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Guest Post: The Rhythm in the Writing by Nicholas Rossis


Wording the song

Except for writing, I enjoy music, and occasionally dabble in composition.  I was working on Pearseus’s  second book, when it occurred to me that music and writing have much more in common than I had realized.

For example, my sentences tend to have a minimalist quality, avoiding any great lyrical flourishes.  This is also true of my music.  Likewise, when composing, it’s important to have a nice tempo;  corresponding to a book’s all-important pacing, in my mind.

Although I will have the melody in my mind – or at least most of it – at the very beginning, composition for me is a three-step process.

Step one is the rhythm.  My instinct is to use a simple beat for the couplet, alternate to a more complex one for the refrain, then return to the couplet’s simplicity.  I use musical bridges and solos to avoid monotony, so these may have alternative beats as well.

Then, I “superimpose” the melody.  I believe I have a good ear for melody, and enjoy coming up with catchy tunes.  This step requires a lot of back and forth, as composing is not a question of putting into paper the piece as it plays in my mind, but rather creating it on the fly, as part of a messy, intimately fun process.

Finally, I will listen to the piece trying to find areas of improvement; usually by adding flourishes where I wish to place extra emphasis, or by embellishing a part of the music that sounds to me plain.

What I realized today is that my writing tends to follow a rather similar 1-2-3 process.  Even my sentences resemble my tempo, commonly having a simple two-beat rhythm to them.

Interestingly enough, as my writing skills improve, I’ve noticed that I become more adventurous with my prose, experimenting with different patterns and breaking out of the usual beat.

Singing the word

The second aspect of that relationship concerns the ease with which words roll off one’s mouth when spoken out loud.  The best story-tellers have this unique gift, to narrate in music.  Not actual music of course, although the intonation and temp of the syllables can bear an uncanny resemblance to it.  Take for example one of the Bible’s most famous phrases:

Woe to you oh earth and sea

for the Devil sends the beast with wrath

The words are awesome in themselves; it’s as if the English translator strove to send chills down readers’ spines.  There’s more to it than that though; read it out loud and you’ll notice a melody; a rhythm.  Poets have known this for ages, of course.  It’s no coincidence that Solon gave the first laws of Greece in rhyme, to make them more memorable; nor that the Iliad and Odyssey are both written as poems.  Poetry is all about finding the exact word to fit in the right place; not only from the point of view of meaning, but also of melody and rhythm.  Why should our prose strive towards anything less than that?

It is said that St. Augustine nearly had a heart attack the first time he saw his teacher read from a book – silently!  So used were people to read everything out loud, that this shocked young Augustine enough to pass it down as one of his most memorable moments (this from a man who castrated himself for love of God).

Today, we’ve reached the opposite extreme.  We only read out books at school, and so we miss too much.  When I finish a story, I often have my wife read it out loud, to hear how it sounds (she hates this, by the way).  While she does, I often expect to hear another word, or identify places that seem to go “against the grain” somehow, and immediately make the relevant changes on the manuscript.

One of the beauties of editing one’s manuscript is this struggle to find the exact word or phrase that will capture an idea in the most elegant way.  Whether you’re Stephen King or Hemingway, I’m betting that the first draft will suck (granted, Mr. King’s first draft will shame my polished manuscript, but still).  I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time agonizing over a single word or phrase, and have developed a love/hate relationship with editing because of that.  The frustration I feel when I can’t find the right word is only matched by my elation when I do.

So, when writing, keep in mind that finding the right word to convey an idea is important.  Using it in a way that sustains a story’s tempo and melody is the next step, at least for me.  Writing, it turns out, is all about music.

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