wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Twelve tabs later I settled on “vivid.” “Brief and vivid” didn’t scan quite right; “brief but vivid” did, but there was still something missing. How about “brief but vivid in the moonlight”? And that’s what I went with. Maybe that doesn’t strike your fancy, maybe it sounds like total trash to your literary ear, but I like it.

And that wraps up the 3rd and final installment of Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion. I don’t have any specific exercises for this final section, other than grab a piece of your fiction and dig into that third layer of prose. If you like, you can go back and apply the third layer concept and careful word choice to the exercises from Part 1 or Part 2. If you do, let me know how it goes, if those exercises feel different after what you read here in Part 3.

Be well, and keep writing.

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. Click here for Part 1.

Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet

I admit it: I have dabbled in poetry. The Forbidden Art. I took a class on the Romantic Poets (Blake and Keats 4eva!), but I also, through no fault of my own, ended up in an Advanced Poetry class without having even taking the basic level poetry class. Sure, I’d taken the Intro creative writing class, and I’d written some poems there, and some stuff back in high school (thankfully not the typical angst-filled kind, but still pretty bad). I was annoyed, since this was not the class I’d wanted to take (that would have been the short story writing class, which was full), but I wasn’t worried. The first poem I handed in for critique, the class completely ripped to shreds. And rightly so. I’d been thrown ass-first into the deep end of the poetry pool, and this was going to be a trial by fire, where I’d learn not to use clichés and mix my metaphors.

The upshot of studying poetry, and writing poetry, especially with a group of people much more experienced and dedicated to the art form, was that I could FEEL my writing improving at the word-level, the level of individual expressions and arrangements of syllables, the building blocks even more basic than the sentence. (I was like a biologist who discovered, hey, you know, knowing a little bit about this chemistry stuff is pretty useful.) It was good exercise, focusing that level of care and attention on individual words, their interactions and arrangements, on layers of meaning and metaphor and imagery. And unlike in a story writing class, we read our poems aloud before critiquing them. I am a big advocate of reading your work aloud, tasting the syllables, the rhythm of the words and punctuation.

So: read poetry. Read it aloud. Write poetry, even if it’s bad. Read your own poetry, good or bad, ALOUD. In front of people, and by “people,” I mean an audience, not your cat. You don’t have to try to be a poet; Zeus Seuss knows I’M not a poet, and have never claimed to be. (I even wrote a poem for the aforementioned poetry writing class, about how I’m not a poet; cute, but that whole “meta” thing’s been done a bit much.) But if you can capture even some microscopic iota of poetry in your words, some poetic residue to soak your prose in, you’re bound to improve your story writing as well.

If you’re not that familiar with poetry, setting yourself the task to read it, let alone write it, may seem daunting. Poetry is so varied, and so subjective, it’s hard to take (or give) any advice on who or what to read. You might not know where to start. So I’m going to tell you: think about the types of songs you like. What kind of lyrics do you find compelling? Do some brainstorming. Write down some of your favorite songs and write a sentence or two about why you like each one, focusing on the content of the lyrics apart from the music itself. Maybe make notes on some songs you really don’t like, and what it is you can’t stand about them. Is there a pattern to what you like and don’t like? A common complaint about poetry is that it “doesn’t make sense” — the meaning is too abstract. But if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, that might not be a concern for you. (“Ballad of a Thin Man” might follow a poetic logic that evokes the sinister bewilderment of a nightmare, but that doesn’t qualify as “making sense” for most people.)

Once you have a good grasp of what it is you like (and don’t like) in song lyrics — which are really just a kind of poetry — then you’ll be armed with the knowledge of what kind of poetry you’re looking for, and thus equipped to seek it out. The internet is a great resource, but don’t overlook other sources of information. Venture out into meatspace, talk to some real humans. Libraries and librarians are awesome. AWESOME. And don’t forget that most experts, particularly in academia, are eager to share their expertise. If you can get in touch with a professor at a local college, you’ll have a font of information (no cold calls; use your common sense, shoot them a politely worded email if you don’t have a mutual contact who can relay your interest). If you’re asking about their specific area of expertise, even better. Tell someone who’s devoted their life to the study of Irish poetics that you’re really interested in Yeats, and you’ll have an instant friend. (Just make sure you pronounce it “Yates” and NOT “Yeets.”)

Before I close out this section, I’ll give you a few of my favorite poetry exercises we did in the Advanced Poetry class I took.

Found Word Exercise

Take some written medium, like a newspaper, or go to Wikipedia and hit the “random article” button half a dozen times and use those as your medium. Choose words and phrases from the selected medium and splice them together to create a poem.

Dictionary Exercise Random Word Exercise

I was going to talk about an exercise that involved picking words out of a dictionary, but since it’s kind of awkward to explain and a lot of people don’t own hardcopy dictionaries anymore, I came up with something else on my own.

Write something — anything, a poem or prose — or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now pull up a random word generator like text fixer or watchout4snakes. Generate a random word, and replace the first noun of your text with the randomly generated one. Do this for every noun in the text.

The possible variations on this exercise are almost limitless. You could generate 14 random words and use each one in the line of a sonnet, or generate 3 random words, one for each line of a haiku. (Just so you know, haiku written in English don’t really have to follow the seventeen syllable rule, so don’t beat yourself up trying to decide if “tired” is one or two syllables. Bonus points if you write a haiku in Japanese and then translate it into English.)

Watchout4snakes, a random word generation site I discovered while I was writing this, has a “word+” generator that lets you choose what type of word you want (adjective, noun, verb, etc.). So you could generate random words for a poem as you’re writing it, every time you needed a verb, or every time you needed a noun, or just when you didn’t know what to put next. The site also has a phrase generator, and a sentence generator that could be used to generate the first line of a poem, or even the first line of a story. I only had to click the “refresh” button a couple of times on the sentence generator before I got: The oldest weapon pants into a questionable camera. I just might have to use that as a story opener! There’s even a paragraph generator, which you could use to create your “base text” for this exercise or one of the other exercises.

Opposite Word Exercise

This exercise is a little more complicated. Write a poem or a prose passage, or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now choose a pattern of words within the piece of writing: every noun, every verb, every other word, or even every single word. It can be whatever pattern you like, but the more words in the pattern the tougher the exercise and the more wild the results.

Now go through each word in your chosen pattern and try to think of the opposite word, and replace the original word with its opposite. Not every word has an obvious antonym, so you may have to get creative (which is part of the point). Try to be consistent, so that (for example) the opposite of “one” isn’t “two” in one place and “zero” in another, and if “if” is the opposite of “because” then “because” is also the opposite of “if.” This may sound simple, until you have to think of a one-word opposite of “the” or “of” or “be.” (That last one can get complicated; personally, I avoid contractions with this exercise, because while “isn’t” could be the opposite of “is,” there is no equivalent negative contraction of “be.” Try to dig deeper and ask yourself, what action could I set as an opposing or mirror action to being?)

Not only can this exercise produce interesting and unexpected results — one of my favorite poems I wrote for the Advanced Poetry class was just the every-word-opposite of a different (bad) poem I wrote — but it also gets you thinking about words on a very fundamental level.

Thus ends Part 2. Coming up next, Part 3 will be… With Passion: Words to Build Worlds.