Building Sentence Structure with Style

Hitting a wall with a hammer. With a bowling ball. With a dead seagull. With the codpiece of Beelzebub. Switching back between them, alternating thuds with trinkets and tokens, skulls and bones.

Yeah, we’re pulling out a variety of eclectic items to do the hitting and thudding, but have we done anything worthwhile? Let’s shift this to inferior writing: No matter how you dress it up, no matter what trickery you employ, if your writing style comes across as drones of drumming thuds, then you need to rethink your place in the universe.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Hey Writing All Wrong,

I was happy to see that you’re accepting some writing samples again. (Editor’s note: No, we’re not.)

Since you obviously hate fantasy writing, I present a more modern opening. It doesn’t take place in a castle, so don’t be too hard on it:

“Barron entered the dimly-lit hallway. His fingers ran over chipped paint. He walked over the shattered glass. The light blinked vaguely through the narrow corridor. He tiptoed further. Blood pooled more thickly around each step.”

“He pulled out a forgotten flashlight. The shattered (Ok, we’re done.)

—Cranston Holloway, Kansas City, Mo.

Cranston, you mistake me for a hater. I don’t hate fantasy writing (ok, maybe I do). I hate bad writing. Genre fiction has become a sinkhole for those of poor talent, bad form, and no sense of how the writing craft works. But nevermind that. I’ll be pulling another item from the inbox to rail on this soon enough.

Good writers, good readers, good people will read between the lines and under the words. Whether you’re aiming for an economic style or a direct approach, you’re not a stylist if your style is dull, redundant, and tiresome.

If your prose reads like you filled in some cheeky “Novelist’s Mad Libs,” then it’ll show, and it’s going to show your book to flight out the window. (Noun) – (verb) – (place). (Noun) – (verb) – (thing). (Noun) – (verb) – (thing or place, take your pick). (Noun) – (verb) – (adverb, ah) – (something boring). (Kill) – (me) – (now).

Don’t write like you’re hitting a wall with a variety of syncopated thuds. It’s not art. It’s lame. Change it up.

If I wanted to throw this writing sample into a better trashbin before taking it out to the dump, I’d recommend tying a few things together. How about using rare and unheard of things like “compound-complex” sentences? If we’re looking at a basic remix:

“Barron entered the dimly-lit hallway. His fingers ran over chipped paint while he walked over the shattered glass. The light blinked vaguely through the narrow corridor. Blood pooled more thickly around each step he tiptoed further. He pulled out a forgotten flashlight to peer into the shattered (ok, I’m done again)

Even without coffee, that edit just flows better.

“But I don’t want it to floooow, I want it to, uh, not flow!” Then what, idiot? Want it to stall? Read it again. It still plods along with a pace foreboding. By contrast, let’s hand it to Fake Henry James:

“Barron, having entered the hallway dimly-lit, one which beckoned his fingers to run over chipped paint during the walk upon shattered glass; this, a corridor with light blinking vaguely illuminating the blood pooling around each tiptoe of a step taken further, pulled out a forgotten flashlight to peer into the shattered (sorry, we’ve gotta pull this plug)

Have you ever caught yourself thudding along before snapping into proper writing? If not, there’s still time.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). If you want to hire Fake Henry James, please enquire within.

They’re Their There. There!

On a rare day, you’ll find that the heavens open and bequeath to the earnest petitioner a gift long awaited. Or maybe it’s just a gift of opportunity, whether it be your neighbors leaving their house keys in plain sight as they leave for vacation, or the ATM sticking out a tongue of $20 bills, or the person next door forgetting to secure their MegaBoost WiFi network.

(Cue transition to writing mistake that hasn’t been made yet.)

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Any good ideas on submitting a good query letter to a publisher? Its like their not interested in any submissions unless there already from published authors. How do you break that Catch-22 of not being published until you have publishing experience and getting publishing experience without being published? [italics added]

—Johnathon Larimer, Cleveland, Ohio.

There we have it. The gift of opportunity. If only we had a misplaced they’re in there, we’d cash in on a rare trifecta.

Good ideas on query letters? Later. You need a clinic in they’re/there/their — as do many, many others. I may even break out Grubthar’s grammar to exact avengeance on the matter.

They’re: Means they are. Through a marriage of convenience through contraction, we get two words for the price of one. Best way not to screw this up? If you’ve written they’re there and can’t substitute it for they are, then you are doing it wrong.

“I like me some MacDonalds; they’re fries are cheap.” = “they are fries are cheap.”

(Geebus, as you can see, this one takes particular thick-headedness to bungle. But one can never underestimate the thickness of thick-headedness.)

Their: Possessive. Has a quality of belongingness. Consider your parents’ house: if it isn’t theirs, it’s mine. Selfish? Nope. You forfeited that right when you decided that “ain’t noone gonna try learnin’ me English.”

Hint: their comes before their stuff, nouns, substantives, “whatev.” Their spoiled foie gras. Their mistress. Their eyebleed pink. Their night serum. Their dwarfslave. Could it be your crap instead? If so, no. It’s their crap. Get it right.

There: Linguists and erudite snobs call this an adverb.

There is often a place, nothing specific. It also includes places in time.

“’He touched me there, Your Honor.’ He stopped there, too broken to continue.”

Or it’s meant for attention-getting or attention directing.

“Hey there little guy, wanna have some candy with me? It’s in my back seat. Hop in!”

Plenty more than that, but if you remember not to step on the toes of they’re/their, you’re good.

Bonus!

Theyre: Uncommon, used in place of there in reference to British things predating the year 1785 or something.

“Looke at these olde gravestones theyre. Thys’un’s of me greate granmum. An there’s me mum’s. An there’s myne.”

Tharr: Pirate for there. Elongate for emphasis.

Tharrrrr be plenty o’ booty for the lot of ye!”

Thur: Only used in reference to “gettin’ crunk at the club.”

“<*~_~*>>> ITS ON AND WE FITTIN’ TO DROP IT ~ GETTIN’ CRUNK AT THE CLUB RIGHT THUR! <<<¡~_~!>

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and gotten crunk’d at your nearest book club right thur.