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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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”

Your Setting

Surround yourself with things that make you want to write.

This is a lesson I’m learning more and more.  As you learn more about the world, you begin to find a million things that lead you in all directions.  Watching a foreign film makes you want to learn French.  Reading about adventure makes you want to travel the world.  Meeting a champion juggler makes you never want to juggle ever, and that’s that.  All these are great.  If you’re like me, you know that most things are within reach, and with a little work you can achieve them.  Learning French, traveling the world, never juggling— all worthwhile goals.

But do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to write?

If you’re a different kind of artist, or your career lies elsewhere, substitute your dream whenever I say the word “write”.  This applies to anything.

As a kid, I read a lot of Brian Jacques books, and I’ve posted before about how much they mean to me.  Through reading and imagining, I began to dream about writing my own stories.  For the past four years, that’s what I’ve been doing, and I love it.  I love daydreaming about it and pushing toward that goal.

The path has its ups and downs, though, like anything.  You start off shot from a cannon, propelled by your amazing inspiration and genuine love for what you’re doing.  Then, of course, comes the letdown when you actually realize you’ve got a long way ahead of you.  But you pick yourself up and keep moving, and you enjoy the work for a while.  Then you poke your head up and look around, and start comparing yourself to other people, and you wonder what you’re actually doing. Continue reading “Your Setting”

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”

A Toast to Balance

Imagine your perfect kitchen.

You have an oven.  You have a stove.  You have a microwave.  Between the toaster and the refrigerator is a clock radio that plays your favorite tunes.  Special lighting illuminates every inch of countertop.  This kitchen is basically the Ikea model; functionality, variety, and brushed aluminum everywhere.

Unfortunately, this kitchen has no electrical outlets.  When you go to make toast, you might be disappointed.

Now imagine the opposite.  Your friend has a kitchen.  It has electrical outlets every six inches.  No matter how many beaters, blenders, or bread machines your friend owns, each one has an outlet.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any of those appliances.  In fact, despite all her outlets, she has nothing to plug in.

Yours might be the Ikea model kitchen, but hers is the Home Depot electrical showcase.  (“Choose the outlet that fits your personality!!”)

Will either kitchen work if you want toast?  Probably not.  What kind of kitchen would give you toast?  That’s pretty easy to imagine: the kitchen with the best of both worlds.  Enough appliances to do the job, with enough outlets to power them all.  Perfection.

Before I lose you, I promise I’m not going into kitchen design.  I’d like to twist this metaphor to talk about speaking and writing (especially nonfiction).  Despite the appliances, this is a “show don’t tell” kind of post. Continue reading “A Toast to Balance”

How to Learn

Listening is not active.

Maybe you’re a good listener.  Maybe you take the time to sit down next to someone and really hear what they’re telling you.  That’s active, because that’s a conversation.  It may be largely one-sided, but it’s still a conversation and you’re still contributing, whether by body language or word whiskers (mms and aahs).  If you needed to, you could jump in and state your side, then go back to listening.  That’s active.

At times, however, we’re all bad listeners.  The TV is on and you’re hearing it, but you’re looking at the little news ticker on the bottom of the screen for lottery numbers rather than listening to the news.  Or you were having a conversation with someone, until they hijacked it for their own complaints, and now you’re just nodding along to make them think you’re a good listener.  That’s not active.

Here’s the thing: listening itself is not active.  It’s what you do alongside listening that makes it active.  Maybe you’re taking notes as a teacher is talking.  Maybe you’re trying to understand things from another person’s perspective, and interjecting into the conversation once or twice to clarify, or give your own experiences.  Jumping rope while listening is not active listening, despite both being active and listening.  If you’re taking what you hear and making something out of it, you’re actively listening. Continue reading “How to Learn”

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”

The Confidence Arc

One of my favorite character stereotypes is the confident character.  Richard Campbell Gansey III, Dorian Havilliard, even Valerie Solomon from Tessa Gratton’s story on Merry Sisters of Fate.  There’s something about the character who has it all, who has an all-purpose mask they crafted for themselves over the years.  Of course, since we write crafted fiction, this mask never stays on.  Something will happen to tear it off, and there— that’s when you really enjoy the character.

Half of me wants to be such a character with such a mask.  Half of me just wants to write millions of those characters.  For the convenience of everyone, and especially me, here’s a step-by-step how-to on creating the confident character. Continue reading “The Confidence Arc”