Why Everything You Know About Haiku Is (Probably) Wrong

Poetry, Writing

(And the lesson you should have learnt from that class in high school all those years ago)

 

The one thing most people know about haiku concerns the verse form: three horizontal lines, 17 syllables in the format 5-7-5. And they think that’s set in stone, the one and only way. And they can be quite pedantic about it because, after all, that’s what their teacher taught them way back in fifth grade, or whenever.

The truth, as ever, is more complex. The format we use for haiku in English is a compromise and an accommodation to approximate the Japanese haiku and capture its spirit. But people who love haiku, read it, write it and translate it know the 5-7-5 edict is far from ideal, and many favour other forms, such as 4-6-4, 4-5-4, 3-4-3, 3-3-3, and even the radical and extreme 2-2-2.

Whatever format you favour, being overly fastidious and insisting your way is the ‘One True Way’ is always a mistake. So, first, some context.

First of all, haiku is an ancient verse form, and very traditional. It is closely linked to Zen Buddhism and many of its greatest exponents were Zen monks. Today in Japan many people write as we do, from left to right. But Haikus come from an age when generally people wrote vertically. This in itself is a huge simplification. There are three writing systems in Japan, and both horizontal and vertical writing have existed side by side, so the speak, for many years. However, it’s safe to say that most traditional Haikus were written on one vertical line.

In part that is possible because a page is taller than it is wide. So when we convert the form into horizontal script, we need line breaks. Everyone seems to agree that three lines is the best way to do it, and the traditional one line format does contain a 1-2-3 rhythm.
So, three vertical lines it is and most people agree, but already we can see it would be foolish to be too pedantic about the verse form.

The second thing to note is that in Japanese they don’t count syllables the way we do. In English we count each syllable to create the metre (‘meter’ if you’re American) – so a line may contain for example six, eight or ten syllables. Other languages differ. Some count only the consonants: a line may contain for example 4 consonants and any number of vowels. Some languages count only the vowels.

In Japanese they count sound units called ‘on’ or ‘morae‘. A long vowel or a double consonant can count as two ‘on’ where in English we would call them one syllable. While most traditional haiku did use the the 5-7-5 ‘on’ format, many did not. And to insist that this should become a strict 5-7-5 syllable structure is too dogmatic.

Many fine haiku are written in different formats, usually shorter than the 5-7-5.
However, there is one thing a haiku should never contain, and that is a wasted syllable. Every word, every sound, every syllable must be essential. If it could be cut without reducing the meaning, then it should be removed.

Which brings me to the real point of all this: what the school teacher who got you to write a haiku back in high school was really trying to teach (or should have been. Maybe they didn’t realise… or failed to articulate it properly).

Writing haiku is fun largely because of the restricted, tight format. It actually frees your creativity. This is true, to an extant, in all art forms. The restricted form can be liberating and may spark many more ideas that an intimidating blank page, with no rules, no set format.

Structure can free your creativity. That’s the lesson haiku classes really teach.

The hidden hero in Game of Thrones

bookworld

Who, ultimately, is the true hero of Game of Thrones?

I have a controversial offering to put forward, and it’s none of the usual candidates. Indeed, all those other characters we’ve been following might turn out to be the bad guys after all. Yes, even handsome Jon Snow and the pretty blonde with the dragons.

Because the hero I have in mind brings messianic hope to the world of Westeros. Like certain other saviours I could mention, he possesses the ability to raise the dead, Lazurus-like, back to life. Unlike the red witch and Beric Dondarrian, however, he is not picky and partial about who he revives. It’s not only the elites, the nobles, the ‘high’ folk that he reanimates. He saves the ordinary, the ugly, the maimed and rotting.

He looks evil, but don’t judge a book by its cover…

More than that, he embraces true forgiveness. He gives breath back to his enemies, the soldiers who have fought against him only moments before.

Who among us could be so merciful?

Throughout the series we have seen the corruption, selfishness, callousness and violence of the world of men (and women too). This hero intends to sweep it away. Like all revolutions, it will bring immense change. It will be painful for many.

But if he is victorious, and at the end of it all the Night’s King purges the sins of humanity and sits upon the Iron Throne, it might just count as the most unlikely happy ending of all.

‘Ancient Quarrel’ – book 4 of the Koriba series, out now

Koriba, News

The fourth book in the series ‘A Tribal Song – Tales of the Koriba’, a prehistoric adventure set in the deep stone age, is out now and available as an ebook on Amazon. It will be available as an ebook on other retailers at some point during 2018, and will be released as a paperback soon, hopefully this side of Christmas, if all goes well.

The book works as a standalone story, so if you’ve not read the others, you could dive straight into this, although it clearly contains lots of spoilers.

This tale is a love story. When Temfe goes to visit the elders of a tribe that blocks their progress, hoping to plead for safe passage, he takes along his friend, the impetuous, handsome warrior Arom. While in the camp of the Peult tribe, Arom sees the beautiful young woman of the Peult tribe, Lajula, and is instantly infatuated.

Luckily, she feels the same way about him. But her father is less impressed. And the rules of her tribe forbid her to be bonded to an outsider. And as we all know, the course of true love never runs smoothly.

It is, of course, Romeo and Juliet back-dated into prehistoric times, but with some fresh twists, especially around the ending.

You’ll find the book here

book cover - prehistoric fiction

Book trailer… an experiment

News, Writer Tech

Adobe has launched a new(ish) free(ish) service called Spark – providing a simple but limited way to create videos, social media posts and web pages, along with assorted bits of graphics you could use in various ways.

As an experiment, I decided to try making a book promo video for ‘Lost In Thought’ . The graphics are almost non-existent so far, with the emphasis all on the text. You can see my efforts here.

A novella released, a first draft completed, a plan hatched

News

News this week of a new novella, a fourth book in the Koriba series (at last), and plans for future projects.

Cult Following (No Faith To Lose)’ is a prequel novella to the ‘Capgras Conspiracy’ series. It introduces some of the key characters and fleshes out the backstory, but can be read on its own as a free-standing crime thriller.

There’s more here, or an Amazon. The book is Amazon and ebook only at present.

The second full-length novel in the series, Cold Monsters (No Secrets To Conceal)‘ was launched last month with an appropriate stealth-release designed to throw the secret services off the scent.

Fans of my prehistoric adventure series ‘A Tribal Song – Tales of the Koriba’ will be pleased to hear that book four is finally on its way. The first draft of ‘Ancient Quarrel‘ is complete and the book should be ready to launch in the Autumn, fingers crossed. If you want to be the first to get a copy, I’ll send a free ebook version to the first person to correctly identify the source of the title. Let me know in the comments.

I have plenty of editing to do on the Koriba book, but my typing fingers are itching to get started on a fresh project, so I’m currently involved on lots of planning around a new novel and series. More news on that to come once the plans are a little more advanced: the truth is, I have four or five potential projects to pursue next, and haven’t yet decided which one to go with. One possibility, of course, is book 3 of the Capgras series. I already have a rough idea of the story, and the title is in place (which for me is half the battle), but story ideas are still percolating, and I might leave it a little longer before getting started on that book.

Finally, if you’ve read and enjoyed any of my books, I’d be immensely grateful if you would leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever you hang out – but Amazon most of all. It doesn’t need to be long or  detailed. Even a few words would help, and getting reviews is both harder and more useful than you might imagine.

Cold Monsters live on Amazon, reduced price for a few days only

News

Crime, spy and political thrillerMy latest novel, Cold Monsters (No Secrets To Conceal), which is the second book in the ‘Capgras Conspiracy’ series, is now live on Amazon.

The official ‘launch’ date is 17 May 2017. (It’s something of a stealth launch… keeping it secret from GCHQ and the NSA!) But the book is now live on 16 May. It will be priced at 99c and equivalents around the world for the next few days, so if you’re keen to get a copy, please go here. (The link should take you to the Amazon store in your country).

The ebook version will be exclusive to Amazon for 3 months. The paperback will be out hopefully within a week. See here for more information on the book itself.

Stories break the rules

Story Simplified

As a working first principle for this book / series of blog posts, I’m adopting the basic attitude that all of the various competing theories on how stories should be written and structured and why people like to read them and why authors fail if they don’t conform to certain rules – all those theories have something valid to tell us. But none of them are complete, or apply to all stories.

This does need saying – because there are many, many people writing ‘how to’ books for authors and writers and would-be novelists and screenwriters who adopt that ‘authoritative’ tone of voice and insist that they have the answer: their theory is the one that works and if you don’t comply with it, your book will be a failure. You will be a failure.

It is possible, however, there is no one master-key to all stories. There is no one structure that all great stories conform to. There isn’t one formula or design principle that works across the board. There are many types of stories. People read for many different reasons. It may just be that stories are too varied, too complex, too alive to ever be completely categorised and explained.

So, in these posts and in this book, I’ll be exploring what works and what is insightful. But none of it is the final word, or a hard and fast rule. Stories cannot be contained. They live, they breathe, they change, they deal with human nature and emotions and actions. They are as varied and as complex as we are. They cannot be shoved inside a straight-jacket of a theory without losing their essential essence.

Stories break the rules.

People read for the endorphins, and the cortisol and for ’emotional exercise’

Story Simplified

Are stories a kind of emotional gym, where we can do a workout and so strengthen ourselves, improving our problem solving and ability to endure stressful situations?

Or are they all about the glorious state of relaxation that washes over us once the story is over, and the stress and tension are relieved?

The answer appears to be: both.

In a blog post (which unfortunately seems to have been deleted – but is mostly still available here) author David Farland puts forward the theory that the reason story telling is so popular is that it activates not one but two of the three possible strategies for dealing with stress and problems. The three options are:

  • Direct action to get rid of the stress – for example, if we have money problems, go out and make money.
  • Escape – take your mind off things with a holiday, a night out, through booze or drugs etc.
  • Rejuvenation –  coping with the stress through the use of emotional exercises.

Story, Farland says, “lets you escape and rejuvenate simultaneously.”

“By reading a book or watching a movie, to a degree you escape from your own life, your own world, and become immersed in a fictive universe. You take an emotional vacation. Typically, this is most true in the opening of a story where the author spends a good deal of time establishing the setting and characters. There, the conflicts may be less significant and may appear more easily resolvable than at the end.”

As the story progresses and conflict intensifies, this triggers the rejuvenation:

“Your subconscious mind does not completely recognize the difference between your real experiences and those that occur only in the imagination. So, when you become Frodo Baggins walking the road to the Crack of Doom, chased by dark riders, the subconscious mind responds to some degree as if those incidents were really happening.

Indeed, the more completely you become immersed in a fictive tale, the more totally your body will respond.”

The body will respond initially with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The body then seeks to restore balance and helps you to cope with the (fictional) stress by releasing endorphins. These are naturally produced opiates which control and diminish pain.

So, when we are reading stories, we are, in a sense, like a drug addict, taking stimulants one moment, and ‘downers’ the next. But there’s one big hit still to come:

“At some phase of the story, you reach the “happy ending,” and your brain rewards you for a job well done—by releasing large amounts of serotonin into the brain, which makes you feel happy. It’s the same chemical released to the brain when you eat delicious foods. Only in this case, it’s the reward for defeating the “Dark Lord,” or overcoming a similar problem.

You’ve just performed an emotional exercise, very similar to a physical exercise. Reading is to the mind as aerobics is to the heart and lungs. Because you have performed this emotional exercise, you will be better able to handle the little stresses in your day-to-day life.”

So, people read stories partly because they want to trigger these natural body responses, and at one level the body can’t really tell the difference between what is really happening in the world and what is only fictional, but happening sure enough in the imagination. It goes through a stress response and releases the appropriate chemicals, but then the ‘antidote’ kicks in – the endorphins and finally the serotonin.

But we are also reading to strengthen our emotional muscles. Stories are a work-out. They are preparation for life.

 

Stories are about problem solving

Story Simplified

A story is about a person with a problem, and how they go about solving it. In order to solve it, they will have to change something about themselves or their outlook.

We use story as a way of examining how others tackled a particular problem, so that we can learn those lessons without actually having to put ourselves through the experience, or into that kind of danger.

Readers unconsciously expect these elements to be present. This is probably due to the ancient origins of story, which, experts reckon, originated as a means of sharing information that was vital to survival. For example, those berries might kill you, or that river is infested with crocodiles.

Because we are a tribal species, our relationships with those around us were also a matter of life and death. If you get kicked out of the tribe, your chances of surviving or mating were severely reduced. So the stories also contained elements of how to navigate the turbulent waters of the social realm. We use stories to understand what others might be thinking and feeling, what motivates them and how they might react.

Stories are a way to learn about the world and in particular other people. Perhaps that’s why we tell stories to children to such a huge extent. We read to them when they are very young, and they lap it up. We are anxious that they should learn to read for themselves as soon as possible, so they can launch themselves into the ocean of story telling that is all around them.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker says: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.  What are my options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

A story, then, is a way to watch someone go about solving a problem or tackling an issue, and seeing not only what they do, but also why they fail at first, and what they must change in order to finally succeed. Or, in the case of tragedy, why they can’t change, and how this leads to ultimate failure.

 

This post is part of a series called “Storytelling simplified” – which is intended to build, one day, into a book. For the introduction and idea behind the series start here

Fiction is about feelings

Story Simplified, Storytelling

One of the main reasons people read, listen to and watch fiction is to feel the emotions created by the story. This might mean that they identify with the characters, and share the emotions they are feeling. Or it might mean that they care for the characters, and feel emotions on their behalf.

For example, in a horror movie, we might feel fear when the character sees a monster and is terrified. Or, the character might be blithely unaware of the danger they are in, but we know the monster is stalking them, and we feel fear on their behalf.

Either way, people read for emotion. They want to be ‘moved’ – literally. The word “emotion” comes from the Latin “exmovere” meaning ‘to move” or “to disturb or agitate.”

The names of many genres are a clue to the importance of emotional content, since many of them speak directly to the emotions we feel while immersed in the story: romance, horror, thriller, mystery.

But don’t take my word for it. This is Dwight V. Swain in his seminal book “Techniques of the Selling Writer”:

“What should you as a fiction writer communicate? Feelings.

“A story recounts events. But those events can’t or won’t stand alone. They need to be explained, interpreted, evaluated, made meaningful. Above all, they must be translated into feeling.”

Karl Iglesias, in his book ‘Writing for Emotional Impact’  describes movies and TV shows (and we can add novels to the list) as “emotion machines”:

“Great storytelling is about one thing only—engaging the reader emotionally. Good writing is good writing because you feel something when you read it.”

He explains that to create a “good story, well told” we have to do two things:

  • We need to create the events, places, characters and imaginary world of the tale – this is the ‘good story’ part
  • And we need to create the emotional impact on the reader. This makes it ‘well told.’

He goes on to define three types of emotions:

Voyeuristic emotions – we use the story to “spy” on other people and their lives – in this case the characters in the tale. The emotions appeal to our “curiosity about new information, new worlds, and the relationships between characters.” This is probably the least intense of the emotional experiences, as we remain, in a sense, detached from them.

Vicarious emotions – this is when we identify with a character so strongly that we feel what they feel.

Visceral emotions – these are the ones that actually get the heart pounding. They are created when the techniques the writer uses are so effective, they have a powerful physical effect on the reader or viewer. The emotions might include: interest, curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, lust. (Most of his book are dedicated to explaining how to evoke these visceral emotions. It focuses on script writing for movies and TV, but is highly recommended for all writers).

So, we need to remember when we talk about, plan and create stories that we need to create emotions in the reader. The emotions of our characters are what the reader wants to experience – and the events exist in order to create those emotions.

Feelings should influence every story decision we make.