Friday, October 31, 2014

Common versus Poetical Language

I love poetical language in prose. My favorite books not only tell a decent story, but they tell it in heightened prose, either sheer and lovely or powerful and evocative. There is a music to the best prose.

“The old man has been ravened from within. That blind and greedy stare of his, that caved-in look, and the mouth working, reveal who now inhabits him, who now stares out. I nod to Death in passing, aware of the sound of my own feet upon my path. The ancient is lost in a shadow world, and gives no sign.” (Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard)

Most of the time when I write, I strive for the same thing. I not only want to tell the story, I want the prose to sing as the tale goes along. However, I just finished a story where I made no particular effort to get the prose to sing. There’s relatively little description. I minimized metaphors and similes. There’s a lot of dialogue. And I found out something:

Constructing poetical prose takes an immense amount of time and work. At least for me. On the days when I worked on this latest story, the word count expanded dramatically above my usual average. And the writing was just…easier. It made me think of another writer whose work I have greatly admired:

Ray Bradbury was a big influence on my writing, particularly, I think, on my desire to write poetically. Bradbury’s early stuff is just so incredibly beautiful that I am often left in awe. Some of the stuff he wrote in much later years doesn’t have the same zing and zest to me. I wonder if he noticed too that it takes a lot of effort to create poetry in prose. Did he finally get tired of the effort? Or did he just decide that a change in tone was due?

I don’t think my discovery is going to revolutionize my own writing. At least not yet. But I will be paying close attention to how this current story gets received by readers. Do readers really care about beautiful prose? Do some of them actually find it distracting? I know story is king, but shouldn’t the king be adorned?  Or is it better for the king to have no clothes?

What say you?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Roland Yeomans' work also flows like poetry in prose. It can sometimes take a bit more concentration to follow, but it is truly amazing. I know I don't write like that. I'm just pretty straightforward.

Oscar Case said...

I certainly don't make any effort to be poetical. If it sounds good to me, it's fine.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, poetical prose sounds pretty daunting to think up and write down. I have read some good prose that was like music to the ears. You have already proved yourself there.

David Cranmer said...

I love poetical prose but few can pull it off convincingly. My respect goes up considerably for writers that can combine all these elements. I recently reviewed (for Criminal Element) Death Is a Lonely Business by Bradbury. It had all the elements you are talking about, Charles. And it was from his later period.

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, Haven't read Yeoman. Will have to give him a look see.

Oscar, I think a lot of western writers really do the straightforward thing more than writers of SF and particularly fantasy

Prashant, thanks. I do believe it takes quite a lot of effort.

David, I haven't read Bradbury's mysteries yet, though I have them.

X. Dell said...

Interesting. Songs contain metrical and rhyming prose, for the most part. Poetry's very difficult to include in lyrics.

To speak the plain truth, the poetical bent of some prose expression is something I suffer through to get to the good stuff. I agree it's beautiful, and exhibits the true skill of the writer. It's just not my cup of tea. And for a work of fiction, I can tolerate it without complaint.

What's difficult for me to tolerate is that use of language for non-fiction--something you often find in the true-crime genre.

For some reason, I seem to read a lot of those.

Ty said...

Charles, the questions you ask, I think it all depends upon what the author is setting out to do. I'm not going to say it all should serve "story," specifically, because there are other elements just as important for the writer with poetical aims.

I will say I believe a more poetic style of fiction is not the norm today, and is not popular with a mass audience. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted, and it might even bring some acclaim, but it's not likely to bring an audience the size gained by the likes of Lee Childs, Grisham, Patterson, etc.

I don't write in a poetic style, but then I tend to not enjoy poetry outside of ancient sagas, Homer, and Milton, and maybe some pop and rock music (for what that's worth).

cs harris said...

I love reading beautiful prose and can't enjoy a book if the writing is choppy or even just flat. But there's no doubt that beautiful prose can slow a story, and so many of today's readers seem to value pace and plot over character or language.

I've always admired and envied your poetical use of language; it's a gift.

Charles Gramlich said...

X. Dell, Interesting. I think, to me, it is part of the good stuff of prose. I will read material that is poetical even if the story isn't that good. Maybe poetical prose is my music. I don't really listen to music much and can generally take it or leave it.

Ty, I tend to think you're right about that, that the mass audience today doesn't really give a whit about poetical prose. I rather wish they did, but if wishes were nickles...

Candy, thanks you. Very kind words. I agree that it slows the pace. At least it often does. I think it does have a place in the creation of mood and setting, but when most folks really like dialogue heavy work, there's little place for it.

BernardL said...

Bradbury is a great example of lyrical writing for sure.

Cloudia said...

I always benefit from your Salons about writing. Thanks, Charles

ALOHA from Honolulu
=^..^= . <3 . >< } } (°>

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernard, a master.

Cloudia, thankee!

Angie said...

I think it depends on the story. If I'm focused on the story, and particularly if the story is about what happened, if it's more here-and-now (even if it's SF or fantasy) and I'm caught up and want to know "What next? What next? What next?!" I prefer the prose to fade and make way for the play in my head.

And sometimes when a writer is trying SO hard to write poetically, the whole thing just crashes and burns. I think, with figurative/poetic prose, it's one of those things where trying and failing is worse than not trying.

I don't write poetically or figuratively very often. When I do, it's usually because the POV character is all O_O about something, and those are the words he/she is inspired to use to describe whatever. And I think, to me, that's one of the foundations of the practice -- does it fit the POV character? Who's telling the story? Whose POV are you in, and what sorts of words and language would they use?

I usually write in deep third, where narrative is written in the language of the POV character, in the words he or she would use, whether or not they're actually telling the story. And one of my novels last year was written in first person, just because it felt right for that story. And I always try to make the language appropriate, to the story and the character telling it.

I think (IMO anyway, as both a reader and a writer) that that's what's important -- making the language fit. If your character (whether it's a character in the story whose POV we're in, or whether it's an implied narrator character, or whatever) would use poetical language, then that's the head you slide into while you're writing. If not, then not. But however you're writing, whatever tone you take, it should fit the story and the character(s).

I enjoyed your fantasy collection very much, and thought you did a good job with the language. So whatever you're doing, it's working. I've read some others where the writer was clearly trying, but it didn't work out so well. A matter of practice, perhaps. Or maybe they were trying to force it?


Vesper said...

I love lyrical prose and it's good when it's subtle enough so that it won't interfere with the story.
I've read some books where, at each sentence, I had to stop and marvel at the author's talent for wonderful phrases. It's YA, so you probably haven't read them, but I think it's worth checking them out. One is Maggie Stiefvater's "The Raven Boys", the other is Laini Taylor's "Daughter of Smoke and Bone".
I really loved them in the end - they're great books.
Looking forward to reading your story. :-)

sage said...

Good insights. Plus, using a lot of dialogue should make it easier to take your book to the silver screen :)

nephite blood spartan heart said...

That's exactly how I feel, I want beautiful savage language that sweeps me along. I have never found minimalist writing to speak to me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, it's definitely driven by the needs of the story, and also depends to an extent on genre. Fantasy and horror tend to lend themselves to it better than, say, noir. trying to heighten the language is certainly fraught with some danger. You can do it poorly and it does really detract from the overall impression.

Vesper, I love those titles. I will have a look. I do actually read a fair amount of YA. Lots of good stuff there.

Sage, when I started writing I scarcely used dialogue. I don't personally like reading works with a lot of dialogue in them. But most of the world feels differently so I've added more and more dialogue as time has gone on.

David J., indeed, brother. Give me the language that epics are told in.

Brian Miller said...

to me that is part of the art of is not that you can tell a story but how you tell it...allowing a reader to fully immerse themselves in it...and feel a part of the story...

Travis Cody said...

I do typically read aloud silently...I say the words in my mind as I read them. Some stories require poetry in prose. Some don't.

I can understand the difference in time to write more poetical as opposed to plain prose. Not only does it take time to find the right turn of phrase, but I think it takes more time to edit to prevent it from sounding silly.

Riot Kitty said...

I think some readers (like us) do.

Did he get tired?

I see that pattern with some of my favorite writers today, but I think it's that they get pressured to crank things out.

Charles Gramlich said...

Brian, I agree absolutely.

Travis, that is always a risk with poetical prose, and sometimes it works for some and not for all. Risky for sure.

Riot kitty, time pressure is certainly a killer for writing really good prose. I think anyway.

jodi said...

Charles-for all the time I have spent reading, I am still too unsophisticated to answer your question. I simply need to be interested early on. I don't know if I dissect it much more. I like all descriptions to be adequate without too much detail.

Anonymous said...

you need to try e.r. eddison: a fish dinner at memison plus a trilogy along the same lines. takes some getting used to, but well worth the effort