Daily Archives: October 14, 2011

A Work in Progress by Robin Johnson

We want to hear YOUR story about YOUR work-in-progress. Every few weeks, if you all send us stuff, we’ll post what’s going on in your writing world. Below is Robin’s story. Robin is talented and smart and I knew that the first time I read her writing. So if you’re interested in playing, contact me or Ann Dee or Chris or Kyra and we’ll put your work on-line.

PS Kyra can’t post today.

Carol asked me to do this post ages ago. Beginning of March actually, when I stopped by her YA writing class for a visit because I was in Utah for my younger sister’s wedding. I was flattered and pumped to go home and bust out an extremely awesome post. But the wedding festivities kept me out of Alaska for a few days more and the fire petered out. Not that I wasn’t still excited to blog. I just realized that I know nothing about blogging. I know nothing about writing a YA novel. Who am I to be a bossy-pants, telling people what to do, when I am such a faker. The bossy-pants who knows what they are talking about is annoying enough. Those who are bossy and are fakers are intolerable. Basically, I was afraid, of sounding either like a jerk or a untrustworthy wimp. And fear is paralysis.

So now that I am having a brief moment of mobilizing insanity, I’ll jump into what I will be blogging about. But first I will have to give you a little history. I started my WIP (which, no joke, took me over a year to figure out it meant “work-in-progress”) in Carol’s class in Spring semester 2009. I made it 55 or so pages in by the end of the semester, all in third person. I audited the class again in Fall semester (my last) and it underwent a massive transformation by getting refigured into first person, with each chapter starting with some little poem written by my MC (“Main Character”—this one didn’t take a year, but pretty close). After I finished Carol’s class/graduated, I kept working on it, but I didn’t get too far. Third person wasn’t right. First person wasn’t right. And heaven knows second person would never be right. I hated my novel. Hated hated hated it. And I knew the story had the potential to be so powerful. But it was a flaming piece of poop on my doorstep. In Feb. 2010 I left for an LDS mission. After only 4.5 months (missions are usually 18 months) I got sick and came home; it was devastating. My first month home I slept for 16 hours each day. And then I had a big blow-up with my family and stormed off to my stake president’s house three days before my birthday. (Sorry if this is too personal; it’s essential to understand what’s coming.) I stayed there for two days then moved into my sister’s parents-in-law’s basement and started seeing a therapist. And I read Carol’s novel Glimpse. One night, after and concurrent to all this going on, I was lying awake in my bed when my first line, and then my first page, came to me. So I rolled over and wrote it down. My novel—not me, necessarily—had found its voice.

I had been trying to force my WIP into a specific mold. You know, chapters. Paragraphs. A chronological timeline. I was following a formula, writing how I thought a novel should be written, because I didn’t know how else to do it. So I faked it from what I knew. But my novel—the story it told, my main character—all were demanding to be written in a way that had never been written before. Which happens to be a hodgepodge of traditional storytelling mixed with verse poetry mixed with prose poetry. It is very much written in a mixed media style. There are no chapters. The current arc of the story is told in present tense, while the memories are told in past. Some scenes read like a normal novel. Sometimes my MC writes a poem. Other times the story is told in prose poetry; this last one ended up being the key element for me.

Prose poetry is difficult to define or understand. It is not versed poetry, nor is it necessarily formatted like a normal poem. It’s not quite prose, not quite a poem. Ask any two people what it is and you will probably get a different answer from each. Sometimes it looks like a paragraph with sentences that stretch from the left of the page all the way to the right. Sometimes it looks like a poem, but more dense, more detailed, more filled out with a story or dialogue or sentence structure. The best definition I’ve come up with for myself is that it is prose with a higher concentration of poetic techniques. Not just alliteration and images and rhythm (you know, iambic pentameter and what have you). It is the use of white space on the page. Or using entire pages of white space to make a point. The breaking of lines in key spots. The importance not just of the words chosen, but of those left out. The sound of the words read out loud. How the page flows, both visually and verbally. My MC is a poet. I knew that from the beginning. But now it is less contrived, more authentic. Not just to her character, but to her mental condition and response to what is happening to her. The novel is called Peaces, a play on the word ‘pieces.’ It literally had to be written in a style that reflects that; pieces of the present here, a piece of the past there, a piece in chronological time, a piece in verse, a piece broken into smaller pieces by prose poetry.

Once I figured this all out, I realized that I had been terrified to be honest with myself, about my own situation and about this novel. I was feeling all these terrible emotions, and I realized I was terrified of putting them on the page, and had been for two years. Even now, feeling more secure in my novel (though still often feeling like it is a bag of poop, but without the flame element—most of the time) I am terrified that people won’t understand it. That it won’t make sense, or that people will feel that the prose poetry is silly and awkward. Which is why I feel like I should put it out there, both to help you understand, visually, what I mean by “prose poetry” and also to let my fear go and be even more honest with myself. Because that’s what it’s all about as a writer. So, with no further ado, here is the first page of my WIP, Peaces:

Hush little baby, don’t say a word.
Shush, shush, shush.
The ground is muggy against my cheek, smelling warm and wet. A sliver of the moon cuts through the cooing willow branches.
Leaves whispering,
Shush, shush, shhhhh.
Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
Her voice cracks, gargling in the black night. Swallowed up in it.
And if that mockingbird don’t sing, Momma’s…momma’s…
That sliver of the moon is sharp sharp sharp. I wait for her to finish singing the line. And
stare at that moon. It’s lit up a brilliant red, from the blood-
red sunset.
The willow leaves are dripping with it, as the night closes around its last pulses.
Shush. Shush. Shush.
“Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…” I whisper-sing for her.
Her silence is filled to the brim with the color of the sunset.
Everything is filled with it: the blinking of the car’s lights. His dark silhouette slumped over the steering wheel, head nestled at the spiraling center of a spider web crack. But, most of all, it is the sound of them I hear coming up over the hill.
The blood-red wail of the sirens.



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