Writing and Reading Rhythms

Listening to Pitjantjatjara elders’ stories as they escort you through their memories, one is aware of three rhythms working together; the rhythm of the story, the rhythm of their movement, and the rhythm of time passing.

 
I mention writing and reading rhythms in Toing and Froing Again Parts 2 and 3 and mentioned in other posts readers often tell me my writing pulls them along, that reading my work is effortless because it flows. First reader and critique group comments are often along the lines of “These lines flow so well and are easy to picture.” with criticisms along the lines of “this part broke the flow of the scene for me.”

There’s (hopefully) no effort reading my work because I write to a rhythm which is what readers describe as “flow.” That rhythm depends on the work itself. Some pieces are meant to be read at a quick march, some at a slow waltz, some are jive, some are tango. I work at creating a rhythm that non-consciously catches the reader and propels them through whatever they’re reading.

To do that properly – and this is key – I need to write to a rhythm. My writing rhythm differs from the reading rhythm in beats (in music, per minute. In writing, per line, paragraph, scene, …), not in time signature (in music, 2/3, 3/4, 7/8. In writing, which beats are emphasized. Study the music of James Brown. He mastered playing to the beat). Most writers/authors change time signatures via chapter breaks, scene breaks, page breaks, et cetera. Ever write an action scene and have a character pause at the end? Congrats, you’ve changed the time signature. Does the pause carry a different number of beats than the action sequence? Probably better if you have a complete break.

Writing and reading rhythms differ because I compose more slowly than I play. Two things one learns in music – sight-reading and improvisation – come in writing and usually after lots of practice (for me, anyway).

Sight-reading occurs when I write to an outline; all the pieces are there and I’m adding the flourish, the emotion, essentially turning the outline into a story. Improvisation happens when I have the basic idea and I sit down and write without an outline. The two are the dividing line between pantsers and plotters. Sight-reading is plotting and improvisation is pantsing.

Consider the following from Writing Realistic Hand-to-Hand Combat Scenes

Ellie blocked Earl’s left with her right. She locked his wrist and elbow against her abdomen. Her elbow smashed his ribs. He coughed up blood. A hammerfist to the groin doubled him over. A front knee strike shattered his jaw. He fell and she released his arm. He wasn’t getting up again.

Pay attention to how you read that excerpt and you may notice a change when you hit “He wasn’t getting up again.” I changed the time signature so the reader could catch their breath after an action sequence. I do such things because I want the reader to relate strongly to the character. If the character can relax, I want the reader to do the same.

…the same rhythm can be used when switching from a humor scene to an action scene. Often it’s required for the reader to keep moving through the story.

 
However, I can’t write at a tango rhythm if I want the reader to move at a jive rhythm. I can slow the jive down but too much and it’s no longer jive, it’s jibberish.

Take another look at the Writing Realistic Hand-to-Hand Combat Scenes excerpt:

  • Ellie blocked… – Strong simple past tense verb two beats in (second word in sentence)
  • She locked… – Ditto
  • Her elbow smashed… – Strong simple past tense verb three beats in
  • A hammerfist to the groin doubled… – Strong simple past tense verb six beats in
  • A front knee strike shattered… – Strong simple past tense verb five beats in
  • He fell and she released… – Ditto
  • He wasn’t getting up… – Weak, past continuous (or past progressive) tense taking up three beats.

Chart this and you get

 
Have you ever listened to some music and things suddenly get more intense, more lively, perhaps louder, and next there’s a sudden quiet or slowing down or change in the chord structure? That’s what you’re seeing in the chart above, a kind of crescendo in the writing and done with language instead of music. That sudden drop at the end is the diminuendo and due to a change in verb tense, hence authorial voice, and signals an end to the scene therefore a scene break (as written it would be a good cliff-hanger chapter break, too. Always leave ’em wanting more).

Always leave them wanting more. – P.T. Barnum (maybe)

 
The crossovers between music and writing, writing and photography, dance and writing, … are too numerous to elaborate here. Ask me about them if we’re together in a writing class.

In the meantime, study different disciplines to strengthen your writing. I study photography to learn how to put scenes together. I study acting to learn how to show emotion. I study music to learn how to pace my work. I study artwork to learn how to draw readers’ attention where I want it.

And always practice practice Practice!

Toing and Froing Again, Part 3

This is the final post in this Toing and Froing arc. The genesis of this arc came from my fouling up The Alibi chapter 3 (my current work in progress.

Toing and Froing occurs when the writer/author has their characters move around or do things for no real story purpose; there’s no character development, no character revelation, the atmosphere doesn’t change, no plot elements are furthered or revealed, the movement is irrelevant to any established or impending plot points, the movement is unnecessary to the dialogue, et cetera.

I ended Toing and Froing Again, Part 2 talking about writing and reading rhythms (and I’ll return to those at some point). This post talks about recognizing the problem and coming up with a solution.

The Problem and a Solution
Here’s what I wrote:

The Boston Incident Center’s operations operator routed the call to every city service in a twenty block radius of AirCon’s building. Every mobile in the station went off simultaneously.
Marete came out of his office. “Who’s in the field?”
Senior Ops put a feed on the office’s main. “Looks like some kid’s streaming from his drone.”
Cranston plopped into his seat. “Yeah, I guess this is me.”
Marete pointed to the door. “Take Rhinehold with you.”
Rhinehold, seated next to Cranston’s desk to finish setting up the atricial, spun his chair to face Marete. “What did I do?”
Cranston gathered his notebook and pen. “You wanted fun. You got fun.”
Rhinehold frowned “You don’t use a tablet?”
Cranston paid no attention.
Rhinehold lifted his backpack over his shoulder. “No worries. I have mine.”

What follows would be my comments if the above material came to me in a critique group:

  • The Boston Incident Center’s operations operator routed the call to every city service in a twenty block radius of AirCon’s building. – acceptable but wordy. “operations operator” doesn’t need to be in that sentence. Unless there’s a need for this character to appear in the story again, it doesn’t even count as stage direction and you can get rid of it.
  • Every mobile in the station went off simultaneously. – again acceptable and weak. The chapter opening deals with a police station’s response to a bomb blast. You want the reader caught in the action and moving forward. The characters are pumping adrenaline so the reader should be, too. This sentence has no real action hence no forward momentum as written.
  • Marete came out of his office. – obvious Toing and Froing and necessary as it tells the reader who’s doing what, as in attribution via action. And yet with all that going for it, it’s static. It doesn’t move the reader forward.
  • “Who’s in the field?” – Nice, short dialogue and fitting with the action of the scene, and ditto.
  • Senior Ops put a feed on the office’s main. – Way over the top Toing and Froing. What’s the purpose of this sentence? What does it provide the reader? All it does it take the reader off the main and primary characters by introducing an irrelevant stage direction character. Get rid of it.
  • “Looks like some kid’s streaming from his drone.” – Expected and doesn’t move the reader forward.
  • Cranston plopped into his seat. – You can almost feel the oars moving in their locks as the boat to’s and fro’s, can’t you?
  • “Yeah, I guess this is me.” – ditto.
  • Marete pointed to the door. – ditto and, at this point, who friggen cares?
  • “Take Rhinehold with you.” – static and di-di-di-ditto.
  • Rhinehold, seated next to Cranston’s desk to finish setting up the atricial, spun his chair to face Marete. – does nothing except (literally) place him in the scene.
  • “What did I do?” – I think I was so bored writing at this point I attempted humor.
    I failed.
    PS) Another personal clue to me I’m Toing and Froing is when I attempt to put humor into an otherwise humorless scene or have it come out of the mouths of previously humorless characters.
  • Cranston gathered his notebook and pen. – Pure toing and froing because he gathers them. So what?
  • “You wanted fun. You got fun.” – more botched humor.
  • Rhinehold frowned. – Exactly what I talked about in the Attribution via Action post.
  • “You don’t use a tablet?” – Basically okay as exposition and character development via dialogue, and there’s no real need to bash the reader over the head with it.
  • Cranston paid no attention. – the reader’s not paying attention, why should Cranston?
  • Rhinehold lifted his backpack over his shoulder. – As with Cranston gathering his notebook and pen, so what?
  • “No worries. I have mine.” – Wasted unless it points to something coming later in the story (as in foreshadowing).

At this point remember that criticism without solution is worthless. Anybody can spot problems, not everybody can come up with workable solutions.

Here’s what I came up with as an alternative followed by the reasons this rewrite removes Toing and Froing, strengthens the story, and keeps the reader moving forward (and note, I offer this is better, not brilliant):

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Final thoughts
This kind of critique is what a good critique group will give you. If your critique group isn’t constantly working to improve your writing, find another. Does it need to be this thorough?

I’ll say yes, it does, and also appreciate not a lot of critique groups will go to this level. I also appreciate not everyone wants this level of analysis, and recognize this level of analysis can be devastating if not offered well. I wouldn’t offer this to a newbie unless it’s obvious they can separate themselves from their work and recognize I’m commenting on their work, not them (watch my interview for more on this).

Should you need it or want it, I do offer this level of critique and also writer/author mentoring.

Great Opening Lines – and Why! (July 2022’s Great Opening Lines)

I wrote in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 3 – Some Great Opening Lines) that I’d share more great opening lines as I found them.

My last entry in this category was May 2022’s Great Opening Lines – and Why! (May 2022’s Great Opening Lines) which covered James Tiptree, Jr.’s The Milk of Paradise in the Harlan Ellison edited “Again, Dangerous Visions”. This entry in the Great Opening Lines – And Why! posts is Bina Shah‘s Before She Sleeps.

Before getting to the great opening line itself, some notes on the book as a whole.

I started this book before the US Supreme Court demonstrated that great legal minds can also be idiots. That demonstration occurred half way through my read.

Before, I thought the book brilliant and profound. After, even more so.

Before She Sleeps is rich with some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever encountered. Often reading beautiful phrasing can throw one out of a book because the phrase stops the reader so they can savor the author’s eloquence.

Not so here. The language is universally rich, so much so that the over-the-top brilliant passages merely hurried me along to read more.

I will offer the book ended too abruptly for me. I can accept the ending as written, everything is tied up, no loose ends, and I would have preferred it to linger a bit longer so I could bid the characters a better farewell for the joy they gave me.

Now to that great opening line.
Continue reading “Great Opening Lines – and Why! (July 2022’s Great Opening Lines)”

Toing and Froing Again, Part 2

This is the second post regarding teaching myself to recognize Toing and Froing when I commit it (a most heinous act done by inept writers on hopeless prose, poetry (it’d be tough but I’m sure it can be done), scriptwriting, playwriting, (possibly) non-fiction, creative non-fiction, …).

And remember, folks, I’m including myself in the above. I’m writing this Toing and Froing arc to teach myself better writing techniques because I Toed and Froed like a marathon runner who’d lost their bearings while writing The Alibi chapter 3 (of my current work in progress which I’ll start posting in August 2022).

Toing and Froing occurs when the writer/author has their characters move around or do things for no real story purpose; there’s no character development, no character revelation, the atmosphere doesn’t change, no plot elements are furthered or revealed, the movement is irrelevant to any established or impending plot points, the movement is unnecessary to the dialogue, et cetera.

Toing and Froing Again, Part 1 ended with “My writing speed slows down,” meaning I’ve lost my rhythm, and I pick up from there…
Continue reading “Toing and Froing Again, Part 2”

Toing and Froing Again, Part 1

Writing chapter 3 of The Alibi (my current work in progress which I’ll start posting in August 2022) challenged me and some good learning came from it.

Usually I sit down to write and have at it. A few hours later I realize I need a bio break of one kind or another and toddle off for a bit.

This time, it was like squeezing electrons out of a vacuum (and Hoover wasn’t happy, I can tell you!). It took an hour to get two paragraphs.

I wrote something, immediately realized it was deeply flawed, erased and rewrote, ditto.

What was going on? I could sensate what was happening in the story, how come it wasn’t getting down on paper (or the screen, in this case)?

Recognizing Toing and Froing Continue reading “Toing and Froing Again, Part 1”