The Making of a Novel: Finding the Rhythm

07/16/2010 06:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Writing is so much about rhythm -- the rhythm of the words, the rhythm of the story, the way the whole thing flows and sounds. I have stated before that I am not a musician, but that doesn't mean I don't understand rhythm. I do, absolutely. Today I found the rhythm of my novel. I was in it, riding it, following it, engulfed by it. I wrote five pages, and it was a fantastic feeling.

What do other writers say about rhythm?

There's a wonderful interview on NPR in which E.L. Doctorow discusses how music helped him learn to write. "At a certain point," he says, "the difference between music in music, and music in words became elided in my mind. I became attentive to the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences in some way that I'm not even aware of."

In an essay published in the New York Times Book Review on July 8, 2007, Haruki Murakami, the musician and novelist, describes the role that music plays in his writing:

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won't keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music -- and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody -- which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can't ask for anything more. Next is harmony -- the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work -- upon ending your "performance" and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

In Ursula K. LeGuin's book, A Wave in the Mind, she quotes Virginia Woolf's belief about writing and rhythm:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and fisions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working...and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.

LeGuin goes on to explain that "the writers's job is to go down deep enough to being to feel that rhythm, to find it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words."

How can you learn to write with rhythm? Practice, certainly. Also, get in the habit of reading your writing out loud. For additional tips, see this post from Michele Pariza Wacek, a copywriter.

And for those who like a good literary treasure hunt, check out Rachel Gardner's Rants and Ramblings blog post on "You know you're a writer if..." and see if you can uncover the clever entry about rhythm...