Mark Terry

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are You A Good Writer?, Part IV

January 29, 2009
Spyscribbler mentioned it in the comments on the first day. A good writer has rhythm.

Yeah? What does that mean? Is she a good dancer?

It means there's something about your writing that feels rhythmic, that feels right, whether read aloud or silently. It may not be obvious. There's Elmore Leonard--obvious. There's James Lee Burke--obvious. There's John Sandford--not so obvious, but definitely there. And boy, talk about different examples. They all have rhythmic writing, but their rhythms are all unique.

It's hard to explain, but it has to do with variations in long sentences and short sentences, in long words and short words, in long paragraphs and short paragraphs. In full sentences and sentence fragments. It might, in fact, have something to do with style.

I went to my usual source, Gary Provost's "Make Your Words Work" to see what he had to say about it. He has a chapter called "Music" which starts with "Writing Is A Symphony." As he says, "Writing is not a visual art. It is a symphony, not an oil painting. It is the shattering, not the glass. It is the ringing, not the bell."

Reading your work out loud helps. Reading a lot of other people's writing helps. Paying attention to rhythm helps.

Warning: Don't strain at this. I'm not sure it's something you can really do consciously. As Gary suggests, vary the length of your sentences, vary the construction of your sentences, play around with parallel construction, read your work out loud, use complete sentences often and fragments rarely, and don't repeat uncommon words.

You remember the film "The Untouchables?" Remember one of the many great speeches by Sean Connery, "...when he sends one of yours to the hospital you send one of his to the morgue."

It's not just great content, intent and acting. It's great writing that has great rhythm. Rhythm can seduce your reader.

The problem, as I mentioned before, is if you get too conscious of it, it gets self-conscious. Be aware of it, but don't dwell on it too much. Listen for it somewhere in the back of your mind.

But know--good writers' writing has rhythm.

So, are you a good writer?

Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I was read to a lot as a very young child, some fairly sophisticated prose, so I think I picked up a sense of rhythm from that. My comprehension might not have been very keen at the time, but the sound and rhythm of the language became ingrained in my thought processes.

Plus, I'm a drummer. ;)

6:16 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I suspect being a former or current musician often is reflected in writing. Elmore Leonard wrote a piece about Mitch Albom once that suggested you could really tell that Albom had been a musician before a writer just based on the rhythm of his writing.

6:27 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

It was odd. In conservatory, you could tell when a manic-depressive person was in a different cycle of their disease by their rhythm. A woman's sense of rhythm often fluctuated in a month.

Personally, I could feel what hormonal stage I was at in the month. My sense of rhythm is either on or off. When it's off, it's pure skill and programming that gets me through: Rhythm has to be done manually. When it's on, it's on. The rhythm just flows.

I've found the same to be true with writing. Oddly, I've been feeling like I've lost my rhythm, lately. To tell you the truth, I've been inwardly panicking about it, because I think it's just about the only distinctive thing I have to offer, the only skill that will set me apart.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

You know, this conversation makes me wonder if I've been writing a sex manual.

7:22 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Ohmigosh! ROFLMAO! Now I can't re-read my comment without totally blushing!

To top it off, my word verification is "heat."

7:55 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I noticed my rhythm in The Roofer. But I spot it in other books. Mostly it's a cadence that crops up here and there, usually at key moments when I want the main character to be at a moment of discovery and it seems to lapse into a kind of poetry.

In real life, most of our big "ah ahs" are often stumbled to, blindly, out of pain or rage or mourning. But in FICTION, we get to give those moments a rhythm all their own.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

In this respect I guess I am not a good writer. I suppose it is true that writers use rhythm. Although I don't agree that ease of reading aloud, or how it sounds read out loud, are necessarily a good tests for words which are not meant to be read out loud. But at any rate, to be perfectly honest, I can't say I ever give any thought to this aspect of the writing process. Not saying it might not be a very good thing to do, but it just isn't something I think about.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I do believe it's better not to over-think rhythm in writing. It's something, mostly, that just happens.

Eric, I think your books do have rhythm, but it's a very quiet rhythm.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

In the sixth century they had not yet invented amps.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Lots of lutes, lyres, tambourines maybe...

12:26 PM  
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9:29 PM  
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I usually buy wakfu kamas and keep it in my store.

8:51 PM  
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7:07 PM  

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