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?