The Sentence as a Unit of Energy

Every sentence is a unit of energy, moving from one point to the next. The sheer length of a sentence is rarely the cause of a lack of clarity; instead, it's more likely to be flaws in the structure of the sentence as it evolves. The energy in a sentence might peak in the second clause, for example, and then dither along with several inessential details, expiring well before the period. The sentence may force the reader's eye into painful contortions while it leaps from conjunction to conjunction, the reader having to work too hard and suffer too much to keep up.

That said, long sentences are more likely to lose the reader if not effectively structured. A short sentence that lacks focus and loses the reader ends quickly, giving the reader a breath to catch up by the next sentence. A long sentence that goes awry can lose a reader for lines at a time, making it that much more difficult to catch up. The writer can take this into account by making sure every clause in an extended sentence, every detail given, leads the reader inexorably and clearly on to the period.

Write What You See, Not What You Know

You don’t play what you know, you play what you hear. – Miles Davis

Most of us first learn to write simple sentences such as “See Spot run” in grade school and hone our writing skills through high school and college on academic essays that require sophisticated analysis, abstraction, and summary. In essay writing, the student is taught to begin a paragraph with a summary premise that expands to an analysis of the subject being considered and concludes with a statement that summarizes the argument made in the preceding sentences. In fiction, this summary-exposition-conclusion style is useless. Those who wish to write fiction will discover a more useful model in a first-grade primer than the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook for Writers.

When I first began to teach fiction writing, I wondered why some of my smartest, most academically gifted students wrote stiff and graceless stories, whereas some who had middling academic records wrote stories and characters that leapt from the page. The answer, I later discovered, lay in their very excellence as students. They’ve been trained throughout their academic careers to write what they know. Summary, abstraction, generalization, and repetition are not only allowed in essay style, they’re often key to the structuring of the essay’s argument. So when writing fiction some students summarize a character or action in the first paragraph, then demonstrate the truth of the summary by giving examples, and then wrap up with another summary at the end. They’ve learned to write in an essay style that doesn’t translate easily to fiction. They write out of their heads, rather than from their eyes.

When writing fiction, don’t write what you know. Write what you see. Don't write, "John was sad." That's just a summary idea. Instead, watch John in your imagination and write what you observe. Robert Olen Butler, in his treatise on the art of fiction, From Where You Dream, says, “Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.” Butler argues that novels are too complex to think into existence, except in the simplest forms.

The mind of the artist is at its most creative when it’s not consciously thinking. Our conscious minds are capable of dealing with known facts and processes but only the unconscious can combine facts and processes in the creative ways necessary to a novel. Writing that derives too much from the conscious mind generally lacks suppleness, genuine insight, and surprising twists of action, thought, or character. When a writer is writing from her unconscious, from what Butler calls the white-hot center, she taps into the primal source of creativity.

The obvious question for the developing writer (and for all writers) is, “How do I get to this white-hot center, this primal source of creativity?” The answer is both simple and complex. You’ve probably already been there. How many times have you sunk so deeply into writing a story that you completely forgot about time, thirst, and hunger – even forgot, for a time, that you were you? That’s your true writing center, the region of self that connects most directly to the images, insights, and emotions that form the raw material of narrative art.

Jazz musicians aren’t consciously thinking when they improvise on a standard tune; instead, they’ve launched themselves into their subconscious mind, playing what they hear. When Miles Davis says you play what you hear, not what you know, he’s telling you to stop thinking and to listen.

Dialog Tags and the Bossy Writer

In technical terms, the part of the sentence that identifies the speaker of a line of dialog is called a dialog tag, or dialog attribution. I’ve read manuscripts in which characters have sneezed, wheezed, and choked lines of dialog. When a writer uses verbs like this in dialog attribution, she smothers the voice of her characters, and shifts the emphasis from the dialog to the author’s interpretation of the dialog...

Think of it this way. In a well written scene, the reader is actively imagining the characters move and speak. The reader reads the line of dialog and hears it in her head as she reads. If the dialog exchange is logically structured, the reader usually knows who is speaking before reaching the dialog tag. Imagine what happens when the author intrudes at the end to tell the reader how the character spoke the line, and it conflicts with how the reader heard it, or repeats the obvious. This creates dissonance, the reader objecting to the author's insistence that the line be read a particular way. Overly descriptive dialog tags commit a literary sin similar to the use of adverbs in dialog attribution (he spat hotly); they force the author's interpretation on the reader. The reader might resent such a writer.

Literary characters are like actors. They need conscious and unconscious motivations, direction, and space to create. My role as a writer is to direct the characters, devising conflicting motivations that will help the scene they play escalate in tension, and then to give them space to create. On the stage and film set, a good actor will despise the director who tries to force her into saying a line a certain way. A director who gives specific line readings treats his actors like puppets. A writer who uses overly active verbs and adverbs in dialog attribution forces her interpretation of the scene not just on the reader, but on the character as well. This can result in wooden, lifeless characters, mere mouthpieces for the bossy writer.

Every now and then, a dialog tag begs for an active verb or a rich adverb. Save these instances for when they matter. Sometimes the writer might want to contradict the reader, or to emphasize for dramatic effect how a line is delivered. For most dialog exchanges, the emphasis might best remain on the dialog itself, rather than the author’s interpretation of the dialog. To put the emphasis on the dialog, use plain verbs such as said, whispered, and shouted. Step back and let the characters speak for themselves. You might be surprised how much they have to say, and how much more crisply they say it. 

The Endless Challenge of Writing Fiction

Every writer whose art remains alive is still learning about the craft. Each blank page presents a new challenge, and the challenge defeats the writer often enough to keep the outcome in perpetual doubt. Most likely none of us will ever reach the moment of satori in which every word we inscribe is the perfect one for that moment. To write is to ride parallel lines that may meet on the horizon, but never right in front of you. Perfection is a goal not meant to be realized.

This is why writers often say that a work is never finished, it's only published. Why? Because every day an active writer learns something new about writing, and that something would have caused a change to this word or that word in the manuscript.

Your manuscript is a document that expresses where you are as a writer while writing it. But if you're growing as a writer, the manuscript you finished two weeks ago no longer completely represents where you are as a writer now. This makes some writers compulsive rewriters, revising again and again until the work is published. You probably need a second draft to incorporate what you’ve learned in the process of writing the first draft, and you need a third draft to tie together lessons learned while writing the second draft. No amount of improved technique, however, can replace the white-hot moment of creation, so if a major revision is needed, you’ll need to find that moment again and write from the center of it.

Remember, the things you're struggling with today will be second nature to you tomorrow. Tomorrow, however, you'll be dealing with a whole new level of issues.

The Concept of the Three Manuscripts

When you read and edit your own work, be aware of a simple concept: every manuscript has not one, but three versions. By this, I don’t mean drafts of a manuscript. Every draft of every manuscript has three versions. The first version exists in the writer’s mind. This is the version the writer thinks she has written. The second version is the version that exists objectively on the page. The version in the writer’s mind and the version actually on the page are never exactly the same. This is the primary reason writers make lousy copyeditors of their own work: they’re seeing the sentence in their minds, not the one on the page. I don’t know how many times I’ve proofed a sentence only to have a copyeditor show me that it’s missing a comma or conjunction. The difference between what a writer thinks she has written and what exists on the page can be far more significant than a missed comma or conjunction. Sometimes the writer sees in the manuscript of her mind important details of character and place that simply aren’t on the page.

The third version of a manuscript is the one that exists in the mind of the reader. You can already see the potential for misunderstandings, disconnects, and miscommunications here. If the version in the writer’s mind differs significantly from the version on the page, the reader won’t be reading the work the writer thinks she has composed. The reader isn’t perfect, either. Even a very good reader won’t read with perfect accuracy the version on the page. Studies in eyewitness testimony – and the Kurosawa film, Rashomon – have demonstrated the inability of eyewitnesses to agree on simple facts, such as the color of a suspect’s shirt. Different readers will read different things in a manuscript. You can’t prevent all misreading. But you can ground the reader in solid details of time, place, and character to keep him on track. If the version on the page closely adheres to the version in your mind, you can eliminate the one degree of confusion that can lead to a reader getting hopelessly lost.

A Blog about Technique in Writing Fiction

I dedicate this blog to the developing writers I’ve taught at the Prague Summer Program, Western Michigan University, and the UCLA Writers’ Program, writers whose passion for writing has inspired me, whose dedication to improving their work has moved me, and who have taught me to think more deeply about the craft of writing fiction. For many years I resisted hosting a personal website, preferring instead to promote the characters I’ve written and hiding behind them like a mask. The last thing the world needs is another blog by a soon to be dead (in the cosmic sense) white male writer, but a blog that discusses the techniques involved in writing fiction might earn its space on the Internet.

The craft blog may be only one of several pages on this website, but it’s the most vital one. I intend it to serve not only developing writers – and I hope that I’m still among the developing – but also teachers of creative writing. If I frame a technical issue in a way that you might find useful in your teaching, please don’t hesitate to crib from these pages.

Some of the posts will present elemental issues of craft, and others will explore more complex technical issues. The posts won’t aim to be definitive because that would take pages and pages of text; instead, I intend to articulate a specific angle on each issue. I hope you find them of some use.