Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tinker, tailor

It's not pentameter, but is it iambic?

Tinker, tailor
Soldier, sailor
Rich man, poor man
Beggarman, thief.

I-am, I-am, I-am. Iambic? Someone with an English degree please verify!

As I plow through revisions I waver between large-scale (storyline, revelations to readers and character, plot arc) and micro-scale (imagery, dialogue). The rhythm of writing falls in the latter category.

I try to write musical sentences -- I've actually found myself whispering the words out loud as I write them (I do NOT move my lips while reading). But I have to be careful not to fall into a sing-songy bounciness.

Tinker, tailor, solider, sailor. Both the rhythm and the rhyme make this sentence rest comfortably in my mind. It's the same beat as "ice cream, ice cream, ice cream FREEZE!" -- a clapping rhyme that, somewhat embarrassingly, is lodged in there as well.

Not all sentences have to bounce or rhyme. Depending on the scene, the mood, the point of view through which we're experiencing that moment, a sentence can be languid and ornate (Austen?); short and clipped like a tough-guy mustache (Hemingway); circuitous and repetitive (my early drafts), etc.

The dog barked.
The dog was barking.
The dogs bayed.
The noise of dogs barking filled the night.
Barking were the dogs.
The dog coughed a wet bark without getting up.
The bark of the dog was harsh and tight, a sandpaper sound of rage.

Okay, I cheated a little on the last one. Hear the rhythm? It's almost like riding a horse. Clackety-clackety-clackety.

It's one more thing to pay attention to. Every tiny piece of the narrative must be deliberate: it must communicate a message beyond whatever the words say. There's a second layer of meaning, that comes from word choice and the shape of the sentence. Readers pick it up, even if we're not aware of laying it down.


Laini Taylor said...

I really appreciate that you take such care with your prose -- I value that highly in writing. When I can find good story + lovely prose, I am a happy reader! I read everything I write out loud so I can hear it. Sometimes it's under my breath, sometimes full voice -- depends on whether I'm home alone or not! I'm always surprised to hear not everyone does this.

S R Wood said...

Laini -- You're so right: I'm always amazed that things which LOOK fine on the page SOUND clumsy when I read them out loud. I wonder why writing that sounds better also reads better -- after all, the book is designed to be read silently. Yet for some reason that sound and rhythm are important too. Poetry is of course the master of this, but there's no reason not to extend that musical-ness to narratives too. I've never understood why "children's books" can't also be good literature. Oops, I'm ranting!