Friday, November 13, 2015

Your Protagonist's Mess Area

Unless your main character has OCD, everyone has an area they habitually leave in a mess. Mine is my desk. Really, any surface I can pile books and file folders on. The lie I tell myself is that the stack will catch my attention so I can follow up, but the truth is that every stack starts to looks alike and I dread digging in. My mess shows that I'm a literary, writerly, bookish kind of person, with lots of bills to pay and things half-written.

I know women whose mess area is the closet, not because they don't care but because there's an overwhelm of clothes and accessories in there, and in their case it might be a glorious, visually lively mess. For some, it's the pocket. For others, the purse. I know many kitchen mess cooks, who glory in throwing food and dirty implements around, leaving a kitchen like a tornado had cooked in it after just frying a couple of eggs.

What's your character's mess are? Or stark lack of messes? It will say a lot about him or her if you can describe the mess-making and mess recognition moments.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Your Protagonist's Thought Patterns

Emotion is important in fiction, but thought and will are also a huge component of character and character development. You can identify with a character's thoughts and decisions when she's under stress. One of life's pleasurable but stressful activities is travel. Since my novel's main character is on a three-week, intensive tour of Renaissance Italy, stress is a given. May Gold combats it through her Gratitude Practice.

I gave May this habit of enumerating things she's grateful for to associate her to the San Francisco Bay Area, where mindfulness meditation is popular. I also wanted to show that she's active in battling anxiety. She isn't passive. She uses her Gratitude List to steer her thoughts another way.

Is Gratitude Practice just a Bay Area whiffen-poofy idea? Turns out, it's been scientifically proven to have very powerful effects on mood, as this Business Insider article indicates. The article cites passages from The Upward Spiral, Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, by neuroscientist Alex Korb, PhD. Dr. Korb identifies the different brain processes linked to types of thinking. Gratitude, mindfulness, and decision-making are powerfully positive for our brains -- they even can be "the key to happiness," the article claims.

So I gave May the knowledge and will to fight negative thinking with gratitude. It's a key to her journey. I like characters with strong and articulate inner lives. If I'm let inside a character's most basic processes, I can connect and have a feeling of inevitability as the story plays out. And that keeps me reading!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

I'll reading from my book Gods of Water and Air

Next Sunday, October 11, at 3 pm in picturesque Crockett, California, I'll be a featured reader at the Valona Deli Second Sunday Poetry Series. Coordinator Connie Post kindly invited me. If you're in the SF Bay Area and can make it, it would be wonderful to see you! There's an open mic after the two featured readers, and a terrific jazz ensemble plays at 6 pm after the poetry.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Why You Need to Read This Now!

A great title gets us reading
with a good title as a good first line. Or maybe just as hard -- first lines also bear the full weight of the reader's entry -- and have at times despaired over that blank space where the title should go.

When I wrote my article The Challenge of the Title, published by Avatar Review, essays on creating titles have proliferated, along with the need for titles because of the Internet. So if you're at the stuck place and need a little help jumpstarting your title search, here are a few interesting essays for writers on titles:

First from the wonderful PubCrawl, a how-to: How to Create a Fantastic Book Title
I specially like the index card exercise!

Thoughtful comments on titling from poet Alberto Rios in "Titling a Poem, Titling Anything."

And if your muse is really exhausted and just wants to take a nap, let the Random Poem Title Generator do the work. Lake Dazzle is my favorite so far. See what you get by simply pressing the button. (I may write a poem for that title.)

The visual? To celebrate once you've created your fantastic title. Cheers!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing My Character's Future Life

Photo: Nadya Phillips, Venice 2015
In writing a novel or story a writer gives lots of thought to what happened to the main character before she or he arrived at the beginning of the tale, but have we considered where she goes after the ending? If you're contemplating a sequel or a series, it's a natural question. But how to begin to answer?

J.K. Rowling planned not only her characters' arcs, but their futures beyond the books. The mechanics of plotting are important in devising a good story, but what's most important is where your character's heart has led her at the conclusion of her initial story. Where she wants to go may not always please the author.

Whether or not the character's organic journey yields another piece of fiction isn't up to the author, unless you're letting the plot lead--in which case, more power to you! You'll probably sell a lot of books. But for me, the character's organic self-development is most interesting. What are her aspirations and fears?

I want my character to lead me into strange new territory even if it doesn't lend itself to fiction. I want her to feel the truth of her way forward, much the way I feel my own future: intuitively, letting it cohere until I sense a direction and understand the consequences -- or am too compelled to keep from making growth-producing mistakes.

So it's back to contemplating my character's future before I finish the novel. For my work-in-progress, THE RENAISSANCE CLUB, I've probably overdone the backstory-forestory research, as I wrote an entire two-act play about my characters, only half of which is contained in this book. Stay tuned for a possible sequel or even series. Depending on what my main character feels after she marries
her muse in Italy.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Poetry's Monetary Value

Can writing poetry ever pay enough? And do we need it to?

For those of us taking advantage of the fall season to submit work to recently opened journals, there's a new way to see if any on your target list pay for poems. Most print journal do pay, but only in copies. For online published poems, my stipend is merely the exposure to readers.

But why not get at least a monetary token of the value of all the work that goes into a single poem--and the potential enjoyment the reader has? The economics of publishing poetry can be complex, but some believe that poets should be paid cash.

Jessica Piazza, who blogs at Poetry Has Value, believes we should. She's a poet, professor, and book club facilitator who has created the public document linked above. It lists journals that pay for poetry. She took the radical and interesting step of making the document fully viewable and editable by the public. You can not only use it, but also add journals that pay if you don't see them listed.

Jessica is tracking with monthly posts the money she has spent and money earned during her year-long pledge to only submit poetry to paying markets. As of July 31, 2015, she's in positive territory by $264.50, her net earnings from poetry. Not a living wage, but it beats giving her work away.

I'm considering this experiment in 2016. I may even start sooner. I'm going to publish. Why not get paid, even a little? 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

For the Birds

"Hope is the thing with feathers" led me in an interesting direction: a series of poems with birds in them. Inspired in part by Emily Dickinson's interest in birds and her many bird poems--which I found collected in a book called A Spicing of Birds --I wrote a series to decipher the messages I hear in the silver clamor of morning and evening birdsong.

One poem, "Year Year I First Heard Birdsong", found its way into Tinderbox Poetry Journal, alongside a terrific collection of poems by Marge Piercy, Arielle Greenberg, Sarah Blake, Kerri French, Theodore Worozbyt, and many others. I'm happy to say there are many birds in this issue, and I'm honored to have a poem from my new series in such a great place. Tinderbox is edited by Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, Molly Sutton Kiefer, and Jennifer Givhans.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bernini the Mage and Master of Space

While I work on my novel in which the great Renaissance sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini plays a leading role, I'm looking at images of his work. I stumbled on a  wonderful article on the three major sculptors of the time -- really, of all time. Bernini, of course, was one.

The author. Charley Parker, calls him "the mage, the sorcerer, the Vermeer of sculpture". He says, "If Vermeer was master of light and time, Bernini was master of space." I love those epithets, especially the mage. He was such a showman, and loved to used theatrical effects that created illusions to make the sculptural subjects live and breathe.

Bernini dominated the Roman art world of the seventeenth century, and he was restlessly innovative, ultimately playing a key role in establishing the dramatic and eloquent vocabulary of the Baroque style. His sculptural and architectural projects combine forms and media in electrifying new ways. A magician indeed.

When I saw Bernini's statue of David at the Galleria Borghese, I was as struck as if that stone David was winding up had been flung at me. The life in the sculpture is amazing -- equaled only by Michelangelo's Moses, I thought. Both Biblical figures by these master contain a mythic power, and they do it with elegant realism.

The Moses was a revelation. This photo (below) doesn't capture the quality. In fact, you have to see these sculptures in person to have the full impact. Video is better than stills, but the quality of light, the ability to walk around them and absorb all details puts the whole picture together in a way nothing else can. I was lucky to see them in person. Bernini was lucky to have such a gift.

If you have a chance, go to Rome. There's no other city like it because of the Renaissance and Bernini.

Friday, August 07, 2015

My Poem in Anthology MEASURE FOR MEASURE

I'm absolutely thrilled to have my poem "Sapphics with Little Rags and Cabbage" appear in the new anthology edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver, Measure for Measure. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015, the collection is a wonderful way to study the fine points of meter through examples. Annie and Alexandra have organized it by metrical type and added notes on the different meter, which should make it a great way to learn more about new meters you may not have used in poems.

I wrote this about my childhood town, San Pedro, which was then the home of the West Coast's commercial fishery and also the port of Los Angeles. As a fishery, it attracted European immigrants from every country around the Mediterranean, especially Slavic people. To me, daughter of the rocket engineer, these old world grandmas seemed like something out of fairytales. Here's the poem -- as it appears in my book Femme au chapeau (soon to be available as an eBook!):

Sapphics with Little Rags and Cabbage

Fishwives from Zagreb dig in their stony yards.
Complaint-salted stories curl next to their molars
as they bury jars of pennies and nickels,
hedging the day’s catch.

Saturday evenings, grandmothers for hire
come to our house. Mrs. Pinsky’s arms jiggle
and little crosses dangle from ears. She winks,
smelling of garlic.

She salts her pot of Little Rags and Cabbage,
a stone stew she says is made with rutabagas,
rhubarb and thistles from women who, gardening,
glower at mowers.

I curse the Fisher God! they say as they spit.
Him who gaffed me onto this easy coastline.
They keep the sour taste of Vis in their cheeks,
sprouting like mushrooms.

They suffer in suits for ancient traditions.
Mrs. Vukasivich sends to the village
a picture of her Frank in his coffin, writes,
Breathing is over.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Magical realism, poetry & Pattiann Rogers' cat

I've been thinking about magical realism in prose, but today someone mentioned a poem that embodies the magic all around us without ever actually leaving the realism. Pattiann Rogers' stupendous meditation,"Find the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight" does everything but levitate the cat -- which I would totally have accepted. But Rogers makes the cat vanish and unvanish, Cheshire Cat style, without ever actually leaving the field of realism.  

Here's the poem, from the December, 1982 issue of Poetry Magazine. In "the star-mingled calls of the toads" the poem steps lightly out of the commonplace and never returns. "It takes a peculiar vision ..." Indeed, it takes a visionary like Pattian Rogers.