Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the co-creator of and an editor at The Poetics Project. She's also a freelance editor and writer who helps content creators polish their words before they go out into the world. She has a M.S. in writing and book publishing from Portland State University. Her favorite books are always changing. Right now, her top three are Zazen, The Poisonwood Bible, and Prep. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells and learn more about her editorial services at

Damn, Poetry’s Hard

In Adam Frank’s recent article on NPR, the writer compares poetry to physics. He begins his discussion with T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, which is 434 lines. In other words, it’s long. For some readers, that length provides something to hold onto a bit longer. An author might claim that more space allows for them to create greater meaning. But for some readers, longer poems can be daunting.

However, length isn’t the only thing that makes certain poems more difficult for some than others. Why someone may not “get” a poem can be for many reasons. In Frank’s article, the writer interviews John Beer, poet and professor at Portland State University. Beer had this to say about the subject:

There are, it seems, as many ways for a poem to be difficult as there are for it to be a poem at all. For most people, a lot of poetry written before the twentieth century will be a challenge: the vocabulary will often be unfamiliar, the syntax may be more complicated than we are accustomed to reading, and allusions, especially to classical learning, abound.


The “Harry Potter” Fan Theory That Changed Nothing

Where there are fandoms, there are fan theories. The Harry Potter world has a ton of them. The latest to gain attention is that the Dursleys were not just mean to Harry because they were bad people, but because they were under the affect of a Horcrux.

Specifically, they were under the affect of Harry, who is himself a Horcrux. Remember?

The theory started on Tumblr—because where else—where Graphic Nerdity wrote that the Dursleys were ordinary, perfectly respectable people before Harry was dropped off on their doorstep. She continues, “For the next decade it proceeded to warp their minds…The fact that they survived such prolonged horcrux exposure without delving into insanity or abandoning a helpless child only solidifies their place among the pantheon of noble and virtuous heroes in the Harry Potter universe.”

And, I suppose, on the surface the theory makes sense. Both Ron and Ginny become possessed when exposed to a Horcrux for a long period of time—Ron with the Slytherin locket and Ginny with Tom Riddle’s diary. The wizarding world had long since been surprised by the Dursley’s complete lack of familial love for Harry.

All this to say, yes, I felt it too. Reading the books, especially as a child myself, I wanted to understand the sort of people who’d keep a little boy in a closet under the stairs.

But while the Harry Potter universe does have a “pantheon of noble and virtuous heroes,” I don’t think the Dursleys are among them. Nor were they meant to be. Sometimes bad people just have to exist.

The universe Rowling created also has many evils, and while most of those belong to the magical world, there are plenty of evils that are very much human.

Wasting Time & Not Giving a Damn: The Art of Being A Young Writer

Maybe we have to waste time to be writers.

A year ago, in the car on the way back from Seattle, I had the talk with a few friends. The I-can’t-finish-anything and I’m-not-sure-where-it’s-going talk that all writers seem to have with their reflection or a peer at some point in their career, particularly early on.

Really, what I meant was that I’m not sure if I’m good enough. And that’s tough to admit.

Maria Popova tackled this topic in her recent post “The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility” over at Brain Pickings. Before Wild, of course, Strayed wrote The Rumpus advice column “Sugar.”

It’s self doubt. According to Popova, “the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.”

The same self doubt that caused one “Sugar” reader to write to Strayed. The reader was twenty-six—a classic writer who can’t write. She tells Strayed, “I am sick with panic that I cannot—will not—override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Strayed’s response is beautiful and raw. You can and should read it.

Highlights for all my fellow twenty-somethings struggling with how exactly one perfects the art of being a motherfucker: (more…)

Should Writers Get Paid? A Conversation.

In a recent post, I asked whether or not paying to submit to writing contests is worth it for a writer. Money and writing often spark conversations about worth. The kind of value we as readers give the written word and the individuals who work tirelessly to create it.

Now that I have graduated and moved back home to Southern California (oh, Portland, how I miss you), I am pushing myself to write again and write often. Although I try to squelch all hopes of publication—getting the words down at all is step one—I do find writing in smaller chunks to be less daunting. Because of that, I often approach a piece of prose as a short story, even if I plan on turning it into something larger one day. Most publications are willing to publish writer’s short stories, personal essays, and flash fiction, but perhaps not their 100,000-word novel.

But the only conversation worth having is not whether a writer should pay someone else to read their work, but whether an author should get paid because they wrote the thing.

In truth, this conversation is a matter of opinion. For as long as there are writers willing to submit their work and go unpaid, there will be writers who refuse.

I don’t believe the answer is so black and white. If you’re still trying to figure out where you stand, ask yourself “Why am I submitting in the first place?”

Is it for the prestige? Is it for the recognition? Is it to be validated? Is it because you’re a professor and your boss told you to? Is it because you’re a student and your professor told you to? Is it because you see writing as a career and this magazine or journal as a stepping stone?


Kindle Scout: Crowdsourced Publishing Model for “Bad” Books

Kindle Scout is a new initiative from Amazon that allows readers to vote on the titles that they’d like to see published.

How does it work? Authors submit 5,000-word excerpts of their manuscripts to the website, where they stay for a 30-day “scouting” period. During this time, Amazon members are allowed to browse through each title and nominate the ones they’d like to see published.

In other words, Amazon would like all of you, dear readers, to be their unpaid interns, digging through the vast slush pile of—quite frankly—bad books that I’m sure arrive at their digital doorstep daily. Only, you don’t get any credit or, for that matter, have much of an incentive.

Books that are selected for publication—the criteria for selecting a “winner” is still unknown—“will be published by Kindle Press and receive 5-year renewable terms, a $1,500 advance, 50 percent eBook royalty rate, easy rights reversions and featured Amazon marketing.”

As Slate‘s words correspondent, Katy Waldman, suggests in her recent article on Kindle Scout, “The real winner would appear to be Amazon, which can leverage readers’ direct involvement to lure them to its website and profit from successful new titles without losing too much on clunkers.”

Waldman then goes on, attempting to paint a silver lining, by writing “A program with open submissions puts more voices in circulation. It amplifies different kinds of voices, razing institutional wayposts that tend to disproportionately welcome white men. It responds more nimbly to the demonstrated preferences of the reading public, asking us to rethink our inherited notions of literary merit.”

The reality is, however, that the chances of anything of “literary merit” being discovered through methods like crowd sourcing are awfully slim. For one, traditional publishers aren’t in the business of turning away true gems with literary merit. That same publisher can offer a much larger advance, an editor to help with the development of the manuscript, and a marketing team to support the book once it’s on shelves. You know, a real marketing team—not an algorithm that artificially pushes your self-published e-book higher on its sites own rankings.


Are There Too Many Books Out There?

Writers, for me, are philosophers. And anthropologists. They search for meaning, and they observe and report.

Writers are smart. They have to be in order to survive, in order to create something worth surviving.

But quite frankly, there’s a lot of bad writing out there. Technology gives anyone with a computer access to a word processor. Anyone with enough time on their hands can sit down and start typing. Anyone with enough money can call up an editor, who can rip their work apart and build it back up.

I struggle with the flooded marketplace. There are simply too many books out there, many not worth reading.

A friend once told me, “I think most people think they have at least one great story inside them.” As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Forbes estimates that somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published each year (nearly half of those are self-published).

Writing initiatives, like National Novel Writing Month, seem to purport the idea that “anyone can write” if they only just pushed themselves, if they only just set aside the time. I have quite a few friends, people working in publishing, that have participated in NaNoWriMo. And when I ask each of them where these novels exist now, I get told that the manuscript is in a drawer or a trash bin—wherever it is, the answer is always the same: it wasn’t very good.

My point, I suppose, is that both readers and aspiring writers need to remember what it is that drew them to books in the first place. The goal of writing shouldn’t be to hit a word count—to write 50,000 in thirty days. The goal of writing shouldn’t even be to leave your mark on the world. Because I get it, really I do. Life is short, but art lasts. The goal of writing should be, in my opinion, to give readers something of value.

In a recent interview with Guernica, agent Chris Parris-Lamb, of The Gernet Company, stated that this problem is actually the most common one he sees. On the manuscripts in his slush pile? “I just wish I read more submissions where it felt like the author had taken great care with it, had spent a lot of time on it, and had a better idea—or any idea at all—of the books they saw their own as being in conversation with, as well as how theirs was unique. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking ‘write a novel’ off their bucket list.”

Literary Paraphernalia: Bookish Candles from Hearth & Hammer

I have no more classes to attend—forever. On Monday, I’ll turn in my last final project and kiss academia goodbye.

It’s a funny feeling. Before this, I could map out my future. Community college, university, graduate school. And what’s left now hasn’t been drawn yet.

It’s a little thrilling and a little freeing and a little stressful. Since I graduated a term early, I now get to watch my friends deal with preparing portfolios and final papers. And because of that, this week’s literary paraphernalia (and probably the next few) are inspired by items to help relax a book lover.

These literary candles are all from the Chicago-based Etsy shop, Hearth & Hammer. All candles are made with natural soy wax.

Burning Books

Inspired by Fahrenheit 451. Scents of cinnamon, orange, and fir. According to the owners, it “smells like you’re sitting by a fire reading your favorite banned book.”

Signal Fire

Inspired by The Lord of the Flies. Scents of leather, tobacco, amber, and musk. According to the owners, it’s “to make you feel like you’re right on the island with Simon, Piggy and the boys.”

Open Road

Inspired by On the Road. Scents of meadow grass and sandalwood. According to the owners, it smells like wandering “through sawdust-covered towns and feel the meadow grass on your bare feet with Kerouac and Moriarty.”

Throwback Thursday: YA Novels: What’s the Point?

Last Friday, a few students and professors from my graduate program got together at a local bar on campus and began drunkenly discussing trips taken over the summer, upcoming classes, and books over a glass of beer.

“Technically that’s mead,” a classmate corrected me.

“Even better,” I told her. “I feel like a hobbit.”

My mention of the hobbit, of course, began a rousing talk about Young Adult literature–pieces like Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Rowling’s Harry Potter.

“I took a YA class last quarter,” a MFA student named Hannah tells us. “After we read Harry Potter, another student tells the teacher, I don’t get what the point is.

Which gained a lot of outrage, a lot of “And this from our children’s future teachers?!” and “What’s the point?!”. In the midst of our mutual outrage, I never heard one person say what the point of books like Harry Potter actually was, however. The answer to that question depends on who you ask.

Roald Dahl once said:

“The prime function of the children’s book writer is to write a book that is so absorbing, exciting, funny, fast and beautiful that the child will fall in love with it. And that first love affair between the young child and the young book will lead hopefully to other loves for other books and when that happens the battle is probably won. The child will have found a crock of gold. He will also have gained something that will help to carry him most marvelously through the tangles of his later years.”

R.L. Stine’s view is a bit more simple:

“Many adults feel that every children’s book has to teach them something. My theory is a children’s book can be just for fun.”

I think both authors are correct. On the most basic level, the point of Young Adult books is that they get children reading. Yet personally, I think the greatest point of a YA novel is that they generally tackle large issues, like war, racism, death, or even rape, in a way that is accessible to young readers. The Hunger Games, for instance, causes its readers to think about war, poverty, death, and power, and according to author Suzanne Collins, this is important: (more…)

Literary Paraphernalia: Handmade Writing Journals on Etsy

Writers have a thing for notebooks and journals, at least this one does. For me, a notebook seems to fit into my romantic notions of being a writer, curled up at the base of a tree, a journal flipped to a blank page in my lap, a cricket’s light chirping filling up the silence.

The problem with that image is that writing on paper is becoming less and less practical. At some point, most writers have to make the switch to a computer and a word processor. Publishers and agents don’t want your three-hundred page manuscript printed out and mailed to their office, wasting space in some storage bin or on their cluttered desk. They want the digital file sent directly to them. And so, for people like me, someone who thrives on efficiency, writing in a journal often feels old-fashioned and wasteful.

However, that’s not so. Keeping a journal handy in your bag is actually a smart idea for a writer. Sure, you could write a note in your phone, but then the second someone likes your latest Facebook post or you get an email, you’re distracted from the writing and your creative streak ends. If you’re at home, sometimes booting up the computer takes longer than your ability to hold on to a thought. Notebooks allow for immediacy.

I use mine mainly for brainstorming, outlining, and quick bursts of inspiration—for the type of non-linear thinking that writers developing a story must employ. Etsy has a ton of great and unique journals that are handmade by shop owners, many of which are made from recycled materials (so you won’t feel bad for the planet while pursuing your passion).

Just Write Spiral Bound Notebook

Stories, Notes, Dreams, and Schemes Notebook


Copyright 101 For Authors, or I Made A Thing!

So, I didn’t have time to work on what was supposed to be today’s post, because I was too busy making an infographic for my course this term on copyright. I blame my procrastination on an extreme case of “senioritis.” Graduation is only a few weeks away. It’s my last chance to procrastinate, forever, people! (Or so I tell myself.)

The infographic helps authors determine whether their work is eligible for copyright in the U.S. and has a short “FAQ” section answering other general questions an author might have about copyright as it applies to their work. The tricky bit is that copyright isn’t always so black and white and changes all the time. There are also many types of literary works, so this graphic is not meant to represent all of them. Although it does serve as a basic overview.


What else do you want to know about copyright and your writing? Tell us below!