Challenge Every Sentence

Tom RobbinsThis past month I was one of the logistics people behind the best-kept secret on the writing conference circuit: the James River Writers conference. High value, low cost (as conferences go). I was privileged to hear the amazing Tom Robbins (Even Cow Girls Get the Blues, among other bestsellers) electrify a crowd. But when interviewer Dean King (Skeletons on the Zahara, etc.) asked him to impart a few words of writing-wisdom to aspiring authors, Robbins stopped kidding around. He grew pensive. The Greater Richmond Convention Center grew quiet. I thought Robbins was searching for a way to dodge the question, crack another joke, craft a literary pun. But no. When he finally spoke, it was this: challenge every sentence.

That was it. Challenge every sentence.

Even if it takes years to complete a novel—and he promised us that it would take years—that it should take years if the book is to be worth reading—as writers we must challenge every single sentence.

So I’m turning off my internet browser as soon as I post this piece. Just as medicines heal when taken sparingly and poison in quantity, so it is with blogs and social media. Haven’t you had enough Facebook time today? But you are here, and here’s the truth: if we spend more time on the internet than in our imaginations, if we care more about stroking readers than about writing fiction, if we’re tweeting book cover releases rather than exchanging weak adjectives for strong nouns and verbs, if we’re not taking the time to challenge every single sentence, how will we ever hope to produce a novel worth reading?

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