Small Pieces Add Up to Power
Years ago I was listening to a classical music station and the young, music intellectual introduced a piece by Beethoven saying, “Beethoven is about power.” I thought, listen more, the music is about the beauty of notes. I had recently listened to Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven Concertos with Simon Rattle conducting the Weiner Symphony Orchestra.
That comes from paying attention, attention to each note.
And that’s what we need to do as writers, pay attention to each word. Each word builds the power of our writing.
The best way to learn about using words is to read other writers, writers who are masters of their craft.
Read Good Writers
Writers read. But today I want to focus on learning the power of words by reading masterful writers.
Yes, you want your reading to be wide and varied. And for many who are independent publishers, they want to read current competition.
What you learn from those who have mastered the craft of using words, is the power of how single words, strung together engage a reader.
Here are some examples from my reading.
When I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles I would find myself at two in the morning wondering why I couldn’t put down the book and go to sleep when “nothing” was happening. It was the words. Each sentence leads to the next.
At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool. Drawing his shoulders back without breaking stride, the Count inhaled air like one fresh from a swim. The sky was the very blue that the cupolas of St. Basil’s had been painted for. Their pinks, greens, and golds shimmered as if it were the sole purpose of a religion to cheer its Divinity. Even the Bolshevik girls conversing before the windows of the State Department Store seemed dressed to celebrate the last days of spring.
I’m on my third read of the Red Riding Quartet by David Peace, because the language carries the story word by word. Here’s a sample from Nineteen Seventy-Four: The Red Riding Quartet, Book One.
‘All we ever get is Lord fucking Lucan and wingless bloody crows,’ smiled Gilman, like this was the best day of our lives:
Friday 13 December 1974.
Waiting for my first Front Page, the Byline Boy at last: Edward Dunford, North of England Crime Correspondent; two days too fucking late.
I looked at my father’s watch.
9 a.m. and no bugger had been to bed; straight from the Press Club, still stinking of ale, into this hell:
The Conference Room, Millgarth Police Station, Leeds.
The whole bloody pack sat waiting for the main attraction, pens poised and tapes paused; hot TV lights and cigarette smoke lighting up the windowless room like a Town Hall boxing ring on a Late Night Fight Night; the paper boys taking it out on the TV set, the radios static and playing it deaf:
‘They got sweet FA.’
‘A quid says she’s dead if they got George on it.’
Halid Aziz at the back, no sign of Jack.
I felt a nudge.
I’ve mentioned Adrian McKinty more than once here. The beginning of The Cold Cold Ground: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel reads like poetry as it describes The Troubles. And one of my favorites is Falling Glass with a protagonist skilled at using words. The first scene sets up for the ending. I find it brilliant.
Don Winslow writes stories, some of them quite long, that keep you reading and reading. The Force starts and doesn’t stop until the end.
The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer sets up a mystery that takes five books to resolve in the Ruthenia Quintet.
The greeting was in his desk, the center drawer: a piece of fish-stained cardboard with a clumsily drawn stick figure. It had a circular head and an X for each eye. A fat knife separated the head from its stick body. The speech balloon said, We’re on to you.
His chair wobbled insecurely beneath him.
Emil inhaled slowly, evenly. He sat in the center of the large, stale-smelling office, between two columns, and on the far wall two high, open windows did nothing to freshen the air. His tight suit constricted him as he stared above the others’ heads at the clock on the yellow wall. It was the dirty, pale yellow of Austro-Hungarian demise. He had been here only forty-five minutes.
And then there’s the wordplay master Anthony Burgess. Most people think of the A Clockwork Orange as the film by Stanley Kubrick. But the book explores language and beauty and the connection to our spirit and the evil of state control. And, as a note, it is Beethoven’s music, used to retrain Alex. You need to go into the language to read the story.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
There was me, that is Alex, and my three drrogs, this is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassooodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have for gotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everyfody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk pus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocer or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horroshow fifteen minutes adiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-toone, and that was what we were petting this evening I’m starting off the story with.
That’s one paragraph.
Read for the Music of Words
Each of the writers takes the reader into the story. And each does it in a completely different style. The rhythms vary with the syntax.
I encourage you to read so the music of the words stays in your head.
To get your mystery right from start to finish enroll in Write A Killer Mystery. Start on the right path to finish your mystery.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko: