Pinterest for Authors: If you are going to generate interest in your writing, you need to go where people congregate. According to 2015 statistics, 47 million people, called pinners, use Pinterest. There are more than 30 million boards with over 750 million pins. Clearly, this platform has potential, but does it have potential for writers to generate new audiences?
Back in July, New Zealand novelist Odelia Floris blogged that writers should read more poetry.
She claims “there is much you can learn by dipping into the poems of some of the greats….their language is diverse, their sentence structure[‘]s innovative, and their use of metaphor outstanding.”
She insists this holds true even for authors with no literary aspirations, who write only to entertain. She holds instead that “If your language is limited and repetitive, your sentences awkward, your metaphors clichéd or non-existent, your novel is more likely to bore and annoy.”
I couldn’t agree more. The ability to write crisp, stylized prose separates first-rate writers from the writers lost in the middle of the pack. In fact, I would argue that before the corporate number crunchers took over the publishing houses and editors made the purchasing decisions rather than marketing departments, fiction editors looked for writers who could sell a line more than those could could simply tell a story.
Nothing helps writers develop an ear for those savory lines and delicious phrasing —those lines readers want to ponder long after the story finishes—than an appreciation of poetry.
I can already hear my narrative-driven writing friends saying, “Hold on, Stephens. You never want to interrupt the reader’s experience of the story. Or to cause them to come up from the flow of the narrative and remember they’re merely reading a book.” To that I say, Get a grip. That model of reading is a fantasy, a useful model for teaching writing.
In fact, it’s one I use myself. But it’s hardly realistic.
The real world interferes with the reader’s engagement of the narrative. Cats, doorbells, spouses, flies on the nose, the announcer on the radio they’re listening to in the background or the end of their playlist.
Why not the awareness of a particularly choice dallop of prose? One they can roll at the back of their tongue like a fine wine and mull over the textures and flavors before dipping back under the surface of the book?
I’ve stopped to sniff those finely scented lines ever since my first college teacher made me aware that language offered a separate level of engagement with readers. It’s only made my reading experience more robust.
Some writers might think the ability to write highly stylized prose is beyond them, but my first attempts resembled chicken scratchings and rat droppings. I improved. I even admit you may never learn. If you’re the person at the party who never gets the joke, if you honestly can say you can’t hear the beauty in music other than the genre you prefer, if you read Jane Austen or even Alan Bradley’s Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and can’t see they’re a cut above Sue Grafton or Laurel Hamilton, you’re most likely hopeless.
For the rest of you, however, I can’t help but stress the importance of dipping your toes into some of the great poets and then the great novelists and bringing some style to your prose.
Floris wants to take readers back to Tennyson for her lesson in poetic prose. Admittedly, Tennyson was a great poet. But moving from a twenty-first century head space to a nineteenth century Victorian headspace (she would say Romantic) can be a bit of a leap. So I want to look at some well-known lines from poets of the last century to demonstrate the power of a stylized line. Then we’ll look and see what their fellow novelists were doing.
We’ll start with one of the best examples of stylized language written in the English language, Yeats’ poem Memory</>:
One had a lovely face, And two or three had charm, But charm and face were in vain Because the mountain grass Cannot but keep the form Where the mountain hare has lain.
I don’t intend to discuss the meaning or merits of this poem about an aging man trying to recall the women he loved in his youth (you have the Internet for that). Rather I want to point out the grace, clarity and vividness of his language. It rolls of the tip of the readers’ tongues and seeps into the corners of our own memories. We can dwell on it for minutes or hours. It stays with us like the memory of a fine wine or liquor.
If the Yeats poem didn’t move you, then you might want to take a free community poetry appreciation course offered by your local college.
The styled poetry line
Contrary to popular belief, not every line of poetry rips your heart out, or soars on clouds of genius. Many are as mundane as as two-star indie romance. But when a line leaps out and grabs you, you want to dwell on it. The poet Anne Sexton had a great line about her father’s photo scrapbook:
This is the yellow scrapbook that you began the year I was born; as crackling now and wrinkly as tobacco leaves…
“All My Pretty Ones”
Wallace Stevens’ Emperor of Ice Cream is often quoted in classrooms, but this line from The Man With the Blue Guitar</> has always gripped my gut. It comes in the form of a non-sequitur in which the poet meditating on an image of the guitarist suddenly wants:
To drive the dagger in his heart, To lay his brain upon the board And pick the acrid colors out, To nail his thought across the door, Its wings spread wide to rain and snow…
Sandra Cisneros, whom I had the privilege to perform with more than once at Mexic-Arte in Austin, invokes war metaphors to describe her relationship to her lover.
There should be stars for great wars like ours. There ought to be awards and plenty of champagne for the survivors. … Maybe in this season, drunk and sentimental, I’m willing to admit a part of me, crazed and kamikaze, ripe for anarchy, loves still.
“One Last Poem for Richard”
Lisa Zaran, another contemporary, evokes the similar sense of non-sequitur but with strikingly different results in her poem “Girl”:
She said she collects pieces of sky, cuts holes out of it with silver scissors, bits of heaven she calls them.
That image just calls for the reader to sit back and sip again. To try, not to picture the girl physically cutting holes in the sky, but to collect the images in the girl’s head and wonder how her mind must work.
By contrast, poets like William Carlos Williams used simple phrases with ordinary construction to create vivid images in the reader’s mind. In this way his use of language was no less stylized than the others.
“This is Just to Say”
I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold
Even though Williams weaves this poem from two simple declarative sentences, he manages to evoke the sweetness of the plums more assuredly than a thousand words of description. This is both the inspiration and the craft behind the use of stylized language.
Other poets, by contrast, play with words until they become pictures as well. Readers acknowledge e.e. cummings as master of stylized poetry, illustrated by his famous poem “[Buffalo Bill ‘s]”:
Buffalo Bill ’s defunct who used to ride a watersmooth-silver stallion and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat Jesus he was a handsome man and what i want to know is how do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death
I hope these few examples show how much the language of the stylized line can elevate the reading experience. I also hope the examples provided make it clear that poetry is nothing like the florid tedious drivel or the dense self-referential masturbatory exercise that popular mythology paints it in popular depictions.
Turning to poem to prose
Can we weave the same kind of stylized language into fiction? Absolutely. Great writers have done it for years, and not just in what we now think of as literary fiction. Consider Raymond Chandler, author of the Sam Spade novels and considered by many one to be of the fathers of modern crime fiction.
His prose served as a model for the narrative and dialogue in films and novels to follow. Consider this short description from The High Window, which tells us everything we need to know about a woman, and a great deal about the narrator as well: “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”
Or consider this scene description from the short story “Red Wind”: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
Most writers would focus on the temperature of the wind, the color of the night sky, the sand, the howling wolves. Chandler riffs off the wind taking you to a drunken party and ending in murder. The hook is the line, “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” Wow, how can you not sit back in your chair and pour a double shot of that line?
Or consider this opening to the story, “Dry September,” by William Faulkner: “Through the bloody September twilight, aftermath of sixty-two rainless days, it had gone like a fire in dry grass: the rumor, the story, whatever it was. Something about Miss Minnie Cooper and a Negro. Attacked, insulted, frightened: none of them, gathered in the barber shop on that Saturday evening where the ceiling fan stirred, without freshening it, the vitiated air, sending back upon them, in recurrent surges of stale pomade and lotion, their own stale breath and odors, knew exactly what had happened.”
This is an almost parallel paragraph to Chandler’s. The heat drives someone to murder. Notice the metaphor of recirculation, only this time it isn’t the air, it’s the story, the scent of pomade, bad breath, and lotion.
Most writers would begin something like this: “On a dry night in September the rumor spread though town that a Negro boy attacked Miss Minnie Cooper. It wasn’t long before the fellows gathered in the barber shop the way they usually did on Saturday night and got to talking about poor Miss Minnie and that Negro boy.”
Or: “Jefferson was a small town in Mississippi where people tried their best to get along in times of depression. But in the month of August, when the heat was highest and they’d seen no rain since May, when the dust clung to people’s clothes in thick layers, tempers tended to be shorter than usual.”
These openings don’t suck. They would be typical openings for this short story in the hands of most writers, and that would be why no one would remember “Dry September” if most writers wrote it. Faulkner’s ability to write words like they were wrapped in bacon and deep fat fried earned him a place in literary history.
How’s this for an opening? Walker Percy launches his novel Love in the Ruins with these words: “Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?”
Those words are poetry, pure and simple, and, when I first read them, wrapped my brain in a cloud of exhalation, lifting me from my couch on a September afternoon and transporting me to the reading room of the muses. Rarely does the language of a novel hook the reader, but those words hooked me and I didn’t quit reading until three in the morning when my wife made me come to bed. What made Love in the Ruins unique was not the plot, although Percy created a world in which the end of the world depended on the quantitative qualitative ontological lapsomiter (a handheld device built around a philosophical paradox), but the luscious language perfect for catastrophe in New Orleans.
Percy’s wrote such vivid and dynamic prose that I still remember when and where I read that book, and I can think of only a handful of books where that’s true (and in each case, the writers also wrote exquisite prose).
Dr. Thomas More, the descendant of the author of Utopia, wanders through the novel delivering wry commentary on himself and his neighbors. “I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all.” Later he muses, “What does a man live for but to have a girl, use his mind, practice his trade, drink a drink, read a book, and watch the martins wing it for the Amazon and the three-fingered sassafras turn red in October?”
This is a novel you can savor on a fall afternoon, sitting by the window while the leaves blow by with a glass of wine by your side, or cider and a donut, tea perhaps or even a fine single malt scotch. (No ice to water it down.) Maybe a cheese plate with some figs and grapes. Your window cracked open just a hair so you feel the breeze as it passes. All because the author took the time to whittle his wordcraft to a fine art.
More observes of one of his women, “What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.” That sends shivers through my spine. Okay, maybe the scotch helps, but still, how can you not read that and feel the connection between the angels and the earth as well?
I prefer these writers any day over one who writes, “Tod’s mom served macaroni and cheese for dinner. It was his favorite dish. He made sure to have a second helping before he slipped out his bedroom window to search for more clues to whoever was harassing his friend Tommy.”
Flannery O’Connor, Southern writer who grappled with her Catholic heritage, proved equally adept at the wry line. The average writer would describe a woman who takes forever to get to the point exactly as I just did: “Jane drove everyone crazy when she joined the conversation. She took forever to get to the point, if she ever made it.” Consider O’Connor’s description from the story “Everything That Rises Must Converge”:
He groaned to see that she was off on that topic. She rolled into it every few days like a train on an open track. He knew every stop, every junction, every swamp along the way, and knew the exact point at which her conclusion would roll majestically into the station.
Thomas Pynchon takes a different approach to language, often blowing his readers minds’ to scattered fragments with a blunderbuss of prose. Consider this passage from V:
I am the twentieth century. I am the ragtime and the tango; sans-serif, clean geometry. I am the virgin’s-hair whip and the cunningly detailed shackles of decadent passion. I am every lonely railway station in every capital of Europe. I am the Street, the fanciless buildings of government. the cafe-dansant, the clockwork figure, the jazz saxophone, the tourist-lady’s hairpiece, the fairy’s rubber breasts, the travelling clock which always tells the wrong time and chimes in different keys. I am the dead palm tree, the Negro’s dancing pumps, the dried fountain after tourist season. I am all the appurtenances of night.
In this passage Pynchon’s prose wanders in every direction, like urban sprawl of language, twists and turns of phrase that readers can wander through until they’re lost and must force themselves to stop to enjoy the locale. Maybe sip a cup of coffee at the corner cafe before braving the streets once more. Reading Pynchon is like reading Joyce and wandering into a theater playing a Three Stooges film with subtitles from Cheech and Chong. If you’re willing the rush is worth it.
Other writers, like Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook prefer crisp, pristine prose. “…music attacks my inner ear like an antagonist, it’s not my world. The fact is, the real experience can’t be described. I think, bitterly, that a row of asterisks, like an old-fashioned novel, might be better. Or a symbol of some kind, a circle perhaps, or a square. Anything at all, but not words.”
I’m not saying language alone can drive a novel, but it adds a dimension that will set your novel apart, like the one card whose edge is’t flush with the deck. It can draw an audience other novels will never find.
Some readers may at this point be scratching their heads (if they’re still reading). They’ve been reading these examples and they don’t see what makes them special. But developing an ear for stylized language takes time and practice, just as developing an palette for fine wine takes time and practice.
A brief segue into the value of an educated palette
And here I want to toss in with the notion of the educated palette. I come from a family with two distinct lines of heritage. One chose to pursue an education. The other didn’t. One chose to try more expensive wines (or wine period), finer restaurants and books that require a little more thought (to a greater or lesser degree). The others didn’t.
My mother was caught in the middle.
My father, a Baptist minister, was wined and dined by many of the people he worked with in politics and other denominations but never admitted it his family because our denomination frowned upon such pastimes. So my mother had to be coaxed into trying wine and good food after he died. (She was always a voracious reader, but only because Dad never paid attention to books, at least until the book banning craze began my senior year in high school.) Once Carol and I assured her that we were going to enjoy our meals no matter what she chose, she finally broke down and ordered from our side of the menu.
Those members of my family who educated their palette have never regretted the decision. We enjoy their conversation more, they have a wider circle of friends, we are still members of our churches and our religious beliefs have changed relatively little. In other words, we aren’t going to hell in a handbasket as the other side of my family predicted.
Those members of my family who chose to narrow their tastes enjoy a much smaller menu, don’t participate in many of our conversations, have a smaller circle of friends and their bookshelves are smaller with a very narrow range of topics. Their vocabulary is limited and they don’t catch many political and social references.
As an author you want to appeal to both audiences. You want to give a ripping good story to audiences with no ear for nuance. But you want readers with a seasoned ear to say, “This is a writer I relish.” To court those readers, you may have to educate your reading palette to experience the nuance they experience.
You’ll never regret the time you took to do so. On those nights you can’t sleep and you’ve squeezed your brain for every last word until blood drips onto your keyboard, you may be glad you have that volume of Wallace Stevens on your headboard and the eye for the poetic line that makes it worth reading.
More so when a fan writes and says, “That line in your book. The one that goes, ‘….’ It will stick with me for the rest of my life.” The glow from those words will last for the rest of the day.