Advice, Author, Books, Craft, Tips, Writing

Sin and Syntax

In my last post, I mentioned that after a few months working on my first novel, I decided I needed to educate myself on writing. I started wondering which books I bought first and now I think it was Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale. You can see from all the post-it tabs that I found a lot to love in this book.

Although I have no memory of how I found this particular book, I am a confessed grammar geek, so it’s likely the title led me to buy this one. Here’s an excerpt from a jacket blurb:

Sin and Syntax is one of the rare books that recognizes—and even celebrates—the fact that good writing has little to do with ‘rules’ and much to do with a true understanding of effective prose.” —Jesse Sheidlower

That’s my kind of book! It’s just my nature to question why, which I’ve done with every writing rule I’ve come across. It’s funny, but until I pulled this book from my shelves and started reading some of the parts I’d marked, I had no idea where I’d learned certain things that are now second nature in my writing. Sometimes, I’d question my own reasoning, wondering if I’d just “made that up.” I’m relieved now to know I didn’t.

Sin and Syntax offers these new principles of prose:

RELISH EVERY WORD.

BE SIMPLE, BUT GO DEEP.

TAKE RISKS.

SEEK BEAUTY.

FIND THE RIGHT PITCH.

Moving from the most basic to the most sophisticated, Sin and Syntax covers the parts of speech and how to exploit them (in “Words”), shows the parts of a sentence and how to arrange them (in “Sentences”), and reveals how voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm give prose its mystery and poetry (in “Music”). —from the Introduction to Sin and Syntax.”

Why do I rarely use passive voice in my writing? Because I learned how not to from this book. Why do I sometimes use passive voice on purpose? Because I learned when and why to from this book. Why do I take care to place the adverb “only” in the proper spot in a sentence? Because this book taught me how the wrong placement changes the meaning of the sentence. I learned lots of goodies like that … but that’s not the best of it.

My favorite section of this book is the last, titled Music. Do you remember my post Your Sentence Deserves a Good Beating? At the time I wrote that, I had forgotten where I learned about sentence beats, but now I know … Sin and Syntax.

So, today I feel like I’ve reunited with a long lost friend. Excuse me while I go add this book to my For Writers page and then spend some time catching up with this friend. I recommend you get to know her too.

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Advice, Craft, Editing, Fiction, Tips, Writing

Your sentence deserves a good beating!

Do you hear the music in your writing? I’ve finished another round of red-pencil editing on my manuscript and next week I’ll start a read through. This time I’ll be reading aloud and recording it. Yes, I know, novels and short stories aren’t usually read aloud, but the voice in our heads is not really silent as we read. It picks up the rhythm, the music in the writing.

The sentence beats are what I listen for when I read my work aloud. Sometimes, I sense that a line is not working, but don’t know why until I hear it read. Often, the problem is that the sentence has one or two syllables too many or too few—one word—throwing off the rhythm.

Sometimes, it’s not the number of syllables that makes the sentence awkward, but the syntax. In those cases, often just a reordering of words or clauses frees the rhythm.

Another thing to consider is punctuation. Pauses are beats too. Sometimes a comma added here, or removed there provides the sound you’re after. A semi-colon might provide the continuation of flow that pleases your ear. Or possibly the removal of one gives the staccato effect needed in this part of your story.

So, listen for beats as you write because when a sentence trips up the tongue it also dances clumsily on the page.

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