Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why I Don't Write Poetry

     I am supposed to be attending the monthly poetry reading at Landmark Booksellers this evening, but could not due to transportation and family issues. Not a totally bad thing because I've been to one before and while I really enjoyed it, I always feel a little awkward that I don't read any poems to the group. The understanding is that no one has to, but most everyone will read at least two poems. Participants can read an original poem or one they like written by another poet, famous or obscure.
     My problem with this is I've written very few poems and they are clearly the work of an amateur who has only a vague idea what poetry is and no clue how to write it. And I don't read enough poetry to be able to select one to share, certainly not with a group of poetry aficionados. If I go to next month's poetry reading, which I'd like to do, I will have to find a solution to this dilemma.
      At some of our creative writing meetings, LWC has focused on poetry and most of us attempt it, some finding that they have a large or small gift for it, some learning (or confirming) that they have none. The most recent LWC poetry prompt was to write an ode. For our purposes, "ode" was defined as starting with the words "Oh, how I love thee." I'm sure that's not necessary for a poem to be an ode, and a true ode has other requirements, but that should tell you the level where most of us are in regard to poetry.
     I found it is not difficult to write about something you love (or don't love) and it's various aspects. Here is what I created:

Ode To A Black Mare

Oh, how I love thee,
my wonderful, worthless mare.
Affectionate when you're not trying to bite me,
happy to see me when I have treats;
willing to do what I ask, unless you don't want to,
taking care to keep me balanced on your back,
except when you are trying to throw me off.
Agreeable when you are  not moody,
obedient when you are not in heat,
you are beautiful when you are brushed and groomed
and not languishing, mud-covered in a field.
Graceful when you are not lame,
energetic when you are not obese and unfit;
expensive to feed even when you are useless
and I don't have time to spend with you.
How you must wish for an owner who took better care,
or could afford to call the vet about your most recent unsoundness.
You are a constant source of joy and pride to me,
and always, always loved.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Problem With Obedient Characters

Last post I rambled about the benefit of having ill-behaved characters. Now, I want to consider the opposite situation. If a writer creates a story in which the characters do whatever the writer makes them do to move the plot in the right direction, those characters will sometimes be  acting against their thoughts, feelings and innate personality traits. Or they might be easily controlled because they don't have clearly defined qualities, personal history, etc. Neither situation is good.

A well-developed character has to behave in accordance with their own beliefs, impulses, reactions, and emotions.. Sometimes a writer loses touch with who their character is and has them do or say things that are against their nature. The writer may not realize the character is being "out of character", but readers will.

To some extent, the characters have to decide what they are going to do in the story. Characters doing whatever the author wants or needs them to do to keep the plot going the way they have planned, is not a good thing. Strong characters are not obedient and their actions will sometimes change the story that the writer has mapped out.  In doing so, strong characters can help create a stronger story and better book.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Characters Behaving Badly

I've heard lots of writers say that when they write a book, they develop the characters, put them in a situation and see what the characters do. Then they write about it.
     For years I thought that was ridiculous. It's my story. I created the characters. They will do what I decide they do. My characters have since taught me to think otherwise.
     When I started my novel, Daylight's End, my premise was that the main character, Helen, finds a vacant, neglected, supposedly haunted plantation home that she falls in love with and buys. Once she moves in she meets the very real, opinionated and possessive ghost, Patrick, who refuses to let anyone live there.
     They met in the first paragraph, when Patrick walked up from the cellar to join Helen in the living room on her first night in her new home. In the middle of page two, Helen tells Patrick he doesn't fit her idea of a ghost, he tells her he's a vampire.
     What? Stop. Cut. Rewind. Where did that come from? I'm not writing about a vampire. (This was before I knew there were novels that featured vampires. I am now a huge fan of paranormal fiction, but back then I'd never heard of it.)
     I told Patrick, (should I have noticed how real this character was to me when I started talking to him?) "Go back to the cellar, if that's where you wanna hang out, and come back and say your lines right."
     Patrick wasn't having any. He said he was a vampire and I could deal with it. I said he could stay a vampire and languish in a desk drawer for the rest of his undead existence. I then put the "manuscript", all one and a half pages of it, in a folder in my file cabinet.
     That was in 1997. In 2002, I once again came across this less than two page "manuscript" and decided I should never have created two ornery characters and left them alone in a drawer together for five years. As I re-read through the few paragraphs, I realized they, Helen and Patrick, had kept right on talking and gotten mixed up in all kinds of trouble. And they distracted me so much I couldn't focus on any other writing project.
     I finally wrote their story so they would shut up and I could move on to something else. But they never stopped. They kept getting into trouble together and two books and a dozen short stories later - with a growing cast of unusual characters - they are leading me into a third book.
     Another thing I've heard is that when characters are real enough to the writer that they do and say what they will and the writer just has to follow along, the characters become real to the reader. Even though the characters don't do what the author thinks they should, real characters are a good thing.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wait...Is It Too Late To Change My Mind?

A long-time favorite author of mine did something with her two most recent novels that I find very interesting. She is an Urban Fantasy writer, so it is perfectly understandable that she has brought time-travel into her series. I am, however, questioning her reasoning.
     She has a great bunch of characters and has created a multidimensional fictional world which gives her, in my opinion, unlimited options for plot lines.  While I'm not against the fun problems and confusion that an alternate time-line can add to a story, she had chosen to go back and "undo" previously permanent changes in the lives of her characters. To me this says that she didn't like the turns her books had taken, or the place her characters ended up in, and created for herself an opportunity to go back and do it a different way.
     I see this is as a kind of cheating. If she can fix irreparable damage to certain relationships and have characters that were previously killed off brought back to life, it removes much of the tension from the story.  If nothing is permanent, if what her characters have done or experienced can be changed, where is the emotional involvement for the reader?
     So while I think this is an option to consider if one needs to make a drastic change to something undo-able that has occurred in a previous book, there should be limits. There needs to be clearly established rules within the story as to what can and can't happen, how and why certain things can or can't occur (like whenever it's convenient for the author), so that the reader's emotional investment in the welfare of the characters doesn't fade.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

When Does Size Matter?

I am revising my second book, hopefully for the last time. When I started this (hopefully) final round of editing, my novel stood at a respectable 77,000 words. As I'm polishing and editing, I'm doing a lot of cutting. The word count has been reduced to 63,000 words and I've only revised through Chapter ten.          
     Presumably, I'm going to be cutting more and the word count will continue to shrink, possibly to novella size, which it is perilously close to already. After some thought and discussion with my writing peers, I decided I'm okay with this. I am a huge fan of short stories and novellas (I, in fact, have a horse named Novella) and as this second book will be e-published, I feel the word count is not much of an issue.
     I briefly wondered about feasible ways to add to the book, but as I've mentioned in previous posts, I've caused myself huge amounts of grief, confusion and rewriting from page one by attempting to bring in things like new plot twists.  A recent experience with the work of a favorite author also helped to frighten me away from the idea.
     In recent posts I have mentioned this favorite series author whose last two books I'm disappointed with. In addition to things I've already mentioned, in her latest novel and the previous one there were several scenes that were so completely unnecessary, they were obviously what I ungraciously refer to as filler, or padding. The scenes were amusing, because her characters continue to be fun, but added nothing to the book, except to make the reader wonder, "And the point of this is what?". It did not help that the author had already presented the main character with a crisis to deal with, before having the heroine go off on frivolous jaunts that had no connection to the issues being faced, instead of working to solve the problem. Utterly frustrating for even the most adoring fan.
     These two books by this author make up the perfect 'poster child' for the rule: If it doesn't move the plot forward or add to character development - cut it! Another of my favorite writers includes scenes that are humorous or interesting but, while not necessary to the story, they work as part of the plot and do not leave the reader thinking, "Why is this here?" But overall, this is a situation to avoid.
     So if I don't have an inspiration that will add something wonderful to my novel and make it a better book - as well as a longer one - shorter is okay.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Stuck On Poetry

I've done my version of research (meaning not much) on various types of poetry. Most of what I found about the different kinds focused on definitions. Examples I found interesting:
ABC poems have 5 lines. Lines 1-4 the first words are in alphabetical order. Line 5 starts with any letter.
Cinquains also have 5 lines. Line 1 is one word title, line 2 is a two word description, 3 is three words that tell action, 4 is four words that express feeling, 5 is a one word recall of the title.

Haiku - three unrhymed lines with 5, 7 and 5 syllables.

Sestina - 6 six-line stanzas and a three line envoy (look it up - I had to.) The six end words of the first stanza are variously repeated as end words in following stanzas.

Sonnets, Petrarchan, Terza Rima and Villanelle all have some kind of complicated rhyming or syllable pattern that confuse me. I'm sure there must be some kind of math involved. (Random note: I have stories featuring horses named Terza Rima and Villanelle. Many horses I own are given names that have some kind of literary association, from obvious (Eliot and Chaucer) to more obscure: Random (House) and Parker (Pens).

While these descriptions and definitions are fascinating, some seem easy to understand while others are hard to imagine. Seeing examples of these types of poetry would make it clear that the ones that seem easy to understand are not easy to write. Poems of the types that are hard to imagine are incredible.

To truly appreciate the different kinds of poetry you have to read a lot of poems of each type, which I believe is a worthwhile exercise for any writer, whatever their preferred genre (for reading or writing) is.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Learning To Appreciate Poetry On A New Level

I recently went to a poetry reading/meeting group at Landmark Booksellers, a local independent bookstore. (www.landmarkbooksellers.com). It was not my idea. I was more or less dragged by a family member who is an enthusiast. Like many writers, I've never cared much for poetry. Possibly unlike other writers, this is partly because I am not clever enough to appreciate this form of writing.
     I have been exposed to a good deal of poetry during my life, as a student and as a writer, and I've never been really impressed with it. The poetry I most like is the Shel Silverstein type and I am very fond of the books Love That Dog and Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech. Silverstein and Creech both write for children - I'm sure that says something about me - but they are both amazingly talented writers. Being able to write for children is a gift I do appreciate.
     Because of a freakish citywide blackout just before our arrival, this poetry reading was done it total darkness with several couches and chairs around a coffee table holding one large candle. Landmark is in a historic building, so even in broad daylight the atmosphere is great. This night it was awesome. The routine of the group was to go around the group two times and every person read a poem, one of their own creation or on from a favorite collection - in this case while passing around a small flashlight or using cell phones to illuminate pages.
    This collection of poets was almost as varied as the writers at LWC. LWC membership ages range from nineteen to ninety, at all levels of experience and most everyone focuses on a different kind of writing. This group was similar. There were fifteen people ranging from college-age to past retirement, and while they all wrote poetry, the types of poems and skill levels of the writers varied widely.
     They were a casual group, but I was both intimidated and inspired their talent. LWC creative writing nights focus on many different aspects of the craft and occasionally the focus is poetry. Almost none of us are serious, accomplished poets, so the group at Landmark was something I'd never experienced.
     I'm often impressed by other writers ability to use and create imagery. I am hopeless at even simple description and frequently fail to include it at all in my stories and books. But I love the way many writers can use words and phrases to show something I've seen, felt or heard, that I could never depict in any way.
     I believe poets generally excel at this. Haikus are amazing to me. How can anyone capture an entire scene, situation, emotion, story - sometimes all of these things and more - in three lines and so few words? Two of the members of the Landmark group shared fabulous haikus. Two others read lengthy works that were the equivalent of short stories, but in true poetry form. The one I found most stunning was a sestina, a type of poem that has rules for using several select words repeatedly in certain places in the poem. It told a facinating literary-type story while seamlessly following the complicated structure of a sestina.
     As I mentioned, this was an experience with poetry that I've never had before and I am so glad I was introduced to it. I plan to regularly attend this group and hope that I can learn ways to improve my own writing from these inspiring and talented individuals.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

On Schedule, Just The Wrong One

Because I have been sick (see Tuesday's post) and out of sorts, Thursday's post got published on Monday. So you won't find it here. You have to look at the post before Tuesday's (the unscheduled one that appeared Monday, not the one from the previous Thursday). Hopefully, next week's posts will be better-behaved and show up on the days they are supposed to.