Monday, November 19, 2012

Make your stories sing, a guest post by Laurel Garver

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 []

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).
~Go lightly.
~Choose lingo that’s natural to your character.
~Find ideas in a rhyming dictionary (especially for assonance).
~Play. 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 and on Twitter at She blogs at View the trailer:
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Laurel Garver said...

Thanks for having me today, Tricia!

Yvonne Osborne said...

What a wealth of information. This post I will print out, or bookmark to reference at my leisure. Poetry was my first love and I trust that some of what I learned in that study will serve me well in novel writing. (Ginsberg is one of my personal favorites and Howl, amazing.) Word sounds are so important, the soft rhyme, tone, in connotations; the history behind a word is what interests me and lyrical writing is what draws me in. Thank you, Tricia, for hosting Laurel and good luck, Laurel, with your own writing. I'm glad to meet you and will be checking out you and your book!

Jessica Bell said...

I love how you use the same onomatopoetic devices as me, Laurel. I REALLY need to read your book.

Also, nice to meet you, Tricia. New follower! :-)

I'm going to share this post on FB and Twitter because it is SO "me".

Great post!

Nighfala said...

I actually do the same thing, Laurel. I think that having prose that reads beautifully out loud is what transforms good writing into great writing.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Laurel: It's my pleasure to have you here. Thank you!
I love what you said about hearing the tone and feeling the texture of words. I find that reading out loud is a good way to sort out whether the words sing.

Yvonne: One of the greatest pleasures of reading is the way the words fit together, they way they sound even in the mind. I agree with you, and I love to visit your blog when you share your poems.

Jessica: Thank you so much for coming by and for sharing the post online. I'm so pleased to meet you!

Christine: Yes! That's so true. I love listening to audiobooks by good readers. Neil Gaiman is fantastic at reading.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Tricia,

Over from Laurel's blog... SO nice to meet you. I like your blog and your presence in it!

Hi, Laurel.

I love poetry... always have. My writing always has a poetic and lyrical edge to it. I write fantasy as well as edgy m/g and Y/A contemporary. My latest project is a novella in FIlm Noir... Talk about poetic license. LOVE using words to "sing" in the atmosphere.

Terrific post. I'm glad I stopped by today!

Unknown said...

I have often wished I'd studied poetry for the very reasons you mentioned. I hope your book is doing well.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hello, Michael: Pleasure to meet you, too. Thanks for stopping by!

Clarissa: Laurel's study of poetry is far more intensive than mine, but I love to read it and find that enhances my appreciation of words and how they're used. Have you ever read Mary Oliver or Billy Collins? Both are accessible and brilliant.

Laurel Garver said...

Yvonne: Ginsberg's work is so powerful, I agree. He showed me how poetic writing can have amazing punch, not merely be light and pretty (though there's a place for that in the right settings). Thanks for the great comment!

Laurel Garver said...

Jessica: No pressure, but I think you'd LOVE the story. A mix of gritty and tender, with affinities to your style.

Thanks so much for spreading the word about the post too! Much appreciated.

Laurel Garver said...

Christine: Cool. That extra layer of sound working alongside the story makes fiction something magical, I think.

Laurel Garver said...

Michael: Thanks for coming by! Working with sound patterns can enhance any genre. I can imagine the noir piece you're working on has a smoky sort of texture, like Raymond Chandler's books do.

Laurel Garver said...

Clarissa: It's never too late! Many universities let folks audit classes (attend classes but receive no credit) for a fraction of the cost.

Connie Keller said...

Great post, Laurel!

Donna said...

What wonderful ideas! I do sometimes use poetic language in my fiction, especially when I write a passage in stream of consciousness. I've "given" my poems to characters, and a couple of times what I thought were poems turned out to be more effective as poetic flash fiction. Thank you!

Lisa Gail Green said...

I've always loved poetry so I found this post really cool. Especially this quote: "because truth is beautiful, no matter where you find it." Love that! I find I use sound and feel of words as well in my writing, but in honesty not quite with such calculation. It is a great tip and does bring another dimension IMHO.

Laurel Garver said...

Connie: Thanks! Hope it inspires you.

Donna: True that interior thoughts lend themselves to poetic language, but action can be expressed pretty effectively with sound techniques to enhance them. I'm a big fan spinning poetry to prose and vice versa. Good creativity stretcher!

Laurel Garver said...

Lisa: Call it my ode to Keats. ("beauty is truth, truth, beauty."). :-D

I tend to be calculated primarily in revision, when a particular scene or moment is essential and I want the reader to linger, to let the emotion really sink in. Otherwise, any sound play tends to roll from my unconscious and its love of song. Then it's just instinct.

Phoenix said...

Great post, Laurel. I took a poetry class in college and just absolutely loved it. Every autumn I buy the American Poetry Anthology and read it with hot chocolate as a treat to myself - poetry gets me through good times and bad times, and it's stayed a permanent fixture in my life. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts!

Laurel Garver said...

Hi Phoenix, nice to meet you! Poetry can be such a haven, it's true. I'm always discovering new loves at my job (a scholarly journal on modernism). Glad to hear you also like poetic prose!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Connie: Thanks so much for stopping by.

Donna: Ilove that fluid line between how you use poems. As flash fiction is a great idea.

Lisa & Laurel: Love that truth/beauty discussion!
Also, Laurel, it's interesting that you delve more into the language in revision. That makes a lot of sense.

Phoenix: Yes! I've found so much support for my spirit in poetry. The world would be a sadder place without it.

Talli Roland said...

What a wonderful post. I'm a huge fan of poetry and studied it in university, too. Great to see you here, Laurel!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hey, Talli! Thanks for coming by.