Showing posts with label listening. Show all posts
Showing posts with label listening. Show all posts

06 February 2017

Writing by Ear


by Steve Liskow

My Grandmother and her cousin were elementary school teachers, and her daughter and her husband (my aunt and uncle) were reporters long enough ago that they weren't yet called "journalists." My sister and I were the youngest of eleven cousins, seven of whom also became teachers. Another cousin is a lawyer and at least three of us got involved in theater along the way. They joined my parents in reading to me--and, later, my sister--from the time we could sit upright, and they read with vitality and expression.

That's probably why both my sister and I entered kindergarten reading at about fifth grade level. I also grew up hearing a voice saying the words when I read. Later, a reading specialist told me this was a problem, but I never believed it. I still don't, even though means I can't read more quickly than I can hear the words.

Since we grew up in the Midwest, those rhythms, broad consonants and nasalized vowels became my default sound track. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Roethke (whose sister taught me ninth grade English), and later Elmore Leonard, Loren Estleman and Linda Barnes sounded like family. I left Saginaw, Michigan fifty years ago but the rhythm is still an internal metronome when I write.


That's good because American English creates meaning by rhythm instead of case endings like the Romance languages. Stress different words in "I can't really bring myself to trust the fellow" and listen to how it changes the meaning of the sentence.

Shakespeare's vocabulary isn't that different from ours--he's writing in Modern English, after all--but he's a master of using rhythm to show actors how he wants a line delivered. The usual iambic pentameter line (ten syllables with the even-numbered ones receiving more stress) is the norm, but if Bill throws in an extra stress, especially in the middle of a line, it forces you to slow down for emphasis. A line with many monosyllabic words goes very slowly and gets lots of attention.

Good queen, my lord, good queen I say, good queen.

This is the only fully monosyllabic line I remember in the canon, and Paulina (my wife in the picture) says it to Leontes in The Winter's Tale when the latter accuses his wife of being a strumpet and she disagrees. Can you hear how slowly she pronounces the words, nearly hammering them into his head? During my stage career, I performed in about a dozen Shakespearean productions and directed six more. I know several actors who were so comfortable with the language that they could improvise in blank verse if they had to. That's the power of strong rhythms.

Hearing the words I read helped me learn lines on-stage, too. I was one of many actors who learned the lines along with the movement (blocking) because it helped fix the words into my body. It's also how I blocked (choreographed) scenes when I directed: a rhythm shift always told me that someone on the stage should move.

I don't act anymore, but rhythm helps writing, too.

Worry less about being grammatically correct--especially in dialogue--and more about whether or not you can SAY what you've written down. That's my final test, and it's my main point here.

In your final draft, READ YOUR WORDS OUT LOUD. I walk around the room while I read, too (my wife and our cats have learned to ignore me), because speech rhythms and movement rhythms work together. If I break stride or stumble over a word, it means I wrote the wrong word or put it in the wrong place.

Some grammar rules are misleading, too. A split infinitive is a mistake only when it confuses the audience. Sometimes, it makes more sense with the adverb between "to" and the verb, and it may flow more smoothly. The same goes for ending a sentence with a preposition. People tell you it's wrong, but the real issue is that it means your sentence ends with a weak rhythm. In English, you put the words you want to emphasize AT THE END (Thank you, Strunk & White).

When you read out loud, you're more apt to notice repetitions or awkward phrases, too. If you put several words with the same sounds close together, they're hard to pronounce. My favorite, a line I stumbled on one night in performance, comes from Twelfth Night:

Notable pirate, thou salt-water thief,
What foolish boldness brought thee to their mercies  
Whom thou in terms so bloody and so dear
Hast made thine enemies?

Hear the repeated and overlapping consonants? Try saying the speech five times fast after four frozen daiquiris.

Punctuation should help the reader read your words aloud, too, so forget the debate about the Oxford comma, the serial comma, the non-restrictive clause, the direct address and everything else. Where do you want the reader to pause to make the words impart the meaning you intend them to have? That's where you put the comma, period, or whatever else you need. If you walk as you read aloud, you can tell. Walking helps you find a smooth natural pace. Speed up for action scenes or slow down for drama. If you walk too slowly, you may lose your place, too. If that happens to me, I need to cut exposition or description, both of which I dislike writing anyway.

I don't write poetry, but I try to end a scene with a strong beat or cadence. I play guitar, too, and at least three bass players will tell you they like to play behind me because I'm easy to follow, which I assume is a good thing.

Nowhere does rhythm matter more than in writing humor. We talk about comic timing, but it's flexible, not absolute. Some people (remember Jack Benny?) can hold a pause so long you feel your hair turning gray, but they still get the laugh. Others deliver the same punch line more quickly and get the same laugh. You have to find your own rhythm when you write, and that means you have to hear it and feel it.

Look on-line and check your local library. If you can find Mark Twain's essay on how to tell a joke, it's still the last word on the subject, a century after his death.

So there it is. Read your work out loud. If you feel yourself falling into a drone or losing your place, you need to change something (cut adjectives, more active verbs, etc.).

With a little practice, you will find that your ears will help you more than your eyes.

And I still hear a voice when I read.

18 May 2016

I Couldn't Help Overhearing


by Robert Lopresti

It is one of those super powers most fiction writers seem to have: the ability to eavesdrop.  Comes from a natural curiosity about our fellow mortals, I suppose.

Lots of people listen to what is said around them, but we writers, well, we tend to put them to good use.

Take, for instance, Harlan Ellison, the science fiction and fantasy author (and winner of two, count 'em, two Edgar Awards, by the way).  He was at a party once and overheard someone say "Jeffty is five.  Jeffty is always five."

He assumes that this was a mondegreen, but it inspired a stunning short story, "Jeffty is Five."  It won a Hugo and a Nebula and one poll of SF fans voted it the best short story of all time.

Not bad for an overheard snippet of conversation, huh?

There are also stories about overheard conversations, which I think is due to the writer's special interest in the subject.

James Thurber's "The Lady on 142" begins with the narrator and his wife waiting for a train in the Connecticut suburbs.  He hears the stationmaster saying over the phone "Conductor Reagan on 142 has the lady the office was asking about."

The narrator's wife assumes the lady was sick. Our hero suspects something much more nefarious is going on.  Complications ensue.  I liked the story so much that I ended Thurber On Crime with it.

Before Harry Kemelman started writing about Rabbi Small he made it into Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Department of First Stories with "The Nine Mile Walk," in which a casually overheard remark leads to the discovery of a murder.  It is one of my favorite crime stories.

I have stolen a lot of overheard dialog and put it in the mouths of my characters, but I don't think any of my stories were inspired by  an overheard remark.  Songs, ah, that is a different subject.  Years ago I attended a music camp and took a class from Geof Morgan who was a Nashville hitmaker, until he reformed.  He told us to listen to conversation for the rest of the day, waiting for a hook.

I remember thinking, sure, someone is just going to toss off  a country song hook while I happen to be standing nearby.  A few hours later I heard a woman say:  "She's thinking of giving up California."  And voila.

She's thinking of giving up California
Moving someplace farther from the sea
When she talks about giving up California
I think she's really giving up on me.

And not long ago I was walking through the library where I work and I heard one student say to another: "Whatever page you're at, whatever stage you're at..."

I silently added: "Whatever age you're at."  And I was off.

So, how about you?  Have you ever overheard the kernel of what became your next masterpiece?


  

07 February 2013

Why Can’t I Listen To Audio Books?


by Louis A. Willis

Back in the days of cassette tapes, I experimented with the idea that listening to audio books would help me get through my growing to-be-read list. To get started, I bought the novel  A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara, with Sophie Ward doing the reading. The total listening time of the two cassettes was three hours. I wish I could tell you how much I enjoyed the novel, but I don’t remember whether I enjoyed it or not. I don’t even remember what it was about.
The problem was as I sat in my easy chair listening to the book, I couldn’t keep my mind on what the reader was saying because I kept nodding off. I think, but I’m not sure, that I finally fell asleep. No, it wasn’t the voice of the reader. Later that same year, I bought a CD about ancient cultures and, as with the novel, I don’t remember finishing it because I believe I fell asleep again.
I can listen to old radio programs like “The Shadow,” “The Green Hornet” or “Inner Sanctum” without dozing off because I hear the different voices of the different characters. Listening to the single voice reading a book on a cassette or CD, however, seems to put me to sleep no matter how good the reader is.
No matter how much I think about it, I can’t solve the puzzle of why I can’t listen to audio books. So, I’ve decided not to try to listen to War and Peace on an audio book. 
Any method that encourages people to read should not be dismissed. Audio books are not only good for readers with poor eye sight but also for readers who, provided they can stay awake, want to reduce that pile of to-be-read books or reread the classics.