Thursday, January 27, 2011

In danger of dumbing down?

"Fear of the world produces crystals in writing. One seeks the faultless, crystallized phrases, perfection, the hard polish of the gems, and then finds that people prefer the sloppy writers, the inchoate, the untidy, the unfocused ones because it is more human. To jewels, they prefer human imperfections, moisture of perspiration, bad smells, stutterings, and all the time I keep this for the diary and give the world only jewels."
- That’s from the journals of Anaïs Nin, Volume II, page 52, at the end of July 1935.
Hat Tip: A. Chee

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Percolation and reading (Beyond the Words - 3)

I've been collecting some ideas from Bonni Goldberg's book Beyond the Words about percolating — all the stuff we do to prepare for writing, as well as the in-between-draft to final draft thinking and working through of our ideas.

Here are some quotes from Chapter 3 on reading and the part it plays in the percolation process:

"Reading... is a time-honoured means of immersing yourself in the receptive state that percolating is all about." - p. 27.

"Learning from the writings of others is a legitimate and necessary form of mentorship." - p. 28.

"Often what ignites our urge to write in the first place is what we read. Many people begin to write because they've been inspired by someone else's writing." p. 28.


My thoughts:

As I see it, there are two kinds of reading. There is reading for fact and mental inspiration. And there is reading for style and creative inspiration.

When I am reading as a non-fiction writer I most often read in the first way — to gather information and facts or to absorb a viewpoint or way of thinking about a problem. When I read for this, I usually need to take notes.

When I read as a creative writer (of poetry or fiction) I am more interested in the author's style, voice, and word usage. This is the kind of reading that ignites my urge to write. It's hard to take notes for this kind of reading. I do tend to mark up the text though, which is a nice thing about e-readers — at least my Kindle. For I can easily highlight parts and when I want to get back to them, they're all in a tidy list which I can even email to myself.

I would say one more thing about reading, especially as it relates to my devotional writing. More times than I can count, I have read something one day and a few days later used an idea or a quote from it in the meditation which I am writing. I feel sometimes like I'm a channel through which God is pouring inspiration, and reading is crucial in this.

I'd love to hear how reading contributes to your writing process.

Other posts in this series.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Digital poetry

Sydney's Siberia - Mosaic Poetry
Is it the future of poetry on the web. Jason Nelson of Australia thinks so.

I first heard of Jason Nelson's digital poetry projects through Maureen's article "Wednesday Wonder: Poetry Goes Geek "(via the High Calling Blogs December newsletter).

Here's how Jason describes his projects:

"In the simplest terms Digital Poems are born from the combination of technology and poetry, with writers using all multi-media elements as critical texts. Sounds, images, movement, video, interface/interactivity and words are combined to create new poetic forms and experiences. And when a piece like “game, game…” attracts millions of readers while a “successful” print poem might attract a hundred, I think the digital truly is the future of poetry. ….. is designed as a stable of sorts, for the these poetic digital horses to sleep.  Readers can play within the possibilities of the electronic poem, to inspire and frighten, to allure and repel. An introduction to what poetry has become, and the imaginary lands I build to keep them in hay and away from the rain."
Here, have a look yourself.

I spent a good (really it was bad) 20 minutes playing "game game" - a project the Wall Street Journal dubbed "as alienating as art can get" (hint: the instructions of how to move reveal when you click on the top right where it says "instructions").

As per Maureen's article, there are many other types of poems such as:

Combination various
Slot machine
Deep Menu
Speech to text
3D Depth
Mouse Followers

I'm thinking playing this kind of poetry could be addictive. But it feels somewhat nihilistic. Interesting but...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Percolate (Beyond the Words - 2)

Percolate. The word raises memories of our stove top coffee percolator with its transparent glass knob that gave us a glimpse of the action within. I loved the rhythmic chunk...chunk... sound of coffee bubbling into that knob, and the fabulous smell that told us mom would soon call us to Sunday lunch of zwieback, cheese, jam, peanut butter, pickles and matrimonial cake. Percolated coffee was a treat, pretty much reserved for company or Sunday Faspah* (the rest of the time we drank instant).

Which is why Bonni Goldberg's choice of the word "percolate" for one of the activities we writers engage in seems entirely fitting. For It holds within it for writing, as for coffee, the promise of good things to come.

Goldberg talks about percolation in Chapter 2 of Beyond the Words. Here's her definition:

"Percolation is the process writers go through before actually writing. It's a particular way of paying attention that begins the moment you're inspired. You continue to percolate as you spend time with your inspiration and allow it to develop. This includes everything you do that leads up to a first draft, the time between any two writing sessions, even the time during the breaks you take in a single writing session. Percolation tapers off as you solidify your first inklings in words, but it doesn't end until you're entirely finished with a piece" p. 15.

Here are some other things she says about percolation (the first quote within the quote is from  Edna O'Brien):

"'Writing is like carrying a fetus.' Just as a fetus first grows amphibian-like gills and a tail before it takes its final human form, so a piece of writing first needs to develop into a pre-written state in the world of the psyche. Percolation is the incubation time, but there's no standard gestation period..." p. 17.

"The truth is, most writing ideas have been gathering momentum within us for a long time. They surface as inspiration when they grow urgent. In a sense, percolation is the period of time you give to your emotions, intellect, intuition, and imagination to recognize that your idea is now a priority" p. 18.

Here are some ways to percolate:

1. Consciously keep company with your idea by repeating it to yourself and noticing the aware of the range of emotions it brings out, or the character who is speaking.

2. Percolate about the opposite of your idea to see how it plays off the original.

3. Look for connections between your idea and people, places, and situations that are part of your life.

4. Notice how your idea suggests something to try in your life.

5. Take time to experience fully the curiosity, excitement and wonder about your idea.  (Paraphrased from p. 16.)

Finally, here is my favourite percolation quote:

"Percolation isn't procrastination. We need the energy percolating supplies to our ideas. The psyche is at work. Our senses are attuned inward. We're feeding our idea" p. 20.


My thoughts:

  • Isn't it good to know that we don't have to be parked in front of the computer to be working? No guilt that we're shopping or baking cookies — we're percolating!
  • We need to be patient not to force the process, to let percolation take its course so that we come up with the richest brew.
  • We also need to be prepared with notebook and pen because percolation happens anytime — when we're on a walk, driving, or standing in line at the store — and we need to be ready to write down those great ideas.
  • One thing I've done to start the percolation process is to give my brain an assignment. If I have a column due, for example, I'll think of some topic options and then tell my brain to get to work on them. It's surprising how that helps me choose which idea is best and put the elements into place in the finished piece.  
*Faspah: a low German word for a light lunch, similar to an English tea.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Poetry chapbooks = poems +

Just before Christmas I discovered Blogalicious, the blog of poet Diane Lockward. What a delight!

In a recent post she talks back to an article by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) in which he describes his poetry-reading habits. They are to nibble at poetry when he has just a little time, read three or four poems from a collection and then he's had enough.

Her response:

"It seems, then, that Handler prefers to dip in and out of a single collection rather than take it in all at once. I think that's too bad. I think he's missing something."

She goes on tell us some of the things he might be missing because of all that a poet considers when putting together a collection of poems:  what kind of collection this is, should it be divided into sections, how are they related to each other, is there a pattern, what is the connection from one poem to the next, and more.  Her article ends with this bit of sage advice — to Daniel Handler and to us:
"Robert Frost said something to the effect that if a book has twenty-five poems in it, the collection itself must be the twenty-sixth. Please, Mr. Handler, find the twenty-sixth poem."

Altogether it's a great little piece about what - besides strong poems -  goes into a poetry collection.

Read "The Twenty-Sixth Poem"

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A writing life triumvirate (Beyond the Words - 1)

It's a new year and I've been scanning the writing how-to books on my shelves for a shot of inspiration. I am drawn, as I have been at other times, to Beyond the Words: The Three Untapped Sources of Creative Fulfillment for Writers by Bonni Goldberg. I've read this book before and reread parts of it, so I know it's good. It's the one I'm choosing for these early days of 2011. I'm going to read it slowly and  use the blog as a place to make notes and think out loud about what it says to me about my writing life.

I'd be delighted if you read along. Of course I'd love your input too: comments are always open.

Bonni's thesis is that there are three things that are often overlooked but end up being essential to a fulfilling writing life.

"1. Percolation — the process that takes place before a first draft takes shape
2. Revision  — the writer's role after the initial draft.
3. Going Public
a writer's mission once the writing is done" p. 3.

She goes on to expand on why those things are important. Here are some bits that I've highlighted from Chapter 1:

"The reason to cultivate percolation, revision, and going public is really to support your relationship with your writing so that it's dynamic rather than frustrating or depleting" p. 6.

"When aspects of our Writing Self are out of alignment, our relationship to writing gets clogged up by our doubts, fears, frustrations, complaints, and confession. Until we develop our personal set of tools for restoring flow to the creative process, all these issues diminish not only our respect for our writing but our ability to do it"
p. 8.

She talks about how these three things can help writers get unblocked and move onward in their work:
"We don't get stuck in our obstacles because we're stupid or clumsy or bad writers. We get stuck because our focus has narrowed. Having lost sight of the whole writing process, we neglect crucial aspects of it — percolation, revision and going public. ....What I notice is that much of what people perceive as obstacles and stoppages is due to being out of alignment with either the percolation, rewriting, or the public aspects of their Writing Self. If you give too much or not enough energy to one or more of them, then the flow of the writing process is disturbed and a blockage occurs.

....Every time I experience the onset of a blockage, if I look at my relationship with percolation, rewriting and going public, I usually find one of them is out of sync, causing my Writing Self grief"
p. 8-9.

My thoughts:
  • I probably need to be more aware of these three aspects of my writing life. If they're equally important, as Bonni suggests, then they're like three legs of a stool which will totter and fall if one or more legs isn't there or strong. When I'm feeling blocked or blah writing-wise, one of the things I'm going to start looking for is imbalance in these three.
  • I wonder how the internet has impacted this trio. For example, it's easy to get hooked on the adrenaline spikes of internet immediacy — comments, blog traffic stats, facebooking, twitter are all so stimulating I, at least, have to be very strict in limiting myself with these things for my mind to settle into a relaxed and receptive percolate mode.
Going public is now easy — too easy? Do I do it as thoughtfully and deliberately as I used to? Does it carry the same weight as it did before online life, when in order to go public I had to actually tuck something into an envelope and send it off with a stamp? 

I'll be blogging more quotes and thoughts from this book in the days ahead.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Book covers - do they matter?

In a writer's forum of which I am a member, our discussion moderator recently posed the question, "How crucial is the cover of a book to you?"

Brian Austin worked in a Christian book store (Hanover Bible Book Music & Video Store in Hanover, Ont) for twelve years as a "Frontliner." That means he dealt directly with customers and processed sales, along with other chores around the store (he retired in 2009). His response to the question about covers was so insightful, I asked his permission to quote what he said. Here's the lowdown about covers from a bookstore "Frontliner":

"Covers make an incredible difference. Twelve years in a Bible Book Store showed me mediocre books with great covers outselling great books with mediocre covers almost without exception. Enough publicity could tip the balance the other way. An attractive cover gets the book picked up. Then the back cover copy becomes critical. But you have to get it picked up first.

Something else to be aware of in any bookstore: Many of their titles will be spine out, so that may be all you get to catch people's attention except during special promotions. Unless your are one of the few universally known authors, your title has to grab attention. If you are fortunate enough to have your book displayed face out, be aware that many face-out shelves stagger books, with the bottom 1/3 covered by the title below it. I see many very attractive book covers designed by professionals with all the critical information in that bottom 1/3. In many stores in their premium display place, that critical information becomes invisible. Those can be stunning covers, but still fail in moving your book if the critical information is hidden.

Good cover design is pretty time sensitive. Many excellent book covers from 10 years ago look old today on our church library shelves. If you can find something that captures some key element of your story, but that won't become dated (good luck) you will have something extra going for you.

Be aware also of an aging population. I personally like the appearance of many of the fancy fonts and of some colours of text. But more and more often I give up on a book before completing the back cover, even when the appearance pleases me, because it's too difficult for me to read. I don't think I'm the only one getting older.

Can I also point out a couple other factors? If your book finds its way to a library shelf, the spine label will most likely be about one inch from the bottom of the book, in most cases covering part or all of the author's name. You should be dreaming of having your book on library shelves, so think about how the spine-label is gong to look on it. The date-due stamp and barcode will usually be on the right-hand leaf when you flip the cover open or on the inside back cover. Many books use that right-hand leaf to place "what readers are saying about this book." As a librarian, I value those tributes, but I cover them with the date-due slip if that's where they come. It is a higher priority to be able to quickly process a sign-out than to preserve what others have said about the book. 
One cover design bothered me--until after I had read the book. Then it made perfect sense. "Red Letters: Living a Faith that Bleeds" by Tom Davis is a cover design that made me very hesitant to pick up the book, yet the book itself is outstanding and the cover fits it exceptionally well. Does it help market the book? I doubt it. You can see it on and I highly recommend it."  - Brian C. Austin
I'm wondering:
  • Does the cover of a book affect your book buying decision?
  • Which books, in your opinion, have effective covers? 
  • Which covers turn you off?