I Tackle the Pantoum!

I wanted to learn more about poetry from the eight-week seminar I’m taking at WriterHouse, and I certainly have moved beyond my college acumen at iambic pentameter. Last week it was the “persona poem” entering my lexicon. This week it’s the “pantoum.”

The text we’re using for this seminar is Ordinary Genius, by the poet Kim Addonizio. It’s full of reflections on creativity and exercises and prompts to stimulate the reader’s creativity. Much of what she offers in this book can be useful to prose writers as well. For example, Addonizio described one of her favorite exercises to enhance creativity: Wherever she is, she makes a conscious effort to observe and notice three specific things, which she writes down. They may not show up tangibly in a poem, but the concept each observation evokes will.

The reading for week five of the seminar contained many different exercises and prompts, including the “pantoum,” which is a fifteenth-century Malaysian verse form later adopted by Western writers. A pantoum consists of quatrains (four-line stanzas), and lines two and four of the first stanza become lines one and three of the next stanza, and so on until the final stanza, whose last line is the first line of the poem.

Confused? So was I, but Addonizio provided her poem, “Aquarium Eel,” as an example, as well as other pantoums by Charles Baudelaire, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, and Anne Waldman. I was intrigued enough to give the pantoum a try.

Another part of the reading included a chapter on “Race, Class, and Privilege,” with prompts to encourage us to either explore our ethnicity or reflect on our white privilege. Ever since Thomas Duncan was the first person to be diagnosed with ebola after coming to the United States, I’ve been fascinated by a man from Liberia who shares not only my last name but also the first name of an uncle. Rather naively, I wondered how the name Duncan came to Liberia; then, a forehead smack later, I realized I knew exactly how.

Slaves were often known by their masters’ surnames, and Duncans in Virginia in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries owned slaves. I’ll never know for certain, but from Mr. Duncan’s surname it’s likely some of those slaves freed from Duncan land migrated to the new country of Liberia. Unlike some others in my “clan,” I see that as enhancing the family name: Duncans helped to build America, and Duncans helped to build Liberia. And yes, I understand as well there is a possibility Mr. Duncan and I share DNA. I won’t excuse the reason for that; that would be specious. I do, however, embrace family no matter the color of the skin.

Mr. Duncan likely contracted ebola when he drove an ill woman to a hospital not long before he took a plane to Texas to be with his fiance. He could have refused to help a sick woman, probably someone he suspected had ebola, but he didn’t. In that moment, I knew he and I were family. I knew as well I would have to write about him someday.

So, bearing in mind this is a very, very rough draft of my pantoum, here’s what I wrote for my cousin, Thomas Eric Duncan:

Brown Warrior

I know what our name means.
I’ll always wonder if you knew.
After all, “brown warrior” fits you,
But the battle was already lost.

I’ll always wonder if you knew,
When you went to hospital,
The battle was already lost.
Hero became villain after death.

When you went to hospital,
Did you have the will to survive?
Hero became villain after death,
And how did our name get to Liberia?

Did you have the will to survive?
You helped the sick, who never asked
How did our name get to Liberia.
I know the distasteful answer.

You helped the sick, who never asked
If you were frightened of them.
I know the distasteful answer
Why in death you were feared.

If you were frightened of them,
Those who couldn’t save your life,
Why in death were you feared?
Were you Thomas or Mr. Duncan?

Those who tried to save your life
Didn’t think of you as just a name.
You were Thomas or Mr. Duncan.
I know what our name means.

~~~

As usual, I’d be interested in what real poets think, and suggestions for improvement are always welcome.

I Got the Persona!

In my last post, I wrote about having to write a “persona poem” for this week’s poetry class. My classmates received it very positively, as did the instructor. The poem is below; then, I’ll go over some of the comments I received.

Unrelenting

I am the thing you wish to ignore;
The monkey on your back,
The elephant in the room.

You think if you ignore me
I’ll give up trying,
I’ll mind my own business.

Your business is my business.
My nose will be in it;
My ears will be attuned.

You think denial will obscure me,
That if you turn your back
On me, I’ll go away.

Monster beneath the bed,
Boogeyman in the closet,
Ghost face in the mirror–

You think they are imagined.
I am real, ever so real,
And I am unrelenting.

~~~

Everyone agreed it was a persona poem, even if it was unclear who, or what, the “I” was. Some thought I should provide more clues (details) so the “I” could be identified; others liked the fact it was amorphous. They liked the strong voice and thought even though I used some cliches (monkey on the back, elephant in the room, monster under the bed, etc.) I had given them new meaning. As for that, I considered them tropes more than cliches, but that didn’t come across.

So, now the edit. What will I/should I change? Frankly, I don’t want to include details so the “I” becomes defined–because I don’t know who–or what–the “I” is. As I wrote this poem, I didn’t have anything concrete in mind; I wanted the persona to be undefined. I wanted the persona to be a little scary and ominous. One classmate referred to the persona as an “invisible bully.” Yeah, I rather like that. What I would change is the final stanza, based on a classmate’s comments about inserting a “they” after all those “yous” and “I’s.” The antecedents of “they” are the things mentioned in the penultimate stanza: monster, boogeyman, ghost-face. However, as grammatically correct as that line might be, it’s also passive voice. So, how about this change:

You think you have imagined that.
I am real, ever so real,
And I am unrelenting.

or

You think you have imagined us.
We are real, ever so real,
And we are unrelenting.

Hmm. I don’t know about either change. I’ll have to give it some more thought. What do you think? Comments? Suggestions?

Oh, and I learned a new poetry term–tercet, which is a stanza of three lines.

Poetry Class Update

I’ve had three sessions of the poetry class I signed up for at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. Time is flying, and I am having fun. I’ve received some great and helpful feedback on the two poems I’ve workshopped, enough to make me want to write more poetry.

The second poem was the one I wrote for #FullMoonSocial2014, and the suggested edits were spot on. However, Jeff Schwaner, who came up with the idea of #FullMoonSocial2014, had asked if he could include my poem, “Web of Fate,” in an anthology he was putting together of the poems written for that social media paean to the moon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the edited poem to him in time, so he went with the original. If you’re interested in seeing the anthology and reading the other poems, you can download a copy for free by clicking here.

“Web of Fate” was actually my fall-back poem. I wrote a sonnet (fourteen lines in three quatrains and a couplet, where every other line rhymes, as does the closing rhyming couplet. I have a friend who is terminal with kidney failure, and I intended it to honor her; but I think I bit off more than I could chew. I wanted to work on it some more (a lot more!) before I workshopped it, so “Web of Fate” stepped up as the designated hitter.

For this week’s class, we had to write a persona poem–terminology which sent me to the Google for a definition and some examples. A persona poem is defined as “a poem written from the point of view of the object or person being written about.”* Sounds easy, right? Frankly, I was stymied, but a line came to me during our weekly SWAG Writers’ write-in on Monday: “I am the thing you wish to ignore, and I am unrelenting.” I found that line intriguing, especially when I split the sentence and made “I am the thing you wish to ignore” the opening line and “And I am unrelenting” the last line.

We’ll see on Thursday if those and the sixteen lines in between actually do constitute a persona poem.

*Willow Hambrick – Educator, Literacy Coach, Writing Coordinator, Royal Spring Middle School

Get Ready for Some Poetry!

Last week I started an eight-week poetry class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. I’ve always wanted to write poetry, but perfectionist that I am I rarely set pen to paper to give it a try. When I saw the poetry course offered, I figured it would be a good impetus. The instructor, Aime Whittemore, didn’t cut us any slack; we got homework the first class: Using the first line of another poem, write your own poem. And not only did we have to write a poem, but it got work-shopped today. Oy! We had a list of first lines to choose from, and I selected “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks” from “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. His poem, written about World War I, is pretty stark, but I’d never read it until after I selected that line. However, the first line brought something else to mind.

Oh, and just be prepared. I’ll probably post my poems, good and bad, and your comments would be appreciated.

Family History
(Prompt: First Line of “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen)

by Phyllis “Maggie” Duncan

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Their burdens hunger and homelessness,
They fall dead by roadsides and in ditches,
Teeth and tongues the color of chewed grass:
Why I don’t smile at the wearing of the green.

My grandmother hoarded food and money;
A century later the memories were too fresh
With recollections of lost uncles and cousins,
Who left and no word ever came again,
Their empty place settings sacred at table.

Always spoken of in the present tense,
As if they would one day reappear,
Pockets full of coin and victuals to share,
To tell their stories of streets paved in gold
But never mention “No Irish Need Apply.”

To America, that was a choice.
To Australia, the price of passage
Was a loaf of bread taken in desperation
From a windowsill where it cooled
And reeked of survival.

Those memories ride in my blood,
Renew in my marrow.
My grandmother made no waves,
Asked no questions,
So she wouldn’t have to go back;

Fear of deportation stretched
Across decades to my mother,
Who dreaded applying for a passport.
In our house no talk of Auld Erin,
No parsnip or turnip eaten.

Bone and sinew bespeak my history,
And it’s undeniable in my skin
(Never tanned but freckled),
The shape of my cranium (round);
The color of my hair (red).

Barely a note sounds before my feet
Move to the music of bodhran and pipes.
I don’t set out bread and milk for the wee folk
Like the other Maggie, my grandmother,
But maybe I should.

#FullMoonSocial2014

A writer friend of mine, poet Jeff Schwaner, came up with the great idea of celebrating October’s full moon. We’ve had a bunch of super moons this year and an eclipse yesterday, and, besides, the moon has inspired a lot of poetry, good and bad, over the years. Why not come together and have a Full Moon Poetry Party?

Now, I’m not a poet–though I am taking an eight-week poetry class–but I decided to give it a try.

Web of Fate

I have stared at the Moon a thousand times
Or more.

In a line that goes back to the African woman,
Our mother,

I stand with everyone who has gone before and
Will come.

In my life the moon changed, bearing the footprints
Of men.

The names of all its deities are female, from Aega
To Zirna;

Yet, no woman’s feet have disturbed that smooth
Ancient dust.

And even now we still say we gaze upon the Man in
The moon.

How lonely he must be. Did he leave Gaia behind
On Earth

When Theia struck and buried its iron in Earth’s core
And hurtled

Molten rock into space to form what we look on now?
The Moon.

10 Influential Books – For Me, That Is

Every now and then a challenge pops up on Facebook, and, even though I normally don’t fall for them, some of them do intrigue me. Recently among my book-loving friends, it was the “10 Works of Literature that Inspired Me” challenge. I made it several days before anyone tagged me, and, then, I got tagged by two different people. I didn’t mind this challenge because it made me reflect on the literary works which have inspired me.

Now, I’ll add, just about every book I’ve ever read inspires me either as an everyday, mostly normal person or as a writer (sometimes both), and if I’d kept a running list of the ten most influential, it would have been a fluid one. So the list here is what came into my head today. Challenge me again in a few months, and some of the books might change.

And I noticed people who accepted the challenge listed the ten books but never explained why any of them made their list. That would have been interesting to me–especially in cases where there was duplication with my list or a book, which when I read it made me gag. So, for my list, I’ve included a brief statement about why/how the book influenced me.

Some of you will likely turn up your noses at some of my selections and declare, “This is not literature!” There is, gasp, science fiction on my list and, horrors, popular fiction, too. 

Oh, and since I was always the one who perversely broke every chain letter/e-mail/Facebook post I’ve ever received, I won’t be tagging anyone to post his or her “10 Most Influential…” list, other than to say: Anyone who reads this should do the same, but you have to explain how or why each book influenced you. Ready, set, dare ya!

10 Works of Literature That Inspired Me (in no particular order)

  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This was the first book, other than a comic book or storybooks, ever given me as a child, when I was around six, I believe. I still have it, though my PITA little brother managed to tear the front cover off this hardback. How did it influence me? It sparked my life-long love of books and reading, and writing too, since I did nothing but write stories about horses for years afterward.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. When I read this book in the 1980’s it validated my feminism, which I only acknowledged privately to people I could trust not to “out” me. It made me less afraid of the “f-word” (feminism; I’ve never been afraid of the other) and made me proud to be a feminist. The fact that it’s even more relevant now is a testament to Atwood’s genius. I want to be her when I grow up to be a writer.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This book made me a sucker for happy endings, in fiction and in life. Even in my own writing, which is sometimes dark and bleak, I consciously, or unconsciously, find a way to work a happy resolution in because this book showed me it can happen. On a personal level, I’m still waiting.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This book showed me what a happy family living with adversity looked like and that there were, indeed, happy families. That was quite the eye-opener to me given my combative and tumultuous immediate and extended families. Plus, there was the whole woman-writer thing going on there; I felt Jo and I were really the sisters.
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This book blew away all my preconceived notions of what a novel/novel-in-stories should be. It enthralled me and pissed me off and made me both question and challenge myself as a writer. To absorb this novel you have to shed your skin of mediocrity and just let it pummel you.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Though I thought his later works were just plain creepy and some of his earlier works bordered on fascism, this book was incredible–well-written and timely. This book made me–finally!–question the origins of my own religion and put me on the non-theist path, for which I am forever grateful. Do you grok me?
  • The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Another sci-fi icon on the list, this was the first, novel-length science fiction book I read. Before it, I picked up sci-fi from comic books, tv shows, and B-movies. I bought the battered paperback at a library sale for a nickel, and when I brought it home my mother swore the depiction of aliens on the cover would give me nightmares. She was wrong; it made me think.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Because it blew my freakin’ mind!
  • On Writing by Stephen King. I’m one of those writers who like Stephen King’s writing because I see past the grimness and gore and revel in how he turns a phrase. This was the best instructional book on writing (pun intended) I’ve ever read, and it made me give up -ly adverbs, with reluctance.
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Don’t bother to see the movie (though it was decent); read the book. Wells never met my parents, I’m reasonably certain, but she coincidentally explained their complex and enervating relationship in a way I could ultimately forgive them.

Of course, I’ve been thinking as I’ve written this, and I offer this addendum: anything by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou… Oh, hell, just ask me again in a few months, like I said, and the list will be different.

Tag–you’re it.

Obsession Much?

July just ended, and now it’s August. Did I get caught in a time warp and miss July altogether? I must have because it seems I opened my eyes the other day, and it was August. How did that happen? And how have I managed not to blog for a month or more?

Three words: Work in Progress, aka WIP.

This particular WIP is a four-book series entitled A Perfect Hatred. I’d left it alone for a year, then resolved to do a complete rewrite of all four books this year. All told, I’ve cut about 90,000 words from three books, and I’m working on the fourth now; it’s down 10,000 words.

A writer friend said why bother to cut; length doesn’t matter in an ebook. It may not, but unnecessary words weigh anything down. Most of what I’ve cut has been back-story, info dumps, and clever little paragraphs to show the reader just how much research I’ve done. I’ve cut swaths through what a character is thinking and let those thoughts emerge through dialogue and action. I hope.

In short, I’m trying to apply everything I’ve learned from three years of workshops and conferences, and it takes a lot of time. I’m back in my characters’ heads, and I don’t want to leave them. I dream about them. When I’m not writing them, I miss them. I find myself getting annoyed when other responsibilities intervene. I’m having chats with my characters when I’m in the car, the shower, at the grocery store. Trust me, if the chat happens in a public place, it needs to be entirely within your head; otherwise, people avoid you.

Why am I suddenly obsessed with this particular WIP? It’s somewhat time sensitive. It deals, fictionally, with an historical event whose twentieth anniversary occurs in April 2015. It would be timely to release an ebook a month starting in January, with the fourth book coming out on the anniversary itself. Of course, that pre-supposes I’m going to self-publish it, another thing I’ve obsessed over, written endless pro/con comparison lists about, and changed my mind countless times.

It’s my opus magnum. I started a first rough draft of it in 1997, researched and wrote in my spare time, discussed the topic to the point where my now-ex said, “Please stop,” and ended up with three books worth of “stuff” by 2000. I put it aside because it had no ending–at least the right ending. I’d tried several; none worked. Then, in June 2001, the ending happened.

In the meantime, I’d drafted other novels and many, many short stories. I got a new job, which involved a lot of my time, and this particular WIP got tucked away again. When I retired in 2009, it wasn’t the first thing I picked up to concentrate on, but when I did focus on it, I realized it should be four books, not three, an unusual number for a series. So, last year I edited the first book, put it aside because something wasn’t clicking, and I got caught up with other projects. It dawned on me late last year, the whole kit and caboodle needed a rewrite, as in start book one from page one in a blank Scrivener file.

I’m likely going to be diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome (again), my back is pretty much wrecked from sitting too much, and my house really needs cleaning. Oh, it’s not in hoarder territory at all, nothing a good vacuuming wouldn’t cure, but I don’t want to take time away from rewriting to do that. Lately, I don’t want to use my time for much of anything except writing. I went to a writers conference on Saturday–a good one where I got to be a gushing fan girl to Bruce Holsinger about his incredible novel, A Burnable Book–and resented the hell out of every minute there.

Obviously, this is something I need to get a handle on or I’m never going to leave the writing room in my house.

But, why is that so bad?

More Craft Lectures – TMWW Pt. 2

The Tuesday craft lecture for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop was geared for the poets among us, so we prose writers–at least from my workshop–decided to spend the extra time reading workshop submissions and doing our assigned homework from that morning. Since it involved writing down our dreams, a nap seemed like a good idea, all in the interest of the workshop, of course.

Wednesday’s lecture was probably one of the most anticipated of the week. Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt, had chosen the topic, “Writing a Book for Publication: Approaches to Authenticity and Timing.” The description of the lecture called it “A dual narrative–the writer’s ongoing work on the book and, meanwhile, what’s simultaneously going on in the publishing world…. how do you prepare your organism to thrive in that agar?” Exactly what a writer seeking publication would be interested in, right?

And, indeed, Ms. Jones gave us a vivid glimpse into a publisher’s conference room where editors have to sell a project to her, the marketing staff, the sales staff, the publicity staff, and ultimately the publisher him- or herself. Her opinions were honest if not a harsh reality–if your first book doesn’t meet the sales department’s goals you don’t get a contract for a second one., for example. She did, however, talk about making your writing “stand out” to attract an editor’s attention, so he or she will push hard for your book at that conference table.

She then described her editing process, i.e., “eliminating words to free the story.” Frankly, she seemed to be describing an ideal book, in her opinion, as page after page of “subject-verb-object” over and over. However, she did emphasize she edits literary fiction. This was a great insider’s view of the part of the publishing world we writers are–or were–happily ignorant of, and Ms. Jones may have inadvertently discouraged more people from submitting their work to Holt or anywhere else than she encouraged.

On Thursday, my workshop instructor, Laura Benedict, did her lecture on “Bringing the Sizzle: Five Ways to Add Genre Appeal to Your Writing (Without all the Heavy Breathing.)” Benedict opened the lecture with the question, “Is popular fiction inferior to literary fiction?” She didn’t wait for a reply and responded with, “No, of course not!” She explained that she is not a traditionally trained writer–she started out in marketing and public relations for Anhauser Busch–but when she came to writing she wrote stories she wanted to tell. She made a conscious decision to write genre fiction with supernatural elements because she wanted her work to be entertaining.

The key to genre writing is simple, “Something has to happen in every chapter.” Genre writers, she says, should strive to produce “upmarket” work, i.e., a compelling story with attractive language.” Good genre fiction, Benedict says, “is for a literate reader who loves a story but who doesn’t want to read crap. Bad writing, whether genre or literary, makes me angry.”

Benedict provided her personal definition of the differences between popular (genre) and literary fiction. Literary fiction, she says, “is character-driven. Style and language are more important than plot. Popular fiction is driven by the plot, but popular fiction can be as good as literary fiction when a writer successfully merges good characters and writing with a superb plot.”

Her “Five Ways” are as follows:

  1. If you want people to read your book and enjoy it, raise the stakes–don’t be quiet, go for the awesome factor, not the quotidian epiphany. Make sure people care about your characters but put them at risk, i.e., in situations where they might lose something or where bad things can happen.
  2. Mind your setting for all its worth. It’s okay to use tropes because that means you can concentrate on story.
  3. Keep the story moving; don’t dwell so long on an image you lose the reader. Start by having a clear sense of what your story is about. Use the 3 X 3 exercise: Describe your current work in three sentences of three words each. This is the start of–or is–your elevator pitch.
  4. Create characters with emotional and moral intensity and definable value systems, whether the value system is good or bad. This is especially true for your antagonist or villain; make him or her as three-dimensional as the protagonist.
  5. Enjoy yourself in your work. Genre writers love their jobs because they’re writing what they love.

Great words of advice from one established genre writer to a hopeful one.

Part 3 – Fred Leebron’s take on creative writers using post-modernism.

Weapon As Character – TMWW Part 1

I was just like a kid anticipating going to Disney World in the few weeks before Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I was positively giddy, so excited was I to see old and new writer friends, to workshop my genre MS, to meet the instructors, to conduct the student readings–everything. (Well, everything except perhaps the beds in the freshman dorm at Hollins University where the TMWW attendees are housed.) I mean, my suitcases were in the car two days before I left.

Dinner on Sunday was a big reunion for thirteen of us who were TMWW “alums.” That meant thirty-seven of the attendees were new to the workshop, some new to the concept of workshopping entirely. After dinner, we met with our instructors to go over the schedule for the week; then, we made our way to the student activity center for faculty readings. Emilia Phillips read her poetry, and Laura Benedict, who was my instructor for “Enhancing Your Genre Writing,” read from her new release, Bliss House.

This year, the craft seminars and the workshops exchanged places, meaning we had workshop from 0900 to 1200 in the morning, and the craft lectures from 1300 to 1400 in the afternoon. Now, the good news was three unencumbered hours in the afternoon to read, write, do workshop exercises, or have your post-critique conference. However, because we backed up against lunch in the morning workshop sessions, they felt rushed to me, and we were constantly aware of the clock. In past years, when the craft lecture was from 0900 to 1000, we had two hours of free time before lunch. Afternoon workshops went from 1300 to 1600 (the same number of hours), but if you went a little long, you still had time before dinner to work in a conference or even some free time. At the end of the week, there was an informal poll about having workshop in the morning, and it was overwhelmingly in favor of that. Oh, well.

The first craft seminar on Monday was “The Weapon as Character,” given by Pinckney Benedict, my instructor from my first time at TMWW. It was pure Pinckney. He opened the seminar with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition,” followed by an excerpt from “The Walking Dead,” a popular television show about the zombie apocalypse. He used Mussorgsky to illustrate the concept of “ekphrasis,” or using one form of art to describe/define another. Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” to be a virtual stroll through an exhibition of paintings by an artist who was a close friend and who had died prematurely, Viktor Hartmann. The ten movements each focus on a specific painting by Hartmann, e.g., Baba Yaga’s hut or the Great Gates of Kiev (my personal favorite). This, according to Pinckney, is the epitome of ekphrasis–a musician describing paintings, paintings which were subsequently lost in a fire so that the music is the only depiction of many of them.

“The Walking Dead” sequence was a scene with the character Michonne, who carries a specific type of sword to fight zombies, a katana (aka a samurai sword, so designed and worn the wielder could draw and attack in a single motion). This in and of itself is already defining the character of Michonne, since the traditional way to kill zombies is a head shot with a gun. She chooses an ancient weapon, one specifically designed for close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat. Yes, it would be easier to grab a gun and fire away, but her way, she has to confront her enemy directly; she has to look into their dead eyes as she kills them. Re-kills them?

At first we see her confronting a zombie who looks remarkably like her and that appears to put her off her game. Then, she draws the katana and begins to fight, conquering an overwhelming number of zombies. The character at that point is the katana, which seems to have a mind of its own while dispatching the walking dead. This, per Pinckney, is the perfect example of a weapon becoming a character itself. “Michonne would not be Michonne without her katana,” he explained. I don’t watch the show because, frankly, my dreams would be full of zombies, and that’s just too unpleasant for me; however, I might have to watch some episodes because I’m now intrigued by Michonne and her choice of weapon.

Pinckney acknowledged the potential controversy in having a weapon as a character, and then dismissed the controversy by saying that if you don’t like weapons, don’t write stories that feature them. Amen. I encounter this myself. I write about spies. Spies on occasion use weapons. I’ve had people declare to me they won’t read my work because my characters carry guns. Okay, that’s fine. I respect that, but respect my personal writing choices in return.

After we tossed about some characters who are so closely associated with their weapons that, if they didn’t have the weapon, they would no longer be that character, we discussed the pros and cons of including weapons in our work–beyond the Chekhov adage that if you show a gun in the beginning it has to be fired before the end. Research, research, research, Pinckney emphasized because if you go on what you assume to be true about a weapon and an expert in that weapon reads your work and finds your knowledge lacking, it will color his or her opinion of the whole work. And, Pinckney says, the weapon has to fit the person and the setting and the time period of your work–unless, of course, you write Steampunk. Then, you can be very inventive.

In a recent piece of historical fiction I wrote, I had a soldier from World War II use a bazooka against a German Tiger Tank. That involved researching not only the types of bazookas used in World War II (and selecting the appropriate one), it also meant researching the Tiger Tank’s vulnerabilities (few though they were), all for a brief mention of the bazooka’s range of effectiveness.

You do that, in the world according to Pinckney, to be authentic, and if you’re authentic, he said, people will read your work and want more.

Next installment: Workshopping genre fiction and additional craft seminars.

Getting Ready for Tinker Mountain

TMWW logoI’ve made my to-do list for the next week so come Sunday afternoon, I can hit the road and arrive in Roanoke for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. It’s the tenth anniversary, with a lot of extra workshops and new instructors. As usual I’m nervous, excited, and, well, nervous.

The past two years have been very positive experiences. Last year, for example, led to having an agent review a manuscript. (He turned it down but said lots of positive things.) The first year I attended was the first time any of my MSS had been critiqued by total strangers, and they liked it, they really liked it. This year is the first time a portion of one of my genre MSS is being critiqued by strangers. The workshop I’m attending is “Crafting High Quality Genre Fiction,” and the instructor is Laura Benedict. She also happens to be the spouse of my first Tinker Mountain instructor, Pinckney Benedict.

The forty pages I sent in comes from an MS titled A War of Deception, which is loosely based on the Robert Hansenn spy case from the early 2000s. I say loosely because it started out as a fictionalized version of that event with my U.N. spy characters in the mix. It turned into a study of revenge when what I intended to be a subplot became the main plot. The title comes from a Sun Tzu quote in the Art of War, one of my favorite books: “All warfare is based on deception.”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love affair with the Art of War before. I had the audio book on my iPod and listened to it every day on the way to work. It was that kind of workplace at times. Plus, Sun Tzu has a lot to say about spies and espionage which resonates today.

Anyway, the nervousness comes from having my genre fiction workshopped. It’s a first, though the material workshopped in my first Tinker Mountain visit was a speculative fiction piece I submitted because I didn’t have anything else ready. However, I don’t consider myself a speculative fiction writer. A lot of my flash fiction falls into that genre but only because I’m not sure I could sustain a full-length spec fic novel, even that particular manuscript. It seems I inadvertently channelled Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I wrote it for NaNoWriMo a few years ago. When Pinckney encouraged me to work on that MS, I explained about the striking similarity to Atwood’s dystopian piece–“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. Ms. Atwood may not think so, however.

This year’s MS is one of my “historical thrillers,” to borrow a term from Alan Furst, a writer of espionage fiction I hope to emulate. It’s got a mole in the FBI, sex, violence, marital discord, and two mysteries to be solved. I hope I have a third great experience. Even if the rest of the workshop hates it– Ack! Let’s not put that in my head!

So, off to do laundry, water plants, and pack, etc., and be ready for a worthwhile week of workshopping, craft lectures, and writer friends that is Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop.