On Writing: Style and Cadence

Ken Coffman, my guest blogger today, is the author of eight books, including a popular technical book called Real World FPGA Design with Verilog. He could easily make money writing additional technical books, but has more fun writing absurd novels like Steel Waters and Glen Wilson’s Bad Medicine, available from fine online bookstores everywhere. Ken writes:

Recently, my friend Lisa said this to me: “You tend to like more baroque-type authors, gravitate towards writers with that style, and write in that style.  Ironically, I really do like Hemingway, in that when I read him way back when, I immediately liked and related to the prose style . . . ”

It’s true. We’re diverse, and different things float our metaphorical schooners. See, there I go. I could have simply said boat and your eye would have slid smoothly over the cliché. But, I didn’t want to.

Anyway, back to the point I’m laboring to make.

          Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
          “It isn’t fun any more.”
          He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. “It isn’t fun any more. Not any of it.”
          She didn’t say anything. He went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.”
          He looked on at her back.
          “Isn’t love any fun?” Marjorie said.
          “No,” Nick said. Marjorie stood up. Nick sat there, his head in his hands.
Ernest Hemingway, The End of Something

Of course, I can appreciate Hemingway’s sparse mastery. In feeble imitation, sometimes I report things in a flat tone to emphasize a point or work against the reader’s mental picture. But, generally, my ambitions lie elsewhere. I like prose that is more playful and convoluted.

Tom Robbins, who I like to call my neighbor, writes like this:

          A few months later, everyone of the bride’s relatives, including even distant cousins, decided that life was meaningless without that most talented, most delightful girl, not to mention her pious and generous family, and so the relatives, as well, set off for the hills and Fan Nan Nan. Their departure tore a hole in the fabric of the community; there was an abiding emptiness there.
– Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito

The difference in style could hardly be more obvious. Tom’s zany prose dances.

          Then I looked at Dale, my sergeant, wringing out his shirt in a metal water drum. His back was brown, ridged with vertebrae, his ribs like sticks against his skin, the points of his black hair shiny with sweat. Then his lean Czechoslovakian face smiled at me, with more tenderness and affection in his eyes than I had yet seen in a woman’s.
          He was killed eight days later when a Huey tipped the treetops in an LZ and suddenly dipped sideways into the clearing.
                —  James Lee Burke, Heaven’s Prisoners

Burke has a huge vocabulary and is unafraid to take a risk. He sits on a limb and with careful, deliberate, thoughtful strokes, works his saw.

To my taste, the master of mixing the eloquent with the absurd is Nabokov.

          I thought I had crossed the frontier when a bare-headed Red Army soldier with a Mongol face who was picking whortleberries near the trail challenged me: “And whither,” he asked picking up his cap from a stump, “may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple (yablochko)? Pokazyvay-ka dokumentiki (Let me see your papers).”
          I groped in my pockets, fished out what I needed, and shot him dead, as he lunged at me; then he fell on his face, as if sunstruck on the parade ground, at the feet of his king. None of the serried tree trunks looked his way, and I fled, still clutching Dagmara’s lovely little revolver. Only half an hour later, when I reached at last another part of the forest in a more or less conventional republic, only then did my calves cease to quake.
              — Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!

So, how am I doing? You judge.

          “I’m bored,” Nort said.
          “That’s because you’re not doing anything.”
          “And you can’t make me.”
          “Right,” Jake said. “Exactly.”
          “I’m not staying here. I’ll beg on the street.”
          Jake looked up.
          “It used to be that a man would rather die than be a beggar or take charity,” he said.
          “Things are different now.”
          “I can see that. Good luck out there.”
          “What’s wrong with you? You don’t care about me at all.”
          Jake licked the tip of his pencil.
          “When I was in Da Nang, I was stabbed in the gut with a sharp stick by a starving 11-year-old who wanted the three dollars in my wallet.” He lifted his shirt to show a twisted scar. “After I killed him with a brick, I realized either God either didn’t exist or was the biggest asshole of us all. I care about you, but out in the world you’ll die of AIDS or get stabbed in an alley by a cracked-out whore. It doesn’t pay to get emotionally attached to the doomed.”
               — Ken Coffman, Fairhaven 

You plant your butt in your chair and you face the demons that live in that blank screen. You spend hours and hours wringing words, situations, and plots from too-thin air.

Who are your influences? And, what are your ambitions?

19 Responses to “On Writing: Style and Cadence”

  1. sherilynwinrose Says:

    It doesn’t pay to get emotionally attached to the doomed.

    I love this line Ken. It is so to the point, yet has character all its own.

  2. Judi Fennell Says:

    Ken, I love your dialogue! I tend to write the scene in dialogue first then go back and fill in around it, so when you can say so much with just dialogue, that is a beautiful thing.

  3. Rand Phares Says:

    Ken, loved this. I will be honest and say that after all the “famous” author bits, I was blindsided by the fact that you wrote the last bit. Sounded and felt like all the others.

    You learn well, and can lay down what you’ve learned.

    A Most Excellent line:

    “It doesn’t pay to get emotionally attached to the doomed.”

  4. ML Says:


    What? Pat said to stop and say hi. 🙂 Oh fine. I’ll try and extemporize something. Umm.

    Ken Coffman is the premiere wordsmithy of the day. I predict he’ll be known as the next Aeschylus, perhaps even a new age Euripides. A true beacon gracing us with the glow from his towering genius.

  5. Pat Bertram Says:

    I liked seeing all the different styles in one place — gives one a good idea of various rhythms. Interestingly (or not), the one excerpt that made me itch for an editing pencil was Hemingway’s. Needless to say, I have no ambition to write like Hemingway.

    Influences? I’ve read so many books — nonfiction, fiction, genre, mainstream, classics — that my style owes a bit to thousands of different writers, not just a couple.

    Ambitions? To be able to make a living by writing. So simple, yet so difficult to attain.

    Thank you for being a guest, Ken. Very good article.

  6. Ken Coffman Says:

    Quick, someone remind me I’m a knucklehead and don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I assure you, that’s partially, if not wholy, true.
    WRT the writing craft, I’m trying. As my wife says: I’m very trying.
    And don’t forget the question: Who do you love and why?

  7. otherlisa Says:

    Hey, that’s ME mentioned up there! I’m famous! Heh.

    To clarify, I think Hemingway was the first writer whose style really made an impression on me. I won’t say that I emulate it but I found it appealing. Other writers that I think are sort of in my prose style: Joan Didion (the White Album is another one I read and just went, “yeah”) and Ursula LeGuin (for her intellectual content as well as her prose). Another big influence was Lydia Davis – she’s a pretty well-known short story writer and translator. She was a professor of mine, and the precision and detail with which she creates descriptions is something that I hope I picked up.

    I’d also say that writing screenplays and teleplays has been an influence, both for good and for ill. I hope mostly for good at this point. You really have to be good at getting character across through dialog and also how to set a scene with very few words.

    Ken, I love that last dialog section. And it’s pretty lean – dare I say, “Hemingwayesque”? 😉

  8. jalex Says:

    Good sampling of styles. Everyone is right, Ken — yours fits. And it may be Hemingwayesque, but still it has it’s own cadence.

  9. ~Sia McKye~ Says:

    Ken, you illustrate style and cadence well with your excerpts. You emphasize not to be afraid to experiment with style to give your story the most impact.

    Really, words are a form of music and if used properly can add richness to our stories. I like to give some of my paragraphs a certain ‘sound’ to highlight a situation. the right words can call to the readers minds so much more than than what you’ve said as the writer. Expands their senses, so to speak.

    As far as influences…hmmm, I’ve read so much and so many different styles that it’s hard to pick any on and say *this* influenced me. Some poets have had a greater influence on my writing, my love of cadence, style and beat, than any one novelist. Poets tend to be able to convey so much with few words. But those words are well chosen and lend themselves to expanding my mind to add layers to what I’m reading, pulling in my own experiences and emotions. With a good poet, your FEEL what’s being written. I want my readers to FEEL the emotions in my stories. I want the emotion to touch them, move them.

    I liked Georgette Hyer’s writing, her way with playing with words, and her sense of wittiness that could set a scene better than narrative.

  10. Beth Says:

    I love the idea of cadence and rhythm and sound in writing. The rhythm of dialogue, especially, can make me appreciate an author. Robert B. Parker has a specific style and cadence in his Spenser books. Dick Francis works the rhythm thing in his stories as well.

    This topic speaks to the underlying strength of a story. Sometimes the plot is good but the story uninteresting. I think a lack of attention to cadence is often the problem. Use it to create tension or to surprise or to lull. Don’t write with the same rhythms in every sentence, every paragraph, every page. Stop. Then start again. Flow or cut off the flow.

    Most interesting, Ken. Your writing is in good company.

  11. ceylanthewriter Says:

    It seems as if you need to plan ideas. I find that planning things out help my writing so I have an idea where I want to go. So I try my best to get an idea and write it out. Hope this helps.


  12. James Rafferty Says:

    Ken, excellent post. Comparing the styles of different writers brings out how the best of them carve out their own prose style. This particular quote from Hemingway seems dry now, but he has others that sing.

    Burke at his best is quite remarkable, though he has been prone to repetition, which reduced his impact for me after I’d read 10 or so of his Robicheaux novels. Nonetheless, I did enjoy his latest one set in the time of Katrina. This also serves as a reminder to read Nabokov.

    Your writing does hold up in this company. So, yes, you are a knucklehead, but you’ve been learning and putting it to use, so there!

  13. Jamie Chapman Says:

    Interesting article, Ken and excellent excerpts. I think my style varies depending on what genre I’m writing. There are definitely styles I gravitate toward and there’s probably a common thread throughout my writing that I don’t recognize. It’s not something I think about much, but probably should.

  14. Sherrie Super Says:

    Powerful excerpts. I’ll join the ranks of others who found Ken’s excerpt to fit quite nicely with the excerpts from those other, more-famous guys.

    To answer the question, the only thing I know for sure is that I like authors who use lots of dialogue. I tend to skim a lot of the other stuff. Probably because I’m lazy.

  15. Pat S. Says:

    For starters, I’m not sure I’d classify Ken’s work as “absurb”. Delightful, gritty, real, and definately off kilter, but not absurb.

    I have no clue about rythm and cadence. I suppose I know it when I hear it. I’m too new at this to know if I have it. Influences? Daphne DuMaurier. Rich, lush descriptions. Dickens for the same reason, along with convoluted, complicated people. Ken Coffman because of his sparse style, wry, underhanded humor, and general subversive behavior.

  16. Wanda Says:

    Ken, this is a great example of the differences between writers, all of them great in their own way. And your excerpt fit right with all the other great ones. Like Pat S. I have no idea of rythm or cadence. I am not sure if my writing has that. I couldn’t possibly state who my influences are since I have read thousands of books in my lifetime, both good and questionable. Hopefully I absorbed more from the good than from the rest.

  17. Pamela Villars Says:

    What I like about this contribution is the showcasing of many styles. As a new writer, I sometimes fall into thinking there is one “right” way to write and all I have to do is find it. (Although, of course, this is true – the right way for me will be my style.) Reading these authors reminds me that there are many “right” ways and that they’re all different.

    Influences I can’t name; my ambition is to find my style and blind you with brilliance. 🙂

    Perhaps one day.

  18. Vivian A Says:

    Too late for the party 😦

    Brilliant. Ce tout.

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