Thursday, May 22, 2008

Crafting Your Masterpiece

As a lifelong bibliophile and fan of the written word in general, I have a confession to make. My first love isn't books. It's music.

I realize that's a startling revelation for an editor, reader and writer to make, but not too long ago, I spent some time considering the correlations between my two loves. There are more than you might think.

Even with music, for me, it's all about the story. Plenty of people might say a great song doesn't have to have a strong lyric, that the melody can be enough. Sometimes that's true. Sometimes a catchy beat will disguise the holes in a song, but the composers of the best songs, in my opinion, understand how to integrate words and rhythm to create a masterpiece.

The same goes for books.

As a writer and editor, I understand well that it can be too easy to get caught up in rules. Another shocking statement, I know, but writing a story requires juggling a lot of pencils. While the importance of a professional presentation and carefully crafted sentences can't be overstated, another problem can be created when an author drums the uniqueness out of their work in pursuit of an ideal that doesn't exist.

The same song sung by two different people will have two different arrangements. It's not enough to have the right plot and characters - your "voice" is crucial. Let that voice shine through. If you need to write a sentence that starts with 'and' (my inner editor is screaming right now) to convey what you need to say, then go for it. For example, not using the same descriptive word five times on one page - or doing just that to make a point - will alter the cadence of your work. Reading your writing aloud can be instrumental in showing you where you need to improve.

Another facet of a "song with mileage" or one that can go the distance, is understanding rhythm. Every sentence is made up of beats, whether its part of a lyric, a poem or a novel. This is where delivery makes content shine. One of my favorite authors for close to twenty years, one that regularly appears on bestseller lists, is a master at this. She might not be the best technician of the English language, but she gets rhythm and pacing. She gets how to shorten sentences to increase urgency and lengthen them to draw out suspense.

And she starts a lot of sentences with 'and'.

Before I get lambasted for throwing editorial caution to the wind, I'm not suggesting you add sentence fragments to your work-in-progress willy nilly. I'm suggesting that rules are made to be broken, the only caveat being it has to work. Knowing if it works only comes with time and practice-and the guidance of a knowledgeable editor like those of us at The Wild Rose Press.

Next time you're sweating over one sentence you just can't get right, consider your scene as a whole and leave it alone for a bit to get some perspective. Just like you might listen to your favorite song over and over to hear one particular section, if you've done a good job at layering your notes and building to a crescendo, that one phrase might not make much of an impact on your masterpiece.

And you might just end up a bestseller like my idol.


Unknown said...

How wonderful to read your words about language and music - they echo thoughts I have had for a long time. Poor cadence in dialogue, particularly, will cause me to close a book.

As to following rules, one of my journalism teachers told us, "Learn the rule, and then know why you break it." :-)

Nancy C

Ellen said...

You've put a connection I've thought of for years into words!
All the best,
Ellen Dye