Putting Poems In

On June 30, 2020, RedTrumpetWriter wrote, I was wondering how you came up with the epic poetry you wrote in the Bamarre stories, Gail, and some of the songs/poetry you’ve included in other stories like Stolen Magic. I would like to include something like that in a book I’m working on but I guess I wasn’t really sure where to start, like what examples I should look at or if there was any sort of formula that you followed. I’ve done a bit of looking but I was wondering if you had any tips/advice that would help me as I found what you did really immersive and such a cool part of the worldbuilding. (if anyone else has ideas they are welcome to chime in as well!)

Erica wrote back, I would recommend reading a lot of poetry and lyrics to find a style you like, and then going for it. Also, there was a post about including songs in your writing a while back (http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2020/01/01/tra-la-la/). That might be helpful too.

And I wrote, I’d suggest reading ballads, which I did when I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

I love questions about poetry! We can make poems work for us in lots of ways in our stories.

For Two Princesses, I read fifteenth century English ballads, like “Barbara Allan.” I’m sure you can find examples online, but my source was Volume 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which most public libraries are likely to have. “Barbara Allan” doesn’t strictly follow ballad meter, but it’s close, and it does follow the ballad’s simple rhyme scheme.  You can look up ballad meter online, but my source is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, a super useful book if you’re interested in writing poems—or more poems. I go back to it often. Just saying, the ballad form is pretty easy. I’d suggest picking simple rhymes, not only if you’re a beginner. Simple rhymes give the poet the most options.

I’m glad RedTrumpetWriter mentioned worldbuilding, because poems can help define the world of our stories, whether they’re fantasy or not. In Two Princesses, they establish a heroic culture. In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, they highlight the martial nature of the Lakti and the artistic aspect of the Bamarre. In A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, poems add depth to Jewish culture of the time. Mine were inspired by The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, in which the poems were translated as prose. I had fun turning their themes back into verse, and the ideas in them were unlike anything I’d write on my own, so they broadened me. In my forthcoming Trojan War book, Sparrows in the Wind, the poems are modelled on my idea of a Greek chorus, because in school, I loved the Greek chorus in classic Greek plays. My chorus is three crows.

There are lots of options!

We can also use poetry for other aspects of fiction. In Stolen Magic, I was thinking of limericks, and they reveal a lighthearted side of the dragon detective Meenore—so they add to character development.

I know a poet who, as a child, spoke only in iambs (meter—da DUM, da DUM) to a friend, who answered the same way. This says a lot about who they were! You can invent characters who speak in rhyme or who use poetic devices, like alliteration, in their dialogue, combining dialogue and character development. Or a character can decide, for an entire week, never to use the word but. What do these proclivities say about a character’s personality, specifically, spontaneity? If these practices are kingdom-wide, for example, we’re back to worldbuilding.

We can—but we don’t have to—stick to one kind of poem in a novel. In Lost Kingdom, the Lakti sing simple warrior songs, while Bamarre poetry is more varied and complex. And Bamarre proverbs are short rhyming poems.

Poems can even be used for setting. In Two Princesses, a poem by Drualt describes a prison. We could use a poem even more directly for setting. Suppose a character is stuck in a labyrinth, and the only way out is to say a rhyming poem while the way unwinds—but the labyrinth will complicate itself again if the character stops speaking. This one even advances the plot too.

We can imagine poetry contests that will advance the plot too. Our villain can cheat!

I’ve used poetry for spells too, sometime in made-up languages, which move my story along. Rhyming is easy when we’re inventing the words!

And poetry is a subtle instrument, which I love about it. It’s hard to hit a reader over the head with a poem!

A couple of editors have suggested that I write a whole book in verse. Might be fun, but I’m a slow enough writer as it is. Writing poems, for me at least, is slower going than writing prose. And I worry that writing only in verse would leach the fun out of it.

If you’re not confident as a poet, I’d suggest leaning on forms, which will support you with structure. Forms help with where to end a line, whether or not to rhyme, and sometimes with length. I’d suggest also reading about rhyme because I think you’ll be surprised by the possibilities.

Here are three prompts:

  • A poem form I especially love is the pantoum, which can be as long as you like. Lines repeat, and the poem ends where it began. Look up the form and write a pantoum about a journey from home and back again—like the Lord of the Rings, but shorter!
  • At the triumphant beginning of the tragic myth of Oedipus, he manages to enter the city of Thebes because he correctly answered the Sphinx’s riddle. Imagine a distant descendent of the Sphinx who has parked herself outside your home town or outside a major city. She is devouring anyone attempting to enter who can’t answer her rhymed riddle in a rhymed answer. Traffic is blocked halfway around the world. Your MC answers the riddle with a poem and then asks the new Sphinx a rhymed riddle in return. Write the riddles and the story.
  • Look up the ballad form and write a summary, either of the next story you plan to write or of one you’ve written, as a ballad.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I might or might not have written an entire story around a random quatrain one of my characters quotes. And a series of poems (I think I’m up to ten) about another character’s death. And ridiculous numbers of love poems for my characters to write to each other. (My favorites are the ones by the man who thinks he’s the next Shakespeare even though he’s absolutely terrible.) The combination of writer and poet can be dangerously prolific.

    • Specifically, I have written thirty-eight poems about my characters (some of them supposedly authored by other characters, some not). And when I was writing the last comment, I’d forgotten about the nine different versions of a prophecy I was trying to come up with. My talent for unnecessary world building and backstory has never been more obvious.

  2. It’s out of print, but I had a story where the MC gets possessed by a malfunctioning bionic hand that forces him to write an endless stream of bad poetry. (inspired by my creations with the Magnetic Poetry on my sister’s fridge.) I think that’s the only time I’ve had poetry published. 🙂

  3. I have a question. How do you decide when you’ve got two different routes that your story can take? Maybe you’ve written your list and you’ve got a couple of brilliant ideas, but they don’t work well together. Or maybe it’s an either-or question: should I kill this character or not? Should I combine these characters or not? Like, both options are valid and would make a decent story.
    If it makes a difference, right now I’m trying to decide whether to add (gender swapped) Beauty’s father into the plot in the beginning, or combine him with “beauty”‘s army commander. The Beast part is pretty clear in my rough draft, but the father part needs work.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Can you explain what you have in mind by posting the link? An opportunity for writers? I’m for that! A way for blog writers to see your work? I’m for that too, but what do we click on? If an anthology that you’re in is in the store, I’m okay with that too. Blog people can see what you’re in, cheer, and buy if they want to. I’m just not in favor of outright asking blog writers to spend money–though I do mention my books.

      • There’s going to be an open submission period once they reach their goal, I figured we have a lot of fairy tale writers here, so I wanted to let people know ahead of time in case they want to submit. (They’re tough, though! I’ve been subbing to these anthologies for years and never gotten in. It’s inspired a bunch of stories, though, and I got some published in other places.
        NOT expecting anyone to spend money. I’m just psyched that there’s a fairy tale call. 🙂 )

  4. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I love the idea of incorporating poetry into stories and the culture of the different worlds, (as was done in The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, which is one of my favorite books). It got me thinking of a project I’m working on, where both religion and family history are very important. I imagine poetry would be important for recording and recalling family history as well as religious chants and sayings, and an oral way of recalling their long and complex history.
    Thank you for this post!

  5. i💜writing says:

    What’s everyone’s opinion on editing/revising while you’re still working on the first draft? The thing is, I’ve come up with a truly brilliant idea to improve my tale, but I’m not sure if it’s good form, so to speak, to go back and add things already.

    • I write the rest of the story to fit whatever I’ve changed and don’t actually go back and change it until I’m done with the first draft. Part of it is not wanting to get bogged down in editing, part of it is that by the time I actually finish, I’ll probably have thought of something else that requires changing the beginning, and I don’t want to do it twice. Of course, as my WIP has taught me seven times already, that works a lot better in short stories than novels, because the idea of going back and starting over AGAIN gets really annoying.

    • Personally, I’ve tried it both ways, and they both have pros and cons. Sometimes I do a strict zero-edit first draft (though I have “cheated” by leaving notes to myself about what I want to edit when I can, or by rearranging the order of scenes even if I’m not changing the words). It creates a really messy rough draft, but that can be edited later. It’s a much faster method. Sometimes I allow myself to edit as I go–mostly because I think it’s more fun. Usually, if I’m doing a story this way, it’s because I’m ahead of schedule and it’s a side project.

      KM Weiland recently put out a really good article about this: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/should-you-edit-as-you-go-2/

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      I’m having the same struggle. for me, at least, I stopped writing because I felt I had focused so much on it and defined who I was by it for so long (a good eight years) without ever actually making or finishing anything I was very happy with.
      However, I think it can really help to identify why you have lost motivation. Are you worried about perfection, even in first drafts? Are you scared you’ll never be as great as you want to be? Did someone insult your writing? Did you focus to much on industry standards and what will sell, that it ruined the fun? Of course that’s not all the issues that can arise, but they, like many other things in writing, can be hard to overcome.
      Once you have identified what the issue is, you can work from there. For me, I was worried about perfection. Now, I want to focus on learning that nothing is perfect, certainly not first drafts, and that what I’m writing (for now) is just for me.
      I also think it helps to get back into what made writing fun for you in the first place. For me, it was big dramatic scenes and adventure and fun ideas. I recently had an idea like that, and focusing on it, even if it won’t end up being a full length novel like I used to think I had to write, will really help me.
      If you love creating characters, come up with characters. If you love world building, do that. If you love writing long, descriptive scenes, do that. It might help with motivation and getting back into it.

    • When I feel like that, I start with short stories, something I can write and edit and finish in a night. They’re usually based off of a scene or feeling that comes spur-of-the-moment and I’ve learned to follow it instead of wait and plan it out, which sometimes takes the fun out for me. When I finish something that I can look back over in just a few hours, I feel like I’ve accomplished something and I’m proud of my work, which gives me more positive experiences in writing. The more positive my last experience, the more likely I am to want to write again and when I come out of a short story, it makes me want to start one of my older stories back up again just for the joy of writing.

    • i💜writing says:

      I have to admit that I rarely feel motivated to write, but the thing is, I always make myself do it. Once I get into the groove then I start to build up momentum and get excited about what I’m doing.
      (Also, to be honest, I come here and read about what everyone is working on at the moment, and that always gets me motivated, actually!)

  6. Gail Carson Levine says:

    i💜writing, I’m with you! And I’m so glad the writers on the blog pump you up! Blog writers rock!

    LittleBlueTypewriter, Wednesday’s post isn’t spot on, but it does approach what you’re asking about.

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