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.
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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”

Beta Readers Wanted!

With the end of Spoon-Fed Camel, I have turned my attention toward editing my previous novel, The Tailor’s Song.  I almost can’t believe I didn’t post here when I finished that novel— I had a blast writing it, and personally I think it’s my best yet.  But I’m biased.

Anyway, as part of the process, I need a beta readers to help me see this thing from other angles.  And not just any beta readers will do— I want you as a beta reader.

“Oh, but I’m not a writer,” you say.  Or, “Oh, but I’m not a very good writer,” you say.  Or, “Oh, but I’m such a better writer than you are,” you say.  It doesn’t matter.  If you’re at all interested after you read the pitch below, please comment.  Beta reading requires no particular skill set besides enjoying a good story.  If what I’ve written rubs you the wrong way, I just need you to make a note and tell me which part.  You don’t have to fix it for me— let me do the hard work.  Just point at the spots I missed.

I’d really appreciate your help!  I’ll take as many beta readers as are willing— just say the word.  Without further ado, here’s the pitch.

Tessa thought nude magicians were the worst of her problems.

For the last nine months, Tessa has run her parents’ clothing shop.  Her powerful, entitled customers appreciate her ability to take their nonsense in stride.  Her senile, penniless tenant appreciates her ability to pretend that yes, the rent was up-to-date, not almost a year overdue.  Tessa, in turn, appreciates her punching bag’s ability to absorb her frustration; it dies a thousand deaths after close of business each day.  Life is manageable.

It doesn’t last.  Tessa soon learns her city business license will expire in a month if she can’t renew it.  Her father’s lack of records makes mundane paperwork a scavenger hunt as she searches the city for people who knew her parents well.  Her punching bag lacks power against the mounting stress— however, a young magician, entitled as they come, quickly becomes the focus of her pent-up rage.

As Tessa struggles along, one of her customers falls dead at her feet— rather, hanging upside-down in the air by magic no one understands.  The police, with few options, pinpoint Tessa’s shop as one of their only leads.  Tessa must close down.  Faced with an expiring license, unhappy customers, and a murder investigation side-eyeing her, she can give up and accept the consequences, or fight to stay afloat, innocent, and sane.

If that appeals to you, let me know!  I’d love your help.  Thanks.

Stuff To Which I Am Up

Fun fact: when you arrange “Stuff I’m Up To” in order to remove the preposition at the end, you still end with a preposition.

Anyway, I told you I was going to fill you all in on my productivity plans, and here I am.  I don’t usually do this, because sometimes I can’t be as productive as I’d like to be and I never get to the things I say I will.  But that’s human, and I hope you all understand that I, too, fall into that category.

So let’s jump in.  Here, in no particular order, is the Stuff To Which I Am Up. Continue reading “Stuff To Which I Am Up”

Novel #8

I just finished a novel.  My eighth.

I call it Spoon-Fed Camel.  My progress bar on the right of this blog doesn’t let me update the wordcount anymore, but it is complete at 93,836 words.

It contains no camels, no spoons, and very little food.

A short pitch: When virtual reality magic gets out of control, it sucks two patrons into its chaotic world, forcing them to face and fix parts of it they had never imagined possible.

It’s an adventure story, I think, at its heart.  (I just listened to a bunch of Writing Excuses podcasts that seemed to describe my book pretty well, so I’m calling it adventure.)  Even though the world sucks them in at first, it’s because they chose to be there and chose to have that adventure.  But I also tried (and failed) to put several more layers into the story.  The successful parts were the ones I didn’t expect.

This was a fun story to write.  I always enjoy creating a lot of strange creatures for my characters to meet, and a lot of different environments— think of Star Wars or Star Trek— but this time I took it to a new level.  The virtual reality could become anything it wanted.  I ended up with some pretty interesting stuff to write.  Giant birds, giant snakes, giant monsters made of rock.  Swarms of bugs, swarms of gophers, swarms of pieces of my protagonist.  Rabid zebras, rabid buffalo, rabid cat people.

If it helps, I can list more things in threes. Continue reading “Novel #8”

Short Story: Ash

Allow me to present this year’s 24-hour short story.  I started it at 11:57 last night, barely staying within the rules.  I have to say, it turned out differently than I expected.  Check out the other short stories written last night, which will be collected soon on the host blog.  Enjoy.


“Tell her she smells like your mom,” said the imp from John’s jacket. “That always works for me.”

John smoothed his lapel. The imp squeaked as John’s hand squashed it.

“Is that him?” John’s date leaned forward. The imp had interrupted while she introduced herself, and he was too embarrassed to ask her name a second time. “The elf?”

“Imp,” said John automatically. “And no. I left it at home. It doesn’t like this jacket.”

“If you’re expecting to keep this woman, I suggest you prevent her from smelling it,” said the imp, poking his head above John’s collar. “Great long johns, fresh air is sweet unto my nostrils!” He snorted noisily. John cleared his throat to cover the sound, but his date wouldn’t hear the imp anyway.

“Is it really that fickle?” she asked, cocking her head. “I thought it went everywhere you did.”

“Everywhere I want it to,” said John with a dead smile. The tips of her red hair brushed her shoulders. John shivered, imagining flames smoldering and burning her skin. “How did traveling treat you? Did you enjoy your first time navigating New York City?”

She deflected the change of subject with a smile. “I’m curious about the terms of your agreement with him. I mean, with it. Is he— it— bound to doing whatever you say, or is it his choice? Can he do anything, or is he limited? I keep saying he, but you know what I mean.” She laughed, touching his arm across the table as if they shared this hilarious joke. Her hand was scorching.

John didn’t like her much. Continue reading “Short Story: Ash”

Short Story: Klepto-Mobile

I wrote this short story way back in June for a competition.  The competition required a fantasy story exploring a new world, in under a thousand words.  This version, the first one I wrote, is nearing two thousand words.  While I did cut it down for the contest, I prefer the longer version.  There’s a sentimental value to any short story you write at midnight in pink pen.  Enjoy.  If you’d like to read the shortened, polished version, you can find it here: http://writetheworld.com/groups/1/shared/2767/version/5257


Stealing cars was more fun when they weren’t magical.

Stu leapt into the third one, pressing the ignition button and the brake at the same time. The cars were all new, meaning his hotwiring techniques set off more alarms than Stu actually ever tripped. They were all magical, meaning at least two of them had tried to melt his eyebrows in creative ways. Stu had never seen such an angry llama.

Stu held the key fob close to the dashboard and tried the button again, with nothing but a beep in response. He had found the key in a tray by the door— it had to fit one of these. He couldn’t survive many more hotwire attempts.

Definitely not this car. The speedometer had a rooster stenciled into its face, and after the acid-spitting llama…

Stu kicked open the door and dove into the next car. He had little time. He could thank his stars, though, that none of these “alarms” had alarmed anyone but him. He was—

The silver convertible screamed. Continue reading “Short Story: Klepto-Mobile”

Another Tag

Here’s another tag post, filled with fun, whimsy, and questionable interpretations.  I mean, interpreting questions.  Because I can’t answer anything straight.

This is the Would You Rather book tag, given once again by Katie.  Full disclosure from the beginning, I can’t stand either/or questions, because there is never a situation in which you won’t change your mind.  Would you rather have pizza or rocks?  Well, I’d probably pick pizza at first, but if I just spent the last eight months eating nothing but pizza while travelling around the magical and pizza-filled Pizzazia, I think I’d have to go with rocks.  All I’m saying is there’s always a possibility.  Thus, I’m not going to like any of my own answers, so definitely don’t read too much into them.  So, would I rather… Continue reading “Another Tag”

I’m Gonna Pop Some Tags

I guess I had this coming when I said I was open for tags for the next month.  I suppose I’m really lucky it took a week for people to get the ball rolling— I love hanging around here, but three weeks might be my limit on tagging sanity.  So cram them in if you want them answered, people.

Katie at Spiral-Bound tagged me with the Extraordinary Means tag.  Six questions full of high costs, and I have to decide which author or character or book is worth such a price.  I’m going to say right now, however, that I take issue with some of the questions, so I’ll probably spend more time arguing them than actually answering them.  Anyway, here goes.  Forgive me if I’m a bit rusty. Continue reading “I’m Gonna Pop Some Tags”