Mixing It Up

On March 11, 2015, Tracey Dyck wrote, Does anyone have advice on varying sentence structure? I’ve discovered that I overuse a certain structure in my novel. (I forget what that type of sentence is called–bad me–but it looks like this: “Bob drove to the market, whistling along the way.” It’s the “ing” phrase that keeps cropping up.) It sounds like a basic problem, easily solved, but I’ve started highlighting every use of that structure in my manuscript…Chapters one and two have almost 50 uses each. Sometimes there are half a dozen in the space of a few paragraphs, and other times I go a whole page without one. Anyway, tips/thoughts would be helpful! 🙂

Kenzi Anne sympathized: I have this exact same problem–and it’s driving me crazy!!! I’ve been trying to switch up my sentence structure, but my brain always defaults back. I have no idea how to stop it, either 🙁

Elisa suggested: Well, this may sound cliche, but read an author whose writing structure is very different from your own. I would probably suggest reading Austen, because she has a very unique, very distinct writing structure. I find myself talking and thinking in Austenese (as I call it) after I read anything by her. Maybe try reading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Then start writing. This always helps me. Her writing is so vastly different from my own that when it takes over my mind it warps my writing structures and my writing comes out very different from what it normally is. Later I come back and edit through it to make it my own again, but the structure is different, and it helps me unstick from my repetitive tendencies.

I reread Pride and Prejudice (for the jillionth time) in the middle of writing Ella Enchanted, and, without realizing, fell into Austenese. My writing group was sure I’d gone nuts. I stopped and revised, but I still think Ella has the right sensibility for Austen! Elisa’s strategy worked for me.

We writers are often permeable, by which I mean that writing styles infiltrate us and come out through our fingers, so I love Elisa’s idea. Here’s a prompt: Read a chapter of a book you love. And another. Read something by Dickens, by Emily Bronte, by her sister Charlotte. Then write, and don’t analyze your sentences until your writing session is over. Then look back and see what happened.

We can also imitate directly. Here’s another prompt: Look at a paragraph in a book you admire and analyze it. In poetry school, I had to do this with a poem last semester and then write a new poem following the exact pattern of the old one, which took me way out of my usual writing style. If you’re writing narration, choose a long narrative paragraph. If you’re writing dialogue, a speech paragraph, or several, in the case of dialogue. Use the pattern you’ve discovered when you write the next paragraph in your WIP.

Below is the beginning of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie:

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

Let’s analyze. I’m not a grammarian, and I will probably mess up the technicalities in my description. Please forgive me.

Short first sentence, six words, two commas. Except restricts the word all that starts the sentence. Second sentence: two independent clauses joined by and. We can count the words if we want to. (If I were writing that sentence, I’d end with a colon, so that the second and third sentences would be joined.) Third sentence, same as the second. (Barrie seems not to have worried about variety!) Fourth sentence: independent clause followed by dependent clause that incorporates an exclamatory sentence of dialogue. (In my opinion, Barrie was a very supple writer.) Fifth sentence: two independent clauses joined by but. Sixth and seventh sentences: short and declarative without clauses. Notice that the sixth sentence ends with the same word that the seventh begins with, two. That repetition of two gives the paragraph ending punch. We can adopt the same strategy, not always, but occasionally.

Now look at a narrative paragraph of your own and recast it, following Barrie’s example. You may not succeed entirely, but I suspect you’ll substantially change up what you’ve been doing.

For expert help, we can do an online search on sentence structure to see what we have to work with. But we don’t want to get too academic. Sentence fragments, for example, are okay in fiction if they work. Exclamations are fine. The comma splice (independent clauses connected by only a comma) are a device that writers sometimes use, especially if each clause is short and meaning is clear. Almost anything goes in dialogue if the character speaking really would talk the way we’ve written–and if the meaning is clear.

Let’s take Michelle Dyck’s sample sentence and fool around with it. I understand that it’s meant just as an example and not deathless prose. Here it is:

Bob drove to the market, whistling along the way.

What are the possibilities?

Bob whistled as he drove to the market.
As he drove to the market, Bob whistled.
Bob drove to the market. He whistled the entire distance.
Bob drove to the market and whistled the entire distance.
Whistling “Clementine,” Bob drove to the market.

There may be more, and I’m not claiming that any of these are better than the original. The two-sentence solution is definitely worse. But they are alternatives.

We can incorporate the previous or the following sentence into our revision, the one that comes before or after the whistling. Suppose that, just before he drives off, Bob receives a kiss. We might then write: Molly planted a kiss on Bob’s astonished lips and sent him off in his car, where he whistled “All You Need Is Love” from her house to the market, where he bought a bouquet of long-stemmed roses.

Or we can use what’s going on in the scene, like this: Bob whistled the old repertory–“Home On the Range,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”–while his daughter stared stonily out the window. When they pulled into the market parking lot, he grinned. “You used to love those songs, sweetie.”

This strategy uses liveliness to introduce variety into our prose. Again recognizing that our sample sentence is just an example for discussion purposes, when we really write in our story, it’s usually (not always) better to name the song being whistled, which will tell us a little data point about our character. If Bob is whistling tunelessly, it’s good to know that, too. And in most cases, it’s good to name the store. In my part of the country, Whole Foods has a different ring from the A&P. Or it may be a purely local store, and then the name, whatever it is, will add local color. We can make up the name if we like, to give an indication of setting.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Use this in a story: Bob whistled as he drove, his favorite tune, of course, the anthem of his cult: “Rising Star Shining.” And the bug under his seat picked up every note.

∙ Pick a paragraph in a book you love that isn’t from this era, could be one of the authors mentioned above. Modernize the sentences.

∙ Pick a section of dialogue by one of these authors and transform it into modern speech. You may have to break up long paragraphs to do this.

∙ Try my Barrie example above. Use his paragraph as a template for a revision of one of yours.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Come again?

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (not for kids). Atwood writes with such skill that I’m plunged into awe. I wish I could do what she does. Her prose is poetic, yet nothing about its beauty is difficult. She raises no obstacles of ornateness, and she reminds me that story needs to come first, which comforts me: If I can tell my story straightforwardly, I’m okay.

Here are some prosaic, even mechanical things that I pay attention to when I write and when I revise. The point is to make my prose lively without shifting the focus away from my story.

I vary my sentence beginnings or at least don’t let three sentences in a row start in the same way. Two identical beginnings are acceptable (my rule). When I’m writing in first person I don’t let one sentence after another start with I. However, no rule applies all the time. Sometimes repeating a beginning sets up a beat that I like.

A critique buddy once remarked that I wasn’t avoiding the verb is, which made me self-conscious and worried. I hadn’t considered is before. Is isn’t interesting, but it is unavoidable. Now that my friend pointed out my profligate ising, I’ve been rearranging some sentences to bring more striking verbs into the act. Still, whenever I read is in a string of sentences by an author I like, I think, See, even she or he does it.

In my first submission of Writing Magic, my editor found twenty zillion appearances of the word stuff. I hadn’t noticed, maybe because I like the word, which feels friendly and informal – but I didn’t like it enough to want it to show up seven times on every page. In my latest manuscript for the Disney Fairies series, I wrote “Atop the tabletop.” I didn’t mean to do that. Good thing my editor caught it.

I’m lucky to have editors who are sensitive to word repetition, but I cultivate my own sensitivity, too. Whenever I suspect that I’m overusing a word, I type it in a list above the title of my book. Just before I submit the manuscript, I do a word search on the list. If a word appears too often I consult the thesaurus for alternatives.

On the other hand, in Peter Pan, James M. Barrie repeatedly uses the phrase “of course.” I adore Peter Pan and think Barrie a supple stylist. When I write my books about the fairies of Neverland, I connect them to Barrie by scattering “of course” with abandon.

On the other other hand, in a book about writing (I don’t remember which one), I read that extraordinary words shouldn’t appear more than once or twice in a whole book. For example, I like the word susurration, which means a whispering sound, because it’s onomatopoeic, which means it sounds like what it means. But I wouldn’t use susurration more than once in a book. The reader would notice. The word would draw attention to itself and away from the story.

(Susurration seems to be a noun without a verb form. Webster’s shows no susurrate. Susurrate appears in the OED as rare. How interesting!)

My sentences tend to be short. That’s how I write. That’s my style. See? However, when I remember, I write against type and connect independent clauses with a because or since or so, because I don’t want every sentence to be four words long. Even so, lyrical fifty-word sentences are unusual in my books.

In addition to length, I switch around my sentence structures. For example, I don’t like sentence after sentence consisting of two independent clauses connected by comma and. I prefer short sentences to that. I also dislike a series of this-comma-but-that sentences that, so I use however, though, although, or, better yet, recast the ideas entirely.

This is all a matter of taste. Some writers don’t care about any of these things. When I’m caught up in reading a story, I don’t care either, but when I’m starting a novel or returning to one and I’m not yet hypnotized, I do notice. I get annoyed. I may even ditch the book.

If you want to play around with your own repetition, examine something short that you’ve written. Look for your tics – the words you overuse, your sentence arrangements – and fiddle with them. As you continue to write your longer work, keep these ideas in mind. I don’t suggest you go back if you’re in the middle of a novel. In fact, I believe that would be a bad idea, not at all worth your time. When you finish and revise, however, look for your repetitions and ask your critique pals to look too. Have fun, and save your changes!