Tag: great writers

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Not too long ago, I came across this article–discussing a recently-released book entitled How To Write A Sentence, by literary critic and New York Times online columnist Stanley Fish.  The article really got me thinking.

Now I’ve not read the book so I can’t comment on it as such, but the article lists a number of sentences highlighted as being Professor Fish’s favorites (I’ll let you take a minute to review those if you wish).  Each of these sentences seems finely wrought, elegant even, and (although a little out-of-date for my tastes) certainly well put together.  I’d even go so far as to say that I’ve never written a single sentence that equals any of these, novice writer that I am.

Elegant as this prose is, I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that single sentences can be so important to good fiction. 

In writerly circles, there is much talk of the importance of chapters, scenes, beats, in some cases even paragraphs (what are the elements which make the first paragraph in your novel really hook the reader/agent? for example), but seldom (at least in my experience) do fictionists drop to the level of discussing the importance or impact of individual sentences.

I think there’s a reason for that.  In a well-structured piece of fiction, we hear time and time again that every element–word choice, tense, POV, pacing, etc. etc.–should serve the purposes of the story being told.  Sentences are no exception, IMHO.

This means that scads of poorly constructed sentences (like poorly made bricks in a wall) WILL erode and obscure the story your fiction is trying to tell.  Prose must be like a window: sturdily constructed, transparent and clear.  If it is not, then the story becomes confused, the yearnings of your characters muted and obscured, and your reader may walk.

Therefore, when you, dear fiction writer, build a story–like hand-constructing a machine to tell the tale of the characters involved–you must add parts and pieces with care.  You must write sentences in context to move the story along.  Like any machine, extraneous parts gum up the works or make the the machine stop working.  Poorly constructed parts may cause the machine to bog down or take too long to produce the desired effect.  Each part must be part of the larger whole, and all parts must work together in unison.

Given these realities, I question whether individual sentences are all that critical to good fiction.  Would you walk up to a freshly constructed building and identify a single brick as being key to the building’s functional and aesthetic success?  Or point to a single hue in a painting and state unequivocally that this individual color made all the difference?  See what I mean?

But I know what you’re going to say:  You have a veritable cornucopia of sentences, being your favorites, jotted down in your writer’s journal.  I do too!  And the question before us is why those particular sentences have been chosen.

Where does sentence greatness really lie?  Why are sentences like these–

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea)

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed; hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision. (Ginsberg, Sunflower Sutra)

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’  (Kerouac, On The Road)

–quoted and referred to and pointed at as being greater than your average set of words strung together? (These are some of my favs BTW).

I’m sure there are many theories out there, but this one is mine: it’s all about context.  The reason why these sentences (and many others) speak to us is because they evoke the larger issues/struggles/images/ideas of the work they are a part of.  They feel like a brief, finely wrought distillation of a big idea, a thought or concept which is a fundamental plank of the larger story.

What makes these sentences great is that they are part of a greater work of value.  Would Hemingway’s opening sentence be so powerful if it stood on it’s own, with no story to follow?  Would Kerouac’s bounding and nostalgic prose be so moving if it wasn’t a larger piece of the puzzle?

My feeling is, great as these one-liners are, it is their part in the larger whole, like a single high note in a symphonic movement, rising above the ebb and flow of the rest of the orchestra, held longer than seems possible, stretching, straining, capturing something more than itself, that makes them great.

What do you think?  What makes a sentence great?  What are some of your favorite sentences?

Check out this interesting, if a bit simplistic game modeled on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Though a bit rudimentary, I ended up burning an hour fiddling with it. 


In addition to being a patent clerk, it’s note widely known that Einstein also was one of the founding members of the rock band Kiss, although he had to quit after two weeks because the music was making him “verklempt,” he said.  He later performed with the Moody Blues, Blink 182 and occasionally, Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson (Willie, reportedly, was a big fan).

His other accomplishments, in addition to positing the theories of General and Special Relativity–essentially founding an entire branch of physics called Quantum Mechanics–include being one of the first people to solve the Rubik’s cube blindfolded, inventing a new skateboarding maneuver called the Quantum Jump (involving bubble gum, sticky tape and some high-end mathematical gymnastics), and being an extra in such well known Hollywood blockbusters as Lethal Weapon 2, Shrek, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (where he performed as one of the oompa loompas in the Mike TeeVee scene).

But it all started in that patent office.  I imagine him as a young man, a knowing glint in his eye, staying at his desk late into the evening, scribbling down formulas, referencing various arcane physics texts, performing thought experiments, projecting his view of the world into the future.

I wonder if he knew during those quiet moments the greatness in his future, the changes his mind would make on the universe and our understanding of it?

As writers, we face a similar prospect when we face the blank page.  Sure, probably not a one of us will rise to the lofty heights occupied by greats such as Einstein, but the process is the same.  We must project our current efforts into the future, have faith that what we are creating, even if it falls short today, will make a difference tomorrow.  If we don’t believe that, then why keep plugging away?

Anne Lamott talks about the need for writers to be reverent, present, to stand in awe of the beauty of the world.  It’s something I struggle with, but when I do find that place where my writing has captured some small piece of the universe, where it begins to talk back to me, it truly is something to behold.

And the more I struggle, the more those moments happen.

One of the keys, I think, is remembered that the greats all started somewhere.  Hemingway, King, Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky.  They all started as patent clerks.

So maybe I haven’t started any world famous rock bands recently, or discovered some heretofore undiscovered secret of the universe, or published a bestselling novel, or written a classic, but I am in the process of converting my home writing space into something like a patent office.  After all, “starting somewhere” worked for the greats.  Why won’t it work for me?

What about you?  What are the things you tell yourself to keep looking forward, looking up?!

I’m in!  I’m now one of the crowd.  I took the dive: I started a Twitter account–and yes, it was as easy as pie.  And the funny thing was, it didn’t hurt at all.  No.  Painless as an ice cold margarita on a Saturday afternoon.

With all this technology and progress, I sometimes like to look back a little bit.  I don’t know if it’s genetic or simply the age I grew up in, but I’ve always felt like I was reincarnated, as if I lived in the Forties and was born again–literally–in 1968 after a long hiatus.  I know in my heart that this is fanciful thinking, but it carries a certain reality for me, and I often wonder how much this affects my writing…?

Simply said, past ages fascinate me.  What was the pace of life like back then?  How did it compare to today.  Was writing a novel a completely different experience without all the world’s information and resources at our fingertips in tools such as Google?

I think about the people who populated those eras.  I puzzle and stare too long at the pictures of writers we all admire, wondering what floated through their transom on any average Tuesday, and how that train of thought might compare with my own.  I play games in my head.  For example, wouldn’t it be fun to imagine some of our favorite authors–some now long since dead–tweeting?

If you too have wondered these things, then today’s your lucky day.  Behold, with a little modern magic, some Photoshop and a little elbow grease, we can see what a few of the best known writer’s might have tweeted, if given the chance.

Off the bat, I can see it now: good old F. Scott sitting around with Zelda, jotting off:

Or Hemingway, laying it on thick:

And who knows what kind of crazy stuff Lewis Carroll would come up with:

I can imagine good old Charlie Dickens adding his voice to the conversation:

What about Herman Melville?

Of course we can’t leave the ladies out.  Jane Austen might have expressed herself thusly:

No doubt Charlotte Bronte might have quipped:

Standing in the shadow of these literary giants, I am indeed humbled, a condition in which I have spent most of my life, well in advance of the Twitter Age.  Thus, and I understand the meagreness of my offering, upon opening my account today, I could but manage:

If you’d like to come join me on Twitter, feel free.  You can find me here.  Rest assured, I’ll see if I can find a way to be a tad more interesting.

The age old question: what famous writer does your work most resemble?  I got my answer this morning:

I write like
James Joyce
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I can’t say I am remotely disappointed with that result, although I’m not sure it’s true.  I have lifetimes to go before I produce anything on the order of even the meagerest of Joyce’s offerings, and I may never reach those lofty literary heights; still, dreaming makes good entertainment.  :)

Wanna know who you write like?  Head over to the I Write Like blog, paste a fragment of your writing into the submission block and hit the “Analyze” button.  I’m not sure it’s scientific or remotely accurate, but it sure is fun!

Share your answer in the comments, if you please!  Oh, and have a groovy day!