I recently spoke at writers’ conference, along with Sarah Shumway, a bright young editor at Dutton’s children’s books, and Andrea Weiss, New York editor now working out of California. The three of us presented to about 50 earnest, hard-working writers of all ages, and all looking to take the next step: publication.
After the two editors talked about pitches, markets, agents, what not to do in query letters, etc., I played the devil’s advocate. To the group of attending writers I said, in a nutshell, “Forget everything you just heard!” Instead, focus on your writing at the sentence level—which is where writing lives or dies. I said that we all are creative and have great ideas, but if our writing doesn’t work well at the sentence level, publication will never follow. (I had alerted my colleagues-du-jour of my hammer and shovel message.)
I then challenged the writers as to their knowledge of grammar and punctuation: did they really know the semicolon? (I confessed that I didn’t until I was in graduate school.) Were they fully confident and consistent comma usage? (Few of us are.) What was their true idea of the paragraph? (Imagine an egg, or something with a shape and some kind of center.) I said that most aspiring writers could benefit from a few hours review in an old-fashioned handbook such as Strunk and White on on matters of style–that it was crucial to know the rules before one could break them effectively. I said that a grammar and punctuation review would give them, as writers, an implicit confidence, which in turn will show up as a kind of felt authority in their prose.
From there I made the second main point: the necessity of working toward a fictional style. Amateur writers describe a scene. Published writers render the scene—they make it read as if life is happening on the page. And the rendering is done through a variety of small stylistic “tricks” to make the prose transparent (George Orwell used the phrase “windowpane prose”) so that the reader can see and feel and hear and smell the events unimpeded, undistracted by the writing.
So what are those “tricks?” They are simple tools available to us all:
1. Sentence variety in terms of length and construction. Match your sentences to the event being addressed; in other words, match form to content.
2. Use a full range of descriptive imagery–not just visual, and perhaps aural–but what about touch, taste, smell?
3. Kill your adverbs and weak, auxiliary verbs in favor of simple but fresh verbs. Favor nouns over adjectives. Keep your speech tags simple.
4. Avoid topic sentences in your paragraphs, in favor of a more inductive approach; that is, give the details and let the reader make inferences and connections. Do just enough for the reader that she can make sense of things, but leave things to her imagination. The key is to get the reader to join us in the text, and do some of the work. If we explain everything to her, our reader will have nothing to do.
5. If you still don’t quite “see”, i.e., understand fictional style, try this. Find a page or two published fiction –from somebody’s novel or short story– that is like your project. Realism compared realism. Fantasy to fantasy. Murder mystery to murder mystery. Then take a page of your best fiction, manipulate its line spacing and font to resemble as closely as possible the published piece. Print out your page and lay it directly alongside the published work. How does yours read in comparison? What makes that writer’s prose tighter, more lively, more readable than yours? Why is that writer published, and you are not?
Final note: I have seen so many creative young writers struggle because their ideas and imagination outstripped their grammar, punctuation and fictional style. All of us have great ideas for a novel. But for most aspiring writers sentence-level style, not plot, is the final piece of the puzzle. It’s the one that makes them competitive in in the world of publishing.