This time of year, everyone likes to write wrap-up lists about what was great about 2013, or prediction lists about what will be great about 2014. I approve of this activity because I’m a big fan of lists, in general (there are five on my desk in front of my right now), and New Years’ Resolution lists in particular. Chuck Wendig had a killer one last year at Terrible Minds (which stands to reason, as Chuck is the grand master of writer/list makers.) Jeff Goins had a great one last year, too. Since these gentleman have already done such excellent heavy lifting on the New Year’s list-making front, I’m going to leave it to them, and focus on something even more fundamental: the sentence.
What if, in 2014, you resolved to write just one really good sentence? I believe that one really good sentence could actually change your life.
It did mine.
I wrote one at about this time of year in 1988. I was 25 years old, and was working as an assistant editor at New York Woman magazine. I had no idea at the time, but I was surrounded by absolute writing brilliance — Susannah Grant, who went on to write the movie Erin Brokovitch; Susan Orlean, who went on to write The Orchid Thief; Wendy Wasserstein, who went on to write The Heidi Chronicles, which won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. One of the first pieces I was asked to edit was by a young writer named Jeffrey Eugenidies, who went on to write The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, and who also won the Pulitzer. (And for the record, he was so livid about the cuts I proposed to his one-paragraph piece that when we got off the phone, I cried.) During those years at New York Woman, I was also surrounded by artistic brilliant and editorial brilliance, and by immense generosity. Our editor-in-chief, Betsy Carter, said yes to a story idea I pitched, and gave me an entire magazine page to write about my impending engagement. My pitch was based on just one sentence, which became the first sentence of the essay:
I’m about to be married and all I can think about is death.
As a result of that sentence and the essay that followed, the literary agent of one of our writers called me to inquire if I had thought of writing a book. I lied and said that yes, I most certainly had thought of writing a book. She signed me, I wrote a book called Altared States (now sadly out of print), and sold it to Crown, a division of Random House. Excerpts appeared in Cosmo and Bride’s magazine, and my writing career was launched. The next piece I wrote for New York Woman was a feature interview of John Irving.
I’m not suggesting that everyone is going to have that kind of ridiculous good luck in publishing. What I am suggesting is that, while it’s critical to think about what you want to say in your book, and what your big idea is, and what your point is and why anyone should care (concepts I have been hammering away on lately in these posts) it’s equally important to get it on the page, and the only way to do that is to write good sentences. It’s the macro and the micro. Successful writers must master both. In my coaching, I try to get writers to ask the big questions before they start writing and then we zero in on the micro-level questions, the sentence-by-sentence flow.
So what’s so great about my “about to get married” sentence?
1. It says something that gets our attention. Marriage and death together in the same breath? What’s that about? This sentence breaks a pattern. It piques our curiosity. It raises a question. Good writing does that.
2. It sets up a problem that demands a resolution: is this gal (25-year-old Jennie) going to be okay? Is this marriage going to be okay? That’s what gets readers to turn pages, or in this case, to read the second sentence. If you can’t even get someone to read the second sentence, how do you expect to get them to turn the page?
3. It lets the reader deep inside the author’s mind. The narrator of this story isn’t talking about cake frosting and flower bouquets. She’s talking about something real and serious and scary and true. (See Jeff Goins’ resolution list, #2) That’s what we come to writing for — the deep stuff.
4. It is simple and unpretentious. It is not trying to dazzle just for the sake of being dazzling. It’s not showing off. It’s just saying what it needs to say.
5. It has a pleasing rhythm. A really pleasing rhythm, actually. It starts out slowly, builds to a quicker pace around the “and all I can think about” phrase, and end with a super pleasing thunk on the word “death.” Good writing is extremely rhythmic. It needs to sound good to the ear the way music sounds good to the ear.
The criteria (Particularly #1 and #2) apply to a sentence at the beginning of something. For a sentence in the middle or at the end of something, the criteria are different — but not by much.
I happen to have some sentences in my inbox that were just sent to me by a young college woman, who is working for me as an intern. She lent me these words to practice something I am scheming for 2014 – free “20 Minute Edits.” You send me 5 pages, I edit them, live. (I don’t need to practice the editing so much, although I can always improve; I need to practice the technology and presentation. When I get it right, I’ll let you guys know so you can have the first crack at it, if you want – probably February.) These sentences come near the end of a story called What I Learned When I Was Falling. It’s a great title, isn’t it? The story is about love and skydiving:
You don’t hear much when you fall from 12,000 feet. You don’t see much. A lot of black mixed in with grey and white. You don’t understand much when you fall from 12,000 feet, either. I couldn’t figure out where I was in relation to the sky or the earth or the ocean, in relation to you. You do feel it though, rushing cold air, your heart swelling up, pounding against the inside of your ribcage, adrenaline swimming through your veins, pulsing until you’re numb. I think all kinds of falling are the same in that way.
There are a lot of good sentences here, but the last one is the one I really like.
I think all kinds of falling are the same in that way.
- It says something that gets our attention. I stopped and thought, “Are they? Are all kinds of falling the same in that way?” I have been thinking about it now for about an hour. That’s good.
- It sets up a problem that demands a resolution: is this gal going to be okay? Will she figure out where she is in relation to this other person? Will the experience of falling be good or bad? What WILL she learn from falling?
- It lets the reader deep inside the author’s mind. The narrator of this story isn’t talking about love like it’s simple and easy and all flowers and sunshine. She’s talking about something deep. You can feel it.
- It is simple and unpretentious.
- It has a pleasing rhythm. “all kinds of,” “are the same” and “in that way” have the same rhythmic pattern, and they bump up against each other and build on each other in an excellent way. It feels like a train, chugging along. I love the “in that way” for its meaning, too, and for the way it punctuates the end of the sentence.
These criteria won’t work for every sentence, of course, but I hope they give you something to think about as you start writing in 2014. You will be cruising along in your pages, cranking out the scenes or chapters, when you will write a sentence that feels like a candidate for greatness. You will feel it in your gut — the idea coming together on the page in a powerful way. Stop and focus. Give yourself permission to take the time to make that one sentence pitch perfect. It's how you become a better writer. And it's how you can feel satisfaction and pleasure, even if you don't end up writing a bestseller. And who knows where it might lead?