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My Life of (C)rhyme

Above: The cover of one of the genuine ‘Miss Spider’ books. This is the (surely) beloved Miss Spider. David Kirk has a dozen-plus books out. The rhyme is charming, and the art blows me away. The images are gorgeously composed.

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Any sort of writing is a challenge, but to write verse is double the struggle.

I want my verse to rhyme exactly, not almost. My prose storytelling is written in a conversational voice. My verse is as well. I want my language to be natural, though flavorful, and my story progression to make total sense, while hitting my rhyme-sounds without undue manipulation of sentence structure. (Except for breaking lines apart to cue pauses.)

The snippet I show below was trying. The rest of the six-hundred words came fairly easily. I’ve worked on these few lines for the better part of two days. I’ve had many versions of the ‘Bettie Page’ area, tried to convince myself they were good enough, and failed.

Miss Spider has been on a dinner date with Woodie. They’ve seen Peggy Flea’s show at the Cobweb Club. He’s looking forward to a night of romance. So is she, but she plans fun of a nastier character.

This piece is close to finished, in two days. I have other things I’ve worked on for two decades. When I can’t solve a problem, I put it aside, and hope to come back to it with a new approach to the area in question. I generally throw out the problematic lines so I can’t refer back to them and have my thoughts heading down the same dead-end path. I still have rhymes that I wince over in many of my pieces. I regard them as place-holders, until a better combo pops into my head.

I write narrative verse, telling a true story, with a plot. I want my rhymes to be perfect sound repetitions, and I want them to be surprising, not low-hanging fruit. To achieve this goal, I do resort to structural gymnastics. Some of my rhymes land on the one word of a two-part phrase. In the direst circumstances (not here) I have my crucial syllable skulking in the midst of a multi-syllable word, requiring the line to be treated as prose, the match making itself known in the reading.

Where necessary, I pad my meter with interjections: Ha. Whoa. Hey. Lord, Lord. As I do in my fiction, I inject myself into the proceedings. This gives me additional ways to lay my hands on a solution, and adds a bit more fun.

Sometimes I can’t find the words to say exactly what I’d like (or need, even worse) to say, and I resort to make-do second-best. That never works. I can’t kid myself. In the end I rip down the structure I’ve labored over and start anew.  

My idea here is to mimic the look and feel of the popular ‘Miss Spider’ series for children: smiley-face cartoon bugs (I’d have a hard time identifying Miss Spider as a spider, expect for all the legs), a landscape format, high-gloss cardboard stock with rounded corners. The art is rendered in bright primary colors. As far as mimicking the look perfectly goes, I’ve already shot myself in the foot. (I love the idea of Miss Spider ending up in Bettie-Page-style peek-a-boo underwear, catching unsuspecting parents by surprise. The series is aimed at very young children, who would need to be read to.)

The original has no footnotes. No sidebars. And certainly no Miss Spider in corselette, garter belt, and mesh stockings. Nor does the genuine Miss Spider have a brass bed furnished with hand cuffs, awaiting her fling of the night. (Spider females eat the male after mating. This is her strategy for seeing to it that the process goes smoothly.)

Scene: Miss Spider and her date, having enjoyed Miss Peggy Flea’s show, are returned to her apartment. This is the text for a two-page spread (of a projected twenty-four page book).

This is my most difficult section for intricacy of phrasing. I think I’ve solved my problems with flow. If I haven’t, I would appreciate it if you would let me know, and I’ll continue to fiddle with it.

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They’re ensconced on her couch.
She croons, “Cuddlebug, you into games, babe?
Sit tight. I’ll be back in a few.

“Close your eyes, hon,” she calls from the next room,
“until I give out with the cue.” There’s a pause.
Then a shrill, gleeful, drawn-out “taa-daaaaaa!

Woodie’s stunned.
(So am I.)

Mae’s a sight to behold, in . . .
let’s see now . . . in thigh-high boots . . .
French corselette . . . crotchless panties.

Lord, Lord.

The boy’s dumbfounded, people, wigged out.
He is floored.

Bettie Page,* eat your heart out.
Miss Spider, petite as she is, gotta say it.
This chick has you beat.

She’s got eight shapely legs.
Long-long legs.
In mesh hose hooked to a garter belt.
Hey! I wore one of those.

No shit.

Curious, ain’t cha?
You’re dying to know more on that, I should think.

Here ya go. See below.**

*  Bettie Page was an American model who gained notoriety in the 1950s for being photographed in naughty underwear.  

** Pantyhose wasn’t always a thing. Dancer Ann Miller invented it in the nineteen-fifties to facilitate quick changes. In fifties Florida, we wore garter belt and stockings to church, and on any fancy occasion. A garter belt was uncomfortable at any time, twice as bad in the Florida heat. The pre-pantyhose years were also the pre-AC years, at least for folks of modest income.

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I have a scene in The Rogue Decamps in which my archbishop (who writes verse) tells the King of Haute-Navarre: “if you see me with my head bowed, I’m generally running rhymes through my head, looking for a match that works for me.” This is what I do. I know that behavior well.

I cannibalize my life. There’s a bunch of me in every one of my characters.

I have Celestine, I have Gaudy Night, I have five or six short picture books in progress, giving glimpses of Sly’s childhood. All these are verse, and they all have plenty of those ‘placeholder’ words that nag at me, that still need work. I’m frequently running possibilities through my cranium, looking for that Aha! solution.

I live with my cast of whackos 24/7. I’ve lived with them for decades. And they still fascinate me. Bear that in mind when give you another post on my critters. It’s a compulsion.

That’s my best, and only, defense.

I will be submitting Miss Spider’s Dinner Date to Rabbit Hole V. The theme of the next issue is Just Plain Weird. I figure this qualifies. Whether or not Rabbit agrees with me, I’ve got the start of another series.

And another paper doll.

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book reviews, Literary critique, show case

USEFUL CRITICISM

Toxic Positivity Is Very Real, and Very Annoying.
Psychologists say forcing ourselves or others to be positive can be harmful to our mental well-being and our relationships. This is because practicing false cheerfulness— which they call “toxic positivity” —keeps us from addressing reality.
Details here.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/tired-of-being-told-cheer-up-the-problem-of-toxic-positivity-11635858001?mod=wsjhp_columnists_pos1

Specific comments about another author’s work can be truthful, helpful and painful. Sacrificing truth to prevent pain is not helpful. None of us want that. We work hard to improve and we have all winced at positive but useless comments.

Criticism, as the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary work, has a wide history. There’s Formalist criticism, Gender criticism, Marxist criticism, Psychoanalytic criticism, Russian formalism, Reader Response criticism, even Critical criticism. And we don’t have time for all that.

I suspect that trusting the author who asks for criticism and truthfully giving what help we can competently offer, will work most of the time. Sue Ranscht’s Writers Co-op Show Case allows just that. Check it out if you’re looking for criticism &/or are willing to criticize another author’s writing.

Of course, the real fun in criticism is when you don’t like an author and can say things like, “If you think he’s good now, you should read his writing from two or three years ago.”

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Uncategorized

Do Your Research to Make Your Story Really Come to Life

A page from my fully illustrated Maisie in Hollywood. Mulot danced briefly with the celebrated Denishawn Dancers. It was Ted Shawn who gave her the name Marcelline Mulot. He refused to have a Maisie Snodgrass in his troupe.

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We have a magical resource at our fingertips. How many of us make optimal use of it?

It is an essential tool for me, writing fiction set in the sixteenth century and the nineteen-twenties, but I would make equal use of it if I were writing a piece set in the here and now, or on a world in the distant future. In order to build an intriguing world, I need information. Gobs of it.

I need the layout of London in 1583, sure. But, more than that, I want obscure, screwball details. I’m always on the lookout for fun facts. Always!

I am constantly googling biographies, description, any oddball thing that occurs to me. Last week I found an article on the history of mirrors, and the use John Dee made of them in his occult work. When I get to book four of Sly . . . when I get down in the mud, wrestling a story out of Dee . . . I could make it up, sure. And it would be fun. But it will be so much more fun if it’s (sorta) based on historical reality.

What is flon flon? The term was attached to a headpiece designed by Paul Poiret a century ago. I plugged flon flon into Google and got this: “An improvisation in wire, strips of silk, and feathers and is little more than a headband. As with many of the hats and headdresses intended for pairing with evening ensembles, the ‘Flon flon’ is theatrical in spirit.” You know those lists of words everyone overuses? I overuse frou frou. Flon flon is an interesting alternative.

Google has not obliged me in my search for info on Bea Wanger, one of my two main characters in Maisie in Hollywood. This is all I’ve found on her:

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American interpretative dancer. Name variations: Beatrice Wanger. Born Beatrice Wanger, c. 1900, in San Francisco, CA; died Mar 15, 1945, in New York, NY.

Stage name: Nadja (c. 1900–1945) Trained at school of Florence Flemming Noyes in New York City; taught classes at schools in NY and London; moved to Paris where she made performance debut at Théatabletre Mogador in Cora Laparcie’s Lysistrata (1924); created and performed recitals (often set to poems by Dante Gabriel Rosetti and G. Constant Lounsberry) at Théâtre Esotérique and other popular venues; returned to US (1937) and taught at studio of Albertina Rasch in NY.

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She was the sister of the legendary producer Walter Wanger, that I’ve ascertained. With so little to go on, I felt I had permission to write her as I pleased.

Hedda Hopper, I have reams of material on her. W.C. Fields, ditto. Dalton Trumbo, I’m good with him also. Yes, he’s in Maisie as well. Erich von Stroheim’s methods of eliciting riveting performances from his actors. Wallace Beery . . . he was Gloria Swanson’s first husband. Did you know that? He was already a big star when she was just starting out.

I have a file on the history of shoulder pads. Square-shouldered bodices were designed by Adrian for Joan Crawford, to camouflage her broad shoulders. They became the style, on film and in the culture at large. Maisie, with no shoulders to speak of, longed to be in fashion. I have Travis Banton at Paramount giving her leg-o-mutton sleeves, the illusion of shoulders, which thrill her no end.

I see a file named ‘The Original Red Mirage’. I don’t recall what’s in it but I’m sure it’s something valuable.

I have three files for Victoria Cross. She wrote schlock romance in the nineteen-tens-twenties, really terrific, terrible stuff. I use a line of hers in chapter nine of Maisie: “Cuckoo! screamed the bird in the tree, taking to the purple-bruised sky with a joyful flapping of last-light-licked wings.”

I stole this line (and made changes to gunk it up even more) off guttenberg.org, for my character Bea Wanger, who writes romance also. This bit (and others) were too good not to grab.

The folder I’m looking through at the moment contains my notes for Maisie. I have another folder of notes for Sly, with triple the material. I’ve been doing my research on him for thirty years, first in typewritten pages, now pulled off the web and saved, with a tenth of the effort.

Magical! The web is magical! How did we get along without it?

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, book sales, editing, Freedom of Writing, Literary critique, marketing, Publisher's Advice, show case, Welcome, Writers Co-op

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

The Writers Co-op Show Case allows any writer to receive feedback about their writing. Click “SHOW CASE” for details.

The Rabbit Hole anthology is accepting submissions for our fifth annual publication of speculative fiction. Click “THE RABBIT HOLE” for submission guidelines.

Your blog may be featured here. You, your writing, editing, marketing, or publishing would be of interest . Keep it around 1600 words max and submit it to GD(at)Deckard(dot)one.

Got a question about anything related to the writing life? Feel free to ask it in the comments section.

The Writers Co-op includes fiction authors, poets, editors, illustrators, magazine and book publishers.

You are most welcome to join us.

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show case, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Thanks, Guys!

Today I am 79 years of age and three quarters of a century is time enough to have the things that young men dream of.
New Year, GD Deckard, The Quantum Soul

That is the first line in the first short fiction of mine to be published and on this day it is true.

“Well, my old friend, it certainly is time for you to relax and look back on a full life.”

Bidziil Zahnii looked at Maxwell as if his doctor misunderstood where babies came from. “Now is the time to look forward, Max.”

At seventeen, I decided to become a writer. But not then. I didn’t know enough. Figured I’d know the answers to life’s big questions when I got older. Imagine my surprise when sixty rolled around and I still had no clue. Oh well, I did have experiences so I started writing, making up the big answers as I went. Douglas Adams had already demonstrated that an answer of “42” is good.

The best thing about writing is there is always something to look forward to. I awoke this morning thinking about the insight-full criticisms others here have given me on a piece that I put in Sue’s Show Case. I made the changes.
Thanks, guys! You have made the opening of my WiP balanced. I look forward to finishing it.

P.S. I would have written a more useful blog but it’s my birthday and I don’t have to.

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Uncategorized

OPEN COMMENTS WEEK

Use the Comments section to talk about anything at all concerning the writing life. Here’s a few ideas.

You
Your writing
Editing
Publishing / publishers
Marketing
Review a book
Tips, tricks, and tools you use
Story ideas
Your own favorite caracters
What readers want
The book industry
Sources of research
Authors who influenced you
What your significant other thinks of your writing
Give an elevator pitch on your latest book
Legal matters that writers need to be aware of
The different tools amazon has for writers
Audio books
Podcasting
Your favorite quotes
Share your writing bucket list
What you are working on now

“This is a site where we swap and share news, opinions and experiences about writing, from first paragraph to finished product and beyond. …here in the Co-op we try things out, see what works and what doesn’t, and tell each other about it.”

  • Curtis Bausse, First post, April 26, 2016

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401

No, not the Web Error 401. This is post number 401, meaning, 400 blogs have been posted to date on the Writers Co-op. So let’s look at post number one and judge how we’ve done. Here it is, from APRIL 26, 2016, by Curtis Bausse. How do you think we have fared over the years?

co-op stuff

The first post. And to me has fallen the honour. Seriously, it is an honour. Firstly, because it’s a vote of trust from my fellow co-operators, secondly because this post is the first of a long, rich and innovative series (no point starting a blog otherwise, right?). As more posts come, this one will slip out of sight and mind, but it will always remain the first, the one in which the Writer’s Co-op became public. So thank you, Amber, Atthys, GD and Mimi for putting your trust in me.

Let me begin by explaining. The five of us ‘met’ on Book Country, a website where writers post their work for peer review and critiques. Though lately it’s become very sleepy, it’s not a bad site, and it has a discussion board where I’ve found many a useful piece of advice. And some time ago a thread was started by GD Deckard, in which he wrote the following: I’m thinking of a site that new writers can use to promote their books. How, exactly, depends on what the writers themselves want. Writers are creative people, so together we could come up with creative ways to help one another that we might not think of on our own. How would you like to see a Writers’ Co-op work?

Well, it took us a while, but here we are – The Writers’ Co-op. Five people who write in different genres but who all share a similar commitment to the craft and the graft of writing.

watchmaker_2_1_0_rectangle

The craft…

Building Stonehenge

and the graft

But why come together? What can this site do that a personal one can’t? Well, as GD says, for a project like this, many minds are better than one. And the method is in the title – cooperate. This is a site where we swap and share news, opinions and experiences about writing, from first paragraph to finished product and beyond. Especially beyond. Because who wants to write a book and then not promote it? That’s like a painter working for years on a picture, then turning it to the wall. So here in the Co-op we try things out, see what works and what doesn’t, and tell each other about it. And not just each other, obviously. We happen to be the five that started it off, but we don’t intend to stay whispering in our corner. The Co-op welcomes anyone who’s willing to invest a little time and effort into promoting books worth reading.

What can you expect to find here? Since there’s nothing new under the sun, I do admit the innovation bit could be a challenge, but we’ll try our best, I promise. There’ll be anecdotes and analysis, thoughtfulness and humour, awards and recommendations, opinions, rants and wackiness. We don’t expect to work miracles and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But what we do take seriously is writing itself. Which means we’re also keen to help writers explore whatever path might lead somewhere interesting, and help readers find good writing. If that sounds like a programme you could tune in to, you’ve come to the right place. Drop us a line, tell us what you’re up to. Maybe we’ll end up travelling the path together. Whichever one it turns out to be.

path2
path1
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About Writers, editing, Stories, writing technique

Show Me

While screening stories submitted to Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine, it occurred to me that editing means the opportunity to find new stories to share with others. What does that mean? It can’t mean only stories that the editor personally likes. Good stories appeal to a wider variety of readers than any one person can imagine.

So what makes a story appeal to a wide variety of readers? Common themes help, of course, because more readers will identify with the story. But I suspect the real key is participation. Think of it this way: Would you rather sit in an audience and listen to a comedian or a lecturer? The lecturer may tell you interesting things but the comedian will draw you in and make you participate. Would you rather laugh or be lectured?

Yup. I’m talking “Show don’t tell,” my favorite explanation of which remains the quote by Russian novelist Anton Chekhov.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“Show don’t tell” entices the imagination. That lets the reader participate in the story.

Writers have used many creative ways to draw readers into their stories and the ‘Net is full of examples. Chekhov’s is an immersive description.
Some are half-thoughts that invite the reader to complete the image.

“She said only, ‘He spent the night rocking my world.'”

Or juxtaposed images that show something of the character’s character.

“I drive way too fast to worry about cholesterol.”
-Steven Wright.

What is your favorite way to show the reader your characters, to draw then into your world?

Me, I favor dialogue. It can allow the reader to imagine the details.

“You had a vibrator?”
She nodded. “I pulled a lot of guard duty. You know how boring that is?”

It’s not enough to tell a reader anything. You have to show them something.

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writing technique

Words, the long and the short of it

How many different words do you need to know in order to write a book? The works of James Joyce (excluding Finnegan’s Wake) include almost 30,000 unique words, which is a lot. You certainly don’t need that many. But not using them doesn’t necessarily mean not knowing them. According to the researchers at Test Your Vocab, an average native speaker knows 10,000 words by the age of eight, expanding to 20,000 to 35,000 words when they are adults. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker puts the number higher – 60,000 words for an adult. But as he points out, “people can recognise vastly more words than they have occasion to use.” Furthermore, the unique word criterion may not be the best, since it counts, for example, walk, walks, walking and walked as separate words. If we count lemmas, or word families, instead, we have just one there – walk – and our vocabulary knowledge shrinks accordingly. Linguist Stuart Webb estimates that an adult native speaker knows 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas.

In our everyday conversation, we generally make do with far fewer. With 5000 words, we can have a decent, though limited, conversation, while with 10,000 the number of topics we can discuss increases dramatically. Theoretically, then, we could make do with three or four thousand words to write a novel. Original literature is written for the EFL market using only the two or three thousand most frequent words in English. I’ve read a number myself (a character in Painter Palaver produces such books), and it’s like being immersed in water at body temperature, meeting no resistance but getting no challenge either. Kind of dull, let’s say, even when the story’s decent.

That’s not to say we need to go the James Joyce way – there’s no link between size of vocabulary and quality of writing. Or rather I see it like the link between money and happiness – there has to be a basic amount, but above a certain threshold, you get no extra benefit.

What does this mean for writers? Notably that their productive vocabulary needs to be more readily accessible to them than it is to most non-writers. If you’re anything like me, a sizeable chunk of your time is spent searching for the ‘right’ word. In fact I hope for your sake that you’re not too much like me in that respect, because I suspect I spend far more time on that than most writers. That’s because I suffer from language attrition. For most of my life I’ve been exposed to far more French than English, so although English is my native tongue, I’ve now reached the point where I’m forgetting it. Anyone who tries learning a second language knows that without regular practice, it’s extremely hard to remember, but the same can apply to a first language. Not the syntax, which is largely mastered by the age of three and remains accessible thereafter, but the vocabulary. Words are easy to learn but also easy to forget.

As a result, I experience the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon more often than most : you know the word exists, you have an idea of its ‘shape’ – number of syllables, stress pattern, maybe a vowel sound or two – but the actual word won’t come. But I dare say you’ve experienced it too (am I right there? Comments welcome!) My assumption is that it’s part and parcel of every writer’s experience, and is one reason (amongst many others) why writing is such a challenging activity.

How do I cope? A combination of two approaches. The first is to accept it, recognise that good books can be written without recourse to an extensive vocabulary, and concentrate on using the words I do know to maximum effect. But while that may work to some extent, there are still many occasions when the word I want, the only one that will do, plays hard to get, like a key you’re trying to fish out of a drain hole. Only one thing for it in that case – the thesaurus.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Whether Stephen King, who wrote that in 1988, has changed his mind with advancing age I don’t know, but without a thesaurus I’d be sunk. The proviso is that I use it exclusively to fish those keys from the drain hole – words I once knew and used regularly, but can’t quite reach anymore. Not for me the word that struts onto the page like a garishly dressed dandy whose only aim is to upstage all the other words quietly doing their job. I just want the word that knows its place, fits alongside the others, and lets the sentence flow. Upon which contumacious rodomontade I shall terminate.

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Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Let’s Show Off

Recently, several of us explored ways to expand our little co-op. Having failed to heed the Universal Caution against volunteering, I volunteered to organize two ongoing projects — Writing Prompts and Critique Groups — that might induce authors to participate. Most of those who commented on my ideas supported them. (I suspect they were just happy somebody offered to do something, but I am grateful nonetheless.)

Let’s begin with a Writing Prompt. This isn’t a competition, but all submissions will be shown off in a Show Case posted here on Writers Co-op. Here are some guidelines: Pick a genre, any genre. Use approximately 6 to 1,000 words. The goal is to stretch our author muscles and produce a piece worth sharing with our friends.

The first prompt is: Atrophied.

Submission Instructions: By Monday, October 4, attach your work (as a .docx or .pdf) to an email addressed to me at stranscht@sbcglobal.net. I’ll put them together in a Show Case post here on Writers Co-op for Friday, October 8. (I’m thinking this could be a bi-weekly challenge. What do you think?)

And if we all share these projects through our own personal blogs, Facebook pages, and soapboxes, authors who have never heard of Writers Co-op might take part, too.

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