However, Janet Fitch's 10 Rules for Writers surprised me. Seven of them, I'd read before, but three were bits of advice that struck me as fresh and useful. Probably none of them are new, but that doesn't make them any less useful. Maybe it's that we are open to hear the advice we need when we are most in need of it. That's a nice thought, at least.
These are the four "rules" I found I needed just now.
1. Write the sentence, not just the story.
Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.
5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses.
A dependent clause (a sentence fragment set off by commas, dontcha know) helps you explore your story by moving you deeper into the sentence. It allows you to stop and think harder about what you’ve already written. Often the story you’re looking for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you uncover it.
7. Smarten up your protagonist.
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.
9. Write in scenes.
What is a scene? a) A scene starts and ends in one place at one time (the Aristotelian unities of time and place–this stuff goes waaaayyyy back). b) A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted. c) Something happens in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make something happen.
Well, I already knew "write in scenes," it's in my Scene Helper (TM). But somethings can't be stressed enough. I also use poetry in my prose, although probably in much clumsier way than Janet Fitch. (To wit, I smuggle in ballads and stanzas into the prose, unannounced. Not TOO often.) What I think she meant was more about letting your prose be lyrical, stripped of cliche (in fact that's another of her rules).
So what was struck me so forcefully? It was the advice: "Write the sentence, not just the story." And the corollary, "Explore sentences using dependent clauses." I know I've read books with just the opposite advice. These are aimed at genre writers, thrillers and science fiction and mystery, and they stress the importance of letting plot drive the story. Never let fancy-schmancy prose muddle the pace or slow the action. That's good advice too. It's also the reason for things like the one-line paragraph. Keep white space on the page; force the reader's eye to dart down the page, chasing down the action.
But it doesn't mean every sentence has to be simple, or never exceed the vocabulary of a Fifth Grade State Standards Test. One thing that drove me crazy with the two books I published traditionally was that the editor told me I could use no more than two semi-colons per book and any words she deemed overly "challenging" were tossed back into the ocean until they grew smaller. Ugh. It's not that I want to use a thousand semi-colons, or smother my readers in polysyllabic words, but I hate feeling I must dumb down my syntax or vocabulary just because I am writing in a certain genre.
There was a time when I told myself I would polish every sentence like a jewel. Too often, I lose sight of that pride in my work. Too often, I lose confidence in my right to write right. That is when writing a scene becomes an assembly line rather than an art. When I let myself delight in the scene, sentence by sentence, I recover the missing spirit of the scene that eludes me if I merely throw words around like frisbees.
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Just for fun, here's a scene from my WIP, Book 5, Wing, with plenty of rape (or at least the threat of it) and adverbs! It's from the point of view of Dindi, who is a captive of Umbral, a Deathsworn warrior with dark magic and deadly plans for her. Worse, he has an enchanted mask which allows him to appear as Kavio, the man she loves.
She tripped over a root she could not see. A strong hand steadied her before she could fall on her face.
“Just a little further,” Kavio murmured reassuringly. Except it was not him.
Damn him. Damn Umbral.
She wrenched her arm free. “Don’t touch me!”
Dindi pulled away, staggered over another root, and ran smack into a tree.
Umbral picked her up and swung her over his shoulder. He carried her that way the rest of the walk.
She heard a multitude of groans, as if arising from a crowd. The air stank of blood and rotting flesh. The Deathsworn barked orders and the groans swelled.
Umbral set her down on a log. He loosed the blindfold. Light confused her eyes. Another sunrise had overtaken them. The reflection off the snow hurt. Gradually she made out a circle of black trees surrounding a square of four big black stones. The clearing before the square of Deathsworn menhirs was completely filled with rows of the dead and dying.
There were so many.
The dead were already in jars, and there were enough of them. But the wounded. Oh, the wounded.
Green Woods warriors thrashed on the ground, some with braided beards, some no more than pink-chinned boys. Orange Canyon warriors clutched their ram’s horn helms and howled like infants. A handful of Tavaedies had been grouped together, more or less with their body parts. Missing legs, missing arms, missing heads. Bodies torn to shreds by talons, bodies smashed to jelly by being dropped by flying Raptors. There were Raptors there too, and wolves, both groups human at last in death.
Umbral brushed the wet streak off her cheek.
“This is my work,” he said softly. “I will leave you here, but you still wear my leash.”
A pulse of energy flowed through the black shimmering cord, which caused exquisite pleasure to bolt through her limbs. Dindi cried out in surprise, then clamped her jaws to keep from moaning.
She glared at him. “Stop toying with me.”
“It’s a warning,” he said. “Through the leash, I can make you feel bliss. I can make you feel pain just as easily. Don’t make me show you the other side by doing something stupid.”
The Deathsworn “worked” all morning—which is to say, they killed people. The Deathsworn began their ritual with a dance. After that, one by one, they brought the injured to the four stones, one of which was laid flat, like the altar where Umbral had first tied Dindi. Then Umbral or one of the others butchered the humans as a hunter would butcher a kill: slit the throat, drain the blood, remove the head, quarter the limbs. The parts were placed in empty jars, which waited beyond the tree circle.
Dindi forced herself to watch. This was what Umbral would do to her.
If she let him.
The day never warmed, exactly, but the cold bit less savagely. Umbral removed his headdress, cloak, and tunic. Though his breath made misty swirls in front of him, he stripped to just black leather pants and black leather gloves. His naked chest gleamed with sweat. Kavio’s glorious torso, Kavio’s gentle hands, bent to a purpose Kavio would have abhorred. That thief, that bastard. One body after another he lifted to the stone. One throat after another he slit.
Once, he looked up just as she was staring hard at him. His muscular arms were stained crimson past the elbow. She could no longer see the black gloves. He looked gloved in gore. Flecks of brain and intestine splattered his bare chest.
He met her eyes. Something flickered in him, and she had the oddest sense that he felt…humiliated…for her to see him like this. Or ashamed?
Then his lips curled up in a sardonic smile.
She was sure she had imagined it. If anything, he was proud of his “work.”
Yet, at times, he did not cut. “This one is not ready for our Lady,” he said of a warrior who had lost a foot and looked delirious with pain. Instead of killing the man, Umbral waved his hands over the man’s aura. Dindi saw a flash of golden light, and she realized with amazement that Umbral was healing him. The stump bled less. The man fell asleep.
“Leave him past the trees with our marks,” Umbral ordered the two other male Deathsworn.
He spared a few others as well. To Dindi, it was not obvious why he spared some and killed the rest, any more than it was obvious why he had changed his mind about killing her right away.
The two male Deathsworn sent to place a Green Woods woman outside the menhir clearing returned on a path that passed the log where Dindi sat. One of them, the ugly one who had leered at her when she was still tied to the other altar, lingered.
“What are you doing, Masher?” his companion, already ahead, called back. “We have another two dozen or more left. Don’t think I’ll do your share for you.”
“I have to yellow some snow. Go on, Owlhawker, I’ll catch up.”
Owlhawker grumbled but returned to the rows of injured. There were fewer bodies now, and more had stiffened before they could be lifted to the menhir.
Masher did not duck behind a tree to attend private business. Instead, he sauntered closer to Dindi.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Your aura is skinnier than an old woman in a drought, but when I am close to you, I feel powerful. You taste real good…”
She would have moved away, but as soon as she stood up, pain jolted through the leash. She crashed to her knees from the electric agony. The flash of pain was brief, but delayed her long enough that Masher reached her side and grabbed her hair.
He jerked her onto the log and forced her on her back, with his own body splayed over her. He stank of offal.
“I could save your life,” he wheezed in her ear. One of his clammy, soiled hands rummaged inside her fur cape, which, since she’d had to remake it, was held together only by improvised knots between the rabbit skins. Fingers pinched her nipple. “I’ll let you run away, if you’re nice to me first.”
All at once, Masher flew off her into the air. He smashed against a nearby tree.
Umbral, in a towering fury, stomped toward the man he had just thrown like a ragdoll. He grabbed Masher by the front of his jerkin and scraped him up against the tree.
“I’ve slit a lot of throats today, goat’s ass. It makes no difference to me if I slice open one more. My gloves are already dirty.”
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