Jon Gibbs (jongibbs) wrote,
Jon Gibbs

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For Better or Verse: Writing Short Fiction and Poetry

I'm delighted to welcome my LJ friend, Elizabeth Barrette (aka [info]ysabetwordsmith), to my blog today.

For Better or Verse: Writing Short Fiction and Poetry
A guest post by
Elizabeth Barrette

As a writer, I cover a lot of ground. I span many different topics and fields including speculative fiction, nature studies, and alternative spirituality. I also write nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. So when Jon suggested I do a guest post on the difference between writing a short story and a poem, I thought, "Hey, that sounds like fun!"

First, when I get an idea, I have to decide what format suits it best. If the concept itself packs the most punch, then it usually winds up as poetry. If the development of process and detail carries the weight, then it turns into fiction. Length isn't necessarily the determining factor. I write plenty of long poems, and sometimes I write short-short stories. So some of my longest poems actually have a word count higher than my shortest stories.

When I write short fiction, I rarely have to think much about the form: most of it goes down as straight narrative in past tense. (Once in a while I write something unusual, such as epistolary fiction or present tense.) Most of my attention focuses on deciding the best approach for telling this story: Whose viewpoint should I follow? Which aspect matters most: characterization, plot action, or scenic settings? What theme and mood does this story have, and what clues should I use to reveal them to the readers? Once I have the basic flavor of the story in mind, I start writing it down.

Now the challenge is, my soul works faster than my mind, which works faster than my brain, which works faster than my fingers. I can absorb a story much faster than I can transcribe it. This means that a story tends to hit the page in scene sketches first -- snippets of dialog and description, not necessarily in chronological order. As I go along, I try to connect the dots and hope that I get them all in the correct sequence.   On a good day, writing fiction is like flying, swift and graceful and exhilarating. After I have a complete draft, I go back and revise to check the sequencing, set additional foreshadows, check word choice against desired tone, and so forth. Then it goes to my first reader(s) for more revision, and so forth into the submission queue.

When I write poetry, a key decision involves the form. I am a form maven; I love the many different forms, like so many recipes for creating poems. Often a poem idea begins with one or more great lines. I'll compare that against the forms I know to see if there's a good match -- say, if I have two strong rhythmic lines, I may choose a villanelle, which has two refrains. I write free verse too, though. After form, word choice is a prevailing aspect of poetry. I use it to set the tone and reinforce all the other messages in the poem. Other individual techniques, such as alliteration or metaphor, come in here as well. Setting and characterization appear mainly in concrete details; some poems also have a narrative flow, but others are plot-free. So those tend to be smaller concerns. A poem is about impact where a story is about process.

I have been composing poetry for over 30 years now, and I do it at the speed of thought. That means the process goes so fast, most of the little adjustments do not rise to a conscious level. If I slow down so I can show the process of choosing this phrase over that one, it takes me about three times as long. Most of the time, a poem hits the page intact, needing little or no revision. I might move one verse ahead of another to emphasize a pattern, or change a word to avoid unwanted repetition, or tweak the line arrangement a bit -- that's about all. On a good day, writing a poem is like shooting an arrow: swish-THWACK. Done. And if it's done right, it will hit the reader the same way.

Now the interesting thing is that sometimes I get an idea that works equally well in both modes. I have a number of "paired" pieces that manifest as a story and a poem. Two of my published stories, "Peacock Hour" in
Triangulations: Taking Flight  and "Goldenthread" in Dead Souls, each have a counterpart in verse. My December 2010 Poetry Fishbowl spawned a poem, "A Breath Upon the Waters,"  that matches an urban fantasy story in progress, "Melting Heaven." So why tell the same basic story in two different ways?

Basically, the paired pieces create parallax. The short story tells the narrative in detail, usually with a focus on the person(s) most affected by the events. The poem distills what happened down to its core insight or influence. The prose version of "Peacock Hour" follows a family's efforts to create a flying carpet, as seen from the perspective of the only daughter. The poetic version focuses on one failed attempt, from a bystander's perspective -- a historical incident picked up by one of the great poets of the Whispering Sands desert. The prose version of "Goldenthread" is a monologue, one character recounting her tragic past to another character. The poetic version condenses that down to a sonnet, the same tragedy done in lyrical style -- partly because my inspiration came from folk songs as well as fairy tales. The short story "Melting Heaven" introduces an angel and a saint as they struggle to figure out what has gone wrong with Heaven and Earth that an angel should fall out of the sky; the mangled setting actually drives the action and reveals the characterization, in considerable detail. The poem "A Breath Upon the Waters" unplies two distinct threads from the narrative -- a description, in metaphors, of a saint's nature; and the developing dynamic between the two main characters -- which twine around each other in alternating verses. In each case, the two versions show different facets of the same concept.

Of course, not everyone's writing processes necessarily work the same as mine. (In particular, those who "make things up" rather than "write things down" may use different methods.) The main contrasts between writing short stories and poems come down to three things: Prose is about the journey, while poetry is about the destination. Prose is expansive, while poetry is concise. Prose uses language as the means to an end, while poetry uses language as its primary artistic medium. It's possible to play with those -- prose poetry combines elements of both, for instance -- but they still make good landmarks. 

The main contrasts tend to hold true regardless of the writer's process, because they relate to the inherent nature of each format. If you're a writer, you can learn how to use them as guides when deciding how to present a given idea. If you're a reader, you can look for them as clues while reading between the lines. Either way, have fun -- that's what it's all about.

Elizabeth Barrette writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in the fields of speculative fiction, nature studies, and alternative spirituality. Her books include From Nature's Patient Hands: A Collection of Poetry, Prismatica: Science Fiction Poetry Spanning the Spectrum,  and Composing Magic: How to Create Magical Spells, Rituals, Blessings, Chants, and Prayers. Her current study is cyberfunded creativity, including the popular “Poetry Fishbowl” project on her blog The Wordsmith’s Forge .  Visit her website PenUltimate Productions.  Her favorite pastimes include suspension-of-disbelief bungee-jumping and spelunking in other people’s reality tunnels.

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