Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Put Poetry into Your Prose -- Adding impact to your manuscript

Often, it can take longer to read and appreciate a great poem than it can take to get the gist of many commercial novels. Great poems demand much of readers, but each reading reveals new delights.

Why do I bother saying this in a blog dedicated to productive writing? A fast draft novel and a carefully crafted poem seem to be at odds. But one can inform the other. Letting the words flow as you quickly compose a novel excises revealing images and insights from your subconscious. It requires a tolerance for uncomfortable ideas. And it practically compels you to write in your authentic voice.

Working as a poet slows you down. It forces you to allow sounds, ideas, emotions, and the delights of the senses to coalesce into something that finds its own perfect form. Then the work must be distilled down to its essentials and, finally, mercilessly polished so every facet shines.

Go fast. Go slow. Don't go at a pedestrian pace. Something will be revealed.

Because of this, I alternate between prose, in the form of novels and short stories, and poetry, in the form of songs and poems in my stories and scripts.

Scripts? Yes. Good scripts approach poetry. With a lot fewer words, they deliver a story that is as vivid as any novel's. Whole movie sets are constructed based on minimal descriptions. The tools you have to reveal character are limited to a few lines of description, actions, and dialogue -- and in the case of some roles supporting actors, Oscar-worthy performances have been based on no more than a few pages of writing. When you read the scripts for The Shawshank Redemption or Glengarry Glen Ross, you are, unmistakably, reading poetry.

Prose and poetry can become the yin and yang of a writer's life. Unfortunately, a lot of writers neglect the latter. But attention to slow work, not just fast, can raise the quality of whatever you are writing and make it stand out with descriptions, dialogue, and incidents that are unforgettable.

Interested? If you've neglected your poetic side, try these exercises to get started:
  • Write a line of dialogue for your protagonist or a two-line exchange that reveals who a character is.
  • Describe an important setting in 25 words or fewer. Make sure its importance comes through and the tone is clear. Make sure every word is essential.
  • Convey a strong emotional reaction in a fresh way... without mentioning the emotion. 
  • Write an action sequence where the lengths of the words and their sounds help immerse readers in the scene. 
If it's too difficult to do this with your own work, build your skills by trying these exercises with a work of fiction you're reading. Either find successful examples or tune up unsuccessful ones.

Writing should be fun most of the time, and it's likely you'll take delight in slowing things down and discovering the value of poetry in your prose. Be careful not to take this too far and make it the only way you work on stories. There are benefits to both writing drafts quickly and focusing on details in a deliberate way. Formulate your own balance diet that includes regularly using both approaches. This will help you to take full advantage of all fast writing has to offer while constantly delivering the impacts that are only available through the perspectives and techniques of poetry.

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