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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Poetry reading

A friend of mine and I were discussing poetry a few days ago, and the inevitable question came up: what is your favorite poem?

I'm not a poet myself, so I can't claim any particular expertise, but I know I've always loved e. e. cummings's way of turning simple language on its head to create uniquely surreal beauty; two of my favorites are the sweet, joyous "if everything happens that can't be done" and the short but chilling "me up at does."  Another contender is Elizabeth Bishop's beautiful "The Fish," and I would be remiss not to mention Stevie Smith's brilliant "Our Bog is Dood," which seems to make no sense at all until... suddenly... the message is crystal clear, and devastating.

But if I had to pick one only, it would be Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners," which (because it was written in 1912) I will reproduce here in full:
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
  Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
  Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
  Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
  ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
  No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
  Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
  That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
  To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
  That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
  By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
  Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
  ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
  Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
  That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
  Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
  From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
  And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
  When the plunging hoofs were gone.
What I love about this poem is that it gives you a piece of a story, and leaves you to imagine what the rest might be.  What had the Traveller given his word to do, and to whom, and why?  Who are the listeners, and why didn't they answer?  The whole thing gives me chills every time I read it, because -- as Stephen King pointed out in his masterful analysis of horror fiction Danse Macabre, sometimes it's better for writers of horror to leave the door closed.  Left to their own, readers can conjure up some really scary explanations for what might be behind it.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

So that's my favorite poem, and I hope you'll take the time to check out the links I provided to some other wonderful ones.  Now, let's hear from you: what are some of your favorites?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The long road

I've been writing fiction since I was six.

We were assigned to write a little story, then get up in front of the class and read it.  So I wrote some silly thing about a bird that falls out of his nest and bends his beak askew, and has to get help to straighten it out again (you can tell that Looney Tunes was one of the formative influences on my sense of humor).  But the day we were supposed to read to the class... well, I was terrified.  Shaking in my shoes, knees knocking together, the whole nine yards.  But I got up there and did it...

And everyone laughed.  In the right places.  They applauded at the end.  And I thought:

I want to do this forever.

I kept writing, kept reading, and kept creating.  Through elementary and high school, and into college.  I had two people who were incredible influences -- my high school and college creative writing teachers, Ms. Bev Authement and Dr. Bernice Webb -- who never lost faith in my storytelling ability even though looking back, a lot of what I wrote was pretty cringeworthy.  But the message from both of them was clear: keep writing.  You can do this.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

When I was 19 I completed my first novel-length manuscript.  Speaking of cringeworthy... but I finished it, pounding the whole thing out on an old Royal manual typewriter.  (Yes, I'm that old, falling somewhere between "cuneiform clay tablets" and "word processing software" on the great timetable of history.)  I first started trying to get published when I was around thirty, querying publishers and agents, but like a lot of aspiring writers, got 100% rejections.

Some were courteous and encouraging.  Others, such as the person who simply hand-wrote "NO" in bold print across my query letter and sent it back to me, were not so much.  I received one rejection that took nine months, and another that took -- I kid you not -- nine hours.

Finally, in 2005, I had gotten so discouraged I was on the verge of quitting, not just trying to get published, but writing itself.  By this time writing was such an integral part of me that I couldn't quite imagine what life would be like without it, but the battering-down I was getting from rejection after rejection was just too much for me.

Enter K. D. McCrite.

K. D. belongs to an online writers' group I'm in, and had read an excerpt of a manuscript I'd just completed, a sci-fi thriller called Kill Switch.  And it turned out that she knew the head of a publishing company personally -- in fact, they'd published several of her wonderful books, including her sparklingly witty young adult series The Confessions of April Grace.  She talked to the publisher about my manuscript, and then sent me an email saying, "Get your manuscript to him.  Yesterday.  I'm serious."

Three weeks later, I had a contract in my hand.

Opening that box of books when Kill Switch was published was one of the peak experiences of my life, but was also completely surreal.  It was hard to imagine that my forty-year-long dream of being a published author had finally happened.  Well, I now have thirteen books in print, six more in the publishing queue, and so many ideas bouncing around in my head that it's a wonder my skull doesn't rattle when I shake it.

In the past year, I have come to the conclusion that I don't simply want to be a novelist -- I want to help others who are where I was, trying to keep their feet on the long road leading to becoming an author.  I'd like to give back to the writing community, to lend a hand the way I was helped by people like Ms. Authement, Dr. Webb, and K. D. McCrite.  I'm putting myself out there as a fiction writers' mentor/coach -- I'd love to help writers who are stuck, have writers' block, or maybe even have an idea for a novel but have no idea how to begin.  My business is called Pen & thInk (lots more details at the link), and I'm offering everything from a short, four-week module to a full year for someone who would like to go "zero to novel."  I also have a special program for teenagers who are aspiring authors.

So I encourage you to take a look at my website, and to contact me if you're interested or would like more details.  If you would love to write a novel, what's holding you back?  I can help -- and there's no reason to wait, regardless of where you are or how long you've put it off.  Remember what the brilliant artist Grandma Moses said when asked why she'd waited until she was eighty to start painting: "Well, it was the youngest age I had left."

Contact me if you're interested.  I'd love to hear your stories -- and help you to get them onto the page.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Unexpected depths

First, a bit of shameless self-promotion: my fiction authors' mentorship/coaching business, Pen & Think, is officially open!  If you have a story in you that's just trying to get out on paper, and you don't quite know how to do it, I can help.  I won't clutter up the blog post with all the details, because you can find them on my website -- fill out the "Contact Me" page if you want more information or want to sign up!

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A writer friend of mine on social media asked what I thought was a very interesting question: what was the most memorable line you've ever read?  I've read a good many profound books, but the first thing that came to mind was a line not from a book but from a television show.  In the Doctor Who episode "The Face of Evil," the Fourth Doctor remarks, "The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common; they do not alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views."


The aptness of that quote these days hardly needs to be pointed out.

But there are many others, in books, television, and movies, quotes that somehow stand out for their unexpected depth (sometimes even in otherwise silly settings; the episode "The Face of Evil" was unremarkable in other respects).  Some only gain their punch from the context -- I'm reminded of Eowyn's defiant "I am no man" in Return of the King, immediately before she stabs the King of the Nazg├╗l right between the eyeballs, and the heartbreaking line at the end of Vanilla Sky when Sofia Serrano says, "I'll see you in the next life, when we both are cats."  Neither has much significance unless you know the story.

But there are a few true gems that carry their weight even independent of where they're from.  Here are a few of my choices:
  • "Deserves it!  I daresay he does.  Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends." -- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
  • "You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do." -- David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won.  There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall." -- Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi
  • "There is no greater agony than having an untold story inside you." -- Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." -- Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl
  • "Oh, yes, the past can hurt.  But you can either run from it, or learn from it." -- Rafiki in The Lion King
  • "I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth." -- Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
  • "Get busy living, or get busy dying." -- Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption
  • "Not important?  Blimey.  That's amazing.  You know, in nine hundred years in time and space, I have never met anyone who wasn't important."  -- The Eleventh Doctor, Doctor Who, "A Christmas Carol"
  • "Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back what you have stolen.  For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great...  You have no power over me." -- Sarah in Labyrinth
  • "Live now; make now always the most precious time.  Now will never come again." -- Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Inner Light"
Nota bene: If you can watch "The Inner Light" and not ugly cry at the end of it, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.  That episode has to be one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on television.


So... there are a few of my favorite profound quotes from fiction.  Let's hear about yours!