At various points during the writing process decisions have to be made about the form the piece will take.
Will it be largely or wholly descriptive? Or will it tell a story?
Are you going to reflect directly on your theme? Or will you leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about what you think?
People often think of rhythm as a quality of poetry, particularly of rhyming poetry or formal verse. Whilst this is true, you could argue that rhythm is a part of everyday speech, and that even the most ordinary sentence has a musicality of its own. Consider a line like:
I went to the gate, but he'd already gone.
This is a very mundane statement, but it has a lilt to it.
When you write a piece of prose, you sometimes forget that you can play with its sounds. A short piece of prose that changes speed from one paragraph to the next can be exciting to write and read.
Short sentences can speed up a paragraph:
'No!' He said. The vase dropped. 'NO!' Crack. Shards of pot... Sounds of running feet.
Here, the exclamation marks increase the sense of urgency.
Long sentences can make a passage move more slowly. This description, dwelling on the details of the smashed pot, changes gear along with the mood:
The vase had shown fearful roe-deer running through a vast, lush, lime-green forest. It had depicted hunters, their bows primed, aiming at the lovely animals, their cruel human eyes meeting liquid deer pupils.
Imagine if a reader read those two paragraphs one after the other, how they would have to speed up and then slow down.
Bear in mind that passages of dialogue tend to move faster than passages of description.
Let's say you are writing a poem: do you plan to use rhyme? If you really want to learn the craft of poetry, you should tackle rhyming verse at some point.
Will you follow the rules of any of the regular forms of verse? Or evolve an irregular form of your own?
Here is a small selection of poetic forms that you may find it useful to keep in mind:
- rhyming stanzas
- blank verse
- free verse
- heroic couplets
- terza rima
The question of which poetic form to use is usually decided by the nature of the material: it's a matter of which form feels most appropriate as the piece develops. However, it is not at all unusual for a poet to begin with a form that appeals to him or her and then look for material to fit it. A decision to attempt a sonnet, or an elegy, can stimulate the creative energies in unexpected and productive ways.
Moving on to narrative: suppose you have a story that you want to tell. Is it fiction? Or a memoir, a true story from your own life? If it is a story that you are making up, do you plan to write it in poetry or prose? We usually think first of prose as the medium for narrative, but of course there are narrative forms of poetry too: such as the ballad.
Will it be realistic or surreal and dreamlike? Will it be set in the real world? Or will it be a piece of 'speculative fiction': fantasy, sci-fi, ghost story or supernatural horror? Whose point of view are you writing it from:
- one of the characters
- several characters in turn
- an impersonal narrator who knows everything?
The craft of fiction is a huge and complex subject. You may find it helpful to consult some of the guides listed on the Resources page.
Writing for the web
These days the World-Wide Web makes it possible to write and publish new forms of poetry and fiction. The most obvious, and the easiest to practise, is hypertext writing. Hypertext is what you get when web pages (or sections of pages) are connected by links. It becomes much easier and more natural to move away from strictly linear forms of writing into something multi-dimensional; a web or net of meaning and images instead of a simple progression.
To take a very simple example, in the traditional sonnet sequence, each sonnet leads on to the next. Web links may be used to group poems so that each line of a single sonnet is linked to another different complete sonnet in a complex pattern of cross-referencing.
Likewise, in fiction we are used to a fixed succession of events. Web links may be used to construct different possible versions of the same story: the reader chooses which links he or she wants to click on and the story becomes partly a result of these choices. Or web links may be used to supply additional material: dreamlike or symbolic material, perhaps, whose significance in the story is left to the reader's imagination.
All that is needed is the ability to produce web pages: either by using a special program, or through the direct use of mark-up languages: HTML and CSS. If that sounds esoteric to you, don't worry; it really isn't hard.
The Resources page contains links to examples of hypertext writing and also recommends some guides to constructing websites.
Read, read, read
Read poetry, of all periods and cultures. Read modern poetry, lots of it; but also read the poetry that was written in the past. This is the best way of training your ear for sound and rhythm and your sense of poetic form. Don't confine yourself to original English verse by native speakers: read poetry in translation too.
Read fiction of all kinds, including the fiction of past centuries and fiction in translation. Notice how other story-tellers have surmounted those tricky problems such as writing convincing dialogue or negotiating potentially awkward transitions from one scene of a story to another.
This is the most useful advice that any prospective writer can take on board.
Exercise 1: A different shape 1
Aim of the exercise: Become more aware of writing as an act of transformation
If you are in the V&A, choose a costume from the Fashion Gallery. Otherwise here is a selection of costumes for you to choose from.
Imagine what it is like to wear the costume you have chosen. Make notes on the following:
- How does the costume make you stand and walk?
- What accessories do you wear with it (shoes, wigs, hats, jewels, watches, cufflinks, tie-pins, bags etc.)? Do these make you feel splendidly dressed? Or loaded down?
- Would wearing this costume make you feel taller? Or smaller?
- What does the fabric smell like?
- What sounds does the costume make as you move? Does it rustle? Does it swish? Think of words to describe it.
- What does the garment feel like on your body?
Think about how the fabric would feel against your skin. How heavy is it? Does it scratch or itch? Are there any stays or boning that would cut into your flesh? How tightly cut is the garment would it feel constraining or would it flap about?
Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror:
- What first impressions do you get?
- Do you feel like yourself or someone else: a film star, perhaps, or someone from another age or social environment?
- Or perhaps you have chosen to be someone of the other sex. If so, how does that change the way you feel?
These questions are very important, so write as much down as you can.
Who are you when you wear this costume? Take a fresh sheet of paper and make notes about the following:
- Come up with a name for yourself that suits your imagined appearance.
- Give yourself an occupation.
- Decide on your age, weight, height, and family background.
- Imagine that you are going somewhere.
- How does it feel to walk down the street in what you are wearing?
- How do people look at you?
Use these notes as a basis for a short piece of fiction.
The story must begin with the line: 'As I walked by, people looked up from what they were doing.'
It must end with the line: 'And, after all, wasn't that what I had come here for?'
During the course of the story, a small event must occur that the character has not expected.
The catch of this exercise is that it can only be five paragraphs long. How long these paragraphs are is up to you.
New Look Afternoon dress
Museum no. T.116-1974
Mini dress, Mary Quant
Museum no. T.52-1985
'The Skeleton Dress', Elsa Schiaparelli
'The Skeleton Dress'
Museum no. T.394-1974
'No 16', woman’s utility suit
Woman's utility suit
Museum no. T.45-1942
Evening dress, Catherine Walker
Velvet with pearl detail and diamante back
Museum no. T.49-1995
'Watteau', evening gown
Shot silk faille and taffeta
Museum no. T.438:1-1996
Evening dress, Madeleine Vionnet
by Madeleine Vionnet
Silk velvet with pink and purple chiffon streamers
Museum no. T.89-1982
Evening dress, Charles Frederick Worth
Charles Frederick Worth
Chiffon and sequins
Museum no. T.56-1961
Evening dress, Chanel
Museum no. T.86-1974
Costume, Mark Powell
Museum no. T.40:1-1997
Grey wool covert and black velvet suit; cotton shirt with cufflinks; silk tie.
Dress, Victor Stiebel
Museum no. T.292-1984
Single-breasted utility suit, Selfridges & Co
Single-breasted utility suit
Selfridges & Co
Museum no. T.304-1982
Exercise 2: A different shape 2
Aim of the exercise: Play with the shape of the poem on the page
If you are in the V&A, choose a costume from the Fashion Gallery. Otherwise choose one of the images from the previous exercise.
If you have already completed the first , you may opt to use the same garment or to choose a new one.
If the costume chosen is a long, thin gown, such as the Vionnet evening gown from the 1930s, write a long, thin poem about it.
If the costume chosen is wide, such as Vivienne Westwood's 'Watteau' dress from the Les Femmes collection, 1996), write a wide poem. Rhyming couplets might be suitable, with spaces between each pair of lines.
Dresses such as those by Vionnet are cut on the bias from single pieces of fabric. So the long, thin poem might be all in one piece.
The Westwood dress has a tight bodice and wide skirt. So the wider poem might begin with a series of couplets with short lines, followed by couplets made out of lines that grow longer as it comes to an end.
Again, if this exercise is done with a male suit, then a short, boxy poem or a long, elegant poem may result, depending on the costume you have chosen.
The point of this exercise is to think about the space a poem occupies on the page and make your words convey the costume visually as well as through sound and meaning.
The space around a poem
Most beginning writers think about many other aspects of the poem they are writing before they think about the shape it makes on the page: rhyme, rhythm, stanza form, punctuation. Yet the first things we see when we look at a poem are its shape and the way that it occupies space. The visual qualities of a poem can be crucial to how we read it.
When you have completed the exercise, ask yourself these questions:
- Were you satisfied with the result?
- If not, what would you like to alter about the poem?
- What did you manage to convey about the dress/ suit?
- What do you wish you had done better?
Exercise 3: Little Black Verse
Aim of the exercise: Try out different forms
Imagine a character wearing one or other of the two costumes in the pictures: the black dress or the dinner suit. Now imagine him or her entering a room during a social event. You are going to write a short poem of exactly twenty lines: the first line must read 'Black has always been in fashion; the final line must read 'My little black dress' or 'My black tuxedo.' What happens in the eighteen lines in between is up to you!
When you have written your poem, if it is unrhymed, have a go at writing a rhyming version. If it rhymes, write a second version in free verse with little or no rhyme.
Compare both versions and ask yourself which you prefer and why.
You may like to follow this up with a short story.
- Who sees them?
- How do those people perceive them?
- How do they feel making an entrance in their dress/ suit?
- Who do they talk to? How do they feel talking to them?
Make notes. Use this material as the basis for the beginning of a short story and see how the story develops.
Exercise 4: In the bag
Aim of the exercise: Getting inside an object
Choose one of these pictures of bags from the V&A collections. Describe the outside in as much detail as possible.
Now imagine the inside. How does the clasp or fastening sound when the bag is opened?
How does the bag smell - inside and out?
To whom does it belong?
To help you imagine this person fully, you may find it useful to take another look at the advice in some of the earlier exercises:
- Portrait piece
- Outside the frame
- A different shape 1
Now try this 'outpouring' exercise:
Imagine all the items that the bag would contain in everyday use. 'Outpour' these items in a list, writing down as many of them as possible, as quickly as is possible, without stopping to think about it.
Use this list and the notes that you made first as the basis for a poem.