Friday, November 15, 2013

My New Poetry Collection: Riceland

My fourth poetry collection, Riceland, is now available from Unbound Content. These poems deal with my childhood on a rice farm in eastern Arkansas, with my mother's illness and death, and with the ramifications of these events for my family. This is the collection I've been working on for the last ten years, so I think it's safe to say it's my best to date. Here's what a few other people have said:

In Riceland, Bledsoe is unswerving in his depiction of the beauty, despair, and bludgeoning cruelty of life on an Arkansas farm. Be prepared—stark and startlingly revealing, these poems will sear your soul.

--Jo McDougall, author of Dirt, Satisfied With Havoc, and Daddy’s Money

C. L Bledsoe’s Riceland is full of natural wonder. Bledsoe pays attention and documents daily life with skill and cunning and we are lucky to have such a poet in our midst. At times he reminds me of Jim Harrison, in his ruthless eye for man’s connection to nature and his search for balance, in an increasingly severe world. Bledsoe writes equally well about farming, about the physical world, about place, and about family. Riceland is a book to contemplate, to help see through a true poet’s eyes and to read again for its hard-won grace and gentle wisdom.

--Corey Mesler, author of Some Identity Problems and The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores

“I know how to grow things, and I know how to kill them," writes C. L. Bledsoe in Riceland, a book set in the rice fields and dirt roads of rural Arkansas at the end of the twentieth century. Bledsoe captures the darkness, violence, and longing of a young man growing up at a time, when so many family farms, like his father's, are going under. The death of the family farm is the larger theme, but the poems about his mother--and his inability, as a child, to understand the Huntington's disease that cripples and eventually destroys her--are the heartbreaking heart of the book. In a world that makes no sense, he approaches adulthood "wishing time would stop, speed up, something." Although he tells us, after a dream of rabbit hunting on the lost farm, that "nothing could console me," there is a consolation in the dark beauty of these poems.
--Ed Madden, author of Signals and Prodigal Variations

Here's a link to the sale page:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Revision

Some jerk one time said that 90% of writing is revision, and the sad truth is that they were probably right. The first draft is where we experiment and figure out the nuts and bolts, usually, which means there’s going to be some missteps. My philosophy when it comes to writing first drafts, especially for newish writers, is throw everything at the page. Try those 37 similes on one page, try the weird perspective shifts, try every joke or description you can think of; go crazy. As Hemmingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Revision can be as simple as shaping the story or as complex as tearing it down and rebuilding it. You should be willing to try things and see if they work, in drafts and in revision. Sometimes, especially when you’re starting out as a writer, revision is a way for you to tinker and try things, but there often comes a point where you have to give up on a piece and walk away to try a new one. It can be difficult to tell when that should happen, and there are famous examples of writers revising and republishing previously published, heavily revised work (Raymond Carver stands out, for example.)
I find that revision is usually about digging the real story out from all that stuff I threw at the page and shaping it. I’ve usually got the arc of the story down; it’s usually just a question of shaping it. There have definitely been times when I gave up on a story or novel draft, walked away, and came back to revise and finish it, but usually it’s more effective to just start over, using what I’ve learned and figured out in the new draft. Digging the story out means shaping the plot, characters, really trimming back to what is absolutely essential in the piece. This requires having some faith in the reader.
Some writers revise by starting over and retyping their entire story/book/etc. Some writers print out the piece and mark it up by hand; others print it, cut it up, and rearrange the paragraphs or even sentences in this way. Personally, especially if I’ve gotten a little lost in a piece, I will outline after the fact as part of my revision process. So there are a lot of different approaches to revision.
Here are some things to consider when revising:
-Show don’t tell. This is the annoying-as-hell adage of writing instructors everywhere, but it’s accurate. Having faith in the reader means you are willing to demonstrate ideas rather than explain them. Remember that much of the reason readers read is that joy of discovery, of being able to figure things out. Don’t rob them of that, or they’ll stop reading. Whenever you’ve “dumped” any kind of information, especially a character’s feelings or motivations, go back and demonstrate them through actions, dialogue, etc. That doesn’t mean the character now says, “I’m sad.” The character demonstrates sadness, maybe by eating a gallon of ice cream while in sweat pants. One thing to keep in mind is that you won’t be able to translate every bit of information completely by showing, and that’s okay; you don’t have to. As long as you can hint at things, that’s enough.
-Less is more. Really. Subtlety is powerful. One action, one simple detail often resonate much more than a thorough description. The purpose of throwing everything at the page, as I described above, is usually to find this one detail or action or what-have-you. Once you have it, cut all the others.
-Cliches must die. Always. Making them new is okay, but it’s usually clunky. Kill them.
-Consider suggestions but trust your instincts. If you’ve workshopped a piece or had someone read it, sure, consider what they’ve said. When I was taking workshops in college, I tried absolutely every suggestion I got, unless they were just completely bonkers. So I wasn’t too arrogant to try things. But many times, I trusted my original instincts and ended up doing something different than what had been suggested. The key is to remember that other writers/students/etc. might not hit whatever problem squarely on the head. So trust your instincts since it’s your story.
-Murder your darlings. This means that sometimes, what you think is the best line or scene (your “darling”) in a piece might be the one thing that’s holding that piece back. Really. Sometimes you have to cut your favorite thing in a story. But you can always save it and try to reuse it later.

Now What?
So you’ve taken some classes, but that’s over, and you’re all alone out in the big, scary world. What now? Having others read your work is essential, but it’s really, really hard to find good readers. Really, really hard. This is because very few people know how to workshop. They think suggesting a bunch of plot changes is workshopping, but it’s not. Workshopping requires a reader to at least come close to understanding what the author is trying to accomplish and then trying to help the author accomplish it, regardless of the reader’s opinion on the genre or anything else. I’ve been in a lot of workshops but encountered very few people who really knew how to do this.
Some people will try joining writing groups to find good readers, but these groups tend to lack a leader to demonstrate HOW to workshop, so they often become mutual admiration clubs. And the hard thing to realize is that praise doesn’t help a story improve. There are local groups all over the place; try Meetup or other real-world networking sites. There are online places like Fictionaut, but again, these rarely involve useful information because the other people in the groups don’t really know how to workshop. It’s a difficult process, but once you do find some people, maybe just one or two, keep in contact with them.
Another thing you might be considering is publishing. If you want to get published, you can, these days. There are 50 million online literary journals, and maybe half as many print ones, again, mostly run by people who are more enthusiastic than knowledgeable about writing. So it’s not hard. But should you? Remember, especially on the internet, there’s every likelihood that the piece you publish will still be online in five years. (There’s just as much likelihood it will disappear in a few months, of course.) Think about that. Think about how much you’ve grown as a writer in the last few months, the last year. You’d better be sure your piece is ready before you publish it because it could haunt you for a while.
As far as the process of publishing, that’s a complicated animal that would take a while to explain. If you’re talking small things: short fiction, poems, etc. you’re probably not going to get paid. You might be able to sell something to a university sponsored print journal (they’re just about the only ones who have any money to pay you) but these are highly competitive. So it can take a while. You have to be persistent. You have to have thick skin. And don’t ever pay reading fees.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Thoughts on Themes, Motifs, Symbols

A Theme is a big idea (kind of like a moral) in a piece of writing; it’s what you say when someone asks you what a book is about. A Motif is some “thing” (an image, a color, even a location, etc.) that recurs throughout a piece of writing and takes on symbolic significance because it relates to some big idea in the story. So the Themes (there can be more than one) and Motifs in stories are linked. (Don’t confuse a Motif with a MacGuffin, which is a plot device that acts as the impetus for a story but is actually fairly interchangeable. A MacGuffin is the thing that characters are looking for, usually in detective stories, but that thing could actually be just about anything, i.e. usually some kind of treasure. In the film The Maltese Falcon, the falcon is a MacGuffin. The important thing is the search for the falcon; it could actually be just about anything. A Motif is essential to the plot, on the other hand, and not interchangeable. MacGuffins come in many forms. In scifi, they’re often called “Big Dumb Objects,” for example, because the plot often revolves around some mysterious object.)
I tend to have pretty heavy themes in my writing, and early on, I frequently browbeat my readers with these ideas. Some advice I was given long ago is that themes shouldn’t be pushed; don’t go into a story thinking, “I’m going to write about _________(insert theme).” Go into a story trying to write a good story; the theme will find its own way in (because it’s on your mind). I’m a big believer that stories should reverberate beyond their own dimensions; they should have a “point,” if you will, beyond just being a story. Stories, I think, help us figure out how we should live, who we should be, and they give us insight into other lives, other ways of thinking. They are philosophical as well as entertaining. This is dangerous territory because heavy themes can easily cross over into propaganda, which can be enjoyable but usually isn’t. Some writers will be provocative for the sake of getting attention, but in today’s oversaturated culture, one has to go very far to get even a passing moment’s attention, and probably sacrifice everything meaningful about a piece of writing. (Which isn’t to say don’t be provocative, just have a point with it.) As loathe as I am to admit it, I think my old writing professor was right; themes will force their way in.
Motifs, on the other hand, are a sign of thoughtful construction; they are the ornate embellishments that help the story rise to beauty. The idea that a writer has layered elements like this into the story shows that some thought has gone into it and some skill. Symbolism, in general, helps demonstrate craftsmanship and elevates writing to the level of art. You’ll notice that every “literary” story and novel out there contains symbolic elements. Even Hemmingway, known for his spare writing, loads his short stories, especially, with symbolism. This reaches back to the beginnings of storytelling, when symbols were used to represent difficult ideas or social norms in a more easily-digestible way. (If you can’t learn the words, at least learn the tune.) But really, motifs, and symbolism in general, are just tools; they’re other ways of telling stories.
It’s kind of silly to try to dictate things like this, but regardless, I find it useful to strive for including at least one moment during a story, maybe at the end, maybe at some key moment, in which the language rises beyond the page and reaches into something profound. This is usually accomplished by symbolism, though very strong, evocative description can accomplish the job too. That powerful, resonant moment is what really sticks with a reader after the story is finished. When we think of The Great Gatsby, we think of the final few lines, Gatsby staring at the light at the end of Daisy’s dock, etc. more than anything else about it.
Motifs can be images, like the light I mentioned above in Gatsby, or objects, like water in the same novel. Motifs can also be phrases or words that are repeated, like the line “So it goes.” in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or a technique, like the retelling of scenarios, as used in The Things They Carried, in which O’Brien doubles back and retells the same handful of scenes from different characters’ perspectives.
Morifs should develop as naturally as possible; just be on the lookout for opportunities. Again, not every story needs motifs, but I do think every story needs some higher-level element, which is usually a form of symbolism. Motifs are often somewhat subtle, though not always. And Motifs should be essential; don’t make a Motif just for the sake of having one. As Chekhov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
Symbolism can be overwrought and distracting, of course. Personification is one of the worst offenders. Similes can frequently accomplish the opposite of the author’s intent; similes are supposed to give a comparison that helps define something that’s difficult to define by describing it using the qualities of something else, but it can easily shift the reader’s attention over to that other thing. Metaphor can do the same. Symbolism should be subtle to keep it from distracting the reader from the actual story. Some symbols have cultural significance and because of this are clichés. A dove, for example, represents peace; we all know that. But why does it represent peace? When a reader sees a dove in a story, they think, “That represents peace.” There is no Ah ha! moment and no real deepening of understanding in the story. The image is so familiar it’s meaningless. If anything, the reader is put off because they’ve encountered a cliché, which shows poor writing.
Again, it’s about the reader’s enjoyment of the piece, and these elements like motif, symbolism, and themes, when handled well, give the reader opportunities to be active (by noticing and then figuring them out) and give you, the writer, opportunities to tell the reader what to think without alienating them.

-CL Bledsoe