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Poetry, Chapter 1

Let’s talk about reframing.

Poetry might be overused as a term.  It seems to mean everything from “beautiful” to “meaningless”, plus the undefinable literary form of poetry which then gives rise to its prose definition…  The point is, ask most people and they won’t be able to tell you exactly what poetry is.  Of course there’s the dictionary definition— but how do you pin down poetry?  How do you pin down what’s poetic and what’s not, and what makes a good poem different from a bad one, and what lets some writers get away without capitalizing entire paragraphs while other writers get trashed for it?

I’m not going to try.

Well, I lie.  I am going to try.  But I’ll tell you now, poetry is so much more than I can ever tell you it should be.  If you think I’m wrong, good.  I’m wrong.  Give me a better definition.

Poetry, to me, is a reframing of one situation into terms of another.  It takes the present— yours, the author’s, the character’s— and reimagines it in terms of something completely unconnected, or refocuses it on the tiniest possible detail, or steps back to look at the picture as a whole.  It’s a reframing from the way we approached the situation.

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine.
(Neil Gaiman, American Gods, GoodReads)

The above stuck out to me from the many pages of the book in which it was couched.  It’s poetic, it’s something that makes you stop and think, “Huh.  Never thought of it that way.”  The characters are on a car trip, and, well, yes— Chicago would arrive pretty slowly if you’re driving toward it for a long time.

But why this exact phrasing?  It happened “like a migraine”.  That’s structured as a simple simile, but it’s a strange one.  Why not “like a cloud on the horizon”?  Why say Chicago “happened”, instead of “arrived” or “grew closer”?  (I’m intentionally being dull here.  We all know Gaiman’s sentence is probably the best version of that sentence we could ever get.)  What makes this sentence poetic?

I believe it’s the explanation of one concept by the introduction of something completely different.  It sheds new light on the subject and makes a person think, but simultaneously sparks the exact reaction the writer planned to spark.  In other words, it’s showing, not telling, but showing so creatively and elegantly that we can’t help but call it “beautiful” or “poetic”.

But this is just a single aspect of poetry (reframing a situation via simile).  Poetry is obviously more than just that.  We could discuss a verb intriguingly applied to a cloud, or understatement as a tool.  How about another style of poetry that I mentioned, refocusing on a tiny detail?  Maggie Stiefvater has something to say about that:

So remember, it’s not that the parking lot is lonely. It’s that it’s empty, and there’s one seagull picking at an abandoned bag of cold French Fries next to an old Escort with a dent in the door and a dirty, crumpled battle of the bands poster.

(Maggie Stiefvater, Dissecting Pages for Mood)

Or how about the final one I mentioned, zooming out to look at the big picture?  Here’s some Leo Tolstoy:

There was nothing over him now except the sky—the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab—it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God! …”

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

And this, also from War and Peace:

Looking down over the railing, Prince Nesvitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging, rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amidst the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers’; occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company’s or an officer’s cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

Of course, you could argue that the two above quotes are not actually a zooming out at all, but a focus in on the clouds, or the river, or the artillerist, or the column of men, or the officer in his cape, or Prince Andrei, or Prince Nesvitsky— and within the many facets of the second quote, a likening to the motion of a river.  And you’d be correct.  I think this final quote exhibits all three techniques in one.

But they’re all reframings.  The Maggie Stiefvater quote takes an empty parking lot and turns it into a seagull and a dented car, things we don’t associate with every lonely parking lot— but if we hear about those things, we can picture it all the better.  The first War and Peace quote is, I believe, moments after the narrator got either stabbed or blown up or had something violent happen to him while he was fighting the French, and he dramatically sets it all aside for a breath of tranquility.   The final War and Peace moment is possibly the most blatant reframe, where the soldiers become the river, a cart becomes a log, an officer becomes a spray of white foam.

Poetry is reframing.  The picture twists and changes into something completely different in our minds, whether through simile, detail, or generalization.

Further Reading:

  • Any of the books I quoted or mentioned in this post are worth the time.
  • If you’d like to browse through some literary devices, feel free.

Exercises:

  • Pick one of your favorite books or movies.  Find a moment that strikes you as poetic.  What techniques does the author or director use in that moment?  What kind of words, what kind of rhythm, what kind of imagery?
  • Write something poetic.  It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to reframe something.  Try to reframe in a way that hasn’t been done before.
  • Describe your house by picking on a single detail.  Now describe it by generalizing.  Now describe it by simile.  See if you can blend all three.

Montage: For Books!

Montages in movies are a lot of fun.  They spend a tiny amount of time showing us the most interesting parts of training, scientific discovery, and any other thing that needs to happen but would take a lot of time to live through.  Rocky goes from inept to competent in a matter of minutes.  Hiccup discovers the quirks of the man-killing beasts he’s feared all his life over the course of weeks, possibly months— condensed into a handful of quick scenes.  Iron Man builds a suit in his basement through trial and error, without destroying the pacing of an otherwise quick and fun movie.

Can books do this?

It’s a question I’ve had for a while.  Movies are easy to consume because they take little time compared to books, but books and prose are what I want to write.  The techniques that work in movies— the character arcs, the plot twists, the magic systems— usually work in books as well.  But those are story elements, for the most part.  The presentation of those elements, such as slow pans, jump cuts, close-ups, and the like?  Those are restricted to movies.  They have parallels in the book world, of course, but the book world has its own tricks movies can’t match.

So how can we take the idea of a montage and apply it to prose? Continue reading “Montage: For Books!”

Short Story: Wisdom of the Cloven Hoof

The following is a piece of flash fiction I wrote yesterday for the express purpose of writing it in permanent marker on a hydration backpack.  Thus, the story itself is neither polished nor meant to be very good.  I can’t remember what gave me the idea, but it worked and I’m happy with the result.  I hope you enjoy the story!

There was once a man who set out to test the old proverb “Never feed a camel with a knife.”  He bought a camel.  He bought a knife.  He bought a large brick of smoked Gouda.  He bought a lawn chair, in which he sat as he sliced the Gouda, laid it on the flat of the knife, and offered it to the camel.  The camel did not eat.

The experiment had failed.  The camel had not eaten, the man had not fed it, and the presence of the knife meant nothing whatsoever.  The lawn chair was the only thing that had done what it should.  So the man tried again.

The man offered.  The camel refused.  The cheese and knife began a long-term relationship.  The lawn chair bore it all.  Man and camel began starve.

On the nineteenth day, the man fainted from hunger.  When he awoke, the camel was looking down at him.  He offered the cheese in his hand, and the camel, at least, ate.

So pleased was the man that he did not notice the camel had pilfered the knife while he was senseless, and had cut his wallet from his pocket while he was feeding it, and was now galloping away at speed with his identity and credit cards, and a small fortune in mixed coin.

Moral: Nunquam pascere camelum culto.

Veritas in fabella omnia.

Note: “Nunquam pascere camelum culto” is very bad Latin for “Never feed a camel with a knife.”  The clause “with a knife” is ambiguous, presumably the reason for the above story.  “Veritas in fabella omnia” is also very bad Latin for “Truth in every story”.  It has no relevance to the story— as if the author needed a short sentence to fill up the final remaining blank space on a certain hydration backpack.  Whatever the case, it seems to imply that camel muggings at knifepoint are commonplace.  This translator cannot say for certain without risk of lawsuit by someone who had a terrible day with an ungulate.

Note to the note: These notes were not included on the original hydration backpack transcription.

To Magically Ignore

Fantasy has a funny way of calling things magic that aren’t really magic.

Isn’t that Brandon Sanderson’s message?  All magic is just science we haven’t explored yet.  There are systems we can’t see, but since the world isn’t outright chaos, we can dig deep and find them.

The sea!  A dark goddess who smites the unwary from beneath, dragging them down to sate her hunger.  Or, just a giant pile of water pushed around by heat, air, and whatever else happens to be living in it.  Relationships!  A magic spreading over all the world, connecting person to person and heart to heart, bringing the like-minded together, never to be healed once severed— life debts binding strangers, dreams binding loved ones, twins feeling each other’s pain.  Or, just a bunch of individual minds with individual wants who step on each other’s toes, come together and drift apart, and once in a while stick.  A house!  Dark and leaning five degrees to the left, hallways that lead nowhere (or everywhere if you come back at night), a cook in the basement who you always hear whistling but never actually see.  Or, just an old house you get lost in far too often.

There’s something fun about simplifying life this way.  The myths give explanations for why the sun rises on one side and sets on the other but never turns and goes north for a change.  Animal fiction, as I’ve mentioned before, deals with death, spirituality, and other heady topics without restraint because instead of humans they’re all cats.  Fantasy introduces creatures that are vastly different from us— thirteen eyes, ten claws— and deals with otherness that way.  It’s a lighthearted look at things that generally inspire confusion or depression, and a light heart is worthwhile.

But how much magic do you need in a story?  How much simplification, how much metaphor?  After all, simplification does not equal fun— you could end up confusing the issue instead of clarifying it if you go too far. Continue reading “To Magically Ignore”

Creepiness

Creepiness is a science.

Well, it’s a word that describes a feeling to be evoked.  Evoking that feeling is a science.  Some people might be born with this instinctively, inspiring it in everything and everyone he or she (usually he) encounters.  Others have to work for it, but once they can grow a mustache, he or she (again, usually he) has it down pat.

Feeling that a person, object, or place is creepy… well, it’s not something we generally seek in real life, but it’s something we actively seek in fiction.  And while some people manage to do this naturally and successfully in fiction, we mere mortals might need a bit more work to get there.

A fair amount of creepiness is generated by simple word choice, it must be said.  Just like using specific colors in a picture, you can adjust your text for a creepier punch by choosing different words to say what you want to say.  Warm and moist might paint a different picture than humid, for instance.

Similarly, choosing the details you include in your word picture could change the feel of the scene.  Describing the sensory details— and using sensory words to convey those details, rather than more cognitive verbage— could make things more visceral.  Of course, you already know all this.  These are fairly standard techniques for writing horror or just good, vivid storytelling.

A little while ago, however, I started to realize part of creepiness that doesn’t involve word choice or sensory details— in other words, the macro element of the creepy, rather than the micro.  While pretty much any scene can become creepy, it isn’t only a product of micro-editing it into submission.

Let’s look at what makes something creepy.  It’s a term we like to throw around about people in scraggly mustaches and cocked heads, or houses with broken windows and a fence that’s falling down.  Both are curious when you notice them in broad daylight, and they don’t notice you back.  But in a narrow hallway, or encased in shadow, you pick up your pace. Continue reading “Creepiness”

Calamity: A Review

This review is spoiler-free.

Good news: This book wasn’t as bad as some books I’ve read recently!

Bad news: It also wasn’t very good.

As the third book of a trilogy, this book had some living up to do. The first book was wildly creative and excellent. The second was a bit lacking, but still twisty and enjoyable. The third needed a bit more time in the incubator and some serious me-time with the author.

The characters were excellent, but… only in ways that carried over from previous books. Phase 1 characters— introduced back in Steelheart— were for the most part excellent and just as fun as ever. Phase 2 characters— from Firefight— continued being themselves (but didn’t grow in any way). Phase 3 characters— completely new to this book— had almost no bearing on the book’s emotional impact. In writerly terms, Phase 1 were dynamic. Almost everyone from Phase 1 had some sort of development or fleshing out to do. Phase 2 were static. They didn’t change, but they still felt alive. Phase 3 were cardboard. With one exception (based on spoilery things, one character could have been considered Phase 2 or even Phase 1), these characters just didn’t add anything of meaning.

But how can I say that? Surely they added something. Why else would they have been introduced? Well, they changed the plot, aiding or opposing the main characters in some way. But no Phase 3 character (with the aforementioned exception) had any bearing on any Phase 1 character arc. No Phase 2 or Phase 3 character had any arc to speak of.

Let’s keep examining the book, though. Perhaps these books are t0o short for dynamic characters to emerge in the third act of a trilogy. Perhaps there are redeeming factors in the other aspects of the book. Continue reading “Calamity: A Review”

Do You See?

I’m not a great micro-editor.

I write instinctually; sometimes a long sentence feels good, sometimes a short one.  I mess around, but don’t put much thought into it.  When editing, however, I’m not in the moment— I can’t tap into that instinct.  Often I don’t know what makes good writing beyond good grammar and spelling.  Rhythm, tone, flow… it’s kinda lost on me.

My instinct is starting to speak up in strange places, though.  This is bad, I think as I write blog posts.  This feels confusing.  I’m not getting my point across.  Usually it’s the form that bugs me— not this time.  It’s taken a while, but I think I’ve pinpointed that feeling.

Over the past couple weeks, I read through the Query Shark blog archives.  I wanted to learn how to write a good query letter.  The form of a query letter, however, is simple.  The author of the blog spent more time on flow, rhythm, and word choice.  One in three queries had a note offering another version of a sentence, or another word choice, or a revamped paragraph.  She kept asking, “Do you see the difference?”  After reading about 200 queries and revisions, I started to see.

My ideas weren’t confusing— my sentences were clunky. Continue reading “Do You See?”

If You Were Stuck In Quicksand…

A couple weeks ago, the basic training for my school began.

I had gone through this training a year before, but this year I volunteered to work.  I wanted to help people grow and get good things out of the experience.  Someone had trained me who I respected for being firm but kind in the midst of other wild and messy training styles— I wanted to pass that on to the next group of incoming people, or candidates.  I hadn’t exactly enjoyed my time in this training, but I had grown through it.

On the first day, when I heard candidates yelling responses to officers, I immediately felt a pit open up in my stomach.  Why am I here?   Why am I a part of something that obviously causes so much distress?  This isn’t me.

I had volunteered for this, so I would do the work.  Everyone else could yell and be mean.  I’d yell, but only so far as it kept them moving, kept them learning, and got them closer to the point where I didn’t have to yell.  As things went on, I began to realize a couple things.  One, they were only yelling because they were doing the best they could.  They weren’t used to it, and when you yell without planning to it sounds like a scream.  Two, they were distressed, yes, but with so many people around showing them where to go, that didn’t matter.  Even if they tried to make the wrong turn, we could point them in the right direction.  We’d point loudly, but we’d still point.

Three, they were learning.  They were learning fast.  It was like drinking from a fire hose— too much knowledge and protocol to digest all at once.  They got what they could, tried again if they messed it up, and learned to tune out the yelling around them and yell louder.

Wouldn’t it be better, you might ask, to just sit them down, calmly explain all of this, and let them figure it out step by step before throwing them into this mayhem?  Why so much conflict?

A couple days into training, I realized something as I was reading a book.  Especially those first few days, I had mistaken conflict for evil. Continue reading “If You Were Stuck In Quicksand…”

Teacher or Performer?

Here’s a fun fact: there’s a difference between teaching and performing.

I love doing both.  I love helping other people learn stuff that I enjoyed learning.  I also love showing off what I’ve taught myself.  But sometimes, when I’ve learned something really useful and go to teach someone else, it turns into me showing off and them learning nothing.

Because I’m a performer more than I am a teacher.

When I talk to people, it turns into a speech.  When I show someone something, I have to do it perfectly.  I always feel like I have to nail the result, even though learning is a constant struggle.

To a point, teachers are performers.  They have to know what they’re doing.  They have to be able to do everything they’re trying to teach, so that they can lead by example.  Along with that, they have to put a skill into understandable words, break it down into achievable steps, and guide others through the same journey they just completed.  It’s even more complicated than just performing.

But teachers don’t have to be perfect.

The best way to learn is to teach yourself.  A good teacher won’t guide you step-by-step to every conclusion you make— they’ll help you think in a way that allows you to figure out many different things.  It doesn’t matter, then, if the teacher knows every answer or not.  As long as the teacher can point you in the right direction, you can figure it out yourself.

To a point, performers are teachers.  If you watch someone perform successfully time and time again, you can eventually reverse-engineer their method and figure out how to replicate it.  It takes a while.  It isn’t as easy as letting them teach you.  But sometimes, people can’t teach, or just don’t.  So you figure it out yourself. Continue reading “Teacher or Performer?”

Further Songs

Howdy!  A couple nights ago my sisters and I got together to write a song.  I told them it would take less than twenty minutes, but we took about five times that.  Nevertheless, we emerged from the darkness with a song which, out of the two I’ve written, might be my favorite musically.  You know that cool thing they do in musicals where everyone’s singing a different tune at the exact same time?  Yeah, we kinda did that.

Anyway, that’s me.  You can listen to the song at the end of the post.

A lot of things have come together for this project in crazy ways.  A friend gave us a pretty high-quality microphone several years ago, which we had never used until now.  Only a couple days after I wrote my first song, a graduating senior gave me— completely free— a used computer.  Immediately I set up Audacity (a sound-editing program) and LMMS (a program similar to GarageBand, but for Windows, meant for actually creating music).  Even better, one of my brother’s old guitar pedals connects to a computer and can record to it fairly easily.

In short, I can record anything I can play, and I haven’t spent any money on it.  I’d call that a blessing. Continue reading “Further Songs”