Monday, August 29, 2011

MFA Monday: Sentence Structure as Plot Device

I admit that before going back to school, I never really thought about how I wrote. I worried about elements such as plots and characters and setting, all those good things you learn in middle school and high school, and I learned somewhere along the way that it's best to choose stronger verbs than relying on the lazy "was" verb to show action.

But when it came to stringing words together, I think I leaned heavily on instinct. Does it sound right? Does it flow? It's not that the pattern of writing was unconscious, but that I didn't know why I should choose one way of writing over another.

"Vary sentence length" I'd been taught. And so I did. Not for any reason but that I thought sentences needed to be different lengths.

I was partly oblivious to the importance of sentence structure. I knew not to start every sentence with a noun and verb, especially the pronouns "I" or "she" or "he," to vary the first words with gerunds and participles and phrases, but that was only because I thought it would bore the reader to have every sentence the same, not because I thought it had any real impact on the story.

About halfway through editing Some Kind of Normal, my editor wrote me an email saying, "I don't know why I didn't notice before, but you use a lot of simple compound sentences." I didn't notice it either, but when I went through the chapters I realized I'd done that because, to my ear, that's how my narrator sounded. It was her "cadence" of talking, and though I didn't do it on purpose, I secretly patted myself on the back for "hearing" Babs' voice. (Although I'm not sure a pat on the back is what my editor had in mind when she pointed this fact out!)

But one thing I've learned lately is that sentence structure IS important. Even if your reader will never notice you doing it, the way a sentence is laid out on a page, the way it is put together, the way multiple sentences are strung together, impact the telling of a story. They impact the mood, the tension, the pacing.

In the latest chapter I sent to a friend, he pointed out that when the tension should have been going through the roof, I'd slowed it down by writing in long sentences with lots of phrases and clauses. At the climax of the scene he wrote in the margins:

I’d still suggest trimming back on the length of the sentences as the action drives ahead—too much comma-comma-comma makes me lose the heart-pounding edge to the scene. What if each motion was its own sentence here? “She took a step. Billy didn’t notice. Chastity did; her eyes locked onto Katie at once. The young girl yelped. Billy turned.” You’d do a better job of it, but do you see what I mean?

Indeed I did see what he meant! In fact, one of the faculty had given a talk in the residency about that very thing, but without context for me to put it into, I hadn't personalized what she was saying. But now I see! 

Longer sentences slow down the exposition. They are for places when you want the reader to slow down. To keep them from getting to a place faster, to let them sit and linger, to draw out the tension.

Short, choppy sentences add to the tension. They quicken the pace of reading. The bring your reader into a sprint with you. They are like the rapid beating of a heart when the adreneline kicks in.

When a girl is facing her abusive father with a knife in her hand, drunk and high and hating him with everything she has in her, does it serve the narrative to write in long, lingering sentences? The answer was a resounding no.

I took my friend's advice and looked not just at that section but the entire chapter. When the main character is getting high and hanging around a bar parking lot with a guy she doesn't know, the sentences are now longer, wandering, like her thoughts.  When she is following her dad, unseen, there is a mix of short and long, the actions and her thoughts mixed. When she is facing her dad, when the tension is the highest, when the reader wants to know, is she going to use the knife, the sentences turn choppy, short, incomplete, breathless. 

It's amazing how much those little edits changed the pacing and tension of the entire chapter. I changed very few words. Without punctuation, the chapter would read almost identically. But with the newer punctuation, it morphed into something so much better. The sentence structure now mimics the plot.  

What about you? Do you think about how long or short your sentences are? Do you consider whether putting lots of phrases and clauses in- or cutting them out of - a sentence works for or against the plot? Or do you, like me, tend to work off instinct?

Friday, August 26, 2011

The "Eyes" Have It

It's Friday and a hurricane is headed our way even as we are ducking very minor aftershocks that everyone is either freaking out over or angry that they didn't feel. I have a feeling the hurricane will be harder to miss.

It's the mark of a writer, I suppose, that I am less worried about making sure the fridge is stocked and the batteries in the flashlight are fresh and that we have a portable radio than that my laptop is fully charged so that I can write if the power goes off.

Writing is going pretty well.

Which is not to say the writing itself is good. I have no idea about that anymore.

It's great having a writing group that has been together for years. I love them. I know I can depend on them. I know they love me, but that they will also be totally and brutally honest if I write crap.  Over the years, I've learned so much from them that I can now see, while writing, what they would say needs changing. Sometimes I leave it in to see if I'm right. I almost always am. I smile when I see "You need to cut this line" right next to the line I knew they'd hate.

The problem with having a writing group that's been together for years is that we have settled into a comfortable way of critiquing. We all tend to focus on the same things we've always focused on, the things we are acutely aware of.

This past week I sent a few pages to a fellow MFA student. I don't usually do that, even though they offer all the time, because I know how overloaded they all are themselves. But I needed fresh eyes. Someone who had never read any of my new book, who didn't come to the pages with any kind of preconceived notion of what the book was about. I thought I knew the kind of response I'd get. I was wrong.

I was stunned to see the critique come back with completely different types of critiques than I was used to. He pointed things out to me I would never have thought of, something that I don't think any of my fellow writing group members would ever think to point out. It was a bit mind-blowing, in the best kind of way.

Let me be clear that it wasn't necessarily better, it was just different. And different was exactly what I needed in these pages.

And some of his comments had broader application, things I will think of and apply not just in these pages but in the entire book, and in all of my writing going forward.

We writers tend to be solitary people, but writing should not be a solitary act, even though it feels that way when we sit with just the computer or pen to keep us company. The best of work needs fresh eyes. Only others can see the weaknesses we can't. Others can teach us things we don't know that they've learned.

And in the best of circumstances, as with my long-held critique group as well as with my fellow MFAers, we learn from those critiques, and they make us better writers in the long haul.

Do you have a critique group or a special beta reader? What is the best thing about having them for you?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Everyone's Got A Story; And Where I Was When I Wasn't Here

I've been gone for a while. Apologies on that! Maybe I should have posted that I was taking a blog break, but I really did think I'd get around to writing!  Instead of writing, though, last week I was here:

Yeah, hate me all you want. Six days of blissfully warm, breezy Florida air, the sound of waves crashing at my feet, my toes dug in the velvet-soft sand, three great books.

The family got up every morning and swam laps in the pool, ate a leisurely lunch at a great hamburger place, then headed out to the beach where we surfed, swam, and read great books. I managed to polish off three novels while looking at this scene; not a bad way to both relax AND do school work! After showers, we sat on a wide deck watching the sunset, listening to live music, and eating dinner.

Did I say BLISS??

After a summer of trying to balance cramming in my school work with enjoying time with the kiddos, it was great to be a part of this:

My oldest and youngest got attacked by sharks...

 My daughter ran into trouble with a swordfish...

We saw lots of pelicans hunting for food...

And my awesome husband wrote me messages in the sand...

I didn't realize how stressed I was until I was there, no laundry to do, no dishes to clean, no decisions to make other than what to order off the menu. I could stay up late, sleep in late, have no agenda. 

It's not the way I could live forever - I like a scheduled life - but for a week, it was exactly what I needed. I came back eager to dive back into writing.

Before we barely got settled in at home, though...


I know, this is old news by now, and most of you have heard about this and a lot of you felt it too. We live not very far from the epicenter, though, and as it was my kids' first memory of an earthquake, it made the day quite exciting.

We felt the initial 5.9 quake as well as all the aftershocks (which so far total four), none of which were dramatic beyond "Hey, the house is shaking!" I do admit I laughed a bit at all the people running OUT of the buildings (you aren't supposed to run outside in an earthquake, people) and screaming (What is this, war of the worlds??). When you've lived in California long enough, you realize this kind of earthquake is not a panic-inducing moment.

But most people here have never been in an earthquake, and everyone wants to talk about it. Where they were. What they were doing. What they thought it was. Everyone. The news is full of them. Twitter and facebook are full of them. The store clerks, the doctors, the people in the parking lots.

Everyone has a story, and everyone wants to tell it.

Which I love. Aren't we all, to some extent, born storytellers? How cool is it, then, to be able to make your living doing just that!  I think we writers are the luckiest people on earth!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Little Bee: A Book and A Memory

Last week I felt like I was drowning in housework. Well, truthfully, I feel that all the time, but last week I was stressed about it, wondering how in the world I could get all the laundry done and the floors vacuumed and still get my homework finished when I couldn't put two thoughts together without my kids interrupting me.

I finally decided if I wasn't going to be productive, at least I could be a good mom and take them to the pool, where, if I was lucky, they would swim for hours thinking how great a mom I was while I sat on the side and caught up on my reading for school. Win win, right?

The book I took with me was Little Bee, and in just the first few pages, my entire perspective on my day - and maybe my life - changed.

If you haven't heard of Chris Cleave's Little Bee, it is a book that comes with a big statement on the cover: We can't really tell you what this book is about. It's a secret. And if you read it, don't tell others either.

Nice, huh? Personally, this type of blurb tends to put me off. That's a pretty big claim, and one which I don't think the book really lives up to. It's a book, with a story, that develops, and things happen you didn't know would happen, and you find out things. You know... a book.

But I won't go spoiling anyone's fun here. Let me tell you what it's deemed okay to tell you:

This is a book about two women - one from London and another from a small village in Nigeria. At one point, before the story begins, they meet under extreme circumstances on a beach in Nigeria, where events happen that change their lives. Years later, the Nigerian girl ends up in London and comes looking for the other woman, who, because of their past, is unable to turn her away.

The book is told from two points of view, switching between Little Bee (the Nigerian) and Sarah, the British journalist she met on a beach.  While both POVs are done very well, and I'd say necessary to the unfolding of the story, the most interesting part for me was Little Bee, who begins the story in a Immigration Detention Camp in extremely ugly circumstances. But Little Bee, who would probably have loved to have my washing machine to do her clothes, or for that matter, all the clothes I have to wash, as she has nothing but what she is wearing and was given to her through and aid donation box, is the more interesting of the two. It is she, with her traumatic past, who gives the reader perspective if one is willing to take it.

It is Little Bee's thoughts, her writing, that makes the book come alive, and makes you want to read it with a highlighter in hand.

There are passages like this that will take your breath away:

On the girl's brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty, too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar mean, I survived.

And also this:

In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film. Afterward, you can go out of the cinema into the night and for a little while there is horror in everything. Perhaps there are murderes lying wait for you at home. You think this because there is a light on in your house that you are certain you did not leave on... For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away. Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it...

For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it...the film in your memory you cannot walk out of it so easily. Wherever you go it is always playing. So when I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge.

For some ridiculous reason, the marketer of this book has billed it as funny - hilarious even. But it is not. Not even in the slightest. It is sad, and thought-provoking, and wistful. Little Bee has hope, which you think throughout she should not have. She is thankful for little things - things you and I take for granted every day - like safety and a warm house and food. She is in awe of it.

And so, sitting by the pool with my laundry piling up and the dog hair still lying on the carpet, I was thankful that I had so much to do... so much to take care of. Thankful for the country I live in, grateful that I am surrounded by a family that I love that loves me. Humbled by my fortune and my opportunities.

Reviewers complain loudly about the end of this book, and I agree that the end seemed wrong, somehow. Maybe incomplete, or like it had continued two pages too far. Unsatisfying.

But Little Bee isn't meant to be satisfying, because like her life, the book is not about the end, it's about the journey.

I highly recommend this book. The writing is beautiful, the story unique, and while it isn't the easiest of topics, it isn't hard to read, either. While it might not change your life, it might just change your perspective for a day or two.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Is Entertaining Enough?

I'm belaboring my revisions this morning, and it's going well, but very slowly.

And as I'm working through my sixth month of good, solid revising, I see people around me - in blogs, on facebook, through twitter - who are churning out books at lightening speed. Who write a book in a month, do quick revisions of the checking-for-typos variety, and then send out or self-publish. I've seen people who talk about how long revisions take and then are done within two weeks.

I know we are not all the same. I know we do not all write at the same speed, or end up with first drafts that need the same amount of time and attention in the revising process, and I know that I would be working faster were I doing it on my own and not revising with an advisor through school.

But I can't help but know that some of these people - many of them - are not writing books that are really well-written. (You, dear readers, are excluded from this, because I know what YOU write is amazing, because I get to read a lot of it!). The books they write may be entertaining, but not necessarily "well written" in the terms that a writing class might define it.

Which brings me to the question I posed on Google+ this morning:

I watch people churning out books in a month, revising in a week, and I labor over a sentence for hours, revising a chapter a month in painstaking fashion. And I wonder, does "good writing" matter, or if you have an entertaining story do readers not care if you have tons of extra words, unspecific details and bland verbs, repetitive sentences, and too many flashbacks? Does good writing matter, or only a good story?

What say you, dear bloggers? There's no right or wrong answer here. I'm just interested. And do you consider yourself one of those that labors, or flies through the writing/revising stages?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

When a Bar Is Not Just a Bar

In the name of research I went out last night with a bunch of friends I haven't seen in years. Most of them 23 years, to be specific. High school friends that were in town for a week set up a get-together at a local waterfront restaurant to catch up. Okay - so it wasn't really in the name of research, but while I was there, why not do a little careful listening?

In the short story I've been tweaking the last month, the main character that has just left the military for civilian life meets up with some soldier friends at a bar. My advisor advised me that the dialogue was too pointed - too about what the story was about, when really dialogue in real life skirts what we want to say. At a bar, the soldiers wouldn't be talking about the details of war and what they regret, they would be doing everything BUT talking about it, while thinking about it, as if they could escape the reality if they just kept off-topic.

So last night, as I sat with friends around the table on the deck of Madigan's, I listened to the way people talked, the way the conversations flowed with those of us who had no seen each other in over two decades. And you know what? My advisor was right. We all talked about things that essentially didn't matter in the larger scheme of life. There were, at any time, three or four conversations going, about traffic on the highway, the teachers we remembered we loved and hated, the humidity, the DJ who seemed to want to be our new best friend, the song options for karaoke, and a hundred other things I don't even remember.

But all the while, I was thinking of my friend Jean who died a few years ago - who no doubt would have been sitting at that table with us, who would have sung karaoke. The song the first guys chose to sing was one Jean and I sang loud and often on car trips, one which brought back a wave of emotions that were surprisingly more sweet than sad.

The thing is, real life conversations at a bar are interesting to those in them, at that moment in time, but they make for a boring story. So how to mix the two - the important conversation they want to have, and are having in their head, about the dead they saw, the attacks and brutality, the comraderie that comes with those kind of circumstances and the loss of that when you come home - and the conversations which happens out loud. How to intertwine them in such a way that the surface dialogue conveys the inner turmoil they are hiding.

I wonder sometimes if I'm writing more complex stories now, or if because of school I'm letting my stories become more complex.

I remember the days when sitting down to write a story was just about writing the story. And going to a bar with some friends was just a conversation among friends. But I would't change a thing about either.