Friday, April 24, 2015

That Tricky First Sentence: Individuality and Integration

Every opening—for each chapter and scene—is crucial. But the first is most crucial of all.  Along with the familiar openings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, haunting openings usually need  no context at all:

They shoot the white girl first. – Toni Morrison, Paradise

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson, Neuromancer

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. – Gabriel García Márquez, 100 Years of Solitude

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. – Ha Jin, Waiting

Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. – Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

Yet, as Chad Harbach observed in The Art of Fielding,

It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight’s mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence in between.

Sentence Revision Exercise 1

Just for fun, model the first line in your book after the structure of an opening sentence you love. Now transform your sentence into something that actually works, perhaps a combination of your original sentence and the one from this exercise. What did you discover? Can you apply it?

Sentence Revision Exercise 2

View your first sentence as the launch pad for everything else. Is it powerful enough? Does it hint at what’s crucial and set up the climax? Revise until it does, to improve not only that essential sentence, but your understanding of your entire novel.

Tip: The opening sentence must stand on its own and foreshadow every sentence to come.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Poet Tricks for Novelists

Doesn’t orange juice taste good any time of day? Aren’t bouquets welcome without a special occasion? Isn’t poetry’s something every writer should know about? That includes novelists.

Techniques that novelists might borrow from poets:

~ Artlessness.

In “Adam’s Curse” (about life outside Paradise”), Yeats wrote: “A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

Work hard enough to make it sound as if you never worked at all.

~ Big Ideas.

Wallace Stevens observes in “Sunday Morning” (about alternate spiritualities) that “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Emotion and suspense drive novels. Using irony and imagery, you can add beliefs, as well.  Layering gives poetry substance. It never hurt a novel, either.

~ Brevity

“My sky is black with small birds heading south,” notes Edna St. Vincent Millay in a sonnet about love—and its aftermath.

So much emotion in so few words. In such simple language. What Emily Dickinson called, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off…” Couldn’t every writer seek that kind of explosion?

~ Passion.

Dylan Thomas’s villanelle insists, “Do not go gentle into that good night/…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

In novels, rhyme generally distracts. But characters frenzied over philosophy, morality, love, and, hate—that’s the stuff that fiction’s made of. Because intensity distracts readers from the mundane, unheroic, patternless amorality of everyday life.

~ Propulsion.

Emily Brontë celebrated the heath she loved with “Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,/Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.” For novelists, rhythm often involves risk. But take no risks, and you might be good. You’ll just never be great.

Tip: Read some poetry. This could be an investment that pays off.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Rose in a Cornfield Is a…

…weed. Misplaced, the most exquisite, evocative addition feels like…a mistake.

We’ve all experienced it:  “What a sentence! I love it! I can’t even believe I wrote it! Must’ve come directly from the Muse.” And yet, if you can’t find the right location for that fantastic sentence, you must let it go.

It helps to view your novel as a limited area of ground. You want to make the most of every inch, not let things that don’t belong there insidiously sneak in.


…realize that readers need to know something and leave it wherever you happened to think of it.

…interrupt the action with distracting backstory or description. Note that distraction differs from
slowing down—teasing out suspense. The former is accidental, the latter deliberate.

…weigh down your story with detail that feels as relevant as Aunt Agatha’s best friend’s grandma’s traditional recipe for last-till-spring Christmas Fruitcake.

…add a brief passage about the Galapagos Islands because you did lots of research on it and long to share your discoveries about marine iguanas and Blue-Footed Boobies.


…add “set up” just prior to “pay off,” so readers never wonder why they heard about this.

…limit details to those which enhance plot, deepen characterization, or foreshadow themes.

…make details “double-duty”: they advance plot while setting scene, or they add scenery while suggesting atmosphere, contribute irony to the plot, and so on.

…use transitions so readers can grasp the connections between details that might be linked only in the author’s mind.

…use stage business, or character gesture or behavior, to support the dialogue.

…remember that flowers set seeds. In fiction or soil, they grow wherever they happen to fall.

It’s easy to delete clumsy sentences, boring references, and paragraphs that go nowhere. Far harder is realizing that you’ve written something really good and have nowhere to put it. But whatever doesn’t add subtracts. Aren’t you willing to make hard sacrifices for your readers?

Tip: A great sentence or detail in the wrong place is a…rose in a cornfield.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Spring Cleaning

It’s a traditional activity for good reason. Over time, things pile up, and the season of renewal gives many of us—writers and otherwise, a chance to refurbish when we have the most energy we ever will.

So get going. Clear up those smudges that block the view. Identify debris; either dispose of it or place it where it belongs instead of piling up wherever you dropped it. Finally, clear out all the stuff that accumulated. How long since you assessed what’s on display for those entering your world?

A significant task, like sprucing up a home, yard, or novel, can feel too big for a single swipe. Instead of getting discouraged, divide the tasks into logical parts. That’s not only manageable. It’s downright inspiring. Start by assessing what you might revise for a sounder foundation.

  • Structural clean up
~ Are your characters multi-dimensional?
~ Does a dilemma drive your novel?
~ Do the events of your plot flow causally into each other? Do you ever rely on coincidence?
~ Have you developed your idea into a High Concept, one with universal appeal and emotional

That’s the big picture. But a picture’s only as good as the individual elements composing it.

  • Detail clean up
~ Does this description add?
~ Do you position information in the best place?
~ Do you transition between details?
~ Do you ever “tell” and then “show,” or “show” and then “tell”?
~ Does each detail perform more than one function, i.e. speaker attribution plus escalating

If specifics are crucial, so is how you convey details to readers.

  • Sentence clean up
~ Are any passages wordy?
~ Do you seek active verbs that don’t require prepositions, i.e. illuminate instead of “light up”?
~ Do you emphasize by contrasting long, flowing with short, punchy ones?
~ Do you resort to passive voice when you needn’t? There are (sic) few instances when you
   need it.
~ Are you using “and” too often, and are you not noticing and thus are you also wasting words
   and weakening causality with that habit? Once you notice, it’s not a hard habit to break.

Tip: Let spring infuse new growth into your characters and their world.