The Music of the Prose

I’ve been reading Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. Lots of good writing tips, in nice short digestible chapters. In Chapter 2 he recommends cutting adjectives and adverbs. Chapter 3 is called “Sound,” but it’s mostly about the use of semicolons, dashes, and parentheses. He warns against alliteration; but oddly, he doesn’t mention meter.

His thesis is that a literary agent can tell within the first five pages (or really within the first five paragraphs) whether a book is any good. This may seem brutal, but an agent has to wade through hundreds of manuscript submissions every year searching for the one or two that may sell. The aspiring writer would be foolhardy not to take Lukeman’s concerns seriously.

I’m going to submit my next book to an agent (to several of them, I’m sure). So let’s see how my opening passage fares with respect to Lukeman’s rules of thumb.

Seated at his desk and staring sourly at the pages of scribbled notes before him, Oland Graysall was only dimly aware of the steady clip-clop of hooves from the street, faint and then growing louder, the creak and rattle of a vehicle over cobblestones, until the horse stopped directly below his front window. For an hour he had been stymied by the encrypted message the Foreign Ministry had asked him to decipher, so the prospect of an interruption was welcome. He pushed his chair back, rose, and went to the window to look down into the street.

A stiff wet autumn wind was chasing swirls of leaves, and the windowpane was streaked with spatters of rain. The driver of the brougham hopped down to the pavement and opened the door for his passenger, keeping one hand firmly on his hat as he offered the other to the woman who emerged.

That first sentence is awash in alliteration: seated, staring sourly, scribbled, and then steady and street. We’ve got three adverbs (sourly, dimly, directly) and an assortment of adjectives (scribbled, steady, faint, louder, front). The rest of the paragraph may be all right — “stymied” is a good verb, and the last sentence is pure action. Alliteration and assonance color the second paragraph too (wet, wind, was, swirls, windowpane; then pavement and passenger; then “offered the other,” then hand and hat).

I happen to like alliteration, so I’m not apologizing, and I may not change a word. But it’s clearly a good idea for the writer to notice what he or she is doing.

The adjectives at the start of the second paragraph (“stiff wet autumn”) are worrisome. One might think to delete “wet.” There are rain spatters in the second half of the sentence, so the presence of water is not in doubt. But look what happens if I delete it: “A stiff autumn wind was chasing swirls of leaves….” Now we have a cloying repetition of metrical stress. Each of the phrases has three strong syllables. When “wet” is kept in the sentence it starts with a spondaic rhythm — three strong syllables in a row. This breaks up the rhythm, thereby strengthening, or so I would argue, the sentence. Also, the insistent meter characterizes the wind. It’s a twofer.

What about the rhyme (windowpane, rain)? Isn’t that a terrible mistake? Again, I’m going to suggest that it’s not. The word “window” is used twice in the preceding paragraph, and used in a general sense. The window in the first paragraph is an opening. The spatters of rain are not streaked on the opening, they’re streaked on the glass — a different thing. But “the window glass was streaked with spatters of rain” would sound needlessly pedantic. Of course it’s glass, you dummy! We know that! So “windowpane” is the right word. In addition, “pane” is a weak syllable, so the rhyme is not emphasized. “The pane was streaked with rain” would call to mind the song from My Fair Lady, and that would be even worse than the obvious rhyme.

Can we get rid of “firmly” in the final sentence? It’s a dreaded adverb! Can we just assume that the driver’s hand is pressed down firmly upon his hat, given the presence of the stiff wet autumn wind? Perhaps. If he was using a hand to keep his coat from flapping, I don’t think I would have added “firmly.” But without it, we have “keeping one hand on his hat.” Now the alliteration is overbearing. There’s also a social context to be considered. The driver, one naturally assumes, is of a lower class, the lady who emerges from the brougham of a higher class. If he’s keeping a hand on his hat without further clarification of the manner in which he’s doing it, he might be touching the brim deferentially. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s preventing the wind from blowing his hat away. Thus “firmly.”

What you must understand is that I didn’t think consciously of any of this while writing the passage. I just wrote what sounded right to me. I don’t claim it’s deathless prose — but I find it encouraging that my instincts seem to be sound.

Maybe I can get rid of “steady” in the first sentence, though. Can’t we assume that the clip-clop of hooves is steady? I might decide to delete it. Here again, though, it breaks up the rhythm in a useful way. Without it, we have “…only dimly aware of the clip-clop of hooves from the street….” That’s three strong syllables in each phrase — and worse, the middle four feet are dactyls! Adding “steady” to the sentence steadies it.

This opening scene is serious business. Dactyls are used in limericks. We already have “opened the door for his passenger,” which is three dactyls. Breaking up another string of them is bound to improve the passage, even at the expense of adding an extra adjective.

Oh, dear — I’m alliterating again.

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