Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Dog Rotted On the Road and Other Great Beginnings

Dear Dead Beat,

I am rewriting a novel I wrote and am confused about my beginning. Any thoughts on how to begin a novel?"

Serial Rewriter.

Dear Serial Rewriter,

Dead Beat has a thought on everything and often something more. Begin your novel with a capital letter.

Okay, okay. Begin with a hook. I don't care if you are writing entertainment or that other literary thingy, but you better get your reader onto the second line. Taking this a step further: if one line must lead to another, then one paragraph must lead to another, and so on. Hooks, hooks, hooks.

"It was a bright sunny morning" becomes "it was not a bright sunny morning." "The dog trotted down the road" becomes "the dog rotted on the road."

Figure out what your beginning is trying to say, then make it say it loud and clear, upfront and in the very first sentence.

Best opening to a piece of fiction ever? Richard Ford, Rock Springs, short story called Great Falls: "This is not a happy story. I warn you."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

E-mail Queries

Dear Dead Beat,

It seems that more literary agents are willing to accept e-mail queries. Do you have any advice how to go about writing them?

Computer Shy.

Dear Computer Shy,

Yes e-mail is becoming more acceptable in the publishing world. However not all agents or editors do accept them, so be careful. Read their guidelines. Only e-mail them if they say this is okay.

Once you know that e-mail is fine, there are a number of things to think about. Basically the procedure is the same one you would follow if applying by regular mail: A query letter, synopsis and extract if required (read their guidelines).

The real danger with e-mail is that we have got used to a form of communication that is often colloquial, sloppy, and written in shorthand. Too casual. Frequently it has not been proofread - that's why we have e-mail isn't it? We've no time to spare, zip zip, the world is spinning at an almighty rate, gotta keep up.

Unfortunately most agents would like you to sit back, take your time, consider style and presentation, oh yeah and be articulate, be focused, organised ... all those things writing depends on dammit.

Credo: Instant messages require instant responses. Reconsider your beliefs. Do not be impatient. Agents are a busy lot and often get more than one e-mail a day!

Treat the text of your e-mail like a traditional query. However it seems that it can be shorter - something to do with the size of the screen versus holding a sheet of paper in the hand.

You can include links if they are relevant - i.e. a link to your website etc. but only if it is relevant.

A few other thoughts - Include the word "Query" in your subject line, make sure your e-mail address, signature etc. is personal and professional, make sure you have the editor's own address

Friday, August 24, 2007

Dead Beat A.K.A. Casey Jones

Dead Beat has been riding the rails - all the way over to New Brunswick where he has taken up residence. So he has been on mute for a while, but he's back in a manner of speaking. Seeing as how he grew up on a healthy dose of Casey Jones, he's been having a good time however.

Now that his internet is up and running I guess he can start riding the cyber rails for a while instead.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Characterisation and Plot

Dear Dead Beat,

I read your comments on characterisation with interest.Here's another question - Sometimes, especially toward the middle of a story, I find myself stopping, almost afraid to continue. I wonder why this is.

Typically, my story has started out strongly, I am really into the character, what he/she thinks, loves, likes, does, believes. I usually know how the story is going to end, it's just so hard to find the way to move my characters to that endpoint.

I wonder, is it possible for a writer to care too much about a character or characters,and therefore, allow his/her writing to become paralyzed? Do you have any theories about this? I'm writing short stories, as I have no novel ideas yet, or at least, nothing that could be spun into a novel-length treatment. I love short stories and I would like to succeed at it, but this problem has me stumped...

Gratefully yours,
stuck-in-the-middle(apologies to Stealer's Wheel)

Dear Stuck-in-the Middle,

You should know by now that Dead Beat has a theory about everything.

Is it possible for a writer to care too much about a character or characters? I guess it could be. I often hear this being said - especially in writing workshop situations. However, I sometimes think this is a misinterpretation of what is happening within the writing process. Plot is not as simple as it seems. When it becomes hard to move characters towards the end point it usually means that the plot has not emerged fully - the sequence of events driving the narrative from start to finish has faltered somewhere - i.e. the events are not entirely present, or the wrong events have presented themselves.

It may be that the attraction towards the characters has distracted the writer from the plot aspect of the story - that too much emphasis has been placed on character development. In this case the writer needs to acknowledge that enough work has been done on characterisation for now and that more work needs to be done on developing the narrative - on working out the plot.

Remember good old Chandler - when the plot flags, bring out a man with a gun.

Monday, July 23, 2007

When Is A Poem Not A Poem?

Dear Dead Beat, when is a poem not a poem?


Dear Confused,

when it is a song by Leonar Cohen:

Stranger Song

It's true that all the men you knew were dealers

who said they were through with dealing

Every time you gave them shelter

I know that kind of man

It's hard to hold the hand of anyone

who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,

who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind

you find he did not leave you very much

not even laughter

Like any dealer he was watching for the card

that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another

He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

And then leaning on your window sill

he'll say one day you caused his will

to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter

And then taking from his wallet an old schedule of trains, he'll say

I told you when I came I was a stranger

I told you when I came I was a stranger.

But now another stranger seems

to want you to ignore his dreams

as though they were the burden of some other

O you've seen that man before

his golden arm dispatching cards

but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger

And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter

Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.

Ah you hate to see another tired man

lay down his hand

like he was giving up the holy game of poker

And while he talks his dreams to sleep

you notice there's a highway

that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.

It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder.

You tell him to come in sit down

but something makes you turn around

The door is open you can't close your shelter

You try the handle of the road

It opens do not be afraid

It's you my love, you who are the stranger

It's you my love, you who are the stranger.

Well, I've been waiting, I was sure

we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for

I think it's time to board another

Please understand, I never had a secret chart

to get me to the heart of this

or any other matter

When he talks like this you don't know what he's after

When he speaks like this, you don't know what he's after.

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose

upon the shore, beneath the bridge

that they are building on some endless river

Then he leaves the platform

for the sleeping car that's warm

You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter

And it comes to you, he never was a stranger

And you say ok the bridge or someplace later.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind

you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter

Like any dealer he was watching for the card

that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another

He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

And then leaning on your window sill

he'll say one day you caused his will

to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter

And then taking from his wallet an old schedule of trains,

he'll say I told you when I came I was a stranger

I told you when I came I was a stranger.


Windows and Symbolism

Dear Dead Beat,

I have read several short stories for class recently. Three of the five assigned had a window in them. What is the literary significance of a window?

Thank you,


Dear Gretchen,

Dead Beat usually introduces windows into his fiction so that his characters can escape.

Beyond that Dead Beat can only surmise that (unless the readings were themed) this was mere coincidence. Not that there cannot be a literary significance to a window but three out of five seems too high a statistic.

But what of the literary significance of the 'window'? Of course it acts as a metaphor. Remember if mentioned once the 'window' is an image, if mentioned more than once, it becomes a symbol.

So metaphor and symbolism. So much depends on the intent of the particular story. Windows provide a glimpse out into another world or a glimpse in. They separate with fragility one world from another. On a higher level they may separate chronos from kairos.

Windows are so much more interesting and enticing than walls, but they need walls to support them, to make them necessary.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Credible Incredible

Dear Dead Beat,

what is the most important quality of characterisation in fiction? I struggle to create believable characters.


Dear Concerned,

You have put your finger on it - credibility - characters must be credible. However, only in the context of the story. Characters on paper are never 'real', cannot be. They are heightened versions of real people. They have to live out their lives quickly in the story. Thus we heighten, intensify them. In the same way dialogue is not 'real' in stories. No one, thank God, really talks like characters in books. So they are credible in an incredible sort of way.

This 'heightened nature' is very important and hard to achieve.

Consistency may be part of the answer. If the character is consistent in their behaviour and so on, they are more likely to be accepted as 'real'. Once again, watch out. This consistency awaits the moment of inconsistency. The great moment of the story occurs when the character acts in a way unexpected.

Think on this and come back to me with further thoughts,

Dead Beat

Please ask any questions through the comment section.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Reflections on Vers Libre by T.S. Eliot

As an added response to the previous query, Dead Beat has decided to print in full the essay Reflections of Vers Libre by T.S. Eliot, first published in 1917 in the British magazine The New Statesman.

Reflections on Vers Libre

Ceux qui possedent leur vers libre y tiennent:on n'abandonne que le vers libre. Duhamel et Vildrac.

A lady, renowned in her small circle for the accuracy of her stop-press information of literature, complains to me of a growing pococurantism. 'Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevski, and I do not know what to do.' I suggested that the great Russian was an admirer of Dickens, and that she also might find that author readable. 'But Dickens is a sentimentalist; Dostoevski is a realist.' I reflected on the amours of Sonia and Rashkolnikov, but forbore to press the point, and I proposed It Is Never too Late to Mend. 'But one cannot read the Victorians at all!' While I was extracting the virtues of the proposition that Dostoevski is a Christian, while Charles Reade is merely pious, she added that she could not longer read any verse but vers libre.
It is assumed that vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school; that it consists of certain theories; that its group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the élan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat's worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect; neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine the good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.

Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre, which is good is anything but 'free', it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused--if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers--with the novelty of the form. But I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can define it only in negatives: (1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre.

The third of these qualities is easily disposed of. What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say. Even in the popular American magazines, whose verse columns are now largely given over to vers libre, the lines are usually explicable in terms of prosody. Any line can be divided into feet and accents. The simpler metres are a repetition of one combination, perhaps a long and a short, or a short and a long syllable, five times repeated. There is, however, no reason why, within the single line, there should be any repetition; why there should not be lines (as there are) divisible only into feet of different types. How can the grammatical exercise of scansion make a line of this sort more intelligible? Only by isolating elements which occur in other lines, and the sole purpose of doing this is the production of a similar effect elsewhere. But repetition of effect is a question of pattern.

Scansion tells us very little. It is probable that there is not much to be gained by an elaborate system of prosody, but the erudite complexities of Swinburnian metre. With Swinburne, once the trick is perceived and the scholarship appreciated, the effect is somewhat diminished. When the unexpectedness, due to the unfamiliarity of the metres to English ears, wears off and is understood, one ceases to look for what one does not find in Swinburne; the inexplicable line with the music which can never be recaptured in other words. Swinburne mastered his technique, which is a great deal, but he did not master it to the extent of being able to take liberties with it, which is everything. If anything promising for English poetry is hidden in the metres of Swinburne, it probably lies far beyond the point to which Swinburne has developed them. But the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.

I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,

In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.

Now see I That warmth's the very stuff of poesy.

Oh, God, make small

The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,

That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

This is a complete poem. The other is part of a much longer poem:

There shut up in his castle, Tairiran's,

She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,

Gone--ah, gone--untouched, unreachable!

She who could never live save through one person,

She who could never speak save to one person,

And all the rest of her a shifting change,

A broken bundle of mirrors . . . !

It is obvious that the charm of these lines could not be, without the constant suggestion and the skilful evasion of iambic pentameter. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, and especially in the verse of John Webster, who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare, one finds the same constant evasion and recognition of regularity. Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom. That there is also carelessness I do not deny, but the irregularity of carelessness can be at once detected from the irregularity of deliberation. (In The White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.)

I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash

and instantly go out.

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.

You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart

Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.

This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me

If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,

In three several young men, which should I choose?

These are not lines of carelessness. The irregularity is further enhanced by the use of short lines and the breaking up of lines in dialogue, which alters the quantities. And there are many lines in the drama of this time which are spoilt by regular accentuation.

I loved this woman in spite of my heart. (The Changeling)

I would have these herbs grow up in his grave. (The White Devil)

Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman . . . (The Duchess of Malfi)

The general charge of decadence cannot be preferred. Tourneur and Shirley, who I think will be conceded to have touched nearly the bottom of the decline of tragedy, are much more regular than Webster or Middleton. Tourneur will polish off a fair line of iambics even at the cost of amputating a preposition from its substantive, and in the Atheist's Tragedy he has a final 'of' in two lines out of five together.

We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation. Not to have perceived the simple truth that some artificial limitation is necessary except in moments of the first intensity is, I believe, a capital error of even so distinguished a talent as that of Mr. E.L. Masters. The Spoon River Anthology is not material of the first intensity; it is reflective, not immediate; its author is a moralist, rather than an observer. His material is so near to the material of Crabbe that one wonders why he should have used a different form. Crabbe is, on the whole, the more intense of the two; he is keen, direct, and unsparing. His material is prosaic, not in the sense that it would have been better done in prose, but in the sense of requiring a simple and rather rigid verse-form and this Crabbe has given it. Mr. Masters requires a more rigid verse-form than either of the two contemporary poets quoted above, and his epitaphs suffer from the lack of it.

So much for metre. There is no escape from metre; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave.

The boughs of the trees

Are twisted

By many bafflings;

Twisted are

The small-leafed boughs.

But the shadow of them

Is not the shadow of the mast head

Nor of the torn sails.

When the white dawn first

Through the rough fir-planks

Of my hut, by the chestnuts,

Up at the valley-head,

Came breaking, Goddess,

I sprang up, I threw round me

My dappled fawn-skin . . .

Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold. I do not minimize the services of modern poets in exploiting the possibilities of rhymeless verse. They prove the strength of a Movement, the utility of a Theory. What neither Blake nor Arnold could do alone is being done in our time. 'Blank verse' is the only accepted rhymeless verse in English--the inevitable iambic pentameter. The English ear is (or was) more sensitive to the music of the verse and less dependent upon the recurrence of identical sounds in this metre than in any other. There is no campaign against rhyme. But it is possible that excessive devotion to rhyme has thickened the modern ear. The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon the language. When the comforting echo of rhyme is removed, success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order, is at once more apparent. Rhyme removed, the poet is at once held up to the standards of prose. Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word, music which has hitherto chirped unnoticed in the expanse of prose. Any rhyme forbidden, many Shagpats were unwigged.
And this liberation from rhyme might be as well a liberation of rhyme. Freed from its exacting task of supporting lame verse, it could be applied with greater effect where it is most needed. There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood. But formal rhymed verse will certainly not lose its place. We only need the coming of a Satirist--no man of genius is rarer--to prove that the heroic couplet has lost none of its edge since Dryden and Pope laid it down. As for the sonnet I am not so sure. But the decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre. It had set in long before. Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection. And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.

The Liberation of Rhyme

Dear Dead Beat,

Has rhyme gone out of fashion or have I?

Consummate Rhymester

Dear Consummate Rhymester,

It's not so much that rhyme has gone out of fashion but that perhaps for a while it got a tad overused. Remember T.S. Eliot in his Reflections on "Vers Libre" (and this was in 1917 note!):

"And this liberation from rhyme might be as well a liberation of rhyme. Freed from its exacting task of supporting lame verse, it could be applied with greater effect where it is most needed."

Hear, hear!

All poetry depends on rhyme. Sounds that connect. Sounds that drive the reader forward for the partner to the rhyme and connect the reader back to the original partnered sound. These rhymes can be direct or indirect. They can come at the end of the line or somewhere in between. The point is to use rhyme for its greatest effect - not for the sake of rhyme itself.

It is but one component in the poetic form, don't abuse it, don't overly depend on it because the poem depends on it more.

Send any queries to Dear Dead Beat via the Comments

Monday, February 12, 2007

Make Dead Beat Eat His Words

Dead Beat notices that his blog site has been longlisted for the Irish Blog Awards in the Best Art and Culture Section.

Well as you know Dead Beat is highly cultured - just ask Hudson... on second thoughts....

Wouldn't it put Dead Beat in his place if he were to win...

Go ahead make him eat his words

Voting Form

you have until Friday 18th Feb.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Ideas For Writing

Dear Dead Beat,

I keep a notebook hand at all times for jotting down my ideas. Very often these come to me while lying in bed at night. I have to get up and turn on the light to write them down. My husband is not so pleased about this, but I am afraid of losing my ideas if I leave them until the morning.


Dear Anonymous,

Which would you rather: lose your ideas or lose your husband? Okay, okay, it was a rhetorical question.

You know, Dead Beat believes that you go to bed to rest and sleep. That is a necessary part of the writing life too. Jumping in and out of bed writing down ideas harms this part of the writing process. Ideas, quite frankly, are a dime a dozen. Once you get used to creating them you will have more than you can ever write about.

Good husbands don't come so easily.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Too Many Books Spoil The...

Dear Dead Beat,

What do you think about the recent debate as to whether there are too many books being written?

Spoiled For Choice

Dear Spoiled For Choice,

Walk into any bookstore and look around. Your answer is already there. Dead Beat quite honestly gets frightened in those places.

There are far too many books already written. There is little need for any more. Any self-respecting bookstore would have half a dozen shelves and the cream of the crop. And yet it seems we know of little else to do. So we tap at the keys and smudge the page.

This is why we need to be so severe on ourselves. Send out for publishing only that deserving of being published, and believe you me that is very little indeed.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Importance of Character Development

Dear Dead Beat,

I sometimes think my characters are too 'flat'. Not real enough. Is there anything specific I can do?


Dear Wondering,

If your characters are too flat, just get a pump and inflate them.

Okay, that it were that easy. But hold on what do characters consist of?
Characters are described mainly through their thoughts , speech and actions. The difference between thoughts and speech (dialogue) is very important since what we say and what we think are often entirely different things.

We certainly use description and details to describe what our characters look like, what they wear, eat, what music they listen to etc. but our characters' actions will reveal far more about them - actions and reactions - we can make stereotypical judgements about people based on their dress, their music interest etc. and we can be very wrong in our judgements. If we observe their actions and reactions, we learn far more about them.

So focus on the important aspects of character developement. For sure know the type of clothing they would wear etc. and be consistent but work hard to understand their actions - why they do what they do -

And here's a point - characters need to be consistent to be credible - however what truly makes a character interesting is when we reach that moment of inconsistency.

We expect the character to respond in a certain way - their spouse expects them to respond in a certain way - but he or she responds differently - now the character is very interesting and the reader is engaged - Develop consistency to amplify that all important moment of inconsistency.

And yup, character is all. No matter how good your plot is, or your passages of description, if your characters fall flat or are not credible, human nature being as it is, the reader will lose interest.

Readers read about characters to learn more about themselves. We are a selfish breed no doubt about it!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

KickStarting The Writing Process

Dear Dead Beat,

I have just taken an extended Christmas and New Year's break from writing and am finding it hard to get kick-started again. Any advice?

Dead Beat

Dear Dead Beat,

You have come to the right person. KickStart is my middle name. Pull out whatever it is you were last working on and read it over. Read it aloud. Get a feel for it again. If you were working on something long, read a lot if not all of it. If you were working on something shorter, you may want to read several pieces you recently wrote. Then if you have a dog, take it for a walk. Preferably, take it for a long walk. If your dog is short, take several dogs...

So much depends on where you were in the process. If you are still working on a draft of a story, poem, novel, then once you have the feel for it carry on. If you have come to the end of a draft, then begin the rewrite. If your last piece was already finished, then you are fooling yourself.

The key is getting the feel of the piece to return. Reading aloud, repeatedly if necessary, will aid immensely with this.

Most importantly, get back into your writing routine. (If you don't have one, you are doing yourself and your writing a great disservice.) The pattern of writing will then return more easily.

And oh yes, lay off the rum sodden eggnog.
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