Sing to Meby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, October 2003
"In front of the red-hued castle, amid luxuriant elms, there was a vividly green grass court. Early that morning the gardener had smoothed it with a stone roller, extirpated a couple of daisies, redrawn the lines with liquid chalk, and tightly strung a resilient new net between the posts. From a nearby village the butler had brought a carton within which reposed a dozen balls, white as snow, fuzzy to the touch, still light, still virgin, each wrapped like a precious fruit in its own sheet of transparent paper."Recently in Boot Camp, the internet writing group I steer, a number of stories received a specific criticism, "It's flat, too flat. Where's the music?"
OK, I know what I mean, (I think) but the thirteenth victim decided to bite back. So what was flat exactly and why did it matter, and how did you get a story to be not flat? Why was flatness such a no-no, and precisely why did lack of flatness make the story more whole, more rewarding, deeper and richer? Wasn't I just on about artiness in writing, purple prose, wordiness for wordiness's sake?
One of the best things about a writing group environment is that sometimes questions like these make a teacher look inward, and make him realize that so much of his "knowledge" seems to be intuitive, instinctive, impossible to articulate. In cases like this, I find the worst thing I can do is write an essay on the subject.
In the same way as writing "left-brained" can isolate the soul, ban the unconscious and produce sterility or formula, a conscious reflection on the self in order to lecture can produce an "answer" which is more regurgitation than accessing and pinning-down the real basis of the writer's art.
Certain very real elements in writing (especially those we usually see as intuitive or the product of experience) demand we discover them (like great stories) by accident, sideways, from the corner of the writer's eye.
So, rather than attempt a complete, formal answer I just splurge in and around the subject, knowing I will write loosely with frayed ends each of which demand another question. But it is through the generated questions, the on-the-fly answers, the changed directions that we get the truth, a far better and greater truth than the essay ever would be. I've said before that too much thinking is bad for fiction. I believe the same is true for looking at craft. So, for example, this is written very quickly, too fast for the guards to follow, faster than the censor, a rapid-flowing stream, full of error, but the mistakes point towards truths I could never access if I wrote with care.
"The pristine tennis court was down in front of the castle. The gardener had rolled it smooth and tightened the net. The butler had brought a carton of brand-new balls."This opening (much better than by many beginning writers) does contain the basic facts, but what else does it contain? Nada! Not only that but it doesn't demand careful reading, it doesn't ask for involvement. It just passably is and the reader can skim-and-wait, that is she can read in low-attention mode and "wait for something to happen". There's a sense that this is only a lead-in, only warm up. And if the reader does feel that, there is no way she can step inside, no way she can act on the words and be acted on by the words.
In the first extract (Vladimir Nabokov's La Veneziana) we are made, (by the variations, the word-choices, the emphases) to immerse, to indulge, and to be indulged by the language; the rises, the falls, the sentences stretched and compressed, speeded up, slowed down. The music.
Even the paragraph above (written at a hundred miles an hour) plays the same games. The reader has no choice but to pause (and therefore focus) on the contents of the first brackets, and again, the second. In fact the whole paragraph, by changing speed of transition and transmission, by its rises and falls, the beats and emphases, attempts to impart the information in a more definite and stickable way.
In other IWJ articles I have talked about voice and about theme music. Some stories "sing" (and the great artists, so inclined could probably have written fine music) and some are close to prose poems. But this doesn't mean that plain and simple is not art. Hemingway showed us that -- take a look at the dialogue in "Hills Like White Elephants", and Ray Carver showed how less is more (but only after a month's rewriting)!
Some of these writers have been poorly copied (ask any suicidal judge of a short-story competition) but where the great minimalists differ from their weaker imitators is precision and focus. Carver hits us hard with exact words, with just enough, exactly enough of the scene, with the right parts, and no more than what is needed. Like here:
"This has nothing to do with me. It's about a young couple with three children who moved into a house on my route the first of last summer. I got to thinking about them again when I picked up last Sunday's newspaper and found a picture of a young man who'd been arrested down in San Francisco for killing his wife and her boyfriend with a baseball bat. It wasn't the same man, of course, though there was a likeness because of the beard. But the situation was close enough to get me thinking."Not only is this packed with information, devoid of wasted warm-up time but we get so much feel -- for the narrator (want to bet it will involve him?) and for the pain in the world. But importantly (because we are talking about flatness) the opening rings for me and sings to me. I don't feel as if this narrator will bore me. When the story continues, Henry Robinson is the name. I'm a postman, a federal civil servant, and have been since 1947. I can sense the narrator, empathize with him, imagine him. He speaks, even if he turns out to be narrow-minded, in a way that doesn't threaten to put me to sleep. This couldn't be much further from the Nabokov opening, yet both authors promise so much because their words are so carefully chosen and laid before me. They don't just talk, they say something and demand we attend with care.
Sometimes character voice, narrator tone, theme music are all one. Here is the opening a recent prize-winning story, "The Bastard William Williams", the writer Allen Jones.
"I am the bastard William Williams, late of The Universal Pit, Senghennydd, then the pit at Abertridwr, and latterly the cellars of The Commercial Hotel, as pot man. Now that the dust have slowed me I am easy to find. I am still lived next door to the English Congregational Church, Commercial Road, Senghennydd. I venture from my place only for the English Cong, and in summer, if I am lucky, a visit from a relation.I hope here too, what matters is first, that the voice is striking and personal, second that there's distinct music and promise, and third, that the title and the contents of William's speech suggest an interesting read.
Until the coaldust on my chest confined me to my front room I have been known as a hearty man. My years is matched exact to the century and for the most part it have been a good life, wholesome. I think though, with what have passed, I shall not like to be here when the clock strike two thousand."
It's not too hard to write this competently, containing the same facts, yet somehow remove the promise, the music, the hills and valleys.
My name is William Williams. I was a miner at The Universal Pit, then pot man at the Commercial Hotel. I live next door to the English Congregational Church and I'm rarely far away, these days, not with my lung trouble. I'm ninety-nine years old, and overall I think it's been a good life, but the way things are going, if I make my century, I think that will be enough.Something like this would not be untypical of an intermediate writer. While there is little wrong with the text if it formed part of a letter or a police statement, it is devoid of color, of feel, of humanity. It is not uncommon to find, in a dozen workshop stories, such blandness of voice, such lack of variation of delivery that it's possible to cut-and-paste sentences and build a composite story. Such is the generic feel of so many offerings!
When we woo, when we argue, when we orate, we inflect, we emphasize, we vary our approach, we time our moments, we hit home. Why then, when we engage in the artifice of fiction, the novel, and even more so, the short story, do so many think only of the semantic fact and not its delivery?
Do we doubt that the words of a song, the meaning, is not enhanced or altered by the music which carries them? Is it only the cold semantic analysis of the words of Martin Luther king which matter? Did Churchill just lay it on the line? Did John F. Kennedy just give it to us plain and simple?
The poems that stay with us echo. They resonate. Something in them, some extra calls to us beyond the bare words. The epithets we recall, the great quotations, the speeches, all have delivery; an extra dimension, an orchestration which bolsters the mean and plain word.
When I talked in earlier IWJ articles about seduction not instruction, about involving the reader, about drawing her in, one element then discussed was the avoidance of the droning lecture, both the dull idea of merely giving facts, but also the dull fact of merely giving. That is, not only should we avoid giving everything explicitly to the reader without asking her to emote or discover the implicit, but also we need to seduce our reader through our literal music, through the sounds and warmer feelings that rhetoric offer us.
When I read so many story offerings, what surprises me is how so many writers forget the very essences that created them, their psyche, what deeply moves them, what they remember, what they once felt. When they remember George Washington's confession, is it not delivered? When the think of the fading monochrome film of Martin Luther King telling us "I have a dream" does it come across flat, without inflection? As children we learn verse, we instinctively know that chants, rhyme, iambic pentameter add something to the mix, the memorability. We don't flatten "The Raven" any more than a Brit would drone out Rudyard Kipling's "If."
The music matters. It is part of the process, part of the meaning.
Sam Francis Witty, right now, here, waking alone in his wide bed, is old; his thick body, thin scalp, his one-time dreams all dashed -- cliche. In truth, precision applied, as things stand, from Sam's perspective his dreams are not quite dashed -- from his perspective, there is, after all, (there still could be), time. But the smart money says the Witty epitaph will be, "If only".Could this be simplified? Of course. It may be better, de-claused, but the paragraph, as well as stating Sam Witty's creaky middle-aged loneliness, and his perennial mumbling excuses, it delivers them in a Sam way.
Sunday morning. He rises, only a little creaky, one cough, his joints only faintly sore. Sam is barely hungover, and in the transition time of shit, shave, and shower he can look in the mirror at fifty-something (not quite sixty) and think, "OK". That is Sam would think OK if what he had wanted to do had been done, if what he was doing had value, if what he was going to do mattered, if what he believed Sam F. Witty would be remembered for was a little more than begetting and building, if he felt fulfilled.So the text, which has a meaning, however flat (but too flat and the meaning can wash over us and never be taken in) can also gain through rhetoric; from inflection, from beats and pauses, from speeding up and slowing down, from emphasis. In the second paragraph as well as being told Sam is creaky and a little hungover, we get the creakiness in the passage of the narrative, in the actual rolling-out of the words.
Hopefully, at the same time, the different delivery prevents reader coasting. Just as cliche and stereotype causes meaning to be skimmed, so vanilla word-strings can neuter receptivity.
Before written histories, stories were passed from generation by wrapping them in poetry or song in order that they should not be forgotten. When the ballads were sung there was something in the rhymes, the rhythms that entered into the listener, striking deep. The music deepened the experience, added resonance, and evoked emotion. It increased the response to the point where it could be visceral, primitive. It was not forgotten.
In the same way, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" is a prayer, an incantation, and the opening paragraph of Saul Bellow's "A Silver Dish" simply oozes with the aching, complex love of Jewish Woody Selbst for his rougish father.
We have a choice. We can write in a way that says, "Here are some words, take them or leave them", or we can WRITE. We can present in a way which seduces, which whispers, "Listen, listen, I have something to say. Settle down. I will sing to you."
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.