Working Review: Borrowed Rhythms

As I write this, it is December 1st, the day after NaNoWriMo ends. There is a way of writing for NaNo, at least for me, which is different than any other time. Part of it is the need for speed, but I find that NaNo also demands a certain roughness in how I approach a story. Broad sweeps make up the majority of the prose, with the occasional tiny, gorgeous detail, like a note to myself amid pages of outline. I like this. But when the month ends, it is like learning to write all over again. I find myself plodding one letter at a time, amazed at the time I can take, the attention I can afford to lavish on a single sentence. Description also tends to fall by the wayside. This year it was particularly evident, as House of Cats tends to be lean, to say the least.

So I thought, to get back into the swing of things, an exercise in description or style would be nice. Something indulgent, yet undemanding. Lately, I have been relying heavily on the writing warm-ups in the back of Naming the World, a collection of essays and exercises edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. I recommend the book for these warm-ups alone, as they saved me from many an hour of staring blankly at the screen when I needed to get my 1,667 words for the day. So I looked through it for an exercise I might want to use here. I found Paul Lisicky’s “All About Rhythm,” which is all about taking note, as a poet would, of line length, pauses, etc. The exercise is to type out a paragraph from another author’s work that is important to you, and then substitute in new nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs for theirs, creating a new story while maintaining the original author’s rhythms.

I have never tried an exercise in imitation before, as they make me strangely nervous. I feel guilty, as though I am doing something illicit or, at the very least, in poor taste. But I have read several authors recommending this, so I suppose it is high time I tried it. I’m going to use a passage from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, one of my absolute favorite novels ever. It comforts me somewhat that Mr. Gaiman has mentioned how well pastiche served him in his early days writing, so perhaps he will not mind terribly that I am borrowing Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar for a bit. This passage is one of the best character introductions I have ever seen and I am intensely jealous of it. So I will filch it for a bit as well.

There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelery; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.

— Neverwhere, Chapter 1, p. 7

We create four useful hindrances towards the unmanageable to utilize Ms. Windsor and Mrs. Brandenburg effectively: first, Mrs. Brandenburg carries five and a half rounds more than Ms. Windsor; second, Ms. Windsor wears shoes with a pronounced spike heel, while Mrs. Brandenburg’s shoes are flat; third, since Mrs. Brandenburg obtained a reputation she leverages over her new charges thanks to a face of distinct attractiveness, Ms. Windsor bears several moderate defects; fourth, Mrs. Brandenburg mastered deception, while Ms. Windsor is never dishonest. However, they collaborate rather better than expected.

Admittedly, I did the short version of the exercise. I should have written a second version with alternative substitutions. I should have worked on it for days. But I stuck to my mantra of indulgent and undemanding. Which was rather useless anyway, as this exercise was more hideously difficult than any one person should have to tolerate. I felt like I was composing sentences in a foreign language, looking up every word and trying to massage synonyms into meeting my needs. I cheated utterly on the last sentence, because if I did not treat “nothing at all” as a pat phrase, to be replaced by a phrase, I was going to go mad.

I am actually quite comfortable with this sort of elaborate sentence; the exercise might have been better served if I chose an author with a style that opposed my own to a greater degree. I realized, however, that this description I so love is composed of the simplest of words. Breaking it down made me notice how terribly common the components of it are.

Despite my difficulties with it, I did love the strangeness of the story that started to take shape. I had nothing in mind when I started writing, but I did go back and tweak words here and there to make the narrative slightly less nonsensical in the end. I have so many questions about the world of Mrs. Brandenburg and Ms. Windsor.

Who do they work for and what do they do? What makes Ms. Windsor so unmanageable, such that she must be leashed by this dominating beauty, Mrs. Brandenburg? Did Ms. Windsor’s defects come naturally and make her a natural partner for Mrs. Brandenburg or was she artificially ruined? Why arm the women, only to restrain Ms. Windsor with crippling shoes? And is it likely that the two will get in a shoot-out, such that Mrs. Brandenburg’s extra rounds will serve her well? I think I could see them in a steampunk world, working as assassins, part of a shadowy organization with dominant-submissive, lesbian underpinnings.

I am increasingly of the opinion that Naming the World is an exceptional entry in the writing reference category. I will have to try out more of the exercises suggested in it. It has yet to disappoint me.

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?