Passing through Submissions Anxiety, 2: Stammering out a Manuscript

Writing a sentence that does what you need it to, is interesting, and is recognizable is context dependant - a good presentation is not the same as funny TV – but the most basic skill of placing words in sentences and sentences in paragraphs while adhering mostly to grammar is fairly universal. Not having such a skill will usually get you rejected.

Of course culturally accepted styles do change – no one wanted to listen to Hemingway until they did; commas aren’t as cool as they once were. If you have a very unusual voice you may amass many rejections while trying to change the culture. If you’re e.e.cummings, you just perservere until someone understands what you’re doing.

However, I have had some serious nerves around sentence construction, and not because I’m Hemingway. I’m not trying anything.

There is a subset of writers for whom linguistic sensitivity is the point and exercise of writing. I know I am not so poetically tuned. I read all kinds of schlock if either the character or story is good enough to hold my attention: I heart narrative. Post-modern stuff just doesn’t do it for me, no matter how silver the wordsmithing, because, n a good story, I don’t usually read words.

It’s why I read so quickly. I’ll only pop out to sentence level if the sentences are freakishly bad or the other elements insufficiently gripping. I remember a murder mystery, way back when, with some character slumping against the “doorway” and “sucking hard on a nicotine nipple”. Sadly, it is THIS book whose words I best remember.

So there’s a good question to ask. Where are your writing weaknesses and what are you doing about ’em?

Working on my ‘ear’ has really helped. I read my Strunk and White’s and snug up to another reading of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. I give my writing to people who I know do have linguistic sensitivity. Finally, slow reading of books – even the post modern ones I don’t like -  help tune my rusty ear. It will always be something I watch, but I’m less anxious.

Practice. Not just for after school specials.

Even then, I still don’t know WTF they’re doing vis style in the literary programs. Sometimes I read the poetry-prose in literary journals and gawp. Which is how I think I’ve found a clue as to finding core weaknesses when you’re just beginning – how to know what to work on and take constructive criticism about.

I didn’t like the post modernists: they’re all about words in theme. I know theme pretty well, but with a tin ear, character- and plot- weak storytelling is as gripping as beige. I’m reading poetic essays, but the poetry doesn’t hit my emotional chords. I like abstractive paintings, but I also react emotionally to colour and form. So my own inability to enjoy comes from words not being enough. It’s a pretty good clue I’m missing the buzz.

Similarly, if someone dislikes populist books, it may be that they don’t find plot gripping enough to immerse them. Then eading a populist book or three with an eye toward the mechanics could be helpful if there are plot struggles.

Not only has this been useful for me as a writer, but as a reader. I’m not a huge fan, for example, of Dan Brown – but his *plots* are fairly tight. There’s something to be learned there; it’s just the sort of conflict he provides don’t easily suspend my disbelief. But I understand part of why he’s famous.

That’s not a bad thing to understand.


  1. I read rather dumbfoundingly slowly, considering how much I read and how much I love to read. But I wouldn’t say I’m a connoisseur of fine sentences either – that is, I don’t think about them, and certainly don’t read for them. I do think I have an ear for language rhythm, for which you might be able to credit years of music and dance lessons, so I’ve soaked up the sounds of different styles I’ve read and can reproduce them – but it’s very touchy-feely intuitive, and I couldn’t pin down how I do it.

    And I like imagery, and thinking of it as a conscious thematic choice, not just metaphors chosen at random. If my heroine is musical and mathematical, for a not-so-random example, I’m going to draw my metaphors from those disciplines, if at all possible.

    I’m not sure what I’m getting at, here… I guess just that this is something I haven’t thought about, which part of the writing I focus on most. I think I would have said setting and character and theme – plot gets brushed aside – but I do move words around a lot, particularly in the later stages. I think of that as being for precision of meaning, though, less than for aesthetics, but sometimes it amounts to the same thing.

  2. I love well chosen words, a sentence that makes me take notice – but only if it actually says something. Okay, I just heard a song in Crazy Heart that has one line that’s gold “Funny how fallin’ feels just like flyin’ for a little while.”
    It’s a sentence that makes me stop and really think about it. That’s what I like in both poetry and prose. It might happen 3 or 4 times in a really good book. A sentence that reaches out and grabs me by the shirt front and says, “listen to this!”

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