Patchett has written a number of acclaimed novels (BEL CANTO is the most famous). What attracts me to her writing the most is the way she writes sentences.
I am unashamedly story-oriented rather than language-oriented in my reading choices. Give me a great story any time. So this irresistible attraction to well-crafted sentences over story is something I find interesting, to say the least. In Patchett's novels, the plots aren't always what I would choose to read, given good choices, and sometimes I don't even find the characters particularly sympathetic. But I find myself drawn back to her books within minutes of putting them down for a break, as if by an invisible thread pulling me into those sentences. They are crafted with some sort of simple magic. I just want to read them, to let them wash over me with their freshness and depth. This from a traditional-story girl!
Plot, characterization, pace—all critical and all basic. If we get those three down, we can write a publishable book. But if we want to improve our craft to the point of WOW, we need to understand sentences.
Easier said than done.
We can eliminate unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, and choose strong nouns and verbs. We can vary our sentence lengths. We can imbue our sentences with the voice of our characters. We can even eliminate any sentence that doesn't either further the plot or illuminate character. All good. But if the results are not the magically simple but compelling sentences we're after, one after another, we can't learn how to make them that way without finding the secret well within us that holds them. I don't believe that that's actually teachable.
So how do we find our own well of wonderfully compelling sentences? Not fancy or complicated sentences, but pithy ones that hit the mark with precision and boost readers to the next, and the next, and so on? I think maybe it has to do with building an awareness of and love for words, deep within us, through reading and listening to stories and poetry over many years. The kinds of stories and poems that resonate deep inside. Hearing, feeling, and speaking them. Then, we have to trust ourselves and let go. Let our own sentences come out on the page, knowing that a lot of editing will likely be needed, even then. It's like burrowing down past the surface stuff that comes out, reaching for a deeper, simpler level, so that our sentences can sing.
It's an important area that's difficult to get a grasp on, so when I see advice on writing from a writer who has achieved this enviable feat, I'm definitely interested! Below is a 2011 article from the Books section of the Los Angeles Times, that highlights some of Patchett's ideas. The second piece of advice (in the red section) strikes me as particularly powerful and important for all of us. I think I'll be clicking on the hyperlink to get a copy of "The Getaway Car."
Do you have an insight to share on writing great sentences? Where do they come from for you?
For your enjoyment . . .
From the Los Angeles Times/Books
Ann Patchett's lessons on writing, from Byliner
Ann Patchett is the author of this summer's bestselling "State of Wonder," which followed 2001's "Bel Canto," which won the Orange Prize. The author has compiled many of her thoughts on writing into a single interesting, sometimes contradictory piece, "The Getaway Car," published Monday by Byliner.
"The Getaway Car" was published by Byliner as a Kindle single and is available for $2.99 from Amazon. Byliner, which publishes stand-alone nonfiction, launched in April with Jon Krakauer's "Three Cups of Deceit" and has published electronic stories from William T. Vollman, Tad Friend, Jamie Malanowski and others. Krakauer's story, which posed serious questions about Greg Mortenson's memoir and his charity's work, is now also available in print.
There's a little something for every hopeful writer in Patchett's "The Getaway Car." Patchett discusses, among other things, loving writing while also hating it, creative writing MFAs (she has one from Iowa, but that doesn't mean she's a fan), when do to research, writers Elizabeth McCracken and Raymond Chandler, what she says when people ask her how to get an agent, procrastination, reading aloud, and waitressing at TGI Friday's.
These fragments of writing advice are all taken from her piece.
A deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers.Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath.You don't step out of the stream of your life to do your work.Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea.The ability to write and the ability to teach are not the same, and while I've known plenty of people who could do both, there are also plenty of people who can do only one or the other, and plenty who do both who should be doing neither.