In yesterday’s post, I talked about seeing prose in a new way, when I began to re-construct sections of Cormac McCarthy’s description and look at the words in a more poetic way.
Often, in prose, we write the description with an end result in mind: to set up the action to come. We select the details and refine our descriptions to highlight the “meat” of the story, whether it be a character-driven story or one that is plot-focused.
In poetry, though, the description often IS the purpose. It must be meaningful, in itself—a discovery, an action of its own. The description must be evocative of some emotion without an action tied to it or characters to populate the world being described.
This is, in my opinion, what McCarthy does. His descriptions of the setting are meant to provoke reaction, even without the next stakes-raising plot point or the development of a character arc or any of the other things we may argue are necessary components of writing a story. That doesn’t mean those other aspects of story telling aren’t present; I only mean to say that his description and exposition are often doing much more than most of us accomplish in our own writing.
I don’t claim to be the writer McCarthy is, and as another student in the recent Reading as a Writer class said, it would be nearly impossible to attempt to emulate McCarthy’s unique narrative voice. But I can take this idea of the poetic mindset and apply it to my own work, with the hope of improving my own narrative voice and the flow of my story telling to elicit a reaction from the reader.
There are six areas I’ve identified where this poetic mindset can become instrumental in the editing and revision process, to help me strengthen and deepen my own work.
Sound – Reading my in-progress work aloud has long been a key to my editing and revision process. Much as it is important to read a poem aloud, prose also benefits from being heard. I can read and re-read a section, using different inflections and searching for the words that seem to trip the tongue. Those are the ones most-likely to also trip the silent reader’s mind. I can consider the heard-rhythm and understand this also effects the reader, even if only subconsciously. I can consider substitutions of words, searching for a word that more clearly conveys an idea or more fully communicates a feeling or tone. I can try different combinations and patterns and play with syntax. Which brings me to…
- Rhythm – The order of words, the syntax of sentences, the word selection, syllables, breaths, beats, pauses, accents and emphasis: all of these elements are important to the prose writer, whether he or she is aware of it, or not. These are the elemental building blocks that directly influence the flow of a written piece. Considering these can make the difference between a clunky essay and one that seems to pick up momentum and nearly drag the reader along. Rhythm in prose is also aided (or hindered) by the writer’s ability to identify and employ such things as intentional repetition, alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, or near-rhyme.
- Figurative Language – Metaphors, similes, and personification are not just for the poet lover who wishes to compare you to a summer’s day. They are a necessary tool for the deepening of description and exposition. They add layers to the prose, and when well done, they give the reader confidence that not only does this narrator see the world through a specific lens, he or she is able to open that observed world up in a way that makes it visceral to the reader.
- Imagery – This is, of course, closely tied to figurative language, but I list it here separately because it is a reminder to call on the reader’s full range of senses. Imagery means more than just painting a visual picture, it also includes sounds and tastes and smells. It includes the hyper-sensitive touch of the addled protagonist who is suddenly distracted by the ridges of her corduroy slacks. Adding sensual elements to prose may be somewhat different than poetry—the poet may dwell on the corduroy ridges for ten stanzas and never “get” anywhere else—but this cannot discount the melding of the poetic mindset with the needs of the prose writer. Sometimes, we need to slow down and dwell on textiles. Or, at least we should be open to the possibility.
- Economy of Words – Just because we have hundreds of pages to use if we need them, doesn’t mean we have to fill them all with meaningless words. One of the wonderful things about the poetic mindset is weighing each and every word for its value to the piece. In prose, we can be more effective writers when we find ways to say MORE with fewer actual words.
- White Space – The poet plays with line length, enjambment, and indentions. The prose writer is more often able to alter the length of paragraphs, control the way dialogue brings whitespace into play, and manipulate things of that nature. But the prose writer should be aware that variations of white space are as important to a good book as they are to a good poem.
My own writing has already improved over the last few years, as I implemented various elements of the list above into my writing, but now, even more than ever, I am seeing the synthesis of the poetic mind within my editing and revision process.
Just last week, I sat down to begin a major revision of a long story called, This Song Shall Testify, which I am breaking into three distinct stories. The story had been dormant for almost two years. I was seeing it with new eyes.
I immediately began to mark questionable words, remove unnecessary ones, and change the way the opening paragraphs began to reveal the world of the story. With just a few minutes of work, I was able to re-shape the start of the story into something much more sound.
I hope you’ll find these ideas helpful to your writing, as well.
Note: This week’s podcast features an interview with poet Dominique Traverse Locke and our discussion of poetry for non-poets. It keeps with this theme, nicely…