Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

For this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo, the first of two annual camps (also in July), I continue and hope to reinvigorate the process of writing my 2016 NaNo novel based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

Currently, I have a detailed plot outline, my main characters are taking shape, and I’m zeroing in on the kind of story I want to tell. I’ve drafted almost the first half of the story, but many of those scenes and especially several pieces of exposition probably will require significant rewriting to match the second half’s focus and character arcs.

My Camp NaNo goal is to finish the first draft of the whole story by April 30–however disjointed, incoherent, or mediocre it might be. Forward momentum! The summary and excerpt below represent my latest clues to what the final draft may become.

To see hints of the slow, unsteady development of the project since last summer, see this seed, a snapshot on the cusp of its germination, and the small bud of a key scene‘s rough draft.


Happy writing and reading this month, which is also National Poetry Month. For ideas on how to celebrate poetry, visit my list of suggestions from last year. Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 27th this year. Whatever you’ve got going, I wish you the best. Enjoy!

Plus, nature lovers, don’t forget to watch The Zoo tonight at 10pm EDT on Animal Planet, and Wild Scotland starting tomorrow at 8pm EDT on NatGeoWild. My post from earlier this week about TV nature programs and Scotland nature tourism can be found here.


I’ll soon share some other projects seeking fertile soil.

Summary: Novel synopsis-in-progress (drafted 3/28/17, revised 4/1/17)

A fantasy tale based on Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land re-imagines the second of his two Alice books. Glimpses of original chapters and the use of characters provide a frame of reference for new adventures and insights about the true nature of heroics and villainy in Looking-Glass Land. The teenage girl Song Warber, a Jabberwock, or Wock, wields her singular music-making powers in the struggle of freedom and justice for all Looking-Glass Landers.

A little girl named Alice mysteriously arrives in Looking-Glass Land and stirs up trouble for Song’s family even as both her presence and Song’s threaten the monarchy. Yet, it is only by allying with this alien little girl that Song can fulfill a destiny she only begins to fathom when her family falls into the hands of those determined to tear them apart—the Royals, or chess pieces, of Looking-Glass Land. Alice’s destiny is also at stake as she awakens to the gritty realities of this ailing country. Her triumph will depend on new alliances, betrayals, comings of age, secret support, a bit of magic, open battle, overcoming tragedies, facing fears, and confronting the White King, the Red Queen, and a vengeful Humpty Dumpty.

Can two young girls of vastly different species, upbringings, and worlds ever hope to right the wrongs of the place they inhabit, however briefly, together? The good of parallel worlds may depend on it. And what will become of Song and Alice in the process? It’s a reversal across the chessboard of team loyalties and the realm’s purpose as a land of vivid dreams, uncommon reality, and infinite possibility. Will Looking-Glass Land survive the turmoil?

Hunted Song novel excerpt (3/28/17, rev 4/1/17):

A story was told. Another was told after that. A minimum of three short stories or two longer ones would always be spoken in any given sitting where storytellers and story hearers gathered together.

Every story told was a try on the part of a contestant. It was a storytelling contest. Each contestant was a member of the Looking-Glass Land community, a long-standing member of the fellowship of the realm. No one was new. No one was young. No one was particularly old. The Royals were an exception. The White Royals looked wizened. The Red Royals, middle aged.

Storytelling had once been merely a pastime as popular as baking and walking in Looking-Glass Land. As popular as tea time. In fact, stories were often told over hearths and tea tables and tea sets. Tea things were the natural scenery for a storytelling session. Like other pastimes, preoccupations, and cultural rituals, the tradition of storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came with many rules. There were particular steps to be taken in the telling of a story. Specific qualities each story must have. A certain size an audience must have in number, to represent a story telling properly. Like tea time in England, storytelling in Looking-Glass Land had a certain order of operations to it.

As times grew harder, the wizened, middle-aged and neither youthful nor old inhabitants of the land grew more serious, less playful, less tolerant of creativity, invention, new ideas, new characters, or, eventually, any new stories. The only stories permitted were stories that had been told many times before. Known stories. Stories people had heard over and over again. Stories that became in their telling like the reciting of a pledge each morning in school or the swearing of an oath for public office. Familiar, unoriginal, the same–always the same. Even the wording had become regimented so that each well-known story could only be told in exactly one way with exactly the same words from start to finish, every time.

The contest continued, however. It became a competition in style of delivery. The stories never changed, so contestants needed only to memorize the content, and the rest could take on a variety of bellowing, shrill screeching, whispering, and outrageous inflections, dramatic pauses, vibrations and other sound effects, as well as musical accompaniment of every kind. Even a technique such as ventriloquism had been a trend at one time, but eventually, the crowds began to crave more elaborate movements on the part of the storytellers and from any actors they chose to act out the events of the tale.

You may think, So what? Stories are popular because they are told over and over again. When a story is repeatedly shared, it means it is popular. This can be true. However, the people of Looking-Glass Land took repetition to a whole other level. There were never to be any new stories of any kind for any purpose. Even recounting the events of one’s day to one’s family came to carry with it very strict rules and restrictions. Such recollections could only be so long and would not be permitted to be repeated outside the family circle within hearing range of other families or anywhere in public.

This was at first very difficult for people to comply with, as you might imagine. But over time, with practice, and a few minor adjustments to the rules, as with many things grown easier with habit, recitative storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came into its own. Upon visiting the land at such a time, you would note that it was as if no one had ever heard an original story, so much so that it mattered little who had originated the stories in the general repertoire. The creators had been forgotten, and no one mourned the loss of their memory. Memory instead became less and less important, and forgetfulness became au courant and du jour, as the French might say of more benign customs.

As a result, even short-term memory became devalued and less tenable among the people. This had reached a level of such ridiculousness that an outsider would find it absolutely comical how poorly the people held facts, events, even names in their memory, how few things they remembered while traveling from point A to point B, even just down the road from their houses. A side effect of this was that the Looking-Glass Landers were constantly getting lost in their own neighborhoods and villages, and needed help from a kindly neighbor they’d sought help from a thousand times before but whom at the moment they could not recognize. They could only hold so much information in those dry, unused brain muscles, you see.

The lack of need for invention, creativity, new ideas, or any kind of refreshing of activity had an even more devastating impact. It created scores of demented community members, folks with early onset Alzheimer’s, as it were, though they wouldn’t be able to spell that word let alone hold their own attention long enough to grasp its meaning. To try to remember the term? Forget it! And so they would.

This chronic, permanent forgetfulness applied to all things. There were occasional anomalies among the villagers in the thoughts they managed to commit to memory in their own clandestine ways, even while original storytelling became illegal, in both spoken and written form. Mainly, though, among most of the population, to forget was to comply, and to recite was patriotic. It was a way to pay homage to the stories the kingdom had declared the best, most worthy tales to be passed down from generation to generation in Looking-Glass Land. It could therefore hardly be noticed when the variation in delivery of these rote storytelling activities gradually lessened as well.

Like the flappers on the floating island world discovered by Gulliver, the people of Looking-Glass Land devised a means of support for their forgetfulness, to steer them aright and keep them from wandering forever aimlessly amidst their brooks, woods, and meadows. One of these devices was a system of concrete roads on which were painted in permanent pigments instructions to every destination known in the land to every other destination, as well as labels several points in advance of reaching a destination to remind the traveller that the arrival was imminent.

This worked even in cases where the person was in fact closer to their point of origin than they were to their designated destination. With abysmal short-term memory, the misguided could be guided best only by counter-factual signs and directions exaggerating the distance, the nearness, the direction, and the size of the places people sought to reach.

In fact, in our land, with our far superior short-term remembering skills (trust me, even you with poor short-term memory have nothing on these characters), we would interpret these overdone instructions as patently false, utter lies, and deep absurdities.

And who made such systems, you ask? Why, the government of course! They were naturally exempt from the restrictions they decreed. They became the parents, nurses, and shepherds of their people, and they could do very much as they liked, always, without challenge or correction or fear.

Such was the state of Looking-Glass Land in the years around the time Alice made her historic visit.

Actually, that would have been her second visit, if memory serves. Alice had been to Looking-Glass Land before, and the results of the first visit differed greatly from what that old fart Charles Dodgson professed them to be in his famous novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. It’s really quite funny. For a man who treasured his memories of childhood and later friendships with children so dearly, he proved to have significant memory problems of his own when it came to the fictional worlds he himself had created.

As an outsider myself, from the next country of Wonderland, I saw what went on in Looking-Glass Land with my own eyes. I possess certain . . . powers that made these observations easier. Because of my unique circumstances and close investigation, I can tell you how it really happened, and I will very shortly. I only hope your memory is not so short. I hope that you will be able to learn and benefit from this history–for everyone’s sake. Perhaps having this written form to re-read and refer to will aid you in that endeavor. I bid you good luck and urge you to make an effort, if you can.

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, père

Warning: This review and analysis include several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Style and Substance

The writing in Alexandre Dumas’ historical French novel, relating a 19th-century tale of injustice and revenge, can be long winded. Readers might expect this when noting that an “unabridged” version ranges between 1100 and 1400 pages. With so much space consumed, we might suppose this writer who loved his craft was tempted into ostentation. Perhaps he was.

However, I wouldn’t call his style flowery; a tempted Dumas exhibits self-control. Understated and enticing, the author’s abundant wit, along with great storytelling and readable prose, justify the length of the text. Truly.

I finished this book club selection more than a month before our February meeting, quite the feat considering how often I don’t finish on time. Yes, I started before our last meeting about a single Agatha Christie short story, but never mind.

A suspenseful page-turner for most of its fecund pages, The Count of Monte Cristo kept me reading steadily to learn the fates of characters set aside for long, overlapping periods. My circumstances helped, but Dumas helped more.

Rooted in European history, the settings span a 25-year period of the early 1800s and explore diverse locations from sea and prison to Rome, Paris, and the French countryside. At the story’s fulcrum is the question of political loyalties and their implications. Early shifts in power between Royalists and Bonapartists animate the lever that decides the ground on which central characters begin their journeys.

The plot is intricate and well organized, and the story proves emotionally dynamic, replete with dramatic irony. Rhythmic flow springs from engaging dialogue, which, beside measured descriptive text, renders Monte Cristo a delightful, theatrical melodrama. Its film adaptations attest to this strength with their number.

count-monte-cristo-cast-into-the-sea

“Dantes Cast into the Sea” by French artist Dumont. George Routledge and Sons edition, 1888

Genre, or Who This Book Is For

My first, unspoiled reading never brought tears, drew audible gasps (maybe some silent ones), shocked me, or provoked any wild laughter. In that way, I see it as a steady, well-written, well-told yarn composed of entertaining threads. It is more dark, sweeping Romance in the Gothic tradition than affecting, relatable human drama. This fact tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, as I tend to prefer the latter.

Intrigue, mystery, crime, adventure–all in the particular context of early 1800s Continental politics and cultures–overshadow character complexity and intimacy despite dozens of highly emotional moments. Sadly, there are no kisses lip to lip, let alone sex scenes; sexual suggestiveness is rare and subtle.

Perhaps Victorian in those respects, the book offers some extreme violence, ample cold-blooded murder, and one instance where an unconscious maiden signifies rape. Several incidents are told as stories within the story, but such elements serve to emphasize the grisly tragedies and grotesque fascinations comprising the tale.

Specific Critiques and Praise

Among its flaws, The Count of Monte Cristo tends to telegraph plot points. Thus, prolonged suspense meets the anticlimax of predictable, but satisfying, outcomes. We could attribute this forecasting effect in part to the amount of space and time provided for the reader to guess results correctly, but it is noticeable.

[Second warning: If you’ve never read this book but think you might want to, leave this post now and go read it!]

Still, I felt great moral and literary satisfaction in anticipating the villains’ comeuppance. Then, the collateral damage is realistic and heart rending, dispelling any notion of a surgically precise wrath of God. Lingering questions about the fates of key characters also felt appropriate, particularly concerning Benedetto. As we leave him, we suspect he just might get away with his crimes.

The reader gains significant insight into more than half a dozen characters, sympathizing with their situations. By this method, Dumas succeeds in conveying the imperfect nature of vigilante justice (or any justice) as each major villain meets a punishment that may not match the severity or nature if his crime. The costs of vengeance are dear. Given the paths before these ends, the final choices and turns the antagonists make seem to befit their personalities, also well developed.

By contrast, I found the main character surprisingly underdeveloped for so long a work and despite, or perhaps because of, the different characters he embodies. Edmond Dantès’ journey is remarkable early on and leading into his manifold vengeance. The changes starting to take shape in the climax also work well, but the ending felt rushed. Dantès’ reflections seem insufficient, his remorse and renewed questing half hearted, and his love for his ward lukewarm and a bit convenient.

[Third and final warning: I really mean it this time – Turn back now or skip to the summary below, or suffer the consequences!]

One can imagine Dantès’ moral education continuing beyond the fifth volume of the story, along with the revival of his will to live and start again. I don’t personally need a neatly wrapped ending. Yet, if that emphasis on waiting and hoping was the author’s intent for Dantès as much as for other characters, I would have preferred hints of a more precarious future happiness for our primary hero, more of a sense that the next climb may be just as long and steep as the last.

For Love of Money

Other trouble comes in the author’s apparent emphasis on needing a seemingly limitless fortune to possess true, full freedom and happiness. This notion meets no significant challenge anywhere in the story, which I found strange, if not quite disappointing. Reinforcing this sentiment is the unmitigated misery associated with every example of poverty or even humble means. Dumas might look upon the poor as inherently noble creatures, morally superior, a Romantic vision, but he leaves no doubt that everyone from prince to pauper prefers, and even needs, substantial wealth. Such assumptions irritate.

The exceptions are the slaves the Count owns; Dumas portrays the happiness of Ali and Haydée to be as incandescent as their devotion is supreme. They hardly count, for they are completely dependent, without their own money, and thus without authentic agency. The author seems to doubt that even a single, independent Frenchman could be happy in this time and place without one of the following conditions: possessing great fortune or knowing the security of directly and loyally serving (or being a beneficiary of) a person of great fortune and benevolence, such as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Evidence accrues of the author’s money love. The vast majority of focus characters are members of high society and the wealthy elite, many of superior education, notable beauty, close royal connections, or distinguishing experience. Yet nowhere do riches serve as an obvious corrupting force, except in the most obvious, a priori cases of the antagonists.

The young people cradled in luxury from birth–Albert, Eugénie–adapt swiftly to financial uncertainty, if not to real or projected financial loss. Each is strong of mind, and each charges ahead with definitive plans. Their apparent lack of greed seems plausible, but how long will they last? On the contrary, how will the two most worthy, noble, and innocent characters (hint: not Albert or Eugénie) avoid their lives’ ruination upon acquiring an incalculable fortune?

Currency for the Count

During the rising action, as he operates like some other-worldly creature, at least the Count’s near immunity to the ill effects of being filthy rich seems reasonable. The immensity of the treasure he acquires coupled with the depth of the misery he has suffered accounts for it. There is no room for covetousness, for there is no need. His vision is fixed not on indulging his chosen life of opulence–for his jaded soul can hardly enjoy it–but on using it for convoluted, comprehensive payback.

It is in the name of this sophisticated vengeance for genuine wrongs against him that the Count wields his fortune, education, disguises, and cunning like a four-flanged mace of justice. It is only after his perceived atonement for such absolute revenge that the Count is finally ready to relinquish his wealth and the power and esteem it awarded him. As a result, he believes he needed the money only for the scores he had to settle, but without money going forward, his status and influence will fade.

The question is, Can he indeed adjust to this new reality? For an author whose characters so unilaterally and fervently depend upon prolific capitalism for their happiness, it would seem doubtful. It makes me curious to learn about the life of Alexandre Dumas (of which I currently know nothing), to seek a reason for this.

Revenge? What’s That?

Since the reader never has the chance to observe the changes in either the man who gives away his “first-rate” fortune or those who receive it–changes either in those who lose all they had or in those who squirrel away a buffer against such loss–the consequences of these shifts remain open ended. Despite the age difference between the Count and the younger people, all seem to be of a more flexible generation than their parents are regarding money, status, and survival.

What may be most telling is that none of the villains (1 of the 3 perhaps) truly suffers for very long the consequences of their greed and evil. Each escapes a traditional punishment the reader might think they deserve, whether doing so by their own free will or decidedly not. We never get to see them struggle for any notable duration without money, without status, without family.

They suffer in other ways, many established without the Count’s interference long before he catches up with them; most of it they have done to themselves. The prospect of loss terrifies them and they sustain heavy blows. However, no one reaches, before story’s end, the degree or longevity of deprivation and sorrow that Edmond Dantès has known at their hands.

An epilogue assuring the reader that the evildoers will all receive and experience what they deserve–whether in life or in death–might have been soothing. Without it, we can only guess, “wait and hope” that at least one of them does.

Mercédès

As to patriarchal double standards, I found the Count, if not Dumas, to be harsh in accusing and punishing Mercédès, Edmond’s betrothed before his imprisonment. She is also harsh in judging herself. The woman who becomes Countess de Morcerf, though marrying Edmond’s rival and persecutor, was technically as innocent as Valentine and Maximilien. Disgraced and poor in the end, she is convent bound as her son leaves for military service. The weight of having lost and again losing Edmond is her greatest regret, and rightly so, but it is through no fault of her own in either instance.

Her ignorance and naive perspective of wrongdoing matches Edmond’s as he begins his time in jail, and Mercédès does what she can to atone in the end. Yet the reader is left with the sense that her punishment is deserved, she has not done enough, and she was even a sort of prostitute under the circumstances–all of which is hyperbole. First, how could she have known? Second, what should she have done differently while kept in ignorance?

Mercédès nursed Edmond’s ailing father to his dying day, continued to appeal to the government for news of Edmond, and then made the best of loss and a loveless marriage, sought continuously to better herself, raised a worthy child, and finally relinquished all her ill-gotten gains.

Among all central characters, as Countess de Morcerf, Mercédès alone never seeks to harm anyone, only to save them. More than Haydée, who avenges her father, if not more than Valentine, who avenges no one directly, Mercédès is in fact among the most saintly of the story’s women. Also, because she is so very far superior to both Baroness Danglars and Madame de Villefort, the Countess de Morcerf receives more than unjust treatment.

The unwarranted nature and degree of Mercédès’ eventual suffering approach those of Edmond’s initial suffering. What is that one saying about those we love most? With nothing but vengeful hatred in Edmond’s heart as he enacts his plans, he has doomed his first love, Mercédès, from the start. Perhaps instead of “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet), the Shakespeare quotation Edmond should have studied and remembered is “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” (Merchant of Venice).

Summary Review

The Count of Monte Cristo is a robust, culturally observant work that explores the mysteries and ironies of destiny. Absorbing characters take shape at a good pace for the story’s length. There is clear, abundant evidence of the skill, the care–in short, the investment–applied by author Alexandre Dumas, père (senior). Although I would have preferred a more detailed look into the title character’s mind and the lessons he learns, the novel, like the Count himself, has earned its place among the classics. I doubt I’ll ever re-read the book entirely, but I imagine returning on occasion to dip into its turbulent, colorful, and ambitious pages.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Translation and Abridgement (No Spoilers)

À propos of length and language, I found no fully reliable, consistently clear, and high-quality English translation among the five versions I sampled while first reading and listening to the story. The Robin Buss translation published by Penguin Classics, though widely preferred and lauded, may be more complete than other unabridged editions, but I found the diction too contemporary, the phrasing overwrought, and the writing generally less elegant than in other editions.

Furthermore, while at times wrinkling my forehead in puzzlement at the Buss translation, I found the text of the Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition–and even more so of the David Clarke Librivox recording and very similar Gutenberg Project epub ebook–to be more accurate, more logical and appropriate to story context, and more understandable in several instances.

I doubt this divergent assessment has anything to do with my having studied French for 8 years. It probably has more to do with my preferences for archaic diction, unusual syntax, and general clarity. A treasured French study background increased my enjoyment in part due to my understanding of the untranslated French expressions, such as “Pardieu!” (literally “By God” but meaning “Of course!” or “Indeed!”), but any astute reader can gather meaning from context.

Incidentally, David Clarke does a fabulous job with theatricality, French and Italian accents, male and female registers of voice, distinguishing main character voices, clear and consistent projection, and excellent articulation. Aside from occasional mispronunciations, Clarke may have stumbled once or twice in 117 chapters in the Librivox recording. Highly recommended. My having blended listening to recordings with reading ebooks and print copies is largely what allowed me to keep my momentum and finish this massive book quickly.

The Gutenberg file uses the 1888 illustrated (and non-illustrated) George Routledge and Sons edition. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by various French artists of the period provided in the .html version of that file. The claim of Robin Buss’s work in the Penguin Classics translation is the supposed recovery of and return to nuances of the original text that had been lost in earlier editions, and I can see some of that happening as well.

The comparable heft of the Modern Library Classics edition suggests little to no abridgement, but I found it makes noticeable, unnecessary cuts, at least to descriptive text in the few parts I bothered to read.

At any rate, we must allow that some flaws resulting from translation could be due to the original author’s style and diction in French as well. I recommend reading an unabridged edition if you read the book at all. Furthermore, if you are fluent, I feel confident, without having read it myself, in advising you to read the original French instead of a translation into English or other languages. Bien sur! (Pardieu!)

Packing for Camp

It’s that time again. July is Camp NaNoWriMo, round 2 of the year 2016. I continue to feel the need for this kind of support to stay motivated to keep writing. With the onset of summer, I itch to play in the flower beds we so carefully planned and planted, or finally to clear the clutter from that room (all of them), especially when the temperatures lose temperance.

It helps to have a sense of permission to write, as well as a dedicated space–real and virtual–for writing since it’s not part of my daily routine and makes no income for me otherwise.

To reinforce that positive energy, I’ll be hosting a weekly write-in at a cafe for my local NaNo area for the month of July. I see my primary role as offering support for my immediate writing community, and that does include me. Currently, the project I will work on remains unknown to me.

I didn’t get very far with my April novel writing, after feeling so great about the elaborate planning I managed to complete for the plot. Previously posted was my piece about being “Ready to Start” as the month was coming to a close, so maybe I should continue working on that novel, “start” on it again.

Often, I feel as if “real writers” don’t have this problem of what to write about, or even what basic form to write in–prose, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, journal, essay, etc.

Traditionally, I gravitated toward periodicals and books about the writing life in general, but given how little of my collection I’ve actually read or acted upon, I’m less inclined to add to the collection these days.

My dusty library includes classic guides such as On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, as well as Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and many others including a variety of Writer’s Digest books and magazine issues on writing and publishing, collected from having worked at the parent company of the WD imprint.

I have significant experience with writing papers for college and graduate school, tutoring writing, and doing editing and proofreading, but that’s not really being a writer.

On the flip side, I don’t consider simply being a published author as being a writer, either. Celebrities, politicians, and businesspeople may employ ghost writers to create their books. I recently took a stab at ghost writing, but that didn’t work out. If there is a dearth of ideas in my own mind of what to write about, my motivation to convey someone else’s message dips below even that level.

There’s been this long-standing pressure, inside and out, for me to seat myself firmly in the writing field and declare myself a writer. More and more, though, I’m sensing that it’s not my primary career identifier. I tend to enjoy learning, research, and teaching, as well as the performing arts, more than either reading or writing novels. Even my poetry doesn’t come urgently forth on a regular basis, though it seems to be my default setting among forms.

Whatever emerges as my Camp focus, the first step for me is brainstorming. I need to pack a case full of ideas to take with me to Camp. Why not use my blog as the duffel bag?

First, though, the physical materials to support Camp participation:

  • laptop with all writing files and Internet access
  • laptop cable and power strip
  • noveling materials from last Camp–notes, drafts, outline, reference sheets
  • notebook(s) and various writing utensils
  • tab of my blog open in browser
  • book/websites of creative writing prompts, inspirational images, writing starters
  • tab open of my cabin at campnanowrimo.org to communicate with cabin mates online
  • stopwatch (online or on phone) to do word sprints
  • fellow writers, supplied
  • refreshments (i.e., coffee), brought and available for purchase
  • miniature, rubber ninja figurine supplied by our Municipal Liaison during November’s NaNoWriMo as a talisman to boost our writing mojo

backpackers_2_evergreens_summer

Ideas Packed for a Productive, Enjoyable Camp NaNoWriMo, July 2016:

  • novel started in April – contemporary realistic fiction set in a high school about a teacher and her experiences with bullying
  • alternative version of the bullying novel: revenge fantasy a la Inglorious Basterds
  • revamp WordPress blog and plan new content
  • continue revising, compiling, and writing poems for a first published collection
  • travel writing essay about planning for vacation
  • Outlander fan fiction or spin-off using a minor character as the main character
  • Outlander season 2 overall review, or series of reviews, on my blog
  • develop business plan and materials for in-person tutoring writing clients
  • revisit and finish the story for my first novel, attempted in 2011, my favorite so far, about a traumatized ranching family, wolves, and Native American mythologies in Montana, Idaho and Yellowstone
  • revisit and develop my 2nd favorite novel from 2013, about Shakespeare’s mistress and her playwright ambitions
  • revisit and develop my 2014 tragic novel about a delusional history professor with financial problems
  • probe my anxiety dreams for fantastical adventures and horror stories
  • set a non-writing goal of learning a new skill, organizational system, research method, or other process for fun or practical application
  • make the month an artistic month of coloring, drawing, rap and song writing, crafting, and generally unfettered creative impulses
  • follow the same approach as done in April by selecting an aspect of writing to learn about and practice in depth, such as new or less practiced poetry forms (haiku, villanelle, sestina, parody) or subjects, viewpoint experimentation in fiction, short story writing, or truly free free writing
  • write whatever comes to mind for a certain amount of time every single day, with no expectations or requirements for specific application to a story or other writing form–just produce, produce, produce raw material for later mining
  • play or screen writing
  • political, persuasive essays about this ridiculous election cycle, or just satire of it
  • satire
  • jokes
  • novel ideas and plot synopses, one after another
  • use the month to repeat The Artist’s Way program or try a new and different creativity-boosting program

And maybe eventually I won’t need a special event like Camp NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month in November to devote the time, thought, and effort to supply myself with the necessary tools for perpetual writing. Only with consistently dedicated time and space, and the steady dual work of reading and writing, can we improve our craft and make something worth writing and reading.

Based on reading my blog posts, do you have any suggestions for my Camp NaNo focus? Feel free to add them in the comments.

Happy Camping!

Five-Phrase Friday (32): Remember This

A daily e-newsletter I’m receiving inspired my second post of phrases for National Poetry Month. Of breaking lines and cracking art projects, I sing with the chorus (the featured poet’s piece), and of the need to be gentle with oneself and one’s art, lest either one break and crumble.

The Cuyahoga County Public Library’s program “Read + Write: 30 Days of Poetry” each day presents a short poem and a poetry writing prompt at readwritepoetry.org. Today’s (April 8) featured poem is Maggie Anderson’s “The Thing You Must Remember.”

The portion that especially caught my notice emphasizes the delicate work of art making and, in a sense, the perils of a perfectionist approach to art, as that drive is grounded in fear of not being enough. (The arts and perfectionism are recurring themes of my blog.)

The passage also happens to speak directly to a major theme of the novel I’m writing for Camp NaNoWriMo this month about a young teacher’s obsessive efforts to combat bullying among her students. What a fine synchronicity of events and ideas!

With this sample of verse, I altered the format to make my usual handy grouping of five lines. My unsanctioned re-formatting raises the question of the mechanics of how to read a poem and how you can arrange the lines while writing one. I address these questions with some analysis below the excerpt.

Note: Ellipses for omitted text, brackets adding text for clarity, and slash lines signalling the end of a line as originally formatted–these are all my marks.

So here are lines 8-13 of the single-stanza, 16-line poem “The Thing You Must Remember” by Maggie Anderson, from Cold Comfort. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

. . . When the [clay] dog’s back / stiffened, then cracked
to white shards / in the kiln, you learned
how the beautiful / suffers from too much attention,
how clumsy / a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

The same excerpt with the poet’s original breaks of selected lines 8-13:

. . . When the dog’s back
stiffened, then cracked to white shards
in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful
suffers from too much attention, how clumsy
a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

A poem of this general form–containing relatively equal-length lines whose endings do not rhyme (free verse) and bearing punctuation at the middles and ends of lines–is meant to be read fluidly across the line breaks. It uses punctuated pauses (commas) and stops (periods) as if it were prose, as do most poems, even if those pauses and stops happen to correspond with line endings.

This “continuation of the sense of a phrase beyond the end of a line of verse” is called enjambment. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica has a helpful entry on this concept with an example to illustrate it clearly.

When we read the above poem aloud, then, we pause not after “back” (l. 8) but after “stiffened” (l. 9), and not after “shards” (l. 9) but after “kiln” (l. 10), and so forth.

Hearing the reading under such conditions, one might think this is not a poem at all, but other characteristics, such as length, word choice, point of view, and often style of voice while reading, all help signal to listeners that they are indeed hearing a poem.

Poetry is meant to be read aloud, but when line breaks don’t match pauses and stops, that doesn’t mean the break choices have no use or purpose. The visual effect can also be part of the package.

Aligning these phrases as Anderson does brings words with similar sounds (with techniques like internal rhyme, assonance, consonance) and similar appearances closer together. For instance, notice the internal rhyme of “back” with “cracked” and the consonant combination “nd” sound at the end of “stiffened” and “learned” (consonance).

Both visually and aurally, the pattern of short “i” rhyming words (assonance) lining up with each other is clearer than it would be if the commas and line endings corresponded; the cascade of the words “stiffened, in, kiln, single, vision, with, trying” all comes down the left side of the stanza in a delicate, suggestive bombardment.

The effect of certain sounds on a reader can vary, but for me, lots of short “i” words all stacked up like that suggests a sense of claustrophobia, being hemmed in and flattened like the very letter “i,” an application of pressure mirroring what happens to the clay figurine that “suffers from too much attention.” Think “squish” or “pinch.”

With this interpretation at least, form and meaning reinforce each other, and you notice these aspects more with free verse because there is no end rhyme to distract you from them. Similarly, any alliteration, repeated consonant sounds at the beginnings of words, is barely noticeable in the poem. Consonance describes matching consonant sounds at the ends of words.

Attention away from the ends, we are free to focus on the middle.

So now, you may start to see how poetic form and presentation can work together to encourage readers to take time, take it all in, and notice the clever or beautiful little convergences and connections–of word with word and word with meaning and meaning with meaning.

Once this happens, the overall message of the poem can more readily penetrate and resonate.

Check your favorite poems for enjambment, seeing how the arrangement of parts adds to the whole, and how these intentional choices of the poet communicate meaning and art.

And remember this: Treat your artwork and yourself gently, with a sense of trust and calm, so that both of you may remain whole and beautiful.

All the little clay puppies thank you for your kindness and mercy.

Image_dog_clay_black_figurine


Image credit: clay figurine from etsy.com via duckduckgo.com search.

 

Is Writing a Single Bad Sentence a Signal of Bad Writing?

A response to HL Gibson‘s post The Standards of Prose – Realistic or Ridiculous? and to the linked resource within on the debate about writing quality.

Although I want to read more of the post Sentence Anxiety before coming to a definitive conclusion, my instinct as an experienced writer, academic-oriented reader, English teacher, and writing tutor says this: It’s all relative, and to a greater extent than elitists would have us accept; even this grammarian recognizes the primacy of substance over style. (And, anyway, if the work has been published, blame the editor, not the writer, for truly bad remaining sentences.) Five points elaborate on my position.

  1. Perfectionism, again? Nobody’s perfect, and perfect should not be the goal.
  2. The reader’s choices. No one thing defines a good product for everyone, whether it’s a good pen or a good book.
  3. It depends, part 1. Genre can greatly impact the relative importance of writing good sentences, good descriptions, good dialogue, or good plots.
  4. It depends, part 2. Every writer has different goals, purposes, inspirations, and needs in the writing life.
  5. Balance, grasshopper. The sentence comes first but should also come last.

Perfectionism, again?

Nobody’s perfect, and perfect should not be the goal. Human and relatable should take precedence as traits of good writing.

Even the so-called expert or esteemed writers in literary history have written–and published–bad sentences on occasion. Some of them wrote or still write quite often what many readers consider bad sentences. Style is a relative thing, and a reader’s response to a particular style dictates, or at least colors, his or her assessment of the writing’s inherent quality. The defining issue is whether the overall result suffers, is unaffected, or profits by the occasional, or even well-placed, bad sentence.

Is the true standard of value in writers such as Joyce and Hemingway based upon the merits of their writing styles, or could it be more about the fact of their innovation in style itself? Does presence of innovation alone determine level of quality? Being avant garde as an artist can sometimes trump skills in sentence structure, grammar, or other aspects of style. In such a case, if such a case can be proven, it’s the novelty that blinds us to stylistic flaws or debatable quality of content. Then, there’s the legitimacy of debate itself to consider . . . .

The reader’s choices. 

No one thing defines a good product for everyone, whether it’s a good pen or a good book. Some people prefer ballpoint over gel pens, and some people prefer Bic’s ballpoint to Pentel’s. Etc. They’re all right.

Yes, there is a difference between quality of storytelling and quality of premise, quality of grammar and quality of paragraphing. However, bad sentences can serve a literary purpose just as, though less frequently, bad storytelling can make a larger meta-literary point, not to mention exist regardless of writing quality. If there is character-driven, storytelling, or contextual purpose to a bad sentence, then it must stay. Intent matters, true. But all parts must be taken together when judging a literary work.

But when it comes down to tough choices, would you rather have a good story with flaws in the telling or a bad story with immaculate prose? (Hey, to each his own.)

It depends, part 1. Genre.

Genre can greatly impact the relative importance of writing good sentences, good descriptions, good dialogue, or good plots. Again, the reader determines the value of the written material. The author just has to decide which readers he or she is going to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. That goes for weighing the literary elitists against the masses, as well as the sci-fi crowd against the literary fiction readership. Whatever game you’re in, those are the rules you must play by if you want to succeed in your goals, and such success as a writer may not be the same thing as gaining great acclaim, fame, or royalties. On that point . . .

It depends, part 2. Writer goals.

Every writer has different goals, purposes, inspirations, and needs in the writing life. The trick is finding the support system, outlets, professionals, resources, and guiding principles that will provide the best framework for a writer to be as  authentic as possible to herself and her craft. If fixating over every grammatical error or boring language stifles your creativity or ends up ruining the rhythm of your prose or storytelling, what purpose could such meticulous attention possibly serve you as a writer, and by extension, any potential readers of your work?

Balance, grasshopper.

The sentence comes first but should also come last.

When we make it all about the well-written sentence, we hide behind the fallacy that there is some sort of literary merit in suffering for suffering’s sake, about being an artistic martyr or hard-luck case, a victim of the inhospitable reading world, a masochist. We may do this in order to wear the badge of honor for having struggled, toiled, revised, revised, and revised to create a gem of prose, and, through those efforts, somehow earned the right to be read. It doesn’t work that way.

Writing quality alone, just like good storytelling alone, rarely provides the pay-off. Good work demands a balanced approach, attending to all facets in turn.

In my own tendency to bow down to language for its sound at the expense of cropped-dscn88801.jpgits sense, I have come to believe that most of the time, with fiction anyway, I just don’t have enough good ideas to share, a good story to tell, to spend the time. What good is writing well in the world of novels and short stories if you have nothing compelling enough about which to write or no viable story-plot framework? And yet, to be fair with myself, I know I am outgrowing that tendency. Awareness first.

Before the writer of a novel reaches the stage in which sentence haggling occurs, there must be much work visiting and revisiting the piece to ensure that the ideas, the story, the plot, the characters, and all the other elements of the premise and concept of the book are sound and enticing.

Ultimately, though, whether it’s about a sentence or a plot, writers must approach self-critique through the eyes of their intended audience, the readers they aim to entertain. That can mean throwing out one’s great sentences or paragraphs or chapters and killing or deleting one’s beloved characters for the greater good of pleasing oneself and others as readers of the book as a whole.


After revisiting Sentence Anxiety, I am confident in my instincts. (Gee, that’s novel.) The author of that post, The Incompetent Writer, is far from incompetent and says it more succinctly and precisely than I have here, while also providing further eye-opening points.

We two agree on many of them both in the first half and toward the end of Sentence Anxiety, such as how it’s important to look at the issue from the reader’s rather than solely the writer’s perspective, and how sentence fixation may not be particularly healthy. What happens in between is a deeper, more incisive examination of the nature of the sentence than my rather impulsive post approaches, especially regarding the value of fluctuating sentence quality within a piece. I found myself nodding throughout.

On the other hand, another point I should have made, which The Incompetent Writer does, is that I, too, greatly value impressive prose in my own reading.

Do check it out: In Sentence Anxiety, The Incompetent Writer refers to specific other voices in the debate as well, which I may pursue myself. And thank you, HL Gibson, for your post The Standards of Prose – Realistic or Ridiculous?. You brought me to the debate and inspired this commentary.