Not Yet a Poet?

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I have to admit that the very first genre I wrote in was poetry. I grew up with Whitman, Longfellow, and Tennyson. I could not get enough of Frost or Stevenson. Shakespeare’s sonnets were my nightly prayers and Shelley was my moon. A little later, I met Hopkins and Arnold, the Williamses and Eliot, Donne and Burns. They were not the only ones, I must confess. There were dozens of others and, for a while, I even pursued a cummingesque stage. It wasn’t always serious poetry, because I always found a way to return to Nash and Lear. A course on Japanese literature and culture renewed my interest in the short forms of haiku and tanka, and the purist in me cringes when I read haiku that don’t fulfill the original purpose of the form.

The best thing about poetry, and I say this to encourage all writers to try their hand at it, is both the freedom of the form as well as the challenge of expressing ideas, emotions, or incidents in very few words—unless you are writing epic poetry or some narrative form, in which case you could have a whole book, as was the case with Dante. It’s not likely we will return to writing drama in verse form as Shakespeare did, nor are do we see many lengthy contemporary poems that run over a few pages.

On the other hand, multiculturalism has opened up several forms of poetry not frequently observed in the canon of literature in English and we now celebrate Hispanic, Italian, French, German, and Arabic forms and writers. Not surprising is that a large proportion of that poetry is from the past century or earlier. Probably because it takes longer for poetry to establish a foothold in the classical literary canon. Regardless of the geographic or cultural origin of the poetry that move you, the fact that it does move you is what makes poetry succeed. Like any other great literature, it must have the power to move the readers, the power to connect with the readers, so readers recognize some universal truth in what they read.

Regardless of how you do or do not incorporate figures of speech, rhythm, or rhyme, if the poem resonates or strikes a chord in the reader, it succeeds. If you are not a writer of poetry, I encourage you to try your hand at it. Read some poetry and when you find something that resonates with you, use it as a model, as an inspiration to write one of your own—or many. Every writer has that yearning to express something more personal without having to write a sentence or more. Every writer has words and thoughts that tug at their hearts and need to be released. You could just fall in love with free verse and, if you are brave enough to wander towards the deeper end, you might just discover some other form that works for you. You don’t have to become a poet. You just need to learn to express yourself personally in fewer words. Not only is it good practice for writing more concisely, you just might become a poet!

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Slow Down and Live!

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It’s June! How is it time flies so fast? Is it a sign of age, perhaps? Once we are out of school and start working, maybe have a family, the time just seems to go by in a flash. It’s not like the days are really any shorter, no matter how much it may seem that way. It’s a sign of how busy we’ve become, how much we’ve filled our lives so that there is no time for anything else but work, work, work. For people in the creative fields like writing and art, we actually take time to enjoy the little things in life. We have the capacity to expand each moment, extend the experience, so that we are able to explore and absorb the minutest detail, savor the tiniest nuances of sound, shape, color, flavor, and feel. Rather than whisk through a day, we saunter and flow from one minute to another. It is the very time we choose to take that gives us the details that spice our creations. Indeed, how else would we be able to describe the exquisite beauty of a flower tenderly unfurling its silky petals, releasing its gentle scent to waft on the breeze and float lazily about us, permeating our pores, almost suffocating us with sweetness that lingers for but a moment but lasts in our memories forever? In people’s mad rush to amass as much material wealth and possessions as they can, to maintain classy lifestyles touted by fashionable magazines, to constantly outdo, outbid, outshine the next person, they have forgotten how much beauty, fulfillment, pleasure, and satisfaction they can get from simply slowing down and savoring the little things, the details, the nuances of life. That is where true meaning and meaningfulness is–in the simple, innocuous pleasures of life.

Jaunty Jovial June

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“I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where it was always June.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

One of the delights of living on Prince Edward Island is the experience of June. Although associated with summer and one of the hottest months of the year in most countries, June in Prince Edward Island is, to say the least, pleasurable. The temperature in June ranges in the teens with occasional spikes to the low and mid 20s and nights hovering around the low double digits. If you come from a tropical country like I did, that might sound chilly, since the coolest temperatures in the coldest days of January might drop to 18. Here on the Island, that would be the perfect June day sans rain. We do have the occasional sprinkle or thunderstorm, especially at the cusp of May and June, when temperatures might still drop to single digits overnight or in the early morning. The atmosphere does border on muggy when the higher teens climb to the 20s. The best days are when the temperature remains above 16 and below 23 and the sky is the purest blue from one horizon to another, perhaps a dotting of fluff or even a thin blanket of shredded cotton spread across and over the countryside, a whisper of air ruffling the uppermost leaves and branches of the trees. On such a day, you can go anywhere on the Island, be it the beach, a park, a pond, river, or trail—or even just your porch, deck, or balcony—and bask in its luscious glory.

Why Writers Need Thick Skin

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I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.
~Harper Lee, WD

As a career, writing can be one of the most satisfying professions, and yet is one of the most difficult to break into. First of all, everyone has a story to tell, so what is so special about your story? Second, even if you’re able to write your story better than others, who’s going to buy enough copies so that you can live off the income? Third, even if you make that breakthrough bestseller that gets you on the charts and earns you loads of money, you can’t just sit on your laurels. You need to keep on writing because once you’ve got a following, your readers will be looking for more. That’s not the half of it, though.

First you have to break into the market and get published. Sure, you can self-publish, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a huge following and sell thousands, let alone millions of books. Just getting a publisher is a major problem. Depending on your market or target audience, you’ll have to find the right publisher and convince that publisher that you’re the right fit for them. You need to submit your work and wait for them to decide whether or not they want to publish you. Sometimes, waiting can take anywhere from three months to a year. Meanwhile, you try to send your work to other publishers, assuming they don’t mind you’ve sent your work to other publishers.

Be prepared for rejection. Many times, if you don’t have even a small publishing history, some market visibility, some followers, maybe even some writing awards, publishers won’t even take a second look at your work. Every successful writer has been rejected more often than any of us would care to experience, but it seems to be part of becoming a writer. It definitely is not for the faint of heart, but if you know you have something really good and many other people who’ve read it have told you so, maybe all you need to do is keep on trying. You’re really in quite good company. J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was picked up. Jack London’s collected rejection letters on a spike grew to four feet high; Stephen King had a similar spike on his wall that has grown heavy with rejection letters; William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected 21 times; L.M. Montgomery was rejected so many times she put stored Anne of Green Gables for two years before trying to find a publisher again; Dr. Seuss received 27 rejections before his first story And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was accepted. Many major publishers nowadays will not entertain writers and will only deal with agents. Finding agents is no easier than finding a publisher. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, was rejected by 60 literary agents before she found one and her book eventually was 100 weeks on the NYTimes bestseller list as well as turned into a movie. If you do decide to take the self-publishing route, it’s not impossible either. One of my favorite poets, e.e. cummings, had great difficulty getting his first book published he went on to self-publishing six volumes of poetry because he couldn’t publish them any other way. Beatrix Potter was so disappointed by numerous rejections she finally decided to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which has sold 45 million copies to date. Nowadays, many writers choose to self-publish first, and if their books gain recognition, accept offers from publishing houses. On the other hand, if your book sells as well as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, who needs a traditional publisher?

Having a career as a writer doesn’t just mean having to get published. That’s just part of it, albeit a great part, because you can’t have that career until you’re published, and on a regular basis. That’s why it’s called a career. More than just being published is the fact that, as a writer, you’re opening yourself up to criticism from just about anyone who comes across your writing. That’s not to say it’s all going to be negative. It’s a huge misconception that criticism is always negative. Criticism can also be positive, but because of the general impression that it is negative, I think the world has decided to just call it feedback–which can be both negative or positive, and which really sounds more neutral. Let’s agree to call it feedback, hereon.

Feedback should be looked at by writers as something helpful or useful because they can get a good idea of how people understand and react to their writing. Without feedback, writers would have no idea what people think, unless people are buying their books like–well–hotcakes. Inevitably, some of that feedback will not be positive or even diplomatic. That’s where thick hides come in. Without those thick hides, writers could become extremely offended by whatever others say. Writers have no business being onion-skinned if they want their work to be read widely. Nobody ever gets 100 percent approval on anything, so be prepared for those naysayers. No matter how good your writing, there will be people who won’t like it. No matter what you write or how you write it, there will be those who won’t agree. If you let yourself be affected by every single thing people say about your writing, you could cripple yourself as a writer. You would be too afraid to put out your work because of what others might say.

On the other hand, if you ignore everything others say, you’ll never learn from your readers and if you need to improve something, you’ll never pick up on that either. It takes time and it takes getting used to. More sensitive people have a harder time putting their work out there, but no matter how sensitive you are, if you want to be a writer and be known as one, you will need to swallow your pride, pick your battles carefully, learn from everything you can, believe in yourself, and maybe, when you can afford it, hire someone to read the reviews for you.

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On Holidays, Canadian Writers, and Books

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Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! And right after that, Happy Islander Day, a.k.a. Family Day in the rest of Canada. In a way, I think it’s great that we call it Islander Day on PEI because that includes everyone and not just those with families. Not everyone has a family to be with on Family Day, so Islander Day is a great way to celebrate everyone. It’s funny that the holiday was created just so there would be a break in an otherwise holiday-less stretch between Christmas and Holy Week, because February happened to be the only month in the year without a public holiday. Not that it matters to me, because I’ve got my very own personal holiday in February! Yay! That said, we can always declare our own holidays, but we don’t always get paid for them. Of course, if you’re unemployed or a freelancer or own your business, then holidays become moot, because you can take any day you want off as a holiday. Believe me, that’s not the way it works because you end up working odd hours and just about any day of the year, because it’s always ‘no work, no pay’ for you. When you answer to an employer, you get paid for public holidays because the law requires it. Why am talking about holidays? Because I’m back working at full time job and will get paid for the holiday! Woohoo!

Holidays aside, a large group of island writers showed up at the PEI Writers’ Guild Winter Social to find out who won bragging rights for the first ever PEI Battle Tales week-long writing contest and to duke it out at a literary trivia contest for free beer and a handful of gift cards, but really, to duke it out. What I found so revealing is that we Canadians know so little of our literary history! My excuse is I didn’t grow up here and I didn’t attend school or university here. Still, the information we have about Canadian literature is so meager, it surprised me. Canada is the only country I am aware of, at present, that emphasizes reading and books so much, particularly through the CBC’s Canada Reads program. I have to admit I do not know how long it has been running–it will take a bit of research and I’m sure there are those of you who know when it started. My point is that even in the study of world literature (and I mastered in literature), Canadian literature never featured prominently. Probably because there never was as much Canadian literature contributed to the corpus of World Literature. In fact, I had been familiar with Stephen Leacock, who seems to be the earliest writer of note on record who has been anthologized worldwide, but he had never been touted as Canadian. Alice Munro was another name that gained international prominence; ater on, I discovered Margaret Atwood, and much later, Michael Ondaatje. Determined to learn more about writers in my chosen new country, I found Guy Gavriel Kay, re-discovered L.M. Montgomery, and Mordecai Richtler, as well as a few others I am still getting acquainted with. I can’t say I know my Canadian authors well enough and I have a great deal of reading to catch up on.

On another note, I just learned tonight that, according to UNESCO*, Canada published 19,900 books, but also discovered the information is from 1996; but more recent data published by Canada Business** puts the number at over 10,000 books annually, mainly because of an increase in the number of publishers or publishing houses in Canada. I would consider that information skewed and not reflective of the actual number of books written by Canadians, because many Canadian writers are actually published in the US and the UK. The rise of self-publishing in the new millenium probably adds much more to that number. That said, we rank 20th in the UNESCO list, which listed total books published in different countries over a broad range of years, from 1990 to 2014. It’s certainly a long way from Oman’s 7 books published in 1996, but nowhere close to China’s 440,000 in 2013, the US’s 304,912 also in 2013, or the UK’s 184,000 in 2011. Taken viz the population, in 1996, Canada published a book for every 1491 people; which is much better than China’s 1 book for every 3084 people; surprisingly close to the US’s 1 book for every 1038 people; but nowhere near the UK’s 1 book for every 344 people, which I pretty much expected. (By books, I mean book titles and not physical copies.) I think that’s a pretty decent ratio, all things considered.

*Book publishing numbers from UNESCO were sourced from Wikipedia

**Jason McBride, “It’s Alive! Canadian Book Publishing Stirs.” August 30, 2013. From http://www.canadianbusiness.com/companies-and-industries/its-alive-canadian-book-publishing-stirs/

 

Character Types: Dynamic vs Static

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Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.
~Leigh Brackett, WD

 

We’ve been discussing how to make characters more interesting in your writing. One of the best ways to guarantee interesting characters, besides making them ROUND is to make your characters DYNAMIC as opposed to STATIC. Granted, literature needs its share of static characters, because sometimes the stories just need the characters to be the same. People come back to certain writers because their characters are the same, predictable, reliable. Procedural stories, which would be the basis of procedural drama in television, often have static characters. As the term suggests, static characters do not change. They remain the same from beginning to end. They often don’t grow older and they don’t generally have life-shattering experiences. There are hundreds of highly popular static characters in serial books, and there are quite a few I remember and enjoyed reading: Nancy Drew, Perry Mason, James Bond, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana girls, the Hardy Boys, Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes. More recent serial publications with static characters? To some extent, the Bourne series and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoos series. Sometimes, the static characters don’t age, sometimes they do, but in every book, they pretty much think, act, and speak the same way. They do not undergo deep transformations. That’s why they’re suited to adventure and action series. Don’t get me wrong, you can write static characters and they can be very successful, as you can see from the examples I’ve given. They serve a very good purpose, and that is, the series. When the characters grow up, change, achieve their goals and move on, the series either ends or changes. Best example? The Harry Potter series. That’s a limited series because Harry Potter has achieved his goal of seeking revenge on his parents’ killer. Anything else after that time will be a new story. Those characters are prime examples of DYNAMIC characters. You’ve probably surmised by now, that dynamic characters are the opposite of static characters. They develop, change, become different, grow into someone else. They have life-changing and eye-opening experiences that alter their characters so that the way they are when you first encounter them is not who they are by the end of the book. Sometimes, the change is almost indiscernible. It could be a change in attitude or values that show how a character matures. These changes are not always accompanied by life-shattering events or dramatic physical changes. It also depends on the time span of your work. A story that takes place over a longer time is more likely to affect the characters or show how characters change in many different ways. No matter what the situation, your story involves characters with human sentiments, human traits, human foibles. What makes humanity makes your story. What moves humanity will move your readers.

There’s Always Something to Write About

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

I would not quickly agree with Updike that we’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. While our current world might not warrant wandering about on horses or in armor with swords at our sides or even bows slung across our backs, we have our chariots and our props, tools of the trade that we use to struggle through life. Probably the biggest challenge in contemporary literature is finding characters that are interesting enough to write about. We forget that people are interesting and as writers, we need to learn to bring out everything that is interesting about them. In my memoir writing classes, I have encountered people saying they have nothing to write about because nothing interesting has happened in their lives. Yet, as I guide them with tips, techniques, questions, and prompts, they suddenly find that there are so many interesting things that have happened in their lives. Now, they have more than enough to actually write about. I, on the other hand, have the quandary of what to write about first. I have encountered so many interesting people, places, and events in my modest and not too short life thus far, and the accumulation of memories is startling, when I think of it. People don’t need to be highly imaginative to become writers. They just need to learn how to use vivid descriptions, picturesque language, detailed imagery. It’s the details that make things more interesting. Remember when someone, possibly a grandparent or an uncle or aunt or even your parents, told a story that everyone enjoyed? They remember details that involve all our senses–sights, smells, sounds, textures, feelings–every little detail adds to creating a picture, a painting of something that happened, and if the action is as vividly described, then the painting becomes a movie clip or a staged scene, and when enough of those are strung together, you have a living, breathing movie in words. Isn’t writing grand?

Character Types: Round vs Flat

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

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We started talking about character creation and description in our last installment. Creating characters is such an intricate process and I’ve already described how to develop a character profile in “How to Create Memorable Characters” and, more recently, “Writing Realistic Characters.” What many of you might not be familiar with are the different types of characters. Knowing the different types helps you decide how to develop your characters and how much to develop them. I’ve already discussed the most common type, the STOCK character. A stock character is a common type found in literature through the ages. They’re also called stereotypes. Many of these characters came from classical literature and, because they have the same general traits and purpose in a story, they’re easy to integrate in a story. Stock characters are pull-of-the-shelf varieties and if you look at fairy tales, legends, and classical drama, you’ll find a wide variety of stock characters. I remembering describing stock characters in an earlier article, calling to mind Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, or fairy tale Cinderellas and wicked stepmothers. The next two character types are ROUND vs FLAT characters. Round characters are well-developed characters with complex characteristics. These are the realistic characters I’ve been talking about. They have personalities, quirks, families, histories, and futures. Round characters are like real people because you create them that way. When you include physical, psychological, and biographical information about a character, you have a round character. Your main characters are most interesting when they are round, so you should plan around that. On the other hand, you could have FLAT characters. Flat characters are one-dimensional or, at most, two-dimensional. They are like cartoons on a page, caricatures, because they take the one outstanding trait of a character and you do not see anything else about that character. Flat characters are completely predictable. They always react the same way, they don’t have thoughts, let alone deep ones; they rarely have relationships, deep or complex personalities, histories. You’re probably thinking, why do flat characters exist at all? In short fiction, flat characters are not likely to even exist. In longer fiction, we use flat characters to fill in the role of extras, such as the nosy next-door neighbor, the cranky garbage collector, the crotchety spinster, the 97-pound weakling, the brawny football hero, the dumb blonde. Stock characters can also be flat characters, but don’t have to be. You can take stock characters and give them complex personalities and problems, something you’ll never really find with flat characters. You need flat characters in your stories because your main characters need to interact with those flat characters as they get through their days; you need flat characters to remain flat because they provide your main characters incredible contrast and color; despite their flatness, your flat characters also provide color in your story, albeit background color. Just don’t overdo it. Like a painting, keep your flat characters in the background and your round, three-dimensional characters in the foreground.

Next time: Dynamic vs Static Characters

 

Writing Realistic Characters

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Character creation might seem a daunting task to the unseasoned writer, because it isn’t easy to create literary characters who seem real. It’s like creating people on paper, who are real in every way except physically. In fact, truly realistic characters can sometimes feel so alive they could walk out of the pages of their books. There are several ways to create characters, but my recommended method is to create a character profile. Why is this important? There are several reasons: It helps the writer (1) create different individuals, (2) keep those characters separate and different from each other, (3) keep those characters separate and different from the narrator, (4) keep those characters separate and different from the author, (5) define each character’s story more clearly, (6) ensure character consistency from beginning to end, (7) create a source file from which to pull descriptions and even dialogue. While these might not seem particularly necessary when writing short stories, character profiles become extremely useful when writing novels, and practically essential when writing series. For instance, if a character in the first volume of a series is left handed, you can’t have him picking up a pen and writing with his right hand in the third volume. Or, she could celebrate a birthday in December in one novel, then later on, you might refer to her as a Gemini in a sequel. Your profile can be as detailed or as general as you need it; the longer your work, the more detailed it should be, simply because there are more instances for you to reveal your characters and make them as real as possible for your readers. Simply because when your characters are more, they become more believable, more sympathetic, and easier to identify with.

Writing characters is not easy, but there are ways of getting around the problem of how to develop characters. One way is to do what Shakespeare, Gore Vidal, and, I’m sure, many other prolific writers have done: have a repertory company of stock characters. Your stock characters will be general types you can tweak, change a bit, give different names, set in different situations, and otherwise write different stories about. You probably know more stock characters than you think you do. Besides the bard’s works, stock characters can also be found in fairy tales. Some of the most commonly-used stock characters are: the Cinderella character, the cunning villain, the thief with a golden heart, the wicked stepmother, the cuckold husband, the jester, Prince Charming, the orphan boy, the wicked stepsisters–these are characters common in fairy tales and legends. Shakespeare uses quite a few of these, as well as others we all recognize: the star-crossed lovers, the young lovers with feuding families, the megalomaniac, the cheating wife/husband, the seer. He also borrows characters from classical literature, which has many stock characters, such as the wandering hero, the guilt-ridden son/daughter, the adulterous wife/husband, the adventurer in disguise, the benevolent spirit–these also being characters from mythology. Many modern writers have taken advantage of stock characters and rewritten them in a variety of original and interesting ways, including James Joyce’s Ulysses or Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story. It’s a good thing to know all these characters from older literature because people, after all, are people, no matter what the setting. What makes characters more realistic is what makes humans–their foibles and follies, their loves and losses, their lives and deaths.

*coming soon: How to Create Characters

You Can’t Cheat the Muse

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Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.
—William S. Burroughs

 

First things first: I don’t advocate cheating at all, but I will look for the most efficient ways to expedite a job. It’s called looking for shortcuts. This does not apply to skills at all—no less to writing than to any sport that requires athletes to practice up to eight hours a day or more. Granted, some people are more talented than others, their talent is what gives their work an innate grace and beauty that the merely skilled do not have. Some people might be more creative than others and be able to produce work after work after work; that does not mean the work will be outstanding. So many people want to be writers, want to be published, but aren’t willing to put in the work to ensure their writing is of excellent quality. That’s why we have so much pulp fiction on the bookstands. Even if the writing per se is technically excellent, those works do not find their way to the must-read lists. Those works will not win awards or recognition except, perhaps, finding their way to occasional bestseller lists—and disappearing from reading lists as soon as the next new book shows up. These works most likely will entertain readers momentarily, but they are not the works people will want to keep on their limited bookshelf space to read over and over again. The quality of writing begins with a strong foundation in the most basic skill of writing good sentences. Masterful writing necessarily uses masterful sentences, and there are more than enough guidebooks, lessons, tips, and courses that teach us to write masterful sentences. Sometimes, it’s all just a matter of remembering what we learned in school, unless we were not fortunate to have a teacher who ensured we could write really good sentences. To write excellent sentences, we need to know grammar and trust it as well as we know our bodies will function without our having to tell them how. We need to become intimate with figurative language so we can use it at will and manipulate words to create the images we want to paint. We need to accumulate a vocabulary broad enough for us so the words tumble out of our pens and we are not left grasping for ways to describe what we observe. This three-point foundation is what we build our writing on. Lacking that, I suggest always having at hand a good grammar book, a book on writing style (Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a popular and favourite go-to source for many writers; many more have been written since and can be just as useful as well as entertaining), a good dictionary (I always defer to the Oxford English dictionary, but I also check Merriam-Webster’s localized editions, e.g. a Canadian edition, that includes Can-spelling and Can-idioms), a good thesaurus (Roget’s Thesaurus is the default), and a dictionary of idioms (I collect dictionaries and have several books of idioms, no two of which are the same). Lacking physical editions of these valuable references, you can always check the Internet for unlimited resources. The Internet has several standard online dictionaries (Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and WikiDictionary or Wiktionary), dictionaries of idioms, rhyming dictionaries, and thesaurii. The nice thing about the Internet is the search throws a very wide net and offers answers, suggestions, examples—all in a matter of seconds. Unless your typing takes minutes.