Rhythm. We all love rhythm. Music. Beat. Songs. Speech. I guess it comes from the womb. From the heart. The heartbeat we've heard, before born, it was rhythmic, is rhythmic. Comfortable. Soothing. Or exciting. Or maybe it's the sound of life itself, and we love listening to it, to know that we're alive. I'm not the first one to say it, and you've probably heard it a lot. Have read about it, thought about it, seen it in books, in your own writing. There is a certain rhythm to every piece of writing. Think poetry. Poetry is where its loudest. But in prose it's there, too. Think about your favorite book, open it, look at the sentences. Don't read them, simply look at them. At their length. At their structure. Every comma is a beat, every segment of a sentence is saying something, sounding something out. Every period is a louder beat, a stop, a pause. I'm not a musician, so I don't know proper terms. You know what I mean, though. See how no one sentence is alike? See how each new sentence picks up the rhythm and changes it into something new? See how when there is repetition, it only goes on for 2, 3, 4 beats, rarely more, because otherwise you will get tired as a reader and start perceiving it as a list?
It struck me this week (yeah, yeah, I know, things tend to strike me, laugh now.)
Actually, I lied. Let me backpedal a little (hey, writers are professional liars).
It struck me twice, this idea, the first time, after reading...wait. I have to backpedal even more.
So. This is why I love sharing my writing process openly. Many people ask me why I do it. Here is why.
MY READERS HELP ME BECOME A BETTER WRITER.
One of my readers sent me this book in the mail, because when she read it, she thought it is very much me. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. I raved about it before. Read it, if you have a chance. It made me see how every book is made of sentences. Just sentences, one after another, and how they have a rhythm. A certain music , a tempo, and every writer has their own.
Then, I went to the Indie Book Fair.
At the fair, while killing time, I was chatting with fellow writers. One of them, S. C. Barrus, read a little excerpt from the 3rd draft of IRKADURA, and said something along the lines, hey, nice choppy stuff, but watch for the rhythm, some of it is repetitive.
These two things, reading the book and this comment from a fellow writer shifted something in my brain. I began looking for that rhythm. Oh. One more thing.
I read my writing aloud every night to my boyfriend, and I can hear the rhythm. When I stumble, when the rhythm sounds wrong, I know I have to fix it.
I thought I would illustrate it to you, what I'm doing while editing, and then maybe you can apply it to your own writing as an exercise and see what happens. If nothing happens, this is just a fun way of playing with your writing. But I think something will. Something will happen. Because, watch.
"Dark empty theater. Cold, quiet. My skin crawls.
It’s coming. What?
I don’t know yet, but I know it’s coming. I know.
Something soft touches my hand. I jump. There is a buzz. A horsefly lands on my face, another crawls up my arm, stings my shoulder. I cry out, slap it. The room fills with that annoying hum. Damn you! I grab the blanket, flap it, swing it. The hum is louder now, as if the darkness itself is alive, a thick cloud of insects. I panic, stumble between boxes, overturn them, bump into the vanity table. Something tips, crashes to the floor. Glass shards spray in all directions. I cover my face, wade forward, feel for the light switch.
Can’t find it. Can’t. They alight on me, bite me. I grope for my jacket, my backpack, need to get out. Can’t stay anymore. It’s their revenge, for attacking them, the beasts, onstage. For threatening them, them and the jackal. The boar, the catfish, the herrings, the cockroach. They’ve banded together, against me. I’ve shed their blood.
Now they want me.
They claim me.
This is the edited version where I watched for the beat and the number of segments and words in each sentence. It's hard work, it takes time to say it, in your head, to listen to it, and then to try different variations. Takes a lot of bloody time, but I hope the more I do it, the faster I will get. So, take a look at it. It's not perfect, I know. Let's start from the beginning.
"Dark empty theater." - 1 segment, 3 words.
"Cold, quiet." - 2 segments, 1 word in each.
"My skin crawls." - 1 segment, 3 words. Too close to the 1st sentence, but I compensate with "my", it a short word, so it has a faster beat.
"It's coming." - 1 segment, 2 words.
"What?" - 1 segment, 1 word.
"I don't know yet, but I know it's coming." - 2 segments, 9 words. Wow! Long one.
"I know." - 1 segment, 2 words. By now I'm close to getting the reader exhausted with these short choppy sentences, so I shift to longer ones. Plus, this is a beginning of the scene, and like any piece of music, I start it with short elements, something to get the reader inside the scene quickly, and then unfold it and let them breathe.
"Something soft touches my hand." - 1 segment, 4 words. See how the math varies?
"I jump." - 1 segment, 2 words. Okay, I might need to edit this out because I'm getting tired of choppiness, or maybe I will combine them into "Something soft touches my hand and I jump."
"There is a buzz." - 1 segment, 4 words. Hmmm. Too close to the previous one with the same structure, again, I think I will edit this one later, in draft 4.
"A horsefly lands on my face, another crawls up my arm, stings my shoulder." - 3 segments, 14 words. Whooo! Long one. See, now we're getting into the meat of the scene.
Anyway. Not to scare you, or not to make you roll your eyes. This rhythm thing is natural to a trained writer's ear. You don't have to write it out like a formula each time, otherwise you will want to shoot yourself. I simply have shown you what is going on in my head when I do it. All you have to do is...
READ YOUR WRITING ALOUD.
When you do, listen for that rhythm, your own. And then when you write, look at this rhythm on paper. With time, the more you read, the more you write, you will start seeing patterns. Patterns those of other writers, and patterns of your own work. It's fascinating, once you see it. I can see it now, and when I open my earlier books, I already see where I should have fixed it, but back then my ear wasn't attuned as well as it is now. So. Tune it. TUNE YOUR EAR. Or else.