The Music of Prose: Why Fiction Writers Need To Be Poets, Too | Fiction School Podcast Season 5 Episode 5

The Music of Prose: Why Fiction Writers Need To Be Poets, Too | Fiction School Podcast Season 5 Episode 5

Every Friday afternoon, back in Tommy and Baker’s MFA days, there was a tradition. A tradition of slaughter, of domination. It was ugly, it was fun, it always proceeded to revelry at a local dive bar.

It was the weekly MFA basketball game, where the Poets would team up against the Prosers.*

The Poets had a few former college players on their team, but alas, the Prosers won virtually every game over a four-year span. Tommy set the best pick in the Deep South, and Baker used his undergrad Intramural Champion skillz for a bunch of layups and jumpers.

During the game, the starry-eyed poets mused about the arc of the shot like a fleeting rainbow, the melancholy net flapping farewell as the ball fell through, the sweat droplets plopping down like gentle spring rain. Meanwhile, the Prosers scored six times.

But don’t get us wrong. We here at Fiction School LOVE poetry, and poets. Poets indeed school the Prosers right back–not on the court, but on the page. In fact, we believe that prose writers have to be poets, too–just as meticulous, careful, precise with our words. On this episode, we talk about how to use poetic technique to find the sound your story needs, how your writer’s voice is really all about poetic music, and how poetry helps you control your reader’s experience of the story.

*No Poets were harmed in the making of these Prosers. Not seriously, anyway.

Show Notes

  • First, a confession: Tommy doesn’t have time for poetry and Baker says it’s not his leisure although they both read it and appreciate it. Thus, we named our podcast Fiction School.
  • The best things about prosers is that they are always writing, and so are poets, even during basketball games.
  • Baker kidmicrophonesays that Prosers have a lot to learn from Poets and Tommy recounts the “Anti-Master Class” from an earlier episode and how James Patterson says “It’s the story, not the sentence.”
  • But a sentence needs to do more than convey information. It needs to sound good, to “tickle the tongue,” as Tommy would say.
  • Baker talks about the Music of Prose and how the writer’s decisions with syntax, diction, and punctuation turn into voice and rhythm, creating musical sentences.
  • That music allows for writers to then start to play with time. A half-second epiphany for a character can cover an entire page of prose, with the right kind of music. Or a full day, or a year or more, can be covered in a paragraph, with the right music. 
  • Action scenes, love scenes, dialogue, fight scenes–every kind of scene needs its own time span, rhythm, and tempo, and it’s up to the writer to orchestrate that carefully. 
  • Tommy and Baker talk about how as writers they create this rhythm. Advice #1: Read Your Work Out Loud. ,
  • Baker even reads out loud (mumbling, at least) at coffee shops when he’s writing. Don’t worry about seeming weird. You’re a writer–you are weird. Get used to it.
  • Baker also scats as he writes. If he knows the rhythm he wants in a sentence but not the words to fulfill that rhythm, he’ll just put “ba-da-DUM” down (or whatever the right rhythm at that moment is) and come back to it when he revises to find the perfect word.
  • Tommy advises that less is more, don’t get too fancy with your language but get to the point. “That’s not poetry, that’s trying to hard.” So cut close and get to the source of the senses.
  • Imagery and metaphors are poetic and musical, too. They’re not for filler but to make the reader forget they are reading and not actually seeing and smelling the stuff.
  • Tommy also advises on which is the best way to administer your imagery, comparing it to drug use (not that he would know). Just give ’em a little taste, writers.
  • Baker notes that the only direct interaction a writer gets with their reader is through poetic music and voice, when a reader is hearing the prose sound and music directly in their ear. Even when reading silently, readers hear a voice in their head.
  • The boys agree that air time, space, and pauses are all a part of the music. Pace, the perfect pace, is crucial. Not too fast, not too slow. Don’t be afraid to use punctuation to create space in your writing.
  • Poetry and sound affects the flow of longer works like a novel, too. Tommy notes how some novels take three days to read 17 pages because it just doesn’t flow. While some novels you get through 300 pages by the end of the day. All because of the music and rhythm.
  • The boys brainstorm on how to create your own rhythm in your writing.
  • If you’re stuck, try memorizing author’s stuff. Baker used Flannery O’Connor.
  • Good writers are also good readers, says Tommy, so if you can’t read well, you should quit and become a lawyer or something.
  • Baker advises writers to read aloud and read widely. Don’t get stuck reading your favorite author; get some contrast and variety. Grab your copy of The Great Gatsby (everyone has one) and read the first page aloud, listening to the music. There’s nothing better than that first page.

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