In the first part of our series featuring science fiction and fantasy author Rachel Swirsky, the young talent revealed a collection of her poetry and short stories entitled “Through the Drowsy Dark” will be released by Aqueduct Press at the end of May. This got us talking about the differences between poetry and prose, if prose should be poetic, and how to achieve that effect in your work.
Dawn: Since it’s National Poetry Month… what are the similarities and differences between writing poetry and short fiction?
Rachel: I think poetry is intensely useful for fiction writers. It teaches one how to create images that are concrete rather than abstract, to fully exploit each word, and to understand language on the detail-level. Poetry spoils me, because you can work on each word until it’s perfect. You can rewrite a poem dozens or hundreds of times to make sure each word is exactly what you want it to be.
Dawn: You can’t do that in a short story…
Rachel: Once you’re dealing with thousands of words in short stories, you can’t give each phrase the same level of attention. With novels, there’s even less ability to focus on the micro-level.
When I took a novel workshop at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang said that one of the most common difficulties she sees short story writers having with the novel form is letting go of their control. Novels are too long to perfect word by word, and usually too much for a writer to keep in mind all at once in the way you can with a short story (or so I’m told).
Poetry is the opposite: you have an extremely high degree of control over the words and it’s fairly easy to keep the whole thing in mind at once, or even to memorize the whole project if you want to. Sometimes that control can be maddening if you can’t create the effect you want, and I know there have been plenty of times when I’ve caught myself retyping the same three words over and over, changing them slightly and then changing them back, until I’m completely frustrated. This is usually a good time to walk away.
Dawn: Your prose is very poetic — one of the things I love about it. Do you make a conscious effort to do that?
Rachel: I do make an effort to be poetic in what I write. Which is to say, poetry is extremely conscious of the language it uses to convey ideas. It’s easier for people writing prose to abstract themselves from the means of communication, because prose is an unmarked form–we use it when we speak, and when we write notes to each other, and when we write up reports at work. It’s ubiquitous, so we can pretend it’s not even there, much like fish probably don’t think, “Hey, I’m swimming through the water” every thirty seconds. But it is there.
Dawn: I think it’s easier to â€œtryâ€ to abstract ourselves from the means of communication. But truly transparent prose can take as much work as poetic prose. Otherwise, it looks self-conscious…
Rachel: Transparent prose attempts to use language in a way that the audience won’t notice–to take advantage of the ubiquity of the medium so it disappears. This can be a beautiful technique. Prose that we consider poetic, or sometimes I hear people use the term self-conscious, is playing more overtly with the medium of language.
Different styles have different kinds of effects on the reader, and may play better or worse with the kind of content you’re trying to express. I try to think about what effect I’m having and what effect I’m trying to create, and then I usually spend a lot of time with the sentence-level language to make sure that it’s doing what I want it to.
Dawn: What do you find most challenging about fiction – the language, plot, characters, world-building or something else?
Rachel: That depends on the story. I probably spend more time on language than on anything else, but I don’t tend to find it challenging, per se.
I don’t feel like I have a lot of problems understanding characters, although relaying that understanding on the page is a different challenge.
I tend to come into stories with plot arcs I already understand, but sometimes the exact process of how to show the characters getting from 60% of the way through the story to 80% can be very difficult for me. Beginnings, early middles, and endings are easy–it’s that latter middle part of the arc which seems to sag. I don’t even want to know what that’s going to be like on a 100,000-word novel instead of a 2,000- to 10,000-word short story.
I wish I was better at dialogue. I think I write dialogue decently enough, but when you read the work of someone who really has an ear for it, it can be this astonishing, amazing thing. Andy Duncan captures people’s speech in ways that feel dynamic, fresh, novel, and totally real–he writes the dialogue equivalent of surprising yet inevitable endings. His dialogue is a small, focused, surprise–but then you realize the character could never speak any other way.
You can read stories and poetry by Rachel Swirsky at:
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Find out more at RachelSwirsky.com
I also really wish I could do tight, focused plotting — the kinds of plots you find in farces or murder mysteries. I’ve been watching episodes of Coupling and Doctor Who by Steven Moffat, and he hits the plot points with just the right amount of precision and wit, with never a wasted word. I want to know how to do that.