Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. In this installment I dig down into some theory and practice (my own personal theory and practice, anyway). Click here for Part 1. Or click here for Part 2.

With Passion: Words to Build Worlds

I’ve always been a lover of words. (That’s common among writers, of course.) I think of words in connotation, in shades of meaning. For me, there are no precise synonyms, only imperfect ones, words that are almost-but-not-quite the same. I love learning interesting new words, and I encourage any and every writer to be an avid word-hoarder.

When I’m writing, I often have a tab or two open to an online thesaurus, searching for the exact right word — the one on the tip of my mind that I can’t quite put a neural finger on. Recently I got up to about twelve thesaurus tabs at once, which is a record for me. What I’m trying to say is, if you want to build a good product, know your materials and tools, and use the right ones for the job. Words are your tools, your building blocks, but words are also living things, and you should choose them, and use them, with care.

You also need to pay attention to where your words fall in the sentence, of course. In the case of the Day of the Twelve Tabs, I discovered that rearranging the sentence was the solution, and when I did the word I’d wanted to use finally fit. Taking the care to choose the right words, in the right places, with the right punctuation, can make all the difference. I know that sounds kind of fundamental, even vague, but bear with me here. Because I think — or rather, I feel, and have virtually no expertise to back this up — that there are three levels or “layers” of prose composition, or of prose revision anyway, and it’s the second two layers where you should focus your passion.

Many experienced authors will advise you to do one prose-focused revision pass on any given piece of writing, usually as a third or fourth draft revision after you’ve addressed any larger-scale problems with the story. This is good advice. I don’t follow it strictly, because I can’t resist the urge to revise as I go. If you can resist that urge, then I recommend saving all your prose polish for last, or close to last, so that you don’t spend time polishing a part of the story that you’ll later have to cut, change, or rearrange.

When you’re doing your prose polish — assuming you do one; if you don’t, because your words come out perfect the first time, what are you doing reading this? Go win a Pulitzer or something — you’ll be working in three distinct “layers” of prose. (Or that’s how I see it anyway.) Different sentences will need attention in different layers. Some sentences may even need attention on two, or even all three layers. The top layer of prose revision isn’t much more than aggressive copyediting: cleaning up sentences and punctuation, fixing grammar, and reinforcing clarity on the most basic level, using the everyday rules of the English language as your tools.

Keep in mind, grammar rules exist to serve clarity, not some arbitrary standard. For instance, no matter what anyone tells you, there is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. “To boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds more natural than “To go boldly…” and loses nothing in clarity. And for those who think it’s never okay to end a sentence with a preposition, well, that’s the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!

The second layer of prose revision is where clarity meets style, where function meets form, and you break out your writer’s toolbox: varying sentence lengths to aid pacing and story rhythm, fixing weak or awkward constructions, cutting back on adverbs (“walked angrily” becomes “stalked” or “stomped”), eliminating filtering (“He saw a ghost appear in front of him” becomes “A ghost appeared in front of him”); strengthening your prose.

The third layer is where you ask yourself: How could I construct this differently, to use words and rhythm to better effect, to make a stronger impression in the reader’s mind? How can I say this better? It may be a matter of changing a single word, or a whole paragraph — or nothing at all. Often, I’ll dig down to this third layer when I see problems in the top two layers, because making improvements here, in addition to being an end in itself, can solve a lot of problems in the layers above. This is the layer that this blog post is all about. This is where your inner poet and inner word-lover go to work.

A few pitfalls to avoid: don’t use bigger or more obscure words just because you can, and don’t overelaborate or purple your prose. Make the words and punctuation serve the story. Like the title of Part 2 said: you still need to think like a storyteller, and not let your poetic diction overwhelm your story’s direction. Words are tools; sure they’re the tools you use to paint a picture, but they’re still tools, just like a brush and palette. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring your upper-layer tools down the mineshaft with you. You don’t want your work in Layer Three to destabilize the layers above, or they’ll collapse and your carefully excavated prose will end up buried under a mountain of passive voice and dangling modifiers.

I’ll use a small example, from my earlier twelve-tab anecdote. I started with “brief and intense,” which is a bit of a stock phrase, and “intense” just wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Twelve tabs later I settled on “vivid.” “Brief and vivid” didn’t scan quite right; “brief but vivid” did, but there was still something missing. How about “brief but vivid in the moonlight”? And that’s what I went with. Maybe that doesn’t strike your fancy, maybe it sounds like total trash to your literary ear, but I like it.

And that wraps up the 3rd and final installment of Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion. I don’t have any specific exercises for this final section, other than grab a piece of your fiction and dig into that third layer of prose. If you like, you can go back and apply the third layer concept and careful word choice to the exercises from Part 1 or Part 2. If you do, let me know how it goes, if those exercises feel different after what you read here in Part 3.

Be well, and keep writing.

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. Click here for Part 1.

Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet

I admit it: I have dabbled in poetry. The Forbidden Art. I took a class on the Romantic Poets (Blake and Keats 4eva!), but I also, through no fault of my own, ended up in an Advanced Poetry class without having even taking the basic level poetry class. Sure, I’d taken the Intro creative writing class, and I’d written some poems there, and some stuff back in high school (thankfully not the typical angst-filled kind, but still pretty bad). I was annoyed, since this was not the class I’d wanted to take (that would have been the short story writing class, which was full), but I wasn’t worried. The first poem I handed in for critique, the class completely ripped to shreds. And rightly so. I’d been thrown ass-first into the deep end of the poetry pool, and this was going to be a trial by fire, where I’d learn not to use clichés and mix my metaphors.

The upshot of studying poetry, and writing poetry, especially with a group of people much more experienced and dedicated to the art form, was that I could FEEL my writing improving at the word-level, the level of individual expressions and arrangements of syllables, the building blocks even more basic than the sentence. (I was like a biologist who discovered, hey, you know, knowing a little bit about this chemistry stuff is pretty useful.) It was good exercise, focusing that level of care and attention on individual words, their interactions and arrangements, on layers of meaning and metaphor and imagery. And unlike in a story writing class, we read our poems aloud before critiquing them. I am a big advocate of reading your work aloud, tasting the syllables, the rhythm of the words and punctuation.

So: read poetry. Read it aloud. Write poetry, even if it’s bad. Read your own poetry, good or bad, ALOUD. In front of people, and by “people,” I mean an audience, not your cat. You don’t have to try to be a poet; Zeus Seuss knows I’M not a poet, and have never claimed to be. (I even wrote a poem for the aforementioned poetry writing class, about how I’m not a poet; cute, but that whole “meta” thing’s been done a bit much.) But if you can capture even some microscopic iota of poetry in your words, some poetic residue to soak your prose in, you’re bound to improve your story writing as well.

If you’re not that familiar with poetry, setting yourself the task to read it, let alone write it, may seem daunting. Poetry is so varied, and so subjective, it’s hard to take (or give) any advice on who or what to read. You might not know where to start. So I’m going to tell you: think about the types of songs you like. What kind of lyrics do you find compelling? Do some brainstorming. Write down some of your favorite songs and write a sentence or two about why you like each one, focusing on the content of the lyrics apart from the music itself. Maybe make notes on some songs you really don’t like, and what it is you can’t stand about them. Is there a pattern to what you like and don’t like? A common complaint about poetry is that it “doesn’t make sense” — the meaning is too abstract. But if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, that might not be a concern for you. (“Ballad of a Thin Man” might follow a poetic logic that evokes the sinister bewilderment of a nightmare, but that doesn’t qualify as “making sense” for most people.)

Once you have a good grasp of what it is you like (and don’t like) in song lyrics — which are really just a kind of poetry — then you’ll be armed with the knowledge of what kind of poetry you’re looking for, and thus equipped to seek it out. The internet is a great resource, but don’t overlook other sources of information. Venture out into meatspace, talk to some real humans. Libraries and librarians are awesome. AWESOME. And don’t forget that most experts, particularly in academia, are eager to share their expertise. If you can get in touch with a professor at a local college, you’ll have a font of information (no cold calls; use your common sense, shoot them a politely worded email if you don’t have a mutual contact who can relay your interest). If you’re asking about their specific area of expertise, even better. Tell someone who’s devoted their life to the study of Irish poetics that you’re really interested in Yeats, and you’ll have an instant friend. (Just make sure you pronounce it “Yates” and NOT “Yeets.”)

Before I close out this section, I’ll give you a few of my favorite poetry exercises we did in the Advanced Poetry class I took.

Found Word Exercise

Take some written medium, like a newspaper, or go to Wikipedia and hit the “random article” button half a dozen times and use those as your medium. Choose words and phrases from the selected medium and splice them together to create a poem.

Dictionary Exercise Random Word Exercise

I was going to talk about an exercise that involved picking words out of a dictionary, but since it’s kind of awkward to explain and a lot of people don’t own hardcopy dictionaries anymore, I came up with something else on my own.

Write something — anything, a poem or prose — or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now pull up a random word generator like text fixer or watchout4snakes. Generate a random word, and replace the first noun of your text with the randomly generated one. Do this for every noun in the text.

The possible variations on this exercise are almost limitless. You could generate 14 random words and use each one in the line of a sonnet, or generate 3 random words, one for each line of a haiku. (Just so you know, haiku written in English don’t really have to follow the seventeen syllable rule, so don’t beat yourself up trying to decide if “tired” is one or two syllables. Bonus points if you write a haiku in Japanese and then translate it into English.)

Watchout4snakes, a random word generation site I discovered while I was writing this, has a “word+” generator that lets you choose what type of word you want (adjective, noun, verb, etc.). So you could generate random words for a poem as you’re writing it, every time you needed a verb, or every time you needed a noun, or just when you didn’t know what to put next. The site also has a phrase generator, and a sentence generator that could be used to generate the first line of a poem, or even the first line of a story. I only had to click the “refresh” button a couple of times on the sentence generator before I got: The oldest weapon pants into a questionable camera. I just might have to use that as a story opener! There’s even a paragraph generator, which you could use to create your “base text” for this exercise or one of the other exercises.

Opposite Word Exercise

This exercise is a little more complicated. Write a poem or a prose passage, or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now choose a pattern of words within the piece of writing: every noun, every verb, every other word, or even every single word. It can be whatever pattern you like, but the more words in the pattern the tougher the exercise and the more wild the results.

Now go through each word in your chosen pattern and try to think of the opposite word, and replace the original word with its opposite. Not every word has an obvious antonym, so you may have to get creative (which is part of the point). Try to be consistent, so that (for example) the opposite of “one” isn’t “two” in one place and “zero” in another, and if “if” is the opposite of “because” then “because” is also the opposite of “if.” This may sound simple, until you have to think of a one-word opposite of “the” or “of” or “be.” (That last one can get complicated; personally, I avoid contractions with this exercise, because while “isn’t” could be the opposite of “is,” there is no equivalent negative contraction of “be.” Try to dig deeper and ask yourself, what action could I set as an opposing or mirror action to being?)

Not only can this exercise produce interesting and unexpected results — one of my favorite poems I wrote for the Advanced Poetry class was just the every-word-opposite of a different (bad) poem I wrote — but it also gets you thinking about words on a very fundamental level.

Thus ends Part 2. Coming up next, Part 3 will be… With Passion: Words to Build Worlds.

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. This installment provides a basic introduction and some warm-up exercises.

Recently a friend from my writing group, the very talented z.m. quỳnh, complimented my use of language and description in fiction and asked me about my process, how I write on the prose level. I babbled incoherently for a few minutes and didn’t really say anything helpful, but since then I’ve thought some more about how I got to this point with my writing, specifically my language use and narrative prose. I’m no expert, but I decided to post my thoughts here, to hopefully provide a better answer to z.m.’s question, and for anyone else who’s interested. (I don’t know, maybe the rest of you think my language use totes sux.)

Keep in mind that what I have to say here isn’t likely to help anyone improve the CLARITY of their prose. I won’t be talking much about the basics of prose writing. That’s a subject that could easily take up a whole blog post by itself, and in fact has filled entire books. What you’ll find here are some very broad guidelines — let’s say, ideas — for how you might proceed if you want to improve the language in your writing, based on my own limited personal experience.

Practicing: Word Harder

The creative writing department at the college I attended had a pretty strong literary bent, which generally puts an emphasis on style over structure. Outside of critiquing each other’s stories — and one (excellent) course on playwriting and screenwriting — we didn’t delve very deep into how to tell a story. The reading and resulting discussion we did basically ended up being the same kind of literary criticism you’d do in a standard literature course. (Considering the plethora of literature courses I had to take to complete my BA in Creative Writing, many totally unrelated to the type of writing I wanted to pursue, I felt and still feel that additional literary criticism in my creative writing classes was a huge waste of time.) So, lacking the guidance of anyone like Nancy Kress (and oh, man, do I wish her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends had been part of the curriculum!) I basically spent four years polishing my prose. (It still sucked by the time I graduated, but it sucked LESS.)

So, to unpack that a little bit: improve your prose through practice. This might seem like part and parcel of the old advice to simply write more. And to a certain extent it is. But, if you practice some of the things I’m going to talk about in this and following installments, maybe you can help hone your prose specifically as you continue to improve your writing generally. (Results may vary. Improvement not guaranteed. Void where prohibited. Side effects may include synecdoche, metonymy, and imagery. Consult your Muse before use.)

Since we’re talking about practice (well, I am anyway (actually I’m not talk at all, I’m just typing) but if you’re talking, I’m afraid I can’t hear you) let’s start with… *drum roll* … some practice! Just a couple of exercises to get into the right frame of mind.

I’ll give you a sentence of description, and you go ahead and rewrite it to make it more evocative:

The sun shone down on the parking lot.

 

Okay, that’s a pretty bland sentence. No way you can screw this one up. Try rewriting it a few times in different ways. Expand on it, if you feel the need — there’s only so much you can do with that one sentence. Experiment with tone. Is this story a comedy, a drama, a love story? A horror story, the sunny day at odds with an inescapable sense of foreboding? Obviously experimenting with tone could be an exercise all on its own, but here we can use it to give you some different “sentence environments” for playing with language. Different words and expressions lend themselves to different tones, and vice-versa.

Let’s try a bit of a longer segment that will give you more to work with:

Althea picked out an apple from the basket on the counter. She held it in her hand, staring at it. She inspected every detail of the apple’s skin, under its waxy coating.

 

Also fairly bland, but clear. You could easily elaborate about what details Althea notices on the apple’s skin; hint at why she’s staring at an apple in the first place; add some subtext to indicate her mood or state of mind; make the apple a reflection of that state of mind. Doing any number of these things, while useful practice by themselves, will also give you room to experiment with language, rhythm, and sentence structure.

Try some sentences and scenes of your own devising. If you like, you can come back to these exercises, or make some more of your own, after you’ve read the other sections of this extended essay thingamajig.

That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet.