Music, cadence and writing

My son Edward, a composer, sent me a cryptic note:

Great article about two of my favorite things…. music and Vin Scully.

The article is about the Dodgers’ legendary announcer. Professors at USC’s music school studied why Scully’s lines were so memorable, why so many people remember them verbatim. I’ll hope you watch the video embedded in the article and see why those lines work so well.  But, a spoiler: Screenshot 2016-04-04 23.40.10music.

Not surprising, really. A wordless tune is appealing to us in many ways, one of the most important being cadence. Songs lay words over melody and cadence, and a great prose passage pays attention to cadence.

I’ve always thought that great story tellers lean heavily on cadence … we almost hear the music as they speak. A good reason to read one’s work aloud.

John Grisham and Beethoven’s Ninth

John Grisham, thanks for setting me free.

I’m in three writing critique groups.  Twenty or so regulars beethovenand some great writers.  We focus down on plot, character voice, technique.  I occasionally worry about over-analyzing everything I read.  Like in college when I had that course in music that took Beethoven’s Ninth apart note by note.  I still don’t like to listen to it.

So, here I am, worrying about whether it’s okay to name a character who turns out to be minor, whose point of view (pardon me, perspective) I should be in, when I pick up Grisham’s latest, The Whistler.

Damn.  He starts the story pretty much the way my own most recent novel starts, which is boooooring, according to a substantial minority of my readers.  Chapter 10 has a short paragraph in which we see the world through the eyes of three different characters.  A stone no-no.

And, guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  The story moves nicely.  The characters are interesting.  The plot is straightforward, but it has me in the palm of its hand.  I kept turning the page.  Finished at 1:30.  In the a.m.

In the hand of a skilled writer, the rules become plastic.

I know I have to cleave closer to the rules than Grisham, but I’m glad to see that writing rules are guidelines, neither prescriptions nor proscriptions.  Maybe some day, I’ll get out of the straitjacket.

But I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

Sailing and Editing


Cotuit skiffs a-racing

At risk of straying into overwrought metaphor, editing is a bit like sailing. My wife’s family is of New England whaling stock. She grew up sailing the flat bottom, gaff-rigged skiffs that evolved from the workboats designed to sail the shallow bays and shoals of Cape Cod. Her grandmother wrote a wonderful story, The Cut of Her Jib, which she took from a journal and letters of her grandfather, a whaling captain, and her grandmother. Have a look.

cover-cut-of-her-jibOkay, back to torturing the metaphor. When I go to my critique groups, I get gusts of wind coming from different directions. They’re like the changing winds that bedevil sailors near the shore. But those contrary breezes, if you read them right, you sail a better line. Same with the critical comments. I’m somewhere just off shore with my third novel, Open Circuit, tacking and backing, trying to maneuver.

After you pull free of the shoals and into the ocean, the wind steadies. You have to trim the sail and determine which line work best. Not unlike the work of editing once the story’s laid out. I’m halfway through the first substantial edit on my second novel, Skins and Bone, realizing I’m in deep water. I better navigate right or I’ll miss the point of the island.

Awright, awright. I think I’ve bludgeoned that metaphor enough.

Back to the editing …

The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!



Creativity and the art of zoning out

There are many prescriptions for creativity. Enough that it’s clear that nobody has come up with a formula that works for everyone. Meditating hasn’t worked for me, because I need my mind to be active. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be distracted by the flow of information and irritation that is everyday life.

For me, the solution is race walking. Yup, that hip-wiggling form of locomotion that looksRace walk great on a young woman and somewhere between odd and hysterically funny when an older, overweight guy does it. (This I know from experience.) The important part for me is that the magic of repetitive movement quiets my mind but allows the cognitive flywheel to spin uninterrupted.

I discovered this when I had my knee scoped a couple of years ago. No race walking for several months. My second novel, which I was rewriting at the time, became mired in bad writing and incomprehensible plot twists. I exercised on the elliptical machine, to be sure; but the gym’s constant noise and intrusive TV monitors blunted my thought process. When I got to the point that race walking was okay again, the novel started sorting itself out.

For me, good writing requires mental solitude, and exercise provides that freedom.

Writing and sculpture

Wood sculptor

Roughing out

My father was a sculptor in wood.  I remember him saying, “The wood has a story.  It’s my job to let it out.”  I was six or seven, but those words have stuck with me.

I have been working with a fine editor (see Kopp Editing Services) on the first part of my second novel.  As I was hacking away at the prose, chopping a sentence here, a participle there, I saw my father working.  His chisel was at first roughing out the block, revealing the grain and density, finding the story.  Maybe because all writers are suckers for metaphor, I realized as I read through the margin notes and suggestions, the first draft is that roughing out.  Rewrite teases out the shape, and editing provides the fine adjustments my father made to his sculpture with the gouges, skews and v-groove chisels that gave the the piece character.

There is something to be said for that metaphor.  When I began my first novel, I thought I would write a draft, then line edit.  (After all, I’m a good writer, I thought.  Got B’s in college from the writing teacher who was reputed to believe, “A is for God, B is for me, and C+ is for the best of the rest of you.”)

Pelican Sculpture

My father saw a pelican in this piece of wood

That first time, I got the same result a woodworker would have gotten by jumping to fine detail before the roughing out was finished.  Now, on the second novel, after more experience and the help of three critique groups, I believe it’s time to take out the gouges and skews.  So I sent the third pass off to my editor.

Arrrrgh! Bring-Take

No, I’m not channeling my inner pirate.  And, right off, I admit to being a closet snooty person about grammar.  However, I do understand that language is ever changing, mapping our ways and means of communication.  So, unlike political candidates these days, I’m a proud centrist with respect to grammar (and in politics, too, but I promised myself not to hyperventilate on my blog).

So, as we now say, it’s all good, right?

But.but.but good writers keep on telling me to strip nonessential words.  Make every word punch above its weight, right?  Which means meaning is important, right?  In particular, a writer needs to paint a picture of action so the reader can follow the story, right?

So here we are back at good old bring/take.


Here is an ad from Writer’s Digest.  The folks that advertise themselves up as the most complete writer’s resource.  The closet snooty person says, “bring things here and take things there.”  If you’re going from here to some other place, it’s take, even if one is speaking of electronic files.

So, the new quandary for the snooty grammarian is a variation of that old tree-falling-in-the-forest question:  If everyone uses bring for all movement from place to place, does the writer simply acquiesce on the grounds that his more precise use of bring-take will be lost on modern ears?

Or maybe the writer quits grousing and writes better.




Good Writing, Italics, Inner Monolog

I’m in rewrite on my second novel.  I occasionally run into the problem of how to show the reader a character’s thoughts as distinguished from what the character says.  There are no precise rules to follow, and that somehow makes it easier to get away with bad writing.  In doubt? Put the thought in quotes.  Wait … the characters have just been talking, so there are quote marks all over the place.  Okay, throw in some italics.

In frustration, I went to the Chicago Manual of Style Forum.  Not normally a place for writing advice, but great on so much else …

the original sentence was:  Ross took his cue, thinking Enough of this love fest. Time to send this country boy back where he belongs.

I got a great discussion and finally made a very small change, but one which to my ear makes the sentence better:  Ross took his cue. Enough of this love fest, he thought. Time to send this country boy back where he belongs.

AND it allowed me to get rid of the italics.

As they say, it’s the writing, stupid.