Do you know Laurel Garver? She is a wonderful writer, blogger and editor. With the debut of her novel, NEVER GONE, she asked if I'd like a guest post about using poetic technique in fiction writing. As you know, I love poetry and lyrical writing of any kind so I'm really pleased to give you Laurel's guest post:
Make your stories sing:
The benefits of poetry training for novelists
by Laurel Garver, author of NEVER GONE
These days, poetry has been largely shifted to margins—the lofty ivory tower of academia and the mean streets of urban poetry slams and hip-hop. If you can’t make sense of John Ashbery or get nervous in the presence of bling and graffiti, you might encounter poetry only in its commercialized form, between the folds of a greeting card. But poetry is as diverse as fiction. Like fiction has genres, poetry has “schools”—ways of approaching content, form, tone.
Surprisingly, studying the wide, wild wonderland of poetry has helped me become a better fiction writer.
I fell hard for poetry while taking a contemporary poetry course as an undergrad. The prof began the class by lining us around the perimeter of the room and having us shout random portions of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” at one another. This was a universe away from the precious ponderings of Wordsworth and a game changer for me creatively. Many scenarios I would’ve previously thought unpoetical became grist for the mill—my janitorial work-study job, memories of Dad slaughtering chickens, a weedy patch in a slum—because truth is beautiful, no matter where you find it. That mental shift helped me think more broadly about what warrants description in fiction, and what evokes our deepest feelings.
Taking poetry courses also pushed me hard to develop my vocabulary, to delve deep into the world of words. A poet must look not only at a word's definition, but also its connotations and connections. A poet must hear the tones and feel the textures of words. For more on that topic, see my post Making Words Your Playground [http://www.angelafelsted.com/2011/02/making-words-your-playground.html]
Studying poety has made me especially aware of the power of sound devices: assonance and consonance. Assonance is a repetition of vowel sounds; consonance, of consonants. Alliteration is sometimes used as a blanket term for both, though it is often applied only to repeated initial sounds. Assonance and consonance are repeated sounds anywhere in a word—beginning, middle or end. I believe these devices can make anyone’s writing more musical.
The thinking behind sound devices is often onomatopoetic; the sound and meaning are linked. If you want to convey a sense of something sliding, for example, you'd choose hissing, sibilant words containing “s”, “sh” and “sw.” For example, “In her rush, she slipped sidelong, smearing grease along one sleeve.”
Have a character in pain? Choose words with lots of O sounds (both short and long) to make the passage seem to groan on the page. For example, “John groped for his coat in hopes the Tylenol bottle hadn’t dropped through the hole in his pocket.”
I like to quietly work these devices into my writing during revision—there to be found by those who look for it, but I hope not so jarring that it draws attention to itself. Here’s an example from chapter 2 of my novel Never Gone:
Snippets of my life appear between arty shots of hydrant rainbows and sullen subway riders. A wide-eyed child watches a huge Snoopy balloon soar past in the Macy’s parade. A skinny kid with braids pokes puddles in Prospect Park. A so-serious teen perches on the Public Library steps and sketches lions.
I paired “child” with “wide-eyed” and “kid” with “skinny” rather than the reverse because of the shared vowel sounds. The Macy's parade balloon could have been any cartoon character. I chose “Snoopy” for the double blessing of the “oo” assonance to match “huge” and “balloon” and the “s” consonance to match “soar”, “past” and “Macy’s.” The last two sentences in my example pop with a plethora of “p” repetitions (as did that sentence. I can't stop myself!).
I’m not always so calculated about how I choose sounds to achieve a particular effect. It’s very easy to overdo it. But I do find that playing around with word choices can yield a more aurally pleasant experience.
Is writing like this crazy time-consuming? I suppose it could be if you aren’t attuned to the sounds of words. And if you push the technique too far, you can end up with incoherent sound experiments that seem like bad James Joyce parodies. (Does the world need another Finnegans Wake or Ulysses?)
If you’d like to try incorporating sound devices in your prose, here’s what I recommend:
~Study the greats (Plath and Ginsberg are two who come to mind).
~Choose lingo that’s natural to your character.
~Find ideas in a rhyming dictionary (especially for assonance).
See if some word choice changes can make a plodding passage begin to sing.
Do you read poetry? Why or why not? Have you ever used poetic techniques in your fiction?
Laurel Garver is a magazine editor and author of Never Gone, the story of a grieving teen who believes her father has come back as a ghost the help her reconcile with her estranged mother. Her poetry has appeared in Ancient Paths, Poetry Pact Volume 1, Rubber Lemon, Daily Love, Drown in My Own Fears, About Such Things, and is forthcoming in Everyday Poets. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. You can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLaurelGarver and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LaurelGarver. She blogs at http://laurelgarver.blogspot.com.
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