Sunday, April 7, 2013

In Praise of Sentences

Internet, I want to talk about sentences.

There's a lot of wonderful writing advice out there.  Essays and hand-drawn diagrams emphasize that writers write, writers edit, writers finish their work.  Blog post after blog post will tell you to kill your darlings, to structure your manuscript, to build compelling characters, to pace properly, to incorporate the Hero's Journey (or not).

But I rarely see writing advice focus on the sentence.  Which is a shame, because in my experience, sentence-by-sentence work is the foundation of a good manuscript.  In fact, a careful sentence-by-sentence edit goes a long way toward fixing macro problems of scale, pacing, and emotional intensity, while preserving the writer's original vision.

Sentences tell stories.  If your book is a movie, then sentence work is the billion-dollar special effects and postproduction process that transforms miniatures and puppets and CGI into a T-Rex attacking a jeep.

A few weeks ago I reproduced here Alan Ginsberg's fourteen steps to revising poetry.  He reminds himself to make abstract details concrete, to remove articles and unnecessary words when possible, to reread with an eye toward rhythm.  Sentence work can include all these steps and more.  A sentence-by-sentence edit will examine good and bad internal rhymes (avoiding too many '-ing' words in the same sentence or paragraph), meter, relative length, repeated words.  I try to scrub out unnecessary words—especially tense signifiers, words like 'had' when they're not needed.

Combing through your work one measured word at a time is slow.  It's often thankless, since many readers don't pay enough attention to notice the effects except in the aggregate.  But the aggregate is where sentence work pays off.  Think of the reader's ability to focus on your story as a fixed quantity.  Each word they read spends some of that focus.  Fill your sentences with meaningless words, leave too much slack and play, and the reader spends all her focus on 'had' and 'of' and 'very'.  Polish and refine on a sentence level, and the reader's focus carriers her further.  More heartbreak, more excitement, more adventure per page.  A story that lags may suffer from fundamental structure problems—but it's also possible that too many words stand between the reader and what she's come to see.

The best part about sentence work is that it only takes time. Not every film has the special effects budget to be Jurassic Park.  But when you stand alone at your desk, you have limitless power to refine and distill, to formulate and revise.  Writing is the only form of art I know where the artist has limitless power to refine and fix.  A sculptor can't un-carve a piece of marble, a painter must work within the brushstrokes they've left, a fencer builds a bout point by point.  But writers can always edit, always revise, always improve.  It's the art form's great strength.

Now, knowing when you're done—that's another issue entirely.  Let me know if any of you figure that out.

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