Strategizing Your Writing with Sentences

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When my dad offered to buy me an audio lecture from The Great Courses, I didn’t pass it up.  I was surprised however by which lecture he had in mind: Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft taught by Professor Brooks Landon of The University of Iowa.

“That sounds interesting,” I said.

I know everything about writing, I thought, especially on how to write a sentence.

Now before you call me cocky, I believed I had the qualities of a sentence master.  I had published numerous short stories and articles, had plays produced, and wrote numerous papers that received high marks, not to mention my seven years of post-secondary education that was dedicated to the writing craft.  I even wrote three theses (never mind because the first two were rejected).

I smugly played the first lesson, eager to prove my ego correct.  And I was winning the bet for the first ten minutes when he talked about subjects and predicates, independent and dependent clauses, simple and complex sentences, prepositions and propositions.

Subscribe to KLWightman.com Blog Upper ButtonBut then he turned the tables.

A sentence is a series of propositions.  Simply, a sentence is a series of statements (be it true or false).  It is the arrangement of these propositions that determine what facts are presented, what words are used to express these facts, and what order these facts are presented.

And that’s what we call style.

Let me explain it further with this sentence:

The new yellow dog jumped over the neighbor’s iron fence.

These are the propositions:

  • There is a dog
  • The dog is new
  • The dog is yellow
  • The dog jumped
  • There is a fence
  • The fence belongs to the neighbors
  • The fence is made of iron
  • The fence is what the dog jumped over

When the propositions are broken down (and hopefully I didn’t miss any), I begin to think about other propositions that I could jam into the sentence.  What time of day was it?  What was the weather?  Who owned the dog?  What was the dog’s name?  Who were the neighbors?  Were the neighbors mean or nice?  How high was the fence?  Why did the dog jump?  Who watched the dog jump?  What else should I know about the fence?  What else should I know about the dog?

And then there’s how to convey the sentence.

The dog, new and yellow, jumped over the neighbor’s fence made of iron. 

or

The new dog that was yellow jumped the iron fence belonging to the neighbors. 

or

The neighbor’s iron fence was jumped by the new yellow dog.

or

The yellow dog that was new jumped the neighbor’s iron fence.

I could go on, but I’ll stop.

Instead of feeling defeated by Professor Landon’s wisdom, I was euphorically intoxicated.  I walked around after the first lesson, smitten by every sentence that I crossed, brainstorming ways to grow every sentence and tallying all the ways to rearrange its propositions.  I hadn’t been this excited about a new idea since I learned about the holographic principle.

It’s not that this was the first time I learned about the relation between a proposition and a sentence.  It was that his lesson solved a large problem I was having in my own writing.

Back to those failed theses.  Thesis #2 was Draft #8 of a novel I had been working on and reworking for years.  I was recently making the same mistake with Draft #9 by launching into the story without an outline or concrete grasp on the story from beginning to end.  At the time I was struggling with writing my protagonist out of her room, and I was growing more frustrated and less motivated to continue on with my writing.

But that’s where my problem was.  I forgot that the novel is a collection of sentences.  And if a sentence is what provides description and action needed for the next sentence, shouldn’t I know the plot so that my sentences can build upon each other and be most effective?

Instead of trying to write my way out a problem, I should have been strategizing how to play this plot out to win at this game of writing.  I needed to be an expert on the big picture of the novel in order to create the detailed sentences that will build a complete story arc.

I just needed a few sentences (and 24 lessons) to figure it out.

The Purpose of the Postcard

The Purpose of the Postcard Blog Post via KLWightman.com
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Two weeks ago, I submitted my application to a residential fellowship.  I applied to this fellowship last year and was disheartened when I wasn’t accepted.  While putting my materials together for this year’s applications, I found two glaring and embarrassing mistakes I made last year that somehow slipped underneath my play-it-cool radar.

First, my writing sample was poorly chosen.  Instead of selecting one of my polished short stories that I had revised and revisited several times over, I chose the opening pages of my thesis-in-progress.  The material was so raw that I finished writing the final pages of the sample the day I submitted my application.  Even my thesis advisor rejected the pages for my thesis, so I should have known the rejection letter was in the mail months before it arrived.

Second, I crafted my self-biography poorly.  The application requested a short self-biography, but what they got instead was a blubbering essay about how much this fellowship meant to me and how badly I needed it while cramming in as many accomplishments onto the .5” margin page.

Was I really that desperate?

Learning from these mistakes was the easy part of my application this year.  After all the printing and paperclipping and proofreading, the last thing I had to do before sending it out was to slip a SAS postcard in the package.

This became my quest of the day.

When I lived in Chicago, postcards were sold at every corner drugstore (and in Chicago, drugstores were coincidentally at street corners).  Postcards were sold at boutiques and bookstores and next to the gum and candy at grocery stores–conveniently located for every tourist and application and scrapbooking need.

But in suburbia, where I’m temporarily stationed, postcards are a lost art…and medium.

I first went to the town drugstore, naively estimating my errand to be quick.  After circling the store twice, I got a confused look from the clerk when I asked for the postcard aisle.

“Why would someone here need a postcard?” was his response.

So I was back on the road.  I drove to the town post office, for why wouldn’t the only postal service not carry this mailable form?  I could buy decorative boxes and stamps with dead or alive faces and teddy bears with stamp-painted feet and envelopes of every imaginable size–but I couldn’t buy a postcard.

“Why would we carry postcards?” the clerk asked me back.

Why was it so hard to find something as simple as a postcard?

Perhaps because we don’t live in simple times anymore.  We live in an age of urgent communication where we want what we write to be read now and responded to now.  So we send out emails and post blogs and design websites and fax applications and read news electronically.  When we do use snail mail, we shield our letters with sealable envelopes to conceal our private words (like for rejection letters).  And for those postcard-length announcements, we have Twitter and Facebook to satisfy our town crier needs.

So is social media the new postcard?

The postcard isn’t dead yet.  I still receive postcards from the dentist, reminding me to schedule an appointment.  I still receive postcards from political campaigns, urging for my vote.  And I still receive postcards from my Uncle David when he’s adventuring around the world in other big cities.

Why is it still around when we have other communication options?  What purpose does the postcard still serve?

A postcard, simply, is a printed card with space for a message, an address, a postage stamp, and often a photographic or illustrated image–all without needing an envelope.  Whatever the writer writes on this postcard can be–and could be–read by anyone while the postcard makes its transition from sender to sendee.

There is no privacy on the postcard.

But maybe that’s the intent of the postcard.  The postcard is communication of exposure.  When a company sends out postcards, it is visual marketing.  When a campaign sends out postcards, it shows dedication towards a cause or politician.  And when a tourist sends out a postcard, it promotes tourism to the glamoured location strategically photographed on the back.

I finally found a purchasable postcard, hidden at a small newsstand at a touristy mall. The store clerk wasn’t impressed with my feat.

As I stood in line at another post office (which also didn’t sell postcards), I kept imagining the illustrated image of the Michigan mitten on the postcard now strapped away behind layers of tape inside the package in my arms.  Maybe this is why the postcard has survived.  The postcard is tangible, a quick message that can be held in my hands.  This makes it real.  I still take the time out of my day of busy communication to read a handful of words, words that can be read over and over and over again.

And I can’t wait to read the words that come back from that postcard.