Tag Archive for practice

For the Love of a Good Sentence

By Rae Ellen Lee

While on a hiatus from writing, I have been reading and listening to books. But after setting aside many of them, I now realize this has to do with the quality of the sentences. If a book’s sentences lack strong verbs, specific nouns, smooth connection to the sentence before or after, or musicality, it doesn’t matter (to me) how strong the plot, how quirky the characters. What a joy, though, when a book does deliver glorious sentences.

Here is a random sentence from The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, a book that was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, a book filled with terrific sentences. “Charlie knocked his boot heel on the floor and a spry old man in a sagging undershirt emerged from behind a heavy black-velvet curtain.” While I don’t recall if Charlie also knocked his boot heel on the old man’s head, which he was prone to do, I do know DeWitt’s sentences held me captive through the brothers’ entire romp across California during the gold rush.

Another book, listened to on a recent road trip, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, kept me mesmerized across three states. Each sentence is an exquisite construction that carefully reveals an epic story. Then, of course, there is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. His sentences are linked as if they are climbing Mt. Everest. I could not stop reading the book.

Those who write non-fiction or genre fiction might dismiss the need to create beautiful sentences. But with so much competition for readers these days, giving more time to crafting great sentences might just increase our readership. In any case, why not strive to elevate our writing over just ordinary? Why not strive to delight the senses of our readers throughout the whole story?

As I prepare to write another novel, I’ve learned some fascinating tidbits about crafting this basic unit of language and I’d like to share them with you:

  • Put statements in positive form (“I’ll always remember you.” vs. “I’ll never forget you.”) Unless the character doing the talking is in a bad mood.
  • Vary the length of your sentences. This will usually force you to change the sentence structures and wording, often for the better.
  • Write for your ear—for rhythm and musicality. Write short sentences for emphasis mixed with long, involved sentences for depth and color. Reading your work aloud will tell you what to do.
  • Push yourself to ask, What if I add more detail to this sentence? Or less?
  • Practice writing cumulative sentences, those in which you amplify (qualify and make particular) the basic noun and verb. This is a good way to turn ordinary writing into prose that is more sophisticated and offers greater depth, meaning, and delight for your readers. (Example: Take the basic sentence, “They huddled.” Here is William Faulkner’s cumulative sentence: “Calico-coated, small-bodied, with delicate legs and pink faces in which their mismatched eyes rolled wild and subdued, they huddled, gaudy, motionless and alert, wild as deer, deadly as rattlesnakes, quiet as doves.”)
  • Aside from painting vivid word pictures using strong nouns, precise and vigorous verbs, and metaphors with muscle, rewrite each sentence to end with words that express the emphasis of the sentence. (Ordinary: “It was a small, dark room, poorly lit, and airless.” Or this: “The room was oppressive, like a tomb.”)

As Ursula LeGuin wrote in Steering the Craft, “Keep the story full, always full of what’s happening in it. Keep it moving, keep it interconnected with itself, rich with echoes forward and backward. Vivid, exact, concrete, dense, rich. These adjectives describe a prose that is crowded with sensations, meanings and implications.”

I could go on. I could mention expressing contrasting ideas in parallel form, for instance, but I must excuse myself for now to write the first draft of my next novel so I can revise and expand its sentences.


rae-ellen-mary-alice_2AUTHOR’S BIO:

Someone once said to Rae Ellen, “So, do you make bad choices so you’ll have something to write about?” Yes, well there was that haunted old Montana mining camp brothel she bought for the price of a used car and lived in while renovating it–resulting in the novel, The Bluebird House–A Brothel, A Madam, A Murder. Following that adventure, she lived aboard a sailboat in Bellingham with a new husband. The resulting memoir is titled I Only Cuss When I’m Sailing. Following that debacle, they owned a business on a Caribbean Island with the motto, “You can do anything you want, as long as the rest of us know about it.” While there, her husband turned sixty and evolved into a woman. Since the world needs more “funny,” she wrote My Next Husband Will Be Normal–A St. John Adventure. She also authored a novel, loosely inspired by a sister’s work history, Cheating the Hog–A Sawmill, A Tragedy, A Few Gutsy Women. A life-long geezer enthusiast, her most recent book is A Field Guide to Geezers–An Illustrated Look at a Curious Branch of Hominids. Rae Ellen fully intends to write one sequel that serves both of her novels, even though none of the characters have ever met. For more see: www.raeellenlee.com



This summer as I visit the Idyllwild Arts program, I realize that it has been twenty-five years since I first visited the campus. I am accompanying my friend to a jazz concert in which her teenage son is performing. The first time I came as a student myself. Only I was no gifted musician, nor was I a teen. Instead I was a newly married woman in my thirties with an extended summer vacation to fill. I perused the offerings at Idyllwild; music, pottery, drawing, painting, sculpture, writing. I did not think of myself as an artist. Rather the idea of a week in the San Jacinto Mountains exploring something new appealed to me. I signed up for a creative writing workshop, a decision which has impacted my life far more than I had imagined.

The workshop was taught by a poet who worked as an artist in the schools. Twelve of us sat around u-shaped tables and introduced ourselves. At least half of these men and women were published, even the teenager who sat to my right. The instructor announced that we would do a short 10-minute quick write. She looked at each of us in turn and mouthed an individual word. Although I no longer remember that instructor’s name, I remember my word, slowly. All I could think about was how much better off I would have been in the pottery workshop. Yet somehow I wrote the word at the top of my page and scribbled what turned out to be a tension filled piece.

During the week, our instructor cultivated our writing and our bonding through a series of writing prompts. As we participated in her “out-of-the-box” exercises, we were encouraging our unique voices to emerge. She taught us to get out of our own way, to let the writing emerge naturally. A group of us continued in a monthly writing group of our own for about a year until the demands of life, the limitations of crossing the vast Los Angeles area bogged us down more than it uplifted us.

It was our instructor who first introduced me to Natalie Goldberg. I became a devotee of Writing Down the Bones, and kept my hand moving as I lulled monkey mind to sleep and accumulated journal after journal of writing practice. I joined other groups, took the occasional class, but never really thought of myself as a writer. A writer was someone else; someone disciplined, someone with a story to tell, someone published. I was none of those things. I just enjoyed the company of writers. Most of all I enjoyed having a prompt thrown out, a timer set, pens scratching across the page until time was up. I marveled at the myriad ways in which a single word or phrase landed in our hearts, drawing a unique story into the world. I still do.

As a recent retiree, I moved to Bellingham and began the process of forming a life within a new community. I signed up for a Flash Fiction class at Whatcom Community College. Through that class I met other writers, became a part of the local writing community. This year I volunteered at the Chuckanut Writers Conference. During an interview with Jessica Lohafer, the conference chair, I was asked the usual questions writers get asked. What do you write? Why do you write? I told her I mostly write memoir, but I’m not sure I need to be published. While the validation of being published would be affirming, I balk at the work needed to achieve it. For me, it’s all about spending time in the company of writers, listening to their words. My heart opens as they share sacred thoughts couched in language that causes me to stop and think, “Yes, that’s exactly what heartbreak is like” or “I’ve never thought of that feeling as a color before, but you’ve nailed it.”

Jessica smiled and assured me there is no need to be on the publication crusade. While I know I don’t need Jessica’s permission, or anyone else’s, hearing that truth was somehow liberating. It even allowed me to think of myself as a writer.

debbie brostenAuthor’s Bio:  Debbie Brosten is a retired teacher, an inveterate traveler and a sometime writer. While she has had a few short pieces published in local publications, she has no book sitting at the back of her closet waiting for discovery. Instead she participates in two writing groups to keep her creative juices flowing. She also began a prompt writing group at Village Books. You can find her there at 4 pm on the second and fourth Monday of the month, when she isn’t exploring distant lands. Wherever she finds herself keeps an ear or an eye cocked for an unusual phrase that may or may not find its way into her writing.