by Slyford T. Rabbit
©2004 Slyford T. Rabbit -- all rights reserved
It seems that Phil ran into a setback (otherwise known as 'real life') while writing this column. Once again, the stand-in rabbit will pick up the reins and give the Rabbit's Hutch a go. And, in this column devoted exclusively to writing, I'd like to start with a talk about music. More specifically, I'd like to tell you guys about a Rockapella concert I went to.
See, Rockapella is a five-person contemporary a capella quartet, best known for their stint on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Their repertoire consists completely of accompaniment-less music driven by a vocal 'drummer'. At the concert they relied on microphone effects to transform their voices into something beyond the run-of-the-mill Tenor-Tenor-Bass-Bass kind of music.
This was all fine and good, sure. But the most impressive moment in the concert came when, for one of their encores, the group stepped out from behind the microphones and sang Up on the Roof to a four-tier auditorium. No amplification. No sound man adjusting for their mistakes on the big board in the back. For the next four minutes I was privy to one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen in my lifetime. Their engaging delivery had stricken the crowd into silence.
In a way, Rockapella's 'naked song' is a lot like the writer's plight. When a reader picks up your story they want to be grabbed and dragged in. Once you do that, it's up to you to make sure that the reader doesn't see any rough edges -- character disparities, bad word choice, the like. You control everything the reader 'sees' in the story, and to a certain point you influence the emotion they feel as they read.
Rockapella did this on stage, too; subtle dynamics and the milky-smooth blend of their voices made the audience harken back to their own experiences with an unsure love. The lyrics painted a backdrop for the emotion they put into their words and the facial expressions they wore on stage. These, coupled with their flawless vocal performance, turned the song into more than a song. It became an experience.
Much as they tell the story in the tiny details of the music, a writer must use his words for more than the mechanical purpose of simply getting their point across. Anyone can sit down with a dictionary and tell a reader about the image in their head. Getting the image on paper is the easy part, in my opinion; the real secret to writing comes down to what not to say.
Yes, that's right. Much as Rockapella's performance relied on more than the music, a writer has to know how to cut the excess words from their story. This is the skill of recognizing the interesting points of a scene, putting them down on the page, and getting on with the narrative. There are exceptions to this rule, sure -- Charles Dickens' poetic descriptive work comes to mind -- but by and large, it's best to keep the story on the lean side.
Simply put, the best way to fix detail problems is to reread your story and ask yourself what words and sentences are relevant to the conflict at hand. This is not a skill that can readily be taught; it is an intuitive sense that comes with experience. Reading can help develop the skill, along with having your work critiqued by others. Pay attention to patterns in what the reviewers liked and didn't like, specifically. Are there certain elements that always go over well? Conversely, do they consistently bash you for your detail work or pacing? Keep the comments in mind next time you sit down to write.
This may be a lot of work, sure, but the rewards are well worth the toil. I know I'll never forget Rockapella's concert, thanks to that one number. It will forever be ingrained on my mind as one of the most amazing feats of vocal talent I have ever seen. Such is the case with all works of truly wonderful art.