Poetry for Prose: Make Your Fiction Come Alive with Music

 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.

This YearI’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 Author Photo 72 (1)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.

Website: http://www.maggieking.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaggieKingAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaggieKingAuthr

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/authormaggieking

Amazon author page: http://amzn.to/2Bj4uIL

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Optional links:

Walter Mosely: http://www.waltermosley.com

Vernon Wildy, Jr.: https://vernonwildyjr.com

Poetry workshops

Key “online poetry workshops” in a search engine or visit the following sites:

Gotham Writers: https://www.writingclasses.com/classes/description/poetry-writing

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

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This page was posted for Guest Blogger, Maggie King, by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin.

Author: photojaq

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

12 thoughts on “Poetry for Prose: Make Your Fiction Come Alive with Music”

  1. What a terrific way to start the New Year. Thank you, Maggie, for giving us a magnificent sampling of those simple things writers sometime overlook when dashing off their prose. Looking at those words through the eyes and ears of a poet just might smooth those rough edges and add a little music to the story. Thanks again for guesting with us today.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Maggie, you make so many good points here. Poetry, like prose, can be languid and flowery, or terse and crisp. Finding the right tone – another musical term – is so critical in whatever we write. Thanks for a great and though-provoking post to start the year.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Miko. As you say, we have to find our own tone/style or risk sounding inauthentic. I would say that my own tone is terse and crisp, although not to a Hemingway extreme.

    Like

  3. A few years ago I was looking to improve my writing style and thought about adding poetry to my reading. I bought a copy of Garrison Keillor’s “Good Poems” and made a point to read one every day. After reading this, I’m thinking I should choose another book of poetry to read this year.

    I was impressed that you even brought up my one potential objection to using poetic styling in your writing–the temptation to overdo it.

    Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

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