Three Basic Poetry Mistakes

First of all, happy New Year! Glad to see we all made it through the infamous December 21st alive.

Anywho, on to poetry.

This is not an in-depth post about metaphor, symbolism, diction, whatever – this is just a list of things that will immediately turn an agent away from your poetry. In fact, these problems can even turn other writers from giving you an in-depth critique of your poem.

Lack of capitalization. Okay, I know e.e.cummings is famous for this – so famous, in fact, that we don’t even capitalize his name (it just looks weird) – but you are not e.e.cummings. You’re not. You might boast to your friends, your critics, your potential agents, that you are the next e.e.cummings – but if you’re just starting out, you need to stick to tradition. You can’t break the rules until you’ve learned the rules, as the saying goes, and if you look at all the masters who are famous for breaking the rules, you’ll see that that’s true. Picasso painted portraits and landscapes. Lady Gaga was trained classically. And e.e.cummings used capital letters.

Poor grammar and spelling. Spelling is self-explanatory, so let’s turn to grammar. The most common mistake I see in poetry is with comma use. For some reason, many people feel a need to put a comma after each line, whether it’s necessary or not, like so:

The trees in the wind,

were so beautiful.

To some people, this will look alright. But it’s not alright. It is evil. It is the bane of Elizabeth. (Okay, maybe that was a bit melodramatic.) Fortunately, there’s an easy way to remedy this problem. What I usually suggest to people is to rewrite their poetry as prose, like this:

The trees in the wind, were so beautiful.

Now pretty much anyone can see that the comma in question does not belong, delete it, and rewrite these lines correctly.

The trees in the wind

were so beautiful.

Vague language. The lines above were obviously terrible, but there was a point to my using terrible lines. Not only did the previously misuse a comma, but they also use vague language. Let’s have them one more time, shall we?

The trees in the wind

were so beautiful.

Urgh. Doesn’t inspiring further reading, does it? For one thing, “trees” and “wind” are both common, all-encompassing words that don’t make me want to read on, but today let’s focus more on “so beautiful.” It’s horribly vague language that really gives you no mental image at all, even though “beautiful” is a commonly used adjective.

What does it mean to say that someone is beautiful? Yes, the first question your friends will ask about that girl you met in the mall is probably, “Was she hot?” and you’ll probably say, “Yes,” but what does this really mean? Does your definition of beauty match that of your friends? And even if it does, there’s probably more than one type of person that you would consider beautiful. The girl was beautiful, but you like blondes and brunettes, blue eyes and brown eyes, so what did she actually look like?

It would be better to say – in poetry as in prose – that the girl in question had a clear-skinned, fine-featured face with high cheekbones and blue eyes with dark lashes and dark hair that curled around her shoulders.

Of course, if you actually say that to your buddies at the mall, they’ll just look at you blankly (unless they’re also writers), but for both prose and poetry, this is much better than “beautiful.” I think it’s almost more important to use concrete language in poetry than in prose – because prose tells a story, making it inherently a little interesting by virtue of plot and character, even if the manner of telling isn’t great. But poetry often taps into deep emotions, abstract concepts like “love” and “honor” and “freedom,” all of which are fine things but really boring to read about unless you put them in terms of concrete images.

But that’s a topic for a different post.

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The White Dwarves of Fiction

I probably should not take it upon myself to write a piece about flash fiction, since I’ve just broken into it in the last couple of years, but what the heck?

Flash fiction is difficult because it’s between 300 and 1000 words (depending on whose definition you’re using), but it needs to tell a story in its own right. But of course, you can’t just tell a story in 300-1000 words and call it flash fiction – that would go against the oft-repeated “show, don’t tell” rule.

And flash fiction has to contain the intensity of a novel in the space of a few paragraphs, hence the title of this post: A white dwarf is a star with the mass of our sun contained in a celestial body the size of the earth. (For those of you who don’t understand what a big deal this is, 1.3 million earths could fit inside the sun.) It’s so dense that a teaspoon-full of white dwarf material would weigh several tons on earth. When I was thinking about this post the other day, I thought about how flash fiction would be considered extremely dense in astronomy terms – but in literary terms, of course, you never want your piece to be called “dense.”

So I decided to use the metaphor of the white dwarf instead. In case you were wondering.

*clears throat*

So, back to flash fiction.

The best definition I’ve found for flash fiction is a story told through a single important moment. I don’t remember where I heard this definition, but I think it’s a good one. A couple examples that I think are awesome:

  1. “Mr. Sandman,” by our very own Jasmine. We see the MC sitting in her window, pondering about the sleeping-pill salesman who sold her some pills that kill her each night. Of course, this could be a novel, but it’s written as a very short piece that both ends in a satisfying, spine-chilling way and leaves you wanting more.
  2. “Train Man,” by Ruth on youngwriterssociety.com. This may be the most – I mean, I really just want to say “the best piece of literature I’ve ever read,” and this is just a girl on YWS who, as far as I know, is not yet published. Anyway, the story is told from the first-person POV of a train passenger in Great Britain, who realizes that the polite man, the affectionate father, sitting across from him is a suicide bomber. It’s the most mind-blowing moment of any story I have ever read, when the train pulls away and the narrator, looking back out the window, sees the man open his jacket in the train station to reveal a bomb strapped to his chest. And this piece is only 199 words. WOW.

Basically, my plan of attack for flash fiction is: Pick a single moment or event, dramatize the most important part of it, and end it with a whammy. If I may be permitted to use yet another metaphor, a flash fiction piece is the epigram of prose. (For those of you who don’t know what an epigram is, read this.)

Try it out. Write something under a thousand words, then work your way down – under five hundred, under three hundred, perhaps even under one hundred. See what you can come up with. Even if you don’t write a piece of flash fiction that you feel you can be proud of, flash fiction writing can help slim down your other works and make them more succinct.

If you have an account with Young Writers Society, you can read “Train Man” here.

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Pull Yourself Back

This past semester, I took a fiction workshop class – some stories were all right, some pretty good, others… god-awful. (My first draft was pretty terrible, but I was able to revamp it to such a level that turned my great in the class from a C directly to an A. Huzzah!)

In any case, there were two girls in my class who tried to write true stories. Both were pretty bad. So, my professor gave them some valuable advice: If you’re going to write about true events for a fiction class, pull yourself away from the story. Make it third person point of view if you have to.

So, I decided to try this out. In my creative writing seminar, we studied Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The main focus was on the structure of the book, but I was more interested in the narrator’s fascination with “the Swede.”

Swede Levov – isn’t that a delightfully attractive name? And I was completely captivated by the idea of “Who was the Swede?” And so I thought, “Well, hey. I know someone sort of like that.” Now, I didn’t go into depth, trying to write a three-act novel and making up the story of my own version of Swede. But, my mind immediately fell back to someone I know. Roth used the real first name and nickname of an existing person (Seymour “Swede” – He has a wikipedia article and everything). I, out of embarrassment, changed my friend’s name to Kazuya.

At first, I had such a hard time writing the story, trying to recall events that happened, things this friend and I had actually done and said, while trying to put a fictional spin on it. But, I found it became so much easier when I released myself from the main character and when I broke Kazu from the mold of my friend. Both characters were then able to transform into different people with their own personalities. It was beautiful!

The moment I realized my characters were blossoming on their own, I had a reaction not unlike this:

And wouldn’t you know? After spending a week agonizing over how I should end the story, it ended on its own. I sat there staring at the screen, thinking, “Huh. Well, that was unexpected.” But it fits.

Point is, don’t get caught up in the details of true events. Knowing exactly what happened, some writers tend to gloss things over, and the story will seem rushed and vague. However, when you take most of yourself out of the equation, you’ll be surprised at what you can create.

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Bringing Chracters to Life on the Page

Everyone knows the characters are not the only object writers need to thoroughly create, but for today, it’s what I want to talk about. A story is nothing without its characters. The plot might be amazing and the description of the cabin in the woods might be astonishing, but if you have an unbelievable character, well, then everything falls apart. A character needs to have a purpose– a point in a story that can change an entire event based on his/her action and the only way to do that is to make the character believable. They need to be real.

One way to create a believable character is to use a technique I learned from Jane Bradley called “direct experience.” For example, use language that appeals to the five senses. To clarify, take a character that bites into a sour apple. The writer should describe the bite—the juice, the flow, the taste—in a way that the reader’s taste buds activate and a sensational memory of them biting into a sour apple would trigger when they read your description. Whether people want to admit it or not, when people read good writing, a sensual clock ticks inside their head reminding them of the experience their reading and how it connects to their own. If the writer can successfully make that experience the similar, the character becomes more believable. In another words, and I’m sure everyone who writes is tired of this cliché, show don’t tell, but come on, it’s true.

The most important thing is to remember that characters are the same as people and because of that, they live in both external and internal worlds. Jane Bradley, once again, gives a great example of this. When a student, or you, sit at your desk and listen to your professor speak, do our minds not sometimes go off on a tangent wondering about what we’re doing after class, or how pretty that little “thang” is when a girl (or dude) goes walking by. Basically, your characters need “realism” and “experience” in matters. By realism I mean that all of us have memories of something – good and bad – and you should use those experiences to your advantage in order to create a more believable character. However, you can’t just simply do this. As a writer, it is your job to successfully intertwine both the external and internal worlds.

And I’ll leave the rest to C.S Lewis:

Image

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Show V. Tell…Again?

We’ve all been told, a million times, to show and not tell. And we’ve all heard explanation after explanation as to what that’s really supposed to mean. Of course this is helpful, but, for myself at least, I’ve always liked nice, concrete examples to help me really get into the meat of a concept like this. Sure, you can read books, and you can listen to people talk, but there’s something that’s much more effective about finding someone who does what you want to do, well, and learning from them.

And that’s why I’m glad to share a story that I’ve had the pleasure of stumbling upon recently: His Face All Red, by Emily Carroll.

This comic is one of those rare stories that gives me that wonderful, uneasy feeling that sticks with me. It’s been almost a week since I first read the story and I’ve thought about it at least once every day since. That impresses me.

Read it. Take the time. It’s incredibly short. Like, eight pages. But give it a look and take the time to feel the punch of it.

Now just imagine if she had spelled all of that out? If she had explained every little detail inside of the round-faced brother’s head. It would feel flat. There wouldn’t be that enchanting, intangible creepiness that makes the story so enjoyable.
Now, this is a comic. So, how can we translate this into our writing, into straight-up prose? I suppose the answer might, in the details, be different for each of us. I need to feel comfortable imagining a scene before I can write it. So, showing, for me, is a matter of describing what I might see rather than explaining what’s happening. Though, at the same time, I have friends who feel more comfortable when they can shoot from the hip. That is, writing and letting a scene unfold impromptu.

This, I’m less comfortable with, but I feel like the same ideas might apply. Imagine you are creating a comic. Imagine you’re working visually, and really try to make those vital details pop. Does the way a character dresses tell us something about who they are? Does the way they carry themselves? Do they have nervous habits? Really try to picture those details, to see how your characters might act if you were to see them in real life, and let us view those actions or qualities through your eyes.

The important thing here is: what works for you? Seriously. I want to know. Leave it in the comments.

Now, I want to wrap-up with a little homework. Take a step outside of your comfort zone, find an example that really touches you, and just take some time to get to know it. Try to figure out why it makes you feel the way you do. And then hold it up next to your own work. See if you can’t add or subtract something to evoke a similar level of emotion. Try to make yourself laugh, or cry, or shiver and want to hide.  Try to pull out those feelings, and then step back, get super critical (read: stop patting yourself on the back), and see why that happened.
And, again, share your results in the comments! It’ll be fun.

Some extra links, for your enjoyment:
CoffeeGhost.net, A nice break-down of His Face All Red:

http://coffeeghost.net/2012/06/18/a-demonstration-of-show-dont-tell-with-emily-carrolls-his-face-all-red/

Brick by Brick, by Stephen McCranie:

http://doodlealley.com/2011/10/19/brick-by-brick/

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Clank, clank, clank, clank, …. WHEEE!

I’m sitting in an imaginary roller-coaster car as it is being pulled up that first long hill.  In my mind’s ear, I can hear the clacking of the wheels on the track; in my mind’s eye I see the wide open sky above me as I reach the top of that first drop; my stomach feels the pull of G-forces as we slow, curve over, and start racing down.

ZOMG!  What have I gotten myself into?!

It’s the first of November, the beginning of National Novel Writing Month.  It’s that month where we specifically try to write fifty thousand new words.  Only 1667 words a day  —  every day, day in and day out, for thirty days.  No excuses, no slacking off.

And no prizes or rewards, either.  Just the satisfaction of knowing that you can discipline yourself to sit down and write on schedule.

I’ve been puttering along on one novel for nearly two decades.  I’ve got a couple of short stories in fitful progress, and notes and outlines for a half-dozen more.  I’ve got plenty of ideas, a sweet little laptop to record them into, the entire Internet as my research library, and all the other trappings I could ever think I need or want to become a writer.

I only need to do some writing.  Like maybe 1667 words a day  —  every day.  What separates me from imagining I’m a writer, and actually being one, is just writing all these stories out.  And this is the month when I run out of excuses.

Wish us all luck!  And lots of words….

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My characters are haunting me!

It’s true!

For nearly a year, I’d been working on what I thought would be a horror novel but actually ended at 35,000 words – making it only a novella. Either way, the story is finished, albeit I still have to edit and polish it. It’s done.

Or so I thought. You see, National Novel Writing Month is coming up, and because I finished my novella, I need an idea. I don’t usually try to think of ideas, though. I try to let them come to me. But, none would make themselves known. My characters keep haunting my thoughts, hovering over me, saying, “Jasmine… Use us… Use us!” And then I would say, “What do you guys want, a sequel? What could you possibly want after all that hell I put you guys through?”

Let me tell you, my poor characters are bruised, battered, spooked, and screwed up beyond belief. I think I gave them a fitting end. Still, they come, except now, they don’t just demand that I use them again. They’re throwing possible continuations of the plot at me. Well, great. I guess this means I have to write that sequel. And now I have to go back to my novella and change the ending so that it’s actually open for a sequel.

Welp, guys, looks like you won. And I hope you’re happy.

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by | October 20, 2012 · 3:38 pm