“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
—T. S. Eliot
This’ll be short and sweet. If you want to write better fiction, you would do well to read and write more poetry.
Okay, it won’t be that short, but basically that’s the point of this post. Poetry may not have characters and plot and even necessarily tension, but something it does have is amazing imagery—the kind of heart-smacking, gut-punching imagery that’ll rock your dear readers out of their socks.
So, if you’re weak on description, start reading more poetry. You may be surprised how many poetic techniques can be applied to fiction. A good place to start is a college bookstore. Look for whatever poetry anthologies are being used in the poetry classes, and pick one of those bad boys up!
On the topic of poetry . . . a long time ago at some writing events, I heard two poetry-related bits of advice that I’ll pass along here.
1) Start your writing day with a poem.
Whether you’re at a desk or, like me, a kitchen table, when you sit down to make your pages darker, preface those blissful moments by reading a poem. You can have books of poetry on hand, or you can do what I do: subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac daily email newsletter. They’ll send you a brand new poem early in the wee hours, so that it’ll be waiting for you when you wake up.
Reading a poem before writing feels a bit to me like stretching out before practicing tae kwon doe. You’re waking up your writer self. You’re putting your head in that special creative place. You’re preparing to kick some (literary) ass!
2) Write a metaphor each day.
Every day, make a point of observing something in a poetic way. Maybe it’s the fact that little navel oranges look like shrunken baby heads. Or maybe it’s how this headache feels like chisel scraping the inside of my skull right above my eyes. Doesn’t matter.
Write one of these observations down every single day—either on your smart phone or in a notepad. I used to have a running email to/from myself that I’d respond to each day. You could also do this with a writing partner, bouncing back and forth a never-ending chain of metaphorical awesomeness.
The added bonus of this is that it makes you more aware. You start looking for poetry everywhere. It gives you the taste for it. In turn, the descriptions of your stories’ settings and characters will become infused with poetic wickedness. You’ll see metaphors and descriptions all around you—where before you might’ve zoned out and seen only the surface of things.
And isn’t that part of the point of great writing—be it poetry or fiction? To get beneath the surface of things?