Monday, 14 November 2016

"All the right words..." by Lynne Benton

“…but not necessarily in the right order,” to misquote Eric Morecambe in that wonderful sketch with Andre Previn.  For anyone out there who doesn’t recognise the original quote, he was referring to notes in music, not words, but to a writer it is equally important to get the right words in the right order.

For poets, of course, this has always been obvious: they have little space in which to put across everything they want to say, and every word has to not only count, and sometimes rhyme, but most importantly it has to flow, like music.  The language poets use can be lyrical and soothing or sharp and shocking, depending on the type of poem, sometimes both in the same piece, as in John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes”:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

The opening lines of the first two verses conjure up beautiful calm pictures, while the first line of the final verse couldn’t be more different.  The words used and the order in which he places them makes for memorable word-pictures.

The same applies to picture books, designed to be read aloud.  Even if the words are right, if they're not in quite the right order they will be harder to read, and harder to remember.  Imagine if Beatrix Potter had written, "Flopsy, Peter, Mopsy and Cottontail" - it wouldn't have rolled off the tongue in the same way as "Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter", nor would we have realised that Peter was the important one.  She knew that if we want a particular word (or in this case, name) to stand out, it works best if placed at the end of a sentence/paragraph/chapter, so that the reader will immediately latch on to it and realise its importance. 

In some languages, such as Latin and German, the rule is that the verb should go at the end of the sentence.  In English, however, we are free to order sentences in whichever way we like.  If we want to start with a preposition, or end with an adverb, we can, which gives us a glorious freedom in our writing.  However, in a recent blog someone pointed out that there was an approved order for lists of adjectives, so that you can say “a big red ball”, but not “a red big ball”.  This had never occurred to me before, because one way sounds right, while the other sounds plain wrong. However, it's interesting to discover that there is a rule, should one wish to apply it.

And it's not only individual words that need to be in the right order.  Sentences too, and sometimes even whole chapters – I’ve recently been revising a children’s novel which I wrote a a while ago, and decided to follow advice often given:  Cut the first chapter and begin at Chapter 2 when the action starts.  Fine.  I did that.  Easy.

Or not. 

Because what should I then do with all the information, necessary for the plot, which had been in Chapter 1?  Would it be better to filter it in in snippets over the next few chapters, or should I transpose Chapter 1 in its entirety to around, say, Chapter 5, by which time the reader may be wondering whatever is going on? Or have given up altogether.  Whichever way I chose, many things had to change – for example, there were things the hero wouldn’t know about if I simply left out Chapter 1 altogether, but if I added in explanations at each relevant point they would slow down the plot.  Moving, or removing, a chapter may sound like a small change, but it means a lot of rewriting and reassessing the result.  Decisions, decisions all the way.

Now I’ve started working on a crime novel for adults, which is a fascinating challenge.  I love reading crime novels, and doing puzzles, both jigsaws and crosswords, so the idea of setting my own puzzle in the shape of a crime novel was irresistible.  There are, of course, various conventions in this type of novel which I need to observe:  the crime should happen quite early in the book, as should the introduction of the villain, the victim and whoever solves the crime.  At the same time the clues and the red herrings should be fed in drip by drip, so that the reader has a chance to guess the outcome. The longer the book, the more organisation is necessary. 

There is also the useful ploy of placing a vital clue in the middle of a list, so the reader may not spot it.  If it comes at the beginning or the end of the list it will stand out, but slot it into the middle and it may not be noticed…

While it’s great fun making all the decisions, for me it takes a long time to get the whole thing into my head in the right order.  Apart from anything else, adult novels are, in general, longer and have more subplots than novels for children, but the way of working is the same.  After trying various other ways of plotting I prefer the “card-shuffling” route: writing all the various plot points on individual index cards and then spreading them out on the table (or in my case, the floor, where there’s more room).  Then I can decide which bits should go where, and shuffle them around until I feel they’re in the right order.

When I’ve done all that, I will put them in rows, one row for each chapter, so I can see which chapters are too full and which need bulking out a bit. 
After that I can actually start writing – making sure, of course, that all the right words are there, and in the right order.

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Penny Dolan said...

Good wishes to you and your postcards, Lynne.

Sue Purkiss said...

Good luck with your ordering - it sounds as though you've made a great start!

Lynne Benton said...

Thanks, both. I'll let you know.