Meta Writing

Rhythm as alarm system

The first thing I read this morning, while eating my quinoa flakes, was Kate Elliott’s excellent post about how she knows a scene needs to be rewritten:

The medium answer is:

I feel uncomfortable with it (see: “I just know” above) because:

the rhythm feels wrong when I re-read it. The rhythm of a scene should flow smoothly and inevitably for however you are defining inevitability — you should never catch or stumble over the flow of action and conversation.

Or: the characters aren’t doing what they need to do to move the plot forward because they are doing something else, specifically something that doesn’t actually matter no matter how entertaining I find it, or perhaps because it is something that was generic and easy to write but does not serve a useful purpose in narrative terms.

Or: the characters are not acting as they would be acting if they were being themselves. They’re saying things that come out wrong for them.

Or: Something I wrote later changes the nature of what this scene needs to accomplish.

Or: Ouch.

Or: the conversation wanders through the scene, repeats itself, contradicts itself, and/or isn’t directly to the point.

Or: the conversation isn’t layered right so that it starts from one point and leads to a bigger and more emotional point by the end of the scene.

Or: I wasted a big moment, eliding it or gliding over it, and I need to punch it up and/or expose it properly.

Or: What was I thinking?

The long answer: Give me three hours, a seminar, and a ton of time to prepare (none of which I have), and I might be able to make a stab at opening this out.

It’s interesting to me that Kate talks about rhythm first, because for me, at least, the other concerns she lists often present themselves as problems of rhythm first. That is to say: I’m writing a scene, or reading back over a scene, and I notice that something feels off, like a slub in smooth fabric. Then I start to worry at it, the same way you might pick at that little knot of thread. Sometimes the problem really is a prose-level rhythm issue, but sometimes the prose isn’t working correctly because something underneath the prose, something mechanical or structural, isn’t working either, in one of the ways Kate lists above.

I titled this post “rhythm as alarm system” as a way of describing that process, in which a flaw in the rhythm lets you know that something else may be wrong with your writing. But maybe it’s more like an extra sense or a magical power: imprecise, hard to control, and impossible to turn off. I spent some time re-reading old writing of mine recently, and it’s amazing how the things that feel most familiar about those old pieces of writing are the things I never did quite figure out how to fix: the slubs in the fabric. I remember the occasional awkward word or tinny line of dialogue better than the bits of beauty.

(If you want to develop your own extrasensory rhythmic perception, read your work out loud. All of it. Tayari Jones posted on Twitter recently about doing a complete read-through of her novel in progress while going over copyedits. [She also wrote a great post about fixing a timeline problem in that book.] If I’m struggling with writing anything, fiction or grant proposals or job letters, I read it out loud while I work. Often I get funny looks from the cats.)

Does the knot-in-the-fabric metaphor describe how you feel about weaknesses in your writing, or do you sense things a different way?

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