Three Dirty Birds Talk about Chuck's Sentences

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Three Dirty Birds are back from vacation–uh, sick leave/work overload, to chat about Chuck Wendig’s Kick-Ass Writer, and his chapter on Sentences.

Ana: *brushes the sand out of her feathers* We’re talking about sentences? I can write sentences. And fragments.

Zoe: The thing that impressed me most in this chapter was the revelation that there are (give or take) 15,000 sentences in the average novel. It impressed me and exhausted me. That’s why I needed the vacation.

Kate: I found this chapter a bit repetitive. Sentences are the building block, they convey information, they have a certain structure, for God’s sake don’t string four of them together with commas.

Ana: I thought it was kind of funny how he talked about the danger of sentence fragments in tip number 5, and then went on to use a lot of them in tip number 6.

Kate: I love irony.

Zoe: He does admit to using them. Tip #5 would have been more useful if he’d been able to explain why some sentence fragments work, and some make me want to claw at the pages with my fingernails. What is it that makes some go with the flow and others interrupt?

Ana: I only wish I knew.

Zoe: A recent novel I read, which was otherwise very good, kept tripping me up with sentence fragments. Yet other writers use them almost invisibly.

Kate: I think it comes down to when you use them. For emphasis. A series of actions. And unexpected emotional response. And then you go back to standard, almost invisible structure. Fragments are for things you want to point out.

Zoe: I think, too, sometimes fragments are structured like they should be part of a sentence, and the sentence is missing, so it throws me off (which is what I think happened a lot with that novel).

Kate: I think you’re right. A fragment needs to be able to stand on its own. If it can’t, it’s just bad grammar.

Zoe:(I’m pulling up the book to find an example, but it may take me a bit. Just go on with the other tips!)

Kate:Okay. I liked how he talked about keeping sentences simple. Looking at my NaNo novel, I can see sentences already that I’m going to have to rework, because–while they get information across–there’s a sharper, snappier way to do it. And that usually involves simpler sentences, and more of them.

Ana: A lot of my revision process is making sentences simpler. Cutting unnecessary words and making concepts clearer. I find shorter sentences often pack more punch than longer ones do.

Kate: Shorter sentences are easier to write, too, if you want to be clear. It’s really hard to make a long sentence clear. But short sentences don’t have as big a job, so it’s easier. Like the difference between changing a tire and changing out an engine.

Ana: I liked how he said: “Think of each sentence like a tiny iteration of a cliffhanger. Each is an opportunity to convince the reader to keep on reading.” I’ve never thought of it that way, but it makes sense.

Kate: It totally does. A reader can forgive one bad sentence, if the next one is at least passable. But there’s a certain average of excellence that all the sentences need to have in order to keep the reader from giving up in disbelief.

Ana: Or boredom. Or confusion.

Zoe:(I found one! I actually found a lot, but most don’t break the flow. Here it is, with a couple sentences lead-up: “‘They’re going to kill us, Jack.’ He reached under his seat, lifted the .45 into his lap. The man coming back toward the Discovery now.”)

Ana: That’s just weird because the man wasn’t referred to in the sentence leading up to it.

Kate: No, but I bet he was before that. But Zoe’s right, that fragment shouldn’t have been a fragment.

Zoe: There were six paragraphs between man mentions.

Ana: It just looks like someone wrote ‘coming’ when it should have been ‘came’ or ‘was coming.’

Kate: Wow. That’s a bit of space.

Zoe: Yeah, I get what he was trying to do, but it broke the flow. There was probably one every other chapter.

Kate: It almost worked though. He was so close!

Ana: I guess the sentence fragments that work don’t totally stand on their own. They’re supported by the sentences leading up to them or the ones that follow.

Zoe: Yes, I think that’s probably true.

Kate: I think you’re right. They have to be quite close to what you’re referring to, because they’re dependant on your understanding of what’s going on at that moment, and what’s uppermost in your mind.

I have a bit of an argument with him about the ‘there is’ construction. Sometimes there is no other way to put a sentence that doesn’t bugger up the ones before or after it. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as you aren’t using it once a paragraph. Some of these ‘never use this’ rules just kind of wreck people’s voice.

Ana:I use it, but I don’t like using it if I can think of somethnig else. “There is…” always sounds to me like describing something to someone who can’t see it.

Zoe:I’m not a fan of it, because so often there is a way to rewrite it. But if you try everything, and there’s no way around it, then there’s no reason not to use it. It’s when it’s the default go-to that it gets problematic.

Kate: And I think that’s my argument. How many people say “Only use this if there’s no way around it”? I think you’re the first one I’ve heard. They just say “Don’t use this!” and then people who are stuck feel like they aren’t skilled, because they’re in a situation where not using it requires a complete rework that destroys some nice sentences. I don’t like absolutes, because I don’t think they work in an artistic medium. (That being said, there are things that you really want to think hard about using, doing, writing about, before you actually jump in. Some things create a backlash, so you want to be sure you’re prepared before you bend that ‘rule’.)

Ana: Most of the things you’re told not to do you can probably find used in successful fiction. It’s all a matter of moderation and knowing what you’re doing.

Kate: Know when to break the rules.

Zoe:If it makes you feel better, there are a number of instances of “there was” and “there were” in Chuck’s Double Dead.

Kate: I love irony. 🙂

Ana: I liked tip #21: Beware the Sentence With a Big Ass, where he compares junk language to junk food. It’s just easy to remember. And it works because everyone likes junk food from time to time. I think the occasional use of junk language can lend flavor to a voice.

Zoe: (I had to look up “pleonasm.” It’s my new favorite word now.)

Kate: Pleonasm is an awesome word. It just rolls off the tongue, like euglena. (Don’t ask.) Chuck does a good job of getting things into plain, easy to understand language. I was glad to see him say that you didn’t need to be a grammar expert to write a good sentence. Sure, knowing stuff about grammar helps, especially when someone’s trying to explain something to you, but if you have a good ear, you can write a good sentence without being able to diagram it.

Zoe: “Fungible” is another favorite, but it hasn’t appeared in this book so far.

Kate: We should suggest that to him.

Zoe: The Kick-Ass Writer Second Edition: Now with More Fungible. And less pleonasm, but I’ll get to that complaint a couple chapters from now.

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