Years ago in high school, I was one of the regional finalists in a speech contest. Behind the podium I was earnest, I was articulate, I established eye contact, my content was passably interesting. I thought surely I had won.
After speaking, I sat back in my folding chair, relaxed.There was only one more contestant to go. A short guy, rather nondescript, walked slowly to the podium in the center of the stage. I relaxed even more. Looking out over the sea of faces, I saw that they, too, seemed rather relaxed, even a bit bored.
And then the unthinkable happened. The forgettable-looking fellow actually stepped from behind the podium and stood in front of it. He spent a precious ten seconds of his allotted time simply staring at the audience. And then, balling up his fist, he took a few steps downstage, almost at the rim of spectators, and bellowed: “DO YOU WANT ME TO HIT YOU . . . RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES?”
Every eye, every ear in the room was riveted on the man who was suddenly a force to be reckoned with. It hardly mattered what he said that day. He won the contest, hands-down, and his presentation taught me something I shall never forget.
A story, a poem, even a paragraph--they are all similar to a piece of music. Music has highs and lows, passages that are sweet-then-tart, slow-then-fast, short-then-long. The way to gain attention in your writing is to vary your language like a musician. Write as though you were the man behind the podium. Every so often, step out and surprise. Vary your cadence, shift your tone. Surprise and delight.
I think that speech writing was the way I learned how to write so that people “listened.” I learned after that episode to follow long sentences with short, loud with quiet, sensuous with guttural. I tried to make every paragraph, every page a composition. I began to pay attention to such tricks of rhetoric as balanced sentences, assonance and consonance, even slant rhyme and off rhyme in my prose.
There are even ways to establish silence. To slow the reader down. To make him savor each word . . . perhaps by the use of long O sounds, or by sonorous consonants. It’s up to us to compose the music.
In our writing, we need to be aware that readers are like the audience in that room--they can be lulled into boredom. And so we need to consciously hit them between the eyes at unexpected intervals--if not by shocking them, then by seducing them, by whatever tricks of language we can perform.
And so, speaking of seduction, I will give an example from an unpublished short story (“What Molly Wanted”), wherein a young lady named Molly has rashly promised her soul to the devil in exchange for one night of passion.
The passion turns to vague alarm, and then to fear. You will see how the prose turns from soft and sensuous, to edgy, to jerky and stuttering, then almost to wheezing, before coming back around to the lushness of the beginning--now realized as hell itself.
First the passion, the sensuous thrill:
One iridescent pool played on a large leather sofa, black as the jaws of hell, soft-looking and play-inducing as the suede pads of a kitten.
It was dotted with silken pillows, each one picking up the indirect overhead light and reflecting back in patterns of softest pastel. She could imagine sinking into the vast plushness of those cushions, and she felt a twinge in her lower back, a kind of straining forward into the soothing indistinctness of the sofa. It seemed to undulate, much as a cat would arch its back, asking for an ear rub.
And then the misgiving begins. Her heart races, her thoughts become more jerky:
Somewhere deep in her soap-opera heart, an alarm sounded. No one--absolutely no one talked like this, or acted like this. Only on TV. She looked into his eyes. And the more she looked, the deeper and darker they became.
She had seen a crow once, very close, feeding on a torn bag of deer corn on the sidewalk at Sav-Mart. She had been startled by the way its feathers were not really black, but black-on-blue-on-black. A shimmering moiré of color that somehow sank deeper than black. That black described his eyes. They were more than strange--they were other-worldly.
Finally, when it dawns on her who “Pablo Diablo” really is, notice how the language--her own perceptions--become raw-nerved. The sentences get shorter, the adjectives fewer.
Why was this man treating her as though she were a sensuous, desirable woman?
The answer came to her like a sledge-hammer to her gut. Because she had asked for it. Because he had pledged her soul in exchange for it.
Pablo mistook her groan for encouragement. “I told you, señorita, certain delights are more delicious than food. Come.”
Molly had always thought that people who said that their “life flashed before their eyes” were repeating a cliché. But in that precise moment, she re-lived every sexual encounter she had ever had. From no feeling at all, to mediocre, to shouting-out-loud great, she remembered them all in one flash of insight.
And she knew what she had to do.
Finally, her words are a cacophony, then a kind of dreadful catching of breath.
“Pablo. Ah, c-c-come . . . Whoa, where?” She seemed to wheeze instead of breathe.
“To the sofa of love.”
She sees again the hell-hole--the couch, her destination. Now her folly becomes clear, and the language returns to the soft susurrations of passion, but now ironically turned back on her like a pitchfork from hell:
To the great black maw, the endless hole of damnation. She knew that as soon as she sank into the lovely softness of that sofa, she would be sexually satisfied beyond her wildest dreams. But she would never come back out again.
I hope I’ve given you a some idea how to use your language the way Mozart might compose a bit of night music--hey, think big! Let your words reflect a mood, a state of mind, and then leap like a fugitive thought. Don’t be afraid to let it turn a few glissandos before the crescendo, or to end in the softest of moans. . . the pianissimo of pleasure, perhaps, señorita?
My latest novel, Fire & Silk, tells the story of an improbable couple. A silent man named Flann O’Conall loves his mountains and the deadly lightning of Tyrconnell (modern Donegal) more than the company of people. A virginal young woman from Iberia named Mariana thinks every man is a beast, interested in one thing only.
And then these two people meet under a rain-resistant blanket in a thunderstorm. Flann’s fiery red hair and her rustling silks meet--and an edgy excitement begins that takes them across the wild lands of ancient Éire to the far promontory of Inishowen, then back to the mountain called Errigal. Mariana finds that Flann may be the answer to a certain hollowness inside her that she cannot understand...but neither can he!
I adopted Erin O’Quinn as my pen name when I found myself steeped in the history, culture and language of Old World Ireland. The characters--cattle barons, kings, druids and others--reflect the pre-Christian times and beliefs of Éire. And then came Patrick. With the arrival of the famous minister of Christ’s gospels, the country underwent an almost miraculous change, and the characters in the books find themselves reacting to that change.
I earned a BA (English) and MA (Comparative Lit.) degrees from the University of Southern California. My training almost demanded that I pay close attention to the interplay of culture, language, history and folklore. I am retired from an active life, and I look out at the drought-weary brown hills of central Texas--far from the Emerald Isle--as I write my novels.