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

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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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