So I have been thinking.

(A dangerous pastime, I know.)

One of my duties as an artist, and I use that word very purposefully, is to learn wherever I can find the learning. When a new avenue opens to me by which I might do that, I tend to plunge into it and drown. This is probably because I’m change-averse, so in order to avoid balking, I throw myself into the deep end.

So I am drowning now, and seeing what comes of what I’m learning from listening to other people read my work aloud.

Now, the advice that you should read your own work aloud has been around forever, and I have ignored it because I tried it once and it didn’t work for me. I’m too close to the material, so listening to myself is like being in an echo chamber. I don’t hear the mistakes, I just hear the voice on the inside of my head outside of it. But listening to other people has finally driven home some gestalt I wasn’t getting from doing it myself… which is that rhythm is as big a component of prose as it is for poetry. Not just important, but as important.

I’m always chasing rhythm when I write. The other day, I had a tweet make the rounds, something I wrote after explaining that some sorts of creative passion feel painful, like fevers. Several people seemed to like my single sentence comment afterwards: I will breathe, and make things, and burn.

And that I wrote while feeling for the rhythm:

What made it work well enough for me to set it down was the abruptness of the halt at the end, because the pattern was teaching you to expect something, and then truncated the ending. I didn’t even realize that until now when I was staring at it, in fact. I am not much of a rhyming poet. But visual poetry, that relies on how it falls on a page, and rhythmic poetry, that I grok.

But as with everything, it’s not as simple as “use rhythm in your writing.”

It’s about changing rhythm. And changing voice. And how you can help readers glide through things, slam to a stop, bounce uncomfortably as if riding an angry horse. And how you don’t necessarily need to use those things for emotional ends: you can use them to signify things like character as well.

For instance, I am writing Jahir and Vasiht’h right now. You ask them both a question they don’t know the answer to and they answer differently:

Vasiht’h: “I’m not sure. I could ask around, though.”
Jahir: “I’m not entirely certain, though I could perhaps find out.”

One a staccato, quick and brief… the other a kind of rambling rhythm. This is not just personality, but language: Vasiht’h grew up speaking Universal, and Jahir grew up speaking the far more deliberate Eldritch tongue. Interestingly, Jahir before meeting Vasiht’h and Jahir after years of knowing him… very different.

Pre-Alliance: “I’m not entirely certain, though I could perhaps find out.”
Post-Alliance: “I’m not certain. I might find out, however.”

Because he begins to pick up his partner’s speaking rhythm. And of course, you can use this to indicate agitation, or languor, or any number of emotional states… if you know the character’s normal speech patterns well enough.

But the fact that different people have different speaking patterns isn’t new, either. I remember a friend who was taking acting classes. She was given an assignment to record someone talking, and then learn their pattern well enough to extemporize a speech in that speaking style to the class. She asked me if she could do my voice, so I obliged her and thought she did very well! Though maybe she was a touch dramatic? I couldn’t tell. But she told me later that she performed for her class to their great engagement, and that the professor was so skeptical that anyone actually talked that way that he demanded to hear the recording she’d made of me. Which she played him, and then he said, “Well, all right. You got it spot on.”

That stuck with me. But it wasn’t until listening to the Wingless audio that it began to occur to me that these patterns can stick, and should, through third person narrative too. Wingless switches viewpoints, from Slave Queen to Lisinthir, scene by scene. The voice actor gave all the main characters their own voices, so you can tell them apart. But he also gave the narration the same treatment: so the Slave Queen’s scenes are narrated with just a touch of her speech rhythm, and Lisinthir’s with his. (And it makes my throat hurt to hear him switching from the Emperor’s guttural growl to the Slave Queen’s gentle voice for the “he said” before returning to the bass. Crazy!).

So this sense that the description should also have the pacing and speech patterns that the viewpoint character has, while not new, is really with me right now: some of you tell me that you can easily tell the difference between all my first person narrators, and it’s because of this, because I am straining to hear how they pace their speech, the words they choose, how quick or slow they go. And you heard it too in Earthrise, a bit, the difference between Reese’s scenes and Hirianthial’s. I want to find the beat of their heart, of their words, and be able to tap it out. This is why I can’t listen to music while writing… I start writing to the music’s beat, and not the characters’.

This makes me very cognizant of my own tone, and the way I prefer to have my sentences rise and fall (and it gives me a hint of why I prefer some voice actors over others: I like the ones who either use my speech pattern themselves, or have intuited from the text how it would sound if I spoke it).

Insomuch as I succeed as a writer, I think it’s because I get out of the way of the poetry in my prose. I am becoming more and more aware of it, particularly listening to other people read my work aloud. Words have a music in them, a rolling rhythm. A tempo. And oh, God, I am in love with it. The song in a human voice. We don’t need sirens. We bewitch ourselves.

  1. I always run my stuff through Read Please, a free computer to voice program. It is truely amazing what crawls out of that pass. But there is a lady present so I can NOT describe it in detail. Of/Off issues are only part of it!

    Fait Lux

    Ed Buchan

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