Monday, October 4, 2010

Got Rhythm?

What does writing have to do with music?

When you are in the revision and self-editing mode with your Work In Progress (WIP), it is helpful to read it aloud, whether to yourself or to someone else. This not only helps you catch errors you might not have seen on the computer screen or printed page, but it also helps you create a musicality with your prose.

“What?” you may protest. “I’m not a musician.”

You don’t have to be, to create a beat or a rhythm with your sentences. You don’t want to have them all sound the same. Here’s a very simple example:

He went to the cupboard. He looked at the bare shelves. He took out a can of soup. He heated it. He sat down to eat.

For one thing, all the sentences begin with “He.” The second is that they all have the same rhythm or beat. To vary them, you might write something like this:

Joe stared at the dusty shelves in the cupboard. Nothing but soup. He selected a can of tomato, opened it and heated it. With a deep sigh, he sat at his lonely table to eat.

There are other ways to make your writing more poetic or musical. Use the senses to create mood or emotion and paint pictures, build on imagery, metaphor, simile.

Rain falls over the Atlantic Ocean from River Shannon to Limerick and will probably go on for a long time. The cold wetness has made people so sick they cough until they are breathless. Cures are sought to ease the sickness, such as boiled onions in milk, blackened with pepper.

Not terribly exiting or evocative language. A lot of “telling” the reader the “facts.”

Here’s a passage from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt:
Out in the Atlantic Ocean, great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper, for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it sizzling, on the chest.

By using poetic language, McCourt transforms lifeless description into a symphony. See what you can do to create rhythm in your writing.


Check out these other BRP blogs about rhythm and writing:
Got Rhythm?   
Dance to the Beat
More About the Rhythm of Words

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her novels, Cowgirl Dreams, and the just-released sequel, Follow the Dream, are based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Yes, the beat beckons the reader to keep turning pages, to follow the melody through major and minor phrases, crescendos and decrescendos, and on to the finale. As you note, a well-written book is, indeed, a symphony of words with all the beauty and intricacies of a musical masterpiece. I particularly enjoyed the examples, Heidi. Very helpful.

  2. I agree, Linda. I always like the examples that really "set" the advice.

  3. Those are great examples to emulate. Not as easy to write that well but I can try.
    Morgan Mandel

  4. Heidi, I firmly believe reading our manuscripts aloud is an essential step in the self-editing process. Your "rhythm" approach to the revision process is right on.

  5. One of the best authors IMO for creating musical prose is Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides). You can really feel the rhythm in his writing.

  6. I was just thinking about this very subject. This weekend, at a book festival, I heard author Heidi Durow read from her book THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY. Boy, can she read! Her rhythms were exquisite; poetic. Hearing her made me appreciate her writing that much more. I asked if she reads the work aloud during the revision process and she said "Absolutely!"

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  8. I didn't realize how important reading aloud was until I started writing screenplays. That made such a difference in dialogue. Then a poet friend suggested reading prose aloud and I discovered the magic that happens then. What an eye opener.


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