The Process: New Plots

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I’m stalling.

See, I have three good pages. Three engaging pages of prologue that set up a really fun soon to be book. I can feel it, in my periphery as I type.  I’m tweaking my voice, and I like where it’s going.

Except I don’t know where it’s going, really. I have three good pages all done, and snippets of future chapters written and stored for later. But I don’t know what the story is yet. Is it going to be dystopian? Heroic? Is my protagonist secretly immoral? She’s definitely got that edge about her, in the five thousand words I have so far.

I spoke to my new writing buddy Christian, and he showed me a printout he had just done containing dozens of questions to ask a protagonist. He said that asking all the questions ahead of time, or asking a different question each time you sit down to write, might help give a better idea of what the character wants to do when presented with the scene you set. That may be true, but right now my difficulty is not with my new leading lady, nor her script. My issue is with the scenery – the flats haven’t been spiked. The curtains are flying incorrectly. I’m not even sure if there’s supposed to be a table when the show opens or not.

(I’m mixing my metaphors now.)

Times like these, I usually turn to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a book I feel every writer should own and read on a regular basis. Except I didn’t bring a copy with me to Japan, and while I remember most of the book, I don’t remember her exact advice for not rushing a character or a story. The only passage that is currently lodged in my memory is her analogy that finishing a story is like putting an octopus to bed. Except I haven’t even thought of my conclusion, because I’m stuck two-thirds of the way into the prologue. No, not stuck. This isn’t writer’s block. This is…forgery and spell craft. I’m trying to decide what something will be before I’ve actually formed it in my mind.

I find that freethinking exercises work best at the beginning. I give myself permission to write down every idea that pops into my head, without judgment or editing. Then I look over what I’ve done in, say, ten minutes and see if I’ve managed to come up with any interesting ideas.  It’s a good way to declutter your creative space, as well as find any new leads you might have overlooked. The trickiest part is the permission – your inner editor (if it’s anything like mine) will have an opinion on everything you come up with.

Me: hmm…space pirates?
Inner Editor: That’s stupid. Don’t write that.
Me: I feel pretty strongly about this space pirate idea.
Inner Editor: Like you did about your failed pirate book back in college?
Me: Here’s a glass of mental bourbon. Relax for ten minutes, and drink the mental bourbon while I do this. Then you can tear it apart and remind me of my pile of rejection letters. Deal?
Inner Editor: Deal!
Escapism: Did someone say bourbon?
Me/Inner Editor: NO.

I know that I have to write out something for this prologue to continue. I have three ideas for where I could go, but no idea where each path ultimately leads.

 

Like I said, this post is pure stalling. I guess I’ll stop now, and get back to writing.

Process: The Halloween Poem

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Every year I write a Halloween poem – most of the time I try to write a funny poem. When I was in college, I even wrote some performance Halloween poetry (which wasn’t that bad – I should try to find where I stored those).

Anyway, when I was working on this year’s poem, I got into a good rhyming flow, right up until this point:

I waited there so patiently
Out on the grassy hill
But not a soul came near to me
The air was light and still

So far, so good, even if I wasn’t a fan of the fourth line. I had a plan for where I thought this poem was going. It was going to tie into my being abroad. The original title for this poem was “Indifferent Spirits,” because I felt a real disconnect on Halloween. Normally I’m good at finding a spiritual connection on All Hallow’s Eve, but not tonight.  This poem was originally going to involve a bunch of ghosts wandering by, speaking Japanese and wondering what I kept talking to them in English.

The rhyme suggested a different path, and because I didn’t plot out this particular poem I followed. When it turned out the narrator was dead already (what a twist!) I realized that I had wanted to tell a very different story than a funny miscommunication piece.

The last line was a tough one, because my brain really wanted me to end on a scary note, not a funny one. The last four lines were to culminate in something like “There is no pleasure greater than/ a death on Halloween.” I thought this entirely too dark for my desire. While I wasn’t going to change the angle of the poem, I also didn’t want to end it on such a strong, morbid note. Better to go with the angle of time and Halloween, since I think that is what resonates more with a soul than the idea of accumulating more souls.

My brain was upset at this, because it was a really good rhyming couplet. But first thoughts are not always the best thoughts. I try to limit editing when doing a flow poem, but I think the writer has the ultimate authority to step in when tone takes a sharp left turn. Especially when its within his or her own voice.

 

 

Keeping Notes

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I have an issue. I have this line that I came up with while free-forming in the car. The problem with free-from/beat poetry while driving is that, unless you have the presence of mind to record yourself, you forget all the cool stuff you came up with by the time you reach the driveway. I hit the same refrain:

Turgid, tumultuous tumbling words

I love alliteration. There is something about hitting the same letter – the same note – while putting together similar syllables that just sits well in my heart.

And while I know that I pulled in Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss while I was riding the beat, I can’t for the life of me remember this morning what I said.

Then let the lesson be: When you have a good idea, pull off in the nearest truck stop and write it down. The destination will always be there.
(Unless it’s a job interview. Then go do that because food is a terrific motivator.)

I hear in my mind the sheepdogs baying
The commas unraveling unruly herds
My mind is vocabulary racing to cliffside
Turgid, tumultuous, tumbling words!

The Process: A Twitch of the Lips

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A Twitch of the Lips

I find writing poetry about my physicality to be daunting when I’m not making light of something dumb that I did. For example, “Omnipresent Inseam” is about a time when I split my pants because I was dancing too euphorically. I was watching Daredevil recently, and there’s a scene where Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdoch (aka Daredevil), and Rosario Dawson’s Claire the nurse share a kiss. It was not a big deal in the context of the episode, but for whatever reason my lips started pulsing. It caught me by surprise, since I was not watching Daredevil for the romance.

I wish I had a more confident voice when talking about desire. My tendency is to brush off the emotion, or make light of it(the same I would do for a goofy pratfall, since desire can make fools of us all). Plus, I don’t like admitting when I feel sad or lonely. Writing about unrequited emotions walks the finest line of melodrama of any type of poetry, I think. I try to find a way to admit that I have a more melodramatic emotion without actually admitting I feel that way, and my poetry comes out, as you might expect, conflicted and vague.

Take, for example, the first draft of “A Twitch of the Lips,” the poem I wrote shortly after the incident above:

It’s surprising – the little things that wake us up.
I’m not struck by the injustice,
The moral quandary of how to perform good acts in a bad system.
Nor am I staying up reflecting on brutality
Shot through excellent choreography.
No.
All I can think of is that I haven’t been kissed in a year,
And Rosario Dawson isn’t making my life easier.
The little things that wake us up
To realities we had the good sense to leave unacknowledged.
A twitch in the lips, a sudden pulse of blood,
And all the realities solidify into empty spaces around me.

See, I’m trying to find the humor. I’m also trying to be pragmatic – look at the chronological, literal listing of what I’m doing. At the time, as I realized what I was feeling, I shook my fist to the sky and growled, “Damn you, Rosario Dawsooooooon!” As though Ms. Dawson was to be blamed for being beautiful while my couch mates were a dog and a cat. Then there is a real sharp downer of an ending. This is also accurate. I can see the humor of my physical response, but that does not really correct for the feeling itself. Feelings don’t go away because we identify them or analyze them. We must confront them. Writing is a means of that.

So, how to combine the sadness of feeling lonely, the humor at being drawn into a tv show, and a physical reaction of unrequited desire?

The answer, as always, is rewrites and edits.

Three days I sort of picked apart what I’d written, kept words that worked. I tried to be more symbolic (bodies creating problems minds had not thought to address). I toyed around with being more direct – but it came off as stilted. Self-realization worked a little better. I thought about a start with questions as though I had surprised myself:

Has it been so long?
In that short scene I feel a definite twitch in my lips
Am I that parched?

I really wanted to use the adjective “parched” for a space – it seemed to hit on the right idea. But I though too much doubt would make the disconnect between body and mind sound weird.

Then finally, I hit upon a style that I tolerated in a voice that was more honest and compassionate. I kept my lines shorter, and my thoughts clearer. I’m not going to lie – most of my poetry I do in a single session, or perhaps a session and an edit to clear up punctuation or a word I stopped liking. I don’t dedicate time to refining my poetry, and maybe I should. This need to be correct on a subject I usually avoid brought out some good tools I had not used since college.

Editing, rewriting, being honest – these are not always easy. Sure, when I’m making up poems about ducks and rhyming about time, it flows like rain down windows. Anger also comes easily to me – which is why I try not to write really angry poems (anger is another emotion that can veer quickly into self-pity/melodrama), because they get old-school vengeful fast. Maybe I was an Inquisition member in a past life? The more difficult emotions require patience – the more nuanced or conflicted, the more teasing is required to find the truth. Unless you don’t care – in which case, why did you write it down at all?

See what will most likely be the final form in the next post!

Also if you’re a fan of superhero television / drama / guys with nice mouths, go watch Daredevil 😉

NaPoWriMo.2 : Electric Rhyming Bugaloo!

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That’s right.
It’s April, and that means we’re back to NaPoWriMo. The last time I did this monthlong poetry fest I was in China with a hefty amount of free time on my hands. Now I’m back in the States, and my time is still technically equal to what it was. Except, of course, for the longer list of things to do.

I’m excited to try it again, and I hope you, my audience, enjoys what happens when a poet must write everyday. Though if I’m being honest, I started a day early. 2.1 was written on March 31st. Yesterday’s post – which I’m posting below – is more about the process than just a poem.

Because truth be told, it’s been a rougher time for this poetess. I expect these rougher times are going to manifest themselves in my writing. I’d hope this wouldn’t upset you, but since I’m writing for me…

**** 2.2 ****

Parodies of Sad

I got a lot of positive response to my last poem, which I find interesting. Sadness- that is, writing from sadness, often garners attention because it is real. Happiness is harder to grab, harder to express without sounding trite. Sadness can veer into the melodramatic, but even in melodrama it hits a strange echo in us. Like the proper vibration to break a glass, different emotions resonate on different frequencies.

In my moments of sadness, I tend to write parodies and sing songs that sound vaguely like Garrison Keillor’s song poems from “A Prairie Home Companion”.

For example, I am still in the doldrums, so I came up with this parody of a song that I like to sing in general, “Let’s Have another Cup of Coffee, and Let’s Have another Piece of Pie:”

Oh life is just a bloody circle
We live and eventually we die
So let’s spike another cup of coffee,
And fuck it – just eat up all the pie

It’s true when bad things happen
People don’t want you to cry
So let’s spike another cup of coffee
And fuck it – just eat up all the pie

There’s a hole in my umbrella
And the storms come rollin’ in
It’s hard to keep on trying
When you never seem to win

I wonder if God chuckles
When he hears me asking why?
So let’s spike another cup of coffee
And fuck it – just eat up all the pie

It’s dramatic and sad, sure. But there’s something to be said for letting yourself wallow in words that make you feel better. Like teenagers listening to moody music. In my case, I listen to an old album “Songs of the Great Depression.” I guess, when I contemplate all the horrible things I’ve seen, and the myriad things which are worse which I have not seen, it helps to put things in perspective. Of a sort. Perspective is a terrible thing sometimes.

The Great and Terrible NaNoWriMo

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Last month was National Novel Writing Month, and you can find out more about it at their website. I think that it’s a great program, a lofty goal, and a fun project for any writer to try. I heartily recommend making a donation if you are able.

I also think there are dangers to doing the NaNoWriMo, at least serially. I want to outline them here, but first some history:
My first NaNoWriMo was exhilarating. I had a novel which had been floating around in my brain for a good long while, and with dedication and some very long nights, I put it all down onto paper. I promised I would edit it up in December, and I sort of did. I was also quite exhausted mentally, and editing fell by the wayside as new ideas moved forward.

My second NaNo was nerve-wracking. Having pushed through and won the previous year, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to repeat the process. And I was so busy that November! Still, I set aside time every day, disappearing into my room for long stretches of time, and I put my certificate on my office door.

My third NaNo was easy. I wrote an escapist piece of self-starring science fiction. It had good bones, but by that point I knew how to get things done. It was perfunctory. I didn’t revisit the story for six months.

My fourth, and last, NaNoWriMo was two years ago. I tried to write a novel I had wanted to write for a year, a daring adventure and political intrigue caper. And I did, but there was no magic to it. I felt no thrill at hitting the 50,000 word mark, no joy at seeing the “Winner” on my home page. And my story, to my dismay, was not particularly good.

I have friends who use NaNoWriMo to get through their projects, and they are successful at it. I have friends who can’t get past 20,000 words after a month. 1600 words a day is a tough quota if you aren’t writing on a regular basis, but it is doable. Here are my personal issues with NaNoWriMo.

Learning the tricks
My first problem with doing multiple NaNo’s is that my writing became more about utilizing the “short cuts” I learned than telling the story. My characters would talk about everything except the plot. There would be side adventures to the grocery store, tangential essays on the nature of unrelated matters. My writing morphed after four novels from tight to meandering. My characters stopped doing things!

That’s because when you have to write 1600 words a day, you have to find filler on the days when you can’t write – you graffiti that writer’s block! Filler is fine, and fun to write, but if you are not careful your writing will turn into nothing but filler, with very little story.

There’s also the desire to win. I’m competitive. I don’t like admitting defeat. For me, I recognized that my desire to complete the competition was negatively impacting what I was saying.

Burnout
So you complete the novel – you wrote 50,000 words in a month! Maybe with even a day or two to spare! Good for you! Now you want to decompress. My third NaNoWriMo, my decompression lasted six months for that project. I couldn’t look at my writing. I couldn’t make myself sit and put the words down. Poetry, goofy things – I didn’t stop writing, but I found my brain unwilling to revisit old projects, or start new ones in depth.

The second danger would be burnout. For me, the mental energy of writing a whole book in a month balances with the backlash which follows on December 1. I needed a break, but as any writer will say, writing is something that must be practiced regularly or we fall out of practice. I fell out of practice, and it was difficult to get back into the swing of things.
I have come to the conclusion that NaNoWriMo is great for a year or two – it’s a challenging exercise (1600 words a day!), a practice in making good habits (writing every day!), and a wonderful environment with an engaging and active writing community. The forums are full of helpful advice, tips, encouragement and positive energy.

And I think that if you have a loose marble of a story bouncing around in your head, the NaNoWriMo is a great way to get that marble out of your system – like a “writer’s cleanse.” It might not come out polished, but the goal is to put something on paper.

However, I am not convinced that doing the NaNoWriMo repeatedly doesn’t lend itself to some bad habits over time. As with any event where quantity is the goal over quality (though of course quality is desired as well), there are pitfalls.

My advice? Be mindful.

I started this blog with the intention of doing NaPoWriMo – and writing a poem a day was a bit more freeing because poetry does not require a quota of words. It was a bit more challenging because it requires, at least, a quota of ideas. I haven’t decided if I am going to do it again, though given my enjoyment of challenging myself, I probably will. Four years from now? Well, we’ll see.

Now, go and write!

Small Talk

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When writing, too often my characters get stuck making small talk. Conversation and dialogue are strengths of mine (I flatter myself), and I love to write dialogue. The problem is that my dialogue is not always plot critical. Heck, most of the time I have to delete whole swaths of small talk because it’s not actually important to the story. Because I enjoy writing adventure stories, small talk can become a real momentum killer.

On the flip side, small talk is a great way to learn more about a character. How they handle the everyday gossip, or accept a drink, or argue – these tell the reader so much about the mentality of that character! And I have a fine collection of vibrant secondary characters who love to chat.

So, how do we learn to walk the line between too much conversation and good character development?

Well, first I think it is good to write out the full conversation your characters want to have. They want to spend five pages trading barbs and debating apples and oranges? Let them – get it out of your system. Don’t tamp down their voices. That lets you, the author, get a better idea of where they’re coming from. Maybe it will give you a trait you can use later.

Second, you must have the plot point in mind. So they’re in a bar, arguing – what is the next active point in the story? Do you know that you want character A to wake up the next day, or perhaps announce a journey or decision which has not been discussed yet? How can you transition from the talk to the action? Perhaps another character arrives, or a momentary distraction breaks up the conversation. Even the tongue in cheek ender of “Well, this gets us nowhere” might be an option. But know where you want to end up, eventually, so you don’t peter out into silence, the way most small talk does eventually.

Finally, edit it down. You write it all out, find out where you really want to end, and then you start cutting. Maybe not all of it – like I said, I love small talk – but you can see where the breaks in conversation occur naturally. We utilize them in everyday life, and unless you’re trying to stylize like Ayn Rand, your characters will have breathing moments too. Perhaps a section which rehashes an earlier point can be trimmed out, or a slow bit can be where the interruption happens.
In particular, I watch for:

 

  • Repetition: In real life we might rehash a problem multiple times in the course of an evening. Characters might want to as well, but I think that makes for boring reading. Limit the number of times a character can bring up the same point in conversation.
  • Over-wit: Being clever with words is a lot of fun, but it can cloud the point. Make sure you aren’t writing wit to show off your own cleverness. Not all characters are from The Philadelphia Story (great film – go watch it immediately). I fall into this sometimes – I’m so pleased with my word play I forget the setting and the need for movement.
  • Overshadowing: You might have a character other than the protagonist making some excellent points, or some real zingers. Great, but are you going to have that character in use throughout the story? No? Then maybe you shouldn’t give them so much space. It’s harsh, but unless you’re going to change their place in the story, they don’t get to hog the spotlight. This is especially true if you have a large cast of characters.

Anyway I’m writing this little essay because I just deleted yet another chunk of dialogue that simply goes nowhere. I mean, I enjoy having these two secondary characters express themselves, but they’re not my protagonist, nor is the conversation entirely important. They’re setting up the background for the upcoming conflict, and as such it’s useful. However, I feel something gnawing at me as I reread it – the conversation is not going anywhere. These two secondary characters could keep arguing throughout the night, and still be unresolved because the larger plot won’t be truly set in motion for another chapter or two.

Here’s how I’ve chosen to resolve it:
The protagonist eavesdrops for a few lines, then joins the conversation. She gives her opinions, and the argument is about to be rehashed when second main character arrives and interrupts the conversation with question about immediate action. Thus my protagonist can announce her intention for the next chapter, while tabling the bigger plot arc for later. Drinks are shared. I can pick up on the next morning.

 

If this is of any use to you, then I’m glad.