Writing Tip of the Week

In poetry, rhythm may be complicated, but it is regular and stylized enough to enable almost anyone to learn to recognize it and classify it. Rhythm in prose is very nearly as important, but because it cannot be too regular without being distracting, prose rhythm is so extremely complex that no one has ever yet succeeded in developing a system that will codify and explain it. Yet every man who has a sensitive ear and reads widely is aware that some prose halts and stutters and stumbles, not because the writer has been unclear or unconventional, but simply because some writers never seem to realize when they have too many syllables or too few, too many stresses in a bunch or too long a run of words in which no particular stresses appear. …

We might say of prose rhythm what Louis Armstrong said of jazz: “If you gotta ask what it is, you’ll never get to know.”

Yet many people who could not play a note on a trumpet can recognize inept rhythms in a trumpet solo; and many writers who permit themselves to produce nonrhythmic prose could recognize their own ineptitude if they read their sentences aloud and really listened to what they were saying. Most ideas can be expressed in many ways in English – in one-syllabled words or in longer words, in shorter or longer phrases, in clauses of greater or lesser complexity. If a sentence is so regular that it falls into sing-song, if it too noticeably repeats stress patterns, if it halts in the wrong places, if it spills over beyond the point at which it should have paused, try other combinations until the rhythm seems appropriate.

– Robert Hamilton Moore, Effective Writing, 1955

People talk of having an ear for music; there is also an ear for writing. And this advice is not only for individual sentences, but for the entire narrative. Short sentences have to be balanced against long ones, complex formulations against simple ones.

Review: Never the Bride

I was browsing through the library’s Christian fiction section and saw the title Never the Bride. So I picked the book up. This is probably evidence of some sort of problem, but whatever.

Jessie Stone has lived her life with one dream: to be married. She longs for chivalry, she practices wedding vows, she fills her journals with dream proposals – using her feathery purple pen. But now she’s 34, and Prince Charming has yet to show.

But on February 14, God does. He has a request. He wants Jessie to give Him her purple pen. He wants her to let Him write her love story. Or she can keep on doing things her way, if that’s working for her. To a woman who, on Valentine’s Day, just spent her evening speed-dating, this is a compelling argument.

Never the Bride is a wonderful book, funnier and more profound than you would expect. Jessie Stone’s intense desire for marriage isn’t the set-up for a stormy love affair; it’s the set-up for a lesson in trusting God. We all struggle with obedience, with doing things God’s way, with just trusting. “Thy will be done” is an easy prayer, until we discover His will isn’t ours. And Jessie will discover that letting God write her story doesn’t mean she’ll always like the script.

But there is nothing heavy-handed in this book. The authors make their point, but they keep a light touch. Humor flows throughout. The book is written in first-person, present tense – an unusual but very enjoyable style, and one that lets the heroine shine through. Jessie Stone is an excellent character. Capable, dependable, and an incurable romantic; a dreamer with a keen sense of humor and a compulsive need to have things just so. When a friend calls her a control freak, she proves that she can so handle disorder by nudging her stapler out of alignment with the sticky notes. Then she can’t look at it.

The plot is brisk, and Jessie’s search for true love takes ups and downs. There is one tremendous plot twist, which I will not even hint at. The writing is fresh and uncluttered, and the narrative flows easily.

As I said earlier, God appears to speak with Jessie, invisible to everyone but her. This is the sort of thing that can be done well and must be done very carefully. Ultimately, I believe the authors succeeded. God appears to Jessie as a handsome young man. Naturally, this guise doesn’t do justice to the majesty and fearfulness of the God of the universe. Yet the authors seem conscious of that. There is a moment when Jessie contradicts Him and,

He looks down at me, and for a moment I catch a glimpse of who He really is inside that young man’s body. I squirm.

Glimpses of who He really is, behind the guise of that young man’s body, are continually given. You see the divine prerogative in His interrupting her schedule to bring her onto His, or in telling her it’s His script and He’s not accepting nominations for Prince Charming.

Never the Bride is a lovely book, witty, moving, and profound. It’s a keeper, even if you’re not waiting to be the bride.

Review: A Hideous Beauty

By Jack Cavanaugh

Demons. Angels. Nephilim. Spiritual warfare. It’s left the theology section for a new home on the Christian fiction shelves. In A Hideous Beauty, Jack Cavanaugh offers another supernatural thriller.

The cover has the White House in the background, which is why I picked it up. I’m a sucker for stories about presidents. I quickly learned it was more a story about a writer. Grant Austin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and about to learn that the world isn’t what he thinks. His first clue is when an old rival starts glowing.

Grant is an agnostic, but seeing is believing, and before long he’s doing a lot of both. Cavanaugh throws a few curveballs, and A Hideous Beauty is not what it pretends, for many pages, to be about. Grant Austin learns of a plot to assassinate the president and makes it his mission to prevent it. But he learns that, behind it and through it, there is another battle being waged.

Cavanaugh writes with humor, and he shows imagination in portraying the supernatural. I have to give him credit for making his angels impressive. I also have to give him credit for making one of them occasionally something of a, well, jerk. Good guys can be grumpy. An angel, if you met one, may not be sweet and lovable.

Jack Cavanaugh is a good writer, but there are places in the book where the writing could have been smoothed over a little. Nephilim, demons, and angels have become popular as Christian fantasy, and sometimes it’s overdone. A Hideous Beauty is not. In fact, there are times when it seems oddly ordinary. But if you pick the book up and wonder why you’re following some guy’s nostalgic trip through his old high school, please be patient. It won’t be long before people start glowing.

Neat Website

Stephanie Whitson and Nancy Moser have started a blog called Footnotes. Both of them write historical fiction, and the blog is about facts and inspirations they’ve gleaned from history. Here is a sample:

To stray from the serious posts about the slums of New York… let’s talk about etiquette. Here are some gems from The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining (adapted by Autumn Stephens) with a few asides from me:

• Do not dress above your station; it is a grievous mistake, and leads to great evils, besides being the proof of a complete lack of taste. So we’re to dress down? I hardly think “slovenly” would be appreciated.

Do not expose the neck and arms at a dinner party. These should be covered, if not by the dress itself, then by lace or muslin overwaist. How about a nice plaid stadium blanket?

Do not fail to try the effect of your dress by gaslight and daylight both. Many a color that may look well in daylight may look extremely ugly in gaslight. But facial lines and wrinkles look marvelous! …

(the rest is here)

I just found it. It looks like a fun site.

Review: Washington’s Lady

Written by Nancy Moser

Nancy Moser’s website

“First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” This is the most famous tribute to George Washington, the father of our country. The greatness of Washington consisted not only in that he was first, but that he was first out of patriotism rather than ambition. Mount Vernon drew his heart far more than the presidency.

Martha, Washington’s lady, wanted Virginia, too, with home and family. But she followed her husband to Philadelphia, just as she had once followed him to winter camp* year after year. She was at Valley Forge. Throughout the war Martha Washington was crucial in upholding the morale of the Continental Army. She was crucial in upholding its commander-in-chief.

In Washington’s Lady Nancy Moser tells the story of Martha Washington. This is, of course, a historical novel, so I’ll start with the historicity of it. Facts are woven into the book – sometimes broadly, such as the oppressiveness of England’s rule that Americans could trade only with her, and sometimes more narrowly, such as the help of the Oneida Indians. There are parts of the account that are not really detailed. Whole years of the Revolutionary War can pass in several pages.

Washington’s Lady is not about the war so much as it’s about, well, Washington’s lady. It is also written first-person, from her viewpoint, and its perspective is limited where hers was. We hear about the 1779-1780 winter in MorristownMorisstown, and far away from Bunker Hill. – at least as bad as Valley Forge, though much more obscure – but Bunker Hill is hardly mentioned. Martha Washington was in

So how does Nancy Moser do in telling Martha Washington’s story? Very well. Martha suffered great loss in her life. She outlived two husbands, five siblings, and all her children. Moser brings her readers into a struggle toward faith, toward life – through all that stood in the way, war and death and sorrow. We are led through Martha Washington’s disappointments, her flaws, love, trials, and dedication to her husband, family, and the Cause.

Nancy Moser uses British spelling, and sometimes she uses words in an old-fashioned way. At one point George Washington says that the colonists cannot back down unless they receive consolation from England.

The story of the American Revolution is an amazing one, and George and Martha Washington were deep in the middle of it. As Nancy Moser illustrates, their lives reflected in a way that struggle – courage, sacrifice, and the ultimate dream of living in peace beneath their own vine and fig tree.

* During the winter months fighting traditionally stalled, usually stopping altogether. Wives would sometimes join the army at its winter camp, returning home when the weather warmed and warfare started again.