Our Blog

These are the latest blog posts from the Coffee House Writers Group


Published on November 11, 2015 under Rick's Blog Articles

Poetrypalooza? A strange name for an even stranger event. But perhaps strange is the wrong term for this very special occasion. Maybe off-beat, exciting, enticing, captivating, or inspiring might be better adjectives. And now I’m getting ahead of myself. For more information about this event, I turned to Kimberly Cobian, the founder and creator of August’s celebration of the arts. I asked Kimberly a few questions regarding Poetrypalooza for purposes of clarification and our edification. Here are her responses:

 What exactly is Poetrypalooza?

 Poetrypalooza is the celebration of poetry in life. It celebrates the diverse voices & styles of poetry of Southern California and the muses that inspire us to create together such as: music, art, performance.  It is a month long tour the ZZyZx WriterZ take every weekend in August to connect & create with all these diverse artistic hubs & neighborhoods. For example- San Gabriel Valley, San Fernando Valley, Greater Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, South Bay/Long Beach, Downey, Claremont, Venice, Santa Monica, & so much more, touring 15 hubs total every August.

What was the inspiration for creating such an event?

I observed that all my writing friends hailed from different neighborhoods, & that each of them wrote with a distinct flavor. I wanted to take a tour with my GuyZ to celebrate & network with those communities to soak in the local ink of each the Art that unifies all of us, poetry.

 Can you give us an idea of what goes on at one of these events?

Each night of Poetrypalooza is filled with a dynamic schedule of events. Each night features performances from one or a group of the local poets, musicians, performers, & a group featurette by the ZZyZx WriterZ representative of that particular neighborhood. The evening also boasts a poetry writing workshop conducted by a poet/educator for all to create & share. Each night also encourages community expression through various open Mic opportunities. A local artist or small group show is also on the agenda.

What are some of the features you have had on the tour?

We have featured poets from almost every Southern California artistic hub from the beaches to the valleys, from the cities to the suburbs. Every stop has a very talented group of poets who have been locally as well as nationally renowned. Luis J. Rodriguez, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, Matt Sedillo, Two time National Grand Slam Poet Champion, Don Kingfisher Campbell, Santa Catalina Library Saturday Afternoon Poetry Workshop series & SGV POETRY Quarterly, Jessica Wilson Cardenas, Founder of the LA Poets Society, Writers Row, Writer Wednesday, Venice Soapbox Poets, Teka Lark, Black Grrl Press,…to name a few.

What goes on during the poetry workshops?

We invite a local poet to conduct a poetry writing workshop each night.

Poetry Writing workshops are also given to encourage spontaneous creations & community building between the local features, ZZyZx WriterZ & guests. It is a wonderful way to link everyone at the event. It is my favorite part of the evening, because people who have never written a poem in their lives or had felt discouraged or blocked to write something new open up to others there & share what they have just created. In this practice or ritual we create together, we are all poets, we are all equal.

What do you see as the future of Poetrypalooza?

This year the ZZyZx WriterZ & all of the Southern California poetry world celebrated its lustrum year. Poetrypalooza has toured for five years. ZZyZx and I feel it has grown to a capacity that all neighborhoods have adopted a version of this event in their hubs & venues. The event has grown organically connecting city to city, poet to poet, style to style, it does not have an end in sight, ever. However, as Event Director, I will step down next year & steer my writing group’s focus to another creative endeavor. We have left a legacy of community collaboration & I am confident it will live on among the communities we visited.

 Who are some of the writing groups who have helped with Poetrypalooza?

The ZZyZx WriterZ have collaborated with dozens of writing groups throughout the years, namely the Coffee House Writers Group, Sunday Jump, Nuvein Foundation for Literature & the Arts, Los Angeles Poets Society, Street Poets, The Art Movement of El Monte, Beyond Baroque, Downey Arts Coalition/The Green Salon, Whittier Poetry Group, Moonday Poets, Village Poets of Sunland-Tujunga, Tia Chuchas Cultural Center in Sylmar, NoHo Poets, Long Beach Cadence Collective.

Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

The ZZyZx WriterZ & I want to express our humblest gratitude to everyone who has collaborated with us on this five year long journey. We have inspired others & each other through poetry. We have made lasting friendships through poetry. We have created new forms of expression through poetry. Thank you. ¡Viva Poetrypalooza!

So how did the Coffee House Writers Group first get involved in Poetrypalooza? CHWG and ZZyZx WriterZ began their collaboration in Covina three years ago offering poetry, a poetry workshop and photography, then branched out to Claremont and Pomona in the following years. This year, the CHWG and Poetrypalooza again joined forces at the Buddhamouse in Claremont where Andrew Turner and Rick Stepp-Bolling were the featured poets, Andrew Turner gave a poetry workshop, and music by The Dead Letter Office and poetry by ZZyZx WriterZ entertained the audience.

Poetrypalooza and similar cultural events remind us that the arts are not dead in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, poetry, art and music are very much alive and kicking in August. Thanks to Kimberly Cobian and poets like her, the spirit of Poetrypalooza will live on and flourish in Southern California.

POV or How I Stopped Worrying About Myself and Started Using an Effective Persona

Published on November 11, 2015 under Rick's Blog Articles

How often do beginning and even experienced writers get red penciled for a POV change in the middle of something they are writing? Okay, I can raise my hand along with the rest of you. POV or point of view lapses are not uncommon. Usually, those mistakes are minor, say changing from one character’s perspective to another on the same page when you are writing in third person limited (I’ll explain that later). The more grievous error would be switching from first person to third person, or utilizing second person when you meant to use third person objective. So does any of this make sense? Let’s take a deep breath and review some of the basics of creating an effective persona for your story.

Persona, as I am defining it here, is your storyteller. In other words, who tells your story to your reader, or, as that persona is more commonly called, your narrator. Here’s something to remember: the author and the narrator are not the same. The author distances himself from the story by creating the persona of a narrator. Think about this a moment because it’s an important concept. You, the author, create someone to tell your story. That someone is not you, the author (unless, perhaps, you’re writing an autobiography, and even then, the narrator is distanced from the character of the autobiography by time). Your choice of a narrator, or persona, will make a dramatic influence upon how you tell your story. If you’re following this so far, then you’re way ahead of the game, and way ahead of where I was when I first started writing. Next, let’s look at some of the more commonly used narrators or points of view along with some of their strengths and weaknesses.

First Person or the “I” Point of View

Probably the most popular and most commonly used persona for writers is the one that intimately links the narrator and the main character of the story. This is called first person. One important point to take into consideration if you’ve decided to tell your story in first person is verb tense. Are you going to tell your story in present or past tense? What difference does it make, you might ask. Well, if you’re using past tense, then you are re-creating the story through the character’s eyes and experiences. In other words, the story has already happened, and the “I” narrator is simply retelling it. That means the narrator and the main character (“I” of the story) are different. How so? The narrator has already experienced the series of events that has occurred, so he/she has prior knowledge. It means that persona can influence how the story is to be retold. This can make for some fascinating stories, especially if the narrator is not a reliable one (untrustworthy because the narrator may be a liar, perhaps naïve, or even insane). An example of this kind of story telling occurs in Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Tell-Tale Heart. In the story, the narrator explains to the reader why he chose to kill a man and dismember him. If you take the events literally, then you see the motivations of a killer being revealed. However, if you interpret the story as one being told by a madman, then perhaps there was no beating heart underneath the floorboard and this character should be locked up in an asylum. An unreliable narrator can add spice to your story because the reader is never quite sure what to believe. However, if the story is told in present tense, then the action unfolds before the reader’s eyes; it is happening right now. Using present tense means there is a closer connection between the narrator and the “I” persona of the story. This doesn’t preclude the idea that the narrator is insane or unreliable. It just means the reader is viewing the action of the story as it is taking place.

Why is the first person point of view so popular? There are a number of reasons for this, including the most obvious: it’s easier to write using first person. The author creates a character that he/she can identify with closely and tells the story from that perspective. The reader understands the emotions, motivations, idiosyncrasies of that character because the “I” tells us those things. It brings the reader into a closer, more intimate, relationship with the character. This emotional bond between reader and character is what often sells stories. As humans, our brains connect more with emotion than with logic, so it is only natural for us to want to be connected emotionally with the character telling the story.

So what’s the problem with first person? If readers like it so much, why aren’t all stories told this way? Good question. What if you want a character that is more mysterious, more difficult to understand? Do you want to expose everything about the character to the reader? Maybe some stories are more interesting if there is mystery about the main character (think, The Great Gatsby). Here’s another problem with first person: the narrator must always be where the action is. There is no cutting away to another scene happening somewhere else or to another character unless that character is right there with the “I.” See the problem? The narrator has to continually be where the critical action occurs. This can limit the scope of the story. And what about what other characters are thinking? Nope. The narrator can guess what those other characters are thinking, but can’t know, and neither can the reader. In addition, descriptions of the “I” character have to come in sneaky ways (many of which are clichés): mirrors, reflections in the water, other characters describing that person through dialogue, well, you get the idea.

Telling Versus Summary: or What the Brain Likes

Published on October 10, 2015 under Our Blog

Perhaps one of the first traps beginning writers fall into is the desire to “tell” the story instead of allowing the story to evolve through its scenes. It was one of the mistakes I made when I first started writing stories, and I’m sure it will be a mistake future novice writers will make as well. It is only natural for writers to want to explain everything as quickly as possible because that’s how we get the information across to our audiences.

It is the same mistake college professors make in trying to communicate their course content to their students. They look at their watches and determine they have only 90 minutes to explain the theory of photosynthesis. What to do? They lecture. Lecturing is a highly condensed method of passing along information as quickly as possible, but is it the most effective? Brain research concludes it is not. Students who do not participate in the learning process soon become bored and turn to doodling or texting. Deeper learning comes from students discovering the information for themselves. Does this mean professors shouldn’t lecture? No. But just lecturing builds few dendrites in the brain(Dendrite building is what we call learning). Our brains beg for us to be involved in the process of information discovery.
The same can be said for writing. Technical writers and writers of textbooks are basically “tellers.” Fiction writers must know how to have their audiences involved in the discovery process if they hope to keep their audiences awake. Involvement with characters is key to keeping the reader’s attention. Let’s take a look at two different approaches to the same event. Here, I’m borrowing an example from one of my short stories, <em>The Sorcerer.</em>

Tracy saw the seriousness in Mot’s face. He was never very good at hiding his emotions and most of the time it got him into trouble. She, on the other hand, had learned to love him for who he was, even if he didn’t know who that was yet. It was a shame he was so involved with his own self-pity that he didn’t have time to recognize how much she loved him and needed him in her life. (Rick Stepp-Bolling, 2014),

As you probably have guessed, this summarization or telling of the events condenses the action and time of the story. It’s also not very involving either from the character’s or reader’s perspective. Now let’s look at the same information but this time in scene or showing format.

There was a knock on the door. “Come in, Tracy,” Mot said.
The heavy door creaked open and Tracy stuck her head in.
“You sure it’s all right?”
“I should never have shut it.”
She saw the serious face he had drawn and said lightly, “What’s a magician without a few secrets up his sleeve?”
Mot’s mood did not lighten. “That’s not what I meant. I should never have shut you out.”
“Ah, what’s a sorcerer without an apprentice?”
“Now stop it.” The red came surging into his face. “This is important.”
“Self pity is never very important,” she said quietly.
His eyes caught her direct gaze, but he did not look away. The anger left him. “No, it isn’t much.” He smiled a shy, toothless smile. “But you are.”
She heaved open the door and came to him.
“Look out!” he yelled, but the warning came too late, and Tracy stumbled over the almost invisible pile of books. Deftly, Mot pulled her to the chair, but he found her laughing hysterically.
“Why is it I never seem to keep my balance around you?” she said between gasps. “Is this what life with you is going to be like?”
Her laughter left, melting into the room, spreading a warm, rich glow along the walls. (Rick Stepp-Bolling, 2014)

Notice some of the differences between the two examples? The most obvious difference is the use of dialogue. Dialogue creates action. It involves interaction between characters. It also keeps the reader involved in the story. But the use of <em>showing</em> also includes description, description that keeps the action moving and supports the dialogue. Can a scene be all dialogue or all description? Of course. But all of one thing or all of another is not very engaging to the brain and the brain is what you want your audience to activate when they are reading your story. A second difference between the two examples is the length. <em>Showing</em> takes more space, more writing. It shows the reader the events of the story as they are unfolding and, as a result, increases suspense.
show-versus-tellTo summarize, in fiction writing, it is necessary for the author to be both a <em>teller</em> and a <em>shower</em>. Telling, or <em>summary</em>, allows the author to explain or summarize an event or series of events. Usually, this is done in past tense and condenses time and slows down the movement of the story. Components of telling include description and narration. Showing, or scene, is an event in progress. The reader doesn’t know what will happen next, so showing increases suspense and makes the story more intense. Components of a scene include dialogue and description. Telling will distance the reader from the story and can be used to bring out the philosophy of the story or as a transition between scenes. Showing increases emotion and reduces aesthetic distance.

Okay, so having given you this information in basically a <em>telling</em> format, can you guess what blogs are good for? If this had been a presentation, you would now be actively involved in the writing process so you could experience for yourself the differences between the two elements of <em>telling</em> versus showing in writing. But in the conservation of time . . .

The First Meeting

Published on October 10, 2015 under Our Blog

Christine Marie Bryant is the founder of this organization. Without her vision, it would not exist. She started it through Meetup.com, creating it on December 31, 2009. I happen to have the dubious distinction of being the first member to join that meetup group. I wanted to start off 2010 by making a resolution to start writing again. On January 4, 2010, Christine posted three Meetup.com messages to me regarding the first meeting.

Christine started this group with the same concept we use today. In her first ever message to me, she laid out the concept (see image). She followed that up with another message which read: “As far as Agenda, I’m thinking .. 1) Introductions 2) a member reads 3) group gives feedback 4) another member reads 5) group gives feedback ~ so on and so forth”. Her vision was realized from the first meeting, and this format has proven successful. Our membership increased every year, expanding into other states and to other groups here in California. As the group expanded beyond the borders of the San Gabriel Valley, I had occasion to think back to the first CHWG meeting I attended, back in 2010.

When I walked into the small coffee shop in San Dimas, CA, I was welcomed by Christine personally, and by the rest of the group seated around the table. I had at that time, no formal critique experience, and I brought nothing to read. I just wanted to put myself into a situation where I was exposed to and could talk with other writers. What I experienced was so much more. I was impressed by the style of writing and the content of the stories that were shared that day. I did not read anything that meeting, but I did give my honest feedback to each writer.

Since that day, I have had many life experiences that prevented my attendance in every meeting. With the recent expansion of CHWG into Long Beach, I have the opportunity to join the group meeting every Wednesday night. Working in the LA/LB harbor, my two hour commute precluded any opportunity to make other meeting times. So I am very pleased to be back among gifted writers. And I count myself fortunate. I’ve lost count of how many fantastic people I had the pleasure to meet over the past five years through CHWG. I have enjoyed meeting them, and getting to know them better through their writing and critiques. I highly encourage anyone reading this to come join us for at least one meeting. You’ll be hooked. I promise.