Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What is your unit?

"It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books—mostly of fiction, most notably by Barry Hannah, and all of them, I later learned, edited by Gordon Lish—in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy." Gary Lutz, THE SENTENCE IS A LONELY PLACE

This is a fascinating "literacy-memoir", about a writer's growth to writing. But of course it's the above that grabbed me. His "unit of writing" is the sentence. That's what intrigues him, that's what he works hardest on.

What's yours? Are you concerned with the micro-aspects, getting the right word, finding the right image for this moment? The sentence-- "vivid extremity of langage"?

Or do you concentrate more on the middle distance, the scene and/or chapter?

Or the macro aspects, the characters, structure, plot? Are you a storyteller more than a wordsmith?

I have to say, I think the unit for me is the paragraph. I wouldn't have every sentence be "vivid", because the paragraph might need quieter sentences. I focus a lot more, I think, on how to start a paragraph than how to start a scene. And how to end the paragraph!! Well, that's a preoccupation for me.

I wouldn't, for example, consider it repetitive to repeat a word on the page, but I would be careful about repeating in a paragraph.

What about you?


Wes said...

What interests me the most is being a storyteller. What troubles me the most is combining sentences into paragraphs that flow and create a mood that is not broken by poor linkage or transition.

Kathleen MacIver said...

Very interesting thing to consider!

And... I'm not sure which things I focus on most. I read and write for the emotion... I love the internal conflict when someone is falling in love and not quite sure they want to... the rush of feeling when they can no longer deny the fact that they care... the completeness when two people who belong to each finally come to an understanding. But if that's portrayed in ugly prose and awkward dialog, it's worthless.

And so I obsess over word choice. I like the words to flow in a rhythm that sounds beautiful. Those words, in turn, must form paragraphs that are beautiful, so that the words themselves are a part of the beauty of the emotion that I'm trying to portray.

The combination of the two spills into dialogue. I could care less what people's "rules" for dialogue and tags are. I want the conversation to flow just like it does in real life. The nuances in what is said, the inflections behind it, and the emotion that runs underneath must subtly and gently spill onto the page, to pull the reader in until those two characters are living, breathing people who are falling in love.

Julie Harrington said...

Word choice is a beast. I'm always conscious of it. When it flows, it's a beautiful thing. When it doesn't? Ick. It's like concrete.

As for my unit, that's really hard to say because I will be aware of when a sentence doesn't flow or sound right (that writer's ear thing again) and then I have to sit and figure out *why* until I get it fixed. But at the same time, that sentence then has to flow with the rest in the paragraph to end on a pleasing "note" for my ear as well.

So I guess it's both. I'd say paragraph first with an eye on individual sentence next. And of course opening and closing hooks. LOL.


Ian said...

I am definitely a storyteller first and a wordsmith second. This has become painfully obvious to me in rewrites (I cut four pages net of JUST ADVERBS from my latest project!). I love plotting and characters, but nothing I ever write could be construed as "literary fiction." Oh well-I guess it's best to play to your strengths and practice, practice, practice the rest.

Stipey Sullivan said...

I'm with the etchers and the carpenters. The people that fuss and file the edges and use a magnifying glass to make sure everything is in its right place.

A good paragraph is like a good party, it needs variety and the elements need to rub up against each other to create some harmony and some wickedly entertaining conflict. But there's a time and a place. The people that you'd want at your beach party differ from the crew that you'd invite to help you paint a house. Horses for courses, different words for different situations. So get everything right on a macro level and you can achieve your major aims. Of course, if the aim is just to have a racey story, and keep the potboiler brewing nicely - then keep it simple stupid.

Edittorrent said...

Kathleen, I get the idea that SCENES are your unit-- emotional moments are set up and presented in scenes, right? Of course, scenes are made up of words and sentences, but the scene structure is more important to the emotion, I think.

Doughboy, yeah, I get that. I wonder if different types of stories tend to attract different sorts of writers. As Ian suggested, lit-fic is probably a lot more about the sentence.

JT, maybe us "ear-writers" are into paragraphs? That does seem to be the unit of sound-- if the paragraph "sounds" right, we move on to the next?


Julie Harrington said...

JT, maybe us "ear-writers" are into paragraphs? That does seem to be the unit of sound-- if the paragraph "sounds" right, we move on to the next?
~ Alicia

I think that has a lot to do with it. Nothing frustrates me more than staring at a line/paragraph that doesn't sound or fit right. I'll sit there and shuffle and shuffle, refine and reword and then when it sounds write it'll just flow into the next. One of my biggest insecurities is when something *sounds* one way to my writer's ear for paragraph structure vs. how it looks on the page and the rules of grammar. Grrrrrr.

But yeah, I totally think "writer's ear" people see sentences in groups to create the landscape of a paragraph. A sentence might sound good on its own, but taken with the others around in in that paragraph.... does it all play well together? I think that's an excellent way to look at it.


Riley Murphy said...

For me, it definitely comes down to the paragraph. Where to start it, is equally as important, I think, as how I want it to end. If it’s finished just right, I find that it offers a smooth lead into the next one - and nothing could be better for a successful creative process, right?

There are times, however, that I find myself working backwards, in order to find the ‘perfect’ start. Arriving at an end - that demands a better beginning. This, I figure, is creation vs. analysis...and ‘the sentence’ to my mind, is too small a thing and too isolated, to be considered my kind of a ‘unit’ to focus on.

Anonymous said...

I hardly know how to answer this question, as I can't focus on only one aspect of writing. I'm a visual writer, but also very conscious of emotions and actions. I'm very conscious of making the words flow (however they may stutter and stumble in the writing), but as has been pointed out, it's not enough for each sentence to be perfect if the sentences don't flow together. To that, I'll add that it's not enough for the sentences in each paragraph to work with each other, if the paragraphs don't work as part of the larger whole.

It seems to me that a story "in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax" could be very hard to read. Too much impact with every small bite could numb me to the story, or leave me feeling jittery and raw. As a reader, I want occasional lulls, need variation in the pacing of the story, to allow me to integrate what has come before and prepare myself from what comes next.

Edittorrent said...

"It seems to me that a story "in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax" could be very hard to read."

I think you're right. Have you ever read The Reader's Manifesto?

That's kind of one of his complaints about lit-fic, that too much is sacrificed to get great sentences (and he doesn't think the sentences are all that great).


Anonymous said...

No question, I'm a storyteller first, seeing the words/sentences/paras as the building blocks to convey what is happening with whom.

Sometimes the words come easily, sometimes not. Sometimes I struggle for the word that represents a common object when I'm writing. It feels weird and somehow dumb, too. Not good. And that may be what holds me back from diving in at times.

I'm usually a good speaker and can hold my own in some reasonably high-functioning circumstances. But when I'm writing fiction -- it seems like my vocabulary deserts me. Anyone else have that experience?

Riley Murphy said...

Heck yeah! There are days when I can’t find the words to convey a simple message. Or, times that I come up with too many of them and I wind up sounding like a pompous ass. When I suffer from the former ( I call it vocabulary paralysis), I don’t wrestle with it. I go to a fresh page - put INSERT on the top of it and then I dump all my ideas about my story or scene onto that space. Every word that pops into my head, descriptions and thoughts - sometimes they land in point form fashion - changing to a single word line or a haphazard paragraph. Just whatever comes out, because on this page, there are no rules to follow, confine and strangle that creative genius until she’s all frozen up and can’t think. Nope on this page I can do anything I want and once I get that kind of power back, I'm almost surprised about how fast the words start to flow. :)

I do have to tell you, that my personal favorite pet peeve in writing - is having a word that you want to use and it’s a homophone and for the freaking life of you - you can’t visualize the right one to use - instead of stopping and getting hooked up on the glaring ‘NOT RIGHTNESS’ of the word - I now leave it in. And you know? It’s been the source of much entertainment too. One of my writing partners was on the floor when she came across the word naughty - spelled knotty! I used to get embarrassed by such things, but not anymore. I’m too old and life is too short. In the words of the eternal burning bush “I am what I am!”....Gee, I hope I didn’t just misquote a bush - heaven forbid...or um, forgive.:)

Anonymous said...

I honestly can't say I have any one "unit" in writing. They're all too important to pick just one. I do tend to start on the macro-level (plot and structure) then get more micro with every subsequent draft, finishing with word choice.
You're comment about lit-fic is interesting to me, Alicia, because I find the best literary fiction actually achieves exactly what you mention: some vivid sentences interspersed with quieter ones. (Michael Ondaatje, while a deeply poetic writer, I would feel achieves this line.) For me, part of the beauty of word choice comes in knowing when to pick the mundane words and when to pick the flowery and vivid ones.

em said...

I am a story teller. The scenes are what drive me. Like jwit, I find that sometimes it's finding the words that trip me up:(.
Murphy, I liked your suggestions when you're faced with word *parylisis*. I'm going to try that. Your post made me laugh :).
Thanks Alicia for this topic. it has given me the chance to see another side to a problem in my writing that I am currently trying to work out. :D

Anonymous said...

I go for the scene. Once it starts to play out in my head--once the characters start talking--then I can write. Until then, I kind of flounder around. Fortunately, the more I write, the more they talk, so I don't have to wait for "inspiration" much. After I'm done writing, I can go back to older pages and revise--there are generally a lot of repetitions and awkward sentences, etc., but unless I have the scene down, I can't improve the flow.