Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Copycat: Part II

I've already blogged on how we how useful I think it is to imitate high-quality prose as a writing exercise. The example I gave before was a scene from Updike; today, let's talk about sentences.

Annie Dillard: "A sentence is a machine; it has a job to do."

So, let's get started. Below is a sampling of sentences--lean, generous, flowing, sleek, staccato, energetic, crisp, punchy, and eloquent. Let's use them as templates and see what we come up with.

When I do this, I break the sentence into parts. I'm no grammarian, but I just label what I know or at least put some kind of tag on it so I know what kind of sentence-part I'm talking about.

For example, with the Aimee Bender sentence below:
  1. In the distance (prepositional phrase), the blue hospital (article, adjective, noun/subject) rose (verb/predicate) up in the sky (prepositional phrase), a jellyfish against water (appositive renaming "hospital;" article, noun, prepositional phrase).

  2. Plug in my own words using the template: Behind the church, the thick river sloshed around its rocks, a boozy uncle tripping across the dance floor.

Notice, I strayed from my template--my appositive at the close of the sentence has a different arrangement of nouns and verbs. My sentence simply wanted to go in a slightly different direction, and I let it. Also, Bender's sentence relates a visual image; mine is more about motion.

Interestingly, I caught myself trying to come up with a noun in that last part with three syllables since Bender's jellyfish has three syllables. (I ended up with adjective-noun: boozy uncle.) So, there's another take on this, try to match the cadence of the sentence instead of its grammar.

Or both. The idea here is to play, to stretch, to practice new ways of putting your sentence-machine together.

In some cases, I've included a couple of sentences in sequence, so we can practice catching the rhythm of a string of different types of sentences--structures and lengths, etc.

I would love to see some of you post your imitations in the comments section. I promise to offer effusive praise!

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.
Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

In the distance, the blue hospital rose up in the sky, a jellyfish against water.
Aimee Bender, An Invisible Sign of My Own.

"I liked your egg," she offered, an awkward opening gambit.
Richard Russo, Empire Falls

He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Sam was standing over by the side of the house, his pajamas way up high over his tan-and-white shoes.
Raymond Carver, "I Could See the Smallest Things."

The troops resumed their march, striding off to the applause of the townspeople.
E.L. Doctorow, The March

Bending under the weight of their packs, sweating, they climbed steadily in the pine forest that covered the mountainside.
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Down with love, I thought, and all its theatrics.
Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love

There was a family. All were little. Their arms were little, and their hands were little, and their height was not tall, and their feet very small.
Sandra Cisneros, House on Mango Street

He had assumed that she too would be lazy and absent-minded in the daytime; he had pictured her taking long baths and devoting whole hours to the bedroom mirror, trying on different dresses and new ways of fixing her hair--perhaps leaving the mirror only to waltz lightly away on the strains of imaginary violins, whirling in a dream through the sunlit house and returning to smile over her shoulder at her own flushed image, and then having to hurry to get the beds made and the rooms in order in time for his homecoming.
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road


Tracy Crow said...

These examples have been wonderful help, Susan! Thanks for sharing!

Suzanne said...

Emma was kneeling down on the rocks at the edge of the sea, her pants rolled up past her black-and-blue knees.

Susan Woodring said...

Suzanne, that's beautiful! Thank you for posting!!