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

Monday, August 9, 2010

Novelist Barbie

Before I went to NYC to meet my new editor at St. Martins, I bought my first grown-up blazer. It was black, ordered online from the Gap, nothing special, and I paired it up with gray slacks, a white blouse, and a chunky necklace I'd found at my favorite jewelers, Target.

I felt a bit ridiculous wearing the ensemble, like a little kid dressing up for career day. When I grow up, I'm going to be a writer and this is how a writer dresses for a breakfast meeting with her editor. Ironically, my editor showed up at the restaurant in leggings and a cute little summer dress, exactly the kind of thing I had planned on wearing before someone told me I needed that flippin' blazer.

Is this yet another post on one of my favorite writerly habits, trusting your instinct? Should I pontificate on the importance of wearing what you want to wear instead of worrying it over, posting a call for fashion help in a cyber writing-room, taking advice from way too many places and ending up with the dullest, least-individualistic outfit? An outfit so vague, so gray that it only succeeded in making me look ultra-amateurist? An outfit that made me look like what I was: a deeply insecure person trying to pull off confident?

Aah, of course. A lesson in how your true, most central, deepest instinct is the voice to follow. I could open it up a little, extend it to the revision notes my editor sent a few weeks ago, how I now must have the confidence to remember the most important thing: I am the writer. My editor is the editor. While she has the final say and she is arguably the most important person in my professional life at the moment, she is also the woman in the leggings and cute dress. She knows her stuff--she knows my book--but she's not scary.

Her requested edits are--most of them--very, very smart. I'm grateful for them. The trouble is: am I good enough? Can I do everything she's hoping I can do?

Oh, if only we lived in the kind of world where I might have asked her for wardrobe advice. If I could have emailed her to ask when and where she wanted to meet, and please tell me exactly what to wear. Is black really an unspoken requirement? Must I learn how to wear a blazer without feeling ridiculous?

Actually, this post is about not worrying. In a sense, I'm talking myself off the ledge here. I'm forgiving myself. In truth, no matter what I initially thought to wear to that meeting, the fact that I frantically sought help is completely understandable. I had never been to anything like what I was walking into in New York, and it was rather smart of me (if little geeky and spazzy) to seek the advice of others.

Plus, now, I know better. Next time, I'll wear leggings.

Also, as desperately as I want to satisfy every one of my editor's suggestions--and in fact, go beyond them, I want to the book to be so damn good that she reads the new version with tears in her eyes--I am just a person doing the best I can. A terribly lame and cliched statement for me to put in my blog, but my NYC outfit already confirmed my lameness, so there. I can say it. And, cliches become cliches because they're true: I am just a person doing the best I can. That's what we all are.

So, wherever you are today, press on. Don't be afraid to wear a dorky outfit or to write some seriously trite or stupid or out-there stuff. Seek advice. Work like hell. Don't apologize for your stories, for their weaknesses. Just do the work to make them better. Then, it is your job to be your work's biggest advocate.

Remind yourself: This is me, and this is what I can do.