Sunday, September 27, 2015

What’s in a sentence?

According to Merriam Webster, a sentence is a group of words that expresses a statement, question, command, or wish. Pretty simple, right? Not so fast. In everyday conversation this might be true, but when you get to the written word there’s a lot more to it. I use the everyday conversation concept when writing the first draft. It gets the thought down on paper without chewing up a lot of time trying to word it just right. 80k word books don’t start out at 80k words. In my case, they start at 50k. 50k pretty basic sentences just to make sure I get the whole story down before I forget where I’m going with it. When I wrote my first book I almost gave up. I was constantly going back chapters to edit and add all the details. I would move ten pages forward, then thirty pages backwards. No wonder it took two years to write the first book. It wasn’t until I was finished and in the query process that I realized what I was doing wrong. I had completely skipped over the first draft.

There are any number of writing styles. Some write detailed outlines; some a thirty page synopsis; others just a few sentences to describe each chapter. I fall in the latter category. I’ll pen a few details that need to happen in a chapter, connecting them in both directions. Once I get this done for all the chapters, I get to work on the first draft, amending my chapter notes as needed along the way.

This example for the opening sentence of a new chapter
 poses the question of: What is your character doing in this chapter?

The basic first draft sentence, first person: 

After he left, I walked walk down the lane to the village market to buy fish for dinner, returning as quickly as possible. 

Very basic, gets the thought down on paper.
The second draft of that sentence to a romance writer in a first person narrative:
Long shadows of late afternoon were leading me back along the tree-lined lane from the market; the fresh aroma of the day’s catch was a bittersweet reminder of his strong embrace and the many nights I would be dining alone until my love would return from the sea.

The same second draft technique, but to the mystery writer:

With every sound reminding me I was alone this time, a bitter chill came over me as I made my way back along the narrow lane leading up from the market, hastening my step with each inch of darkness drifting down behind the dark clouds of the moonless sky behind me.

I write in third person narrative, so the sentence above would translate like this: 

With every sound reminding Mary she was alone this time, a bitter chill came over her as she made her way back along the narrow lane leading up from the market, hastening her step with each inch of darkness drifting down behind the dark clouds of the moonless sky behind her.

The devil is in the details, but the details can wait until the second draft. I’ll start the second draft with the idea of adding in most of the details, and at least another 20k more words. Once this is done, I put the book aside for a month or two, using the time to work on the first draft of another book. As a rule, I keep two books going at the same time, both in different states of completion. It helps me avoid writer’s block. If I’m stuck on a plot line in one story I jump over to the other until I work through it.

From here, it’s on to the third draft. I finish up all the details and add in the remaining words to get the story up to 80-84k. That word count is right where I want to be with a story. This is also the time when you can break long sentences up into shorter, more tense sentences if needed to build the suspense. I'll touch more on this in the next post.

It wasn't easy getting to this point with my writing structure. I had help. One of the best writing courses I’ve taken over the years was “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft, available through The Great Courses.

Photo courtesy of:, ©Gualberto107