The Writer’s Desk: The right words in the right order

Poets and musicians know the importance of cadence, yet music of the line is equally important in prose. In drafts, where you’re pounding the story out quickly, sentences will be comprised of weak verbs, wordy construction, and poor cadence.

One of my critique partners pointed out how this passage in my current manuscript, “lacks oomph. It sounds like a police report.”

He rolls his own snowball and tosses, but Archer ducks and it misses her and hits the fence. She tromps away from him toward the front yard. He makes another snowball and follows her. He reels back and smacks her in the forehead. She screeches, and returns fire.

She’s right. The verbs provide action, but the paragraph lacks voice and detail, keeping the reader outside the scene. The sentences are choppy and overall, it lacks rhythm.

In a lovely novel I recently read, the protagonist of MY BRILLIANT LIFE by Ae-ran Kim explains this well. Aerum is a 16-year-old with progeria (the aging disease) and his goal is to write the family memoir before his 17th birthday because he knows his time is limited. Like most writers, Aerum agonizes over word choices: “The meaning of the word is important but so is the cadence. The words need to match the breathing of the reader and enliven the rhythm.” Later, he laments when he fixes his sentences, he discovers new flaws.

I love reading a novel where not only do I get a good story; I feel I’ve learned something. My Brilliant Life is not a writer’s manual, but it takes the reader inside the writing process, and the struggle to get the words right.

Here is my attempt to fix my passage:

He rolls his own snowball, packing it solid and rocklike as he gives his sister the evil eye. He hurls it, but Archer ducks and the hard mass explodes against the fence. She gasps and waggles a finger at her brother. Unarmed, she tromps away from him toward the front yard as he begins crafting another missle.

Archer turns to keep her eye on Wes as he follows her along the side of the house. She grabs for a mound of snow but she stumbles in a snowdrift near the picture window and lies there like a turtle on its back. Wes reels back and the snowball smacks her in the forehead.

“Not fair!” she screeches.

He laughs, and as he leans to form a new snowball, Archer scrambles up and returns fire.

The revision still needs more work but the added detail helps the passage read less like a police report and more like a snowball fight between siblings.

The wonderful thing about writing is, like music, a well-done cadence soothes the brain. Never be afraid to rearrange words until you get the melody right.

— By Laura Moe

Laura Moe is the author of Breakfast With Neruda and three novels. She is currently President of Development at Edmonds based EPIC Group Writers. Her fourth novel, The Blue Whale of Summer, will be released in 2021. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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