Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing advice from a novice backed up by the words of a pro

It's not my own. (And don't worry. I'm not going to turn this into a writing blog. By next week I'll probably be back to writing about the different flavors of the various brands of bubble gum, or humanure, or blackmailing my children)….mmm…the various flavors of humanure…. Ahem. Moving on.

I went to my writing group tonight, and I guess it got me thinking about the actual art of writing.

I would feel totally supercilious if I pretended to have great writing advice. As you will see when my first book comes out next month, I am not the best writer in the world. Shocker, I know. But that is only a temporary situation. Someday I will be the best. You just watch and see.

When I first decided to write, and had never before written anything longer than a term paper (and we're not talking about gripping renderings of uncharted topics here), a little voice inside told me I couldn't do it. As I've grown older, maybe grown up a little, I've developed a counter-attack to that little voice: my own bigger, louder, more insistent voice. So I simply told myself, in a voice much louder than the other one, that just because I had never done this before certainly did not mean I could not accomplish it if I wanted to.

And I wanted to. So I set about putting some tools in my toolbox. I had four years of college level grammar and linguistics courses, literature, fiction, poetry. Mostly useless. Not in and of themselves; very contrary, they are a great and necessary background for someone who wishes to write. (Do not argue the "necessary" with me. I am not in the mood.) But when I got right down to it, to sitting at my computer and staring at a blank screen wishing, wishing I could write, what I needed was some good solid advice on the construction of sentences, the choosing of the one right word, and the portrayal of ideas bigger than me.

The best advice I ever got about writing, I read in a book called The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne which I found at the DI for 75 cents.

In her book Ms. Payne instructs the writing student how to make stilted, contrived, wishing sentences into words that flow so effortlessly from the mind to the pen, to the eye and mind of the reader.

Ready for it? Here comes the advice.

Vary the length of your sentences.

That's pretty much it.

In her section 9, called The Sound of Sentences, Ms. Payne writes about the rhythm of speech, explains why it is necessary in writing, gives a great example of how it can make what you are writing sound natural (she calls this style!), and then goes on to describe the different types of sentences you can use to achieve this. Extremely interesting stuff to someone like me. You, who are yawning or have already clicked away, may not agree. On the interesting part, that is. But on the necessary part, I dare you to disagree. I dare you.

Compare and contrast the following examples from The Lively Art of Writing.

Example A

One of the things that is very important to an actor is a sense of timing. It is more important than a handsome face or a good voice. An actor who does not have a sense of timing can never be very good at acting. A good director can tell him what to do, but he will always be just like a puppet.

Example B

Few things are so essential to an actor as a sense of timing. Without that, nothing else about him matters very much. He may have a handsome face. He may have a splendid voice. But unless he has an innate sense of timing, the finest director in the world cannot make an actor of him. He can never be more than a puppet.

Huh? Yeah? Eh? Right?

These paragraphs say the exact same thing. The second one says it better.

I'll leave you with Lucile's words.

So write with a talking rhythm, varying the length of your sentences to suit your material. Generally the short, sharp sentence gives emphasis; the long, involved sentence provides depth and color. Together with the medium-length sentence they give writing the tone and rhythm of speech. Put them in any order you like. Any order is right if it sounds right to your inner ear. Write for that ear.

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