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by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

July 2012

Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink.
Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

"Be conscious of each sentence instead of just the whole."

I know, I know. You’ve read a zillion of them and maybe you’ve heard of these before, but the reason so many writers give tips is that they are always on the lookout for them themselves.

Here we go:

1. Be conscious of each sentence instead of just the whole. Here’s a terrific exercise from Kim Addonizio’s book Ordinary Genius, A Guide for the Poet Within (Norton, 2009.) to practice building muscular sentences. She got the idea from Alan Ginsberg who took the seventeen syllable haiku and strung it out into one line with his own words. Here’s his observation of a NYC street scene:

“Four skinheads stand in the streetlight chatting under an umbrella.”

Counting syllables can help you streamline, just get in exactly what is needed to create an image in the reader’s mind. Kim suggests that this is a good warm-up every time you write, like a musician playing the scales.

2. Vary the length of the sentences. If you write twenty word sentences, try to use some phrases as complete sentences. Vary. Make sure you vary.

3. Be eager as a beaver to delete all clichés. A cliché is anything that has ever been written before, even if it’s by Shakespeare. If you’re coming up with something original, it needs to be all-original. Ask yourself if you’ve ever read it before or even heard it before. If the answer is yes, go deep into your skull for another way of saying it.

"Always tell the reader where you are by using the landscape."

4. Always tell the reader where you are by using the landscape. But don’t just give the reader a map. Use the details of the environment to show the emotional tone of the character. Gail Mazur’s poem, In Huston, which takes place at a zoo, is a quirky example of this. We know she’ll be talking about love because one of her first sentences is “Lovers embrace under the sky’s Sunday blue.” But then she projects her own emotions of disappointed love onto the rhinos “who waited, too grief-struck / to move their wrinkles, their horns too weak / to ever be hacked off by poachers for aphrodisiacs.” Her inner life, her lovelorn situation, nailed by the rhino! Oh, and the elephants too get their share of her gloom, her thwarted desire. “I watched a pair of elephants swaying together, a rhythm / too familiar to be mistaken, too exclusive. My eyes sweated to see the bull, his masterful trunk / swinging, enter their barn of concrete blocks / to watch his obedient wife follow.”

5. Dialogue: never enough said about that! When you write dialogue, you are not only creating a relationship between the characters, but between the characters and the reader as well.

Here’s some lines of dialogue from Jillian Medoff’s latest book, I Couldn’t Love You More, (Five Spot, 2012) that occurred right before Eliot’s (the heroine) daughter’s birthday party when her sister, Sylvia, announces that she is going blind. .

Alarmed, I (Eliot, the female heroine) look up. “What do you mean by ‘blind’?”

“I mean I’m having trouble seeing out of my eyes.” ….

The reader not only learns that Sylvia is afraid she’s going blind and chooses to announce it right before Eliot’s daughter’s party, but also the reader gets the comic tone of the book from Sylvia explaining what blindness means. And the timing of what is said, right before Eliot’s daughter’s party, shows how Sylvia tries to get all the attention, even if she’s competing for it with a kid.

"Write in scenes instead of having overviews."

6. Write in scenes instead of having overviews. A scene is when the characters are interacting in a specific time and place or even memory can be written as a scene. A general overview would be, “Marty always thought less of himself when he was around other guys. Each time he tried to get into the conversation, he’d stutter even though he didn’t have a speech defect.” Instead, show this happening in a scene. Let the reader see Marty bumbling when he’s with other guys. They will feel more sympathetic toward him if they see it for themselves. After all, who likes to be told what to think?

7. Make your protagonist go through hell, even if he isn’t Dante. To make the reader read on, the stakes must be high.

If anybody comes up with more writing tips, please pass them along. We all need them.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/