Sunday, March 6, 2011

The music of voice

I didn't even notice that I complained of blogger's block and then wrote a post on writer's block the next day. -_-;; Well, it just shows how fleeting writer's block can be!

Today I'm just idly pondering the music of writing. See, I've been watching American Idol this season, and whenever I watch it I inevitably draw comparisons between the two different creative businesses, and when the singers are rejected or successful I am reminded of my own highs and lows, or I compare the different attitudes toward rejection, inspiration, etc. to people I know or types of writers in general.

There is also the sad fact of people who just can't sing. Or can sing, but are missing that something that makes them really wonderful to listen to. (Of course, people will disagree on this, which is what gives the world its wonderful variety.) There are some people who want to sing, but just don't have the ear. Are there people who want to write and just don't have the ear? I think so. I've read a few hopelessly off-key manuscripts. But I've seen many more people improve from boring or overwritten stories to, well, enjoyable stories and publication! Still, there definitely is a level of talent involved. Some people can just write beautifully, and you can see it even in early work where they made a lot of mistakes.

I don't know that people are actually BORN with this talent, though. I think this is why the first advice authors give aspiring writers is to READ. Especially kids. READ. I think that's your best chance of developing that subconscious ear for turning a phrase. I don't know if this is something people can fully develop as adults if they're starting from scratch. Can they? It seems like it would be up there with learning another language, at the least.

The best writing is musical. It has a rhythm to it. I was reading this magazine recently on some geeky topic and while I was interested in the subject, the writing just wasn't that good. It was perfectly COMPETENT. The articles had interesting details and descriptions. But the words didn't flow. I've read published novels like that too. Sometimes popular novels with gripping plots. They just don't often become classics. Trends in writing, they come and go, but I'm reading a lesser-known novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett right now and while both style and plot points are old-fashioned, it is still a joy to read. She just has a storyteller's voice.

L. M. Montgomery's voice is probably my favorite. She loved and wrote poetry; I think a lot of good prose writers get it from poetry even though I'll admit to not being a GREAT poetry appreciator myself. Sarah Waters is another writer whose prose is just absolutely resonant to my ear. I didn't really care for the characters OR the plot in The Little Stranger and yet somehow I gobbled that book up anyway. It's an elusive quality. I can't tell you how to do it. It's the art of varied sentences and an occasional wee dash of alliteration or repetition, or a big word thrown in with small ones, or knowing when "There was a..." sounds just right even when it's not active voice. It's things like that, maybe, but also just something else. Something a little magic, sure as Chopin, or Bowie singing "Life on Mars?"


  1. I think you're absolutely right to compare the sort of...lyrical prose to music. Sometimes "competent" writing is just not enough. I sometimes wonder, too, if kids need to hear more books read aloud by good *readers*, too--beyond the early years when everyone gets read to.

    My most exciting moment reading to my son was after we finished the book Ruby Holler, by Sharon Creech, and he said, "Can I see the pictures again?" and we both looked through the book rather incredulously because there *aren't* any pictures...but her words were put together so beautifully that both of us were certain we had seen actual pictures. Another great one, in addition to the ones you mentioned, is Kate DiCamillo.

    Nice post! (and I totally came over from twitter to see "idle pondering"--idle pondering is my favorite pastime!)

  2. I'm gearing up for a voice workshop we're doing in my crit group this month, and as part of that I'm looking for good passages of voice from a variety of books. And thinking about what it is that makes this voice work. One of my very favorites is that part in Deathly Hallows where Harry's going off to the forest and wishing he were going home, instead, and realizing that

    "he was home. Hogwarts was the first and best home he had known. He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here…"

    It's not chatty, not full of Amazing Nouns and Strong Verbs, etc. It's just...writing. Yet when you read that passage (and the lines reading up to it), it somehow nails the feeling in that whole half of the book. And your post, I think, explains why--it's the rhythm and intonation and resonance that does it. It's the sound. It makes you want to read it aloud.

  3. Rose and Elissa, you both note an important point I forgot about. Not just reading, but reading aloud! Yes, I think you must be right about that. My parents read me Narnia and Little House when I was a wee thing...I have a very clear memory of getting into bed, one of us on each side of my dad, to find out what happened in The Long Winter. I could already read them myself, but it was so magical to be read aloud to as a kid. (Now I actually hate being read aloud to, ironically.) And I read aloud too. I read books to my cat when no one else would listen! And I still read aloud regularly to Dade. So I'm thinking maybe that is equally important and maybe even a bigger reason why those classic storytelling rhythms stuck with me.

  4. I find that the best written items and sentences (and so on and so forth) are ones which stick in your head. The kind that when a book title is mentioned, they come to mind. I think Comedy does this, because Comedy relies so heavily on delivery and so is usually well-done.

    I think that your mood affects your writing a great deal, if partially because it definitely affects my own. Sometimes, if you're particularly focused and tuned into the author, you can sense the moments when they return to writing because of a slight shift in disposition.

  5. as a reader, my absolute favorite thing is to read a passage that literally gives me chills because it's just so good. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does it makes me just adore the book I'm reading.