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Sentence Craft

The sentence is the smallest unit of thought in a novel, and I’ve been finding myself giving more and more sentence-related notes in critiques for webinar students and conference attendees. I’ll do a lot more talking about this in the near future, but I did want to prime you all to start thinking hard about your sentences by sharing an article I read a while ago. This essay may be old news to some, and it’s a bit long, but it’s still an excellent and thought-provoking read. I urge all of you to go through this and give it a lot of thought.

One of my favorite sentences from it:

You don’t develop a style by writing sentences that have no purpose other than to be stylish, sentences that seek to be self-contained works of art.

A-MEN! This perfectly ties into the notes I’ve been giving on overwriting, and also on saying something simple in an overly complicated way. Much more on that soon. The author is Christopher R. Beha, and the essay is here.


This paragraph comes from an interview I did recently, and I just wanted to put it out there for your consideration. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially as I’ve been finishing my book and really considering the writing craft intensely. The below is a thought on what makes a book stick in a reader’s memory, and it dovetails with a writer’s main objective:

The books I remember most are the ones that capture my emotions and make me feel intensely. One of my favorites is HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT by Natalie Standiford. It captured teenage loneliness and longing so well that it bring tears to my eyes with each rereading. That and being able to create images for readers that stay with them. I’ll never be able to forget the Rue/flowers scene in THE HUNGER GAMES (the book version, not the movie version, sorry!) or Hazel and Augustus “drinking stars” in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. If you can create moments that feel as real as our own memories, you’ve got a reader for life.


Boiling It Down

Recently, I’ve posted two things that I firmly believe are the cornerstones of my fiction philosophy. First, writing must make me care. I need to care about character (most important) and then about their story. If I don’t care, you’re dead in the water. If you aren’t thinking about the emotional impact of your story, good luck to you in someone else’s inbox.

Second, fiction is a balance of action and information. Too much action and we don’t hook into the character or situation. (Especially if the breakneck action is at the beginning of your novel, like if you start with a hectic chase sequence, for example, we have a really hard time figuring out what’s going on or why.) Too much information (a first chapter where your character sits in their room thinking about his life, for example) and there’s no action, no plot, no forward momentum, and the whole thing drags. The two elements must always be in balance. In times when there’s a lot of information being introduced, you must also keep your characters moving. You can’t indulge in an info-dump. In times of action, you must also work hard to keep us invested by giving us context and information (later on in the novel, once character and situation are established, this usually means emotional context, ie: interiority).

I was at the Rutgers One-on-One Conference this past weekend, in a roundtable discussion with super agent Tina Wexler from ICM. We were talking about novel beginnings and, of course, I sprouted off my “action vs. information” line. Then Tina put the missing piece together and it fit perfectly: “But it needs to have emotion, too. Emotion is the third point of that triangle.”

I made a joke at the time about really working a metaphor to death, but a lightbulb definitely went off because of her comment, and now I think I have the perfect image for my two most important tenets of writing.

If fiction is a balance of action and information, the axis of the scale, the part that holds everything else together, is emotion. Without emotion to lord over the work and to keep everything else in check, your whole manuscript falls apart. (And you do not get to hold the Sword of the Awesome Manuscript.)

We should always be in touch with your character’s emotions (especially if you are writing in third person, as that is a challenge for many) and they should be legible and resonant for readers. Whether you’re writing a scene of action or dropping information in your manuscript, keep in mind your characters’ interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) near the surface. You can even indulge in some strategic Good Telling.

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There’s something I want to say, just in case there’s anyone out there waiting to hear it from a professional: it’s okay to play around with your manuscript and try stuff, even if it doesn’t work.

You’d be surprised by how many people write or type something and think they’ve created a permanent thing. Ideally, your words will be permanent in the form of a printed book someday. However, until you get to that stage, every single word you write is very malleable, deletable, inflatable, and very much alive.

I get questions along these lines ALL THE TIME:

Should I write in present or past tense?
Should I write in first or third person?
Should I include a flashback about my character’s dead mother/father/sister/goldfish?
Should I have more dialogue or description in this scene?
Should I work in one POV or in multiple?
Should I start my chapters with song lyrics?
Should my character go to the abandoned mine or the abandoned warehouse to encounter the flesh-eating zombies?
Should I write a prologue? (Hot topic. I’ll have to post exclusively on this at some point.)

Lots of these questions get sent my way. Lots of questions I can’t answer. Lots of questions you probably shouldn’t be asking anybody but yourself, since it’s your story and only you know the best way to tell it.

The liberating thing is, you don’t always have to know the best way to tell it from the very beginning. If you tell it one way–in present tense, say–and figure out that it’s not working…switch tenses. Yeah, it’s a pain in the butt. Yeah, it’ll take work on every single page and in every single sentence. Yeah, there’s the possibility that you’ll hate past tense even more than  you hate present tense.

But at least you you tried. At least you went into the lab and found out firsthand. You played around. You experimented. You really shouldn’t be afraid of burning through some words (a million bad words, in fact), even if it doesn’t work out. It’s true that you could spend months trying something–another POV character, for example–that totally bombs. And you have nothing to show for all that work you did. And your manuscript is still not right. And all the Ben & Jerry’s has gone missing from your freezer and you still haven’t caught the dastardly thief who broke into your house and stole it.

The only way you’ll know whether something works or not is by sitting down and doing it. You may, per the above nightmare scenarios, figure out that your idea was a pretty lame one. Or you may stumble upon something that makes your book richer, better, more like the perfect book that’s shimmering in your imagination.

The worst thing you can do is write words once and think you’re done writing them for good. Those words could be great words, sure. But there could be other words that are even better. The only way you can find the exact right words is by trying things, playing, letting loose.

Whenever you’re shopping for something really important, you have to try a lot of losers to find the winner. It’s no different with all the parts that make your novel come together (characterization, description, plot points, scenes, POV, voice, tense, etc.). So this is your invitation, in case you were waiting for it. Take the fear out of it and try the thing that’s been nagging at you, the thing your gut is curious about. Go ahead.

Remember, despite all the rejection, the creative upheaval, the ice cream binges, the end-of-publishing-as-we-know-it news…writing is supposed to be fun (at least most of the time). If it’s not, you might not be experimenting and playing enough.

It’s like people who don’t cook without tasting. Is my mole sauce spicy enough? Does it have enough chocolate? Does it go well with the chicken? Don’t just stand over the pot asking yourself these questions…get a spoon and dig in. If it’s not working, adjust or throw it out and try again. I don’t trust a cook who doesn’t taste as they’re creating, nor do I trust a writer who won’t experiment.

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So, voice is the number one thing that separates the published from the unpublished and, after that, the good books from the mediocre ones. The most successful writers in kidlit these days have undeniable voice. One way people describe voice is that, if you pick up a book without seeing the title or cover, and start reading, you’ll be able to guess who the author is. Sure. That’s what I like to call “authorial voice” and it’s important. But if you’re just starting out or you’ve only completed one or two projects, your authorial voice is still developing. So that explanation of voice isn’t satisfying enough, in my opinion.

How else can we define voice? Where does it come from? I want to argue that it comes from character. And since a lot of main characters are thinly-veiled versions of the author, this means the character’s voice shares a lot of elements with the author’s own voice. Two birds with one stone! What do I mean by “the character’s voice”? Well, if you remember, a character should be as fleshed-out and vibrant as a real human being. They should have their own favorite words that they use (not necessarily slang, people, that’s the cheap and superficial way to do it!), their own way of speaking, their own way of describing things, their own way of seeing the world.

If you want to experiment with voice, or if people keep telling you that your voice didn’t hook them enough or wasn’t enough for them to make a connection, I would seriously try writing in the first person. That’s where you can see the effects of voice most easily and immediately. There are a lot of great authors who write with a lot of voice in close 3rd or omniscient 3rd, but it is much more challenging. Either way, let me explain voice in the context of a character.

I said in my post about imagery and description that theme is like a lens… something everything else in your manuscript is filtered through. This idea holds even more true for voice. You need to figure out who your main character is and then see the world through their eyes. Use the words that they would use. Describe things with that character’s particular slant. Here are two ways of describing the exact same thing: a green couch. First: “It was a moss-green item of furniture that could fit four people.” Second: “The lumpy old raft of a couch was baby-poop-green and threatening to make me sick. After all, it was jammed with my three least-favorite people: Uncle Mordy, Aunt Mildred, and my lech cousin Kenny. Oh yeah… and me.”

That is in a character’s unique voice. Aunt Mildred might’ve described the couch in a completely different way, because she happens to watch a lot of Martha Stewart, or whatever. And we still get the information that the couch is green and fits four people. But we get it through a special filter. Just like we’re learning something about a manuscript’s theme through the writer’s use of imagery and description, we should also be learning about the character through the voice.

Voice also circles back to word and verb choice. Boring words that sound like they’re out of a business memo or that are too adult and drab for the kidlit audience are the bane of my existence. Words that are stilted or businesslike, like “objective,” “achieve,” “vehicle” (instead of “car”), “communicate,” “item,” “object,” even general words like “beautiful,” “exciting,” “dangerous,” mean nothing. That’s because they lack voice. And a reader isn’t going to respond to them and get engaged in the material. Two paragraphs above, I used the verb “jammed” instead of the more static “sat” or “reclined” or “rested” or even “was stuck” because it’s active, it fires up the imagination. And it fits the mood and tone of the situation I’m describing.

Some people liken voice to almost “hearing” the character whispering the story into your ear as you read. That’s a nice way of thinking about it, if it helps you. I think voice is equal to the life in your character. Pitch-perfect word choices create voice and define character. A well-defined, unique character generates voice. The two are in a constant feedback loop. And the same is true for 3rd person, only it’s really the narrator’s voice that shines through here. Depending on how far removed your narrator is from the story, you can either make the voice a really big part of the tale, like Adrienne Kress (Read a quick review from the holiday gift guide) does in her books, or you can be more distant. Whether your voice is outrageous and brash, as in the example above, or a little more subdued, like your average 3rd person narrator, it still needs to be carefully crafted, word by word, so that its unique essence comes through on every page.

And that’s a huge challenge. I can tell you honestly that the books which I choose to represent all have voice. 99.99% of what comes in to me might not be “bad.” It might even be “pretty good.” There may be nothing technically wrong with the writing, either. But the voice will be lacking, and that’s really the “x-factor.” It’s usually the last thing to fall into place for a writer as they wade through their Million Bad Words. It’s when you’re proficient at all the other writing tricks and tools that you really feel like you can play around and experiment and play Frankenstein… create a living, breathing thing on the page.

But the only way to get there is to write and study writers who have great voice, like Laurie Halse Anderson and David Levithan, Carrie Jones and Frank Portman, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and M.T. Anderson. Meg Cabot (Yes, even her! Some people find her sugary energy grating, but that’s why so many people love her!) and J.K. Rowling. If you want to read an adult book (Gasp! Heresy! And on, of all places!), I would seriously recommend THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz. That is voice heaped on top of voice and piled with even more voice and slathered with a heaping scoop of voice to make a delicious voice sandwich. It’s the only adult book I’ve read this year (how awesome is that?) and I read it twice.

One thing that works for me sometimes is speaking the story into a pocket recording device and transcribing it later. The first stories that people told each other were oral histories around the campfire. This was long before the Bible and the printing press. Composing your story to yourself aloud helps open up creative channels you’re not used to using, helps you improvise, forces you to get a little hammy and act it out. It also reminds you to use a unique voice (yours!) and that you’re, at the end of the day, telling a story. Write a whole book that way or just try a chapter. It’s worth a shot.

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This is quite literally a literary grab-bag of thoughts. The things mentioned in the title — theme, imagery, and description — are important considerations when revising a manuscript, but they usually come into play below the surface. Things like plot, character and dialogue are obvious, they’re right in the reader’s face.

It’s the subtler things that can really make or break your work, though. And a huge part of revising is seeing what common threads and themes you’ve left for yourself. It’s like magic. Your subconscious usually puts lots of things in your manuscript for you to find on a second or third read… connections you never knew you’d made, common images and ideas that resonate with the larger meaning of your work, all sorts of interesting stuff.

When you revise, think about what your work is saying. You’ve got to have a reason for writing it. There should be distinct themes and ideas that you could point to as the center of your book. GRACELING isn’t just an awesome fantasy story about people with special talents, for example. It’s also about one’s place in the world, duty, honor and empowerment. Those are the ideas that Kristin Cashore weaves into the manuscript, her themes.

Once you know what these are — and you usually won’t until you’ve started revising — you can use them as a lens. This sort of fits with the point I’ll be making about voice before the month is out. A theme for your work should color everything in it, subtly, especially the descriptions. If you’re working with a theme and a plot with a lot of loneliness in it, settings aren’t “empty,” they’re “desolate,” which has a much stronger resonance with the themes you’ve set out to play with. Filter your writing, your descriptions, your characterizations, through the lens of the bigger idea or theme that you want to work with.

The next time you’re reading a really well-written book, think about how the author is using imagery, description, metaphor, all of those fancy-pantsy literary devices that usually crystalize during revision. I bet all of the author’s prose seems to just fit with the plot and the theme of the work. In writing, everything is a choice. When you get to the really fine-tuning work of a fifth or sixth pass revision, you’re looking for all the little places where you can make the right choice. If you’re setting up a scene where a person is alone in their snowbound house, you wouldn’t say that a “boisterous” wind rattled the windows, you’d maybe say, “a pang of wind made the glass shiver,” or whatever.

Everything has to fit. From the way you describe a scene to the verbs you use to the seemingly-innocuous metaphor you choose for your character’s frame of mind at the moment. I hate putting labels on it like “theme” or “message” (because you really don’t want to be teaching anyone stuff with your fiction writing, readers, especially kids, don’t cop to that sort of thing) but there really should be something larger at work, something subtle but everpresent, in your novel. It’s in revision that it gets teased out and crafted. Every sentence should ring with it… whatever it is that you want your reader to feel and experience as they’re moving through your story.

In that same vein, don’t overload on the literary stuff either. Don’t go crazy with metaphors and similes to the point where every sentence has a “like” or “as” in it. And don’t go crazy with description, either. Those days when readers indulged in long, lavish scene-setting and endless purple prose are over.

The best description gets the job done quickly and economically. I like to tell people that the best writing comes from very specific, extremely well-chosen details. Let one or two perfectly-picked specifics do the work of paragraphs. Isn’t it enough for me to say, “Dinah saw that her thong was sticking out past the waistband of her jeans, blushed, and pulled her pants a notch lower,” for you to get what Dinah’s about as a character? I don’t have to describe her push-up bra or skimpy tank top or hooker heels or the silver cross nestled ironically in her cleavage… you get it right from the thong-flash.

So make intelligent choices that fit the larger goal of your work. Think like an MFA student for a day and make sure your images and descriptions match your theme. Cut out blocks of description and replace them with well-chosen details. See if you can’t make your writing tighter and more effective, sentence to sentence, page by page.

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Mmm… sizzlin’ steaks… Oh! Hello! What? Were we talking about something? (A great example of low tension, BTW.)

Tension and stakes are two absolutely important elements to a novel if you want your readers to keep turning the pages. A lot of stories flounder simply because the author hasn’t thought of adequate stakes for their characters or infused their story with enough tension. Let me quickly define both terms for you. Tension is a feeling of unease, of something unresolved, that usually bubbles under the surface of the story. Sure, there is more overt tension that is contributed by plot — like the gang of roving vampires out for your sweet, sweet blood — but there also has to be tension in every paragraph, on every page, in every scene and chapter. The greater dramatic arc keeps readers engaged on a book-length level but the smaller tensions of characters and relationships are what connect the dots between larger plot points. Stakes are very closely tied to tension. We want to feel like our characters matter, like their choices are important, like they are always on the edge of danger. Stakes — what will or will not happen in a plot, for a character, in a moment — are key to keeping tension high. Without stakes, there is usually low tension. Without tension, there are usually low stakes. Let’s explore both a little more.


We’ve all heard of stakes, but where do they come from? What makes for compelling ones? Read on:

  1. Personal Motivation: When a person wants something, they need to have enough motivation behind it to make it compelling. In other words, they have to really want what they want. If they do, it becomes important to the reader, too. And when the character gets thwarted (as they should, nobody wants to read a story about a person who gets everything they want whenever they want it), that setback will ache for the reader. We’ll start to care. We’ll start to want to see the character succeed. We’ll want to avenge them and smite their enemies! High stakes.
  2. Choices… and Consequences: We want to read about characters who make choices. Maybe not always good choices. But the thing that makes choices seem important, that makes moments seem important, is the fear of consequence. All choices in your story should have consequences. Not After School Special consequences, mind you, like Little Abby taking one sip of a wine cooler and ending up pregnant, in jail and pumping gas (all at the same time, somehow) but real consequences. Characters can’t take their choices lightly because they know they might burn bridges, get punished, break the law, ruin friendships, screw up in front of the cute boy, etc. They might make some good choices, sure, but they should make a bad one at least once. They should lose something important at least once. Each choice, then, gets a gravitas to it. High stakes.
  3. Relationships: Relationships between people are never static. This is almost a repeat of the above, but characters do derive stakes in a situation from their relationships with others. When we add friendships, relationships, families, rivalries, enemies, etc. to the mix, involving people who want different things in different moments, the stakes should automatically get higher. So think of all the ways that you can find conflict in a relationship, in people’s wants and needs, in a scene. Whenever two people come together, the stakes should be pretty high. A group of great gal pals getting along swimmingly really doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Not even in picture books.


Now that you have a slightly better understanding of stakes (I hope), let’s move on to what stakes play into: tension. Here are the biggest sources of tension and areas where tension needs to be high:

  1. Beginnings: As we discussed in my post on beginnings, beginnings are usually best when they start in the middle of action. Each of your chapters (and especially your novel’s actual beginning) should start in a way that puts us in a scene or situation so that the reader hits the ground running. A lot of people begin with description, character sketches, backstory and other “throat clearing” (as it’s usually called in the industry). There’s not a lot of tension in straight telling. Make sure your beginnings have impact and action, then layer in necessary information as the chapter and story continues.
  2. Scenes: Scenes are full of people and people are full of complicated wants, needs, goals, desires and notions. They rub against each other and, more often than not, cause static. Or they should, if you want to keep tension high. I’m not saying you should have a book full of catfight scenes, unnecessary drama, people bitching each other out and otherwise shrilling at the top of their lungs. That’s exhausting to read. But every time you have two or more complex and fleshed out characters in a place together, they’re going to find ways to disagree or pursue different things. And this is where tension is most often subtle. An offhand remark, a gesture, an action that shows a reader which side a character is really on, how they actually feel. The best dialogue has subtext worked into it — the stuff and deeper meaning that runs below the surface — and is truly an art form. If you read a scene in your mss. and feel this nice, complacent pleasantness afterward, then your scene isn’t doing the work it needs to be doing.
  3. Endings: Each chapter has to have at least one thing happen in it that further the plot, shows us something new about our characters or otherwise leaves us in a different place and with a different understanding of the story than we had when that chapter began. That’s why endings are so important, too. You’ve given the reader a great chapter/scene/paragraph and now there’s a natural pause. They could easily stick the bookmark in, wander off to make tea, turn on the TV… and never come back to your story. Life could get in the way. Chapter endings are the worst, because they’re a natural stopping place. So don’t let your reader stop. It’s a careful balance. You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages, but you have to leave the chapter on such a note that they must turn the page and start another chapter. Does a character get thwarted? Does a plot complication arise? Does a surprise happen? Does a scene get heated? Does the tension simmering underneath the surface finally break wide open? Work your chapter endings, or “buttons” as I call them, until even you, who knows exactly what happens next, want to read on.

So here’s tension. As you can see, it is a perfect mix of how character and plot come together and interact. When you’re revising, you have to keep all of these three things in mind because they are very closely tied together. On Monday, I will tackle a book’s ending. That will then wrap up our main building blocks of the story — plot, character, tension, from beginning to end — and then I’ll start in on other writing mechanics like dialogue, description, showing vs. telling, all that good stuff. If you have any revision questions for me in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask!

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