Here’s a quick and simple way to tell if your piece needs more work. Read it over and ask yourself,
Where’s the quote?
If you were a reader, what line would tickle, stroke or slap you? Where’s the leap-frogging, cart-wheeling, caterwauling sentence that demands to be known? Where’s the wisdom? Where’s the quote? Doncha wanna give good quote?
Yes, you do – and if you can’t find a few foundational, architectural phrases that transform your piece from sentences laid end-to-end into “arcades and domes”, then your work is not done.
(Or, if you do locate some stunning sentences and you’re writing online, you can respect the medium and your readers – and your needy, attention-seeking prose – by emphasizing it. Bold-face or italicize it. Underline it. Use a different type-set. Separate it from it’s neighbours and fence it off with white space. If you’re really strategic, keep it under 125 characters and it will sit up like a cockerpoo – or a cockatiel – and beg to be tweeted.)
(Dave Doolin, who’s taught me a lot about blogging, taught me that last bit, too.)
(Pssssst: Dave and I are working on a lil’ sumthin sumthin called Scannability that is packed with tips like this. I’m the one holding it up and delaying the launch. Nag me to finish my part and sell it, already.)
Go back to it. Inject more inventive verbs and adjectives. Add adjectives. Delete ‘em. Delete extraneous words. Look for parallel lists and see if reversing the order of the adjectives or adverbs will make your sentence strut like a hot chick in new jeans.
Juxtapose tone. Mix the sacred and the profane, the divine and the mundane. Do it like Danielle LaPorte, our Juicy Empress Dowager of high-and-low language:
- the divine law of the ugly chair
- the secret to self promotion: radiance and the facts, jack
- for freedom fighting + love, conscious business, ruthless compassion, all forms of affluence, and passion that persuades
- the goddess of grief: getting to the other side. and there is always another side
- nothing says I love you like lip gloss
Those titles are emotionally and intellectually fraught. Tense. Electric. Danielle yokes together concepts and language as disparate as a Christian and a heathen…and then they make out. You can’t look away. It’s hot.
Like Danielle LaPorte, Rob Brezsny toggles stylistically between the daily and the divine – appropriate, since Danielle is the one who introduced me to Rob’s Free Will Astrology. Months ago, she wrote me an e-mail saying I’d like his loopy, luxurious horoscopes because they’re “your kind of crazy”.
She was so right – and I’m not even interested in horoscopes. In fact, I’m vaguely horrified by them. But I dig Rob Brezsny. He’s a storyteller. Each sign’s weekly prediction feels like a meditation, a short story, an excerpt from a novel, the shadow on the blinds of a woman undressing:
CANCER (June 21-July 22): As I stood by the creek at dusk, the silhouette of a woman in a kayak came flowing my way. The last crease of the orange sun hovered on the horizon behind her. I spied the reflection of the planet Venus shimmering in the violet water before I saw it in the sky. The temperature was balmy. A translucent spider floated nearby at the end of an airborne silk strand. Nine geese in v-formation trumpeted as they soared overhead. When the woman got close enough for us to see each other’s faces, she addressed me. “We win!” she exclaimed jubilantly, then paddled onward. I agreed. We were basking in a great victory, paradise having temporarily descended into our midst. This is the kind of triumph I expect you’ll be capable of achieving several times over in the coming week.
SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): I love to listen to DJ Schmeejay on San Francisco radio station KUSF. Like a throwback to the Golden Age of FM radio in the 1970s, he plays a “visceral, cinematic” mix that delights you with a flow of unpredictable juxtapositions. Unlike some music experts who harbor haughty elitist prejudices, the dude is an open-minded aficionado. His playlist may include a psychedelic tune, flapper-jazz, a pretty pop song, a barbershop quartet, 1960s folk, polka, and trip-hop. He understands that good entertainment keeps you guessing about what’s going to come next. I urge you to borrow his approach as you cruise and schmooze in the coming weeks. Charm people with good surprises. Expand your bag of tricks, and use everything in it.
PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): “If we wish to outline an architecture that conforms to the structure of our soul,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “it would have to be conceived in the image of the labyrinth.” I take this to mean that clarity, assuredness, and single-mindedness are luxuries the ego may indulge in, but they are not the natural state of our deepest selves. Rather, at our cores, in the essential primal source that sustains us, we are complicated and meandering . . . mysterious and exploratory . .. curious and questioning. In other words, it’s perfectly healthy to be in a labyrinthine state of mind. I hope this meditation helps you enjoy your upcoming Season of Soul.
What Danielle and Rob do is bewitch and entrance. They toggle. They unite the divine and the daily. They cook words like a fusion chef.
And that frission – the unexpected ingredients saucing each other up – is the recipe for delicious, please-sir-can-I-have-some-more writing.
The lesson: strive for surprise. Don’t write in cliches. The first phrase that pops into your head is the wrong one, because you’ve probably read it somewhere. Instead of rewriting the images of another, invent your own metaphors. And then make them better.
It was inevitable that I love her, really. If we were on the same coast, I’d suspect we were dating the same men. Her subject matter is my subject matter – but I hide behind this here screen while she takes it to the club in a belly-baring shirt.
Did I mention I love her?
Let’s talk about the homework I assigned you on Tuesday: Fling Gone Awry (aka “Brooklyn”).
Hidary’s frankly fucking excellent poem encapsulates all of the advice I’ve offered you:
- toggle between the divine and the daily
- yoke together surprising images and words
- rub those diamond sentences until their glittering edges can cut you
- write the quote
What I love about this poem is that although it is about how women think like romance novels gone wrong, Hidary doesn’t use harlequin cliches. There’s no quivering and swirling together in a kaleidoscope of love. There’s no purple or pastoral prose about love ‘n sex – which makes it all the more compelling. Instead, there are pink curlers in the gutter, lamp posts adorned with abandoned sneakers, fat turkeys and greasy fingers, pussy and Peru.
Hidary knows that when you’re writing about how your man sexes you – enthusing about his rare and divine masculinity, (“long and hard, long and hard, long and hard”) – you don’t write about fireworks and shooting stars and clouds and cotton candy and waves of whatever rushing over your body. When you’re madly in love with your woman and want to immortalize her worth in words, screw rubies and pearls. Are rubies and pearls part of your reality? Are lapping waves? Long walks on the beach? Dancing in the rain?
Here, we – and I do mean WE, lovers – shall defer to the canine-toothed wisdom of OK Cupid blogger Christian Rudder (talking about what we say are our interests in our dating profiles):
It’s also amazing the extent to which their list shows a pastoral or rural self-mythology: bonfires, boating, horseback riding, thunderstorms. I remind you that OkCupid’s user base is almost all in large cities, where to one degree or another, if you find yourself doing much of any of these things, civilization has come to an end.
And this is the genius of this poem – Vanessa avoids delusional, pastoral sentiment and speaks real, from the heart. From Brooklyn.
He fucked me like Brooklyn.
My pussy burns in the feminist hall of shame because I want to be called someone’s girl.
He fucked me…like the last goddamn kaiser roll in the bodega.
And that’s how you give good quote.
Your homework: Go now and listen to some spoken word poetry. Dear Reader, I made you a playlist.
- As you’re listening, jot down lines that jar you, cut you, smite you, delight you. (I WOULD LOVE IT if you told me your favourites in the comments.)
- How did the writer accomplish that? Was it surprise? Rhythm? Emotional tension? Foreshadowing?
- Figure out the trick (fine, the “technique”) and then go mimic it. Use and abuse it in your own pieces until it becomes your own.
Sunday School for Sentences will be a sixteen-part series. Missed one? Here they are:
- Sunday School for Sentences #1: Explain the Expected in Unexpected Ways
- Sunday School for Sentences #2: The (Textual) Reverse Cowgirl
- Sunday School for Sentences #3: Object Lessons (from Kanye West and JD Salinger)
- Sunday School for Sentences #4: How to Give Good Quote
- Sunday School For Sentences #5: Why You Should Write Bad Poetry
- Sunday School for Sentences #6: Two Damn Fine Writing Tips
- Sunday School for Sentences #7: There Are No Magic Words
- Sunday School for Sentences #8: How To Execute a Climax or Series of Climaxes. I’m talking About Writing. Mostly.
- Sunday School for Sentences #9: Thread the Grommets, Lace the Corset, Feed the Rabbits
- Sunday School For Sentences #10 – Work It
- Sunday School for Sentences #11: The Pigs In Space Edition
- Sunday School for Sentences #12: Screw SEO. I Write (Wackadoo Titles) for PEOPLE, Not Search Engines. And So Should You.
- Sunday School for Sentences #13: How to Write an Intimate Cosmology of Cheesecake, Cheesecake Shots (or not) and Shoplifting
- Sunday School for Sentences #14: What Picasso And Dave Chappelle Know about Writing. For Realz.