Poetics

1 February 2013

From bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

I was rewriting a scene this morning, listening closely to the sound and rhythm of the words in a passage, looking for ways to strengthen it, and it made me wonder: how many new writers take the proper care with their words? How many truly listen?

There are a number of ways to show that you’re a genius at writing. You might have break-neck pacing, or characters who become more and more alive as the reader learns about them. Your plots might be brilliant, or your argument scenes might impress and inspire.

But guess what? If your story doesn’t stand out based upon the beauty of your words—your sensitive use of language, your tone and style—it really won’t matter.

You see, lackluster prose is perhaps the biggest bar to publication.

. . . .

We look for authors who convince us through their use of words alone that their work will stand out. That’s why so many editors say that the first thing that they look for is a powerful and convincing voice—either the author’s narrative voice or the character’s voice.

. . . .

Many writers come to the craft late in life. They may have been computer programmers or healthcare workers or policemen, but they’ve always had that nagging desire to write. They’ve read great stories and may even have some wonderful talents—a gift for setting, or a deep understanding of businessmen and thugs—that can help them find huge audiences. But such writers often feel that they don’t have time to learn the writing craft, explore it. They don’t have time to take poetry writing classes, for example, and they think that it’s optional.

Guess what. It isn’t optional. If you worry that I may be talking to you, I’m talking to you.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

30 Comments to “Poetics”

  1. I hear that often – a powerful and convincing voice – but it is never explained. Does it mean the main character or narrator has to have a powerful personality? What if the story isn’t about that type of person? Does it mean the writing style needs to be direct and forceful? Yet what if the story’s tone lends itself to something other than powerful?

    What does a powerful and convincing voice mean to you?

    • To me, a powerful and convincing voice is the author’s voice. Their style or literary fingerprint. There are some authors who have such distinctive voices that it’s easy to identify their prose.

      But not all voices are the same–nor should they be.

      For example:

      Patricia McKillip, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman–they all write in the same genre, at least part of the time, but their styles and voices are completely different. All poetic, in a way. In their way.

  2. So, first, this is not written by Dave, it’s written by Kami McArthur, who is the head of an Canadian Independent Publishing House, which is why s/he says:

    “We look for authors who convince us through their use of words alone that their work will stand out”.

    That’s nice. They want to publish literary fiction.

    but this:

    “But guess what? If your story doesn’t stand out based upon the beauty of your words—your sensitive use of language, your tone and style—it really won’t matter.

    You see, lackluster prose is perhaps the biggest bar to publication”

    once again shows that Canadian Publishing is behind the times (no offense Canadians). I guess they haven’t realized that STORY is what will sell. Perhaps they have not heard of a little independent multi-million dollar best-seller, 50 shades of something.

    This is an elite publisher who does not really know what s/he is talking about in terms of sales, and they should not be giving advice about the new publishing landscape. They should only be talking about what type of book they prefer to publish.

    In addition, this:

    “I’m going to be teaching at a writing workshop that takes place on a cruise. Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta and Mignon C. Fogarty will be teaching also. Get more information here.”

    is a possible reason for the bias in the article. Just a thought.

    • Mira – I think Kami’s name appears because she helps him with his posts. I could be wrong, but I think she puts up what Dave has written.

      • PG – I see! Thanks for the clarification.

        • But now I don’t know what to do. That sort of turned my primary thesis upside down. My argument is not supported or relevant.

          Hate when that happens.

          Well, hopefully, people will ignore my post or wonder what I’m talking about and move on.

      • @ PG: Yes, Dave writes the posts. :)

        @Mira: re: “I’m going to be teaching at a writing workshop that takes place on a cruise. Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta and Mignon C. Fogarty will be teaching also. Get more information here.”

        Dave sends these posts out via email, and usually includes places he’s going to be speaking or workshops he’s teaching at the bottom. :)

    • Isn’t that why most authors with rather lackluster at best prose self-publish?

      • Happily, lackluster prose tends to show in the sample, and in the “about this book” blurb, allowing one to avoid anything too painful for one’s personal sensitivities.

        And then, as noted, there’s 50 Shades of Profitable, arguably the Twilight series, and (not as noted), John Norman’s Gor series, of which I was able to stomach two books despite the thoroughly repellant narrator of one, and the summarizing-the-last-15-pages-every-5-pages (yes, I counted) brick of the other.

        Basically, one person’s lackluster prose is another person’s serviceable prose, and if the story hits enough of the reader’s buttons, serviceable is nothing to sneer at.

      • No. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of best-selling authors who prose can best be called “lackluster”. I won’t name names, but they’ve been out there ever since books became popular.

        Mark Twain wrote some pretty funny criticism of the authors he thought had lackluster prose and impossible plots.

  3. Argh. I understand this. I’m a pantster when I write my first draft but I will fiddle with wordsmithing for weeks as I edit. Sometimes changing the same sentence several times until it reads, sounds and feels just right. Strong, poetic, flowing with the narrative…

    But you know what?

    So many readers what straight forward Ikea writing these days. Easy to digest, don’t make them have to think too make or step outside of their comfort zone in order to imagine what the character is feeling. Tab A into Slot B. But don’t make it TOO boring because they’ll nod off. Has to have a zippy plot.

    This article is why:

    1) I self publish now.
    2) Ignore contradictory writing advice.
    3) Write what I know.
    4) Write what I love.
    5) Write with as much depth and emotion as I can cram into each sentence and for those who don’t ‘get’ me… well have a nice day.

    • I think that’s great.

      I agree there are plenty of readers who prefer particular narrative types – including simply-written and easily read ones like “50 Shades” or an exclusive preference for first-person stories, certain genres, etc.

      But there is such a variety of readers – as well as ever-changing tastes – that there will always be opportunities for writers who follow their own passions rather than trying to “write to market.”

      I looked at some of your excerpts and like your use of language. And I am certain that many readers do enjoy that, as well as respond to the emotion you put into your writing.

      • And that goodness for the variety of readers! I firmly believe that if you only write to market you bland your voice and story. It may take time for a particular writer to find their niche, but it’s better to write to your passions than to market.

        As for poetic writing, I don’t think is necessarily always flowery. It can be a pattern of flowing rhythm, the way the ear hears it, the tongue speaks it. Semantics are so very vital in writing.

        And thank you! It’s always a wonderful compliment to know someone has read any part of one’s work and has enjoyed it! And you’re correct regarding the readers. I do have a small but passionate fan base. *fingers crossed for the future*

  4. This is a tough topic for me. On the one hand, it’s clear to me that traditional publishers want writers with exceptional language skills. They want “voice,” they want great prose. And it’s also clear to me that huge swaths of readers don’t care about this at all. Look at Twilight, look at 50 Shades. (Some people name Harry Potter, but I think J.K. Rowling is a great prose stylist.)

    And yet I’m not part of that majority. I don’t like reading lackluster prose. If the story’s truly fantastic, sure, I’ll read. But I’d rather read a truly fantastic story that also has beautiful language. And I’m willing to pay more for it because I value my time more than I value a few dollars.

  5. I both agree and disagree with the premise. I think craft in writing is important. I think the idea of a unique and/or poetic voice is significantly less important than the article makes out. Let’s leave out the examples of “badly written but popular” books and look at midlist genre books. I bet many of the stories that are primarily stories – not world explorations, not poetry in prose, not character studies…just stories – have similar voices. Prose that reads easily and enables you to forget you are reading. Who was it quipped that writing which reads effortlessly had a lot if effort put into the writing of it? I forget, but it is a good point and contradictory to this image of making words poetic or whatever. Maybe that is all farland meant. But heput it badly if so. As for me, while I enjoy poetical writing on some occasions, generally i do want the kind of prose that lets me put my brain in drive and go without distraction. Does that writing require work, care, and time to create? Yes. Is it poetry? No. And thats fine.

  6. I would *like* to believe this is true, seeing how my personal favorites have verrrry strong authorial voices…

    …but I also know that most of the books that have seen astronomical success are mind-numbingly literal. Nary a trope to be found.

    Sorry, Dave. For a mass audience, story really does trump all.

  7. I was just thinking on this subject because of recent reading experiences.

    First, I was reading Taliesin by Stephen R. Lawhead which I believe is the 6th book he published. But the way the story is told just feels so… amateur. The prose is straightforward in a way that feels like he’s just listing the facts of the story without any artistry at all. There’s nothing that I would identify as voice.

    After setting that one aside in boredom, I picked up The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers which is his 7th published novel. There’s just no comparison. Powers has control of his prose and he uses it to draw you in like an expert. There is artistry there and there is voice. It is subtle and organic to the story. (I don’t like voice/style that sticks out like a sore thumb.) I don’t think I’d call it poetry, but I get the feeling that Powers has a better handle on language and how to use it to convey story than Lawhead.

    I think this principle goes back to the ancient oral storytellers. They were famed and celebrated for their ability with language and presentation. A story could be boring in one Bard’s hands but exciting and moving in the hands of a Bard who was an excellent storyteller. Emphasis on the teller part. I don’t believe that the story is all. I think how the story is told is very important. A storyteller should be mindful of the rhythm and sound of the story as well as the pacing and focus and other things. It does make a huge difference.

    • I don’t believe that the story is all. I think how the story is told is very important.

      The way I would express it: The story is all; but there is no story unless it is told. This didn’t matter so much in the days before copyright, when stories were common property and every new storyteller could put his own style and stamp on the same old tales. But nowadays we expect the storytellers to invent their own stories; and if a given writer hasn’t got the chops to put his own story across effectively, it never will be put across.

      We wouldn’t expect or even put up with this in any other art form. Imagine if someone insisted that Wagner had to sing all the parts in his own operas, or Beethoven had to play his own orchestra! Imagine if Cecil B. DeMille had been told to film The Ten Commandments as a one-man show! But this is precisely the expectation we put on writers; and that kind of expectation is a heavy burden. As Hemingway said, fiction has no equivalent to the relief pitcher: ‘A writer has to pitch the whole nine innings if it kills him.’

      But as long as a book, particularly a work of fiction, is valued chiefly as the personal expression of the author’s voice, values, and understanding of the world, that’s the game we’re stuck with. We all need to reject the siren song of ‘good enough’ and try to make ourselves the best writers we can be, both on the level of invention and on the level of language. We owe it to our stories, our readers, and ourselves — and to our pocketbooks.

      • Thanks for that food for thought. You did express it better than I did, but I think we were thinking the same thing.

        As far as not accepting “good enough”… I would say that you HAVE to accept the best you can do at a given point in time as “good enough” or you’ll never put anything out there. Because you can probably always do it better next year or 5 years from now, but if you think like that you’ll never accomplish anything.

        • You do have to accept ‘good enough’ for the moment, in the context of each particular story, at the moment when you decide it’s done and needs to go out into the world. There’s no disputing that.

          But you do not have to accept ‘good enough’ as a permanent proposition, and decide that you are as good a writer as you will ever need to be, and don’t need to learn any more. That way lies staleness, and hackwork, and self-parody, and in the end, oblivion.

  8. Hmmm.

    I don’t approach my own writing from this angle: that is “plain, simple prose” versus “flowery, ornate prose.”

    I think I do possess a somewhat “poetic” sensibility, but more from the motive of using exactly and precisely the word or words that express what I mean. Sometimes that means the sentence is ornate. Sometimes it is plain and simple, bald, even.

    Readers have told me I have a strong voice, whatever that means. I take it t mean that my word choices and my sequence choices are very much mine.

  9. We should keep in mind that Mr. Farland has spent a good deal of time on the Dark Side of the writer/editor divide: in particular, working as a judge for Writers of the Future. Also, that his idea of a strong and poetic voice is not that of the hyper-literary snobs who constitute, in B. R. Myers’s memorable phrase, ‘the sentence cult’. For Farland, style should always exist in the service of the story, and not as a way for the author to show off his cleverness. (I’ve taken one of his in-depth workshops, and read a lot of his articles on the craft of writing; he makes his views plain, over time.)

    The trouble with a flat, straightforward style, as Ursula K. LeGuin said, is that it is a fake plainness, and it limits the range of stories you can tell and the emotions you can convincingly deal with. What Farland is calling for, I believe, is for writers to develop styles that have enough expressiveness and versatility to tell interesting and evocative stories.

    I’ve gone on about this quite long enough for PG’s combox, but I have said a good deal more on the subject in a piece called ‘Style is the rocket’.

  10. I think Dave is correct in what he’s saying. He isn’t talking about sales to the public, but what an editor at a traditional publishing house looks for. What they look for is a unique voice.

    Problem is, most authors who edit, edit, edit, tend to edit their unique voice right out of their work. That is why books like Twilight and 50 Shades of whatever sell. Because they have a raw authorial voice honed by writing a lot. People tend to flock to that. It isn’t so much the quality of the prose that sells, but the story and author’s voice that draw a person in.

    But editors want quality prose. But they want what sells even more. Writing style factors into author voice, but it is a subconscious event. You don’t intentionally write in your voice. It naturally flows when you write. But practicing and growing as a writer whether through poetry or prose, develops that natural voice. You can’t get it so much by editing a lot. It is either there or it isn’t.

    And that might be one area I’m not sure Dave is on target. He makes it sound like you can edit your voice into a work. I think only those who have written enough to get a good handle on what their voice is can even begin to attempt it. And if you do edit in a voice, is it really yours? Can voice only flow from a first draft?

    • There are as many different ways of imparting voice to a piece of writing as there are writers. My own ‘voice’, such as it is, comes in at the first draft; I correct for what journalists used to call the ACBs — ‘accuracy, clarity, brevity’ (in that order of importance), but sometimes C and B require me to replace a long and mushy locution with something short and pithy and more ‘voice-y’.

      Some other writers use the first draft to scribble down their ideas any old how, and then use the second draft to find the best way of expressing them — and subsequent drafts, often, to replace almost-right words with right words (‘lightning bugs’ with ‘lightning’, in Mark Twain’s terms).

      I think you’re right, however, in that no writer with a distinctive voice is likely to contribute anything to it at, say, the tenth or fiftieth draft. The only exception might be for writers of pure comedy, who may go through many drafts to get the timing and the punchlines just right. P. G. Wodehouse, they say, revised incessantly until his work was as funny as he could possibly make it, with the maximum density of ‘nifties’ on every page.

      • Wodehouse used to pin individual pages up on the wall, and then make sure there was at least one howler per page.

  11. long ago, stories had genealogy; stories belonged to those who told them. If they wished, they handed them down to others. Like songs that come through dreams or mystical experiences, no one amongst the old tribes would think of taking another’s song or inspired story. Originality was tantamount for people dreamed every night and had far more congress with other ways of being and seeing… and stories specific to each person’s life came through daily events, catastrophic and mundane, night dreams and visions and sudden inspirations.

    When Perrault and Grimm brothers and a few others “collected” stories that were “collected” by wealthy women and men from ‘the peasantry’ and ‘the ignorant’… meaning the knowledgeable tribal groups of their time who had not forsaken land and hunting and making of all needed for self-sustaining villages or /and groups… the Grimm brothers and others cleaned up the stories, distorting individual’s ‘grant’ and ‘right’ to the tale, often ‘christianizing’ the stories, removing all sexual and scatological references… and also — the Grimms’ –highlighted and touted several stories that encouraged anti-semitism and assault of Jews, and abuse of wives.

    In Grimm and others’ process of shredding and bleaching inspired stories belonging to deeply colorful and [pagan] tribal groups and individuals, the original creators and tellers names were cast aside, their lives not noted in books more than a couple sentences worth and often not even that– and especially the CONTEXT the individual’s stories were told in, was eradicated as a result of the ham handed misappropriation of inspired stories by the wealthy and educated…. who over-ran the poor and non-literate farmers and weavers, millers and horse people of their time.

    That we all actually hark back to the radicals of story, in bringing what we are inspired by, is far far closer to the ways of our ancestors, than any person who began learning story runs that repeat over and over because they are petrified like wood, in books from long ago. An exception is Hans Christian Anderson who is often criticized for giving a personal spin to his tales… but you can see his personal inspiration on the tales as a result of his ‘dreaming’ many of them.

    Just my .02. I think authors have open road and blue sky in inspired story… storytellers always have had consorts who are of this world and not quite of this world. Despite what the starched and too staid think.

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