Why Poetry is Bad Prep for Novel Writing – Part 1

I spent 7.5 years in school formally studying how to write. I read many of the classics. I wrote essays and poetry and short stories. I took “Writing Fiction” and “Writing Poetry” and “Creative Non-Fiction” and even “Songwriting” in college. But I realized something after graduation.

I never learned how to tell a story.

This probably wasn’t my teachers’ faults. I’m sure I learned the mechanics. I could tell you about inciting incidents and rising action and I could even spell denouement when I was fourteen. But I still couldn’t tell an effective story.

There were a few reasons for this:

  1. I couldn’t create characters. Well, I could. But I became too attached to them and they morphed immediately into Mary-Sues and never had any real issues to deal with. Like I was in real life, I made my characters afraid to take the chances that would lead to a good story. And I tried too hard to write fictional versions of Real Life. I wouldn’t accept that stories could be told better than the way that I, or someone else, had lived them.
  2. I wrote well. But I let writing well get in the way of writing good. Purple prose was my best friend. I let poetic sentences get in the way of voice, clarity, and active sentence structure. I just read over a little 500-word drabble I wrote my senior year of high school. It’s beautifully written — absolutely poetic. But there’s so much I didn’t explain because it would have messed with what I thought was voice but was actually a purple blanket. I decided clarity was less important than rhythm.
  3. I took “Write what you know” way too seriously. I was a goody-two-shoes who never, ever swore, whose main concern throughout high school was which boy to crush on, who got good grades and mostly got along with her parents. Until the age of 19, I didn’t do a single thing that might be considered rebellious (although I did my fair share of stupid things). Take a guess at what I wrote about.

In high school, people told me I was a really good writer and I would get a novel published one day for sure. I shrugged them off and told them poetry was my thing because I didn’t have the attention span for novels.

Turns out, this wasn’t the reason I preferred poetry and songwriting. It had to do with three things (summed up in my laziness):

  1. In songwriting especially, stories are told, not shown. In songwriting, I could say “My Prince Charming turned back into a frog and I lost my way/Living on white lies – sometimes shaded gray – that say I’m doing okay.” and it might be considered a decent lyric. If I wrote that in a novel, it would get slashed as too much telling. But how did your Prince Charming turn back into a frog? my annoying critique partner, who’s annoying because of his high percentage of being right and asking easy questions with hard answers, would probably ask me. And I would mumble and say something incomprehensible about how that dude I dated was dumb to dump me.
  2. In poetry, the words used are almost as important as the message. Maybe they were more important. I seemed to think so. I could write this: “One smile, one nod, one note: one lie/
    I answered quick the question, “No… I’m fine.”” and it’s the first lines of the best poem I’ve ever written. In prose, it would read something like, “At church that Sunday, Jamie approached me while I was doing something unchurchlike – I wasn’t smiling. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked, good Christian concern written all over her face. I smiled, nodded. ‘No, I’m fine. Really.'” Makes a lot more sense. Doesn’t fit the iambic quadrameter I was writing in.
  3. Stories in poetry and songs are about moments, not transformation. At least, not always. In that Prince Charming song? The narrator never gets happier again. The whole song is lamenting that lost love. In the poem about not crying? The narrator never ends up crying. A revelation happens, a musing, but not transformation.

I tried to transfer those three things to my prose. Needless to say, it didn’t work. So I thought story telling wasn’t for me.

It turns out I was wrong, but it took two years of left-brained creativity to figure it out. See part two tomorrow.

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