Tag Archives: prose

Write from the heart #amwriting

Writers are entertainers. We write books for people who want a diversion from the daily grind. No matter the subject or genre, we write escapes for people who need to just get away for a while.

MyWritingLife2021Our stories take the reader to exotic places and introduce them to other realities. When we publish a book, we hope it will find a reader on the day they were looking for just such an escape.

If it does, we hope we have written something reader will stay with to the end. We hope they see life and vitality in the narrative, the kind of energy we thought we were imparting when we wrote it.

No matter how well edited a manuscript is, readers will only stay with us if we allow ourselves to write from the heart. We must write what we believe is true even though the story is about people and events that never happened. If we believe in what we write, the prose will have power.

poetry-in-prose-word-cloud-4209005I wrote poetry and lyrics for a heavy metal band when I first started out. I was young, sincere, and convinced I had to impart a message with every word. I didn’t know until twenty years later when I came across my old notebook that my poems weren’t honest. Eighteen-year-old me was trying to make a point rather than offering ideas for further thought.

Paging through that notebook and looking back at my work, I could see the falseness clearly. My words were contrived – I was trying too hard to be the next Bob Dylan. The words that emerged hadn’t been good enough, so I went out of my way to be clever.

When I began writing stories for my children, I knew better than to get fancy. I still wrote crap but what I wrote then was honest crap because I no longer had anyone to impress.

my-books-cjjasp-own-workChildren are unimpressed by the fact their parents might write a story or play music or paint or do any of the creative arts.

They are also blunt when they tell you where a story or a song or a picture fails to impress them and are upfront about why. Thanks to the tough audience that my children were in those beginning years, I found ways to write fairy tales with truths that weren’t shaded by what I thought art should be.

These stories were better, but they weren’t written by an educated author.

As my children left home, I had more time to learn how to write a literate, well-plotted story. I made connections with other writers and joined writing groups. That was when I discovered that an author needs to be consistent with punctuation even when writing from the heart.

I had no idea I was uneducated because I had done well in writing and literature in school. I navigated college courses with no problem other than laziness. Alas, members of my writing group pointed out that I hadn’t retained much of what I was taught in elementary school.

steering the craft leguinAs Ursula K. LeGuin said in her excellent book, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.” [1]

So, I knew a lot of words but didn’t know a lot about how to shape them. I try to embrace what I fear, so I forced myself to re-learn the fundamentals of American English grammar. I’m not perfect, but I try to do as well as possible. My editor still finds habitual errors.

If you are a regular reader here, you know I enjoy reading books in every genre and style.  While the books I love are scattered all across the spectrum, they have one thing in common—they are all written by authors with an understanding of the basic rules of punctuation.

Often, these authors break other grammar rules with style and abandon, but they do pay attention to punctuation.

Punctuation matters because it is the traffic signal telling the reader to go, yield, go again, or stop. If an author gets the punctuation right in most places, the reader can suspend their disbelief.

Writers begin as readers. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King gives us permission to read for six hours achicago guide to grammar day, should we so desire. Reading is how we come to understand writing and the art of story. Mr. King also admonishes us to learn the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.

In my quest to understand the art of constructing a story, I have come across some pretty awful books. As a freelance editor, I have twice had work submitted to me by authors who believed a convoluted mess was ready for the publisher and just needed a bit of proofreading. No editor has the time or desire to completely rewrite a story for a client, and they will decline that project.

We all suffer agonies on hearing criticism until we have been at it for a while. At first, our skin is thin and delicate and bleeds copiously when flaws are found in the precious child that is our work.

storybyrobertmckeeEvery editor will tell you no amount of money is worth the time and effort it would take to teach an author how to write coherent, readable prose. That is what seminars, books on craft, and books on style and grammar are for.

I have said this before—I don’t consider something awful and hard to read if it is written in an old-fashioned style. However, I do think a book is awful when its author wastes my time by not learning how to construct a sentence.

And when it comes to the narrative, poetry can’t be forced, but good prose can be ruined by trying to make it poetic.

I learned the hard way that contrived prose is not poetic, nor does it prove you are talented. When poetry or good imagery emerges naturally, rejoice and keep writing. Let the imagery flow when it will, and don’t force it. Every word we write doesn’t have to be golden.

LarrysPostRapturePetSittingService_EllenKingRiceI want to read an honest story about people who seem real, who have the kind of problems we can all relate to on a human level. I want to read a story that comes from an author’s deepest soul. The setting doesn’t matter—it can be set on Mars or in Africa. Characters matter, and their story matters.

I read all genres and all settings. I will forgive the imperfections if the author has tried to be consistent and knows the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.

I love nothing more than finding a great story that rings of truth and touches my heart. If it has passages that flow naturally and strike deep into my poetry-loving soul, all the better.


[1] Quote: Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, ©1999 Ursula K. LeGuin, First Mariner Books Edition 2015, page 11.


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Thoughts on the evolution of prose #amwriting

Our prose and the way we shape it is a fingerprint. It is our recognizable voice.

I follow the careers of several favorite writers, reading everything they publish. I have done so since finding their first novels in the sci-fi section at my local bookstore in my early twenties.

Their debut novels had a kind of shine that captivated me, despite not being technically well written. That spark of genius accompanied their earliest works and carried me, the reader, through the rough patches of their narratives. These authors had a passion for their stories and an innate ability to convey a world and create memorable characters with moving stories. That gift of fire more than made up for the less than stellar moments that sometimes were sprinkled into a piece.

Early 20th Century fantasy was written by people like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who were educated in classical literature at Oxford and Cambridge. Tolkien was a Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford, and Lewis was chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge. They remained working in their chosen fields all through their lives, writing their greatest works while working as academics in the fields of literature and theology.

These two literary authors influenced my generation of genre fantasy writers, who emerged in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In their earliest published works, these (now not so young) authors of speculative fiction were allowed to write literary works filled with thought-provoking plots and characters, featuring strong social and political themes.

However, these authors were frequently journalism majors, instead of literature and fine arts. Their voices and writing styles reflected that journalistic influence, getting rid of the leisurely prose and replacing it with active, verb-centric prose.

And readers wanted that.

So, in spec fic, literary prose evolved away from using descriptors, to show an active style. Journalism shaped genre writing, moving it away from the sometimes passive, heavily descriptive prose of literary fiction and into the action-based prose that is popular now.

However, journalism met and collided with poetic literary writing, resulting in a writer like Patrick Rothfuss. This shows that literary influences continue to shape genre writing, and educated readers want good prose with their action.

Several authors who  first published in those early years of my reading life  turned those early works into popular, long-running series. By reading those books in the order they were published, one can see an evolution toward active prose.

Or in the case of one of my earliest influences, a stagnation. Beloved though her early works remain, I can’t read her work anymore.

I look at my own work and see evolution. Am I growing in the right direction?

I don’t know, but I’m having fun.

I love the ins and outs of the writing process, and I love literature in all its forms. I love the challenge of trying to wrangle my words in such a way that my readers will stick with me, and maybe an editor for a magazine will like something I have produced.

I don’t always succeed, but sometimes I do. Every modest success in finding a home for a short story keeps me writing, keeps me focused on the goal of “selling one more story” or “finishing just one more book.”

The reading public is fickle. Their taste evolves and changes as “new” and different styles of prose capture their imagination. Readers are heavily influenced by what their peers are reading.

Authors don’t always know how to evolve, and their work can become dated. We have to be agile to walk the line between our personal choice of prose style and what we can sell.

But the truth is, if the subject is just past the peak of popularity, it “has been done” and will be rejected. If the subject is too far ahead of the wave or too original, it may be deemed “too out there,” and brilliant prose won’t sell your work.

Readers may discover it after we’re dead, although success after death is a small consolation to look forward to.

I don’t sell as many short stories in an average year as some other members of my writing group do. I tend to write work that is a little bit “out there” and finding the right editor is a crap shoot.

But my writing friends’ successes give me hope and they encourage me to stay in the fight.

I will keep writing short pieces and submitting them and hope my work lands on the editor’s desk on the day he/she was in the mood for something different. With each short piece that is rejected, I get a little bit of feedback that helps me know where to send the next story.

Writing has been my passion and my life. Every day I wake up, glad to go to work. Writing this blog is a joy because here I can talk about the nuts and bolts of writing craft, a subject no one finds interesting unless they are writers.

I’m on a quest to obtain that elusive magic my favorite authors seem to have. In the process, I am reading a lot of great books, many old as well as new. I’m discovering just what works for me as a reader and what fails.

In the process, I’m dismantling some passages of their work, tearing it down sentence by sentence to see what makes it tick.

I hope you will stay with me on this journey. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our companions when it comes to what we consider good literature, but hearing differing viewpoints gives us a more rounded view.

In many ways, I do my “mind wandering” here, and I thank you for the feedback you give me.

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#amwriting: poetry in prose

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PD Both poetry and prose have evolved over the last two-hundred years. In 1816 words were art, and they were frequently crafted into a piece  as if you were decorating a house–the author placed them in such a way as to be artistic as well as impactful.

Think Dickens, and Byron, and Mary Shelley.

A random comment in another forum led me to think about poetry and prose, which of course, led to a blog post.

Much of the time, modern poetry doesn’t rhyme. And even without rhyme, some authors write poetic narratives. But if it doesn’t rhyme, what makes poetry “poetic?” And where does it fit into modern prose?

As always, I turned to the “college of the internet” and did some research. Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says, “Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.” (End quoted text.)

In his April 19, 2012 blog post for Harriet, (the Poetry Foundation’s blog for poetry and related news) titled The Difference Between Poetry and Prose,  Martin Earl says a number of things.

Quote: “Prose is all about accumulation (a morality of work), while poetry as it is practiced today is about the isolation of feelings (an aesthetics of omission).” 

Well, that didn’t help. Taken individually, I understood each of the words that make up that sentence. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand what Mr. Earl intended to say by combining them so incomprehensibly.

I realized I would need an interpreter. So I prevailed upon Stephen Swartz, author, and professor of English at a well-known university, who is also a good friend of mine.

Stephen explained what Martin Earl may have meant: “I can only take that to mean that the writing of prose is, e.g. like a description, a compiling of details. a productive activity. I agree with the definition of poetry being a limitation of words/details in the service of presenting something esoteric such as thoughts and feelings, abstractions rather than the concrete. For prose, we accumulate words; for poetry we try to do more with less.”

Now THAT made sense to me.

However, I did find a portion of Martin Earl’s post to be understandable without the aid of my friendly neighborhood professor. Toward the middle, he explains the evolution of how poetry became prose, places it in a historical context and then explains that continued progression away from poetic prose in modern literature.

Earl writes, “In both classical and modern languages it is poetry that evolves first and is only much later followed by prose, as though in a language’s childhood, as in our own, poetry were the more efficient communicator of ideas.”

He goes on to say, “With the spread of the printing press after 1440, texts no longer had to be memorized. Poetry’s inbuilt mnemonics (rhyme, meter, refrain, line breaks) were no longer essential for processing and holding on to knowledge. Little hard drives were suddenly everywhere available.” (End quoted text.)

That makes complete sense to me on a personal level. I can remember anything I can set to a rhyme, or make into a song.

I believe using rhymes as mnemonics (which is defined as a memory device) is fundamental to human nature. We developed complex languages within our tribal communities while we were still in Africa, before the great diaspora. It was there in the earliest stages of our humanity that we gained the ability to describe the wider world to our children. With that, we had the capacity to understand and describe the motives of another person.  We could explain the how and why of an incident. We saw the divine in every aspect of life and developed mythologies combining all of these concepts to explain the world around us and our place in it.

Printer_in_1568-ceWe learned ways to memorize  and pass on ideas as abstract as legends or sagas. Through those stories, we could learn larger lessons from the mistakes and heroism of our ancestors.  My theory is that we developed poetry at the same time as we developed language.

Every tribe, every culture that ever arose in our world had this same tradition of passing down stories and legends using rhyme and meter.  Rhyme combined with repetition and rhythmic simplicity enabled us to remember and pass on wisdom to our children.

Wikipedia describes poetry as: “a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning.”

It also describes prose as: “the most typical form of language. The English word ‘prose’ is derived from the Latin prōsa, which literally translates as ‘straight-forward.’”

In poetry, saying more with fewer words forces us to think on an abstract level. We have to choose our words based on the emotions they evoke, and the way they portray the environment around us. This is why I seem to gravitate to narratives written by authors who are also poets—the creative use of words elevates what could be mundane to a higher level of expression, and when it’s done well, the reader doesn’t consciously notice the prose, but they are moved by it.

We have no need to memorize our cultural knowledge anymore, just as we no longer need the ability to accurately tally long strings of numbers in our head.  We’ve begun to like our books with straightforward prose. Flowery language is no longer acceptable in the books we read.

This is also true of modern poetry.

The love of poetry continues, and new generations seek out the poems of the past while creating powerful poetry of their own.

Authors craft incredible narratives, often without knowing they are poets.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss 2nd coverPatrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind:

“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

“The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.” (End quoted text)

That is some powerful prose. It is both straightforward, and poetic.

That is where craft comes in. Choosing words for the emotions they evoke and the way they portray the environment the author has imagined is what lends great narrative prose its power. We can still appreciate beauty combined with impact when it comes to our prose.


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Ulysses cover 3I’ve been having a kind of rolling conversation with Professor Stephen Swartz regarding James Joyce’s Ulysses. It reminded me of what I realized when I was reading it in college–that it is a series of great one-liners strung together. It is nearly incomprehensible to folks like me when taken in a large chunk, but like all of Joyce’s work,  cut down to small bits, it’s got some hilarious, witty moments. So what is this fascination that I feel for James Joyce and his work? I’m a moderately uneducated hack-writer of genre fiction, but there is something about his way with words, a kind of addiction that keeps pulling me back.

Ulysses was never originally published as a single volume, instead it was first published as a serial in the American journal, The Little Review over the span of two years from March 1918 to December 1920, in 18 episodes, and was first published as a single volume in 1922. It’s an incredibly long book for the era, 265,000 words. Books of that length are much more common nowadays, but usually only in genre-fantasy. (Robert Jordan, Tad Williams.)

Ulysses 4Ulysses details the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, the hero of a classic Greek heroic tale that was Joyce’s favorite as a boy,  Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The novel establishes a series of parallels between its characters and events and those of the poem.  Leopold Bloom corresponds to Odysseus the Wanderer, Molly Bloom to Penelope (Ulysses’s long-abandoned, ever-faithful wife), and Stephen Dedalus, Telemachus (Ulysses’s and Penelope’s son who seeks endlessly for knowledge of his father.)

265,000 words to describe one day in the life an extraordinary Irishman.

But they are great words, a series of deliciously twisted, carefully structured phrases strung together in a delirious, stream-of-consciousness that hovers on the edge of making sense while entertaining you–if you can face the wall of words that is each episode.

“History,” Stephen said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. 

“Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand.”

“Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.”

“We were always loyal to lost causes…Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination.” 


UlyssesJames Joyce’s prose is deliberate, shocking and full of puns, parodies, and allusions. He shows us his characters clearly, and depicts them with broad humor.

All of what James Joyce put into his work is what we, as modern writers, want to inject into our own work; only perhaps in a more accessible form that a broader audience of readers will enjoy.

It takes a special kind of obsession to wade through a doorstop like Ulysses for pleasure, as most people are forced  into it (as I was originally) by the requirements of a college class in literature. It’s the sort of thing no one does without a good reason.

For me, that reason is the fabulous one-liners that pepper the nearly hallucinogenic narrative. I simply open it to any page and start reading, letting what happens on that page sink into my consciousness, cringing or laughing as may be.



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