Happy National Poetry Month! Today’s guest on Exercise Your Writes is Colleen Anderson, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. Colleen Anderson is a Canadian author writing fiction and poetry and has had two collections and over 300 poems published in such venues as Grievous Angel, Polu Texni, The Future Fire, HWA Poetry Showcase and many others. She is a member of HWA and SFPA and a Canada Council grant recipient for writing. She has performed her work before audiences in the US, UK and Canada and has placed in the Balticon, Rannu, Crucible and Wax poetry competitions. Colleen also enjoys editing and co-edited Canadian anthologies Playground of Lost Toys (Aurora nominated) and Tesseracts 17, and her solo anthology Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland was published by Exile Books. She has served on both Stoker Award and British Fantasy Award juries, and guest-edited Eye to the Telescope. Today we are celebrating her latest collection, The Lore of Inscrutable Dreams with a cover reveal.
AYS: How did you become interested in writing, and what inspired you to pursue a career as an author?
CA: While insanity is always an easy answer, it is perhaps a combination of being fascinated with fairy tales and Norse myths as a child, having an old brother who left a trail of SF books like breadcrumbs, and trying to find self in the teenage years while also battling a childhood fraught with almost all of the abuses that make up tales of horror.
A career? I’m not sure but that I needed to reach for the sanity, process the insanity, and find a need to express the many varied worlds that writers always present and feel I had a somewhat, perhaps so very small, significant voice in the world. I’m not sure what exactly spurred me into writing specifically but I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was 6 and I always said, the medium might change but I’m still an artist. I’ve explored many forms including a giant glass slug, and a 6 foot pomegranate, plus making jewelry and doing photography.
AYS: You have published over 300 poems in various venues, as well as several anthologies and two short-story collections. What do you find most challenging about writing poetry versus fiction, and how do you approach each form differently?
CA: A poem can take almost as long as a story to write. I have half finished poems and fiction that I come back to over and over again and sometimes, eventually some of them thrive and burst from their cocoons. Some tales should be prose and some can only sustain a poem, while others can be both.
Poetics require a sense of lyrical (though not always) but the shortness of the lines means understanding when to break them, how enjambment can work and where punctuation can play a major role. I drive some of the other poets in my critique group crazy because I rarely use end of line punctuation. It’s frivolous and not needed if your line break is the pause. If you indent a line or add even more indents, put spaces between a word, or add an em dash, these all take on greater significance than they do in fiction. Poetry is like a script, a screenplay, and a musical score combined. Each word, any rhythm (if used) and the punctuation, spacing and line breaks all become important. Not all poetry forms follow this but it means paying close heed to the tale and finding the form that works. In some ways, though a poem is shorter, it requires more attention to every word and syllable.
Fiction allows full exploration of a theme, going deep into mood, atmosphere, setting and perhaps most importantly, the motives, thoughts, and realizations of characters. I tend to write poetry from a more all encompassing or external/omniscient scope (though not all poets do) and fiction from a more internal view.
Writing long form novels, I find perhaps most challenging because I’ve not been fast in writing them. It means coming back to the story again and again, sometimes over years, and trying to sustain voice, conflict, movement, and consistency. I’ve written far fewer novels than short stories or poems so in many ways it’s still a learning process, though when I say this, all writing is a continual learning process.
AYS: You have also worked as an editor and manuscript reader for various publications and authors. What do you look for in a manuscript or piece of writing when you are evaluating it, and how do you approach the editing process?
CA: If I’m a juror for awards, or when I was editor, a unique world or scenario or monster is more likely to catch my attention than yet another “name your favorite monster” or “haunted house” story. There are many great stories still being done in all of the tropes and really, we can’t avoid them, but someone who creates something completely, freshly unique gains bonus points from me.
With editing, I take what I have learned from many years of writing, workshops and being edited. You have to make your work sing, whether a poem, a short story, or a novel. If the story falls into the tropes, then your language or your telling of your character must give a new spin. It’s a bit hard to pin down the magic essence but lovely, lyrical turns of phrase (poetics in fiction) or interesting perspectives are great.
And of course there are the mechanics of writing. How we read now is vastly different than even thirty years ago. Not every story has to meet an immediate action packed entrance, but we have to engage the reader much more quickly than say, in the 50s or 80s. Learning how to remove passive voice, how to make a story move quickly, how to have real characters—these are just a few of the elements that will help make a work new and not one of a hundred that editors see on their desks.
When I was first editing for a magazine, it taught me a lot about my own writing. I thought I’d be reading a lot of badly written stories but that turned out to be wrong. I read a majority of stories that I would have enjoyed reading in a magazine. However, there were only two spots to fill so I had to be ruthless, but every time I rejected a story, I asked myself, “Why this one and not the other?” I would then respond to the author with a comment of what I loved and what didn’t work.
If you’re writing a creepy doll story it better be a really new take on creepy dolls. If you use a haunted house, I don’t want something I’ve read or seen. There are, in fact, stories still being printed that explore the same tropes and themes that we’ve seen again. Some depend on the publisher and editors and what they enjoy, and some depend on the readers and what they want.
The editing process is another essay for another time.
AYS: In addition to writing and editing, you have also dabbled in various other creative outlets such as photography, glass art, and jewelry making. How do these other forms of artistic expression inform your writing, and do you find that they inspire you in different ways?
CA: Everything we do informs who we are and what we use. Writers sometimes write about writers. We can’t help ourselves, but if we watched a cow being milked as a child, were introduced to vampire movies at the age of 6, or rode a high speed train in a thunderstorm—well, they all seed us, whether we remember these events or not. So yes, my other creative outlets play into my writing. Although I haven’t yet written a story about a glass artist, a jeweler, or a photographer, it doesn’t mean these tales won’t happen (and now I’m thinking…why haven’t I written these tales). I have used some of the imagery in my poems. I’ve used elements in one way or another. I have bellydanced for many years and I do have a backburnered idea about dance assassins that might one day see fruition.
AYS: Now, for that cover reveal!