Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What works?

Create intrigue, provoke a response, engage your readers' emotion: so go some of the advice we read for writers. Other advice sounds like this: use strong verbs and concrete nouns, choose two-dollar words over ten-dollar ones, vary sentence length.

Some writers prefer the first type of advice because it compasses the whole and it captures the imagination, of which writers are supposed to possess. Others find that they need specific instructions that the second list provides.

I remember as a young music student listening to the words music teachers used to help students play better. Some of the more common exhortations include, "Make your phrases soar!" "Sing through these piano keys!" and my favorite, from a voice teacher, "There's nothing inside your skull, let your voice resonate within the chamber." I behaved. I didn't respond.

Every once in a while, such imaginative remarks would hit a spot and I would "get" what the teacher was trying to say and be able to change my playing in an instant. It would feel like magic. For the most part though, I responded much better to, "Move your elbows here so your arms can move freely," "The ending of that phrase needs to be softer and last longer." "Your bass line is not loud enough"

Soft/loud, fast/slow, short/long: these seemed so mundane compared to what music is supposed to be. Even the soaring-phrase type advice results in nothing more than varying these basic properties of music. Yet, undeniably, when these mundane properties are combined in certain ways, we no longer care about soft/loud, fast/slow, short/long. We get swept up in magic.

In writing, we string words together, and we hope the way we do that makes our readers forget the mechanics and be drawn into our stories. How do you transform words and sentences, syntax and grammar into magic? That's the million-dollar question that has us revising, agonizing, and marveling at magic when we find them.

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