Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: writing process (page 1 of 2)

Here Comes a Twister & Thoughts about Prose Poetry

She grew up in the land of twisters, seeking shelter in middle bathrooms. She baptized herself in the rivers of glass sparkling through the broken house. Wall clouds turned and blackened, the sky decayed, fell down from itself. Monsters ate trees in the night but by morning, birds always returned, the feeders full of color and song, while all around hailstones melted. Only small questions remained, then; the big ones were all torn up with the trees and trails, apologies she used to believe she owed. A familiar man in coveralls claims he can repair the roof faster, cheaper, better than the other guys who don’t understand these things (sign here please). Her fists clench, knuckles ache like love; she relaxes only when he leaves. She whispers secrets to her daughter: about the days of electricity and engines, about the thrill of kneeling wild-eyed before the weather radio’s robot voice, about prayers for thunder and wind, about how she learned to control storms and how everything that happens flashes in a dark and roaring instant.


This an old one, posted here a few years back and later published at CSHS, but it was originally published as a poem—the kind with line breaks—and not as a prose poem or a flash or whatever the heck these rectangular things are. I’ve found the past few years that I want to write more and more prose poetry and then wondering about the distinction between prose poetry and flash fiction.

They (as in the all-knowing They) say flash has narrative and prose poetry relies on imagery and ideas. What then of narrative prose poems, which is how a lot of mine feel to me? Further complicating matters is the fact that many of my poems are drafted in a sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness paragraph form which I then start fiddling with by inserting line breaks. What happens then when I take away those line breaks and go back to prose as in the above poem and in several of the poems in What Stranger Miracles, which was published by White Knuckle Press in 2016 as a free online chap.

I suppose the flow chart would go like this:

stream-of-consciousness draft paragraph without much punctuation – > add punctuation, line breaks, cut stuff -> fiddle w/language, tinker, play -> refine, add and delete lines -> multiple side trips through limbo, some lasting months or even years -> complete poem -> remove line breaks and go back to paragraph form

That all seems very convoluted, but something interesting happens in that step between finished poem-with-line-breaks and prose poem that I don’t think I could have gotten to if I had just kept it in paragraph form from the beginning. I think differently about what I’m writing when those line breaks appear.

Maybe then this is more about a reader’s perception than a writer’s intention. I keep thinking about how musicians remix their own work often releasing it in multiple forms. Any given song might have the studio version, the acoustic version, the club mix, and the live version. Each of these requires changes to the original arrangement while the words (usually) remain the same. The listener is able in many cases to choose and purchase the preferred version.

I realize I’m sneaking back into my thoughts about sanctity-of-text that I was writing about recently, but why not something similar with poetry? Why not release prose versions of our work? Even if in abbreviated format like an EP of a few acoustic tracks from various albums. Prose poetry versions might even go over better in e-book format since they’re easier to code and read on an e-reader.

After reading The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Allomar, a collection described as short stories but often straddling that thin line between flash and prose poetry, I can’t help but wonder if this is this all just marketing stuff. Would prose poetry sell better than poetry if we just called it flash or something more generic like short prose? What about poems remixed into prose form? What are those if they were narrative to begin with? And, back to digital questions, would they sell better as ebooks than poetry seems to?

This comes up because I’ve been going back and prose-ifying some of my old poems. I find some of them work better this way. (I wish there was a WordPress plugin that would do this for me.) As I do this, I’m starting to see the outlines of a manuscript that I hadn’t recognized before. There are a number of these poems-becoming-prose-poems that seem to fit together and for me anyway seem to be more interesting in prose.

I’ll close for now with my author’s statement from the beginning of What Stranger Miracles. Here’s “Adseg”:

Just as they separate ax murderers from regular ones, holding them out for special derision and lengthier sentences, we segregate prose poems from regular poems. They get their own labels and cells, a metal toilet, gang signs, and four hashmarks—one for each consecutive sentence—carved into the crumbling walls on some prison island surrounded by and so far from the sea. The prose poem wakes with the others but hesitates when they roll the doors. It knows it shouldn’t enter the yard with the other poems, those sad misdemeanors that just got busted that one time they tried something big.

Has anyone else tried fiddling with their work like this? Did you like the results? What do you think about releasing multiple versions of your work?

Writing Process Questions

I’m stealing a meme from Carolee.

What are you working on?

I’m close to publishing two short books: Highway Sky, a collection of road poems; and The Corner of Ghost & Hope, a collection of five short stories. Both have been ongoing and then back-burner projects for several years (I first put Highway Sky together in 2009) but this year I decided to commit to finishing both of them. I’m alternating between them, and they are currently in the proof stage. Once published, I plan to start working on another poetry project, not sure what, but I have some ideas I’m kicking around.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

This is a really interesting question that I don’t know how to answer without sounding like I’m full of it. I think it’s the type of question writers and other artists probably struggle with answering about their own work. Probably why author bios are written in 3rd person. Having said that, I write about things that interest me. One of the most compelling things to me is the way we interact, live with, and understand our place in nature. I try to let my sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries of the universe come through in my writing. I don’t think any of that necessarily makes my work differ from anyone else’s; plenty do those things and do them better than me. So I have my take on things, my way of seeing the world. As does everyone else. Naturally, I’m forever grateful to those who are interested in and take time to read what I have to write.

Why do you write what you do?

It depends on what I’m writing, whether it be fiction or memoir and what form I’m working in: prose, poetry, small stones… I write to explore, entertain, meditate, pray, discover, remember, understand, honor, educate. As mentioned above, I try to write from a place of curiosity, gratitude, and wonder. I’m reminded of the Grateful Dead song “Lady with a Fan” from Terrapin Station:

The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master

I’ve always liked those lines, the idea of shedding light and not trying to have all the answers. I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing, that urge to discover and ask rather than answer. I guess I write more what I want to understand than what I already know.

How does your writing process work?

Too many days, I’d say it doesn’t. Sometimes I start with a prompt or an image. I freewrite and then cut away from what I’ve written. Sometimes, a phrase or an idea just comes along and hits me. I wrote this in the comments on Carolee’s blog:

I don’t always know where it comes from, at least not at first. My students ask me these kinds of things all the time when they want to learn more about writing poetry, and I always feel kind of lame when the best I have to offer are answers like “I don’t know” and “It just kind of happens.” I think the best poetry or any writing comes when we’re not setting out to say something but rather to discover something.

Truth is, I really don’t know how I do it. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m the one who wrote something. Which isn’t to say it’s not a lot of work, because it is, especially at the revision stage, but those ideas, that initial surge, just happens. But it only happens when I’m open to it. I have to show up and be there ready to respond. The real work of course, comes later when I have to sit down and turn ideas, scribbles, and drafts into something worth reading.

I’ve recently written two process posts, one about reading and recording other people’s poetry and one about videomaking. So I’ll just end with a quote from the video post that also applies to writing:

[…] maybe this is the main thing I have to say about my creative process: I don’t always intend to write a poem or make a video, but then one thing leads to another: experience, image, something I read, something someone says and then the next thing I know there’s a poem or a video or something waiting to be written or made. I guess it all comes down to being open and willing. And then, as Stephen King says, showing up at the keyboard.

James Dream of the Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons (courtesy NASA via wikipedia)

Olympus Mons (courtesy NASA via wikipedia)

Yesterday, I wrote about the music I’ve been listening to while I work on my science fiction novel and music—a song anyway—is the inspiration for the setting, at least for now. It’s set on Mars at a research station near Olympus Mons, the massive shield volcano at the edge of the Tharsis region.

According to Wikipedia, Olympus Mons stands over 16 miles above the Martian surface and is 342 miles wide, about the size of the state of Missouri.

I don’t know if I’ll keep that site in the final draft, but the choice was inspired by the Pixies tune “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons,” one of my all-time favorite Pixies songs. Okay, all Pixies songs are pretty much my all-time favorite Pixies songs, but really, I mean a song about a bird dreaming of flying around on another planet?

Did they write the song just for me?

Have a listen.

Writing and Music

My uncle, who is both a writer and a retired writing teacher (and who has read several of my works-in-progress over the years) has commented on occasion that the voice in my work is consistent in such a way that it seems everything is done in one sitting.

I had never thought about it, but I think part of what makes that possible is ritual. During the summer when I have all day everyday it’s not so important; I just sit and write. Doing NaNoWriMo last month forced me to think about how to get into the zone so that the isolated hour here and two hours there could be most productive.

Music is one of the best writing rituals I’ve found. Whenever I work on a novel, I tend to pick one CD (or one artist now that itunes makes it easy to shuffle all of an artist’s work) for that project. In the past I’ve written to And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out by Yo La Tengo, the hundred or so hours of Dead I’ve got, and Enigma’s MCMXC. For this project, I turned to ( ) by Sigur Rós.

When finding music for writing, I look for work that’s interesting musically, but that can also fade into the background. I like lots of instrumentals and open spaces and maybe even some drone.

Last month, I found ( ) to be perfect for an eerie science fiction piece set at a research base on Mars. Perhaps on some level Sigur Rós appealed because they’re from Iceland, a nation whose landscapes are closer to what exists on Mars than almost anywhere else on Earth. The music is also otherworldly, and the lyrics are not sung in English so they don’t become a distraction.

By listening to ( ) in my car on my way home from work, I found that I would already be in my writing zone by the time I got home. I would brew a cup of tea (another ritual) and sit down to write. While writing at my computer, I used itunes and so could go beyond ( ) to include Takk… and “Sevefn-g-englar,” the epic track from Vanilla Sky that turned me on to Sigur Rós in the first place.

I have an easier time getting started when I’ve pre-focused my mind on the drive home. When I sit down the words come easier, and I’m in the frame of mind for a particular story because I think my subconscious is already tuned to that story’s frequency.

I was finishing some revisions on another novel at the beginning of the month and I found I could easily switch focus between stories by changing the music from Sigur Rós to the Grateful Dead.

What (if anything) do you listen to when you write?

Here’s a video of Sigur Rós performing “Sevefn-g-englar.” You have to love a guy who uses a bow to play his guitar. Enjoy.

I’m Back to Explain My (NaNoWriMo) Experience

I “won” NaNoWriMo, which means that I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November. To be precise, I wrote 50,364. The idea is to write a novel, but that 50K I wrote is more like two-thirds of a novel. A decent start, at any rate.

I figure I’ll finish the first draft in the next two weeks. It feels like it wants to be about 80,000 words or so, but we’ll see. Once that’s done I’ll let it cool for a few months before tackling revisions. Maybe they should call it National Novel Starting Month (NaNoStMo?) since all those first drafts are unlikely to be presentable.

The experience of participating in NaNoWriMo was an enlightening one. For years, I have convinced myself that I can only write novels during summer vacation because there just isn’t time during the school year. I found out I was wrong about that. I lied to myself! I can work on novels anytime, and I discovered some ways to bring focus to the small chunks of time in which I could write.

I used NaNoWriMo to try some new things too. I wrote in the first person, which I’ve only done in short stories, and I’m doing science fiction, which I’ve always wanted to try but hadn’t until now. The go-go-go pace of writing for this challenge doesn’t  leave much room for self-doubt so it’s a great time to try new things and experiment a little bit.

It’s been fun, and I like the characters and the story. I’m surprised by some of what has happened, but that’s part of what makes writing such a thrill.

Starting a New Novel

I’m doing NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write the first draft of a novel during the month of November. The draft should be 50,000 words.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before mainly because I’ve always assumed I can’t write a novel in a month during the school year.  I’ve written first drafts in a month, but only during the summer.

One of my teacher friends mentioned she was doing it and asked if anyone wanted to join her. At first I said no. 50K words in a month? While teaching? Impossible.

Then, I started to wonder if I could do it. I mean, I’ve written three first drafts already so this isn’t new. How does one begin a new writing project? Why, at the beginning, of course.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1994). In her chapter “Shitty First Drafts,” she uses the metaphor of driving at night to describe first drafts. We can only see as far down the road as the headlights reveal, but eventually we’ll come to a destination.

What’s that destination?

Last a week a character came to mind. A setting. That’s where I start a draft. Just write about the character and the place. Things will present themselves. This is the beautiful serendipity of fiction.

Sure, I will likely cut out most of the opening fourth of the book when I get to revisions, but that opening part is where characters are met and discoveries are made.

I started yesterday and wrote about 3,500 words. I like the narrator, and I like the premise. Toward the end of writing, another character walked up and whispered something in my protagonist’s ear. I was as surprised as him.

Doors begin to open and the world grows. I can’t wait to see what happens today.

That’s the excitement of first drafts. You just write what seems right at the time, taking the words as they come. Don’t worry about plot holes and inconsistencies. So what if your protagonist is 37 on one page and 42 on another. Fix it in post, as they say in the film biz.

That’s where I do research too. Since this is a sci-fi project, I’ll have a lot to do to create the verisimilitude I want, but for now, I intend to tell the story as it unfolds in front of me.

As with football, it’s all about forward progress and at the end of November, I’ll have a first draft to revise and craft into something good. Something beyond a “shitty first draft.”

Working title is A Fire to Be Lighted.

Wish me luck.

First Paragraphs

Now that I’ve finished (and revised and revised and revised) my novel A Short Time to Be There, I’m starting the process of putting together all the things I’ll need as I begin to query agents and publishers. Things like lists of promising agents and publishers, query letters, pitches, long synopsis, short synopsis, author bio in third person. All the fun stuff.

There’s a wealth of info to be found online including a number of blogging agents who give useful advice about how to do these things. One is Nathan Bransford, who is currently running his 3rd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge. Simply post the first paragraph of any work-in-progress in the comments section of the contest post on his blog. So far, there are 1387 entries.

It’s a good exercise because it’s always good to be reminded of the importance of that first paragraph. I always tell my students not to sweat the first paragraph (on a first draft!) because you can always go back and fine-tune it. Or cut it altogether and have the piece start with the 2nd paragraph, which with student papers often works nicely.

I’ve played with A Short Time to Be There‘s first paragraph quite a bit over the past 3 years and will probably wind up fine-tuning it some more. The original 1st paragraph became the 1st paragraph of the 3rd chapter when I made some dramatic changes to the structure. Then it was cut altogether when I eliminated the 3rd chapter during a later round of revisions.

Here’s the first paragraph as it now stands, which is what I entered in Nathan’s contest. From A Short Time to Be There:

Chip clutched the armrests so hard his fingertips had gone numb twenty minutes earlier. He glanced at his knuckles, white and straining against the worn leather of the chair, and wondered if knuckles could burst. How many other condemned men had sat in this very chair while adrenaline and fear coursed through their veins like electricity? At least they hadn’t strapped him in. Yet. Perhaps they should have. He stared past the doctor and out the window at Houston’s shining towers and glass buildings that glittered bright against the May sky. His teeth ached from clenching them together, and he hoped the doctor wouldn’t notice his tightened jaw and throw a tetanus shot at him for good measure.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Northern Cardinal for Now

Not much time for blogging and book writing. Guess what comes first?

So, here, another picture of a bird.

In a free moment at work today, I flipped open Beat Poets and found Kerouac’s advice for writers: “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.”

Half lunatic love ravings of the self-professed angelic mind (see me vent my inner Jack?) half good advice, half (yeah, 3/2’s) scattered pearls, I found a few ideas I like, especially these:

24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

29. You’re a Genius all the time

And, now, off to the labors of my genius…


I’m back in the throws of my novel, A Short Time to Be There after two months off. I’m reading the manuscript. Changing, fixing, deleting, moving, rewriting. Sometimes bits are good enough to make me wonder who wrote it. Lots of it needs lots of work.

I like the characters, but the begining seems a bit off. A bit slow, despite cutting nearly three chapters. Maybe I’m still too close to it. Sometimes I think it might be the screenwriter in me saying that big things have to happen within the first thirty minutes (which is thirty pages of screenplay). I don’t think the big collision has to happen in the first thirty pages of a novel. Page 46 is good too. Maybe I’m obsessing this point.

Either way, blogging takes a back seat for now.

The Accidental Hiatus-ist

We did not wash away in the floods, though I’m still trying to collect two of every greyhound for the ark I’ve been building. Unfortunately, they are each individuals, so I’m only able to find one of each.

Mainly, I hadn’t blogged because I wanted to finish my book. I didn’t want to sit at the computer writing and not be writing that, so blog went by the wayside to meet my self-imposed end of June deadline. I made it with a few days to spare.

The manuscript came in at 249 pages or 66,ooo words. A short novel, called A Short Time to Be There, at least for now. When I went back and looked at the early pages written before I really knew the characters or the pace of the story, I found a few chapters and some scenes that I didn’t really need, so I found myself going with Stephen King’s dictum: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. When that 10% comes from the front end, things start to move better. Redundancies disappear.

I finished the book last week. The next day R’s grandmother died so we had to go to Orange to help with arrangements before the funeral. She died in her sleep at her home without any illness or hospitalization a few weeks shy of her 87th birthday. It was a tough surprise, but then it’s hard to imagine a better way to go.

On the long drive east to Orange, we saw a coyote standing on the side of the road outside Elgin. He ran when he saw us. We spotted a red-tailed hawk perched on a power line near Houston. A bobcat ran across the road in front of us in Orange. I never see that much wildlife from my car. I had never seen a bobcat before. The weather was weird too. Powerful storms kicking up while we were in church, where she was honored, and also right before the funeral.

My mind kept going back to Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

Of course she wasn’t royalty or even a prince, but she was noble. She would help anyone who needed it. She took in the lost. She never gave up on anybody.

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