It’s been a good couple of weeks! Lots of relentless application of the nose to the grindstone, which has resulted in my long-awaited completion of the first draft of Orion’s Huntress. This book is the first installment of a new space opera series which centers on the all-female crew of the ship Orion’s Huntress, as they embark on adventures. It’s set in the same universe as my Forgotten Stars books, but there is no overlap at all (and I’m not even sure where they occur with regard to one another on a timeline). This is a series of more adult-themed adventures. I’ll be honest and admit that the main reason I set this series in the same universe as the other is to save myself some worldbuilding time. But, as Lt. Uhura once noted, “It’s a big galaxy, Mr. Scott!”
And now that this draft is finally done, I’m moving onto a bunch of long-overdue editing tasks. Counting Orion’s Huntress I now have five novel manuscripts awaiting first mark-ups, so I’m going to be focusing on that probably right up to November. First up is the initial markups of The Savior Worlds, book IV of The Song of Forgotten Stars. Then will be either the sequel to The Chilling Killing Wind or the untitled man-versus-nature supernatural thriller I drafted a few years back and have left fallow ever since. If time permits I’ll get through both of those, but if I only have time for one, it will probably be the man-v-nature story, and then I’ll edit Seaflame! Book One, because my hope and goal is to use this year’s NaNoWriMo to start Book Two of that one. (It will be a duology, and almost two halves of one very big book.)
So, here we go into The Savior Worlds!
Onward and upward! Zap! Pow!! Excelsior, Star Warriors!
Well, as with anything, there are several ways to go about the job of reading more poetry. There are a lot of collections out there that are meant as introductions to poetry. Some of these are the school-textbook kind of thing where you’ll learn about rhyme and meter and the difference between a haiku and a sonnet and all that, and those are excellent starting points, if you’re looking to learn mechanics.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning mechanics! If that’s your approach, great. It wasn’t my approach, but it’s valid and anyway, later on when you’ve discovered that you really do love poetry and you’re not nearly as intimidated by it anymore
But maybe you want to start right out with poetry. Maybe you want to dive right in! Good for you! That’s exactly the approach I advise. Poetry is there to be read, first and foremost. There’s plenty of time later for rhyme, meter, allusion, theme, secondary meanings, and all the other stuff. Jump right in, says I!
So, where would be a good place to start?
One possibility is a collection of “light” poetry or of old ballads and narrative poems. It might be easiest to start your journey into verse if the forms are familiar enough that you can recognize a joke or a story in the verse.
Take a poem like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, which starts thusly:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin, A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin. They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh. And he rode with a jewelled twinkle, His pistol butts a-twinkle, His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard. He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred. He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
“The Highwayman”, Alfred Noyes
Now that will certainly catch your attention, won’t it? You want to know the rest of the story, and you barely realize it’s in poetic form, even as the internal rhymes of the stanzas work their magic and even as the rhythm of the words propel you forward. (You can read the remainder of The Highwaymanhere.)
You should also read poetry aloud, if you can; or, failing that, at least speak the words silently, so you can get a sense of how the words “feel”. Much of poetry’s effect is gained through auditory effect, how the poet arranges sounds and the rhythms inherent in the placing of the words. As you gain experience, you’ll find it less necessary to do this–but by this time, it might be sufficiently ingrained in your poetry-reading experience that you keep doing it. I certainly do.
So where do you find all that poetry? In poetry books, of course! But where do you find poetry books? In bookstores, of course!
To start with, you might want to look for wide collections. The Oxford Book of English Verse is a stalwart, as are other collections of American poetry. I’ll assume that the library of the discerning reader and budding writer already has at least one Complete Shakespeare, which is a great source of lots of poetry. (In fact, if you can read Shakespeare with even a modicum of comprehension, you’re well on the way to being able to read a lot of poetry.) There are also many good themed collections that gather poems around specific subjects: War poetry, music poetry, and of course, love poetry. Picking up a few of these is always a good idea.
Used bookstores and library book sales are wonderful ways to bolster one’s poetry collection. When the books are cheap, you can buy with a lot more abandon, which means you can get a lot more experimental with your poetry collection. You’ll find old compilations that reflect earlier tastes, or collections of poets who are mainly forgotten these days. Even editions of The Oxford Book from decades ago are worth picking up cheaply, because they will contain many poems the current edition does not. Don’t sweat the duplication too much.
Next time I will recommend some of my favorite poetry books! Until then, see you around the Galaxy!
[I posted Part One of this post last year, but then…well, last year wasn’t the best ever in terms of my posting and blogging regularity. I’m trying to do better this year, so we’re gonna try this again.]
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
–Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)
When the Lion at his pleasure comes To the watering place to drink, ah see! See the lesser beasts of Al-Rassan Scatter, like blown leaves in autumn, Like air-borne seedlings in the spring, Like grey clouds that part to let the first star Of the god shine down upon the earth.
–Guy Gavriel Kay, from The Lions of Al-Rassan
April is National Poetry Month, so I’ll be doing some posting about poetry over the next few weeks, starting with this. Should writers read poetry? Should they write it? While I would never presume to tell writers what they should or should not write, I tend to think that the answers to both questions are Yes.
I have occasionally committed acts of poetry myself, but not very often, and as I don’t generally find the results particularly encouraging, I don’t intend to share them except as very brief excerpts in my fiction. I do, however, read a decent amount of poetry, and I firmly believe that all writers should do so.
It all comes down to what Stephen King called “the writer’s toolbox,” and his dictum that to be a good writer one must read a lot and write a lot. Reading a lot extends a writer’s grasp, and reading poetry extends it in ways that reading a lot of fiction does not. If writing is likened to carpentry–extending Mr. King’s metaphor a bit–than reading poetry is like learning entirely new methods and techniques. A new way to stain a piece of wood, say, or perhaps a new method of joinery.
While poetry can certainly be read for its technical aspects, I find myself concentrating much less these days on things like rhyme or meter than I did when I was reading poetry in school. What I’m after now is the language itself. I read poetry to see, in new ways, just what language can really do.
Consider metaphor. Here’s a poem called “Up-Hill”, by Christina Rosetti:
Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end. Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place? A roof for when the slow dark hours begin. May not the darkness hide it from my face? You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night? Those who have gone before. Then must I knock, or call when just in sight? They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak? Of labour you shall find the sum. Will there be beds for me and all who seek? Yea, beds for all who come.
I suppose the metaphor here is pretty obvious: the road that is being walked here is life itself, and the inn at the end that cannot be missed and has beds for all who come is death. That’s not especially hard to see. But the craft of the metaphor is what’s interesting here, and in my experience, metaphor is best explored via an industrious reading of the poets.
Then there is description. Writers often worry about description: what’s too much, what’s too little, which details are best to utilize in painting a word-picture, which details are best left aside. As much as I love the work of JRR Tolkien, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo, the fact is that writers these days are not given as much space to craft their descriptions as in decades or centuries past, so we have to be careful.
This is where reading poetry can help us. Take this short verse by Tran Nhan-tong, a Vietnamese emperor and poet who lived from 1258 to 1308:
The willows trail such glory that the birds are struck dumb. Evening clouds balance above the eave-shaded hall. A friend comes, not for conversation, But to lean on the balustrade and watch the turquoise sky.
(translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich, in the collection World Poetry)
So few details! In fact, there are almost no details given here, just statements of fact. But can anyone read this and not create a mental picture of a summer evening, looking out at the willows beneath a turquoise sky dotted with clouds? If they can, I don’t know how.
And then there is rhyme and meter and alliteration and all the other various things that our high school English teachers tried teaching us. Those are all wonderful tools that you can use in your storytelling. For all our focus on things like plot, character, and world building, ultimately the spell that our stories cast is deeply dependent on how we use our language. That’s where so much of the real magic lies, and this is best learned by reading poetry with an eye to what the language is doing.
William Goldman died last year. He lived a long and brilliant life as one of the finest screenwriters, penning such films as All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and what might be his most beloved work, The Princess Bride. That last is doubly special because not only is the movie wonderful, but it’s an adaptation of a novel of Goldman’s as well. The novel works wonderfully on its own, and Goldman’s adaptation isn’t just a slavish transliteration of the book to the screen, but rather a loving creation all its own, that has its own focus and its own way of making use of its own medium to tell its story.
Goldman tends to be beloved of storytellers in many mediums, and not just because he was a great storyteller himself. He was also great at writing about storytelling, and this is borne out in two books of his that I consider essential reading for anyone interested in writing, or in film, or in the general enterprise of storytelling to begin with. Those books are Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?.
Here is a wonderful anecdote from the making of Marathon Man, a thriller Goldman wrote (again, adapting an earlier novel of his) about the pursuit of a Nazi war criminal. The film starred Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman, and Roy Scheider. Here is Goldman:
Last Olivier story.
He and Roy Scheider were rehearsing a scene. In the story they are very close to voilence, but both are still trying to figure out what the other one knows. The dialog went like this:
OLIVIER: We must talk. Truthfully. Are you to be trusted?–
OLIVIER: –Was that the truth? Or are you trying to upset me?–
SCHEIDER: –I know why you’re here—and I know that sooner or later you’re going to go to the bank–
OLIVIER: –perhaps I have already been.
Schlesinger [director John Schlesinger] interrupted them. He said, “Larry, that’s supposed to go fast, and after Roy says the line about the bank, you’re taking a pause before ‘Perhaps I have already been.’ Don’t take the pause.”
Olivier said “Of course,” and they started into the dialog again. And then he stopped. “I have a problem about not taking the pause.”
“I’m trying to find out information. Roy says, ‘I know why you’re here.’ And I need to find out what that means. Then Roy says, “I know…” And I’m listening. Then he says, ‘I know that sooner or later…’ And I’m still listening. Now he says, ‘I know that sooner or later you’re going to go…’ And I’m still listening. Finally he says, ‘I know that sooner or later you’re going to go to the bank.’ That pause I’m taking is to give me time to register the information about the bank.”
“I understand,” Schlesinger said, “But we’ve got to get rid of the pause.”
Olivier turned to me, then. “Bill,” he said, “could I suggest an alteration in the line? Would it be all right if I changed it so that the line went, ‘I know that you’re going to go to the bank sooner or later?’ You see, then I could register the word bank while he was saying ‘sooner or later’ and I wouldn’t need the pause.”
Obviously it was fine with me and the line was altered and we went on without the pause. And probably this two minutes of rehearsal explained at length doesn’t seem like much put down in black and white.
But that moment—when the actor of the century asked me would I mind if he switched six words around—is the most memorable incident of my movie career. Olivier. Calling me “Bill.” Olivier. Asking me would I mind.
That’s high cotton….
Goldman knows, in Which Lie?, that The Princess Bride might well be the project of his most likely to carry his name into Time. He writes lovingly about that film, focusing in the end on the sad story of Andre the Giant, who so wonderfully played Fezzik in the movie. Andre died a few years later, and was greatly mourned. Here is part of Goldman’s tribute:
Andre would never come out and say that wrestling might not be legit. He fought 300 plus times a year for about 20 years, and all he ever admitted was that he didn’t like being in the ring with someone he thought might be on drugs. When he was in his prime, men who weighed 250 or 300 pounds would hurl themselves on him from the top rope and he would catch them and not budge.
But even seven years ago his body was beginning to betray him. There is a scene at the end of The Princess Bride where Robin Wright—and yes she is that beautiful—jumped out of a castle window, and Andre was to catch her at the bottom.
The shot was set up for Roin to be lifted just above camera range and then dropped in Andre’s arms. Maybe a foot. Maybe two. But not much and Robin was never that heavy.
The first take, she was dropped and he caught her—and gasped, suddenly white like paper, and almost fell to his knees. His back was bad. And getting worse, and soon there would be surgery.
Andre once said to Billy Crystal, “We do not live long, the big and the small.”
Next, two bits of inspiration, because every book on storytelling should make people feel better about this most ancient of human enterprises (I suppose there’s one human enterprise that’s older than storytelling, but who knows—stories had to play a part in that one, too). This comes at the end of Adventures in the Screen Trade:
I think there’s a wave of talent rising now. Thousands upon thousands of young men and women who literally love film. I realize this is a book about Hollywood, so obviously there has to be a happy ending. Only I’m not tacking this on. I believe that wave is upon us and that it’s not going to be stopped. And to all that talent, let me say, where the hell have you been and I wish you joy…
…and may you ignore the critics when they attack you, and pay no attention to their praise…
…and may you please remember when your scenes are sludge, that screenplays are structure…
…and may you have peers as willing to improve your project as you must be; treat them kindly, for they will save your ass many times over…
…and may you always remember “it’s only a movie” but never forget that there are lots worse things than movies—like politicians…
…and may you be lucky enough and skilled enough to make some glorious moments for all those people sitting out there in the dark, as earlier craftsmen created such moments for you…
…and finally and most of all…
…may all your scars
be little ones….
And finally, this. It’s a sidebar at the very end of Adventures in the Screen Trade.
The one thing I think all writers like to talk about is their work habits. When do you write? For how long? Where? Endless questions. So I want to spend a minute now on the basic problem facing us all: doing it.
When I began, at twenty-four, the work always came out in a burst. The Temple of Gold took less than three weeks. A year later, Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow, less than two. And in between, nothing much happened that bettered the human condition, just going to the movies, a double feature a day, sometimes two, everything on 42nd Street or the Thalia on West 95th. Two years basically wasted until the next book, which was Soldier in the Rain.
I was having a career, God yes. Three novels published by age twenty-eight, two of them million-copy sellers in paperback, the third into a movie.
What I wasn’t having was a life.
I never had a real job so whenever I wanted to write, I could. Morning, night, all night if I watned—and I suspect it I had continued that way, I was heading for disaster.
There is no wrong when it comes to work habits. It doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or a quill pen. There is no best way to go about storytelling. Bergman writes from ten to three and in ten weeks, he’s got a screenplay. Graham Greene, another hero, counted words. Yes, you read that right, he counted each and every word until he reached his magic number—three hundred. And when he got there, guess what, he quit for the day, in the middle of a sentence or not.
They had the one thing writers need most: discipline.
My great editor, Hiram Haydn, was a very busy man. He started or ran publishing houses, had a wife and a bunch of kids, was editor of The American Scholar.
And wrote novels.
He was my editor from Soldier in the Rain through The Princess Bride, was a wondrous father figure for me. Once we were talking about a novel of his, The Hands of Esau, that he was so close to finishing, and I asked him how long since he began it and he said probably eight years.
How do you stay the same person for that long, I wondered?
You just do the best you can, he replied. You hope.
When do you write?
Sunday morning, he said. Every Sunday morning.
That was the only time available to him. The rest of his life was kids and work and family and commuting and meetings and dealing with crazy writers; Sunday morning was all he could carve out, so he played it as it laid.
You have to protect your writing time, he said then.
That’s the best basic advice I can give to any writer. You have to protect your writing time. You have to protect it to the death.
I think it should always be the same time. Each day, each night, each whatever. Can be half an hour, more when you’re on a roll, probably shouldn’t be less. I know a brilliant young writer who has zero problem writing. Her problem is sitting. Her computer is surrounded by a mine field and she will come up with the most amazing reasons not to try to cross it. And no, she is neither crazy nor along in her problem–
because the easiest thing to do on earth is not write.
The need for a schedule is simple: You’ll have hours, days, when you just sit there, but eventually, you come to know that your writing time is not and things begin to happen as you sit there.
And if you manage to suck it up, if you decide you must get your stories down, then there is one other thing that’s crucial: don’t talk about it. Tell no one.
Once others know, they will look at you strangely, they will question you, they will ask you terrible questions–
–how’s it coming?
–is it fun?
–when is it going to be finished?
–I bet it’s fun
–when can I see it?
You don’t need those words buzzing around your ears. So keep the start of your career secret. Keep the time sacred.
Remember: nobody made you be a writer.
Now, I myself am pretty firmly a member of Team Write Every Day, but you can’t always do that and you shouldn’t feel shame if you can’t do that. But in that case, the best compromise is Goldman’s Team Write At The Same Time Each Day/Week/Whatever, because there’s another, shorter term for members of Team Write When You Feel Like It. That term is nonwriters.
One last bit. In discussing the script to Casablanca in Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman says as an aside, “I wish to God I’d written lines as glorious as ‘I was misinformed.’”
Well, here’s the thing about that. Casablanca famously boasts that wonderful last line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” That is an amazing final line, and I consider it one of the two greatest last lines in movie history.
The other? It’s by William Goldman. Here’s the scene, after the Grandpa has finished reading the book to The Kid:
THE KID: Grandpa?
The Old Man stops, turns.
THE KID: Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow.
GRANDFATHER: (a beat) As you wish.
And his smile is enough. As The Grandfather steps out the
door, tipping his hat–
One cool development in my personal writing life in 2018 was my rediscovery of my love of fountain pens and in writing longhand. I’ve always found a certain pleasure in writing longhand. It feels as if the words are in my hand as opposed to my head, in a way. Writing by fountain pen is particularly enchanting. The way a fountain pens work is that the tines of the nib spread out just ever-so-slightly when you press the tip to the page, allowing ink to flow between them. In a way it’s like you’re not so much writing but rather painting the words on to the page, with a brush made of metal and just two bristles.
(And, wouldn’t you know it–as I was writing a draft of this post, right about this spot is when the pen I was using burped a bit of ink onto the page. I blotted the ink with a cloth and kept on writing, but here’s the blot itself, a testiment to a minor irritation of using this old-school tech.)
The cautionary tale of the ink blob is to make sure your paper is thick enough for fountain pen use. Liquid ink does, and will, soak through cheap thin paper more readily than thicker, more expensive paper. That blot pictured above? It looks bad and it was a momentary inconvenience–but not one bit of it soaked through to the next page in this pad.
I have not returned at this time to actually drafting my stories in longhand, though I still may at some point. But I have been writing longer pieces this way, as well as generating story outlines and worldbuilding notes and the like. The slowing down of the writing process that comes from writing longhand does enforce a certain slowing of the mind as one works. I do get a little nervous from time to time as my brain starts trying to leap ahead of what the fingers can do with a pen, but generally I find writing longhand a soothing experience.
And ultimately it’s nice to set aside the digital tools and return to a form of writing that has a very definite physical component. There’s a sense in which writing longhand feels like a return of sorts, a getting-in-touch with some earlier form of art. It’s the writer’s equivalent of a carpenter erecting a chair without using power tools of any kind, relying on precision cuts and joinery made with hand tools. I also like to remember that the ink-filled pen at one point constituted a huge technological advance over dipping quills. I won’t be trying those any time soon–at least I don’t expect to–but I do own a couple of glass dipping pens which I’m long overdue to try.
So if your own writing is a bit humdrum, may I suggest: Try writing longhand for a bit! It doesn’t even have to be a fountain pen on nice paper. A cheap Papermate in a spiral notebook is just fine, if that’s how you roll. But you might find that changing the physical feel of the process helps jar something loose in your mind and make the story flow. At least, sometimes that works for me.
If you haven’t been here in a while, yes, I’ve redesigned the site again. I was never in love with the second design I had in place, and finally I decided that it was just plain not something I wanted to keep, so now I’ve redone things. I think I like this design best of all, so far. We’ll see.
As for what’s been going on, well, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing. I am plugging away at the manuscript for Orion’s Huntress, and after that I have a pile of manuscripts to edit. And lest you think I kid of exaggerate in my use of the word pile, well, check this out:
So yeah, I’ve got a lot of editing to do. Those five binders and folders comprise four books: Forgotten Stars IV, Book One of Seaflame!, the second John Lazarus book, and the untitled kayaking-trip-from-hell stand-alone horror book that has been knocking about my hard drive(s) for a few years now.
What else is going on? Well, THE CHILLING KILLING WIND is available as an e-book! Get it here!
Finally, I continue to write for BYZANTIUM’S SHORES and for THE GEEKIVERSE, and I hope to produce more material at all my sites moving forward. More on that, erm, later.
So that’s where things stand right now. Writing, editing, new e-book, stuff for other blogs and sites. I’m swamped!
Well, I could do a bunch of preamble stuff, but why bother? Here it is!
Click to embiggen!
The blurb text reads:
Tonight, former detective John Lazarus will finally put his old life behind him. He has a new job as a teacher, a new home, and a new love. All he has to do is get through tonight’s execution of Roy Edgar Chalmers, the last of the three men who killed John’s wife in a botched robbery. Once Chalmers is dead, John Lazarus will be done with his old life at last.
But tomorrow the murders will start: strange, violent crimes whose only connection is the pair of voices exhorting the perpetrators to kill. As an occasional police consultant, John Lazarus will increasingly suspect that something abnormal is at the heart of these killings. And when Roy Edgar Chalmers, not nearly so dead as he should be, approaches him for help, John Lazarus will realize that maybe his old life isn’t quite done with him….
Here, at last, is the Prologue to my forthcoming supernatural thriller, The Chilling Killing Wind. Next up will be the cover reveal in one week’s time, but for now, meet former police detective John Lazarus as he prepares to go witness an execution….
It’s been another month and here we are, right in the middle of NaNoWriMo. How’s it going for me? Pretty well. I’m well over halfway to 50,000 words, which is the target for NaNo–but not for the book in question.
And what is my project? I’m returning at last to Orion’s Huntress, the space opera novel set in the Forgotten Stars universe but in no way narratively related to that series. It is, in truth, my way of writing another space opera without having to build a galaxy from scratch. And hey, galaxies are big, so they can contain a lot of stories. I got about 80,000 words of this book done two years ago before I stalled out with no real notion of where to go with the story. This time I’ve put a lot more thought into things and I am hoping to actually finish the draft. So that’s where things are with that.
I have other items on the way, including a cover reveal and the first chapter for The Chilling Killing Wind. Those items will likely run sometime the week after Thanksgiving, as I plan to actually issue the book in December! Huzzah!
So that’s what’s been going on. More to come in the next few days, I hope…including a tribute to a couple of storytellers who left this world last week after long, wonderful lives of some of the best storytelling ever. More to come on those.
As one of those storytellers liked to say, “Excelsior!”