Tag Archives: Virginia Pye

In Search of Perfect Sentences

Through the Osher Institute at the University of Richmond, from time to time my friend, Jan, teaches a class called “In Search of the Perfect Sentence.” Isn’t that just the best title?! I spend nearly as many hours reading as I spend writing, and often when I encounter a gem of a sentence or paragraph, I’ll pause to savor the words. Some stun me with their beauty or mesmerize me with their cadence, or just plain make me smile. And always, these writers challenge me to dig deeper to hone my craft.

From character-driven plots to organic settings and realistic dialogue, good books take so long to write that, come on, isn’t it nice when someone notices the effort? Here are a few of the awesome efforts that have recently kept me turning pages. In some cases, I’ve paused to read lines out loud. Try it. Try reading your own writing out loud. Does it flow? Will a reader pause and marvel at your word choice? Your phrasing? Your voice?

From Justin Torres‘ 2011We the Animals debut, We the Animals, which sings with a cadence all its own: “We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

 

From Sheila Turnage‘sThree Times Lucky Three Times Lucky, in which the language is real and funny and compelling: “Already I didn’t like him. Didn’t like the starch in his shirt, or the crease in his pants. Didn’t like the hook of his nose, or the plane of his cheekbones. Didn’t like the skinny of his hips, or the shine of his shoes. Mostly, I didn’t like the way he didn’t smile.”

 

From Virginia Pye‘s debut,River of Dust River of Dustjust out from Unbridled Books, in which the beautiful ending still haunts me: “As she continued to study him, a humming began in her head: a slight bothersome background murmur that was not altogether a noise but could grow to become one if she was not careful.”

 

From Robert Goolrick‘s debut, End of the Worlda memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, in which he plays with phrases in a most delicious way: “Now people wiped away tears when they imagined her sitting there again, so witty and pretty and chic, the way she had been before it all, or not before it all, but before it all got out of hand.”

 

From Louise Hawes‘ retellings Black Pearlsof fairy tales, Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand, in which classic characters from Rapunzel to Sleeping Beauty—characters we’ve taken for granted and thought we already knew—reemerge with cunning and complexity: “Yet clear as a stone dropped in a still pond, loud as the call of geese across the sky, I heard the music of my own heart. It played a stream burbling in the shade of apple trees, and the warm, solid thrum of waking bees.”

 

From Cori McCarthy‘s Color of Raindebut, The Color of Rain, in which she crafts the dystopian setting so organically that it’s oh-so-easy to suspend disbelief: “High above us, silver starships hang in invisible parking spots like stars lured too close to earth. Some are as large as skyscrapers while others are only big enough for a captain and crew, but they all gleam with blue light, the pulsing proof of their mighty engines… Engines that run the Void and weave between the stars. I’ve always been drawn to that blue…”

 

I’ve always been drawn to words and stories so perfectly crafted that the room I’m sitting in—or the airport or the screen porch or the treehouse—falls away and the literary magic transports me to another place. Ah, the encounter with perfect sentences…

Loglines and “The Next Big Thing”

LoglineAsk a novelist what he or she is working on, and you’re apt to get a rambling answer because the process of writing a novel is often long and messy. Novels explore the lives of multiple characters, develop multiple plots and subplots—you get what I’m saying. Novels are complicated. So it almost seems unfair that if the writer hopes to query an agent with the completed masterpiece, it’s necessary to boil the whole thing down to a single sentence. Known as a logline (novelists have screenwriters to thank for this term), this one sentence gem can take weeks to perfect. But the time spent is worth the effort, as a well-written logline can lead to a quick sale.

To craft a logline, the writer must focus on the protagonist and his/her emotional journey, letting go of sub-plots and secondary characters. To read examples of loglines, take a moment to peruse posts in “The Next Big Thing” blog chain.

Thank you to writer Virginia Pye, author of the 2013 debut River of Dust, for inviting me to participate in “The Next Big Thing”—a set of questions for writers about what they’re working on, or what book is coming soon. Here are my answers:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Brotherhood

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A 14-year old boy struggles to protect a friend from the gang he has joined (the K.K.K. in 1867).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book began with a feeling more than an idea. As a young boy in the South in the 1930’s, my father felt stuck and vowed never to raise his own children there. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I would ask why he wanted out, and he’d duck my questions, shake his head, grow pensive and say things like, “You can judge people in any number of ways, but don’t ever judge them by the color of their skin.” Never the answer I expected. So I began to wonder what would make a shy, gentle white boy vow to flee the South. What did he see that he refused to talk about? While my dad never got involved with the Ku Klux Klan, I know that the Klan wreaked havoc in the South during Daddy’s growing up years. I began to imagine what sorts of influences would lead a boy to join a gang—a brotherhood—then yearn to get out but not be free to leave. The book grew from that sense of yearning.

What genre does your book fall under?

Young Adult

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

For the brothers, I’d go with Luke Benward and Sterling Beaumon.  For Rachel, the freed slave who becomes a teacher, Keke Palmer would be awesome, but if Hollywood waits five years before filming, then Willow Smith will be old enough for the role.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by Leigh Feldman at Writers House, and Brotherhood will be published by Viking/Penguin. My editor there is Regina Hayes.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About two years for the first draft, and another year and a half for multiple additional drafts.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson‘s historical fiction—books such as Fever 1793, and Chains, and Forge. If readers come to compare my book to hers, that would be fabulous!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

One of my boys is a reluctant reader, so I set out to write a novel that even a boy—my boy—would read.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My protagonist (a Klan member) befriends a freed slave girl who’s spunky and smart. He must keep the friendship secret, as the year is 1867, a time when distrust smoldered between the races. While most post-Civil War books address America’s political landscape, my book is all about the people—about what it might have felt like to live through the tumultuous times that we’ve come to call The Period of Reconstruction.

I’ve invited debut novelists to participate in “The Next Big Thing” blog chain. Next week, look for blog posts from Melanie Crowder, author of Parched; Cat Winters, author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds; and L.R. Giles, author of Fake ID.

Trust the Process

I’m pushing… pushing… pushing through weak writing to create new scenes before revising/perfecting the old. First drafts are always full of bad writing, and it’s oh-so-tempting to revise. But instead, I’ve pasted this message at the top of my Scrivener screen:  You do not yet know this story, so keep writing scenes, keep digging deeper into these characters, keep throwing obstacles in the paths of their desires, and see what transpires…TRUST THE PROCESS.

I have to thank Melanie Crowder for her blog post last month about trusting the process. And a thank-you to Sharon Darrow for telling me to think of adverbs as place-holders. We pepper them all over our first drafts. But later, at revision-time, it’s best to pause at each adverb. Take it out, roll it around, toss it up in the air, scatter it across a garden, and see what sprouts. Sharon didn’t say all of that, exactly, but you get the idea. Adverbs tell a reader what to think. Strong nouns and verbs take readers inside scenes and invite them to think for themselves.

I love revision-time. The blank page is what frightens me. Stalls me out. Chokes me dry. Just this week Kristin Swenson asked me about beginnings… how do I go about beginning a new project? I don’t have a good answer. I agonize over beginnings. Virginia Pye told me that between projects, she watches lots of movies, craving narrative, absorbing stories…

coffee cupI met Melanie and Sharon at VCFA, Kristin and Virginia in Richmond, VA. My writer-friends and acquaintances inspire and encourage me. They hold me accountable. Writing is hard! But at the same time, if I fail to begin a day by writing, I’m irritable. Some people begin with a cup of coffee, but not me. Before coffee, before breakfast, before daylight, I write. I pull on leggings, cozy socks and a sweatshirt, then flick on a space heater and a small desk lamp with a florescent bulb that starts dim and brightens as it warms. I pick up a spiral notebook and a smooth, fast pen, and I write stream-of-consciousness—at least three pages worth, thanks to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” suggestion—a practice I began more than ten years ago when I read her book, The Artist’s Way. I throw away sluggish pens, and when the notebook is full, I throw it away, too, and start a new one. I rarely read my stream-of-consciousness rants. My first writing of the day isn’t about the words on the page so much as it’s about freedom and flow, breathing and release, waking and opening up to possibilities…

No matter how bad the writing, it’s always a good morning when I begin with free writing… Then I sigh, make a cup of coffee, stare at a blank page, thank Anne Lamott for her Bird by Bird advice (shitty first drafts), and remind myself to trust the process…