Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On Skin and Bone and the only way I know how

When I took my first creative writing class at UVU, I was terrified of poetry. Not of reading it, but of writing it. Every single time that I tried to write a poem, it didn't work. It was pretentious and hollow and a great example of why many many people across the world hate verse.

And I finally realized why it didn't work.

It was because I sat down with the intention of writing a poem. I wasn't trying to convey something, I wasn't just writing to see where it went, I sat down and I tried to vomit a poem out of my pink ball point pen on my first attempt, which is incredibly stupid of me, if not widely ambitious.

Now, if I happen to write something that I think just might be a poem in the works, I start formatting it into something else, but it always starts as a free write, or a random train of thought.

As an example to you, here is a random thought that I wrote down in my journal and later made into a poem called "Skin and Bone."

The images I recall of you do no justice to the shape of your eyes or the curve of your shoulders. They are specters of reality doomed to live their days with the knowledge that they cannot ever compete with you. There is little wonder why they look so sad in my mind, constantly betraying the light in your eyes as they ache for your flesh with a hunger that has been building up for centuries. A force that would conquer those that have not paved their days with silken stars, as we have, and that do not marvel at the congruity of life, as we do, and that do not believe with unimaginable certainty that our lives are tidal, as we will. I will never let them take you, as long as I can see the trees for what they truly are, and as long as you swear to never leave the space between my skin and bone.

After several, several rewrites, here is the final version of the poem: 

Skin and Bone

Together, we slay fear with freckled cheeks
and the days we’ve paved with silken stars.
Specters of today and tomorrow and now
fall under the power of our tidal hearts
and your 5 o’ clock shadow
and the space between my skin and bone
where I feel your magic (which knows no proximity)
and I keep your eyes in a jar
made of the picture perfect lives we’ve lived.
I swear (on blood and breath) to keep you
and you whisper me back that age old spell
and somehow we’ve become giants
standing beside a mountain
that is not as tall as you or I
and I feel the trueness of your body
and the congruity of us
as we build a fortress to keep our dreams.

Even rewriting this in here just now makes me want to make a few more alterations, take it in or let it out a bit to fit my ideas.

And that is the only way that I know how to do it. 


Saturday, August 27, 2011

On petition: Cliches in Young Adult Lit I want to ban forever

I am tired, (oh so tired), of reading young adult novels that feature the same plot devices, the same turns of phrase, the same character shells. I think that what writers of young adult fiction provide their readers should be better than these trite euphemisms. I believe in something better.

I thereby swear as an aspiring writer of young adult fiction to never EVER contribute to the following cliches. If I do commit one of these crimes, please feel free to burn me alive.

1. Characters That Cup Each Other's Faces:
This is one of the things that I hate the most about any novel, not just young adult. I hate that every hero cups the heroine's face in his hands before he delivers that tingling, life-changing kiss. I hate it!!

2. The Unexpected / Undesired Class Partner:
I swear, there has got to be another way for the author to throw two high school students together, even if they are complete opposites. Even if one of them is an alien and flies up to outer space after school everyday. From the amount of unexpected partnerships that I read about, you'd think that every single day in high school would feature that dreaded partner-project, but no. They don't. I also hate this one something fierce.

3. The Overreaction / Damsel In Distress:
How many people (please raise your hands) remember reading about a heroine that consistently feels weak in the knees (I have NEVER felt this before, personally), falls over due to emotional trauma (does being surprised or sad affect your balance?), or simply faints/falls/throws up for no reason? How many people have had these things happen in real life, and if you have, was there every a gorgeous guy there to pick you up? (Suddenly his arms were around me, supporting me, SWOON! [gag]) Never. Most likely, even your current boyfriend / husband / significant other would try to get away from your projectile vomit... at least at first.

4. The Sudden / Inexplicable Urge To Touch Someone You Barely Know:
This one is so overused. I even catch myself almost writing it into my current work-in-progress. Sometimes, I think bad books are forging neural pathways in my brain that I don't know if I can undo. ANYWAY, why is the main character always compelled to touch a person that they barely know? In high school, I never had an urge to caress the hot guy I had a crush on, (well, maybe in my dreams), because he would think I was crazy, and he would be right. There has got to be a better way to explain an attraction / fascination with someone's appearance!

Although you may think that I am unaware of the fact that I am just comparing these YA characters with myself, (which is probably a high-form of narcissism, but I'm choosing to ignore that for now), I am most certainly aware of it!

I only do so in order to explain that if I feel so cut-off from these characters, so turned off by their overused mannerisms, so tired of their cheesy dialogue, than aren't many other readers going to feel the same way?

I almost feel like any YA author--current or aspiring--should take every first instinct that they have for dialogue, setting, and plot, and throw it completely out the window. They should throw their second thoughts out the window, too. The third thoughts can stay. This will become the new YA. The better YA.

Just a thought.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On paper: A poem I wrote just now

I think
that I might be
a little bit
(just a little bit)
like a ritual
that nobody
understands anymore.
A dead tradition
that carries on
to haunt
the living
with its
passes it off
as myth
or legend
which makes them
a little
(just a little)
But those who know
the truth
of it
shy away
from the lies
that keep others
They pack up
of themselves
into nicely
for this purpose
and they wait
and wait
for someone
to unpack them.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the poem of the day: "Bike Ride on a Roman Road"

I never thought that I would be one to like poetry, but now I can gladly say that I love it.

Reading poems in high school felt like torture, until I read "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe. As I continued into college, I found myself loving certain types of poems more and more. I have discovered that the types of poems I love are the ones that are intensely lyrical and a little transcendent and maybe a little ambiguous. Actually, a lot ambiguous. 

Most people want to know what a poem "means." I used to be driven by this weird need as well, until I just told myself that it doesn't matter what it is saying, as long as you are reading it and enjoy it. This isn't to take away from the incredible skill and technique of the poet. This isn't to say that poems do not have a meaning as intended by the poet. But then again, aren't meaning and intent superfluous to the reader? If they read it and interpret it in their own way (and heaven forbid, LIKE IT), isn't that the point? If you're shaking your head while reading this and saying to yourself, "Of course it matters. This girl is messed up!", then I will ask you one question: Do you seriously think that all poets / authors / playwrights should submit an instruction manual with their work? 

Dear reader: When you read this poem, please picture yourself in the middle of ocean. There is a shark to your left. You are very cold. Regards, Walt Whitman.

(Speaking of dear old Walt, in "Song of Myself" he says, "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?")

(Also, in Zadie Smith's On Beauty, the character talk about art, and how art is analyzed. One character says, "You can't ever say that you like the tomato," the tomato being a painting, a novel, a poem.)

I don't think so. I feel like if you read something, especially a poem, and a clever turn of phrase catches your eye and ear and heart, than the poem has done its job.

So here's the poem of the day: "Bike Ride on a Roman Road" by Alice Oswald. 

Bike Ride on a Roman Road

This Roman road—eye’s axis
over the earth’s rococo curve—
is a road’s road to ride in a dream.

I am bound to a star,
my own feet shoving me swiftly.

Everything turns but the North is the same.

Foot Foot, under the neck-high bracken
a little random man, with his head in a bad
controversy of midges,
flickers away singing Damn Damn

and the line he runs is serpentine,
everything happens at sixes and sevens,
the jump and the ditch and the crooked style . . .

and my two eyes are floating in the fields,
my mouth in on a branch, my hair
is miles behind me making tributaries
and I have had my heart distracted out of me

and now I have no hands and now I have no feet.

This is the road itself
riding a bone bicycle through my head.

I read this poem in a Contemporary British Lit class, a few years ago. When I first read it, I tried to follow the narrative and get where Oswald wanted me to go, since this is very much a poem of direction. After that, I read it again. And again. I keep getting lost in "Everything turns but the North is the same," and "I have had my heart distracted out of me." 

I linger on these lines because they're mine now, and it doesn't really matter what their original purpose was, because I've internalized them and they've become a river running through my head. 

I love them. And I'm not afraid to say it.


Monday, February 28, 2011

On finding the strength to continue

Lately, I've been having a hard time getting inspired to write.

This is partly because I just started a new job (hooray!) where I write about 4,000 - 6,000 words of online content for other companies (boo!). This does not help my motivations to get home from work and plop in front of the computer to write. Again.

The other part of it is that I've been lazy. I didn't trust when other writers said that writing was real work, meaning you write even when you don't feel like it. For a few days, I rebelled against this, and whenever inspiration left me, I minimized the document and watched an episode of Community. Or five.

When I finally came to myself to realize all that needed to be done (by me) to get my ideas on paper and in print would be terribly difficult and not always the funnest, I sort of lost my motivation all over again. 

Then I did something to come back: I picked up a good book and lost myself in it. 

The book was Fire by Kristin Cashore and it was wonderful. It was exactly what I needed. I can't believe I let it sit on my bookshelf so long, unread.

Reading Fire helped me realize things about myself as I writer that I desperately needed. Things that the advice posted on an author's blog about how to get inspired could not help me with. Things that I didn't even know I needed!

The major thing that I learned with Fire is that no matter how cool the concept of your story is, no matter how interesting the world it is set in, the thing that matters is the story. This goes along hand in hand with character. What happens to your characters and why does it matter? How does their life change, and how do they change to accommodate the difference? Why do people need to read this story?

While those are pretty tough questions, they helped me shift my focus. I was getting too caught up in what kind of world I wanted in my story, and what I wanted to happen when that I forgot why I was wanting to write this piece of crap anyway!

There is my two cents on how to get your mojo back. (PS: I highly recommend Fire to those that haven't read it! If you're a fan of Graceling, be prepared: I liked Fire better.)


Monday, February 21, 2011

On character: A lesson from author Kate Atkinson

As I briefly mentioned before, I have a weird obsession with author Kate Atkinson. I first read one of her novels (Case Histories, a book that Stephen King called "the best mystery of the decade"), in a Contemporary British Literature class.

I remember being instantly drawn into the novel, sucked in so deeply and so irrevocably that I could not function until I finished the story. After Case Histories, I devoured her other mysteries surrounding the damaged yet lovable Jackson Brodie, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? There is a fourth Jackson Brodie novel out, Rose Early, Took My Dog, but I haven't read it yet. (Gasp!)

Having read three of Atkinson's novels, and a few of them twice, I have come to realize some things about what makes her novels great: character.

The characters in Case Histories and its sequels are rich and real. Their lives are portrayed with such startling intimacy that I am at once terrified and delighted. They are complex humans thrown into amazing circumstances.

As I continue my own creative writing endeavors, I'm trying to learn more about creating rich characters from Atkinson. Below is an excerpt from When Will There Be Good News?, which surrounds the sixteen-year-old Reggie.

What I love about this section of Atkinson's writing is how she manages to create character in such a short amount of time. I could read fifty pages of the average young adult novel and still not have as clear a picture as I get from this short excerpt:
"Have you had much experience with children, Reggie?" Dr. Hunter had asked at her so-called interview.
"Och, loads. Really. Loads and loads," Reggie replied, smiling and nodding encouragingly at Dr. Hunter, who didn't seem very good at the whole interviewing thing. "Loads, sweartogod."
The Hunters had a forty-inch HD television on which she watched Balamory DVDs with the baby, although he always fell asleep as soon as the theme tune began, snuggled into Reggie on the sofa like a little monkey. She was surprised Dr. Hunter let the baby watch television, but Dr. Hunter said, "Oh, heavens, why not? Now and again, what's the harm?" Reggie thought that there was nothing nicer than having a baby fall asleep on you, except perhaps a puppy or a kitten. She'd had a puppy once, but her brother threw it out the window. "I don't think he meant to," Mum said, but it wasn't exactly the kind of thing you did accidentally, and Mum knew that. And Reggie knew that Mum knew that. Mum used to say, "Billy may be trouble, but he's our trouble. Blood's thicker than water." It was a lot stickier too. The day the puppy went flying through the window was the second-worst day of Reggie's life so far. Hearing about Mum was the worst. Obviously.

From these paragraphs, we learn about the characters by dialogue and anecdote. For example, the way that Reggie says "Sweartogod" is unique, young and probably something she says when she's nervous. We learn from the things that Dr. Hunter and Reggie's Mum say that they are concerned with being good caregivers for their children, even when the situation is not cut-and-dry. We learn from the way that Reggie notices things about her family that she is observant and wise beyond her years.

What do you think about this section? Something I'm wondering about as I write this, is whether or not this particular skill can be adapted in my writing style, or if it is something that is entirely too literary or too character-based to be included in a young adult novel.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

On inspiration and dream desks

Sometimes, when I need that little extra push of inspiration, I imagine what my dream desk, office or library would look like. Basically, the amazing, unrealistic place that would turn my okay writing into something that would make Kate Atkinson beg me for advice. (Side note: I have an obsession with Kate Atkinson. More on that later.)

This is my dream desk:

I think the picture is taken in a tree house, which is another fantasy I have. Living in a tree house... maybe that's trying too hard to be an eccentric author. Like somehow developing an addiction and not showering and wearing a beret (in my tree house home) will magically turn me into J.K. Rowling.

Going along the tree house theme, this is my dream library:

I don't think this room is in a tree house, but the loft ceiling and exposed beams make it feel like one. I could imagine curling up on that comfy chair-thing for hours on end. Or just staring off in the distance to let my ideas percolate in my brain. I do that a lot.

Anyway, this is something that helps get my inspiration going! What motivational tricks do you have up your sleeve?


Saturday, February 19, 2011

On writing: Lessons from the king

     I'm trying to be a writer, but it's harder than I thought it would be.

     As I started putting my ideas to paper, (I currently have two major ideas for novels), I soon realized that I needed help honing my craft. Whatever that "craft" is. I started shopping for helpful writing advice on the internet and in books. The first writing book I picked up was On Writing by Stephen King, which has been hailed by many a successful author as the go-to guide to writing. The big kahuna.

    I've decided to share what I've learned so far from the King in the form of memorable quotes from the memoir. But believe me, there are far more nuggets in the rest of the book than I'm including here. This thing is chock-full of noteworthy guidance!

from On Writing:

Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. You job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
If you write (or paint or dance of sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all. I'm not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.
The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.
It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around.
With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously... With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid because he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
Rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
 Description begins with the writer's imagination, bu should finish in the reader's. When it comes to actually pulling this off, the writer is much more fortunate than the filmmaker, who is almost always doomed to show too much... including, in nine cases out of ten, the zipper running up the monster's back.
Some people don't want to hear the truth, of course, but that's not your problem. What would be is wanting to be a writer without wanting to shoot straight.

     This is what I've learned so far from the King. But that's not really the hard part, it is? Now I've got to figure out how to actually use this stuff in my writing, without coming off as a watered-down wannabe. Yikes.


On beginnings; Or, the start of something

I'm Alyssa and I want to be writer.

I have a day job, so I don't have much time to devote to the craft. Plus, it doesn't help that I write about 5,000 words a day at work. For other people's blogs. Zoiks.

I sometimes go by Lyss. Hence the title of this blog. Hopefully, my commitment to creative writing will become something. Some day.

These are rambles.