What’s in a Poem?

“Poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.”

Magnetic poetry
Image taken from user zaraki.kenpachi on Flickr Creative Commons.

You’ll have to forgive me, because I am a bit uncertain about the original source of this quote. Originally I had thought it was C.S. Lewis, but upon further research I think that either 1) I was misremembering, or 2) I may have read it in a Lewis work some time ago, but even Lewis was quoting someone else and not attributing the quote to himself. (I want to say it was in An Experiment in Criticism, but I couldn’t find it after briefly re-skimming the chapter on Poetry; I’d have to read more thoroughly to do so). In any case, upon a quick internet search this morning, I’ve found a few different sources attributing this quote not to Lewis at all, but to French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé.

According to a literary magazine entitled The Paris Review: “Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, ‘But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.’ ‘But my dear Degas,’ the poet replied, ‘poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.'”

Now, after opening with an inspirational-sounding quote, I may surprise you. Because I’m actually not going to take the side of that quote. In the above exchange, I’d put myself in the shoes of Degas, knowing that my poems aren’t always the best or deepest ones in the world, but saying (despite the rebukes of the more deep, artistic poets), “Sure I can write poems. I’ve got a lot of great ideas. That’s what it takes to write a poem, right?”

Yes, obviously, poems contain words, and they shouldn’t be just any words haphazardly thrown together, but words arranged in a specific way based on sound, structure, etc. And I realize that. But for me, a poem still starts with an idea. Every writer is different, of course, and there’s no one correct way to do everything, but for me a poem starts with an idea, a feeling, etc.–and it’s not until later that I can translate that idea into the words which make up a poem.

When I posted one of my poems earlier in the week, I mentioned that some people are talented enough that they can write a beautiful and poignant poem about almost anything–something in nature, a tiny episode out of their day, something they see just walking down the street, etc. Personally, I am not one of those people. In order to make a halfway decent poem (at least, one that I think is halfway decent), in order to really be inspired and care about what I’m writing, I need to base it on something important to me–a feeling, a life experience, something I’ve been going through or thinking about already, etc. It starts with an idea, a strong and powerful and weighty idea that is close to my heart, and I translate it into words later as I go along (sometimes over the course of two or three or more revisions).

I vaguely remember one poem I wrote in a creative writing class in college. It was about nature–something about winter, and the snow melting as spring begins to come along. I may have called it “Waning Winter Wonderland” or something alliterative like that. But I didn’t write it because I was passionate about it and I really felt a deep sense of inspiration to write about the snow; I only wrote it in response to an assignment or writing prompt for class. My professor (who I’m quite certain is a better and more experienced poet than I) seemed to like it, and wrote in a comment that I should “please keep working on this one!” But I don’t think I did. I’m not sure if I even still have the poem anymore or could find it again at this point. While it may have been wise for me to at least take my professor’s advice and continue honing my craft, the poem wasn’t one of my favorite ones, because it wasn’t one that was important to me at the time. It wasn’t born of personal inspiration. It wasn’t about something I was passionate about, and it didn’t really come from my heart.

For me, poems that I write have a very close and personal inspiration. I think that’s why I’ve been told–and I agree with this–that my poems are often like stories. They’re about things that happen or things that people deal with rather than just about things that one might see in nature, for example. Each one contains a story, or at least is born of a story in my mind. When presenting them or reading them aloud to an audience, I may often say something like, “So I wrote this poem at a time when [X] was going on, and that was kind of what made me want to write about it…”

In fact, I do believe that prose and stories are my forte more than poetry is, which is part of why I don’t write poems super often. And when I do, my poems are born of personal experience and personal inspiration. I don’t just sit down and write a poem arbitrarily (unless a college class requires it). I write one every so often when I have a feeling or idea or inspiration that means a lot to me and that I think would be worthy of a poem. Admittedly, it may not seem like the most literary or artistic approach compared to Mallarmé’s lofty philosophy. But it’s what works for me, and as I said, I don’t think there’s any one right formula that works for all authors all the time.

So which way works best for you? If you’ve ever written a poem, do you make them out of words? Or out of ideas? Or out of stories?

Poetry
Image taken from user Signore Aceto on Flickr Creative Commons.

“Secret Identity”

Here’s another new poem that I finalized just recently and debuted at an open mic night this week. I’m calling it “Secret Identity.”

Question for discussion: do you prefer poems with a definite rhyme or rhythm (like this one will be), or ones written in free verse (like the last one I posted)? I feel like free verse is more “in vogue” these days, and so for a while most of what I wrote was free verse. But personally, I find that when I write for spoken word or specifically for performance (as I have been doing lately), I like to go back to consistent rhyme and rhythm if I can. Having a rhythm and a pattern or beat helps me to keep my pace when the audible sounds are the focus more than the written word.

Anyway, here’s “Secret Identity.” I hope you enjoy it.

——

Shirt & tie
Image taken from user jopperbok on Flickr Creative Commons.

My shirt and tie may cover me.

These glasses hide my eyes.

But still this outer man you see

is merely a disguise.

By day I speak on words and books.

Your minds I try to fill.

I may give disapproving looks

or tell you to sit still.

But underneath there’s so much more

than what you could dream of:

a soldier fighting holy war,

a heart that’s full of love

and far-too-idealistic hopes

in my heroic quest

to talk of more than tomes and tropes

but make your life feel blessed.

Behind the desk, behind the beard,

behind the endless puns

lies something more than first appeared:

deep care for broken ones.

I see you there, alone and lost

like sheep, a shepherd needing.

You don’t know I’d pay any cost

to simply stop the bleeding.

You’ll never know how much I care

or how I long to hold you

or how I wish I could be there

though outwardly I scold you.

Oh, how I longed to draw you near

like a hen unto her chicks,

to chase off every hurt and fear—

to shield, to heal, to fix.

Of burdens I would bear the brunt—

but alas, I am unable,

for I stand up here at the front

while you sit at your table.

For after all, I’m only one

flawed, finite, mortal creature,

and when it all is said and done,

I’m just a high school teacher.

But I’ll always be here on your side.

I’ll always be your fan.

I couldn’t save you if I tried,

but I’ll do what I can.

Clark changing
Image taken from user Porta-john on Flickr Creative Commons. Originally published by DC Comics.

The Wanderer’s Lament

I haven’t written much fiction lately, but I’ve been working on some poetry. And as our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me this week, a poem can often be a form of telling a story. In my case, I certainly believe that that’s true. Some people are gifted enough that they can write beautiful poems about almost anything, but I can really only bring myself to write one when I have the right inspiration, usually when it has been influenced by something from my life—-a story, if you will.

Later in the week, I may write a post analyzing poems and storytelling a little more thoroughly. For now, I’d just like to share with you some of the latest ones I’ve written. The following is a work in progress born of an emotion inside me, but I didn’t really put it down in words until yesterday–so I reserve the right to edit and change it later on as I revisit it. (But I am planning to unveil it to the public at an open mic night tonight, so hopefully it’s ready enough for that at least!)

I have named this poem “The Wanderer’s Lament.”

———-

Home is not the mattress I sleep on

in a brick building far too uptight

to be anything more than a temporary dwelling.

Home is no longer the four walls

where I talked and laughed with two best friends

right up until everything changed.

Home is not even where my parents live, or my brothers,

or the simpler, more idealistic version of myself

I can still glimpse within my mind,

reading a book or doing homework

in that familiar house ten years ago.

Home is not a past that can never be repeated–

but neither is it the ever-fleeting present

or some hopeful future still in flux.

Home is not a grand adventure

6788260659_52e0a97b0d_n
Image taken from user Ciscolo on Flickr Creative Commons.

where I crossed the river to chase my dreams

and learn how to grow up a little more

and just maybe begin laying down some roots.

Home is not the winding halls

of the university I still love,

or the classroom where I spend so many hours

to earn a living and hopefully make a difference.

Home isn’t found under a steeple, in a pew,

or even a friendly living room full of smiling faces

with a Bible in my lap.

Home is not my friends,

the ones who have stood by me for years,

or the ones who so graciously welcomed me

into a strange new land.

Home is not any loving community that I’ve found,

or any that I’m likely to find in a week,

or a month,

or a year.

If one day I find love

and build up a family in a house,

if I hold a wife close to me

or cherish the sweet laugh of a child,

even then the home I long for

will still be far from me.

 

If I Find in Myself a Desire
Image taken from QuotesVil.com. Quote from C.S. Lewis.

Home will finally quench my deep desire

which nothing in this world can satisfy,

because, most probably,

I was made for another.

I don’t know what home will look like,

but I’ll see it when I go.

 

 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Dancing to Enhance your Writing

swingAs I may have mentioned somewhere before, I love to dance. I regularly attend lessons and social dances for East Coast Swing (Lindy Hop), West Coast Swing, and Latin dancing (Salsa/Bachata/Merengue). As an introvert, I find that dancing is when I feel the most connected to people. I can be around large groups without freaking out because I’m only connecting to one person at any given time. At the same time, though, I get to dance with about 20-30 people at each event, meaning I’m spending time and getting in tune with multiple people over a short amount of time without exhausting myself. Dance keeps me sane; all of my other hobbies, including (or especially) writing, tend to keep me far too wrapped up in my own head to be healthy. And yet, I recently realized that one of the dance styles I love actually helps me with my writing.  wcs

All dancing tells a story (whether it’s an enjoyable/aesthetically pleasing one is up to the ability of the dancers) through the music and the musical interpretations of the dancers. East Coast Swing and Salsa definitely help me tell a story, but I’ve found that as they are more upbeat, fast, and based on established forms and patterns, the tale in my head doesn’t develop as much nuance and complexity as I would like. Faster dances (of the unchoreographed variety) don’t really allow for much time to think or react to the music, so it doesn’t help me with my stories as much. West Coast Swing, on the other hand, tends to be slower. There are a few basic steps and turns, but the majority of the dance is focused on improvisation: feeling the beat, listening to the lyrics and the various instruments, and then moving your body in a way that both fits what’s happening in the music and what your partner is doing. When I dance WCS, I continuously find myself not thinking much about the dance itself; rather, I’m creating a character in my head as I move through the dance, but instead of writing it down, I’m acting it out through my movements. Not only have I gotten some really interesting ideas for stories from this kind of dancing (particularly from dances to Maroon 5’s “One More Night” and the Civil Wars’ acoustic rendition of “Billie Jean”), but it actually makes me more creative and better able to write. If I sit down and write after an enjoyable and inspiring dance, the words flow. My creativity is awakened, and I’m far more in tune with my characters, the story, and my own mind than I am if I try to write normally. Obviously, I can’t go out dancing every time I want to work on a story, and I don’t always have the time to sit down and write after a WCS event. But it helps my creativity in general, and those golden moments when circumstances align themselves just right spark my imagination like nothing else. Even dancing alone in my room with whatever funky music comes up on my Spotify playlist can help. You’re telling a story through your body movements, and you’re relaxing your brain enough to let the creativity flow. So here’s some advice from that wise philosopher, Lady Gaga: “Just dance, it’ll be okay.” It will. And you may find that something good and creative comes from it.

Being Original in a World Where Everything’s Been Done Before

I’ve always been taught that the best work I can do is the work that comes from me, and while I see some value in this line of thinking I must confess that I have always been a little skeptical of it. I didn’t write The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers. In fact, I haven’t written anything that could be considered staple literature for reading. Sure, the things I write might be enjoyable to read, but there is something about the classics that makes them what they are: great. I’m not here to tell you what that something is, but I think if we are being honest with ourselves we should admit that it is perfectly okay, and even recommended, to copy those authors and their pieces of literature. We want to accomplish what they accomplished and be as great as they are and I don’t think we can honestly expect to get there without trying, in some capacity, to copy them. Obviously, don’t plagiarize. That’s a far cry from what I’m saying. What I am suggesting is to try to copy those concepts which you enjoy the most about a particular book or author. A carpenter doesn’t get better by trying to teach himself, he advances by imitating his master’s work. What I am suggesting is no different from this.

ChairThat being said, some degree of originality must be kept or else a story or an element can become bland to the readers. We must do our own work while also following in the footsteps of those we strive to be like. To bring it back to the carpenter analogy; a carpenter is probably not looking for a new way or shape to make a chair, but is instead looking for how to turn the basic chair into his own masterpiece. Likewise, I say we need to imitate concepts, like the concept of a chair, but make the content our own. We aren’t trying to reproduce the same chair that another carpenter made; what we want to make is still obviously a chair, containing all the nuances that go in to making a chair everything it should be, but we want to make it in a way that is obviously our own.

Scene Challenge of the Week

057529-FC222Welcome to October, everyone. Technically yesterday was the first day of the month, but you’re getting you’re welcome today. It’s a great day to be alive, so take some time to enjoy yourself. Remember to stop and smell the roses and whatnot. Seriously though, I try to make a little time every day to just enjoy myself. It’s important because all to often life can be challenging and the little pleasures are the only ones we get. That being said, I truly hope that you enjoy you’re writing challenge today! Today is your scene challenge, and you all should know the rules, but just in case: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

Doctor, We Have a Problem

We watch Matt Smith now. Matt Smith is cool.

The British Sci-Fi show “Doctor Who” has been one of my favorite TV shows for years. I grew up with it…long before Slitheen, Rose Tyler,  and the Silence, I was enthralled to watch Tom Baker’s be-scarfed 4th Doctor munching on jellybabies while travelling with Sarah Jane, Sylvester McCoy’s dark and mysterious 7th Doctor teach Ace to enjoy the wonders of the universe without blowing everything up, and Jon Pertwee’s Edwardian 3rd Doctor stroll around Earth in his velvet smoking jacket. I spent many hours learning to be a “witty little knitter” so that I could make a scarf like the 4th Doctor’s, writing stories in which I was the companion of the Doctor, and pretending to be the beautiful Time Lord/Lady Romana. Yes, the special effects were cheesy, but I didn’t care. It was magic. So a few years ago, when I heard the news that Doctor Who was being brought back to life, I was absolutely ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to get wrapped up in the magic again and let myself be taken to other times and places that I could have never dreamed of. Now, almost 6 years later, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed. There are a lot of things the show gets very, very right (hello, Weeping Angels *shudders*), but I find it to be rather lacking in a great deal of the creativity that enthralled me in the “classic series.”

My first issue: why in the name of Gallifrey do we keep coming back to Earth? The show is about a man who can travel

Ah, Gallifrey. I wish to see more of you.

ANYWHERE in time and space. That implies that he’s not going to be tethered to one little planet in one galaxy for the next few centuries. Yes, he’s rather fond of it and I get that. But in a show that has 13-14 episodes per season, setting 4-5 episodes or more on Earth is rather annoying. I want to see other worlds, not be told about them (the episode “Boom Town” was guilty of this – they mentioned at least 4 different planets and we never got to see a glimpse of any of them). For example, look at season 1 with the 9th Doctor: only 3 out of 10 episodes take place off Earth. Of those 3, 1 watches the destruction of Earth and the other 2 involve a space station orbiting Earth. The classic series did spend a great deal of time on Earth, but nowhere near as much as the current season does (before you bring up Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor, let me mention that they stuck him on Earth because of budget constraints – current Who doesn’t have those pressing restrictions). Look at the Key to Time story arc during the tenure of Tom Baker: 6 stories, each with 4 or more episodes. Only one of those stories took place on Earth. Throughout classic Who, we visited Skaro, Gallifrey, Ribos, the Planet of the Spiders, Varos, and so many other worlds. I miss them. Every time the TARDIS doors open onto the same old landscapes of Earth, I sigh with disappointment. I want to use my imagination and let it go elsewhere, not be stuck on a world I already know. The most recent season of Doctor Who has gotten a little bit better, but still far too much about Earth. Steven Moffat, I’m begging you: take us somewhere else!

Sutekh, my favorite classic Who villian.

My second big issue: the villians. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m sick and tired of the Daleks and the Cybermen. They’ve lost whatever menace they originally had. It started with the episode “Dalek,” what with giving the Dalek human emotions and all that, but at least they got something right: Daleks aren’t capable of feeling emotion, they’re not supposed to feel emotion. When that one Dalek was forcibly given emotions, it confused it and pushed it to the point of self-destruction because feelings and emotions defeat the very purpose of Daleks. They can’t feel, they don’t feel, and they don’t want to. That’s what made them scary in the classic series: millions and millions of these creatures who had no emotion at all – you couldn’t reason with them, parlay with them, or convince them to leave you alone. Their only purpose was to exterminate every non-Dalek in the entire universe, and your only recourse was to destroy one if you saw it. That’s what made them terrifying, to me. Now they’re jokes. Everytime they come on screen, I roll my eyes, moan, and say “Oh Rassilon, not again.” They’ve been watered down with the whole Cult of Skaro thing, plus the Emperor (“Worship him” – how ridiculous)…I can’t take them seriously. They show up over and over again, and they’re stale. Same with the Cybermen – the writers keep making them capable of showing human emotions (such Yvonne overriding her programming in “Doomsday”), and they keep bringing them back to the show in episode after episode to the point that I hate them as much as the Daleks, and not in the intended way. They were brilliant in the Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel two-parter, but now they’re dull. Some of the best villians/monsters from the classic series were just that because they were used sparingly and they were never demeaned. Sutekh (from Pyramids of Mars), Eldrad (from the Hand of Fear), and the Rani (female counterpart to the Master) all come to mind…well written, scary villians, and not overdone. New Who has some really awesome monsters, such as the Silence, but I really wish they’d use them instead of going back to the same old same old. Daleks, blah, blah, Cybermen, blah, blah. It’s boring.

So anyway, that’s my rant for today. I greatly appreciate the rejuvenation (or even regeneration) of Doctor Who, I just

Someone please “exterminate” these guys.

really wish they’d be more creative with it. Infuse it with some new life…take us to worlds we’ve never heard of, create villians and monsters that we couldn’t even imagine. Make it new, make it different. You have all of time and space to choose from…make use of it. That is, after all, part of what makes Doctor Who so incredible and enduring in the first place.

And That’s The Way Uh-huh I Write It

I want one. Seriously.

When it comes to the physical act of writing a story, people like to take different approaches. Some like to write the whole thing down on paper, some use a computer or typewriter, others meld the two style, and some people even like to be a little extreme and use post-it notes or index cards (it’s true – I know a guy who wrote all of his first drafts on index cards). There is no “best way” to do it, in my opinion. It’s a personal choice and is often dictated by character and surroundings. My friend Jonny uses an old fashioned typewriter because he’s an old fashioned sort of fellow. It works for him (and quite frankly, I’d use one too, if I could get one). My personal preference has changed over the past couple of years. I used to write mainly with pen and paper, but recently I’ve switched to almost completely writing using my computer. Today, I just want to take a brief look at both methods and discuss the pros and cons and why I use them when I do.

I started off writing everything by hand because I didn’t have much computer

This method can work pretty well too.

access when I was younger. I began actually writing stories when I was 7, and I had no idea that you could do more with a computer than just play games on it. Plus, my dad was in the military, so my family traveled around a great deal. So I just carried a notebook and pencil case around with me everywhere I went. I’d write in the car on the way to the commissary (for you non-military folks, that’s the grocery store on base), on the plane back to the States when we came back from Iceland to visit, in between songs at church, and on the top bunk in the bedroom that I shared with two of my sisters. That’s the great thing about hand writing your work…you can do it pretty much anywhere. If an idea strikes you, you can write it down right then and not have to worry about forgetting it. You can also just write whenever you want to or whenever you have a few minutes of downtime. It’s definitely very convenient. There are a few problems with it, of course. Some of us (myself included) have atrocious handwriting, which makes it difficult to read our brilliant ideas later on. You have to keep writing materials with you at all times, which can get very cumbersome. Not to mention the fact that if your notebook/paper/whatever gets damaged or lost, it’s gone and you can’t get it back. Writing by hand is convenient, but you may run into some issues with “data retrieval,” so to speak.

My handwriting is worse than this.

I started making the switch to writing my stories using the computer when I was in high school. I had so many notebooks full of scribbles that I couldn’t keep track of them all, and it was getting very frustrating. Plus, there was the whole issue with not being able to read half the stuff I wrote down. As a result, I began writing using Microsoft Word, and found that I really enjoyed it. It’s a lot faster, for one thing…I don’t have to worry about my hand cramping up from writing too much, and I definitely type faster than I write. Once I got my laptop when I graduated high school, it got even better. I could carry my laptop around with me (since I usually had to anyway for college classes) and just write. It’s very easy to edit my writing and keep it organized, too. No more messy scribbles, arrows to signify the rearranging of a few paragraphs, words/phrases/sentences crossed out, or smudges on the page. It’s easier to keep from losing my work as well…I email my drafts to myself so that I always have a copy no matter what happens to my computer. Flash drives work wonders also. I can do research right from my computer, look for pictures to help me visualize everything, and listen to music all at the same time. It’s handy. There are issues, of course. The hard drive crashing, of course, is a problem. Just make sure to back up all your work every time you make changes. You have to worry about the battery life of your computer (or, as is the case with Tobias, keep the darn thing plugged in all the time) and a laptop can be very clunky to carry around all the time. Some people also have trouble with being super creative and not getting distracted, both of which are valid concerns. It works better for some than it does for others.

So there you go. That’s how I choose to actually write my stuff down 98% of the time. It works for me, but I understand that it might not work for all of y’all. What method(s) do you choose to utilize in your writing?

Attack of the Story Clones, Part 2

Formulaic stories = barren landscape

Ok, so last week we talked about the problem of “cloning” your characters, aka using the same character over and over with only a few superficial details changed. Today, we’re going to continue that theme, but we’ll be talking about plot lines. Formulaic plots are really boring, and avoiding them is a key skill for an aspiring writer to learn.

Many writers, especially those newer to the craft, have a problem with creating new plots for their stories. Aside from characterization, plot creation is one of the most difficult parts of story writing, so of course you’re going to have trouble with it. Everyone does at some point or another. This is especially true of writers who stick to one specific genre. There’s only so much you can do with, say, paranormal romance, and once you’ve written four or five stories in that genre, things become pretty repetitive. I’m not talking about all the clones of other authors’ stories (I’m talking to you, Stephanie Myer wannabes – stop trying to write “the next Twilight series.” Seriously.), that’s a post for another time. I’m talking specifically about copying and pasting your own stories. It’s probably happened to you at some point: you write a story, it’s really good, people like it, your ego gets a massive boost, so you write another one. People don’t like this one as much, and you can’t figure out why. Maybe you write a third story, and your audience is more unhappy with this one than the previous one. Upon re-reading your stories, it becomes readily apparent to you that there’s a very generic sameness about all 3 of them. The first one was great, it was original, your audience liked it. But when you wrote the second story, you tried (maybe subconsciously) to capitalize on the success of the first one. It follows the same basic plot line as the first, even if the characters and situations are completely different. Example:

Book 1: Erak is a devious mage, cast out of his village because people don’t trust him, and he’s been accused of casting dangerous spells

Hello, Erak.

and causing a lot of damage. Erak goes on a journey, and rescues a young female bard, who becomes his travelling companion out of necessity. While taking odd jobs for various people, they discover that the wizard who hired them has his eye on Erak’s village, and is, of course, the one who set him up to take the blame for his spells. The bard almost dies, but Erak sacrifices himself to save her. The village is saved, Erak miraculously doesn’t die, he’s hailed as a hero, etc.

Book 2: Shia is an orphaned thief in one of the larger towns. Falsely accused of stealing from the governor of the town, she flees to avoid arrest. After several adventures, she falls in with a group of gypsies, and ends up saving two of them from a bunch of soldiers. She begins to fall for Vahn, one of the gypsies, who decides to help her clear her name. After interrogating one of the soldiers, they begin uncovering a conspiracy involving the town’s sheriff, and they start trying to fix things. Vahn almost dies while trying to save Shia, but the problem is solved, the corruptness taken care of, and Shia is cleared of blame and starts a new life.

The first book in the Redwall series.

See the problems? New characters, different situations, but the plots are pretty much the same. False accusation, rescue of sidekick and/or romantic foil, discovery of plot, sacrifice by one character to save the other, end problem, happily ever after ending (or something similar). Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, ran into this problem several times. While the majority of his novels are really good and quite interesting, several of his later works are hard to read because they follow the same formula as some of his earlier stories. His novel Doomwyte is my least favorite of his works for that very reason. Even great authors sometimes have trouble with story cloning.

There’s no need to despair, though. The problem is fixable. The best way to start training yourself to avoid it is to branch out. Expand your creativity. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. If you tend to write stories of mostly one genre, then start experimenting with others (if you write paranormal romance, try writing a fantasy story). I’m not saying you can’t use some of your favorite elements in most of your stories (I tend to use ghosts or similar undead characters in most of my stuff), but don’t transfer everything. Try introducing the sidekick earlier in the story or make the romance an unrequited one. If you find your story becoming cliche or formulaic, introduce twists in several different place. If there’s a situation in the story that will introduce a big change one way or another, then choose the action or answer that you wouldn’t usually choose. The plot will take sudden twists and turns after that, and will most likely end up in a different direction from what you would have originally intended. Don’t be afraid to take a chance in the story and tweak the plot. It may surprise you in the end. It’ll take time to overcome the tendency to copy and paste your story lines, but it’s well worth the work. Happy writing!