Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. Click here for Part 1.

Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet

I admit it: I have dabbled in poetry. The Forbidden Art. I took a class on the Romantic Poets (Blake and Keats 4eva!), but I also, through no fault of my own, ended up in an Advanced Poetry class without having even taking the basic level poetry class. Sure, I’d taken the Intro creative writing class, and I’d written some poems there, and some stuff back in high school (thankfully not the typical angst-filled kind, but still pretty bad). I was annoyed, since this was not the class I’d wanted to take (that would have been the short story writing class, which was full), but I wasn’t worried. The first poem I handed in for critique, the class completely ripped to shreds. And rightly so. I’d been thrown ass-first into the deep end of the poetry pool, and this was going to be a trial by fire, where I’d learn not to use clichés and mix my metaphors.

The upshot of studying poetry, and writing poetry, especially with a group of people much more experienced and dedicated to the art form, was that I could FEEL my writing improving at the word-level, the level of individual expressions and arrangements of syllables, the building blocks even more basic than the sentence. (I was like a biologist who discovered, hey, you know, knowing a little bit about this chemistry stuff is pretty useful.) It was good exercise, focusing that level of care and attention on individual words, their interactions and arrangements, on layers of meaning and metaphor and imagery. And unlike in a story writing class, we read our poems aloud before critiquing them. I am a big advocate of reading your work aloud, tasting the syllables, the rhythm of the words and punctuation.

So: read poetry. Read it aloud. Write poetry, even if it’s bad. Read your own poetry, good or bad, ALOUD. In front of people, and by “people,” I mean an audience, not your cat. You don’t have to try to be a poet; Zeus Seuss knows I’M not a poet, and have never claimed to be. (I even wrote a poem for the aforementioned poetry writing class, about how I’m not a poet; cute, but that whole “meta” thing’s been done a bit much.) But if you can capture even some microscopic iota of poetry in your words, some poetic residue to soak your prose in, you’re bound to improve your story writing as well.

If you’re not that familiar with poetry, setting yourself the task to read it, let alone write it, may seem daunting. Poetry is so varied, and so subjective, it’s hard to take (or give) any advice on who or what to read. You might not know where to start. So I’m going to tell you: think about the types of songs you like. What kind of lyrics do you find compelling? Do some brainstorming. Write down some of your favorite songs and write a sentence or two about why you like each one, focusing on the content of the lyrics apart from the music itself. Maybe make notes on some songs you really don’t like, and what it is you can’t stand about them. Is there a pattern to what you like and don’t like? A common complaint about poetry is that it “doesn’t make sense” — the meaning is too abstract. But if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, that might not be a concern for you. (“Ballad of a Thin Man” might follow a poetic logic that evokes the sinister bewilderment of a nightmare, but that doesn’t qualify as “making sense” for most people.)

Once you have a good grasp of what it is you like (and don’t like) in song lyrics — which are really just a kind of poetry — then you’ll be armed with the knowledge of what kind of poetry you’re looking for, and thus equipped to seek it out. The internet is a great resource, but don’t overlook other sources of information. Venture out into meatspace, talk to some real humans. Libraries and librarians are awesome. AWESOME. And don’t forget that most experts, particularly in academia, are eager to share their expertise. If you can get in touch with a professor at a local college, you’ll have a font of information (no cold calls; use your common sense, shoot them a politely worded email if you don’t have a mutual contact who can relay your interest). If you’re asking about their specific area of expertise, even better. Tell someone who’s devoted their life to the study of Irish poetics that you’re really interested in Yeats, and you’ll have an instant friend. (Just make sure you pronounce it “Yates” and NOT “Yeets.”)

Before I close out this section, I’ll give you a few of my favorite poetry exercises we did in the Advanced Poetry class I took.

Found Word Exercise

Take some written medium, like a newspaper, or go to Wikipedia and hit the “random article” button half a dozen times and use those as your medium. Choose words and phrases from the selected medium and splice them together to create a poem.

Dictionary Exercise Random Word Exercise

I was going to talk about an exercise that involved picking words out of a dictionary, but since it’s kind of awkward to explain and a lot of people don’t own hardcopy dictionaries anymore, I came up with something else on my own.

Write something — anything, a poem or prose — or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now pull up a random word generator like text fixer or watchout4snakes. Generate a random word, and replace the first noun of your text with the randomly generated one. Do this for every noun in the text.

The possible variations on this exercise are almost limitless. You could generate 14 random words and use each one in the line of a sonnet, or generate 3 random words, one for each line of a haiku. (Just so you know, haiku written in English don’t really have to follow the seventeen syllable rule, so don’t beat yourself up trying to decide if “tired” is one or two syllables. Bonus points if you write a haiku in Japanese and then translate it into English.)

Watchout4snakes, a random word generation site I discovered while I was writing this, has a “word+” generator that lets you choose what type of word you want (adjective, noun, verb, etc.). So you could generate random words for a poem as you’re writing it, every time you needed a verb, or every time you needed a noun, or just when you didn’t know what to put next. The site also has a phrase generator, and a sentence generator that could be used to generate the first line of a poem, or even the first line of a story. I only had to click the “refresh” button a couple of times on the sentence generator before I got: The oldest weapon pants into a questionable camera. I just might have to use that as a story opener! There’s even a paragraph generator, which you could use to create your “base text” for this exercise or one of the other exercises.

Opposite Word Exercise

This exercise is a little more complicated. Write a poem or a prose passage, or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now choose a pattern of words within the piece of writing: every noun, every verb, every other word, or even every single word. It can be whatever pattern you like, but the more words in the pattern the tougher the exercise and the more wild the results.

Now go through each word in your chosen pattern and try to think of the opposite word, and replace the original word with its opposite. Not every word has an obvious antonym, so you may have to get creative (which is part of the point). Try to be consistent, so that (for example) the opposite of “one” isn’t “two” in one place and “zero” in another, and if “if” is the opposite of “because” then “because” is also the opposite of “if.” This may sound simple, until you have to think of a one-word opposite of “the” or “of” or “be.” (That last one can get complicated; personally, I avoid contractions with this exercise, because while “isn’t” could be the opposite of “is,” there is no equivalent negative contraction of “be.” Try to dig deeper and ask yourself, what action could I set as an opposing or mirror action to being?)

Not only can this exercise produce interesting and unexpected results — one of my favorite poems I wrote for the Advanced Poetry class was just the every-word-opposite of a different (bad) poem I wrote — but it also gets you thinking about words on a very fundamental level.

Thus ends Part 2. Coming up next, Part 3 will be… With Passion: Words to Build Worlds.

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. This installment provides a basic introduction and some warm-up exercises.

Recently a friend from my writing group, the very talented z.m. quỳnh, complimented my use of language and description in fiction and asked me about my process, how I write on the prose level. I babbled incoherently for a few minutes and didn’t really say anything helpful, but since then I’ve thought some more about how I got to this point with my writing, specifically my language use and narrative prose. I’m no expert, but I decided to post my thoughts here, to hopefully provide a better answer to z.m.’s question, and for anyone else who’s interested. (I don’t know, maybe the rest of you think my language use totes sux.)

Keep in mind that what I have to say here isn’t likely to help anyone improve the CLARITY of their prose. I won’t be talking much about the basics of prose writing. That’s a subject that could easily take up a whole blog post by itself, and in fact has filled entire books. What you’ll find here are some very broad guidelines — let’s say, ideas — for how you might proceed if you want to improve the language in your writing, based on my own limited personal experience.

Practicing: Word Harder

The creative writing department at the college I attended had a pretty strong literary bent, which generally puts an emphasis on style over structure. Outside of critiquing each other’s stories — and one (excellent) course on playwriting and screenwriting — we didn’t delve very deep into how to tell a story. The reading and resulting discussion we did basically ended up being the same kind of literary criticism you’d do in a standard literature course. (Considering the plethora of literature courses I had to take to complete my BA in Creative Writing, many totally unrelated to the type of writing I wanted to pursue, I felt and still feel that additional literary criticism in my creative writing classes was a huge waste of time.) So, lacking the guidance of anyone like Nancy Kress (and oh, man, do I wish her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends had been part of the curriculum!) I basically spent four years polishing my prose. (It still sucked by the time I graduated, but it sucked LESS.)

So, to unpack that a little bit: improve your prose through practice. This might seem like part and parcel of the old advice to simply write more. And to a certain extent it is. But, if you practice some of the things I’m going to talk about in this and following installments, maybe you can help hone your prose specifically as you continue to improve your writing generally. (Results may vary. Improvement not guaranteed. Void where prohibited. Side effects may include synecdoche, metonymy, and imagery. Consult your Muse before use.)

Since we’re talking about practice (well, I am anyway (actually I’m not talk at all, I’m just typing) but if you’re talking, I’m afraid I can’t hear you) let’s start with… *drum roll* … some practice! Just a couple of exercises to get into the right frame of mind.

I’ll give you a sentence of description, and you go ahead and rewrite it to make it more evocative:

The sun shone down on the parking lot.

 

Okay, that’s a pretty bland sentence. No way you can screw this one up. Try rewriting it a few times in different ways. Expand on it, if you feel the need — there’s only so much you can do with that one sentence. Experiment with tone. Is this story a comedy, a drama, a love story? A horror story, the sunny day at odds with an inescapable sense of foreboding? Obviously experimenting with tone could be an exercise all on its own, but here we can use it to give you some different “sentence environments” for playing with language. Different words and expressions lend themselves to different tones, and vice-versa.

Let’s try a bit of a longer segment that will give you more to work with:

Althea picked out an apple from the basket on the counter. She held it in her hand, staring at it. She inspected every detail of the apple’s skin, under its waxy coating.

 

Also fairly bland, but clear. You could easily elaborate about what details Althea notices on the apple’s skin; hint at why she’s staring at an apple in the first place; add some subtext to indicate her mood or state of mind; make the apple a reflection of that state of mind. Doing any number of these things, while useful practice by themselves, will also give you room to experiment with language, rhythm, and sentence structure.

Try some sentences and scenes of your own devising. If you like, you can come back to these exercises, or make some more of your own, after you’ve read the other sections of this extended essay thingamajig.

That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet.

Nebulas 2015

I had a new and unexpected experience this past Friday at the Nebula Award Weekend.

Someone recognized me from the internet.

A few months back, looking for feedback on short stories, I joined Codex, a forum for “neo-pro” spec-fic writers. After joining, I decided I should do what a normal, sociable human being would do, and post in the “Introduce Yourself” thread. As usual, I had to work against my inherent reserved nature to put myself out there like that, and also as usual, it seems like it paid off.  At the Nebulas, fellow Codexian S.B. Divya recognized me, and introduced me to a number of other Codexians in attendance, and my time there was much enriched for it. (Thanks, Divya!)

I’d expected that I’d spend the Nebulas shuffling around by myself, maybe run into and chat with some folks I knew from Gumbo Fiction Salon. I did do those things, but also ended up meeting a lot of awesome new people. Which was kind of the point of going – I just thought it would be much harder, or that I’d fail miserably to capitalize on the opportunity.

I spent most of the weekend hanging out with Gary Kloster and his wife Brin (Gary is the writer of the two, but Brin shared some fascinating insights into the world of medicine), and Elizabeth Shack, all of whom were incredibly nice and friendly (as was everyone I met, really). Between standing around awkwardly in larger groups and then talking Elizabeth’s ear off later at the signing event, I realized something else about my aforementioned reserved nature. It’s something I’d known for ages on some level, but the weekend helped crystallize it in my mind: among the gregarious, I’m always the quiet one, and among the quiet, I’m always the gregarious one. In some (purely imagined) statistical model of loquaciousness, I seem to fall in a kind of valley between the natural bell curves of talkative people and quiet people. In the valley of the mute, the babbling fool is king – or something like that.

It amazed me how many of the Nebula-goers knew each other, seemingly quite well. Perhaps if I don the skin of the writer and exhibit its habits, the herd (pack?) will come to accept me as one of their own.

WisCon 39 Musings

In my last post, I promised to talk about WisCon 39. Personal stuff came up last week after the con, but I am now able to follow through. I’ll hit a few highlights, panels and events that made a particular impression, but feel free to jump around and read whichever sections catch your interest.

Little-Known Goddesses (Panel)

This panel was chock full of interesting female deities, both ones I thought I knew, and ones I’d never heard of. I wish I could give more specific examples, but tragically I lost my notes later in the night, misplacing them in a sleep-deprived fugue. One interesting point I recall was the discussion of goddesses (and deities in general) who represent both sides (or a spectrum) of a concept, such as a goddess of both life and death, or of both disease and healing.

The panel discussed goddesses from various different cultures, but I was disappointed by the lack of pre-Columbian New World deities. (I would have liked to learn more about Coatlicue, for instance.) This was no fault of the panelists, as they were each speaking to the religious traditions which they were most familiar with, and had a lot of interesting knowledge to share.

Though some audience members chimed in with questions or comments, I valiantly refrained from interrupting and derailing the panel with a soliloquy about Amaterasu and the possible matriarchal roots of Shinto.

Cultural Literacy or Cultural Appropriation? (Panel)

As a writer who tends to draw a lot of inspiration from non-Western cultures, this question is one I’ve considered often. The key takeaway from this panel was: respect. It’s perhaps reductive and naive of me to throw that word out and expect everyone to interpret it correctly (I don’t really expect that), but that’s what the consensus seemed to boil down to. Artistic expression is a kind of conversation, and whenever you enter into conversation with another culture, it needs to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and it needs to be done with respect.

Scientific Utopianism in the Work of Kim Stanley Robinson (Panel)

The very un-naive optimism of Kim Stanley Robinson‘s writing is one of the (many) things that makes it so compelling. Utopianism, in this context, is not the end goal, but the process: a continuous striving to build a better future. Many of Robinson’s characters are scientists who are also at the forefront of social, political, economic, and cultural change, very different and far more interesting than the apolitical walking lab-coats or politically destructive “mad scientists” that frequently show up in science fiction. Robinson portrays the ethical application of science as the way forward for humanity, but never oversimplifies it into a silver bullet for the world’s problems, a vision very much in keeping with my own worldview.

Science-Compatible Religion in Fiction (Panel)

This panel was interesting, but not what I was expecting or hoping it would be. From the title and description, I thought it would be an exploration of various science-compatible religions in various works of fiction, how and why certain examples work (or don’t), and what qualities of a (fictional) religion make it compatible with science. The panel began with a few examples, notably the “five gods” religion of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series. But rather than delving into details, the panel turned instead to various other topics, such as the relative science-compatibility of non-fictional religions (each panelist enumerating how they thought their own paradigm was or was not science-compatible), as well as whether science was itself just another religion (!). So, as I mentioned, while the discussion was interesting, I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t what I’d been expecting.

Kim Stanley Robinson Guest of Honor Reading

This totally blew me away. Robinson’s reading was a bit of a multimedia experience (experiment?). For about forty minutes, in the dark, he read the thoughts of a quantum AI on a generational spaceship traveling close to the speed of light, while a prerecorded track played underneath. The recording consisted of an ebb and flow of voices, variously reciting the names of stars (as if charting their passage), or echoing lines from the text, or preempting lines Robinson hadn’t read yet. When the lights came on, most of the audience were tongue-tied (I certainly was), and it took a moment before any hands went up to comment or question.

When the Q&A portion ended and everyone got up to leave, I noticed a few people filing up to the front to ask for signatures. Since I’d been lugging around a big hardbound copy of The Years of Rice and Salt waiting for exactly this kind of opportunity, I joined the small line. I was glad for the chance to speak with Robinson, however briefly, and delighted to learn that of the nearly twenty novels he’s written, The Years of Rice and Salt is his personal favorite.

Communism Was Just a Red Herring! (Panel)

Despite the punny title, this panel was very well-reasoned and thought provoking. Most of the panelists agreed that there is merit in Marx’s writing, if you divorce them from the Stalinism, Maosim, and the various revolutions which tried (and failed) to put his ideas into practice in a way he never intended. Kim Stanley Robinson was a panelist on this one, and I thought he summed things up quite well (paraphrased): Marx was an excellent historian of political economics, but once he started predicting what would (or should) happen next, he moved into the territory of science fiction, and like most science fiction writers his predictions were deeply flawed.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed WisCon, and I’m glad there is a sci-fi convention with such a strong focus on diversity. I doubt it will become a regular thing for me, because of the expense and hassle involved in attending a non-local convention, but it was definitely worthwhile to get out to Madison and see what it was all about.

Writer’s Voice 2015 Contest Entry: The Stepping Stones

Yesterday, I stumbled across The Writer’s Voice, which looked like a good opportunity and an excuse to actually start posting here. Next post should be about WisCon 39, which I’ll be attending this weekend.

So here’s my query letter and the first 250 words of The Stepping Stones, for The Writer’s Voice.

QUERY

Brenya often longs for the autonomy afforded the Peregrines, warriors who can cross hundreds of miles in an instant. But no woman has ever manifested the ability to travel between the monoliths called Stepping Stones. Even among men it’s a rare gift. So when Brenya dares to touch one of the Stones, she doesn’t expect to transport herself to the heart of the distant capital.

With that single step, Brenya breaks a precedent that became sacred dogma long ago. And the Lapizarium, the order that upholds that dogma, is prepared to kill her and even topple whole kingdoms to bury her transgression — or worse, forcibly strip her of the power and autonomy she’s always wanted.

With few willing to aid her, Brenya finds an unexpected advocate in Caen, commander of the Peregrines. She can’t fully fathom Caen’s motives for helping her, but suspects he has some deeper agenda. Playing pawn to his mysterious machinations could incite civil war, and would mean compromising her newfound freedom. If she stays true to herself, she risks losing that freedom entirely in her battle with the Lapizarium… a battle she has little hope of winning alone.

Brenya may be the first woman with the power of a Peregrine, but she’s determined not to be the last. Whatever the answer, and whatever her choice, she will have to fight for her right to exist and determine her own fate — and change the very nature of the Stepping Stones in the process.

Completed at 151,000 words, The Stepping Stones is epic fantasy with a human core. It stands on its own but could also serve as the start of a series. Agents at McIntosh & Otis and The Bent Agency are currently considering the full manuscript.

My short fiction has appeared in Cicada, Ideomancer, and Tales to Terrify. Thank you for your time and consideration.

FIRST 250 WORDS

Chapter 1

Brenya had never seen a cuttle-man before. Sibyl didn’t say so, but Brenya got the impression she had encountered a cuttle-man or two in her youth. They were supposed to be more common in the south.

Waves lapped the shore, marking the border between Suhrlund and the kingdom of Feyland to the north. The far coastline of Feyland was invisible in the morning fog that lay over the strait. Brenya breathed in the sea-salt air, its familiar tang tempered by the dew of early spring.

They sighted the cuttle-man along the misty beach long before they spotted his peddler’s wares, unpacked from their water-proof oilskin wrappings and laid out all around him. He looked nothing like a man. Brenya was put in mind of an etching she’d seen of a nautilus, if the illustrator had replaced a number of the creature’s wavy arms with four legs like a mastodon’s — another creature Brenya had seen only in etchings. The cuttle-man towered up twelve feet or more to the top of his spiral shell, its smooth striped surface adorned with numerous hooks for securing his goods, its weight supported by his tree-trunk-thick legs.

Above the cuttle-man’s legs and below his shell, a collection of prehensile arms surrounded a mouth like an enormous bird’s beak. Brenya counted eight arms in all, and couldn’t imagine how he kept track of them all moving independently, stretching out across his wares, arranging things, each appendage longer than he was tall.

. . .

And that’s it. Many thanks to the contest hosts for running The Writer’s Voice and giving me the opportunity to put myself and my work out there.