by Maggie King
Looking to take your fiction to a higher level? Add a little poetry to your prose and bring music to your sentences and scenes.
I’ve been intrigued with this idea since I read Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel. Yes, that Walter Mosley, creator of the bestselling historical crime series featuring Easy Rawlins. Mr. Mosley considers poetry the basis of all writing and suggests that reading, writing, and studying poetry gives fiction writers a deeper appreciation of the nuances of language.
He has taken several poetry workshops and, although he says he has failed to turn out “even a passable poem,” he’s confident that what he learned from the workshops has benefited his fiction.
Here’s an excerpt from This Year You Write Your Novel:
Of all writing, the discipline in poetry is the most demanding. You have to learn to distill what you mean into the most economic and at the same time the most elegant and accurate language. In poetry you have to see language as both music and content. A poet must be the master of simile, metaphor, and form, and of the precise use of vernacular and grammar, implication and innuendo. The poet has to be able to create symbols that are muted and yet undeniable. The poet, above all other writers, must know how to edit out the extraneous, received, repetitious, and misleading.
Take Walter Mosley’s advice and sign up for a poetry workshop. You may not become a poet, but you’ll gain an appreciation of language that will make your fiction come alive. If you can’t find a workshop in your community, check online sources.
Who knows … you may become a regular at poetry slams.
Words and Music
In lieu of a poetry workshop—or in addition to one—enhance your fiction with a few tips from the poets:
- Think in terms of music. When you read your work aloud, does it please the ear? Does the rhythm of your words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs vary?
- Add words into phrases, delete others, create different words. Try different ways of expressing the same idea.
- Shorten or lengthen sentences by using words with fewer, or more, syllables.
- Use beautiful words like mellifluous or enchanted to add music to your writing. Less appealing words like disgust and harangue and the like can evoke a different response.
- Use the poet’s tricks of alliteration.
- Play with punctuation to liven up the musicality of your sentences. Take out commas and periods. Combine three or four sentences into one.
- Metaphors make implied comparisons, and poets use these comparisons to evoke complex images and emotions for readers. “America is a melting pot” is one simple example of a metaphor.
Don’t wimp out
Avoid weak, wimpy verbs. Follow the “show, don’t tell” rule with action verbs that create images and stir emotions.
An example: an unhappy student with a failing grade visits her professor’s office. Show that she’s unhappy. Have her crying, pleading, screaming, kicking the door, throwing books across the room.
Eliminate or minimize to be in its various forms. Change “He’s in love with her” to “He loves her.”
To be verbs aren’t the only weak ones. Strengthen “Larry went to Florida” with “Larry traveled to Florida.”
As for your characters …
Reveal characters by how they speak: smooth words with soft sounds vs. harsh words with harsh sounds.
Try changing the name of a character or place; does it change the mood and tone of a scene? A name can affect how a reader responds to a character.
Further reveal characters by showing their honesty (or lack of). Richmond poet/novelist Vernon Wildy, Jr: “I’ve always felt that poetry was a place where I could not lie. I believe fiction holds that same weight. Characters have to be honest with themselves and how they are feeling. Readers are smart and they can tell if a character is being disingenuous. Also, it messes up the arc of the story if the characters are not being real with themselves and the others around them in the story.”
I agree with Mr. Wildy. However, consider your genre: duplicitous characters have their place, especially in crime fiction. It’s all about the writer’s intention and the character’s motivation.
A Few Caveats
By all means, flourish your writing with poetic touches. But keep the touches light, especially if you write genre fiction. Readers of literary fiction and, of course, poetry, will appreciate pretty, nuanced writing. Crime fiction enthusiasts, on the other hand, want to know who killed Ramon’s odious boss and don’t want to plow through endless metaphors and other style choices.
In a popular thriller that I recently read, the author went way overboard with beautiful poetic styling, constantly taking me out of the story. At several points I wanted to hurl the book across the room. Don’t irritate your readers!
Back to Walter Mosely (who does strike the right balance of the poetic in his crime novels)
If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, then that writer will render an exquisitely written novel.
Now, let’s make music together!
Thank you for letting me visit one of my favorite blogs. Happy Holidays to all!
Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology.
Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime, James River Writers, and the American Association of University Women. These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. She enjoys reading, walking, movies, traveling, theatre, and museums.
Amazon author page: http://amzn.to/2Bj4uIL
Walter Mosely: http://www.waltermosley.com
Vernon Wildy, Jr.: https://vernonwildyjr.com
Key “online poetry workshops” in a search engine or visit the following sites:
Lighthouse Poetry Workshop (online) https://www.lighthousewriters.org/workshop/8-week-online-poetry-workshop
Poets&Writers: Writers Conferences, Colonies, and Workshops http://www.pw.org/content/writers_conferences_colonies_and_workshops?cmnt_all=1
For further reading
Norton Anthology of Poetry 6th Edition
This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley
This page was posted for Guest Blogger, Maggie King, by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin.