Moving from Lyric Poetry to Epic Fantasy

Keeping the Underwear Clean: The Art of Formal Constraint

I figure I’ve got the far ends of the literary spectrum covered: before diving face-first into the world of epic fantasy, I wrote poetry. At first blush, the two enterprises couldn’t look much more different. Although epic poetry has its share of gods and monsters, the work of lyric poets like Elizabeth Bishop, John Donne, and Anne Sexton tends to be short on orcs, fortresses, and magical glowing swords. Conversely, the verse contained in epic fantasy tends to fall into two categories: drinking songs and elvish; Dragonlance isn’t exactly replete with searing meditations in the tradition of George Herbert or Robert Lowell.

Given the disparity in modes and methods, the move from lyric poetry to epic fantasy seems to make about as much sense as heading into the Alaskan wilderness wearing Hawaiian leis and a grass skirt. I’ve found, however, much to my joy and surprise, that the hard won lessons of poetry are wonderfully useful; in the following series of posts, I’ll dig into the some of the most transferable lessons…

No one gets into writing for the spreadsheets.

When you sit down to write a book, you think it’s going to be all about character, and plot, and world building. These sorts of interesting artistic challenges are, of course, integral to the job. Alongside such challenges, however, comes another set of tasks that I can only describe as CRUCIAL BORING SHIT.

Into this category fall questions of continuity and timeline, keeping track of the number of arrows remaining in an archer’s quiver, for instance, or the phases of the moon. I once had a full moon hang around for two weeks and a dozen chapters. Every time I described the moon, it was full. Characters wandered around, killed each other, got lost and found again—all under that same unchanging moon. Finally, thank god, a copyeditor pointed it out. Then I had to make a chart of the phases of the moon and apply that chart to every description of the moon in the book.

Or there was the time I had a certain character in the same clothes for the better part of a year. She travelled to different cities, different continents, was captured and freed, fought battles, fell in the love. All in the same damn dress. For all I knew, she never changed her underwear. The copyeditor got that one, too.

This stuff is obviously crucial, but as I mentioned, it can seem more boring than defrosting the freezer. In the worst moments, the tracking of clothes and tallying of days feels like the exact opposite of a creative endeavor. Every timeline, every costume change, every shot arrow and shift in the seasons feels like a constraint. It would be great if Yselle could be wearing a yellow dress, but unfortunately she’s still stuck in that ridiculous armor from the last scene…

In the moments when I am most tempted to rail against these constraints, I try to look back on my years writing formal poetry.

There’s no reason, after all, to write a sonnet. Or a villanelle. Or even a few dozen lines of blank verse. The decision to compose inside a form is a decision not only to accept constraint, but to demand it. While this decision might appear to foreclose creative options, I found just the opposite. As Robert Frost famously said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Of course, it’s possible to do a crap job writing formal verse, to fill out a pentameter line with a bunch of fluff:

…she sobbed, te-TUM, te-TUM, te-TUM, and died.

Faced honestly, however—faced with the necessary rigor—the pentameter line (or any other form) demands that a writer reach beyond her initial inspiration. “What else?” the form demands. “Go further,” it whispers. Whenever a poet’s first thought, or image, or sound pattern doesn’t fit the form, she’s forced beyond her generative conception into territory that is new, and frightening, and, hopefully, fecund.

I’ve found the same thing happening when I try to address the problems in epic fantasy that appear purely formal, purely technical—in trying to make sure all the bolts fit in all the nuts, I discover things about my characters or world or plot, wonderful things, that I never would have suspected.

Last night, I came across something like this in Guy Gavriel Kay’s great novel Tigana. A certain character has feigned suicide by putting on a wig (to disguise herself), then jumping off a bridge into a raging river. Kay is faced immediately with what could be a dull technical question: What happens to the wig?

After all, if it’s found in the search for the body, the whole trick is a failure: whoever found it will know that 1) the character wasn’t who she was pretending to be and 2) that she probably isn’t dead. Kay addresses the question, but he doesn’t just address it; he uses the answer as a springboard to reveal something about character. Though it is “wintry cold” and the “swiftly racing waters [are] rushing past […] deep and black and cold,” the character in question, when she swims to the bank has “the wig in one hand, so it would not be tangled up somewhere, and found.”

We can’t help but admire her determination in holding on to the wig throughout this desperate, dangerous stunt, any more than we can help admiring Kay’s skill as a writer. What could have been a simple question of plugging a potential plot hole becomes, in his hands, a wonderful opportunity to show us something about this woman.

I learned the lesson long ago writing sonnets, but I had to remember it when I turned my attention to fiction: there is no music without measure, no sport without rules, and no art without limitation.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some clean boxers for this character…


After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian Staveley began writing epic fantasy. The Providence of Fire, the second installment in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, is available now from Tor and Tor UK. He lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on Twitter at @brianstaveley and also on his blog.

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