Cinquains

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I consider writing fiction a form of advanced puzzle solving involving creating characters who because of their nature experience conflict and work their way through it in the manner of the plot. This is not the only consideration I put into creating stories and I have written at length elsewhere on this blog about my ideas on creating stories.

To warm up to written word play and problem solving, I like to write poetry. I work on having more words convey more, have more muscle, by seeing what works in poetry. Sometimes I write haiku, other times sonnets or sestinas. Another form to just exercise verbal dexterity is the cinquain.

A cinquain is a short poem consisting of five, usually unrhymed lines containing, respectively, two, four, six, eight, and two syllables.

Here are a couple of my attempts at playing with cinquains:

Saturn

Crystals,

of ice, playing

Ring-around-the-rosie,

Enslaved to the giant planet.

Shining.

 

 

 

Mars

 

Red dust

blowing over

canal etched arid plains

pocked by cold, dark impact craters.

Water.

How to Be a Better Writer

 

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Write write write write write!

Seriously, the only way to get better is to practice. I have been reviewing all of my old blogger blogposts. I have been editing them and transporting them into this website. Some of my posts from 5 years ago make me cringe, but now I know how to edit. I also have more of a sense of writing for others and some of the posts are just being deleted.

In addition to just getting better at writing by writing more, it becomes easier. If you show up every day, the muse knows where to find you. I think Stephen King might be the one who said that. This morning I was listening to an Open Book podcast featuring Nick Harkaway. He talked about being the son of writer and so he knew it was just a job. He knew that you got up in the morning and started writing. No mystery about it. Editors and publishers love him because he gets the job done. He is not waiting for mystical intervention, the right mood, inspiration, or any other hooey. He is just doing the job.

So to start to be a better writer– write!

Maybe Things Are More Complicated: The Complicated Villain


I am currently working on a novel outline for a book about angels, demons, and a psychic. A string of mysterious deaths occurs, the psychic is pulled into the homicides, and there is supernatural agency at work.

I am working on laying out cause and effect streams for all the major characters and seeing how the threads interact. This has lead me to thinking about ambiguity in fiction, villains, and portraying character.

I have written about villains in the past in a post titled “The Best Types of Villains.” I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in that post. I discussed various types of villains such as the inexplicably evil villain, the type of villain who manipulates situations, men portrayed as villains because history is defined by the conquerers, the out of control child villain, and the sociopathic villain who spreads his doctrine to others.

Villains are much better when they are portrayed with depth. This brings in ambiguity. For instance, if a character is just simply someone who vandalizes for the sake of destruction and the reasons for their destroying things is never explained this is a type of inexplicably evil villain. Perhaps the character puts caltrops on the road because it makes them smile to see people’s tires blown out. The sheriff’s deputy who has just been hired is put in charge of tracking down the one planting the caltrops. This is not a very compelling story.

Yesterday I was in a group of folk, some of whom have done street art and some taggers. In the past I created public chalk murals with the intent of spurring thought and discussion. I don’t entirely understand tagging– spray painting one’s symbol or tag. To me the tagging doesn’t inspire thought in anyone else or serve anyone other than the tagger. I was asking why someone would tag and continue to tag to the point of it being a felony charge. I could understand the thrill the tagger might get from doing something against authority, surreptitiously defacing property in plain sight, and having a level of notoriety swirling around them, but ultimately what they are doing holds little ambiguity.

So, let’s change these stories slightly. What if the person planting caltrops is trying to prevent the sometimes legal and sometimes illegal deforesting of old growth forests? The caltrops are still against the law but perhaps so is the felling of some of the trees. Who is the villain? In the situation with the tagger, what if the the story were set in a police state where people were oppressed and each incidence of tagging gave the populace hope? Who is the villain?

The story of each character always has its own unique perspective. The determination of who is the villain might be subtle and the character of the characters has to come through via showing and not telling.

Here is a scene portrayal. I hope it holds ambiguity and relays what I am talking about.

The male character sighs and shakes his head. He says, “I can never count on you for support. I just wanted a relaxing conversation. A little distraction. Some time away from everything. I am so stressed out. I really wish I could count on you, but you always just think of yourself and what you want. You don’t really care about me.”

The female character, crying, says, “I do care about you. A great deal. I am trying. It’s just your dream. The dream you just told me. Why did you tell me about it?”

“What about it? It was just a dream,” male character says.

“But you said it was about having a love affair and then breaking off with the woman. Why did you bring it up?”

“See. You don’t care about me. You don’t care about that I am sick and stressed and have a stressful day tomorrow. You bring this up to talk about when it is late. And you know how hard it is for me to talk about my dreams and such. This is all about you. About what you want. You want to be in a relationship but you don’t care about me. Just don’t care. And I cannot count on you,” says the male character.

Who is the villain? The woman who is asking about the dream the man has just told her that is about a love affair being broken off? Or the man who is condemning the woman for reacting to the dream he has chosen to tell her about when it is late, he is stressed, and he is feeling sick?

Villains can be the same stuff of heroes, it is just a matter of perspective. A man can be creative, brilliant, well-educated, working in a field for the common good, and articulate and at the same time manipulative and selfish. He can believe he is virtuous all the while he is making decisions and hurting those around him. He might do this while feeling justified or placing the blame elsewhere. The downfall of a human being is rarely so clearcut as to be a simple decision on the part of a person to be “bad.” The nature of a situation or the stated character does not make someone exempt.

If an angel allows the murder of four girls by a priest and tries to put the blame on another innocent person, are they virtuous just because they are an angel?

If a demon tries to prevent harm to a human, are they still evil? What if it is so the demon can possess the human? What if it is so the human won’t be damned? Is the demon truly evil no matter what?

People are complicated. Situations and motivations can be complicated. The cancer patient may seemingly evoke sympathy, but what if he is ultimately merely manipulative and just happens to have cancer? (As in the television show “Breaking Bad.”) The widowed mother who needs to support her children may evoke sympathy even as she sells marijuana, but what if she has always been a selfish, wild-child? (As in the television show “Weeds.”)Villains whose actions and motivations are ambiguous help us to explore our dark side. They help us to learn and see the everyday situations that might arise to cause a person to make less than virtuous decisions. Fully fleshed out villains are always ambiguous and more interesting.

A Writing Prompt!

Bum pa, bum pa, pa pum…

And now for your amusement!

A writing prompt to tickle your creativity!

Words to be used: bound, dust, impregnable, bolt, ravel, temper. (Notice anything fun about these words?) Include at least one color and one number.

Alternately, look at Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and use it for inspiration. It is at the top of this post.

This does not have to be anywhere close to “perfect” or even good. It’s just to have some fun with.

Thinking in Haiku (Sounds like an ’80’s Pop Song)

I am currently a little mired in doing critiques of other people’s work so I am getting a bit behind on my blogposts. If you are looking for a decent online workshop and you write science fiction, fantasy or horror, check out www.critters.org. It is a place where you can critique other people’s work and you can post your own work.

This morning I have been kind of thinking in haiku. Here are a few examples:

Storm blew, bending trees.
Wind chimes cried out the assault.
Little sleep for me.

Coffee, milk, and toast.
Much work to be done today.
Quilt warm, pillow soft.

Sometimes, so very cold
Beyond needing a sweater.
Tears warmer than tea.

By intent a hand
hits a drum, sound fills the air.
Nothing is the same.

The pattern for haiku is 5 syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and the third line again has 5 syllables. It’s good practice to see how dense and succinct you can make the words.

 

Character Driven Improv-Plot OR Pre-Plotted Thematic Story? Which to Use?

This morning as I have been reading The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells and drinking coffee, I have been thinking about plot. I think there are a few ways to approach plot and I think for each individual writer they have to find what works for them. This might be why writing advice books are not always the most useful of things.

Let me state up front that plotting stories is not always my strong suit. And because of this I have been putting a fair amount of mental effort into thinking on what creates really good stories and good plots. To my mind there are two basic approaches to creating a story arc or plot. One is to create a character or two and plunk them into a situation and see what happens. In this approach the characters take over and as long as the author can maintain a sense of emotional honesty and integrity about who the characters are and how they would respond, the story does not lose focus with divided points of view. The main character remains the main character because the whole story comes from this character’s reactions.

Another way to create plot would be to take a story idea, create a situation, think through what the author wants to say, and create a character to enact the story. This type of plotting and preplanning can create a story where the author knows ahead of time what the ending will be and where the story is headed and thus avoids the pitfall of not knowing how to end the story. This type of story can be tough though because the characters still need to be thought through and complete. Anything less will lack authenticity.

 

The Ode Less Traveled: Iambic Pentameter

I have written about the book “The Ode Less Traveled” by Stephen Fry in the past. At one point I was going to work my way through the book and do all the exercises. Life intervened and I never did do the poetry exercises. This morning after reading about eighty pages of Stephen King’s book titled “On Writing” which really is very good and I will probably write about it another day, I pulled out “The Ode Less Traveled.”

I read the first section. It introduces the book and talks about meter in poetry. The first exercise involves listening to the rhythm of a set of selections of two lines of poetry that are written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a type of meter where every other syllable is stressed. An example would be:
“He bangs the drum and makes a dreadful noise.”

I read through all of the examples and felt confident that I had the rhythm of iambic pentameter. The second exercise in the book is about writing iambic pentameter. I need to work more on this.

Here is what I wrote this morning. It, uh, needs work shall we say. I am still trying to get the hang of this iambic pentameter thing.

Touched

The wind blew fierce and whipped the trees with might
Brown branches bent, cracked, and fell to sodden ground.
With rain, green grass grew slick, dove grey rock black.
The thunderbirds rode chariots of cloud

We hid under woolen blankets to watch.
The scent of pine, lightning’s ozone sharp tang,
And sweat scented the air. I watched the waves,
Relentless scour the shore. Thunderclaps boomed.

One strike from heaven turns sand into glass.
What once could flow unformed and ordinary,
becomes jagged and sharp with crystalline
knowledge too delicate and dangerous.

Writing in a structured meter is hard because you begin to force the meter in your thinking and after awhile you just simply cannot hear the stresses on the syllables. I posted the above poem just to give an example of what I mean. After working on this for the better part of a half an hour I am sure that if I were trying to talk to someone the way that I would say the word dangerous would sound as though I was not a native speaker of English. Also while writing this poem, I was convinced the second line was good iambic pentameter. Looking at it now the stresses are all wrong. I am going to let this activity rest for the day and come back to it tomorrow.

Try writing something in iambic pentameter! It makes you think about the word choice and offers a restriction that forces a bit of creativity.

The Ode Less Traveled

Next week I will post more six sentence stories!

Today I would like to recommend a fabulous book about poetry titled The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Stephen Fry writes in the book:

“I have a dark and dreadful secret. I write poetry…. I believe poetry is a primal impulse within all of us. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it.”

In The Ode Less Traveled, Fry offers exercises so that the reader can learn about, explore, and write poetry. It is both a kind of workbook that he expects you to deface as well as a textbook to learn about poetry. He wrote the book and kind of operates on the assumption that most people don’t like poetry because it is mysterious and intimidating. He leads the reader through lessons that help them to not just write poetry but to read poetry with a new perspective.

I highly recommend this book. I write poetry to improve my fiction. I want my words to pull multiple duties and have muscle. Writing poetry helps, I believe, to strengthen prose. I am going to work my way through The Ode Less Traveled in the next few months. I will post about the book and what I discover as I work my through it.

The first lesson in the book is about iambic pentameter. The heroic line. It is about listening to the lines, savoring them, and finding where the stresses are that give the words rhythm.

Go forth and listen aptly for the beats in language!

Sunday Writing Discussions #16: Action Steps to be a Better Writer

To write is a verb. It is something that a writer does. There are no magic manuscript fairies that live in the walls, come out when the writer dreams, and ooze their blue-black blood onto the page. No computer daemons that compose while the computer is powered down.

I have been spending a great deal of time and energy thinking about plot and structure and ways to approach the way that I write to improve my writing. To think is also a verb and for me analyzing and thinking about a piece before I write it is a necessary step in the creation of a work. But inevitably my roundus tuckus needs to be settled into my chair and I need to feel the ever so slight pressure of the keys of my mac under my fingertips.

Knowing myself and the way that I approach writing this is useful for me.

Today, I was thinking about additional active steps that I could take to improve my writing and what advice I would pass on to other people who want to write. Since you have drunk the sweet wine, enjoy the addictive thrill of writing, and have stopped by my blog for a bit of a pick-me-up, I will share what advice I have for you that I am doing myself:

1. Do it. Write. Find ways to sneak writing in at every opportunity. Write prose poems for facebook posts. Write small six sentence stories and send them as email gifts to friends and family. Write before breakfast. Write after dinner. Write on your hand. Be chic and write in a moleskin. Write on paper napkins. Write on bathroom walls. Write.

2. Read. Read poetry, fiction, blogs, non-fiction. Take every opportunity to let words flow into your mind. It is like being a literature dragon accumulating gold. Immerse yourself in the rich cultural collective of words. Know the pride of Achilles, the tragedy of Juliet, the beauty of Tinturn Abbey, the rape of the lock, why vampires shimmer in the sunlight (even if you feel this is the most debasing thing the trope has ever suffered), the conviction of Howard Roark, who kissed Ryabovich, why Katniss volunteers, and what expecto patronum means. Find sites like www.paperbackswap.com and www.bookmooch.com to supply you with material. Visit that most wondrous hall of wonders– the library and declare the librarians your book goddesses.

3. Think about what you read. Study it. Take apart a passage that worked exceptionally well and theorize why it worked. Write down phrases that struck you with their beauty and eloquence. Savor the words. What makes Hemingway, Hemingway? How does Graham Greene pack so much into his novels? How is it that Angela Carter’s dense prose comes off without being purple? Why is it that the best of classic science fiction had such enthusiasm that it is still worth reading even if dated?

4. Learn about diverse things. Engage with knowledge. Explore the world. Try new activities. If you have never been to Blantyre or Alexandria, how can you know the response to a tall, white American as he walks through the crowds of the market? What really is nano-technology? How did people in the middle ages make clothing? What is the history of the development of guns? What does a person feel the first time they… watch an elephant walk down the road? gaze at one of Monet’s waterlilies? ride in a hot air balloon? swim in an ocean? Our world is so vast. So many things to see, do, and learn about. Let your curiosity set you free and enrich your life.

5. Improve your writing. Get feedback. Critique the writing of other people because it will make your writing better. If you don’t know the rules of grammar– learn. If you have no idea of how to transition from one scene to the next– ask people, keep experimenting, and improve your abilities. Sites like www.critters.org can help you find other writers to critique your work and manuscripts for you to critique. Use the spellcheck and grammar check on your computer. Get familiar with books like The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Invest in The Elements of Style or a couple style books.

5. Make friends with other writers. They are not your competition. They are your comrades with pens. They can give you feedback, engage with you in exploring ideas about writing, help you network, and be there for you when you receive disheartening rejections. Find community because no one can do something as grand as become an author on their own– even if it is true that writing is a solo act.

6. Believe in yourself. This is actually quite a hard thing. All of us have a voice. Sometimes because of life events we get silenced. Sometimes our hearts are broken or responsibilities weigh so heavily that we lose our buoyancy or we get told by well-meaning people that we cannot write, believe in yourself and your talent. Don’t let circumstances or others silence you. Dr. Carter G. Woodson once said, “If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”

7. Recognize the value of your work. Don’t give your work away for free to others to make money off of it, demand its value. If publishing a poem or a story in a semi-pro magazine and seeing your work in print is enough payment for you, great! But you decide what is sufficient payment and expect some value to come from your work. Writing is work and should be paid as work. While every writer has to advance in their career and may start at a lowly spot, continuing to improve and persevering will pay off. It is possible to make a career of writing, many people do it. Expect that your work will be given its value.

8. Write for an audience. Not everything everyone writes will be universally received. However, write keeping in mind that the intent of the writing is for other people to read it. The goal really is to produce a piece of writing that entertains, challenges people’s conceptions, informs, etc.

9. Get creative and take risks. Break new ground. It keeps the endeavor fresh. Enthusiasm is something that reads through. If you are passionate about what you are writing, this will come through and will help to captivate readers.

10. Get businesslike. I am going to admit that I am not good at this. I enjoy the creative side of writing. I am stimulated by analyzing how good writing works and new ways to approach fiction. I am not so good at thinking pragmatically about my writing. So as I write this, I am setting this as a goal for myself. Create a spreadsheet or some other system, send works out for possible publication, and keep track. Save receipts that cover the cost of doing freelance work. Get systematic about sending out inquiries. Accept writing work that is paid even if it is not preferable. Learning to write and follow someone else’s style guide is part of the business of writing. Get creative about finding new markets. Try new ways to market publish. Think “monetize”. Getting paid for a piece is a grand reward. Seeing your income increase as your writing works its way out into the world reinforces the value of the endeavor in your mind’s eye and everything flows in an upward cycle from there.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t know how many things would be on the list. I could add other items like try new forms or forget any delusions about being “A Writer,” but I think this list is pretty good. If you are reading this and you can think of other items to add, please put them in the comments. I am always working on improving my writing and perhaps you will help me.

Sunday Writing Discussions: Mucking Around in the Grey Area

I am behind this weekend in my posting to this blog because I have been working on other writing. I am still working on a couple projects but I decided to take an hour or so and write more thoughts about writing and plot development. I am trying to construct a way of considering the structure and composition of fiction to make the piece more complete as an integrated whole. Some of this falls to how the plot is conceived.

Currently how I am considering a story has different layers.

The first layer has to do in part with what some people would call “world-building” but I think this actually needs to be conceived of more completely. I call this the culture of a story. This includes any description of the exotic setting of a story, but it goes farther. It needs to include the world view or cultural mindset of the milieu being created. For example to make the distinction, the mind set or cultural world view of an Inuit living on a reserve is going to be dramatically different from that of a New Yorker. I once saw an interview with a photographer from New York who discussed how he felt that the world view of people from the American Southwest was dramatically different from the people of New York because people in the Southwest could not avoid seeing the expanse of the sky. This enormity of the sky stretching from horizon to horizon made a difference and he felt people of the Southwest were more in touch with the vastness of the universe. Reality encompasses everything. There is no way to write all of reality. This framing by consciously choosing a “culture of a story” narrows and focuses the fiction at a first level.

The second layer to creating fiction as I am working conceptualizing further narrows things. It is the choice of what I would call a moral system. This moral system may or may not have anything to do with Western Judeo-Christian morality. It is simply the core statement that defines the story one step further. To give an example of what I mean, the moral system of a story might be “crime pays,” “family is important above all else,” or “hard work rewards.” A story about a group of criminals organizing a caper and getting away with it to live in luxury would have the moral system of “crime pays” at its heart. Mario Puzo’s series of books about the Mafia illustrates fiction with the theme of “family is important above all else.” There are many examples of stories and movies that have as their moral system the idea of “hard work rewards.”

The third layer to creating fiction is to create an appropriate main character with a conflict that is central to the story and fits with the culture and the moral system. This is a further focusing of the piece. I will make the distinction that the main character is not necessarily the point of view character, but the main character is the character for whom the conflict must be resolved, whose actions and decisions directly influence the plot sequence, who must be part of the climax through their actions, and whose decisions bring about the resolution.

In creating a plot sequence, opposition is what creates tension. Fiction should not be about standing on a soap box. Opposing elements around a central issue can create opposition for the main character and hence tension in the story. For instance in a simple caper, the master thief cases the museum and sees that the security includes a particular type of alarm. She knows the best person for the job. Ok, but this is too straight forward it needs more opposition. What if that person happens to be her ex-husband who caught her in bed with his best friend? This ups the tension in this simple adventure story. The obstacle to overcome is the sourness of her past relationship.

Another way to increase the tension and bring in opposing elements to give the main character obstacles to their ease of solving their dilemma and finding resolution is to play in the grey areas around an issue. For instance what if a woman suddenly finds herself accidentally pregnant. This is a catalyst for the story. What if the culture of this story is one where abortion is legal but it is frowned upon? What if the moral system of the story is “every individual is responsible for the decisions they make”? What if this main character is from a poor Catholic family? What if the pregnancy is a result of her being date raped and having the child will remind her constantly of the rape and inspire shame? Perhaps she has just been accepted as an intern doctor in a surgical program and this pregnancy will make it so that she cannot do the internship in the highly competitive program she has been admitted to. Maybe she goes to speak to the family priest who tells her that abortion is a sin. What if she finds out that she cannot defer her admittance to the program but can opt for a less high prestige area of specialty? Maybe she talks to her mother who tells her to have an abortion to stay in the program and achieve her dreams because the mother had children before she was able to live out her dreams. Each of these opposing elements that complicate the issue of this woman and her decision to continue the pregnancy or not has the potential to add opposition and tension to the story. The key as a writer is to consider the issue at hand and bring in opposing ideas that explore the grey area of the issue. Sometimes to present a balanced approach, the writer should approach whatever issue they are raising from the opposite of what they believe because this will help in not pulling out a soap box. Ultimately, the resolution will come from the writer’s vision of what they intend to say with the story and what they want to leave the reader thinking about. The resolution must come from the combination of a logical sequence of events that follow in alignment with the intentionally created character and the character’s motivations.

Next time… resolutions and endings.