I hope you all enjoyed the May Day Bank Holiday weekend. I didn’t get far, but I enjoyed the extra time available for both reading and writing, and I delivered my poetry collection to Book Corner in Halifax.
Last week I went up to Stockton-on-Tees for the launch of the Crossing the Tees short story anthology, an annual publication which features the shortlisted and winning stories from the Crossing the Tees Book Festival Competition. It was also the award ceremony for the winners of the competition.
The whole thing took place on the Teesside Princess, a pleasure cruiser which sails up and down the River Tees. It was a beautiful evening for the cruise, and it was also a great opportunity to make new contacts and to catch up with a couple of writing friends who were there. I’d arranged to stay over in nearby Northallerton with my long-time friend, the author Jo Derrick, who was also shortlisted in the competition. We had a good catch up in the pub that evening and finished off our trip with a delicious lunch at Betty’s the next day – after the close forensic examination of the entire fiction section of Waterstones. We also made firm friends with the writer Pam Plumb, who we met by chance in the car park when we were all looking for the boat!
I’m also happy to report that it is finally (sort of) spring here in Yorkshire – the apple blossom is opening at last, even if it’s a grey morning outside!
This week we’re going to continue to look at language. Here’s another extract from my short story course, The Heart of the Short Story.
ASSONANCE, DISSONANCE, ALLITERATION & ONOMATOPOEIA
These techniques are usually thought of as poetic devices, however they can be equally effective in your prose if used sparingly, and will help to create rhythm, tone and atmosphere.
Use assonance to create a lulling rhythm, repeating vowel sounds within a sentence to create internal rhymes and half-rhymes, such as ‘weave and reel’ or ‘a mess of glass’.
Also consider the order of vowel sounds and the length of words within a sentence. Listen to how both of these things can make a difference to the way your prose sounds. Think about words like ‘criss-cross’ and ‘ping-pong’, phrases like ‘weak and worthless’, and how wrong they sound if you turn them around.
In contrast, dissonant words and hard consonants create harsher sounds – such as ‘bleak, black moors’ or ‘drunken clatter’.
If you use alliteration and onomatopoeic words, they will also add musicality to your prose – ‘bones as brittle as brandy snap’, and sounds such as hiss and sizzle and roar. Less is more though – remember to use all of these devices sparingly in your work or you risk overwhelming the reader in a longer piece.
Here are a few examples from my own stories:
“The caravan was damp and dimly lit, coated with the salty skin of the seaside.”
“…paddy fields glinting like emeralds, rice straw drying on splay-legged racks.”
“The horses’ hooves sound sharp and hard on the wet, black tarmac.”
“When they came into the room, all drunken clatter, shushing and laughing, Phoebe would shut her eyes tightly, pretend to be asleep.”
“…fragile as a sparrow’s egg, her bones as brittle as brandy snap, skin so pale it was almost blue.”
“…all hiss and roar and moth-ball scented growl.”
“The tread of boots, the reek of beer, the weave and reel of him by the bed.”
“In the half-light of dusk she glimpsed the shifting shapes of cottontails and coyote crossing the land.”
There is music in writing. It can stutter and stumble, whisper softly or crackle, it can skip with joy and put a smile on your face. It creates the mood and atmosphere of your story.
Rhythm is probably one of the most underrated aspects of prose, often thought of as something that belongs in poetry and music. Read your work aloud so that you can hear the rhythm, judge the pace, and root out the clunky parts that could trip up the reader and pull them out of the story. They will feel the rhythm in your writing even when they aren’t reading aloud, because the brain mimics speech as we read to ourselves. Re-read some of your favourite poetry and note the stress patterns and the cadence, the way the rhythm speeds up and slows down, rises and falls.
Here is one of my own poems, ‘Dizzy With It’, followed by an extract from the flash story it then became. Can you hear and feel the different rhythms in both versions?
DIZZY WITH IT
We wrote our songs on Saturdays,
after Chelsea Girl and the Wimpy Bar,
lyrics strewn with doodled stars
scattered across your bedroom floor.
I play-play-played those dented drums—
three cast-off cake tins of your mam’s,
accompanied by the pick and strum
of your wreck-necked red guitar.
And we thought we’d go far,
we were dizzy with it.
You taped it all on your dad’s reel-to-reel:
my unsure voice, your backing hum,
of those battered drums,
and the slip-slide-scratch of six steel strings.
We’d stop and dance to the radio
when the DJ revealed the week’s top ten,
your Bolan curls all half-crazed tangle,
and my patched-up faded jeans
embroidered with all our rockstar dreams.
“On Saturday mornings we coveted satin flares and smock tops in Chelsea Girl; twirled feather boas until neon-bright plumes spiralled to the floor, tested plum-pout lipsticks on puckered lips. We claimed a window seat at the Wimpy Bar and ordered milky coffees served in smoked glass beakers, bitched about the girl with the Linda McCartney hair and waved at the glam-rock boys in their platform boots from Daisy Roots.
But in the afternoons we were the band. We became Voodoo Velvet, chewing biro ends as we wrote our songs, scattering loose-leaf lyrics across your bed. We doodled stars in the margins, hearts and arrows, flowers strewing petals – he loves me, he loves me not.
We made drums from dented Quality Street tins, fashioned drumsticks from pencils tipped with plasticine. I play-play-played those battered drums until I was giddy, and you strummed an old guitar with only five strings, rescued from the skip.
You taped it all on your dad’s reel-to-reel: my unsure voice, the dum-dum-thrum of the plasticine, our hesitant laughter and the slip-slide-scratch of the steel strings.”
Consider this extract from my story, ‘Whatever Speed She Dared’. Can you hear the way the rhythm picks up speed as the paragraph progresses, reflecting the character’s thoughts as they become more reckless.
“The empty motorway is all hers, carving its way west through bleak, black moorland. Right now, she could drive in whichever lane she wanted at whatever speed she dared. She could criss-cross the curving lines of cats’ eyes, veer from the hard shoulder to the central barrier and back again, wind down the window, blast out Born to Run, howl into the night like an American werewolf.”
Then consider Jack Kerouac’s writing in On the Road – the way his sentences gallop, as though he’s in a mad rush to share his story.
“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.”
In my next past, we’ll look at sentence length and passive and active voice.
Word of the Week…
This week, a Croatian saying: Tko vino večera, vodu doručkuje
‘Who dines on wine has water for breakfast’, meaning that you have to pay the price for what you did the night before!
See you next time!