Welcome to the second part in my “What I Learned by…” series! Last week, I mused about the effect that writing a children’s book has had on my other fiction. Today I’m going to focus on something that I myself am much more familiar and experienced with, but that many fiction writers don’t dare to explore: writing poetry. I first fell in love with poetry in junior high and high school, but it wasn’t until college that I actually started studying it.
What lots of people don’t realize is that poetry isn’t as simple as rhymes and meters. Real, good poetry demonstrates an absolute command of language and words, knowing how to use the sounds of the words themselves to communicate what you are saying, as well as the rhythm and syllables. It’s hard to write a truly good poem, even a haiku. I’ve been going through another phase of poetry lately–reading it, writing it, and even submitting it to several publications. In this process, I can’t help looking at the similarities and differences it has with writing novels, and looking for ways it might possibly affect my prose writing style.
There were several things that I found worth noting down.
1. Use your negative space. Negative space is what artists refer to as the space around the object you’re drawing or painting. In writing, it refers to the details that you choose to leave out. If you keep your words and descriptions sparse and mention only what is essential, you leave everything else to the reader’s imagination–but you can use this to your advantage. Be as specific as possible where any detail is necessary, and be deliberate when you choose not to describe something. I recently read a story in which one character’s eyes were mentioned very specifically as being green… halfway into the text. Earlier I hadn’t thought of him having a specific eye color at all, but now there was suddenly a new vulnerability about him, a humanness that wasn’t there earlier. He had started out as a character but was now a real person just because of that one detail, thrown in so late in the text. It would have been very different if his eyes had been listed as green when he had first entered the story in the beginning.
2. Nothing is too small to matter. This scares me about writing poetry, but it should scare me all the more when writing anything lengthier (like a novel). In poetry, everything makes a difference. Every letter, even every punctuation mark has its purpose. It’s just the way poetry works. Whether it’s to add a syllable to match the metering scheme or to make the reader pause in just the right way at just the right moment, it matters. Translating this to novelling, there is no such thing as being too specific when you’re editing. You can get it down to as small of a scale as possible and still be overwhelmed by all of the decisions before you. In good writing, it all matters.
3. It helps if you’re looking at it. My current poetry craze started with a simple haiku exercise. I came upon it in a book, and wrote down a simple haiku on the spot, imagining a scene in a faraway woods. Then I wrote about the leaf stuck on the screen window nearby and my tangled up balls of yarn from a crochet pocket. Suddenly, my writing was so much better. When I was actually looking at my subject, I didn’t have to waste my time coming up with details–they were already there. I just had to choose the right words to fit with what I was trying to say. This isn’t always possible. If you’re writing a fantasy epic, there’s no way you can ever fully visualize what’s happening. But you can use details around you to make it more real. How does it feel to step into a room with a fireplace while your boots are dripping with snow? What about chugging that ice water after working out on a hot day? How to the leaves hang on the giant tree in your backyard? These are the details that people want to know.
I’ve read prose that was far too poetic before. Once I tried to read a short story that was written by an English professor, of all people, and I gagged a few lines into it because of how metered it felt and how the words flowed exactly like poetry. There’s a big difference between prose and poetry and between what makes either any good! But sometimes changing the form you’re writing in can really help your novel.