Autumnal Poem

I was going to post this next poem with the picture that inspired it, but I don’t know where I put the picture and I couldn’t wait to share the poem with you all. It doesn’t have a title right now.

I thought it was appropriate to post on the first official day of fall. :)


Popcorn buttered the crisp autumn air

And music overwhelmed the dusk.

I walked among these others, all wide-eyed and sweet

Red sweater, golden corduroys,

Fresh airbrush tattoo on my right hip—

How scandalous; how trite.

Laughing and sighing and friend-making,

I trailed in the wake of a social goddess,

Noting, with surprise, I was just as lithe as she,

My smile just as bright.

Together, we were the belles of the Fall Fest,

Freshman Cinderellas painting the quad red.

I watched the foam joust,

Princes battering each other with giant cotton swabs,

And thought: This could be where I belong.

This place, where I realized I was beautiful

In the one, short hour before the gathering night,

When I was unafraid.

Autumn on the stream

The Gift Scott Lynch Gave to Me

If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with the majestic prose of Scott Lynch, you’re missing out. Lynch, a fantasy writer, has three books in the Gentleman Bastards cycle already published and you should read them immediately, if not sooner.

The characters are complex and well-developed, and most importantly, relatable. Locke and Jean (the mains, the bromance) are flawed and beautiful. The settings are lush, the descriptions detailed without being long-winded, and the structure. Oh. My. God.

The structure, my doves.

The uneducated would say he tells at least half his story in flashbacks, but that’s not quite right. He’s telling two different, parallel stories about the same characters from different points in their lives. You would think it would be confusing, but it isn’t—the stories interweave meaningfully.

Plus, everything is dusted in what I would consider a fine layer of steampunk, which really gets my gears moving, as it were.

But this isn’t a book review. Or a series review, despite the above gushing. No. This is about Lynch’s magnificent dialogue, and specifically, his foul-mouthed characters.

Locke and Jean are sarcastic. The type of sarcasm born of brotherly love, long-time familiarity, and adolescent competition; they speak in quips and snarls, eye rolls and pointed silences, and brutally honest, sincere tirades.

And being thieves and con men, they curse prolifically. Fucks and gods damn fly about on gilded wings. Colorful barnyard inspired insults paint the pages. It’s glorious.

It’s glorious for one reason: it’s natural.

They are thieves, having grown up in an underground society, educated by the Right People in all the tricks of doing the wrong things. Cussing is how they communicate.

They are, essentially, brothers. That comes with a special variety of hateful love. Cussing is how they communicate.

They are constantly in danger. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been in a dangerous situation that hasn’t let a “oh, fuck that,” slip out to warn of, I dunno, an impending asteroid collision or something. Cussing is how they communicate.

I’m emphasizing this for two reasons. One is to educate any writers out there on dialogue; make it natural for your characters, whatever that may mean. If they are from a specific geographical region, you may want to give them an accent. If they grew up in a certain culture, you may want to give them verbal tics (like cussing). The point is to make it organic for the character that is speaking. You don’t want a peasant speaking like a lord, spouting of “prithee, fair maiden” hither and yon. Unless that peasant is mocking royalty or is a rich dude in disguise.

You get the idea.

The second reason is more personal. For a long time, I believed—for what reason, I’m not sure—that a fantasy or science fiction book must have it’s own curse words.

If it has little to do with our modern Earth I thought it need a whole new vocabulary.

I’d experienced a lot of custom oaths in other books, and televisions shows like Farscape and the like, and I guess I just thought that if I was going to make a character curse, it had to be a newly invented thing. I was trying to improve upon the metaphorical wheel and it wasn’t working.

Well, reading Scott Lynch taught me that it does not have to be that way. I can say fuck if I want to, if it’s true to the character.

That is no less than a divine revelation. It freed up so much of my stilted dialogue in crisis situations. So, thank you, Mr. Lynch. Thank you very much.

Fuck yeah.

Learning From Visual Artists Part 2: The Story

In my last post I waxed poetic about how we, as writers, should learn from other forms of art–specifically, visual artists. My friend Alyssa Spencer at Small Things Illustration and I did a little exercise to facilitate that idea.

I sent her a rhyming couplet that I had rolling around in my brain that otherwise had no purpose. She sent me an unfinished painting. From those things, we created pieces using our own expertise.

UPDATE (7/31/15): Here is Alyssa’s post about the couplet I gave her.

Here is the painting she sent me.

Art by Alyssa R. Spencer Small Things Illustration

Art by Alyssa R. Spencer
Small Things Illustration

I wrote a short story from that, which I called “The Girl in the Trees.”

I didn’t do any extensive plotting or outlining. I just went with whatever popped into my head and then edited it for clarity, grammar and punctuation. It may be cheesy. It may be awful. It could also be spectacular, but it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that I tried in think like a painter while I wrote the story. I wanted to keep the same color schemes and associations with the little girl in the painting (who I called Anna in the story), and then as the story expanded, I added an opposing color scheme for another character. I wanted there to be a distinct difference in the visuals I was creating to help set the mood of the story.

Have any of you attempted swaps or collaborations with other artists not in your field of work? Tell me about it in the comments.

Learning from Visual Artists

I love visual art. I particularly love the art of film, but all visual art is pretty spectacular: illustration, sculpture, architecture, and graphic design—all of it.

Now I know not every single bit of visual art is meant to tell a whole story. Maybe it’s just supposed to evoke a feeling, or in the case of product design, for example, it’s supposed to improve functionality. But there are many pieces of visual art that DO tell stories, just the way writers do.

Think of your favorite painting, or other piece of fine art. What colors are used with the piece? If it represents a human or an animal, what facial expressions are there? What kind of stuff is going on in the background? All these things tell a story

Let’s take my favorite painting, “A Girl Reading” by Johann Georg Meyer, and ask those questions.

"A Girl Reading."

“A Girl Reading.”

The colors are very warm and earthy, with red and golden tones being dominant, which evokes as sense of coziness and well being. The little girl has an expression frozen somewhere between amusement and annoyance, and her posture implies she’s quite comfortable reading that book. She’s sitting in what could be a farm kitchen; plaster walls that are cracking, fruit bearing plants, a bottle of wine, huge window, rustic wooden table and bench, and a canary in a cage.

All those things tell us something about the girl. Especially that book. We know she is educated, and for being so young, this implied she was from at least a middle class family. The forgotten knitting also intrigues me.

It seems as though Mom or Housekeeper caught our heroine taking a break from some chores, or has come to find her to do her chores. I imagine she’s from a happy family, educated and financially stable. I could build a whole backstory for this girl solely based on the moment the artist captured, because Meyer is telling a story.

What is important here is the relationship Meyer is building with his audience. He’s pulling us in, getting us to think and imagine—the same thing writers do with poetry, or the precious first few lines in a book.

Film is an especially powerful storytelling tool because it can adds an element written or static visual art doesn’t usually have: sound. Whether through the absence of music or the focus on one particular ambient noise, sound really enhances the experience.

And keep in mind when I say “film” I don’t just mean big-screen stuff, I’m including televisions and film shorts, as well.

“Peaky Blinders,” a BBC series about street gangs in 1919, is an exceptional example of visual storytelling. My favorite part about the production is that they really make an effort to utilize every tool they can to tell the story: camera angles, lighting, music, slow motion effects, costume, ambient noise, and even the (artificial) weather.

My favorite scene is between Cillian Murphy, a gangster, and Sam Neil, who plays a copper. They have come to this ridiculously ornate public tearoom on neutral ground to conduct negotiations. The walls are pink and covered with floral paintings. The tables are dressed with white clothes, delicate porcelain, and gold or silver serving towers. Murphy and Neil are dressed in charcoal wool suits. They sit opposite from each other at the table and start whispering.

During their conversation, two cameras are at work, one shooting over each man’s shoulder and zoomed close to the other’s face, focusing on eyes or mouths. Everything feels secret and tense. The pink walls and ornate furnishings enhance the ridiculousness of two enemies negotiating a peace. Two brutal men trying to be civilized.

You can’t hear anything but their conversation until the camera pulls out, at which point ambient noise filters back in. Teacups clinking, people murmuring.

It’s a glorious scene, a story unto itself. The whole series if full of moments like that, which really help with layered character development. The producers also like to film key moments in slow motion, without sound, and then overlay moody music on top. I love that.

I describe this scene in detail a) because I can’t find a production still or video clip to use and b) because we, as writers, can write scenes like this.

They don’t all have to be like that—there’s something to be said for vague or sparse descriptions—but if you want to highlight something, incorporating detail in juxtaposition is a great way to do it.

So here is your challenge, my doves. In the next few weeks, study a visual artist. How do they tell a story? Pick a painting, or a scene from your favorite movie. Really analyze it—don’t be afraid to over think things in this context, it’s going to help you. Figure out what helps to drive the story the artist wants to get across.

Befriend a visual artist and learn from one another.

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