Friday, September 04, 2009

I've got rhythm, I've got music...

by Jennie Bentley

Gerswhin was great, wasn’t he? :-)

I’ve always been singing. In choir as a kid, in front of the mirror clutching a hairbrush as I got older, and semi-professionally in New York in my early twenties.

I say semi-professionally, because although I went to New York with the idea that I wanted to be a triple-threat on Broadway, it didn’t take me long to realize that although I—to paraphrase that famous screen test of Fred Astaire’s—could sing a little, could dance a little, and could maybe act, I hated auditioning. And it’s hard to have a career in theatre when you don’t like to audition.

Plus, I learned what a real singer is supposed to sound like when I met my husband, and what little confidence I had in that aspect of my talent vanished. Yeah, I can carry a tune. Doesn’t make me a singer.

So I started writing instead. The two disciplines—acting and writing—have quite a lot in common, actually. I always enjoyed the process of rehearsals, of learning the lines and becoming the character. Writing is the same way for me. I write in the first person POV, and in doing that, I become my protagonist for the four or five months it takes me to write a book. The same thing happens when I read one: for the day or two it takes, I become the main character and go through the things he or she does.

Until recently, though, I never thought much about how singing is like writing.

Back in February, I had occasion to attend Murder in the Magic City, a lovely little conference held in Birmingham, Alabama, every year. (If you’re in the neighborhood, don’t miss it.) One of the panels there—not mine—featured the real triple-threat of Carla Neggers, Deborah Sharp, and Peggy Webb. It was a wonderful panel, with Peggy as the moderator (and if you haven’t read her book, "Elvis and the Dearly Departed," I dare you. Elvis is a Bassett Hound, and the reincarnation of the King of Rock’n Roll. Need I say more?)

At one point, Peggy talked about rhythm. Turns out she’s a singer, too. I can’t recall exactly how she put it—I was, sadly, talking to someone else at the time, instead of paying attention, and the words sort of jumped out at me—but it was the first time I’d really thought about the rhythm of language in the same terms that I think about the rhythm of music.

Rhythm in music is easy. Music is set up to go along at a steady pace, with bars and stanzas, and when the rhythm is broken, it doesn’t sound right. Unless the rhythm is broken intentionally, like when an A-A-B-A song shifts from verse to bridge.

(No, I didn’t misspell ABBA. A-A-B-A is a formula for writing a song. A = verse, B = Bridge. As opposed to A-B-A-B, where A = verse and B = chorus. Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” is an A-A-B-A song. Most folk songs are written on the A-B-A-B principle, with chorus following verse following chorus following verse. Sometimes they’ll throw in a bridge just to liven things up.)

Rhythm in language is different. There are no bars to hold to, no percussion keeping the beat going in the background. Yet language has to have rhythm, and when that rhythm is broken, it’s jarring. Some of us are able to hear it when we write. We are, perhaps, not exactly able to put our fingers on what’s wrong with a certain paragraph or sentence, but we can hear that something’s off. Often, what that something is, is the rhythm. And reading out loud helps to catch it, because the ear is more attuned than the eye to catching flaws in rhythm.

Just like a song switches beat from verse to bridge—most often it slows down—we can use rhythm to change the pace in our writing, too. Short, staccato sentences, like a Souza march, moving forward briskly = action scene. Long, languid sentences, like a romantic ballad = calmer pace, relaxed, nothing bad going on. Until—rhythm change—the pace picks up, the sentences get shorter, maybe even ragged/incomplete and choppy, and stuff starts to happen.

So what about you? Do you think about rhythm when you write? Can you hear it when the rhythm changes in your writing? When you’ve unintentionally slowed down without meaning to? Do you use rhythm to vary the pace in your manuscripts?

And if you listen to music while you write, does the choice depend on what you’re writing? Is there a correlation between what you’re listening to and what you’re writing? If the pace of the writing changes - from action scene to denouement, for example - do you change the CD or radio station?


martha reed said...

Jennie, hi. Great post. And yes, I absolutely 'hear' rhythm when I'm writing and it's pretty obvious (to me, at least) when it gets broken through a bad descriptor or a part of the narrative. Luckily, if I sit still and think about it for a quiet moment I can usually pick it back up.

The best parts are when the rhythm is so strong I can't type fast enough to keep up with it! I love it when that happens.

Joyce said...

Nice post, JB!

I think it's crucial to vary the rhythm of sentences. When I revise, or when I read someone else's work, that's one thing that jumps out at me. I'm not as conscious of it when I'm doing the actual writing, though.

Annette said...

I've never thought of it in musical terms, but, yes, I do hear the rhythm of the words. I usually pick it up when one of my sentences is too long and rambling. The sentence might be technically correct, but if the rhythm's off, the words trip over themselves. Like me when I try to dance. Heh.

Dana King said...

Funny; there's a similar discussion over at Murderati today.

I was trained as a musician, and I work at a rhythm and cadence in everything I write; they're key components of my voice. I'll leave things out if adding them corrupts the cadence I'm looking for. I've also been known to change words-- sometimes to a word my critique group doesn't like as well--because the "prefect" word doesn't fit the flow of what's around it, especially in dialog.

I never edit to music, because I need to feel that rhythm. I do sometimes draft to music. My first person PI stories were often written with Bruckner, Mahler or Wagner in the background; my recent multi-POV writing sometimes has a jazz accompaniment. No conscious reason for either. It just worked out that way.

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks for commenting, y'all.

Yeah, JT is discussing music over on Murderati, too, isn't she? We didn't plan it, I swear. But hop on over there anyway; JT Ellison is a brilliant writer and a very nice person to boot.

Patg said...

Sorry, Jen, no music when I write. I consider it a major distraction, only listen if I'm doing rote things. As far as rhythm goes in my writing, I'm not sure I'd call it that. If I have an idea that I want to get down on paper I guess I'm 'in the swing of the thing' while it is pouring out, but nothing like that happens if I'm starting at a page for inspiration.
Of course, I have no musical talent at all, didn't like music class at all, and can't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, though I do sing to my grandkids for their sheer merriment. Quickly followed by, 'stop singing, grandma'.
I went to NYC to see the world, and I did fairly well. Do you miss NYC? I do, every day.

Working Stiffs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wilfred Bereswill said...

Sorry for being late. I always read my work aloud to hear the rhythm. I can't hear it as well if I read it to myself.

Good post Jennie.