I Reject Thee on Grounds of Thy Cadence

Not clear on what constitutes cadence? I have a brief illustration:

I do not like green eggs and ham,
I do not like them, Sam-I-Am

A classic, yes? But take a simple stanza like that, give it to the likes of Mariah Carey, and they develop a whole ‘nother style — one which might be visually represented like this:

I do not like green eggs and ha-am,
I do not like them, Saaaammm-I-Aaa-a-a-ahhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,with the M’s dragging on to infinity; so much so, that they begin to choke the airways of anyone within hearing distance; and the victims clutch at their throats in desperation while they fall to the ground, their faces turning an eggplanty purple while Mariah sings and sings, her eyes upcast as if to follow her soaring voice, which conveys a rapturous purity—

Ahem. You get the idea.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, the more I become conscious about the use of words, the more I notice that it’s cadence behind my approval or disapproval of a writer’s performance. (Or what I do myself on the written page, for that matter.)

For instance, a few weeks ago I stood in a bookstore, thumbing through a NYT-bestselling book. There wasn’t anything wrong with the pages; they had clarity, high stakes, started in media res, and featured a sympathetic character. I even owe the author a debt of sorts  for shepherding the career of a dear friend of mine. But could I bring myself to shell out fifteen bucks to buy it? Nuh-uh. No way. No how, which made zero sense to me, because five minutes later, I paid the equivalent amount of money for empty-caloried designer coffees.

That’s how I feel about cadence.

Sure enough, when I went back to take a second look at the prose, the author’s rhythm felt off to me.  This may be obvious to you folks, but for me it felt like a revelation. It’s already had practical implications.

For instance, when I’m critiquing, and a character says something like, “So, are you ready?”, I’m less hasty about hitting the delete button. I might feel the character would have said, “Are you ready?” instead, or a simple, “Ready?”, but come on! Does it really matter? (Unless the tempo of the scene demands words be bitten off between body blows. Or kinky sexual acts.) Smilie by GreenSmilies.com

Also, I’m willing bet that some agent rejections — particularly those that contain words like “I just wasn’t in love with this” or “I don’t feel passionate about it” — reflect this visceral reaction. Nothing wrong with that; nor can you argue with personal preference.
What say you ah-a-a-allllll?So what’s your experience with cadence? Do you spend hours switching-up perfectly adequate words because the rhythm feels off? Are you conscious of rejecting a writer because they use sixteenth notes when half-notes would do? Do Cadence Issues cause problems within your critique group?

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20 thoughts on “I Reject Thee on Grounds of Thy Cadence

  1. For me, that’s a part of voice/style. You’ve read bits of my work; the poetry of my prose is important to me – but not overpowering, something to worry about in later drafts,

    And I’m more inclined to sixteenth notes. Half notes get pretty boring. 😉

  2. I think there is a huge difference in reader types. You seem to be like my son and I–the sound words made are take an aural sound in your head and you feel the flow. As a BABY, he loved the Dr. Suess rhythm. My daughter? Not so much. She wanted a good STORY (preferably in which I substituted her as the heroine)

    I think those of us who care about it, use it more, and others may take longer to pick it up. It’s part of what my writers group complained about when I had to first shorten CONFLUENCE, I think, though nobody used the words–shortening changed the cadence, so it was no longer MINE.

    The best thing I’ve HEARD on the matter though, was from Elspeth Antonelli–on a blog comment to me she said she has each character speak with a different musical cadence–I LOVE that usage. Seems like such a great way to create vivid characters without excessive description.

  3. Jess, I’m only just beginning to find a vocabulary for this stuff, but I find your prose style soothing. I can settle into the words in a way I can’t with some authors.

    Hart, I feel the rhythm of the words, but I don’t think I’m as sensitive to the sound of the words themselves – whether they’re sharp or sibilant, for instance. I know some people are geniuses at that stuff.

    And I do agree with you about the cadence helping with character differentiation. Have you read any Georgette Heyer. I think she’s masterful at cadence in dialogue.

    Sigh. I gots me a lot of learnin’ left to do.

  4. Dear The Tart,

    “Do you spend hours switching-up perfectly adequate words because the rhythm feels off?”

    I have been known to fret over one word in a sentence! I really do believe in the whole cadence theory. Just this morning I was going back and forth over one word in the opening paragraph of my book’s sequel. After realizing I was being re-donk-u-lous, I went with ‘grainy’–good word, better than coarse or raspy, fit the mood!

    “The priest’s grainy voice sounded through the halls of the desolate manor.”

    Put coarse and then raspy in grainy’s place. To me, ‘coarse’ does not sound as smooth & ‘raspy’ is a bit over used. But then again, I’m a weirdo!

    Great post idea!

    xoxo — Hilary

  5. Great post. Yes, I have spent inordinate amounts of time tweaking the cadence of a particular sentence. One of my revision steps is reading out loud and that is the point when the cadence troubles really hit home. A slaughter in red ink right there on the page.

    I do have the reading voice in my head, but for some reason it sounds different when I speak the words.

    I’ve noticed in various critique groups the tendency to want to shorten dialogue to single words or contractions – for the sake of cadence – but sometimes I want that long winded rhythm! If the character is older and perhaps a bit more proper and stylized – I feel like the cadence should reflect that of individualized speech.

  6. LOL. Great post, Hope. I was going to link it for my mentor to read but thought that might not be wise 😛 As you are well aware, cadence is a big issue for me – and perhaps the main reason I favour one of my characters over another.

    And on that note, you’ve made me long for the “tight” and “clipped” cadence of my precious Jagger. xo

  7. Hilary, I am left with a conundrum. (Great word, that; love the way it rolls off the tongue.) Do I reassure you on the “weird” part of that comment, or take on something I can handle? (Like fomenting peace in the Mid East?)

    Seriously, I appreciate knowing I’m in great company.

    JM, yes! The auditory test! An excellent way to catch things that feel off. And you are so right about speech patterns needing to reflect the individual.

    Dawn, I would be shy beyond belief if you linked to your mentors. *Hi, Steve and Jim!*

    The thing is — and I hope I’ve conveyed this properly — my preference for a certain cadence doesn’t reflect on the writer’s skill-set, but rather, on my personal taste. So you could link to your mentors and I doubt they’d be offended. *Hi, Jim and Steve*

    Some people even think our preference is learned in childhood. (I think it’s Natalie Goldberg who says she realized the rhythm she sought was the same in the chanting at her church.) And yes, there is a certain somebody who would like your attention, when you can focus.

  8. I have started reading things aloud to my husband — blog posts before they’re published, the synopsis of my WIP, even an email in draft. There’s an obvious benefit to this: I may never achieve the rhythmic dexterity of a Dr. Seuss, but at least I know that there are no clunkers, either.

    Last night, DH — who includes proofreading among numerous professional titles — read the first three chapters before they got sent off. One of the things he did for me was tell me where the cadence was off because the punctuation was unbalanced. And he was able to do that just while reading it. On a computer screen!

    It was a lucky day for me when he showed up. 🙂

  9. Aw, you’ve got yourself a keeper there, Magdalen. My husband is a brilliant man, and very creative, but I wouldn’t dream of asking him to help me with punctuation. Trust me, it’s best for our marriage. 😉

    Good luck with your submission!

  10. I’ve gotten to a point where I put the brakes on doing things like that. If I keep changing and keep changing and keep changing, it’ll never stop. So the foot must go down. Perfection is impossible but hopefully you can find someone that likes your stuff!

  11. DH and I were talking about this last night, but calling it “rhythm.” (Well, we are Catholic.)

    I was wondering if our son began developing his natural writing rhythm in utero; all through my pregnancy, I spent hours reading aloud to DD. And when DS was born, every time he nursed, DD came running with “The Secret Garden.”

    So, yes, I notice cadence in others’ writing. And yes, I agonize over it in my own.

  12. “Perfection is impossible.” Absolutely true, Donna. If I could just convince my Inner Critic of that… Glad you’re not holding yourself back.

    MJ, I wouldn’t be surprised about the in utero part. When I was pregnant with Molly, I was nuts for “Phantom of the Opera”. She loves it to this day. By the time Frank came along, I’d moved onto other things. He can’t stand PotO.

  13. Out loud reading is crucial. We all read Dr. S out loud, did we not? I mean, who could resist it? Sort of of like Good Night Moon and (my personal favorite) Where the Wild Things Are (NOT The Movie). If it sounds clunky in your mouth, it looks clunky on the page. humbly,
    The Wench

  14. Beer, even had I been able to resist the lure of reading Dr. Seuss aloud, my daughter would have pushed me into it. I think I can recite “Green Eggs and Ham” from memory.

    As for the humbly part…who stole the real Beer’s identify, and where did you put her? 😉

  15. sighs heavily (I absolutely adore adverbs and use them copiously ’cause I gotta slice and dice them ferociously out of the manuscript).

    The Wench is currently buried under tax forms, unfinished brewery marketing master plans, and snow.
    therefore, feeling mightily humble tonight but it won’t last.
    The weekend–it beckons thy wench becomingly. . .
    and how can I change my avatar on this thing anyway?
    luv and kisses

    1. Sorry. Knew I’d missed commenting on something. *I* cannot change your avatar. It’s super-secretly manufactured by WordPress according to your geographic location, I’m told. If you want to have a nice avatar such as I have, however, *you* can change it when you sign your comment.

      You probably have a Google account for your blog. If you have an avatar with your Google ID, it will automatically show up here when you select “google ID” for your signature and fill in the blanks. Hope that’s clear. If not, it might be a subject for a blog post…

  16. Greetings hope,

    This is my first visit to your blog, and I greatly enjoyed the post.

    I’ve been known to agonize over words when writing creative pieces. I am a scientist by occupation and a creative writer by curiosity, which makes for some pretty interesting mesh-word-work at times. One style demands precision, accuracy and succinctness while the other desires experimentation, fluidity and magneticfirewordspatter. Still, given each distinctly different style, I find myself reading sentences over and over again, in my head, out loud, with different inflections, and so on. Whenever something doesn’t “sound right” to me, I’ll rearrange and exchange words until I have found, not only the rhythm and sound I like, but also the texture, shape and color. Whether these colors actually get to the printed page in a scientific article depends on how many tedious revisions are necessary, what my reviews say and how my mentor edits my piece. I can only hope that the color emits from my more experimental prose.

    Did I mention that I use paragraph breaks strategically? heh.


  17. Skin, welcome. I like you already. 🙂 Anyone who uses words like “magneticfirewordspatter” in their first comment must be both brave and fun.

    I’m also thinking your supervisor is pleased you have a creative outlet. He/she can always say, “Save this one for the blog, will you?”

    Alas, my previous employers didn’t have the same luxury.

  18. Oh, mwhahah! How did I miss this post before? For one thing, the Mariah reference…and can we add to that Roster of Shame, Whitney and Celine?

    To answer your question, cadence/rhythm is reeeeaaaallllly important to me in my writing. I had a weird revelation the other day (maybe I’ll even blog about it) that my writing method consists of visualizing what I’m writing about and then somehow translating that into something musical. All of which tends to make me a pretty slow writer.

  19. Otherlisa, yes, you may most certainly add those other two women to the Roster of Shame. They are what my husband would call “serial whiners”. 😉

    When you say you visualize what you’re writing, do you mean visualize as in cinematography? Because that’s what I have to do too. Or did you mean it in another sense?

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