Wednesday, February 27, 2013

No Guts, No Glory

I was reading/reading about a poet originally from San Salvador named Roque Dalton.  Besides the cool name (and his father was one of the Dalton Gang!), he wrote very fiery poetry since he was  --besides being a poet  -- a Marxist and Communist.  So a Marxist-Communist-Poet.  Two hyphens, no less!

He was arrested early in his career as a provocateur and when he saw that he had not been brought in because of his poetry, he vowed to remedy that.  From then on he would write poetry that would, in fact, enflame the authorities and get him in trouble. What a wonderful vow to make -- to write things designed to agitate and vex.

We're not all like Roque Dalton.  But I think it might be worthwhile for writers to look at their inner authorities and ask themselves why as artists they're so docile.  Why not, for example,  agitate and vex?   Why not go against the grain?   Why be so nice, so eager to please?

When I read YA novels and the outsider boy meets the decorous girl, my heart just sinks.  I flip through picture books and long for that brave little train to crash.

Is behaving well working for you as an artist?  If so, good for you.  If not, why not surprise everybody including yourself and when you stop writing for the day and look back over the pages think, "Holy crap.  I can never show this to anybody."   And then show it.



Ever since January residency  the term Narratology has been sneaking into conversations around the house. Like this one that took place the other day. Marsha: "This is a really good article." Dave: "What's it about?" Marsha: "Narratology." Dave: "I think I'll warm up the lentil soup for supper."

I find the subject of narratology interesting. And that is why  a person blogs, of course, to talk about the stuff that in most situations drives other people to talking about lentil soup.
Kittens are relevant to every topic

I'd never heard the term  before Marsha Chall used it during a post mortem of the session Jackie Briggs Martin and I did during residency on the sidekick narrator, and I bow down to her in gratitude. I primarily studied history during my college years, you see, and never encountered literary theory except once, in an elective class on the films of Ingmar Bergman. (A class that, BTW,  launched my relationship with the soup-lover mentioned above. From Bergman to lentil soup--ah, marriage. But I digress).

Narratology is the study of, well, narratives, especially the point of view used for those narratives. Importantly, however, it is a study done primarily from the POV (Ha!) of theorists and not writers. Still, diving into narratology is is great for learning the arcane names given to various POVs, names that go way beyond "limited third."

All this is a long-winded way of getting around to sharing a snippet of the article that drove my man to lentil soup. The snippet is taken from “What every Novelist Needs to Know About Narrators,” that was published recently by the Chicago Manual of Style in its Chicago Shorts series. In it the author, Wayne C. Booth, says, In dealing with point of view the novelist must always deal with the individual work: which particular character shall tell this particular story, or part of a story, with what precise degree of reliability, privilege, freedom to comment, and so on. ... Even if the novelist has decided on a narrator who will fit one of the critic’s classifications—“omniscient,” “first person,” “limited omniscient,” “objective,” “roving,” “effaced,” or whatever—his troubles have just begun. He simply cannot find answers to his immediate, precise, practical problems by referring to statements such as that the “omniscient is the most flexible method,” or that “the objective is the most rapid or vivid.” Even the soundest of generalizations at this level will be of little use to him in his page-by-page progress through his novel.

I especially love that line, "his troubles have just begun."

And a good day to you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

To Research or Not to Research?

     The other day a friend and I wondered whether a certain writer would make deeper exploration into some topics in her work in progress. “I certainly hope so,” my friend said. “But doing research is a curse to some people.”
     Say what? Despite my periodic reluctance (like when I’d rather sleep), I know that I must conduct inquiries into as much subjects as possible, no matter how long it takes. I want my historical fiction, my biographies, even my contemporary fiction to be authentic, believable, to have worth.  I sure don’t want my books to read like lies.  OK. I admit it. I like research.
      It’s OK to paraphrase a little bit of  material and place it in one’s books, within reason. But can -- or should -- you pull all your info from other people’s material, rewrite it and call it your own? I think that's lazy. I’m just saying.
     Examining primary material -- old newspapers, journals, diaries, letters (even on the Internet within reason),  traveling to places of origin when possible, interviewing folks -- aren’t these tasks and more still performed  by writers who are serious about their work?  
     I ask because a nubie  (and self-centered) writer told me, “I hate to do that.  I hate to read. I hate history. It’s easier to just get it from somebody else’s stuff.”
    Hmmm.  I even looked up “research” quotations  on the Internet to find folks who’d help me argue my point. Playwright Wilson Mizner said,  “If you steal from one author it's plagiarism; if you steal from many it's research.”
     I’d never heard of Wilson Mizner, but his quote made sense.
     Writer and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, whose work I’m quite familiar with, said, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
     Well, what do you think? How much research do you do? Is it worth your time, weary eyes, and hard work? Or not?

Friday, February 15, 2013

How to be Funny?

As usual, there were many wonderful lectures and workshops during the January residency of the Hamline MFAC program. I’ve especially been mulling over Emily Jenkins’ lecture “How to be Funny.”

While I will concede that my books have humorous elements, they are not funny books. I can make people laugh, but I doubt if I’d ever be considered a comedian. I long to write funny books; therefore, I took careful notes during Emily’s lecture, as did everyone attending (an image that is pretty darn funny, if you like irony).

Emily structured her lecture using a list of things to do in order to write funny. The list belongs to her so I won’t give it here, but I will share the one point that I’ve been thinking about the most: “Use jolly words.”

My writing vocabulary doesn’t lean toward the jolly, and so I decided to use a jolly-colored marker and make a list of jolly words and put the list on the wall by my writing sofa.

And right away I hit the brakes because I had to stop and think, What’s a jolly word? I swear to heaven the first word that came to mind was pleather. (Mind you, this was during NY fashion week.) Not good enough, I knew right away. What word would make a kid laugh, I wondered. I swear to heaven the next word that came to mind was jugs. And naturally then I thought of pleather jugs, a term that could be funny, but only if you were writing about, oh, breast implants.

So, enough. It’s time turn to friends and ask for help. What words do you find jolly?

Thursday, February 14, 2013


     Here’s another testimonial to  Marsha’s excellent advice about writing  about houses and neighborhoods.  Try it in the city, too.  
     By walking the streets I created  an historical fiction novel involving a 13-year-old girl  who lived in the 1920s.
     Wait now. I didn’t really “walk the streets” (the way some might define that) and I wasn’t around in 1921.  But I’d studied Raleigh, NC’s  downtown area for years, wondering about the people who’d once lived and worked  at the State Capitol, and well-known historic hotels situated on  famous streets.
     Then my muse made me “re-see”  run-down buildings with broken boards and glass and even empty lots  I’d overlooked before, and write about what they would have looked like and who would have been in them back in the day:  dentist and law offices, beauty salons, shops with layers of painted over window signs, boarding houses tucked back in neat alleyways, movie theaters, drugstores with soda fountains,  street vendors, ice cream parlors, a jook joint even, and other places beneath my radar.
    Settings, sense of place, world-building and compelling characters  arose from these environs.  What will you re-see? Thanks, Marsha!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Old Dog/New Tricks

Everybody fails, but I just  failed in a new way.  Here's the lowdown:  I can't remember when I didn't finish something that I started.  When I look back, there's LIES . . ., STRAYS, the two SHAKESPEARE  novels-in-verse, the STONER books, etc.  I had trouble along the way, but I never thought I wouldn't finish;  it was just a matter of time, luck and a little help from my friends.

A few months ago, I said to my editor that I'd like to get together a collections of poems for teenagers.  I'd look through all my books-of-poems and send her sixty or so of the most appropriate.   Not so fast, Ronald.  First of all, there weren't as many so-called appropriate ones as I'd imagined.  I've always been funny and crude and often inappropriate, so there's that.  Kids would probably like those poems, but parents and librarians probably wouldn't.   More interesting than those facts, though, is this one  -- there's almost no market for a straight-up book of poems for older teens.  If they're reading books of poetry, they probably already have their favorites and they are, for want of a better hyphenate, grown-up poets.  Everybody from Mark Strand to Denise Duhamel to Sharon Olds.  To me, maybe.  But they are already fans who found me on the Big Boy Poets  shelf.

So I kissed that idea good-bye (just a little kiss/no tongue) and started to write something new.  One page a day.  Written by a teenager about his or her death.   A different kid every day.  Ninety days.

Lot of freakin' dead kids.  Really, what was I thinking?  I looked at them after nearly three months and thought, "No way."   The "collection" (if it isn't a mass grave) doesn't have a narrative thread, little to no suspense, and no one to cheer for.

I remember hearing writers talk about the sixty or so pages in a drawer, sixty pages that started well and fizzled out.  I probably thought, "Never happened to me, pal."  And now it has.

However (Oh,  lovely transition), I'm starting to think that in those ninety weird vignettes, there are four or five characters who, like Lazarus, want to step out of the darkness.    Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Very, Very Fine House

I recently finished a piece of writing that has been plaguing me for months. I’m letting it sit for a few days more before I look at it again and then proceed with the novel’s final section. Whenever I have a work in progress simmer like this I don’t like to write anything resembling it in either form or content.

The day after I closed the file I went out for a walk. I live in a lovely two-river city, in a section of town that is a combination of historic and student housing. When I was walking, one house in particular struck me and when I returned to the desk I devised a writing exercise that has generated a couple flash fiction pieces. I’m not about to share the stories, but I thought I’d share the process; maybe someone else will have some luck too.

  • Pick a house, any house, the older the better.
  • Beginning with the first occupants, write a brief history of the house, devoting only a paragraph or so to each family or business or such that occupied the house for a period of time
  • Pick one of those occupants and write a story, also working in a physical attribute of the house and one object from within the house.
  • Repeat for another later or earlier occupant.

It was a nice way to clear my head of the novel that’s preoccupied me for so long.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Punxsutawney Phil & Punctuation

Poor guy.
Both PP & P will be discussed in this, my first official Inkpot post in a long time, but if you thought I’d find a way to tie the topics together, sorry. The headline was just an irresistible alliteration as well as a shameless attempt to get picked up by search engines. This is mostly about punctuation and a little bit about Punxsutawney Phil. 

First, the groundhog.

I don’t get what the fuss is all about. Six weeks of winter means different things to different regions, so why is this always national news? Also, where is PETA when you want it? That poor rodent.

Now on to punctuation, specifically the semi-colon. A few of us on the Inkpot have taken on the topic of favorite and least-favorite punctuation. Liza Ketchum found and shared a lovely poem that made punctuation sexy and Anne Ursu introduced us to National Punctuation Day.  Em dashes and ellipses have also inspired Inkpotters. 

Today we’re discussing the semi-colon.  In my writing the semi-colon is more of a tic than a tool. When editing my last couple of projects I‘ve conceded as much, and I now do a search for all semi-colons when revising so that I can consider and likely change them all, just like I search for certain words (such as just).   

I did just such a search yesterday, and the result was 66 semi-colons in 282 pages. Too much? Some people would say that even one is too much. In case you’re one of those people, maybe you should read this interview with the semi-colon. It’s a much stronger defense than I would be able to muster. Enjoy.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Staying on Track?

      How many calendars do you have? Which ones are most useful to you as a writer?
      I have at least five.  One is “”  calendar,  a month-to-month, year-at a glance  calendar   on my laptop that  lets me  see what an exact date is, say, five weeks or six months from now.
     It saves me from getting up to look at the humongous calendar on the wall in the other room.  This thing has a 20x15-inch sheet  for each month where I  can write notes on individual dates -- i.e. “ Feb. 1 -- FINAL NOTICE! Pay this bill today!”
     A third is the colorful Perma-Bound  “2013 Author & Illustrator Birthday Calendar”  that announces the birthdays  of  folks,  from  J. R. R. Tolkien, Floyd Cooper, and Julius Lester (January), Chris Crutcher,  E. B. White and John Gardner (July),  Joan Carris, Paula Danziger and Karen Hesse (August), to Jan Brett, Stephenie Myer,  and Jerry Pinkney (December). I'm in there, too, but I won't say which month.
     The world contains a gazillion more writers and illustrators than that, but it’s a good start. It’s also a reminder to visit -- or re-visit some of these worthy wordsmiths’ and artsmiths' work.
     Number  four is the annual “Handsome Hunk” calendar. This one gives me all kinds of ideas! Last year’s  Mr. July was … inspiring. Well, so was September... .
     Number five is a medical calendar, with obvious info for obvious reasons, tucked away in a room where I try not to look at it too often. 
     This list doesn’t include calendars on my bank register books, business card sized calendars that  insurance agents, morticians  and plumbers  distribute, the one on my watch that I can't set correctly, and my cell phone calendar,  which I rarely look at, either.
     The main purposes of my calendars  include keeping me abreast of  dates that give manuscript and bill deadlines,  awards ceremony  RSVPs (hopefully mine again one day), certain hard-to-get-along-with editors’  birthdays, and, of course, the next Hamline residency!
   Which calendars  are in your writers’ toolboxes? How do they keep you on track?