Tag Archives: Words

SENTENCE OLYMPIANS: LEARNING THE POWER OF THE SENTENCE

Guest post by Daniel Noyes

Daniel Noyes writes books for children and is currently seeking DanielNoyesPhotorepresentation for his work. He is a member of SCBWI and a winner of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 LDStorymakers Conference first chapter contests. He has an MBA from Idaho State University and works as a critical infrastructure cyber security analyst.


Everything we write involves three choices: what to write about, the words we use, and the order in which we place them.

Gertrude Stein once asked:

Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?

As writers, our tools are words and sentences, and with these two things we write mountains of books. From these two things are birthed a plethora of pleasing sentences, some you may have memorized.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

—–

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . .

Consider the following sentence.

He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

Wow, right? What a power-packed sentence. It starts so simple and clear and then builds and builds all the way to the very last word. Would you have guessed it was forty-one words long? Forty-one words. Did you have any trouble comprehending it?

Did you know that the sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” goes on for over a hundred words?

There will be many willing to teach you the “rules of writing.”  One rule I see too often is to keep sentences short. Some even say not to exceed a certain number of words and that if you do, you need to start trimming. They say long sentences only confuse readers. They tell you that Hemingway used only short sentences, unaware of his 424-word monster in The Green Hills of Africa, among others.

In a course titled, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Brooks Landon, English Professor at the University of Iowa, says this:

An assumption exists that long sentences are bad, but it is usually the case that bad sentences are long.

It’s time we shrug off our fear of long sentences. Fear is for things we don’t understand, things we can’t control, and as authors, we control our sentences.

There are many ways to write long sentences that are both crystal clear and replete with pleasure. One such way is through cumulative syntax.

In his course, Professor Landon goes on to say:

I think cumulative syntax is…the surest way for writers to immediately improve the effectiveness of their sentences.

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Cumulative sentences are easy to write, a process of adding modifying phrases to the base clause of the sentence, each phrase adding to our understanding or sharpening our visualization of the preceding phrase or of the base clause.

Let’s refer back to that corpse-in-the-trunk sentence, one that Professor Landon uses as a poster child in his course.

It has one base clause: He drove the car carefully,

Followed by five free modifying phrases: his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

They’re called free modifying phrases because they can be placed in any syntactic position relative to the base clause, unlike bound modifiers, which have a tendency to curtail comprehension in long sentences.

Go ahead and try it. Start with a simple base clause, add a comma to the end, and pile on some modifying phrases.

If your modifying phrases all refer back to the base clause, it’s called a coordinate pattern.

D1

If you’d like, each modifying phrase can refer to the clause or phrase immediately preceding it to create a subordinate pattern.

D2

Of course, we can mix and match coordinate and subordinate phrases as we desire. This is known as a mixed pattern.

D3

Here’s an example I found in one of my manuscripts. My main character, Ricky, has just arrived at the Colosseum in Rome where he is to change into an animal and compete in an Olympic-style tournament. Given how we’re just coming away from the summer Olympics in real life, this seems particularly fitting. Here are Ricky’s thoughts as he studies the arena.

Ricky imagined a Roman chariot flashing by, dust whipping and swirling in the air behind it, the horses galloping with every mite of speed they could muster, each hoping to finish first, to earn their master a laurel crown, to finally retire and grow fat and sire the next generation of champions, the next generation of stars.

Fifty-seven words; not bad. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Our goal as writers shouldn’t be to follow a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather to become sentence Olympians, able to perform syntagmatic and paradigmatic feats that give our readers ample pleasure.

(Cue epic music) No, we writers don’t win gold medals in live events with millions cheering us on. We don’t perform in vast arenas with tens of thousands screaming our names. Many of us will never earn enough to pay the bills with our writing. But our words, our sentences, our characters, our stories fill the minds of the world, expand the knowledgeverse, and live on, and on, and on.

Every book you read, every blockbuster you watch, every hit pouring through your speakers, all were spawned in the mind of a brave soul, a writer who slapped rejection in the face, saying, “You don’t own me; you don’t choose the words I share or decide when I give up, because I won’t give up; I will write, creating something where there was void, telling stories you said couldn’t be told, and if someday in a quiet corner of Earth, a beautiful bag of blood and bones reads my words and in them finds comfort or adventure, longing or courage, or whatever manner of happily they desire, then I’ve changed the world, made an individual difference, held an empty hand, dried a lonely tear, nourished a starving soul, and all by taking a single word and writing it down and adding to it another, and another, until I’ve reached the end and created something beautiful—a thing alive.”

Words are our nails, sentences, our lumber. From a blank space, we create characters who are as real to our readers as any pop star or gold medalist they’ve never met. Scientific discovery is engaged by our conceptions. Newborns are named after characters sparked from our minds. Our words, our sentences, are not accidents. They are decisions, choices we make every time we set off to write, choices we can be proud of, choices we can cherish.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

Wasted Words

By Lu Ann Brobst Staheli

Writers are wordsmiths. Writing words is what they do.

But sometimes, writers write too many words!

During the initial drafting process, writers often shoot for a word count target. This is especially true if we are participating in a challenge such as NaNoWriMo or Word Wars with our Twitter friends. The higher the number of words we write in a given time frame, the better. We do everything we can to win the battle, collecting lots of wasted words along the way, all in the effort to have the largest word count when the match is done.   

But by the time we are ready to revise and edit, we realize that many of those precious words we wrote in the struggle to reach our goals need to go away if we want our manuscript to be worthy of publication.

I’m as guilty of wasting words as anyone. It’s easy to fall into the trap of a favorite phrase that clutters my writing. I lost track of how many times I had to remove the phrase “a bit” from one of my manuscripts, but that’s not the only phrase I’ve been guilty of using. I’ve learned to keep a “watch list” during my own editing process, and the search function has helped me get rid of the over-use of certain words.

But overuse is not the only way an author can waste words. Sometimes we use words to “warm up” to what we really want to say, as fillers when we aren’t sure what we want to say, or because of habits we have picked up as we speak, which we let stray into our writing. Here are a few examples:

“And with that” –Writers add this phrase while drafting when they want to move a character from place to place, instead of just moving them. Almost every time it draws the reader out of the point of view character and into the thoughts of a narrator using the author’s voice. Remove this phrase and show us the action to strengthen your scene.

“Up” –It’s amazing how many times this little word can be added when it’s not necessary. Rose up, sat up, and stood up are just a few examples. Search for “up” and read the sentence without it. If the sentence makes sense, omit the word, or better yet, find a way to strengthen the verb.

“Thought to himself” —Everyone is guilty of this one, but if you stop to think about it, the phrase is sort of silly. Who else would you think to? Unless you’re a backwards mind reader, there is no way you can think to anyone other than yourself. Delete “to himself.”

“Small / Large” —We often add these words, thinking they help a reader determine size, but unless you specifically give something to compare the item to these qualifiers don’t add anything to the description. “A small man” could describe any man without another man to compare him to. Is he under 5’ tall? Or is he simply a couple of inches shorter than Michael Jordan? If you want to see how meaningless these words become, pick up a copy of Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen and read, looking especially for the word “small.” I love the story, but it becomes laughable when you hit the section where he uses small something like ten times in a half a page.

“Well / Um” –These words are wasted in conversation, and they are even more wasted in written text. Find another, better way to show hesitancy in a character’s speech.

Look over your own work in progress this week and make note of wasted words. Do a search and see how many you can delete. Do you notice an improvement in the quality of your writing? Continue to build your list, make every word count, and you will see improvement as you write.

One word of warning—you’ll also start to see other people’s wasted words as you read. This can be good if you add their words to your editing list to avoid in your own writing, but it may also drive you crazy as you realize some of your favorite authors could have been so much better if they’d only learned not to waste words.

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Lu Ann Brobst Staheli is the award-winning author of Just Like Elizabeth Taylor, When Hearts Conjoin, and Psychic Madman. Men of Destiny: Abraham Lincoln and the Prophet Joseph Smith will be available in March from Walnut Springs Press. Staheli can be found at www.LuAnnsLibrary.blogspot.com.

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn wrote her first book, about a talking grandfather clock, when she was six – and hasn’t stopped writing since. In fact, she can’t “not write,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She hasn’t missed a day of writing in her journal for the past four years!

As a winner in this year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge, Bonnie produced her latest dystopian novel, "Escaping Safety," and is now working on its sequel. She is also close to completing a fantasy romance series, "The Legends of Elldamorae," whose characters have captured her heart and can’t wait to have their stories revealed.

Bonnie’s mantra is, “I write because I believe every story deserves to be told.”

You can learn more about Bonnie, and read her inspirational blog posts, on Where Legends Begin at http://www.bonniegwyn.blogspot.com/

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.