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 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”

Sanctuary Receives 2Q21 WOTF Honorable Mention

I know.

You’re first question is, “Why are you telling us a year after the fact, Joseph?”

Simple answer: I received the award yesterday.

 
I received notification back in 2Q21. Various things got in the way of it being mailed and so on.

Hey, I’m happy to receive any award. Especially while I’m alive to enjoy it.

I originally wrote Sanctuary in June 1991. It’s a 920 word flash piece which has had little to no revision since the original version.

I workshopped the piece several times. The universal (I’m not kidding. Creatures in the Magellanic Clouds love it) response was extremely positive. One critiquer stood out with “I wouldn’t change a f?cking thing. This is abso-f?cking-lutely brilliant.” Another said, “I hate it. I hate what happens in it. I hate the outcome, and I never want to read anything like this ever again.” (pause) “And the fact you could get me this pissed off in nine-hundred words shows me you are a really good writer. You’re really good to get me this pissed off in nine-hundred words.”

Okay.

I’ve read Sanctuary publicly several times and always received enthusiastic applause. People come up and ask me the story’s origin and meaning. Some are weeping because the story so moves them.

And nobody wanted to publish it until Harvey Duckman Presents Volume 8 picked it up in July 2021.

 
Go figure, huh?

And now it received an WOTF Honorable Mention.

The times, they are a’changin’.

For the better, I hope.

First Rejections

I received a rejection on Meteor Man last week. The editor wrote

I can appreciate the attention to detail in your world, but without knowing about the world or characters or what’s going on, the terminology bogs me down a bit too much.

The comment intrigued me because no first reader commented anything similar. Even first first readers – those unfamiliar with my work – didn’t make similar comments. I often gets comments about my world-building but they tend to be more like “Amazing!”, “Rich!”, “Vividly detailed!”, and “Immersive!” (one of my personal favorites).

When I do live readings of works-in-progress, I sometimes get a comment along the lines of “You do more world-building in ten pages than most authors do in the first hundred” and I should spread things out.

I ask in return, “Would you continue reading? Do you want to find out more?”

Unanimous yeses often accompanied by listeners leaning forward in their seats and sometimes by outstretched hands seeking a copy.

All of which tells me I did an excellent job world-building. If people were overwhelmed to the point of being numb, they’d back away rather than continue forward.

Two Recent Classes…
I’ve long suspected that storycrafting and storytelling aren’t the paramount reasons work is accepted or rejected.

Sadly, this was confirmed by two different classes I took over the past few weeks. The classes were from different sources and a little over a week apart. One class had an agent and a publisher, the other had two magazine editors.

I take such classes because I want to understand what got Story A accepted and Story B rejected. A con panel with editors explaining what stood out pro and con in stories from their slushpiles would be gold to me. I’d pay serious dollars to attend such a panel session.

Me, I look for common threads in everything from character to theme, action to plot, … Sometimes the common thread is obvious, other times…?

And always it comes down to “How come this and not that? Give me a list of what works and what doesn’t so I’ll have a better idea how to perfect my own work for publication.” (by the way, two books that do a great job of this are Barry Longyear’s “Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop – I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics” and On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back).

Want to know what I found out?


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Attribution via Action

People who’ve worked with my in critique groups or in my trainings know about attribution via action because

  • I use it often in my own work and
  • I use it often when editing/critiquing someone’s work as it tightens scenes considerably.

Almost a year ago I wrote

The desire to have characters do something while talking is good, the execution is usually poor, and now we’re dealing with attribution via action which I’ll cover in another post.

in Toing and Froing and now, for various reasons, here’s that post.

Attribution via Action became increasingly important to me when writing my last novel, Tag. I noticed the actions I used for attribution purposes were stale, generic, didn’t apply to what happened in each scene.

I’ll defend myself with “It was a first, rough draft” which is true. I recognized the problem and made notes in the manuscript to fix it during rewrite, which I will because I tend towards anality about such things.

And still, it’s better not to have such issues in any draft, especially first drafts, as the more corrections necessary the more time taken not publishing and promoting the immediate project and all projects together.

So as I often do when I recognize a weakness in my own work, I gave myself exercises to improve my storycrafting and storytelling. In this case, use attribution via action specific to what I want the reader to experience when they read the sentence/paragraph/page/scene.

I’ve also learned from workshops and teaching that the term “attribution” isn’t in vogue any more.

Sigh.

So some definitions/explanations first.

Speech Tags
The reader has to know who’s communicating in a scene. Knowing who’s saying what is often more important that knowing what’s being said. This is done by identifying the speaker with what they’re speaking.

Words like said, talked, shared, spoke, … are now called “speech tags” and use to be called “attributions” but far be it for a writer to use a single, exact word when a weak, two word phrase can almost do the job not as well.

Said, talked, shared, spoke, … are fine words and they are weak because they lack emotional content until we use a adverb modifier such as said angrily, talked quietly, shared emphatically, spoke loudly, …

A thesaurus helps because said angrily becomes hissed, talked quietly becomes whispered, shared emphatically becomes emphasized, spoke loudly becomes shouted, … becomes … and so on.


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Members and Subscribers can LogIn. Non members can join. Non-protected posts (there are several) are available to everyone.
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