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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Indie Writer Clinic: This Book Needs Help!

I agreed to review a book for The Bookplex called A Collection of Poetry and Prose because the description sounded interesting.  The first thing I noticed that could use help was the title.  It's much too generic.  Since the anthology has a spiritual focus and it contains content dealing with a number of traditions, my suggestion would be Syncretic Harmonies.  Syncretism means a combination of religious paths.  Few people will know what "syncretic" means, but it might intrigue readers.

The next thing I noticed that could use help is the cover.   Here it is:

This is an extremely common cover.  I actually reviewed another book on this blog with the same cover.  It was an excellent novel, but this cover is unlikely to attract readers. If you check on Google Images,  it will give you pages of book covers with this exact same image.  Here's a sample:

If you look at the cover at the right end on the top row, you'll find Evan Shaw's book, but as you can see, it's difficult to pick this book out of a crowd.  Why would readers purchase a book that looks like so many others?   An indie writer may think that he or she is saving money by not purchasing a custom cover, but they are actually losing money by losing sales.  Perhaps Evan Shaw and the other indie writers who chose this cover will learn from this experience and commission a cover for their next book.


Now let's discuss the poetry. Some of the poetry in this book seemed to indicate that the author understood something about poetry, but others made me wonder if he did.  A poem should be different from prose. What distinguishes a poem from prose is patterning. I should not have to ask myself whether this is a poem or an essay, as I did many times when I was reading Evan Shaw's book.  One way to do this, is to write the poem using a rhythm. Think of it in terms of drumbeats. A limerick has a specific rhythm.  If it doesn't have that rhythm, it isn't a limerick.  A rap song also has a specific rhythm which is very distinctive in that genre. Evan Shaw did use a rap rhythm in one poem.  A poem doesn't need to have a standard rhythm, or even any rhythm at all.  A rhythm is an attribute that a poem can have that separates it from prose. It's done by counting syllables and looking at where the emphasis falls in the words.

For example:

"There once was a young man from Skokie"

There are nine syllables and the emphasis falls on "once", "young" and "Sko".  If you want to have a similar rhythm in the next line, it will need to have nine syllables too, and a similar emphasis pattern.

The next line could be:

"Who wanted it all okie dokey" 

Notice that I included an additional pattern by rhyming Skokie and dokey.

Other sound patterns are alliteration and assonance.   Alliteration is a sequence of words with some that start with the same letter.

"The girl glittered with golden glamor" would be an example.

 Assonance is a sequence of words with the same consonant in the second syllable. 

An example of  assonance would be:

"There was an echo of  art deco."

Echo and deco have the same hard "c" sound. They also rhyme. 

Using techniques like these will improve a poem, but they must be employed consistently.  You shouldn't suddenly stop using sound patterns, and just tack on a prose sentence with no patterns at the end.  The  prose sentence will feel like it doesn't fit, and the poem will fall flat. 

Some people feel that they just need
To type prose in lines that make it
Look like a poem.

This is not a poem at all.  It's chopped prose.  There is nothing that distinguishes it from prose except the typographic convention of lines.

 Yet even words without sound patterns can turn into a poem if it uses imagery.

"The fire danced a tango " would be a good example.  If you're using images instead of sound patterns, you need to create a cluster of related images. This is called an extended metaphor. 

 Here's my improvised poem based on that first line:

The fire danced a tango
Inside the glass pavilion
Before the eye of the approaching storm.
 The storm hovered over the pavilion
Acting as an attentive audience.
Yet the performance incited no applause
Beyond a single clap of thunder.
The glass shattered and a lightning bolt
Rudely rushed the stage.
 Angered by this discourteous response,
A curtain of flames abruptly descended.
There would be no encore.

Every line draws on the metaphor of a fire during a storm as a dance performance.  This works as a poem  because it has an image pattern. There is nothing in the poem that doesn't relate to the central concept.  It doesn't wander by bringing in images or concepts that are unrelated. The reader can visualize what the poem is describing.  It makes sense within the context of the poem. Note that there is also some alliteration and assonance. Using both a sound pattern and an image pattern will make a stronger impression on the reader.


Moving on to essays,  I have to say that the main problem with the essays in this anthology is that the author didn't establish a context for his ideas. If a reader hasn't read John Anthony West will that reader understand essays based on his theories that don't fully explicate them?  How do I make sense of  John Anthony West's theories without the reasons why he had them?  What was his evidence?  How much is speculation?  Do you know the chronology of ancient Egyptian Pharoahs?  If  Ramses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, could Moses have known Akhenaten? Has it really been established that a papyrus boat from Egypt could reach the Americas? How far did Thor Heyerdahl's papyrus boats get?  If you want to write essays dealing with history, you need to ask questions  before you start, and research the answers.  You then need to think through your ideas and see if they make sense in terms of what you've discovered during your research.

I didn't think much of Evan Shaw's fiction.  The utopian story had a huge plot hole that made it unbelievable. The piece about Plato at the Academy was a fragment.

Having said all that, I did think that some of the poems in Evan Shaw's book had potential, and that  he has a good sense of Hindu philosophy.  He needs a really good editor to critique his work, and some guidance about poetry that I'm trying to give in this review.

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