Poetry Puzzle

Before I start, I want you to know that I’m going to be part of a read-aloud this Saturday, May 17th, sometime between 11:00 am and noon at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Ave in Bethel, Connecticut. I’ll be there for a nationwide event for independent bookstores, not to promote my books, so I’ll be reading from someone else’s book, although I’m not sure whose yet. If the audience is toddlers it will be a picture book–otherwise, something for older readers. If you can make it, if you’re anywhere nearby, I’d love to see you. I believe there will be time to chat.

Writeforfun has asked if I’m still taking poetry classes and I promised poetry prompts this week. My classes thus far haven’t yielded prompts or I would have shared. These two came along because I had an opportunity to submit a poem to an anthology in honor of the late poet Gwendolyn Brooks (high school level and above). At first I misunderstood what I was supposed to do and did it wrong. Then I did it right. Both ways, wrong and right, yield interesting prompts. Wrong way first:

To show how it’s done, let’s take this sonnet by Shakespeare, which I picked because it’s in the public domain, so I can copy it here:

Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Since it comes from Elizabethan England, some of the language is outdated, so, although Shakespeare may be spinning in his grave, I’m adding a step and doing an update, a step you won’t need if you use a modern poem:

Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare you to a summer’s day?
You are more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease has all too short a date;
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;
But your eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair you owe;
Nor shall death brag you wander in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time you grow:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to you.

Alas, my revision ruins the final rhyme. If you decide to use this sonnet for your own poem and you want to change eyes can see to eyes can view, the rhyme returns but the wording isn’t as strong. You decide, or find another word to rhyme with you. Or you can stick with the old-time wording throughout the poem.

Since this is a sonnet, it has fourteen lines, so this example poem will too, and each line will end with the last word in each of the sonnet’s lines. I’ll just write three lines:

What, I wonder, will be the flavor of this day
that just began? Monday stormy, Tuesday temperate?
I want to improve on yesterday, but, come what may,
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah date
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah shines
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah dimmed
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah declines
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah untrimmed
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah fade
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah owe
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah shade
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah grow
   blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah see
   blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah you

Got it?

Notice that I turned the month of May into the word may, and you’re free to do the same with this sonnet or the equivalent in the poem you pick to honor. In this example, if I were to change see to sea when I got there, that would be fine too, in my opinion. Notice also that I dropped Shakespeare’s punctuation. You don’t have to stick with the punctuation in the original. And I didn’t capitalize the first letter in each line. You decide if you want to or not. Shakespeare’s sonnet is metrical: iambic pentameter. There’s no need to duplicate the meter, if there is meter, in the poem you pick.

So that was the prompt based on the wrong way. Here’s the right way:

Take a line or two or three in the poem you pick and make each word end the lines, consecutively, creating a poem that’s from six to twenty-six lines long.

Let’s take Shakespeare again, and suppose I pick the line Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May. Nine words in Shakespeare’s line; nine lines in the new poem. If I do the next line as well, which also happens to have nine words, I’ll have an eighteen-line poem. Here could be the beginning:

The strangest wedding I ever attended was a rough
affair–outdoors, on a beach, where the winds
of March howled. I never heard the bride’s “I do.”
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah shake
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah the
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah darling
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah buds
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah of
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah may/May

If you read down the last word of each line, you’ll discover Shakespeare’s line. See?

Notice that we lose Shakespeare’s rhymes entirely. I think this prompt is harder, because we have to end lines with words like the and of, which aren’t often end words, although some poets use them.

Your lines can be any length, but the instructions I got were to make them more or less consistent, all long or all short.

These two prompts force us to use words that aren’t the ones we usually pick, and when we leave familiar territory, in prose as well as in poetry, interesting things happen.

What I love about a challenge like this and about form poetry (sonnets, haiku, acrostics, etc.) is that they’re puzzles. We try them this way, then that way, then a tenth way, and finally they fit together–thrilling!

One more thing: If you choose a modern poem as the basis of your poems, be sure to write under the title of your poem, After Such-and-Such Poem by Such-and-Such poet. My example would read, After Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare. Then no one will think you’re stealing. Instead, it will be obvious that you’re honoring the poet and his or her creation.

If you try these prompts, please let us all know how they went for you. Post your poems if you like.

Back to fiction on the next post.

  1. I enjoy playing with poetry, so I'm trying my hand at the prompt (the 'right' one). It was harder than I thought, and I'm not sure if it makes sense. But here it is anyway. 🙂

    After Poem IX by Emily Dickinson:

    In the woods I looked for the
    Mighty maple's heart.
    To keep it well is all he asks;
    I say 'tis my pleasure.
    Of pancake spreads, his heart is first.

  2. You know, I was thinking it would be cool to use the (right way) prompt in a mystery story with the line going down as a clue and see if the readers catch it! 🙂

  3. That second prompt was really fun! Here's my attempt. I'll post the title in a reply so you don't see it immediately; it should be pretty obvious what it's from.

    Adventure never need be far.
    Whether it lies awaiting over
    The distant sea, or deep in the
    Faerie forest of shadows misty,
    Or dwarven mines beneath the mountains,
    Adventure never shall grow cold.

    Danger’s as far as the distance to
    The nearest book, the glad dungeon,
    Burying careless travelers deep,
    Holding in its welcome chains and
    Glistening like a gem-filled cavern
    Until the day has long grown old.

  4. Awesome!

    I had a question maybe some people could help me with…
    So I've been revising my book for a while, but now I've decided to make a major change: I've decided to make one of my male secondary characters, Leo, into a female character, Jemma. I feel that this decision adds some tension and takes away from the cliche feel of a couple of things about his character. I've gone through the book and replaced 'he' with 'she' and 'Leo' with 'Jemma', but I know (and I knew from the start) that that's not all it takes to give Jemma some femininity. After I changed her gender, (and in turn replaced all references to male things with female ones), her character still feels masculine and has almost fallen apart a little. I read your post on Gender Perspective, but I still don't know exactly what to do to make sure that she is believable and feminine, as well as the good character that Leo was. I need to change certain things to make them female–I don't know what those things are–but I don't want to fundamentally alter the character. So what do I do to make Leo into Jemma, fully? It's not an issue of knowing how females think (I'm a boy, but I'm pretty good at that), but rather an issue of just needing to know how alter the character. Any thoughts? I hope I made some sense.

    • Pepper your story with little "girly" details. Does Jemma wear a skirt? When she sits down, she'll have to adjust it around her legs if it's short. Jewelry? I sometimes remove my earrings when I'm on the phone so they don't scratch it. When I'm wearing a necklace, I can feel it bounce on my chest as I run. If she has long hair and looks up from, say, a table, she'll have to brush or toss it aside to look at people.

    • Girls are naturally more trusting than boys (with a few acceptations), we also tend to be more sentimental and use our feelings to guide us more than our heads. Also, we are a bit more complex. Where as a guy will use three to five words to answer a question, a girl will use ten to twelve. And girls will talk about their feelings more than guys do. And they LOVE to talk about themselves (guys do too, don't get me wrong, but girls do it more). We may (or may not, depending) be more sneaky, and when (if) we get into physical fights, we don't just kick and punch, we scratch and bite (I heard a boy say that that was unsportsmanlike and unfair but hey, we're smaller, we use what we've got. and, seriously, unsportsMANlike? Come on. Be logical.). Plus, I don't know what kind of character Jemma is, but for one thing, making her wear skirts and dresses (or at least, clothing with lace, embroidery, beads, braid, or other girlish adornments or fabrics such as cotton, silk and satin of floral prints or pastel colors) definitely adds a feminine touch, as well as long hair and possibly earrings and other jewelry items (And like accessories: purses, chatelaines, hair clips, hairpins, glass and floral knickknacks. Keys are [or were] associated with women for a long time, as the mistress of the house had the keys to EVERYTHING, pantry, all the chests, all the doors, all the windows, all the closets etc.). Just stuff like that. One more thing, girls compliment each other on what they are wearing. It's just a girl thing. Guys don't do it as much, and tend to be joking when they do. I should know all this, I'm basically an expert. I'm not only a girl, but I have eight aunts and more than twenty girl cousins. I've observed these things over the years. Good luck.

    • Thanks! Your response was concentrated mostly on external appearance and mannerisms, which is great. That's the sort-of thing I need to know. But here's another question that maybe you can help with (or anyone else who reads this post)…
      I'll give you a little more detail on Leo, the one I'm trying to make into Jemma. He is tense and harsh, somewhat superior, smart, and very logistical. He is also a born leader, and a shapeshifter. He's lonely and was raised by Dwarves, and protected the main character for his whole life.

      So basically, I want to know if any of those traits sound masculine, or if there are any ways I can feminize them…hope I made sense again. 🙂

    • They sound pretty unisex to me, but the ways these emotions would be expressed in a girl would be different than in a guy. Girls, as mentioned by Elisa, are more complex. So sarcasm would be a great way to get the harshness across. Also, it sounds like Jemma is a bit of a show off, and that she's sneaky about it. There will be no muscle flexing for this gal, more of a *sigh, well if the rest of you just aren't that talented* attitude. Since Jemma has protected this character for a long long while, she will probably be really condescending to that person. And she will notice guys, depending on her age, and since she was raised by dwarves her human flirting skills will be awkward at best, which is a great way to add some humor to the book and make her character more likeable.

    • In most girls these would be decidedly masculine, but, Jemma has been raised by dwarves. This gives many possibilities, and you won't need to change too much. For the harshness of her character, be careful with that. It is generally more acceptable for a man to be harsh. All the women that I know who are harsh are also bitter and extremely hard to be around (so are the guys, but you sort of expect roughness from a man). Now because she is raised by dwarves, she doesn't have to be slim willowy and very girlish in appearance. I would probably expect her to be short, possibly, and stocky. Strong and capable, a bit surly maybe, with long braided hair. Silent, and maybe, instead of using words, she grunts or makes low guttural noises in her throat or snorts. Deep voiced maybe. This is how I would picture her (she is, after all, raised by dwarves, who are very frugal with words and strong and stocky, so she would be too, right?). She could wear a skirt and also probably a chatelaine. Jewelry as well, as dwarves are miners and metal workers and could provide her with pretty ornaments. Her superiority could come from the fact that she's stronger and tougher than most humans. Smart makes sense too, as does logical. Dwaves strike me as logical beings, rather conservative (moneywise and such, though they would perhaps wear extravagant jewelry) in my mind, also a bit solitary from beings aside from themselves. Be careful with making her too prickly and gruff though, because you don't want her to be too unlikable (or, if you do, have at it). One more thing, I think she might be fascinated with girly things. My reasoning is this: She has been raised by dwarves (I know that dwarves are primarily male, in fact, most myths portray them as a completely male race that makes new members from earth and stone) because, being raised by dwarves, she has no access to feminine things, soft fabrics, embroidery, impractical but beautiful lady's clothes, delicate china tea sets. She might enjoy embroidery, or flower arranging, or daintier ladylike activities simply because she's never been able to have or do any of that sort of thing before. Just a thought.

    • Thanks, that helps a bunch! Your idea of having her be a little gruff and dwarf-ish actually gave me the thought to have her decidedly feminine from the start–and her beauty only adds to that. The problem I'm trying to solve now is how to make her–how should I put this–peaceful, I suppose (later in the book she finds out that she is a Variel, which a species a little like an Elf), but yet also hostile and dangerous. I think that maybe to achieve this, she should simply be a moody character (when I first wrote the book, she actually brought most of the humor), and have both. Thoughts?

    • A character in the INHERITANCE cycle, Arya, I think sounds a little bit like what you're describing.
      She's an elf, master swordsman, highly dangerous and hostile to most people. But she has an elf's view of the world, and a natural feeling of peace.
      Through all of this she manages to be quite feminine, although she tries to play down that aspect of her character.

      By the way this is just my analysis of her character from my own impressions.

    • Well, they say dancers make the best fencers. Fancy footwork is something one needs to know if one is going to be a good swordsman (ahem, woman). Dancing is often looked upon as feminine, and it has the added benefit of making her graceful and potentially a good fencer, so, there's that. Also, women can be good at archery, but she has to learn it early on so that her muscles are well developed. Everyone, man or woman has to be strong to be good with the bow. Also, it shouldn't be a long bow, a recurve bow or a crossbow would be better for Jemma, especially if she is a young woman, which I'm guessing is the case, because the recurve doesn't require as much strength to draw, and a crossbow is deadly even in the hands of an inexperienced archer (a fact which led to its being outlawed for a time in the middle ages, as an untrained crossbowman could take out a knight who had trained all his life, and that was unfair. At least, that was their reasoning. It's a war, come on people!) She would have to have been practicing since early childhood if she is to use a bow, though I wouldn't know who taught her, since dwarves aren't known for being archers. Martial arts are good, especially if she learns a certain kind. I know a man who's job is teaching women and children a certain type of martial arts that is used specifically to teach smaller/weaker people to disarm/conquer a bigger/stronger person. All three of those things would probably be good for making Jemma more intimidating.

    • Just thought of something: If Jemma winds up using a crossbow, she'd have to be pretty strong to load it. It takes a lot of muscle. Just saying. 🙂 A recurve would probably work well, though!

  5. Hi, I need some help. I am having trouble finding good names for a couple of my characters (again!). I need some Scottish Gaelic names or Old English names (and, if possible, their meanings), both male and female. They need to be true Scotch or Old English names, not just derivatives. If any of you could look some up and tell me which ones you like the best, or think are funny, or should go to a character with certain characteristics, that would help a lot (because my siblings didn't care for hardly any of them, except for Cille and Selethryth, both girls names and both old English. Not much help there.). I like getting varied opinions, so the more the merrier. Thanks.

  6. I have been having a struggle with my writing recently, and if any of you could help me, that would be wonderful. I have been working on the same novel for a really long time–three years. On the first attempt, I wrote about 100 pages, but there were some major plot errors so I started over. After that, I haven't been able to get it right. I love the idea so I don't want to drop it, but I also feel like I'm stuck. So I was wondering, for anyone who has ever experienced this before, do you have any tips for putting life into an old idea? The problem is that this is my first novel, so I don't have the experience to know if this is a normal problem or if this is a warning sign that the idea is just not going to work, or if it is one that requires more experience. Are there any telltale signs that an idea is going to be difficult–or impossible–to convey with words? Any help would be much appreciated 🙂

    • It is a fairytale retelling, of the story of Rapunzel. My problem is with my main character. I like all the other characters, but I am having difficulty empathizing–and even liking–a character who has to be alone for such a long period of time.

    • Would it make a difference if the story were about her trying to get out of the tower? (I did that once.) What about her being stuck in the tower makes you dislike her?

    • Thanks for the advice! It is encouraging to know that it's okay for the first novel to take awhile.
      carpelibris-I think I might try that 🙂 The difficulty I've found with having her be stuck in the tower is that she very easily becomes the "damsel in distress" which is not what I want. Her solitude also means that much of the story during her time in the tower consists of just her thoughts.

    • If she does have to stay in the tower forever, are there things that she can do in the tower besides just thinking? Could she love to read books (they don't even have to be fiction – perhaps she only has access to nonfiction books, so she ends up really, really intelligent), or write them? Or if she has no access to books or paper, could she love making up plays? Or writing/playing music? Or any other thing you can think of? I guess my question is, could you have her do something while in her tower so that she isn't just a damsel in distress? I mean, she's making a life for herself the best that she can in spite of the fact that she never gets to leave her tower. Perhaps sometimes she gets depressed and thinks about her situation, but a lot of the time she's courageous and determined to remain optimistic and even enjoy herself, so she concentrates on doing whatever it is that she loves.

      I don't know if that all made any sense, but those are just my thoughts. Good luck with your story!

  7. I think and idea that you get interested/excited about is worth pursuing. And it IS normal tio get stuck, especially on your first novel.

    If it helps, I took 14 years to write my first novel. 🙂

    • Yep, I got stuck numerous times in my first novel. It's something I've been working on (on and off, but mostly on) for the last six years. So I hear ya!
      As for your MC… If the problem is in her personality, you might consider reworking it. Make her more lovable, sympathetic, interesting, etc. But maybe it's just the extended times of solitariness that's grating on you. In real life, we'd get bored with just ourselves for company for days on end (no matter how introverted we might be!). If that's the case, you could try breaking up her "all-by-myself-in-a-tower" times with her own daydreams or flashbacks, or even scenes from other characters' POVs. Hope this helps! 🙂

  8. My dearest Mme Levine,

    This is going to be long, I apologize, but it's been long coming. My name is Kitty Bennett. We met once at the Washington, DC book festival – you signed my copy of Writing Magic and I told you you were so brave for sitting out there in the sweltering heat. I don't mind if you don't remember, but I thought I'd mention it.

    I've been a fan of your work for as long as I can remember. It started with Ella Enchanted, and Writing Magic became my bible. Nothing inspired me to write more than that book did. And here I am today – a few days ago I independently published my novel, Persephone, through Amazon. I've heard horror stories about the publishing process, and after some consideration I decided to put myself out there and be my own advocate.So far I've sold 13 copies and the only review is from a friend, but it feels like such a blessing already. And so, as one of my first steps, I've decided to ask you, pretty please, to read my novel and tell me what you think. It would mean so much to me I don't think you could even imagine. I'll leave the url and my e-mail address, and please take your time getting back to me, and please don't feel obligated. Thank you so very much!


    email: kitty.ben@outlook.com

    • Kitty Bennett – first of all, congrats on getting there! I've not done it yet myself, but someday I'm going to.
      Then I want to say I thought I'd check out your book and read the preview and see if it was worth the buy – and I really think it looks good! Unlike a lot of people who go out and self-publish, your book looks like its been well-edited not only for plot errors but also for grammar and spelling, etc. That really makes it enjoyable to read – and I like the story. Greek gods are so fun! I am now thinking about buying a Kindle so I can start reading not only your book but other good books I've found for Kindle in the past few months.
      Good luck with your writing! 🙂

    • Wow. Thank you so much!!! I do hope it lives up to your expectations 🙂
      Just so you know, you don't need a Kindle to buy the book. You can download the free reading app from Amazon onto your smartphone or computer and then buy the book and read it through the app. Much cheaper and easier. Hope that helps 🙂

    • It does help – I'm planning on getting the app, getting some books, and then deciding from there if I want a Kindle. But I do really like what I've seen of your story. You've done a great job with the 6 chapters I read! 🙂

  9. Gail-
    The other day I found Ella Enchanted in the children's section of my library. Then I went to the YA section and found Ever. I read Ella Enchanted in third grade, if memory serves, and I saw a seventeen year old friend reading it just this week. Do you think of it as YA or MG?

  10. I think it's one of those books that's not strictly one age group of the other. On one hand, if you put it with young adults books, some younger kids might not find it. But if you put it with kids books, older readers won't check there for good books, and they might not find it.

    The solution that pops to my mind is: buy 2 copies! 😉 =D Ella Enchanted is really worth it, it's my favorite of Gail's books hands down.

  11. Hey Gail, I was just wondering if (besides your book Writing Magic which I own and love) if you knew of any good books for write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers. I seam to have trouble finding them, though I'm sure they're out there.

  12. Sorry about that last comment – I spotted some typos. Why do I always notice those AFTER I publish a comment?

    I really need help right now. I'm trying to write the part of my book that is about a twelve or thirteen-year old girl who is the protagonist of half of my book. Her half of the book is mostly about her experiences at school. Because of some certain circumstances, she's shy and extremely unpopular (I know it seems cliche, but it's the only way things will work). She'll probably have one or two friends, but she gets picked on by most of the kids at school. That's what I can't figure out. I've always been homeschooled, so I'm having a hard time making anything about the whole school setting seem natural or realistic. I can't figure out the scenes in which she interacts with other students and especially the ones in which she gets picked on. They don't sound natural (actually, they sound really silly) Does anyone have any advice? Also, can anyone recommend any books that might help?

    Thanks for any help!

  13. Hi, young aspiring author here, I just I have a question. My book seems to be coming along a little slow, I've been working on it for about two years now and have about 60 pages unedited and 10 edited, so obviously if it's going to be a novel I will need to add a lot as I edit, does that mean my book will unavoidably take 5+ years? is there any way to speed it up without losing quality?

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