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  1. Jetik X
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    Jetik X New Member

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    Style Starting a novel with a poem.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Jetik X, Oct 7, 2013.

    How do you feel about this? I want something to hook the readers of my novel, but am not sure how to approach it. I am playing with the idea of throwing a small and relevant poem, a sort of introduction, at the top.

    What are your opinions?
     
  2. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i generally find it more annoying and a bit of author conceit, than useful or enjoyable...

    if you use copyrighted material, you have to have permission... if out of copyright, author must still be cited...

    and i'd advise against using your own... though dean koontz gets away with it due to his bestselling author status, i skip right over them, as i suspect many readers also do...
     
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  3. Jetik X
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    Jetik X New Member

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    I was talking more about a short poem written specifically for the scene, nothing gaudy.

    Unfortunately, I am not much of a reader, so have no examples to cite other than my own. Please do not reference my writing nor style specifically in any responses, but rather the concept I am referencing here. Actually, if someone could cite a better example, that would be fantastic.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------
    Heroes abandoned...
    Star-crossed, left stranded...
    Their fate is soon to be outshone...
    Alas remanded...
    By what, in a womb, has now grown...

    They have been here for days, watching... waiting. The cathedral below them is one Aaliyah knows well; it is where... Etcetera Etcetera Etcetera
    -----------------------------------------------------------------

    So basically, the poem serves as a short bit of back-story to what is happening when the book starts. Later, it is expounded upon through the events that unfold in the first chapter.

    Can you point me to which books by Koontz contain the poetry you were speaking of? Like I said, I am a literary n00b.
     
  4. TessaT
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    TessaT Contributing Member

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    Is it original, or no? Does it relate specifically to your novel, or perhaps its written by your main character? I've seen it done well, and I've honestly just flipped by them before, so it really depends on how you're doing it.
     
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  5. Jetik X
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    Jetik X New Member

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    Yes, a completely original poem that serves as a quick hook and back-story to what is happening when the book starts.

    Other ideas I have been contemplating all seem too cliche, i.e. "In a forgotten era, they would have been heroes blah blah blah". As I thought and thought about a hook, the idea of using a poem somehow became reasonable. My greatest fear is of turning off the readers before they even get a taste of the plot.
     
  6. Thomas Kitchen
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    It also depends who your audience is. If you're writing for kids, for instance, then I highly discourage you doing it. But if you want to write a softer, slower novel for well-educated adults, then there's more of a chance that the poem will be okay.

    Also, the shorter the better, especially at the beginning of a book.
     
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  7. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think Brin's "Sundiver" starts off with a haiku, which is not actually a poem in the context of the novel, because his super-inteligent dolphins actually speak in haiku... it did put me off a bit, I remember, although I love haiku and learned to love Brin's prose... Still... haiku-speaking dolphins, c'mon!! :D
     
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  8. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm quite fond of the novels that have a quote or a verse at the beginning of each chapter. But it has to be done well. Like everything else, I suppose.
     
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  9. Jetik X
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    Jetik X New Member

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    I hadn't thought of that. My work is to be fairly mainstream, so I think it should work with what you have said.

    That does sound like a very interesting read. Haha, thanks for sharing it with me.

    The thought of including one at the beginning of each chapter hadn't even crossed my mine... I'm in trouble now. It could be included as part of the style, couldn't it. I better visit the poetry sub-section to make sure I have the right stuff for it though. I can just imagine the readers agonizing at the thought of reading the start of each new chapter.
     
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  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I wrote an original poem to start the first draft of my novel. My parents praised it highly! They're both dead now (coincidence?).

    The poem was the first thing I cut in the second draft. As @mammamaia said, it was just an author conceit.
     
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  11. TessaT
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    TessaT Contributing Member

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    Doesn't Anne Rice normally include a poem before most of her books? I vaguely feel like that was the case with her Vampire books. Possibly even with Servant of the Bones (which I love). I have to say, I don't think that it's always author conceit, but that it definitely can be.
    Though, I am a bit biased because I plan to start out my novel with a poem, that is technically a piece of recorded history. I find that it fits, it has a hook, and a bit of foreshadowing as well. If you feel that fits, put it in. Then when you have someone read your book, just make sure to ask them about it.
     
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  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Sounds like a gimmick. Depend instead on strong writing.

    Also, unless you're a damned good poet, such a lead in will annoy rather than engage readers.
     
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  13. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Nabokov's excellent novel Pale Fire opens with a 999-line poem, right? So a short one should be no problem :)

    Seriously, though, if it is extremely short there is probably little harm in it. Many readers will likely skip over it. If you're going to do it, make sure you do it well (i.e. as @Cogito said, if you can't write a really good poem, you'll only weaken the opening).
     
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  14. A.M.P.
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    I remember reading a book series, I forget the name or anything, that had a quote from some random character in the story that somewhat related to what was going on in the book or that chapter specifically.
    It was usually just a line, sometimes a short paragraph, but I read them even though most of the time I did not understand WHY they were there.
    Perhaps it was to add lore or some sort of connection between the characters and that scene?

    Either way, I enjoyed the style well enough.
     
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  15. Dawnless Sky
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    I'd say it depends on the length.

    Many novels and movies open up with a short quote from a famous person (often Shakespeare). I can't remember any though :(
    They're usually short enough not to be a bother.

    If you write your own, if you keep it short, I think you can be alright.
     
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  16. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    First, no matter how relevant, the reader won't know it was till after they read the chapter. And if it is obvious, you've just telegraphed the plot and killed suspense. And a poem, no matter how great, will not sell the book. The minute-to-minute reading pleasure that makes the reader need to turn the pages does that.

    Next, it will only act as a hook for people who enjoy poetry. What percentage of the people in your neighborhood own books of poetry?

    And finally, the poem will be meaningful to you, because you already know the story and the intent of the poem, What about the reader? They came to be entertained with a story.

    A suggestion: write a really great story. Polish it till it shines, and can't be told from the work of the published writers on that acquiring editor's desk. Send it out and hook a publisher who will send you an enormous advance. And then, when it's in editing, tell your editor that you think a poem introducing chapter one will be a plus.
     
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  17. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Q: what is the context of poetry in your story? Is it contextualized within the narrative : one of the characters writes it, reads it, speaks or memorizes it; or, it simply exists within the story world aside from the actual storyline (quotes from Princess Irulan's works come to mind); or (as in Pale Fire) the story stems from the poem, in a way, or is about the poem?
    Or, if it is not contextualized, does it serve a role similiar to the role of introductury quotes, dedications etc? "Explaining" or introducing or making a mystery of the main theme, or an underlaying motive, or a specific character type, but is otherwise "skippable"?

    Personal experience: in one of mine (published) fantasy stories I've originaly included some verses, a song that a character sings out loud, at the very beginning. When I've actually print it before submission, at the first glance on the paper I thought: "Tolkien-fetishism!!" So, I've immediately chopped it off and stiched the wound with "He sings a merry tune"-line... It worked quite fine :)

    However - and I think this makes sense in genre-fiction, where almost everything turns out to be pure fetishism sooner or later - a fully aware author can have a lot of fun if the subversion of genre is his actual agenda. And a marginally aware reader should have no problem joining the fun... But awareness is a prerequisite, I think, absolutely necessary to avoid any type of fetish...

    In "mainstream" fiction, which is not bond by conventions and constrictions of genre-fiction, you could, technically, try just about anything. I think that, if you are decidedly pushing for a definite structure in your novel (in your example: if you are not simply including verses but if they are an inseparable part of the text) then stick to it and, after getting some relevant opinion from your beta-readers, work hard to find a publisher... If, however, you find out that substituting the verse with something like "She read a really meaningful poem" or "He sang a merry tune" do't really change that much, and the story looks amd feels just right - maybe you should concider ditching it. But weight it with a reader or two first ...
     
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2013
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  18. Head
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    Head New Member

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    Janet Frame's Towards Another Summer starts with a few lines of a Charles Brasch poem (which the title of the book is also from).

    They serve as the main motif of the book I guess, or it's obliquely about them or something.


    To echo the comments about plays, lots of plays have songs and such foreshadowing the plot at or near the beginning...

    Edit : The excerpt is five stunningly palatable lines that suffuse the entire book. If the whole poem had been in front the book would have just been a book with a Charles Brasch poem in front.
     
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  19. badgerjelly
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    badgerjelly Member

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    Quite a few authors use poetry throughout their novels and it can work very well. The two that spring to mind are Kirk Vonnegut and Clive Barker.

    If you want it to be the very first thing in your novel then I would suggest that you keep it short and simple. Something that gives an outline of what you want to say and sets the mood early on is always a good thing.

    Don't let anyone tell you it is a bad idea. Easy to execute? That depends purely on your ability as a writer.
     
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  20. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ditto that!

    as for koontz, in many of his books he quoted lines from 'the book of counted sorrows' which was imaginary till years later when he actually wrote it... in his 'odd thomas' series of books, he quoted from the still nonexistent 'the book of counted joys'...
     
  21. plothog
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    I admit I tend to skip poems in novels,especially at the start, for the same reasons some other people skip prologues. I.e. In my experience they're often backstory infodumps.
    What's more they're hard to read infodumps, because the word choices are made based more on making a poem than clarity. I'm sure some poetry fans will disagree with me, but this is just my opinion as a reader.
     
  22. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    @plothog infodump = a dump (a pile thrown into reader's face) of information
    I don't think anyone would include more than half a page of verse - hardly a pile - and verses usually don't contain that much information in the first place, let alone enough to be considered too much...
     
  23. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    George Eliot used epigraphs in many chapters of her novels. Some were lines of poetry. You might study some of those to see how one of the real masters did it.

    I used a poetic epigraph in The First Impression, at the top of a chapter in which the protagonist appears to be done for. Here's how that chapter opens ...

    Because I could not stop for Death—
    He kindly stopped for me—
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
    And Immortality.

    Emily Dickinson


    Lambert sat perfectly still. His attention was fixed on the little circle of steel touching his head.

    “What you will do now,” Baylor said, “is lean forward, very slowly. You will lower yourself to the floor and lie face down with your arms extended above your head.” Lambert did as he was told, lying prone with his arms stretched as though he were diving into a pool. Baylor instructed him to bring his arms behind his back, one at a time, and snapped on the handcuffs. ***

     
  24. Mckk
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    I'd be quite careful. A lot of books do quote poems, but not as the opening but as the page before the story even starts. Yours, it sounds like, is the opening to your story. Poems are hard to write, which means you're more likely to put readers off than draw them in, and openings are hard enough as it is. I wouldn't do it, personally, you're asking for trouble.

    But then again, it all depends on what your story needs. Poem as an excuse to give back story sounds like an excuse and given that it's the opening, readers will lose interest fast cus they haven't invested anything yet. I dunno. Use it only because it is exactly what your story needs, don't use it as a "big shiny toy" to attract readers. I did that once - not with a poem but with some action scene, and its sole purpose was to excite the reader and engage them, as I feared anything else wouldn't draw them in. Well, guess what? Even though the action scene is related to the plot, it worked against me precisely because every reader who read it saw through it - they saw that it was in no way significant to the main story or main character and ceased to care. It was a big shiny object, that was all, and it lost its value quick and sharp.

    Since then I've opened with a very quiet opening that is also perfect for the story. Most test readers have loved it, or at the very least been able to read on and engage at a slightly later point. Either way, it was better than the gimmick.
     
  25. rhduke
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    I usually find them enjoyable and they usually set the atmosphere for the chapter. The brief example you gave would be something nice to add to the start of each chapter to a fantasy novel. Authors do it all the time. I don't agree that it would necessarily turn people away from your plot. If anything, they would just skip reading it and get to the meat of the story, and there's nothing wrong with that. Similar to an introduction before the first chapter, people might read it or not because it isn't necessary to understand the story.
     

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