Last week on Critique Wednesday, we talked about sweeping story analysis and how it provides some of the structure for your story. Today, I’m zooming in the microscope to look at micro-craft analysis, and how it’s the glue that holds your story together.
“How you begin a sentence determines its clarity; how you end it determines its rhythm and grace.” – Joseph M. Williams in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace
One of the best bits of critique advice I received early on was to read Joseph Campbell’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I read Campbell’s book, one chapter at a time, and applied the lessons to sequential chapters of my WiP. It was amazing how much clarity and grace was missing from my work that I didn’t even realize.
Style goes beyond action verbs and dives into things like the rhythm and shape of a paragraph and the importance of stress positions in a sentence.
Sometime after reading Style, I discovered something else about my writing process: when I wrote worse (in the first draft), I ended up writing better (in the final draft). This was true for individual paragraphs as well as the story as a whole. Prior to that, I labored over every sentence, “perfecting” it before moving on to the next and the next. Once I freed myself to write quickly, getting out things like dialogue, plot and emotion first, I found I could go back and revise in the style, clarity, and grace. I had decoupled the two processes (drafting and editing). And an abysmal sentence was easier to rip apart and rewrite than a finely crafted one.
(It’s somewhat hilarious for me to look back on an old post about the Tale of Two Pants, written while I was in the middle of this discovery process and soaking up lessons from Campbell.)
Rather than go through Campbell’s book point-by-point (you should read it yourself), I will take a paragraph from my current WiP through my revision process, right before your very eyes! This is somewhat like getting dressed in public, something I don’t really recommend, but I’m willing to forgo modesty in hopes that someone might find it illuminating (or perhaps just entertaining). I’ve picked a suitably non-spoilerish paragraph from Free Souls, a story I’m only half-way through drafting now.
First Draft – get it on the page
It was an old power plant, one of the super polluters in the middle of the city that had been shut down when Chicago depopulated under the range ordinances. Its towering chimney hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s airscape in a hundred years, replaced by clean burning hydro power when it been upgraded not long ago to provide extra power generation during peak times. Julian had briefed us all about the inner workings of the power gen station before the mission, in that professor voice he slipped into when mired in the details of things. The outside was ancient, red crumbling brick that had weathered well over a hundred punishing Chicago winters. It was a giant squarish block of red brick, three stories tall, with another block of deeper red brick on top, piling on another three stories. The defunct red and white striped chimney climbed into the gray Chicago sky above it, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake that would never be lit again. Coal used to be delivered in barges on the nearby Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal which lived up to its name in the sour odor that still wafted across from it.
Oh my heck, what is that even saying? Besides rambling on massive amounts of description? But I spilled out the details, the tidbits that I wanted to make sure got into the story at one point, and this is first draft. It’s supposed to suck.
Second Draft – clean it up
- Shape your paragraph: each paragraph should tell a mini-story. My jumbled mess above needs to be shaped into a narrative.
He had briefed us all on the inner workings of
the power station in that professor voice he slipped into when mired in the
details of things. The Crawford power plant was ancient— its red crumbling
brick, three stories tall, had weathered a hundred punishing Chicago winters,
and the defunct red and white striped chimney climbed into the gray sky above
it, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake that would never be lit again.
Its towering chimney hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s
airscape in a hundred years, not since the city depopulated under the
mindreading range ordinances. Now it burned clean hydro power to provide extra
power generation during peak times.
Well, that’s a little better. I now have an intro, description, function/history, and current use. At least it makes some sense now, and I’ve trimmed out the repeats and extraneous information. So the coherence of the paragraph as a whole isn’t too bad. Let’s shape up the individual sentences a bit …
Third Draft – coherence and cohesion
- the power “of”: using “of” phrases have a certain power behind them, an abstraction that lands a punch, especially if used at the end of a sentence (“of a sentence“). Here the phrase mired in the details of things is a little wordy, but it uses a powerful “of” statement at the end, implying that these things are important and we should take note of them.
- The end of one sentence should lead to the next: this adds flow from sentence to sentence.
I’ve rearranged the second sentence, so that details leads straight to crumbling red brick, which sets a tone of decay that gets echoed throughout the sentence with weathered and defunct.
- Don’t repeat your repeats: wordsmithery is awesome, but don’t say the same thing twice. I’ve cleaned up the repetition about the chimney never being lit again and not spouting plumes for a hundred years – I really liked both descriptions, but had to choose one, and by eliminating the never being lit again, I can end the sentence with industrial birthday cake, a complex and evocative noun description. (Nouns are power words and the ends of sentences are power positions; putting a noun at the end of a sentence adds weight to it.)
- Echoes bring cohesion: i.e. don’t be random. If your paragraph has a theme, echo that theme with power words that reinforce it. (crumbling, weathered, defunct)
(note repeats are different than echoes, which are variations on the theme)
- Achieve balance in the force: vary sentence length and structure to achieve balance, but reserve super short sentences for where they will have maximum punch. In this case, the last sentence was unbalanced, too short and missing a final conclusion to the paragraph, so I added more words to give a final punch – which also echoes the beginning He had briefed us with a final our plan.
He had briefed us on the inner workings of the power station, slipping into that professor voice he used when mired in the details of things. The crumbling red brick of the Crawford power plant had weathered a hundred punishing Chicago winters, and the defunct red and white striped chimney climbed into the gray sky, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake. It hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s airscape in a hundred years, not since the city depopulated under the mindreading range ordinances. Now hydro generators provided clean power during peak demand times, making it a key part of our plan.
Fourth Draft – a dash of style
- Don’t forget voice: once your sentences are tuned up, go back and make sure the voice is still there. While the sentences now flow, somewhat, and the scene is set, we’re still a bit too removed from the character. There needs to be a bit more style, more flavor of the character’s voice. Plus had weathered and climbed were mismatched, so I reworked that entire sentence for better flow, and reclaimed the three stories lost before. And the last sentence needed a better tie-in to the previous ones.
He had briefed us on the inner workings of the power station, slipping into that professor voice he used when mired in the details of things. The Crawford power plant had weathered a hundred punishing Chicago winters, with three stories of crumbling red brick holding up a defunct red-and-white striped chimney that climbed into the gray sky, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake. It hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s airscape in a hundred years, not since the city depopulated under the mindreading range ordinances. Now the hydro generators puffed out water vapor clouds, providing clean power during peak demand and making the station a key part of our plan.
I probably would still go a few rounds on this, but it’s close. And it may be reworked entirely to fit with the paragraphs before and after. But now it’s not just description – it’s a paragraph that pulls you into the scene, with story and movement, one sentence flowing after the other, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading the reader forward.
I hope that this will inspire you to pick up Campbell’s book and discover the power of wordsmithery within.
p.s. Hop over to Marilyn’s blog where I’m doing an interview and giveaway of Closed Hearts.