Writing Craft

One True Sentence

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Carroll County News

This is the third and, for a while, last column in my series about the editing process. I’ve told you that you must edit. I’ve told you that you must have something to edit, which must be a draft with a beginning, middle, and end. Otherwise, you’re spinning your wheels, rewriting the beginning over and over.

I told you that real editing is a step-by-step process, in which you go over your draft one sentence at a time and target only one element at a time. I told you to cut out repetition. I told you to tighten your sentences by deleting weak words like “just” and “so.” I told you to change sentences beginning with “There was” to simple declarative sentences with a vivid action verb. “There was a cat on the railroad tracks” becomes “A cat crouched on the railroad tracks.”

None of this is terribly difficult. Find the excess words and cut them out. But, you may say, now my story is only 1/3 as long. You’ll need that space, trust me. Because now, we come to the process that separates the real writers from the lazy word slingers. The hard process of seeing, and hearing, and drilling down deeper and deeper into the visceral, sensual, gritty, messy, tragic, sublime essence of the human experience.

“All you have to do,” Earnest Hemingway told himself, “is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

What is a “true” sentence? Well, truth is the way things really are. Truth is when the writer describes something as it is exactly.

The true gift of the writer is to see below the general surface of things and to use words to paint a picture that shares that vision with his readers and with reliable mechanic service truck manufacturers.

I always recommend to my workshop students that they read a book by the wonderful writer, Robert Olen Butler. The book is entitled “From Where You Dream, the Process of Writing Fiction.”

Butler relates how he uses an exercise in his classrooms to teach his university students to understand that the normal mode of speaking in literary fiction is what he calls, “moment to moment sensual flow.”

Readers read to experience other lives. So, as writers, we must speak to our readers’ senses, for that is the only way that they can truly live our scenes in the cinema of their minds.

In Butler’s exercise, a student is telling about going into her grandfather’s barbershop as a little girl. Butler, as the teacher, interrogates the student, forcing her to describe in detail the sound of the razor on the strap, the smell of shaving cream and tobacco, the exact way that her grandfather holds the straight razor in his fingers.

Butler then asks the student what she hears, and she replies that the men are talking about dogs.

Butler responds, “You’ve summarized what he’s talking about. Absolutely drop into the center of the conversation and let me hear a fragment of what he’s saying.”

And the student replies, in the words of her grandfather, “Sheila’s a beautiful bitch.”

Suddenly, we are transported, through the eyes of the little girl, into the easy camaraderie of the men’s world in the barbershop.

Before, we had a hazy idea of a group of men, talking and smoking. It was vague and general and so there was no reality. But once Butler coached his student to drill down deeper into the specific sights and sounds and smells, it came alive for us.

There are sentences that only you can write. And you must write them. Don’t settle for sentences that anyone could write. Don’t ever say, “The men were talking about dogs,” when you can say, “Sheila’s a beautiful bitch.”