Writer Interrupted: my new Poetry book!

The print proofs are back and the new poetry book is ready!

Today, my second poetry book – Poetry for the Sad, Lonely and Hopelessly Endangered is available in print.

Inside, you’ll find 76 poems for various states of mind: happy, infuriated, inebriated, dogmatic, dramatic, smiley, wily, cranky, spunky, overwrought, overworked, sad, lonely and hopelessly endangered.

Poetry for the Sad, Lonely and Hopelessly Endangered is available as a print book for $10.00AU by clicking on http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/stevestillstanding

poetry book 2 - stevestillstanding

Please support a literally starving artist, in my quest for truth, justice, meter and rhyme.

Help save me, along with all poets, from extinction. Your donation will go a long way to ensuring these sad and ever-lonely beasts continue to write and work in the most iniquitous and appalling of conditions.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

P.S. …and don’t forget The All or the Nothing, my first poetry book, available in print and ebook formats!

The Art of Observation, Character, Dialogue and Navel Gazing. An occasional post on writing.

Do you suffer from depression? If so, you’ll know the Black Dog. If not, click here or here before reading on. 

An Observation on Observation

Every writer should be an observer.

Every writer should watch the people around them, taking in the nuances, the poetry of conversation, the body language electric that at once disguises and simultaneously reveals. I’m sure every ‘how to write’ book you’ve read has preached this from the plinth, with the congregation nodding in stern-faced approval.

As a single man with little purpose other than wallowing in middle age, working out and pretending he’s younger than he is, dreading the day when he actually will be old, I find that I’m probably less observant of the world than I used to be. It’s just a phase, says Black Dog, chewing my hand (not in a nice way). But hopefully you’ll stay that way as long as possible. It amuses me.

I was a people manager for many years and it was my job to read and lead employees and clients, to communicate expectations and needs and desires and to assist and mentor and help and cajole and…well, you get the picture. I felt then that I had a good sense of how people worked, almost like an engineer watching machines he’d designed being assembled in the factory. I had training in psychology, I was respected and reasonably well-liked (no manager should ever be totally liked, otherwise you won’t make the hard decisions). Black Dog scratches himself behind the ear. I’d assume it was fleas but that’s an impossibility. You loved and hated it, he says. Stop thinking about the past. I prefer your depressing present.

I believe I’ve retained some of my skills. I’ve always been an observer (what’s that they say? Always a watcher, never a doer? Something like that). I’d like to think that some of this rubs off on my characters. It’s hard to tell though, because I’m always a little too close to what I write to make an accurate assessment (sounding a bit clinical there, but sometimes you have to be).

So, yes, I guess I’m still an observer of life and people. I guess I always will be. And if you plan to be a writer, then you should be, too.

On Characters

It’s hard to describe where my characters come from. Sometimes they take form as I type. Sometimes I already have them in mind or I take pinches of ingredients from people I know and mix them together in a big bowl. Occasionally I’ve spotted someone, a busker, for example, and their story has come to me as I watched, like a song: all twisted notes and delicious intonations, sometimes in odd time signatures.

Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) says: “Few of my characters are described externally; we see them from the inside out.” The character has to feel real. If I write someone and they sound fake, or just don’t work, I erase them from existence like a contract assassin and start building again. I can be a bastard when I need to be (I’m sure my ex-wife will concur with that).

I do undertake research, but only if the character is from a period or has skills I’m not familiar with. It’s like with settings, if you don’t know what you’re talking about your reader will know that you’re faking it.

I like the Anthony Trollope (Victorian-era author) quote: “A novelist’s characters must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and love them.” I can identify with that.

I don’t know how well I create characters. I’ve been told I’m good at it, but all the old anxieties come to bear when I revisit my creations (am I good enough? Why am I writing at all?).

Black Dog raises his head from his paws, where he’s been resting it while watching me intently (as he always does). Self-doubt? he says. I love it. Keep on rolling in that cesspool. Sometimes I pat him, but he just nips at my hand–a warning–he doesn’t need to be encouraged.   

About Dialogue

I look at Black Dog. He stares at me as always. Occasionally he breaks eye contact to glance at a paw, like he’s checking his nails. He’s not uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact, he’s far too self-confident for that. Another opportunity for you to put yourself down? He says. Well, get started. You know I like to savour every whining moment. He’s back to staring again. If he could smile, he would.

“He hears their voices even before he knows them”, said Andre Gide (1947 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature). This is so true for me.

Dialogue is one of those funny things. People like to think they’re good at it, but as with the art of conversation, we’re never as good as we think we are (don’t believe me? Try remembering your last dinner party conversation. I’m sure you held your own, but if you look back and scrutinise it closely you’ll notice the intermittent pregnant pauses, the occasional wandering eye, the excuse to get another drink or change the subject).

I like to think that I write good dialogue, but I’m often too close to the material to be able to make a fair judgement. Some readers have told me my dialogue is good, but being a writer, I’m not always sure if I believe them or not (Ah, says Black Dog, sniffing deeply. There it is). Like most writers, I tend to be a bit insecure and my confidence is not always at its best (Oh, yeah, says Black Dog, closing his eyes and rolling onto his back. That’s the stuff. More.) I believe everyone is learning, all the time. Writing is no different. The day a writer says they know everything there is to being a writer is the day they’re fooling themselves.

It took me a long time to make the decision to be an author and there’s no going back now. I may be poorer financially and emotionally (Yeah! cries Black Dog, writhing in blissful contentment), but writing is something that’s seeped its way into my veins. Like a somnolent drug, it’s as blissful as sleep and just as contenting, and it’s something I couldn’t give up now, even if I tried.

Cheers

Steve 😊

P.S. I hope you weren’t hoping to learn some actual skills from my rambling. There are plenty of courses, books and blogs around for that. In the end, it all comes down to your commitment and your experiences. Just start from there. And read. A lot. Learn from the best authors–there’s a wealth of wonder in those books, and they’re the best school there is.

Want to read some of my flash fiction? Click here

Good Enough. A poem.

Insecurity and self deprecation
Can't save you when you think this way
When the words don't flow
Or make it to the page
In the way you wanted them to
Maybe you won't post it
But in the end you do
Because it's good enough
So read it once more through
Yes, it's good enough
Good enough for you

The Boat. A book review.

This is a book review I did for a Uni assignment. I got 20 out of 20 for it.  Yeah, I’m a bit proud of that.

The Boat: A book review

By Nam Le
Published by Penguin Group (Australia)
9780143009610 (pbk)
$16.95, 315 pages

I’m not big on reading short stories. I’ve always been a long-form novel kind of guy. It wasn’t until I read Nam Le’s The Boat that my opinion of short stories changed.

For those who don’t know, The Boat is the first collection of short stories from Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian who now lives in the United States and edits fiction for the Harvard Review. He has won numerous awards for short fiction and The Boat has been translated into multiple languages. The eponymous title story is used in some classrooms to teach students about the plight of refugees.the-boat-by-nam-le

The Boat is an extraordinary piece of work. It reads like a text book on how to write good short stories – any student would benefit from reading it. Every story is told from the perspective of vastly different protagonists, who vary wildly in age, maturity, and experience, and each of the stories is markedly different. Whether it’s a 14-year old gang banger/would-be assassin in Columbia in ‘Cartagena’, an aging New York artist dying of cancer in ‘Meeting Elise’, or a fiercely patriotic, Japanese girl in the third-grade in 1945 Hiroshima, Le writes each of his characters with an incredible level of nuance that genuinely engages the reader. Each story is longer than a conventional short story, giving his characters the time they need to percolate emotionally. This doesn’t diminish them in any way – I challenge anyone to put one of these tales down without finishing it.

The stories that bookend the collection are set in New York (‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’) and on a Vietnamese refugee boat (‘The Boat’) respectively. The first tells of a well-educated writer seeking his Vietnamese veteran father’s approval and their inevitable cultural and emotional distance; the last is a tale of a traumatic refugee boat journey interspersed with flashbacks to life under the Viet Cong. I suspect these are both deeply personal, however it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t – Le demonstrates an ability to realise worlds and characters with astounding detail and pragmatism.

Every story in this collection is poignant; there are no happy endings. Le writes believable stories that strive to explore the humanity of the characters and events from multiple points of view, with realistic consequences. Le changes his writing style with each piece, never allowing you to pigeon-hole him. It’s almost as if he is flexing his writing muscles for the sake of it, but each story moves with its own rhythm, textures and emotions, the like of which amateurs such as I can only marvel.

As soon as I finished The Boat I immediately gave it away to a friend – not because I hated the book, but because I was desperate for someone else to read it and experience the level of enthusiasm I had. The Boat is a truly profound piece of writing, one that affected me greatly, and I believe that it will be regarded as a classic of the 21st century.

Writing. Some basics. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.

I’ve been writing for a short while. Obviously, I am now an expert and need to share my accrued wisdom with the world. Yes, that was a joke.

Like anyone who enjoys to read, I like particular authors for their creativity, their characterisation, dialogue and the worlds their characters inhabit – all part of a writer’s style. When I read, I apply the things I’ve learned when critiquing another’s work. This is not always a good thing, as it can distract from the pleasure of reading.

Nevertheless, here are some writing “rules”, by the great writer, Elmore Leonard. He was a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway, an author whose ‘lean’ and ‘muscular’ approach was a major influence on modern writing:

Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. For example, “he berated”, or “she rebuked”. There are good reasons for this. Strong, well-written dialogue is the basis of character. Using verbs other than “said” or “replied” is the writer getting in the way, an indication that they may feel uncomfortable using “said” too many times. And their dialogue isn’t strong enough without the use of additional verbs. When someone reads dialogue, the amateur writer’s verb gets in the way.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”. As Mr Leonard says: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.” Putting “she said slyly” or “he replied earnestly” is similar to the last point – the dialogue should be able to stand on its own. The reader is intelligent enough to work out what the character is saying and feeling, if the dialogue is well written.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Readers like to form their own impression about a character’s looks, often at the behest of the author’s actual description. Let the reader use their imagination. A few details are okay, but don’t make them so detailed that the reader has no ‘wiggle room’.

Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Once again, let the reader’s imagination do this. You can add as much description as you like, but it will slow your story down, and your reader will either picture it to their liking, or skip the cumbersome text.

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Many readers (not all, but many) skip large sections of text because they are keen to get to the meat of the novel, and often that’s the dialogue. I bet you’ve done this once or twice. I love J.R.R Tolkien’s overflowing descriptions, but now I’ve read Lord of the Rings a few times, I skip them when re-reading. Sacrilege, I know, but we’ve all been there. And I bet in the case of average books you’re tempted to do the same.

If it sounds like writing, re-write it. You know what I’m talking about. Some writers like to show off, adding lots of unnecessary similes and metaphors, and lovingly described scenes, overflowing with adjectives. I am so guilty of this. Is it necessary? Depends on the story and style you’re writing in. But most of the time, no.

The full text of Mr Leonard’s wonderful 10 Rules of Writing includes these insights (but written far better), and can be viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html.

Next time you read a book, or start to write one, keep them in mind.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

You can find out more about the late Elmore Leonard, by visiting his website at http://www.elmoreleonard.com/index.php.

Ernest Hemingway? Who’s that? Only one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature, for Pete’s sake. Find out more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway

Waving, not drowning. Just watch out for the sharks…

(‘So, what are you up to, now,’ says Alpha Girl, glancing over my shoulder at my laptop screen. ‘Blogging? Online dating? Writing recipes, or whatever it is you do all day on that thing?’

‘I’ve started writing a book,’ I say. ‘I’m trying to be a writer. It’s about time I started.’

‘A book,’ she says, with an air of incredulity. ‘You’re writing a book?’

Sometimes its exasperating having to justify everything I do to her, but I’m used to it by now. I guess I blow off a little steam in my response.

‘Yes, a book. I intend to be a writer and writing short stories, novels and blogs is part of that. I know you look down your nose on the things I do because you consider them unimportant, but they’re important to me. I know you probably think I’m wasting my time, and maybe I am, but if I don’t try I’ll never know if I can do it. I have time on my hands and now’s the time to do it, rather than stagnating and wonder ‘what if’ for the rest of my life. Happy?’

She steps back. The silence hangs heavy. ‘What?’ I say. ‘Are you going to tell me to stop wasting my time and get a real job?’

For a moment, I could almost believe she’s hurt. Her mouth is a thin line. ‘I was going to say good luck with it. I’ve read your blogs, and you’re obviously passionate about writing.’

She leaves the room, leaving me feeling like more of a tool than I usually do.)

 

I’ve started my novel. I’ve written unfinished novels in the past, but my intention with this one is to actually write an entire book. Maybe I’ll toss it in the trash at that point, but I have to write it, anyway. I would like to try to get it published.

I read some good advice in a book I’m reading, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.  In one of the many essays, Bill O’Hanlon advises to write in small increments. This ensures that you write every day and that you can fit writing into your busy schedule (yes, I have one of those. In between uni work and sitting around, that is). O’Hanlon also comments on overcoming the mental barriers associated with big and daunting jobs, using a process called ‘externalising’.

Externalising is taking the unhelpful inner voices (you know the ones – am I good enough? Why is everything so hard? Did I leave the gas on when I left the house?)  – the one’s that affect motivation – (okay, so I meant that, not the gas thing) and begin to consider them as external.

One of the examples O’Hanlon uses is: ‘I self-sabotage by telling myself I’m not a good enough writer to get published’. He suggests to think instead: ‘self-doubt is trying to convince me that I’m not good enough’. The change, he suggests, helps you to challenge negative thoughts, rather than allowing them to undermine you. This works for all things, not just writing.

O’Hanlon has written 28 books, so I can’t really argue with him. It’s one way he managed to overcome his own self-doubts as a writer, along with some other Jedi mind tricks he discusses in the essay.

So, I typed my first chapter with a newfound sense of confidence, clear headedness and purpose. Maybe this is what I was meant to do. Maybe this is my true calling.

Time will tell.

 

(I find Alpha Girl in the kitchen, making herself a huge, multi-layered sandwich.

‘Sorry if I lashed out earlier,’ I say. She turns to face me, a tight smile pinching her features.

‘I was going to say what you said, about getting a real job,’ she replies. ‘But then I thought to myself, maybe I shouldn’t shoot you down over this.’

I’m not sure how to respond. Is this a trap, another mental mind game wrapped in duplicity and deceit? I swallow involuntarily.

She turns her attention back to her sandwich. ‘I like seeing you all insecure and confused. It makes it all worthwhile.’ She turns back, the malevolent glint in her eye has returned. She tears the sandwich with razor teeth, chews and swallows, like a shark consuming a dolphin that’s irritated it for too long. ‘And I still think you should get a real job.’

I’m imagining the dolphin’s death throes, the water permeated with blood and pieces of frayed meat. The shark tears and tears, and it’s sinking into the red-hazed waters, plummeting deeper and deeper…)

 

Yes, my spelling is English, not American. So stop wincing every time you see an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’, or a ‘u’ in ‘Humour’.   

To find out more about Bill O’Hanlon’s books and methods, visit http://billohanlon.com/

To find out more about ‘The Complete Book of Novel Writing’, visit http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-books/novel-writing

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