Writing Secrets: Every little sentence is sacred

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

When you become a writer, every sentence should be sacred to you.

I give this advice a great deal in our mentoring programme. Pay attention to each word you use: does it say exactly what you wish it to?

Each sentence must speak to us – not just in the meaning of the words. Its pace must show us mood and state of mind. It should be structured with care.

Sentences shouldn’t become monotonous because you’ve given each the same structure as the last. Each should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and no longer. Don’t neglect the simple sentence.

Surprise and delight us with sentence twists; with a trace of cleverness; a witty touch or a startling comparison. Writing isn’t simply about getting a plot down. It’s not just about your characters, or even just about getting your grammar right.

It’s about using your sentences artfully the way a painter uses his brush – not simply to depict a horse, but to show us the mood of the observer, the feeling of being on or near that horse, and how that horse fits into its context and the world of the artist.

Because these are points I find myself making a great deal, I was delighted to discover a book review in the New Yorker, which focused in on the sentence level.

Writing of a collection of stories by Amy Hempel, the reviewer wrote that she assembled “extraordinary sentences”.

And each purified sentence is itself a story, a kind of suspended enigma. “Between them it was always almost over, especially at the start,” is one of the lines from a three-page story in the new collection.

And her characters often speak as sparklingly and strangely as their creator writes. “If I were to sing, it would sound like talking louder,” a character says in “The Afterlife.”

In “Du Jour,” a viciously shrewd piece about the difficulty of giving up smoking, the narrator tells us that she has gained weight since quitting cigarettes. “But not because I’m eating more of anything. I’m gaining weight because I’ve stopped coughing. Coughing was exercise for me.”

This narrator meets a certain Mrs. Wynn, who is enrolled in the same addiction program. Mrs. Wynn, who likes to boast, says that she sings songs in four languages at a local supper club. In four languages? the narrator marvels. “Oh, God no,” Mrs. Wynn replies. “I’m exaggerating so you can get to know me faster.”

Amy Hempel is an experimental writer … she is easy to read and sometimes harder to comprehend. Her sentences are not complex, but the speed of their connection to one another is a little breathtaking. You need to slow down in order to go as quickly as Hempel is travelling.

As Anatole France once said: “Word carpentry is like any other kind of carpentry: you must join your sentences smoothly.”

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Like all foundations, it must be concealed

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