Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Now that I'm finally preparing to send out query letters, my anxiety has begun to build as I imagine it getting deleted after only the first paragraph is read. In The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, he outlines the various problems that result in most manuscripts getting launched, unread, into the slush pile. One of the chapters I found interesting was on "Sound", or what most of us would refer to as “Rhythm”.
Prose, like music, has a rhythm. Sentences and paragraphs can be grammatically correct, yet sound distasteful, even offensive. The craft of writing is more than grammar and awareness of technical aspects of structure; it includes a feeling, a sound embedded within the words, sentences and paragraphs. Much like the difference between the musician who is technically perfect, and the one who plays with his heart; the distinction is often so subtle it is difficult to even describe.
Poor grammar and improper sentence structure is usually the most easily recognizable rhythm problem. But sound problems plague both beginner and established writers. Ugly consonants and vowels or odd sounding echoes can easily go undetected by even the most discerning ear, especially if minds are focused on plot, characterization, and setting.
Most writers need to have a basic awareness of how to divide sentences; specifically to understand the proper use of the semicolon, colon, dash and parenthesis. For a great rundown on these, check out the UOttowa website.
Next is to check for Echoes. The most common echo problems are found when a) a character’s name is repeated too frequently; b) when the words “he” and “she” are used too often; and c) atypical words occur too regularly throughout the piece.
Now it’s time to screen for Alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of the first letter of a word in the first letter of the word immediately following. Alliteration is dramatic, and should be used sparingly. If overused, it can give the prose a childish, rhyming feel.
Resonance refers to the way sentences resound to the reader, such as when a short sentence is sandwiched between two longer ones. The short sentence will resonate differently than the long ones, but not necessarily in a good way.
With your assessment complete, now it’s time to intervene:
Sometimes fixing something as elusive as sound is difficult, especially when we are so intimately tied to our creations. This is when we turn to beta readers or critique partners to take a look, asking specifically for their comments on sound. We might ask them to keep an ear out for poorly divided sentences, echoes and anything else that jumps out.
Read your manuscript aloud. This is a secret I’ve recently discovered, especially when I had my query letter written out loud in front of a few people. If your first reaction to hearing your own prose is to cringe, you know you have some work to do.
Cut, cut cut! That’s right, cut the offensive sounds out completely so at the very least the reader isn’t distracted by a poor sounding passage. How to write harmonious-sounding prose is a whole other issue altogether.
Simplify. Complex writing does not equal complex thinking, with perhaps the opposite is true. It is far more difficult to find a concise, straightforward way to describe complex thought than it is to ramble. Spare prose is the goal.
Poets are sometimes the most efficient at writing prose because of their close attention to the sound of the language. The end result is usually beautiful writing; both to read and to hear. Take some time to read poetry, paying close attention to the words, phrases and stanzas. Now take the first five pages of your manuscript and reformat it so it reads like a poem - placing stanza breaks in the appropriate location, and removing or adding words as necessary to improve sound. Afterward, put the paragraph back together and take a look. Should some of the changes you made be implemented? Can you make things tighter, more concise? Do you need to expand on a thought?
If you have the time, take a few minutes to rearrange a paragraph in your current WIP so it reads like a poem, and place it in the comment section of this post. Then step back and review it for sound. Does anything jump out at you? How does it sound? Will you implement any of the changes?


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Joanne, excellent post. One of the most common comments about my writing is that it's lyrical. That's fitting since I started writing poems when I was 6 and didn't start my stories until a couple years later.

Whenever I finish a paragraph, I'll read it aloud for the very reasons you mentioned. This is a natural way for me to write.

Actually, it's funny that you're writing this today because Honorary Chick Cheryl Wyatt is also talking about Noah Lukeman's book over at Seekerville. After reading his book, Cheryl sent out a survey to people in the industry to see how far they read before deciding on a book's fate. Of the hundreds of surveys she sent out, 97% said they decide by the end of the first page. Mercy (as Emma would say).


Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Anita,
Wow - that survey scares me. I believe it, though, after hearing the "SiWC Idol" at the Surrey Conference. Most of the ms's that were read out didn't get past the second paragraph before the agents/editors rejected them!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Here is my "poem" from Indigo Blaze:

The trail began to wind
and split off into several side paths.
I continued, with no sign of the girl.

Inside the forest it was even darker,
the only light now filtered through the trees as well as the fog.
I turned back, down the path I came, and when I came to the fork
The voice was silent, despite my calls,
almost like she had completely disappeared.

I took the opposite path,
this one winding and the brush dense,
the fog almost substance as it clung to the tiny, quivering leaves.
The trail grew thin and sparse, as underbrush had started to grow
Branches clawed at my cheeks and pulled at my hair as I continued

I hit a dead end.
Still no girl.

I can't tell how the formatting looks in the comment section, so I hope the sentence breaks show up in the right place.

I did remove a few adjectives, ugly and repetitious words and when I put the piece back together, I'm going to implememt the changes. Cool exercise!

Janet said...

This is a great post, Joanne - and I LOVE your poem. I'm going to try this exercise tonight, I may come back to post it (if it sounds anywhere near as cool as yours!

I've seen a couple of places around the Blogsphere talking about Noah's book. Would you recommend it for a writer's library?

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great topic Joanne, I don't think I've ever seen someone blog on the rhythm and sound before, but it's such a crucial topic.

Like Anita, I'm frequently told my writing is lyrical (even my essays!). I don't necessarily sit and think about it, I just know when it sounds off, and that's usually a signal for flat prose, and that I'm not truly in the composing mindset. That's another area poetry definitely helped with, and my short fiction often winds up much more poetic and cryptic as a result, it seems.

Another good bogey to watch out for with rhythm is repeated sentence structure, another echo issue. This is one Anita has a great eye for :) Sentences should flow into one another, rather than all sharing the same format.

When I get back home later today, I'll fire up some of my WIP as poetry and see how it goes. In the meantime, since I want to contribute something to a great exercise, I'll stick up a link to Addiction, which I know you've already seen -- but it's WIP and poetry, and pretty damn prose-like. It'll be interesting to compare later how my protag's voice sits as poetry in relation to this.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Janet,
Thanks for the compliment!

I would definitely recommend Noah's book, it's easy to read, and straight to the point.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Hayley,
I'm not sure if I would notice repeated sentence structure. I find a lot of, my style is by feel, so I hope my instincts pick up on it!

Karyn Good said...

Great post, Joanne. Some very cool things to watch out and look for! I don't think of my writing as lyrical but I think it definitely has it's own rhythm.

I love your poem. I remember the scene and your poem speaks to in a lovely lyrical manner. I would love to try the excercise but I'm up to my armpits in life :(

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Karyn,
I don't think my writing is lyrical either, but hopefully I'll be more aware of sound from now on.

Molli said...

Excellent post, Joanne--sound is subtle, but even when we read "silently" it's there in our mind and can draw us into or jar us out of an author's work. Interesting exercise--thanks.

prashant said...

Most of the ms's that were read out didn't get past the second paragraph before the agents/editors rejected them!
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