Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Give it a Rest – Poetic Pauses in Your Writing

Yay Images
By Robyn Hood Black, @artsyletters

I’m freshly back from several weeks living mostly out of a suitcase: writing conferences, college family weekends, author school visits, and back-ing and forth-ing as we make a move from the north Georgia mountains to the coast of South Carolina. A good, but whirlwind, fall. What I probably need most at the moment is… a little rest.

We’re designed that way – you, me, our readers. As you lead readers through exciting adventures, don’t forget they might need to stop and catch their breath now and then. I suppose this would technically fall under the category of “pacing” in a novel. In music, a “rest” between beats. In visual art, “white space.” In poetry, maybe all of the above.

While I love the condensed, compressed, heavy look of medieval illuminated blackletter manuscripts, there is a different kind of beauty in an oriental print or painting. At our Haiku Society of America Southeast Region Haikufest in October in Atlanta, attendees were treated to a Sumi-E painting demonstration by Masako, a master artist from the Horino Shodo School. She emphasized how white or “blank” spaces are very important in Japanese calligraphy and art.

Think about haiku, one of my personal passions. Space literally surrounds the poem on a page, whether it’s written in Japanese characters or in English words. The work is approachable, unassuming. Come on in and read this! See? There’s plenty of space for you to move around – in and out again if you like. No hurry. Ample time for you to ponder. Here, have some tea....

White space on a page invites perusing, rest. Room to let your thoughts roam around whatever you are reading.

How any of this might relate to fiction brings modern verse novels to mind first. A complete story told through poems comes with welcoming white space. One of my favorite verse novelists, who writes in many other genres as well, is Margarita Engle. (You can read an interview with her on my author blog here) Many of Engle’s books for young people feature historical figures from Cuban history. She’s shared how she usually researches “like a maniac” – but then leaves out many of the actual cold, hard facts in favor of expressing her characters’ emotions in those times and places.

In an interview on Renée LaTulippe’s terrific No Water River blog, Engle says, “For me, one of the most treasured aspects of a verse novel is the unstated.”

In this same interview, be sure to enjoy the video of Engle discussing her book, The Lightning Dreamer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), about courageous 19th-century Cuban abolitionist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, whose childhood nickname was Tula. In the video, Engle reads some excerpts written in Tula’s voice.

In a poem about different kinds of poetry, Tula says:
...“Just as often, I discover a mystery in each verse/the stillness between words.”
Beautiful phrase and notion, no? – The stillness between words.

If you’re writing straight prose, you can still experiment with word choice, sentence length, even the sounds of words themselves to give your reader a moment to pause. (Granted, if you write action-packed fantasy like Janice does, readers might not get to rest for long!)

In my recent school visits, I showed students a story of mine that appeared in Highlights magazine a couple of years ago. It’s called “The Dinner Bucket” and was based on my mother’s memories of growing up on a tenant family farm in Arkansas. When I first submitted it as a day-in-the-life type story, it came back with a letter of rejection and some constructive comments about how it needed more conflict and action. (If you are new to submitting, when a rejection comes back with written comments about improvement from an editor, that often means you are welcome to revise the work and submit it again. That’s a “good” rejection.)

I added another element I’d remembered my mother discussing about growing up in Arkansas – a twister. This definitely provided more conflict and action than the original version. I consulted my mother to mine appropriate sensory details and sent the story back. It was accepted. (No real harm done to the characters.)

For these characters, between the flurry of running to the cellar and then looking for Daddy after the tornado had passed, I tried to suggest a period of waiting:
The crack of daylight at the door reflected off the glass jars of fruit that lined the shelves. Everything smelled like wet dirt. Then it got darker, and Mother lit the big lantern. We heard a dull roar. I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t help it.

“It’s almost passed,” Mother said, squeezing my shoulder. Each minute felt like an hour. When light came through the crack again, Mother lifted the door and peeked out.
Hopefully the reader stops in this brief passage to wait as well. (Lots of “l” sounds lulling around in those sentences, and very little physical movement.) Of course, it’s not a very easy wait, or gentle like the white space in a peaceful painting might be, but it’s a pause.

Do you enjoy writing rollicking, action-infused prose? Your reader might appreciate the occasional rock to rest on!

For related thoughts, see my post on Notan (light and dark, positive/negative space), and on verse novels.

(And thanks for taking a break in your own day to stop by.)

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012), THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL (2013) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. Spaces can also be excellent in blank verse poetry, whether you form the words into an outline of an object or creature or whether you use the short lines to emphasize a phrase against longer lines.

    Sometimes a pause can be scarier than outright action. Witness waiting for a windstorm!

  2. A great point that's often overlooked, Robyn. Definitely something to keep in mind when trying to get the pacing right.

  3. Hj, Rachel6 - Absolutely, "space" is often a key player in many kinds of poems - whether concrete ones or more subtly, as you suggest, with the play of line (and word) length. And waiting can certainly be full of tension - here's hoping you have calm breezes only today. Thanks for chiming in!

    Dori, thanks! Now if I can just get the pacing of my days right... ;0)

  4. You made me think. You are talking about space in space (physical space) - but there is also space in time (the space of change). You put space in the main narrative when you take a sidetrack for a little bit (backstory), or switch scenes and pov characters.

    I also like to include different kinds of writing in the same book. In the novel-in-progress, Pride's Children, this comes in the form of epigraphs in the beginnings of chapters. The format varies: from a faux New Yorker article, to poetry, to quotations from the Bible, to samples of one of the character's writing. They are not decoration or commentary on the main story; these differently-written pieces are part of the story - often, if you skip them, you will miss something important.

    But they are a space, a break in the main narrative, a hole in story time.

    I also find them incredibly soothing to write - and have had people ask 'Where did you get that quote?' when the answer is 'I made it up - it just looks like a real one in there with the ones that are actual quotes.'


  5. Hi, Alicia -
    That sounds like a fascinating and fresh project. Thanks for sharing your very thoughtful comments on the different kinds of space - which we can certainly employ as tools! Best wishes for your novel.

  6. Very nice, thank you for the contribution.

  7. Many thanks, Harry. Happy writing!

  8. Great advice, Robyn! Writing has much in common with music and visual art. A well placed rest can be very effective- giving the reader a bit of breathing room and also some anticipation of what's to come.

  9. Thank you, Iza! That anticipation is certainly an important point, keeping a story moving forward even while the reader gets to "rest" for a second.

  10. I actually appreciate white space, or rest, even when reading an action-packed book. Right now I'm reading the final book of WOOL. So much action, so much danger. I like it when I'm pulled into the character's thoughts about such things as wiring a radio, and reflection about how they got there in the first place.

  11. Me, too, Julie - thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. Just wanted to say I love this post.

  13. Great points! I love the space, the rest idea. Sometimes it can even make the thrillery parts more exciting, by contrast--like placing black next to white in a painting or violet next to yellow. :)

  14. Thanks for your thoughts, Carol! So many corresponding dynamics between writing/visual art/music/etc. - yes to violet next to yellow! :0)