Poetry’s Gift to Prose

Simon Kindt – Cool

Every now and then a book arrives full to bursting with an idea so thought provoking, or titillating, that nobody cares how well it’s written. Despite the novel’s faults, people who’ve hardly read books (let alone buy one) will see it for sale in a service station, or games emporium, or stacked in a toy store, and buy it just because they’ve heard the buzz this little slab of paper created.

Even while you shake your writerly head over them, you can’t deny the power of the ideas that gave us Fifty Shades, Ready Player One, Da Vinci Code or even those Potter books.

The rest of us can’t rely on coming up with a world defining idea.

We’re going to have to haul ourselves out of the ordinary with our word skills, and that’s where the gift that is poetry enters the mix. While prose is all about sentences and what comes next, it’s the poetic eye (or is that ear) that adds the colour and feeling to the prosaic. When your writing is too flat, too ordinary, too bolted down to reality, it’s poetry that helps writers add sensory detail, playfulness, and a rich imagery deftly drawn.

Poetry is about nuance, about showing and suggesting connections. Story should be about nuance too, but it’s so easy to forget all that when your main aim is to achieve a word count.

And, of course, poetry is about language and how it fits together to create an effect as well as create a story.

Simon Kindt – in action

On Saturday, May 19, Queensland Writers’ Centre is bringing Brisbane poet, arts worker and teacher Simon Kindt, to Bundaberg, to our rooms at 80A Woongarra Street.

The morning session, The Spaces Between: An Introduction to Poetic Writing   is an exploration of metaphor, imagery and writing for sound, designed for writers who want to test the notion that poetry can lift there words out of the doldrums.

The afternoon session focusses on bringing poetry off the page. Beyond the Page: Exploring Movement, Sound and Music  is for beginner and intermediate writers, and explores the power of sound and music intrinsic to poetry.

To book, click on the links above. Costs per session range from $30 QWC members’ concession to $55 non-member non-concession.

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Hungry for the wolf

I’m enjoying a coffee, taking a breath, when a woman I met for an hour in a workshop more than a decade ago stops to say hello.

She asks me if I’m still working. I am. Writing isn’t something you retire from, though I’m trying to retire into it.

Her face lights up. Not often do I actually see a face light up but her joy seems luminescent. If you need a beta reader, she says, I’d love to read something for you.

Read something for me. What? What does that mean? No!

Ok, this scene is not true representation of the facts, but a blend of recent experiences. The one truth is that the term beta reader is being thrust at me from unexpected and unlooked for directions.

Remain polite while declining offers like this. And no, not because you’re shy about your own writing, but because a beta reader has to work for you, not the other way around.

And, not to make too many bones about it, some self styled beta readers take as their right the chance to fiddle with a manuscript.

Folks who appear at your writer’s shoulder as if by magic, or are as enthusiastic as a puppy being offered a walk, or who have decided it might be fun to dabble in the creative process… Those dear puppy-dog people have to be regarded with the same distrust as spam email offering you the world – if only you just say YES.

Stay right away from them.

True, a Beta reader can be any casual reader you can get your hands on. It’s best if they read the type of story you’re hoping to sell. They may have writing or publishing experience (again, in your area of expertise) but it doesn’t matter if they don’t, because a Beta reader gets your polished MS. The one you’ve tweaked and burnished and laboured over. The one you’re ready – almost ready – to send off to an agent or publisher.

Remember, they’re Beta readers and Beta means second. A Beta’s job is to read the MS for enjoyment, and to then point out the few (we hope) remaining flaws the author has overlooked during the rounds of rewrites.

If you want any more than that, and you should, then you’ll need your Alpha reader.

Yes, Alpha – not the biggest, not the meanest, not the most dominant, but an individual you trust first to tell you any ugly truths respectfully and honestly, and an individual who can speak from actual knowledge.

In fact Alphas will read the story long before it’s finished, give feedback during the writing process.

Why? Because Alphas can be trusted to ignore the fact the MS isn’t yet polished to a high sheen. They won’t waste their time mentioning typos, grammar etc. (you know, nuts and bolts errors you’ll clean up on subsequent edits).

Alphas can tell the difference between a scene still in outline and one fully fleshed (believe me, many Beta readers can’t) and will know, without asking, that you’re still working a scene over.

More than that, a good Alpha will agree to read your chapters as you rewrite and polish, because an Alpha knows their job is not a one read deal.

An Alpha is there for you. They are your first reader, and the one you trust. And for a long time they’ll be only one you trust enough for this job. Eventually you might have as many as three or four.

Once you’ve finished primping and polishing, then you turn to your Betas, plural. Hundreds of them if you have the time or are anal enough.

Betas bring a new focus. They haven’t been privy to MS development and can see where the author’s intensity, and the alpha’s depth of involvement, may have missed something. The Beta is the writer’s last line of defence.

They read your final draft once, tell you what they loved (a strength), what they hated (a weakness), and go back to their life. Compare reports from enough Beta readers and you can get a pretty clear idea of how the average reader will see the story.

Of course, you might want to cut a bit of red tape and mash up the alpha/beta job description – wait until your first draft is almost finished then ship it to as many readers as you can dig up, get some opinions, edit a little, send it out again, argue with the readers whose advice you didn’t follow because, when it came down to it, you really don’t trust them enough… and so on.

Or you can just face the fact that while Betas are ten a penny,  you’ll never repay  a good Alpha.

Competition Winners Announced.

Thank you to everyone who submitted to this, our last short story competition for a little while. Although the competition has been especially successful, in our view, the club has decided to change focus for a couple of years to better service the needs of members.

Winner

Janice Williams for Tough Guy. Tough Guy

Janice describes the story as a ‘combination of working dog stories I have heard, and a recognition of the serious problem farmers face with depression.’

Judge’s Comment: Tough Guy is a gentle and moving story exploring the important and topical issue of depression rates amoung Australian farmers . It is well written with heart and humour, and a distinctively Australian voice. It builds powerful moments of drama through subtle characterisations and intimate moments.

Runner Up

Susan Bennett for Butterflies and Roses

Judge’s Comment: Butterflies and Roses has a sophisticated structure and delivers a great twist. Through clever writing and characterisation, it offers beautiful and unexpected insights on life and love.

Special Mention

Cameron England for  Close Contact

Judge’s Comment: Close Contact deals with compelling themes of climate change and isolation through excellent world-building. The dystiopian imagery and depth of characterisation are handled well through clear writing and subtle pacing, ending in a moment of high drama.

Short listed:

  • Mark Fowler Larrikin
  • John Pittmann Blame the Pink Umbrella
  • Carmel Lillis Submitted
  • Naomi Currie Honey Eater
  • Melanie Napthine Escape Artist

Meg Vann said: The standard of (short listed) stories overall was excellent. Each and every story offers terrific writing, characterisation and drama. The stories focussed on intriguing and topical themes, and all showed a sophisticated understanding of craft, using a high level of imagination and expression to create excellent narrative interest. It was very difficult to select the winners. I encourage all writers involved to keep honing their craft and sibmitting their stories to markets

Is there a difference between Landscape and Setting?

I think there is.

But what I think doesn’t matter. On May 21, BWC will be hosting T M Clark, a writer born in Zimbabwe, now calling Queensland home (having also lived in England) to help us understand how writers need to be Inspired by Landscape, rather than settle for using setting as an atmospheric backdrop.TMClark

Bookings are Essential through the Queensland Writers Centre.

As you can imagine, setting features strongly in TM Clark’s books, which are described as African Suspense. Some might think Tina Marie is ‘lucky’ to have first hand knowledge of a landscape we Australians probably consider exotic.

One point might be that we are all living our own exotic lifestyles. We just don’t notice any more.

The other point might be that Landscape is much more than a location, exotic or otherwise. Landscape isn’t a relief painted with broad brushstrokes. It’s not an accessory. It is the living world your characters find themselves in.

Elizabeth George, American Queen of Crime, a writer of mysteries set in England (you might know the Lynley Mysteries), has this to say in her book, Write Away.

On the surface, it would appear that landscape and setting are the same creatures, identical twins given different names just to confuse the beginning writer. This, however, would not be the truth since setting is where a story takes place–including where each scene takes place–while landscape is much broader than that…Landscape in writing implies much the same as that which is implied by the word when it’s used to refer to a location in a country: It is the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel, sort of like the canvas or other medium onto which a painter has decided to daub color.

“You need to think about the landscape of your book because if you’re able to make the landscape of place real, you can make the land itself real, which gives you a leg up on making the entire novel real for the reader.”

If you want TM Clark’s take on the Inspiration Landscape can lend to your latest MS, make sure to book early.

Thoughts from the Back of the Room ~ Writing Tips We Love

A series of notes from Club Members:

Angus Gresham wrote for many years before becoming a club member. Since then he’s passed through many stages of learning, including having to reframe what he thought was ‘only commonsense’.
Writing is something everybody does, but all wannabe authors need to learn how writers do it differently, often alone and sometimes in the middle of creative chaos.

Angus Gresham

During my five years membership of BWC I attended various workshops, lectures, seminars and tutorials – all directed at improving one’s writing skills. I would hang on every word from the presenters and furiously scribble down copious notes – every word uttered seemed so important at the time; I couldn’t risk missing out on any of the gems of wisdom raining down. My notes were taken home, carefully filed and then largely forgotten. As a result a huge, unwieldy and somewhat illegible pile of papers accumulated.

Angus GreshamFinally I decided to do something about it. I pored over the years of note-taking in an attempt to determine what was worth rescuing. Some valuable writing tips were discovered among the mountains of more or less irrelevant scrawlings. Quite a few tips (the better ones) had been repeated over and over by various presenters. Some advice completely contradicted other advice.

The following is a sample of what I found useful. There has been no attempt to list in order of importance. For some people all the information provided may be of equal importance; others will find only some of the tips helpful.

**********

  • Don’t write unless you like doing it for its own sake. It would be great to be published and make lots of money, but if money is the primary focus, you won’t find writing enjoyable.
  • Read a lot, particularly in your chosen genre. When you read a good book, analyse what you like about it, and determine how you can use its positive elements in your own book.
  • Make notes, and plan months ahead of when you actually start the book.
  • You can use a working title which can be changed by you or your publisher at a later date.
  • One should only write for oneself, or for strangers; never for a set audience or family.
  • You’ve got to be happy with what you write. Do numerous drafts if necessary. Edit as much as you like.
  • First paragraph is crucial. You must hook readers from the very beginning. The real meaning of the first paragraph can be explained over the rest of the book. Conflict should start on page one.
  • End each chapter with a little bit of mystery, or even some excitement. This will ensure the reader keeps on reading to see what happens next.
  • Do emotions first, and structure last. You must feel compassion with, and become a part of, the characters. The reader should be able to identify with the characters and become emotionally engaged. Readers have to care about the characters – but they don’t necessarily have to like them.
  • Be aware of pace. Keep the pace moving. Delete all (or most) adverbs in your draft. This allows the story to flow much faster thus maintaining reader interest.
  • It’s OK to have short paragraphs; they give the reader breathing space. It’s OK to have short chapters; they give the reader a break.
  • Use internet research. It is much quicker than traditional library research. It may not be 100% accurate, but most of your readers are not experts on the subject you are writing about. The overriding importance is to tell a good, but believable, story. Wikipedia has a great overview on any topic.
  • Use your professional knowledge and life experience in your writing. Write about what you know. This saves having to do a lot of research.
  • Put your story away for a couple of months and then read it as if it’s someone else’s work. Does the story grab your attention and hold it through-out?
  • Read your story aloud. This will reveal any longwinded or awkward sentences.

Finally, you have to work out the system that works best for you.

 

A short story about how to win

It’s the easiest thing in the world to write a bad short story. You could:

  1. fail to read short stories (eg., collections like Nam Le: The Boat, Cate Kennedy: Like a House on Fire)
  2. write like it was 1964 (Writing has changed since then and competitions are being won everyday by people who are writing like it’s 2015.)
  3. colour your prose purple (Most writers exercise a little purple in the beginning, but practice polishes the melodrama out.)
  4. narrate a Series of Loosely Connected Events (apologies to Lemony Snicket)
  5. believe an excess of poetic language equals fine writing (It doesn’t. It may equal poetry.)
  6. write a story longer than the space it must fit, then hack off the ending. (Think Cinderella’s big sister cutting off her toes to better fit into the slipper – and still failing.)
  7. believe that, because you’re retelling a true event,  you don’t have to write it like a story. (Life is stranger than fiction. Make us believe. Make us Suspend our Disbelief.)
  8. write a story just like everybody else’s story. (This only counts if you’ve nothing new to say.)
  9. tell yourself stories don’t have to say anything special. (Stories are a communication between writer and reader. If the writer has nothing to say, why should a reader care to listen.)
  10. cut a slab out of the middle of your novel. (Short stories and novels are generally very different stylistically. For one thing, short story prose has to be tight, concise, efficient. Novelists can be more expansive when writing.)

If you want to win:

  • Come up with a cracker of an idea.

Aiming to use perfect prose to express a fresh idea will secure a writer a good chance of a win, but if you can’t manage both, remember: more people have been successful with a fresh idea and fairly ordinary prose than have won with an uninspiring story impeccably written.

  • Create three dimensional characters.

Readers must believe in your characters in order to care what happens to them. Give them flaws and weaknesses. Give them something to fight for.  Don’t be afraid to let your characters speak. In fact, encourage it.

  • Remember to create a setting.

Seems obvious, I know, but so many characters float through the story world like a ghost, neither touching nor being touched by their surroundings. Even if the story is happening in the ubiquitous kitchen, give us a glimpse of the red range, the swing in the back yard, etc.

  • Begin where it counts.

Where does it count? In medias res (in the middle of things) is when.
When he throws the knife. When she opens the Christmas card. When she pulls on her clown outfit for the first time. When he learns to tap dance.
You don’t have enough words in a short story to waste them on an introduction.

  • End when it stops counting.

Usually the beginning will help you work out when the story is finished. If he threw the knife to protect himself, then the story ends when he’s safe. If the Christmas Card makes her cry, then the story might end when she’s happy again. That clown suit she was pulling on, the story ends when we find out whether it was a good idea, or not. And the tap dancing – ask Billy Elliot – that story might end when mum and dad realise he can dance better than he can kick a goal.

Some things to avoid (or at least consider carefully) when writing a short story

  1. warmed over ideas
  2. characters with nothing to lose
  3. introductions
  4. stereotypes and cliches
  5. more than one point of view character
  6. dialogue that sounds mechanical
  7. It was a dream endings
  8. a plethora of pulchritudinous, perfectly purple pronouncements
  9. forgetting to include a plot

Download an entry form. Competition closing March 2016

Best writers’ sites on the web?

I’ve found the sites in this round-up all contain at least one helpful tip, idea, observation – most contain many more than one. However, we don’t imagine each site will be universally useful.

We hope you enjoy dipping into them and we hope you find advice you can make use of.


Story Starter: Random opening lines for the clicking. Not that they always make sense, but each one I clicked carried the seed of a story. Rather than an opening line, each could represent a simplified nut graf.


Daily Writing Tips: A favourite site. Free tips on everything writing, from punctuation to style to freelancing. A monthly fee gets you Pro membership.


Babbles from Scott Eagan: Glimpse inside an agent’s head space. Lots of food for thought for writers, including tips on building a social media presence.


United States Copyright Office: If you’re intending to publish in the US, may as well know their rules. Check their FAQs as a starter.


Absolute Write:  Interviews with authors (I like this one with PN Elrod), opinion pieces and all the usual stuff. Notable because of an active forum – more than 60000 writers talking about it and, if possible, answering your questions.

If you have found some favourite sites, comment to share.